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This is the third installment of the Death Knight series. Its predecessors are Death Knight and Death Knight: Part Two. This thing is getting really long so I hope to finish it in this installment. Thanks for reading. Black Hawk Talk! 22:49, 14 November 2008 (UTC)
Reader discretion is advised
Part Twenty-Two: Flashback
Vulpo sat up in sudden alertness. He looked around. He was back in the guest room! How did he end up here? Vulpo thought back to the last thing he remembered. The medicine mouse had given him some tea. He remembered thinking it tasted a little off, and then feeling extraordinarily sleepy. How long had that witch’s brew kept him down?
Vulpo shook his head and his gaze settled on the occupant of the chair next to his bed. The squirrel had three stripes on his arm.
“Sorry,” said the fox softly.
Ashtail shook his head mournfully. “If killing two hundred vermin means losing ranks, they better make a kitchen scullion uniform, because I’d do it again. Gross insubordination my foot!”
Vulpo nodded. He didn’t smile. “Glad to hear it. Did Captain Sefera…well…?”
“They were nicer to her, because I 'manipulated' her. Knocked back to Second Lieutenant though.”
Vulpo frowned. “You realize this means you don’t have a platoon now, right?”
“Well, my soldiers think it’s a load of drivel, so I have their deference, if not official authority. Yew’s spitting fire. If he doesn’t watch his mouth I’ll get a new friend here in sergeant-land.”
Behind Ashtail, the door creaked open imperceptibly. Sefera slithered in stealthy, making a shushing motion with her paw. Vulpo locked his eyes on the oblivious Ashtail, still relating the day’s events.
“Apparently that hedgehog, the cook’s assistant, barged in on the commanders this morning shouting ‘Where’s the rum! The rum’s gone missing!’ I suspect the cook will be asking him how he knew the rum was gone that early in the morning.”
Sefera crept closer to the bed. Ashtail hadn’t noticed.
“Was there another sortie today?” asked Vulpo.
“Yes. They used a covered cart to get to the wall. However, to reach the gate you must go fully into the gatehouse and past the portcullis. An officer had the idea of raising the portcullis, waiting until they were inside, then slamming it shut.”
Ashtail nodded enthusiastically, recovering from his demotion almost immediately. “I bet the boiling oil stung,” said the squirrel sagely, then laughed. Suddenly, strong paws covered his mouth. He grunted. He threw the paws off and turned around in alarm. Sefera stepped back she was laughing so hard. Ashtail looked stern for a moment, then the edges of his mouth crinkled, and he busted out in mirth. Vulpo didn’t laugh. His mouth opened slightly. His eyes stared to another place.
“And then the rat corsair says ‘Hey! That’s not a rusty nail, that’s my share of the plunder!’ ” said Raúl. The group of foxes broke out laughing.
“Where the heck didja hear that one?” asked one of them in a pause in the laughter.
“Okay, my turn,” said Vulpo, then a chuckle slipped out. “A yellow-furred wildcat is walking on the side of a dry riverbed. She looks ahead, and sees another yellow-furred wildcat rowing a boat in the dry riverbed. She stands on the edge of the riverbed and shouts ‘You idiot! If I knew how to swim I’d-”
Vulpo’s joke was cut off by paws suddenly falling over his mouth.
“I’ve already heard that one, tell the yellow-furred wildcat on fire one” said Aspen.
Vulpo turned and looked angry. Then the entire group burst out in laughter again. Vulpo moved over on the log he was sitting on. Aspen sat down next to him.
“Okay, so a yellow-furred wildcat is…”
Vulpo blinked. He shook his head. Could these woodlanders be like him at all? Ashtail had stood up and offered Sefera his seat, which she graciously accepted, much to the surprise of the squirrel. Vulpo smacked his lips and looked to his side table. On it was a wooden tankard of water. He reached out. Halfway there, he grunted and fell back. He tenderly pawed his sore side.
