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Round Six / Northvale Interludes
« Last post by Zevka on October 17, 2017, 08:47:48 PM »
Interlude: Northvale

The following post is a collection of Interludes written by the cast of Mossflower Odyssey IV. Each of them follows days in the life of different characters, some new, some known, living within the city of Northvale. We hope you enjoy them.


~*~


Interlude - Renegade Maur - By Aldridge


The customs house stood firm against the bustle and murmur of the dock district. Traffic and trade and the smells of fish fresh and rotting alike all roiled outside the diamond-leaded windows, a deadened murmur crowded out by the muttering of beasts and the scratching of quills.


“That was my husband.”


She thought she had shouted, but the baby barely moved in his sling. The urgency and fury of her voice had been swallowed by the whispers of a hundred paper wings, rustling at their stoops dotted about these polished stone walls. The guardsbeast behind the desk at least had obliged, cringing away from the visible fury of the giant otter, if not the audible.


“Ma’am,” he mustered, drew himself to his full height and still craned his neck up to meet her gaze. “The Hunter in the Deep is not being regarded as a suspicious loss. There is simply no evidence to support a claim that she was boarded, sunk, or scuttled, and until such evidence is brought to our attention we simply cannot afford to divert attention from more pressing matters - murder, sedition, treason. Northvale is a busy city and the harbour is just as bad. There are shipwrecks, and when there are… very few beasts make it back to shore, ma’am. Do you understand?”


She felt the old rumble rise in her chest and clenched her teeth, tamping down on the urge to bellow in his face even as the baby curled up a little tighter against her gravel and her warmth. “I understand that you do not know the strength of Cloudchaser otters. We are the sea’s children, and we find our way home no matter the tempest. So when I tell you that he is missing, he is missing, and you will hunt for him with due diligence. Do you understand?”


He quailed. ”I… Alright. I can record your name and the name of the beast you’re reporting, and I can take your address to contact you in case anything, or anybeast, shows up.”


She scowled at the tiny beast. A ferret, was he? No matter. The baby stirred again as she hunkered down in front of his desk and looked him in the eye. “My name is Renegade Maur, and I am reporting my husband missing. His name is Ongus, and he has a wife and child to care for.”


The guard hesitated, then as her lip curled in anger he scrabbled for a quill and a small black book labelled Missing Beasts. He leafed through it, adding to the everwhere rustle, until he found the current page and set paw to paper. The scratching of his quill quelled her anger, just a little.


Ongus Maur, he wrote, speaking the words out loud as he did. Reported by his wife Renegade Maur, two days after the Great Rains began, in the fourth year of the Cadogan Mayoralty.


“And your address, ma’am?”


She kneeled back, still taller than him by a head or more, and nodded. “We’ve a houseboat in the Thornsbeck barge-home. The Hallowed Ground. Green roof, red trim.”


He wrote the last few words, and looked up at her. “Ma’am… I absolutely cannot promise anything. For every beast that survives a shipwreck and every joyful reunion, there are a hundred who do not.”


The rumble rose in her chest again. The baby stayed where he was, already as close and warm as he could be. “I am aware,” she said. “Beasts of my kind defy the odds. I will hold out hope for now.”


“...I understand.”


Renegade Maur of the Cloudchaser otters, named for their titanic proportion, stood tall as she exited the customs house. The waves of sound and smell hit her and sank back into her awareness like the beat of sunshine to a desert mouse, or the scent of bark to a red squirrel.


She would return to the houseboat, and prepare a meal, and sit before the three Shrines and beg for her husband’s safe return.


And with luck, Stone, Salt and Storm would oblige.


~*~


Interlude: Shari- By Kali


The windows were left open, letting natural sunlight pour into the otherwise stuffy class room along with the chill of Northvale's rain season. However, even though the students in the half-moon circle room drew their uniforms tighter about themselves, the tutor seemed oblivious to the cold. She stood out in more ways than one, dressed in a pink shawl and wearing a plethora of brass jewelry.


"... and this is how the slave industry was revolutionized by the Arena's appearance in..." Shari stood off to the side of the chalk board and the map of Northvale upon it. It wasn't very detailed, and looked smaller than present Northvale.


"...and that is how the great fire of Oakenwood Inn started. Any questions?" She turned to the class, frowning when she saw their attention diverted elsewhere.


"I don't know, I mean... it could be her."


"If it is, she hasn't lost her figure since the arena..."


The entire class were piled into one spot, desperately trying to peer over the shoulder of a ferret to get a look of the leather-bound tome in his lap.


 "Ahem." All heads turned when their tutor coughed politely into her paw. "Yes, yes, I know we are all excited about the upcoming tournament, but such talk can wait until after class."


The students let out a collective yelp before leaping back to their seats. "O-Oh! We were not talking about the tournament Miss Shredder..." The ferret's eyes went wide, "S-Shari! I mean Shari!"


The tutor raised an eyebrow. She was starting to find little difference between teaching dibbuns and university students. "What on earth are you talking about?" She held out her paw towards the ferret.


Looking quite nervous the student shuffled forward to his own doom, not matching the teacher's eye as he handed over his book. A quick flip through the pages revealed drawings of gladiators and a quick paragraph of their history.


Shari could name every one of them.


"Ah, I recognize this book from our library. It's a bit dated though. If you were hoping to see these beasts at the tournament I'm afraid most don't even fight any-"


And then she came to the offending page the students were looking at. Her eyes widened to the sight of a fearsome gladiator, dressed in spiked armor and strangling an opponent with his own tail.


Shredder the Cannibal.


The class gasped. Obviously they had never seen a wolverine blush before.


"Th-that is you, right Miss Shari? Were you really a gladiator?"


"Whaaaaaaaaaaaaat?" It was the wolverines turn to be nervous now, eyes darting about the room. "No! No, I mean... maybe. It was all so long ago I don't remember! And even if I was, what would it matter?"


This caused the ferret to raise an eyebrow, "Really? The Cannibal?"


The wolverines tail stopped twitching. With a groan she began rubbing her eyes, "I bit off one beast's head, just one, alright?"


Collective gasps filled the room along with a flood of questions.


"What was it like to be a gladiator?"


"How many beasts did you kill?"


"Where you ever horribly wounded?"


"Why did you ever leave?"


The wolverine's groan grew only louder. "Students, please. We have more important things to go over today than my misspent youth. Yes, I was a gladiator, but not long enough to become famous. Once I was married me and my husband decided having a parent in mortal danger was no way to raise a child."


"Oh! That's right, you got married to the Dragon, right? He's on the next page," said the ferret.

Shari paused. She turned the page and raised an eyebrow. She had forgotten what her husband looked like in a chain main and a loin cloth…


"Uh, Miss Shari? You are blushing again."


The book snapped shut, causing the students to jump. "Unless you have an actual question about Northvale's history, it is high time to get back to the lesson."


"Has the arena changed since you were a gladiator?"


The wolverine glanced towards a vixen in the corner of the room. Technically the question was about Northvale so she gritted her teeth and answered it. "It's more theatrical these days. Fighters were mercenaries looking for money rather than fame." Shari handed the book back to the ferret before sending him on his way.


"The way we fought was different too," Shari continued. "It's... hard to explain. I was a group opponent. Nire would throw more than one fighter at me. Kind of like how they throw gladiators at the monsters." Shari chuckled at the memory, "But I didn't actually aim to kill beasts. Oh sure, it happened, but no one wants to see their favorite gladiator torn to shreds by a wolverine. It would drive the audience away if I really let loose on a beast. But now..."


Shari shrugged, "Now, I would be a really popular gladiator. The audience doesn't really want to see a fight, they just want to see a gladiator get killed. Does that... make sense?"


"So... as an ex-gladiator, would you say that the FTN has any merit to battling against the arena?"


Silence fell over the classroom as they waited for an answer. The wolverine opened her mouth but no words came out. After a momentary pause she replied, "Well... without the arena bringing in revenue to Northvale, then you wouldn't have a university to learn about their history. Speaking of which, it's time we get back to the lesson..."


The day did not get any easier for Shari. The pictures in the book were a reminder of just how much she had changed. How much her husband had changed. Thoughts about how wild they once were persisted even after class and on her way back home.


That barbarian wolverine of long ago would never imagine herself settling down to a nice comfortable home, or raising a-


"Momma!" The instant Shari opened the door she was assaulted by hugs from her daughter. The little red furred vixen was growing up. Each year the fox was starting to resemble her biological mother in the painting above the fireplace.


"Welcome home!" Came a voice from the dining room, "Come in and get comfortable. I got home early so I started dinner."


"You're cooking tonight? That's one way to stick to your diet." Shari gave her daughter a tight squeeze before sending her on her way.


"Oh har har. Why does everyone keep saying I need to diet?" Drake said as he poked his muzzle around the corner. The beasts embraced, Shari easily lifting the armorer off his feet no matter how jolly he looked these days. "And how was your day, my Sweet?


"It's good, now that I'm home." Shari set her husband down, "An interesting thing happened today. The class brought up the FTN."


The armorer rolled his eyes, "Free the north? Heh, ever wonder what they want to free the north from, our livelihood?” He scoffed, "What did the class want to know?"


"Oh, we were just talking about how the arena has changed since our day. I didn't realize how... different it was back then. They also asked if the FTN had... you know, merit to their argument."


The fox for his part, merely shrugged. "Without the arena I would have never met you after Vivian passed. So it can't be all bad."


"Oh you little charmer." Shari ruffled the fox's head fur. "Come on, let's see how much you burned the woodpigeon this time."


"Hey! I will have you know that charred woodpigeon is a long guarded family recipe!"


Shari only rolled her eyes.


Her husband was right. Sure, the arena had changed since they were there, but it couldn't be all bad, not if it brought the two warriors together.


Right?


~*~


Interlude: Blue - by Thrayjen


“Blue? Blue, girl? DELILAH!”


What, Pa?!”


“I said you haven’t touched your carrots. Not enough honey? I’ll call the server over if you’re unhappy.”


“The carrots are fine, Pa…” Blue mumbled, staring down at her full plate. A bright silver paw crept into her peripherals and immediately she flicked her fork, slapping Plockette’s paw away from her coveted fried perch. Several patrons in the brightly lit restaurant glanced up as Plockette clapped a paw over his muzzle to politely stifle his yelp.


“Then what’s botherin’ you, girl?”


From the other side of the table, Blue looked up and eyed her father. Well dressed for dinner, the large ferret was easily twice her size, taller than even her brother, and with a girth that betrayed years of muscle building and years more of good food. His chocolate coat reflected her own, but his single, uncovered eye was steely grey and staring at her with the creased concern of a worried parent.


Sighing heavily, Blue glanced towards her lithe brother and took a long drink from her glass, red wine staining her muzzle. Her claws gripped delicately at the thin neck of the cup, even as she placed the empty vessel back upon the table. A waiter immediately approached and refilled her drink from the bottle on the table.


“It’s the Blackwhiskers,” she said simply.


“Bah!” her brother barked, reaching for the basket of dinner rolls. “If I had known that greasy rat was actually Prince Thrayjen the Blackwhiskers, I’d have poisoned his ruddy mead, aye.”


Her father considered her for a moment, tilting his chin down to his chest as he regarded her over the rims of his spectacles. He placed the drinks menu back upon the table, folding it up and lining his cutlery over his empty plate.


“What about him?”


“I’m worried,” Blue blurted out before she could think. “The Grand Tournament starts in just a few days, and he’s gone from a reluctant sparring beast only concerned with living another day to this blood-crazed monster that revels in pain. It’s not about the fight anymore, and it’s not about survival. It’s…”


“Like he’s a different beast when the Arena welcomes him.”


“It’s like he’s not even there any more, when he puts on his armor,” Blue said desperately. “He’s the same rat he was when I first met him until Nire calls him up to the Arena. Then he’s….”


“Then he’s the Blackwhiskers,” her father said, nodding. “I always suspected it was him. Since his first fight, alongside the Highlander. Looks like his father, aye.”


“Once a crazed inbred royal maroon,” Plockette began, “Always a crazed inbred royal maroon.”


“Interesting note, his mother wasn’t actually a Greatrat…” Blue’s father mused, trailing off as a server carried a large slice of strawberry and cream pie towards an eagerly awaiting pair of otters.


“He isn’t the Blackwhiskers until he has to be,” Blue insisted. “When we first met, he was nice.”


“Nice?”


“Polite. Sweet. He acted like a gentlebeast. I didn’t think he’d make it through his first week, but… he could fight.”


“Of course he could,” Blue’s father said. “I trained him when he was just a lad. Just as I trained his father before him, and just as I trained you. Didn’t you say he had a familiar style? And that Moor fellow, too. I can’t believe his hide turned up alive, after all these years.”


Harrogale Khor regarded his daughter deflate, his own pride flittering away as she turned blue eyes towards the polished floors.


“I’m sorry, Blue,” Harrogale apologized quietly, reaching a paw over to squeeze his daughter’s. “I know you were fond of the stoat. Fact of the matter is, I knew both your boys before they came to the Crater. I knew who they were before I fled Muskroarka, and so I can’t find sympathy for either of them, least of all Currathalla’s boy.”


