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The Warrior's Beginning cover

Yay! I started messing with TWB! (as if I need another project lol) I just wanted to see if you sort of like where I'm going here. And yes, some of the names are still Redwall, but they'll be changed eventually. I don't have much, the first 11 pages or so, but I'll update it as I go.

So without further ado, here it is :D (Expect characters (especially RW originals) to have different personalities.)


Chapter 1 The Magician Returns Edit

Soft footsteps stirred the sunlit morning silence. Their owner’s gold coat shone radiantly in the light as she walked down the steps of a sizeable dwelling. The rough logs brushed against her unshod paws, but her attention was focused past the stone fountain that graced the front of the home.

She whistled a clear note, long and loud enough to be mistaken for a bird.

The morning and town remained still for a few moments, before a gray shadow swept around the corner of a house, and clopping thuds became audible. A lanky young horse slid to a stop a few feet from the golden mouse, black mane flying everywhere.

“You’re up already?”

“I have to be, father caught me sneaking out just before the party. He’s taken up watching me closely all evening.”

The horse took a bite of grass from the front lawn, rolling her eyes. “You know, sometimes I think your aversion to fun is disturbing.”

The mouse shrugged, walking down the steps “I hate crowds. Now can I get a ride?”

“You know, it’s a bit early for me .. I might just lay down for a bit .. five more minutes ..”

“Dancer!” The mouse’s tone was complaining.

Dancer snorted. “You know the answer Sally.”

Sally laughed, and clambered onto her taller friend’s back. As the horse trotted away from the village, she stated, “Anyway, you know I need a break once in a while. From .. everything.”

“And for some reason your definition of ‘break’ includes sharp, dangerous objects.”

“Yes well. Etiquette doesn’t suit me.”

Dancer dropped out of her lope and into a walk as they crested a hill and entered a thicket. She stopped, and Sally slid off, untangling the navy fabric from around her legs. “And neither do dresses.”

She walked a little deeper into the thicket, pulling a thick pole from the underbrush.

“Can I just finish my breakfast while you have at it?”

“Go ahead .. I’ll just need a ride back.”

Dancer flicked her long, black tail. “Well, call for me. I need grass, and the stuff it the woods is thin and nasty. I’ll be down near Evenglade.”

Sally rolled her black eyes, though they sparkled. “Fine. We wouldn’t want you to suffer from starvation.”

“Exactly.” Dancer’s brown eyes twinkled in return, as she trotted off.

Sally watched her with something akin to bemusement, before gripping her thick staff tighter and walking deeper into the woods.

This was a sort of training area, one she’d created herself.

Sally was proud of it .. it was impressive, seeing as the only inspiration was from folk-tales and history books. The only outlets of adventure available.

She paused momentarily, before starting to run down one of the multiple paths. Her dress flapped irritatingly around her legs, but she kept on, short hair flying behind her and catching momentarily around branches and twigs.

The first obstacle was a fallen log; Sally used the pole to propel herself over it. She landed on the other side with a thud, and vaulted forward again. Here large boulders and trees blocked the path, and she slid under branches, dodging others, while weaving between the rocks.

A few good swings of the trusty staff cleared the rest of the path, and Sally ran through a small meadow, paws tearing through the thick grasses.

She let out a sudden squeak as dress, paws, and grass tangled together, and she collapsed in a heap.

Sally groaned, before rolling onto her back, panting slightly. Spirals of white cloud raced across the sky, and as she watched them, she laughed breathlessly.

“Stupid meadow. Woodlands yes, meadows, no. Ha. Dancer would never agree with me.”

The morning was slowly growing warm, and Sally remained in the deep grasses for a few moments, watching the clouds. Cirrus, it seemed .. it was safe to assume it wouldn’t rain.

As she sat up, a strange chill slid down her back, making her shudder. The meadow seemed .. off, somehow.

Or maybe it was just the gust of wind that teased the grasses.

No. It was more than that.

A shadow stood in the trees. An upright, dark, and most definitely not Dancer shadow.

Sally scrambled to her paws, grabbing her staff. The creature standing in the trees moved toward her.

It was sinewy, ebony black with large, silky ears. A fox. He towered over Sally, pale, orangey eyes glimmering in the light, and he drew a long knife.

A cold wash of fear made the young mouse tremble and take a step back. “Wh .. what do you want? Who are you?”

He met her gaze for a split second, before he lunged, knife leading the way.

Sally dodged to the side, and she felt the rush of air across her cheek. She was forced to drop into a crouch as her attacker recovered almost instantly and slashed at her again.

All her senses where alive, more awake then they’d been in a long time. She threw herself away from the fox, whipping the pole around to face him. He moved like water, ducking agilely out of the pole’s trajectory.

The next second sharp pain exploded in Sally’s shoulder, and she slid back a few steps from the blow. The mouse clenched her teeth together, surprised with herself that she hadn’t screamed.

Sally ducked away, turning and bolting. Her feet tore through the grass in desperation, knowing he wouldn’t be far behind .. she could hear him, though in comparison with her, he was silent. Too silent.

And far too fast.

A heavy paw grabbed her shoulder, shoving her forward. Her chin slammed into the ground moments later, though the grass acted as a bit of a cushion.

“Dancer!” Sally’s cry was too muffled to be effective.

She jerked herself onto her side, to see the black fox staring at her with emotionless eyes. “So you are the one. Interesting.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Sally tried to scramble backwards, but the fox slammed his booted footpaw on her torso, and her words turned into a choking cry.

“No.” His dark voice was flat. “And you never will.”

He reached down in one swift movement, grabbing her right paw and yanking it so hard there was a jolting sensation in her wrist. The fur swirled oddly across her palm, making the vague shape of a feather.

“But you were the one.”

“Let me … go!” Sally choked out the words, barely able to breath in.

The fox never blinked as he sheathed his knife, drawing the curved sword at his side. “No.”

A hiss split the air, and Sally gasped in a breath as her attacker stumbled back with a short yelp. She forced her eyes open, to see him gripping an arrow shaft that protruded from his side.

He staggered back, growling low in his throat as another arrow sank into his left shoulder. Sally dragged herself in the opposite direction of the black fox, but fell back into the grass with a cry as she tried putting weight on her right paw.

She struggled upright again, just in time to see her would-be killer stagger off into the woods. Sally slowly sat up, careful to support herself with her left paw.

Aside from the patches of flattened grass, the meadow looked the same as it always did. But where had those arrows come from? Who had shot them?

“Hello?” Sally stood shakily. “Is anyone there?”

Only morning birdsong answered her.

A few minutes passed, but nothing changed. Then Dancer walked out of the woods, a little grass hanging from her mouth. “Oh there you are ... wait, is that blood?”

The horse hurried over to her, sniffing her all over. “It is .. you’re hurt! What happened? Who did this? What’s going on? Do you feel dizzy? What’ll we tell your parents?”

“I .. don’t know ..” Sally was in a daze .. she felt as though she couldn’t tear her gaze from the trees where the black fox had vanished.

“Dancer, have you seen any foxes lately?”

“What? No, just that vixen selling wares … a couple years ago I think. Why? Wait, a fox did this?”

To Sally’s discomfort, the horse nuzzled the wound across her shoulder. “Ahh! Don’t touch it!”

Dancer drew back instantly. “We’ve got to get you back to Aryah before you bleed to death! Get on my back.”

“I can’t.” Sally protested. “I think my wrist is dislocated.”

Honestly, the whole thing felt like a hazy nightmare. She realized she sounded far too calm.

What in the heavens had just happened?

“Well can you walk?” Dancer cut into her thoughts.

Sally nodded absently. “I think so.”

She laid her good paw on Dancer’s shoulder, blood from the cut running down to her elbow and dripping onto the ground.

As she limped from the meadow, she couldn’t help but look back.

The one.

The one what? What could possibly make her a target for such an attack? She barely left Evenglade … how could she really be that special? And why was the fox looking for her feather-mark?

What was going on?

Sally wanted to look for the one who’d defended her .. whoever they were, but Dancer wasn’t having it. The horse was nudging her in the direction of the village, and Sally’s thoughts were too muddled to think straight.

She stumbled along, casting plenty of glances behind her .. the fox was badly wounded .. he couldn’t follow them, could he?

A few beasts were moving around the town now, and they stopped to cast odd glances at her. Some looked a little worried, but none did anything. Dancer grumbled under her breath. “See, if you didn’t constantly get scraped up all the time, someone might actually notice when you’re in trouble.”

“It doesn’t matter ..” Sally stammered. All she could think of was the fox leaping out of the shadow of a building and stabbing her.

She made it home however, and Dancer stomped a hoof on the porch, a sound that reverberated through the whole house.

Her little brother opened the door, wild red hair spiking everywhere as usual. “What’s .. goin’ on?”

He looked half awake.

“Brome, Sally almost died!” Dancer was prone to dramatics, though it wasn’t far from the truth.

“Oh.” Brome wasn’t unduly concerned, but someone else was.

There was a flash of red fur, and a short mouse slid to a stop beside Sally, grabbing her. “You almost died? What happen this time? Did you fall out of a tree again?”

“Rose .. I’m alright ..”

“No you’re not, you’re bleeding!”

Sally sighed and fell silent as her sister dragged her into the house, where her mother joined them, fussing. Sally gave up trying to understand the two, as they were talking over one another.

Her father stood from his spot at the table, concern in his eyes, but also irritation. “Are you alright? Are any bones broken this time?”

“I’ll be fine ..” Sally insisted. Her family did a good job of interrupting her.

“You need those wounds cleaned.” Her mother tried leading her up the stairs.

Her father sighed. “I don’t really want to know, but what was it this time?”

“Did ya fall down a hill? With losta rocks .. sharp rocks?” Brome decided to ask, opportunely.

Dancer opened her mouth to speak, before asking, “What really did happen? You said there was a fox?”

“A fox!” Sally’s father looked alert. “Where is the fox?”

“No!” Sally suddenly snapped a little. She shook her head, suppressing a shiver. “There is no fox. Brome’s right. I just tripped and took a nasty fall.”

“Uhh ..” Dancer began, but Sally kicked her in a sideways fashion.

Thankfully, her father looked exasperated instead of noticing. “See why I tell you not to leave Evenglade? You’re a child. And more importantly, you should be spending your time learning something useful, instead of traipsing about injuring yourself constantly.”

Sally’s black eyes snapped momentarily, before she averted her gaze. Seconds later, her mother and Rose dragged her up the stairs to the second floor, intent on fussing.

Sally found herself in bed, wrist back in joint and dully aching. Her mother had sent Rose off to get some water, but mostly to remove her from the premises so she could successfully finish bandaging her older daughter’s wounds.

Neither said a word for a few moments, before the older, russet furred mouse shook her head. “You didn’t get this from a rock.”

“I didn’t run into anything else.” Sally lied. “Maybe a log.”

“Hum.” Her mother said, hazel eyes knowing. “You were playing with my kitchen knives again, weren’t you?”

“No.” Sally began, before thinking, and slowly letting a guilty look cross her features. “Maybe a little.”

“Kitchen knives are made for the kitchen my love. Do leave them be .. I hope you learned a lesson from this.”

“Perhaps, but it was more on how a seemingly safe place is really dangerous.” Sally thought, but only replied with. “Yes mother, I did.”

“Good.” Her mother tied the bandage, before looking at her fondly and kissing the top of her head. “The sooner you learn to stay away from the dangers of this world, the happier you will be. Now I’m off to supervise that sister and brother of yours; get some rest.

As the older mouse left, Sally frowned deeply, before drawing her covers up to her chin and staring about the room in silence.

It was hard to avoid danger when someone wanted to kill you for no reason.

><><

Sally was kept under a watchful eye for the next few days, and honestly, she didn’t complain. Every dark shadow and unexplained noise instantly made her expect to see the black fox standing behind her, knife poised to strike. She didn’t make a move to leave the cottage for at least two days, only leaving when her mother forced her to go put fresh bedding in the stables.

Almost reluctantly she walked the short distance to the building for the two horses of Evenglade. Still, she wanted to see Dancer.

Sally laid a paw on the door, peering into the dim interior. “Dancer? Lightningflash?”

She felt as though the fox would jump out at her, and flinched as there was a rustle, accompanied by Dancer as the horse leapt at her instead. “You’re up again! Great! I was worried.”

“I’m ok.” Was all Sally put into words.

She gave her friend a quick hug, before walking into the airy building. It had two sides with a hall between them, and walls far shorter than the roof framing this. Some of the windows were open for sunlight, others weren’t.

“Where’s Lightningflash?”

“Out grazing.” Dancer looked mischievous, or perhaps she was trying to be uplifting. “I’m glad room service is here.”

“Yea.” Sally sighed.

Dancer teased. “It could be worse.”

“I suppose.” Sally got the shovel and the barrow, stopping by Dancer’s side of the stable and started scooping out the old straw. Horses had an affinity for straw, but it was a pain to change when it got musty.

Her wrist and shoulder were much better, allowing her to heft the heavy piles of straw into the barrow. Cleaning out just one side of the stable took forever. Dancer used her tail as a duster for where chaff remained, cleaning the entire floor.

With a sigh of resignation, Sally dragged the shovel across the hall to Lightning’s room, making a nasty scraping sound. Still, she didn’t lift it.

When the floor was clean of straw, a few barrow loads later, Dancer set about using her now mussed tail to dust everything. “Ugg, dad doesn’t dust much, does he?”

“Not in the least ..” Sally broke off with a sneeze.

Dancer wrinkled her nose suddenly, complaining, “Don’t do that, now I’ve got …”

She sneezed as well, bringing a back hoof down in a spasmodic stomp. It smashed through the floor with a loud crunch, and also the thud of her hoof hitting the dirt.

Dancer neighed in shock, yanking her foot free with a shower of splinters. She blinked at the hole, as did Sally. “Sally, dad’s not going to like this ..”

The mouse nodded. “I guess we’ll have to fix it. I’ll get the mallet and a plank.”

“Wait, there’s something in here.” Dancer was peering into the opening she’d made.

Sally joined her, slowly kneeling on the floor and reaching down into the long, narrow compartment. She carefully withdrew an item wrapped in thick oilcloth, stained from the dirt it had rested upon.

Sally’s heart skipped a beat. She could barely believe her guess as to what this was.

Dancer snorted impatiently, and Sally undid the string that kept the cloth in place. She unfolded it from around the object, and she gaped at what it was.

A sword lay in her paws. A long-hilted, heavy-bladed broadsword, it’s leather-wrapped hilt adorned with light sapphires. Sally slowly hefted it, mesmerized by the way the light danced off the blade. The sharp, only slightly rusted blade.

“What .. how is that in here?”

Sally heard Dancer, but she didn’t reply. She slowly stood, holding the blade out in front of her. It was heavy, but a slow grin spread across her features as she gently swung the sword through the air.

It made a pleasant swish, and Sally did her best to copy a stance she’d seen in a book.

Nothing had ever felt more right in her paws.

“Um, Sally?” Dancer broke through her thoughts. “Do you know why there’s a sword under my dad’s floor?”

“I have no clue.”

Sally didn’t take her gaze from the weapon as she tried out several different stances.

Dancer snorted. “Your dad will never let you keep that.”

The mouse looked up at this, a glitter in her eyes. Then she looked downcast. “No, he won’t.”

She smiled suddenly. “Which is why he won’t ever know about it.”

“That’s not a good idea ..” Dancer advised.

“But this sword is special.” Sally protested. “I know it is. And father would just sell it to some merchant .. I can’t let that happen.”

She traced the word on the hilt, engraved in the overlaid gold. “Sayna. I wonder what it means.”

“It sounds like a name.” Dancer observed. “You’re probably right.” Sally wrapped the sword back in its protective cloth reluctantly. “Where should I hide this?”

Dancer snorted. “We should fix the floor first.”

Sally gave the floor a dull look, before nodding and setting the sword down. “Right, I’ll find some boards.”

She walked out of the stable and around the back, where there was a pile of discarded things. Among it were some old planks, and she picked up one, instantly getting a few splinters in her paw. Sally winced, but carried the board back into the stable.

She pried the broken piece of floor up and set the replacement over the oblong hole. A thick layer of straw over everything hid the fact anything had been broken.

This done, Sally picked up the wrapped sword again, asking, “But where should I put this? I can’t leave it with my pole, it’d rust.”

“I don’t know .. smuggle it into your room?”

Sally raised a skeptical eyebrow.

“Ok, ok, I get the point.”

“Well then?”

Dancer flicked an ear. “The stable loft?”

Sally looked upward at the rickety old loft, but nodded slowly. “I suppose it’ll do .. for now.”

><><

The constant clink of a hammer and chisel filled the air, mingling with the faint sound of the sea. On a ponderous cliff sat a half-constructed building, where many creatures were milling about.

A young mouse walked among them, the glint of silver chains around his neck and paws. He was carrying a load of bricks, brown eyes downcast.

His filthy, bare paws stirred the dust of the construction site, and he looked up at the mighty keep, already built. How much longer until the walls were finished?

It was a question that always nagged at the back of his mind. Until the walls were finished, he would live. When they stood whole …

He shook his head, stumbling over his own paws and almost falling on his face. He recovered, and continued on.

Live. That’s all that matters .. just live. You will live, even if the others die. He deposited his load of stones where the wall was being built, taking note of how much stood finished. He always did.

“Get moving!” A loud voice broke into his reverie, causing him to jump into a run the next second, lest the lash of a whip follow.

His bare, callused paws skidded through the dust as he ran to unload more bricks from a nearby cart. The filthy horse that was hitched to it turned his head to look at him. “Holding up?”

“As well as always.” The mouse nodded, stacking bricks into his arms.

“Stop daydreaming .. you don’t need more lashes.”

The mouse flicked an ear in acknowledgement, muttering, “I know.”

He ducked his head, hurrying back to the wall. Over and over, he performed the same task.

By the time the sun was high in the heavens, his every muscle burned painfully. Today was hotter than usual, and he hadn’t had a drink since the night before. His arms were starting to tremble slightly, and he felt as though his tongue would stick to the back of his parched throat with every breath he took.

“Survive. That’s all you need to do. You’ve done it before. Just survive.”

The mouse hefted another load of rock from the wagon, lifting it to his chest as he reached for a piece to add to it. At that moment, another slave fell into him, throwing him off balance.

The large rocks slipped out of his grasp, most falling harmlessly to the wagon, but one slammed down onto his outstretched paw.

There was a reverberating crunch throughout the limb, and the mouse gritted his teeth, barely holding back his scream. Desperately, he clawed to heavy stone off his paw, clutching it to his chest and biting back his whimpers.

“Hey! You again? Get a move on!” The slave driver’s voice barked almost as loud as the crack of his whip.

The mouse staggered, gasping as the lash caught his shoulder. He grabbed at the fallen stone, but his injured paw wouldn’t move.

The slave driver grabbed him by the paw, evoking a strangled cry of agony. “Well well. I wondered when you’d finally give out, mouse.”

“No!” He shrieked. “I can work! I can!”

“Then prove it.” The slave driver sneered. “Pick up that rock.”

The mouse yanked away from his tormentor’s grasp, staggering back to the cart, where the filthy horse watched with horror on his face. Despite his paw, the mouse fought to lift the rock, mostly with his good limb. He got it a few feet off the cart, before it slipped out of his weak grasp and smashed down upon the injury once more.

Finally, he screamed. The slave driver yanked the rock away, sneering, “Amusing, but you’re done. Hisk, take over for me.”

“No! I can work! I’m not finished! I can …”

“Shut up mouse.” The slaver yanked hard on the chains about his paws, evoking another cry.

“No … no … no! I will not die .. no!”

“Please … please no ..” His shocked pleas went unanswered, and unheard.

I had until the walls were finished!

His mind was screaming in horror at his inevitable fate. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen!

He staggered as the slaver threw him into an enclosure built against the wall of the keep. His legs caught on their chains, and he fell to the dust in a heap. There was an echoing slam as the door shut, leaving him in dim light of the final holding place of worthless, broken slaves.

He didn’t try to get up, just remained still, staring blankly at his crushed paw. Why? Why now?

“I can still work …” He muttered, miserably taking note of how almost every finger hung at an odd angle, and his palm looked flatter than normal.

“I said that too.” A lonely, empty voice echoed in the dimness, and for the first time, he noticed the larger creature laying against the wall. Its words were ended with a broken cough.

“Sick?” He asked.

The creature nodded. “I’d come great you, but everything’s fuzzy right now. The fever doesn’t like me moving. I’m Kaylar, by the way. You?”

“Tynek.” The mouse answered flatly. “What are they planning for us?”

“No clue.” Kaylar rasped.

Tynek slowly curled up into a ball where he was, muttering, “It’s not like it matters. Nothing matters anymore.”

><><

“You want me to do .. what?” Sally stared at her father in disbelief.

He sighed. “Sally, I expected you to be overjoyed. Aren’t you the one who’s always wanting to travel? Your arm doesn’t still hurt, does it?” “Well, no …”

“Then you should be more than happy. I’m busy here, harvest is well under way and with all the trade coming in from our neighbors, I simply can’t leave. Neither can your mother, she has to keep track of the trades. Summerglen expects a shipment of grain within the week. You’re sixteen, it’s time you started helping run the family business.”

Sally pressed her paws together beneath the table, muttering, “You want me and Dancer to take a cartful of barely to Summerglen?”

“Is that too much to ask?” Her father sounded stern. “I want you to take Rose along too, she can record the transaction. You’ve been to Summerglen Sally, it’s a day’s journey and you can stay at the inn; I’ll see you have the funds.”

Sally wilted under her father’s stare, sighing, “Fine, I’ll go.”

He frowned. “What’s bothering you? The highlands have had peace for many years. As long as you stay on the road, nothing will happen.”

“Have you ever thought father … that this peace can only last so long?”

For a moment, the only sound was the soft rustle of the study’s curtains and the mid-morning birdsong from outside.

“What?” The red and silver haired mouse truly looked confused. “There has been peace since before my grandfather’s time. Has something happened?”

Her black eyes met his pale brown ones, before she looked away. “No.”

“Then there’s no reason you shouldn’t go. In fact I expected you to be excited .. you’ve been asking to ride with me since you were a kit, why should that change just because you’re going with your sister and friend?”

“No reason.” Sally’s voice remained quiet.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“No. And you never will.”

She held back a shiver.

“If something really is wrong, I’d hope you’d tell me. You’re not acting like yourself. What are you afraid of, you can tell me.”

Sally hurriedly shook her head. “No, I’ve just never left Evenglade by myself.”

Her father sighed. “You aren’t by yourself. And if you’re so concerned, ask that friend of yours, Gruvan, if he’ll accompany you. Now if there’s nothing else, I must see how our inventory’s coming along. You leave in the morning.”

He stood, walking from the study, long cloak sweeping behind his with an audible swish.

Sally stared out the window, expecting the black fox to appear in it, but nothing moved aside from the jewel-toned birds in the trees around the house.

She slowly stood, pushing her chair back as she did so. She automatically jumped as there was a rustling, but relaxed as her little brother crawled out from behind a pile of books, dust clinging to his blue tunic and a cobweb hanging limply from one side of his whiskers. “You’re going to Summerglen? By yourself> With Rose and Dancer and Gruvan? I want to come!”

“No, you don’t.” Sayna shuddered involuntarily, not wanting to think of what the black fox could do to a small mouse like Brome. “It’s safer if you stay here.”

“Aaawww you sound just like father.”

“I do not sound like father!” Sally snapped, before realizing she actually did.

“Uggh .. Brome, just leave it be. You’re not coming, both father and mother would say no.”

“But if you let me hide under the grain sacks …” Brome looked conniving, to say the least.

“No!” Sally exclaimed. “Do you want to get me in the most trouble I’ve ever been in? Besides it’s not …. Just no. You better not try it or I’ll tell father you were spying. And your plan.”

Brome groused for a minute, before muttering, “Wanna come see Gruvan.”

Sally scowled. “Why don’t you not?”

“I’ll tell mum you’re being mean! You’re the oldest, you have’ta be nice ta me.”

Sally sighed deeply, rubbing her forehead. “Fine. Just don’t you dare complain about not coming with us the entire time.”

Unfortunately for Sally, Brome only held his silence until they’d left the kitchen and were out of their mother’s earshot. Then he started wedeling again.

“But, it’s just for two days! Please? It would be so fun, and if I sold some grain it might prove to father that I’m old enough to help!”

“No.”

“But, you and Rose get to go! What so special about Rose, she doesn’t even like traveling!”

“No.” “But I could help you make deals! I’m good at convincing creatures!”

“Well you’re good at convincing me you’re a menace.”

“So is that a yes?”

“No.”

Brome’s voice droned on and on as the crossed the town square, but Sally was more concerned with the black fox suddenly appearing. Her eyes darted in every direction, and her paw itched to hold the sword she’d hidden in the stable loft.

“…. Let me try?”

“No … what?”

Brome glared at her. “I said, you’re just as bad as father, why won’t you let me try?”

“Because you’re too young.” Sally sighed. “But someday, we’ll all be delivering grain and haggling on prices.”

“You really think so?” Brome looked excited.

Sally smiled ever so faintly. “I know so. Then you can come with me and Rose as much as you like.”

He looked considerably happier, before his face fell again and he returned to his grumpy look. “But it’s so far away.”

Sally shrugged, stopping in front of a pleasant little cottage, before walking up the steps and knocking on the door. No one answered, and she tried again, but to no avail.

With a sigh, she walked down the steps and around the back of the home, Brome tagging along.

Sure enough, a tan and dusty brown mouse was weeding the large garden plot that took up most of the immediate yard. He looked up, waving, “Hey Sally, Brome! Dad’s off in the fields, sorry I didn’t hear you.”

“It’s fine.” Sally leaned against the brick fence surrounding the garden. “I’ve got a favor to ask you.”

“Why yes Sally, I’ve been wonderful, not at all worried at why you’ve been hiding in your house for the last two weeks. Oh good Gruvan, I was worried you were worried. Oh no Sally, I didn’t think for once anything absolutely horrible had happened when Brome basically said your entire arm was ripped off.”

Sally sighed, glaring at Brome. “You exaggerated again, didn’t you.”

He whistled nonchalantly. “Maybe …”

“Ack. No Gruvan, I’m completely fine. I’m sorry you were worried. But I really would like to ask a favor.” Gruvan laughed, shaking his head. “Ask it then.”

“Father’s sending Rose, Dancer and I to deliver grain to Summerglen. I was wondering if you could come too?”

He looked dubious. “Maybe .. when are you leaving?”

“Tomorrow morning, early. We won’t be back until the night after.”

Gruvan frowned. “Oh. Well, I promised dad I’d help him in the fields tomorrow. We’ve been doing that since the early harvest started, I help him one day, and work in the garden the next .. sorry Sally.”

“Sally’s scared of something.” Brome piped up. “She doesn’t wanna go alone, with just Dancer and Rose.”

“I am not!” Sally responded indignantly.

Gruvan looked somewhat concerned. “What? Are you really?”

“No.” Sally’s voice returned to its normal sound. “I’m not scared of anything. Thanks for listening Gruvan, at the latest, I’ll see you when I get back.”

She grabbed Brome by the tunic and dragged him with her, waving farewell. Gruvan waved a little confusedly, before returning to his weeding. Sally stopped near the front of her friend’s cottage, giving Brome a dark look. “I am not scared.”

“You know, I could go with you, if you’re afraid.”

The voice was a smooth sound, and Brome slowly backed away a few steps and Sally slowly turned her head to glared at the creature standing on the porch of the neighboring cottage.

He was tall for a mouse, making him just as tall as Sally. However his fur was striking black, with a white chin and chest. The smiled that curled across his face made her sneer. “As if I would dream of asking you to do anything for me.”

“But you could. After all, you might need the protection of someone who actually can, not that garden-loving buffoon over there.”

Sally’s black eyes glimmered wildly, and she showed her teeth. “Shut up Roderick, I’d punch you again sooner.”

She got the mental image of the black fox attacking, and shoving Roderick between her and the wickedly curved knife the assassin carried. For some reason, a rather demented smile crossed her face.

She shook herself, shoving that feeling away. That was taking it a little too far.

Roderick shrugged. “Have it your way. But you can always ask me to reconsider my offer.”

“In your dreams. I’ll protect myself just fine.” Sally snarled, grabbing Brome’s paw and dragging him with her. “Come on Brome, we’re leaving.”

She stalked away from Roderick’s cottage, across the town square, and to her own home, spending the walk in stony silence.

She only released Brome’s paw once she entered her own decoratively fenced yard, and then she stormed up the steps and into the house. Brome followed silently.

The golden mouse walked into the front room, pausing as she saw Rose siting in one of the chairs, stitching away at what to Sally, appeared to be a heap of cloth. Her sister looked up, frowning and asking in her soft voice, “What is it? Roderick again?”

“Of course.” Sally snarled. “Sometimes I’d like to … arge.”

“Mother says to ignore him.” Rose said, very properly. “Did you hit him again?”

“I should have.”

Rose shook her head. “Roderick’s family is very influential. We have to treat him decently as his father maintains as much land as ours .. I know he’s insufferable, but do consider the impact of your actions, Sally.”

“You’re not my mother Rose, I’ll hit him again if it comes down to it. And I won’t ever be sorry.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.” Rose frowned. “But what if that would harm father’s business? Think about that for a while.”

Sally glowered for a moment, before groaning, “How are you younger than me?”

Rose laughed her tinkling laugh. “You are immature sometimes.”

Sally huffed as Brome spoke up. “Rose, let me go with you!”

“To Summerglen?” Rose shook her head. “Sorry, but father wouldn’t approve.”

“Father never approves.” Sally grumbled, already in a bad mood.

“Oh, that is not true.” Rose scolded. “He only wants the best for us.”

Sally rolled her eyes. “That’s easy for the favorite to say.”

“Sally, please. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Rose took a stitch into her project.

Sally glared for a moment, before hooding her eyes and turning away. “And you wonder why I’m so quiet. Ha.”

She stomped into the empty kitchen and dug about in the cupboards, finding a loaf of bread and breaking a piece off. She slumped into a chair beside the table, stormily munching on her bread, showering crumbs upon the white cloth.

In the silence of the kitchen, her anger faded away, but so did her bravado. The fury in her eyes morphed into quiet, flat black.

Here she was safe, alone, and she didn’t have to worry about her metaphorical masks falling off.

But she had to leave this place tomorrow.

And out there? Anything could happen.



Chapter 2 (to be determined) Edit

It was barely light out when Sally awoke. Or, more realistically, when her mother woke her. She crawled out of bed, keeping her eyes hooded as she pulled on her clothing. A long cloak was draped across one of the chairs in the room, and Sally pulled it on, buttoning it around her throat.

She stumbled down the first story, where the smell of cooking food greeted her. As she walked into the kitchen, her mother smiled. “Up at last I see. Do you like the cloak?”

Sally nodded, but then raised an eyebrow. “You seem to have known about this for a while if you had time to make new clothes.”

The older mouse laughed. “If you must know, I’ve been talking your father into this since last fall. It’s time you and Rose started helping us more .. the demand for our grain is only increasing. We need more paws.”

“Oh.” Sally sat down at the table, and her mother looked oddly at her.

“You’re not pleased?”

Sally shook her head. “No .. I mean, yes I am .. it’s nothing.”

At that moment, her father walked in, Rose close behind him. He sat down at the table as well, giving Sally a nod. “Good, you’re up. The cart is loaded and Dancer is having breakfast.”

“And it’s time we did the same.” Her mother put a plate of biscuits on the table, followed by a bowl of apples. She sat down, and her husband folded his paws together, coughing at Sally as she reached for the food.

She quickly withdrew her paw and her father nodded, reciting the morning prayer he always did, with a few small changes pertaining to the situation.

“Lord Ignasa, we thank you for this meal, and please watch over us as we go about our day … especially my daughters as they set off on their journey. Protect us from all evil.”

He looked up, and Sally quickly grabbed a biscuit, biting into it. Rose rolled her eyes. “Really Sally, can’t you wait to be served?”

Sally sighed. “Really Rose, can’t I just get my own food? It’s just the four of us.”

“Etiquette,” Her father stated solemnly, “Is a thing to be practiced at all occasions. Especially when representing the family business.”

“He’s right my love.” Her mother paused in breaking a biscuit in half. “Manners and patience are a virtue one should learn well.”

Sally sighed again, falling silent and munching on her breakfast sleepily.

Rose smiled suddenly, breaking the silence. “Father, I’m glad you view me as old enough to do this .. I won’t let you down.”

His normal stern look melted away, and he smiled fondly. “I know you won’t dear.”

He looked to Sally, still congenial. “And I trust you won’t either. Look out for Rose.”

“Of course I will, father.” Sally felt a little trickle of pride, and her eyes sparkled happily.

“I’m not completely helpless ..” Rose pouted.

Her father tweaked one of her braids. “I’m just taking precasions sweetheart. After all, Sally has a way of confronting trouble, should you run into any. Which is why she’s in charge of this trip.”

Sally stopped chewing, blinking rapidly and speaking with her mouth full. “I’m what?”

“Please Sally, manners.” Her mother scolded.

Sally swallowed, almost choking, before she downed her glass of milk. “Ahge .. sorry. I’m actually in charge?”

“Don’t make me rethink it.” Her father looked droll. “But yes. Rose will be the spokesbeast, but you will make the final decision on prices, and if any trouble should arise, any at all, you are to keep Rose and Dancer safe. And by that I mean get them away from danger. Can I trust you to do that?”

Sally nodded. “I’ll protect them with my life.”

Her father chuckled good naturedly. “Don’t be over dramatic, I wouldn’t send you if I feared your lives would be threatened. Just keep an eye on things.”

“I’ll make sure we get home safe dad.” Sally stood quickly, cape flowing around her legs. “You can count on me. I’m going to see Dancer.” She ran out of the kitchen, and outside, where her gray friend stood eating grass between the stables and the cottage, already hitched to the loaded cart. “Morning Dancer!”

The horse looked up, munching on a large mouthful of the lawn. “Mmmph … Hey Sally. You two about ready?”

“Yea, I’ve just got to grab something.”

She hurried to the stable, opening the door and slipping into the dim interior. As she made her way to the loft’s ladder, her bravery began to drain away .. slightly. Her father actually believed she could do this, and put her in charge!

She couldn’t back down now and admit she’d lied about her former injuries. Besides, the fox had been shot .. he was badly hurt.

He’s dead by now, he was shot twice. And deeply .. he’ll have bled out. Besides, the arrow to his side would have hit some organs .. right?

She was just paranoid. Sally gripped the ladder and climbed up it, scrambling into the splintery old loft. The sword was still there, wrapped in its dirty oil-cloth and nearly covered with musty hay. She pulled it out, slipping it into the back of her belt, where it was hidden by her cloak.

Whether or not the fox was dead, Sally wanted to be ready if by some chance he appeared.

As she stepped onto the floor, there was a movement behind her, and she wheeled around, to see Lightningflash getting to his feet with a yawn. “Ho hum .. Sally? You’re up early.”

He shook straw chaff from his flaxen mane. “But now I remember, you’re off to sell grain with my little girl. That’s right .. that is right, isn’t it?”

Sally nodded. Lightningflash looked pleased with himself. “I knew today was special. Now you look after that filly of mine, see? She’s too scatter-brained to do it herself sometimes. But what am I saying, you and Dancer are best friends, you know her mannerisms. Now, what time is it? Did I sleep in again?”

Sally nodded. “You did, I think.”

“Getting old is such a pain in the back … no, it really is. I think I’ll have a nice roll if you don’t mind. Tell your father I’ll take him to the fields soon.”

The swaybacked palomino walked by her and out the door, head down and mouth open in a yawn. Sally let out a sigh of relief that Lightingflash hadn’t bothered to ask why she was there in the first place.

She hurried out into the morning, and to Dancer. Rose was coming out of the house, their parents behind her. Sally absently patted Dancer’s shoulder as the three walked up to them. Her father lifted Rose into the driver’s seat as her mother handed Sally a covered basket. “This is enough food to get you to Summerdale, plus snacks between meals. And carrots for Dancer.”

The horse perked her ears forward, grinning, “Thanks ma’am!” The russet mouse smiled. “Well, you are pulling the cart dear.”

Sally put the basket into the cart under the driver’s seat, before she hugged her mother. “Thanks mum.”

“Of course love. Now you remember to eat, drink plenty of water, and sleep, no staying up all night. And don’t talk to shady characters. And don’t you go picking fights, or playing with knives, see?”

“I won’t mum.” Sally promised, taking a step back as her father walked over to her. He handed her a satchel.

“That’s money for the inn and food, don’t spend it all in one place.”

Sally nodded and he laid a paw on her shoulder. “Good. Then you’d best be off .. Ignasa go with you.”

She smiled, giving him a quick hug. “Thanks dad.”

Sally climbed into the driver’s seat, and Dancer stopped eating grass, taking a step forward. She started walking, and Rose waved. “I love you! We’ll be back soon! We’ll make lots of money for you father!”

He laughed and waved along with Aryah. Sally joined in the farewell, before turning her attention to the road ahead.

Evenglade was waking up, already, creatures were up and about. Rose had to wave to everyone; Sally didn’t bother. However she did return the wave of a dusky brown mouse on his way to the fields.

Dancer pulled the cart through the gateway of trees that marked the entrance to their town, and as she always did, Rose reached up to brush her paw through the trailing leaves.

Sally leaned against the back of the driver’s seat, breathing a deep breath of morning air and letting it out with a deep sigh.

Rose turned the green leaf she’d plucked from the archway over in her paws, before tucking it into one of her braids, explaining. “A bit of home.”

Sally rolled her eyes, but chuckled a little at the same time.

“Oh, what’s so funny?”

“You.” Sally put her paws above her head, leaning back and looking at the clouds. “I would never associate sticking bits of woodland into my hair with home.”

Rose nudged her sister. “Oh, you’re so unpoetic.”

“As I remember, I’m the one who writes poems. Your argument is invalid.”

Dancer craned her neck around, asking, “Hey, speaking of songs, let’s sing one together!”

Sally made a face, but Rose, of course, was congenial. “Ok, what should we sing?” “The Woodland Maiden!” Rose exclaimed, “I’ll start out .. Oh there was once a maiden ..”

“Can someone else pick for once?” Sally interrupted.

Rose sighed. “Sally, I’d love to let you, but all your songs are so depressing!”

Sally gave her sister a sideways glance. “Come on, I found a new one that’s beautiful. And depressing is beautiful.”

“I’d like to hear.” Dancer put in.

Rose slumped down in her seat. “Oh fine. What is it about this time?”

“Once in a day when our land was gold,

We were ruled by a family of kings.

Noble the children of settlers bold,

Who tamed the wild woods and springs.”

Sally kept looking at the sky as she sang in her clear, if not a little flat voice. Dancer picked up her feet to the tune, moving a little faster.

“The northland’s lost snowflakes in residence south,

Driven back by their land’s icy blast,

Dispossessed outcasts who molded a land,

Far better than what they had left.”

Even Rose was listening in interest, which led Sally to sing even louder.

“They grew in knowledge, in wealth and in strength,

No one could compare their fame,

But as with time’s turning their honesty failed,

They cast aside the healing flame.”

“Who are ‘they’ exactly?” Rose had to interrupt.

Sally gave her an unimpressed look, sighing, “I don’t know Rose, can we not just appreciate the song’s beauty and not pick it apart?”

“Obviously, ‘they’ are the northland’s lost snowflakes. Meaning they came from around here probably, and migrated to the middle realms.” Dancer interjected.

Sally blinked. “You actually assessed that correctly. And interestingly, according to further verses of the song, the kingdom was overthrown and king and queen slain. But their infant son was saved and raised in his ancestor’s home, the northlands.”

“See?” Rose crossed her arms. “Depressing.”

Sally shook her head. “Actually, not so much. Listen to this and tell me what you think.”

She began singing again.

“So the southern child with his roots in the north,

Roamed winter’s frozen tears.

Overthrown king with a crown but no throne,

He’ll wait though all of his years.


Look to his children, the hawk and the star,

Whom the leaf and the flower’ll unite.

Look their tales of triumphs and woes,

Friend, always for freedom do fight.”

Sally looked up. “So, what do you think?”

“Depressing.” Rose crossed her arms. “Can’t we sing nicer songs?”

“But doesn’t it sound like a prophecy?” Sally argued. “Somewhere, in these northlands, is a prince without a kingdom, just waiting for his children to avenge him and reclaim it.”

Rose sighed. “Or it’s ancient and he died hundreds of years ago.”

Sally grinned cheekily. “No who’s being depressing?”

“Haha, very funny.” Rose huffed.

Sally sighed, looking up at the sky. “I wish we could find a real prophecy.”

Rose shook her head. “Father says they aren’t real. Just figments of senile imagination.”

“Yes well.” Sally didn’t look at her sister. “Father isn’t nessicarily right about everything.” “Why would you say that? Father is wise …”

“Of course he is, I never said he wasn’t.” Sally interrupted Rose. “But no one is completely correct about everything, are they?”

Rose looked hurt. “You really shouldn’t judge creatures like you know everything about them.”

“You two!” Dancer interrupted. “Let’s not start fighting before we get a mile from Evenglade, deal?”

Sally rolled her eyes. “Oh fine.”

Silence fell over the three friends, though nothing was completely quiet in the northern forests. Birds twittered in the trees, Dancer’s hooves made heavy thuds on the dirt path, and Sally shooed a buzzing insect away from her face.

Her fur was warming in the sun, but the morning air still did its best to bite through her cloak. Rose hummed happily, and Dancer trotted in time to the tune, her flowing black tail arching gracefully.

Hours passed in this manner, and Sally fell to reading on of the books she’d packed for the trip. Rose fell to stitching whatever her current project was. When the sun was high overhead, Dancer stopped in a clearing beside the road. “Lunch anyone?”

Sally looked up, but Rose beat her two it. “I think that’s a fine idea.”

Her sister sighed, biting back the fact she was supposed to be in charge, and nodding. She slid from the driver’s seat, leaving her book on it, and unhitched Dancer while Rose got out their basket of food.

The horse shook herself as she got free of the traces, and she ran forward, crow-hopping a little. “Ahhhh .. so nice to be free again.”

Rose fussed over spreading a cloth on the ground, and while she did so, Sally slipped the sword from her belt and under some grain sacks in the cart, though still within easy reach of the driver’s seat.

“Sally? Are you coming to eat?” Rose was sitting on the cloth and Dancer was beside her on the grass, eyeing the now uncovered basket.

Sally walked around the cart, sitting between her sister and the horse. The meal of bread, cheese, and apples was simple, but tasty. Although neither Rose nor Sally got much of the apples.

Half an hour later they were preparing to leave; Rose was packing the food, and Sally was once again hitching Dancer to the cart. The horse paused in her gazing to quietly ask, “You brought the sword?”

Sally blinked, before shrugging. “It’s just a precaution.”

“For what?”

“Anything .. I don’t know.” Sally lied. “We are going to be spending the night miles from home, and should anything happen, I have to be able to protect you and Rose.” Dancer looked suspicious, before tossing her head. “Rose will freak if she sees it.”

“Which is why she won’t.” Sally gave her friend a pointed look. “Unless something horrible and unlikely happens, she’ll never know about it.”

Dancer frowned before rolling her eyes. “Alright, I guess.”

She fell back to grazing, and Sally pulled the last buckle of her harness into place. She climbed up on the driver’s seat beside Rose, who was reading a map. “So, from what I can tell, we’ll reach Summerglade an hour before dusk.”

“Where are we now?” Sally asked.

“In the middle of nowhere, we’re miles from everything.” Rose studied the map closer. “We should reach a crossroads soon, where we need to turn right.”

Dancer started moving again, and Sally studied the green canopy above them as it rustled in a breeze that had sprung up sometime during the journey. Silence once again blanketed the travelers, broken only by Rose’s humming and Dancer’s thudding steps.

Sally slowly sat up, a frown on her face as she listened for an element of the forest quiet that she realized she couldn’t hear .. chirping birds and buzzing insects. The only sound not made by her companions was the wind teasing through the treetops.

“Isn’t it unusually quiet?” Sally asked suddenly.

Rose stopped humming and stitching, and listened. She frowned. “You’re right .. odd.”

Dancer flicked her ears. “But wasn’t there birdsong and all that while we ate?”

Sally met Rose’s gaze questioningly, to find her sister’s eyes held the same confusion. She shook her head. “Honestly, I can’t remember.”

A slow chill crept down Sally’s spine, but Rose tried to brush away her unease. “A storm must be coming; maybe all the animals have gone into hiding.”

“I’d rather not have father’s grain get caught in a storm you know.” Sally gave Rose a look.

“Well, maybe .. they’re just all .. tired ..” Rose commented feebly.

Dancer looked behind herself. “All at the same time?”

Rose sighed. “I’m just trying to rationalize the reason; who knows, maybe birds don’t like … the trees around here or something.”

Sally and Dancer exchanged a glance, and as Rose picked up her sewing again, she paused, squinting a little as she peered down the road. “Hey, I think I see another traveler.”

Both Sally and Dancer looked in the direction she pointed. A figure was walking ahead of them, but the creature was far enough away nothing could be discerned about it.

After a few moments, it vanished from view thanks to the foliage. Sally could not deny the sinking feeling in her stomach.

But it couldn’t possibly be the black fox, whom Sally knew had to be both mentally deranged and dead. He was shot twice! And then there was all that stupidity about ‘the one’. No, it was just another traveler. A random, harmless traveler.

It’s ok Sally. Nothing bad will happen, nothing at all. Tonight, you’ll be safe and warm in the Summerglade inn. Two nights from now, you’ll be safe and warm in your own bed. No foxes will try to kill you; you’ll sell all the grain and make father proud. Yes. Yes you will.

Sally blinked as she felt Rose shaking her. “Are you alright? You’re staring into the distance all panicky .. is something wrong?”

“Nothing .. just realizing I’m sort of homesick.”

“Wow, already? Who was it who’s always wanted to leave?” Rose teased.

“Eheheh .. yea.” Sally laughed nervously. “I just have to get over the jitters.”

The silence from the woodlands continued, and as the minutes passed, it only got more oppressive. Sally struggled with herself as the hairs on the back of her neck started to stand on end.

It’s not the fox, you’re just a paranoid wreck!

Sally tried to tell herself it over and over, but she was having a hard time keeping from hyperventilating slightly. Dancer kept flicking her ears back and giving her friend quick looks … each time, Sally did her best to smile, though she couldn’t help feel it looked fake.

Each time, Dancer raised an eyebrow, before shaking her head and returning her gaze to the road.

At least ten minutes passed in the manner, and the figure walking ahead of them had seemingly vanished for good. Still, Sally’s fear did not dissipate.

They were passing through a part of the road where the forest was trying to reclaim it, and Dancer was forced to slow down to avoid seedling trees and large, fallen branches.

Suddenly, Sally heard a slight snap from above them. She jerked her head up, in time to see a shadow plummet from the branch, one that landed in the back of the cart.

Both Sally and Rose let out an exclamation of shock, and Dancer half reared at the jolting from her load. Sally felt her heart freeze .. it was him.

She felt as though she was rooted to the spot as Rose gasped, “What are you doing?”

The fox looked at Sally, his sharp orange eyes digging into her very being. Finally, he spoke. “I must say I’m surprised to find you so close to one of the others.”

“Does he know you?” Rose gasped. Sally couldn’t muster a reply.

“Oh, she didn’t tell on me? More the fool for it, I’d say. I did find it odd your parents would send you far away unattended after I nearly killed her.”

“What?” Rose half screamed. “Kill her? What?”

The black fox took a step forward, drawing his cutlass. “Shall I demonstrate with you?”

Something in Sally’s brain turned on at the sight of Rose under such a threat. She jolted forward, almost diving over the back of the driver’s seat and grasping the hilt of the hidden sword. She drew it out with a shredding sound, and the oilcloth fell away as she brought it up to deflect the foxes blow, nearly cutting Rose in the process.

The fox raised an eyebrow. “Most interesting little mouse. But it won’t save you.”

“Where did you get a sword?” Rose gaped. “What is this?”

Sally couldn’t waste energy on a reply as, with a sudden flick of his wrist, the fox sent her tumbling backwards, off the driver’s seat and onto the hard ground. Dancer jolted out of her shocked state and did what was most natural .. she bolted.

Sally coughed miserably and she inhaled dust from the cart wheels that narrowly missed her head. The fox had jumped from the cart and now he towered over her, just as before. She tried to drag herself backwards, but again, he planted a boot on her stomach, pressing downward.

“Too bad little mouse. I could almost admire your resolve, but your family is slated for death. I’ll finish what the Greeneyes started.”

Sally choked on the dusty air as the fox lifted his foot a little, before stomping down again, and again. He moved to continue, but he never got the chance.

The thunder of hooves rang out as a horse burst from the foliage, it’s cloaked rider brandishing a drawn and loaded bow. The whistle of the arrow spilt the air, ending with a solid thud in Sally’s attacker’s ribcage.

The black fox growled in anger and pain as the horse head butted him, sending him falling to the ground. Sally could only watch in amazement as the horse reared, but the fox threw up a paw, and a forcefield of green covered him, deflecting the blows.

The strange rider leapt to the ground, drawing the staff across his back. He stumbled a little as he ran forward, swinging the stick at the forcefield. It shattered as a flash of blue ran down the staff and the newcomer brought it’s strange weapon against the fox.

Sally’s tormentor flew backwards a few paces with a yelp of agony, and he dragged himself onto his paws, staggering away as fast as he could. The horse moved to give chase, but the fox vanished before their eyes with a flash.

The horse stamped a hoof. “A cloaking spell .. typical of him.”

Sally stared at the horse and his cloaked rider in amazement, before she remembered to breathe again and started hacking violently. In a few seconds, the rider was kneeling beside her, lifting her head. By its voice she guessed it was an older male. “Are you alright? I should have been here sooner .. does anything hurt?”

“E ..” Sally began, but her voice would not work. “Everything ..”

“I did think it might.” He sighed, holding both his paws out flat above her. “Ignasa, grant me your healing for this creature, as you have given her a great destiny. May I be your servant in dark times.”

A faint blue glow spread across his palms, and he placed them against her torso. The blue seeped into her fur, and Sally felt her pain drain away. Her benefactor lifted her head once again. “That should relieve the pain you’re in. You will need to take it easy for the next week however.”

Sally coughed a little, asking, “Who .. are you? Was that … was that magic?”

He shook his head. “Magic? I wouldn’t say so. The power and miracles of our Lord Ignasa, yes. And as for me, I am Groddil.”

He removed his hood, revealing silky gray ears and fur, and stunning yellow eyes. Sally stared him. “You’re a fox too?”

“I am, but I am not here to hurt you. Contrary, I am sent to be your guardian.”

Sally sat up gingerly. “My guardian?”

Groddil nodded. “As Ferran is sent to kill you, yes.”

“Ferran is the black fox?”

The paint horse snorted. “More of a demon than a fox if you ask me.”

Groddil sighed. “And this is Stargazer. Can you stand? We must find the other two.”

Sally suddenly made the realization that Dancer, Rose, and the cart were long gone. They had however, left a gaping hole in the foliage where they had veered from the road.

With a wince, Sally dragged herself onto her feet, stumbling forward a little. Groddil grabbed her arm. “Hold on a bit, we’ll find them together.”

He led her over to Stargazer. “You’ll never catch them on foot.”

Something resonated in Sally’s mind about her mother telling her not to talk to shady characters, but fear for her friends won out over that sound advice. As the fox helped her into Stargazer’s saddle, she made the sudden realization he wasn’t short as she had initially thought. His back seemed twisted, keeping him somewhat bent over, and he limped.

She noticed he had seen her surprise, but he said nothing as he handed her the fallen sword. Sally held on tightly as Stargazer knelt down, and Groddil climbed on behind her with a slight, almost unnoticeable wince.

Stargazer stood once more, and started down the path of destruction Dancer and the cart had left.

Sally said nothing for a good while, and the silence was, in her mind, uncomfortable. However, every backwards glance she gave the fox was met by a sincere, but rather forced smile. She got the idea he wasn’t used to smiling.

><><

Tynek laid in a heap on the dirt floor of his prison, slowly waking up. A day had passed without interaction from the guards, or anyone else, and the sun was rising once more.

The patch of skin on his wrist that had been worn raw by shackles had turn deep purple-black, and his paw was swollen grotesquely. As he opened his mouth, he realized how dry it was .. and how hot he felt.

“Uuugggh ..” His moan was a horrible, rasping sound.

There was a rustle from nearby, and a figure loomed over him. “They brought us water .. I saved some for you.”

Tynek blinked up a Kaylar. “Why ..?”

“Because why not?” The otter smiled a little, before coughing. He pushed a bowl of murky water within Tynek’s reach, and the mouse rolled onto his good arm, pushing himself just far enough of the ground to plunge his muzzle into the liquid.

He drank desperately, each swallow of the tepid water bringing relief to his parched throat. It was gone far too soon.

Tynek let himself collapse to the dirt again, groaning a little. “My head …”

“You have a fever.” Kaylar rasped as he lay down nearby. “My advice is to sleep every moment that you can .. it’s doing me a world of good.”

Tynek blinked at him, muttering, “Where are you from?”

Kaylar looked confused. “What?”

“We’re going to die anyway. I just wondered. I’m from the northeast coasts.”

“Oh.” Kaylar coughed. “I’m from the southern reach of the highlands. Lived in a little holt named Willowglen with my family.”

He pulled his ragged sleeve up, revealing a silver tattoo on his shoulder. “I’d just been made a warrior when they took me.”

Tynek fell silent momentarily. “I wish I could remember freedom. But it’s so hazy now. I almost remember my father .. a Bloodwrather, my grandmother always said.”

His companion pricked his ears forward. “A Bloodwrather? Did you inherit it?”

“Not that I’ve seen.” Tynek rolled onto his back. “I wish every day that I had. Then I would be free of this place .. I’d be free ..”

His voice broke a little, before he narrowed his eyes with a deep sigh. “But it looks as though I’ll be free soon enough as it is.”

Kaylar continued to look at him with a sorrow-filled gaze, before he too looked down in silence.

Time crawled by as the sun crept upwards in the heavens, the only sounds the clink of hammer and chisel, the crack of whips, and the cries of seagulls.

Shadows distorted and changed throughout the day; every time Tynek opened his eyes in a feverish nightmare, they had moved. Finally, as the sun began its descent, one of the slavers approached their enclosure.

Tynek watched with half open eyes as the creature opened the door, stepping in and giving the two a look of silent distain. He dropped a dry loaf of bread and a jug onto the floor, before stepping out and locking the gate behind him.

Kaylar rolled over, muttering, “What ..”

He shook himself, blinking at the food. “They’re feeding us?”

Tynek tried to get up, but even his whole limbs wouldn’t obey his wishes. Kaylar winced at his feeble movements and got the loaf and jug, crawling to his side. He broke the bread in half, lifting his companion’s head.

“Here, can you eat?”

Tynek met the otter’s brown gaze with confusion, muttering, “Why .. are you helping me?”

“Because it’s the right thing to do.” Kaylar brought his arm up to his mouth and coughed into it. “Just because I’m trapped here doesn’t mean I shouldn’t help another. In fact, I believe the opposite is true .. we should stick together.”

Tynek weekly took the food and ate as best he could, though it was dry and his head hurt trying to chew it. Kaylar helped him drink, before falling to his own meal and eating ravenously. Halfway through, he looked up at his companion and asked, “Why are they feeding us?”

“Don’t know.” Tynek groaned a little as he closed his eyes again. “Aren’t they going to kill us?”

“I thought that too.” Kaylar leaned against the wall. “However, I think they would have done it already if they planned to. They wouldn’t .. heal us .. would they?”

Tynek didn’t open his eyes. “Never. In all the years I’ve been here, once a slave is like us, they’re dead. Unless … he has other plans.”

“Such as?” Kaylar sounded confused.

Tynek slowly turned his head to look at the otter. “How long have you been here?”

Kaylar coughed raggedly for a little, before sighing, “I don’t even know anymore. Maybe a year.”

“Then you wouldn’t know.” Tynek muttered. “He’ll make sport out of us .. see how long we can hold our own against some monster or a bunch of his soldiers.”

“You mean Daskar, right?”

Tynek groaned, raising his good paw to his forehead and letting his claws slide through his matted hair. “Yes. I hadn’t heard, but if his brother has come to visit, the tyrant always puts on some sort of show for him.”

Kaylar’s expression showed he understood. “So we’re to be the entertainment.”

“It’s all I could possibly guess. Though we’re pretty torn up to be much fun to watch .. I don’t know anymore.” He rolled onto his side, facing away from Kaylar. “Just let me sleep while I still can.”

Tynek could feel the otter’s gaze digging into his back, but he didn’t offer any more conversation. After a few moments, his reality faded away into sleep.

><><

“How far could they have possibly gone?” Sally asked her strange new companions.

The fox’s horse had been taking them along the path of destruction Dancer had made for what seemed forever. Several times the horse had crossed a cleared patch of forest, and they had to pick up her trail on the other side.

Now, from her tracks, she was wandering aimlessly. No longer running, the cart did not cause such a path to follow in.

Stargazer tossed his head. “This one has unwarranted stamina, I’ll give her that. Beyond the bounds of most.”

Groddil said nothing, he just nodded.

Every so often, Sally tried to look at the sky to determine which direction they were going, but most of the time the tree tops blocked out the sun.

The sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach told her that Dancer was lost, going in circles, and had gotten them lost too. So much for ‘go straight to Summerglen’. They’d be lucky to get there by tomorrow night, and Sally couldn’t imagine the creature who was supposed to be buying their grain being in a good mood.

She cupped her paws around her mouth, calling, “Dancer! Rose! Where are you!”

Several birds flew from their perches in nearby trees, but there was no answer.

She cast a glance back at Groddil, but he was staring in a completely different direction from the tracks. “Stargazer, go this way.”

He pointed off into the forest, and without question, the horse did what he said. Sally felt apprehension grow as they left her friends’ trail. “Wait, why aren’t we following them?”

“They’re going in circles. It’ll take forever to catch them at this rate.”

“Uhhh ..” Sally looked oddly at Groddil. “Do you mean you’re giving up? If so, can you please let me down, I’ve got to find them.”

The fox shook his head. “You can’t walk on your own for long. We will find them. Together.”

His voice was firm, and he narrowed his eyes. “Before Ferran does.”

Sally stared at him. “You shot him .. that’s three times he’s been shot now! Why isn’t he dead yet?”

Stargazer paused in looking where he was going to give Sally an incredulous stare. “You don’t know a thing about Necromancers, do you?”

“You mean dark magicians?” Sally looked from the horse to the fox sitting behind her. “He’s one of them …..”

“Yes, you saw his power. At least, a small portion of it. I would have to give him an instantly fatal wound to end him .. and honestly, I’m not sure an arrow could kill him.” Groddil didn’t meet her gaze.

Sally shook her head. “He’s after my sister? Why? What is going on?”

Groddil sighed deeply. “You .. were ill-prepared for this to say the least. Your father should have told you all of this but … I see I will have to.”

“What?” Sally couldn’t comprehend what he could possibly mean.

Stargazer interrupted. “I hear them.”

Sally and Groddil fell silent, listening. Sure enough, the sound of soft sobbing rang through the woodlands. Stargazer hurried in the direction it came from, and soon enough, they came across the cart and its occupants.