“Curse that rat.” He said.
Sefera laughed. She reached over to the tankard and passed it to him. “Missing a few chunks indeed.”
Ashtail and Sefera began talking about their demotions, but Vulpo was no longer listening. He stared out the window, into the night lit only by a few lonely torches. At an angle, he could see a brighter light coming over the line of torches on the wall’s battlements.
Wait…Bright light this late?
Part Twenty-Three: Inferno
“Will the catapult be ready soon, ratling?” asked Emeraldai in lilting tones.
Foulfur tried to clear his head. The voice of the wildcat was intoxicating. Her tone was mesmerizing, and her bright green eyes seemed to pierce his very soul. Emeraldai waited patiently, her midnight black fur blending in with the dark. She didn’t need the blood red cape to intimidate him, or anyone, for that matter.
“Yeh, yeh…yes Mistress Emeraldai. Lord Grim asks you to bring your bow. General Gr…Grssk will meet us there.” He stuttered.
The enchanting wildcat flicked her tail. She adjusted the bow on her shoulder. “Very well, ratling. Lead the way.”
Foulfur nervously escorted the wildcat through the busy tents. A few of the more boisterous wildcats shouted catcalls. One of them, possibly inebriated, stumbled up to Emeraldai.
“Hey, lady. Hows about you ‘n me goes to see if there’s some more…” The cat paused and hiccuped. Yes, this one is definitely inebriated, thought Foulfur. “…to see if there’s…” The wildcat gave a very impolite belch. “Ya’know, if this place a fish shop, you’d be-”
The feral cat was cut off. He suddenly fell down, a gaping hole in his stomach spilling warm viscera over the dirt. He began squealing. The catcalls abruptly stopped.
“Silly boy, don’t you know to say ‘excuse me’ when you’re speaking with a lady?” said Emeraldai, not missing a step and wiping blood of her claws on a tent.
Foulfur swallowed. He hadn’t even seen the wildcat lash out, and she had raked the drunk’s gut right open.
“I dearly hope your master has better manners than his soldiers” said Emeraldai.
“I assure you, Mistress Emeraldai, Lord Grim has conduct worthy of your mistress’ table.”
“I’m not so sure,” said the wildcat as a half-full bottle flew overhead “My mother has quite stringent standards.”
Foulfur gulped again. The pair reached the outskirts of camp. They slipped out of the torch’s light and into the darkness. Soon, they reached a collection of shadows other than trees. Foulfur limped up to the tallest shadow.
“Sir Grssk, I am pleased to introduce Mistress Esmeraldai, of the Black Queen’s court. She is here with soldiers. Also, she will be lighting our present to the brigadiers.”
The hulking wolverine grunted eloquently. Esmeraldai yawned.
“So why have you brought me here, ratling?”
“When the rock goes up, use this to shoot it. First light, then shoot, then light.” answered Grssk with a chuckle, handing her an arrow. Its head seemed larger than usual, but Foulfur couldn’t see. He almost asked a question, but given Grim’s reaction to questions, he decided not to risk it.
Esmeraldai wordlessly accepted the arrow and unshouldered her bow. Though she probably understood as much as Foulfur, she brought the arrow to her shoulder. Grssk picked up something from his feet, and with a shower of sparks he lit a torch.
“Quickly, launch!” he commanded.
In the light, Foulfur could see a team of vermin huddled around an oversized catapult. One pulled a lever and a giant boulder went flying into the air. Grssk shoved the torch under Esmeraldai’s cocked arrow. Whatever was on it lit, and the wildcat let it fly.
The incendiary arrow hissed as it leapt from the string. It flew and struck the giant boulder. The vermin had quickly learned from their enemy’s attack. This boulder had been covered with rags, and then doused in oil. When the flaming arrow hit, the stone became a giant meteor soaring towards the Brigade Bastion. Grssk ordered the troops to reload even as it approached the wall.