“That’s just it,” Blue said insistently. “I don’t think Thrayjen is that beast anymore. But he’s becomin’ it again…and it hurts to watch him change.”


An excited squeal from across the dining room stole the ferret family’s attention. The otter whose dessert Harrogale had eyed sprung up from where he had been kneeling on the ground, his new fiancé crying and laughing as she flashed the shiny gold ring now resting on her finger. The entire restaurant burst into applause.


“Well,” Harrogale grunted, shoving his chair back just slightly and resting his now sore paws on his belly. “Have you considered that perhaps the reason the Crater is bringing out his bad side is that he never had a good one to begin with?”


“He lied, remember,” Plockette added. “Saying his name was just some homage to royalty. He’s quite capable of lying all the time, about everything and anything, especially to a pretty girl.”


“Which is why I don’t want you trainin’ alone with him since we found out who he really was,” Harrogale said.


“I’m not a baby, Pa, and I don’t think he’s lyin’ about not wantin’ to kill anyone,” Blue said sharply, annoyed with her father’s lack of faith. “He has reason to want a simple, peaceful life.”


“What reason could that be?” Harrogale asked through a boisterous laugh.


Two reasons, Blue thought. Two small, spiky reasons.


“Beasts change,” Blue said simply, shrugging. “Things happen to them.”


Across from her, Blue’s father sighed and drummed his claws upon the white linen tablecloth. After a moment, he met her eyes.


“What could have happened to him then, to make him change from a bloodthirsty savage to a ‘nice’ beast?”


Blue shrugged again, picking up the drink menu and reading the small, tidy lettering.


“A beast with a secret, then,” Harrogale grumbled, flagging the server with a snap of his claws. Immediately, the weasel maid rushed over and pulled out a stick of charcoal and her note pad.


“Send that poor otter fellow a bottle of plum brandy, for him and his new lady, aye. He’ll need it once he realizes the prison he’s locked himself in!”


The server forced a laugh before thanking the ferret and returning to the heavily decorated bar, stopping only to adjust her whiskers in the mirrored backing before exchanging words with the fox bartender.


“Are you coming to the tournament, Pa?” Plockette asked. When his father shook his head, the silver ferret protested. “You don’t come around much since you retired. It’ll be excitin’ to have you back! I’ll ask Lord Nire if you could sit with him in his box, even; I’m sure he’d love to catch up with the Crater’s first Trainer!”


“I’ve had enough excitement for one lifetime, boy. I retired for a reason,” Harrogale chuckled, thumping a foot down upon the floor. The distinct wooden echo raised a few heads, and a young squirrel sitting with his parents turned with a gasp as he looked from the pages of his history textbook to the large ferret. His grin widened with every second until he turned to his parents and pointed at the ferret, only to be promptly scolded with a quick slap to the offending digit and have his book taken away. Dejected, the young squirrel lowered his head and missed his own mother looking curiously over at the Khor family.


Blue looked from between her father and her brother, a slow, knowing smile spreading across her face. When her mother had died, Harrogale had two children of his own to raise, and the Crater could have orphaned her and Plockette. That was the true reason her father had left the Crater, an open secret she and Plockette kept for him every day.


As if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders, Blue sat back up from slouching over the table and stabbed her fork into a honeyed carrot.


“You can always change your mind,” Blue said to her father. She smiled fondly at him.


Her father excused himself from the table, wiping his paws and moving towards the otter and his fiancé. Watching them thank Harrogale and shake his paw, Plockette leaned over to Blue and whispered very quietly to her.


“Do you really think your rat isn’t the Blackwhiskers anymore? That he’s just playin’ for Nire?"


“I think he’s doing what he feels he has to. It’s all a show, brother,” Blue answered. “That’s what the Crater is. That’s what the gladiators do. It’s all a show.”


“Well,” Plockette muttered, face grave. “I hope you’re right. Rumour at work says Nire’s going to release his favourite gladiator slave after the tournament, as a prize. I don’t want the Blackwhiskers runnin’ around Northvale.”


“That confident in my fighter, eh?” Blue teased with a laugh.


“How do you think I can afford takin’ you and Pa out for dinner, aye!” Plockette exclaimed, rubbing his claws together as he pointedly looked around the posh restaurant. Blue kicked him playfully under the table, but Plockette continued as though he hadn’t felt a thing. “Why, I’ll have to bet a week of wages on him for this meal! Or maybe the Thrasher will put me in the poor house.”


“We’ll see what happens,” Blue said. “In light of everything that’s been going on at work, I think the Tournament is going to be… interestin’, aye.”

 

~*~


Interlude: Quin Aroway- by Minerva


"Timmbeerrrrrr!"


The working beasts of the Aroway Lumber Company scattered out of the way as the large oak fell to the forest floor with a deafening crash. Seconds later, when the dust settled, everybeast shouldered their axes and cheered heartily.


"Aye, that's the way to do it, lads!" Quin Aroway, the company leader, called out over the din. The burly hare gave a hearty slap on the back to the closest beast before he stepped forward and inspected the trunk of the massive, downed oak. Young and thick, it was of quality material. No doubt it would impress their clients. "Aye, she's a right, beautiful lass, this one. Grab the ropes and fetch the carts, and maybe we can get her down to the mill in time for lunch."


The workers cheered.


-.-.-


"Twenty. Thirty. Forty. Fifty." The sack of coins jingled in the hedgehog's paw as he counted the money within it, before tying it closed and setting it in front of Quin. "Fifty gold pieces."


Quin raised a brow. "Fifty?" the hare asked. "Mister Maes, the contract you signed said seventy-five."


Maes wiped away a speck of sawdust from his coat. "Yes. And it also said that you would bring me strong, aspen wood. You've brought me oak."


"There isn't such thing as strong aspen," Quin argued. "Aspen is a lady's wood. It's for finishes, or making things look pretty. If you want strong, nothing is better than a good, old oak. If you build that summer cottage of yours with aspen, you're asking for it to be knocked down once the autumn winds begin to pick up."


The hedgehog narrowed his gaze at the hare. "I suppose I could just give you the ten gold service cost and take my business to Northvale Stoneworks. I'm sure stone would stand just fine in the autumn winds."


Quin grimaced. The hare looked to the sack of coins still on the table. Fifty was barely enough to pay for the cost, his employees, and leave any leftover for him. There was no profit to be gained. At best they'd break even.


The hare clenched his teeth. "Fine. I'll take the fifty."


"A wise decision, Mister Aroway. It's been a pleasure doing business with you."


"Aye... a pleasure."


-.-.-


"Bloody, uppity, greedy..." Quin stopped himself with a scowl as he strode through the lumber yard with the coin purse dangling at his waist. Around him, his employees were hard at work cutting and carving the massive oaks they acquired into sizable planks, oblivious at the lack of money that they were paid. No doubt they would be disheartened.


Quin looked towards the sky, where grey clouds were beginning to touch on the horizon. Bad

weather was supposed to come soon. He hoped it rained on Mister Maes' coat.


"Excuse me."


In surprise, Quin turned and looked towards the beast who called. It was a young squirrel wearing the uniform of a purser. As the beast approached, Quin noticed the T embroidered in golden thread on his black vest.


The squirrel huffed to catch his breath, before standing straight and tall. "Excuse me, sir, your workers pointed me in this direction. You're Quin Aroway? You're in charge of the Aroway Lumber Company, yes? My employer, Blasio Timberfell, has a job offer for you, if you're

interested."


Quin gritted his teeth. Blasio Timberfell was another uppity, rich beast like Maes, and no doubt just as greedy. The light sack of coins jingled at his waist in reminder, and the hare sighed as he looked around at his workers. "What's the job?"


The squirrel produced a scroll from the bandolier on his belt and unfurled it, turning it to present it to the hare. As Quin's eyes darted over the words, Timberfell's messenger spoke with simple instructions. "The dam should be large enough to cover the mouth of the Northvale Tributary."


Quin read the specifications on the scroll and furrowed his brow. "A dam like this wouldn't last very long."


"No, it needs only to stand for as long as the Crater holds its upcoming Grand Tournament. With the tributary dammed, the Northvale river will rise and allow easier access for larger ships to port and new visitors to attend. When the tournament is complete, you will break it down."

Quin's eyes fell upon the three stamped insignias where Northvale Mayor Cadogan, the Crater, and Blasio Timberfell had all approved of the plan.


Then he nearly choked when he saw the pay.


"This much!?" he nearly shouted in glee.


"Yes, and you'll be paid in advance," the squirrel said, holding out to him a massive sack of

coins. "Do we have a deal, Mister Aroway?"


"Aye. We've got a deal."


Maybe Blasio Timberfell wasn't so bad after all.


~*~


Interlude: Frey - by Kentrith


Frey planted her footpaws on the street, both paws propped on her hips. The platform at the end of the square had been decorated in colors that made her salivate, but the subject matter of the banners caused her blood to boil. She glared up at the herald that ascended the stage as the prissy rat spread open an ornate scroll, sniffing haughtily before reading from it.


“By decree of the Lord of the Crater, Nire the Gallant, Prosperous and Revered…”


“By ‘oo, the big fathead!”


The rat stiffened in indignation, as the crowd around them shuffled anxiously. Frey briefly considered smacking Murbilee in the head with a reminder to behave, then shrugged the thought away. It never helped her behavior, and often worsened it.


Several voices hissed out behind her, the rest of her crew rounding on the heckler as the rat gathered himself and continued, “Due to recent events and the traitorous acts of those labeling themselves as Freedom Fighters, Nire has benevolently decided to give the traitors one final chance to prove themselves loyal to him, in a Grand Tourney! His ability to lead has influenced him to offer this generous chance…”


“Leadership! He’s scared stiff, more like!”


Frey rounded on the shrew this time, grabbing her shirt and yanking her close. Before she could berate Murbilee, however, someone else shouted, “Aye, this isn’t a chance to prove loyalty! It’s an execution!”


“How does he know who’s a rebel or not?” came from elsewhere in the crowd.


“His blue-backs broke into my sister’s house, and carried off her husband!”


“We’ve given him nothing but support, and this is how he repays us?”


Shouts came from all sides now, and Frey glanced around her, realizing that a mob was growing. As much fun as that sounded, the Guosim had other things to do.


She turned and dragged the spiteful, spitting shrew after her, snagging another on her way through the press of roused beasts. The rest of the shrews straggled after her reluctantly.


“Why did we leave?” Fenner asked waspishly when they stopped in a side alley.


“Aye!” Murbilee grumbled. “It was just gettin’ excitin’!”


“’Cause we’ve got a job to do!” Frey snapped at them, glaring around her.


“’Tisn’t as though we can’t have a bit of fun,” growled another shrew.


“’S all fun and games ‘til summun loses a paw!”


“Enough,” Frey barked before the bickering could get any worse. “We gotter meet up with the youngun, at the herb place.”


She glanced toward the open market, where the shouts had turned into a dull roar. “’S not as if we could get through that t’ the Crater anyhow. We’ll just have to wait til Kent can come to us.”


She ushered her quarreling companions ahead of her, sending worried glances at the mob that raged behind them.


~*~


Interlude: Vinny- By Komi


A weasel, a rat, a hare, and two mice sat on the rim of a fountain in Northvale’s west side. One mouse had a flier with the Grand Tournament announcements on it.


“See,” the mouse said. “Not a thing says that the Monster’s gonna be fighting.”


The rat slouched, crossing arms over his chest. “Aw, she’s my favorite. Wonder why Nire’s not letting her fight in the Tourney. All the other names are there. Coward, Blackwhiskers, Thrasher, Banshee...”


“Could be hurt or sick?” the mouse offered.


“I guess.”


“Who you wanna see?” the weasel asked the mouse with the flier.


“I wanna see the Coward again. She’s fighting this time.”


The hare scoffed, “Coward ain’t got a good fight in since that scorpion one.”


The young beasts all laughed. “Yeah, that thing with the Lowlander don’t count, eh?” The weasel made loud, sloppy kissing noises, which brought about more laughter.


The rat leaned in. “You hear about that one? The Lowlander? They say somebeast murdered him. Poison.”


“Somebeast get back at him for killing the Highlander?” the hare asked.


“Dunno. Mum said there were blue-backs and town guards checking some of the inns around town, though, so maybe they’re looking for his murderer.”


The other mouse twitched his nose. “It’s a shame. The Blackwhiskers is out another partner.”


“Yeah, if you want a good fight, the Blackwhiskers is the one to watch.”


“My mum says the Crane was better, in his day. Wonder if he’ll do any more fights.”


“Excuse me,” a voice said to one side.


A young stoat stood with a shrew near the fountain. Both beasts looked damp, as if they’d been washing up in the fountain.


The stoat said, “Sorry, but I was listening to you all. New to town, you see. This all have to do with the big Crater over yonder?” He waved a paw in the direction of the arena on the edge of town.