Dancer lay on the ground, disregarding the traces, and panted heavily. Rose had her face buried in her paws and kept rubbing tears from her cheeks.

Stargazer shook his head, muttering, “Good thing we’re here.”

Sally leaned forward, calling, “Rose! Dancer! Are you ok?”

Both of them jerked their heads up, staring. And they kept staring, in absolute shock.

Stargazer used this moment to kneel, allowing both of his riders to dismount. As he stood up, Rose leapt off of the cart and ran to Sally, hugging her tightly.

“Ahhhh …” Sally couldn’t help but cry out as pain lanced through her ribs. “Don’t hug me .. please ..”

Rose let go, crying. “I thought I’d never see you again! I thought … I thought …”

She couldn’t finish her sentence, and tears rolled down her cheeks. “I thought you were gone forever.”

“I’m fine .. sort of. Thanks to them.” Sally pointed at Groddil and Stargazer.

To Sally’s dismay, Rose didn’t stop crying. “Rose .. it’s ok. I’m fine .. you don’t have to cry about it anymore.”

“Yes I do!” Rose disagreed. “You could have …”

“Died?” Sally finished. “But I didn’t. No one did .. it’s ok.”

Rose sniffled a little, but she nodded, doing her best to rub her tears away. There was a creaking jingle as Dancer stood, and for the first time, Sally noticed the blood oozing from the shallow gashes along her friend’s sides.

“Dancer! What happened?”

The filly shook her head. “I don’t know .. I just had to run .. I couldn’t stop .. I don’t know why!”

She seemed rather distraught at this. “That fox .. I was terrified .. but I left you Sally, I … I left you.”

Dancer hung her head so low her long mane brushed the ground. “It was like I couldn’t think.”

Sally walked the short distance between them and patted the horse’s neck. “It’s ok. Nothing bad happened.”

“This time!” Dancer protested. “But what about next time? I feel awful .. I’m so sorry Sally!”

Sally sighed. “It’s fine.”

Dancer shook her head as if to contradict that, but as she looked up, she seemed to notice Groddil and Stargazer for the first time. “Wait, who are they?”

Rose had stopped crying enough to silently stare at the two with wide eyes. Sally met the silver fox’s yellow gaze for a second, before stating, “They saved my life. They were the ones who drove Ferran .. I mean the black fox .. away.”

Groddil nodded, but didn’t make a move to speak. He looked .. almost shy, even if Sally had a hard time believing that was truly what she discerned in his demeanor.

Stargazer stretched one leg out in front of him, planting the hoof on the ground and bowing his head. “I am Stargazer, this is Groddil. We’re glad to be of service.”

Rose blinked multiple times, and Dancer looked just as surprised. “How ..? Did you just happen upon us?”

“No.” Groddil stated matter-of-factly. “We’ve been watching you for a long time.”

Stargazer gave him an exasperated look, before sighing, “Not because we wish to harm you in any way. My friend does not have a way with words; we aren’t stalking you, we’re guarding you.”

Both Dancer and Rose stared at the two blankly, before Rose tugged on Sally’s sleeve, voice scared. “Sally, I think this is was mother meant by shady characters.”

“A lot less shady than Ferran.” Sally countered, though she didn’t outright disagree.

Groddil seemed to realize his mistake and did his best to mend it. “If we wanted to kill you, we wouldn’t have saved the girl. We’re on your side.”

Neither Dancer or Rose looked terribly convinced, or comforted. Stargazer sighed heavily. For some reason, Sally felt amusement grow within her, and her uncertainties began to melt away.

Groddil looked frustrated. “It’s a complicated situation to explain, suffice it to say we mean you no harm. The opposite, really.”

Sally felt an honest smile cross her face. “I think I trust him. At least for now.”

Rose frowned nervously. “I don’t think father and mother would approve …”

“I know they wouldn’t.” Groddil tried to reassure her in his own, non-reassuring way. “But they would want you back alive and in one piece, which is why I’m here; to see they do.”

Rose looked pale, but Sally nodded. “We should get back to the road.”

“Please, not yet.” Rose rubbed her arms. “I need a rest .. I was scared out of my mind!”

Dancer sounded a bit sarcastic. “I’m the one who’s bleeding.”

Rose seemed to notice this for the first time. “Oh! What happened?”

“I ran through a forest and almost wrecked your dad’s cart .. Ahhh! Don’t touch it!” Rose had laid a paw on one of the deeper gashes running down Dancer’s flank.

The small mouse gulped. "You look awful .. I'll treat you .. let me get my supplies!"

She ran to the back of the cart, digging through it.

Groddil cleared his throat. “If I may .. perhaps you all need a few hours rest. We will keep watch to see you are safe from whatever may come.”


Chapter 3 Edit

“Get up filth! Today’s the day you die.”

Tynek blinked his eyes open to Hisk’s grating voice, regretting it as the pain of his injuries returned to him. He cried out as someone grabbed him by the metal collar around his neck, dragging him to his feet.

Harsh laughter rang in his ears. “Hellgates, why’d you even resist death? Your one heck of a mess, ain’t you mouse? It won’t even be fun to watch you die .. what kind of a fight can you possibly put up? Tell you what, kiss my feet and I’ll end your misery.”

Tynek turned his head just enough to spit in the slaver’s face.

The weasel dropped him with an angry yell, aiming a kick at him that sent him tumbling to the dust. Tynek gasped as pain splintered up his arm, and he braced himself for more brutal punishment, but the weasel’s companion interrupted. “Gurrad, don’t damage him further.”

Gurrad growled low in his throat, but grabbed Kaylar instead. “How about you? Last chance to die easy!”

“Lay off it.” Hisk grumbled. “Just take them.”

He grabbed Tynek by the collar, lifting him effortlessly from the dust. “Come on mouse.”

Tynek stumbled along silently as Hisk practically dragged him by his chains. He cast a glance behind him at Kaylar. The otter looked far better than when they’d met, keeping up with Gurrad, to the weasel’s chagrin.

The castle keep towered high above them, blocking out the morning sun and casting a dark shadow over the incomplete outer wall. Hisk dragged him over to the side of a small arena at the base of the tower, casting him into it carelessly. Kaylar was thrown in behind him, and Hisk slammed the gate shut with a bang.

Kaylar got up first, coughing a little. Still, he stood straight and squared his shoulders. “What pleasure can they get out of fighting tired slaves? I’ll never understand.”

He turned to Tynek, asking, “Can you stand?”

Tynek slowly got to his feet. “You shouldn’t be worrying about me. Save yourself for as long as you can, it’s what you’ll do anyway.”

Kaylar’s gray eyes seemed sorrowful. “I won’t abandon you.”

“Well, you should.” Tynek moved to cross his arms; then winced. “Everyone for themselves.”

Creatures were gathering around the ring now; most dressed in Daskar’s livery of black and green. A story above the ground, a balcony jutted out of the side of the keep, and as Tynek watched, a snow white ermine walked to the railing.

His flowing, pastel robes swirled around his feet, and his amber eyes were emotionless. Tynek couldn’t hold back his snarl, and neither did he want to.

However, his snarl was replaced by a little surprise as a stately, black furred weasel took her place by his side; and a heather brown male of the same species took the other.

His mouth went a little dry as he asked, “All three of them?”

“What?” Kaylar didn’t take his eyes off of the weasels.

Tynek clarified. “The Daskar siblings. All three are here .. what is going on?”

“Why does the Tyrant even grace us with his presence?” Kaylar’s sarcasm held a bitter note.

Tynek wordlessly shook his head as the white ermine motioned with his right hand, holding it out.

Moments later, a gate at the far end of the arena opened, letting in four guards.

For a few seconds, no one moved. Tynek looked at Kaylar for a moment, muttering, “Thanks. You’re the first creature who’s been kind to me for nearly as long as I can remember.”

Kaylar coughed, pulling the chains between his arms taunt, before bending his knees; bracing himself. “I’m not dead yet, and neither are you. We’ll only survive if we fight for each other.”

Tynek opened his mouth to reply, but Kaylar coughed once more, before bolting forward.

The otter leapt at the first guard, making him stumble back in shock. Kaylar slid to a halt behind his enemy, throwing his chains around the creature’s throat, and jerking his head forcefully back.

The guard could only form a broken scream before his neck snapped and Kaylar let him crumple to the ground, seizing his spear.

Silence blanketed the arena, and shock shone in the remaining guard’s faces. Kaylar didn’t wait for them to recover. He thrust the spear into one of them, running for the next without a second’s hesitation.

The otter drove his knee into the third guard’s chest, taking him to the ground and punching him in the throat with all his considerable strength.

Tynek could only watch in wonder.

However Kaylar could not recover fast enough to attack the final guard, who slashed at the back of his neck with his spear.

Kaylar rolled away, blood spattering to the dust as the spear sliced into his left shoulder.

The guard attacked viscously … desperately.

Kaylar lunged under a spear slash, driving his fist into his opponent’s stomach. As the creature doubled over, the otter grabbed him by his throat, dragging him to the ground and pinning him there.

He struggled momentarily, but soon went limp. Kaylar didn’t release his grip until he was sure the slaver would never move again.

He stood, staring defiantly at the three Daskars, blood staining his paws and shoulder.

Tynek could barely believe his eyes .. Kaylar had not exaggerated when he claimed to be a warrior.

The white ermine didn’t look all that surprised, and seconds later at least ten more guards entered the ring. Kaylar backed up a few steps, bracing himself and narrowing his eyes as he sized up his opponents. Tynek took one step toward the otter, but he held out a paw. “Stay back.”

Kaylar seized his chains below where they connected to the manacles, stretching them out with a clink as five of the guards attacked him.

He dodged to the side, bolting behind the first and slinging his chains around the guard’s neck. However this creature spun around, thrusting with his dagger. Kaylar gasped in pain as the knife sank into his ribs, but still yanked the chains taunt, jerking the guard’s head sideways.

The otter pulled his chains loose of the corpse, staggering backwards as crimson started to stain his rags where the knife hilt protruded from his body.

At that moment, several of the guards started moving toward Tynek. The mouse instinctively scrambled back, but Kaylar bolted for his assailants. The otter yanked the knife from his side, stabbing one of them in the back of the neck. He jerked it free as the creature fell, but couldn’t recover fast enough to dodge the other’s lunge.

He fell to the dirt as the guard scored a shallow hit across his side with a powerful slash from his spear.

Tynek felt a sudden fury awake within him. It only solidified as Kaylar cried out in pain as the guard wounded him; taunting him. It was unlike anything the mouse had felt before; anger, yes, but this? This was ten times stronger.

The Tyrant thought he had no bounds. That he could do anything he desired, and never pay for it.

But it was not so.

Tynek barely comprehended the inhuman sound that ripped itself from his throat; a roar of fury. He was done submitting.

The corners of his vision began to change; morphing from their normal state and turning blood red as he ran forward, driving his shoulder into Kaylar’s attacker’s back.

The guard stumbled, and Tynek drew the dagger tucked into the creature’s belt with his good arm, thrusting it into his middle back; aiming for the spine. The guard collapsed, and Tynek cast a glance at Kaylar, to find the otter was staring at him in shock, almost blankly.

Shouts and exclamations rang out from multiple directions, but they were fuzzy. Tynek spun around to face the remaining guards, and his anger took over.

The last thing he heard was the creak of snapping metal, and the last thing he saw was pure, brilliant red.

><><

Night fell upon a bedraggled group of travelers huddled in a woodland clearing.

Groddil and Stargazer showed no negative effects however, and Sally could not deny her jealously. She lay in the back of the cart on a bed of grain sacks while Rose and Dancer made supper. Stargazer made frequent trips in and out of the surrounding woods with wood for the campfire.

Groddil sat on the driver’s seat, examining the sapphire hilted sword.

Sally turned her head to look up at him. “I thought you healed me ..”

“I healed all wounds that could have become fatal.” The fox corrected. “In other words, I fixed the worst part of the problem. I did say you would need to take it easy.”

Sally sighed, stopping as there was a twinge in her ribs. “Father will be disappointed with me. For multiple reasons.”

Groddil nodded, before returning his gaze to the sword.

Sally frowned grumpily, before asking, “You said you were our guardian. What does that mean; why are we so important?”

“I assume you have noticed the mark on your paw?” Groddil sounded slightly sarcastic.

“Of course.” Sally lifted her right paw, staring at the swirling feather in the fur of her palm. “How could I not?”

Groddil nodded. “Your sister has the same thing. The two of you are marked.”

“What does that mean? It isn’t a weird coincidence?”

“Heavens no.” Groddil finally turned around in his seat, sighing, “I suppose I owe you an in-depth explanation of what is going on. I fear your sister is not yet ready, but you might be. Basically, you cannot return to the life you consider normal.”

Sally looked at him in confusion, and Groddil continued. “I can’t tell you everything because even I don’t know that much. All I can say is that there are four of you marked ones, and it is my duty by the order of my Lord Ignasa to protect however many of you as I can until you are ready to fulfill the task he will give you. What it is I do not know.”

His yellow eyes twinkled a tiny bit. “But it wouldn’t do for me to know all.”

Sally stared at him blankly, her mind reeling as he ran a paw down the flat of the sword blade. “Supreme craftship, this.”

“I don’t .. understand ..” Sally realized her voice was shaking slightly. “I’m not a hero.”

“Not yet, no.” Groddil admitted.

Sally felt apprehension grow within her as she made excuses. “I don’t even know how to use that sword .. or any weapon!”

Groddil raised an eyebrow. “Would you like to learn?”

For a moment, Sally said nothing before nodding. “Of course I would .. I’ve always wanted to. You would teach me?”

Excitement began to shine in her eyes, before it dulled again. “My parents would never let me.”

“True. And I won’t ask you to disobey them.” Groddil leaned over the back of the cart, placing the sword beside her. “But if you ask me to teach you, I won’t refuse.”

Sally met his gaze for a moment, before nodding and looking away. “I’ll think about it.”

Rose walked over, holding a bowl of soup, and Groddil nodded to her, before staring off into the woods. Sally half sat up, then let herself fall back down with a wince. Rose climbed onto the back of the cart, giving both Groddil and the sword nervous glances. “I made you some soup .. can you eat it?”

Sally took the bowl, nodding. “I’m not fatally wounded Rose, I’m just sore. And stiff.”

“Well, I put healing herbs in that, they should help.” Rose fiddled with her paws. “Sally, what do we do now?” Sally ate a spoonful of soup, before sighing, “I don’t know, but Dancer is tired. We’re all tired. So I think our best option is to camp here.”

“What about the grain? We’re terribly behind schedule, but if we don’t sell it ..”

“Father will be disappointed, I know.” Sally sighed. “The first time he chooses to really trust me, and this happens.”

Rose hung her head. “I’m scared. I just want to go home .. even if it means we never get to leave again.”

“I wouldn’t say that.” Sally ate some more of her food. “I don’t want to stay in Evenglade my whole life, even if it means I’m exposed to some dangers.”

Rose frowned, shaking her head. “You almost got killed, and so did I!”

“If I could fight, I could have actually protected you.”

“You did protect me.” Rose folded her paws together. “I would be dead if you hadn’t stopped him …. But where did you get a sword?”

She gave the object a meaningful glance.

Sally sighed. “It was in the floor of the stable .. under it, that is. And please don’t tell father!”

Rose looked disturbed. “Why would you want to keep something like that? Evenglade is safe, you won’t need it there, and …”

Sally finished her soup, handing Rose the bowl. “Rose .. you wouldn’t understand. You … can’t. Look .. never mind.”

Rose sighed, pleading, “Can I sleep in the cart with you?”

“Sure, if you don’t mind the sword too much.” Sally sounded droll.

Her sister frowned, before shuddering. “Oh .. fine. Where did you get that thing anyway?”

“Under the floor of Lightningflash’s stall.” Sally closed her eyes, hoping Rose wouldn’t ask a million more questions.

Naturally, she did. “In the stable? How could it get there?”

Her green eyes suddenly widened. “Wait, what if it’s the black fox’s? What if he put it there and he’s chasing us because he wants it back!”

Sally opened her eyes in irritation. “Rose, it’s sized for a mouse … or at least a creature smaller than a fox. Besides, he has a cutlass. And throwing knives. And magic!”

“Oh.” Rose looked down, before asking, “Who could it belong too?” “I don’t know, the hilt has a name engraved on it; Sayna. So I assume it belongs .. or belonged to someone by that name. But it could have been there for years .. from the state of the oilcloth it was wrapped in, I think it was. I don’t think Sayna is coming back to get it.”

Rose gingerly scooted the sword out of her way, drawing back her paw quickly as though she was afraid to touch it. She laid down on the sacks, stating, “This is all so scary and confusing .. I wish we’d never left.”

Sally said nothing, just met her sister’s gaze for a moment, before turning her head to look upward into the night darkened woodland canopy towering above them. Here and there, a star twinkled through a crack in the dense foliage, but for the most part, the leaves were black shadows.

After a moment, Sally let out a breath, stating softly, “Goodnight, Rose.”

It seemed like no time had passed at all; but Sally awoke to someone shaking her, and Rose’s terrified, high pitched whisper. “Sally! Wake up, quick!”

When she opened her eyes, the forest was white with early morning mist. It was light out, but the natural fog made the trees around the edges of their camp little more than shadows.

Rose’s green eyes were wide as she hissed, “There’s some creepy lady here!”

“Huh?” In her sleepy state, Sally tried to decide which one of their company was said creepy lady. “Me?”

“No! Sit up really slowly and peek over the edge of the cart!” Rose was serious.

Sally slowly did so, finding the pain in her ribs was much better than the previous night. It didn’t hurt much at all, though her torso did feel weak. She crawled to the edge of the cart and carefully peered out.

However she saw nothing but white mist and shadowed trees.

She turned to Rose, shaking her head. “No one is there.”

Sally peeked over the cart again as her sister whimpered, “I saw her, I couldn’t sleep and I went to get the water jug from the fire. She was all hunched over and had stringy hair!”

Sally blinked. “What was she doing?”

“Walking away from the camp, but she turned and saw me!” Rose shivered.

There was the sound of quiet footsteps, and Groddil limped over to them. His forest green hood covered most of his face, but his brushy tail swished across the ground behind him, distinguishing him quickly.

“Groddil, Rose says she saw someone ..”

Sally began, but he interrupted. “I know, I saw her too. She means us ill, and we must be off.”

Sally stood up, picking up the sword far where it was slipping into cracks between the grain sacks. “Who is she?”

“I don’t know for sure, but I sense evil power surrounding her; I am sure she is another Necromancer. Stay near me; within my sight.”

“Another one? But you said the fox was too ..” Rose’s voice was small in the quiet.

Groddil’s eyes were shadowed by his hood, but Sally caught sorrow in them. “The order of Necromancers is a strong one. There are more of them than there are Prophets to fight them … be ready for anything.”

Rose shuddered, hiding behind Sally, who gripped her sword tighter as they waited.

Moments dragged out in silence, before Sally asked, “Where’s Dancer?”

“Stargazer knows what he’s doing.” Groddil sounded sure of himself. “He won’t leave her alone.”

The fox drew his staff from its place across his back, the chunk of blue crystal set in the natural wood glinting in the soft light. His voice was hard. “Come out. If you want them, you’ll need to kill me first.”

“So you are just as keen as they say.” A soft, monotone voice came from directly in front of them, though Sally could see no one.

Groddil’s eyes flashed, and he brought the end of his staff against the ground as blue power flowed from his paw, running along the wood. “Your cloaking spell isn’t fooling anyone.”

A figure flickered into view not ten feet in front of them, and Sally’s eyes widened. The new creature was hunched over and holding a staff at least half again as tall as herself, more realistically, she almost hung from it.

Her dark gown was hooded and ragged, and her dark indigo tipped hair flowed from under the hood to where it was braided in front of her chest. Honestly, Sally could not discern what sort of creature she was.

Her expression never changed. “I’ve heard you are an esteemed Prophet; Groddil. Renown. The greatest of the great.”

She almost sounded as if she meant to taunt him in some way. And it seemed to work.

Groddil’s tail switched back and forth momentarily, before he ran at her, blue flashing down his staff. She leapt unnaturally high with no visible effort allowing the fox to pass beneath her; literally floating to the ground several feet away from him.

“I expected more tact, honestly.” She sounded rather bored. “Where are all your feats of unstoppable power?”

Groddil didn’t answer her, just stood where he was and seemed to collect his wits. Sally could feel Rose trembling beside her and digging her claws into her arm deep enough it started to hurt.

The Necromancer paused as the thunder of hoofbeats rang out and slowly, she smiled, though the tone of her voice remained flat.

“I’d love to stay and test just how powerful you really are, but plenty of time for that later. At this time, I have other duties.”

She waved her staff and vanished before their eyes; though her voice echoed eerily back to them. “Until next time, oh great Prophet.”

Stargazer appeared from the mist, sliding to a quick stop a few feet away. Dancer was close behind him.

“Is everything alright?”

Groddil sighed, before putting the staff in its place across his back, the blue fading from his paw. “No. We need to leave this place. As fast as we can.”

Sally looked at Rose, who hadn’t stopped shaking and still clung to her sister’s arm. “Uh .. Rose, you’re hurting me ..”

Rose looked down at how her claws were sunk into Sally’s arm, and quickly let go. “Sorry! Sorry … I just … who was she?”

This was directed to Groddil, who clenched his paws. “I don’t know for sure. But from her aura, I’d guess she’s Ferran’s apprentice. She has a similar feeling about her.”

“Wonderful.” Stargazer sounded sarcastic. “It figures he’d pick up a sidekick since we last saw him.”

The skin on the back of Dancer’s withered twitched randomly, causing her to shudder suddenly. “I don’t like the way the morning feels .. can we get out of here?”

“Yes.” Groddil started walking to the cart. “And I agree with you.”


It didn’t take long to stomp out the dying embers in the remains of the fire, and hitch Dancer to the cart. Groddil rode beside them, and both he and Stargazer seemed tense.

Rose read the map, but didn’t say anything. She just stared at it with a worried look on her face.

At first Sally took little note of it, but as the morning wore on, the mist didn’t wear off. Still, she told herself she was being paranoid again.

However, when several hours had passed without a peep of birdsong and the fog still clung to the earth as thick as ever, she could no longer deny her suspicions. “What is wrong with this mist?”

“It’s a spell.” Groddil had a disgusted look on his face. “She means to trap us here.”

Rose gasped as she heard this. “We’re lost?”

“We would be, normally.” Was all he offered.

Sally pressed him. “Well can you break it?”

“I’ve been trying.” Groddil frowned at the two sisters. “Please let me focus.”

Silence blanketed the forest again, before Dancer asked, “Shouldn’t we stop moving then?”

Groddil opened his eyes again, sighing with longsuffering. “No, these spells have a way of drugging their victims. The only reason you aren’t snoring away at this moment is Ignasa’s protection … basically a counter-spell I’ve cast, to put it in terms you understand. Now keep moving it the direction I take and save questions until we’re out of this; I need silence.”

He stopped talking once he ran out of breath, and inhaled slowly, closing his eyes as his posture relaxed.

They continued walking in the complete, eerie silence, and Sally honestly started to lose her grasp of time. The mist was so complete it hid the sky and left now clue how high the sun had climbed.

She didn’t know how far they had traveled, or in what direction. In fact, she started to feel disoriented in general. What were they doing here in the first place? Rose leaned against her shoulder, doing her best to keep her eyes open. Dancer just trudged along.

Slowly, ever so slowly, the mist began to thin, and the air began to clear. Sally cast a glance at Groddil, finding he was hunched over on Stargazer’s back, eyes closed as his hair drooped in his face.

“Are you ok?” She asked, concerned.

Groddil smiled weakly as if to try and ensure her he was. “I’m fine .. her spell was stronger than I expected.”

Stargazer looked haggard as well, but he kept walking. “She’s a spellcaster, no doubt about it.”

“Right, physically weak but spiritually deadly, make a note of that my friend.” Groddil patted his horse’s neck.

Rose stirred, blinking, and muttering, “Where did all the mist go?”

Sally sat up straight, trying to shake away the feeling of numbness. “We got free of it.”

“Oh .. good then.” Rose stretched and yawned. “Where are we?”

Almost instinctively, they all stopped walking and looked around the woodlands. Groddil rubbed his forehead, sighing, “Good question.”

“We’re lost?” Rose asked, near frantically.

“As of this moment.” Groddil stated flatly. “Look, don’t panic.”

He looked at Rose with an almost pleading look in his eyes, as if he guessed how worked up she could get. “I’ll get us out of these woods. Take a quick rest and let me get my bearings.”

Dancer sighed with relief and started cropping up all the sparse grass she could find. Rose looked frustrated. “How can you eat at a time like this?”

“Actually,” Dancer stated, pausing now and then to swallow, “This is the perfect time to eat … it’s relaxing.”

Rose groaned, before turning to Sally. “What are we going to do? We’ll get home by tomorrow night .. right?”

Sally looked at Groddil, consulting Stargazer in a voice quiet enough she couldn’t make out what he said. “Uhm, maybe?”

Rose stared at her sister for a moment, before looking down. Sally sighed, trying to assure her with confidence she didn’t feel. “It’s going to work out. We’ll get home .. somehow.”

><><

Erwin walked through the stone hallway with Truman, who was energetically commenting on the slave.

“Bloodwrath sister, can you imagine what one could do with that? It’s a shame he’s just a mouse .. if I had Bloodwrath …”

“We would probably all die.” Erwin stated sarcastically.

Truman rolled his eyes. “Yes but think about it .. we could use that mouse as a weapon of destruction!”

“If you could control him. Still, it’s a shame the Greeneyes will get him.” Erwin curled her lip.

Her brother was silent for a moment, before changing the subject. “He killed ten guards without batting an eyelash … he tore metal chains in two!”

“He almost tore his arm off.” Erwin couldn’t resist putting a damper on Truman’s obvious enjoyment of the slave’s power.

She shook her head. “From all I have read and what I’ve seen today, Bloodwrath is a curse, not a toy or a weapon. He lost all ability to think or feel pain. I imagine he’ll soon be dead.”

Truman looked disgruntled. “Really sister, why must you point out all the negative effects when I’m trying to enjoy the most astounding thing I’ve seen to date. He’s a novelty … a deadly one to be sure, but something rare and amazing.”

Erwin didn’t answer him .. what was the point? He kept on about how fascinated he was, and she ignored him for the most part, but snapped back into reality as he asked, “You think he really is related to the old kings of Mossflower?”

“I wouldn’t know.” Erwin kept her voice flat. “He could be anything under how filthy he is.”

She stopped at the door to her room, stating, “Look Truman, this isn’t something either of us should mess with. Let Badrang deal with it, when it comes to the Greeneyes, it’s best to keep as much distance as possible .. you know that.”

The scruffy brown stoat sighed heavily. “I suppose you’re right as always.”

“Of course I am.” Erwin’s blue eyes twinkled mischievously for a moment, before she crossed her arms. “And just to get your mind off it, I heard Ripfang brought some fine wines from Mossflower the last time he was here. Badrang’s been hiding them in the cellar.”

“He did?” Truman looked betrayed. “Awful of him. Well then, I’m off to pilfer some, thanks for the tip!”

Her brother hurried off, a characteristic spring in his step. Erwin watched him for a moment, before she opened the stout wooden door to her chambers and stepped inside. She walked directly to an ornately carved dresser, sitting down in front of it and gazing at her reflection a while. Her blue eyes stared back and she rested her head on her right paw, marked with a splash of white that reached her wrist.

After a moment, she reached down and slid open a drawer in the dresser, pulling out a small leather pouch. “Fates and Lords of earth and sky, show me the path we should take regarding this mouse. Show me what fate lies before my brothers and I.”

She shook the bag for a bit, before absently reaching in and drawing out a flat piece of lavender quarts that twinkled in the sunlight as she took note of the etched symbol on one side.

Erwin set it down, before repeating the process until she had five of them lined in a row down her dresser.

She stared at the crystals, before rubbing the side of her temple. “Not good .. ill fortune resides with either choice .. I see.”

A sudden harsh knock made her jump, before she called, “Come in, brother.”

Her elder brother walked into the room, his white hair falling messily in front of his amber eyes .. he looked as though he’d been running.

“Are you alright?”

“What do you think?” He snapped, brushing his hair back. “I need you to read the omens; tell me what’s in store.”

Erwin looked at what was already sitting at her desk and shook her head. “Sometimes it’s better to face the future as it comes, rather than lay awake worrying about it.”

Badrang looked angry for a moment, before grumbling, “Is it that bad?”

“Well it’s not sunshine and rainbows.”

“It never has been.” Her brother sighed. “Look, stop being sarcastic and help me; it’s your job isn’t it?”

Erwin shook her head. “Badrang, I just know that you do not want to hear what I have to say. We go through this every time ..”

Badrang scowled. “As ruler of this castle, I command you tell me the future.”

“If you insist.” Erwin turned to the crystals on her desk. “From all I see here, the future is uncertain.”

Her brother huffed, and she held up her white paw. “But there are several distinct turns it could take. None of them have positive outcomes .. at least, completely positive. But then, the omens tell what might be, destiny has a way of changing.”

She paused, but under Badrang’s persistent stare, she gave in. “As we are now, we have several choices. Give the mouse to the Greeneyes if he lives, put him out of his misery and pretend it never happened, or keep him as a weapon like Truman wants. Which, as you may have guessed, is the worst course of action.”

“Undoubtedly.” Badrang agreed.

Erwin sighed. “The only problem is, of the other two scenarios, neither comes to a good end. I can’t see the final outcome, but all I know is trouble is coming. For all of us.”

Badrang tapped his foot on the floor. “You’re being vague again.”

“Omens are vague.” Erwin shrugged. “Mere shadows of possible outcomes. All I can do is warn you to be careful. And whatever you do, to get rid of that mouse in some way. He is ill fortune for our family.”

“I know that much; he’s a monster.” Badrang raised an eyebrow. “But I feel you’re hiding something from me.”

Erwin shook her head. “What could I possibly stand to gain from doing that?”

Her brother closed his amber eyes, sighing. “I don’t know, but I sense something quite shady from you at the moment.”

Erwin opened her mouth to reply, when the door burst open and Truman strode in, grinning and holding a bottle of wine. “Hey brother, this is prime stuff! Old Ripfang brought this, eh? I didn’t know he had such good taste!”

Badrang clenched his teeth, growling, “Where did you get that?”

“The cellar, where else? What do the omens say today?”

“What do you care?” Badrang snarled, pointing out the door. “Just go drink your stolen alcohol and get out of here.” Truman leaned against the wall, taking a swig from the bottle and ignoring his brother’s order. “You’re worried brother; have a drink! It’ll sooth your nerves .. works every time for me.”

Erwin turned around to face the two, snapping, “If you’re going to get drunk, don’t do it in here! Out, let me consult the omens further .. and Badrang, try not to worry too much. As reliable as my information has been, it’s also been wrong. Take the night off if you need to.”

Her snowy brother glared at her momentarily, before nodding. “Fine. Maybe I will have a drink.”

Truman pushed himself upright, slinging his arm around his taller sibling’s shoulders. “Perfect! Come on then, it’s been too long since you relaxed and it’s telling. We’ll worry about mice and the Greeneyes tomorrow; it’s not as if our little monster is going anywhere …”

His voice faded as he led Badrang down the hall, and after a moment Erwin stood. There was no need to consult omens again when they’d told her all she needed to know.

She strode over to a tall wardrobe in the corner of her stone room, pulling a satchel from it and slinging it over her shoulder.

Erwin opened her door, taking a quick look into the hallway, before she closed her door and started striding down the passage. Her fast walking transitioned to running fairly quickly, her flat shoes slamming on stones as her blue skirt fluttered about her legs.

Her cape flowed behind her and her satchel slapped against her side, rattling the contents. Already, she might be too late to change the fate the omens had warned of.

Out of breath, Erwin arrived at the heavy, intimidating door to the dungeons. She paused only long enough to regain the ability to stand up straight again, before pushing the door open on its groaning hinges.

The two sentries playing cards were so startled, one of them dropped his hand, scattering the tattered game pieces on the floor. They jumped up quickly, one of them bowing low in greeting. “Milady .. I .. we didn’t expect ya …”

She shook her head. “No need to fear, I am simply checking on a little problem for Lord Badrang. One of you, take me to the mouse.”

The ferret who had addressed her first stammered, “A healer is with him ..”

“Well, I am quite qualified in that area. Now hurry, the sooner I am out of this place, the better.”

The guard paused, before nodding. “Er .. right. This way milady.”

Erwin followed him deeper into the dungeon, lit by open torches bracketed to the wall. As she walked along, she saw the occasional filthy prisoner staring at her from a cell, but many were empty. Soon, the ferret pulled keys from his belt and unlocked one of the cells. “Eh .. well, a healer was here .. they must have done what they could already.”

He stammered as Erwin slipped past him into the chamber. “I’m sure they did. I’ll make sure they did it properly .. I’ll let myself out.”

“Uhm .. are you sure you want to be alone with .. that thing?” The guard looked nervous.

“I am. Why would I fear a dying mouse? Now leave me, I need to focus.” Erwin stared sharply at him until he bowed and retreated, before she knelt beside the crumpled heap of fur at her feet.

It was hard to believe this was the monster than had singlehandedly slain twenty two guards, this broken creature on the floor. But the warped, shattered chains still hanging from his arms were proof. Erwin quickly dug a simple key from her satchel and unlocked them.

She slipped the bloody things off the mouse’s crimson wrists, the right one so swollen it was nearly futile. However, she got the manacle free of him at last. Her nose wrinkled as she saw the lack of attention he’d been given, and guessed the previous healer had taken one look and left.

Erwin grabbed a bowl and jar from her satchel and poured the contents of a bottle into it. She began wiping blood from the mouse’s wrists, scowling at how the right one bent far more than it should.

It had to be horrifically broken, and it truly was a miracle bones weren’t jutting through the skin.

The black weasel pulled a small bottle of alcohol from her satchel, uncorking it and pouring some into the wound itself. Even in his unconscious state, the mouse whimpered softly.

As much trouble as she knew this one could become, Erwin could not deny she was glad he didn’t have to feel in full the terrible injuries he’d sustained.

“I’d give you a day, mouse.” She muttered as she began feeling his arm. “If not for the omens, I’d say you’d be dead in the hour. But you are meant to live, aren’t you. For some reason, fate chose you to be the lucky one … or perhaps in truth, the unluckiest of all.”

She began straightening what bones she could, shaking her head. “There’s no fixing this mess ..”

As Erwin felt his crushed paw, she paused. The broken state it was in was not the extent of its abnormality.

She seized her cloth and water, quickly washing the blood and dirt of years away. Even in the dim light, she saw it, and for one moment, it seemed as though her heart refused to beat.

Her gasp rang out sharply in the quiet prison, and she stroked the swirling, mused, but still quite obvious star mark on his palm. Eight pointed, running from the base of his paw too where his fingers began, and formed by the now obviously golden fur … Erwin very nearly dropped his arm.

It took every fiber of her being not to recoil.

She set his arm down, sliding away slightly. How? And why? What could this mean?

She fumblingly grabbed her pouch of runestones, shaking as she rubbed in between her paws and muttered breathlessly, “Fates and Lords of earth and sky, show me this one’s path in full; I beg you!”

As she placed the chips of lilac granite in the required order, her paws shook so much she nearly dropped the pouch. Once the five runes sat in their row, she shook her head, murmuring, “No! How can this be?”

Erwin turned back to the mouse, blue eyes wild. She scrambled toward him on her knees, claws reaching for his throat. “You monster! I’ll kill you before you do that!”

She grabbed his neck in her paws, ready to strangle him, ready to let her brother think he died of his wounds .. but the bag of granite chips fell to the ground, scattering them on the stones. Some rolled into cracks in the floor, some disappeared into the shadows, but only one landed next to her five, its face side up.

Slowly, Erwin released her hold on the mouse, moving toward this stone enough to read it.

Her eyes grew wide, and her mouth opened slightly, as she picked up the granite piece, her gaze darting from it, to the five on the floor.

“No .. no .. that can’t be .. I couldn’t … I wouldn’t ….”

She scooted backwards far enough to slump against one of the cold stone walls and clasp a paw to her forehead.

Slowly, tears formed in her eyes, though they didn’t fall. The only thing she could think to whisper she whispered over and over. “No .. no .. I didn’t need to know this .. I didn’t want .. to choose!”

The mouse’s face was turned in her direction, his eyes closed, his muddy, red-stained hair sliding onto the floor as he breathed slowly. Erwin growled under her breath at him .. she hated him; nothing would have satisfied her more than to drive a dagger into his wretched heart.

Yes, now she despised him, for what he was, and what he would be.

Still, for all she hated him … she needed him.

Erwin forced herself to crawl back to his side, though she desire to leave him .. to change fate itself … but she couldn’t. Not now.

She splinted his arm, making sure to cover his star mark, before forcing him to drink a little water. Some dribbled out of his mouth, but he swallowed enough to satisfy her. She placed some old bandages under his head, then did her best to collect as many of her runestones as she could.

To frazzled to think of what more she could do, Erwin stumbled out of the cell, into the corridor. The front of her dress was stained from kneeling and crawling on the floor, and she doubted her face looked any better. She could barely hold in her tears of fear and frustration .. and shock, more than any.

The weasel forced herself to calm down, wiping the dampness from the fur of her cheeks, brushing off the front of her dress and shoved the emotion out of her eyes. No one could see.

The guards did look at her in confusion as she walked into the room and past them without a word. The ferret who had escorted her in quickly asked, “Milady, are you alright?”

Erwin turned her head to look at him, pasting her false, tired smile across her muzzle. “I’m fine. I will return in the morning to see if he lives.”

She strode away without another word, cape snapping behind her.

How she wished that in the morning, the mouse would be dead, unable to harm all those he would ruin.

But for her, fate had never been so kind.



Chapter 4 Edit

Brome sat at the kitchen table with his parents, listening silently to their conversation and holding back when he thought to interject.

His mother looked somewhat unsettled, but forced a smile as she spoke. “Sally and Rose must be in Summerglen right now … selling wares just like adults.”

“Dear, you were the one who convinced me to send them.” Urran pointed out. “They’ll be fine, between our girls and Dancer, there’s at least a bit of common sense.”

“Oh I know, I know.” Aryah fussed. “I just can’t help but worry about them.”

Brome sighed, and ate some of his food. His mother had been fretting since Sally, Rose, and Dancer had left. It wasn’t like something that horrible could happen to them .. Sally was there. Sally, who’d pounded Roderick’s face into the dust on several occasions. Sally, who snuck out every day to practice battles or something when she thought the whole family was still asleep.

Sally, the one creature Brome could never be, but longed to.

She was out in the world right now, helping their family. And where was he? Stuck at home chopping wood and washing dishes and brushing chaff out of Lightingflash’s mane every night.

Brome stabbed his fork into the greens on his plate with a clink of metal on metal.

“Is something wrong with your diner son?” His father raised an eyebrow.

“No.” Brome said it sullenly, but gulped under his parents’ disapproving looks. “Uh .. It’s great.”

He quickly shoveled a pile of salad into his mouth, munching on it noisily. “Love it.”

“Manners sweetheart.” His mother sighed. “They were made to be minded.”

Brome swallowed quickly and painfully, wincing as the lettuce slid roughly down his throat. Both his mother and father continued to look at him a few moments longer, before returning to their conversation.

“Well .. they’ll be back tomorrow night at least ..”

Brome let both their voices fade into routine monotony, taking another bite of salad and tipping his head back to look at the kitchen ceiling. His thoughts weren’t on it however, they were someplace far away.

He’d be an adventurer one day .. or maybe a treasure hunter. The notion of befriending a horse and riding around the world in search of gold and jewels sounded quite appealing at the moment.

Perhaps he would even get to see the great southern desert, or the snow-bound isles of the north.

He had to momentarily leave his fantasy to take another bite of his supper, and as he chewed it, he glanced into the front room and out the large window that gave a good view of town square.

There were a group of creatures out there, gathered around the fountain.

No, they were gathered around a brightly decorated cart drawn by a black horse. Brome quickly ate the rest of his salad, wiping his muzzle on a cloth napkin and asking, “May I be excused?”

His mother glanced at his plate, before his father nodded. “You may. I expect you’re headed down to the inn for the latest news, so be sure to return before dark.”

Brome stood, sliding his chair into its proper place at the table, before nodding and hurrying out the front door. He could see the newcomers better now; well enough to see there were about five of them, aside from the horse.

His bare paws skidded on the cobblestone pavement a little as he hurried toward the cart, intent on being in the middle of everything.

As he wormed his way to the front of the small crowd, one of the creatures, tan with hair like raven wings, leapt onto the driver’s seat of the cart, spreading its arms wide. “Creatures, my good gentlemice and maidens, no need to push or shove. I can assure you will all see glorious things tonight!”

Brome blinked in wonder as he stared at the speaker. He’d never seen a rabbit outside of a book until now, and their ears were just as ridiculous looking as pictures portrayed them to be. They seemed far too large for the creature’s head; and with no tail visible beneath his russet, flowing cape, white shirt, and black trousers, he truly looked top-heavy. Brome couldn’t get the image of the rabbit falling forward off the cart from the weight of his ears out of his head.

However, despite his ungainly appearance, he seemed to have the concept of balance down extraordinarily well.

“I am Ballaw the illusionist, and we are the Rambling Rosehip Players! We hail from the far-off land of Southsward and we crossed the Great Desert to be here tonight! And I’m sure you’re wondering why they call me the illusionist … so I’ll demonstrate.”

He held his black tipped paws out. “Now you see me ..”

There was a swishing sound, and a sudden, small explosion that dosed Ballaw in smoke. His voice seemed to come from nowhere as it cleared, revealing the spot he’d stood in to be empty. “Now you don’t.”

Brome stared in amazement, forgetting to clap even if many around him did. His mouth was getting a little dry from having fallen open, so he shut it, swallowing as another of the performers, a slight maiden in red, glittering dress, stepped forward. Her strange pink eyes glowed with life as her feminine but strong and theatrical voice reached all of her audience. “We have many more wonders to share with you all; death-defying stunts, acting, and even magic! We’ll put on a show here, tomorrow night, be sure not to miss the wonders of the southern lands!”

Ballaw leapt beside her from the shadows of the cart, nodding. “Just a silver piece a creature to watch the show! Don’t miss this once in a life-time opportunity!”

This time, Brome clapped with the others. However, while the crowd slowly dispersed, he chose to follow the Rambling Rosehip Players to the grassy knoll just outside Evenglade that they chose for a campsite.

Soon the air was filled with clinks of mallets against metal stakes as tents were raised and a campfire was built and lit. Brome stood on the outside of it all, brain buzzing with questions, but unsure of how to start asking them.

Presently, Ballaw the rabbit noticed him and walked over.

Brome blinked up at him in wonder. Truly, he had a strange visage, one unlike any the young mouse had seen before. Not just his species, but how he dressed and walked, but most noticeably, how his eyes sparkled with mystery. His odd, dark red eyes that Brome found he could barely look away from.

They seemed a little sunken, almost as though Ballaw didn’t get enough sleep.

“So, enamored with the lives of traveling performers now?”

Brome nodded enthusiastically. “Yes! What all do you do? Plays? I’ve never seen a play, but I’ve read about them and I’ve always wanted to see one. How did you disappear like that? Are you actors or a circus?”

Ballaw held up a paw. “Whoa, slow down kid .. of course we do plays, I write the plays.”

He looked quite proud of himself. “I am, in fact, a master of literature. And yes, we are a circus too.”

“How can you be both?” Brome asked. Ballaw laughed. “The obvious answer; because we want to.”

Brome grinned at this, asking, “Can you teach me about plays? I’ve always sort of wanted to be in one.”

“Can I?” Ballaw raised an eyebrow. “Of course I could, but I’ve never offered private lessons. Besides, I’ve got a show to prepare for.”

“Please! I’d .. help you set up or something. At least let me watch you practice!” Brome fenagled.

The rabbit ran a paw through his black hair, before nodding. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt as long as you don’t get underpaw. On that note, can you care for horses?”

Brome nodded quickly. Ballaw looked momentarily thoughtful, before shrugging and pointing to the black horse. “Well then, that is Soot. Brush him down and I might be willing to teach you a magic trick or two.”

Brome’s grin made his face ache as he hurried over to the horse, Ballaw following leisurely behind him. The black horse snorted when the young mouse held forth his paw, stating, “I’m Brome, how are you sir?”

Ballaw laughed. “He doesn’t talk.”

“He doesn’t?” Brome looked wonderingly at Ballaw as the horse pushed its muzzle against his palm, whiskers tickling.

“No, look into his eyes.” Ballaw instructed. “He’s gentle, but he was once feral. He doesn’t think like you or me.”

The rabbit handed Brome a brush that had been lying on a stack of boxes, and he took it, but didn’t move to brush the horse that was now sniffing his wild red hair. “Why? What happened to him?”

“Oh, nothing. He was born that way, haven’t you ever seen a feral animal before?” Ballaw motioned Brome turn around. “Also watch yourself, he seems to think your hair is a new sort of grass.”

Brome yelped as there was a tug on his locks, and he had to pull his hair away from the horse. Soot snorted reproachfully and took a bite of real grass, stomping a back hoof. Brome approached him carefully, brushing him lightly, unsure of how he’d respond.

Ballaw laughed. “He’s a horse, not a jackal. He won’t bite much more than that frizz on your head.”

Brome started brushing more firmly, asking, “Jackal?”

“Nasty dessert creatures .. like foxes, but bigger. You don’t want to run into a feral one of those … matter of fact, it’s best not to run into any at all.”

Dust flew out of Soot’s coat, causing Brome to cough. But he kept at it, wanting to learn the magic trick Ballaw had promised. “So .. creatures can just .. turn .. wild?”

Ballaw shrugged. “I don’t know, all I know is some are and some aren’t. There’s plenty of legends surrounding it but I never had time to learn them all .. go ask Celandine, she’s the history fanatic. I make my own worlds.”

Brome paused as he finished brushing, asking, “Should I pick his hooves too?”

“No, that’s alright. Come over here and have a seat.”

With a wide smile, Brome did as he was told, plopped himself down on the worn wooden trunk beside the rabbit.

Ballaw pulled a dull iron coin from his satchel, flipping it deftly into the air and watching it gleam dully in the light of the setting sun; before catching it easily. “How about I teach you how to make this disappear, eh?”

Brome nodded vigorously, holding his paw as Ballaw dropped the item into it.

“It’s all about tricking the eyes of those watching you. Not really magic.”

“My sister thinks some creatures can actually use real magic.” Brome stated. “You can’t?”

“Nah, I never got into all that weird superstitious stuff. Good, honest tricks suit me better.” He took the coin back, rubbing it between his paws and holding forth two closed fists. “Now, which is it in?”

Brome shrugged, before pointing to Ballaw’s left paw. The rabbit opened it to reveal it was empty, and Brome pointed to his right one.

Ballaw opened that fist as well, grinning, “Ha! It’s in neither! Got you there young laddo, now how about you give it a try?”

He held his arm out, and the coin dropped out of his sleeve and into Brome’s lap. The young mouse took the coin, rubbing the cold metal between his paws, but dropped it into the grass instead of slipping it into his sleeve. Ballaw momentarily choked on his laughter, before patting his shoulder. “No worries lad, practice makes better. Not perfect, nothing is perfect, but better at least.”

><><

Sally dragged a large, long dead pile of brush towards the little campsite. She struggled with how awkward it was and how it kept wanting to catch bits of woodland and drag them along with it.

She left the branch by the fire and walked over to Dancer, who was rubbing her head against a tree. Sally raised an eyebrow. “Tell me you don’t have lice in your mane.”

“I hope not!” Dancer sounded annoyed, but didn’t stop rubbing her head against the bark. Bits of it clung to her black forelock like snow. “My forehead just itches .. I can’t say why.”

She stepped back, shaking herself vigorously as Sally asked, “Did you sleep in Poison Ivy? Rose might have a salve for that.” Dancer heaved a sigh. “I don’t know. It itches off and on and it’s been doing this for a few weeks … the troubling thing is it’s only on my forehead.”

She suddenly thrust her face a couple inches from Sally’s, asking in a distraught voice, “Is it a horrible disease? Am I dying? Are there any deadly illnesses that start with itchy foreheads?”

Sally barely batted an eyelash at this sudden outburst, shrugging, “Ask Rose, she’s better at diagnosing things.”

Dancer nodded quickly, before trotting over to Rose and pestering her.

Groddil looked up from poking the fire with the end of his staff, which Sally noticed showed no signs of burning. “The young filly is prone to dramatics.”

“Uh, yea.” Sally nodded after a moment. “Quite.”

“And your sister is used to being comfortable.” Groddil continued.

Sally sighed, nodding and giving Rose a sideways look even though she was at least ten feet away.

“So, that begs a question.” Groddil stirred the fire, sending sparks flying into the night sky. “What makes you Sally?”

The mouse blinked, asking, “Excuse me?”

“What makes you different from everyone else in this world?”

“I … don’t know.” Sally finally had to admit. “I’ve always sort of wondered I guess.”

“Hmm.” Groddil gave her a long look, as though he was thinking, before turning back to his fire without another word.

Finding that a rather awkward way to end a conversation, Sally blurted, “What makes you different from everyone else?”

Groddil turned his head to look at her again. “What do you think defines me?”

“Uh .. mystery.” Sally admitted. “I really don’t know much of anything about you.”

Groddil paused, before nodding. “Fair enough.”

Sally expected him the elaborate, but he didn’t. So she asked, “When will Ferran and that .. apprentice of his, attack us again? I mean, I know you don’t know for sure, but don’t you have any ideas?”

“Within the week.” Groddil promised.

“Within the week?” Sally stared at him. “But we’ll be back to Evenglade before that …”

She slowly stopped talking, before sighing, “We won’t, will we?”

“Even if you were, do you think that would stop them? You and your sister are marked, and they intend to kill the both of you. At this point, it would be far more dangerous for you in a single place than if we keep moving.”

Sally blinked in alarm. “Will they ever stop hunting us?”

Groddil shook his head. “Not until you are dead; or they are.”

Sally flattened her ears slightly from fear, before asking, “But you can kill them .. right?”

“Perhaps.” Groddil shook his head slowly. “Ferran is skilled at what he does, and I’ve only seen a small piece of his apprentice’s power. Ignasa will protect you always, whether he uses me to do it or not.”

“Could I .. ever be able to fight them? To protect Rose and Dancer?”

Groddil raised an eyebrow. “Haven’t you nearly died enough? Besides, I thought your parents did not approve of fighting.”

Sally rubbed her ribs ruefully, remembering how much pain Ferran had caused her. It was almost gone now, nothing but a fading ache. “They don’t .. but maybe … maybe I do.”

“Tell me, what made you change your mind so suddenly? Just yesterday you seemed unsure. It’s not as if Ferran almost killed you again.” Groddil sounded .. interested. “At least, not yet.”

“I can’t keep from thinking of when he does. I don’t want to do nothing. Nothing is what I’ve done all my life.” Sally’s eyes shone fiercely. “I don’t want to watch my sister or Dancer get hurt. I don’t know what I would do if they died .. I’d go mad with guilt knowing I could have saved them. I love my parents, but that doesn’t mean I have to agree with them all the time .. teach me to fight, Groddil. I’m ready.”

His yellow gaze grew solemn, more so than usual. “Are you sure of that? You understand that raising a blade against another means you have to be willing to kill them. Can you kill a living creature, knowing that they have a soul just as you? If not, you can’t truly be ready.”

Sally swallowed a little, lifting her head high. “I don’t know. I can’t know until the moment I do it, can I?”

“Hmm.” Groddil stroked his scruffy beard. “Yes, that would be the test.”

He stood, twirling his conspicuously burn-free staff. “I suppose I can only give you the skills, and we shall see how you put them to use.”

Sally cast a glance over at Rose, who was giving Dancer a hug and probably reassuring her that she was not sick. “Right this minute?”

“Why not?” Groddil asked.

“Uhh ..” Sally scuffed a bare paw in the gritty forest floor. “Rose will tell on me.” “Things done in part are better off left alone. If you make a choice, shouldn’t you be prepared to face the consequences?” Groddil looked quizzical.

Sally hung her head for a moment, giving Rose a long sideways look. “I suppose so.”

She turned to Groddil, straightening her shoulders. “Where do we start?”

“First,” Groddil spoke as he searched through the pile of brush for our campfire, finding a thick, moderately straight branch. He gave it to Sally, finishing, “Show me what you already know.”

Sally took the stick, following Groddil a little ways from the crackling fire. He turned to face her, twirling his staff in his left paw. Come to think of it, he did almost everything with his left paw. “Attack me.”

“How?” Sally asked, wondering what strategy he’d suggest.

“I don’t care.” A little mischief shone in his eyes. “The result will be the same either way.”

Sally slowly adopted a stance, positioning her feet wide apart and taking the time to size Groddil up from head to toe. He was short for a fox, but even at that, he towered over her. He always limped from his right side, and she noticed that paw was curled inward unnaturally. He paid no mind to it; he never seemed too.

Suddenly, she threw herself forward, stick leading the way. Just like Ferran had, Groddil seemed to slide out of her path of attack like water .. the movement made her think of ripples on a still pool after a rock had been tossed in.

Groddil moved so much like Ferran, it unnerved her. The only difference was he was coming from the opposite side the black fox did, so he was the mirror image.

The force with which Sally had thrown herself forward carried her several steps too far. Her paws caught on a rock and she fell on her face.

“Well, that was as unspectacular as I expected.” Groddil sounded the closest to laughter that she had heard yet. “You are very dead.”

Sally picked herself up off the ground just as Rose came running over. “What is going on here?”

She looked accusingly at Groddil. “What are you doing?”

“Rose, stop.” Sally pleaded, though she doubted it would do much good. “I asked Groddil to teach me.”

“Teach you what?” Rose sounded distressed. “I turn my back on you for five minutes and you’re getting hurt; why do you do these things?”

“Lass, I offered to teach your sister to spar. Moreover, she is not permanently damaged in any way.” Groddil tried to explain.

Rose stared at him, then Sally. “Spar? Sally, father and mother do not approve of violence, they wouldn’t want this!”

Sally opened her mouth to reply, but Rose had always been a step ahead of her sister when it came to vocalization. “Besides, you’re a lady, and we don’t fight like this! Please, you’ll just get hurt, you can’t really expect to win a sword fight .. you can’t!”

“Rose ..”

“I won’t let you! You’re crazy .. you’ll get killed!”

“Rose!” Sally yelled, grabbing her sister by the shoulder. “I have to do this! We aren’t going to be home tomorrow, we might not get home for a good while! Even if we did, we would still have two Necromancers after our blood, and do you think they would spare our family? Do you think they would spare Evenglade?”

At that, Rose staggered back a few steps. Dancer spoke up from where she was watching this interchange. “We won’t get home?”

“We’re lost.” Groddil shrugged as he said it. “I’m sorry, but after Ferran’s apprentice’s attack, I don’t have a clue where we are.”

“And you didn’t tell us?” Dancer tossed her head.

At that, Groddil looked genuinely ashamed. “I should have. I guess I saw it as my responsibility and prayed it would work in our favor. Also I … didn’t know how you three would react.”

Rose suddenly sat down hard, as if her legs just wouldn’t support her. She buried her face in her paws but did not cry; as if she physically couldn’t.

Groddil gestured to Rose, looking like he wasn’t sure of how to handle the situation. “That’s .. what I wanted to avoid.”

Sally grabbed Rose’s paw, trying to drag her to her feet. “Rose, come on .. it could be worse.”

“Could be!” Rose glared up at her. “We’re lost, with two insane creatures trying to kill us, our parents are going to be distraught, and we could die .. I don’t want to die!”

With that, she did burst into tears.

“Rose ..” Sally began, before letting go of her paw with a sigh.

Dancer walked over to her, gently nuzzling the mouse’s back, her black mane spilling over Rose’s face and neck. The gray horse carefully lay down beside her smaller friend, lightly resting her head on her shoulder. “We’ll be fine .. I hope. You don’t need to be so dramatic about this … I hope.”

Rose hugged Dancer around the neck tightly. “That’s not comforting!”

Groddil looked at Sally as if he hoped to find answers, but she just shook her head. The fox cleared his throat, before turning and walking to the fire again. Sally followed him.

“Will your sister be alright?” Groddil asked, once they were a relative distance away.

Sally shrugged. “Probably. Dancer and Rose are both prone to dramatics. Just about different things. Don’t worry about it, Dancer will comfort her and she’ll be fine in the morning. Until .. something else shocking or scary happens.”

Groddil sat by the fire, grabbing another log and tossing it in. Sparks flew up into the otherwise dark woodlands as he stated, “I’ll start teaching you tomorrow.”

The two were silent for a while, and Sally noticed some movement in the woodlands just outside of the fire’s reach. She started a little, but Groddil shook his head. “That’s Stargazer; he’s keeping watch.”

Sally slowly exhaled, before sitting down near the fox. “How lost are we? Will we be able to find Evenglade again?”

“I’m sure, at some point.” He was silent for a bit, before he looked over at her. “Lass .. you seem the most .. let’s say, logical of your companions. Also the most adventurous from what I’ve seen. I .. am not used to dealing with creatures like them, but you .. are different.”

“What is it?” Sally pressed, wishing he’d get to the point.

He nodded as if he understood, continuing, “You might think that this is all some crazy random nightmare and the solution is escape or even killing Ferran and his apprentice … but it’s not. It’s more than that. Even I know how important this is, and I know precious little. You and your sister are not the only ones.”

Sally was taken aback. “The only ones with marks?”

“Yes, there are more of you. Four of you, in fact. The task Ignasa gave me was to find you and protect you .. all of you.”

Sally stayed silent, waiting for him to explain farther, and he did. “I .. can’t explain how Ignasa’s power works to you, it would take days, years even, but I have been given the ability to find my charges. That was how I found you and your sister .. that was why I could save you the day Ferran first attacked you. And I have yet to find the others. I have to, I feel compelled toward the eastern coast as strongly as I was to you, if not more so. One of the marked ones is in trouble .. I must find them soon.”

He looked at her apologetically. “I cannot leave you. And I cannot abandon this new mark when I feel his life is in such peril .. I can’t be in two places at once. Do you see what I’m saying?”

“You want to take us with you.” Sally concluded.

“It’s not a want Sally. It’s a need. A lot of lives hang in the balance, yours included.” Groddil’s voice held a grim note.

Sally frowned. “Aren’t there any other Prophets that could help this other mark?”

“As I’ve told you the order of Prophets is smaller than it has ever been.” Groddil shook his head. “I alone protect the northern realms, to the best of my knowledge.”

He stared into the fire. “If only there was another Prophet. Because the two Necromancers after us are far from the only ones around us, I’m certain of it. And aside from that …”

His voice trailed off, and he suddenly seemed so tired and frail, a chill slid down Sally’s back.

“Dark forces are at work. Darker and more powerful than any Necromancer they might send against me. Do you pray to Ignasa?”

Slowly Sally stammered, “My parents do ..”

Groddil sighed heavily. “Just think about what I’ve said. The third mark needs me as soon as I can possibly reach them.”

Before she could say a word, he stood, limping slightly as he walked to the edge of the firelight, facing the dark forest around the small camp. Sally just stared after him.

She couldn’t actually be considering helping him find this other marked creature, could she?