“Just how powerful is this, wolverine?” asked Emeraldai.
“Nothing can withstand it for long” he replied.
The fireball streaked over the fortress’ wall. Barely audible shouts came from atop the wall. The fireball flew right over the main buildings and crashed into the back slope of the valley, snuffing out as it rolled and fell back to the ground.
“Unless you miss!” berated Esmeraldai.
Grssk grimaced and deflected the ire upon the fire team. A weasel struggled to adjust the controls. Foulfur barely kept from laughing. He decided against it when he remembered that second-in-commands were doubly replaceable in this horde. Esmeraldai was handed another arrow.
“Fire!” ordered Grssk.
The catapult rocked as another rag-bound boulder was launched through the air. Esmeraldai’s face was bored in the flickering light as she shot again. A flawless hit. Foulfur’s mirth died out. If she shot that well without focus…
“Holy-!” the badger’s next word, an obscenity, was deadened by the inferno smashing into the wall.
“What the heck was that?” asked Lentil, jumping up from his cot.
Kit started. There was a light outside, dancing like a fire.
“This can’t be good” he said, throwing off his blanket and pulling on his boots.
The tow brothers hurried outside and stopped in shock. A building was on fire, and fireball was going right towards the bastion!
Sefera hurried up. “Get to the wall, privates!”
As she spoke, Ashtail jogged up. “Se…Cap…Lieutenant, we’re wanted at the wall.”
Behind him came Vulpo, staggering and clutching his wounded side. He was dressed in simple beige garments, probably found in the guest room drawers.
“Lieutenant, are you as good with a bow as you are as an officer?” he asked.
Ashtail nodded vigorously. Not waiting for a response, Vulpo gripped Sefera’s arm and dragged her away, despite her protests.
The brothers looked at Sergeant Ashtail quizzically. “Shouldn’t we do something about that, sir?” asked Lentil.
“That fox saved five lives, including mine, directly last night. And God knows how many indirectly.” Ashtail shook his head. “I owe him much more than this.”
“He does seem to have a plan” conceded Kit.
Vulpo ignored Sefera’s questions until they were well within the passage.
“If I’m away from the wall, how are we supposed to…”
Vulpo replied drily. “Supposed to stop the giant siege machine positioned well out of your range.”
“How would you know if it’s out of range?”
“Would they really be that stupid?”
“One who assumes his enemy is a fool is a larger fool.”
“Point taken,” she replied “But what does that have to do with me?”
“Fight fire with fire.”
Sefera caught on quickly and connected the dots. “Didn’t we run out of incendiaries in the raid?”
“If you lit and shot them all, then your range is very poor. There was a handful scattered around your position.”
Sefera felt the pressure lift from her arm. She heard a rustling of cloth. Vulpo crouching in the narrowing passage, presumably.
“Do you have one?”
“So what are we supposed to do?” asked Sefera, hurrying behind the fox but taking care not to run into him.
“Leave that part to me.”
Sefera crouched when she felt the first rocks brushed the fur on her head. The unlikely pair soon emerged from the tunnel.
Vulpo pointed in the direction of the enemy camp. “Go to a place where you can see whatever they’re using to launch those infernos. Stay hidden.”
“How will you-”
Vulpo melted into the shadows before she could finish her question. Sefera sighed. Couldn’t this one explain anything?
Kit, Lentil, and their superior officer were stuck at the bottom of the staircase. Apparently every soldier with a rank greater than private had ordered everyone to the wall. Commander Stone’s voice thundered down the stairway.
“Archers only, longbows and crossbows up front! Everyone else out of the way!”
The three moved to the side, unsure of what to do.
“So, do you two know why Vulpo is doing this? I mean, what would posses him with such hate and malice?” asked Ashtail.
“Well, sir, we know part of it. He told us enough to give reason, but I don’t think it’s the full story” said Lentil. Ashtail gestured for him to continue.