“Yeah, there’s going to be a big tournament in a couple days. A Grand Tourney, Nire Borean says. It’s gonna be great. Fights to the death all day!”


The two newcomers looked at each other with wide eyes. “May I?” the stoat asked, gesturing at the flier.


The mouse handed it over.


The stoat read it, the corners of his mouth tightening slightly, then he handed the paper back. “Thanks.” He turned on his heel, and walked away quickly. His shrew companion glanced once at the youngsters by the fountain, then turned to run after him. The group’s conversation quickly turned back to the upcoming tournament.


The shrew caught up with the stoat after half a block. “What got yer tail in a twist, mate?” she asked.


“I’ve got to get in that Crater.”


“Not ‘til we catch up with the fox, ya ain’t. Frey’d have my tail if I let ya go runnin’ off on yer own.”


The stoat sighed. “I’m not stupid.”


“That ain’t what Frey says.”


The stoat glared at her and adjusted the long, narrow bundle slung over one shoulder. “After what I just did, you think they’d give me a little more trust.”


“Ain’t a matter o’ trust, Vinny,” she said, skirting around a baker’s cart. “It’s cause yer heart’s all tied up where yer head oughtta be. We all know it.”


"Then let's find this herb shop so Frey leaves our tails intact. The sooner we get in that Crater, the better.”
62
Contest Discussion / Re: Nice Guys Don't Last (in the Crater)
« Last post by Silas Hetherton on October 09, 2017, 02:48:29 PM »
63
Round Five / But There Is Always Another Horizon
« Last post by Aldridge Moor on October 06, 2017, 11:16:27 AM »
“Hemlock.”

Kentrith Hapley spat, forcing the acrid taste from his muzzle as quickly as he could, and placed the teacup back in front of the stoat’s still form.

A low growl from behind him. “All of our increased security, and this still happened?” Nire’s voice, low and furious. “Explain.”

The mousemaid, still choking on tears, spoke. She was familiar to Kentrith, but not enough for him to be certain of her name. Aera? But... wasn’t that the medic?

“Jossia,” she coughed out. “The same Jossia who tempted me into trying for Komi’s life. It has to be her. She hated both of them. And that guard, the one with the crushed windpipe…”

“What, that has-been stoatess? The one who called herself a hordemaster when she’d seven and a half louts under her command? Ridiculous.” Nire chuffed, amusement and anger swirling together in the cloud of his voice.

Kentrith found himself comparing the anger in Jossia to the same he’d seen in Eve over the last few weeks, and finding them similar in kind if not intensity.

“Perhaps not so ridiculous,” he found himself saying. “That stoatess was at the very least single-minded. We should bring Komi Banton here. She’s spoken of Jossia before, and has never made light of her. And with Banton’s military and Crater records, an enemy that she respects could be very dangerous indeed.”

Kentrith fancied that he had been more able to read the lynx since returning to the Crater; the ability had come back like an old song or recipe. He watched now as Nire drew into himself a little, standing taller but bringing his chin close to his chest as he thought. Amusement and anger faded a little, and after a little while, the lynx nodded.

“Agreed,” he said. “Blue. Please fetch Komi Banton from the training grounds. We shall see what she has to say about all of this.”

“Aye, Nire.”

-----

The path from the bowyery to the training ground was much too short today. Perhaps fifty paces from one doorway to the other, nowhere near enough to process what happened.

Snippets of Aldridge Moor passed through Blue’s awareness. His face burned into her thoughts, not least because it almost never changed. Even when she had caught up with him a couple of evenings ago and challenged him, the level gaze and the near smile simply hadn’t gone away.

“I’m not up to anything, Miss Blue,” he’d said in that infuriating calm tone.

She had told him outright. She had snuck into the bowyery a few times, when he was supposed to be asleep in there, and found nothing. No him, and no vole either. And then his vole friend reappeared one day and though she couldn’t say anything, couldn’t confess out loud to sneaking into his workshop, she knew damn well that he hadn’t been keeping the vole in there and that medical supplies and food and furniture had been disappearing… and he’d just looked at her, and asked her to choose. Damn him! He’d asked her to choose, between freedom or the Crater. And it had scared her, more than the nastiest fight, more than the sight of the Highlander’s brutalised corpse. The absolute sincerity and trust that he had put into that one request: choose.

“Banton!” she bellowed, and the stoatess came running - as they all did, when Blue used her serious voice. “Report to Trainer Hapley in the bowyery. He and Nire have questions to ask you about that Jossia who had it in for you. Neither will tolerate emotional outbursts so I’ll warn you now: your mate is dead, along with the scribe. Assassinated, aye.”

Blue focused on the wave of pain that crashed across Komi. The way the female’s shoulders tightened, jaw clenched, nose twitched. The way she took two deep breaths to even herself and then croaked out a bare acknowledgement before saluting, turning on her heel, marching off the training grounds.

-----

The path from the training ground to the bowyery was much too short today. Two verses of an old marching song from one doorway to the other. Nowhere near enough to process what she had heard.

She used every trick she had to suppress the bolt of grief that had punched through her at Blue’s words. Thought of him as a nameless grunt. Thought of him as a rat, or a squirrel, or some other species she had no truck with. Remembered all the times he had proven himself willing to give up his own life for something greater or at least different to himself.

None of it worked. She allowed herself to cry, just for a few heartbeats, just to take the edge off the need to let the grief out - and then the bowyery door was upon her and there was a murmur of voices inside and she clumsily dried her eyes on the fur of her forearm before stepping in.

And there he was, draped lifeless over the arm of his chair.

She took in the rest of the scene. A tea set made up for two. A vole - the scribe, who had disappeared for so long - slumped back in a cobbled chair her own size. Something Aldridge had made for her, no doubt.

Trainer Hapley spoke, and she barely managed to process the words as she fought down a cold burst of anger.

“Hemlock poisoning… Jossia’s work?”

She nodded, flush with grief and fury, coughed and managed to speak. “It… suits her, yes. She prefers physical violence, but a poison that twists the gut before the end… yes. That seems very much like her.”

And upon the thought of Jossia, she could not help but glare at the mousemaid Apprentice Bowyer, who had so recently tried to end Komi’s life at Jossia’s bidding.

But then Foxglove had come to her and kneeled in front of her like some figure from a fairy story, exposed her neck and begged forgiveness in full knowledge of Komi’s rage, in full knowledge of Komi’s intent to kill her the last time they’d fought… and in full knowledge that even bare-pawed, the stoat had the strength and ferocity to end her on the spot.

And Komi had seen so much of Aldridge in the mouse at that point that despite the absolute certainty in her gut that death was exactly what Foxglove had deserved for her transgression... she hadn’t been able to do it.

The glare died on Komi’s face as she saw the same tears on Foxglove’s cheeks as she was sure were on her own. She had made an attempt on Komi’s life, true, but it had been through Jossia’s twisting of the mouse’s love for her uncle. She would never have had the steel needed to hurt him, and certainly not in such a heartless and blatant way.

Uncle. Father. Mate.

“I’m sorry. I need air.”

Hapley nodded to her in understanding and even Nire did not hesitate before gesturing her away with a nod. And she found herself grateful for their ease and acceptance as she stepped out of the bowyery into the body of the Crater building, tears flowing full now.

At least… at least they were together now. Together in Dark Forest.

It took a moment to gather herself, and a couple of verses of To Homestead Door. But she wiped away the worst of the tears and walked back into the training ground, and didn’t even yelp when Kali appeared out of nowhere.

“Are you okay?” The bat looked hopeful, and Komi was hit with something harder than grief.

“Damn you, Kali… why do you have to care so much?”

Kali paused for just a moment, then leaned in for a hug. The sensation of being wrapped in bat was becoming more familiar as time went on, and Komi allowed herself a bitter laugh before the words spilled out.

“Alder… he’s gone, Kali. Dead. And I don’t know what to...”

The bat’s wings tightened, and Komi forgot her words.

-----

Stoats were oddly shaped, Kali concluded as Komi sobbed quietly in her wings. They were so long and thin, and didn’t look like they could be strong at all. And yet she felt the strength in Komi’s shoulders as she held her, felt the heft of the stoatess’ movements as she cried.

She stroked her headfur, murmured reassuring things, remembered one particular moment in Aldridge's workshop.

“Ch, ch, ch. Would you like a song? Aldy asked me to sing to him when his friends died.”

The stoatess tensed up, and Kali laughed. “Don’t worry! I won’t sing it. Just the words.”

She relaxed, and Kali smiled as she spoke the song, resisted the urge to turn it to music, felt Komi calm with every word.

"The day I die, when on my way
toward the grave, don't weep. Don't say,

He's gone! He's gone. Dead is not gone.
Sun and moon set but both come home.

The tomb door is the gate, you see
Whether you are trapped or free

I could tell you; you would not heed.
For now I've died I am a seed

Mouth closed in dust and opened, see
In new-grown unimagined beauty."


A gruff voice, that had waited for her to finish before interrupting. “Kali… what happened?”

The fox-bat squeaked, tensed her wings protectively around the stoat. But it was only Minerva.

“It’s Aldy. He’s… dead.”

-----

As Kali released Komi from her wings, the Monster of Mossflower Woods stood and stared at the palisade that divided the training grounds from the archery range.

She hadn’t known Komi’s mate very well. She had seen him close to broken in the cage opposite the giant spider, way down in the underbelly of the Crater. She had seen him training alongside the Blackwhiskers. She had heard the rumours of his fight with the Highlander hare, a woodlander she wished she’d had more contact with before his death. She had seen the fight with the armoured giant, perhaps two weeks ago now.

She remembered the Blackwhiskers’ display of savagery - and that, she realised, was what had defined Aldridge Moor in her mind. He had not shied away from training with the savage prince, had even retained some kind of camaraderie with the bloodthirsty brute. And even as Minerva had watched them spar, had tried to piece together some kind of strategy to beat one or the other if she were ever called to fight them, she had been struck by the sheer impassivity on the stoat’s face as the rat’s violence washed over him.

He had reminded her of nothing more than the scorpion that she and Komi had killed in their first chained fight. Watching, moving only as he needed to, always ready for a single lethal strike.

She went back to her exercises. She had let her stance soften for Komi, but she felt it reasserting itself when thinking of the bowyer stoat. Even the weight of Silas’ letters, bundled in a pouch on her belt, could not discourage her from reverting to form when thinking of Aldridge Moor. Some vermin remained better off dead, she decided, and stopped thinking about him altogether.

-----

It had not been hard to realise that something was wrong.

Thrayjen watched as Komi extracted herself from Kali’s wings and as the rest of the beasts of the training ground looked away, pretended they hadn’t been staring, got back to their routines.

He nodded to Rinam as she jogged to a halt nearby, dropped to the ground and started on a set of press-ups.

“Miss Blue?” He asked as the white mouse passed her tenth press-up.

“Aye, Hracken? Thrayjen. Blackwhiskers. Whatever.”

“Thrayjen is fine, Miss Blue.” He offered her a smile but she did not return it.

“You’ve lost another training partner, Thrayjen. Dead sometime in the early morning, as far as anybeast can tell. Hemlock poisoning. And that poor vole, too.”

Thrayjen paused a moment, allowed his whiskers to droop and his shoulders to sag. Allowed himself to sound distant, grief-stricken. “Forgive me, Miss Blue. I thought you didn’t like the vole?”

She let out a sour laugh, dosed with anger. “I didn’t much care for her either way. But nobeast deserves hemlock poisoning, aye? Twists up your gut then pulls the strength out of you til you die where you sit. And on top of Hargorn’s attention... No. She deserved no worse than interrogation. And even then, only enough to find out where she’d been hiding all this time.”

“I’m very sorry, Miss Blue. I don’t know where that was. But I do know that he cared very much for her. He introduced me, when she reappeared.” Thrayjen tugged at his whiskers again, allowing the sadness to take hold.

“We found where he and his friends had been going, aye.” Blue said. “An old dusty room full of broken machinery. I thought I was onto something, aye! But then I spoke to Nix and she told me about the fascination all of his little friends had, with the Crater’s more interesting machines. Her best guess was that they’d been trying to work out what it was, and what it did.”

He let himself smile, in relief as well as amusement. Blue must have found the room that led to the Mark Chamber just a few hours after Aldridge had called for the Chamber proper to be boarded up.

“Then I don’t think they ever found out, Miss Blue. For all their, ah, ‘sedition’, they’re clever and far too enthusiastic to keep a secret. If they found out what that broken machinery did, I think that everybeast would know before the next dawn.”

“Aye, I suppose they would.” Blue stared at the sky. “Come on,” she said. “We’re taking the rest of the day off. No use training when you can’t keep your thoughts straight. You too, aye. You can help keep him in check.”

Rinam had been silent until now. “I will do as I can,” the white mouse said, and Thrayjen found himself smiling.

And as the three of them left the training ground for the Winners’ Tavern, Thrayjen allowed himself to remember the last words of Aldridge Moor.

"I'm leaving. This place and this way of life have nearly destroyed Adeen, and I've already snapped once and I don't know when it'll happen again. I'm sorry, I can't allow that side of me out again. I know how it feels. I know the temptation, the ease of it. But I can't do it, so I have to go.

