Author Topic: That Which Does Not Live Can Never Die  (Read 819 times)


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That Which Does Not Live Can Never Die
« on: July 23, 2013, 07:33:43 PM »
Night in the country was much darker than in Yew. That was one of the few things Istvan liked about this otherwise painful excursion. In the dark, the world shrank to a small circle of flickering light populated by nine-- eight beasts. Everything was much more manageable that way. There were no unknowns in the fire’s circle. Even Nyika’s earlier declarations had not unduly shocked the otter. So Cookie was some kind of murderous folk hero, and Greenfleck was somehow connected to the infamous Goragula. It didn’t make much of a difference: from what he had seen so far, the both of them deserved a swift return to the Mother no matter what they had done in the past.

Unfortunately Cookie, or Risk as he was apparently called, had escaped justice and gone off to die somewhere. Tomorrow, Istvan vowed to slip away to find the ferret’s body and consecrate his death properly. He couldn’t have gotten far. And even if he did, the otter would happily undergo any trial to maintain the proper balance of life. However, the rest of the group did not see things that way, and he was beginning to wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to wait until they all died, and only then return their lifeblood. But Istvan could not guarantee his own longevity in such a hostile climate, and to die without at least righting those wrongs that were within his reach would be unthinkable.

So that was why he now found it necessary to humble himself before a much younger and less moral beast. The more that he did without causing a fuss meant less imbalance left here when he returned to the Mother, as he expected to do before long.

“Poko?” he asked, shaking her awake.

The young ferret sucked in a great gasp of air upon sight of his face and scrambled backward in an awkward crab-crawl.

Istvan spoke quickly, holding out a staying paw in an attempt to delay the scream he could see rising in her throat,  “Please – you have nothing to fear. I wish only to apologize for my behavior earlier. On reflection, some of the things I said were rather... easy to misconstrue.”

The ferret’s mouth opened and closed a few times. Then she swallowed. “You’re not going to cut me?” Her voice was fearful and uncertain.

“Not exactly. I see potential in you, Poko. You care for your parents, and that is very admirable. So I will make a deal. If you allow me to draw your blood to pay for your crime of stealing, I will shed my own for the sins of your parents.”

“You really want to cut me, don’t you?” Her eyes narrowed and her chin jutted out. “You’re using my parents to try to make me believe you just like Nyika tried to do! Well I’ll have you know that my parents weren’t bad beasts. My Papa took good care of us and my Mati was no whore. I don’t care what you or Nyika says!”

Istvan shrugged. “The Mother cares not for the sexual dalliances of mortals. Ideas like ‘marriage’ are meaningless, the only important thing is the creation of new life. No, I was thinking of how I understand that it was the influence of your father which led you in to stealing.”

It had only been a guess, but the ferretmaid’s face told him it was correct. The otter allowed himself a brief moment of pride. One did not spend seven seasons in the Guard without seeing the effect of poor parental role models on a young beast. Thankfully, Poko did not seem too far gone for him to save.

“So, if I do what you say, you’ll stop him from goin’ to... the bad place?”

“In a manner of speaking. It will certainly atone for many of their offenses against the Mother. I did the same for my father, seasons ago.”

“Oh, so yer Papa is... What about yer Mati?”

“We’re not on good terms at the moment. She did something to destroy my trust in her a long time ago. But when I hear word that she has finally passed, I will perform the same ritual for her. And maybe, by the infinite grace and mercy of the All-Mother, she will be allowed to pass in to her glorious embrace.” Istvan realized that he had left himself open to questions that dredged up memories that he would rather stay buried, but thankfully Poko’s next statement did not mention his family.

“If it will help them, I guess...” She sniffled.

“Good, very good. I am proud of you.” Istvan beamed, an expression which felt foreign to his face. Then he unsheathed his knife, causing the ferretmaid to squeak and jump backwards. But the otter lowered the blade to his own arm, creating a new cut among many and returning yet more of his precious lifeblood to the Mother.

“I’ve seen you do that before,” said Poko, as it drained. “Doesn’t it hurt?”

The tattooed otter ripped off a strip from his tunic and wound it tightly around the wound before answering, “The lifeblood is the Mother’s, not mine, and I gladly return it to her. I have done this many times.”

That was true, but he was not used to donating his own blood so frequently. Usually a bird or fish from the Yew Market was sufficient, along with some forcibly extracted from whatever prisoners (vermin only, otherwise the officers would care- a distinction which Istvan found morally reprehensible) happened to be in the cells at the time. But three times in two days... he was beginning to feel light-headed, though he made sure to conceal that from Poko.

“So... is my papa going to be okay now?” she asked nervously.

“I have done everything I can,” he replied, which seemed to satisfy her. “Now, it is your turn.”

The ferret squeezed her eyes shut and curled her paws in to fists, but to her credit did not attempt to run away. Istvan took one of those paws, raised his knife over it, then lowered the blade.