It was illogical, it was complete madness .. Dancer and Rose, especially Rose, were no good at adventuring.

They would all die; if not on the journey itself, when they finally went home and faced their parents.

But Sally could not deny how interested she was in all of this.

Wander the forest trying to get home, run into the Necromancers and likely be killed, or intentionally go east on a quest and possibly avoid them. Was it even a choice?

Sally shook her head, turning her gaze to her friends, who looked like they’d fallen asleep on the forest floor. “Rose is going to hate me.”

><><

Erwin’s footsteps made echoing sounds on the cold stone floor. All her hurry from the previous day had vanished, now she walked like the lady she was, chin held high, black hair flowing behind her. Though perhaps she was moving a slow as she possibly could.

Her feet dragged against the ground, her paws hung loosely by her sides, and her eyes looked haunted.

She hadn’t slept last night.

Every time she closed her eyes, she saw all the omens prophesied. This time it was not a suggestion or a path to follow. This time it was fate. Fate she screamed against, and yet aided.

Why was she the one to play this game?

She reached the door to the dungeons, opening it. It creaked horribly. The guards inside looked up, quickly leaping to their feet and bowing before her.

One of them, a rat, spoke up. “Milady ..”

Erwin held up a paw. “I assume he still lives.”

“Er .. yes, the last I checked.” The rat stammered.

“Do not forget I know the future. Now, escort me to him, if you would.” She kept her voice calm, but commanding.

He did as she said, and she followed him deeper into the dungeons. The air was musty here, with the faint smells of death and decay. But for a dungeon, even though she had never experienced any others, Erwin felt that this one was kept quite livable. Just like her older brother to obsess over cleanliness and details in every part of his keep. Even that reserved for his enemies.

The mouse looked exactly as he had when she’d visited. He hadn’t moved, but a thousand curses upon him, his chest still rose and fell.

Erwin waved a paw at the guard after he had unlocked the cell door. “Leave me. I’ll call if you are needed.”

The rat bowed and obeyed. She waited until he left the corridor to open the cell door and walk in. As she knelt beside the mouse, she made a mental note that he smelled worse than the dungeon around him. He probably hadn’t bathed in years.

She wrinkled her nose, but began undoing the bandages around his arm. As she moved the injured limb, he groaned a little, gasping as he weakly opened his eyes.

They were bloodshot, but thankfully the iris’s and pupils had returned to their normal brown and black. Even though she knew it wasn’t possible, she’d imagined what he could do to her in bloodwrath, and the thought of him opening crimson eyes was one that had not left her alone.

He tried to speak, but the only sound he made was a weak rasping noise. Erwin sighed, reaching into her satchel and pulling out a flask of water.

She helped him drink, and he would have downed all the water she had if she’d have let him. Even as she pulled the flask away, he whimpered a little, begging for more. She shook her head. “You need to take this slowly. I don’t know why you aren’t dead.”

She almost spit those final words.

He coughed, staring at her. She looked away, focusing on his arm as he muttered, “You’re … the tyrant’s .. sister ..”

Erwin snorted. “Yes I am, and your delirious at best to even consider talking in that way about my brother to my face. But then, you do have a horrid fever.”

He didn’t attempt to respond, and Erwin focused on her work. When she looked up again, she was relieved to see he slept again. She pulled a cloth from her satchel, picking up the glass bottle of cold water beside her. After pouring some on the cloth, she placed it on the mouse’s forehead.

She studied his face, not that she enjoyed seeing it. It was more sick interest than anything else. After all, this was the face of the one who would destroy everything she had helped to build.

Under the filth of slavery, she could imagine him being a striking creature. He would be slender and tall .. for a mouse anyway. His dark, slanted eyes would have contrasted with fur that shone like sunlight. He would have been something rare and beautiful.

“You will suffer more than any other .. even more than me.” She growled, her hatred for him dripping from her voice. “At least I can take comfort from that.”

Erwin unbound his arm, being careful not to move it. It looked even worse than the previous day, dark bruises showing through the fur and highlighting how swollen the entire limb was.

She washed it carefully, scowling. “You’re lucky you didn’t break your arm in half. I’d have had to amputate it.”

More’s the pity.

She couldn’t help that thought.

“At least you’ll never move that wrist again.” Erwin grumbled. It wasn’t enough of a price to pay, not for all he would do. But it was something.

The weasel rebound his arm in its splint, forcing her patient to drink some more water. She set a piece of bread and her canteen on his left side in case he awoke and was hungry. If he couldn’t feed himself .. well, good.

Erwin stood with the rustle of fabric, shouldering her satchel and walking out of the cell. The door groaned and rasped so much she pinned her silky ears. “Guard!”

Her call was answered by the rat only moments later, the pattering of his paws echoing through the corridor. He bowed. “Milady?”

Erwin waved a paw at him. “I am done here for the moment, and when I return, I expect this door’s hinges to have been oiled. If my ears are assaulted with its grinding once more, I will tell my brother of your incompetence, is this understood?”

“Yes Milady!” The rat gulped as he locked the cell. “I promise you won’t hear a sound when you return.” “Good.” Erwin turned on her heel, walking away as she spoke her parting words. “That is all.”

She breathed a sigh of relief once she left the dungeons behind. How she longed to never return .. but that mouse would take weeks to heal enough to even be able to stand, let alone run away. Which meant she had plenty of time to start planning his escape.

Believability would be her enemy.



Chapter 5 Edit

“You can’t be serious!” Rose’s voice broke the pleasant morning, sending a few birds fluttering up into the sky.

“Rose ..” Sally didn’t protest her sister’s outburst like she want to, trying not to raise her voice.

Groddil, Dancer, and Stargazer wisely remained silent.

Rose looked absolutely terrified, so much so she was willing to yell in Sally’s face about it. Or, more realistically, squeak shrilly … Rose was not all that good at yelling.

“I can’t believe you would even consider this! What about mother and father? They’ll be frantic!”

“Rose ..”

“Sally, I can’t take this sort of thing!” Rose clasped her paws together, clearly not below pleading. “I’m not an adventurer! I’m going to die if we do this!”

“Rose!” Sally blurted, giving in and yelling. “You and I have a high chance of dying whether we do this or not! And if we go home, we bring that danger upon our parents and Brome! Yes, they’ll be frantic .. I don’t want to do this to them!”

“But ..” Rose tried, however Sally was done listening.

“Father put me in charge. He told me to do what I had to in order to protect you and Dancer. In light of the circumstances, that’s what I’m doing .. believe me, this choice isn’t easy, and you’re making it harder!”

Rose frowned deeply, grabbing her sister’s arm. “Sally, this is crazy! We don’t even really know Groddil and …”

She paused, as if remembering the fox was standing where he could hear them. He nodded sagely. “Go on.”

“Um ..” Rose stammered, “This is just crazy. We’re disobeying mother and father!”

“Well ..” Sally sighed, giving into that. “Yes we are. But the stakes are high ..” Rose saw that moment of hesitation and pounced on it. “Look, we’ll go back and tell them. Father will protect us all .. it’ll be alright.”

Sally closed her eyes for a moment. She wanted to believe that. She really did.

But she knew it was a lie.

She jerked her paw away from Rose, crossing her arms. “No, he won’t. He can’t. They’re Necromancers Rose .. what’ll he do, talk peace with them? They won’t listen. Father would never just let us be killed, but he’s not strong enough to defend us either … surely you see that?”

From the look on her face, Rose did not see. Sally scowled. “I’ve made my choice. Father put me in charge, and I say we go to the eastern shores in search of this other marked creature.”

“I think we should go too.” Rose looked at Dancer like she was insane.

The red-haired mouse stamped a paw. “Oh of course you’d side with her!”

Sally raised an eyebrow, asking, “Why? I thought you’d fight me too.”

“Dad’s always telling me I need to see the world.” Dancer tossed her head. “He says it’s part of growing up .. he’ll be upset I didn’t tell him sure, but he’s always the one to tell me to seize opportunities.”

Sally grinned a little, but Rose scowled, turning and flopping onto the sacks of grain still stacked in the cart with a soft crump. Her voice was muffled, but accusing. “You two are mad.”

“Probably.” Sally agreed, feeling markedly better that Dancer had chosen her side.

She felt bad for Rose, she really did.

However she could not deny how satisfying it was that her sister had not gotten her way for once.

Groddil cleared his throat. “Ahem .. if we’ve reached an understanding, I think it would best if we started our travels for the day.”

Sally nodded as Dancer walked around to the front of the traces. Groddil left to dispose of the campfire and collect any belongings that might have been left lying about, and Stargazer went with him.

Dancer pricked her ears forward as Sally tossed the harness across her back. “What are you doing?”

“You are pulling the cart today .. right?” Sally was confused at her friend’s question.

The gray horse rolled her eyes. “Yes, I mean what are you really thinking? The eastern shores are on the other side of the world .. practically. It’ll take weeks for us to get there.”

Sally sighed. “I thought you wanted to do this.”

“I do .. but seriously Sally, dad is going to be upset I didn’t tell him. And what about Rose? Do you really think, that if we went home, those two Necromancers would … actually kill you? And hurt other townsfolk?”

Sally buckled the harness, letting her paw linger on Dancer’s warm side. “I like to imagine they wouldn’t .. that Evenglade is a place where no war or evil could touch.”

She looked up into her friend’s eyes. “But I think we both know that isn’t true.”

Dancer slowly let her ears droop, and heaved a sigh. “Rose isn’t going to forgive us for this, is she?”

Sally shrugged. “Maybe in a few years.”

She laughed nervously. “I’m joking .. well, I hope.”

Dancer cast a glance at the back of the cart as Sally asked, “I’m not being rash and stupid .. right? You know why I’m doing this? It’s to protect everyone we care about … tell me this isn’t a mistake, please.”

“I don’t know about that.” Dancer gently pulled against the traces to see they were secure. “But going home might be a worse mistake. All I know is that I got mixed up in a war, we all did, and I’ll follow you wherever you lead. I trust you Sally, I hope you know that.”

Sally looked down. “What if I don’t trust myself?”

Dancer tossed her head. “I’m not you, there’s not much I can do about that. But you’re logical, and your choices haven’t ever gotten us into .. well, too much trouble.”

“Oh please.” Sally laughed a little. “Remember when I got us lost in the woods? Or when we made Roderick fall in the fountain and his mother made us weed her garden for days?”

“Eh, those weeds were tasty. And besides, I ate some of her carrots.” Dancer grinned mischievously. “But when it comes down to serious things, you think things through and I trust that. It’ll be alright .. I hope.”

“Saying ‘I hope’ after a reassuring statement negates the effect somewhat.” Sally stated drolly, before nodding. “But thanks. And I sure hope you’re right about me.”

Pawsteps announced Groddil’s return, followed by the hooffalls of Stargazer.

“We should be off. There’s a long road ahead of us.” Groddil patted his friend’s mane absently.

Sally nodded, peering around the back of the cart and hesitantly stating, “Uh .. Rose? We’re leaving now .. don’t you want to sit on the driver’s seat?”

Rose mumbled unintelligibly and crawled deeper into the stacks of grain sacks, sniffing a little.

Sally sighed, shrugged, and climbed onto the driver’s seat.

Groddil mounted Stargazer, and lead the way deeper into the forest. Dancer followed with a creaking of cartwheels, and Sally cast a glance behind them, where she knew that somewhere, Evenglade stood in its pretty, peaceful, little valley.

About this time, she knew her mother would be waiting on the porch to welcome them home, alternating from that to cooking a big dinner for them all to enjoy.

But they wouldn’t be home that night or the next, or anytime in the foreseeable future.

Sally clamped a paw against her stomach, feeling so nervous that she believed she’d be sick. She hadn’t been able to plan for this when she’d laid out the last few days.

This was part of growing up .. making choices and dealing with them.

But oh, she wasn’t ready.

“Lass, you look ill.”

She looked over at Groddil, who was riding beside Dancer and looking back at her with concern.

Sally could only manage a nod.

Groddil sighed, but turned to face in the direction they were now headed. Sally leaned against the back of the driver’s seat, willing herself to relax.

It would be alright.

It had to be.

><><

In Evenglade, the Voh household was in an undeniable state of panic. Brome found himself caught in the middle of everything.

Sally and Rose should have been home that morning, and he should be watching the Rambling Rosehip Player’s show right now.

But no. Sally had to be late.

Any minute now, Dancer would pull the cart through the trellis covered gateway to Evenglade, Sally and Rose .. admittedly mostly Sally .. would get the scolding of their lives, and he would have missed the show for nothing.

At this particular moment, Brome’s paws carried him to the inn under the orders to see if by some chance, a traveler had stopped in their little, boring town who had just happened to see Sally.

Despite his parents fears, Brome knew his sisters where just fine, Sally would see to that.

Wouldn’t she?

He pushed that thought away.

Sally could do anything.

Brome stepped into the Evenglade inn, taking a deep breath of the pinewood scent that always clung to the place. A familiar smell everywhere, here it was bordering on making him want to sneeze.

The immediate foyer was empty, as it unfortunately often seemed to be. Evenglade’s peace and quiet didn’t cease very often.

Of course, most of the town would be either working in the fields or watching the show Brome was sorely missing. He hurried to the desk in the front of the inn, groaning at the empty seat behind it. “Hello? Madame Helena?”

She wasn’t there, naturally.

A clatter rang out from the second story, and Brome looked in the direction of the carved wooden staircase, starting as none other than Roderick came down it.

The dislike saturated his voice completely, and he spoke before he really considered what to say. “What’re you doing here?”

“Don’t I have a right to be here?” Roderick subtly stuck his nose in the air. “Anyway, what are you doing here?”

Brome really didn’t want to talk to Roderick, but he muttered, “Looking for my sisters.”

Even though he had to have heard him given the silence of the inn, Roderick had to be annoying. “Oh, what was that?”

“I’m looking for my sisters!” Brome snapped, crossing his arms and preparing for Roderick’s show of condescending concern.

The black mouse looked interested, his brown eyes twinkling connivingly. “They didn’t get back? How awful. You must be so worried.”

“I’m not worried.” Brome held his head high. “Why would I be?”

Asking that was a mistake, one he realized as soon as he said it. Roderick shrugged. “Oh really? I’d say the question is why wouldn’t you be? Your father must be out of his mind sending Sally to do diplomatic trading. She probably lost her temper again. If your family wants to maintain any sort of positive image, you’d to well to keep her out of sight.”

“What do you know about my sister?” Brome snarled. “She’s better than you’ll ever be!”

For a moment, anger flashed across Roderick’s face, but he quickly smoothed it over. “You’re a delusional child. Anyone can look at me and tell you I’m a upstanding gentlemouse with a future ahead of me. Sally’s a foolish maid who needs to learn her place and snuff out her unreasonable temper. What do you know of anything?”

Brome growled under his breath, anger growing so strong that involuntary tears jumped into his eyes. He couldn’t argue with Roderick, not even Sally could win a verbal fight with him.

“Aw, are you crying? Why don’t you go home to your mother. You won’t find your sisters here.”

“Shut up!” Brome yelled. “I don’t want to talk to you, I want to talk to your mother! You lie about everything anyway!”

Roderick’s right eyebrow twitched, a sure sign he was inwardly fuming. “Mother isn’t here at the moment, I’m watching the inn for her. Just leave, she doesn’t know anything about your sisters.”

Out of spite, Brome made the decision to speak with madam Helena no matter what Roderick said. “Where is she?”

Roderick huffed, turning and walking to the front desk, where he sat on the stool. “Even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you. Mother doesn’t need to deal with unreasonable children.”

“Your unreasonable!” Brome threw the only thing on his person, a smooth pebble, in the general direction of Roderick’s face. “And I’m not a child!”

That was a mistake, Brome instantly realized, as Roderick fell over backwards with a yelp, bringing his stool crashing down with him. His aim must have been a little too accurate.

Brome took a couple steps back as Roderick staggered to his feet, paws clamped over his right eye. “You little brat!”

With that, Brome took to his heels. This night had taken a drastically different turn than what he’d imagined for it.

He could hear Roderick chasing him, and didn’t turn to check. All he had to do was get home, and then .. well, then he would be in a lot of trouble. But at least his father would see to it that Roderick didn’t actually hurt him, something Brome feared might become all too real, the way the older mouse was fuming.

He sprinted across the town square, stumbling some on the occasional loose cobblestone. Roderick was gaining on him due to his longer legs and generally bigger frame, and suddenly, Brome felt a rough paw shove him in his middle back.

His squeak of surprise morphed into one of pain as his right elbow hit the ground hard, and he slid on his side. Roderick was on him in the instant, pinning him down with an iron paw. “I’ll make you pay for that!”

Brome struggled, but couldn’t stop Roderick from punching his right eye. The younger mouse cried out, lashing blindly with his short claws. They connected with Roderick’s face, and Brome felt skin tear under his desperate paws. He kept clawing, only stopping when his attacker grabbed one of his paws and twisted it back.

Brome wailed as certain bones in his wrist and arm popped, and he stooped to pleading. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean .. Ahhhg!”

Roderick’s face was bleeding, and contorted into a furious glare as he twisted Brome’s arm even farther. “Sally can’t save you this time, you little wretch!”

“Help! Somebody .. please!” Brome resorted to his last hope, though he doubted anyone would hear him.

But someone did.

“What’s going on?” A familiar voice rang out, and Roderick jerked his head up, a sudden, cornered look in his eyes.

Despite how much every part of him was starting to hurt, Brome grinned painfully. “Now your mother will see what you really do to me and Sally ..”

Roderick snarled, grabbing something from his belt and throwing it on the ground just out of Brome’s reach. There was a clinking as it hit the ground, but that was drowned out by Roderick’s voice. “Mother! He tried to rob us! I was just stopping him!”

“Wh .. what?” Brome squeaked, voice sheering out from surprise.

Madame Helena’s rich brown hair framed her angry expression in the evening dusk as she hurried around the fountain. Before Brome could stammer out one word, Roderick spoke. Silver-tongued as always.

“He tried to steal our money from the inn, but I caught him. No one robs us when I’m watching .. when I chased, he ran .. he even threw a rock at me!”

Helena stared at Brome in disbelief. “How could you?”

She sounded .. downright scandalized. “What a disgrace! And I thought you were such a nice boy. I was wrong .. I hope your parents beat you for this!”

“I .. I didn’t ..” Brome tried to explain, but the lady grabbed a coin purse from the ground a few feet in front of where he fell.

“Then what is this? Roderick darling, let him go.”

The black mouse did as he was told, but Brome didn’t move to get up. “I didn’t … I wouldn’t!”

“And now you lie as well? Shameful .. you’re just as bad as your horrible sister. Get up, I need words with your parents.”

Brome tried to rise .. he really did. But neither of his arms wanted to work. “I .. I can’t!”

Panic started to settle in as he realized just how much every fiber of him hurt. “I .. my arm might be broken!”

Helena sighed heavily. “Roderick, be a dear and help this wretch walk, would you?”

Her voice was curt, her movements abrupt. Roderick yanked Brome roughly onto his paws, ignoring his whimpers. He kept meeting Helena’s gaze, pleading silently for her to believe him, but her eyes were like chips of dark ice.

Brome found himself dragged to his house and up the front steps, where Helena briskly knocked on the door.

After a few moments, Aryah yanked the door open, stopping dead when she saw the visitors. Brome felt his heart sink even farther as she gasped, shoving Roderick aside and grabbing him. “Son! What happened to you?”

She turned to Helena and Roderick. “Thank you for bringing him home …..”

Her words faded as she took note of the dark look on the other lady’s face.

Helena thrust the money pouch in question forward, growling, “Your son dared to steal this from my inn, and injure my son trying to get away with it! You should be ashamed to raise such a disrespectful, insolent boy!”

Aryah gaped at Brome’s accuser. “What? No, he would never ..”

“Well, he did.” Helena’s voice was abrupt, and final. “It’s a disgrace Aryah, an absolute disgrace .. your son should be setting a positive example .. instead, I guess mine has to.”

Brome was hanging limply in his mother’s arms, and he weakly tugged at her sleeve. “I .. I didn’t ..”

Helena snarled. “See, he feels no shame about it either. No apology even.”

Roderick’s expression may have been triumph cleverly disguised as worry, but all Brome could see was a devilish grin .. a grin that clearly said ‘you lose again.’

Aryah pinned her ears. “Helena. Did you see Brome take this money, and where is it now?”

“I found Roderick holding him down with my coin purse for the inn on the ground a few feet away. What am I supposed to think?”

“Did your son have to injure him this badly?” Aryah growled low in her throat, stroking Brome’s curly hair. He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to shut out Roderick’s pitiful whine. “He stole the money and threw a rock at my face! When I tried to get it back, he started clawing me .. I was just defending myself!”

Brome could almost feel his mother’s anger, just as real as the blood slowly dripping down his useless arm and onto the floor. At that moment, footsteps rang through the house and his father walked out of his office. “What is going on?”

He stopped short at the sight of Brome. After gaping at his son’s wounds for a moment, he turned on Helena and Roderick. “What is the meaning of this? I do not tolerate violence in my town, let alone toward my own son!”

Helena crossed her arms, snapping, “Well, do you tolerate thievery?”

“What?”

Aryah interrupted her husband. “I don’t believe it Helena, Brome was just inquiring about his sisters. There was absolutely no reason for him to take anything. This is completely unprecedented!”

“I know what I saw, and I believe Roderick. He would never lie to me, Brome is just not the nice boy you’d like to believe he is, apparently.” Helena scowled deeply.

Aryah took a step forward, jostling Brome’s arm and causing him to whimper under his breath. “I’ll have you know …”

“Dear, please see to our son. I will deal with this.” Urran interrupted the argument before it could get worse. Aryah looked defiant for a moment, before she gently pulled Brome onto his feet with a heavy sigh.

“Come .. careful now.”

Brome followed her up the steps to the second story and his room, hearing fading snippets of his father and madam Helena’s conversation.

“I at least deserve an apology in the form of work as soon as he’s better …”

“Helena! I will talk to him, at the moment, I have had a very hard day. Now if you don’t mind, I must find my daughters, and I’ll deal with this issue once they are safe …”

Their voices faded away as Aryah led Brome upstairs, depositing him on his bed and feeling his almost immobile arm. Nothing was said for a moment, before Brome sniffed. “I didn’t do that mother! Roderick framed me!”

His mother looked somewhat distraught. “Why would he do that?”

Brome fell silent for a moment, before deciding lying about anything would only make things worse for him. “I .. threw a rock in his face ..”

“Brome!” Aryah exclaimed. Brome interrupted her to explain his actions. “He was calling Sally a whole bunch of awful things and said she made our family look bad. That father should keep her out of sight and that she didn’t belong here .. she’s my sister and he said she didn’t even belong in Evenglade! Then he called me a child and …. I lost my temper.”

At this, he hung his head, not wanting to see his mother’s disappointment.

However, when she spoke, her voice was surprisingly calm. Almost .. forced. “What did Roderick say about Sally? That she didn’t belong? That is a lie straight from Hellgates.”

Brome blinked in surprise as his mother coughed, shaking her head. “Er .. nevermind that bit.”

Brome nodded, sighing, “He said you and father couldn’t possibly love her when she’s so violent and headstrong and … stupid ..”

He broke off at the way his mother’s eyes sparkled darkly. “Oh, he did, did he?”

Her voice sounded like her jaws were clenched together. “Well that is the opposite of the truth. Sally is our eldest, and we love her just as much as you or Rose. In fact Brome, when she came into our lives, we did not know if we would have more children, if we could .. so while she may be rough around the edges, and while she might bring us no small amount of worry, don’t ever think we do not love her.”

Brome nodded. “Oh, I know you love her .. but I’m not sure she does.”

“What?” Aryah looked upset. “Why would you say that?”

“Well .. Roderick is mean to her a lot. He tells her that she’s a freak and that she’s ugly and an idiot and that you must be ashamed of her and ..” Brome stopped once he noticed just how enraged his mother looked. “Er .. mom?”

“Roderick tells Sally these things? Why has she not told me or her father?”

Brome tried to shrug, and then winced. “Something about not starting fights between our family and madam Helena .. or something. Also she knows Roderick will lie and make her look like the troublemaker just like he always does. Just like he did tonight.”

His mother’s eyes were piercing. “Brome, do you promise you aren’t lying?”

He nodded quickly, and Aryah sighed, before forcing him to lie down. “The good news is that your arm isn’t broken.”

She got out a rag and dampened it, before gently blotting the blood off of his arm and face.

“But .. what about Roderick?” Brome tried to steer his mother back to the conversation at paw, but she simply shook her head.

“I will deal with it Brome. For now, I think you need some rest.”

With a sigh, he obeyed and allowed himself to relax. “I hurt all over.”

“Yes, I expected as much. Why don’t you try and sleep while I get you something to eat.” She stood, blue skirt rustling a little.

Brome watched her leave the room, before exhaling heavily and looking at the ceiling. Every fiber of him complained loudly, loud enough it was nearly impossible to relax. Eventually however, he fell into a fitful sleep.

It didn’t last long enough, as he awoke to a dark room, bandaged wounds, and a glass of water and pastry on the table beside his bed.

With a wince, Brome picked up the cinnamon smelling pastry and despondently took a bite. It was cold, but it did a little to sooth the pit in his stomach … probably where Roderick had planted his knee. A few drinks of water made the ache a little better.

As he lay in the dark and quiet of the night, he realized he could hear the echoes of slightly raised voices. Curiosity bade him investigate, but pain bade him stay where he was.

Sally always said Brome was half curiosity, and half annoying; and as always, Sally was right.

He carefully slid his feet out of bed, slowly shifting his weight onto them. Upon not falling to his knees, he limped out of his bedroom and into the short, dim hallway leading to the staircase. Here, he could hear the voices more distinctly .. his parents sounded really upset.

“I don’t know what to do dear! How does one deal with Helena? Whether Brome is innocent or not, it’s his word against Roderick’s and Helena has eyes only for her son. You know that.” His father sounded stressed.

“I just don’t see how all this happened! Roderick .. seemed like such a nice boy, but Brome says otherwise.” His mother’s reply made Brome feel somewhat better.

However the next thing his father said made his heart sink. “Really Aryah, I can’t be distracted with this right now. What about Sally and Rose? Yes, we have to get to the bottom of what happened to Brome, but our daughters could be … well, in serious trouble! I have to focus my energy on them.”

“Yes, at least Brome is safe.” His mother agreed. “What could be delaying them so?”

“I shudder to think. I really do.”

“Sally would never put Rose or Dancer in harms way, something has to have happened to them ..” From the tone of his mother’s voice, Brome could imagine her nervously wringing her paws.

“I know that.” His father’s answer sounded grim. “I have to make search parties. We’ll have to reason with Helena later. I hate to make Brome pay for something he didn’t do, but I’m afraid he might have to do some work for Helena just so I can have enough peace and quiet to focus on getting our daughter’s back.”

Brome couldn’t help feeling a little betrayed at his mother’s agreement. “I wish it wasn’t like this .. but .. they could be hurt .. scared, hungry; what if the cart broke down? Or maybe they’re lost in the woods somewhere .. Urran .. there have been no reports of raiders, have there?”

Her voice shook. His father’s reply was grave. “I have heard of none, not for many years .. but, being brutally honest dear .. I can’t say for sure. We are a remote settlement.”

The silence was so complete, Brome honestly feared his parents would hear him, despite the fact that he was at the top of the stairs and from the sound of it, they were in his father’s study.

“Of course,” his father added quickly, “That’s very unlikely dear ..”

“I should never have asked you to let them go!” His mother’s voice was a sob. “My daughters .. they could be ..”

Footsteps rang out, and Brome imagined his father had hugged his mother. “We’ll get them back. I promise we will.”

Silence filled the house, and Brome almost felt his parent’s sorrow. The situation felt quite a bit more serious, hearing them talk like that. Surely Sally would make sure Rose and Dancer got home. Sally could beat up Roderick!

They would be home in morning, get a horrible scolding, and everything would be back to normal … Brome sighed. Somehow, his positive attitude was failing.

If Sally was here, and he was out there, she’d go rescue him, Brome knew it. If he could bring them back .. maybe it would convince his father he wouldn’t steal from madam Helena. Also, part of him just really wanted to watch what Sally did once he told her what Roderick had done to him. That would be worth seeing.

Yes! It was the perfect idea .. Brome stood up a little too quickly and staggered against the wall with a wince.

Well .. maybe it was the perfect idea, but he’d have to see how he felt in the morning.

“I’ll deal with Helena. You just get our daughters back.” Brome barely heard his mother’s sudden statement as he staggered back to bed. But he did, and selfish as it was, he felt better because of it.

><><

The resounding thud of wood on wood rang throughout the woodlands as Sally blocked Groddil’s staff. His eyes lit up. “Good! Very good. Remember what I said about holding your sword so it protects your side?”

Sally nodded breathlessly, and Groddil smiled. “Put it to use.”

He advanced with several consecutive attacks, causing Sally to stagger back. She lowered her guard for a second, and Groddil’s staff tapped her in the ribs. “Dead.” Sally groaned. “How are you so amazing?”

“I wasn’t always. I did get started many years younger than you, however.” He frowned. “You treat this like it’s a brawl.”

“Well .. it’s fighting.” Sally shrugged. “Fighting is basically bludgeoning your opponent, whether with fists, sticks, or blades .. right?”

Groddil shook his head. “Heavens no lass. Fighting is a dance. A dance of death. I find those who swing a sword like a club are the easiest to fell .. they have no balance of body or soul. Their attack may be strong, but their defense is minimal; a mere novice could find breaks in it. If you wish to be a true swordsmouse, you must be as agile as you are powerful, as smart as you are swift. Find that balance, and you find the rhythm of the dance.”

He twirled his staff, sliding it across his back. “And with that dance is the power to kill those who oppose you. Use it wisely.”

Sally took a deep breath, nodding. “Right. I will.”

“I think that will be enough. Night is falling, and I cannot leave the camp for long. Come.” Groddil turned around, walking into the shadowed woodlands.

Sally followed, her bare paws shifting through loam and a blanket of dry leaves, which seemed to all want to cling to the hem of her skirt. “Er .. do you think, there’s a chance we could stop by a town?”

“Oh, what is it you need?”

“Pants.” Sally admitted. “Dresses are awful and constricting and I don’t think I’ll learn the dance well with this skirt always trying to trip me. I could barely manage normal dancing in it.”

“Hmm.” Groddil didn’t turn around, but he sounded thoughtful. “I have made my own clothes for years. I will see if I have something I can .. resize for you.”

He cast a glance back at her. “Quite a bit of resizing, to be honest. In the meantime, cut your skirt off if it bothers you so. Turn the dress into a tunic. Also I’d advise cutting the sleeves off; summer is upon us and you won’t have the comfort of staying inside to avoid the heat.”

“Heh. Rose will be positively scandalized.” Sally snickered jokingly.

Groddil did not see the humor. “Your sister would be wise to do the same, she can barely run in the clothes she’s wearing.”

Sally shook her head. “The day Rose wears trousers is the day the world ends .. she would never dream of being so improper.”

“I am in for a wonderful summer, aren’t I?” Groddil said, to no one in particular.

Sally didn’t respond, as they had reached the campsite. Stargazer grazed in the outskirts of the firelight, keeping both ears intently pricked forward. As Sally and Groddil stepped into the clearing he looked in their direction, before focusing on food once more.

Rose stood near the fire, stirring something in one of Groddil’s pots. Dancer rubbed her head against one of the trees that claimed the middle of the clearing, basket of wild carrots and radishes on a rock behind Rose going unnoticed.

Sally stopped beside her friend, asking, “I take it your forehead’s itching again?”

“Ugh, yes!” Dancer groaned, shaking herself and sending bark chips flying in every direction. “It’s getting worse .. I just know this is some awful disease ..”

“You know, you might just be intolerant of something. What have you slept in lately?”

“I’ve been sleeping standing up; there’s no way I’d lay down out here. And before that, hay of course.” Dancer looked upset. “And hay just can’t be the cause of it, I love hay!”

“Oh, never mind.” Sally patted the horse’s shoulder. “It’s probably nothing. My head itches when I haven’t bathed in a week.”

“There is no reason to ever have that experience!” Rose called from her place by the fire.

Sally sighed, and so did Dancer, who muttered, “She’s still mad.”

“I figured.” Sally muttered back.

“You’re muttering about me!” Rose snapped, tone cold and clipped. “And I am not mad, it doesn’t befit a lady.”

Dancer winced slightly. “See? Really mad.”

Sally sighed. “Well, I think I’ll go read for a bit.”

She walked over to the wagon and pulled her satchel from beneath her cloak, drawing out a battered volume. Since Rose had claimed the fire, Sally climbed onto the driver’s seat of the cart to read in the flickering firelight.

She didn’t have much time to herself, as Rose soon called out that supper was ready. The meal was a silent and rather dreary affair, and Sally was glad when it was over. She stayed beside the campfire long after Rose hid in the safety of the cart and Dancer had wandered off to graze with Stargazer.

Groddil sat in silence for a while, before he pulled out his satchel and dug through it until he pulled out a small book.

“You read too?” Sally couldn’t resist asking.

He blinked, before nodding, “I can.” As he sometimes did, he relapsed into silence, running his leather-bound paw across the book. Sally pressed the subject. “Well, what book is that?”

“This? Oh, this is not what I read, but what I write.” He pulled a quill from his satchel. “I write so that I will not forget what should not be forgotten.”

“Oh.” Sally didn’t know what else to say as he began scratching something down on the volume’s yellowed parchment pages. Absently, she noticed he wrote with his left paw, and as always, he noticed what she was looking at.

“My right paw isn’t a pretty sight. Nor is it functional.”

Sally frowned. “Er .. how did that happen?”

“A cat. With a mace.” Groddil did not seem to want to elaborate farther, so Sally just nodded, feeling awkward.

“Well .. I guess I’ll go to bed.”

She stood and remained still in silent indecision. A question hung at the tip of her tongue, but she didn’t know how to ask it.

“What is it lass?” Groddil met her gaze with his honest yellow eyes, and she stammered.

“After we find this third mark .. if we can .. what then?”

Groddil dipped his quill in his clay inkwell, shaking his head. “Then we pray for guidance. And pray for divine aid to fight for us, lest we all perish.”

“Eh .. heh ..” Sally stammered, turning away and walking to the cart, rubbing the side of her head. “Lovely.”

><><

Erwin strode into the dining hall, head held high and paws folded together. She silently took a seat to the right of her elder brother’s place at the head of the table, dipping her head in greeting.

Nothing was said for a few moments, the only noise came from a thin slave girl, an otter. She hurriedly set the table, pointedly keeping her eyes averted from the siblings. Erwin noticed Badrang held a small parchment scroll, and that he kept clenching and unclenching his paw around it.

“Where is Truman?” When he spoke, his voice sparked with anger. “This concerns all of us.”

“What does, my brother?” Erwin kept her voice demure.

Badrang slammed his empty fist on the table with a loud thump. “This! Where is that foolish drunkard?”

Not bothering to ask what ‘this’ was, Erwin shrugged. “He will undoubtedly be here soon. Since when could he resist food?”

“When he’s passed out in the wine cellar.” Badrang snapped, yellow eyes darting nervously from side to side. “I need all the help I can get, and I can’t count on my own family!”

“I am here Badrang. And not to boast, but I think my advice would be wiser than Truman’s.” Erwin allowed sarcasm into her tone.

He sighed, giving in. “Well, I suppose that’s true.”

“So what is this about?”

Badrang shook his head. “I sent a hawk to Verdauga concerning the mouse. He is still alive isn’t he?”

The last words came out in a worried rush. Erwin nodded. “Yes, last I checked.”

“Good.” Her brother sighed in relief. “Because I received a message back just an hour ago. Verdauga is coming.”

“What?” Erwin recoiled so violently her chair’s legs rocked off the ground, slamming back upon it in the next second. “Verdauga himself?”

“Surely your omens foresaw this possibility.” Badrang sighed. “And yes. Also, he’s apparently bringing his son and traveling with none other than Ripfang. That’s what he says in this letter. He says to keep the mouse alive and captive so he can witness the execution.”

Erwin stared at him blankly, before resting her forehead against her white paw. “I did, but I hoped it wouldn’t come to this.”

“Don’t worry sister, he will not find you. All he wants is to ensure that the mouse dies, after that he will certainly wish to hurry back to Kotir and Mossflower.” Badrang tried to calm her. “I won’t let him hurt you, even if I have to send you away from the castle until he leaves.”

Erwin glared at her brother momentarily, before noticing the slave girl stood behind her, head bowed.

“What do you want?” Erwin asked curtly.

The otter winced, murmuring, “Do you want wine milady?”

“No.” Erwin stood, brushing her aside. “And send my dinner to my room.”

She turned to Badrang, shaking her head. “I must consult the omens on this matter.”

“If you would ..” He looked relieved.

“I will need total quiet, see that I am not disturbed.” She turned on her heel and stalked out of the dining hall, cape snapping behind her. As she stepped out of the room, she noticed none other than Truman, leaning against the wall with his ever-present bottle in his paw. He was shamelessly flirting with a female ferret guard, who seemed annoyed, but dared not show it.

Erwin interrupted him. “Truman, Badrang has something very important to tell you.”

“Oh come sister. We were just getting acquainted, now weren’t we?” He smiled widely at the guard, who tried to hold back her scowl.

“Truman, now.” Erwin’s voice grew cold and commanding.

He rolled his eyes, winking at the guard. “I’ll see you later. Fine sister, I’m going. I hope Badrang has some very good wine to make up for this.”

He swaggered past her and through the doors, which had no sooner closed than he was set upon by Badrang. The guard breathed a soft sigh of relief, and though she knew better than to say anything, her eyes held gratitude. Erwin nodded to her, before walking down the hall and deeper into the keep.

She reached her empty, silent chambers, opening and closing the door softly. The weasel sat at her desk, swiping a few stray strands of black hair out of her eyes as she pulled a few candles from a drawer.

The light of day had faded to deep orange and gray as the sun sank slowly into the sea, leaving Erwin’s room dim and shadowed. However she bothered with no other light but the candles, lighting each one and watching the tiny flame of each flicker and grow as she lit them.

With a sigh, Erwin pulled out her pouch of substitute runestones, since she’d never been able to find all those she’d lost in the dungeon.

These were amethyst with black lettering, and they sparkled beautifully in the candlelight. She bowed her head, murmuring, “Fates and Lords of earth and sky, spirits wander far and nigh, show to me the paths to take, ward off evil I may make. Show me the outcome of the Greeneyed cat’s visit. What of the mouse, what will come if he is killed?”

She picked out the five runestones at random, placing them faceup in a row, and adding the sixth a little to the side.

Her frowned deepened as she muttered. “Yes, destruction and fire and death, I know all that ..”

Erwin swept up her runes, dropping them back into their pouch and rubbing it between her paws for a moment. She set her gaze. “I don’t care about the fates of my enemies. What of my daughter. What will happen to her if I let the mouse die .. in detail this time, I beg you.”

She paused for a moment, before picking the first rune from her pouch and placing it on the table. She refused to read them until they were laid out, and when she did, it was no less than she’d expected.

Still, to make positively sure, she picked up all the stones, returning them to the pouch and holding it tightly for a few moments. With a deep breath, she picked a pawful out and gently scattered them across the table, reading the ones that landed face up.

As calm as she struggled to be, she could not hold back the tears that sprang into her eyes. “Why? You tell me she is alive after nine years, and then you tell me this? All because of this mouse? He will save her .. he’s an unholy monster!”

She laid her head on the desk, her black hair spilling over her shoulders, and she cried softly. She did not want to ask her final question.

After a good three minutes, she straightened up and wiped her tears away. Erwin’s movements were shaking as she collected the runes and put them back in the pouch. She held it in her paws and closed her eyes, doing everything in her power to breath calmly and evenly.

Finally, she asked in a firm voice, “If I am to change the flow of fate and save my daughter, I must set the mouse free? Must I truly … make the sacrifice of which you told me?”

She cast the runes, and as she read them, her tears began afresh. “I do not want to this! Please, is there another way?”

Erwin collected the runes and set four down one by one, shaking her head as she did so. After they had been placed, she hung her head, letting out a shuddering breath. “I see. A life for life.”

Her tears did not cease as she turned her head to look out her window at the sea, where the sun had all but set. “Then if the fates continue to guide me to this end ..”

Her words broke a little as she murmured, “So be it.”



Chapter 6 Edit

War between brothers

Sally awoke to a splintering sound, one loud enough to jolt her out of a sound sleep. She scrambled into an upright position on the driver’s seat of the cart, yanking her cloak turned blanket off and tossing it in the back.

Flashes of green and blue light illuminated the morning dark of the forest, and instantly, Sally knew that after four days of travel, Ferran had found them again.

She scrambled over the seat and into the bed of the cart, where Rose hid beneath her deep green cloak, terror in her eyes. “What’s going on?”

“Ferran, what else?” Sally grabbed her sword from its place against the cart wall, yanking it free of its protective oilcloth. “I’ve got to help Groddil!”

“Sally no! You can’t!” Rose pleaded.

Sally scowled. “Yes, I can. Now you keep your head down, ok?”

She jumped out of the bed of the cart, skidding to a halt as none other than Ferran’s apprentice walked out of the woods, almost floating. The cloaked creature of unknown origins spoke in her flat voice, “Going somewhere, I take it.”

Sally scowled, gripping her sword tighter. “Go away!”

“I can’t do that, I do have to kill you first, you know.”

Rose gasped, and Sally cast a glance back at her terrified sister, before returning her gaze to the Necromancer and assuming a stance Groddil had taught her. “I won’t let you do that.”

A semblance of a smirk flitted across the dark creature’s face, before she sighed. “You don’t have a chance of stopping me. Now, no more talking. I’d rather you start dying.”

She whipped her ridiculously long staff around to point at Sally’s chest. “At least I can count on you to die bravely. The other is no fun, she’s a complete coward.”

With a twirl and a flash of green, the staff morphed into a thin-bladed sword made entirely of wavering, shimmering power, and the Necromancer leapt forward. Sally spontaneously jerked her sword up to protect her side, and the green blade slid past her, just inches from her face.

Sally leapt backward, just catching sight of the singed dent on the edge of her blade. She gulped, yelling, “Rose, don’t be an idiot .. run!”

Her sister remained frozen for a moment more, before she started trying to frantically scale the side of the cart. Sally glared at the Necromancer, before attacking with the only combination she’d managed to pick up. She slashed the air inches from her opponent’s chest, following it instantly with a lunge.

The aggressor leapt back with a forceful rush of air, cloak fluttering around her as her paws barely skimmed the earth. “Well, you aren’t quite as pathetic as I expected. Your sister is far worse than I thought, on the other paw.”

The thud of Rose falling over the side of the cart made Sally wince, as well as her whimper of, “Owwww my nose!”

The Necromancer shrugged. “Well, I can’t say it was a pleasure.”

She thrust the blade of her thin sword into the earth, and it transformed back into its normal shape and colors, becoming the staff once more. She clenched her paws around it and green lighting flowed up the stick, engulfing it.

With an illegible shout, streaks of the magic shot from her staff, and one of them slammed into Sally’s ribs as she was unable to completely move aside.

Sally barely heard her own wail; it was drowned out by Rose’s shriek. The next few moments were a blur of shouts, hoofbeats, and nearly unbearable pain. It took a little, but as much as she thought it wouldn’t, Sally’s vision began to return, though blackness still framed the edges.

Dancer had entered the fight, and charged after the Necromancer with vengeance. Sally realized her sword hilt was still clenched between her fingers. She did her best to drag herself to her feet, but whimpered as the pain threatened to cripple her.

Every time Dancer charged their attacker, she leapt impossibly high into the air and avoided the strike altogether. The horse spun around every time, sending dust flying from beneath her hooves.

The Necromancer shouted again, sending a rain of green light at Dancer, who, to her credit, avoided most of it. However one slammed into her hip, sending shocks of green down her back leg. Dancer’s cry chilled Sally to the bone, as she fell to the ground and dust flew up around her.

The creature responsible slowly floated to the ground, leaning on her staff as she stared at the three of them. With repulsed shock, Sally noticed the soot-black goop dripping from her eyes and mouth as she coughed, rasping, “Why are you not dead .. uugh, protection spell, of course.”

She hacked up some of the black substance, spitting it out onto the ground. With that, she slammed the end of her staff into the dirt; where it stayed as she pulled a small crossbow from beneath her cloak.

She loaded a bolt, before coldly leveling it with Sally’s head. “You first, Hawk.”

Sally struggled out of sheer terror, only bringing more pain to her already damaged body.

The Necromancer closed one eye, resting her claw against the trigger, despite the pained cries of both Dancer and Rose.

A sudden, brilliant flash of green lit the woods, outlining every tree with stunning contrast. Someone flew into the clearing, propelled by the force of the blow, and slammed into Sally’s would-be executioner’s back.

Her bolt fired, sinking into the ground several feet to the side of her target and she pitched forward onto her face.

Groddil staggered to his paws, silver fur smoking, and he inadvertently stepped on the creature he’d felled several times. He steadied himself, noticing what was going on just as Ferran ran out of the forest and straight for him.

His apprentice got to her feet, as quickly as was possible, stashing her bow and seizing her staff, ready to attack with her master. Again, Sally tried to rise, only to be stopped by the pain of her injuries.

Groddil leapt between the Necromancers and his charges as Stargazer bolted out of the woodlands from the direction the others had come.

The silver fox pinned his ears, clenching his fists and shouting, “Enough!”

The sound reverberated all around as Groddil brought his arms and paws together, closing his eyes. “Ignasa, lend me your power!”

Sally could only stare in awe as blue flashed around Groddil’s wrists, and glowing chains materialized, wrapped tightly around his arms.

Fear washed across Ferran’s apprentice’s face, and she gasped, more emotion in her voice than Sally had heard yet. “His Prophet’s Soul! Master .. you said he couldn’t ..”

Even Ferran took a step back, but Groddil’s new power was faster. The silver fox thrust out his left paw, blue chains lashing through the air and wrapping around Ferran’s legs, arms, and torso .. they were everywhere at once.

Groddil swung his outstretched arm in a wide arch, the chains yanking Ferran completely off the ground, sending him spinning through the air and into a large tree.

The chains retracted as Ferran fell, crashing through brush, bark, and finally to the ground.

His apprentice staggered back, fear shining wildly in her eyes as Groddil turned to her, eyes glowing solid blue. Sally gasped, regretting it at the shock of pain running through her.

The younger Necromancer bolted towards her fallen master, moving faster than lightning. She grabbed him around his waist, kicking off the ground and soaring upward, cloak flying around her as if it were wings.

Groddil lifted his paw, aiming it at her retreating form. A glowing chain snaked out, spanning the distance in far less than a second and wrapping around one of her ankles. She had time to shriek, before Groddil jerked his arm down and she and her stunned master plummeted earthwards, disappearing into the forest with sounds of faint crashing.

Seconds later, Groddil staggered, falling to his knees. The blue chains dematerialized in wisps of vapor, which seemed to fade into the silver fox’s body, as if they were reabsorbed.

His glowing eyes faded to their normal yellow, and he pitched forward, catching himself with his paws as he stared at the ground, breathing shaking breaths.

“Groddil?” Stargazer asked it with a small amount of worry. “Are you alright?”

He jerked his head up, eyes alight with something Sally had no name for. “Alright? I’ve never been better! Did we win?”

His voice held nearly boyish excitement and vigor. He jerked his head around, fear instantly flooding his expression. “No! Oh no, hang on you three!”

He quickly stumbled to Sally’s side, laying a paw where the magic had touched her. “My blessing of you worked I see, good, good. I thought something of this kind might happen, I was a fool to confront Ferran, I should have known it was a ploy … forgive me, please, it will never happen again.”

Sally shivered as a rush of cold flowed down her side, and the pain faded away. Groddil hurried to Rose and then Dancer, touching their wounds with a faintly glowing paw. Rose slowly sat up as the injury faded from her shoulder, and Dancer stood carefully, testing her hindleg.

Sally got to her feet, brushing herself off and noticing the singed hole in the side of her dress, one that was magically repairing itself within seconds.

“I thought you said .. healing wasn’t your specialty.” Sally tried to force her breathing to slow. “And you can fix broken objects too?”

Groddil shook his head, his voice still unnaturally lively. “No, but what you saw was an overwhelming amount of Ignasa’s power flowing through me. Nothing that has been touched with the essence of such power can remain tainted by evil magic, not even the burned fabric of your clothes .. I have not felt this alive in years ..”

He tested his lame foot, nodding, “I can walk again .. at least for the time being.”

He took a deep breath of the morning air, sighing, a smile on his face. “Somehow, I feel so at peace .. and I know what we must do. Hurry, I feel the call of the third mark stronger than ever before. They need us as soon as we can reach them.”

“What about those two?” Stargazer jerked his head in the direction that Ferran and his apprentice had been flung.

Groddil’s smile faded. “Oh. Yes, them. What to do about them? That is the question.”

“I say we kill them.” Stargazer snorted. “They will only come after us again.”

Rose staggered onto her paws, asking in a high, terror sheered voice, “You flung them at least a hundred feet .. how could they be alive?”

“Necromancer’s are resilient creatures, typically they die of their own power before anyone kills them; I doubt what I’ve done did little more than injure them badly enough to make them slink away to heal and plan .. you’re right my friend, they must be dealt with.” Groddil spoke with more words than Sally had ever heard him use in one conversation.

He moved to mount Stargazer, before pausing. “I can’t leave the marks alone, not even to patrol the perimeter of our camp .. that’s been proven this morning ..”

“I will deal with them.” Stargazer snorted, stamping a hind hoof.

Groddil nodded, laying a paw on the horse’s shoulder. “Ignasa go with you and protect you.”

A little glow seeped from Groddil’s paw into Stargazer’s coat, and with a toss of his head, the horse loped off into the forest.

“Is your leg fully healed?” Groddil turned to Dancer, expression questioning.

She set the hoof in question fully on the ground, before taking a few steps. “I .. think so.”

“Good, we should prepare to leave as soon as we can .. there is no time to waste.” Groddil turned his gaze westward. “I know exactly where to go.”

><><

Brome awoke early on the fourth morning since he’d received his injuries, stretching leisurely with a wide yawn.

He rubbed his eyes sleepily, blinking in the predawn darkness. He’d been planning to do something for days now .. hadn’t he? Or maybe everything that had happened was nothing more than a strangely painful bad dream.

He made his right paw into a fist, wincing as the slightest bit of pain and a feeling of weakness rushed down the arm in question.

Definitely not a dream. He experimentally stretched and flexed the muscles in his arms to determine where they hurt.

“Ow ow oww!” Brome squeaked with surprise as he moved his arm wrong and a sharp pang shot through it. So he wasn’t quite back to normal .. soon though.

Carefully, he slipped out of bed, relieved to find his legs were in better shape, and tiptoed to his mirror hanging on one of the walls. He stared at himself in the mirror, slowly touching the dark bruise under his right eye. “Ow!”

He exclaimed as he found out how tender it was. Stupid Roderick. Stupid him for throwing a stupid rock at Roderick.

“No, he deserved that.” Brome reasoned with his reflection.

He sighed, running his good paw through his tangle of orange hair, only to nearly get it stuck. The last few days were a blur thanks to headaches from the blow to the face he’d received, and the medicine his mother used to combat them. He’d had a genius plan to do something great; something about Sally.

Sally! And Rose and Dancer … they still hadn’t returned. Or had they?

Brome tread lightly as he inched his door open, slipping into and across the hallway to his sister’s room. He quietly unlatched their door, opening it to be faced with the empty interior, complete with neatly made beds.

Brome sighed, and his ears drooped. The absence of rumpled sheets and belonging strewn around her bed coincided with the absence of Sally. And if Sally still wasn’t home, neither were the others.

Silence defined the house, suddenly making it very empty. No sound of his mother yelling at Dancer to please not eat the entire garden. No crash of Sally accidently breaking a dish during a cooking lesson. No Rose hovering over him and treating him like a baby brother. Or at very least for this time of morning, no loud snoring in his sisters’ room.

With soft, pattering pawsteps, Brome crept into the larger room, with its two matching beds, white lace curtains, and whitewashed walls. Both beds had hand stitched quilts on them, one considerably better than the other. Rose’s nightstand was home to a number of stitchery projects, while Sally’s boasted a ball of yarn stuck full of miss-matched knitting needles, and a pile of books.

Brome crawled onto his oldest sister’s bed, staring at the portrait of their family hanging on the wall it was against. Sally had painted it, being very good at painting, and it made Brome smile.

His likeness stared back at him with an enthusiastic grin, while his parents and Rose had more measured, proper smiles. Sally alone did not smile, just stared at him with her unblinking black eyes and a completely blank expression.

It seemed to Brome that she glared at him, disappointed.

“You’re right. I’ve got to find you Sally. I’ve just got to.” He reached up and pulled the canvas down, studying it closer.

Sally didn’t seem happy. But then, Sally never seemed all that excited about anything.

“Mother thought you’d be excited about this trip.” Brome told the picture, trying to pretend the golden mouse in it was the real thing. “But you weren’t. You .. were you scared Sally? No, you’re never scared .. but why did you ask Gruvan to go with you if you weren’t?”

Brome frowned. “Unless .. you knew about something really scary out there. Something that could scare even you.”

He looked around the dimly lit room, eyes widening. “Sally .. could have gotten stolen .. or drowned in a river .. or ate up by monsters!”

Brome leapt off the bed, leaving the painting behind and instantly wincing at the creak beneath his paws. He held his breath for a few moments, but there was no sound from his probably exhausted parents downstairs.

As quietly as he could, Brome snuck back to his room and began packing what belongings he thought he’d need. He stole one of Rose’s totes for sewing supplies, leaving the contents on her bed. At this time, he needed it more.

Extra pants, shirts, and a pouch full of his favorite marbles went into the bag, which he slung over his shoulder, feeling rather proud of his forethought.

At this, he paused. What was he thinking, really?

He wanted his sisters back, that was what. He had to get them back .. and if he could do that, it would prove he was too noble to steal from Roderick. But how to get to them? They could be anywhere, and walking through the woods didn’t sound like much fun.

He doubted he could get Lightningflash to take him. It was easier for Sally, she had a cart …

A cart! Brome hurried to his window, opening it and peering around the corner of his house. Sure enough, the Rambling Rosehip Player’s camp still stood in the morning mist, that was quickly lightening. Ballaw wouldn’t take him if he knew .. but who said he had to know?

With that decision, Brome looked around for something to write on. This led him to Sally’s room and to her stack of books on the nightstand. Her journal lay on top with a pencil atop that. He picked the two up, opening the journal to the first blank page and scribbling a message on it. As he moved to rip it out, a rooster crowed loudly .. too loudly.

With a tiny squeak of surprise, Brome dropped the journal and started to his feet; if he was to do this, he had to do it now. He hurried from the room, creeping down the stairs, relieved to hear even breathing coming from his parent’s room.

Arriving at his destination, the kitchen, Brome opened the cupboard where his mother kept the bread, cheese, pies, and things of that nature. He hesitated in taking a full loaf of bread, imagining his mother’s scolding voice.

“Greedy!”

Brome broke a small piece off the end of the loaf and placed that back on the plate. He did the same thing with the cheese, and a large sweetbread, leaving the smaller portion of each. Five large carrots, several turnips and a couple apples later, Brome pushed open the back door, slipped down the porch steps and walked into the garden. He made his way around the house toward the front of it, feeling like he’d accomplished something grand.

However, before he could leave the yard, hoofbeats stopped him. After a frantic look around, he dove into a bush, peering out to see who rode Lightningflash.

As soon as he saw them, Brome shivered. His father sat on the horse’s back .. if he found his son in a bush with pilfered food .. that would be the end of everything. Good-bye cruel world.

However, as Urran dismounted, Brome watched in dismay. His father staggered, falling against Lightningflash, who jerked his head up as though he’d been falling asleep. “Hey .. what?”

The horse’s voice sounded slurred.

Brome’s father ran a paw down his face, and for the first time, Brome saw the dark circles and matted fur beneath the older mouse’s eyes. “Er .. sorry Flash .. I .. I am just .. well, quite tired. With nothing to show for it.”

“It’s going to be ok Urran .. we have to believe that.” Lightningflash’s words morphed into a huge yawn. “Ho hum .. back at it in a couple hours?”

“Yes, I don’t need a lot of sleep, just a little. We’ll find them .. we’ll find them.” He waved wearily, stumbling up the front steps and into the house. Brome breathed a sigh of relieve as the thump of the door shutting signaled his father was gone, only to groan as Lightningflash lay down in the yard, closing his eyes.

He waited a few moments to ensure the horse actually slept, before he tiptoed past, holding his breath. Lightningflash didn’t do so much as twitch an ear .. Sally must be really and truly lost to garner this much attention. All the more reason to find her.

As soon as he deemed it safe, Brome began running across town toward the grassy knoll the Rambling Rosehip Players had camped on. He found they were already up, and packing their tents into their wagon.

Ballaw brushed his black horse’s coat, talking to the white squirrel lady. Brome ducked into a bush to listen.

“Well, I’d say this was a success, wouldn’t you?”

She laughed. “Oh Ballaw, just because they liked your plays? We didn’t make as much money as I would have liked.”

Ballaw took hold of the horse’s bridle. “Either way, I think we should stop by again sometime ..”

His voice faded away as he led the horse around to the front of the cart and his companion followed, leaving the wagon’s open back unguarded.

Brome looked both ways, before bolting to the back of the cart and climbing inside, crawling over tents and costumes and into one of the corners. He pulled a large piece of sparkly fabric over his head, waiting in the darkness of the covered wagon.

Thumps and jingles from outside were audible, but muffled. Brome took the opportunity to pull an apple out of his tote and take a bite, smiling as the sweet juice filled his mouth with flavor. A chunk of sweetbread added to the sugary goodness. He might be abusing his newfound freedom by having sweets for breakfast, but Brome couldn’t make himself feel too guilty.

As he nibbled away at his apple core, making certain to get the crunchy seeds, something was thrown into the cart disturbingly close to his head, accompanied by a voice he didn’t recognize. “That’s the last of it!”

Brome sat as still as he possibly could, staring at his paws in the darkness. He couldn’t really see them, or anything else.

A sudden little tinge of fear gripped him. Was this really the best idea; leaving his nice, safe home and sneaking off with creatures he knew nothing about? In a rush of misgivings, Brome almost convinced himself to burst out of the cart and run back to his comfortable bed.

Then he thought of the breakfast he’d eaten and what he did to the cheese, and decided facing Ballaw would be the better option.

Besides, Sally never backed down.

><><

Erwin walked down one of the keep’s darkened hallways, keeping her footsteps soft. Chaos was the word that had to be used to describe the last few days, Badrang kept everyone busy in his paranoia of the impending visit from his master.

Thankfully, this madness was exactly what she needed to make her plan a success, this and nerves of steel.

She’d done everything in advance to prepare for this moment, plotting it and it’s possible outcomes out to the smallest detail. This would work, this had to work.

Erwin opened a door to the staircase leading to the keep’s battlements, drawing out her closed brazier as she made her way up the steps with the soft rustle of her black cloak. She reached the top of the steps, blinking at the open trapdoor .. shameful, the way her brother’s forces ignored safety protocol.