"Aera will find Adeen and I in the bowyery tomorrow morning. We will appear dead, and our teacups will be laced with hemlock. She will need a friend. Someone else with darker impulses. I would like to ask you to keep an eye on her.

"We will not be gone. Understand that. We will settle in the outskirts of Northvale and we will build. We will set up halfway houses, and gather contacts. We will be ready to help when the time comes. Until then... hold strong. Everybeast here will have need of you, or the Blackwhiskers, or both."


-----

“Come along now.”

The stench of ammonia rushed through his head, bringing images of Ennis and Tevar diving out of Madder Barrow’s apothecarium, followed by a billowing cloud of white smoke that stank out the entire village for a full fortnight.

But the voice was unknown and the air was cold, and this place most certainly was not Madder Barrow.

A white mouse, fur curled like waves caught on the crash. A voice as rough as the fur on his cheeks, clearly scrubbed every which way and yet still disobedient. A bare torso, set yet broader and taller than Rinam, who herself dwarfed most other beasts called mice.

“Very strange to find a letter in your bundle. And a letter from my Chief, aye, telling me to wake you when the beasts in blue were gone. Some of them came back, though. Rat and a ferret and a few others. Wanted to mourn you. Buried a couple sacks of leaves and sticks, let them mourn and go back to their death.” As he spoke, his paws moved and from the corner of his eye, Aldridge saw something small and white being wrapped in something large and green. “St. John’s Wort,” the mouse said. “Wrap and crush in paw like so.” He held up his fist, tensed hard. “Seals away unwanted scent.”

Aldridge opened his mouth but the air barely moved and he could not make any sound.

“Time, the letter said to give you. The sleeping powder had to bring you both close to death, and the recovery time is long. Salts needed to wake you, would only work after days had passed. It will be a long time before moving comes easy.”

Every ounce of strength and he managed a twitch that might look like a nod, if he was lucky.

The huge mouse broke into a smile. “Good, good. Your vole friend is up and about already. Letter said she took lower dose. Safer for her frailty. Meant she woke early. Fetching coltsfoot and motherwort from the spinney now.”

Aldridge managed something approaching a smile, even though he could not feel his lips.

Kadar nodded. “Good. You’re strong. Letter said to give you a half day to awaken full. Said you would hate the inactivity. So count heartbeats. Think of songs to sing to your vole friend. Gather yourself. I shall make potage, leave to stew on embers while you wake. Sleeper’s empty stomach likes potage, aye?”

Another nod, almost too small for even Aldridge to detect from inside his own head.

A chuckle from the seasoned white mouse, who departed. Aldridge did as he suggested. Thought of old songs, counted heartbeats, set them all to the sounds of a kitchen being used to full effect.

As his body awakened bit by bit, Aldridge catalogued the scents washing over him from Kadar’s kitchen. Swede first - a whiff of pepper and clean earth. Next, parsnip, sweet and somewhat floral. Rosemary, dried and crumbled. Rock salt.

The sound of a door opening. Anise, and the tiniest hint of whiskey.

He managed to turn his head a little, and watched as Adeen placed a small basket on a worksurface. Kadar bustled over, rummaged for a moment, then nodded.

“My thanks,” he said. “Your friend’s awakened.”

The lines of her face slackened and her shoulders relaxed forward as Aldridge’s open eye met hers.

She stepped forward too fast for her bare footpaws to manage. Her paw trailed behind her, snagged on the basket of leaves and nearly pulled it from the worksurface. Kadar caught the basket as she surged toward Aldridge, cloak caught by the air and rippling behind her. Ten paces and she was beside him, paw on his cheek.

“Good morning,” she said. Her paws smelled of fresh-picked leaves and soil and brook water.

His lips moved but still nothing much came out.

“I was the same for a while,” she said. “But you’ll awaken. And when you do, we’ll go back into the town. We’ll start our work anew.”

He felt her grasping his paw in her own, raising it to his chest. Neither of them spoke, or tried to.

Seven hundred and thirty-one heartbeats later, Kadar called her over.

Aldridge managed to twist his head to the side, and he watched as they made the gravedigger’s potage. As the mouse and vole moved, as metal rang and scents rushed and warm air rose, he lost count of his heartbeats.



He did not try to count them again.
64
Round Five / Come Close - By Adeen
« Last post by Zevka on October 05, 2017, 08:20:03 PM »
"Soon, my daughter. Soon."

Citrus and cinnamon whirled about Adeen, keeping bone and claw and flame at bay. The dread vixen’s maw of borrowed bones contorted with speech, with her broken Legion at the bars in rising chorus.

“My daughter. Our princess. Your time is here. Your reign begins.” Its grin a chaos of shattered obsidian. “Only come with us to see it so…”

The cacophony blasted the poppy ash and filled the air with dust, so only the burn of the fox's ember jaws shone through the haze. Adeen dragged herself upwards, and touched the vortex of spice. The warmth of evening tea, the calm assurance as the stoat and vole spoke over cups. This was not what she ever imagined when they spoke of the nightmare beyond, but she knew the truth of this adversary in wait.

The ash and Gates parted and a pair of hares crawled forth. Only half their bodies remained, the lower portions broken beyond recognition while their torsos bled free from repeated slashes. They groaned in their agony as they blindly scrabbled at the base of Adeen's protective vortex.

"You may have them again." The lick of desire highlighted the vixen's every word. "Forever above, forever beneath your heel. You need only ask."

Adeen's paw twitched for the baselard no longer at her side, as an echo of a rattle primed in her throat. What remained of Kirkland and Priscilla Cullporter, the elder hares which fell with Fenton, paused their pawing and bowed their heads before their new master. For a moment the cinnamon aegis flickered, but Adeen backed away until her shoulders pressed against the cyclone's back.

"N-no," said Adeen. "I never wanted to hurt them. I only lost myself. I only..."

The words failed as the colossus bellowed with hideous laughter, blowing the feeble hare corpses away. The amalgam skull drew close, until the gigantic pit where its eye should rest loomed. Fires within the socket bored into Adeen's mind, keeping her fixed as the skull split and delivered its last offer.

Canen dropped from the skull's center.

His baked bread fur remained intact. His ribbon-pink ears and silvered muzzle twitched in frenzy as he cast about for reason, for sight. The father did not see his son's wife before him, or the gargantuan skull reforming above him. Canen only panicked and stumbled in place as a child lost in the darkness.

Adeen pressed against the vortex, which thinned by the second until only a haze kept the ash and bones aside.

"Forever yours, my daughter." Canen's face indented, peeled away, as the skull spoke, until Adeen knew the sweet release of his end once again. "A seat upon this throne; revenge without end."

The skull lowered once more, pulping most of Canen's body beneath its weight. A throne of claws formed into the vixen's forehead, and her blackened muzzle pierced Adeen's barrier and offered a ramp to the seat.

Adeen trembled as her footpaw touched the sloped muzzle. At once the heat rose through her body, and the screams of Legion beyond Hellgates filled her mind and more. Laughter then. Uncontrollable laughter as Adeen's eyes filled with tears. Not an enemy remained before her, not a single obstacle to freedom remained, and all would fall beneath her reign.

...There are things you’ve left undone, things you must decide...

And then she looked up. The clouds above were only seen in snippets as the swirl of ash passed.

Two beasts descended through the clouds, through the ash. Pearlescent and luminous came their lowering forms, and both blurred in detail though their bodies remained complete - one short, one tall. Neither moved, spoke, or did much else but stand opposite the vixen of Hellgates. They studied Adeen between, not a lick of flame or flake of ash daring to approach.

The bones beneath Adeen's foot cracked and trembled as they awaited their sister's climb. Beneath the weight, Canen's shattered body reached up for Adeen's tail, grasping as he gurgled for purchase.

Canen spoke, and in the slur of words she heard only a plea for forgiveness, for help.

Adeen backed away from the throne and into her all-but-lost shield. Two roads wound from her last bastion.

Behind her, the vixen seethed, the Legion reaching for their queen-to-be.

Before her, the two beasts held out their paws in offer.


~*~


To the left.

Marks on the wooden wall. The carvings stained and shaded in ways inflexible stone would not allow. Crossed swords, a tree-lined path, and all manner of sigil upholding the mind and times of Madder Barrow residents. The urge in touching the expert sheers swelled, but no signal allowed the scroll-weighted paw to lift and inspect.

To the right.

The crumpled, white brow of a warrior before the storm. The mouse was no maiden, no delicate flower, yet her paws cycled fluid and effortless through a string of signs as her eyes flickered beneath the closed lids. No straining revealed the litany on her lips, but the scent of surging clouds, both electric and tart, wafted from The Pearl Dawn as she prayed.

And behind her, Aldridge, his paw resting on Rinam’s shoulder.

Through the mouse’s bog, and the overhang of citrus tea from the censers, the stoat of Madder Barrow greeted her nostrils as clean and simple as mint pulped in a stone bowl. The lines of his face, and the webwork of muscles beneath his tunic, slackened as Adeen’s open eye met his.

He stepped forward too fast for his bare footpaws to manage. The jostle woke Rinam from her rite, and sent her backwards though Adeen could not tell what struck the mouse so deeply. Breathing came hard, harder still than moving her own limbs, which only twitched after a significant delay. Though a blanket draped across her, a heavier, unseen one enfolded her entirety, as though a mason filled her every joint with clay.

Thoughts frayed at the edge of her mind, her mostly healed head infrequently throbbing at the effort. Ash, fire, and a light too bright for anybeast’s eyes. Each thread dissolved as soon as she found them, one by one until only the mouse and stoat before her remained.

Silence lingered overlong as Aldridge went from standing straight, to pouring a bowl of water, to kneeling at her side.

“Welcome back.”

Rinam stepped forth when neither the stoat or vole acted. They kept locked on one another as she picked about Adeen’s still form, gathering the bits of quill, scroll, and cloth away so she may move free. Adeen tried once Rinam stepped back. Her elbows dug into the tabletop, and her back lifted all of a millimeter. Another millimeter more and Adeen found herself critically short for breath and flat on her back again.

Aldridge swooped in and looped his arm behind her, helping Adeen up to a comfortable sit as Rinam rearranged the blankets for modesty. She leaned not on the pillow the mouse thrust behind her head, but against Aldridge’s chest.

Adeen attempted speech where movement failed. Dust left her muzzle, and wafted up with the censer’s steam. Rinam brought forth Aldridge’s water bowl. The memory frayed at the seams, but in a snippet she saw the mouse striking her down within the arena. Adeen winced as she drew close, but sipped and spoke all the same.

“Our plan. What is our plan?”

A smile meant so many things at so many different times. The grin of triumph. The smirk of infatuation. The warmth of joy. Her journal dictated the crutches beasts of the Crater leaned upon for navigating the social gauntlet. For Aldridge, he rarely smiled without purpose, and settled on logic and wide arms for easing a foe.

The stoat smiled now, though. One Adeen could not face at first, but immediately missed when he started speaking.

“‘Our’ plan, indeed.” He adjusted himself upon the table as Rinam - without expression or word - set about cleaning and making sure the door remained locked. “Our plan is to plan. Gather your strength. We’ll keep you safe until you’re ready for the front line again.”

“Why?”

“Beasts still suffer under Nire’s rule. Your mind and our reach can change this.”

“N-no.” A cough rattled her fragile bones and stole her voice. She hesitated to take another sip from the bowl Rinam held. “Why did you save me? I don’t...deserve it.”

"Because without you, this would all mean so much less. If I do not believe in you then I cannot believe in myself, in this."

He tilted his frame so Adeen may look upon the Mark Wall without strain. New symbols joined the few she recognized from before, blooming along the otherwise bare wood like a young tree. Counting came hard, but a good many beasts pledged themselves to the kingdom of Madder Barrow, to the repurposing of Nire’s Crater.

A whisper at the corner of Adeen’s mind cried folly. Its echo died away as she inhaled the sharp clouds and sweet mint of her saviors.

Again, she urged her paw aloft for inspecting the cut and skill of the marks before her. The weight of her inactivity managed a flick of her wrist and nothing more. The ache worsened with the effort, until her entire body wracked between the desire for motion and the craving for nothingness. She twisted in Aldridge’s grip, and after a great deal of fussing he and Rinam resettled her upon the table.

“My journal.” Both the mouse and stoat froze at the request, as Adeen’s paw flicked for the tome. “Did it find you, Rinam? May I...see it.”

Aldridge made for the collection of Adeen’s effects on a side table. Rinam stepped between him and spoke firm her displeasure.

“I forbid it. She’s not ready.”

“I’m-” another clutch of coughs stole her words. Both beasts came to her side.

“I know what your work can do,” said Rinam. “I read and followed your plan beyond reason. All That Is, and Aldridge, kept me from your end.”

“As well as I can keep any beast.” Rinam did not react to Aldridge’s veiled statement, but even Adeen caught the claw of longing in his tone, the tyranny of knowledge’s call. “We fought you while you slept, and there still may be more of you left to fight.”

