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61
Round Six / Swine
« Last post by Thrayjen on October 18, 2017, 05:41:52 PM »
Breakfast with Blue had become a tiresome affair. She barely looked at him anymore but Thrayjen could still feel the piercing glare of her big, bright eyes whenever he wasn’t looking her way. When she did spare him a glance it was to merely scowl or sneer at his attempts to bridge the widening gorge between them.

With the Great Tournament looming over him, Thrayjen determined he wanted at least polite conversation again, and although she had never called him her friend, the hurt between them was undeniable.

“Miss Blue,” Thrayjen began, setting his morning tea down. “You haven’t been the same since-“

“I’m not thinkin’ about Aldridge, aye,” Blue growled, shifting her body away and crossing a leg over her knee. “Beasts die here all the time.”

“Actually, I wasn’t…” Thrayjen let his breath die, debating whether or not to bother with the stubborn ferret. Rinam flicked her eyes at him from across the table. Her spoon hovered halfway to her mouth. He couldn’t just quit.

“You don’t like the Blackwhiskers,” Thrayjen tentatively finished. Blue visibly tensed, her ears flattening against her skull. The rat nodded once in understanding. Tapping his claws on the table as, heart pounding, he forced himself to keep going.

“Did I once do something to you? Your family?”

“My old Pa fled Muskroarka with my baby big Brother and very pregnant Mum. He fled because of your old pa…and your brother…and you.”

It wasn’t the first time Thrayjen had met with someone that despised his family. Every day, someone new shot him a glare or drew a claw across their throat as he passed.

“He had power back there. Lands and a title. Your Pa was mad, though. He’d-“

“I know,” Thrayjen stopped her, shaking his head but once. “I know what my father was. I know what I was. I’ve lived a life of regret because of past deeds.” A breath of laughter. “I keep making mistakes, too. Bit of a hobby, actually.”

“It’s not funny,” Blue grumbled.

“No, it isn’t,” Thrayjen insisted. “I don’t know who your father is. I don’t even know your real name, Blue. Whatever happened those many seasons ago, I’m not that beast any more. I can’t take it back, and I’m sorry for…everything. Truly, I am.”

The rat’s face fell flat. He had apologized many times to Blue, but nothing ever seemed to get through the ferret’s cold attitude.

“I know,” Blue sighed, slouching over the table. “I do, I really do. I just…You lied to me. You could have told me at any time. You trusted me with the secret of your children but not who you are, aye.”

“Would you have treated me the same if you knew who I was?”

“Of course not,” Blue said. “But you would have swayed me. Beasts change, I know that.” She swallowed, picking up her fork only to put it down several times. Her footpaws danced beneath the table. “My own Pa used to be the Master at Arms for Currathalla. He taught the soldiers how to fight, and he taught me. His daughter. Because he saw the evil in the world, and he fled when it overpowered him, and he didn’t want me or Plockette to have to put up with the same. He changed for his children.”

Master at Arms? Could she be...

“And you could have changed my mind instead of lyin’ and makin’ it so I don’t know what to think any more.”

“Harrogale Khor,” Thrayjen breathed. “You’re the daughter of Harrogale Khor.” His heart plummeted.

“Aye,” Blue said dismissively. “And he told me things about you and yours. You did things I didn’t think you could. The massacres. Wars and conquests. You…” Blue’s eyes settled on Rinam, a crease of worry on her brow as she tensed up. “You did things to jills.”

Thrayjen put his fork down, closing his eyes and leaning his elbow on the table as he pinched the bridge of his nose. He felt Rinam shift across from him and Blue’s hard stare even as he shied away. Although the admission had never once escaped past his lips, ghosts of an inescapable evil haunted his mind. The stones of shame and guilt weighed heavy in his stomach and sliced across his limp tongue, unforgiving and cold.

Minutes ticked by, Thrayjen unable to speak and ignoring the world around him. The silence at the table was thick; the rat mouthed words to himself, lips barely moving as he cycled through faces in his mind. Rinam clinked her spoon against her water glass, gently trying to coax Thrayjen’s attention to them.

“I loved Celine.” His eyes still clenched tightly against the faces of the maids.

“What?” Blue asked, unable to hear Thrayjen’s whispering.

“I did what I thought right,” Thrayjen barked, his voice bringing a startled, short-lived silence to the entire galley. “I did what I was taught. I treated my enemies without mercy. I murdered, and I burned cities to the ground, and I tortured, and I raped. I ruined as many lives as I could because I had the right. And it took me years to learn how wrong I was.”

Blue’s quiet voice barely answered above the chatting voices in the galley. “My Pa told me everythin’, when we found out who you…used to be. He told me I wasn’t ever to be alone with you. But…you never made me feel unsafe.” Blue swallowed, oddly still for once. “I trust you.”

A bell rang, signalling the end of breakfast. Rinam finished her meal and stood, collecting Blue’s empty plate and leaving Thrayjen with his half-finished meal as she returned the dishware to the wash pit. When she returned, neither beast had moved to join the exodus from the galley.

“Why do you trust me, Blue?” Thrayjen asked.

Blue stood up beside the rat and gingerly reached a paw towards his shoulder. She hesitated, paw quivering just above him; it was all the confirmation Thrayjen needed and he turned his head away.

“These eyes are like the skies of a summer eve,” Blue said, trying to smile. “And these eyes see everything. I’ve not yet seen anything that makes me frightened of you, Thrayjen. You lied to me, but that’s not the worst thing you could have done.”

“Padoha-“

“Drank blood and was just as bad as the Blackwhiskers. I watched as you looked to Nire before you killed the Plague, and every beast since. I know you’re scared of Nire, and you’d do anything to protect your children from him.” Blue landed her paw on his shoulder, giving him a gentle and comforting squeeze.

“The Blackwhiskers wouldn’t do anything for anyone,” Blue finished. “Or even listen to someone else, from what Pa told me, aye. You love your children, and that’s reason enough for me.”
 
“A beast fighting for his family is more dangerous than any lord or warrior,” Rinam said conclusively.

Thrayjen frowned, skeptically shaking his head at the acceptance of those who should have hated him the most. He couldn’t bring himself to look up.

Blue determinedly snatched up his notched ear, dragging him from the bench and towards the doors.

“Come on, enough for now. We’ve got training to do.”

Laps and water hauling for the stable paws, Blue determined, was the cure for any hard feelings. It also sorted out allergies and stiff backs, the ferret said, but while Thrayjen forced a weak, unconvincing smile for her he knew that some things simply could not be fixed.

No matter how much he regretted.

Yolk heavy on his shoulders, Thrayjen watched from afar as Blue helped Rinam balance her yolk, something he normally enjoyed doing. The mouse usually made him feel calm, like he could collect his thoughts around her more clearly, but now he felt ill at ease in her presence. It was as if he betrayed her with his very existence.

They left the training yard, Hargorn sneering at Rinam as she walked by him, and carried on silently down the hallways. Thrayjen didn’t give the weasel his usual reprimanding glare.

“Who is Celine?” Rinam asked as they walked down an empty hallway. A cold shiver shook Thrayjen’s bones.

“My childhood friend.”

“And then?”

Thrayjen shut his eyes again, his gait seizing. “I don’t want to talk about her.”

“You said you loved her.”

“She didn’t love me. I thought she did. She didn’t.”

Rinam stopped in front of him and unshouldered her yolk.

“I am alone with you, Thrayjen. My trust is fickler than Blue’s.”
 
His face scrunched, a piteous whine squeaking out of his clenched throat.

“No,” Thrayjen moaned, shaking his head in protest and desperately trying to not look at the white mouse. “Please,” Thrayjen whispered, “Just let her rest.”
 
Rinam watched him; he could feel her eyes on him and he shrunk back as though struck.

“When you’re ready, then.”

I’m not ready. I’ll never be ready for that. I can’t…

“You still owe me,” Rinam said, no touch of sternness nor reprimand in her voice. “Aldridge is not here to stop us, now. I intend to have my tale. Come, we’re almost there.”

Thrayjen glanced up fearfully. Rinam regarded him for a moment longer before turning away towards the barns.

The smell of swine and fresh hay was more noticeable as the two made their way further up the Drag. They reached an open door and sun flooded into the hallway from the yard beyond.