She stopped beneath the door, taking a kerchief from beneath her cloak and tying it over her muzzle. Erwin peeped over the edge of the door, half expecting the two guards to be asleep already .. she was certain they would have been had Badrang not been so on edge.

With the softest grating, she slid open the lid of her brazier, holding it near the hatch so the fumes would drift upward.

Then she waited, as there wasn’t much else to do. It seemed to take forever, and she looked several times to see if her herbs were having any effect at all. The guards had their backs to the door but were leaning against the wall, heads drooping forward.

After a few moments, a sliding, scraping thumb informed her at least one had dozed off.

“Hey .. Garth .. what’cha doin’ .. ya can’t sleep on the job ..” The remaining guard’s voice faded away as he too slumped to the floor.

Erwin waited just a few more moments for the smoke to truly take effect, before closing her brazier and hurrying down the stairs. The next order of business was to get to the dungeons.

Her paws made soft patters on the stairs as she walked out into the hall, looking both ways to ensure it was safe. As most of the garrison had been ordered to do border patrols to ensure the land was as it should be, the keep had a minimal guard.

It was so completely silent Erwin could hear her heart pounding in her ears, and she thanked the fates she could see at least reasonably well in the dark.

The walk to the dungeon took far longer than she liked, and upon arriving, she had to wait outside the door and let her smoke seep through the barred window at the top.

She stood completely still for at least five minutes, having heard no noise in the first place. The door creaked open ominously, only to reveal three guards, all fast asleep. This whole plan was going disturbingly well.

Erwin walked into the room, letting the smoke waft about the sleeping guards to ensure they stayed sleeping. When she felt confident they would, she closed the brazier and wrapped its chain around her waist once more, before searching the guards and removing the keys from one of their belts.

Each door in the dungeon grated nastily .. hadn’t she told someone to oil these at one point? Annoyed and on edge, Erwin slipped down the hallway to the mouse’s cell. The lock clanked horribly, but to her surprise, the door itself swung open silently.

This must be the one she’d ordered the guard to oil.

She knelt beside the sleeping mouse, wondering if he was well enough to walk even a little. A firm shake or two made him blink his eyes open and stare up at her is surprise. His eyes looked slightly less bloodshot .. a good sign.

“Can you get up?”

He blinked several times, and he spoke in a dry voice. “I .. don’t know ..”

“Try.” Erwin hesitated to hold out her paw. “I’ll .. help you.”

He stared at her in shock. “You … what?”

“I’ll help you!” Erwin snapped. “Take my paw already, it’s not like I haven’t stooped to touching you before.”

He slowly did so, and she shuddered involuntarily as some of his filth rubbed off on her pristine white fur. However she pushed that thought from her mind and pulled him onto his feet, where he stood shakily, like a mere breeze would send him tumbling to the ground.

“What is going on .. this isn’t when you usually come.” The mouse seemed observant for having spent most of the time she was with him in feverish stupor. Unless of course, he’d simply been pretending.

Erwin sighed. “I’m helping you escape.”

She laid a paw on his forehead. “Your fever has gone down, that’s good. Because you will need to walk until you fall over from exhaustion. Why are you staring like that?”

“You’re .. helping .. me escape?” He didn’t seem to be able to wrap his mind around it. “Why? You’re the tyrant’s …… I mean, Lord Badrang’s sister.”

“Watch your mouth mouse.” Erwin twitched an ear in annoyance, though she couldn’t really blame him. “And my reasons are my own. All you need concern yourself with is I’m giving you a ticket to freedom. That’s what you want, surely.”

“Yes ..” He didn’t look like he believed her.

Erwin scowled. “The guards won’t stay asleep forever, we need to move, now.”

She dug in her satchel, pulling out a slaver’s uniform she’d snagged out of the washing. Slipping it in the hinges of the cell door and ripping a small chunk off was a simple task.

The mouse stared at her with confusion, but she ignored his unspoken question. “Come. This way.”

She started down the hallway deeper into the dungeons, looking over her shoulder to ensure the mouse followed her. He did, and while he seemed to be able to walk, his damaged arm hung limply at his side; tightly bandaged and completely useless.

Erwin muttered under her breath. The hall grew darker, lit only by the glow of her brazier, which she now held out in front of her.

Her echoing pawsteps mingled with the slightly stumbling ones of the mouse, and she could not deny the chill running down her back. Why would the omens lead her to do this, jeopardize her place in her brother’s kingdom and lead an insane and deadly creature to freedom?

The way he walked after her, lurching slightly every few steps, made her feel deeply unsettled and she kept glancing back at him, unable to shake the feeling he would be staring into her soul with glowing red eyes.

After what felt like a torturously long time, she reached the door she was looking for. It swung open with a groan, and Erwin turned to face her companion. “Through here.”

He silently stepped through the opening and she followed, closing the door behind them.

Large stacks of crates and barrels lined the walls of a considerably larger room than the entirety of the dungeon, at least, it seemed that way. And thank the fates, Erwin could now hear the faint crashing of surf.

“Come.” She started through the room, cloak swishing along the stone floor. Again, she could hear his dragging footsteps behind her, and pushed away a shudder. In this state, he was nothing to fear .. he wouldn’t be able to use his Bloodwrath even if he tried; he was far to drained of energy. At least, those were the thoughts she told herself.

The musty air of the dungeons faded away to something resembling a sea breeze, and Erwin took a deep breath of it. She turned to see the mouse leaning against some crates, eyes dull.

With a sigh and a look around to ensure they were alone, she pulled a loaf of bread from her satchel and handed it to him. “Eat this.”

He stared at her a moment, before grabbing it and taking large bites. Crumbs scattered on the floor and Erwin cursed under her breath, scowling at him and sweeping the hem of her cloak across the mess to scatter it.

Within moments, the mouse had finished his meal, and Erwin handed him a canteen. “Don’t drink all of it now, you’ll need it later.”

He took several sizeable drinks, before Erwin grabbed the canteen and closed it before shoving it back into his good paw. “I said save some. Now come on.”

She turned on her heel, her cloak sweeping out behind her as she did so. The mouse’s stumbling pawsteps resumed behind her as she continued through the spacious, echoing room until she reached the massive double doors at the end.

The mouse stared up at them dumbly, confusion obvious on his face, but Erwin didn’t take the time to explain to him.

She could only hope the door wasn’t guarded from the outside, something she highly doubted was the case. Hoping she wouldn’t need it, she drew her dagger, and pushed one door slightly open.

Shadowed silhouettes of ships filled this natural cave beneath the cliffs with an inlet of ocean that lapped calmly against the eight or nine foot stone ledge they stood upon. Almost instantly, running pawsteps rang out, accompanied by a confused but suspicious voice. “Halt! Who goes there; state your name and what brings you here!”

The guard clamped a heavy paw on Erwin’s shoulder, noticing the mouse and growling, “What is ..”

He never got any more out, as Erwin whipped around and sank the dagger into him, between the chinks of his armor.

A little blood splattered on her cloak as she withdrew the knife, and the guard collapsed with a clatter. Another shout echoed through the room at this, as his companion came running to see what was going on.

Erwin attacked quickly, lunging and stabbing him before he had a chance to properly realize what was happening. He fell near the other one, and slowly, Erwin exhaled, looking around for any more witnesses.

The only noise was lapping wavelets of the hidden bay on the stone ledge, and the soft sound of crashing surf on the rock reefs that guarded the shore. After a moment, she grabbed the mouse, who was standing still, staring at her blankly, by his good paw and dragged him behind her. “Come on.”

He stumbled, following her along the curving ledge the framed the bay. Erwin didn’t look back once, just ran, practically dragging the mouse with her .. every second she wondered if he would fall over and she would be forced to carry him out.

He didn’t, he kept himself upright, and made it to the end of the ledge, where the light of the moon and stars could be seen. Here the ledge gave way to natural stone, forming a pathway leading out of the sea cave beneath the keep. Erwin hurried up it, into the moonlit night, and the mouse stared around himself with his wide brown eyes.

Erwin led him along the beach, walking purposefully in the surf so as not to leave paw prints. The cliffs rose high above them, casting them in dark shadows whose reflections danced on the rolling waves.

Once they had gotten far enough from the keep to satisfy her, Erwin released the mouse’s paw, turning to face him.

He stared up at her, gaunt face framing eyes that seemed disproportionately large. Now that he stood before her, she could see how strangely tall he was, at least for a mouse. His ankles, submersed in the sea, were slowly turning gold as the tide washed the dirt of ages away.

The silence was complete aside from the crash of surf, and Erwin finally broke it. “Now run.”

“Where?” He asked, confusion clear in his eyes.

“I don’t care.” Erwin said it flatly. “Anywhere but here, or my efforts so far will be in vain.”

Still, he didn’t flee. He just stared at her. “What .. are you really doing?”

Erwin snarled, pinning her ears as her blue eyes flashed with anger. “Does it really matter mouse? Verdauga Greeneyes is coming here to see your execution, I’ve taken it upon myself to save you from that, but I can’t accomplish it if you don’t do anything. Get out of here!”

He took a step back, eyes still wide. Erwin drew her bloodstained dagger, feigning a slash at him. “Get out of here or I’ll kill you myself!”

At this he turned and ran as best he could, stumbling every few steps.

Erwin stood still, wavelets pulling at her cloak and ankles and watched until the mouse had disappeared from sight. A few moments later, she turned and hurried back the way she had come, boots splashing through the shallows.

It took a good few minutes to return to the hidden bay beneath her brother’s keep; where she pushed the dead guards into the deep water, and they sank to the bottom thanks to their armor.

She retraced her steps, ensuring the prison guards still slept with a little extra smoke from her brazier, and made it to her room without arousing any attention.

She shut the door, locking it quickly, and leaned against it, breathing heavily.

After a few moments, Erwin stumbled forward, walking to her large fireplace and grabbing the poker, She stirred the embers before adding another few logs and watching them catch fire, crackling warmly.

As they grew into a strong blaze, she drew her dagger, cleaning it with her handkerchief, before tossing the now-bloody cloth into the fire. She removed the boots on her feet, another piece of stolen guards’ uniform, and placed them in the fireplace as well, watching as the flames licked away at the leather. The torn guard uniform joined them.

The items slowly disintegrated in the fire, and Erwin went to her adjoining washroom to clean herself and her cloak. Only then would she sleep.

><><

The sound of Dancer and Stargazer’s hooves was the only one to accompany the gray morning dawn on the morning of the seventeenth day since Sally had left Evenglade. Sally only knew this thanks to Rose’s daily, miffed reminder.

Sisters.

Sally sat on the driver’s seat of the cart, while Rose groused in the back, stitching away at something.

Groddil seemed alert to every little sound, so much as a twig snapped, and her jerked his head in the direction. It put Sally on edge.

She shivered. Summer might be fast approaching, but mornings in the northern forests would always keep their chill. Water dripped from the undersides of tree limbs, so Sally wrapped her cloak tighter about herself and did her best to ignore the cloud that had come to rest on the ground.

Dancer’s hooves made small squelches in the dew-laden grass, mirrored by Stargazers footsteps.

As the morning dragged incessantly on, Sally started to notice the trees. The were thinning, small, and gnarled, like they were constantly lashed by wind.

“The eastern shores.” Groddil said it with some relief. “Finally, we’re here.”

Rose mumbled something unintelligible from the back of the cart, but Salley sat upright. “Where to now?”

Silence momentarily filled the air as Groddil thought, before he nodded, pointed northeast. “Follow me.”

After a few gentle taps of the fox’s claws on his mane, Stargazer broke into a trot, then a canter; and Dancer followed, causing the cart to jolt a lot. Rose squeaked, half in surprise and half in frustration as this caused her to topple off her seat of grain sacks.

Salley gripped the bottom of the driver’s seat with her claws and leaned forward, embracing the wind on her face.

The trees soon melted into small shrubbery, and then to barren, storm-lashed cliffs. Salley could not help but stare at the vast expanse of gray-black water that sat beyond them, larger than any river or pond could ever hope to be. Bruised clouds met the ocean and nearly made one endless wall of gray to the east.

Stargazer’s flaxen tail flowed out behind him, and he ran several feet ahead of Dancer; weighed down by the cart. Groddil, leaning over his horse’s mane, slipped his bow from his back and notched and arrow on the string.

At this, Salley reached for her sword, tucked between her back and the back of the driver’s seat.

She looked ahead, to see what Groddil had perceived as a threat.

A group of armed creatures in matching attire stood about fifty feet away, but with the horses, it wouldn’t take long to reach them. Only one was mounted, and the rest quickly tried to fall into formation, drawing their weapons.

Groddil straightened up, drawing his bow back to his cheek and holding it out over Stargazer’s shoulder. After a second, the arrow whistled as it flew, and evoked a cry from the mounted creature, who toppled from his mount’s back.

The horse bolted, and the remaining creatures looked like they want to follow, but Stargazer was upon them.

He bent his head down, plowing two of them over and trampling them beneath his hooves, while Groddil loaded another arrow.

Again, he shot another, and Stargazer kicked the final creature full in the chest.

Dancer slid to a stop, bringing the cart to a jerking halt.

Slowly, Groddil slid his bow back across his back. Rose peered over the edge of the cart, gaping in horror. “Wh .. why did you do that? You don’t even know if they were really enemies!”

Groddil gave her a look of longsuffering, and Stargazer rolled his eyes, snorting, “They bear the eye of Verdauga; they are our enemies.”

Rose shuddered, hiding beneath the wall of the cart with a sniff. Salley, despite herself, asked, “The eye of Verdauga?”

Stargazer reached his head down, grabbing a part of a dead creature’s black cloak in his teeth, and yanking it free with a rip of fabric. Groddil reached down and his friend dropped the item in his palm. He walked over to the cart and Groddil held out the object for Salley’s inspection.

She took it, staring at the insignia on the cloak pin in her palm. A green eye, pupil nothing but a black sliver, stared back at her.

“That is the crest of Verdauga Greeneyes, conqueror of Mossflower; one who would surely want you dead if he knew of your existence. Any who would wear his mark are no friends of ours.” Groddil took the cloak pin back, tossing it away. “I know the other mark is close, we must hurry. If Greeneyes’ creatures find him all is lost.”

At this, Stargazer wheeled around, breaking into a run again. With a snort, the cart jolted forward as Dancer followed him.

The barren coast offered good visibility, and now that she was more alert, Salley spotted the figures almost before Groddil did. “I see someone!” “The mark is there.” Groddil’s voice was a whisper, nearly inaudible.

He tapped his legs against Stargazer’s sides, and the horse leaped forward, practically flying across the ground. Dancer sped up as well, though Salley took note of the dark, sweaty patches of fur around her harness. This couldn’t be easy for her.

Groddil unleashed a least two arrows before he was upon the creatures. Then he swung down from Stargazer’s back, whipping his staff from off his back.

For a few moments Salley was too far away to really see what went on, but Dancer closed the distance between the groups quickly.

Blue flashes erupted from Groddil’s staff, killing several of his enemies on the spot. Dancer slid to a stop at this, quickly backing away. Groddil and Stargazer moved as one creature, striking, kicking, and slashing in unison.

Salley watched in fascination, as Groddil swung down from his horse’s back, smashing his boots into a creature’s chest in the process. He waved his staff in a wide arch, felling five enemies in one brilliant flash of blue. Stargazer kicked the last one a least ten feet, where he landed with a clank of armor and didn’t move to rise.

Groddil twirled his staff, ending the movement by returning it to it’s place across his back.

At least thirteen creatures lay around the fox and horse, dead, or at very least unconscious. Salley slowly slipped off the cart’s seat after the two didn’t move for a few moments. As she walked towards them, she asked, “What’s wrong?”

“The mark is here; I can feel it.” Was Groddil’s quiet, distracted answer.

Stargazer wiped a bloody hoof on the sand, asking, “Where is here exactly? All I see are soldiers of Greeneyes.”

Groddil closed his eyes, before running forward on foot as best he could. “Come, this way.”

“Well, follow him. Don’t get separated.” Stargazer trotted after his friend.

Salley ran after them, and the creaks of the cart accompanied by Dancer’s hooffalls told her the other two were behind her.

Groddil stopped running beside an outcropping of boulders, kneeling next to and a little behind them. Stargazer reached his side only moments afterwards, and Salley wasn’t far behind.

Hidden behind the rocks lay a heap of filthy fur, that upon closer inspection turned out to be a mouse, or at least, a mouse-like creature. Though Salley felt that if he stood up, he would be at least as tall as her; making him a rare specimen.

Right away, she noticed the furless, pale skin in rings around his exposed wrist and ankles, and wondered how that had come to be. The other arm was swathed in bandages. Groddil lifted the mouse’s head, and he didn’t respond. The fox grimaced, muttering, “Ignasa, help us all.”

He carefully picked up the creature, who hung limply in his arms.

“That’s the third marked one?” Dancer voiced the question hanging on Salley’s lips.

Stargazer looked grimly at Groddil, who nodded. “This is the star, yes.”

Rose popped her head over the cart wall at this, apparently interested enough to care. She stared in horror at the limp creature in Groddil’s arms for a second, before climbing out of her safe haven and running over to the fox quicker than she ever had before.

“Oh! Are they alive?”

“Barely.” Groddil looked downright afraid.

Rose put a paw to her mouth as she got a good look at the mouse. “Oh no .. quick, put him in the back of the cart, I’ll do what I can.”

Groddil blinked at her, momentarily silent. Rose frowned deeper, ordering, “What are you waiting for, I’m a healer, I can help him!”

After another second, Groddil quickly walked around to the back of the cart, the others following. He gently laid the mouse down on a pile of grain sacks, and Rose climbed in next to him. She opened her satchel, beginning to dig through it, as Groddil placed a paw on the mouse’s chest.

He murmured something Salley guessed to be a prayer, and blue flowed from his paw into the mouse’s fur. Almost instantly, the look of pain faded from the incoherent creature’s face.

Rose stared at the fox, sputtering, “Wh .. what did you just do to him?”

“I sped up the healing process a little.” Groddil answered. “It should keep him alive from the inside while you treat his wounds from the outside. Don’t look at me as though I hurt him more.”

Rose shifted a little further from the fox, muttering, “So unnatural .. sorry, this .. magic stuff is outside my understanding.”

“I would dare to say it is outside any mortal’s understanding.” Groddil sounded stern. “Do what you can for him. We must get away from here before we run into anymore Greeneye soldiers. Odd that they’re this far north …. Unless Verdauga has a vassal on the coasts now.”

“I wouldn’t put that past him.” Stargazer grumbled, tossing his head.

Groddil grabbed his horse’s mane near the withers, Stargazer went down on one knee, allowing the fox to mount easier. He stood, and Salley ran over to the cart seat, scrambling up onto it.

As Dancer trotted away, Salley cast one final glance at the bodies scattered in the heath. She shuddered, thankful that Groddil and Stargazer were on her side.

The two lead them back the way they had come, back towards the far off, towering forest. Salley turned around in her seat to check on Rose, who was busy with their newest companion. For all her failings, Rose didn’t shrink back in the slightest from the bloody, filthy mouse as she hurried to help him drink a little water.

Salley watched as Rose rubbed a salve into her patients many cuts and scrapes, which looked to be mildly infected.

They had reached the scruffy beginning of the vast northern forest, when Dancer abruptly stopped.

Salley turned around quickly, to see Stargazer had stopped as well. He stomped an amber hind hoof on the ground, tossing his head as Groddil slowly drew his staff. Dancer hurriedly made her way to their side, looking around nervously.

Rose looked up, confusion in her gaze, and Salley asked, “Is it Ferran?”

“No.” Groddil’s voice was a firm sound. “Stay behind us. Salley, have your sword drawn, but don’t attempt to use it unless they come to you.”

A rustle rang through the quiet woodlands, and a brown furred creature stepped out from behind a small tree, long green coattails flowing behind him. He was a pine marten, from his coloration, how tall he stood, and his extremely fluffy tail.

Salley felt a horrible chill run down her spine, and she grabbed the hilt of her sword, trembling slightly.

Without a second’s hesitation, the creature walked towards them, his slightly above the shoulder hair flowing almost surreally around his face, framing light green eyes.

Stargazer pinned his ears, muttering, “Where are the others?”

“All around us.” Groddil murmured back, but Salley heard it. Instantly she jerked her head up, looking around the woodlands frantically. Dancer whinnied wordlessly, shifting from hoof to hoof and jerking her head from side to side. Even Rose was glancing around.

Salley looked to Groddil, and gasped. He leaned over Stargazer’s mane, clutching a paw to his chest and staring wildly at the approaching pine marten.

The creature smiled, but said nothing. He stopped about five feet in front of the Prophet and his horse, spreading both arms wide turning his palms upward. Salley could see his mouth move, but didn’t catch what he said. What she did hear sounded like gibberish anyway, but the air grew heavy, so heavy she could barely breathe.

Slowly, the pine marten levitated several feet off the ground, and his eyes turned into glowing pools of pure green. Groddil coughed, desperately forcing his head up as Stargazer half reared, neighing at his friend but forgetting to speak common woodland.

Salley tried to ready herself for any number of things, but what happened knocked her breath away. Glowing green figures materialized all around them, towering outlines of things that Salley had no name for. As they fully manifested into somewhat transparent, glowing eyed monsters, Rose took the opportunity to scream.

The pine marten motioned in their direction, and in one movement, the figures descended upon them from all sides. Salley whipped out her sword, but the weapon simply slashed through her attacker like it didn’t exist.

The thing slammed into her, knocking her backward off the driver’s seat. She barely felt herself hit the ground as a wave of fear, anger, and sorrow poured over her all at once, completely overwhelming. She barely even understood she was screaming as her vision blurred with tears, and her sword fell from nerveless fingers.

Before her blurred eyes, the world turned dark, and while she never consciously felt the ground drop away, she knew she was falling. She came to a jolting stop in complete darkness, broken only by the dim, colorless glow seeming to radiate from her body.

She reached a paw out, staring blankly at the soft light flowing from her fur.

A low growl made her jerk her head up, and standing several yards away was the thing. Only it wasn’t green anymore, it was light gray-brown with horrifying eyes; red irises framed in soulless black. It opened its impossibly wide mouth in a hungry grin, hissing as a long, snakelike tongue flicked out of its thin-lipped muzzle.

Salley stumbled backwards, and the thing stalked towards her, speaking in a guttural voice that seemed to be composed of several. “He wants you.”

To frightened to speak, Salley just kept scrambling back. The thing didn’t speed up its steps, but her movements became sluggish and hard; she could barely wiggle a claw.

“He will have you.”

Tears of many things, but mostly fright, fell from Salley’s eyes as she struggled to draw breath.

The thing’s smile curled up behind it’s eyes. “He is your king. He is unstoppable.”

As it walked, four massive, ragged black wings materialized over the beast’s back, almost dragging the ground. “He owns your soul.”

It stopped directly over Salley, stating, “I will take you to Him.”

Unable to move, speak, or even breath, Salley felt her will to resist dripping away.

“Give up. He is more then you ever could be.”

“Groddil, please …. Help me!” Salley wailed with the last of her breath, and the monster laughed a gut wrenching, snarling laugh.

“Praying to a servant can’t stop us. You are Malimore’s now.”

It raised a sharply clawed paw above her head, but as it did, a brilliant flash of blue blinded her, and the blood-freezing screeching snarl of her tormenter deafened her.

Salley gasped in air as her vision cleared, revealing the forest once more. She coughed, pulling her face out of the dirt and staring in Groddil’s direction, only to see him on his knees, fighting to lift his head as a green apparition whispered in his ear.

The creature responsible for Salley’s rescue stood five or so feet in front of her, facing the Necromancer.

It had a horse’s body, a radiant white coat, a strange, feathered tail, and a set of massive, widespread gray and white wings.

Salley stared in shock as the newcomer reared, screeching like a bird of prey. Blue light swirled around it’s body, forming into a multitude of shining balls of power. With a sudden flash they flew forward at once, each targeting one of the Necromancer’s green constructs.

Each shattered into fragments as the light hit them, and the Necromancer staggered back, pain registering on his face as he cried out.

He stumbled back, falling against a tree as he coughed up something that looked like black blood, and the same substance began to drip from the corners of his eyes. The white creature advanced on him, screeching it’s ear-splitting warcry again.

With wide eyes, he yelled something in a foreign tongue, and with that, vanished in a flash of emerald. The winged horse stomped a hoof aggressively, calling out in a feminine voice, “I know you are there! If you are to much a coward to face me, never return!”

She half reared again, letting out a final warning screech, before she dropped back onto all fours and turned to face Salley. The blue glow in her eyes faded away, but strangely, they remained pale, glassy cyan.

She had the face of a horse, with a delicate, pale pink muzzle. And while Salley was certain she could see feathers mixed in with the with hairs of the creature’s main, the oddest thing about her were the set of sizeable milky fangs she revealed as she spoke.

“It is good I found you when I did.”

“Wh .. what are you?” Salley stammered, realizing afterward that might be considered rude.

However, their rescuer didn’t seem to mind. She laughed a tinkling laugh, like chimes in the wind. “I am a whom, not a what. My name is Lunaglow, and I am a Prophet of Ignasa.”

She paused for a moment, adding, “Actually, you may call me Luna. No one calls me Lunaglow. You must be the feather mark, did I get it right?”

Salley stared at her blankly, and she suddenly blinked, as if realizing something. “Oh! You meant what species am I? I am a pegasus; you’ve never seen one of us before?”

There was a rustle as Groddil got to his feet, shaking himself. Luna turned her head to look at him, exclaiming, “You .. you’re actually the servant of north! My father has told me about you. I have wanted to meet you since I can remember .. I am honored sir.”

“Er ..” Groddil didn’t seem to know how to respond. “Well, I am honored, and grateful. You saved us. For the reputation I seem to have, I failed this fight horribly.”

“He was a summoner, it wasn’t your fault …” She suddenly stopped talking, an amazed look crossing her face. “I won against a summoner .. I can barely believe it!”

A shudder ran down her whithers, and she shook herself. “Ugh, it feels horrible here .. we should wait to talk until we reach my father’s house, there we will be safe from all prying eyes. Sir, how many of the marks have been found?”

Groddil shook his head. “I have three with me now .. the fourth … I do not know their whereabouts.”

Luna closed her eyes, lifting her head as a slight breeze ruffled her feathery mane. After a few moments, she nodded. “I feel them, but only faintly. It as though a great rift separates us.”

“Exactly, which means they cannot be anywhere near here.”

As the two Prophets conversed, Salley dragged herself up off of the ground, stumbling over to Dancer and leaning against her friend’s shoulder. The horse looked at her, muttering breathlessly, “What just happened?”

“I .. have no idea.” Salley answered.

Dancer craned her neck around, suddenly asking, “Is Rose alright?”

At this, Salley remembered her sister, and clumsily ran to the rail of the cart, peering over it. Rose lay on the grain sacks in a curled up heap, her paws clamped over her head as she shook all over. The injured mouse hadn’t moved.

Soft clops of hooves rang out from behind Salley as Luna walked over, looking at the two. “Oh dear .. this is not good.”

“Is Rose alright?” Salley asked.

“I was speaking of the half-dead mouse.” Luna clarified. “The other is just frightened .. quite understandably. Here, it is alright. The Dark Wolves are gone.”

Suddenly, a connection between the descriptions in her father’s books and the things summoned by the necromancer formed in Salley’s mind. “Those things were Dark Wolves?”

“Not in their true form, but yes, sort of ..” Luna tried to explain.

Groddil stepped in. “The creature that attacked us was a summoner, a very specific rank of necromancer. His specialty is calling the armies of Malimore to his aid .. truly, a horrifying power. No Prophet in their right mind desires a fight with one of them.”

“You’ve never seen him before?” Salley asked.

Groddil sighed. “Not that I know of.”

Luna spoke suddenly. “We should not stay here, and this mouse needs treatment. Follow me, it will take us several hours, but I know of a place necromancers cannot go.”

><><

Luna led the travelers through forests even denser than Salley was used to.

The Pegasus had her wings folded tightly to her back, but even still, some of her radiant feathers came loose in the undergrowth.

Salley walked beside Dancer because even though she’d said nothing, her drooping ears and the way she kept her head down, long mane tangling in the underbrush, was proof enough of her exhaustion. Salley had half a mind to leave the cart, but it was useful in the endeavor of carrying this third marked creature. Even still, she really considered tossing the grain. Something wouldn’t let her, some vague, misplaced hope that this was nothing but a dream. Denial, that’s what it was called.

Groddil lay slumped across Stargazer’s neck, sleeping. The horse never complained, though his dragging hooves made Salley think he secretly wished the two could trade places.

Dark, gnarled branches grabbed at Salley’s clothing, adding rip after rip to the snags and tears already decorating her skirt. She made up her mind that decent or otherwise, she would cut the stupid thing off the next time she got the chance.

As they went along, mud started to cling to Salley’s bare footpaws. The ground became damp and most unpleasant, covered in loam and leaving muck on whatever dared touch it.

Dancer’s hooves, the cart wheels; even Luna’s milk-white legs were splashed with filth.

“Uh .. miss ..” Dancer spoke suddenly, and Luna tilted her delicate, feathered ears back to listen though she didn’t turn her head.

Dancer strained against her harness, sweat marking her dappled flanks. “How much farther? And is this some sort of swamp?”

Luna didn’t stop walking, but responded. “Yes, we live in the swamp. Well .. sort of. We don’t actually live anywhere .. it’s hard to explain. You’ll see before sunset.”

She paused, adding, “And don’t call me miss, that sounds quite strange. I prefer you use my name, honestly.”

Salley tilted her head upward, staring at the slowly darkening sky. Surprised, she blurted, “It’s that late already?”

“Time is fleeting in these swamps.” Luna’s soft voice echoed back to them. “Ancient powers linger here, it is easy to lose many hours simply walking in circles, yet feel as though only a few moments have passed.”

“Oh that’s ….. lovely.” Dancer lifted a foreleg out of the muck with a sucking squelch.

The Pegasus shook her head. “Do not fear. I know which paths to take to avoid being lost forever. Still, we have lost a few hours .. but it is alright.”

“Oh sure.” Dancer muttered to Salley. “I’m so comforted.”

“I see you do not trust me?”

Both Salley and Dancer jumped, staring at Luna, who had to be at least seven feet in front of them. Dancer looked awkward. “Erm .. no .. I just don’t like the thought of not being able to remember plodding through the woods for hours. No wonder I’m exhausted.”

“Ah.” Luna nodded. “It is something I am accustomed to.”

Dancer waited a moment, before whispering, “Her hearing is crazy, even for a horse ..”

“It is a little uncanny. At least my father says that .. and I’m a Pegasus.”

Dancer heaved a sigh, looking quite defeated. Luna paused in walking for a second. “Was I not supposed to hear that? I am sorry.”

“It’s … fine.” Dancer sounded overwhelmed.

Luna stopped suddenly, lifting her head and pricking her ears forward. “We are here.”

Salley raised an eyebrow, and she scanned the swampy woodlands. Fungi covered trees, their bark nearly black with moisture, scratched at the sky as far as the eye could see. Pools of stagnant gray-brown water collected wherever the ground dipped down, and moss dripped from tree branches. Nothing even resembling a livable dwelling presented itself .. not even for a creature as strange as a Pegasus.

The only notable thing in the area was the primeval stone Luna stood in front of, swirling patterns etched into the surface.

“I see a really big rock ..” Dancer sounded hesitant.

“Naturally.” Luna smiled, closing her eyes and pressing her muzzle against the stone’s surface. Blue light rushed throughout the carvings, and somehow, the forest beyond the rock seemed to flicker and waver, as though it were a reflection caught in ripples on the surface of water.

The Pegasus lifted her head, motioning past the glowing stone. “The way is right through here. Go on, I’ll come last; I must close the gateway.”

Dancer and Salley exchanged a glance, before looking over at Groddil and Stargazer. Groddil, now awake and sitting up, looked amazed. Stargazer simply walked forward without hesitation.

As the two plodded past Luna, Salley’s mouth dropped open. The forest seemed to fold in upon the fox and his friend, leaving only a blurry stain to betray their presence. It was like looking at a creature through clouded glass … only ten times stranger.

Luna cocked her head. “You must not stand there all day.”

Dancer looked questioning, and with a sigh, Salley laid a paw on her friend’s shoulder. “Come on. It’s safe, I’m sure.”

She wasn’t sure at all, and Dancer’s expression gave away the fact she knew it all to well. However mouse and horse walked forward as one.

As they passed Luna, Salley gasped. The very air resisted her, tugging at her fur, and the world momentarily swirled into a wash of colors. The gloomy, tired old forest morphed into unrealistically perfect woodlands; the towering trees glowing in the light of sunset. Impossible greens of pristine foliage mingled with jewel-tone blues of stunningly clear water; even the gray rocks seemed to gleam with perfection.

“H … how?” Dancer squeaked in surprise

“My father.” Luna walked over to them, a happy look on her face.

“Your father must be the strongest Prophet I have ever encountered.” Groddil still seemed stunned. “I have yet to meet him, and yet I can feel his essence saturating this place.”

Luna walked forward, leading them deeper into the woodland hollow. “He does not possess the sort of strength you do sir, as you fling yourself into the fray against the Necromancers. But he is close to our lord Ignasa.”

Salley could not stop staring around herself as they descended the grassy hill, toward the crystal pond filling the bottom of the small vale. Right away, she noticed the house sitting upon an island in the water, the mossy rocks of its base contrasting with the grass covering the ground everywhere else.

A wood and rope bridge connected the miniature island with the valley’s outer rim, which Luna led them across without a pause.

As they neared the house, Salley had to admire it. It looked very much like her own home back in Evenglade, only considerably larger and fancier, with at least three balconies that could be seen at the moment, one of them overhanging the pond.

The raw wood logs forming the walls were comforting to see, almost like she’d come home after all.

Salley stepped of the bridge in the flower-filled garden of the house, staring up at its impressive three stories.

Dancer suddenly brought up something Salley hadn’t thought of. “How did two horses build this? I guess the answer actually is magic in this case …”

At this moment, the door swung open, revealing an ancient looking squirrel dressed in a flowing robe of brown and green. Leaf motifs swirled across the shimmering fabric, and the heavy yew-wood staff he carried had bits of vine wrapped around it.

The old creature’s face lit up as soon as he saw them. “Ah, Luna my child! You have returned safely .. good, very good. And did you find the answer you sought? I expect so, these must be the cause of your visions then …”

He paused, turning to face Groddil and Stargazer. “Heavens and stars that reside in them, another Prophet! What brings you to our home friend? And who are these with you?”

Suddenly, his eyes fixed upon Salley, and when she met his gaze, the look of utter shock on his face concerned her.

The squirrel reached out with a shaking paw; then drew it back. His light hazel eyes held a haunted look as he asked, “You … your fur, your eyes! Where are you from? Who are you?”

“I’m .. Salley Voh of Evenglade sir.” Salley stammered, completely bewildered.

“Voh. It has been many years since I last heard that name.” He adjusted his grip on his leafy staff. “But you cannot be a Voh; your fur is like spun gold, not red like the Vohs. You look to be a Luke, that is for sure.”

“Well .. sorry.” Salley felt rather uncomfortable. “I’m a Voh. I’ve never even heard of a family named Luke.”

The old Prophet scratched his chin, frowning deeply. “Odd .. what has become of the outside world these last years, I wonder. Never mind for now, you are all tired; come in. Luna, make sure there are rooms prepared for our guests.”

“Father, they have a badly hurt creature with them.” Luna interrupted. “We should see he is situated before anything else. I’m sure I can heal him, it will simply take time .. he’s in the back of the cart.”

With shuffling steps muffled by his long robe, the squirrel walked over to see, and Salley followed. The minute he saw Rose, rebandaging the unconscious mouse’s arm, he smiled. “Now you miss; you are a Voh. That is quite unmistakable.” Rose stared at him, before shuddering. “Please don’t use magic on me, it’s really unsettling!”

“It’s no magic, with hair as red as yours, you couldn’t belong to another family.” The old squirrel corrected her, before turning to her patient.

“Oh dear. Yes, I see your point Luna. Bring him in and find an appropriate room for him.”

She nodded and trotted into the house, and Groddil dismounted, before picking their injured companion up in his arms.

The fox quickly followed Luna, and Rose scrambled out of the cart, slinging her satchel over her shoulder as she hurried after him. “Wait for me!”

The squirrel turned to Salley, Dancer, and Stargazer. “You may all come in; but do leave the cart outside.”

Salley went to unhitch Dancer, but Stargazer laid down in the thick grass. “I mean no offence, but I would far rather sleep here. And I truly need sleep.”

“I imagine that would be true.” Their host nodded, turning to Salley and Dancer, who shook herself as Salley removed the traces. “Well then, you two should follow me.”

He led them into the foyer of the house, of which the ceiling was a full three stories tall in a large square. Skylights filled the beautiful, if not somewhat cluttered room with natural light, and the first thing Salley noticed was the massive bookshelf spanning the upper two stories of the far wall. “That’s a lot of books.”

She breathed it, a little excitement in her voice.

Dancer wiped her hooves on the mat outside before stepping in and blinking in amazement. The squirrel smiled. “I make a point of collecting them. Now, is there anything you need? A bath perhaps?”

“Probably.” Salley sighed ruefully.

“Well, I must see what can be done for your friend. But the pond is all yours, and you’ll find towels and soap in the room over there.” He pointed in the direction. “Now if you don’t mind, I’m needed elsewhere. And please don’t make too much of a mess.”

He shuffled off, and upon reaching the polished wood staircase, he climbed it slowly. Salley looked at Dancer, who sighed, “He’s right, I really want a bath.”

One look at her friend, and Salley could not argue. The horse’s black mane was filled with undergrowth and mud, as was her long tail. Her coat looked more brown than gray. Salley shrugged, and they found the soap where the old squirrel said it would be.

Dancer was right, after bathing, Salley felt much better, At least, her scalp itched a lot less. She sat on the islands shore, wrapped in a towel, and tried to cut the skirt of her dress off with her sword. Somehow, she’d imagined this being quite a bit easier.

Dancer frolicked in the shallows, splashing water everywhere, her now clean mane sparkling in the fading light.

“Salley come on! This is great; don’t just sit there!” Dancer flopped onto her back, sending a wave of water flying everywhere.

“Just a second.” Salley said as the last of the fabric gave way. She stuck her sword in the ground and pulled the dress turned tunic over her head, letting the towel fall around her ankles. The dress now came down to her knees, and Salley slowly grinned. She jumped to her feet, running in a wide circle.

“Ha! My legs are free!”

“See why I say clothes are dumb?” Dancer asked, shaking herself and coming back to the shore.

“It’s different for you.” Salley playfully shoved her friend, before collecting her towels and tossing them over the horse’s back. “Come on, let’s go see what became of the others.”

><><

Erwin awoke slowly, coming to the realization the curtains of her four-posted bed were still drawn. She blinked in the darkness, reaching out and pulling one of the drapes aside.

Afternoon sunlight spilled into her room and now into her face, making her squint as she sat up, gray nightgown slipping off one shoulder like it always did. She slipped out of bed and into her slippers, subtly wondering why no servant had come to awake her.

She looked over to the door, noticing the drawn bolt, and shrugged. That would be the reason.

Erwin recalled the previous nights events as she walked into her washroom and shed her nightclothes. She took her time brushing her black hair and fur .. now that the deed had been done, she had no desire to face her brother.

“I betrayed him.” She murmured, looking down at the brush in her paws as her hair slipped over her shoulders and into her face. “I hope it is worth this.”

She pulled her dress on, and braided her hair pristinely, taking as long as was possible. When she had finished, she pulled her shoes on and tied her pouch of runes around her waist. There was no going back now. She had made her choice.

With a heavy sigh, Erwin unbolted her door and walked into the hallway. It was surprisingly empty.

She made her way towards the dining hall that doubled as a throne room, where she was most likely to find Badrang.

Hesitantly, she stood outside the doors, before inhaling deeply and pushing them open. The moment she walked into the room, Badrang bolted over to her, grabbing her shoulders and exclaiming, “They took him!” Shocked and completely confused, Erwin didn’t have to feign stupidity. “What?”

“They took him! He’s gone .. free .. I’m a dead creature!”

“Who took what?” Erwin tried to wrap her mind around what her brother was saying. This had something to do with the mouse for sure; but it was not how she’d envisioned the situation turning out.

“The Bloodwrather! He’s gone .. and the Prophets took him!” Badrang sounded like he wanted to keep his voice calm, but physically couldn’t.

Erwin stared at him dumbly, finally asking, “Prophets? How? Greeneyes killed a ton of them .. and how could they just walk into a defended garrison to take a half-dead mouse? Why would they? How do you know it was Prophets?”

Badrang was apparently too upset to notice her lack of a reaction to hearing of the mouse’s escape, and sighed, “This morning two patrols were found dead in the heath .. from the wounds on some of them, magic had to have been used. The very same morning that my prisoner is not in his cell and no one can find him! Also in the night, some of the guards were drugged .. or more likely, had a spell cast on them. Coincidence? I think not.”

Erwin closed her wide open mouth, but she couldn’t stop staring.

“I know.” Badrang clamped both paws against the sides of his head. “What have I done to call the wrath of heaven upon my head?”

He paused, suddenly asking, “Where were you? I sent for you, but you did not come.”

“I had locked my door.” Erwin quickly explained. “I was up late, trying to read the omens, so I did not awake until just a few moments ago.”

“Dare I ask what they said?”

Erwin looked at him for a moment, before hanging her head. “Nothing definite. Just that dark times lie ahead.”

“Of course they do.” Badrang slumped into a wooden dining chair next to the table.

Silence filled the room for a moment, before Badrang looked up, eyes pleading. “What am I to do? How do I change fate?”

“Sometimes ..” Erwin paused, before closing her eyes. “Sometimes there’s nothing to be done.”

She looked up, stating firmly, “But this will not be one of those times. The mouse is gone; Verdauga is coming .. if we can’t get the Bloodwrather back, we need a new one.”

Badrang shook his head. “And where do you propose we get a new one? It’s rare enough as it is .. but in a mouse?”

“I mean we need another half-dead mouse slave with a badly broken arm. That shouldn’t be too hard to come by.”

Badrang slowly looked up, disbelief written all over his face. “You’re saying .. we trick Verdauga Greeneyes. The conqueror of countless kingdoms. Ruler of a thousand, all-seeing eyes?”

“I’m saying we do what we have to do to live. Nothing more, nothing less. Greeneyes wants an injured slave executed. We can still give him that; we have plenty of slaves.” Erwin crossed her arms. “Has the fact the Bloodwrather escaped been revealed to the soldiers?”

“What do you take me for.” Badrang sounded tired. “No.”

“Then this stays between you, me, and Hisk. Not even Truman needs to know.”

“Especially not Truman.” Badrang corrected.

He shook his head. “Even if I do accept your idea … which is insane … but aside from loosing the one reason I called Verdauga to my doorstep for, what about the Prophets?”

Erwin paused, before shaking her head. “I don’t know. My omens have said nothing about Prophets.”

“Never in all the years we’ve lived here have we had a problem with Prophets .. their kind is almost extinct anyway …: Badrang put his head in his paws, lamenting his poor luck.

“Do we know for sure it was a Prophet? What if a rouge Necromancer did this? I mean, it is possible.”

Badrang seemed to ignore the first part of her question. “A Necromancer .. that’s what I need. A creature who can defend me from those wretches. You truly are quick-witted, sister.”

“Badrang ..” Erwin sighed, following him as he stood, pacing the length of the room.

“But where to get one .. where to get one. That is the question.” His shimmering gray cloak flowed out behind him as his embroidered jade slippers made soft swishes on the stone floor. “They will be hard to come by, and their service costly; but I will go to any measure to ensure Verdauga’s safety here. He’s bringing his son .. his son! Can you imagine what he’d do if Prophets attacked during his visit?”

Erwin opened her mouth to reply, but shut it in the next second. A few moments later, she nodded. “Well, you have a point I suppose. Also, Greeneyes will surely bring Fortunata .. that is, if she’s still alive.”

Badrang scowled, muttering, “That traitor. But yes, he will. And I should have a Necromancer of my own to counter her.”

A loud creak rang out from behind them and to two siblings turned around as one. Truman stood in the doorway, looking bleary and quite hung-over. “I say, is breakfast ready?”

“It may as well be dinner Truman, for how late it is.” Badrang scowled, pointing to the untouched meal on the table. As the stoat stumbled over to a waiting chair, Badrang turned to Erwin and shook his head. “We’ll discuss this later. And I’ll figure something out .. I’ll figure this out.”

He was doing his best convince himself of it, Erwin was sure. At that moment, the door creaked open, and Badrang whirled around sharply.

Hisk bowed, casting a glance at Truman and Erwin as well, before stating in a tensely calm voice, “Milord .. you will want to see this.”



Chapter 7 Edit

Brome awoke slowly, to the sound of voices, familiar voices.

That .. was his father! Slowly, he sat up with the rustling of fabric, rubbing his sore back. Sleeping on the wooden floor of a moving cart was severely uncomfertable.

Wait. Brome came alert on the instant. He was in the Rambling Rosehip Player’s cart, and yet he heard his father? No, he was dreaming …

“Please, you have to help me sir!”

Brome stiffened. That had to be his father, it had to be. Slowly, carefully, he crept to the front of the cart, and peered out around the canvas covering. Sure enough, the group was gathered around none other than his father and Lightningflash.

Brome ducked back, starting to hyperventilate. This was happening so fast; the last thing in the world he’d expected.

“I have not seen your son, or your daughters, I am sorry.” Ballaw answered honestly.

Silence filled the air as Brome regulated his breathing, starting to understand just what was happening. His father was looking for him too, he really was .. he actually truly cared. And he sounded so upset.

Stowing away in the Rambling Rosehip Players cart wasn’t half as fun as Brome had thought it would be, and he’d seen no signs of Rose or Salley or Dancer. No one he’d asked when the troupe stopped in Summerdale had even seen his sisters. And remaining undetected was becoming increasingly difficult. He was even running low on food.

“Sir …” Brome was shocked by how tired his father sounded, how hopeless. “I have to find my children .. you had to have seen something!”

“I’m sorry.” Ballaw sounded genuine. “I remember the kit, the one with the wild red hair, from your village. But I’ve not seen him since, and I’ve never seen your daughters.”

Silence again. Brome listened carefully, guilt welling up within him. He should go to his father. Right here and now, he should just own up and go home. His parents needed him, especially if Salley and Rose had still not come back.

He moved to get up, but his father groaned. “Oh .. when I get my paws on him it’s triple the chores for the next year! I’ll never let the little fool out of my sight .. and I don’t care whether or not he stole from Helena, he will be working for her as much as she sees fit. All after the worst thrashing he’s ever had!”

Brome froze, sinking back against the cart wall.

His father heaved a tired sigh. “I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s quite alright.” Ballaw assured. “I would do no less if he were mine. I hope you find him.”

“Me too.” Urran paused as Brome heard him mounting Lightningflash. “Me too .. if you should see him …”

“I do apologize sire, but we are a poor troupe and we must travel our circuit before winter. I’m afraid we cannot return to your village until this time next year without losing valuable money .. our livelihood in fact. It’s just not possible. But on the off chance I should see any of them, I’ll do what I can. At least I will know where they belong.”

Brome struggled with himself. He’d hurt his parents .. they were looking for him! He tried to make himself move.

“Dad! I’m here! I’m sorry! And I’m really sorry about the cheese!”

That was all he had to say. Why was it so hard?

Roderick would make fun of him. Roderick would probably hurt him again if Salley didn’t come home to protect him. Helena would work him until he couldn’t stand up. His father would thrash him until he couldn’t sit down.

But imagining the hurt in his parents’ eyes was what forced him to stay still. How betrayed and angry they would look, how his mother would cry, how his father would shake his head in disappointment.

He’d run away, and he hadn’t even found his sisters.

Brome cried silently. He didn’t want to see that, but he wanted to go home. But could it really be home without Rose and Salley? What if his father never found them? He would never let Brome leave to try again. But what if he could find them, if he just stayed here a few more days?

If he went back now .. what if no one ever found them?

“Thank you sir.” Brome heard his father say, sadly. “Come on Flash. We have to keep looking.”

Brome curled up tighter into a ball, holding in his sobs.

“So sad.” Brome heard one of the other players say, and he guessed it to be the youngest one, a mouse-like creature. “What kind of child would just leave loving parents?”

Ballaw laughed. “One like you Jazmine.”

“Hey, I said loving parents.” She complained. “Mine told me I was a curse and basically made me a kitchen slave.”

“I know.” Ballaw sighed, before his voice grew cheerful again. “But that is why I created this troupe. For creatures like us, that no one wants. Because here we have each other.”

“Ok Sir Dramatic, stop with the fluff.” Celandine laughed. “We all know we’re here to make money. But I love you guys anyway. Now come on, if we hurry, we’ll make Silverspring by nightfall.”

Brome swallowed back his tears and silently crawled back to his nest in the rarely used costumes, ducking under them just as there was a jolt and the cart started forward. He lay still, mind in a muddle, unable to decide what to do.

Should he go home? Should he stay here? Was it even a choice anymore?

It wasn’t. Brome knew that he’d made his choice.

And with that, his tears flowed afresh as he huddled into an even tighter ball, silently sobbing his heart out.

><><

Salley landed hard on her back, completely winded.

“How .. do you move so fast .. when you’re ..” She caught herself.

Groddil twirled his staff with one paw, holding the other out to her. “When I am crippled?”

Salley took his paw, getting onto her feet. “Yea.”

The fox stretched his bad arm out, wincing slightly. “Well, how do you breathe? Fighting is natural to me. It hurts now, but once I was considered one of the best.”

His face fell. “I used that power for all the wrong purposes. And here I am, twisted and broken with a shadow of my former skills, yet I use them for all the right purposes. Every step I take gives me a painful reminder of my mistakes.”

“That’s awful though.” Salley frowned.

“No, it’s not. It’s good, and what it should be.” Groddil twirled his staff absently as he spoke. “I should bear this punishment. I hope you will never understand that, Salley.”

Salley frowned, shaking her head. “I don’t ..” Groddil raised a paw. “No more talking. Again. Attack me.”

Salley picked up her quarterstave, staring at Groddil as he held his staff loosely by his side. There had to be an opening .. somewhere.

His right leg. That was it.

Salley lunged forward, bringing her staff up to deflect Groddil’s initial attack. She stumbled back a few steps from it, swiftly parrying the immediate thrust. A laugh of triumph erupted from her, and she brought a quick cut at the foxes’ right side.

The clack of him blocking it filled her ears, and she dodged his next thrust, swinging her pole into his right leg with a thud.

Groddil yelped, staggering back and falling. Something in Salley tried to hold her back, but her paws refused to obey. She brought her staff down on the fox, only to find it blocked halfway, with a shimmering forcefield of blue.

In that moment, everything became clear, including the shock in Groddil’s eyes. Salley gasped, stumbling away.

“I .. I’m sorry! I got so caught up in the moment .. I was winning and I …” Salley sighed, running a paw down her face. “I got carried away.”

Groddil’s blue shield slowly dematerialized, and he stood. Salley hung her head. “I didn’t mean to do that.”

“Good move.” Groddil said, and Salley looked up in confusion.

Her mentor smiled. “You saw an opportunity and you took it. Choosing to exploit your enemy’s weakness shows you have wit, not just misguided, clumsy thoughts as your attacks would make me think.”

“But I ..”

Groddil held up a paw, eyes growing serious. “But you do not know when to stop. Know when your opponent is finished, and withdraw like the knight I will make you.”

Salley smiled slowly, before straightening up and nodding. “I promise I will. What should we do next?”

“Now ..” Groddil winced, leaning on his staff. “Now I am going to sit down. This was a mock fight, and you hit me hard enough to cleave bone if a sword were in your paw. So I’m going to take the rest of the day off. Maybe you should see what your sister is up to?”

He sat down on a rock beside the sparkling pond. Salley frowned. “Again I’m so sorry .. do you need anything?”

Groddil laid a paw on his leg, relaxing as blue flowed from his clawtips and into the fur. “Do not apologize for your mistakes countless times, learn from them. And no, I will be fine.”

Salley still hesitated, but Groddil waved her off. She sighed, but turned away and walked up the hill toward the Prophet’s cottage.

She pushed open the door, walking silently into the spacious foyer with its floor to ceiling bookshelves. Here she paused, staring up at them. How did anyone even reach the books they held?

“Do you need something?”

Salley jerked her head around to see Luna, standing on the staircase leading down to the main floor. The pegasus walked down them as Salley nodded. “Er, yea. I was wondering about the books .. are there any good ones? You know, about history or fairytales or lore?”

“To be sure.” Luna nodded. “Do you read?”

“I love reading.” Salley smiled a little. “Can you fly up and get me a good one?”

At this, Luna looked taken aback. “Fly? Oh I can’t .. not in the house.”

The way she hesitated in saying it, the last bit seemed almost tacked on. Salley was confused. “Really? Is it because there’s not enough space?”

“I .. flying is complicated. I don’t think I could really explain it to you fully even if I tried. I can’t just take off from a stand-still.” Luna shook her head.

“Well .. can you use your magic?”

Luna frowned. “I could, but dad won’t like me messing up his organization. You should ask him.”

“Ask me what?” The old prophet was limping slowly down the stairs.

Luna gestured to Salley with a forehoof. “She would like a book to read.”

“Oh. In that case, you go get the young maiden some water. She thinks our invalid might be able to drink now.”

Luna nodded, walking off in the direction of the kitchen. Her father turned to Salley. “You would like to read history, I think I heard? I have many such books.”

He held a paw out, making a slight beckoning motion, and several different books levitated from their places on the shelf, gently floating down into his grasp. He handed them to her. “You may like these. Of course, you can always ask me for more. By the way, I am fairly certain I have not told you my name, yes?”

“You haven’t.” Salley confirmed, taking the books.

He nodded. “Proves I still have a good memory. I am Aimon.”

He bowed slightly as he introduced himself properly. “Now, do you know where Groddil is? I need to speak with him.”

Salley pointed out the back door. “He’s down by the pond.”

“Very well.” Aimon hobbled off in that direction, and Salley slowly made her way to a large oaken couch sitting in the shadow of the curving staircase. She sat down on it, reading the titles of her borrowed books.

They were all very nice, but one stood out to her, with a worn but rich purple cover and cracking embossed gold lettering.

“History of Kotir and its Founders.” Salley muttered to herself as she set the other books down on the couch beside her and opened her selected one.

The first page had an elaborate, large decorated letter beginning the first sentence. It took up almost a fourth of the parchment.

A record of the kings of Mossflower, long be their reign.

Salley snuggled down into the couch, trying to find the perfect comfortable reading position. She had chosen this book because of how familiar it was. Everything about it seemed a near copy of a book she’d found hidden in the recesses of her father’s library, except this one was bigger and purple, instead of faded blue.

The first few chapters were nothing new, upon skimming through them. Only a difference in word choice and paw-writing reminded Salley she wasn’t reading the same book.

Confused, Salley kept reading through. Two books, that told almost the same story. All about the cat-infested land to the south.

“What are you reading?” Salley looked up, to see Rose staring down at her over the railing of the stairs.

“You wouldn’t like it.” Salley said simply, hoping her sister would not interrupt her any more.

Rose walked down the stairs and over to her, suddenly stopping. “Your skirt!”

The horror in her voice was honestly amusing. “What happened to it?”

Salley looked down at her golden furred knees showing beneath her chopped off skirt. “Oh. I cut it off. It’s really impractical, what I really want are some trousers.”

Rose gaped at her, dumbfounded, and Salley shrugged semi-apologetically, before looking down at her book again.

“Sometimes I wonder what you’re thinking Salley.” Rose sighed after a few moments of shocked silence. “Then I realize if I did, I wouldn’t sleep at night.”

“Nope, you probably wouldn’t.” Salley turned the page, not looking up.

Again, Rose sighed, and Salley tried to ignore her sister for a few more moments and bury herself in her book, but the knowledge Rose was standing there nagged at the back of her mind. Finally, she gave in and looked up.

“What do you want?”

“Rude.” Rose scolded. “I wanted to ask if you would go with me to look for healing herbs. Aimon says there are a lot in his gardens and I’m running out.”

“Can’t you do that by yourself? I’m reading. Besides, I’d probably pick the wrong thing. And doesn’t Aimon have some stored up somewhere?”

“Oh .. fine.” Rose huffed. “But .. I’m scared to go outside alone.”

Salley gave up, getting onto her feet and setting the book on the couch. “We are in the safest place in .. the entire world! But fine. I’ll go.”

Rose looked please at this, grabbing Salley’s arm and dragging her out into the gardens. “Oh thank you! Anyway, why would you want to read about a place like Mossflower? Father says it’s horrible there, with evil cats and lots of vermin.”

“Yes, well.” Salley sighed, adding under her breath, “It wasn’t always.”

><><

“What is the meaning of this?”

Erwin looked over at Badrang, hiding his anxiety under a thin veil of anger, his paws clenching and unclenching sporadically.

She stood in the throne room beside him, though the throne was nothing more than a simple chair and the room was no different than any of the others in the keep, just slightly bigger. Hisk had brought in two creatures, a fox, and one in a hood and dress so concealing, it was impossible to guess the species.

Hisk shrugged in reply to Badrang’s question. “I found them near the slain patrol members, and took them in for questioning.”

“We do not have to stay here.” The black fox spoke in a voice that reminded Erwin of grating rocks. Maybe it had something to do with the bandages around his neck, that peeped out from under his heavy cloak.

His pale orange eyes glimmered dangerously. “We have no argument with you, Badrang Daskar. I advise you to release us.” His smaller companion laid a paw on his arm, standing on tip-paw to whisper something in his ear, which Erwin noticed bore a torn edge. He growled under his breath in reply, turning to look at Badrang once again. “What do you want?”

Badrang snarled. “Who do you think you are to speak to me in such a manner? I’ll tell you what I want, I want my land free of murderers, and you were found near the bodies of many members of my garrison.”

“We didn’t kill ..” The fox began, before his raspy voice gave way to coughing.

His companion spoke instead. “We did not kill them. I think we know who did, and we are chasing them. This is a misunderstanding.”

By the voice, Erwin guessed the creature to be female. But even so, the sound was flat, almost dead. Erwin shuddered slightly.

Badrang was silent for a moment, before asking, “And who might that be?”

“A Prophet.” The fox had stopped coughing, and now he rasped out these words with venomous hate. “We’ve been chasing him for weeks now ..”

Again, his voice broke. His companion shook her head in disapproval. “Let me do the talking.”

She turned to Badrang. “I’m sure you don’t want any more of your guards killed. Let us go and we will deal with this menace.”

Erwin couldn’t help the cold chill running up her spine. She looked at her brother, only to find him staring intently at the two creatures, an expression she didn’t understand in his eyes.

However she recognized the cold feeling that seemed to ooze from these two. A feeling that was normal coming from the realms beyond, but unsettling and wrong surrounding mortals so thoroughly. Erwin moved closer to Badrang, muttering, “Brother, don’t trust them. They’re Necromancers, I’m almost sure .. who knows who they are working for?”

“But couldn’t two Necromancers be useful to us?”

“What?” Erwin stared at him, shocked. “They have power greater than all of us. We should not get them involved!”

“You know as well as me that Verdauga is going to bring Fortunata. I need to somehow ensure she can’t tell him I’m lying when I tell him I have the Bloodwrather, you know that.” He crossed his arms, still keeping his voice low. “Besides, having two of their kind here would prevent any more attacks from Prophets; something I can’t afford to have while my master is here.”