The ink still flowed. Even apart, Adeen heard the flutter of pages, felt the ripple of her fervent study just beyond her dulled limbs. Mint and storm. Anise and citrus. Over and over the scents combined with the fragile poppies in Adeen’s mind.

A field of poppies...

Every thread of the Between dissolved as she reached. Only reality remained before her, a choice heavy on the air though nobeast asked a question.

“I’m sorry.” A whisper from Adeen was all she could manage. “I will make this right. W-we will make this right.”

Both the mouse and stoat spoke assurances. Both of them offered their pledges. Adeen heard none of it as her sobs of regret stole her remaining energy and forced her into dreaming.


~*~


”They will not eat?” said Fenton.

“They try but nothing comes,” said Adeen.

The winters of Bastion did not bring drifts or clouds, but the stark cold of steel upon the ocean’s floor. Adeen and Fenton found the warmest spot of the city in the alley between a bakery and smith’s forge. They pressed hard against the walls, the mother and her twin babes against the bakery bricks and the father across against the forge’s shared wall.

But as the moon rose, and the shops closed, the fires within faded. The four voles huddled together, the babes against the mother and the father cradling all. Adeen pulled the twins free from their feeble attempts and rewrapped their tattered blankets, the poppy stitchings frayed from exposure.

Silva did not move unless prodded. Thrane cried soundless as he shivered.

“Have mine.” Fenton pulled a cactus fruit from the folds of his service leathers. “You need it...they need it.”

“No. You need your strength for tomorrow. You’ll work, buy bread, we’ll eat, they’ll eat, and we’ll ask the March for another night, and I’ll clean their storage right this time, and, and…”

The calculations spun onward, silent, as Adeen prodded Silva again and again.

“Eat.” Fenton pressed the withered, pommel-sized fruit against Adeen’s muzzle until he slipped it in through her clenched teeth. He only continued when sure she chewed and swallowed. “I’m fine. I am...we’re fine.”

“We’re not fine. We’re-”

Adeen brushed her claws over Thrane, who stopped shivering and only reached for the moon above. She lifted her robe and stuffed them both beneath, so only their still muzzles poked from her collar. Fenton drew tighter still, all against the fading warmth of the bakery oven’s reverse.

“We’re fine. We’re together.”

“Y-you’re sure. They...they grow cold and I...”

“Come close, my poppy. Tomorrow, t-together, we’ll try again.”



~*~


Adeen awoke to her legs in the air.

The dregs of alleyway dreams, clouding about the vole’s mind, made the beast at Adeen’s side unknowable. Reality jumped sharp into place as Rinam dragged a clotted sponge across the vole’s hindquarters without ceremony. A muted yelp of surprise as a few more swipes of sponge followed, and then the mouse lowered her legs and readjusted the blanket.

“You’re awake.” Rinam’s nose did not twitch at the mess she dealt with, or the embarrassment and fury coiling along Adeen’s muzzle. She only locked with Adeen as a crafter before her task. “The Barrow healer taught me. Did I do well?”

Adeen clawed the blanket closer against her body, curling as much cloth between her and the blunt mouse at her side. The anger faded as she realized she could clutch the blanket at all, or move her limbs, or speak without losing all breath.

“...your effort encourages my recovery.” The dryness remained, and the mouse brought a bowl to her lips before she could ask. “Thank you, but…”

“Why help the one I’ve hurt. The one that betrayed me.”

“...right.”

“They live. Pavaiz, Safira...Kadar. They live and you knew.”

“I did.”

The stareoff lasted only a minute before Rinam broke free. She disposed of the laundry, rewashed her own paws, and cycled through a collection of pawsigns before stopping before Adeen’s effects. The journal. Rinam picked up the journal and brought it to Adeen’s side. The vole’s breath caught short as Rinam’s capped tail twitched on the tabletop, as she sat beside.

“If you know where they reside, then you must know their way free.”

“Rinam, I am-”

“I do not want an apology. I want you to keep your word.” Rinam gripped the journal at its side, but dare not open the cover. “You meant me to find them in time. The time is now.”

...I will make this right. W-we will make this right…

The possibilities turned over in Adeen’s mind, surging through her as avenue after avenue presented itself. Earmark 8 would discuss trade routes in and out of the Crater, and opportunities between Mortician Muda’s sloppy inventory management. A single train would flow to and from St. Zivesta’s Church, where honored dead of faith rested, where Kadar of the Iron Sea tended the graves. A two-end point of contact meant only managing the guards as the checkpoints, and even then choice guards and the bowyer’s reach might see...

Adeen groaned with the effort, but rose on the strength of purpose alone. She turned on her side, curling around Rinam’s back. The mouse moved to get up, to help the vole, but a paw upon her paw, upon the journal, kept them still.

“There are ways, Rinam.” Anise and thunder intertwined, until the vole knew the mouse’s fear, until the mouse knew the vole’s sincerity. “We can see you, and your kind, free.”

In one fluid movement, Rinam rose from their embrace and drew her rondel. Seconds passed, and then the Mark Wall door clicked open. Aldridge Moor stood at the entry. He did not advance, not even after the mouse lowered her weapon. He looked from the warrior at the ready, to the journal tucked under her arm, to the vole bare and on her side.

“See you free.” He made his eavesdropping clear as he trembled out the words. Rinam set the journal down upon the side table, atop Adeen’s cloak and scrolls. “Is this true?”

Adeen nodded.

“And you knew of them before?”

“Them and much more.” Adeen tried rising to a sit, but the effort cost too much and sent her horizontal. “The...freedom paled against striking down Nire. But now...”

Aldridge stormed across the room, ripped the journal from the pile, and slammed it upon the table beside Adeen. He dragged Rinam over, pressed her paw upon Adeen’s, both upon the journal, with his above to seal them all. A new energy filled Adeen’s chest, an excitement which trembled in her throat and coiled her tail.

Anise, Mint, and Thunder filled the room and stained the New Mark Wall.

“Together?”

“Together.”
65
Round Five / It Kicks Like A Sleep Twitch
« Last post by Aldridge Moor on October 05, 2017, 10:01:01 AM »
The press of sound and bustle in the mess hall surged heavy in the air as Aldridge scanned for Foxglove Aera in the crowd. The hall was at its busiest halfway through lunchtime, when the final groups of gladiators were queueing for food while the tables were mostly filled with the first groups and all of the slaves who had the questionable luck to be hale and hearty enough to be worth training, in case they were ever needed to bulk out the Arena fighters or serve as fodder for some monster.

There had been no second Culling after the most recent batch of slaves had been brought in; Nire had favoured his mock trials and monster exhibitions at least until the death of the Farmer. This bustle was therefore the full capacity of the Underbelly, following the awful quiet that had come after the first Culling.

Aldridge raked the crowd with his gaze. Mouse ears? Some. One pair with near-white fur, but male and rather older than Foxglove.

No, of course she wouldn’t be out here right now. She had always been afraid of being judged, being hated. Scrutiny repelled her. She would be anywhere other than in public.

He’d have to come back at the end of lunch. There’d be no fish by then, but he could live with that for one afternoon, surely.

Before he turned to leave, he saw Komi looking at him from a fresh laden trencher. Her openness was clouded now, and he found that he likewise could not easily wear happiness when he met her gaze. She would release great thundering beasts on a town full of innocents, just for a chance at freedom.

But that had always been true. Komi had always been the commander. She had always worked on acceptable losses and the destruction of the enemy and the risk of tradelane and civilian casualties. She had always taken loss to be part of war.

So why had she angered him so? Why had Eve made him see red? At what point had he changed? From the beast who built bows for war, to the beast who built them for hunting? From the beast who had whispered into Currathalla’s ear - theatres and buildings in one paw, fresh twisted atrocity in the other - to the beast who would not tolerate even a single preventable death?

What had happened to that older beast?

Ulrich’s gruff nod, as he passed him the white-hot metal. The scent of char, as he carved a simple bow and feather pattern into the wall, contained in a circle of twine. The applause, thin at first but growing in strength as more and more of the beasts around him finally decided he was one of them.

Of course. That beast was long gone, buried now under a bowyer's shack and the love of a family. Madder Barrow was not merely a home, but a refuge for the lost. And that was where Aera would hide. He pulled himself out of the miasma of old memory, pushed through the tangle of woodsmoke and bird-cherry that caught him by the chest, and left the mess hall.

Tunnels flew past as always. Today’s guard was not Tegue and so Aldridge lost him easily enough, ducking through the store rooms that he would usually frequent on the hunt for his bowyer supplies. The guard’s muffled cursing faded away into the background as he wound his way through ever danker, dustier tunnels

A twist through the room of old machinery, through the hidden door and into the dim-lit Mark Chamber, where Aera stood with fresh tears on her cheeks and a knife in her paw, raised in defense against the intruder Aldridge could have been. Even in this state she would fight for the Barrow if needed.

Aldridge smiled as he closed the door behind himself. She dropped the blade at the sound, paws shaking at the sight of him.

She visibly forced herself to speak, “I didn’t mean to go this far, Uncle. I don’t like her! I admit that! But this? I never…”

She lost her words. Aldridge wrapped his arms around her as she broke down, and he stroked her headfur, and he waited for her to be done.

A hundred heartbeats or more passed. Her tears came and went like waves of oceantide. He was reminded of Cape Reman, three leagues west of Hestara, where the greater and more dangerous waves had always crashed. He felt her shuddering as her small body was buffeted by the power of those waves, the worst of which could sweep a beast away never to be seen again. He heard her breath coming short when they were in danger of overwhelming her. Heard her gasping for breath between them. Heard the calm as it finally settled upon her, as the fury of the sea passed away over the horizon.

She stood straight at last. Aldridge shivered as the cool air of the room caught where her tears now soaked his tunic.

“I’m sorry, Uncle. I let this place get to me. I let Jossia get to me. I owe Komi my life.”

“What happened?”

Foxglove Aera looked up at him and she was ten seasons old again, crying over a knee scraped while playing with Cricken on the Tradeway. And then she closed her eyes, took a single breath, and as she released it she regained all those seasons, and she was his Apprentice, and she had been wounded but perhaps she could be better for it.

“There’s a trade hall, out in the town. You didn’t get dragged there before you killed the hare, but it’s where they take the utility slaves who have any material responsibilities. Anybeast who has to requisition supplies for their area, at any rate. So I and others - one of Rinam’s friends from the slave galley, Drake the armourer, a few of the senior carpenters, Muda and a few more - are taken there when we need to be, under guard. We know our inventories, we know what we need, we negotiate and the Quartermaster approves it all at the end of the day.

“So, the suppliers all break for lunch as you’d expect. We slaves can’t be worked through lunchtime when there are no suppliers to negotiate with, so we’re taken to their food hall as well. I know what you’re thinking, and aye, it’s not very secure. But none of us make a break for it because the privilege would be withdrawn.

“And we still interact there. So when Jossia sat down on the other side of my table and started up a conversation, it wasn’t too strange. And then she told me who she was, and that you’d given her that limp outside our village, and that she didn’t understand why you did it because she was only taking away a petty criminal, and slowly she gave me more and more reasons to think that you wanted Komi, that you were willing to risk the whole village just to stab at Jossia. That it was only Komi you cared about. That you were going to leave with her. That Madder Barrow didn’t matter to you any more. And the final… the final lie. That Komi was to blame.”

“When the only beast to blame…”

“Was Jossia, aye.” Aera glared at the ground. “How could I have been so stupid?”

“You mustn’t feel bad about this,” Aldridge said. “Her words tempted old Galleran into breaking his horde on Redwall’s defences. A solitary mousemaid isn’t expected to defend herself from that.”

“I nearly killed your partner.” She drew in a shuddering breath. “I wanted to kill her. I took a bowstring and wrapped it around her neck and I pulled and I meant it...”

“Ch, ch, ch.” Aldridge pulled her back in, stroked her headfur as she let out a silent scream. “Jossia acted through you. Just like Adeen acted through Rinam. Words are powerful, more powerful than any of us give them credit for. And Jossia… she had something to sink her claws into, didn’t she?”

Foxglove pulled back and he looked directly at her. He poured everything into it. Every piece of understanding, every moment of patience, every piece of forgiveness. And finally she swallowed, and opened her mouth, and admitted, “Yes.”

“Your pride, when Nire announced you.”

She nodded. “I… enjoyed it. The beasts in blue attacked us, and I made two of them pay the price. I was applauded for it! And that guard, I made him fear me!”

“And the slaver that Ulrich killed, back in the day.”

“...I was envious. I wish it had been me. I spent whole nights thinking about how I would have done it. I’d have said hello, told him about the nice village further along the trail, then pretended I was off hunting. Hidden in the denser trees closer to the Barrow. Put an arrow through the damn beast’s head, and savoured the look on his-”

The door opened behind them. Aera looked over Aldridge’s shoulder but relaxed immediately. “Hello, Rinam.”

“Foxglove. Aldridge.” The sound of the door closing, and Rinam moved to Adeen’s bedside.