In the courtyard outside, Komi stood with her back to them, her reddish brown coat fully filled since spring had ended. The stoat was keenly interested in the large swine across the yard, focused intently on the boars and the blue uniformed beasts that groomed one inside a large double doored paddock.
 
Does she know Aldridge is alive? Should I tell her?
 
Thrayjen reluctantly glimpsed at Rinam but began to shoulder off his harness and water.
 
“I’ll catch up. I want to talk with Aldridge’s widow and find out if she knows anything at all. Maybe warn her about what Nire said to me…about the tournament.”
 
“I will slow my pace, but do not tarry long,” Rinam replied, lowering herself and setting her buckets down. “We will talk later.” She paused a moment longer, carefully looking from the stoat to the rat before she carried on down the passageway. A sense of relief settled Thrayjen’s stomach as Rinam disappeared from sight.

Thrayjen approached Komi quietly, his arms behind his back and his stride leisurely. The stoat didn’t notice him until he hailed her from halfway across the courtyard.
 
“Good morning, Miss Banton,” Thrayjen offered cheerfully. The stoat started before she looked around hastily.
 
“You left breakfast early this morning. I was going to invite you to sit with us. Sorry I missed you,” the rat carried on until Komi sighed.
 
“I don’t need your sympathy, you know. Don’t feel obliged to be kind to me because I was once your dead partner’s lover.”
 
“That’s a perfectly good reason to be kind to you,” Thrayjen continued. “But it so happens I have a lot of respect for you. Your strength, your skills in battle. It was very brave of you to try and escape, way back when we first arrived.”
 
Komi stiffened but began to stride back towards the hallway, her pace quick and uneasy.
 
“You remember that?”
 
“Everyone remembers that,” Thrayjen said through a smirk. “Or some version of the story. Some say you made it out. Others say the scorpions ate you. Don’t spoil the ending for me, though; I haven’t heard it yet.”
 
Komi smiled but continued past the rat. He followed after her, easily outpacing Komi and stopping just in front of her. She frowned at him, her paws lowering into fists.
 
“Nire remembers,” Thrayjen said quietly. Komi squinted at him, a snarl forming on her lips.
 
“That’s why you’re here, then. Nire has sent his little pet to threaten me.”
 
“No,” Thrayjen hissed. “To warn you. Nire remembers your folly, and every one since. These boars you’re so interested in are going to be unleashed during the tournament. When and how, I don’t know, but Nire is determined to oust any…unsavoury slaves and enemies.”
 
The stoat regarded him sternly, considering his words.
 
“They’ll be used, for sure,” she said simply, staring with too much focus into Thrayjen’s eyes. The rat immediately sensed there was more to the stoat’s simple concurrence. Her lips had twitched into the faintest of smirks, and Thrayjen caught her tell.
 
“When did Nire even tell you he wanted to use them in the tournament?” Komi asked.
 
“The day I was released from the punishment cells.”
 
“Ah, yeah. For bashing up Aldridge.”
 
“Aye. For bashing up Aldridge.”
 
Rat and stoat watched each other tensely. After the moment grew too long, Thrayjen gave a faint chuckle.
 
“I’ve many regrets From That Nasty business,” Thrayjen said slowly, maintaining the tense eye contact that they had established. “But I’m glad I at least got to apologize before he…ah. Well.”
 
Komi’s eyes had twitched, wavering slightly as he flourished every word with subtle enunciation. Her lips parted, teeth poking out as she carefully considered her response.
 
“I bet he Forgave That Nearly right away.”
 
They stared at each other, stone still as neither beast dared to blink or move or breathe. Finally, Thrayjen smiled.
 
“Yes. And so much more.”
 
Komi’s stiff posture relaxed as she stepped back from the large rat, sighing heavily.
 
“I didn’t know you were with us,” Komi admitted quietly, eyes flickering towards the doors. A boar snorted and she swung her head around, quickly examining the source of the noise.
 
“I’m not,” the rat stated, and Komi tensed up again as Thrayjen raised his paws. “Not on record. I turned down Hapley when he asked me to join with them. I’m trying to help where I can while still remaining close to Nire. It’s…more beneficial this way, for everyone.”
 
“What’s in it for you then, if you’re playing both sides?” Komi asked suspiciously.
 
“Nire has my children,” Thrayjen answered her. The stoat stepped back again, surprise raising her brows as the rat continued. “The lynx doesn’t realize it yet, but that won’t last forever. I refused the rebellion because if I’m attached to it by name and that’s discovered, I can’t imagine what might happen to my children.”
 
“I didn’t know you had children,” Komi stated plainly, eyeing the rat with further scepticism. Thrayjen shrugged.
 
“I try to keep my business close to the vest. The day I fought with Aldridge, I had just seen my little ones for the first time in…in ages. I’m afraid he got between them and me.”
 
“All for them, then?”
 
“I do everything for them,” Thrayjen answered. “I imagine come tomorrow, my paws will be quite bloody.” He looked back towards the giant swine, eyeing the tusks of a large boar. “Why are you here, Komi?”
 
The stoat stared at him with an exasperated look.

“I was just passing through. Thought I’d visit the nasty blighters for a spot of fun. Tournament tomorrow and all…”
 
“No. You were watching the boars, the grooms coming and going, all from a distance. All with far too much interest from someone who has seen those mighty beasts before.”
 
“Fortunately, that’s nothing to concern yourself about,” Komi said pointedly. Thrayjen frowned, his brow creasing deeply.
 
“It is most concerning indeed,” the rat replied. “Nobody but the riders control the boars. Whatever you’re thinking, whatever they have you thinking, it’s going to come back and bite you. Nobody controls the boars but the riders.”
 
“We don’t need control,” Komi said, a smirk ghosting across her face as she brushed by Thrayjen. “Good luck in the tournament tomorrow, Blackwhiskers. I hope I don’t have to kill you.”
 
Thrayjen spun and stepped in front of her again, stopping the stoat abruptly and earning a scowl.
 
“Chaos is a wild beast unto itself, Miss Banton,” Thrayjen said quietly. “And rebellions are far bloodier than any war. At least in war, there are rules.”
 
“You never followed any rules,” the stoat sneered. “How many civilians, innocents have you killed?”
 
“Too many to count.” A dangerous edge crept into the black rat’s voice and he rose to his full height. “And history knows me as a villain for it.”
 
Thrayjen turned then, stepping out of Komi’s way and gesturing politely for her to continue through the doorway where the abandoned water buckets lay. The stoat eyed him before trotting past.
 
“Good luck in the tournament tomorrow, Miss Banton,” Thrayjen called after her. “I hope my paws are bloodier than yours.”
 
As Komi disappeared around a corner, Thrayjen ran his paw across the smooth surface of his collar. Komi was obviously planning something, and with the rebellion involved at such a key moment in the Crater’s seasonal schedule, he wondered if not telling her of Aldridge’s freedom was the right thing to do.
 
“Chaos breeds more chaos,” Thrayen mumbled to himself. He picked up the water buckets, two to a paw, and hauled them over to the grateful groombeast.

Later, as the afternoon air grew thick and the overcast skies bore heavy dark clouds, the Grand Tournament occupied Blue’s mind. The ferret allowed Rinam and Thrayjen out of their training early, determined to see them well rested for the next day. With sweaty hides and sore bones, they gratefully made their way to lunch.

In the galley, beasts stepped around Rinam and Blue but cleared a path for Thrayjen. Fighters and slaves that had previously smiled at him and greeted the polite rat glared or shrunk away from the deposed prince. Hurriedly, Thrayjen dished himself out his lunch and stuffed several sandwiches into his tunic pockets.

“There’ll be fresh ones later,” Blue commented as she eyed Thrayjen’s hoarding.

“It’s for Miss Foxglove,” Thrayjen answered with a shrug. “She hasn’t been eating much since Aldridge left us.” He resisted a knowing smirk at his own choice words. “And I haven’t seen her leave the bowyery for anything but visiting her mother in the infirmary.”

“Been watchin’ her closely, have you?” Blue asked.

His eyes flashing to Rinam for but a split second, Thrayjen’s face fell.

“Oh. Uhm, that’s not what I meant…that was awful,” Blue mumbled apologetically.