He pricked the end of her thumb with the point, causing a tiny drop of blood to well up. The otter watched it intently until it fell to the ground, where it was absorbed in to the living earth.

“There. Your sin is forgiven.”

Poko opened her eyes slowly and stared at her paw. “Is... that all? I can’t even see it...”

“Your sins were not so heinous as to require a large sacrifice. You are young and were confused. Your transgression does not represent a complete rejection of the Mother.”

“But everythin’ you said about killin’ beasts by lettin’ ‘em starve...”

“I was telling you what the end result of such behavior would be. But you understood what you did was wrong, and you repented and allowed yourself to be purified.”

“What is going on over here?! Poko, didn’t I tell you to stay away from him?” Zevka’s voice startled the otter so badly that he very nearly returned her to the Mother earlier than he had planned.

“He apologized,” she replied. “He said he would help my parents...”

“There's nothing anybeast can do to help your parents now, and they certainly don't need help from a beast like him! Can’t you see he’s using them to try to get to you?” The irate marten jill turned to Istvan. “And you! How can you justify trying to hurt a kit?”

The otter raised up his arm to show her his new bandage. “Both our parts in this sacrifice have already been completed, and as you can see, she is entirely unharmed and I am not. I would like to hear how you plan to explain me using my own lifeblood to intercede with the All-Mother on her parents’ behalf as somehow ‘evil.’”

Zevka leaned forward, fangs bared and a growl rising in her throat. “I don’t care what you do to yourself. Personally, I think that the world would be much improved if one of those cuts got infected and killed you. But you are not allowed to drag Poko in to this! It may not start out as much, but once you have her under your influence-”

“‘ey! Wot’re yeh tryin’ to do?” Gashrock’s shout rang across the clearing, waking up those beasts who had not been stirred by Zevka’s shouting. Heads snapped around just in time to see the rat’s tail as it disappeared out of the light, borne on top of several shadowy figures.

Zevka said words that Istvan would not have expected from a female of her class, then sprinted after the rat’s captors. The otter went first to the fire and grabbed a burning branch to use as a torch, but by the time he did so the pine marten had already vanished in to the darkness. Poko assisted in galvanizing the newly-awoken group by shouting, “They got Gashrock!” and pointing in the direction they had disappeared. Istvan heard a loud clap behind him as he dashed after the other two, which meant that Captain Noonahootin would soon be able to get a clear view of the situation.

For the otter, the going was not so easy. Spindly branches leaned in from just outside his field of vision and scratched at his face, in the flickering half-light looking like the claws of some horrific creature. Grabbing a torch turned out to be the wrong decision, as the bright flame entirely destroyed his night vision, and he could only locate the beasts he was pursuing by sound of the rat’s angry shouting. Apparently they realized this, because their captive’s voice was soon muffled.

“A bit more to the left, Corporal!” the Captain bellowed from above him.

Istvan adjusted his course accordingly, though the new route forced him to jump over a large boulder and he slipped on a patch of ice upon landing. Not stopping to brush off the mud, he sprang up and resumed the chase. Soon the small amount of visible terrain began to look familiar, and he felt the flame of anger kindled within him as he realized who the mysterious assailants must be.

His suspicions were confirmed when he arrived at a familiar fallen tree and Noonahootin coasted down on to a branch to inform him that they had disappeared.

“Down the tunnel that Mister Greenfleck emerged from earlier,” finished the owl.

Istvan smote the log with his fist. “The All-Mother will reserve a special punishment for those moles.”

The others began to gather, following the beacon of the otter’s torch. After a pregnant pause, Greenfleck spoke up.

“We’re missing somebeast. With the rat taken there should be seven of us, but there are only six.”

“Where’s Zevka?” asked Nyika. A quick scan revealed that the marten jill was indeed absent. Istvan felt that he should have realized this sooner; the group was noticeably quieter without her around.

“I saw a struggle around the entrance to the tunnel, and heard a female scream,” said Noonahootin. “I assumed first that it was Miss Gashrock, but the voice sounded more like Miss Blackbriar’s. She must have arrived at the tunnel before Corporal Istvan, and the moles overpowered her.”

Upon hearing this, Vanessa leapt forward and would have gone straight down into the tunnel if the owl had swooped down and landed in front of her. “Hold, Guardsbeast. We have already lost one beast today because she acted rashly and ran forward alone; I do not wish to lose another.”

As the otter jill threw up her paws and let loose an insubordinate barrage of Highland-tinted blasphemies, Poko spoke the question on everybeasts’ mind, “So what are we gonna do?”

“What do you think?” replied Istvan before Noonahootin could open his beak. “I’m going down there to get them back, and any willing beast is welcome to join me. With your permission, Captain.”

The owl nodded. “Of course, Corporal. The Yew Guard never leaves a beast behind, civilian or not, and I do not intend to start now.”

“I’ve heard you and Zevka prattling on arguing since this awful journey began. Why are you so eager to save her? Do you just want to be the one to carve her up?”