“Well, he began in one summer, I don’t think so long ago…”
“Where are you, you accursed fox?” whispered Sefera to no one in particular.
Sefera jumped. Over her shoulder was Vulpo. He had evidently recovered his black clothes and cloak, as only his white face and paws showed in the black. He didn’t smile at her surprise. He passed her an arrow and pulled out flint and steel.
The two looked out to the catapult. The vermin were rushing to reload the weapon. Without the light of the fireballs, they couldn’t see any faces.
“I assume you know what to do now” whispered Vulpo.
Sefera placed the arrowhead against a rock. Vulpo struck the flint and steel together, sending a shower of sparks over the rock. The light didn’t take. Sefera swore softly. If the fire team was observant, they would see the sparks. Vulpo ignored her and tried again. On the third try it lit.
Sefera pulled her bowstring back and launched the arrow in the direction of the catapult. Against all odds, it hit the catapult. Or rather, it hit part of the catapult. In particular, it struck the oil-soaked, rag-bound missile the vermin had just loaded. It burst into flames. The catapult was rendered quite useless. The attendant vermin shouted and panicked.
Vulpo didn’t spare time to watch, a major concession in Sefera’s mind. He grasped Sefera’s arm and rushed back to the passage.
“…And then he ran off to the east” finished Kit.
Ashtail stood speechless, mouth agape.
“That…how…He,” Ashtail shook his head. “I can see his reasons now.”
Suddenly, a great cheering arose from the top of the wall.
“Burn! Yes! Burn!”
“Giv’m a taste of their own medicine!”
“I resent that” mumbled a passing Madame Hemlock.
Part Twenty-Four: Nightmares
Ashtail stepped quietly into Vulpo’s room. Several hours ago, Sefera and Vulpo had returned. Vulpo had weakly stumbled into his room, too tired to explain. Sefera had related the story to Ashtail.
Ashtail quietly walked up to the bed and sat at the chair he had used just hours ago. He sighed and leaned closer to the sleeping fox, turned away from him.
“How do you live, Vulpo? What is your life now?” he whispered.
Vulpo stirred in his sleep and mumbled something unintelligibly. He fitfully turned, apparently having a bad dream.
Ashtail was uncertain whether to wake him or let him sleep. Vulpo muttered something again and gave a half-whine. It was the most emotion Ashtail had seen him have, other than rage. Ashtail took pity on him and reached out to touch him. Just before he shook him, Vulpo turned over. Curious, thought Ashtail. Vulpo’s eyes were open, but glazed over. Then, Ashtail gripped Vulpo’s shoulders. He gasped sharply. It was like a wave of ice was creeping up his arm, radiating from the touch. Ashtail’s vision clouded over.
“No, let me not see it again. Please, not again” a voice pleaded.
Ashtail staggered on his feet groggily. He looked to the source of the voice. Several steps away was Vulpo, on the ground, covering his face and weeping.
“Vulpo, where in blazes-” Ashtail paused. The sound of running steps on brush and dirt stopped him.
Ashtail looked around. They were in a Northlands forest, sparse by most standards, but green for the area. It was as if it was Spring or Summer. They were on the side of a path. The path was covered with disturbed earth, as if it had just be used very much by very many people. Ashtail was standing near a tree. In the distance, a figure was running up.
Ashtail gasped. It was...Vulpo? The fox was now brown, however, and dressed in regular forest clothing. Though Vulpo passed right by him, he didn’t notice Ashtail. His eyes were lit up with anger.
White Vulpo begged again. “Not again…Please, no…”
Brown Vulpo kept running. Then, the steps stopped. He had stopped at a right angle from Ashtail and the road. Brown Vulpo fell to on his knees, facing something just out of view, further down the road.
White Vulpo moved. He looked down the road and gasped again.
“As if I cannot help from seeing it every moment,” he cried.