“She’s the niece of my friend,” Thrayjen answered quietly. “Besides, I’m old enough to be her father.”

Although he hadn’t meant anything by it, Blue fidgeted anxiously.

“I’m still tryin’, you know,” Blue mumbled quietly. “I haven’t forgotten my promise.”

“I know,” Thrayjen whispered back.”Thank-you.”

“Not that you helped, bunglin’ things with Aldridge right in front of the nursery. Nire yelled at me for that, aye. Said if I can’t control my boys then I’ll only be gettin’ female fighters from now on, if any. You’re a good liar.”

It took a moment for Thrayjen to catch the lighter note in Blue’s words. He smiled, squeezing the ferret’s paw under the table.

“I didn’t cause trouble before, which helped,” Thrayjen explained. “But your reputation was stellar before Aldridge. Nire was willing to believe in that more than any excuse I could have fed him.”

The ferret perked up, grinning broadly with pride. “Aye. I am pretty great.”
 
While Blue tried to convince Rinam to trade in her rondel for a short sword, the rat watched his trainer and pondered just how someone who made a living out of violence could possibly be so comfortable in their own skin. What made the difference between Blue and Prince Thrayjen the Blackwhiskers? What made Blue feel he had been evil when she trained beasts for bloody combat?
 
Never once had she been cruel, nor had she disrespected or berated him when he first entered her charge.

A slave is a slave, she had once told him. She was doing what she knew, just like he had.
 
Only she knew what respect was.

Blue had not been born a princess. She had grown up under her father’s tutelage instead, and Thrayjen knew of Harrogale’s way of dealing with undisciplined students. The old ferret had never raised his paw to his prince, something Thrayjen had exploited in his childhood but now he deeply regretted.
 
Could have used a few lumps from the grizzly old bastard. Wish Aldridge was still here.
 
Red fur caught Thrayjen’s eye and he looked up expecting to see Komi cross the galley. Instead, Kentrith Hapley flittered into the room for lunch.

If Komi would not tell him what the rebels were planning, then perhaps Hapley would.

Everyone seemed to eat slower than usual as Thrayjen waited for the bell to toll. As Blue departed to train with other gladiators, Thrayjen collected their dishes and excused himself.

“Don’t forget to bring young Aera her lunch,” Rinam said as Thrayjen all but fled her. The rat stopped, and glanced from Kentrith’s retreating form to the mouse.

“You don’t miss anything, do you?”

“Especially when I’m owed.”

The rat hesitated. Rinam had helped him find the children; she stayed with him while others recoiled and judged him from his past. She unfailingly met his eye even when he couldn’t bring himself to look at her.

Thrayjen nodded once, acknowledging the debt, and left.

Hapley had a heart start, but Thrayjen moved quickly against the current of beasts in the winding Drag. It wasn’t long before he spied the red fox’s halved ear as Hapley suddenly turned down a quieter passage, unseen and ignored by the beasts around him. Thrayjen followed them at a distance, waiting until Hapley turned around sharp corners before he dared to catch up.

“Trainer Hapley,” Thrayjen greeted the fox. Hapley’s tail bottlebrushed and he almost jumped, clenching his paws tightly as he whirled about to face the rat.

“You startled me,” the fox admitted through heavy breaths, clutching at his chest. “Abbot’s habit, you startled me.” As Hapley calmed himself down, he turned his lip up in an unfriendly sneer. “What can I do for you, Blackwhiskers?”

“From That Nasty look, I’ll assume you no longer think of me as a genuinely good beast. Pity.”

Kentrith’s head turned very slowly. Eyes narrowed into slits, the fox quietly asked, “What did you say?”

Thrayjen smiled politely and shrugged. “I said I think the tournament tomorrow will be Frightening Though Not fruitless. I imagine much will get done.”

The fox blinked, still glaring at him. Thrayjen sighed.

“I know the damn code.”

“How did-”

“Aldridge told me.”

It was a lie. Foxglove Aera had told him, but the running mouth of a dead beast was far safer to blame in case the wrong ears heard. The statement shocked Kentrith and he growled lowly.

“Or one of Nire’s spies told.”

“Nire’s spies didn’t help me find my children,” Thrayjen said quietly, his mouth curled in a slight smile.

Hapley shook his head. “You two fought before he was poisoned. Why would Aldridge tell you anything?”

“Think about that, Hapley. Where did we fight?”

“By the...nurseries.” The fox’s sceptical look fell flat. “What was that about anyways?”

“I wanted to stay a little longer with them,” Thrayjen immediately answered. “And, for the same reason, I’ve changed my mind. I want to offer you my help.”

“I wouldn’t trust you even if you had said yes back then,” Hapley said through clenched teeth. “The Blackwhiskers is a fiend.”

“True,” Thrayjen said with a nod. “But the Blackwhiskers was recently told by Lord Nire that he’ll be the cat’s personal bodyguard.”

A look of realization crossed the fox’s face. His ear straightened. “If you survive.”

“Aye,” Thrayjen said. “And then I’ll be by Nire’s side wherever he goes, whenever he goes there. Think of him tucked in his bed, nice and cozy with a cord around his neck. Silent. In and out. Nobody knows until the next morning.”

“There’s no time to…” Kentrith whispered to himself, his paws clenching with frustration. “What’s more is that nobody in the FTN trusts you, nobody would accept you.”

“They don’t have to,” Thrayjen replied. “It’s better if they don’t, for now at least. Only you know. You know the right beasts to tell...”

Aldridge is out there. Adeen.

“...And Komi, of course…”

“Komi?”

“Oh yes.” Thrayjen nodded, watching the fox. “I caught her admiring the boars a little too hard. Quite a brave lass, for a coward. After all, only the riders can control the boars.

Hapley stepped back as Thrayjen winked knowingly.

“So whatever Komi and your crew are planning...tell me. Tell me so I can help you. You’ll need it.”

“No,” Hapley stated. “I can’t trust you.”

Heat rose in Thrayjen’s chest and he clenched his teeth. He stepped back and with a deep breath, Thrayjen clasped his paws together as he had seen Rinam do when she sought patience.

“I’m not here as your enemy, Hapley. Things have changed. I’m getting closer to getting my children back. I know they’re alive now. I’ve seen them. Let me help you.”

“Don’t worry about your children,” Hapley said quietly. “I won’t tell you what we’re doing, but stick to high ground tomorrow if you can. The boars don’t like climbing stairs.”

High ground? Stairs? What is he talking about? Komi said...they don’t need control...Oh, Vulpez.

“You’re going to release them,” Thrayjen realized out loud. “You’re going to release them onto the crowd! Hapley, hundreds will die, you realize this, don’t you? Innocent beasts, children and elderly! Free beasts and slaves alike! How do you even plan on stopping the rampage? Have you thought that far ahead? Do you realize what Nire will do when the dust settles? Hapley, tell me, damn it!”

“Don’t worry about your children,” Hapley repeated himself, halting the barrage of desperate questions. “They’ll be fine. Do what you normally do and have faith.”

“How can I have faith in a plan vaguely explained by a beast who doesn’t trust me?” Thrayjen snapped. “It doesn’t exactly inspire hope!”

“Hope guides us,” Hapley said.
62
Round Six / Secret Agent Bat
« Last post by Kali on October 17, 2017, 10:05:16 PM »
"You just HAD to volunteer for the tough assignments, didn't ya?"

Trent gave his rope a tug, making sure it was still secure, less the down pour of water dislodge the grapple. The FTN saw the storm as a boon, granting them the cover they needed for such an operation. The rat dangling hallway up the wall of the arena however, merely saw it as a pain in the arse.

Every FTN member had a place to fill in the organization. Inkpaw had his charisma, Lady Eve held her influence like a weapon and Trent... was a tent maker.

One who could climb a rope and lacking seniority. It made him the perfect choice for a potentially dangerous mission. Apparently the spies couldn't get to where he needed to go with out blowing their cover or... something. The rat really wished he had asked more questions before embarking on this fools errand.

With one last heave, Trent pulled himself over the rim of the arena. He pulled a grey mask about his muzzle to conceal his identity and took a deep breath to calm his nerves.

"At least the bloody hawk can't fly in this weather..." is the only comforting thought Trent could come up with.