Erwin slowly looked away, glancing at the two in question, suppressing a shiver as she saw the smaller one staring into her soul with her flat, dead eyes.

“All that may be true ..” She began, but he turned to the visitors before she could speak her mind. “You both look worse for wear.” Badrang began smoothly. “I think perhaps an agreement can be reached; after all, it seems we want the same thing.”

The black fox coughed, growling, “We are more than you will ever be …”

He broke down a second later, and his companion shook her head. “We do not need or want your help. Let us go, and we will not harm you.”

Badrang held forth his paws. “You are wounded and tired, but I can solve those problems. All I ask for in return is your protection against this Prophet, and that you serve me in a few other .. situations as well.”

“We will not serve ..” Again, the black fox erupted into a fit of coughing, only this time, Erwin saw a thin stream of blood drip from the corner of his mouth.

His companion saw it too, and took over the conversation. “What are your terms?”

“Hellgates Fragorl ..” The more he talked, the worse his condition became.

She shook her head, the smallest amount of emotion in her voice. “Stop it. We can benefit from this, at least for a while.”

The fox scowled at her for a moment, before looking away. Badrang cleared his throat. “Yes, I only need you until this threat is gone. Then you would be free to go were you wish. But for the time you are in my service, I will see that you have healing, food, and a place to sleep. If you do well, I will pay you ..”

“Twenty gold.”

Erwin turned to look at the black fox as he rasped this out, adding, “As down payment.”

Annoyance in his tone, Badrang snapped, “I am offering you a wonderful deal sir. I see no reason to pay you before you have done anything. After all, you are trespassers and normally ..”

“Please.” The hooded creature spoke again; flatly, commandingly. “Ten gold, and let us not quarrel over this.”

Badrang narrowed his eyes, and Erwin laid her paw on his arm again, whispering in his ear. “If you want them in your service, you should agree.”

Her brother scowled, before nodding. “Fine, ten gold. Hisk, see that our guests receive proper treatment, and the money. As for the two of you, we will talk more once you have rested. However ..”

He paused, pointing at the cloaked necromancer. “I couldn’t care less what you wear miss, but I like to see the faces of my acquaintances at least once.”

The creature stiffened almost imperceptibly, slowly turning her head to look at her companion.

He shrugged, smirking darkly as he rasped, “You thought this was a good idea. Show him.”

After a second, she turned to face Badrang again, reaching both paws up to her hood. Erwin noticed her staff remained upright even with nothing to hold it there, and felt even more uncomfortable. She got the idea in the back of her head that something hideous was veiled behind that hood.

The necromancer pulled her hood off, and instantly, her long, furry brown ears were easily visible. The distinctive face of none other than a squirrel stared up at Badrang, flat eyes challenging. “Is this good enough?”

Everyone in the room stared at her, except her companion, who simply watched with an interested air.

Badrang’s scowl deepened. “You’re a squirrel?”

“You have eyes.” The flat answer came back with no hesitation.

Badrang turned to Erwin, muttering, “You’re sure she’s a necromancer?”

“I am.” Both Erwin and her brother jolted around to look at the squirrel, who smiled only the slightest amount, but still managed to look completely sinister.

She smirked, the first time her eyes looked halfway alive. “And I’ll prove it.”

The squirrel grabbed her still upright staff, something that proved enough to Erwin. She whipped it out in front of her, pointing the tip at Badrang and closing her eyes momentarily as the staff wavered, before turning into shimmering green and transforming into the thin bladed sword.

“Is that enough for you?” The life was once again gone from her eyes.

Silently, Badrang nodded, and the necromancer stuck the sword’s blade into a crack between floor stones, allowing it to morph back into the tall staff.

As she took hold of it, Erwin noticed a tiny trickle of black drip from her left eye. She put her hood back over her head, asking, “Is that all?”

“Yes ..” Badrang faltered for a moment, before regaining his composure. “Go with Hisk, he will see your needs are taken care of.”

As the three creatures left the room, Badrang turned to Erwin. “A squirrel? Of all the things for her to be. Verdauga won’t approve of that ..”

His voice trailed off as he stroked his short beard.

“He needn’t know.” Erwin shrugged. “What else can you do? This is why I said ..”

Badrang cut her off. “Don’t be smug about it.”

“I’m not. I’m concerned. And I have plenty of reason to be.”

Silence filled the room, until Badrang crossed his arms. “I know what I’m doing. This won’t change anything.”

With that, he turned on his heel and stalked out of the room.



Chapter 8 Edit

“By the heavens Celandine, what do you mean the flan is gone?”

Brome woke to loud shouts that seemed to be somewhere between despair and anger. He jolted upright, brushing the fabric off of his head.

“I mean the flan is gone! Don’t play innocent, I know you ate it!”

Ballaw sounded indignant, and Brome imagined a horrified look on his face. “I did no such thing … Jasper, why did you eat the flan?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The sarcastic, flat voice Brome had come to associate with a white, lavender-eyed mouse sounded like it was coming from directly next to his hiding place.

“Moeshe, was it ..”

“No.” Ballaw was cut off by the troupe’s other member, an otter. “We all know it was you Ballaw.”

“Well!” Ballaw spoke dramatically. “I have been accused of a heinous crime. And what makes it worse is this time it really wasn’t me. Alas, I could never expect you to believe me …”

“We don’t!” Jazmine shouted from what Brome guessed to be across the camp.

“Alright, if that’s how you want to play!” Ballaw yelled back. “I swear on my honor as a magician to find this thief, even though it cost me my life!”

At this, Brome swallowed, glancing at the wooden plate bearing the crumbs of what was once the flan. Of course he would be noticed when he ran out of food and stole some. And he’d been doing so well!

Celandine snorted. “Ha, go ahead.”

“Look this could actually be a problem.” Ballaw sounded miffed. “What if other things are missing? We could have been robbed while we were in Silverspring.”

“I suppose.” Celandine sighed. “I guess this means we have to go through the cart?”

“That’s such a pain.” Jasper’s voice came from just outside the wall Brome leaned against, and he stiffened.

Ballaw appeared at the back of the cart, and Brome ducked down, cringing as he made an audible rustle.

“I say, I think someone’s in the back of our cart.”

Brome gulped, squirming deeper into the mess of old costumes he hid in. Celandine snorted. “Really Ballaw, there’s no way we wouldn’t have noticed a stowaway. You’re taking flan pilfering to new heights of drama today, I see.”

“I am not!” There was a jolt as someone climbed into the cart, and Brome assumed it was Ballaw. “I’m serious.”

Scraping and shifting filled the air, and Brome desperately tried to think of a way out. If he could just run off into the woods a ways and come back at night!

A rustling swish accompanied by a tugging sensation broke his concentration, and light assaulted his eyes that had become accustomed to the dark. Slowly he rolled onto his back, to find Ballaw staring down at him, red eyes shocked.

Sheepishly, Brome waved a tiny bit, feeling his heart sink to his toes.

“I .. say! Never in my life have I seen the like!” Ballaw sputtered, and the next second Brome yelped as he was dragged out of the cart by surprising force.

He found his face thrust inches from the white, pink eyed squirrel’s. “Here’s your flan thief Celandine! I rest my case!”

She took a staggering step back, mouth falling open. Brome tried to grin, but it came out a disfigured, nervous grimace.

The other three players gathered around as Ballaw plunked Brome onto the ground in their midst, scowling and crossing his arms. “You lad, have quite a bit of explaining to do. Did you take that flan? I’ll bet my best cape you did!”

“Y .. yes sir …” Brome squeaked, unable to keep his voice from sheering out.

“Ha! I knew it!”

“Ballaw!” Celandine stamped a paw. “There are more important things to worry about! Where did this kit come from?”

“He has red hair.” Jasper pointed out. “Wasn’t that village leader looking for a red haired kit?”

Ballaw grabbed him by the shoulder, spinning him around and staring at him for a moment, before recognition dawned in his burgundy eyes. “I know you! You’re from that tiny village, Evenglade … you little scamp, stowing away like this, and after I taught you magic tricks. Do you know your father is looking for you?”

“Yes ..” Brome muttered. “But I ..”

“Wait, you mean to tell me this kit came all the way from Evenglade and we didn’t notice?” Jazmine jumped into the conversation, her two golden pigtails bouncing as she leaned forward. “How?”

“I mean .. you don’t look in the front of the cart much.” Brome shrugged. “I hid in the old costumes.”

Jasper looked disgusted. “Your father looked worried sick. Why would you leave a loving family like that? You’re just a spoiled brat I guess, you didn’t like being told what to do by your parents? That’s just selfish.”

Brome quickly shook his head. “I didn’t run away, I’m looking for my sisters!”

He paused, adding, “Ok, I kind of ran away.”

Ballaw sighed. “Kit, we haven’t seen your sisters ..”

“Oh, I know!” Brome interrupted. “But I thought, with you traveling from village to village, I could look for them. I .. would of gone home with father .. but then I heard how he planned to punish me.”

“And right he was.” Celandine crossed her arms.

Brome shook his head. “But it’s not just that! He was asking about Salley and Rose too, which means he hasn’t found them. And if I went back with him, he’d never even let me leave the house .. and what if Salley and Rose … never came back? But I could have found them if I went just a little farther with you?”

Silence filled the woodland clearing, before Ballaw asked, “Well, as that may be, what do we do with you now?”

“I guess you’ll send me home, huh?” Brome looked down, scuffing a paw in the dirt and feeling tears well up in his eyes. He would never see his sisters again.

Ballaw snorted. “Send you home? Hah! We’re a good week and a half from your village, which means we would lose the better part of a month returning you. Do you know how much money that would cost us? We have to make enough to last us through the winter, and that would hit us hard. You’re stuck here kit.”

Brome jerked his head up, shocked. “W .. will I ever get to go home?” “Of course!” The answer came from Celandine, Ballaw, and Jazmine all at once.

Ballaw cleared his throat. “Look here, we won’t be considered kitknappers or slavers. You’ll get home by next spring, maybe early summer. Until then ..”

“Next spring?!” Brome squeaked in disbelief. “That’s a whole year!”

“Well it was your bloody idea to stow away with a circus, kit.” Ballaw crossed his arms. “Until then, you’ll work for us. If you do a good enough job and I don’t hear complaining, I may even give you a few coins now and then.”

“B .. but my father .. he’ll pay you for your trouble, I’m sure ..”

The otter, Moeshe, spoke for the first time. “Can he really pay us two hundred silver?”

Brome sucked in a quick breath, gaping at the otter. “T .. two hundred?”

“Well, considering the time spent taking you back, the food you’ve eaten and will eat, and the time spent returning here, not to mention getting to the next town and setting up, that’s approximately what you will cost us.” Moeshe shrugged. “If not a little more.”

Brome swallowed hard. “Father .. doesn’t have that kind of money to spare .. he has to buy seed for the next year, and he lost the grain my sisters took to sell …”

“Then no dice kit.” Ballaw shrugged. “Just be glad you stowed away with decently honorable creatures.”

“Yes.” Moeshe agreed. “A creature with fewer morals than Ballaw would sell you to slave traders in a heartbeat.”

Ballaw shook his head. “And if we were in Southsward I’d leave you on the steps of an orphanage. But since there aren’t any of those around here, you’ll just have to come with us.”

><><

“Salleeeeey!”

Salley looked up from her book as Rose bolted down the stairs. She huffed. “More herbs? I thought you picked enough. Also you’ve bothered me enough for one day …”

“No, Tynek’s awake!” Rose bounced up and down excitedly.

“Who?” Salley asked, confused.

Rose rolled her eyes. “The injured mouse we found.”

“Oh. Ok.” Salley returned to her book.

“But don’t you want to meet him?” “I don’t really care.” Salley shrugged, adding as she noticed her sister’s hurt look. “I mean, it’s great that he’s getting better. But I don’t know him.”

Rose grinned slyly. “Are you shy?”

“No.” Salley grumbled. “I’ve just met my fair share of new creatures this week. It’s getting stressful.”

“Aw, come on! You’ll like him, I know you will!” Rose pouted. “Besides, Groddil wants you to meet him.”

She added the last bit reluctantly. At this, Salley looked up, and set the book down. She stood, stretching a little. “Well, in that case I will.”

Rose grumbled. “You like Groddil more than me?”

“What? No. Groddil’s not my sister. But he is my mentor now, so there must be something important.” Salley began climbing the staircase.

“I’m not important?” Rose complained as she followed.

Salley smacked a paw against her forehead. “No, that’s not what I meant. You just interrupt me all the time and …”

“I do not!” Rose interrupted.

“Yea, you just did.” Salley stopped at the top of the staircase. “Look .. which way? I didn’t mean to offend you.”

Rose sighed, seeming to accept this. “It’s this way. Follow me.”

Salley followed her sister down the hallway, stopping as Rose paused to open a door. “Be friendly, please. He’s still weak and needs rest, but you have to see this! Even I was amazed.”

“What do you ..” Salley stopped as her sister opened the door and she caught her first glimpse of the mouse.

Quickly, she stumbled into the room, cause him to turn his head and look at her with rich brown eyes. Both Groddil and Aimon sat near the bed, but Salley only took a moment to notice them. It was the mouse she couldn’t look away from.

He had apparently had a bath, and now that the dirt had been lifted away, his fur shone in the light coming from the many windows. Looking into his face might as well have been a mirror.

His golden fur, his cream underbelly, and his tall frame .. all matched hers perfectly. Only his eyes were different.

Just like her, he stared in shocked silence, barely breathing.

“That’s .. not possible.” Salley tried to collect her thoughts, failing miserably. “You look just like me!” “You have gold fur.” Was all he said in turn, with a rough but soft voice.

Salley shook her head. “It’s more than that.”

She took a couple of steps closer, slowly touching her cheek. “Everything about you is like me! How?”

An unknown fear bubbled up inside her. Unexplainable, undeniable, and unstoppable. “Who are you?”

He coughed a little, before answering, “Tynek. I’m no one. I am .. I was, a slave.”

“You are not no one, and you’re not a slave anymore.” Rose interrupted as she pushed past Salley and sat beside his bed. “And you won’t ever be again.”

He shrank back a little as Aimon spoke. “She is right you know. You are marked, just like these two.”

Tynek instantly covered his bandaged paw with his good one, asking, “What? What does that mean?”

Groddil opened his mouth to speak, but Aimon beat him to it. “It means you are a decedent of Old Mossflower, chosen to restore it’s glory.”

“Mossflower.” His voice was flat, and a little confused. “Mossflower is ruled by the Greeneyes.”

“Once it was ruled by woodlanders.” Aimon leaned forward earnestly. “And I am sure now more than ever, that you are related to the old king. Just like her. One golden mouse was proof enough for me, but two? Great change is coming. The world will never be the same.”

Salley looked at Aimon as Tynek shrank back. “Sir … I am not going back to the Greeneyes.”

Salley wasn’t the only one to turn to look at him, everyone did. “And you would do well to flee. He’s going to take over the north, all of it.”

“Who is he?” Groddil asked.

“Badrang Daskar, Tyrant of the north. He’s not content, he won’t ever be.” Tynek looked down at his paws, a haunted look in his eyes.

Aimon placed his shaky paw on the mouse’s shoulder. “I don’t doubt he wants to. But you, and the other marks are going to stop him.”

Tynek looked from Rose, to Salley, and back to Rose again, before shaking his head. “It’d take an army.”

Salley took a moment to process all she had heard. “Wait. Who is Badrang? And he wants to take over the entire north? That’s a vast amount of land, how can one creature even manage that?”

The look Tynek gave her made her clench her jaw a little, he thought she was stupid. He spoke hesitantly, as if unsure if she was an intelligent life-form. “Badrang is a servant of the Greeneyes. He has many soldiers and he can always get more. Believe me. He will enslave every village and burn their remains to the ground.” He sighed, looking away. Groddil shook his head. “I expect that’s what he did to your village.”

Tynek rubbed his mobile paw across his nose. “No. I .. can’t really remember that far back.”

Salley held up her paws. “Wait, all of the north? That means Evenglade too!”

She turned to face Groddil, who nodded solemnly.

Salley swallowed, looking at Tynek. “How long do we have?”

He shrugged, then winced. “Ah .. I don’t know.”

Aimon stood suddenly, gently pushing him down onto his pillow. “Sleep now, you have quite a lot of healing to do still. We’ll talk this over later. You two, kindly leave us for the moment.”

He indicated Groddil and Salley. Groddil stood with slight but obvious effort, motioning Salley follow him as he walked from the room. She did, asking, “What are we going to do? How many soldiers does this Badrang have? Can we stop him ..”

Groddil held up a paw, turning to face her at the top of the stairs. “Stop. I don’t know, not yet anyway. I’ve spent the last sixteen years defending you and your sister, and your town is far from a hub of information.”

“My parents … and Brome! We have to warn them!”

“We will.” Groddil turned, walking down the stairs, Salley behind him. “And come with me, I have something for you.”

Salley rubbed her head. “But Groddil, we can’t waste any time ..”

“Salley. Where Tynek came from is on the opposite side of the world from your village. We have time to get our bearings.” He stepped into a room that was adjacent to the foyer, walking over to the neatly made bed.

He picked something up off it, handing it to Salley. “Here. You said you wanted trousers. I made you these.”

She blinked in surprise, holding up the item to see it was a pair of pants made of rough, faded gray material.

Groddil shrugged. “They aren’t the most impressive gift, but I hope they fit you.”

Salley smiled widely, nodding. “Thank you!”

“Well, go put them on. We’ll see how they work in our training session.”

With a nod, Salley turned to obey, before pausing. “Groddil .. we will warn my parents, right?”

He said nothing for a minute, before folding his arms. “Just warning your parents will do little, I’m afraid. Do not fear, we will protect them.”

He added this quickly as Salley stared at him.

“But in all honesty, Aimon is right. I’ve talked it over with him, and I agree, it seems the Marks’ destiny is to defeat the Greeneyes. And to do that, Tynek is right. We’re going to need an army.”

“But ..” Salley frowned. “Where do we get that? The northlands are full of peaceful villages.”

Groddil scratched his chin. “I’ll work on it. Maybe Aimon has some insight. Now. Hurry lass, the day waits for no one.”

><><

“Today lass, I’m going to do some things a little different.”

Salley cocked her head, raising an eyebrow. “Oh? Like what?”

Groddil stood at the edge of the island, staring out across the sparkling crystal pond. Dancer stood in the deeper water with Stargazer, both of them nibbling on lilies and weeds growing in droves beneath the water’s surface.

Groddil turned to look at her. “In battle, communication between horse and rider is essential. You must move as one creature, think as one creature, and even breath in unison. You must defend your horse’s blind spots at all costs, and in turn, they must do whatever it takes to keep you on their back. This is more important than I could ever tell you.”

He paused to take a breath, since he had run out. After a moment, he continued. “So. Today you will ride Dancer, and fight me and Stargazer.”

“Ok .. if Dancer’s alright with it.” Salley shrugged.

Groddil looked towards his friend, calling, “Stargazer, we’re ready.”

The horse nodded, saying something to Dancer before trotting in their direction, water flying from his hooves. Dancer followed him closely.

She stopped by Salley, grinning. “What do you bet we can show these two some real riding moves?”

Stargazer rolled his eyes, and Salley could not say she felt too sure about Dancer’s claim. “Um … I’m certain they’re far more experienced.”

“Pfft, where’s the fun in that? Get on, we’re doing this.” Dancer knelt down on one knee.

Salley slipped onto her back, asking, “Since when did you start that?” The filly tossed her head. “Stargazer said sometimes it’s hard for two-legged creatures to mount. He does that for Groddil because of his back and paw, and I thought it was a good idea.”

“Oh. It is easier.” Salley agreed, taking the quarterstave Groddil handed her.

The fox then turned to Stargazer, who knelt down, allowing him to get on. The horse stood up again, and Groddil drew his staff, absently twirling it. “Alright. Keep in mind that not only the riders will be fighting. The horse will do their best to give their partner the advantage. Now. Come up with a strategy, and when ready, attack us.”

Salley nodded, leaning over her mount’s mane. “Dancer. Groddil’s right side is his weakest. I’ve never fought him with Stargazer, but I’m sure it means he’s going to be protecting it. They’re going to expect me to exploit that weakness, but we’re going to do the opposite, ok?”

Dancer nodded firmly. “Right!”

Salley held her stave at the ready. “Now!”

Dancer snorted, leaping forward with her signature speed, and Salley leaned down into the horse’s flowing mane. Stargazer wheeled to face their attack head on, rearing up in almost the same instant.

With a squeal of surprise, Dancer dug her hooves into the grass, sliding to a stop only inches from the horse’s raised hooves. He took a staggering step back, before lowering all feet to the ground. Groddil coughed, asking, “And what was that?”

“I .. sorry.” Dancer stood again, shaking herself all over, something the made Salley hold on tightly. “I didn’t expect you to rear.”

“You expected me to let you finish your charge just like that?” Stargazer snorted. “Not on your life.”

Dancer hung her head, ears drooping to the sides sadly. “I thought I’d be so good at this ..”

She perked up in the next instant. “Let’s do it again!”

Salley held her stave on the ready as Dancer and Stargazer backed away from each other. Dancer tossed her head, bolting forward again, and Salley grabbed a clump of her mane to maintain her balance.

The gray filly’s hooves pounded through the silt of the pond-bank, and this time when Stargazer reared, she dodged to the side, sweeping past him and allowing Sally to swing at Groddil. The fox blocked her stave, but only barely.

Dancer slid to a stop, skidding around to face their mentors.

Groddil nodded. “Good. Sneaky, but good. All is fair in war after all. But you do need to learn how to fight Dancer, you can’t simply evade the situation every time. So if you mean to be Salley’s partner in a fight, would you consider sparring one on one with Stargazer?”

“Why not?” Dancer grinned. “I might as well. We’re sure to be faced with more crazy creatures trying to kill us.”

She shuddered slightly as she said this. Groddil nodded. “Good. I don’t know when we will able to leave here exactly. But until that day, we will all train separately and together. In a month, you may be surprised at your improvement.”

“A month?” Salley blurted. “But what about my parents?”

Groddil sighed. “Salley, there are so many things working against me. I can’t just leave the third mark. You’re not ready to face the Necromancers again. And what about your sister? No, leaving now would be disastrous.”

Salley opened her mouth to protest, but Groddil held up a paw. “I will investigate this Badrang. If I see any movement on his part toward your village, we will have to change plans. But for now, you must do your part, and that is to learn.”

Salley grimaced, but said nothing.

Groddil shook his head. “It’s not that I don’t care. The opposite is true. But rash decisions are often regretted later. So for now I ask you to trust me. I promise to do all that I can.”

Dancer nudged Salley’s leg with her muzzle. “It’ll be ok. Evenglade is far away and well hidden. And we don’t even know that this Tynek knows what he’s talking about.”

“Oh, I think he does.” Groddil interrupted, before clearing his throat. “But nevertheless lass, you aren’t ready to leave this place. Word travels quickly between the Necromancers. They’ll attack in greater numbers when we dare to resume our journey, trust me. Just let me assess the situation before we make any sudden choices.”

Salley couldn’t deny her frustration, but the wisdom of Groddil’s words was the cold hard truth. She knew it all too well, she wasn’t ready.

Her words came out in a rush of air. “Fine. For now anyway.”



Chapter 9 Edit

Night on the eastern shores brought a stiff breeze off the sea, chilling the ever-warming temperatures of the day. Erwin stood on her balcony, watching the sun dip down into the ocean, turning its surface glowing gold.

Soon summer’s storms would ravage that sea, dark clouds turning it pitch black. But for now, it was calm and serene and beautiful.

“Just as fate.” Erwin muttered to herself. “Fickle, ever changing.”

She looked down at the amethyst runes in her paws, shaking her head. “Verdauga will witness our failure. I wonder what all that entails.” A dull tinkle sounded above the wind as she dropped the chips of stone into their pouch that hung from her waist. These did not work as well as the quarts set, of which most were still scattered about the dungeon.

Erwin sighed, walking into her room and shutting the balcony doors behind her. She paced the length of her room several times, before suddenly grabbing her cloak from where it lay folded on a trunk against the gray stone wall.

She pulled it around her shoulders, before quietly opening her door, stepping into the hallway, and shutting it behind her.

Cold, unfeeling stone made up these passages, each one spotless and uniform. Erwin trailed her one white paw along the rough wall as she walked down the corridor, eyes half closed in the evening gloom. This place was as empty as her soul.

Her sigh was the only sound to be heard in the crushing silence. Badrang still had most of the guards on patrol apparently.

Erwin made her way down to the main door of the keep, taking no heed of the two guards on either side of it. However, as she reached for the latch, one of them stopped her. “Milady, Lord Badrang said neither you or the young lord were to leave the keep for any reason …”

“I will not go far.” Erwin interrupted, keeping her voice haughty. “My brother cannot keep me locked in. I simply wish to walk for a short while.”

“But milady ...” The other guard, a weasel, tried to reason with her.

She held up a paw. “If it makes you feel better, I will not leave your sight. But I am going out.”

Reluctantly one of the guards opened the door for her, and Erwin quickly slipped past him, out into the fading light. As soon as she was a few feet away, she rolled her eyes. Badrang being Badrang.

Dust raced across the hard-packed dirt, twisting and swirling in the breeze. Erwin’s shoes and cloak hem scraped against it as she walked toward the half-constructed arch that would one day be the wall’s main gate.

The skeletal structure scraped at the blacking sky, and Erwin could see the guards standing about its base, illuminated by warm glowing torchlight.

The slaves would all be back in their quarters by this hour, which was best.

The guards at the gate did not see her before their conversation met her ears.

“You think Lord Greeneyes is just comin’ ta see a mouse’s execution? Even for a Bloodwrather, that seems like a lot.”

Erwin stopped moving, listening silently.

“I dunno mate. I saw what that mouse did. I think it might warrant this much of a reaction. Greeneyes just wants ta be sure the job’s done right.”

“I bet he’s here for more than that. Lord Daskar is more concerned with building this keep than subjugating the north. Verdauga Greeneyes is coming to change that, the mouse is just a façade. No mouse is worth that much.”

Erwin slowly took a few steps back, thinking to hide, but there wasn’t anything to hide behind. The conversation continued without fail however, and she resolved too stand still and silent, and hope they did not look her way.

“You know, you’re probably right.”

“There’s no other reasonable explanation. No great Lord like Greeneyes would travel two and a half months on the sea just to kill a mere mouse, Bloodwrath or not. Not when he could have Badrang do it within minutes.”

The first guard nodded. “Right. Things are changin’ mates. An’ they won’t ever be the same.”

“Indeed. Even if he did come just to end that mouse, it shows he doesn’t really trust Lord Daskar’s competence at the very least. And besides, he’ll arrive at the beginning of summer. Thanks to the storms, he’ll have to stay until fall ….”

The long-winded guard broke off suddenly, jumping onto his paws. “Did you here that?”

Instantly, all three guards were looking out across the heathlands, away from the keep. Erwin pricked her ears forward, listening.

The fur on the back of her neck slowly stood on end as a cold feeling washed over her. Something .. no .. someone was nearby.

She turned her head to the side, just in time to hear a distinct boot thudding against the ground, and her eyes widened as a clear, obvious shoe print appeared in the sifting dirt just a few feet to one side of her. Erwin’s mouth fell open as she realized it was pointed in the direction of the keep.

She spun around, hurrying back in the direction she had come. More boot prints formed a phantom trail leading straight to the main door ... one that was swept away only moments later by a forceful gust of wind.

She started forward, but a heavy paw clamped over her shoulder. “Do not follow.”

Erwin yanked away, staring at the shadowed form of none other than Ferran, his squirrel apprentice by his side.

She drew herself to her full height, snapping, “Who do you think you’re talking to?”

“A foolish diviner who imagines herself to know the ways of the spirit realm.” The fox’s orange eyes glinted in the starlight as he pushed her to the side. “We will see to this. Go back to your silly omens. You know nothing.”

Fragorl ignored Erwin completely, holding a paw out to Ferran, which he took. She leapt of the ground, soaring up to a balcony on the second story and taking her mentor with her. The two disappeared into the keep through the window, and Erwin shuddered.

She turned back to the door, to see the two guards standing on the outside, staring at her in shock. Probably thanks to Ferran and his apprentice.

But she noticed something they didn’t. The door behind them stood slightly ajar.

Erwin quickly pushed past them, hurrying into the castle. The interior was infuriatingly dim even with torchlight. She paused in the front room, looking this way and that. The phantom visitor had to have come in here, but which way had they gone?

She grabbed a torch from the wall, gazing at the ground around her, but the spotless floor allowed no trace to be left.

The cold feeling pulled at her again, fractionally .. weakly. Erwin paused one second, before bolting down a corridor she was almost certain it came from. This visitor had to be a Necromancer … but it didn’t feel like any she’d felt before.

She skidded to a stop in the empty hallway, shivers running their cold claws up and down her spine. No, not a Necromancer. It was completely and utterly different.

A Prophet.

A splintering crash echoed through the halls, accompanied by a brilliant flash of blue and green light emanating from a door a good way down the corridor.

Erwin stood frozen for a second, before something pulled her forward. She bolted down the hall, skidding to a stop in front of the room in question just in time for a resounding bolt of emerald to completely blind her.

She threw a paw up to shield her eyes from the glare, lowering it the next second as a figure appeared out of thin hair. Long ears, curly hair, and a cloak, all outlined in white thanks to how bright the light had been.

“Groddil!” Ferran’s harsh voice barked furiously.

The creature in question acted in the second, slamming his shoulder into Farran’s chest and bolting past him. Fragorl ran after him, but the Prophet leapt straight into the glass window, shattering it into a million bits as he hit the ground below with a thud loud enough to be quite audible.

Farran struggled to stand, snarling, “Fragorl, stop him!”

“Yes.” Her flat reply was more than likely just for herself, and she jumped out the shattered window as well, leaving torn pieces of fabric on the broken shards of the window frame.

Several guards came running seconds afterward, joining Erwin in the doorway. Ferran snarled at them. “What are you looking at? The Prophet’s escaping!”

He seemed to have collected himself, at least enough to catapult out of the broken window and join the chase.

“Milady, what is going on?” The guard that spoke sounded afraid.

“A Prophet.” Erwin said it in a shocked voice. “He must have made himself invisible. He must have been spying.”

“What should we do?” The guard blurted.

Erwin was silent for a moment, before ordering, “Go tell my brother what has happened!”

It took a moment, but two of them took off down the hallway, their torches casting a dancing glow on the stones. Erwin ran to the broken window, the remaining guard by her side.

She peered out, careful of the shattered bits of glass that sparkled in the firelight. Flashes of cyan and emerald filled the night, and Erwin was quite sure she had never seen such a display of power in all her days.

The light around the three creatures in question was so intense it was hard to keep track of what exactly was happening, but when one of them leapt high into the air, glowing green wings sprouting from their shoulders, Erwin couldn’t hold in her gasp of shock.

She was leaning forward now, partway out the window. The winged creature, assumedly Fragorl, swooped down upon the intruder, striking with their staff.

The Prophet stumbled back as Ferran leaped forward, three glowing swords flashing toward the gray fox like arrows from a bow. A blinding flash of light gleamed in the darkness as a shimmering dome of blue materialized around the Prophet, and the blades disintegrated the moment they hit it.

The aftershock threw Ferran backwards, but to his credit, he landed on his paws. Erwin closed her eyes as a blast of tingling, quite literally glowing wind smacked her in the face.

The guard by her side tugged at her paw. “Milady, it isn’t safe ..”

A blast of green power hit the wall only feet from the window, causing the whole room and probably most of the keep to shake violently.

Erwin stumbled to her knees as dust and rubble and bits of glass showered down upon her, leaving her breathless and coughing. The guard scrambled onto his feet, grabbing her by the shoulder and pulling her to her feet. He dragged her from the room as quickly as he could, and down the hallway.

Quickly, Erwin collected herself and pulled away from the smaller rat. “I’m fine, I’m fine.”

“Sorry milady!” He bowed, almost pleading, “I would not have laid a paw on you had I not feared for your safety!”

Erwin coughed a final time, shaking her head. “You did well. Come, with me.”

She ran down the corridor, arriving in the main hall about the same time as Badrang. For once, her brother’s normally pristine white hair was an unsightly, rumpled mess. As was the rest of him, seeing as he still wore his night clothes and his yellow eyes were rimmed in red.

He didn’t acknowledge her, just hurried to the heavy front doors and pulled one open, just in time to blind everyone in the immediate vicinity from a flash of blue outside.

Badrang threw a paw up to his eyes, growling audibly. Erwin hurried to his side, peering out of the door along with the growing number of guards, in time to see a horse bolting from the direction of the wall towards the Prophet.

Ferran thrust out a paw, sending a glowing sword flying straight for the horse, who reared up to avoid it, neighing as the gleaming edge sliced across its shoulder.

The Prophet yelled in fury, his eyes glowing pure blue. Shimmering chains swirled around him, and with a single motion, they streaked out, wrapping around Ferran’s arms and chest.

Erwin shuddered at the sound he made .. it was legitimately a howl.

The Prophet swung his arm around, twirling Ferran in a single circle around him, before the chains released. Ferran flew backwards, tumbling into Fragorl and sending them both sprawling across the ground in a cloud of dust.

The horse bolted to the Prophet, who seized the creature’s mane and hoisted himself onto its back before it could come to a complete stop.

This seemed to break Badrang from his trance. “Shoot him! Don’t let him escape!”

The gate guards took only a few moments to respond, before they whipped the bows from their backs and loaded them, sending arrows hissing after the escaping creature. He lurched forward with a sharp yelp as one of the shafts sank into his shoulder, but he didn’t fall.

His horse plowed through the group of guards at the wall before they could even draw their bows, scattering and trampling them.

Erwin stared in shock as the intruder vanished into the night with the rapidly fading sound of pounding hoofbeats.

Silence fell over the keep, and Erwin cast a glance at Badrang. He stared out at the aftermath with a look of stunned disbelief, so much so that his mouth hung partially open.

He shut it with a snap, though the shock didn’t fade from his eyes.

Out in the unfinished courtyard, Fragorl slowly sat up, rubbing her head a moment before straightening her hood.

She looked over at Ferran, who lay still, eyes closed. Quickly, she shook him, only stopping when he groaned in pain. Then she stood, carefully and painfully.

Badrang walked out of the door, Erwin following close behind. He stopped a few feet away from the two, asking, “What was that?”

Erwin was sure it was meant to seem commanding, but in reality, it was shaking.

Fragorl picked up her staff. “The most powerful Prophet in the north.”

The flatness of her voice did not do her words justice. “My master is in need of rest and healing.”

“There are two of you, and one of him ..”

“And we were recovering from previous injuries.” Fragorl didn’t apologize. Erwin noticed the blood pooling around her right leg, but she paid it no heed. “He did not find whatever he came for. That should satisfy you for the moment.”

Badrang growled under his breath. “Guards! See that Ferran is taken to his chambers and call healers for both the Necromancers.”

He turned to Fragorl. “We will discuss this in detail when morning comes, is that clear?”

She dipped her head ever so slightly, though her emotionless eyes never changed. “Yes.”

><><

Salley awoke to a commotion of noise. It rudely jolted her out of a sound sleep, and she blinked her eyes open in confusion.

The first thing she noticed was the open book by her side and the several crumpled pages her arm had rested upon all night. With a wince, she quickly smoothed them out, closing the heavy volume and carefully set the item on her nightstand.

“What were you thinking!?”

Salley looked around for the creature who’d caught her sleeping on valuable artifacts, only to realize the sound came from outside her open window.

She scrambled out of bed, falling flat as the sheets tangled about her tail and legs. With a groan, she kicked off the blankets and half crawled, half staggered to the window.

“You should have told us, we’re Prophet’s too!” That was Luna’s voice, though it sounded far more stressed than usual. Salley peered down to the green lawn a story below, out into the pale light of early dawn. Groddil leaned against Stargazer’s side while Luna and Aimon stood nearby.

Aimon sounded sterner than Salley had ever heard him, is old voice frustrated. “You could have been killed. Did you ever think of that?”

“No.” Groddil sounded weaker than usual.

Luna sniffed his shoulder, before seizing something in her teeth and yanking backwards.

Groddil yelped sharply, staggering forward as red splattered on Luna’s white coat. Salley’s eyes widened. That was blood!

She paused only a second, before wheeling around and running out of her room and down the stairs. Only when she threw open the front door and found herself met with brisk morning air, did she remember she was in her nightgown.

Groddil looked up, as did the others. Salley stared at her mentor, and the red-brown stain on his green cloak. She shook her head. “What happened?”

A spontaneous thought came to her, and she looked around quickly. “The Necromancers can’t get in here … that’s what you said!”

She looked rather accusingly at Aimon, she couldn’t help it.

The old squirrel shook his head. “They didn’t. He left my protection.”

“Why?” Salley stammered. “What happened? You need medicine … I’ll go get Rose!”

Groddil held up a paw. “Don’t, Salley, stay here. I’m fine.”

He winced at the sudden movement he’d made, before he sighed. “I went to find out what this Badrang was truly capable off.”

“He went alone!” Luna stamped a hoof. “You could have at least asked me to help you.”

“Sorry.” Groddil didn’t meet her gaze. “The concept of a group outside of Stargazer is strange to me.”

Aimon sighed, reaching out and laying a paw on the fox’s shoulder. Groddil stiffened, then relaxed as blue light seeped into his injury.

The old squirrel shook his head. “Nevertheless. We were frantic when we found you gone. At very least tell me where you plan to go .. or leave a note of some sort. Anything. We didn’t know what to think.”

Groddil nodded. “I’ll keep it in mind.”

Luna sniffed Stargazer’s foreleg, wrinkling her nose at a particularly swollen gash. “This is a Necromancer’s doing, isn’t it?”

She pinned her ears. “Where did you run into them?”

“Badrang has two in his service.” Groddil’s voice, while raspier than normal, sounded far stronger than moments before. “Ferran, and his apprentice Fragorl.”

“But ..” Salley tried to comprehend what had been said. “Weren’t they chasing us?”

Groddil nodded. “They’ll be after us again I’m sure. This must be a temporary arrangement, after all, neither seemed at their full strength. After the fights we had, I imagine it will take them a month or so to fully regain their ability.”

Aimon crossed his withered arms. “What did you learn of Badrang, after all this trouble?”

“Enough.” Groddil met Salley’s gaze. “And none of it’s good.”

Salley squared her shoulders. “Tell me. Is he after my village?”

“He isn’t the biggest problem anymore.” Stargazer snorted ruefully. “If only he was.”

Groddil’s yellow eyes glimmered. “Verdauga himself is coming to the north. And from what I heard? He plans to subjugate all of it.”

“My family! He can’t do that, I don’t care how powerful he is!” Salley clenched her paws, anger building within her.

She realized her outburst was the only sound, and looked around at the others. Luna looked nervous, Stargazer disgusted, Groddil grim .. but Aimon’s face portrayed something deeper. Agony.

Salley could feel the old Prophet’s distress as it radiated from him. Sudden tears dripped from her eyes, though she hadn’t really meant to cry. She rubbed them away, blinking hard as she noticed all the others, even Groddil, had been affected in the same manner.

Luna took a step toward Aimon, tears streaming down her face. “Dad … are you alright?”

Aimon brushed his tears away with the long sleeve of his robe, and he took a deep breath. “She is right. The Greeneyes cannot take over the north.”

“What do you suggest we do?” Groddil rubbed all traces of liquid from beneath his eyes.

“We have to warn my family!” Salley blurted out, frustrated that this was not the immediate conclusion.

Aimon shook his head. “Much more than that.”

He turned to her. “You need an army.”

“Me?” Salley pointed to herself in confusion. “What would I do with an army? And where would I get one?”

“Both good questions.” Groddil stood as straight as was possible. “And both need answers.”

><><

“Keep up lad, pick up your feet. Don’t make me regret dragging you along!”

“Oh, leave off with the teasing Ballaw. He’s a kit, what can you expect?”

Brome hurried to catch up with Ballaw and Jazmine, who walked along a forest roadway. A quick glance behind him revealed the player’s camp, where he knew Celendine would be making a scrumptious breakfast.

With a quick shake of his head, Brome focused on where he was going.

Through the trees, well-lit by the morning sun, he could see a collection of buildings. Straw roofs and whitewashed walls reminded him of home a little too much, and he swallowed the lump in his throat.

“Do I have to tell you twice?” The tinge of irritation in Ballaw’s cheerful voice made him run forward quickly, only to faceplant into the hare’s side.

Ballaw rolled his eyes, steadying him. “Now look, you want to ask about your sisters, so go with Jazmine to the market place while I do some advertising.”

He held up the small sheave of paw-drawn posters detailing their performances. “And do not get lost. We have a show to prepare for, we don’t need to be wasting time looking for you, see?”

“Yes sir!” Brome said quickly.

“Right, you two head out then.” Ballaw stopped at a tree at the edge of the roadside, pulling a mallet and spikes from his satchel, and began hanging a poster.

Jazmine poked him, smiling broadly. “Come on, we have an hour.”

Nodding, Brome trotted along after her, his red curls bouncing in and out of his line of vision. This town was bigger than Evenglade, it actually had a main street and market, complete with stalls filled with all sort of fascinating things.

Pretty jewelry glittered in the sun as it hung from a pole running across the front of a shop. Tunics, trousers and dresses lay on the counter of another, and one stall was even full of baked treats. Jazmine stopped at a shop with baskets of produce on display, and Brome stood nearby.

“What is this town?” He asked, while staring at an array of tin ware hanging in the shop across the street.

“Sevenfall, weren’t you listening at supper last night?” She quickly corrected herself. “Oh, right, you fell asleep in the dishwater. Look, ask the shop keepers around here. Just don’t leave this street, ok?”

Brome nodded, looking around and wondering where to start. Jazmine’s red eyes twinkled. “I’ll help you for the first one, come here.”

Brome hurried to stand beside her, standing on tip-paw to see the shop keeper properly over the counter. Jazmine smiled happily, starting the conversation. “Hello sir, I will be buying some vegetables, but the kit here has a question first.”

Startled, Brome jumped a little as she poked him, nodding subtly. “Um ..”

He stared up at the older mouse behind the counter, looking down at him with a raised eyebrow, although he paused to give Jazmine an untrusting sideways glance.

Brome gulped, asking in a voice far squeakier than he would have liked, “Have .. you seen my sisters?”

“You’re going to have to describe them.” The shop owner answered, sounding unamused.

“Oh .. right .. Rose is fifteen and has red fur like mine .. she has green eyes and a green dress and she likes flowers … and sewing. And then Salley is sixteen and has bright gold fur and black eyes. And she likes adventures. And they were with a gray filly; they were supposed to be selling grain.” Brome compiled facts about his sisters in a jumbled, stumbling few sentences.

“Never seen them.” The mouse shook his head. “The only two creatures with gold or red fur I’ve seen in years are you two. Besides, there haven’t been many traveling merchants this week.”

He looked back at Jazmine. “Look, you wanted to buy something?”

Brome’s shoulders slumped as Jazmine made the purchase, and when she turned around, he asked, “What do I do now?”

She shrugged. “He’s just one creature. I have more shopping to do, in the meantime, ask everyone you meet.”

She ruffled his unruly hair, winking cheerfully. “Best of luck.”

With that, Jazmine skipped off to the next stall selling wares she was interested in. Brome heaved a deep sigh, looking around as he tried to formulate a plan. Without any better ideas, he walked over to the shop across the street.

He clasped the counter with his paws, standing on his tiptoes and peering up at the squirrel lady standing behind it. From his first impression, Brome got the feeling she was far nicer than the previous shop owner. At very least, she seemed to smile a lot more.

“Well young sir, how can I help you?”

“Have you seen my sisters?” Brome asked hopefully, quickly adding a description of Salley and Rose. The squirrel shook her head. “I’m sorry lad, I’ve not seen anyone with red fur like yours in my life. And a golden mouse? I’ve never heard of one outside of legend.”

She paused. “Well, aside from her.”

Brome looked where the lady indicated and shook his head. “Oh no, that’s Jazmine. She’s a gerbil, not a mouse.”

“Aha .. look lad, where are your parents? Do they know you’re traveling with … someone like her?” To her credit, the squirrel looked concerned.

Brome blinked, before nodding quickly. “Erm .. I’m traveling. My sister’s got lost, and my whole family is trying to find them.”

He circumvented the parts of the question that would require blatant lies. “But what do you mean, someone like her? What’s wrong with her?”

“Well her eyes ….” The shop owner broke off when she noticed how confused Brome looked. “Ah .. well, I guess if you parents allowed you to travel with her, it must be alright. Here .. take this.”

She handed him a striped stick of candy, looking distracted. “As a token of good luck, alright? I hope you find your sisters.”

Brome had half a mind to ask more about Jazmine’s eyes, but forgot about it after his first taste of the candy. He waved to the shop keeper, trotting down the street towards Jazmine and looking for any more friendly-looking stall owners.

He went from one shop to the next, asking hopefully each time, and each time, no one had seen Salley or Rose. Finally, Brome reached the end of the street. In defeat, he leaned against the side of a building, sadly licking away at his swiftly vanishing candy.

“Hey, are you alright?” Jazmine walked up behind him.

Brome sighed heavily, blowing the red curls out of his eyes, though only momentarily. “No one knows anything about my sisters. Maybe … they might have gotten lost away from all the towns. They might even be ….”

He didn’t want to say it. Jazmine ruffled his hair quickly. “Now, now, it’s probably not that bad. Sevenfall is only one town, you know? Don’t give up yet.”

She started back up the street, though she kept looking at him. “But right now we need to get back to Ballaw. Come on.”

Brome followed her noticing the dark looks several passersby gave them, specifically Jazmine. “Why don’t they like you?”

“Heh.” Jazmine said after a moment. “You’re a pretty innocent kid.”

She might have said more, but Ballaw came towards them, minus the posters he’d been carrying. “Have you got the goods? Splendid! Come, let’s get back to camp before those three greedyguts eat all the breakfast.”

Jazmine snorted, and Ballaw looked offended. “I say, it’s not always me who eats everything … oh don’t give me that look!”

><><

Salley buckled on her new sword belt, enjoying the feeling of the old leather beneath her paws.

“Well lass? Does it fit?” Groddil handed her the sword. “It should be enough to hold this.”

Salley nodded wordlessly, slipping the sword into its place across her back. “Oh, wow. It’s heavier to wear than I expected.”

“It’s a sword.” Was Groddil’s contribution to the conversation. “Now come along, the others should nearly be done packing.”

“Groddil, do you really think this is a good idea?” Salley asked as she trotted after him.

“No.” He flicked an ear, a sure sign he was slightly annoyed. “I thought you were the one so determined to warn your family.”

Salley shrugged. “Well yes, I am .. but …”

“We don’t have a better option.” Groddil stated firmly. “Besides. We have Luna now, and that should make the journey considerably safer.”

He paused, before adding, “On top of that, Ferran and Fragorl are at that fort in the east.”

“Alright.” Salley saw his point.

They walked into the front yard, to find the others in a flurry of preparations. Tynek was already seated in the back of the cart, where Salley imagined he would spend most of the next few days. After all, he could only be up for thirty minutes at a time.

He’d taken the grains place, since it sat in a neat stack beside Aimon’s front door. Salley sighed at the sight of it.

“Yea. Your dad’s never going to give us a responsibility ever again.”

“Yep.” Salley didn’t even have to look at Dancer to agree.

Rose came out of the house, carrying a heap of blankets. She plopped them in the back of the cart, smiling in Tynek’s direction, before walking back toward Salley, asking, “Can you help me carry supplies?”

Salley shrugged, and followed Rose into the house. Her sister looked just as happy as she had in Evenglade.

“Uh, Rose? You do know we’re embarking on a dangerous journey, don’t you?”

“Oh stop it!” Rose gently shoved Salley. “Don’t remind me!”

The smile returned to her face far too quickly. Salley frowned. “Ok, what’s with you? You’re way too happy considering the circumstances.”

“Oh .. I don’t know.” Rose started up the stairs. “I try to always be happy.”

“Mhmm .. not really.”

“Salley ..” Rose whined a little. “I couldn’t help but be upset about leaving Evenglade like we did. But .. maybe it wasn’t .. all bad.”

Salley shook her head. “I don’t think I’ll ever understand you.”

“Well, we found Tynek. That’s a good thing .. he needed us.”

“Oh. I suppose I see your point. Yes.” Salley took the basket her sister handed her. “You and the others saved his life.”

Rose beamed. “Oh I know. It wasn’t all me but … I feel like I actually did something really worthwhile for the group.”

As they walked down the stairs, Salley slowly smiled. “Yeah. I guess you actually did.”

“What’s that supposed mean?” Rose looked offended.

“Nothing, nothing.” Salley laughed. “I’m glad you made a new friend.”

Rose opened the door, and Salley hefted the basket onto the cart. Groddil was already sitting on Stargazer’s back, looking like he wished to be on the move. Luna and Aimon stood nearby, speaking in low, serious voices.

Salley only caught snippets of their conversation, but it seemed quite personal, so she didn’t try to eavesdrop. Rose climbed onto the back of the cart, sitting down next to Tynek. “Is your arm feeling alright?”

“Yes .. it’s fine.”

Somehow, Tynek’s voice never sounded like it matched him .. it was far too quiet. Rose gently picked up his nearly useless limb. “Here, let me look. You can never be too careful.”

Tynek didn’t look completely comfortable but voiced no complaint.

Dancer trotted over to the front of the cart, and Salley followed, quickly buckling her into the traces. Those movements were quickly becoming like second nature.

“I got the better of Stargazer during our training today.” Dancer grinned widely. “He totally never saw it coming.”

“I let you win lass.” The older horse spoke around a mouthful of grass.

Dancer gave him an annoyed look, and the moment he looked away she muttered in Salley’s ear, “Nope, I won fair and square, he just doesn’t want to admit it.”

“How did you ..” Salley began, but was interrupted by the arrival of Luna and Aimon.

The white pegasus smiled. “I am ready now.”

“You promise to watch out for her?” Aimon looked to Groddil.

“Of course.” He smiled a rare smile. “But she can look out for herself. She saved us all.”

Aimon sighed, patting Luna’s shoulder. She nuzzled his face affectionally in return, and after a quick hug, the old squirrel drew back. “Yes. Yes I know. You’ve grown so much Luna, I can barely believe it.”

“It is only thanks to you, father.”

Aimon sniffed, nodding briskly, before turning to Salley.

“And you. I noticed you enjoyed my books. So here.”

He pulled several out of his satchel. “These are for you.”

Salley took the tomes he placed in her paws, noticing the complete history of Mossflower was the one sitting on top. “Wait .. you’re giving this to me? Isn’t this a valuable historical artifact?”

“It will do more good with you than gathering dust on my shelves.” Aimon patted her on the shoulder. “Of that I am sure. Books were meant to be read.”

“Thanks!” Salley decided not to voice any more worries. She really did want that book.

She slipped it into her satchel. “I’ll look out for it.”

“I know you will.” Aimon turned to Rose, handing her a cloth pouch. “These herbs will aid in your journey, young healer. I know you will put them to good use.”

Rose smiled widely, taking the item. “Thank you sir! And thank you for teaching me everything you did.”

“Of course.” Aimon smiled, before stopping beside Tynek, sitting on the cart. “Now you my young lad .. I feel you may have need of this.”

He pulled a short sword from beneath his cloak, it’s sheath a simple one made of leather and birch-bark. “Until you find the Kingsword, this should serve you well. It never failed me.”

Tynek took the weapon with his good paw, stammering, “Th .. thank you sir, but ..”

“Now, no arguments.” Aimon scolded, before looking to Groddil and Stargazer.

“For the two of you, I unfortunately have nothing. All I can send with you is the blessing of Ignasa, and my prayers for your safety.”

Groddil reached down to clasp the squirrel’s paw in farewell. “That is all I need.”

Aimon nodded, before turning to Luna. “And you, my dear child. This is for you.”

He pulled a yellow and blue plaited cord from his cloak, from which hung a shining silver pendent. “I know you have one already, but I thought this would match it nicely. Just a little something.”

Luna let him slip it over her head, before she pulled him against her in a tight equine embrace. “I’ll come back father. You know that.”

“I trust that Ignasa will protect you.” He patted her shoulder. “Now. You all had best be off. The swamps can get nasty at night.”

Luna nodded, before she turned and walked towards the bridge spanning the pond. Salley hopped onto the driver’s seat of the cart and looked down, expecting to have to help Rose up. However, her sister was already sitting in the back of the cart with Tynek.

Dancer took a final bite of grass, before starting after Luna. Groddil and Stargazer brought up the rear.

When she reached the gateway leading out, Luna paused, though she didn’t turn her head to look back. Then she stepped through it, her snowy coat wavering and flickering as realities clashed. Dancer was next, and Salley closed her eyes as the cart passed through.

The world seemed to fold in on itself, and for a moment, she couldn’t breathe.

Then they were on the other side of it; the less enchanting side.

Salley had started to believe the world she had seen on the journey to Aimon’s home was just a fragment of imagination, but it had been all too real.

The air was thick and muggy, the trees black and twisted. And once again, the ground was soft and coated in dead leaves and loam.

“What was that?” Tynek sounded as shocked as Salley felt.

“A rift between realities, so to speak.” Groddil seemed unaffected. “Anyway. Luna, you’re leading us.”

She nodded, folding her wings tightly against her back. “This way seems the best.” Salley cast a glance behind them, half expecting to see Aimon’s valley glowing in the light of early morning. But only a single etched boulder marked its existence.


Chapter 10 Edit

Salley sat on a damp log beside the fire, nose buried in her book.

This copy of the ‘Complete history of Mossflower’ seemed somewhat more .. complete than her father’s. Almost as if his had pages missing.

“Is it a good read, lass?”

Salley looked up at Groddil, sitting across from her, the slowly dying campfire between them. “Uh .. yeah. Hey .. how much do you know about Old Mossflower?”

“Not a lot.” Groddil paused in writing in his journal. “At least, I had a very skewed opinion and view point of it all. That is why I do not claim to know much.”

“So you do remember it? You were alive when it happened?”

Groddil blinked, before nodding. “Yes.”

Salley frowned at his lack of explanation. “Were you there?”

“No.” He shook his head. For a moment, it seemed as though he wouldn’t say more, but then he spoke again. “There were two brothers, you see. Two princes. I served one, the one who died. The other lives to this day, and sits on the throne of old Mossflower.”

“But that means .. I mean, was he good? The prince you served?” Salley asked it, confused. “You’re a Prophet.”

Groddil sighed. “We all come from somewhere lass. I wasn’t always a Prophet. And no. The prince who owned me was cruel, wicked, and murderous. And so was I.”

He looked down at his paws. “That was before Ignasa saved me from myself.”

Salley blinked at him, and he looked ashamed. “Those are days I don’t like to relive. I don’t know why I’m telling you. You probably hate me now.”

“No .. no I don’t.” Salley stammered quickly. “I didn’t know the you back then. But I know you now. And that’s enough.”

“Well ..” He scratched one of his shimmery silver ears. “Thank you lass.”

A moment of silence passed, as Salley looked down at the book in her paws. “Still .. you must know something, right?”

Groddil sighed. “I remember the day my master received the news Verdauga had taken Mossflower. He was far from pleased, and actually made plans to take it from him when he could. They said the king and all his nobles were dead, and the castle Kotir had been taken. But really, that is all I know. That and the rumors spread through these little northern towns.”

Salley nodded, before shaking her head. “It’s this Verdauga’s tactics that scare me the most though. Listen to this.”

She began reading from the page she had open. “They decimated us. We had the greatest army of all the middle realms, and they tore us to shreds. Not by right, but by trickery. The king held a grand feast to celebrate his firstborn’s birth, and all the nobles attended. It was supposed to be a happy time, a time to look toward the future, a time for hope. But our future ended that night, when his soldiers infiltrated and attacked. All the leaders of our land were in that castle, and those not killed in the attack were executed before the people, including our beloved young king.”

Salley looked up. “I’m supposed to fight this creature? I .. don’t think I can outwit him.”

Groddil frowned, not exactly meeting her gaze. “You .. have a good head on your shoulders lass.”

“So, you think I can’t, in other words.” Salley fought the sinking feeling in her gut.

“I know you can’t.” Groddil said, bluntly. “Not yet. I’ll do my best to change that. I promise that Salley. And I feel that you’ll have smaller opponents to face before you need to face him.”

He stood, slipping his journal into his satchel. “Stargazer and Luna have first watch. Don’t stay up too late.”

“Groddil, wait a minute ..” Salley interrupted. “I’m not tired. Not just yet. Can I stand watch for awhile? I mean, I should learn how, right?”

“Alright.” He nodded. “Just don’t leave our camp, is that understood?”

“I’m not that stupid …”

“But you are that reckless.” Groddil cut her off as he sat on his pallet near the fire. “Now. Goodnight lass.”

Salley sighed, mentally conceding that he was right. She stood, walking to the edge of the firelight, but still staying within it. Black bark brushed roughly against the paw she laid on a gnarled tree, and it dug against her fur and skin as she leaned out of the circle of firelight.

Soft, surreal light seeped from the loamy earth that glistened with moisture, lighting the whole area just enough to make deep shadows, among which anything might hide.

It brought a faint memory back, one of sitting on the elevated porch of her house with her father as he did his best to teach her the constellations on a night when the moon was little more than a sliver in the black sky.

Involuntarily, Salley looked up, but the dark, ivy-dripping treetops hid the stars.

She sighed, but started in wonder as slowly, a twinkling light grew in the thin mist that perpetually clung to the swamp.

Her mouth fell open, and she whispered, “Saoi? But ..”

There, several feet in front of her, the glowing light formed the first constellation she’d ever identified. A feeling of pride and happiness washed over her with such strength, she felt herself be pulled back to that very day.

Salley looked over her shoulder, and jumped.

She let go of the tree, stumbling a few steps deeper into the swamp as she stared at the glowing, transparent duplicate of her father. He looked past her, to a little kit with ponytails who stood on her tip-paws at a phantom railing.

Salley gaped at the little mouse, because she knew it .. it was her, at six years old.

In a swirl of faintly glowing mist, both figures simply evaporated, leaving Salley in shock.

She inhaled sharply as her brain raced to find a solution to what insane thing had just happened. But the swamp’s strange illusions seemed like they were only getting started.

Mist and floating light swirled around her, cutting off her view of the campfire.

“W .. wait!” Salley reached out, but paused as soft sounds became audible, growing louder by the second.

“You’re nothing! You will always be nothing.”

Salley stiffened, fur bristling at the youthful yet mocking voice that rose above the others. She spun around, staring at a mist duplicate of Roderick .. a very young Roderick.

He shoved a kit version of Salley, causing her to stumble and collapse to the ground.

A shudder ran down Salley’s spine as she heard her own voice come from the illusion, and even more unsettling was the fact it sounded far younger than it did now.

“Leave me alone!”

“You can’t make me. I can do whatever I want, you’re nothing but a stupid, worthless girl ..”

“Shut up!” Salley winced at her sheer, snapping voice. The shadow her leapt at Roderick, shoving him hard and catching him by surprise. As he fell to the ground, she slammed her foot into his face, screaming, “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! I hate you!”