Ashtail felt vomit welling up in his throat. Vulpo stood. Then, verse rang out, softly at first, but building with rage and hate. No mortal lips were moving. Brown Vulpo took no notice, but his eyes began gleaming.
Why am I brought asunder?
I can hear her every plea,
It rings in my head like thunder,
‘Why did you not protect me?’
Her last breath, it took mine too.
All is ashes, I wish this was dreamed,
Nothing is left, what can I do?
How could I be redeemed?
Her beautiful, now blood-stained coat,
I have found my new call,
I will slash that bastard’s throat!
The Death Knight, kill them all!
The voices chanted louder and louder until Ashtail fell to the ground clutching his head. He felt as if his head would explode. As the last word thundered into the forest, he blacked out.
Ashtail opened his eyes, the chanting seared into his memory. His arms were covered in a cold sweat. He was still seated next to Vulpo’s bed, but now hypnotic golden eyes leered at him in the darkness.
“And now you know, Ashtail,” whispered the fox “Why I am hate.” Ashtail sat in numb shock. “Goodnight, little squirrel, and remember why I kill.”
Ashtail walked out in a daze.
Part Twenty-Five: One More Plan
“Is the framework almost assembled, Wimpy?” asked Grim.
The weasel bit his lip to stifle his reply. Whips inwardly cursed his mother for giving him such a name. It probably sounded like a good idea at the time, as she was a slavemistress.
“Well, my lord, one frame is complete, two are being prepared, and the inner parts will be done within a few days. The blacksmith needs more time to get us the last thirty shields, I’m afraid.”
“How much longer, Wimpy?”
Whips would’ve hit any other vermin for the abuse, though he had had that name for as long as he could remember. Fear kept him well in check.
“Three days. Two and a night if you bring in another work team.”
“I’ll get you get the team. You have two days” said Grim.
Whips nervously walked away, back to take out his anxiety on the work team. The soldiers had been working constantly since they arrived. In any army but Grim’s, this project would take weeks, but with enough bodies and a healthy dose of fear, just about anything could be done in a seven days. Whips gripped his namesake and began shouting at his workers, a mix of slaves for muscle and more intelligent vermin for skilled work.
Grim stalked away. As he left the work team, Emeraldai prowled up. She stared into his eyes wordlessly. Grim subconsciously wondered what happened when two pairs of hypnotic eyes looked into each other. The wildcat broke the silence.
“My mother wishes to know more about your incentives. Her reinforcements, and my skills, do not come free” she said. Her voice was not loud, but commanded attention better than any shout.
“Not to worry. I assure you, the Black Queen will be repaid twofold. Especially when I have need of your…sailors” he replied.
“I need more than a promise, sly one” insisted Emeraldai.
“Very well. I can provide you-”
Emeraldai pressed a clawed finger to his lips. “Not here, sly one. It is best to discuss these matters elsewhere. Somewhere where…unwanted ears while not pry.”
“As you wish, wildcat. You seem to think that you are more important, and not just an extra tool, but I will grant your request. Where shall we meet to discuss these matters?”
“Let us go to the overlook on the cliff. Tomorrow morning.”
Grim raised an eyebrow. The cliff was well out of the way, but hard to get to. It was the highest point for miles, but not much higher than the bastion’s slopes.
“I’m sure we will have many matters to…discuss,” said the wildcat. She drew a claw slowly down his arm, making a sound almost like purring, as if a wildcat could.
Grim raised his eyebrows slightly as the wildcat walked away. An interesting development.
Emeraldai hid her contented smile until she was well out of camp. Then she laughed softly. This Grim was a pompous fool. Violent and powerful, yes, but a fool! If he would trust her this far, then large things will be coming towards the Black Coalition. The Black Queen and her corsairs would soon do so much more than pirate coastal villages and holts.
Emeraldai clicked with her tongue and whistled softly. A small, withered gull flew down from the tree branches. He babbled excitedly.