An instant later lightning struck, lighting up the sky and the outline of Thunder as the hawk swooped down upon the rat from behind...

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


It wasn't thunder that woke Kali up but the alarm of a warning bell, echoing through the hallways and playing murder with her sensitive hearing. She squeaked in alarm, falling from her perch and landing on her head.

"Who, what, where?!" The bat leaped to her feet, ready to defend herself from the mass of slaves around her. Their faces were obscured by the darkness of the night but Kali could sense confusion that mirrored her own.

"Line up. Everyone line up!" The voice of a guard cut through the panicked mutterings of slaves. "Form up." The guards were alert, arming themselves with torches against the darkness.

"What's going on?" Kali's frantic voice was almost lost in the noise. The beasts were quickly shuffled out of the drag under armed guard. "Where are they taking us?"

Her unanswered questions only allowed room for more questions to grow. Were they in danger? Were they being ushered off for a nightly game? Did they discover the FTN members in their ranks? If so, was Kali about to be executed?

Amid all the confusion, Kali almost missed the sound of pouring rain against the stone outside. It must have been a real gully washer to be heard this deep into the crater.

Forming a tight line the slaves are led through the hallways until they come to a supply room. Directed by Hargorn, beasts were given a wooden bucket and assigned into groups before being sent to another area of the Crater.

Slowly it all came together, the rushed atmosphere, the rain, the buckets.

The arena was flooding.

Messengers from other parts of the arena confirmed this, shouting their orders loud enough to be clearly heard.

"The pumps on section two have failed, sir. We need more beasts!"

"Water is getting into the scorpion pit and they are going wild. We need more shield bearers to herd them!"

"Nire says our heads will all roll if the arena doesn't open for the tournament tomorrow..."

Kali didn't have long to watch Hargorn become flustered, as much as the sight brought a smile to her face. A bucket was roughly shoved into her open wings before being ushered off with a small group towards the underworks.

Even there, in the underbelly of the arena, the sound of distant rain and thunder was muffled by sand and stone. It made Kali long for the days when she could just walk outside and feel the rain upon her skin. She had no idea how much she would miss such simple pleasures.

"You. bat. come with me." Kali twisted her head around to face the guard as he grabbed her by the shoulder, yanking her off her feet and down a side hallway. The guards leading them to slaves to the underworks did not argue.

"What good is one lone bat going to do? Fix a leak in the ceiling?" Even Kali couldn't tell if she was asking a serious or sarcastic question.

The rat opened a door to a room for cleaning supplies, gently pushing her inside.

"A lot more than you realize," said the beast waiting for them.

Kali's eyes widened to the sight of Inkpaw. The chubby baker looked different without his traditional apron. Instead he was dressed with a red tunic and sleeveless leather jacket. Kali couldn't tell what the animal the leather was made out of.

"Please, don't ask questions. We have a situation and not a lot of time to deal with it."

Kali was taken aback by the marten's serious nature, by the bluntness of his voice. This was not the Inkpaw she had come to know.

"We lost an operative."

Nothing good ever came from a sentence that began with 'we lost an operative'. Kali bit her lip to keep quiet as the marten continued.

"His name is Trent. Grey rat, head shorter than you are. He had an assignment infiltrating the storage shed on the top of the arena."

"What was his assignment?"

"That doesn't matter. Not anymore. He was attacked while scaling the wall, by Thunder."

The name of the hawk was enough to send shivers down Kali's spine. As did all of Nire's pet birds really.

"We think he is still alive," the guard crossed his arms. "Somewhere on the top of the arena. Reports are sketchy, but guards saw him fall from Thunder's grasp."

"The entire arena is on lock down as the guards search for him though," Inkpaw added.

Kali's eyes lit up. She was already a step ahead of Inkpaw in this math equation. Two plus two equaled one dead bat. "W-wait a moment. You want me, to rescue this rat?" Her voice squeaked higher than usual as she stepped backward.

The marten and rat exchanged glances. "If possible, yes. We need you to fly up to the top of the arena, and fly Trent to safety."

"Whoa, guys, hold up here. There are so many things wrong with this plan I don't even know where to begin. W-why not use Ratty McGuardRat here to go find him. O-or Kentrith! They can blend in a lot ea-"

"We can't get him out of the arena," Tegue said bluntly. "Too much ground to cover to find him, too many chances to blow our own cover. If we go after him, it would only be to kill him."

Inkpaw was quick to explain, "The other option is being captured and tortured to death until he gives up the names of his fellow FTN members. Trust me, Kali, he would rather we gave him a quick death than betray the Cause."

That did nothing to quiet the horrified look playing out across Kali's face, so the marten continued. "We are hoping that you, as a flying beast, can spare him either fate. But..."

"You will have to kill Trent if you cannot rescue him." The rat finished. Kali had the sense that both beasts were giving her a sugarcoated version of events. Even so, her stomach was being tied into knots. Suddenly, Thrayjen's attitude towards rebellions made just a little more sense to Kali as she began backpedaling to the door.

"This can't be happening," she said, wings pressed against her belly and forehead. "You can't ask me to do this. You said it yourself, Inkpaw. I am just a bard!"

"And you said you were prepared to do whatever it takes to free the north," The marten countered. "I'm not going to pretend this isn't a lot to take in. But the longer we wait, the longer Nire has a chance to catch Trent first. So I need to know, are you in?"

Kali seemed to shrink where she stood. She closed her eyes, summoning what was left of her courage to reply. This was beyond her skill set. By definition bards were made to be the complete opposite of stealthy. If even one beast spotted the 'exotic' fox-bat, it was a short trip to Nire's office and from there, a shorter trip to Thunder's gullet.

 "What do you need me to do..."


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


"You expect me to fly someone out, in this?" Kali flailed her wing at the open door. Rain pounded the arena outside so hard she thought the very rock might split open from it. Even here, at a service entrance to the mid-level of the arena, rain water was pouring into the hallway.

"If it's any consolation, birds can't fly well in this either."

"Tell that to Thunder."

Inkpaw laughed but kept his tone serious. "You have a thirty minute window to search for tent up top then you need to be back here. After that, this area won't be a safe entry point for you."

"Or I could fly off and never see this place again." Kali smiled. Such a lovely thought that was soon squashed by Inkpaws next statement.

"Yes, and in the morning, after you are found missing, Nire will make an example out of everyone you ever cared about by executing them in the tournament."

The bat's thoughts drifted to Komi, to Minerva, to Kentrith and Inkpaw. Even Rose... to a point.

"Still, I wouldn't blame you." The marten patted the bat on the shoulder, "Most important... stay safe."

"Inkpaw, I-" Kali never got to finish before he shoved her out the door.

"Go. Now! While your window is still open."

The bat chirped as she was met with torrential rain. She shielded herself with her wing but to little effect. "Of all the ways I expected to die in the arena, drowning was not one of them." She stretched out her wings, trying to get altitude, but the storm would not let her. She would have to take a less direct approach to the outer rim of the arena.

Stepping out into the stands of the arena, Kali kept low, ascending the stairs two or three steps at a time. Darkness fell upon the arena like a shroud and would only be banished by the crack of lightning. For brief moments at a time the arena was lit up. The entire pit resembled a rapidly growing lake, the stands rivers gushing into the center.

There was a second source of light though, one which Kali chose to avoid. Patrol beasts used lanterns to guide their way, searching diligently for the intruder, and by default, Kali.

Keeping her belly to the ground, Kali flattened herself against the top of the stairs, holding her breath as a patrol passed by.

"Clear." A beast shouted and Kali instantly recognized the voice.

Maybe it was the rain and darkness, maybe the bat's own adrenaline coursing through her veins, but Drake looked far more terrifying than he ever looked. The goofy, fat bellied fox was replaced by a beast on the prowl, eyes set forward as if he were on the hunt.

Kali wondered if Drake could really bring the axe he carried against her. If he would even hesitate before attacking her if she were caught here.

It was a question Kali was determined not to find an answer to.

The moment the patrol went by Kali darted from her hiding place, closing the distance between the stairs and the stone supports of the next level in a heart beat.

It was still not quick enough.

"Hey! There!" A guard shouted, spinning about to point at where the shadowy bat was a moment earlier. With brutal efficiency and training the beasts closed in on the stone pillar, searching all sides of it for an intruder.