Aera looked lost for a moment.

“We can still talk,” Aldridge said. “Rinam knows what it is, to be forced to face your darker side. She won’t judge you, and she may be able to help.”

The stub-tailed mouse flinched and executed three pawsigns, each of which involved meshed claws - an appeal for stability, perhaps, from All That Is.

Aera nodded. “I watch the fights. All of them. And I train, too. Between the end of dinnertime and the closing of the Drag. They call it remedial training. They don’t check if you’re a utility slave, and they haven’t noticed me yet. It’s not long, but it’s enough to prepare me.”

“Prepare you? Foxglove, you’re safe from the battles. Why would you-”

“Because I want to fight! I want to be in that arena. I want to face one of these beasts and just slaughter them, and make everybeast watch!” Her breath hitched in her throat. “I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help it, Uncle.”

Aldridge nodded, and he caught sight of Rinam, eyes closed, doing the same. “Believe it or not, I know the feeling,” he said. “The need, right from the core of you, to strike down the evil in the world in the most final way you can imagine. To give the worst of beastkind a taste of their own medicine.”

“And I want that. I want to do what you do, Uncle. Is that so wrong?

Aldridge chuckled, bitter. “Do you know why I’m called the Lowlander?”

Silence. Aera looked to the ground.

“I don’t always have control of this, Foxglove. I’ve already seen good beasts lose themselves to this place. I don’t want that to happen to me.” He squeezed her shoulder. “And I can’t let that happen to you.”

“You will lose control, sometimes,” Rinam’s voice, “but your worst acts will linger in your thoughts. If you wish to lead a good life, you will set aside your hatred and anger, and do as you can to repay the beasts around you for the kindness they have shown.”

Aera drew in a final, shuddering breath, pressing her head deeper into Aldridge’s shoulder. "I'm sorry.”

Aldridge held her firm. “I know. It’s all right.”

“I'll speak with Komi. I owe her my life twice over."

She stepped back, nodded to Aldridge and Rinam in turn, and left the room, cheeks still mussed with tears.

“She will be well,” Rinam said.

Silence fell for some time as Rinam worked through her pawsigns and her quiet prayers.

Aldridge lifted a chair, set it gently beside her. He sat and listened, brow knit tight as her prayers ran into each other.

Aldridge contemplated Jossia. She’d killed a guard not that long ago. Perhaps she’d meant it as a warning. Perhaps she was simply enraged by Nire’s dismissal. And now she was on the edges again, finding routes back in to try to hurt Komi, even kill her.

Jossia had lost Galleran, for sure. But Jossia had cared for her brother no more than any other beast. So even though Galleran had died, even though Komi had abandoned her post for her kit - their kit, he reminded himself - Jossia still clung to her hatred. He wondered if it was all merely an excuse. If the facade of familial love was enough to drive a beast to such lengths.

“Every piece of advice I tried to give Currathalla…every single time I tried to help him, there you were, whispering things into his ears…”

There it was. Thrayjen had hated him for having his father’s ear. Jossia had hated Komi for having Galleran’s. No matter that Thrayjen and Jossia would have led their targets to self-destruction. No matter that their violence had been utter, and unsustainable.

But Aera… Aera was something different, and far more precious. All her evidenced furies weighed heavy in his mind and told him, with absolute certainty, that there was someone here who understood Aera’s darkness better than even Jossia. Someone who could help him save the ones he loved.

He glanced at the Book, still unopened on the table beside Adeen’s makeshift bed, and he wondered exactly what it would say about Aera. Whether Adeen had noted the violence in the young mousemaid’s heart; had seen her vulnerabilities and recorded those for possible exploitation; had recorded her ultimately as a threat or an aid in her thirst for vengeance.

Ah, but the vulnerabilities, and how to exploit them. Would he have the stomach to read that, about his own Apprentice?

The others, then. Every other beast in this Crater, cut open and pinned to the pages, every immediate detail and vulnerability preserved for scrutiny.

He stood, stalked over, eyes locked on it, eyes locked on the power that she could give him if he would only read...

She would fill the gaps in his vision with her own, and open every possibility to him. She would give him the words to see every beast in his way pushed aside. She would give him clarity enough to burn the Crater clean.

He placed his paw on the cover. The taste of ink surged in the back of his throat. Rinam stopped praying, but he paid her no heed.

He could pick them off one by one. Tempt them away from their duties with a promise, crush their spirit with a revelation, pierce the back of their skull with a baselard. So many beasts who deserved that and worse.

Lash Nire to his own banner and run him through with each and every one of the weapons exhibited in the thrice-damned Hall of Greats.
Carve chunks of meat from the weasel Hargorn’s body and muffle his screams by forcing them down his throat.
Slit Tegue’s patrol-buddy Alf from throat to gut and leave him for the rat guard to find, and whisper words from the book into Tegue's ear. A few to strike him down with grief. A few to rob him of meaning for the rest of his life. And just a few more to have him steal a heavy rope, learn to tie a slipknot, find some sturdy ceiling bea-

“No.” He pulled his paw back from the book, let the snarl on his face die.

The taste of ink subsided, and his heart and breath returned to normal.

After a moment, he smiled. “You nearly had me.”

Rinam had stood up at some point in his dark study. She sat down now, and Aldridge could not help but note her paw in the corner of his eye, moving to her waist as though sheathing her rondel.

Aldridge stepped away from the table and the book, and let out a long breath. Rinam’s paws moved in prayer.

“Signs for clarity,” Aldridge recognised. “Thank you.”

She returned to her vigil, paws moving for Adeen once more.

“She can’t be brought back.” Aldridge could not keep the bitterness out of his voice. ”She returns of her own accord, or not at all.”

“Your father. The spirit-walker.” Aldridge noted the reedy quality to her voice. Had she been that frightened? “Would he agree?”

Aethelred Moor. All of his stories ran through Aldridge’s memory, followed closely by his mother’s explanations. Superstition, made to work with belief and self-deception. No more spiritual than a game of cards between vagrants under the foam-flecked bridges of Hestara.

And yet, certain memories brought themselves to bear, crackling with undeniable purpose. Memories that Aldridge had never been able to reason away.

“I… do remember a rite that he performed.” He sighed. “I never saw it work. It could be nothing more than-”

“Tell me of it.”

Aldridge steepled his paws and knit his brow as he regarded Adeen’s still form. All other attempts, all other comforts and appeals had failed. He considered the memories once more, weighing his father’s assertions against his mother’s logic. Weighing the spirit-walker against the confidence trickster.

“It involved names. Objects. Threes, and sevens.”

“Explain.”

Aldridge mustered, sank deeper into the memory before replying. “Since beasts learned to speak, names have been important - they’re how we define ourselves. Likewise objects. Anything that ties her to this world, that could impel her not to give up.” He gestured to the table. “That book is an easy start, as well as her cloak. She wouldn’t have worn it for so long if it wasn’t important to her.” He turned to Rinam. “Does she have anything else?”

Rinam’s whiskers twitched in thought. “Her bunk. Her station in the mortuary. We may find more there.” She tilted her head to the side. “And what of the numbers?”

“Before written language, symbols reigned. Three became the symbol of the self - the two eyes through which we see the world, together with the mind. Four became the symbol of the body - our footpaws that touched the earth, and our paws with which we shaped the world. Seven, then, the symbol of the whole - body and mind together.”

“We left these beliefs behind long since.”

“These are only my father’s words,” Aldridge reminded, “He said that these beliefs are the ones that call to every beast on some level. They are the base on which all belief and ceremony is built.”

“And this is all we need? Trinkets and numbers?”

“No, not quite. My father would hold a ceremony that spoke of the beliefs of everybeast in the room. I know only a little of the Mice of Dawn. Will you tell me of your funeral ceremonies?”

"Life is a debt. In time, it is repaid to All That Is. We remember them in our deeds. No more is needed."

"Ah... that's not quite what I meant. Those who have passed - what do you do with their bodies?"

“If the Dawn does not wake them, we leave them to the Sky. Our leader would see them stripped and quartered for the ferals and scorpions.”

“And if they died out of the sight of the Sky?”

“Gold. Desert gold holds the touch of All That Is. It is Dawn’s light made solid.” Her paw moved, and she proffered a dagger. “The pommel and the pawguard. They are what we need.” She looked down at Adeen’s gaunt, silent muzzle. “This one’s belief rested in herself and nowhere else. But what of your own?”

Aldridge blinked.

’Everybeast in the room,’ you said.”

“I suppose I did.”

His mind traced the many paths his footpaws had tread. Times long past but not nearly forgotten.

The public spaces along the grand promenade that led up to the Muskroarkan palace, filled with tradesbeasts and performers and preachers. In among that chaos, the quiet of the strange, angular red squirrels who sat to the side of it all in absolute peace and silence. He had learned their meditations, but none of their piety, and in time they had tired of him.

Long before then, Hestara’s port and berths, riddled with seabeasts - not least among them, the Cloudchaser otters. Nomadic tribes of freight workers who spoke in their different groups to different parts of the sea - Storm, Salt and Stone. Devotion to the stability and security of Stone had taken his fancy for a while.

“I’m not sure what I believe,” he choked out, clearing his throat when the words felt tight.

Rinam’s gaze remained firm. “Then decide. For her sake, as much as your own.”

The abomination’s cage. The terror of that moment left him shuddering as he dug through the memory of that humiliation, immersing himself in every detail as he hunted down the one that mattered.

Bessie’s grey hair and black eyes stuck with him as he spoke.

“I prayed to Stone, back then.” He knelt and brushed a paw across the rough stone floor of the chamber, grounding himself.

Rinam’s brow raised in silent query.

“One of the three aspects of the sea - Storm, Salt and Stone - to which the Cloudchaser otters of the South dedicate themselves.” He patted the floor again. “I chose Stone, and we already have its attention.”

Rinam regarded him for a moment longer, just long enough for him to see the doubt begin to form words upon her lips.

A bell sounded for the end of the lunchtime break.

“Evening.” Rinam stood up. “We raid while the fox is away.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Your ceremony is prepared, yet we lack five objects.” She gestured sharply. “Come. We have business to attend in the mortuary.”

Resolve. If he ever saw Rinam without purpose etched across her muzzle, he would only recognise her by her shortened tail. He couldn’t help a smile from crossing his face.

“Aye. Lead the way.”

-----

A diminutive figure approached the entrance to the mortuary. It entered, there was the sound of conversation, low and murmured. And then it, and Mortician Muda, left together.

Aldridge looked at Rinam with some confusion. She responded with a quiet snort of laughter and nothing more, and they peered into the mortuary.

The green fire was gone. Aldridge snatched a torch from a corridor wall-bracket instead, and they picked their way across the room. Two beasts in beds, and thankfully none on the Sleepers’ slab. It still bore dried blood from Trema’s ignominious passing at Muda’s claw.

The walls lay a tangle of unearthly silhouettes rendered from not enough torchlight. Bessie loomed in his thoughts. His heart sped up and his breath became shallow - but he did not, would not stop moving. Would not allow that beast of limbs and fangs and eyes to paralyse him again.

They searched, although her bandolier did not require the search. It hung over the back of her little, half-broken chair. A stoppered ink bottle and several quills were holstered in the upper half, and five or more bundled scrolls in the rest.

A hundred heartbeats more, and they found a chisel jutting out of the top of an old, discoloured glass bottle.

A hundred more heartbeats again, and again, and again until he’d lost count, and tucked away behind and between a couple of misshapen jars, Aldridge found the seventh item - a spool of golden thread.

They left the mortuary as quietly as they could, then bolted.

Again, Aldridge felt that strange gratitude. Sprinting to the Mark Chamber from the mortuary took near enough nothing, thanks to Blue’s training regimen. His heartbeat quickened and his breath deepened, and the bruises Thrayjen had left on his face throbbed with every heartbeat, but nothing more. No exhaustion. No panting for breath.

They took the last three tunnels with less speed and less sound. Aldridge gestured for Rinam to stop and listened intently. No interference. Nobeast nearby.

They ducked back into the Chamber and emptied their arms onto the table beside Adeen’s half-gone form. The Mark Wall stood, watching over the three of them.

Aldridge spared another thought for Blue. Standing instructions, Tegue had said, were to leave him to sleep in the Bowyery if he did not report to the Drag. She must know by now that he was abusing her generosity. Must know that he still wasn’t playing by the rules. He dared to hope that he was at least not putting her in danger through his behaviour.

He returned to the task at paw. “The first three, then. The book behind her head, since it contains so much of her thought and memory. Quill to the right, and inkwell to the left, because she needs both to fulfil her purpose.”

As he placed the stoppered inkwell by Adeen’s head and the white mouse’s motions mirrored him with the quill, he realised he and Rinam moved in much the same way. If anything, she was even more concise than he, moving with a measured quickness that spared time only for her pawsigns to All That Is.

He tucked the book behind the vole’s head, steadfast ignoring the urge to thumb it open.

“And now the other four?” Rinam asked, gesturing to the other items laid upon the table.