“Dya need me? Dya need me? Dya need me?” he gushed in his high-pitched, squeaky voice.
Emeraldai cuffed him, giving just enough claw to catch his attention. “Stop yapping, Triptalon. I need you deliver another message to our friend.”
“Same one, mistress? Same one? Eh, eh? Same one?” the gull, unabashed from the last smack, continued his speech.
Emeraldai rolled her eyes and produced a short, slim roll of parchment. The roll had a simple loop of string around it. Triptalon could be obnoxious, but he was the most reliable seagull she had seen. And despite his babble, he never sold secrets, an uncommon characteristic amongst the birds.
Triptalon hopped about excitedly. He snatched the message with a claw and opened it. Emeraldai didn’t stop him. He had never spread secrets, and her little minion would read it whether she was watching or not.
“Le’s a see ‘ere! Hurr…Grim a be a at a ov’look in da mornin’! He’ll a be there quite alone, eh? He’s sa gonna be lone? Howsa mistressa arranja tha?”
“It doesn’t matter, my speech-challenged pet. What matters is that the message gets through” she replied.
Triptalon gave a haphazard salute to his mistress, slipped the loop around a leg, and flapped his wings. “Message a get through wid outa fail, eh? Yousa friend knowsa by tonight, ya?”
Emeraldai rolled her eyes. The gull flew off, cackling to himself. The idiot would be lucky if he didn’t get caught. What he lacked in speech coherence was doubly missed in stealth.
Part Twenty-Six: Diddly-Doo and Diddly-Dumb
“I wish I had tuna!
I wish I was on the breeze!
But I’ve got…got…”
Triptalon cocked his head in thought. What rhymed with tuna? Best to go through the alphabet. auna…buna…funa…muna…tuna…Triptalon was rapidly running out of letters. At least he knew his letters. His mother had taught him, rest her soul. At least he thought it was his mother. No, his mother passed away…no…
What was he thinking about? Something about tuna, surely. What was that bothersome thing around his leg? Triptalon alighted on a tree branch and inspected the roll of parchment. The memories flooded back into Triptalon’s scattered brain. Of course! His mistress’ assignment! He shook his head. Now where was he supposed to meet that…Who was he giving it to?
Triptalon leaned against the tree trunk and looked around. Well, there was the way he came…He was going that way…Triptalon decided to just keep going the way he had been going and wish for luck.
Triptalon flapped his way past the stand of trees he had landed in. Luck had served him before. Things seem to fall into place for the seagull. And his mistress thought that he was reliable…
Boneeye’s wings whispered silently in the night. Much less silent were his complaints about the idiotic gull.
“If that scatterbrained load of feathers could get it together for just one second, maybe I wouldn’t have to tail him every flap of the way” he grumbled.
Boneeye’s single working eye flashed in the weak moonlight. His other eye didn’t seem to reflect any light. Instead of his other eye’s black, his right eye was dull gray with a white lightning bolt running down the middle. He had been that way ever since his first battles working for the Black Coalition. He was skilled and trusted, especially by the Black Queen and her daughter.
Boneeye wished for the hundredth time that night that Esmeraldai would just let him take her messages. At least he didn’t forget where he was going and who he was delivering it to. And he could hold his own against anyone stupid enough to mess with him.
Below, Triptalon blustered through a collection of dry branches. Moron.
Vulpo crouched in silence. The distant snapping of twigs announced that bumbling fool’s arrival. The seagull crashed through another branch and into view. Triptalon attempted to land. He tripped over his own feet and stumbled into a rock. Vulpo clenched his teeth.
The gull hopped back upright and looked at the fox.
“Allo? Who ah ya?” he asked.
“Give me the message, seagull.”
“What message? Eh, eh? Oh! Mah mistress’!”
The gull held up his leg and offered the roll of parchment to Vulpo. He reached out and pulled the loop of string off. He unrolled the paper and strained to read it in weak moonlight. Then, he made a deep claw mark in the parchment. He rolled it back up and passed it to the gull.