By then Kali was already ascending the pillar above them. "I could have sworn..."

"It's fine." Drake said with strained patience, "The shadows are going to be playing tricks on all of us tonight. Just keep on the look out." The fat fox glanced upward into the shadows above him.

Kali gripped the pillar tighter, trying to will the shadows to conceal her. This was a horrible idea. This was such a horrible idea. She was going to get caught and then she was going to die.

No... that wasn't quite right.

She was going to get caught and then the FTN would send a beast into her cell to silence her before she could rat them out to Nire. Of course, Kali only realized this now, after it was too late to escape her fate.

The armorer below however merely turned away. "Shadows are playing on us all tonight. Come on. Let's get this finished so we can get inside, aye?"

Kali finally let out the breath she had been holding. She rested her head against the pillar, fighting the urge to run back to the exit before climbing higher. Now sheltered from the rain in rafters of the upper level, Kali was given a chance to plot out her movement.

Getting to the top of the arena was the easy part. Finding Trent... not so much. She peered into the night, spying the vague shape of the store house. There was no guarantee that Trent would go there, especially if he was just attacked by Thunder. Would he try to run instead?

"Hey Kali, we need you to save a rat but have no idea where he might be." Making a note to ask more questions the next time she engaged in espionage, Kali clung to the edge of the rafters. She stared up at the sky, knowing that she would be sharing it with her natural predator.

The bat had to admit, the temptation to just fly off into the storm was nearly overwhelming. It wouldn't be the first time she had flown in such weather. She would have to sing for a while until she got enough money for a new lute! She could get her life back on track, find a job with someone who would appreciate her singing.

She glanced off to the side. It all seemed so... selfish. Caring about something as silly as her singing career when beasts had real problems here in the arena. No, even if she did strike it rich outside the Crater, Kali would never be able to enjoy it while her friends suffered here. All that was important now was freeing the beasts of the Crater, and if that meant sacrificing a slim chance at freedom, then so be it.

Kali took a deep breath. It was now or never.

Kali let go of her perch, falling for momentum before stretching out her wings and gliding upward, the rain making it difficult to stick her landing. She tripped on the slick roof, landing with a loud splash. She yelled, instantly regretting it before scrambling for cover, which there was very little of.

And yet, more than she was expecting.  She had never seen the arena from this angle. It was pleasing to know that there were more than flag poles to hide behind but also chimneys, banisters and arches along the side of the building.  There was even a groove cut into the stone work as a sort of pathway for beasts to walk through safely.

There were also guards. Their lanterns gave away their position. The lanterns were unmoving, the beasts choosing to guard the stairwells leading back into the arena rather than braving the treacherous hike across the rooftops.

Kali gave them a wide berth, dropping into the groove and crouching her way across the arena proper. It wasn't a tall groove, just deep enough to cut a pathway through the otherwise flat stone roof. It was also, Kali noticed, not flooded with water.

"Trent." Kali dared to whisper as she walked. "Trent... Trent, where are you?" Come on... Treeeeeeeent." Where could a rat hide, thought Kali. Where would she hide from Thunder? from guards and the reach of their lanterns? Where could a beast hope to hole up for an entire night? The store house would be a poor choice. It would be the first place the guards would look. The tool sheds scattered across the roof tops as well. A flag pole? Please.

Kali paused, "Where... wouldn't I hide?" Her head drifted downward. The water was surprisingly low for all the rain fall beating against her head. Water that flowed away from the stairwells. With time running out, Kali was running out of options.

Her search eventually took her to the gutters, long square openings carved into the rock and slanted to divert water out of the pathway and out of the arena. "Too small to get my fat but in there..." Kali leaned downward to peer inside, but it was too dark to see into. "But if Trent isn't as large as Thray..."

Kali paused, for a brief moment the rain seemed to stop, like passing under a large leaf during the storm. She looked up in time, lightning illuminating the sky and the deadly shadow of Thunder passing over head before he circled back towards the arena. Kali threw herself against the half wall of the pathway right as the bird landed on the decorative arches that lined the ledge of the arena.

His claws hooked into the ledge, holding him there like a gargoyle. He looked larger up close than even Kali imagined. His keen eyes surveyed the top of the arena left to right, seemingly immune to the rain and darkness.

They would have no trouble finding the bat right under his nose.

Kali clamped a wing over her muzzle to keep herself quiet, even as she heard the beast step off the ledge and onto the rooftop behind her. His shadow loomed over her as he leaned forward to peer into the groove.

His head was craned to the left, where Kali had been, and was slowly swiveling back to the area under him.

Go. Now.

Kali wouldn't call it a voice prompting her to action, just instinct. Without a second thought she leapt out of the groove, throwing herself behind a chimney.

The birds head snapped in her direction. She could here the scraping of his talons against the stone as he drew near. Kali's eyes turned wide, heart beating a thousand times a minute, she felt like she was going to faint.

She tensed, crouching low before leaping around the corner of the chimney, she darted behind another chimney right as the bird came around the opposite corner.

There was no time to second guess her actions as Kali danced with the bird through cover. He was on the hunt now, and just a step behind the bat.

And she was running out of cover.

"I know you are here."

Kali nearly shouted out in alarm. It was the first time she had ever heard the hawk speak, and his words were surprisingly soft.

"I can smell your fear."

Both beasts circled around the same chimney now.

"I will kill you." The words seemed to pierce deeper than any blade, "And then... I will eat you. Surrender, and I will make sure your death happens in this order..."

Kali wanted to cry. She wanted to cry so badly. This was so unfair. Inkpaw could have at least given her a weapon, for Martin's sake!

Actually, attacking the beast would probably get her killed even faster. And running... Running was a death sentence. And there was no where left to hide from her natural predator.

Kali paused.

The hawk was hunting her, right?

An instant later the hawk doubled back, his horrible beak twisted into a feral smile at finally outwitting his prey.

His face drooped when Thunder found nothing there. Kali had to imagine the expression because by then she was already bouncing off the top of the chimney and gliding for the edge of the arena. She grabbed the decorative stone work, using it as a pivot over the side where she hung over the side, but out of view from the hawk.

She could hear him hiss in frustration before he took flight again. The sound of his wings beating against the storm was moving away from her, however, not closer.

Limbs weak and shaking, Kali pulled herself over the ledge and back into the arena. She was right. The hawk was never hunting her. He was hunting the rat, who was completely incapable of performing the maneuver she just made.

"At least I know he's alive..." and now she knew where he was. At least, she had a vague idea of where the rat could hide from both guards who were too cowardly to brave the rooftops and from a hawk with a birds eye view of the arena.

What she lacked was time to search every gutter however.

But even that yielded a solution as Kali studied the flow of the water on the pathway. It stood to reason that if the water was backing up in one area then something was blocking it. It was on her third such gutter that Kali finally found a vaguely rat shaped shadow stuffed into the gutter.

"Trent? Trent? Is that you?"

The shadow replied with a groan.

"Well, I'm running out of time, so... I declare you to be Trent." Kali reached in, securing her wing tips on Trent's shoulder. She pulled the rat free of the gutter one painful inch at a time.

"Trent! Trent! I was sent here to rescue you. Inkpaw sent me. Can you walk? We need to get out of here..."

"I-inkpaw..." The rat groaned. His movements were weak, slow. "Y-your Kali... the bat. Inkpaw talked about you..."

"That's good! Mean's I'm doing my job as a bard. Now up you go. We need to get you up on your feet and-holy..." The bat clamped her wings over her muzzle before she could finish the swear, finally realizing that the rat's tunic was not originally colored red.

"Pretty gnarly... eh?" The rat coughed up blood as he laughed. "Cursed h-hawk got me good..."

"W-what? No. Nooooo. You're fine. Tip top shape. Just got to get you on your feet and... then fly you to a doctor..." Kali struggled to prop the rat up into a sitting position.

"Doctor ain't gonna fix this, lady..." Trent laughed bitterly. "Inkpaw n-never should have sent you... I was... was dead the moment that..." The rat took a sharp breath as Kali helped him to his feet.  "C-can't believe he actually sent... sent you. Always... regretted... not stopping you from joining the arena..."