The tattooed otter rounded on Greenfleck, treating him to the most terrifying glare he could muster. The toad seemed unimpressed. “My opinions of her morality and her rather... hedonistic and inconsistent beliefs are not relevant here. An unconsecrated death at the paws of blasphemous savages is a fate I would not wish on my worst enemy.”

“Noble of you. I suppose I’ll come along; I’m the only one of you lot who has actually dealt with these moles before, and I have not yet made them pay for the loss of my cart and rats.” The toad delivered this statement without any indication of fear, and began fashioning a proper torch out of the surrounding vegetation as the others continued to speak.

To everybeast’s surprise, Nyika stepped forward next. “I’ll go. It smells like death down there...”

Apparently, for her that qualified as a sufficient reason. But while her spirit was willing, the otter was less sure about her flesh. “You’re in no condition to be crawling through tunnels with your arm still in a sling. I don’t want you to become a liability down there and return to the Mother before your appointed time.”

The wildcat walked up to Istvan and touched him on his recently bandaged arm, staring into the otter’s face. “You've seen Death, but have you ever traveled with him?"

“I would rather that I be traveling with him than you. Stay behind, Nyika. The Mother will protect me if it his her will.”

She shook a claw under his muzzle. “You do not understand the forces you speak of so easily, Istvan. Death is my companion, and I do not fear him.”

The otter was not willing to embark on a debate that would be both unproductive and unsettling, and offered no further argument, but took the opportunity to reflect that being in possession of a great gift of the Mother did not guarantee one’s mental stability. He gave a brief prayer of thanks that his many blessings did not come with the caveat of insanity, no matter what Zevka and Vanessa said.

Speaking of the group’s other otter, it was her turn to put in her voice. Which she did, quite emphatically. “Damn it, Ah dinnae come this far tae be showed up by this tattooed lunatic. I’m goin’ too, but Inkface better walk in front a’ me.”

Poko appeared about to volunteer as well, so Istvan held up his paw to forestall her. “I am sorry, but you will have to remain here. I will not expose the youngest beast in our group to possible harm. In any case, I do not wish to leave Captain Noonahootin up here alone.”

“Cap’n Hoot-n-tootin’ can take damn well take care of himself!” The ferret stiffened. “I'm not a kit anymore than Nyika is!  Why can’t I go? Zevka an’ Gashy’re both my friends and I wanna help!”

“Believe me, I would rather that Nyika stay behind. But her gift from the Mother may prove useful down there, and far be it from me to dictate orders to one so blessed.”

“So all I’ve got to do to make you stop pushin’ me around is say I’ve got special powers?” Poko glared at him. The otter knew that her blasphemy was borne of anger and not disrespect, but it was blasphemy nonetheless. And after she had so willingly participated in the sacrifice. Disappointing.

“Enough!” replied Istvan. “I will not negotiate with one so young. Your courage is admirable, but you have much to learn, starting with obedience. Nyika is not only much older than you, but she is also far more experienced. Please cease this pointless debating; you are only delaying the rescue of those you call ‘friends.’”

At that the ferretmaid clamped her snout, but her expression revealed that she was far from satisfied. So be it. Her disappointment was preferable to the loss of an innocent life, even if it did mean that she would likely be less receptive to his teachings in the future. Not that Istvan wasn’t so used to beasts ignoring him that the thought troubled him.

The tattooed otter led his motley crew over to the entrance to the hole. It was not a large opening; the otters in the party would be forced to stoop if they wished to remain standing. Istvan lit Greenfleck’s new torch from his own crude one before the flames began to threaten his fur, then tossed the stick into the snow.

“Everybeast,” he said as they all peered down the tunnel, “I shall ask the Mother to bless this endeavor, as is befitting of her position as the sole and supreme dispenser of grace. As you are all aware, this is a dangerous undertaking and it is possible not all of us will return. But know that your death is for the sake and redemption of another beast, a most holy sacrifice second only to-”

“Ach, get on with it!” growled Vanessa.

Istvan complied, and drew his knife. He contemplated offering his blood for the protection of his party, but thought the better of it. He needed to keep his wits about him down there, and in any case the blood of many blasphemers would be spilled soon enough.

The tattooed otter bent down and half-walked, half-crawled in to the tunnel, followed by Greenfleck, Nyika, and finally Vanessa. The most loyal priest of the Mother, a toad of no insignificant intelligence, the All-Mother’s miraculous gift to the living world, and the daughter of the Yew Guard’s greatest officer, all being risked for the sake of a rat seamstress and a loudmouthed marten.

Slowly, all but imperceptibly, Istvan was beginning to think of returning their lifeblood to the All-Mother as a future event, not an imminent one. Most surprisingly, the temptation to bury his knife in Zevka’s throat upon their reunion was almost entirely absent from his thoughts.

Almost, but not quite.

« Last Edit: November 25, 2013, 09:18:36 AM by Istvan »