Each word was punctuated by another kick to the stunned, and now coughing Roderick’s face.

Salley swallowed hard, remembering that day. The rage and hurt anger flooded over her, so strong that she clamped both paws over her head and wailed thinly.

Her vision swam, just like it had then, and her head spun as she muttered, “No .. no, I shouldn’t have done that .. he deserved it but I went too far …”

More than anything, she wanted to grin. She’d let him bully her so many years, he deserved it .. he’d asked for it so many times while she’d done nothing! He should feel pain. He should have to suffer!

“No!” Salley blurted, still doubled over. “It’s wrong, I shouldn’t enjoy that!”

“Salley?”

Slowly, Salley blinked her eyes open, to find glistening white feathers surrounding her. She jerked her head up to find Luna looking down at her, one wing spread around her.

“Surely Groddil told you not to wander into the swamp?”

Salley rubbed her eyes, trying to stop the raw, stinging sensation making them water uncontrollably. She opened her mouth to speak, but only empty air came out.

Luna wrapped her wing tighter about her, the soft white feathers, brushing against her fur and dazzling her aching eyes. Salley leaned against the pegasi’s cream foreleg, whispering, “What .. was that?”

“The swamp is a place of magic.” Luna nudged her onto her feet, leading her back the few steps into the camp. “It can replay any memory based on emotion. Only the affected creature will see it. Your memory must not have been happy, from how you were crying.”

Salley didn’t look up. “I felt it again. Everything from that day .. why?”

“Magic connects with emotion.” Luna stopped walking beside the cart. “Why don’t you get some sleep. I will keep watch until you awake.”

Slowly, Salley did as she was told and climbed onto the driver’s seat of the cart. Luna nodded, before turning and walking back toward the edge of the camp, her long, feathered tail swiping the ground behind her.

Groddil lay unmoving beside the fire, like he’d not even been disturbed by her experience. With a sigh, Salley lay on her rolled up cloak that served as a pillow, and stared up into the night darkened tree tops until finally, she closed her eyes.

><><

“Please? You can’t make me wash dishes forever!” Brome whined, though with his elbows submerged in dishwater, his argument sounded weak even to his own ears.

“Can, and will. Well, at least until I return you to your parents.” Ballaw didn’t look up from his salad.

Brome scowled, looking over at the other Wandering Rubies.

Celandine mounted her horse Soot with a slight clink, and Brome noticed she wasn’t wearing her long burgundy dress. Instead, her short, ruffled skirt glinted in the sunlight.

“Ballaw, what’s she doing?”

He paused to look up, before taking another bite of salad. “Trick riding. It’s her main act you know. Surely you saw the show we put on in Evenglade?”

Brome walked over the edge of his makeshift, open air kitchen to get a better look, and he shook his head. “That was the day my sisters went missing.”

Silence greeted him, and with a sigh, he turned to go back to his dishwashing, but a splash stopped him.

Ballaw dropped his now empty bowl into the water, waving a paw at him. “Have a look kit. What am I if a few dirty dishes vanquish me?”

“Really?” Brome’s grin made his face ache.

“Don’t make me change my mind.” Ballaw winked at him, picking up the dishrag.

Brome trotted out of the kitchen, hurrying to a stump on the edge of the clearing Celandine and Soot circled. He plopped himself down, wiggling with excitement.

Horse and rider moved in one fluid motion, black mane blending at times with black hair. Even Salley and Dancer had never been so in sync, and Salley was the best rider Brome had known!

Soot’s hooffalls shook the earth beneath Brome’s stump, flinging a little more dust into the air each time he circled. Suddenly, Celandine lay down lengthwise on her mount’s back, seeming completely at ease. The next second she was upright again. And then she fell.

Brome gasped, but stopped in wonder as Celandine hung sideways across her trotting horse, holding on with nothing but her legs.

She noticed him and waved, still upside down. In a blur of motion, she sat up, quickly transitioning to kneeling. As if on cue, Soot snorted and broke into a smooth canter, and Celandine stood up.

“Whoa!” Brome could not hold in his admiration.

Celandine shot him a quick grin, before she bent down, and in one swift motion, stood on her forepaws. Her fluffy white tail arched up as she rocked back onto her feet, planting her paws back on Soot’s withers and lowering herself into a normal riding position. She patted the horse’s neck. “Easy boy, halt.”

In a smooth motion, he slid to a stop in front of Brome.

After a second, Brome had the presence of mind to applaud. “Wow! You’re amazing! Teach me!”

Celendine laughed. “Well thank you. And absolutely not. We want to return you to your father in one piece, little kit.”

Brome stuck his lower lip out, and Celandine shook her head. “I mean that. But why don’t you ask Jasper, Jazmine, or Moshi to teach you something they know? It’s a lot less life-threatening.”

For a moment, Brome felt excitement course through his veins, but then he sighed. “No. Ballaw says all I do is dishwashing. And clean up.”

“Pfft.” Celandine dismounted, her paws making a barely audible thud when they touched the ground. “Ballaw’s still cross about the flan you took. But as long as you keep up with what he wants done, I see no harm in you learning a bit. Who knows, it might even be handy if we need an aid in a show.”

“Really?” Brome clasped his paws to his cheeks, squirming with excitement. “I could really be in a show?”

“If you work harder than you ever have before.” Celandine shrugged.

She turned to Soot, taking hold of the delicate halter on his face. “Come’n boy.”

He followed without argument, and Brome looked around, wondering who he should ask first. Come to think of it, he didn’t even know all the acts of every member of the Wandering Rubies.

He leaped off the stump and half-skipped over to where Jasper was messing with one of the cart’s wheels. “What do you do for shows?”

It seemed a positive way to start the conversation. However, Jasper just heaved a longsuffering sigh. “What do you want, kit?”

“Well, I wondered if you could teach me ..” Brome stammered, not sure how to get on Jasper’s good side.

“Go away.” The white gerbil waved an absent paw at him. “I’m busy.”

He returned his full attention to the wheel, which Brome noticed had several sizable cracks through the rim. “Hey, I could help with that ..”

“No.” Jasper cut him off. “Look, go find my sister or something, she’ll humor you.”

“But I ..”

“Go away.” Jasper sounded mildly annoyed. Brome sighed, before asking, “But where is Jazmine?”

Jasper shrugged, flattening his ears a little. “How should I know?”

Brome made a face as Jasper dug through his toolbox.

He looked around the camp, noticing Moshi and Jazmine were in the same place. Giving up on holding any conversation of length with Jasper, Brome trotted over to the two.

Lively music reached his ears before he got there, and it made Brome want to dance the instant he heard it. Moshi was the source, as he played a flute and tapped his foot against a small drum at the same time.

Jazmine twirled through the steps of a dance far too complicated for Brome to keep up with; she turned into a sparkling blur of gold and pink to his untrained eye.

However the entire performance was captivating, and neither creature noticed him until Jazmine finished her dance with an elegant curtsy.

She stood straight again, breathing a little heavily, and took note of Brome’s presence in the same moment. “Oh! I thought you’d be on pot-washing duty again.”

Brome shook his head. “Celandine says I can ask you to teach me some of your acts so I can help out in shows!”

Bursting with excitement, Brome grinned hopefully up at the two. They exchanged a glance, before Jazmine shrugged. “Well … sure. I can teach you to dance. And Moshi can teach you music.”

In reply, the cream furred otter held up his flute.

“Ok!” Brome made no argument, anything was better than washing dishes. “Where do we start?”

><><

Salley walked beside Dancer, her bare footpaws making wet squelches with every step. Rose had opted to stay in the back of the cart with Tynek.

Luna walked in front of the group, her dazzling white coat acting as a beacon of light in the clinging darkness of the swamp. Finally, Groddil and Stargazer brought up the rear of the little procession.

Salley kept a wary eye out for any more apparitions, but found herself rather confused at how they were supposed to work. Luna hadn’t exactly given her the clearest explanation the night before.

Soft light floated up from the peat covered ground in twinkling orbs, giving everything a faint blue-green tint.

“So.” Dancer snorted suddenly. “What exactly are we doing?”

“It’s a little unclear to me as well.” Salley sighed as she carefully skirted around a fallen log that was slowly decomposing into the swamp itself.

“I .. guess I have to find an army. Somewhere.”

Dancer cocked her head. “That’s … an interesting task. But how do you plan to do it?”

“I have no plan.” Salley’s shoulders involuntarily slumped. “I don’t even have any ideas. And I think Groddil expects me to …”

She paused, before shuddering. “Recruit creatures. Meaning I’ll have to talk to strangers.”

“Oh, woe is me, how completely and utterly devastating!” Dancer moaned in her best whining Salley impression. And a good one at that.

Salley shoved her irrepressible friend. “Come off it, it’s not like I won’t try. I’m just not … outgoing like you. Also I don’t sound like that.”

Dancer laughed. “Actually …”

“Don’t say it.”

Dancer fell silent, though Salley could hear her chuckling under her breath.

Luna suddenly stopped walking, and looked up into the treetops. Salley opened her mouth, but closed it again as Groddil spoke first. “Lass, what’s wrong?”

“The path divides into two here.”

“What path?” Salley lifted a foot out of muck, unable to keep sarcasm from her voice.

Luna tossed her head. “I mean the path that will help us avoid the most dimensional rifts and time stagnation. Not a literal, physical path. There aren’t any of those.”

She flicked her feathered ears back and forth several times, before she turned left, her mud covered hooves leaving deep, half cloven prints. Salley shrugged, before following her.

With a groan and the creaking, wet sound of the cart jolting back into movement, Dancer started forward again, straining thanks to the fact her load had settled into the muck.

Salley turned her head in time to see Stargazer push his shoulder into the back of the cart, freeing it completely. Dancer staggered forward, her black mane spilling into her face. With a sigh, she walked past Salley, each hoofstep making a wet noise.

Stargazer stopped next to Salley, and Groddil looked down at her footpaws, buried in mud to the ankles. “You seem to be having a hard time, lass.”

“I’m fine.” Salley yanked one foot free, only to have the other sink even deeper. She sighed. “Fine. I’m having a hard time.”

Groddil held out his left paw. “Come on.”

“Really?” She looked to Stargazer. “You’re ok with that?”

“It’s not as though a single mouse will make much of a difference.” The horse snorted laughingly.

Salley took Groddil’s paw, scrambling a little as he pulled herself onto his mount’s spotted back. Stargazer trotted after the rapidly disappearing cart, and Groddil didn’t turn around as he stated, “So. I heard you met the swamp last night.”

“How did you .. right, Luna told you.” Salley found her own answer.

Silence followed, before Groddil asked, “So? I expected you to be asking a million questions.”

“I’m .. trying to decide what really happened.” Salley sighed. “How can the swamp do that?”

“Power. Great victories come with great losses. Great losses come with great costs.”

Salley raised an eyebrow. “But how does that make a swamp .. magical? What really happened here?”

“War.” Groddil looked up into the treetops. “Remember how I told you the orders of Prophets and Necromancers were once much stronger than they are now? Well, there’s a reason. This is just the aftermath. All the rage, hatred, sorrow, fear, and determination still soaks the earth, even if the souls they belonged to have passed on centuries ago. It’s all stagnated here, warping reality itself. This swamp can show you visions of your past. Visions of its past. It can bend time and twist your perception of reality.”

Groddil turned his head slightly, meeting her gaze. “Don’t go out alone anymore.”

“R .. right.” Salley stammered, nodding numbly.

She laughed nervously. “You .. really know how to get creatures to listen.”

“It’s a good thing, since I’m mentoring you.”

The corner of Groddil’s mouth turned upwards ever so slightly, revealing his fangs. Then he leaned over Stargazer’s neck again as they plodded forward, each step an agonized splat.

Time dragged on endlessly; whether it was thanks to the magic of the swamp or just the sheer vastness of it, Salley didn’t especially care to know. She finally pulled out her book, ‘The History of Mossflower’, and began reading where she’d last left off.

All of this was near an exact copy of her father’s book, aside from the variants in paw-writing and word choice, occasionally.

However, Salley turned the page, and blinked in surprise. An intricately drawn mural adorned the parchment, and it was most certainly different. She would have remembered this.

Three mice stared back at her, one with curly red hair and orange fur caught her eye first. He held a purple-bound book and had a short sword tucked into his belt, and his green eyes stared back at her, unblinking.

“Dad?” Salley muttered, shaking her head.

No, this mouse was darker orange, and his hair was far too long. Besides, her father with a sword?

Salley snorted, before she found herself fixated by the mouse standing beside her father’s lookalike.

Gold fur.

Her eyes widened a little at just how like her he looked, before she shook her head. Of course. Golden mouse kings, she had golden fur .. just a coincidence.

Or was it?

She barely took note of the tall brown mouse standing beside the two, a battle-axe in his paws. It was the red mouse that fascinated her.

“Groddil I .. think I might be on to something!”

“Oh?” He didn’t turn around.

She grinned, even more sure of her discovery. “I think I’m related to the kings of Mossflower .. I really think I might be. It makes perfect sense!”

At this, he turned around a little. “You .. who told you that?”

“Well it’s not like just any mouse has gold fur. I always wondered why I had it and none of my family did. I kind of wondered if I was adopted for a while. Hah.” She shook her head. “Look at this picture! This looks like my dad .. he always said he came from Mossflower but he never said he was ..”

She paused, reading the caption. Shock filled her eyes as she blurted, “He was the king’s advisor? Or his dad anyway. That’s how he had a copy of this book in the first place. That’s why I have golden fur, because our family intermarried with the kings’. Everything fits together, that has to be it.”

Groddil looked at her for a long time, before shrugging. “Perhaps.”

“What do you mean, perhaps? The facts are here .. this even specifically states the name Voh.”

The silver fox sighed, flicking an ear back at her. “Yes. I’m simply saying that you might not have all the facts, lass.”

Salley stared down at the book, ignoring this statement. “This means me and Rose are .. princesses or something.”

She made a face. “Uhg, I don’t want to be a princess.”

“Why not?” Groddil didn’t turn to look back at her.

“Princesses are always wearing dresses and in need of rescuing. I like my trousers, thank you very much.”

“Well.” Groddil shrugged. “What fortune it is then, that you have neither a throne or a crown.”

Salley flipped the page over, turning several others to see if there happened to be any more illustrations, something her father’s book severally lacked. When she found the next one however, she stared at it in complete shock for a few moments, before stating, “True .. but apparently I do have the royal sword.”

“Really?” Groddil turned around at this, to get a better look at the book she held, when Luna suddenly stopped, half rearing.

“We’re not alone here!”

Salley jerked her head up to look at the pegasus, and then closed her book with a snap, scanning the area quickly.

Nothing moved.

Groddil slowly tensed, nodded, “I feel it too. Remarkable how keen your senses are.”

“They’ve laid a trap for us.” Luna lashed her tail, much like Groddil did when angered. She curled her lip, white fangs sparkling. “Necromancers.”

At this, Rose bothered to interrupt her conversation with Tynek. “More of them?”

“What did you think?” Groddil sighed heavily. “Luna, lass. How many would you say there are?”

She flicked her right ear several times, before shuddering. “A disturbing amount.”

“Though not all are exceptionally powerful.” Groddil nodded. “What would you propose we do?”

“That is the question isn’t it? Can we take them out or should we not risk our charges? There is no other path that I feel is safe enough, we can’t detour.”

“And they would just follow us if we did.” Salley hadn’t meant to speak, but it came out anyway. She blinked as all her companions turned to look at her, and shrugged a little nervously. “I mean, what if that’s their plan? To force us into some sort of .. time loop or dimension thingy and defeat us there?” Groddil scratched his chin. “Possibly.”

He looked at Salley. “I want you to ride Luna now. I’ll go on ahead.”

Salley stared at him, and then Luna as she slipped off Stargazer’s back. “I can do that?”

“Yes.” Luna’s hide twitched nervously as she kept a close eye on their surroundings. “Get on.”

Salley did so gingerly, wincing every time she left a splotch of mud on the pegasi’s beautiful white coat.

“Don’t worry about that.” Luna stomped a hind hoof, keeping her head high as Groddil and Stargazer trotted away, melting away into the swamp’s darkness within a minute.

Salley’s fur tingled with life wherever it touched Luna, and she slowly started to relax.

“Stay still, all of you. Remain calm; don’t panic, it makes you far easier to track.”

Rose whimpered, but Tynek comforted her; and for the first time Salley felt gratitude toward her strange lookalike.

Luna unfurled her wings, creating a sort of barrier between where she suspected the Necromancers to be and their group. Salley drew her sword.

Silence.

If it were not for the calming effect Luna seemed to have, Salley knew she would be bound by crippling fear.

Suddenly, a faint shout rang through to swamp, and Luna stiffened, bracing herself. “That’s torn it, they know we’re onto them. Get ready!”

Tynek stood up in the back of the cart, drawing his dirk while Dancer pawed in the slick ground, planting all four hooves firmly.

Snap!

Salley twisted around in her seat, looking behind them in time to see at least five cloaked creatures drop out of the trees, surrounding them.

She gaped, momentarily stunned, but Luna bolted toward them instantly, screeching her wild warning.

Salley gasped as she found herself slipped from the sudden unforeseen movement, and she had no time to ready herself to meet to filthy ground.

It was a bit like falling into solid water, and hurt no less. Salley cried out involuntarily, choking on the mud the was kicked into her face as Luna failed to notice her absence in the heat of the moment.

Salley forced herself into a kneeling position, yanking her sword from the muck and staggering onto her feet.

Flashes of blue and green blinded her, and she blinked hard, trying to get her vision to return.

Shouts erupted from all around her, along with a scream that could only have come from Rose. Salley stiffened, gripping her sword tighter.

The world began reforming into blurry, yelling shapes, and Salley stumbled forward, paws slipping along her now muddied sword hilt. She stared at Luna as her vision returned, as the pegasus reared, levitating several of their attackers.

She jerked her attention back to her other companions as Dancer whinnied loudly.

Salley was just in time to see Tynek fly out of the cart, skidding across the slick mud and knocking his head into a rock. She froze as a cloaked creature dragged Rose out as well, holding a paw over her mouth.

For a second, the world turned gray as Rose bit her assailant, kicking them in the legs. The creature cried out in pain, before hurling her to the ground.

Rose desperately tried to crawl away, slipping on mud in every movement, and still, Salley remained frozen.

She could hear her own mind as it wailed for someone to stop this, and only as the cloaked creature aimed a glowing paw at Rose, did she realize that someone was her.

She would be too late.

Blood rushed to her head, making her vision swim as fear boiled within her. This could not happen.

This would not happen.

Salley never forced her body to move, it just did. And in that moment of shear panic, the world drowned in blood.

A scream rent the air, though Salley didn’t know who it belonged to. Maybe it was hers’.

The first sensation she truly felt was a jolt, like she had been running and slammed into a wall. But she could see nothing but red.

She felt herself yank her sword out of what she’d lodged it in, before she instantly swung it in a wide arch, one that sliced through something solid. But her senses were sinking into an endless pool of terror, fading with every second that passed.

This time, it had to be her that screamed. Though it was less of a scream, and more a heart-stopping screech; something unnatural. Something feral.

Salley had fallen before; out of trees, off boulders, and once even off the roof. But this time, she never hit the ground. She could barely feel herself run forward, only her feet splashing through wet soil.

This had to be what dying felt like.

Something hit her in the jaw, hard. And in that moment, the terror claimed her as its own.



Chapter 11 Edit

“Salley!”

Someone shook her, making her teeth clack together. She gasped in a breath, weakly trying to shove them away, but they didn’t let go.

Her eyes burned, and she quickly felt the involuntary tears dripping down her cheeks.

As soon as she felt the pain in her eyes, she felt it everywhere else; everything screamed in protest, and she almost wanted to die again.

Wait, was that possible?

“Lass! Snap out of it!”

Oh, Groddil. And he sounded .. terrified. Something about the two didn’t combine well.

She blinked her eyes open, instantly clapping her paws over them and wailing in pain. In the same moment, she felt her right hand release the hilt of her sword.

She came to the understanding she was still standing up, and in the same moment, fell to her knees.

“Agghe ..”

She rubbed her paws against her face, trying to rid herself of what she was certain had to be sand in her eyes. Finally, she chanced opening them again, and froze.

Her paws were dripping red. No, that was blood.

She cried out and jumped back, tripping on something and falling into the filthy swamp a second time. But when she saw the headless corpse that had caused her fall, she yelled even louder.

Suddenly, Groddil was standing over her, and he quickly dragged her onto her paws, practically throwing her over his shoulder in an attempt to pull her away from the scene.

That didn’t keep her from counting at least three bodies and meeting a gaping Rose’s gaze.

“Luna! Please clean that up!”

Groddil called out to the pegasus as he pulled Salley into the swamp and out of sight of what a terrible thing she had done.

He forced her to sit on a rotting stump, and then took a few quick steps back.

“Lass, are you awake? Is that you?”

Salley clamped her paws against the sides of her head, gasping irregularly as the ground waivered and blurred before her hurting eyes.

She couldn’t speak.

Groddil began pacing, giving her wide berth. His tail bristled to at least twice it’s normal size.

Finally, Salley managed to whisper, “What .. what did I do?”

The fox stopped walking, meeting her gaze with wide, rather desperate eyes. “Lass you ..”

He clasped and unclasped his paws, gnawing absently at his lip until a thin trickle of crimson ran down his chin. “You have Bloodwrath.”

Salley stared at him blankly.

Bloodwrath? The crazed battle frenzy of the mouse-kings of Mossflower? The inherited condition that none could control or stop?

“That was Bloodwrath?”

Wordlessly, Groddil pulled a simply framed mirror from his satchel, handing it to her. Though he pulled his paws away quickly, as though he did not wish to touch her.

Salley swallowed the lump in her throat and looked into the glass.

Her heart skipped a beat, and her breath caught in her throat. Instead of being solid black, her irises were a dusky, fading pink, and the whites of her eyes had turned bright red. Even her pupils glowed with a scarlet hue.

“Why?”

Her voice sounded nearly emotionless; the shock was simply too much.

“It’s an inherited condition ..” Groddil began, but Salley cut him off.

“I know what it is. How did I inherit it?”

She didn’t wait for his answer. “Unless I really am related to the kings of Mossflower.”

Groddil cleared his throat. “I firmly believe that is the case.” Salley watched him for a moment, before a chilling revelation finally hit her. “You’re .. scared of me.”

“Can you really blame me Lass?” Groddil’s laugh sounded painfully forced.

“But you’re a Prophet, and you can use magic .. I might have this .. condition, but it can’t be that bad. Right?” Mentally, she begged him to agree with her.

He did not. He pinned his ears slightly, turning away. He spoke slowly, choosing his words carefully. “Lass .. you did not see what you did. You killed four of those Necromancers before they had a chance to defend themselves. You moved like lightning!”

Salley shuddered as he continued. “You had at least four times your own strength. You beheaded a creature like you were cutting fabric .. I don’t know what to tell you.”

His shoulders slumped as he fell silent.

“Well .. at least they were our enemies ..” Even as she said it, Salley felt nauseous.

“This time.” Groddil heaved a sigh.

He looked at her again. “I’m sorry for hitting you like I did.”

Salley clapped a paw to her jaw, the memory instantly returning. “That was you?”

“I thought it would help bring you back; clear your head of anger.”

“I .. wasn’t angry.” Salley stammered, whispering, “I was afraid. I was afraid Rose would die.”

Silence, broken only by the dripping swamp, surrounded them, and Groddil slowly pinned his ears completely. “Ignasa help us all.”

Salley shook her head. “That’s not how it’s supposed to work! Bloodwrath happens when the creature is angry .. Groddil, what’s going on? How can fear be what causes it; that’s not what the books said!”

“Salley … books don’t know everything.” He wrung his paws. “I don’t know everything. And I don’t know what to do.”

He closed his eyes, shaking his head. “I .. will have to pray about this.”

A moment of silence passed, before Groddil sighed. “Do you feel sane?”

“I think so.” Salley stood, stumbling a little. She cast a glance down at herself and winced. She was a patchwork of mud and blood.

Groddil looked her up and down, before reaching into his satchel and pulling out a tightly folded blanket. “Wipe some of that off if you can .. also we’ll need to clean your sword so it doesn’t rust.”

Wordlessly, Salley did as she was told. The mud of the swamp clung to her with vengeance, unwilling to let go. It did however smear most of the blood away, mixing with it and hiding most of its existence.

“The first decent river we come to, you’ll have to get a bath.” Groddil stated as he took the cloth back. “And I’ll need to wash this out.”

With that, he turned, walking back in the direction they’d come from.

“Wait!” Salley held out her paw. “I … I don’t know what to tell the others. I’m not ready to go back.”

“I can’t leave them, and I can’t leave you. You’re coming.” Groddil didn’t sound very sympathetic; more shaken and nervous than anything.

Salley shuddered, planting both feet in the ankle-deep swamp. “I can’t. I can’t, I’m sorry. I have to rationalize what just happened .. please Groddil! Just .. give me a minute.”

He paused, before sitting on a rotting stump about ten feet away. “I’ll give you five. No more.”

Salley nodded, weakly sitting back down on her log and placing her paws on either side of her head. That had been … freakish. Terrifying. And she couldn’t have Bloodwrath .. why would she have Bloodwrath? It made no sense; none of it did.

She stared down at her footpaws, partially submerged in swamp water, and found her wavering reflection in it. Her horrifying, still reddish eyes stared back at her, making her feel sick.

She couldn’t go back to the others, not like this.

Rubbing at her eyes did no good, and her vision blurred as confused, frightened tears rolled down her cheeks.

After a few minutes of crying, she looked up, expecting to see Groddil waiting impatiently. But he still sat on his stump, paws clasped together and head slightly bowed. Salley felt uneasy as she realized he was probably praying about her; a thought that nagged away at her mind.

“I’m ready now.” She blurted, not wanting him to continue discussing her with Ignasa.

He slowly looked up, blinking several times. Finally, he stood. “Then we must go.”

Salley followed him back to the scene of the battle, staying in his shadow and keeping her head down. She could feel Dancer and Rose staring at her as she went to pick up her half-sunken sword. It felt like they were glaring at her, like they were angry, and disappointed. That was until she looked up.

Rose huddled in the back of the cart near a groggy Tynek, her green eyes wide and terrified. Her fear was so strong Salley could feel it radiating from her, and her eyes itched uncontrollably.

Salley clapped a muddy paw to her head, moaning under her breath. In an instant, Groddil had spun around to face her. “Lass, what’s wrong?”

“I … nothing.” Salley mumbled, trying to rub the pain away. “Nothing.”

They were all afraid of her!

That was the worst part, the part that chilled her to the bone and made her heart pound in her chest. Dancer’s raised head and pinned ears, Rose’s frightened gaze; even Groddil’s stiff and careful demeanor .. it all spoke volumes.

Luna alone met her gaze without fear. Perhaps a little unease, but no fear. Salley clung to the pegasi’s aura of calm in a world of madness.

She took a deep breath, and then forced herself to speak. Each word left a bitter taste on her tongue and scraped past her teeth with difficulty, because she knew they were anything but true. “I’m fine. I’m .. back to normal now, I won’t do that again. I don’t know what happened but I will find out, and I promise, I’d never hurt any of you. Please .. Dancer, you’re my best friend, you know me!”

The gray horse hung her head, muttering something to herself, but not really acknowledging Salley.

That hurt. And it hurt worse than anything else.

Luna stepped forward, lowering a glistening wing around Salley as she murmured, “Give this time. They are in shock now, all of them. It is best to let them work through what they have seen .. they’ll tell you when they are ready.”

“How are you so calm about this?” Salley asked incredulously.

“Someone has to be.” Luna pressed her muzzle against Salley’s forehead, and peace flooded over her. “You will be ok. Remember that.”

She wasn’t so sure about that, but all that came from her mouth was a stammered, “I … thanks.”

Luna nudged her. “I believe I owe you a ride after letting you fall back there.”

><><

Nothing was ever the same.

Salley knew it wouldn’t be, not after what she’d done when the Necromancer’s attacked them. But days dragged by and still, Rose would barely look at her. Even Dancer avoided her. Groddil would speak to her, but always looked cautious, like he was treading around a snake, or fire.

Luna’s quite presence alone kept her calm, and while the pegasus never really started conversations, Salley had come to enjoy her company.

It took a few days for Salley to even want to read her books, let alone anything about Bloodwrath. But on the third night, she swallowed her fear of it and pulled her book out of her satchel.

‘The History of Kotir and its Founders’. Salley had never really contemplated the title, but now it held much more significance. She had something to do with those founders, it wasn’t a wish, or a dream, it was reality. And strangely, for all the times Salley had hoped she was more than a village farmer’s daughter, she wished she wasn’t.

Why couldn’t she have only been interested in gardening and kits and boys? But no. No, she had to be different, she had to defy reality; and this was where it had gotten her.

With a heavy sigh, she flipped through the thick pages, stopping when she reached the part she was looking for.

That ugly word, one she never wanted to hear or see again.

Bloodwrath.

It might as well have been written in red ink.

She forced herself to read what came next.

Bloodwrath; a condition passed down from parents to kits. It is incurable and terrible when not handled properly, putting those around the inflicted in danger. It may even lead to the death of it’s owner, if they allow themselves to be consumed by it.

Salley skimmed down the page, revisiting subjects she already knew. None of that was helpful.

This state is brought on by anger. The kings of Mossflower were trained from kithood to hold their anger back, least they endanger those around them. This is one reason they are known for diplomacy, even in the bleakest situations.

But hers had not been full of anger, had it? She hadn’t been angry; she could only remember the fear. All powerful, clinging fear that made it hard to breathe and impossible to think.

So why, and how, did she have Bloodwrath? It made absolutely no sense.

Slowly, Salley skimmed through the pages again, nearly shutting the book when her claws slipped and a page too many turned. She stared blankly at the depiction of a golden mouse with blood-red eyes running forward, red-jeweled sword brandished directly at the viewer.

Those eyes .. they gave her chills. No wonder the others wouldn’t look at her.

She felt drained and numb as she closed the book, staring into the fire, though in reality, she stared through it.

She couldn’t do it again, not ever. If she did …

Salley winced as she imagined those bodies again, only this time, they were her friends. All dead thanks to her freakish .. condition.

Fear bubbled up in her, and her eyes stung. She rubbed at them with both paws, breathing as evenly as she possibly could and promising herself over and over that she would do no such thing. She wasn’t a monster … not yet.

Desperate to think on anything else, she pulled out the two other books Aimon had given her; ‘Tribes of Mossflower’ and ‘The Prophet’s Code’. After a moment of deliberation, she put the first book back and settled to read about Prophets. Groddil never really explained himself enough anyway.

“You really should sleep.”

Salley jerked her head up, blinking as she realized a sizable chunk of time had passed. Luna was looking over at her from the spot she stood guard, and Salley quickly closed her book, feeling almost like she was spying. But the pegasus paid no heed to what she was reading. “At most, we have five hours until morning.”

With a resigned nod, Salley settled against her isolated log beside the dying fire, on one of the only dry spots in the entire camp. Slowly, the eternal soft thrumming hum of the swamp lulled her to sleep.

Dreams came, faded, blurry echoes of horrible reality. Salley half awoke many times, only to roll over and drift off again in the instant. She finally started wide awake, yawning as she took in the stark contrast of the black tree trunks against the pale mist of morning.

Evenglade looked like this sometimes .. minus the rotting trees and swirling magic.

As the thought of home crossed her mind, buildings morphed out of the glowing mist thirty some feet from the edge of their camp.

Mesmerized, Salley stood, walking silently toward them. She paused, looking back at the dead campfire. Groddil had his tail wrapped over his nose, Rose slept against Dancer’s side, and while she didn’t see Tynek, she imagined he was resting in the back of the cart. Neither Luna or Stargazer were anywhere to be seen.

Salley rubbed her arm, trying to rid herself of chills. Then she turned to face the faintly glowing replica of Evenglade, hesitating a final moment, before walking into it.

It was only a few feet away from camp; it would be fine.

Every house, picket fence, and garden looked exactly as she remembered it, growing more and more accurate with every detail she recalled. Her paws never hesitated as she tried to walk up the steps into her house, though her foot simply went directly through them.

Salley blinked hard, shaking her head to clear it, and the projection vanished.

With a sigh, she turned around to head back to the camp, but froze as a strange, rhythmic drumming reached her ears. It took a few moments for her to recognize it as the tramp of hundreds of paws, and in that time, she started to feel the vibrations through the inch of slime and water beneath her.

She took a step back, further from the camp, and the ghostly apparitions started seeping through the stands of trees.

Ten, then twenty, then fifty, and finally so many Salley didn’t even bother guessing. She’d read about armies, but seeing one up close was breathtaking, and not a little terrifying.

Her eyes started to itch as the figures brushed past her and even walked through her, their forms dissipating where she touched them and reforming once past her. The ground reverberated from so many paws hitting it in close succession, and as Salley rationalized that these things couldn’t hurt her, she began to take better note of them.

They came in all species and sizes, ranging from rats to foxes to weasels. Strangely, no woodlanders seemed to populate this army, and an army it was, for each creature held at least a spear.

Endlessly, the figures swept past her, a sea of glowing fur and armor.

Then she saw him.

With fumbling paws, she dug through her satchel, pulling out her favorite reference and flipping to the final pages. Yes, it was him.

The glowing cat in heavy armor astride his misty unicorn exactly matched the depiction of the dreaded Verdauga Greeneyes, down to the greatsword at his side and the helmet framing his brow.

Salley threw her paws up to protect herself as his mount hit her head on, though she felt nothing as the mist separated, only to reform seconds later. She stared after the cat, as his army continued to stream past her, never faltering or changing their southern trek.

Her book hung limply from her paw as she shuddered.

That was the Greeneyes army? She could never hope to stop him.

She slowly opened the volume in her paws as the last of the soldiers swarmed past her and deeper into the swamp, reading the inscription below the painting of the cat-king of Mossflower.

King of a Thousand Eyes.

With chills running down her spine, Salley returned the volume to her satchel, rubbing her arms and looking around for the camp. For as little distance as she had covered in leaving the campsite, she could barely see it through the near solid fog.

Thankfully, she caught sight of her water-filled paw prints and started to follow them back. But in the instant, she heard a strange wailing sound. Thin and mournful, it rose and fell on the softly keening wind, mesmerizing Salley once more.

Her brain felt completely numb again, like it did every time the swamp was active.

Without the slightest bit of hesitation, she started walking toward it, only to be jerked firmly back. “What do you think you’re doing?”

Salley turned and blinked groggily at Stargazer, mumbling, “I .. don’t know really. What are you doing?”

Her bewildered voice only confused her more and Stargazer sounded annoyed. “I’m saving you from disappearing for good. Come back to camp before you wander into Ignasa knows what.”

“But do you hear that?” Salley asked in reference to the wailing.

Stargazer paused to listen, and in that moment, Salley noticed the noise had stopped.

“I hear nothing but my breakfast being eaten. Now follow me.”

With a sigh of resignation, Salley obeyed. She took comfort in the fact that after several weeks of travel through the swamp, she’d actually learned how to walk in it and no longer looked like a drowning duck.

She didn’t have a lot of time the reflect on her newfound skill, as a sudden, very real yell erupted from the mist only feet in front of them. Stargazer jerked to a stop, yanking his head up and pinning his ears, before snapping, “Stay close to me!”

Without a word, Salley did as he said. Her paw itched to draw her sword, but she hesitated as she remembered the last time she’d done that.

Her paws pounded through slick mud as she burst through the foliage surrounding the camp and into a scene of total disarray. She felt her heart pound in her ears as blood rushed to her head and she struggled to force it down; to actually get a good look at what went on.

One of the attackers had Groddil pinned on his back, a strange-looking spear pricking his chest. Stargazer bolted forward, ramming his lowered head into the offender’s torso and sending them flying before they had time to even properly lift their head. He reared up, pawing the air challengingly before his forefeet splashed into the dirty water and he stepped protectively over his friend, snorting wildly.

Salley whipped her head from side to side, taking in as much as she could. Luna had Rose and Tynek behind her, both her radiant wings spread as far as the foliage allowed and her feathered tail twitching angrily.

Dancer had all four legs braced as though she planned to charge at the semi-circle of creatures, although Salley imagined the cart would pose a serious problem in that plan.

Unlike the cloaked figures from before, these creatures practically glittered. Or at least, their clothing did. The shining silver material they wore made Salley think of the trout that populated Evenglades’ small river in the spring.

They were otters, their thick tails and sleek fur made that clear.

The one Stargazer had knocked over struggled upright, wheezing, and the others moved forward aggressively. Salley felt the hilt of her sword in her paw before she really realized she’d reached for it, and swallowed hard, forcing herself to let go. She couldn’t draw it; there had to be another way!

“Wait!” Salley yelled as she stumbled past Stargazer, who neighed warningly, probably telling her to stay back if he’d remembered to speak common woodland.

Everything stopped as Salley planted herself several feet in front of her mentor, now struggling upright. “What did we ever do to you?”

“He is a vermin!” A tall female otter wearing a shimmering and form fitting two-piece outfit waved her spear uncomfortably close to Salley’s nose.

She took a step back, countering, “He never did anything to you!”

The female otter snarled aggressively. “He trespassed on our land. You’re all trespassing. Now stand down, I don’t want to kill a mouse-girl.”

She shoved Salley, hard. Salley fell with an undignified plop, but quickly scrambled up again. “He’s a Prophet!”

“You dare to lie to me?” She raised her spear, and Salley could not contain herself.

The grating of metal on metal rang out as Salley drew her sword. In her mind, her words sounded tough and commanding, but really were nothing more than a pleading gasp. “Run!”

“No!” Groddil yelped, and Salley could hear him sloshing in the mud behind her. “Don’t do that! Let me handle this, I ..”

His words broke off with a glub as in his haste, he fell on his face on the slippery ground. Salley didn’t take her eyes off the otter girl. She was older, and she looked far stronger than her. Salley had never seen a female so intimidating.

The otter narrowed her eyes, but several of her companions started, and Salley noticed most of the otters were staring.

A male otter, far older than the female threating Salley, stepped between the two. “Stand down Tullgrew!”

He turned to face Salley, expression deathly serious. “Little mouse, where did you get that?”

Salley swallowed, looking down at her sword, the object in question. “Uh .. I found it. Under the floor of a building.”

“Do you even know what you’re holding?” He sounded upset. “I know you’re lying.”

“I’m not, I swear!”

Salley’s eyes itched at the panic rising within her. “And what’s so important about my sword?”

“Your sword?” Another older otter stalked toward her, grabbing her paws and the hilt of her weapon in one swift movement, his eyes sparking with fury. “You have no right to touch the Queensword, you’re no queen!”

Blood rushed into Salley’s head along with the fear, and she yanked herself away with vicious, Bloodwrath driven strength. “Get away from me!”

It was far more a plea than a demand. Salley staggered back as she ripped her sword away from him, overbalancing and falling into a sizable amount of standing water. Her head went under in the same moment the back of it cracked against the silty ground.

><><

Brek wearily dragged himself out of his makeshift bed, the sights and sounds of last night’s show still echoing in his memory. He couldn’t help the grin on his face.

He stretched, yawning loudly and looking up at the colorful tent above him. Sunlight gleamed through small rips and holes in the cloth, creating a speckling of light on the dry ground beneath his paws. Ballaw had let him be his magic assistant, and Brek could barely believe it even still.

He looked around, realizing that none of the other Wandering Rubies slept in their rumpled blankets .. except Jasper, who been up the latest last night. He snored away, curled up in a furry white heap.

Quietly, Brek slipped out the back of the tent and into a beautiful morning, filled with birdsong, sunshine, and smoke from Celendine’s fire. She stirred a caldron full of something, her black hair and white fur sparkling in the morning light.

Brek skipped over to her side, awaiting orders. She gave him a sideways glance, before shaking her head. “Ballaw wore you out last night, didn’t he? Don’t go competing with Jasper for the latest sleeper award, you here?”

“No ma’am!” Brek shook his head quickly, and she snorted.

“Oh lighten up kit, I’m joking. Look, go feed Soot his breakfast if you want to help.”

Brek nodded, before trotting off to feed Celandine’s horse. He made his way around to one side of the tent, where Soot impatiently waited, straining against his halter the moment he saw Brek.

Brek ignored him, grabbing a bucket and opening the trunk containing the grain the horse ate, and scooping some out. Soot nearly knocked his meal out of his benefactor’s paws in his haste. With a sigh, Brek set the pail on the ground, brushing himself off and taking a few steps back.

He stretched again, looking down the hill their camp sat on and across the picturesque town below it.

Thatched straw roofs glittered golden in the light of a beautiful morning, and the creatures milling through the streets seemed so small from his vantage point, he was reminded of the dolls his sisters would play with.

Well, Rose played with them anyway, before she got obsessed with sewing. Salley had gotten in trouble for pretended they were knights jousting.

Brek giggled, remembering how very disturbed his father had looked.

Almost instantly afterwards, he sighed, his ears drooping. He missed home so much it hurt if he thought about it hardly at all. He’d be back by next spring; he promised himself.

“Aww, down in the dumps are we?”

Brek looked up, smiling when he saw it was Jazmine. He rubbed a paw across his nose. “I’m fine.”

She ruffled hair, nearly getting her paw stuck in the wild curls. “Heh, when am I going to remember not to do that? And I know you’re sad, your face looks like a depressed raincloud.”

“I miss home.” Brek admitted, feeling rather defeated.

Jazmine was silent for a moment, before nodding. “But .. I mean .. this is home. I mean, yeah, you have another one, but we’re kind of like family to you, I think. Maybe, I’m not really sure.”

“You’re awesome fun.” Brek nodded. “But it’s not the same. Also I’ve kind of just been kitchen help til lately.”

“Well, we all have a trial period.” Jazmine shrugged. “And you’re different, since you kinda left us with no choice about recruiting you.”

At that, Brek gave in. “Well, yeah.”

They were silent for a while, before Jazmine muttered, “It must have been nice to have a family you actually wanted to be around. Who actually wanted you around.”

“But .. why didn’t yours?” Brek asked, genuinely curious.

“My eyes, of course.” Jazmine opened them wide. “They’re red. Anyway, I didn’t have a dad who I remember. Just a mom who wished me an’ Jasper didn’t exist. We were her slaves, really.”

Brek raised an eyebrow, something Salley had taught him how to do. “The squirrel-lady from Sevenfall said that too, about your eyes, but I don’t understand. What’s wrong with them? I mean they’re different and strange at first but that’s no reason for your mom to not like you. Moms love you cause …”

He broke off, finishing lamely, “Cause they’re moms.”

“Must be nice to be as naive as you.” Jazmine patted him on the head this time. “I like that about you kit. I think we all like that about you.”

“Jasper doesn’t like me ..”

“Pffft.” Jazmine shook her head. “Jasper doesn’t like anyone. He just prefers to be left alone in general.”

Brek shrugged. “Salley’s like that too sometimes.”

A look of sorrow clouded Jazmine’s bright features. “Right. You know, I might not be able to understand why you miss your parents very well, but I know why you miss your sisters. I’d feel so alone without Jasper. So .. how about I help you more, you know, in looking for them.”

Brek scuffed a paw on the ground. “I don’t think I can find them.”

He noticed the soot from an old campfire now coated the bottom of his footpad. He leaned down and brushed it off as Jazmine playfully socked him in the shoulder. “Come on, you can’t just give up.”

Brek stumbled a little, before regaining his balance. “Yeah, I guess not.”

“You keep telling me what a fighter this sister of yours is. They’re gonna be fine, ok?”

Jazmine sounded so sincere, Brek let himself believe her and he smiled again. “Ok.”

Brek looked out across the town again, suddenly stopping as he noticed a patch of green on one of the small boulders lining the edge of the small drop down into the village. He walked over, pulling a ripped piece of fabric from a crevice in the rocks.

It was faded from the sun, but Brek stared at the embroidered flowers running along the flat edge.

“This belongs to Rose!” He tried to hold his excitement back, but couldn’t. “I know it is, it has to be!”

“Um. Well. I mean, a lot of creatures might have left that, you know.” Jazmine sounded cautious.

But Brek grinned happily, shaking his head. “No, this pattern. She stitched it herself and when I asked her where she got the idea for it, she gave me the longest, boringest explanation ever! This is a part of her skirt, I know she was here!”

Excitedly, he began looking around the area between the tent and the edge of the slope, suddenly noticing all sorts of bits and pieces that didn’t quite belong.

A feather in the bushes actually turned out to a be a broken quill, and some long strands of black hair entangled in the bark of a tree didn’t match Soot’s cropped mane. Faint wheel marks in the dirt suddenly seemed too old to belong to the Wandering Rubies cart.

“These hoof prints aren’t Soots, and there are two sets of them .. two other horses were here.” Jazmine observed, crouching to get a better look at the ground.

“But ..” Brek scratched his head. “That can’t be right. Dancer is the only other creature with my sisters.”

Jazmine shrugged. “Well, look. Some of these prints are very dainty and seem almost cloven. But then some are deeper and larger, like whatever made them was just bigger; they can’t belong to the same horse. And neither are Soot’s, I know that for sure.”

Brek walked over to her, peering over her shoulder and mentally agreeing.

Jazmine pointed deeper into the woods. “The cart tracks make a trail here, they look to be heading due east.”

“I have to follow them!” Brek stood up straight, feeling excitement surge through him. His sisters had been here not too terribly long ago; that meant they were alive!

He could already imagine how proud his father would look, and how his mother would make a delicious feast to celebrate. Rose would hug him and Salley would smile and finally acknowledge how grown up he was. Dancer would even let him ride her without anyone else on her back! He would officially be the hero of Evenglade!

“Hellooo! Is the kit in there?”

Brek blinked, coming back to reality as Jazmine waved a paw in his face. She shook her head. “I said, not alone. You can’t just run off, you’re our responsibility.”

“But … my sisters!” Brek protested.

Jazmine sighed, tapping a claw against her chin. “Yes, about that. Come with me, we’ll go tell Ballaw and Celandine about this.”

Brek obediently trotted after her, stopping when she did and taking note of conspicuously empty camp area. He frowned. “Did they go in the tent?”

“No.” Jazmine picked a piece of parchment off of an old trunk sitting near the fire. Brek read it from behind her, taking a moment to discern what the loopy pawriting said. Concerning Jazmine and the kit,

We have gone to the market for much needed supplies and will be back by the fifth hour past noon. Make certain you get plenty of rest for the show tonight, and since you took so infernally long to remember breakfast, yours is under a cloth in the back of the cart. You are quite lucky I’m a generous creature, I really had a mind to finish it for you.

Do NOT eat all the flan .. this includes you Jasper!

Ballaw the Great

“Ugh.” Jazmine sighed, setting the letter down.

“Please let me look for them!” Brek begged. “They’ve been gone for so long .. every minute counts!”

Jazmine looked thoughtful for a moment, before shrugging. “I suppose it won’t matter if we spend a few hours finding out where their trail goes. It’ll help me relax anyway. As long as we’re back in time for supper. We’ll take Soot.”

“Celandine won’t mind?”

“Nah. Well, not too much.” Jazmine promised. “It’ll do him good to stretch his legs before he has to prance for twenty minutes straight.”

Brek sat in front of Jazmine on Soot’s back, though she held the reins. Reins were a confusing concept to Brek, one he’d never quite gotten the hang of. He kept forgetting that Soot wouldn’t simply choose the best path and instead would stop moving in favor of grazing.

Jazmine munched on her tarts from breakfast, and Brek absently ate his as he scanned the forest for clues.

Following his sisters’ tracks turned out to be far easier than Brek ever could have expected, though looking at them, he understood why. Pulling a cart through underbrush tended to have quite obvious results.

They’d created their own little path.

Ages seemed to pass before they reached a clearing, in which Soot immediately stopped since Jazmine forgot to urge him onward. Or maybe it was thanks to the word she said.

“Whoa.”

Brek had to agree.

Whatever had happened here wasn’t good. The first thing that he noticed was the uprooted tree, it’s roots still holding onto wads of dirt, its trunk smashed in multiple places and black with soot. Most of the undergrowth in the area glowed dull black where fire had ravished it, and many branches of the still standing trees looked to have been snapped off their trunks like twigs. Brek couldn’t help but stare at the perfect set of boot prints half way up a tall tree, singed into the bark by fire. Like someone had stood on it as though it were the ground, completely outwitting gravity.

“How did that happen?” He asked, pointing upward.

Jasmine looked where he indicated and shook her head wordlessly. After a moment, she hurriedly coxed Soot through the clearing and along the trail that continued on the opposite side of it.

Brek cast a glance back at her, to see her mouth was set in a firm line.

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know.”

For once, her constant smile was gone, and her red eyes sparkled with an emotion Brek had yet to see from her; fear. He suddenly felt a shiver run down his spine. “Um .. maybe we should go back.”

She reined Soot in, looking down at him for a moment, before nodding. “I think it’s best. Don’t worry, we’ll tell Ballaw .. we’ll figure something out.”

Brek nodded to show he understood, but he couldn’t take his eyes off the forest stretching endlessly in front of them. It felt different now, like the entire dynamic of the scenery had completely shifted. The sun still shone it’s radiance upon the earth, but everything felt off, everything felt .. cold.

“Do you here it?” Jazmine asked softly.

Brek pricked his ears up, frowning in confusion. “I hear nothing.”

“Exactly.”

As she said it, Brek felt his blood run cold. He could hear nothing. Not a peep of birdsong, no whispering branches as they danced in the breeze. A breeze that had suddenly died. Like every living thing had fallen to the silent hush of death.

Jazmine pulled on the reins a little firmly, causing Soot to wheel back the way they had come. She clapped her heels against his sides, and he bolted into a run from a standstill, hooves making the only sound in the quiet.

They might as well have been thunder, for all the noise they made.

Brek ducked his head as branches swept by them, clawing at them like they meant for them to stay in those woods forever.

Jazmine wrapped an arm around Brek as she dug her heels into their horse and he whinnied, lunging forward with an extra burst of speed.

Everything slowed to a crawl as they sped through the forest, running from the unknown, whatever thing had made the birds and wind fall silent. Exactly twenty-seven seconds passed, Brek knew because he couldn’t keep from counting them.

Then the whole world jolted, flipped, and spun madly, ending with a crushing sensation and pain. Horrible pain unlike any Brek had felt before.

When he fell down the stairs because he tried to slide down the banister had hurt. The time he jumped off the elevated porch in a vain attempt to fly, it had hurt. And when Roderick had beat him up, it had really hurt. But this felt like white-hot fire, and he couldn’t draw breath; he couldn’t even see.

Finally, he managed to gasp in air, and nothing had ever tasted so wonderful. His vision swam, refusing to focus, but he came to the understanding he was draped over a log, and he saw the thing.

It was a creature of nightmares, cloaked in gray and black, holding a staff taller than it was. Somehow, it was quite a bit smaller than the monsters Brek had imagined living under his bed, but that didn’t calm the fear.

It had Jazmine by her hair, looking her up and down. Brek whimpered as he forced himself to roll off the log, groaning as he fell face-first into the loam of the forest floor. He willed himself onto all four paws, crawling toward the creature as his vision swam.

“Stop .. leave us alone ..”

His own voice sounded strange and strangled in his ears, and he collapsed a few feet from the creature and Jazmine, lacking the strength to rise again.

A rough paw forced his chin up, and a flat, chillingly dead voice spoke.

“You look familiar, little mouse.”

The voice faded away, and the rest of the world with it. The last sensation Brek felt was his muzzle once again meeting the dry leaves and the ground below it.

His last thought was how it didn’t even hurt.



Chapter 12Edit

Salley came too slowly, he first sensation being the echo of voices.

At first she assumed the echo was thanks to her aching head and the faint, high-pitched ringing in her ears, but as a few minutes passed and it didn’t start to subside, she came to the understanding that it was real.

She held back a groan as she tried to move, finding herself in a horribly uncomfortable heap, with her wrists bound together behind her back.

A cool, slightly damp substance pressed against her cheek, and the air smelled suspiciously like a river; the sent of wood, water, and mostly fish.

Strangely, it had a faint musty odor as well.

“Is this the one?”

Salley froze as she heard several sets of paws stop next to her, glad she hadn’t bothered to open her eyes. If she stayed still, they’d think she was asleep, right? That usually worked in books, at very least.

Panic started to set in as she fully assessed her situation. She was bound, in an unfamiliar place that smelled like she’d always imagined a dungeon smelling, and her captors were just feet away from her. The moment they realized she was awake … who knew what they would do. Worst of all, her whole body was aching and she knew that inevitably, she would move and give herself away.

“ … don’t know where she got it. She refused to tell us the truth.”

Salley suddenly focused on the conversation at paw once more. These creatures, presumably otters, sounded frustrated.

“To think that I’m holding the Queensword.” An unfamiliar voice rang out, sounding awed. “I though for sure that it would have long since been destroyed.”

They had her sword. What did they plan to do with it? Kill her? Chop her head off here and now?

Her head spun, and she realized she was hyperventilating.

Apparently, they realized it at around the same time, for something tapped her on the side. “Come on mouse. We know you’re awake …”

Salley snapped her eyes open too see everything was already tainted with red. A quick glance around revealed her to be in a small stone room, completely alone aside from the otters.

Not a sound was made, aside from Salley’s ragged breathing as all three stared at her in shock.

“Where’s my friends?” Salley’s voice stunned her, guttural, straining to the point she feared it would snap. “What have you done to them? What have you done to Groddil?!”

They didn’t respond, but the one holding her sword grabbed his companions by the shoulders, pulling them away from her. Salley couldn’t force down the panic and the ropes bit into her wrists as she strained forcefully against them, snarling madly.

She felt them give way suddenly, breaking from her unnatural strength. Sudden panicked shouts rang out, but they drowned in blood with the rest of the world.

Salley slowly blinked her eyes open, to find she was staring up at a cold gray ceiling. She sat up, brushing the chunky blanket off of her, noticing how it seemed to be woven from thick dry plant material of some sort.

Swallowing hard, she looked down at her paws, but they weren’t coated in blood like the last time. In that moment, she also realized that her eyes weren’t stinging like they had the previous time she’d been consumed by Bloodwrath.

“You are quite the mystery, little mouse.”

She jerked her head up, noticing the figure standing in the shadows cast by the single, multi-faceted lamp. This otter was certainly not the most powerful looking of his tribe, though his glittering clothes and silver tattoos gave him an air of deserving respect.

Salley pushed her back against the wall behind her, shrinking away. “What do you want? Who are you?” After a moment’s pause, she added, “What have you done with my friends?”

He stepping into plain sight, revealing he had an even slighter frame than Salley had initially thought. “I am Sular, of the Willowglen otters. Your friends have not been harmed, and what I want is answers. Who are you? Who are your parents? Where did you really find the Queensword?”

Salley looked up at him, studying his face. It was not unduly unkind, at very least, and she relented.

“I’m Salley Voh. My parents are Urran and Aryah Voh. And what I told the other otter is true, I found the sword under the floor of my father’s stable.”

Confusion mixed with frustration, twisting his face unpleasantly. “Little mouse, that simply cannot be. Neither of those swords made it out of Kotir.”

“Kotir? Oh, right. The capitol of Mossflower.”

Silence filled the room, broken only by what sounded to be faint running water. Finally, Sular spoke again.

“Wait, you said your family name was Voh?”

Salley nodded.

Sular shook his head, amazement shining in his eyes. “I have not heard that name in many years. To think the Voh’s still have decedents alive is astonishing.”

With a heavy sigh, he turned, beckoning she follow him. “Come. You need a good washing before you appear before the council.”

Moments later, Salley found herself being pushed into an occupied room. Rose sat on a simple chair in one corner, her red fur cleaned and her somewhat torn dress looking at least decent again. She looked up when Salley stumbled in, but quickly shrank away as the door shut behind her.

Salley sighed, but didn’t press the subject. Was there even any point?

She really hoped Rose didn’t hate her forever.

Wordlessly, Salley walked over to the natural pool in the stone floor and paused. After a moment she pulled off her filthy clothes, shuddering as they stuck to her fur in places. She tossed them into the pool, before climbing in herself.

It wasn’t a deep pool, no more than a few feet. Salley sank into the water with a sigh, suddenly recalling how nice it felt to bathe. She ducked her head underwater, scrubbing filth out of her hair and the fur on her face.

Eventually she stopped, leaning against the edge of the pool and soaking in silence. It would have been relaxing were it not for the understanding that Rose was sitting on the other side of the room, refusing to speak to her. Suddenly, Salley turned around, resting her arms on the lip of the pool. Her voice was far more definitive than she’d imagined it being. “I guess you hate me now, don’t you.”

She wasn’t sure what possessed her to say that, but somehow, she felt better having done it.

Rose looked up, then down at the floor as she mumbled something under her breath. Salley felt a twinge of annoyance. “Why won’t you just say it to my face? It’d be better for both of us.”

“I said I don’t hate you.” Rose finally spoke up. “I’m … scared of you.”

“That’s not synonymous with hate?”

“No!” Rose shook her head. “But you’re scary. You’re .. really, really scary.”

Salley sighed. “I did it to save you. I didn’t know that was what was going to happen, of course. But I couldn’t let my sister die like that; I had to do something!”

“I know.” Rose whispered.

She shivered. “I just don’t know how to deal with it. What are we going to tell father ..”

“We’re not.” Salley cut her off. “Don’t tell him, you have to promise not to tell him. Please Rose!”

Rose looked so sad, Salley felt guilty. “But Salley .. what if you hurt someone?”

“I won’t. I’ll get it under control, I won’t Bloodwrath again.” Salley leaned forward earnestly, lying with all her might. If she just believed her own lie enough, maybe it would become reality. “I’m not afraid of this, I know I can hold it back. It’s not that bad anyway, I was just really scared when you almost got killed. It was a one-time thing, I swear!”

Rose looked terribly upset. “I .. can’t tell father anyway, not when we’re out here.”

Salley considered pressing the subject, but the silent tears running down he sister’s cheeks made her decide not to.

She returned her attention to getting herself clean.

When she was finally done and had wrung as much water from her clothes as was possible, she pulled the damp things back on her body. The way they clung to her fur was unpleasant, but far better than being caked with swamp filth.

With a sigh, she walked to the door and tried it, finding to no surprise that is was firmly locked.

“Do you know what they’ve done with Tynek? And Dancer and Luna?”

Salley jumped a little at Rose’s voice, as she hadn’t expected her sister to attempt anymore conversation. “Um. I don’t know. Though what they’ve done with Groddil is more concerning.”

Rose stared at her, and Salley shrugged, trying to explain her reasoning better. “He’s the one they attacked. They probably intended to kill him … I wonder why he didn’t use his magic to stop them.”

The more she thought about that, the more it confused her. She paced a little, frowning deeply. “Why didn’t he use his magic to stop them? He could have done it, I’m certain!”

At that moment, the door creaked open. Salley tensed, turning and glaring at the intruder, who blinked back at her.

“You have golden fur!” Sular stared at her, the beginnings of both amazement and terror on his face.

Confused, Salley nodded slowly. “Yeah. Look, everyone I meet seems to say that. I know ..”

He cut her off. “You really do own the Queensword .. you’re the queen!”

“Wha … no!” Salley shook her head. “I’m a farmer’s daughter! At most I’m the daughter of the founder of a tiny backwoods town that no one even knows about. Yes, I have gold fur, but that doesn’t make me the queen of Mossflower.”