"Well, you know Inkpaw. He's always got a plan, right? Master spy and what not?" Kali began walking the rat down the path, even as he growled.

"Inkpaw is a bloody baker. I'm a tent maker and yer a bloody bard. You really think any of us have a plan? Really?"

The bat had no reply. She didn't want to spend energy arguing with a dying rat. And there was that horrible thought building in the back of her head, that the FTN really was run by just bakers, tent makers and bards and none of them had any idea what they were doing.

"Hey now, if you believed that, you wouldn't be here on the roof top, uh... what ever it was you were doing, right?"

Slumping against the half wall of the groove, Trent laughed. He laughed harder than he probably had in his entire life, Kali thought. "You mean dying?" He cast his head up into the sky filled with rain and lightning. "Banner." He said, "I came here to... leave a calling card... on a n-new banner. It was important, for the tournament tomorrow.. My first r-real mission and I screwed it... screwed it up..."

"N-now don't say that! Y-you have a new mission now, alright? Survive! You don't want to fail that one, let me tell you. All I got to do is... um... fly you, off the arena..." Kali looked the rat up and down, eyes lingering on the many holes the hawk left in him. Holes turned into gashes when the rat escaped his grasp.

Her eyes finally returned to Trent's and instantly they both came to the realization that she wasn't getting him off this roof top.

"Miss Kali..."

"Don't." Kali began, seriousness creeping into her voice.

"Miss Kali..."

"Don't you dare. This is my first real mission too. Get you off this roof. S-so... so I am going to get you off this roof!"

"I'm dead, Miss Kali," the rat said flatly, a small smile forming about his lips. "There is only one thing left to do..." with shaky paws the beast drew a dagger from behind his back. He offered it to the bat.

"I'm not killing you." She said with horror.

"Didn't ask you to." Trent wavered on his feet. "Yer, going to need a weapon more than I do, in case the guards block yer path." Trent coughed, "Now you listen here, Miss Kali. In wee bit that big ol' bird is going to circle back. He's going to find me, and when he kills me, they will stop looking for you. Wait a few moments and get back to where ever you need to go."

"Trent, I..."

"I'm savin' your life, bat." Trent was more insistent. "If I can die... doing something honorable like that... it would at least give it some purpose, you know."

The memory of the Crimson Tiger came back to Kali. Trent was the second beast asking her to let them die for honor.

Fighting back tears, Kali turned her head away. But took the blade.

"Don't feel bad, there is nothing more you can do here. Just tell that fat, lazy tailed baker to name a bloody pastry after me."

The bat only nodded in reply. She hugged the rat, squeezing him tight before leaving his side. Trent quickly disappeared in the rain the further she flew from him.

Kali couldn't bring herself to look back.

Coming to the ledge of the inner rim, she peered through the darkness to find her exit. All it would take is one quick glide to get there.

And yet.

Kali Hesitated.

She lifted her head to the store house across the way. She still had time to make a quick stop at the store house to deface the banner, she was sure of it.

All she had to do was be brave enough to finish Trent's mission for him.

Sacrificing stealth for speed, Kali arrived at the side of the store house quickly. She looked both ways for Thunder before circling around to the front, cursing when she found the large double doors to the store house to be padlocked.

So she continued searching for a way in. The building was larger than she expected, with an even larger building attached to the end of it. She felt exposed, scurrying around the side of the store house until she came to the far end.

Like the front, there were large barn like doors. But these were left unlocked.

Knife thrust into the sash about her waist Kali opened the doors just wide enough for her to slip inside. Tongue in cheek, she pulled the door closed once again, turned around...

... and nearly screamed.

It turned out, that big second building wasn't an addition to the store room at all.

It was a roost.

Four large barn owls sat on perches above Kali, sleeping. Kali couldn't fathom why they were here, nocturnal beasts that they were. Maybe they could not fly in the storm. Maybe Thunder wanted the glory of hunting down poor Trent all to himself. Maybe they were just lazy. Maybe Kali didn't care because there were four giant fricken owls standing before her.

It was every childhood nightmare coming back to haunt her all at once. All she could do was stand there, wings spread out across the door and jaw slack as she stared in horror. Out of the corner of her eye Kali saw a small hole in the far wall. Now all she had to do to get to the store house would be to cross a blood stained room filled with four... giant and... deadly...

Kali let the thought trail off. "Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah, no."

Deciding the banner wasn't that important after all, she began to open the doors just wide enough for her to slip back outside, and wide enough for the blood curdling scream of Trent to drift through the room.

Somewhere outside on the arena, the hawk had caught its prey.

Kali didn't have time to mourn the passing of the rat. She threw herself behind bags of feed as the owls came to life. Out of all their frantic chirps and barbaric hooting, Kali caught but one word mentioned in common tongue.

"Prey?"

"Prey!"

"Prey! Prey! Whoo?"

"Thunder! Prey! Prey!"

"PREY!"

Kali sat there, behind the bags of feed, fighting the urge to curl up into a ball and rock back and forth. She was officially in over her head.

The birds slammed into the doors in-mass, struggling and clawing at each other to get out of the doors first. The frightened bat took the opportunity to flutter her way around the edge of the room to her own source of escape. The hole in the wall, just behind the feeding trough filled with seed.

In her haste, Kali knocked over a bag of seed. She didn't stop to see if the owls had heard her, she just dropped into a belly slide for the hole slid on through.

At least... most of her did.

Kali chirped as she stopped halfway through the hole, right about the waist. She let out a low growl as she sucked in her gut to pull herself through...

... and still remained wedged in the narrow hole.

"Prey?"

The word chilled Kali to the bone. One of the owls had stayed behind, head twisted around to glance over his shoulders. "Whooo? Whooo? Prey?" Kali could hear the birds talons scrape against the floor but it was muffled by the words of Drake.

"My armor is no good if you are too fat to fit into it."

Kali bit her lip. This is so unfair. After everything she had gone through, the countless dangers, the battles... to be done in because she ate one too many pastries?

Well... perhaps two too many pastries... or four... not to mention all the extra fruit when she got to the Crater, or the comfort food she splurged on after being thrown to the games.

Kali could just cry. "This isn't happening..." She said quietly. She gave herself one last tug, "I am not dying like this!"

She pulled herself through, bits of wood cutting scraping into her side as she came free. She was on her feet in an instant, throwing herself against the wall and holding her breath as the eye of an owl peeked through the hole. "Who?" The voice sounded disappointed. A moment later she could hear the owl move away.

Eyes wide, Kali slumped slowly onto her rump. "I want to go home..." She curled into a ball, wings drawing her knees to her chest. "I want to go home." She rocked back and forth until Kali remembered that she was on a time line. She couldn't break down, not yet.

Standing on shaky legs Kali began to search the room. It was filled with tools and props. The baskets the owls carried rose pedals with, shovels and buckets to... presumably clean out the roost behind the storage house. And banners. Oh, the banners there were. Trent never mentioned which banner he was going to deface, but she had a pretty good idea.

She found the biggest, most fancy banner she could see and began to unroll it from the wooden peg it was wrapped around. "Oh my..." She said, eyes saddened by the crime she was about to commit to such a beautiful piece of art.

Imagining the look on Nire's face made it easier to deface such a pretty thing. She drew the knife, about to carve FTN through the fabric, but hesitated.

Somehow, FTN just seemed... lacking in impact. It would only serve to spite Nire at this point. No, Kali wanted to inspire the gladiators. To give them...

Her eyes lit up, and the knife began to cut words into the fabric.

After Kali was done, she began the laborious process of rolling the banner back up. "I still got time. I can still make it back."

"Prey!"

Kali's ears twitched to the muffled sound from the roost. Dagger at the ready, she peered through the hole to see Thunder burst through the doors, followed by the loud hoots and calls of the owls behind him. He squawked loudly, triumphantly tossing the limp body of Trent into the room as a trophy.

An instantly later the birds fell upon the rat...

And began to feast.

Kali's eyes twitched. She backed away slowly, away from the sounds of the birds grizzly meal. She came to the big double doors of the store room. She pushed on them with all her might. But they would not budge.

"Why do we have to be out here?"

Kali stopped as she heard the voice of a new beast on the other side of the door.

"They caught the bloke who was sneakin around, right?"