“Wha was tha fer, eh? Lil’ clawsy?” babbled Triptalon.
“Well, it would be best if I did not have it. Now your mistress knows that I saw it, no gull could make that mark.” Vulpo turned in the direction that the gull had come from. “Though I’m sure your crow friend will report that I read it.”
A gentle flapping came from the dark trees. “Please, raven. Crow is derogatory.”
The black bird emerged from the dark foliage. “I am Boneeye, her majesty’s aide.”
Vulpo waved his self-importance off. “If this message is legitimate, the Black Queen may well become a Dark Empress.”
“A pleasure to do business with you, I’m sure” said Boneeye.
“If you say so. And make sure that he is alone.”
“Of course” assured the raven. “Come, Triptalon.”
“Wha? Oh! Allo bonesie! Ow you doin lately, eh, eh?” The seagull looked up from an apparently interesting piece of moss.
“My name is Boneeye, Triptalon. Remember it!” hissed the bird.
When Boneeye looked up, the fox had disappeared. He rolled his eyes. All this secrecy and cloak-and-dagger business. Boneeye consoled himself with thinking of his life back at his mistress’ home. Only a few more days of this worthless campaign and he would have a rest until the next. The invasion of Mosslower!
Part Twenty Seven: Their Last Cries Began the Killer’s Doom
Sefera leaned against the wall. It was late, and she should be asleep, but tension kept her on her feet. She was outside the kitchen, listening to the snoring hedgehog, asleep at table. Sefera wasn’t sure what had caused her to wander here from the barracks. Most of the time her restless walks brought her around the barracks or up the wall.
The door creaked and her head snapped to the figure emerging from it. Vulpo’s white head, seeming to float in the air in the dark, betrayed him.
“What were you doing?” she asked suspiciously.
“Scouting” replied the fox.
“Rat spit. What were you doing?” she repeated.
“It doesn’t matter, squirrel.”
“I think it does, fox” her eyes narrowed. “You seem to be earning the title of sly one.”
“Watch my whiskers, check both ears. Robber foxes have no fears” he whispered.
“Don’t think I don’t know that. I’m keeping an eye on you. Remember that I lost a few ranks because of you.”
“I imagine you are more unhappy because of your mother’s disappointment in you.”
Sefera was caught of guard, but recovered quickly. “I’m watching you.”
“And you did a wonderful job of that when I left earlier.”
Sefera could have hit him, but something made her stop. Normally these comments were intended to be funny, but Vulpo didn’t have a flicker of a smile on his face.
Vulpo slipped away in the direction of his room. Sefera knew he must have been doing something. Sefera frowned and walked in the direction of the swordsquirrels’ barracks.
Vulpo chewed his lip as he stepped into his room. What was this feeling in his gut? He had felt it for a long time, but certainly not for some collection of squirrels and mice. The guilt he had carried was had been present for so long that it just melted into him, so much like the rage that came in his battles. This guilt was different. The guilt of betrayal.
Ashtail dozed sleepily in the wardrobe. Then, he shook himself awake and looked through the cracked door. Hopefully, he would be able to see Vulpo if he tried to do anything. Personally, Ashtail thought Vulpo had earned their trust. Except, every time he thought that a lingering feeling of doubt came over him. Vulpo hadn’t exhibited any signs of loyalty to anyone but himself.
Ashtail’s head drooped again, then snapped back up. At least Sefera said she would let him go back to his bunk a while before sunrise. Then he could sleep. Why would Vulpo do anything, or at this hour?
The bedroom door opened, and Vulpo stepped out. He was dressed in his leather armor, covered in his usual black cloak. His weapons were all in place. He was pulling on his mask.