“And yet you wield the Queensword and possess Bloodwrath.” Sular was far from convinced.

Frustrated, Salley sighed. “Look, I don’t know about that. But I know who I am, and I’m not a queen.”

Sular looked her up and down, before shaking his head. “Saor will find this .. very interesting. Both of you come with me.”

He turned around, leading them out of the room and into a hall lit by a soft green glow that appeared to come from phosphorescent algae dripping across the walls like slimy garlands.

Rose stayed close behind Salley as they walked; not quite touching her, but as close as she could be without doing so. Salley chose to ignore the hurt of her sister’s fear, and how justifiable it was. Instead she observed their surroundings.

All the walls were naturally formed rock, lit only by the algae garlands, and the floor glistened with a thin layer of water in places. Paintings swirled beautifully across the walls and in places, the ceiling. They depicted fish, swimming otters, and stunning riverscapes.

Sular paused at a door, before leading them inside.

Now Salley could tell this was a natural cave, thanks to the spires of stone dripping from the roof in multicolored, frozen rain. Quickly however, her attention was drawn to the occupants of this room. All her companions were there already, standing before a slightly raised platform with several shell-encrusted chairs on it. Sular walked past Salley and up the steps of the dias, sitting beside a much stronger looking otter.

Salley couldn’t help but notice the otter girl Tullgrew, for she was pointedly glowering at her, as though all of this were somehow Salley’s fault.

Before she thought it through, Salley stuck out her tongue in response. Something that earned her a glare black with hate.

In averting her eyes from the now infuriated Tullgrew, Salley noticed the otter Sular had sat beside. He gaped at her, before turning his gaze to Tynek, then back to her, and so on. He repeated this pattern several times, before he suddenly stood.

“You two. The golden mice. Come here.” He beckoned to them with a scale-clad paw.

Hesitantly, Salley stepped forward, feeling most uncomfortable as Tynek took his place by her side. The otter .. presumably the leader .. shook his head, looking completely dumbfounded.

After a hasty, whispered conversation with Sular, the otter leader stood, towering over them. Then to Salley’s amazement, he bowed slightly, stating, “Please forgive us, young majesties.”

><><

Brome awoke slowly, to the sensation of his face being dragged across a rough surface. Instantly he gasped, cried out, and flailed, digging his claws into the spotless stone floor. He tried to anyway, all he did was leave pitifully thin scratch marks on the cold gray rock.

His captor lifted up by one leg, and he found himself staring into the upside-down face of a creature who’s species he couldn’t be sure of.

No, he was the one hanging upside down.

Brome squeaked, struggling as best he could. “Let me go, let me go!”

The creature laughed, revealing short but sharp-looking fangs. But he did set Brome upright on the ground, before grabbing the rope pinning his arms to his sides and pulling him along with that.

At that point Brome noticed the rope binding both his arms, and the fact they walked along a surprisingly tall stone hallway. He looked behind himself, starting when he saw the creature dragging Jazmine’s limp body.

“No! What did you do to ..” His words were cut short as his captor yanked hard on his bonds, causing him to face-plant into the creature’s side.

“Owww ..” Brome really wanted to cup both paws over his smarting muzzle.

Suddenly, they stopped. Now Brome noticed the cloaked thing that had captured him as it opened a set of massive wooden doors. It walked through, Brome being dragged in next. Despite his predicament, Brome could not help but gape at the massive area he now stood in. Surely his cottage could fit in this room alone!

He staggered as his captor shoved him, crumpling to the stone floor as he was unable to slow his fall in the slightest. A thud next to him was coupled with a groan, signifying Jazmine was beginning to wake up.

“I feel these two may interest you.”

Brek shuddered at the voice, undeniably the flat, dead monotone belonging to the cloaked creature.

He craned his head to look up as soft pawsteps approached him, and stared in awe. A tall creature dressed in shimmering pastel greens stared down at him, his beautiful white fur almost sparkling in the light slanting in from impossibly large windows.

A shining circlet of silver crowned his head of snowy hair, and Brek noticed him looking at Jazmine after giving him a mere glance.

Finally, he spoke. “Fragorl. What is the meaning of this?”

A black female only slightly shorter than he joined him, suddenly grabbing his arm and whispering something in his ear. His yellow eyes widened, before he turned to the cloaked creature, apparently Fragorl. “Is this true?”

It nodded, it’s horrible voice speaking again. “The red one looks exactly like a mark. And I heard you had need of a golden mouse.”

“You are mistaken. Why would I have need of that?” He motioned to the creatures who had dragged Brek and Jazmine in. “You may go. I’ll handle this.”

They bowed, before walking away, and moments later, Brek heard the heavy doors slide closed.

Brek fidgeted in the silence, trying to loosen his bonds, but froze in terror as the white creature stormed towards him.

It wasn’t him he was after however, Brek breathed a sigh of relief as the king stopped in front of the cloaked creature. “That is classified information, not to be spread lightly! I never even told you!”

“I know what I wish to know.” Was the chilling reply.

When the thing in the cloak refused to step back, the white king relented so their noses wouldn’t be touching. He scowled darkly, pausing only as the black female placed her paw in his, whispering into his ear again. She must his wife, Brek decided. That would make her the queen.

Oddly, she didn’t have a crown.

The king slowly nodded in reply to whatever she’d said, before glaring at the cloaked nightmare creature. “We’ll see.”

He motioned to a lanky creature in light armor who stood against a wall. “Hisk? Cut her hair.”

Brek stared in horror as the guard obeyed, walking to a still groggy Jazmine and lifting her by both pony-tails. She whimpered and struggled, and Brek shook his head. “Stop, please! Why are you doing th ….”

A heavy boot connected with his muzzle, and he instantly tasted salty blood. The scraping of metal on metal rang out, and Brek painfully twisted his head around two see the armored creature hack one of Jazmine’s ponytails off just inches from her head with his dagger. He did the same to the remaining one, and Jazmine slumped to the ground, silent tears wetting her cheeks as her shorn hair joined her on the floor.

The king nodded once. “She’ll do. We’ll have to shave that brush off her tail, otherwise Verdauga will know she’s a gerbil.”

“Wait.” The queen spoke audibly for the first time. “First break her arm.”

“What?” Brek wheezed, barely noticing the blood he spat on the floor.

Jazmine struggled to her knees, desperation in her voice. “Please! Don’t, I can be of service! I can cook, clean, sew .. whatever you need done! I won’t be trouble, I swear .. I know you want a slave, and I will serve you!”

The king paused, some unknown emotion flickering in his eyes. Then they hardened again. “I don’t need a slave. I need a substitute. Hisk, do it. Her right one.”

The guard seized Jazmine’s arm, and Brek tried to clamp his paws over his eyes, but realized the were still tightly pinned to his sides. He squeezed his eyes shut in time, but the sickening crack and the scream that followed were burned into his brain forever.

Everything turned into a blur, and suddenly, Brek noticed his sobbing and the tears running from his eyes. He blinked them open in time to see Hisk twist Jasmine’s arm unnaturally again, though this time she barely even whimpered. Again, and even again her arm cracked horribly under his paw, but she just stared blankly at the ground, hanging limply in her tormenters grasp.

Stop! Brek screamed internally. Please stop.

Finally, Hisk dropped Jazmine on the floor, and Brek’s felt sick as he stared into her glassy red eyes, hoping for any sign of life.

All he saw was indescribable pain.

He barely heard the king ask, “What am I to do with this one?”

“He looks much like one of the marks. I thought he might be useful later.” Even in his horrified state, that dead voice still sent a shudder down his spine.

“He’s a kit.” The king snapped back. “What am I to do with a kit?”

He’s going to break my arm too.

Brek felt sick just thinking about it.

A slam brought him back to reality, as did the nearly frantic voice that came with it. “Milord Badrang! Verdauga’s ship has been sighted!”

“What?” The king started forward, before turning to Fragorl. “Get rid of this mess, take it where …”

He paused as he noticed the new guard watching him. “Where it won’t stain my palace. Hisk, throw this kit in the pens. Hurry, we have no time to waste!”

Brek was yanked off the floor and dragged toward the door as the cloaked thing picked up Jazmine’s limp body. He wanted to cry out, to scream at the top of his lungs until someone came to save them. But he knew no one would. No one could.

Brek allowed himself to be dragged through the endless stone halls of the massive building; he didn’t have the will to resist. The terror in his heart was so complete he couldn’t have moved even if he had wanted to.

He couldn’t even cry the tears that hung unshed on his lashes.

Finally, Hisk pulled him through a door that led into the open air, air that smelled of salt. The sun shone down on a dusty, barren landscape, one dotted with half-finished yet still monumental structures.

Brek stared blanky at them, and the endless sky beyond. Not a single tree stood anywhere Brek could see, and the sky was so much more massive than he ever would have imagined. In fact, looking at it for as long as he had started to make him feel sick to his stomach, as if he didn’t already.

Suddenly, Hisk tossed him into a cage sitting in the shadow of the huge tower they had been in only moments ago. Brek hit the dusty earth hard, his muzzle digging a furrow in it.

The door slammed, and then Hisk was gone.

Brek gasped, flopping onto his side just so he wasn’t breathing dust. He blinked, trying to focus on his surroundings so he wouldn’t have to focus on what had just happened. He couldn’t think about what they had done to Jazmine … and as he thought that, his tears flowed again.

Through his blurry vision, he could tell that the cage he lay in now was a large one. A battered roof kept out the sun and hid the dizzying sky though, thankfully.

Suddenly, a paw touched his shoulder, and Brek started horribly, instantly assuming Hisk was back to hurt him. However this paw, while firm, was far gentler than the awful king’s guard’s. It pulled at his bindings until they came loose, and then the creature set him upright.

Brek turned to face his benefactor, blinking at the battered otter smiling lopsidedly at him. “Are you alright?”

For a second, Brek just studied the creature’s kind, weathered face. He was young, but badly scraped up, and the shadows beneath his brown eyes were dark. But Brek found a friend in those eyes, and suddenly threw himself against the otter, wrapping his arms around him and burying his face in the creature’s chest.

The otter started, before stroking Brek’s head. “Hey, kit. It’s ok.”

“No.” Brek’s muffled sob was barely audible to his own ears. “It’s not!”

“Yeah, I know.” Brek relaxed as the otter hugged him. “But you have to keep you chin up kit. Never let them think that you’re broken.”

But he was broken. All he wanted to do was cry and never stop.

“It’s ok.” The otter repeated. “It’ll be ok.”

Brek wanted to let himself believe that.

Eventually, the otter, stood up, dragging Brek onto his paws. “Come with me kit. Let’s get you out of the guard’s sight, it’ll be better for you that way.”

Brek didn’t bother resisting, in fact he clung to the otter, a tiny beacon of hope in his world of madness. He blinked his tears away as best he could, noticing for the first time, the many creatures watching him from the shadows.

Their faces were gaunt and haunting, and while they didn’t look underfed, it was the look in their eyes that scared Brek the most. He’d never imagined living creatures could look so dead inside.

The otter made him sit down against the stone wall that made up the back of the cage and sat beside him. Brek leaned against him, staring blankly at the ground, his thoughts escaping him. They raced madly though his mind as he tried to process what had gone wrong. And what he had done wrong.

“It’s my fault.” Brek mumbled, but the otter patted his shoulder.

“No kit … believe me, it’s not. That’s like me saying it’s my fault I wandered too far while trying to find food for my tribe. No, it’s their fault. What Badrang is doing is despicable.”

Brek snuck a glance upwards, looking into the otter’s eyes. “I just wanted to find my sisters.”

A sudden, awful thought occurred to him, and his stomach twisted as he whispered, “Have you seen them? A golden mouse and a red one like me?”

“No.” The otter kindly assured him. “I would remember anyone with fur like yours. And a golden mouse? I doubt there are any of those left. At very least, they wouldn’t do well here, not after .. well, you know nothing about that anyway.”

Somehow, that didn’t comfort Brek as much as he assumed it was supposed to.

A sudden scraping clank made him look up, to see several guards opening the pen’s door. Brek shrank against the wall and he expected the otter to do the same, but instead he stood.

Brek grabbed his paw, whispering, “What are you doing?”

“It’s my shift. Look, just keep your head down, I’ll be back after sunset.” He quickly pulled away, and Brek shrank against the wall, trying to disappear completely. If he wished hard enough, maybe he actually would be completely erased from existence.

But he couldn’t escape reality this time. No amount of imagined adventures would whisk him away.

Because now he knew what a real adventure felt like.

Brek lay in a curled up heap on the dusty floor of the slave quarters, his eyes swollen from crying. No more tears would come, but he wanted them to. Wallowing in pity seemed far easier than accepting reality.

The chains hanging from all four of his paws couldn’t compare to the crushing weight in his chest.

He heard the guards bring food, he could even smell it, but the thought of eating anything made his stomach heave. He closed his eyes and did his very best to block out the world.

When he opened them again, he was confused by the darkness he lay in. After a few seconds, he understood he must have fallen asleep. Brek didn’t intend to uncurl, but a sudden, loud commotion made him look up out of fear for his own safety.

It wasn’t him who was in trouble, but the nice otter he’d met earlier. The creature trudged into the slave pen, along with several other late workers. For some reason, the guards attacked him straight away, barely giving any of the others a second glace.

“Late again water dog?” One of them shoved him, hard. The otter tripped on the chains around his ankles, and with a clinking, he collapsed to the ground.

The second guard kicked him when he didn’t move to defend himself. “Aw, you must be sore from the beating you got yesterday. Well we’ll do it again.”

“Until you’re too weak to work.” The first guard, a youngish rat sneered down at the creature on the ground. “I wonder how long it’ll take?”

He punctuated this threat with a kick that connected with the otter’s face.

The slave made a muffled sound of pain, and curled up in a protective ball, like he’d been through this many times.

Brek turned to the nearest slave, another mouse. “Why are they doing that?”

“Hush.” The mouse hissed through his teeth. “Better him than me. Don’t draw their attention.”

“But why ..”

“Because he protected another slave from their sick enjoyment of pain. Well now he gets it all. Has way too strong a sense of justice, that one.” The mouse sneered, before slinking away, fading into shadows as dark as his filthy fur.

Brek winced at every blow the otter received, fresh tears forming in his eyes. He just wanted to go home. Suddenly, a new voice rang out. “Hey! What in the name a Hellgates do ya two think yer doin?”

Brek looked up, expecting to witness the brutal punishment of whatever slave was bold enough to defy the guards in such a manner, but blinked in shock instead.

A brown rat, fur speckled in the moonlight stood a few feet away from the scene. He pounded his spear pole against the ground, making a thud and a poof of dust. “I asked. What in the name a Hellgates is goin’ through your addled minds? Eh? Answer me!”

The two shrank back, the young rat muttering, “He .. talked back to us ..”

“Speak up guard! Back straight, eyes forward! Is this how you northern scum address a Captin of the Thousand Eye army?”

Both guards visibly paled, the older weasel standing to attention immediately. “Sir! I beg your forgiveness!”

“And ya shall not have it.” The mottled rat curled his lip. “You soft, undisciplined, violent fools! This slave did nothing to ya, and ya would try an’ deprive yer master, and indirectly Milord Verdauga, of a good, strong otter such as this? He has not spoke a word ‘gainst ya even as ya unjustly cause him pain. Both of ya are held in contempt of the Empire, an’ the King will hear every word of this.”

Brek stared at the rat, his long black cape billowing ever so slightly in the sea breeze, and felt a sliver of hope for the first time that day. If anyone could help him in this wretched place, it was this creature.

The rat turned to a guard dressed similarly to him, who had joined the group a little later. “I want these scum imprisoned fer misconduct. We’ll see what Lord Greeneyes has to say about ‘em in the mornin’.”

“No .. please ..” The weasel guard fell to his knees, only to be kicked by the rat in the cape.

“On yer paws filth. Face yer fate with a little honor at least. Scum.”

As the two guards were dragged away, the rat captian looked down at the otter. “Are you alright?”

“I will be ..” His reply was slight muffled. “Thank you sir ..”

“Capt’n.” The rat corrected him. “How long have they done this sort of thing ta ya?”

The otter slowly got to his feet. “Several weeks captain.”

A dark look of anger crossed the rat’s face. “They will be severely punished for this crime. And you will have several days to rest.”

“Thank you sir .. captain.”

The rat nodded shortly. “No need ta thank me. I did my duty, as any truly loyal soldier would.”

With that, he resumed his inspection, and the kind otter limped over to the wall of the pen, sitting painfully against it, before closing his eyes. Brek turned his attention to the rat, hope flaring within him. This guard cared about justice … he could help save Jazmine!

Before properly thinking it through, Brek scrambled onto his paws, running after the rat and grabbing his arm. “Please captain sir ….”

Something smacked him in the shoulder and collarbone, hard. Brek stumbled back, falling on his rear and blinking up at the guard to find he was staring at the blunt end of a spear.

“What do you think you’re doing slave? You better explain this well.” The rat sounded completely disgusted. “Any other creature would’a used the blade.”

Tears formed in Brek’s eyes again at the unfairness of it all.

“Why won’t you help me? You helped him!” Brek indicated his otter friend, who was gaping at him, features rather pale.

The captain scowled. “Slave. I stopped a wrong-doin’. I’m not here ta be yer mommy and give ya a bedtime kiss. Now ya’d do well ..”

“I don’t want a bedtime kiss!” Brek protested. “They broke my friend’s arm for no reason! She never fought them, she even told them she would serve without question, but they broke her arm!”

At this, the angry look on the captain’s faded. “Those two guards? Do not worry, they’ll suffer a lot more’n a broken arm.”

“No, it was the white king and the queen! They did it to her, and they said they needed a substitute, not a slave!”

Now the captain looked more confused than anything else. “Uh .. white king? Queen? Do ya mean …. Lord Badrang?” Brek nodded quickly. “Yes! One of the guards called him that. He had her hair cut and he said they’d have to shave her tail so somebody called Verdauga wouldn’t know she was a gerbil and then he broke …”

“Verdauga?” The captain snapped to attention. “Badrang is trying to trick the King of a Thousand Eyes? Impossible.”

However his eyes were less certain than his confident words.

“Please!” Brek begged. “You have to do something! We never did anything wrong, we ..”

“I don’t have ta do nothing.” The captain interrupted him, before pausing and asking, “What did this friend of yours do to get Badrang’s attention?”

Brek shook his head. “She didn’t! I promise she didn’t. We were just circus performers, and we were captured by this awful cloaked thing! And then ..”

“Stop.” The captain held up a paw. “Ya ain’t makin’ a lick a sense. What does this friend of yours look like?”

“She’s got fur like sunshine, it’s golden. And her eyes are red. And she’s a gerbil but they wanted to make her look like a mouse …”

This time the captain didn’t interrupt him, but he trailed off of his own accord when he got a good look at the rat’s face. It was stunned, and his dark eyes were wide as he blinked down at Brek. “You say she has red eyes? Do ya mean she’s got … Bloodwrath?”

Brek felt confused at this. “What’s that?”

The captain shook his head. “Nevermind. Look, swear on all things holy an otherwise that yer tellin’ me the full truth. Badrang said he wanted her for a substitute, not a slave?”

“Uh .. yeah, but I can’t swear. My dad says ..”

Brek’s teeth rattled in his head as the captain shook him. “Just promise me that ya ain’t lyin’ kit!”

“I woudn’t!” Brek protested.

The rat glared at him. “A lot of creatures in yer place would.”

At this, Brek got the point. “I promise! I’m only telling you the truth!”

The captain released his iron grip on Brek’s shoulder, before nodding. “Ya’d better be. And look me in the eye kit … keep yer head down. I might just have ta come talk ta ya again. So stay alive, obey orders without question, do ya understand?”

Brek nodded quickly, and the captain gave him a final glare. “Yer a lucky little mouse, ta have run inta me. Don’t tell anyone else what you’ve told me taday. I swear ….. that is, I promise they won’t be half so kind about it.”

><><

Salley stared up at the otter-king. “Majesties?”

She snuck a glance at Tynek, to find he looked even more confused than she did. Salley took a deep breath, stepping in front of her silent look-a-like … he managed to be even more quiet than her.

“Sir. I know we are golden mice, and I know we look similar, and I know that apparently my sword is an artifact of Old Mossflower ..” She paused, adding, “And I know I have Bloodwrath. But I know where I came from, and I’m a Voh, I’m not a queen!”

Salley shrugged after the first few moments of awkward silence. “I’ll not speak for him.”

Tynek shook his head no, mumbling something under his breath, but made no effort to be heard.

The otter leader frowned deeply, before shaking his head. “I do not care what you say. I knew Martin, the old king. And I know the two of you may as well be his reflection.”

Salley shrugged again, finding no real excuse. He made some fair points.

But she was a Voh!

So she was right then, her father must be related to king Martin of Mossflower. Her grandfather married the king’s sister, or cousin .. or something like that. She’d have to search the history books farther.

“What are your names?” The otter king crossed his arms, looking deeply confused.

“I’m Salley Voh.” Salley supplied, before looking at Tynek expectantly.

At first he did nothing, staring back with a blank look on his face. Then sudden realization shone in his brown eyes and he looked up at the otter king. “I’m Tynek, sir.”

His voice was just loud enough to be heard.

“No family name?”

“No sir.” Tynek confirmed it, though he didn’t look the otter in the eye for more than a few seconds at a time. Almost randomly he suddenly added, “I mean, my father had one but I can’t remember ..”

His words trailed off into indiscernible muttering.

“Who was your father?” The otter king pressed.

Tynek looked lost in thought, before suddenly stating, “He was kind and had golden fur. But I can’t remember anything else.”

The otter frowned. “No name?”

“No sir.” Again Tynek paused, before stating, “I know he had one, of course. But I can’t remember ….”

Again he trailed off into silence, as if that were an acceptable end to a sentence.

After a moment, the otter king uncrossed his arms, bowing slightly. “Well, at very least the two of you bear a striking resemblance to the old king, so much so you will be unable to convince me you aren’t related in some way. I am Saor, leader of holt Willow. This is my brother Sular, and the girl giving you a death glare is my niece, Tullgrew.”

A look of surprise flashed in her eyes as she quickly pretended to look in the opposite direction.

Serves her right. Salley couldn’t help but think it.

“Now.” Saor’s voice brought her back to the situation at paw. “What are three young mice doing in the swamp with a fox, a pegasus, and two horses?”

Tynek made no move to speak, so with a sigh, Salley resolved to do it for him. “We needed to save him.”

She pointed at Tynek. “Groddil was protecting us from Necromancers, when we found Tynek near a fort of some kind, badly injured. We escaped through the swamp and met Luna, the pegasus …”

“Wait, outside a fort? Do you mean the one belonging to the Greeneyes?”

“I don’t ..” Salley begain, but Groddil interrupted her.

“If I may speak?”

Saor gave him an unenthused look, before nodding. “You may.”

Groddil nodded his thanks. “Yes, the fort belongs to the Greeneyes. But more importantly, I went in to spy on them. And I overheard guards speaking of Verdauga himself, that he was coming to the north to subjugate it once and for all.”

The look of Saor’s face was enough to let Salley know how frightened he was. In fact she could feel his fear itching at the back of her eyeballs.

She rubbed her eyes in hopes of clearing her head, and to her relief, it worked.

“Tell me this isn’t so.” The despair in his voice was evident.

Luna spoke up in her soft, calming way. “He speaks the truth.”

Saor placed a paw over his forehead, and Sular stood up and walked to his brother’s side. “We knew this day would come.”

“I know, I just prayed it wouldn’t.” Saor groaned. “How foolish of me. First my son, and now the entire holt.”

Salley could feel the thick mix of emotions in the room, swirling and tangling darkly. Dancer spoke for the first time, asking, “Sir, please let us go. We must warn our village, and there’s a long road ahead of us.”

“Yes and could you give us my father’s cart back?” Rose asked hopefully. “Tynek really cannot be walking very far on his own yet.”

The look of utter defeat in Saor’s eyes hurt Salley more than she expected it too.

His sigh seemed to come from the deepest part of his being. “Yes. You may leave.”

“Do you have a son named Kaylar?”

Salley turned her head, blinking at Tynek as he spoke what very well might have been his first involuntary sentence.

Saor stared at him, and his voice sounded dry. “How do you know that?”

“He was kind to me back in Marshank. He told me he was a prince. I guess I didn’t believe him until now.” Tynek stated the facts rather bluntly, Salley felt.

“Is he alive?”

Tynek shook his head. “I do not know. It’s been too long since I left … anything might have happened.”

At this, Saor nodded, the shock settling in. Sular spoke for him. “Thank you for telling us.”

Salley noticed Groddil looking at her intently, and suddenly his words about her needing an army came to mind. She looked back at the otter brothers, realizing how war-like these creatures already were. Their help could be invaluable.

But what could she really say to convince them? Join me and I’ll save your son? No, that would be a promise she might not be able to keep. If I’m really the queen, follow me? That would never work.

“Um ..” Salley began awkwardly, forcing herself to speak, though she wasn’t even sure of what to say. “I’m .. considering making an army to fight him. This Badrang creature, that is.”

The silence was deafening. Rose broke it. “You are? You aren’t! Father wouldn’t ever be ok with that!”

Salley ignored her sister. “If I’m really a queen, that’s part of my job. Making armies to stop evil. So … maybe you could join me?”

Every piece of her screamed in protest at that statement.

“You want to make an army. How? Our numbers are in no way strong enough to face Badrang, and the north is peaceful.” Sular shook his head. “I agree with the sentiment, just not the logic.”

Saor suddenly spoke again. “Stay the night with us. We can discuss things in more detail, and see if there is any way for use to actually counter him. I must get Kaylar back.”

Salley snuck a glance at Groddil, who nodded subtly. She turned her attention back to Saor and Sular. “We will stay.”



Chapter 13Edit

Brek never left his place against the wall in the dark shadows. He couldn’t sleep after the rat captain had left, so he tucked his legs against his chest and hugged them. It made him feel slightly less alone.

The nice otter had fallen asleep as soon Brek set back down. It was nice to know that someone cared, but Brek really did want that bedtime kiss, despite how grownup he’d been feeling just hours before.

He wondered what the Wandering Rubies would do. He wondered if he’d ever see his home again. His thoughts were so dark, they terrified him. He hoped that dying wouldn’t hurt as much as he guessed it would.

He laid his head on his knees, closing his eyes.

Brek blinked them open to misty morning light, and harsh voices of guards. A sudden pang of hunger lanced through his stomach, and he clamped his paws over his midriff. Now he truly regretted not eating any supper last night.

Something was plopped on the ground beside him, a bowl of what looked to be thin, poorly cooked gruel. He could even see the burned lumps floating in it.

Brek felt the inclination to gag, but felt just as strongly the urge to scarf it down. He gave in to the later.

He wiped his mouth off with the back of his paw, and looked up at his kind otter friend. “Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.” One of the otter’s eyes had a deep purple bruise around it, dark enough to show through his brown fur.

Again, he sat next to Brek and leaned against the wall behind them, before tilting his head back and looking at the roof. Brek followed suit, noticing the early morning light sifting through the thin cracks between the boards.

The otter sighed, and Brek looked at him, realizing for the first time that he didn’t know the other creature’s name. “Um, what’s your name?”

“Kaylar.” The otter supplied. “What’s yours?”

“Brek.”

Kaylar studied his face for a moment, before nodding. “It fits you well kit .. er, Brek.”

“Yeah. Mom named me for the freckles.” Brek managed a weak smile. It was the best he could do.

Kaylar smiled back, just as thinly but arguably more distortedly, thanks to the lump on one side of his jaw.

The silence between them was quickly broken as a rat in the guards’ uniform stomped over to them and grabbed Brek’s shoulder, digging his short but sharp claws in. “Get up! What’re ya waitin’ for, an invitation?”

Confused but terrified, Brek scrambled onto his paws, and the guard shoved him toward the door. Another guard stood just outside it, and as Brek was dragged outside of the pen, this creature clamped a set of manacles around both his ankles.

Brek stumbled as he was shoved into a line of bedraggled slaves, barely managing to keep himself upright.

One of the guards slammed the door to the pen shut, and the line of slaves moved forward, along the wall that was the base of the towering keep. Brek got the idea that they were all being lead off to be executed, and he looked around, hoping to find the only reasonable guard in this place.

But he couldn’t see the black cloaked rat anywhere. In fact, he was beginning to believe he was a specter from his imagination. That was until he rounded the corner. And almost lost what little breakfast he’d eaten.

Those were heads. On sticks, not bodies.

Brek clamped his paws over his mouth, staring pointedly at the ground as he was forced to walk by the grizzly spectacle. He’d gotten the smallest glance, but he was certain the heads looked like the two who had abused Kaylar the previous evening.

Do what you’re told, do what you’re told and that won’t happen to you.

Brek promised himself this over and over.

Keep your head down, just like he said. He cares about justice, he’ll help you. He’ll help Jazmine!

Brek swallowed his tears this time, though he wanted to cry so badly it hurt.

“Hey, slave! Quit standin’ around!”

Brek yelped as a crack split the air and something stung one of his ears. He stared up at the rat with the whip in stunned terror, and the guard sneered at him. “What’s yer problem mouse? Get movin!”

He raised the whip again, but Brek stumbled away, ear smarting sharply. Brek quickly saw that while he’d been so intently studying the ground, he’d walked over to one of the half-built structures. Which upon closer inspection looked like part of a wall.

Slaves milled about in it’s shadow, most carrying stones from a cart to those who were actually fitting the wall together.

“What are ya waiting for?”

Brek cried out as the guard’s whip bit into his shoulder and back. “Git ta carryin’ rocks!”

Brek stumbled towards the cart as quickly as he could, stumbling over the chains constricting his legs several times.

When he neared the stone filled cart, he couldn’t help but stop to stare at the horse. If it even was a horse.

It had wings! Well .. one wing, to be exact. Brek couldn’t take his eyes off the pitiful stub that must have once sported a wing just as large and pretty as the remaining limb.

“Kit.” He blinked, looking into the horse’s face for the first time.

She tossed her head. “It’s rude to stare. Start working before you get more lashes.”

Instantly, Brek grabbed his slowly bleeding shoulder, before ducking his head and reaching for one of the stones.

He’d known it would be heavy, but picking it up was nearly impossible. Brek staggered along, struggling with the weight of the jagging rock as it’s edges dug into his arms and chest. Involuntary tears sprang into his eyes, and his legs threatened to buckle with every step, but he didn’t let his burden go.

Keep your head down. Follow the rules and it will be ok. If you drop this rock …… they’ll kill you.

Thinking like that was all that kept him going.

He made it through what had to have been several hours of grueling labor, before his exhausted arms gave way for the first time. He grabbed the rock, heaving back against his chest and continuing on. If the guards did notice, they did nothing, but Brek hated the idea of taking that chance again.

He couldn’t help it. Several loads later, he finally collapsed. He tried to struggle upright again, but the claim that mind was over matter failed him, and he crumpled to the ground completely.

With no trees to shade him, the sun burned hotter than he’d ever thought possible. He heard the guard’s whip crack above his head and curled into the smallest ball possible, letting his tears flow.

But no pain came, instead another voice rang out. “Stand down!”

For a moment, Brek hoped it was the rat captain, but as he cracked open his eyes, he saw that wasn’t the case.

None other than Hisk stood over him, and Brek whimpered as the weasel grabbed him by his shirt collar, jerking him onto his feet.

“P .. please .. it’s just too heavy ..” Brek sobbed, only to have a metal clad paw cuffed over his ears.

“Shut up slave!”

The urgency and fear lacing Hisk’s voice was undeniable, and more confusing than anything. He sounded almost as scared as Brek felt. Hisk dragged him away from the construction site, and Brek stumbled along behind him, sobbing, “Please! Please don’t kill me! I .. I didn’t disobey, I just ..”

Hisk smacked him again. “I said shut up! And by Hellgates quit crying!”

Brek swallowed down his sobs in a hiccup, falling silent as he could tell Hisk meant every word.

He could see they were approaching a sizeable group of creatures, and Brek panicked even more.

They’re going to kill me they’re going to kill me they’re going to kill me …..

Brek’s tears started afresh, but this time he kept them silent.

Hisk pushed him in front of the heavily guarded group, and he instantly noticed the white king, or Badrang, as others had called him. Brek stumbled to a halt in front of a creature unlike any he had seen before, and all he could do was gape in wonder.

He’d never seen anyone so tall. Golden brown fur dappled with brown stripes, regal finery far better than Badrang’s, cropped black hair and mesmerizing green eyes … this creature was completely overwhelming.

“Bow slave! Show respect for your king!”

Brek cried out as Hisk forcefully pushed him to the ground, and he landed at the green-eyed creature’s feet. He didn’t attempt to move.

“Are you certain my son? This one will not be the easiest to train.”

The voice was deep, powerful, and weathered, like a tree that had withstood countless winters.

“Please father. I am the prince of the greatest kingdom to rise, and I come from the greatest line of conquerors to exist. I am your son. If I am going to do this, I want a challenge. The harder the fight, the greater the victory, is that not correct?”

This voice sounded far younger, and even slightly snooty, though that wasn’t quite the word Brek was looking for. Perhaps it was over-confident. Slightly too over-confident to be genuine.

There was a pause, and the older creature spoke. “I like to hear that son. Badrang, Gingivere will take this one.”

“Ah .. my king, you are of course welcome to any slave in my pens but .. this one is so young! And weak .. and perhaps there would be others more suited for the prince’s needs ..”

“Are you saying I am not up to the task?” The voice sounded even more snooty than before.

Badrang quickly countered this. “No! No my prince, never! I beg your forgiveness majesties, I merely thought ..”

“I don’t need you to think about this Badrang.” The weathered voice spoke again. “I need you to obey. Is that clear?”

“Yes my king .. I am sorry.” Brek could feel the fear in Badrang’s voice.

It didn’t comfort him one bit.

“Slave.”

It took a moment for Brek to understand the green-eyed creature was speaking to him, but when he did, he slowly looked up, trembling all over.

Those green eyes were piercing and brilliant, almost too green to be natural. Even Rose’s eyes seemed dull in comparison. “You are my son’s property from this day forward, and you will obey his every order, do you understand?”

Brek couldn’t keep from shaking as he looked up at the prince, expecting to see the twisted, cruel face of a monster, a face just as commanding and scary as his fathers. But the creature that looked down at him confused him. His countenance wasn’t specifically unkind .. it wasn’t specifically anything. Just blank and empty, overlaid with an air of importance that somehow didn’t reach the prince's light green eyes.

Something blunt smacked Brek over the head, and Hisk snarled at him. “Answer your king slave!”

“Badrang, tell your guard to stop hitting my slave.” The prince snapped. “I’d appreciate if you left that up to me.”

Hisk instantly backed down, and Brek felt even more fear of this prince and king, creatures who made Badrang and his guards tremble.

The king looked down at Brek, shaking his head. “Most beg me for mercy as soon as they look at me. Why are you so silent, are you unnaturally brave or simply stupid .. don’t you know who I am?”

Understanding that he was expect to answer, Brek stammered, “N .. no sir.”

A disgusted look twisted the king’s harsh features, and he turned to glare at Badrang. “Look at this. I send you to claim the north as my kingdom, and yet here is a kit ..”

He paused. “Slave, are you from the north?”

“Y .. yes sir … I’m a chieftain’s son ..” Brek wasn’t sure he should have added that last bit, but it came involuntarily.

The king growled at Badrang. “And yet here is a kit of the north, worse yet, the son of a chieftain, who has not yet heard the great name of Verdauga Greeneyes? You are a pitiful excuse for a vassal.”

Badrang seemed to shrink.

Silence stretched long and foreboding until the prince spoke again. “Whegg, take my slave to my quarters. And see that he is clean.”

“You must do something about that hair.” The green-eyed king spoke as though Brek’s hair was an unbearable eye-sore.

“Of course. Whegg, see the slave has a haircut.”

“I’ll need a shears for a mess like that, my prince.”

Brek froze. He knew that voice, and a frightened peek confirmed his thoughts. The black cloaked rat captain walked over to him, gently tapping him with a booted footpaw. “Come on slave. Up on yer feet.”

Brek just gaped up at him, wanting to ask what was going on, but was completely unable to form words. The rat grabbed him by the collar, hoisting him onto his paws and prodding him away from the group of nobility.

When they were out of sight, Brek stammered, “Wh .. what are you doing?”

“Shut up kit. I’m .. we’re .. saving your carrot-colored hide.”

Brek allowed the captain to pull him into a side entrance of the giant building Brek had come to think of as a palace. They traveled through halls and up multiple staircases, until they reached a sturdy-looking door, which the captain opened with a key hanging from his belt.

This room really was a palace. And as the captain shoved him farther in, Brek could see it wasn’t even a single room, but several. Like a miniature palace, the rooms had arching ceilings, massive windows, and wall hangings that stared eerily back at the viewer.

There was a click as the captain locked the door behind them, before he motioned that Brek should come closer. Hesitantly he did, and the captain selected a simple key from the ring full of them, and quickly unlocked the manacles around Brek’s ankles. Then he pushed him into an adjacent room from the main one and forced him to sit down on a simple wooden chair, before he started to pull at his hair.

“Kit, ya better not have fleas.”

“Ew!” Brek couldn’t help that involuntary response. “I’ve never had fleas, that’s gross!”

“Aw, shut up kit.” The captain sounded annoyed. Brek wondered if he’d ever had fleas.

Nevertheless, the captain checked his scalp and the fur around the base of his ears closely, before relenting that Brek was the cleanest slave he’d ever laid eyes on.

After several attempts using various tools, he finally settled to cutting Brek’s hair with his dagger and grumbled about it the entire time. When he was satisfied, he made Brek sweep up the mess while he had someone run a bath.

Bathed, groomed, and wearing a simple gray tunic the captain had given him, Brek stood in front of a mirror, staring at his reflection.

His unruly curls were cropped close to his head, giving them a strange, almost solid look. He poked at his hair in amazement as the captain tossed a belt at him, ordering him the put it on.

It turned out to be several sizes too big, and the captain stared at him for a minute, before sighing. “I’m gonna have ta get ya fitted fer some proper clothes. We won’t be able ta take ya anywhere lookin’ like that.”

“But ..” Brek finally dared to ask the question that had been plaguing him all day. “What about Jazmine?”

“Yeah, I’m workin’ on that.”

“But ….” Brek paused, before stating, “You’ve been here with me.”

“I have eyes an’ ears in many places, kit.”

Brek studied the captain in confusion, noticing only his normal eyes and ears. “Um ..”

The rat seemed to guess what he was thinking. “An’ no, I don’t mean that literally, as in my physical eyes. I mean I have plenty a creatures ta see fer me. Now come with me, I’m gonna teach ya what you’ll need ta know. So pay attention!”

He emphasized the last bit as he noticed Brek’s gaze had strayed back to the mirror and his shorn hair.

Brek quickly obeyed, before following the captain out into the main room. Several upholstered chairs set near a window and a low table, and some shelves with a small collection of books lined a wall while a fire place filled most of the other.

“Yer only duty in this room is ta clean it, unless the prince gives ya a specific order.”

A long table filled one corner of the room, and the captain nodded to it. “You’ll also serve the prince dinner there.” He indicated a door in the wall. “That’s the Prince’s bedroom, you’ll make his bed, set out his clothes, bring him his breakfast if he so desires ..”

At this the captain rolled his eyes, before finishing, “And keep everythin’ generally tidy. An’ you’ll obey any order the prince or me gives ya, understand?”

Brek nodded, though he really didn’t comprehend why the prince wouldn’t do at least some of that himself. The captain seemed satisfied with this, before he walked toward the door leading out into the rest of the castle.

“Where .. are you going?” Brek asked, confused.

“Back ta my prince, of course.” The captain opened the door, walking out into the hall. “Don’t touch anythin’ or there will be consequences.”

He pulled the door shut, and Brek heard the lock click into place. He remained where he was for a few minutes, before wandering about the rooms for a while. The upholstered chairs looked very inviting to his tired eyes, but sleeping in one probably counted as touching something.

So for lack of better options, Brek lay down on the rug in the center of the floor, tucking himself into a small, fluffy ball and closing his eyes.

Already, it had been a long day.

><><

Travel was much easier when not in the swamp; by what Salley could guess, they’d traveled twice as far in one day when not having to worry about warping time and wading through disgusting mud.

“We’re going to have to improve your recruitment speech.”

Salley turned her head to look at Groddil, riding Stargazer beside Luna. The pegasus had been kind enough to make a habit of giving her a ride every day.

Salley shrugged. “It’s not like I had a ton of help.”

She couldn’t keep the edge out of her voice. Groddil sighed, looking away. After a moment, he looked at her again. “I’m sorry. I’m supposed to be the .. voice of wisdom about this, I suppose. You just .. don’t understand what seeing you like that did to me.”

His voice faded away as he muttered, “It was him all over again.”

“I’m sorry, ok?” Salley decided to ignore Groddil’s last statement. “It’s not like I asked to be a unstable monster that feeds off fear.”

“Yes I .. realize that.” Groddil sighed heavily. “And if you’ll forgive me, I intend to do all I can to help you.”

Salley’s ears perked up. “You mean you’ll continue my sword lessons?”

Groddil looked uncomfortable but nodded. “Yes, even that.”

Luna tossed her head, speaking in her quiet voice. “If I may be of service, perhaps I can help Salley learn to face her fear. According to Rose I have quite a calming presence.”

“You really do.” Salley promised quickly.

“That is a good idea.” Groddil nodded his approval. “Meeting with Holt Willow made me understand that time is short. I cannot shrink from my duty any longer .. none of us can. And if we are to work together as we should .. some things must be taken care of.”

He looked back at the others as he said this, and Salley knew what he meant. “Right. Dancer .. probably doesn’t hate me. Not really. And I can’t blame her. Rose already said she was just scared.”

Groddil looked ahead once more. “From now on, we must not let fear guide us.”

He shrugged. “I’m guilty of it too. Luna, thank you for being calm about this whole .. situation.”

“It seems to be a gift.” Luna smiled, though she didn’t look at him.

“Do you think the Holt Willow otters will fight with us?” Salley asked suddenly, adding, “Even after my horrible speech?” Groddil shrugged. “If we can provide more forces, I believe so. Saor wants his son back, no motivation could be greater.”

“Do you think he’s right? About me not being able to find enough creatures?”

Salley looked down at the map the otter king had given her, the one she’d been studying all morning, trying to decide whether it would be helpful or not. “And .. do you think this has any merit?”

“I do not know. He seemed sure they existed.” Luna said hopefully.

“Dragons exist.” Groddil said it grimly. “Saor is right about that at least. I have not seen any in the north, but dragons are as real as you an me.”

Salley winced at his tone. “You .. don’t seem happy about it.”

Groddil set his face. “Dragons have a way of being troublesome creatures. I wish we did not have to bring those three along.”

“They are a liability in some situations. Though Rose is a reasonable cook.” Luna agreed. “And if you can handle the dragons, I can protect them.”

“Actually, you’re of the myth species.” Groddil pointed out. “Are you sure we can’t switch those rolls? I feel like you may make far more headway than me, a fox.”

Luna tilted her head, before nodding. “Perhaps you are right about that. Very well, should we find them, me and Salley will try making peace.”

“Maybe just you.” Salley shook her head nervously. “If I get too scared ..”

“Alright, point taken.” Luna tossed her head. The day wore away in more silent travel, and when night started to fall, plunging the woodlands into deep shadows, Groddil called a halt.

For the first time in weeks, the entire group sat around their fire, and while not much was said, Salley felt things might actually return to normal. As normal as they could, anyway. Rose sat with Tynek as usual, something Salley had started to take note of. Her sister kept trying to get him to talk.

Good luck with that. Salley snorted mentally. Tynek was about as talkative as a rock.

Suddenly, Salley looked up as Dancer sat down next to her, muttering, “Sorry.”

“I don’t care if you sit here.” Salley sighed.

“No. I meant sorry for being difficult about this. I get that it’s not your fault.”

“Oh.” Salley looked up at her friend, before shrugging. “I guess it’s fine. I am pretty terrifying.”

“Yeah.” Dancer rubbed her muzzle against Salley’s cheek. “But you’re my best friend. You always have been, and I realize you’re going to need help. Partners in crime again?”

Salley laughed, before reaching up and rubbing Dancer’s forehead. “Always. Someone has to make Helena suffer.”

She suddenly froze as her paw touched something hard protruding from between Dancer’s eyes. “Uh … Dancer ..”

Salley yelped and pulled her paw back as the thing pricked her deep enough to draw a thin stream of blood. “You’ve got something on your forehead.”

Dancer tossed her head up comically, trying to see. “Where? Where? Aggh I knew my head itched, I knew I had some horrible disease! Someone find me a mirror, quick!”

Rose pulled one from her satchel and handed it to Salley, who held it up for Dancer’s benefit. The horse studied herself for a moment, before snorting. “I don’t see anything ..”

“No!” Salley reached up, pressing her friend’s foofy mane flat against her head. Sure enough, sparkling in the firelight was a glossy obsidian nub sprouting from the exact center of Dancer’s face. Salley stared dumbly at it. “Er .. I don’t think that’s normal.”

“Aaaaagggghh!”

Dancer scrambled backwards, horror written all over her face as she neighed loudly in dismay. The older creatures looked up in surprise as Dancer half-bucked around the perimeter of their campsite, yelling all the way.

“What’s going on?” Luna pinned her ears, turning her head this way and that as Dancer continued whinnying.

She slid to a stop beside Salley, sobbing, “My face is ruined! My beautiful face! I’m hideous! Hideous!”

Surprised silence answered her, and Dancer wailed, “I have a horn growing out of my face!! What cruel illness is this??”

“It’s not.” Stargazer sounded droll. “You simply happen to be a unicorn.”

Dancer stared at him in shock, before bursting into tears. “You mean it won’t go away? Noooooooo! My beautiful face!”

Stargazer huffed. “It’s not that bad.”

Dancer sniffed, shaking her head so her mane covered her horn again. “Well, I suppose so. I can hide it at least.”

“Actually ..” Salley began, “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but unicorns can have horns over a foot long, and they never stop growing.”

Dancer gaped at her, before bucking, wailing, and flopping to the ground in almost the same movement. “I’ll be hideous! Unbearably ugly! I’ll never find a boyfriend, ever! It’s so horrible!”

“No need to be so dramatic.” Groddil promised. “Unicorns are a beautiful and distinguished species, and many horses would wish to find themselves in your .. supposed predicament.”

“But .. but, my face …” Dancer sniffed.

“I think it’s pretty.” Rose piped up.

Salley nodded, before asking, “Still, how can you be a unicorn? This is .. crazy!”

“I know!” Dancer mourned. “I’m a horse! Ok, so I don’t technically know who my real parents are … but what are the chances?”

“Very slim.” Salley confirmed. “All the books I’ve read say unicorns are nearly extinct and the ones that are left are not purebloods.

So maybe that means your horn won’t get as long as a pureblood unicorn?” Dancer shifted upright, until she was laying normally, her legs tucked beneath her. She sighed miserably, tucking her head against her chest. “I can hope.”

“I mean .. now we know why you heal from wounds so quickly.” Salley pointed out. Stargazer nodded. “And why you’re so fast, why you don’t tire easily.”

“Mmmph.” Dancer didn’t look up. Stargazer rolled his eyes.

Salley shook her head, wondering aloud. “I wonder where you really came from, don’t you? I mean .. the only records I’ve really found on unicorns had to do with Old Mossflower … do you think our families came from the same place?”

Rose interrupted before Dancer could speak. “We came from this Mossflower place?”

“Yes Rose.” Salley sighed. “And apparently the Voh’s had some status as well. Why else would creatures randomly recognize us?”

“Well, I suppose that’s true.” Rose relented. “It’s so strange to think about though.” Salley slouched against the log behind her back, sighing, “It kind of is.”

Their discussion fizzled out, and Rose went back to holding a one-sided conversation with Tynek. The Prophets also conversed, but it faded into the crackling fire and chirping of insects. A part of Salley really wanted to join their talk, out of curiosity if nothing else. But after a full day of travel, she simply closed her eyes and let sleep pull her away.

Salley awoke feeling refreshed for the first time in awhile. Having the conversation that she had with the others had finally put her mind to rest… at least for the most part. At least they didn’t hate her as much as she had thought they might.

They were just scared. She really couldn’t blame them.

The chirping and twittering of birds was a welcome sound, compared with the unnatural humming silence of the swamp. If she never set foot in that creepy swamp with it’s spectral wailing and ghost armies, she would be quite happy.

She suddenly realized she was awake before any of the others, something that surprised her. Apparently the ‘early to bed’ proverb her mother had always scolded her with had some merit.

Even Luna still slept, her ethereal white wings wrapped around her in a surprisingly fluffy shroud.

A sudden scurrying sound made Salley crane her head around as she looked over the log that had served as her pillow. The forest looked strange upside down.

Some of the undergrowth rustled, and Salley sat upright. A bird perhaps? But it somehow seemed … bigger.

“Hello?” Salley asked it softly.

The rustling stopped.

She carefully stood, jostling Rose a little as she did. Her sister mumbled, blinking up at her. “What …?”

“Shh!” Salley whispered. “There’s something out there.”

At this, Rose came fully awake. “More Necromancers?”

The terror in her voice was evident. Salley shook her head, not taking her gaze off of the shrubbery. “I don’t think so. Groddil and Luna would be up already.”

“Mmm .. why would I be up?” Luna stood with a faint rustling, as always, shockingly silent for her size.

“Oh, there’s something in the forest nearby.” Salley explained. “But if it were a Necromancer you’d have woken up, I’m sure.”

Luna paused, before nodding. “Most likely. And I feel none nearby.”

Rose relaxed, though Salley found the ‘Most likely’ part a little frightening. However, Luna was sniffing the air, and a look of confusion settled on her face.

“You’re right though, there is a creature nearby. On I’ve never smelled before.”

She daintily stepped over a log, keeping her ears trained of the forest beyond. “I can still hear it .. it’s trying to be sneaky.” “Does it mean us harm?” Rose asked worriedly.

Luna shook her head. “That I do not know. However it doesn’t sound very large, so I’m not unduly concerned.”

Salley picked up her sword from it’s place beside her just in case.

“Ugg, what’s going on?” Groddil stirred, looking and sounding stiff.

Luna quickly filled him in, and Salley kept her eye trained on the surrounding woods. She was almost certain she could she flicks of motion out of the corners of her eye now and then, though they always ceased when she looked directly at them.

“Do you think it’s another Prophet?” Luna’s excited question brought Salley’s attention back to the conversation at paw.

Groddil shook his head. “I feel no strong presence.”

“But don’t you feel something? I do, I just can’t quite describe it.” Luna insisted.

Groddil looked at her for a moment, a puzzled expression on his face. “I’m .. not sure.”

Stargazer and Tynek had woken up, and joined the group in their intent watch of the woodlands. Though Salley was almost certain Tynek had no idea what was going on; he never did.

Salley’s stomach growled, and she tore her gaze away from the woods in favor of looking for breakfast since nothing seemed to be happening.

She froze. Something .. wasn’t quite right.

It took a moment for her food-deprived brain to comprehend what she was looking at. Then it hit her .. satchels didn’t float.

“Hey, look!” Salley exclaimed, pointing.

Everyone wheeled around in the same moment, and Groddil summed up what they all were thinking. “What in the Land’s Beyond ..”

The satchel bolted off into the woods.

“Wait!” Salley yelled, throwing herself after it, despite the yells of warning from behind her. That was her satchel, with her books!

Branches and undergrowth tore at her fur, but she crashed through it blindly, desperate to reclaim her belongings. “Those are mine!”

The satchel paused momentarily, and Salley was sure the air around it distorted, forming the vague outline of a creature, one unlike any she had laid eyes on. “Please! Those are my books! You can’t have them, I need them!”

For a second, Salley held hope that she would actually be able to tackle the thief. She threw herself at the satchel, but it sped off, leaving her to collapse face-first into the loam of the forest floor.

Salley groaned, spitting out leaves as firm paws pulled her upright, shaking her in the next second. “What have I told you about thinking before acting?”

She stared up at Groddil. “But .. my books!”

“Are not worth your safety.” Groddil scolded.

“We have to get them back!” Salley insisted. “I have so much left to learn from them ..”

“We will.” Luna promised, he quite voice calming Salley a bit.

She swung her head around, flaring her nostrils. “I can follow the creature’s scent.”

“Well, no breakfast for us.” Stargazer snorted drolly. He nodded to Groddil. “I’ll pack up the campsite if they help me.”

He indicated Tynek and Rose. Groddil sighed. “Fine. If anything happens, call me.”

Stargazer nodded, leading the two back towards the camp. Salley expected Luna to start sniffing the ground, but she did not. Instead, she inhaled deep breaths of air, keeping her mouth slightly open as she started walking deeper into the woods.

Salley followed and Groddil walked behind her as she asked, “Don’t you have to sniff the ground or .. something?”

“No.” Luna explained. “This is a creature of the sky, not the land.”

“You mean it can fly?” Groddil blurted, and Luna nodded.

“Yes.”

Salley stared at the pegasus’s back. “You can track it through the air?”

Luna nodded. “If we hurry.”

She turned her head toward Groddil, pausing, and sighing, “I need to fly after it.”

Groddil shrugged. “I can’t leave Salley … take her with you.”

Luna cringed. It was such a strange expression for the pegasus, it caught Salley off guard. She seemed indecisive for a few moments, before she gave in. “Fine. Get on.” She stretched her wings out, and Salley swallowed hard. “You mean .. we’re actually flying?”

“Yes.” For once, Luna sounded short and tense.

Salley thought about declining, but she had to get those books back, she had to!

With a sigh, she climbed onto the pegasus’s back, bracing herself. However Luna stood still, her head lowered and her eyes closed, as if she were preparing herself. The forest was thinning a little ways ahead, and suddenly, Luna bolted forward.

Her shimmering hooves made soft thuds in the loam, and she held her wings up, though half folded.

“Listen!” Luna spoke loudly to be heard over her running. “You need to tell me directions once I’m in the air! If something is in my way, tell me!”

“Why?” Salley asked, confused.

Luna tossed her head, continuing her mad dash up the wooded hill. She weaved around several trees, ordering, “Do it, alright?”

“Ok ..” Salley gripped Luna’s sides tightly with her legs, leaning over her white mane and holding on for dear life.

The top of the hill was fast approaching, and as they reached it, Salley gasped shortly, realizing it ended in a cliff.

“Cliff!” She heard herself scream as Luna jumped directly off it.

Salley screeched as they plummeted towards their eminent death, feeling the blood rise in her eyes. But Luna’s white wings spread out on either side and they swooped upward, steadying in the air far above the forest.

The red tainting the corners of her vision threatened to get worse, and Salley forced herself to calm down as much as she possibly could in the situation.

“Are you sane?” Luna called out to her, not turning to look at her.

“Yes!” Salley gasped. “Yes .. what now?”

“Now we find the thief.” Luna promised, banking in the air to fly in a different direction. “I’m on it’s trail.”

Flying was quite different from what Salley had imagined. She’d always thought it would be light and fluffy, like swimming. Instead the wind rushed past them in a crescendo of noise, forcing Salley to squint and whipping her hair back viciously.

Everything was a blur of light blues and whites.

Luna banked again, flapping her wings once to gain altitude. Once again, Salley found herself in awe of how utterly massive the pegusas’s wingspan really was.

After what seemed like only a few minutes of flying, Luna began swooping lower, angling herself downward just enough to slowly descend. The forest inched closer, the tops of the tallest trees seemed to want to grab them and ensnare them in their branches.

Salley’s hear raced even faster as she saw the shear cliff they were approaching all to quickly. A large dark hole populated the cliff face, and a moment later, Salley understood it was a cave.

“There’s a cave up ahead .. in a cliff!” Salley quickly informed Luna. “But you probably know that.”

The pegasus didn’t turn away. “I do now. Is there a spot to land?”

“I don’t know ..” Salley stared closer, admitting, “There’s a ledge, but it’s twenty feet long .. at most!”

Luna nodded, swooping closer. “Tell me a few moments before I’m over it.”

Salley gulped .. by that time they’d be seconds from smashing into the cliff itself.

She waited as long as she dared, blurting, “Now! Now!” As the cliff face loomed directly above them.

Luna flapped her wings out in front of them, bringing them to a tumbling, most ungraceful halt. Salley fell off as Luna skidded across the ledge. She rolled to a painful halt, slowly dragging herself upright with a groan.

Tapping hooves rang out nearby and Luna nuzzled Salley, letting tingling warmth flow over her. Salley relaxed with a sigh of relief as the hurt faded away.

After a few seconds, Salley pulled herself back on her paws and looked around, noticing the details of their landing spot far better. The cave towered above them, dark and quite foreboding.

“Do you think it’s another pegasus?” Salley asked Luna, who shook her head.

“Pegasus cannot make themselves invisible without power greater than their own. And our thief is hardly a Prophet .. nor a Necromancer, for that matter.”

Salley fell silent, gazing up at the cave. What else could live so far from the ground?

Unless .. She reached for her satchel, intending to pull out the map Sular had given her, before remembering it was the very item they planned to retrieve.

“Dragons.” Salley breathed, gaping at the glint of light she saw with the cave.

“Hm, that actually is a possibility.” Luna agreed.

Salley didn’t answer, as she was fixated on the thing in the cave. As it moved fully into the light of day, she inhaled sharply, causing Luna to spin around and look where she did.

This had to be a dragon, though it wasn’t quite how Salley had imagined them. It’s scales shone like pure, pale gold, and it’s blue-flecked gold eyes stared curiously at the two on the ledge. At least, Salley hoped it was curiosity, and not anger.

“What are creaturez zuch az you doing at my door?”

It’s voice was a hissing sound, and it’s long tongue flicked from between its beak-like lips as it spoke. Yes, it did sound curious, but also annoyed, and Salley hoped it had more of the first emotion.

Luna bowed her head as she spoke. “Something was stolen from my friend, and I traced it back to here. We are very sorry to bother you, ma’am.”

“It was my satchel.” Salley clarified once she’d gathered the wits to speak. “It has some .. very important books in it.”

The dragon cocked her head, the golden feathers clustered around her face shifting in a plethora of light. “You zay you followed it here?”

“Yeah, and whatever took it was invisible .. at least mostly. I thought I saw it several times, but maybe I was mistaken, it seemed to shift in and out of reality. But what I did see was my satchel seemingly run away on its own.” Salley explained.

At this, the dragon huffed warm breath through her nose, before calling, “Eoztre? You are in trouble! I told you not to touch the land without me! How many timez muzt I tell you, you are a hatchling who’z zcalez have yet to harden, it’z too dangerouz for you to visit the forezt alone! Now bring the mouze’z satchel back!”

Nothing happened.

“Eoztre!” The dragon’s voice raised in volume and pitch. “I am not playing gamez!”

A second later, a tiny dragon sheepishly slunk from behind the larger one, it’s light gray and pale gold scales dappling its skin beautifully.

“My daughter, why do you continue to do theze thingz? Where is the mouze’z zatchle? We are mapmakerz and scholarz, not theivez!”

Eostre sighed, before disappearing back into the cave.

The mother dragon huffed. “I apologize for my hatchling. Zhe iz a zpirited one.”

While she said it with annoyance, Salley couldn’t help but see the fondness she clearly held for her daughter.