"Nire's not taking any chances. He wants this place secured."

"But we'll catch our death of cold up here in dis storm!"

"Shut yer muzzle, rookie. You won't be up here that long..."

"No, but you will be here long enough." Kali said quietly, too quietly for the guards outside to hear. She slumped against the wall, cradling her head in her wings and cried.

She wasn't going to make her window after all...
63
Round Six / World of Stone
« Last post by Komi Banton on October 17, 2017, 09:44:10 PM »
“This winding path, these miles I've walked alone
While looking for the light that calls me home,
Candle at homestead door, you draw me on,
A beacon in the night, shining 'til dawn.”

Komi’s voice broke as she sang in the quiet evening light. She sat in the sand in a far corner of the training yard. A storm had brought night on early and everybeast else had gone to dinner. She had little appetite.

“And others walk this path with other fears
Sometimes; I call them friends and hold them dear.
Homebound with noble hearts, they're at my side,
And I by theirs; we keep each other's stride.”

Aldridge Moor was dead. Jossia had killed him in her quest for revenge. Komi would have rather that the poison had been for her. Not Aldridge. He’d done nothing to deserve such a fate.

“At times I walk alone on path gone black,
And though I wish to flee, to turn my back,
I keep their love inside and I press on,
By everything we share, I can stay strong.”

All she could think of was how she’d not spoken to him again after their argument. She’d wanted to give him space. She wanted space herself, to cool her head. Now there was an impassable space between them.

“I've seen enough out in those lands unknown,
And nothing now shall keep me from my home.”

The last quavery notes died away in the cool twilight. Komi closed her eyes, a few fresh tears squeezing their way out to follow the tracks in her fur. He was gone, as Tavin was gone, and she was alone again.

Kentrith’s voice said, “I always did like that song.”

“It was Alder’s favorite,” Komi said. She opened her eyes and looked at the fox trainer where he leaned against the wall. She didn’t know how long the fox had been there listening to her. “Suppose you’re here to fetch me inside for the night?”

“Soon,” the fox said, looking up at the clouds. “I needed to talk to you first.”

Komi sighed, and steeled her spirit for the task ahead. She may be alone again, yet others counted on her still. “Right. I need to Face The Night before anything else.”

“No,” Kentrith said. “Not that.” He rubbed a paw over his stump of an ear, looking away for a moment. “I suppose you’ve heard that I’ve been here before?”

What could Kentrith have to say to her that wasn’t to do with the FTN? “Here being the Crater?” Komi asked, eyebrow raised.

“Yes, as a healer. After some time, Nire decided that I needed a different job. After what I was forced to do, I couldn’t stomach it anymore and left. I wandered for a while, with little motivation to better my lot in life. Some friends managed to rouse me out of my depression. They took me to the one place they thought would heal me.” He looked at her. “Redwall Abbey.”

Komi whispered a curse and let her head fall back against the stone wall. “Of course. It always comes back to those bloody red walls.”

Silence stretched between them, until Kentrith cleared his throat. “Yes, well. Memories of those times were not easily forgotten by them either. When I arrived, it had not been long since the siege, and it was still a subject often discussed amongst the inhabitants. One whom it had impacted the most was a young beast scarred by the experience.” Kentrith drew a deep breath. “He had been outside the wall, ordered to gathered stray arrows.”

Komi’s fur prickled all along the back of her neck and she straightened, staring at Kentrith.

“An unlucky shot from one of the defenders struck him and he fell just before Redwall broke the horde’s hold. After the remaining stragglers had fled, the Redwallers found him alive, but badly wounded.”

Komi’s voice sounded hollow in her ears as she pushed herself to her feet. “How dare you! Mocking me like this. You’re just repeating what I told Alder at the spider’s cage, but twisting it to give me false hope!”

Kentrith drew something from a pouch at his side and held it out wordlessly. It was a dagger, double-edged with no crosspiece, and hilt that looked woven of metal. Identical to the one hidden in Alder’s workshop.

Except this one was sized for a kit’s paw.

“It took two years of building a friendship before he would show this to me. It never left his side. The fact that you died at Redwall was one of the most painful experiences of his life. The news that you were alive, I feared, would be more painful still.”

Komi couldn’t breath. She couldn’t think. She only stared at the blade in Kentrith’s paw. A blade she’d had commissioned from the horde’s blacksmith, who’d had rare skill. Tavin had prized that blade. “This is impossible,” she choked, too afraid to believe the fox.

“He’s here. Tavin’s here. In Northvale.” Kentrith’s voice was kind. “I saw him this afternoon. He gave this to me to show to you, so you’d know he was coming for you. I’ve been threatened on pain of death to return it.”

Komi shook her head. “This isn’t real. He can’t be here. Even if he were alive, how would he know where to find me?”

“I told him. Your name has always been familiar to me, but I didn’t know why. When I heard you singing to Aldridge in the Fell Wing that day, I recognized the song. Took me a while to remember that Tavin used to sing it. I sent him a letter that day.”

“My son died at Redwall,” Komi choked, eyes not leaving the blade. “An arrow took him in the throat. I saw him fall.”

“But you were never able to get to his body. Galleran prevented you and the tide of the battle turned. Komi, the arrow missed the windpipe. It missed the arteries in his neck. It hit just above the collarbone and went in his shoulder, but he survived.”

Like a cloudburst, Komi’s wall broke, and she stumbled back until she thumped against the wall. She slid to the sand once more. “I left him behind,” she whispered, horrified. “I abandoned him. He was alive and I left him for dead.”

“Shh, shh,” Kentrith crouched at her side, one paw on her shoulder. “You couldn’t have know. He had a near miss, and a lucky one. There’s no way you could have known that.”

“I abandoned him,” she said, her voice choking on the words.

“Yet he’s here. The moment he received word that there was a Komi Banton in Northvale, he came. He’s missed you and he loves you still.”

All these long seasons alone, and he was still alive. Still there. At Redwall.

Alder…


Tears flowed afresh. Aldridge would never know his son. He’d missed him by only a few days.

“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” she said, her voice steadying in the thread of anger she found to hold. “You’ve known since I sang to Alder? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Would you have believed me?” the fox asked. He shrugged. “And I was trying to protect him. What if he didn’t want to see you again, angry that you’d left him? And what if I told you and you tried to escape again, and failed worse than before? And what if your escapes damaged plans with the FTN? So many reasons, Komi. I’m sorry.”

“I have to see him,” she said. “I have to know it’s really him.”

Kentrith’s paw held her in place. “I know. He said much the same. But listen, I still need your help. The FTN. The Dibbuns upstairs. You have to help us, so we can all get out together. I didn’t want to tell you he was here, but Tavin insisted. He looked about ready to kill me when I told him you didn’t know he was alive. He’s working on the outside. You’re on the inside. If all goes well, you can meet in the middle.”

“I don’t want him anywhere near this place,” Komi said. “This is no place for a kit!” Even as the words left her mouth, she realized the folly of them. Tavin wasn’t the kit she’d last seen at Redwall. After all these long seasons, he’d be grown. He’d grown up, and she’d missed it.

“You try stopping Tavin when he’d got his mind set on something. He’s a young beast of action, much like somebeast else I know.” Kentrith’s paw squeezed reassuringly on her shoulder. “Still up for releasing those boars?”

Komi nodded. Rain began to patter down around her, further dampening her face.

Kentrith whispered, “Listen, I’ve seen the roster for the Tourney fights. You’re the second fight and going to be fighting a pair of toads. If Nire can’t find you before your fight, it’s going to ruin everything, so you’ve got to see that through first. But, Komi, you win that fight, and you get the boars free as soon as it’s over. When that’s done, you meet us at the kitchen entrance and we’ll all get out together.”

Thunder rumbled overhead and the rain began to fall in earnest. The fox and stoat stood and Komi raised her face to the rain. It cooled her eyes, which ached from crying.

If Kentrith were telling the truth, and the dagger was Tavin’s and not some copy he’d had made of hers, then her son was waiting just beyond the walls. She’d see him soon.