Aldridge tapped a claw against his chin. “Aye. But they must go where they best belong.” A moment more, and he nodded. “The chisel in her right paw. If she is to wake with purpose, let her main purpose be honouring the dead, not creating them. Scrolls in her off-paw. Not her main purpose but a part of who she is. Fabric and thread beside her right footpaw, to give her something to create as she moves forward. Cloak beside her left footpaw, to give her an even footing on the creations of her past.”

“You have done this before,” Rinam said.

He paused, the cloak heavy in his paws. “No. I only ever watched my father perform his work.” He set the cloak by Adeen’s footpaw. “My mother said it was all nothing, said he was tricking beasts into believing that his was the way.”

“And you believed her.”

He chuckled. “Because she was right, for the most part. It wasn’t just us, your people thought the same of him.”

“And yet we are gathered here, using his methods. Why?”

Aldridge stepped back from the bed, and drew in a long breath. “When I came to see you in the kitchen, I could feel her in the air. Adeen. She was there, as sure as if I could touch her. My father’s ramblings of spirits were the only things that made sense of it - that she was acting through the book, and the book through you. Something I couldn’t see or touch or smell, but… I couldn’t deny it.” A slow, humorless smile crossed his face. “My father was many things, but in the end I have to concede that he was not common liar. He believed in...” He waved a paw in the air. “...this. All of it.”

Rinam nodded. “He was wise.”

He avoided her gaze. “Not at all.” He sighed, then walked to Ulrich’s toolbench. “But I suppose I should thank him for leading me to meet you in that hallway.”

“We did not meet. You caught us, and we came within a few words of hurting you.”

“That is also a meeting.”

She huffed, somewhere between amusement and irritation. “Were it not for your name and your rumours, I would think you incapable of feeling slighted at all, let alone enough to fight over it.”

He couldn’t keep himself from chuckling at this tiny stalwart. “Talk first,” he said. “Fight later.”

“Yet the Highlander cut through all of that.”

Aldridge looked up to the ceiling, flickering in lanternlight. “He did,” he said.

“Anger has it’s place among the righteous. Perhaps I shall see yours, one day.”

Aldridge drew a splint of wood from the toolbench and teased an end into the room’s main lantern. “I should hope to never reach that point again, Rinam.” He pulled the splint free once the end caught with fire. “And I am not as impressive in my fury as your Blackwhiskers.”

“Nonetheless.”

He let the word fade, moved to light both censers where they hung - one above her chest, one toward her footpaws. Blew out the splint, and waited for the acridity of burning birch to fade.

Thought of his father, and stood, and sang.

”O you who voyage now on sunless sea,
Where ends the river of the restless dead.
The ferrybeast has lost his sight of thee,
We living state our need of you instead.

Beyond the wall of sleep you rest alone,
Yet now we dare permit ourselves to dream,
We raise our paws and pound and crack the stone,
And to the gap we place our lips and scream!

We bring you everything that gave you life,
But clench your paws and feel their shape within!
But listen out and hear our voice, the fife
That calls to you, come back to us, our kin!

Keep death at bay! Cease now this endless roam.
Come back to us. We need you here at home.”
66
Round Five / Blow For Blow
« Last post by Komi Banton on October 05, 2017, 09:37:05 AM »
“Coward!” Kentrith Hapley shouted over the gladiators sparring in the practice yard.

Komi hesitated and started to glance away. Minerva’s blunted speartip slipped past her defenses and thudded against her armored ribs hard enough to make her grunt.

The otter grinned in response to Komi’s glare.

“We’re not done,” Komi warned. “I’ll come back for another round after I see what the Crane wants.”

The fox stood impatiently near the spear racks. Komi stretched as she walked to him, working away the ache from where Minerva had struck her.

“Put up the spear for a while,” Kentrith told her. “I heard you were quite the knife fighter before you came here and I don’t think we’ve practiced that. I’d like to see how good you are.”

The dagger hidden in her vanbrace pushed tight against her forearm as she put the spear away. Who had told Kentrith that she fought with a knife?

They walked to a quiet corner of the training yard and Hapley picked up a pair of blunted rounded daggers and tossed one to Komi. She caught it and flipped it between a forward grip and a reverse, getting the feel for the weight. Hapley’s eyes stayed on her the whole time.

“Feeling That Newness?” he asked softly.

Komi’s head jerked up. Minerva had told her about meeting with some of the FTN leaders, and what they’d said about the code words.

“Ah,” she hesitated as she thought. “Fine, Though Needless.”

“Good enough,” he replied. “Let’s see what you know, then.”

They squared off, Komi with her blade held in a forward grip, Kentrith’s blade also forward, but with a foreclaw along the spine of the blade.

Komi moved first, darting in, off paw ready for defense. Kentrith met her blow for blow and they parted and rejoined. Then the edge of the blade dragged along Komi’s hip, just under her armor. She swore and stepped back.

“Again,” Kentrith commanded and Komi took a stance again. Kentrith feigned, then Komi took a half step forward, then they both moved as one and engaged again.

Kentrith trapped her blade paw in his off paw and they grappled, the fox using his bigger frame to hold her. “We have a job for you,” he murmured.

Komi twisted her shoulder in, driving it into his belly, then pulled free, her dagger running a harmless line over his ribs as she moved away. “What sort?”

Kentrith grunted and staggered back, rubbing his free paw into the spot where Komi’s shoulder had gone. “Nire’s decided that there’s going to be a Grand Tournament.” Kentrith took up his stance again.

Komi flipped her dagger to a reverse grip. “Meaning?”

“Nire’s going to burn through his gladiators like chaff.” Kentrith waited on her attack and they exchanged a flurry of blows, Komi slowly driving Kentrith back towards the wall. “By the end, half of you will be dead.”

Komi pinned him there, his dagger flat against his shoulder and his free paw barely holding her off. “So, what do you need me to do?” She slammed her free paw down on the knife butt, thudding it into Kentrith’s chest.

“Your job is to release the boars during the Grand Tourney.” He took a moment to rub where the dull point had bruised him.

“How’s that going to help?” Komi asked.

Kentrith swung his arms forward and back, loosening his shoulders. “What you do will serve as a diversion and give us a better chance at escape.” In a louder voice, he said. “You know what you’re doing, that much is clear. Again.”

So Komi attacked again. Kentrith’s words came out hissed between blocks and strikes.

“We’re breaking slaves out. Dibbuns first. Then the rest. In the past, Nire has used the boars to run down escaping slaves. If they’re gone, we have a better chance of getting away.”

“How do I release them?” Komi muttered back.

“Up to you. Lure them out. Make them stampede. Whatever. Just create a diversion.” Kentrith slammed Komi against the wall, her off paw twisted behind her back. “Can you do it?”

Komi grit her teeth at the pain lancing through her shoulder. “I’ll figure it out.” Then she felt movement along the arm Kentrith held. Her real dagger, hidden in her vanbrace, slipped out. She grasped for it, and her paw met Kentrith’s.

The fox had discovered it! He drew out half the blade along her twitching arm and Komi could do nothing to stop it.

“You are a fool,” Kentrith hissed in her ear. “Nire’s got random searches happening since Silas attacked Blasio, and you’ve got a blade on you?”

Komi braced her footpaws, ready to attack and kill the trainer, but then, she hesitated. As one of the FTN, Kentrith sought to destroy Nire and his Crater. And even if she did slay him, where could she go? She’d be in trouble for killing one of the Crater staff, not just for posessing a knife. She stayed her first instinct. “I didn’t know Nire was having us searched,” she growled.

Her dagger slid back into place and the fox released her. “Then listen to me, stoat, and make yourself as innocent as possible. If you get caught bearing a blade, Nire’s going to ask questions of you and you may doom us all.”

“I can hold my silence when I wish it.”

The fox snorted. “You don’t know Nire.”

“And if I need it for protection?”

“I’m thinking you could kill a beast with a spoon if you took it into your head,” Kentrith whispered. “Enough talk. Keep sparring, but you put that blade somewhere safer at lunch.”

Komi took her stance again. The pressure of the dagger on her forearm, which before had been a secure reminder that she could protect herself in this place, now seemed to throb with danger. If Nire was doing random searches in his paranoia, then her turn would come sooner or later. Komi decided the safest place for her dagger was with her drum in Aldridge’s workshop.

When the noon break came, the slaves all moved towards the mess. Aldridge, his face still bearing lumps from the beating Thrayjen gave him, waited for her near the door. “I’ll be along in a moment,” she told him, giving his paw a quick squeeze with her own. “I need to put something with my drum.”

He nodded. “I’ll wait for you.”

“No need,” she said. “I’ll be along shortly.”

She trotted across the corner of the training ground to where Aldridge’s bowyery stood and shouldered open the door. She closed it behind her.

She nodded cordially to the scowling young mouse who sat on a stool fletching arrows. “Foxglove,” she said, calling Aldridge’s apprentice by her first name.

The mouse didn’t return the greeting. She just glared hatefully at Komi.

Komi ignored it, trotting across the room to the cupboard where Aldridge had said her drum would be safe. She pulled the dagger from her vanbrace as the mouse’s stool scraped on the ground. She laid it behind the drum and under a cloth. “Safe enough,” she murmured and closed the cupboard.

Foxglove Aera stood with her back to Komi, coiling a bowstring in her paws. Her partly fletched arrows sat on the counter. Komi strode to the door, walking past the mouse.

As her paw reached for the door’s handle, something thin passed in front of Komi’s eyes. Then the waxed edge of a bowstring tightened against her throat. Her breath caught fast. Of all the places in the Crater where she’d expected an attack, she had felt safe in Alder’s workshop.

Training from seasons ago kicked in. Komi pivoted. The string dug sharp along her neck. Darkness creeped in on the edge of her vision. She grabbed Young Aera’s wrist to slow the tightening of her makeshift garrote. Twice she punched the mouse in the stomach. Foxglove fell back against her stool, doubled over from the blows.

Komi yanked the bowstring away and sucked down gulps of air. Her sight cleared. She reached for her dagger, remembering a moment later that it was in the cupboard. 

During her moment’s hesitation, Foxglove flung the stool at Komi’s head. Komi ducked. It crashed against the wall.

Komi charged before Young Aera could find a better weapon. She bore the mouse to the ground, her paws reaching for the other’s throat. Foxglove punched Komi in the nose. Komi saw stars, but kept her grip on the mouse’s tunic.

They scrabbled together on the bowyery floor. Komi pulled a paw back to punch Young Aera hard in the throat.

“Komi!” Aldridge grabbed her paw and his arm hooked around her neck and shoulders. “What are you doing?” he yelled as he dragged her off his apprentice.

“She tried to kill me!” Komi grappled with Aldridge, holding back from doing him real harm, but not daring to take her eyes of the mouse.

“Have you lost your mind? Why would she do such a thing?”

“Because this is all her fault!” Young Aera screamed.

Aldridge went very still, though he didn’t release Komi.

The mouse used the edge of a worktable to pull herself to her feet, wincing all the while. “This is her fault!” She waved a paw as if to indicate everything around them. “If it hadn’t been for her, we’d be safe in Madder Barrow. Droven, Cricken, and Tanra would be alive! She’s done nothing but use you from the beginning!”

Komi tried to take a step towards the mouse, but Aldridge tightened his grip. “What are you talking about?”

“Jossia’s told me all about you,” Aera snarled. “All your lies and all your secrets. She only wanted you in Madder Barrow. She would have left the rest of us alone.”

“That’s not true,” Aldridge said.

“If you hadn’t shot that arrow, they would have let us be. Jossia only wanted Komi. That’s all she’s ever wanted. Now Komi’s got you all wound around her claws like she did before. Dancing to her tune. Because of her, you keep doing stupid things and you’re going to end up dead!”

“That’s enough,” Aldridge barked. “Aera, go get some lunch. We will talk about this later.”

“There’s not going to be a later with this!” Komi snarled. “I’m not going to stand around waiting for some woodlander to stab me in the back!”

Aldridge forced Komi back from the door. “Get out now, Aera.” As the mouse exited, he said to Komi, “She’s not going to harm you!”

“Oh, no? I’m sure the string around my neck was just a hug, then? Don’t be blind, Alder! Jossia got her claws in your precious apprentice.” Komi jerked away. This time Aldridge let her go. “I need to figure out how to get the Crater’s boars to stampede, not worry about some half-grown mouse trying to murder me!”

Aldridge frowned. “What on earth are you talking about?”

Komi looked to the door, which Young Aera had closed behind her when she left. Later, she told herself, I’ll deal with that woodlander. She dropped her voice to a whisper. “Hapley passed on a message. The FTN needs me to release the boars during the Grand Tournament that’s coming up.”

“Do you realize how dangerous that is?” Aldridge said.

Komi snorted. “I’m not scared of a bunch of dumb beasts.”

“It’s not just you! I’m talking about anybeast else that might be in the path if you do get those things running. Komi, beasts could be killed!”

She stared at him and said flatly, "This is a war. Beasts die in war. The important part is who you're fighting to save."

Aldridge bent to pick up the stool Aera had thrown. "You sound just like Lady Eve! You can't just trade other beast's lives for the ones you care about!"