After a few moments, Eostre returned, holding Salley’s satchel in her mouth. She dropped it at Salley’s feet, shyly ducking her head. “Zorry mouze. I waz juzt practizing my vanizhing.”

“Uh ..” Salley stared down at the baby dragon, shocked by just how tiny she really was. Everything about her seem dainty and delicate, from the ruffs of gold feathers around her neck and on each leg, to her light gold, almost white eyes.

“It’s fine I guess.” Salley finished, deciding not to upset the dragons. She picked up her satchel, quickly checking to see nothing was missing. She frowned. “Where’s my map?”

Eostre paused. “I waz .. redrawing it. It waz a really awful map.”

The dragon’s mother huffed a steaming breath through her nose, glaring at her offspring. Eostre ducked her head, scurrying back into the cave as she muttered, “I’ll get it.”

The golden dragon turned to face Salley and Luna, asking, “Do you need a map? Zinze my daught haz wronged you, it iz only fair that I give you zomething.”

“Oh, it should be fine …” Salley began, stopping when Luna nudged her, interrupting.

“We would be honored.”

The dragon dipped her head. “Follow me.”

As they obeyed, Luna muttered, “Never refuse a dragon’s hospitality.”



Chapter 14 Edit

Brek awoke to something prodding him in the side. The first thing he noticed when he blinked open his eyes was how long and deep the shadows had become. The second thing that came to he attention was the black cloaked rat standing over him.

“Get up kit.”

Brek scrambled onto his knees so fast he felt dizzy from the sudden movement. He wobbled, and caught himself with his forepaws so he didn’t collapse on his face.

“We’re going to have to get him a bed.” Brek recognized the prince’s voice instantly, and looked up as he walked past him, seating himself in on of the upholstered chairs.

Brek blinked up at him, suddenly speaking, even though he didn’t mean to. “What .. are you sir?”

“Refer to me as ‘My Prince’, slave. And what do you mean? I’m Prince of a Thousand Eyes.”

Brek had honestly expected the prince to hit him for such a question, but he just stared at him with almost emotionless green eyes.

“N .. no my Prince, I .. wondered what species you are.”

The prince stared at him for a moment, before laughing dryly. “What do you mean slave? Haven’t you seen a cat before?”

“No ..?” Brek said it hesitantly.

“Pfft.” The prince snorted. “What hole have you been living in? Look, I can’t be bothered right now. Whegg, please see my dinner is brought up.”

“Of course my prince.”

As he walked past Brek, he muttered, “Don’t do anything stupid.”

Then he left the room. Uncomfortable silence filled the air, or at least it did in Brek’s mind. Though when he looked back at the prince, he realized his eyes were closed and his head had slumped forward. He really just fell asleep?

Brek had never seen anyone successfully slip into slumber quite that fast. He didn’t move an inch, for fear the prince was just waiting for him to do something stupid.

The moments dragged by slowly, and Brek had to amuse himself by studying dust particles floating down through horizontal beams of dimming light. Finally, the door creaked open and Whegg entered, a mouse slave pushing a cart stacked with several trays close behind him.

She left them near the dining table, bowed low, and hurriedly walked out, softly shutting the door behind her. Not before Brek saw the two guards standing on either side of it, however.

“Pst!”

Brek turned to look at the captain, who motioned he should join him next to the table. Brek nodded, quietly getting to his paws and walking over, freezing as the prince mumbled and shifted a little, but remained asleep.

The captain motioned to the cloth-covered trays on the cart, when Brek finally made it to his side, and spoke softly. “Now, ya will serve the prince his dinner. It’s simple, just make sure the food looks, smells, and tastes safe. If there’s anything the slightest bit wrong with it, even if you just suspect something is wrong with it .. ya git rid of it, ya hear?” Brek nodded quickly. That seemed simple enough.

He frowned as everything sank in. “Wait .. I eat the food?”

“Yeah, just a little bit. Just ta make sure it’s safe fer the prince.” He motioned to a stack of plates and utensils. “Can ya set a table?”

Again, Brek nodded. “Yes, I did that a lot for my mother when Salley and Rose didn’t want to ..”

“Ok, wull do it now.” The captain interrupted him, clearly not interested by his family life.

Brek silently obeyed. He did his absolute best to arrange the plates, knives and spoons perfectly, even going so far as to make each place setting identical … something that seemed far easier in his head. He saved one of the plates for himself, setting it on the trolley.

The captain walked back into the room, looking a little fresher than previously. His rich brown hair was combed and tied back so not one bit was out of place, and while his bangs did cover his right eye, it was done in an artful, clearly intended manner. Brek realized he’d never even seen the captain’s right eye, thanks to his preferred hairstyle.

The rat gently shook the prince awake, and his eyes snapped open almost immediately. Unlike anyone else Brek knew, the cat didn’t look bleary or half-awake, he looked completely and utterly alert. Somehow, it was slightly disturbing.

“Oh, is supper ready? Perfect.”

His voice sounded … a little more alive now, slightly cheery even. Though he still wore his look of indifference. The prince stood, and walked over to the dining table, sitting at the head of it and remarking absently, “Well, at least the slave can set a table.”

Brek breathed a soft sigh of relief. Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad. At least until he could save Jazmine .. then she could help him escape. Because Brek really wasn’t sure about escaping, getting out of his own home had be stressful enough, and this palace was full of guards.

“What are you waiting for?”

Brek looked up at the prince, confused. The creature sighed. “My first course?”

“Um ..” Brek looked at the trolley and grabbed the first dish, a bowl, hoping it was the right one. He couldn’t imagine anyone eating all the food that must be on the cart, not in one setting.

He pulled the cloth of the dish, relieved to see it was nothing more sinister than a salad. And a very nice salad at that. Brek carefully pulled out a small portion and put it on his plate, freezing and waiting for either the prince or the captain to get angry because her took too much, but upon glancing up, he realized they were both sitting at the table and in a deep conversation.

Brek scooped a generous portion of salad into bowls that seemed to have been dedicated for that purpose and carried them over to the table.

He could barely see over the top of it, so he had to stand on tip-paw to place the Prince’s salad on his plate, which seemed strangely useless now. Then he did the same for the captain.

Neither gave him a negative reaction, so he assumed he’d done the task correctly. He quickly collected his own salad, looking sadly down at the meager portion and wishing he had more, especially when his stomach growled.

With a sigh, he walked over to the table and climbed into one of the empty chairs, taking a bite of his salad despondently.

Suddenly, his chair shifted beneath him, and Brek yelped as it tipped backwards violently. He crashed to the floor in a pile of fur, salad, and now-shattered plate, even nicking himself on several of the sharp shards of porcelain.

“What do ya think yer doin?”

Brek blinked up at the captain and the prince, cringing at the looks of utter stunned shock on their faces.

“Wh .. what? I .. didn’t mean to tip the chair over ..”

“No, what possessed you to sit at the same table as your master?” The prince seemed to think this was a horrible thing, from the utterly stunned way he acted.

“Um ..” Brek stammered. “I thought .. I mean .. at home we always ate together and .. I just thought ..”

“Even yer slaves ate with ya?” The captain gaped down at him.

Brek shook his head. “We never had slaves, my father says that’s evi ……”

He let his voice fade away, quickly adding, “Uh ….. not the best idea.”

The prince and the captain looked at each other, before the captain sighed and got up, looking … honestly, rather amused. “Just clean up this mess. I’ll get us drinks, my prince.”

The prince nodded, though he stared curiously at Brek as he got the broom and began to sweep up the remains of his meal.

“So you’re the son of a chieftain, but you had no slaves. No servants even?”

Brek looked up at the prince, shaking his head.

“Who … served you meals? Who made your meals? Who cleaned up afterwards?” The prince seemed completely baffled by this concept.

“Um .. we did.” Brek shrugged. “My mom made our meals .. sometime I helped, or maybe my sisters did. And we all took turns doing the dishes.”

The prince cocked his head. “What a strange life to live. And you all sat at one table?”

“Yes.” Brek nodded, confused at the prince’s curiosity. “My dad, mom, sisters and me. And sometimes the horses would join us.”

“At the table? Your horses?”

“Well .. they weren’t ours .. but yes.”

At that moment, the captain returned with two strangely shaped glassed filled with reddish liquid. Brek really hoped that it wasn’t what it looked like; blood.

He nodded firmly to Brek. “Bring the second course slave.”

Quickly, Brek stumbled over to the trolley, taking a moment to decide which covered tray was the second course. He chose the biggest one and pulled the cloth off.

He gagged, sputtering in horror.

That was a dead fish! In the prince’s food!

“Agggggghe!” Brek bolted for the open window, flinging the entire tray out into the darkening evening sky.

It landed on something metal, from the crashing sound that followed.

Relieved that the crisis had passed, Brek turned around, only to find the prince and the captain gaping at him in shock. Brek suddenly felt he might have made a mistake and tried to explain himself. “There was a dead fish in your food!”

The captain doubled over, stuffing his napkin in his face, but he couldn’t completely hide his snorts of laughter.

“No.” The prince sounded utterly baffled and annoyed. “The fish was my food. And of course it’s dead, I wouldn’t dream of eating it alive … that’s barbaric.”

“Kit .. slave .. what are ya, some sorta vegetarian?” The captain contained his mirth enough to speak at least.

Brek frowned. “Yes .. aren’t you?”

The captain lost his composure once more.

The prince sighed with longsuffering. “No, I’m a cat. Of course I’m not a vegetarian, I would starve. Look, just bring my dessert and do better tomorrow.”

Shaking and worried that one more mistake would cost him his life, Brek hurried back to the trolley and picked up the last dish. He steeled himself to see something vile as he removed the cloth but breathed a sigh of relief when all it turned out to be was a cake, and a lovely looking cake at that.

Brek hurried toward the table, carrying the cake carefully. This time, he would not mess up …

His paw twisted as a loose stone in the floor and the rock shifted beneath him, throwing him forward and straight into the Prince’s lap.

Everything happened in a blur, a shocked yell, an outburst of laughter, and a resounding crash as the Prince’s chair tipped over backwards. Brek sat in the middle of it all, stunned, dizzy, and terrified, and in a state of complete, mortified panic, he burst into tears.

The prince lay on the floor, the cake splattered on his chest, neck, and even in his face. The captain hung out the window, guffawing into the night, his entire body shaking with uncontrollable laughter.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry! The floor … and I tripped .. don’t kill me please!” Brek sobbed.

Slowly, the prince sat up, staring at the cake all over him like he’d been fatally stabbed. At least, that’s how Brek imagined the expression of a mortally wounded creature would look. Finally, he spoke. “Never in my life have I been so desecrated .. Whegg! Stop laughing and help me up.”

The captain laughed harder.

“Whegg!” The prince huffed. “I am filthy, and sticky, and you are not helping me.”

“Sorry, sorry.” The captain pulled himself back into the room, wiping tears away. “I ask yer fergivness …. I just … couldn’t help it.”

He choked a little as he helped the prince to stand upright once more.

“Fine.” The prince sounded sulky. “You’re forgiven.”

He turned to look at Brek, who collapsed to the floor, wailing thinly. “I’m sorry!”

They would kill him now, he had shoved a cake into the face of a prince. But the two paws that dragged him onto his trembling paws were not harsh or brutal.

“Come on slave.” The captain’s voice still held an edge of laughter. “Yer gonna need to do far better than this tomorrow.”

“What .. what are you going to do with me?”

The captain pushed him into a small, dark room, throwing a pillow in after him. “Get some rest. We’ll deal with this in the mornin’.”

The door shut after him, leaving Brek alone in darkness broken only by the sliver of light coming from under the door.

He flopped down on the pillow, closing his eyes tightly and trying to breath evenly again, but not succeeding for a long time. Sleep was long in coming.

><><

Salley stared around herself in amazed silence. The cave that seamed so dark, dismal and empty from the outside was really the coziest, most enamoring place she’d ever laid eye on. Around several bends in the tunnel, hidden from the outside world, the cavern opened into large adjoining rooms.

There was very little furniture to speak of, but brightly colored woven mats covered the floor, along with jewel-toned pillows in piles instead of chairs.

Clear, jagged crystals dangled from sconces set in the walls, ones that pulsed with white, undying fire. If it even was fire, it looked far more like blinding, concentrated light.

She knew the name of the lights, dragonglass. There’d been a chapter on its strange and wonderful properties in one of her father’s books. And that was the other thing; the books.

They were everywhere.

Salley knew her eyes must be shining as much as the dragonglass as she took in the splendor of the knowledge piled in mounds like heaps of treasure.

Eostre came bounding back, leaping across several stacks of books, parchment clenched gently between her double rows of needle-like teeth. She dropped them at Salley’s feet. “I had to finizh mine, it’z way better.”

Salley picked them both up, mentally admitting that Eostre’s drawing skills far outdid Sular’s.

“I even coordinated it with Zaoi, the northern conztellation, if you don’t know the proper name.” Eostre inflated her feathery, scaly chest as she showed off.

“I know it.” Salley promised, before Eostre’s mother looked over her shoulder at her daughter’s handiwork.

The mother dragon cocked her bird-like head, asking, “What do you want with uz?”

“I .. what?”

“Thiz map. It haz many locationz in which we have lived. Did you zeek uz out?”

Luna broke in. “Not specifically today, though we were in search of dragons when your daughter .. found us.”

The golden dragon sat down, turning to face them. “What do you want with dragonz?”

While Salley was still learning to read reptilian expressions, she could tell the dragon sounded suspicious.

“Well .. “ Salley paused, before speaking. “There’s a threat to the north and all of it’s inhabitants ..”

“I know.”

“What?” Salley met the dragon’s blue and gold gaze.

She nodded. “I know. Why haz it taken zo long for you blind fur creaturez to zee the Greeneyez for what they are?”

“I .. I mean ..” Salley stammered, and the dragon flared her nostrils in a heavy, warm sigh.

“I have watched hiz firzt movementz in the north. How he gouged quarriez into the land and ztarted laying hiz filthy caztlez foundationz. How he recruited thoze you woodlanderz zhun and offered them a chanze for zomething better than vagranzy. How none of you ever zeem to notize or care until it iz too late.”

Luna spoke up. “Salley does care. And I do not believe it is too late.”

The dragon heaved a sigh. “For many it iz.”

“And for many there is still hope.” Luna held her head high. “We can only look to the future.”

“Only if you will learn from the pazt.”

At this, Luna bowed her head slightly in acknowledgment. “I cannot argue with that.”

Salley took a deep breath, stating, “Look. I’m not saying I’m the right creature to do this, but I want to protect the north. And to do that, I need an army.”

“Zo you wizh me to join you.”

“Uh .. yeah. Basically.” Salley confirmed.

Eostre piped up. “You want to mommy! Remember, you zaid ..”

“Huzh.” Her mother silenced her by stuffing her tail in her face. “You need to zunbathe before the bezt part of the day iz gone. Now go on, thiz iz not a converzation for hatchlingz.”

Eostre slunk off.

The adult dragon turned away, her golden scales and feathers rippling with reflected light. “Zhe iz not wrong.”

“You mean you’ll help us?” Salley asked it hopefully.

“I did not zay that. I have my Eostre, do not forget. Zhe will alwayz be my priority.” The dragon looked around at Salley. “My dezirez mean nothing in the faze of her zaftey.”

“But she won’t be safe if the north falls ..” Salley protested.

The dragon shook her head. “We have hidden for mozt of our livez, and we can continue to do zo. Mozt of my kind would have killed you az zoon az look at you, mouze. Ezpezailly here in the north. I do not hate you, I juzt do not truzt you. Fur creaturez are greedy and rarely think of the bigger picture; hardly ever do they conzider juzt how powerful actionz can be or what pathz they may follow thankz to choizes made.”

She huffed a little, before adding. “If I waz not a mother, I would not hezitate. But Eostre needz me for many yearz to come.”

“I’m not doing this out of greed, and believe me, I’m trying to consider .. everything. I lay awake at night trying to decide which path leads where.” Salley protested the accusation.

“If that iz truly the caze, why are you doing thiz?”

“I ..” Salley paused, before stammering, “My .. family.”

The dragon nodded. “Family iz a good reazon. And you know why I zay no.”

Salley let her shoulders slump, realizing the dragon was right. Maybe she was doing this out of greed.

Luna nudged her. “Salley, go wait outside. I will speak with her.”

Feeling like a scolded kit, Salley grumbled under her breath but forced her pride down in favor of her goal. She walked back through the dark tunnel, stopping on the ledge that overlooked the vast northern forests.

Up here, even with the tallest pines, Salley couldn’t help feeling insignificant. She truly was tiny. Incapable. Useless. No matter what she did, she would never be able to recruit an army big enough to stop an empire.

The wind whipped her hair across her face as Eostre spoke from behind her. “Mommy wantz to ztop the Greeneyez, I know.”

Salley turned to look at the baby dragon, where she sat atop some worn boulders.

“She .. has some pretty good reasons not to help us.” Salley shrugged, feeling awkward.

Eostre leaned forward, her white-gold eyes earnest. “Zhe needz to! It iz dragon law; I know, I read the bookz.”

“How .. old are you?” Salley asked, feeling that with her drawing skills and reading abilities she was hardly the baby her mother considered her to be.

“I am thirteen.” Eostre looked proud of herself. “Mommy calls me a hatchling …. but I won’t be for much longer!”

“Uh .. I’m sixteen.” Salley said it confusedly.

Eostre jumped off her boulders, circling Salley and sniffing her ankles. “No .. you muzt at leazt be twenty-zix. Unlezz it really iz true that the fur creaturez age fazter than uz.”

That made a lot of sense to Salley, but Eostre had reverted back to the previous topic. “I know mommy ztayz away from Badrang becauze of me. I know zhe iz zad becauze there iz no juztize .. and zhe cannot be happy again until there iz.”

“But what does she have against this Badrang?” Salley asked.

Eostre looked sadly up at her. “Badrang iz the reazon daddy won’t ever come home.”

><><

Brek walked behind the prince and the captain, keeping his head slightly bowed, thanks to the captain’s advice.

His two captors .. or saviors, Brek really wasn’t sure how to think of them .. seemed to have quite the aimable relationship, from their frequent, quiet conversations. The palace hall they walked along was quiet, but their conversation was more so, and Brek strained to hear it in full.

Things about where the prince would have dinner, what guards the captain had sent to look for evidence and what they had found, and even getting Brek what they considered proper clothing.

The spotless gray halls they walked through seemed so utterly lifeless it almost hurt to look at them. So unlike the warmer, far friendlier tones of home.

No.

Brek shook his head. Now more than ever, he must not think about home.

He had to think about the next step, and he had to think about Jazmine.

But not too hard.

“….. slave?”

Brek snapped back to attention, blinking as he looked up at the prince. He’d said something before that last bit, but Brek had no idea what.

“I said, open the door for me.” The prince sighed in annoyance. Though as always, he seemed to be forcing every emotion he expressed to the point it sounded unnatural.

Brek hurried to do as he was told, pulling the set of double-doors open as best he could.

Nothing in this place was mouse-sized.

Brilliant daylight threatened to blind him, it’s glare completely unhindered by lack of trees. This time, they stood on a flat roof of part of the palace, overlooking an endless stretch of water. This must be what Salley referred to as the sea.

There was the grating of metal on metal and Brek spun around, swallowing hard at the sight of the prince drawing his massive greatsword. Instantly, visions of heads on pikes and breaking bones flooded Brek’s mind, but the prince just looked at him in confusion. “Calm down. I’m not using this on you. Just stand out of our way until I ask you to do otherwise.”

Brek took several steps back, stopping against the battlement framing the edge of the rooftop. The prince nodded his approval as the captain shed the cape part of his cloak, leaving the black collar. The rat set his spear down, drawing a sword that Brek had failed to notice hung at his side.

He folded the arm holding the blade across his chest while folding the other arm behind his back and bowing slightly. “When you’re ready, my prince.”

“I’m ready now Whegg.” The prince sighed.

“Now, now. Formalities always look better’n public. An’ walls may have ears.”

The captain straightened up again, walking closer to the prince and holding out his sword. The prince rolled his eyes, but did the same, so that their swords touched blades.

Almost instantly afterwards, a resounding clash reverberated through the still afternoon air, and Brek clamped his paws over his ears.

Light glinted off the prince and the captain’s blades as they attacked each other again and again, each time defending against the other’s advances. The captain moved like lightning, spinning, twisting, and ducking out of his prince’s reach and really only using his sword for defense.

The prince had insanely quick reflexes as well, but it was his sheer strength that awed Brek the most. The muscles that rippled under his golden brown coat would probably be strong enough to bend a sword in half.

The captain slid underneath the prince’s blade, bringing his own up to deflect it. As he did so, his bangs flew up, finally letting Brek get a good look at his mysterious right eye.

Pale claws scars laced over it, and instead of being rich brown like the other, it was pale, marble gray.

The captain’s furless tail lashed out behind him, steadying him as he spun around, throwing himself forward again. The prince deflected this sudden charge with a grunt, sending the captain tumbling to the ground.

“Truce!” The captain breathed a little heavily, and the prince quickly backed down, sheathing his sword.

He held out a paw to help the captain up, but the rat shook his head, getting to his paws on his own. “That wouldn’t do ta be seen, not here.”

“Right.” The prince nodded. “You continue to improve Whegg.”

“As do ya, my prince.”

“Oh please, I have all I can do to keep up.” For once, the prince genuinely smiled, though it sent chills down Brek’s spine thanks to the glistening fangs.

The captain laughed. “Hey, I’m nothin’ compared ta Ashleg. Ya need ta toughen up.”

“And yet your attempts to lift my sword are in vain.” The prince snickered in response.

“Eh. Yeah, ya got me there.”

The prince sheathed his sword as the captain did the same. “Tomorrow you’re offensive and I’ll fight defensive.”

“Sounds fine ta me.” The captain pinned his cloak back together.

A sudden, enthusiastic clapping made Brek look up, the prince and the captain doing the same only seconds later. “Marvelous! Simply fantastic! I can’t say how honored I am to be in your presence, and to witness your skill, my prince.”

“And how honored you are that I don’t have you killed for spying.” The prince said it sternly. “Who do you think you are?”

Brek stared at the reddish brown creature as he held up his paws in surrender. Never in his life had he seen such hair! “I’m Lord Badrang’s younger brother, Truman.” He bowed, his curly, matted hair swinging beside him. “I apologize for making you feel that I was spying, I was simply passing by and happened to notice your mastery. Of course, it’s only to expected.”

“Of course.” The captain spoke coldly.

Brek couldn’t take his eyes of Badrang’s brother .. mostly because he couldn’t believe they were brothers. Badrang was as cold an unyielding as the snowy color of his coat, but this creature was all smiles .. toothy, slightly disturbing smiles .. but Brek was quickly becoming accustomed to those.

“My prince, you seem rather tense. And that was another reason I wanted to see you .. what luck I happened upon you. As the brother of your host, I feel it is only right that I make you feel welcomed.”

“I suppose I can’t argue with it.” The captain grumbled.

Badrang’s brother continued. “I should properly introduce myself. I’m Truman Daskar, and I would love to throw a party in your honor, my prince.”

“Truly, that isn’t necessary ..” From the tone of the prince’s voice, Brek could tell he wanted avoid this altogether.

“But I insist!” Truman bowed once more. “Humbly of course. I just couldn’t help be notice that since you’ve arrived, you’ve looked a bit down. And I understand, there’s hardly anything for young creatures like us to do here, it’s a dull bore.”

The prince shrugged in response to this. “I suppose you have a point.”

“I am the master of parties, ask anyone.” Truman promised. “And while I’m sure you attend such affairs often, no one makes a party like Truman Daskar. The finest wine, the finest girls, and the finest entertainment. No expenses spared. What do you think, my prince?”

“Ah .. fine, I guess.” The prince sounded caught off guard. “If you .. feel as though you must.”

Truman nodded. “Oh, I do. You’ll see my prince, it’ll be the party of a century. Now, I’ll leave you to your business, and I ask your forgiveness for taking up so much of your valuable time.”

For the third time that day, Truman bowed, before he left the rooftop. The captain looked up at the prince. “Really?”

“Well, what was I supposed to say? ‘No, you can’t throw me a party, I hate parties?’ Father wouldn’t approve, it’s not diplomatic.”

Without thinking, Brek spoke up. “It sounds like a nice thing to do …. Sorry!”

He quickly realized his mistake. The prince barely seemed to notice it. “So you woodlanders had parties, then?”

“Oh, of course! We’d have feasts, and we’d all dance together in a circle, and make wreaths of flowers, and things like that.”

The prince and the captain stared at him, before the captain laughed. The prince shook his head. “I .. don’t think it’s that sort of party.”

“Hah! Definitely not that sort!” The captain guffawed.

Brek really wanted to ask what other types of parties even existed, but decided against it. The prince sighed. “Well, let’s go clean up. I suppose I’ll have to ask my father for his advice next.”

He didn’t seem excited about it.


Chapter 15 Edit

Salley awoke blearily, her first sensation being how very soft her pillow was. She blinked her eyes open, seeing shimmering white feathers and quickly coming to the understanding that she’d fallen asleep snuggled against Luna’s side.

She yawned, and in doing so inhaled a feather.

Salley sat bolt upright, hacking loudly and waking Luna instantly.

She coughed out the feather, shaking her head to clear it. That was when she remembered where they were. Stacks of books and pillows surrounded them in the bright glow of dragonglass.

Eostre and her mother were nowhere to be seen, but Salley assumed they were in one of the adjoining caverns. Apparently, according to

Luna, she’d been too tired to attempt another flight the previous day, and had also managed to contact Groddil and explain they weren’t dead.

Eostre’s mother had been kind enough to let them stay the night, something the Salley .. wasn’t too upset about. She looked down at the book she’d been reading, the one that had slipped from her sleeping paws.

She picked up the tome on dragon lore as Luna stood, fluffing her feathers and shaking herself.

The pegasus stretched, pausing as Salley asked, “Where do you think the dragons are?”

“I am not sure, and I wouldn’t go snooping if I were you.” She yawned, before adding, “Do you have any food?”

“No ..” Salley admitted, realizing how hungry she was.

Luna sighed. “Well, it can’t be helped.”

She raised a hind hoof to scratch behind her feathered ears, and paused in the ungainly position, even holding it for a few moment. Lune set her hoof down again, suddenly stating, “Groddil says he’s at the base of the cliff with the others.”

“Can we fly down to meet them?”

“I doubt it.” Luna shrugged. “Unfortunately, we’re above dense woodlands. I would smash my wings to shreds if I tried to land in that, I need a sizable clearing. So we’re in a bit of a predicament.”

She closed her eyes, seemingly doing nothing for a moment, before she nodded. “Groddil says there’s a small town a day’s journey from here. There should be some fields around it, he tells me.”

“Let’s land around dusk.” Salley advised. “We should probably avoid the farmer who owns that field.”

She could imagine how upset her father would be if Luna ever landed in his crops. Luna nodded. “I’ll be careful. But .. yes, maybe you’re right.”

“You’re leaving?” The golden dragon asked as she walked into the room.

Luna nodded. “We have to. Time is of the greatest importance.”

The dragon nodded. “Yez. I zuppoze that iz true.”

“We have to raise an army .. though thank you for letting us sleep here.” Salley added.

“It iz not a problem.” The golden dragon assured. “If you can gather enough of a following, come back and azk me again. It iz not that I don’t wizh to help, it’z juzt that at the moment, fighting the Greeneyez would lead to death.”

Eostre tumbled out from behind her mother, complaining, “You’re leaving already? But we never have vizitorz!”

“Huzh, little one.” Her mother scolded.

“Sorry.” Salley shrugged.

Eostre frowned. “At least have a meal with uz!”

Salley looked at Luna, who nodded. Apparently, that fell into the idea of never refusing dragon hospitality.

Surprisingly, while their fish did look quite undercooked, there were no bloody carcasses involved. They even had something a lot like pancakes, which Salley found to be quite good. The sun was high in the sky by the time Luna and Salley stood on the edge of the spur of rock outside the cave.

Salley climbed on as Luna spread her wings, and she prepared for the sickening drop that was sure to follow.

“We cannot thank you enough.” Luna dipped her head to the two dragons.

“Of courze.” The golden dragon returned the gesture. “May Ignaza go with you.”

Luna smiled. “And may He bless you for your kindness to a Prophet.”

The dragon’s eyes widened as Luna bowed slightly, and then leaped off the ledge. Salley couldn’t hold back her instinctive screech of terror and the rush of blood in her eyes, but she forced herself to calm down as Luna swooped upwards.

Today, the sky glowed a dull gray, but the clouds were thin enough Salley didn’t feel it was likely to rain. Luna’s powerful wings carried them upwards, far above the tree tops.

The scenery morphed as they flew, turning from pines to more assorted trees. At certain times, a thin stream even wound it’s way through the endless forest. After what seemed like forever, and had to have been several hours, Salley caught her first glimpse of the town.

Nestled at the base of a hill, it looked very much like home, even if it was bigger. And sure enough, it was surrounded by many open fields.

Luna flapped her wings, gaining a little elevation. “Pick a good spot for me to land!”

“Wouldn’t it be better if .. you did that? I’m not the one flying.” Salley protested.

“Just tell me!” Luna insisted.

Salley huffed nervously. “Fine.”

The ground was approaching quickly, and Salley gave hurried, terrified instructions. “You’re right over it now .. there’s no trees in your way!”

“Good!” Luna swooped toward the ground, holding her wings out flat. Salley nearly lost her grip as the pegasus’s hooves slammed into the dirt, and she galloped forward for several hundred feet. Finally she slowed to a stop, folding her wings to her sides again.

For a moment, they stood there in silence, letting the wind whip about them. Then Salley cast a glance at the fallen wheat they had smashed in their landing and swallowed. “We should get out of here.”

Luna nodded, trotting along one of the rows of wheat in an attempt to not smash anymore of it. At the edge of the field they found a small, well maintained road.

Luna walked along it, asking, “Do you have any money? The others won’t join us for a good day or so, and I don’t feel comfortable with you staying out in the open. I’d rather stay at the inn, it’s more protected there.”

Salley dug in her satchel, pulling out the pouch of coins her father had given her so she, Rose, and Dancer could stay at the Summerglade inn. “Yeah. I have enough.”

That day seemed so long ago.

A rough wooden sign read ‘SevenFall’ in faded black writing from where it stood sentinel outside the town.

“Get ready.”

“Ready for what?” Salley asked.

Luna snorted. “I don’t think pegasi are exactly common in these little villages, are they?”

“Oh.” Salley shook her head. “Right. No, they aren’t.”

Sevenfall dwarfed Evenglade by quite a bit, in comparison with her tiny town, this one seemed like a city. Actual streets weaved in between the numerous houses, and they bustled with many creatures. Instantly it seemed, all eyes were on them.

Luna held her head high, acknowledging none of them as she walked serenely through the slowly fading light of evening.

The creatures made a path for them in stunned silence, and Salley blinked down at them as they passed.

It was just as she thought, something about Luna was utterly spellbinding.

Luna stopped outside of the inn, and Salley dismounted. She held her pouch of money tightly as she entered the weather-worn building,

keeping her head down to avoid unnecessary eye contact. And since Luna walked behind her, she was sure there would be plenty of it.

She walked up to the counter, hurriedly asking for a room. But the mouse behind it simply stared at her for a moment, before asking, “Do you have a little brother with red fur and freckles?”

Salley stared at him, fear trickling down her spine as her eyes itched slightly. She rubbed them, asking, “How .. do you know that?”

“Well he was just here a couple days ago. He asked everyone in town if they’d seen his sister with gold fur.” The mouse dropped a key in her paw as he took the money she owed.

“Wait, Brek was here? How is that possible?” Salley couldn’t wrap her mind around it. Brek should be safe at home with their parents!

The mouse shrugged. “I don’t know his name, but he seemed pretty determined to find you, a maid named Rose, and a horse named Dancer.”

“Where is he now?” Salley blurted numbly.

“I have no idea. I haven’t seen him for several days.”

Luna nudged Salley, and she sighed, still in shock. “Thank you.”

They hurried to their room, and Salley shut and locked to door behind them, before turning to Luna. “My brother was here?”

“It seems so."

><><

The morning sun was what awoke Salley, or maybe it was Luna nuzzling her shoulder. “Mmmmm .. what?”

Salley rolled over in her heavenly soft bed .. an actual bed, and sighed happily. It had been a long time since she’d been this comfortable.

“Salley, you have visitors.”

That brought her awake a little more. “Wait .. who?”

“I don’t know, but they seem desperate to see you. They say they know Brek.”

Oh. Of course. In her sleepy state she’d completely forgotten what the innkeeper had said last night. “How did they know I was here?”

Luna shrugged her wings. “I guess we caused quite a stir and there’s been a lot of talk about the golden mouse and her pegusas.”

“Oh.”

That was all Salley could think to say. She climbed out of bed, glad she had slept in her clothes as she quickly buckled her belt and satchel around her waist. Luna led her downstairs and into the foyer of the inn, where she immediately caught sight of the waiting creatures,

They were hard to miss. A tawny rabbit with black hair and dark red eyes, a white squirrel with pink eyes, and short white mouse with lavender eyes, all of them looked frazzled and frantic.

The rabbit bowed wearily, asking, “I take it you are Salley Voh?”

“Yes …” Salley said it hesitantly. “You met my brother?”

At that moment, the white mouse ran at her, grabbing her arm and growling, “Where is my sister?”

Desperate, angry tears stained his cheeks, but the swirling mix of emotions that crashed over Salley like a tidal wave made her stagger, falling to her knees. She gasped, clamping her paws over her eyes as they itched in reaction to his uncontrollable fear.

“Jasper, stop it!” The squirrel lady dragged the mouse away from Salley, and the rabbit offered her his paw.

“I’m sorry about that. We are all .. handling recent events differently.”

Salley looked up at him, sighing, “It’s .. fine.” He pulled her back onto her feet as she wiped the traces of her tears away, asking, “What happened? Where is my brother?”

“Your brother ..” Jasper snarled, pinning his ears. “He led my sister into danger, I know it! He’s the reason she’s dead!”

“Wait .. dead?” Salley fought the itch at the back of her eyes.

Luna laid her muzzle on Salley’s shoulder, and calm swirled around her, making it easier to focus.

“We don’t know that.” Ballaw tried to assure her. “At very least, we haven’t found the bodies. But your brother has been .. taken, by something.”

“What?” The fear fought to take hold, but even more calm blanketed her, making her feel more numb than anything else.

The rabbit shook his head. “I fear they’ve been taken by Badrang the Tyrant. It .. seems the only logical conclusion, as unhappy as it is.”

“Wait .. how, why .. when ..” Salley stammered. “Why was he out here in the first place? And who are you?”

“He stowed away in the back of our wagon; we didn’t know he was there until weeks after we left Evenglade. His explanation was that all he wanted to do was find his sisters .. we’re known as the Wandering Rubies, a traveling circus.”

Salley barely heard the last bit. It was the ‘all he wanted to do was find his sisters’ bit that stuck in her mind, unforgiving and cruel. “This is my fault.”

“No, it’s not.” Luna insisted. “You didn’t mean to leave home like you did.”

Salley looked up at her, tears growing in her eyes. “But I could have gone back.”

“What would have happened to Tynek?”

At this, Salley looked away, unable to say she’d far rather save her brother over someone she barely knew. It was such an awful thought .. but it was true.

“We need your help.”

Salley turned her attention back to the Wandering Rubies, asking, “What?”

The rabbit nodded. “They say you’re going to fight Badrang. That you’re going to free the north.”

“I never said ..”

“But Dancer did.” Salley wheeled around to see Groddil walking through the inn doors, Rose and Tynek behind him. Salley turned back to the rabbit, stammering, “I’m .. trying to raise an army ..”

“We’ll join it.” Jasper’s voice was raw. “If there’s any hope of getting my sister back alive, we’ll join it.”

The rabbit and the squirrel lady looked at each other, before she nodded. “Alright. I’m sure Moshi would agree.”

“I .. don’t exactly have anyone else promising to fight at the moment.” Salley’s thoughts muddled together in a blur.

“We’ll help you find them.” Jasper crossed his arms. “I’ll raise an army single-pawed if I need to, just save my sister!”

“I .. I’ll try.” Salley struggled to process everything that was happening fast enough. “How do you know they were captured by Badrang? Did you see what happened?”

The squirrel lady shook her head. “No, but my horse bears an injury caused by a Necromancer, and they were riding it when they were taken. I can’t think of where evil like that even exists outside of Badrang and the Greeneyes.”

“It does.” Groddil assured. “But you’re right, that seems very likely.”

Salley looked over at Rose, who was staring at them, paws clamped over her muzzle in shocked, tearful silence. Tynek just seemed confused, nothing new there.

Salley took a deep breath, forcing herself to take control of the situation. “We have to tell my parents. My father will help, I know my father will help. He might not have before, but he’ll do anything to save Brek.”

She looked into the rabbit’s red eyes, nodding, “If you could recruit creatures for me … that might mean the difference between doing something and … not doing anything.”

Eloquence always failed her when she needed it most, but she brushed past that twinge of annoyance quickly. This was about Brek, not her.

The rabbit nodded, his ears flicking forward. “We will do whatever we must to save our comrade .. and I feel awful for the kit as well.”

The squirrel lady had begun to drag Jasper out the doors, and the rabbit paused, stating, “My name is Ballaw. And … I hope you’re really what they say you are.”

“We’ll be back in two weeks or less.” Salley blurted, the number randomly popping into her head.

Ballaw nodded. “We’ll be here. And if the fates allow, we’ll have an army for you.”

He turned to leave, before looking over his shoulder and muttering, “Don’t fail us.”

Groddil had to lead Salley out of the inn, and the other’s followed. “Two weeks? It’ll take two weeks or more to even return to Evenglade!”

“Not if we fly.” Salley countered.

Luna started, shaking her head. “At most I can carry two .. and that will tire me greatly.”

Salley shook her head, setting her face. “You’re not the only one who can fly.”

“You don’t mean the dragons!” Luna protested.

“Dragons?” Rose squeaked.

Groddil looked paler than usual as he asked, “What am I missing?”

“My satchel.” Salley pointed to the item in question. “We found Sular’s dragons .. well they found us.”

“The thief was a dragon ..” Groddil shook his head. “I should never have sent you alone.”

Luna disagreed. “They were quite friendly and kind Groddil. In fact, there’s a small chance they might join us in the fight against Badrang. Maybe Salley has a point.”

Groddil shuddered, before looking around at the crowd of all to interested creatures staring at their group. “Let’s get out of here. We’ll discuss this where there are a few less eyes.”

><><

Groddil did not like the dragon idea, but he couldn’t come up with a better one. He was also against Salley riding a dragon, so she found herself waiting with Rose, Dancer and Stargazer while Luna took Groddil and Tynek off to meet Eostre and her mother.

“Do you think Ty will be ok?” Rose pleaded.

Salley came back to reality, asking, “Who is Ty?”

“Tynek!”

“He has a nickname?” Salley couldn’t remember anyone else calling him that.

“Well .. I gave him one.” Rose smiled rather slyly. “But do you think he’ll be alright?”

Salley just looked oddly at her sister. “Since when did you start giving Tynek nicknames?”

“I like him .. a lot.” Rose frowned. “Which is why I’m mostly concerned with his safety.”

Salley rolled her eyes. “I’m sure he’ll be fine .. wait, do you mean like as in friends or like as in gross mushiness?”

Rose crossed her arms huffing. “It’s not gross or mushy!”

“You do!” Salley gaped at her sister. “You do like him that way .. why? And what will father say, he won’t like it!” “What do you mean?” Rose looked hurt. “Father always listens to me, and why wouldn’t he like Ty? He’s so sweet and kind, and I see so much good in him!”

“Rose, everyone is calling him the king. He’s a warrior, like me! You know that father hates war, he’ll never except this! Besides, you’re fifteen, and you’ve known Tynek .. how long? A month or so at best!”

“You’re just jealous cause I get a suitor and I’m younger than you.” Rose stuck her nose in the air.

Salley’s mouth dropped open. “Suitor? Suitor? Rose, you barely know him!”

“No, you barely know him!” Rose snapped. “I have spent hours with him, I’ve actually talked with him, unlike you.”

“Have you Rose? Really? Cause from all I’ve seen, you’re the one doing all the talking and he’s basically mute. How can you claim to know him? Who knows what kind of secrets he could be hiding?” Salley crossed her arms, towering over her smaller sister.

“Well at least I’ve tried to learn about him.” Rose had to stand on her tippaws to get in Salley’s face. “You don’t like him, and for no fault of his own. You’re just judgmental and rude, and how would you know what I know? He’s had a horrible life, he’s suffered so much, and he just needs help! I’m going to help him; I love him!”

Salley stamped a paw. “Love? Love! How would you know that? It’s been a month! And I don’t know why I don’t like him, I just get a sinking feeling in my gut when I’m around him. He’s hiding something!”

“Salley, that’s unreasonable! You have no proof!”

Their voices had raised considerably, and now Dancer and Stargazer watched them.

Salley rubbed her forehead, taking a deep breath to calm herself. “Ok, I’ll give you that. But Rose, please! You don’t know him as well as you think, you can’t! At least spend more time with him before you say you love him, that’s not how love works.”

“Oh, and you know how love works.” Rose voice snapped like a whip, far fiercer than Salley had ever heard her. “You know nothing about love, you’ve shunned every male father tried to introduce you to, and out of what? Rebellion because you wanted to have the last word? Some of those creatures were nice, I even liked some of them. But father wanted you to settle down first, because you were the wild one, the problem child.”

She almost spit the last words. “Well now I’ve found someone special. He’s kind, and sweet, and he listens to me, unlike you. So don’t you dare take this happiness away from me cause of your awful obsession with being right.”

Salley took a step back; Rose might as well have slapped her across the face. “None of those creatures were right for me ..”

“And how would you know?” Rose’s voice held a slight tone of mockery. “You spent a few hours with them. Much less than a month.” She stuck her nose in the air, a sure sign she felt she had won.

Salley’s paws clenched, and she gritted her teeth, fighting the urge to hang her head and walk away like she had done over and over. She growled low in her throat. “Is that the best you can do Rose?”

Rose turned to look at her, confused. “What?”

“I’m concerned about you because you. Are. My. Sister!” Salley stamped a paw down so hard she felt small pains dance up her leg. “Fine! You know what, rub what you can in my face, just like you always do! Make me feel guilty when I know I’m in the right, go ahead! I’m not backing down anymore, do you hear me!”

Rose staggered back, shock written all over her face.

“Guys …” Dancer began but Salley glared daggers at her, and she swallowed, shaking her head. “Nevermind.”

Salley wheeled back around to face Rose. “Yeah, I don’t handle every situation like I should, I’m probably messing up right now! But you’re always making me feel awful about myself whenever I try to just … be myself. Ok, maybe I shouldn’t have yelled but I didn’t see this coming. I want to protect you, I always try to, I’m the oldest!”

Rose frowned. “That doesn’t mean you get to tell me what to do. Ty loves me!”

“Of course he does, you’re the prettiest maid in the land!” Salley snapped.

There was a pause, before Rose looked hopeful. “You .. really think I’m pretty? That’s .. so nice, you’ve never told me that before.”

“Yes!” Salley spread her arms out. “I look like dirt compared to you, of course he wants you. You’re compassionate and kind and to top it off, stunning! What male wouldn’t want you, have you thought about that?”

Rose did not get the point, she just smiled. “I’m so happy to hear you say that!”

“No!” Salley groaned. “What I mean is he might just like you because you’re beautiful and nothing else, and yes, that’s a bad thing. What if he’s just using you!”

“He wouldn’t!” Rose looked offended again. “Salley, you need to stop. I’ve made up my mind and you won’t change it.”

“Arrrge ..” Salley snarled, before turning her back to Rose. “Fine! Do what you want, but mark my words, no good will come of this and father won’t approve. So don’t say I didn’t warn you!”

With that, she stormed away, lips drawn back in a silent growl of frustration. Salley flopped down against a tree trunk nearby, tilting her head back and looking into the waving foliage far above her head. So calm, unlike everything else.

“Why Rose?” Salley muttered to herself, rubbing a paw across her face and not wanting to consider her list of ever-growing mess-ups.

This could not end well.

><><

It was awhile before Luna returned, and Salley had taken to reading one of her books. The wooded hill their little group stood on overlooked the fields of Sevenfall, and Salley got a good look at Luna’s unspectacular landing.

She was alone, and she stumbled as her hooves met the ground, falling to her knees and sliding a few inches. Salley winced, quickly standing up and shoving her book into her satchel. That looked painful.

Luna staggered upright, limping out of the field and towards her friends. As she walked, Salley noticed the blue glow pulsing around her forelegs, and the pegagus’s limping faded away. By the time she reached them, her gait was completely normal.

“Are you alright?” Salley meant to ask that, but it was Stargazer who did.

Luna shook herself. “Yes .. rough landing, but that’s to be expected.”

She paused, before adding, “Are you sure you two will be fine out here alone?”

Dancer looked slightly nervous, but nodded.

Stargazer flicked his tail to brush away a fly. “I know these aren’t the best of circumstances, but we’ll help those Wandering Rubies recruit creatures. If Ignasa is willing, you’ll have an army ready for battle when you return.”

He dipped his head to Salley. “May He watch over you.”

Salley swallowed, nodding quickly. She rushed to hug Dancer, squeezing her arms tightly around her neck. “I’m sorry I got you into this.”

“It could be worse.” Dancer tried to keep her voice cheery. “Tell dad I love him. And that I’m sorry he’s been so worried.”

“Of course I will.” Salley held onto her best friend a moment longer, before pulling away and brushing a stray tear from her cheek. “Be safe.”

With that, she turned and hurried to Luna’s side, where Rose already stood.

Luna led them away from the clearing, and around the edge of Sevenfall. They plodded up the hill, finally stopping at the top for a moment to get their breath.

Rose looked over the town, smiling faintly. “Oh, it’s so beautiful.”

Salley silently looked, before looking to Luna. She was turned in the opposite direction altogether, staring off into the woodlands. “This way.”

Salley and Rose followed her, Rose asking, “Was .. Tynek alright?”

“Yes <insert dragons name> agreed to take them. They’ll be flying by night while we fly by day.” Luna wove between some trees, stopping at the edge of the hill’s crest. A steep, cliff-like slope made up the part of the hill opposite the town.

“Salley, how far down do you think that is?”

Salley looked to Luna, shrugging. “I .. wouldn’t really know. We’re higher than most of the trees.”

“It’ll do, but it might be best if Rose closed her eyes.”

Luna spread her wings as the two mice climbed on her back, though Rose was trembling and wrapped her arms around Salley’s waist instantly. “Are .. we sure about this? We’re really flying?”

“Yes.” Luna galloped towards the cliff’s edge. “We are.”

This time, Rose shrieked in Salley’s stead as they fell, only to soar upwards moments later. As impossible as it seemed, Salley was almost becoming accustomed to the sickening drop and howling wind, and the forest that spread out below them made for a beautiful patchwork of greens.

Up here, the world seemed far too peaceful.

They flew for days. Every evening, Luna would find a place to land, and every morning they would have to find a cliff or otherwise high place to take off from. Conversations were had, but Luna honestly seemed too weary to bother.

Finally, on the morning of the sixth day, Salley spotted the familiar thatched roofs of none other than Evenglade. Rose could hardly contain her excitement as Luna made a broken, stumbling landing in one of their father’s fields.

Salley decided not to mention that to him.

Rose tumbled off of Luna’s back, running joyfully through the barley towards the road. “Come on Salley! We’re home! Can you believe it?”

Salley dismounted, noticing Luna’s shaking legs and the sweat dripping from her milky coat. Blue fizzled around her body like static as she gulped in air, and Salley nervously asked, “Are you alright?”

Deep bruise-like circles under the pegasus’s eyes contradicted her words. “I’m fine .. I will be fine. Is there a place I can rest?”

“Yeah, the stable.” Salley brushed barley away to make a path for Luna to reach the road. She staggered onto it, where Rose was waiting impatiently. The three had to go at Luna’s pace, slowly, so Salley brought them around the back way to not be noticed. She opened the stable door for her pegasus friend, to find it empty.

Fresh straw made a dusty, golden bed in Dancer’s half of the stable, and Luna collapsed on it with no further questions asked. She fell asleep before she’d fully fallen over and lay still, radiant wings draped across the floor.

Luna’s weary breathing was the only sound for a few moments, before Rose knelt by her side and ran her paw across her coat, apparently checking for something. Seconds later she stood, looking relieved. “She’ll be ok. She’s just exhausted. We should let her sleep for now.”

“Well.” Salley admitted as they walked out of the stable and she shut the door behind them, “She did fly every day for almost six days. I imagine that puts a serious strain on her.”

Rose nodded, before grabbing Salley’s paw and turning towards their house. “Come on! We have to see mother and father, they’ll have missed us so much!”

“They’re going to be mad at me ..” Salley began, but Rose ignored her as she pulled her up the steps of the back porch.

“Hurry!”

Rose threw the back door open, and Salley stumbled to a stop beside her, narrowly missing slamming into the door frame.

Their parent’s were eating breakfast .. and emphasis on the word ‘were’.

Their father stared at them, a roll raised halfway to his mouth. Their mother broke the silence as her spoon clattered into her bowl.

“Mother, father!” Rose spread her arms out. “We’re home!”

Salley hid behind her hair, wondering what her parents would actually say. There was a crash as her mother leaped from her chair, bolting to Rose and wrapping her in a tight hug. Salley took a step back to give them room, while her father just stared at her. When he finally spoke, his voice was raw and dry. “We thought you were dead. How? We looked .. everywhere!”

Their mother looked Rose up and down, tracing several scratches along her cheek with her paw. “Oh Rose .. you’re hurt, and so dirty .. and look at your dress .. are you alright?”

“I’m fine mother.” Rose smiled.

Salley stiffened as her mother hugged her tightly too, tears welling up in her eyes. “Salley .. Rose .. I can’t believe it’s you!”

She hugged them both as their father stood, walking over and joining the embrace. After a few moments they all took a step back and her father asked, “What happened out there?”

“Oh daddy it was awful!” Rose blurted out before Salley got a chance to open her mouth. “There were Necromancers and soldiers and magic swamps and dragons and I was so scared!”

“What?” The shock in their father’s voice made Salley wince.

He turned to her. “What happened?”

Salley spoke quickly, before Rose could continue. “We were chased by Necromancers, protected by Prophets, got somewhat lost in a magical swamp, met a few new creatures and then flew back here on a pegasus.”

Her father’s eyes widened, but Salley continued before anyone could cut her off. “That’s not the biggest problem right now, what about Brek?”

Both her parents stiffened, sorrow flooding across their faces.

“How did you know he’d gone missing?” Her mother asked.

Salley sighed. “Because I met a group of creatures that he’d traveled with, and apparently he’d asked almost every creature in the north about me. But we have reason to believe he’s been captured by Badrang.”

Her mother started forward. “You know where he is? And captured? What makes you think that?”

“Badrang?” Her father interrupted. “Who is Badrang?”

“Badrang Daskar, vassal of the Greeneyes. He’s on the eastern shores .. ”

She paused as her father froze, absolute terror in his eyes. She suddenly narrowed her eyes. “You .. know about the Greeneyes?”

Her parents exchanged a look, before her mother grabbed Rose’s paw. “Come dear, let’s get you freshened up.”

Her father nodded in the direction of his office. “Follow me.”

Salley swallowed the lump in her throat as she obeyed, trying to calm herself as her father shut the door behind them. She wasn’t here to be questioned, not this time. Those rolls had switched.

As her father turned around, she set her face. “What do you know about the Greeneyes father? It has to be more than you’ve told me, I know it.”

He slowly walked past her, speaking evenly. “The Greeneyes conquered Mossflower and drove many from their homes ..”

“You were one of them.”

He stiffened, asking curtly, “Excuse me?”

Salley continued boldly. “You were driven out, because Mossflower was your home. I know it father, you can’t lie to me about this.”

“I never lied.” He insisted. “I didn’t tell you what you didn’t need to know. What does it matter if my family came from Mossflower? I’m never going back, and you aren’t either. This is our home now.”

“Brek is in their claws! We have to save him!”

Her father shook his head sadly. “Salley, I hate what happened to Brek, I hate myself for letting it happen. But the truth of the matter is he’s a kit; he would never make it to the eastern shores.”

Salley shook her head. “He would if he had help.”

“Salley, what am I supposed to do?” Her father looked exhausted. “If by some chance he did make it all that way and is in the Greeneye’s clutches, what can I even do?”

“Fight!” Salley insisted. “Help me raise an army and fight him! We can get Brek back .. we can save the entire north!”

He stared at her through several agonizing seconds of silence, before groaning. “Salley, none face the Greeneyes and live.”

“So you’ll just leave him there? He’s your son!”

“He’s already dead!” Her father snapped, tears glistening in the corners of his eyes. “If he was truly captured by them, he’s already dead.”

Salley fell silent, stomach twisting into knots as the room swayed around her. Hearing her father say those words confirmed all the fears she’d been fighting. “No .. we have to have hope!”

“Salley please.” He collapsed into his chair. “You know, fine. You’re right, I did come from Mossflower. And I’ve seen what they do firsthand. If Brek wandered too close to them and was captured …”

His voice broke as silent tears rolled down his cheeks. “He’s in the Lands Beyond. And I have my daughters back; safe. If you think I’m going to risk that for such a hopeless venture, you’re wrong.”

“But what if he’s alive!” Salley protested.

“He’s not Salley.” Her father buried his face in his paws. “He’s not. Oh my son … he’s gone.”

Silence blanketed the room as the older mouse’s shoulder’s trembled for a few moments, before he whispered, “Don’t tell your mother, and don’t tell Rose. Aryah and I had already accepted the fact that all our children were dead .. please don’t ruin this for her. We’ll decide what to do about it later.”

“Father!” Salley gaped at him. “You can’t just ignore this!”

“Salley, I won’t argue about this with you.”

Rage boiled in her soul as Salley clenched her fists, snarling, “Fine. You go ahead and hide like you always have. I won’t!”

Her father looked incredulously at her. “What do you really expect to do?”

Salley planted her feet against the floor, paws clenched, eyes snapping, and head held high. “I will fight! I’m raising an army to stop the Greeneyes, and I won’t let my brother die by their claws. If I am truly the queen, than I will succeed, and at very least I’ll try. That’s more than you can say, he’s your son and you would leave him?”

The silence was heavy as her father gaped up at her, ears slowly pinning against his curly hair. But it wasn’t anger sparkling in his eyes; it was dread.

He shook himself, shakingly stammering, “What is the nonsense? Queen? Army? You’re not ..”

“Yes I am.” Salley snapped, not letting him finish. “And I think you know it.”

He stared at her as she continued quickly, before he regained the presence of mind to retaliate. “Our family is related to the old king of Mossflower, and I am meant to be queen. The fact you avoid talking about Mossflower, and how you want me to be peaceful, and how your copy of the ‘History of Kotir and it’s Founders’ has pages ripped out .. it all adds up. You know more than you’re telling.”

“Salley! Where is this disrespect coming from?”

“The need to save my brother.” Salley snarled. “And the need to find out what I truly am, no matter the answer! I won’t hide like you!”

For a moment, her father’s knees shook, and a cold shock ran over her as she realized he looked for a second as though he would bow to her. Then his eyes flashed in defiance and he pointed upstairs, snapping, “Go to your room!”

Salley shrank back instinctively, before lifting her head high and turning her back, tattered cloak swirling out behind her. She did not run or cower, just simply walked up the steps at a measured pace, pausing at the top of the staircase and glaring down at her father, standing in the doorway of his office. “This isn’t over.”

“No.” He set his face. “But I’m going to finish it once and for all.”

The thud of his door shutting shook her to the core as she slowly walked into her room, sitting on her bed with a sigh.

“Ow!” Salley jumped up as her concealed sword pressed against her back, and she took it off, looking around before kneeling and sliding it beneath her bed. As she pulled her hand back, it brushed against something hard.

She pulled out her journal, spread open to a half-ripped page with sloppy, nearly unreadable pawwriting.

Slow tears grew in her eyes as she read Brek’s last message, and she clutched the book against herself, whispering, “I’m going to save you, I promise.”

Salley sat staring at the messy, now tearstained writing for a long time, starting suddenly as there was a knock on the door.

“Go away!” Salley sniffed, thinking it was her father.

Instead the door creaked open to reveal her mother. “Come now, can’t I spend a little time with my daughter who I thought was dead?”

Salley rubbed a paw across her muzzle, sliding the book under her pillow and standing up. She awkwardly spread her arms out, and her mother hurried over to her, wrapping her arms around her tightly. “Oh Salley, I’m so glad you’re alive.”

Caught off guard, Salley just patted her mother’s shoulder. “Uh .. yes .. likewise.”

“Oh!” Her mother took step back. “Heavens above, what are you wearing?”

Salley looked down at her tunic and trousers, sighing. Yes, she’d forgotten about that.

Her mother instantly went over to the trunk and began rummaging through it. “We need to find you some suitable clothes ..”

“Ah .. no thanks mom.” Salley held up her paws. “Look, I want to tell Gruven I’m not dead, ok?”

She sidled out the door. “It’s good to see you again!”

“Wait, Salley! You can’t go visiting a male looking like that .. Salley!”

Salley slid down the banister and hurried out the front door, shuddering a little. The last thing she wanted was to put on a horrible restricting dress again.

She burst into a run so her mother wouldn’t catch her, darting around the fountain and hiding behind it for a few moments. Satisfied she wasn’t being pursued, Salley took a deep breath and walked towards Gruvan’s house.

She strode up the front steps two at a time, knocking on the front door as cheerfully as she could, but no one answered. She tried again, only to have the same response.

Salley frowned, before remembering both Gruvan and his father would probably be out in the fields at this time of day. Well, that was a short walk compared to traveling through endless forests and magic swamps.

She turned around, jumping down the steps, only to freeze at the sound of an all to familiar voice. “Well look who’s back. Honestly I wouldn’t have believed it unless I saw you myself.”

Salley felt the hairs on the back of her neck bristle, and she snarled. “Don’t you have anything better to do than spy on creatures, Roderick?”

Her hated enemy vaulted over the railing of his porch, dropping to the ground laughably clumsily. In fact, she snickered under her breath.

He sauntered over to her, looking her up and down distastefully. “Ugh, what are you wearing?”

“I don’t have time for this.” Salley cut him off, turning to go. However a paw gripping her shoulder made her spin around and shove him away. “Don’t touch me!”

Surprise flashed in his eyes at her unveiled aggression, before he sneered down his nose at her. “I thought you die the first day, as weak as you are.”

Salley laughed darkly, clenching her fist and making certain he saw the powerful muscles under her golden fur. “You’d be surprised how strong I am. Now go away. I have more important things to do with my time than argue with you.”

Roderick did look genuinely surprised at this, but goaded her on anyway. “Hah, who do you think you are, some sort of adventurer? You’re just a girl, you’ll always be a worthless girl, no matter what you do.”

For a second, Salley considered punching him in his nose and thought about how nice it would look to see blood running down his face. However the next second she laughed mockingly. “Hah. I’ve faced enemies far greater than you, weakling. You’re irrelevant.”

She turned and walked away without another word, holding her head high. The stunned silence behind her was fare more rewarding than any beating she might have given him.


TBC~ Untamed We are wild 21:35, June 29, 2018 (UTC)