“Kentrith, if I find out you’ve lied to me about Tavin — if all this is just some ruse to make sure I do as the FTN wants — I will gut you and strangle you with your own entrails.”
64
Round Six / No Tears, No Regrets
« Last post by Kentrith Hapley on October 17, 2017, 09:40:16 PM »
Blasio was the worst boss Kentrith had ever had. Kentrith stomped out of his third “meeting” with the brusque beaver, ready to slit the fat beast’s throat.

“My, my, someone’s in a temper!” Lady Eve strode toward him, resplendent in a dark green gown, a smile on her face. “Do tell me what’s bothering you.”

She slipped her arm through his, and he made an effort to shorten his stride. In the past week, she had been showing more signs of affection than he had received from anyone his age. He found himself wondering if they were all for show, or if she might actually be warming to him. The thought stunned him, and filled him with warmth at the same time.

“Well?” she murmured, breaking him from his thoughts.

He shook his head. “It’s Blasio,” he muttered. “It’s as though he doesn’t trust me to do as he asked.”

“You aren’t,” Eve pointed out with impeccable logic.

“That’s not… He’s… no, it’s like…” Kentrith growled. Pulling himself together, he continued, “It’s like he thinks I’m incompetent, that I have no aptitude for murdering children.” He snorted. “I was a healer, for crying out loud. I am perfectly capable of doling out death, based on that alone. That’s not accounting for my years as the Crane!”

“Anybeast who knows you would be shocked if you resorted to such actions.”

“Every beast is capable of murder, Eve,” Kentrith remarked bitterly.

“Any beast can kill another, it’s true. For some, however, it is so far out of their character, it is inconceivable. You are one such.” A delicate paw joined the other in a placating gesture on his arm.

Kentrith shook his head. “You give me too much credit. But that’s a conversation for another time. What have you found out?”

The comforting paw smacked his arm lightly in annoyance for the change of subject, but Eve obliged. “Plans are moving forward for unveiling the banner during the Tourney. We will be aided by the storm, and there are movements for a mass-scale revolt during that time.”

“Hopefully it is before too many of your recruits are killed,” he inserted acerbically. That earned him a dirty look.

“This does mean, however, that we are short-staffed.” After an uncomfortable pause, she murmured, “We don’t have the bodies to move the children out.”

Kentrith halted mid-stride and rounded on her. “You mean, if we get them out of the Crater, they’ll be trapped in Northvale?”

Eve opened her muzzle, but Kentrith bulled through whatever she was going to say. “Nire is not going to take this lying down!” he barked. At her look of alarm, he lowered his voice, moving her to a doorway for a little more privacy. “Once he realizes the kits are gone, there will be city-wide search for them. He will dig up the rocks in the road to find them, and will not stop until either he finds them, or finds proof that they are not in the city. And then,” he shuddered, “he might punish them so severely…” He had to slow his panicked breathing at the thought. He shook his head again. “We have to find a way.”

“There might be one avenue,” Eve said slowly. “Well, I don’t know how helpful…”

“What?” Kentrith asked, ears perking.

“Narvi received some unexpected guests…”

******

Kentrith walked into Narvi’s shop and into the midst of utter chaos. Beasts were everywhere, poking their snouts into jars, quarreling over pawfuls of dried herbs, and nattering at everybeast they could corner. Narvi seemed at his wit’s end, clutching his head with heavy digging claws. He spied Kentrith and hurried forward, moaning, “You’m here! Gerremout o’ moi shop! They’m turrible…”

Kentrith was forcefully sidetracked by a blow to the gut. He doubled over, gasping as spiky headfur corralled by a bright pink headband came level with his eyes.

“Hello, Kentrith.” Frey’s eyes sparked with malevolent glee. She saluted at her pink head wear.

“Gloomy Guts!” cried the shrews from around the shop.

“What was that for?” Kentrith wheezed at the smug shrew.

“That was for doing something stupid.” Frey punched him on the shoulder, her eyes narrowed at him. “Without us!”

“Ow,” Kentrith muttered, trying to straighten as his wind slowly returned. He started to rub his arm when Frey grabbed him around the waist and squeezed.

“What!” Kentrith barked, trying to brush her off.

“And that’s for doing something brave.” She muttered into his shirt. She let go and punched his arm again. “Without us!”

“Stop that,” Kentrith snapped. “You realize I am twice your size? I could break you over my knee, twist you into a knot, and stuff you into one of those jars.”

“Not before my crew got to you!” Frey’s declaration was followed by a cheer from the shrews, accompanied with the crash of dropped pottery and a groan from Narvi.

Sighing, Kentrith stood straight, eyeing his tiny antagonist and friend. “What are you doing here?” he asked.

“Are you jokin’? Yer involved in the biggest slave revolt in history, and you didn’t invite us!”

“They say they want to help. A bit of warning would have been nice.”

The familiar voice caught Kentrith’s attention, and he turned to find the hooded figure from his first meeting. It stood, arms crossed, with footpaw tapping. He hadn’t seen below the cloak before, and he realized the beast under the robe was an otter. Should have seen the rudder, he thought ruefully.

He turned to face the hidden beast. “I had no idea they would come,” he told her.

“Fights for all!” called Murbilee, raising another jar and dashing it to the floor.

“Yargh!” Narvi growled as several of the shrews made to follow suit. He yanked three jars away, juggling them in his arms as he howled. “That be it! You’m gettin out moi place, you’m scallawagians!”

“Wait, Narvi,” Kentrith cautioned. “We might need them.” He turned back to the hooded figure. “Eve tells me that FTN doesn’t have the numbers to help with the kids.” There was a shuffle to the side, but Kentrith kept his eyes on the hooded figure. There was something about the way…

“We have the numbers,” it replied, and Kentrith detected a note of frustration. The voice seemed feminine. “We simply do not have the agreement of the Council.” At Kentrith’s cocked head, she continued, “While I and one or two others are supportive of your aim to spirit the hostages away from the Crater, the rest are too invested in the revolt to pull extra paws from the crews.”

Kentrith watched as the paws clenched under long sleeves, and he finally noticed the scars. Long lines that snaked up and under the cloth, leading to the shoulder. Several clues clicked, and he realized the husky voice was female after all…

Keeping his gaze on the paws, he stated numbly, “I’m surprised you didn’t fight harder for help. You of all beasts should want to get the hostages out. Seeing as you used to be one.”

Weighty silence blanketed the room, until scarred paws reached up and pushed back the hood. “I thought you would have realized sooner,” Dia pronounced, her eyes hard.

“And I would have thought you would stay far away from this place,” Kentrith snarled back. Shaking with anger and despair, he stalked up to her, menacing her with sheer height. “It almost killed you! You’re supposed to be safe from all this, in a house with a garden!” He clenched his paws to stop them from seizing and shaking her.

She glared up at him, not intimidated in the least. “Well, some stupid fathead helped me get out, and I had to make sure I wasn’t the only one!”

They glared at each other, tension boiling about the room as palpable as fog. Slowly, Kentrith put both paws to her face, raw emotion causing his voice to break. “I didn’t want this for you.”

Her eyes grew shiny as she took his paw and squeezed it. “I couldn’t be free while my friends are still captive.” She wiped her eyes and whispered, “Especially Marik.”

Kentrith sighed. “Aye. Well, I think our feisty friends can help with that.” He turned his gaze to Frey, who now stood with crossed arms. The shrew snorted.

“What, we’re supposed to leave with a bunch of snot-nosed Dibbuns, and miss out on the fighting?”

Kentrith drew in a shaky breath, suddenly unable to verbally fence with her. “Yes.”

An argument broke out amongst the shrews, but Frey bellowed, “We’ll do it!” despite hearty complaints from Murbilee.

“Hold on,” said another voice. A figure moved up beside Kentrith, and a paw decended on his shoulder. Kentrith turned to the young beast, who carried a long bundle slung over his shoulder. Bright eyes pierced him through.

“You came,” Kentrith sighed, reeling from the rapid pendulum of emotions that assaulted him.

“Of course I came. How could I do any less?” Arms crossed as the stoat heaved a sigh. “There's more at stake here than just the kids. Now.” His eyes grew hard. “Where is she?”
65
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.”
66
Contest Discussion / Re: Nice Guys Don't Last (in the Crater)
« Last post by Silas Hetherton on October 09, 2017, 02:48:29 PM »
67
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.
68
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.”
69
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.”
70
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.
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