"She speaks sense some of the time!"
 
"Aye, I've heard her 'speaking sense'. The same 'sense' that saw our Luthier slaughtered in the pit for no damned reason." He slammed the stool down in its place by the worktable.
 
"How many others died for 'no damned reason' because Nire thought it'd make a good show? How long before we're back on that sand, fighting for our lives? And for what? What purpose would our deaths serve then?” Komi stepped closer, mottled fur bristling along the back of her neck. “I'd rather die fighting for something and for somebeast, than just for the amusement of a crowd."

Aldrige faced her, his dark eyes snapping. "Our lives. Ours. Komi, would you have me believe that you'll release these boars and that the townsbeasts trampled and gored by them will somehow be acceptable losses? They get no say! You'll throw adults, oldsters, children in the path of dangerous beasts just for what - to irritate the beast in charge? At least in the arena we are largely limited to fighting those who've a decent chance of defending themselves!"

Komi thought of Minerva and Fable and the other young ones in the upper level of the Crater. "What about that room full of children Nire keeps? Children Nire threatens to throw in the arena if their parents don't comply? Would you like to have their blood on your head? And what happens if you kill one of the parents at Nire's bidding? What about the orphans left behind? What do you think Nire will do with them, when they're usefulness is through!"

Aldridge’s head bowed over the workbench. "He at least has no reason to kill them. But I understand what you're saying. Yes, for as long as we fail to act, there will be death. But provoking Nire, needling him? That will result in more death, and it will make it harder to take him down at the end of it all. We must act carefully and only when we are certain of swift victory."

“And this will be the first step.” Komi stepped closer, putting a paw on Aldridge’s shoulder. “Hapley said that Nire uses the boars to hunt down escaped slaves. By releasing them, it’ll provide both a diversion and give the FTN time. They’re going to be breaking the slaves out during the tournament. The young ones first, then the rest. Don’t you see? If I do this, we’re getting the innocent out this way!”

Aldridge shook his head. “You’ll run the innocent out on the backs of other innocent?”

“I will,” Komi said, dropping her paw to her side. “I’ll gladly take that gamble. I won’t stand aside.” Komi turned to leave, but she paused, paw on the door handle. “You know, I can’t help but think — what if Tavin were being held by Nire? How hard would I fight to get him out? To make him safe? The horde was no place for a kit, but I saw it too late. This place is no better and I’m not going to stand aside when there’s something to be done.”

Komi walked out, closed the door, and for a long moment, she just stood there. She fought down the tears that threatened. Fought down the shock and disappointment of Aldridge’s behavior and his words. She rubbed her throat where the bowstring had left a long narrow welt under her fur.

He’s upset about his apprentice, she told herself. He’s not been himself with everything going on. He needs time. Once he’s had time to think, he’ll realize how necessary this is.
67
Round Five / Stronger
« Last post by Kentrith Hapley on October 05, 2017, 05:15:14 AM »
Kentrith beat against the straw dummy, his practice ax humming as it struck at flaxen limbs again and again.

Swish.

Barred from Marik.

Thwack.

Blasio controlling FTN.

Thud.

Nire, still in the top tier, smirking.

“AAAARRRGGGHH!!!!”

The pole that served as the dummy’s spine snapped under the onslaught, bending the lumpy form in half. Kentrith heaved breaths in and out, ax held in both paws as he glared at the dummy.

“You’re an idiot!” Kentrith bellowed at the pathetic mound of cloth.

“There’s a reason it’s called a dummy.”

Kentrith whirled to find a guard standing behind him. The beast eyed him skeptically, no doubt questioning his sanity. Kentrith wasn’t sure himself. Hefting the ax over his shoulder, he raised an eyebrow at the blue-jacketed beast. “What do you want?”

“I’m here on Master Blasio’s behalf. He would like to speak with you.”

Kentrith froze. What… He cleared his throat. “Any particular reason?”

A shrug. “I’m not important enough to be told such a thing.”

Kentrith stood there for several moments, trying to move his paralyzed lungs, to say anything. “When?” he managed to croak out.

The guard gave him an incredulous look. “Now.”

Kentrith nodded once, then turned to put the ax away.

*******

The beaver had certainly seen better days. The wound he had received from Silas hadn’t killed him, but he babied his leg as he walked around the room, grumbling to himself. Kentrith stood with crossed arms, watching the lumbering beast’s movements. Blasio stoked the fire, poured water into a teapot, sloshed the pot presumably to steep the leaves, then splashed watery tea into one cup. He sipped and grimaced.

What did you expect, after treating it like that?

The beaver turned to his chair and eased into it with groaning and wincing. He looked up at Kentrith, clutching the tea as though the fox had moved to take it from him. “Don’t know who to trust anymore,” he mumbled, settling deeper into his chair with a scowl. He glared at the fox. “As if I don’t pay them enough!” He gulped the rest of the tea and coughed. “That blasted rat wasn’t satisfied with that, oh no.” He shook his head. “At least he won’t be bothering me any more.”

Kentrith bristled, but tamped down on his indignation at the large beaver. “Any reason you asked me here?” he asked, leaning back against the wall.

Blasio shot him a glare. “That’s no way to speak to your new employer, especially if you’re aiming for a bonus.”

Employer?!

“You’ve done very well,” Blasio continued briskly before Kentrith could bark at him. “Slowing down all those monsters for Silas, though he betrayed me in the end. I wanted to reward you for your hard work, and offer you more of the same.”

“You want me to poison more monsters,” Kentrith clarified, incredulous.

“No, I want you to continue with high risk jobs to further my plans.” The beaver grinned widely, his buck teeth in prominent display. “Think you can do that for me?”

MY plans. Not FTN plans. Is this something he’s doing on his own? Does FTN even know about this?

“What sort of things would they be?” Kentrith asked slowly. The beaver grinned again, sending a shiver through the fox.

“Different things, perhaps lower risk than sabotage.” He pulled out an envelope and held it out to the fox.

Kentrith reluctantly retrieved it, and opened it. The words burned in his mind, and his ears pinned back against his skull. “What is this?” he snarled.

The beaver only sipped his weak tea. “It’s my move against Nire. This is the base of his power, the one thing that allows him to control so many beasts. Take this away, and there will be many more willing to join our cause.”

Red crept into Kentrith’s vision. “If you think,” he hissed.

“Don’t be so indignant,” the beaver returned brusquely. “You might think you have the upper paw, that you can refuse me. You forget, you’ve already helped me with other tasks.” His eyes hardened, glinting with malice. “What do you think would happen if I were to tell Nire about them, about what you did to his monsters?”

Kentrith stared at him. “You’re… you’re blackmailing me?”

“I realize that you’ve had to throw away so many values during your time here, first as a healer, then training others to take your place in the ring. But even you, hardened warrior that you are, might balk at something like this. How else can I assure that you will do as I wish?”

Kentrith stared down at the damning paper, spots dancing before his eyes. He forced his trembling paws to fold it carefully back into its envelope instead of crumpling it or tearing it to pieces as he wanted to. “When?” he gasped out.

Blasio leaned back, satisfaction written in his every line. “When our new banner is unfurled for the Grand Tourney. I want Nire to be torn down from the castle he built for himself. I want him to descend into insanity. And when he is surrounded by enemies on all sides, I want to rip it away from him before he dies.” His buck teeth were no longer comical in his evil grin. “And it will take a very long time.”

Kentrith’s fur stood on end as he left Blasio’s room.

*******

Kentrith grunted as yet another patron bumped him on their way to the door. Should have chosen a different table, he grumbled, leaning out of the way of another passer-by. He glanced at the door for the twentieth time in five minutes, grinding his teeth in frustration. Why did I have to pick such a busy tavern? He glanced down at his plate and sighed. At least the food is decent.

“Looking for someone?”

Kentrith jumped, sloshing the water from his cup. Shaking his head, he pulled out his napkin to wipe up the spill. He looked up at his companion, whose form was shrouded in a thick cloak. “Warn a fellow next time, would you?”

“I thought that was a warning.” The voice was warm from amusement, but more serious than her usual flighty air. She turned to stop a serving maid, whispering from under her hood. Kentrith eyed her, trying to match her with the leader he had met during his first meeting. He had a sinking feeling that it wasn’t her, as this cloaked figure was taller than the previous one.

“Come,” she commanded, heading deeper into the tavern. Kentrith rose to follow, and found himself in a private booth, with no light but a candle in the middle of the table. Kentrith eyed it in distaste as he eased into the booth. “How romantic,” he sniped, turning a skeptical eye to his companion.

“Can you think of a better reason for us to meet than a romantic candlelight dinner?” Eve gave him a coy look as she lowered her hood, slipping into the seat opposite him.

“I can think of plenty,” he snapped, rubbing his half ear. “It might have been believable if I hadn’t already been eating.”

“Doesn’t matter. No one will comment on it. We’re just starting our relationship, so it isn’t serious yet.”

Kentrith had just taken a sip of his water. At this statement, he gasped, and choked. He bent over the table, hacking, trying to dislodge the liquid from his windpipe.

“Oh, calm down. It isn’t real.” Lady Eve primly folded her napkin, and smoothed it over her lap, waiting for Kentrith to finish coughing. Gasping, he took  a fresh sip from his cup to clear his throat. Wickedly, Eve continued, “It’s a subject that can be revisited later.”

Kentrith choked again. Spluttering, he spat his mouthful of water, unable to prevent some from exiting his nose. He bent over the table, trying to curb the explosions from his chest. He distantly heard Eve order more water. Gasping for breath, he managed to glare across the table at his companion. “Vixen, you will be the death of me.”

Taking his napkin, she wiped up the water he had sprayed. “Oh, let me have my fun. Goodness knows I rarely get the opportunity anymore.”

Kentrith shook his head. “Not much opportunity for anyone anymore.” He eyed her pensively. “The position you hold is rather…odd, for one of your station.”

She carefully laid down the napkin, meticulously smoothing it so the damp spots were exposed to the air. “I would not have come here of my own volition,” she murmured, staring at the soiled cloth.

Fearing he had overstepped, Kentrith blurted, “I didn’t mean… I don’t want your life’s story!”

She glanced at him with a quick smile. “No, I imagine there are many who have a similar tale.” She accepted the fresh glass of water and sipped daintily, before settling it before her with precise care. “Now, I believe you asked me here for a reason?”

Chills trickled down Kentrith’s back as he remembered his mandate from Blasio. Leaning back in his seat, he frowned at Lady Eve. “Why did you accept Blasio’s money?”

Her returned look held a tinge of irritation. “Running a resistance does require quite a bit of funding,” she huffed.

“Why him?” Kentrith insisted.

“Benefactors don’t exactly line up for something that has failed twice.” A thread of ice wove through the words now.

“Why?”

“We have one last chance!” she snarled, leaning forward. Her paws crushed the napkin, ruining the once-neat pleats. “We have tried again and again to stomp out the disease that is this place, and both times we have been thrown back. If this fails,” the napkin creaked as she twisted it in her paws, “we will not attempt again.” She stared at her paws, her voice flattening. “We will not survive to make another.”

“If Blasio succeeds, the outcome will be the same as if you failed. Whatever game he is playing, he is no better than Nire. Did you know how deeply he has struck roots here? Many of those you think are loyal, are loyal only to him. He is grasping, conniving, and ruthless, by all accounts.” Kentrith slid the crumpled paper forward, no longer needing to read the words. “And you have placed him in a position of power that he will not easily relinquish.”

Eve stared at the paper as if afraid it might sting her, then picked it up. She studied it in silence for several long moments, while Kentrith watched the dancing candle flame, slightly surprised that it had not gone out from his earlier antics.

“Will you?” Eve asked in a whisper.

“If I don’t, he will only find somebeast else, and I will be exposed. As will most of the plan.”

Eve snapped her head up, her eyes sharp. “That’s not what I asked.”

Kentrith raised his head, his resolve hardening. “I will do what I must.”

He ignored her gasp of outrage as he retrieved the paper, and touched the corner to the flickering fire. “But I will not give him the satisfaction.”

He dropped the shriveling slip on the table and reached across to seize her paw. “If you have any of your convictions left to you, you will help me.”

Under their clasped paws, the last scrap of the paper blackened, erasing the words that had etched into both their minds.

Destroy the hostages to release the slaves.
68
Contest Discussion / Round 5/6
« Last post by Zevka on October 04, 2017, 04:19:19 AM »
As many of you may know, we've had some issues and delays, and two cast members are withdrawing for personal reasons. We won't have a death Vote this round, but feel free to PM me with any feedback for the cast. The next round starts Friday morning and will end at 11:59 PM PST on 16 October.
69
Contest Discussion / Re: A quick announcement
« Last post by Crue Sarish on October 03, 2017, 06:20:43 PM »
Thanks for the update! Will keep an eye out for the rest of the posts.
70
Contest Discussion / Re: A quick announcement
« Last post by Aldridge Moor on October 03, 2017, 04:47:52 PM »
Bless you, Kali. :)
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