Vulpo walked halfway across the room, then stopped. He stared right at Ashtail, despite his hiding place. Ashtail grimaced. It was hard to hide from this fox. He stepped out of the wardrobe. Vulpo pointed to a table.
Out from the low tablecloth came Lentil. He looked at Ashtail in surprise.
“Where you going?” asked the mouse.
“It doesn’t matter” replied the fox.
Ashtail looked at Vulpo. “Wherever you go, you’re not going alone.”
“Yes I am, Ashtail.”
“If you stop him, I’ll still follow” said Lentil.
Vulpo turned to the mouse. “This isn’t a game, mouse. Not some ‘Let’s go fight the vermin menace’ afternoon imagination. I’m going alone. This is my business.”
Lentil’s eyes flashed. “I’m not some useless dibbun. I will follow.”
“Where were you last night, Vulpo? You’re strange, but this is getting suspicious.” Ashtail asked.
Vulpo stepped close to the woodlanders, towering a head over Ashtail, almost two over Lentil.
“Let it be. I am going. Alone.”
“Away. You will not see me again. It is time for me to go. Alone” Vulpo repeated. He turned and left the room, out into the snow that had fallen in the night.
“We’re not letting him go alone, are we?” asked Lentil.
“I get Kit. You get Le’tent Sefera. I assume he is going to the passage,” said Lentil.
“Maybe Vulpo has a point. You’re just sc-”
Lentil gave an angry look to the squirrel.
“Ah, right. I see” reconciled Ashtail.
Vulpo crawled through the tunnel. He knew the woodlanders would be following him. They thought they were being stealthy. He could here them whispering at the cave mouth.
He didn’t want the soldiers, especially the squirrels, to follow him. They would probably feel obligated to help him. That would undo everything. He had to get as far away as possible to make sure they didn’t keep tracking him. The new snow wouldn’t help.
The fox reached the end of the passage and brushed the snow and debris out of the entrance. He slid out on his belly and shoved more snow onto the hole. He packed it deeply with his bare paws. Then he placed some heavier stones over the snow. That would hold them for a while at least.
Vulpo began running through the foothills towards the overlook. He stepped over as much snow as he could to avoid laying tracks. In the dim early morning the snow almost glowed in comparison to the patches of dark fallen leaves and earth.
“Curse that bloody fox,” said Sefera, pawing at the tightly packed snow.
Grim walked up the steep path tranquilly. The behavior of the wildcat was curious, borderline suspicious, but Grim needed the allegiance of the Black Coalition to accomplish his lightning war to come. Killing representatives was not exactly cordial.
Whatever the wildcat wanted, he would give it to her. Whatever she asked for would be a pittance in comparison to his plunder.
Grim smiled at the thought. Hordes of slaves working prosperous fields, watched over by violent stoats and rats. A mountain of meat and rivers of wine for feasts every night. No point in letting the bounty of conquest go to waste. Eventually, he supposed, he would waste it. Warlords did not reign forever. Countless conquerors had learned that. But as he aged in his paradise, he would make sure to have as much pleasure as he could before age, disaster, or even assassination claimed him. Pleasure of all sorts.
Grim licked his lips. He remembered the greatest of pleasures throughout his life. All it had taken was a sly killing here and a false rumor there, and everything fell into place. Soon he would have any of it at any time he desired it. Heavy haunches of badgers, pikes as long as he was tall. It tasted like honey when it was raw. It was like sweet cream when cooked. Gold and silver, falling from his paws like an endless waterfall. Foxes that would run away if he came into sight, and others that would bow down, and more. Then, the torture he would do. Some warlords let their soldiers do interrogating or disciplining. Not the Great Lord Grim. Grim almost drooled as he remembered the blood. The screams for mercy echoing in his mind and the tears of pain. His paw slid into his cloak. He pulled out his favorite tools, never far away.
Grim returned the tools to belt and smiled. Such wonderful times. Sucking the very marrow of joy from every beast he came across. More would surely come. First these pathetic wretches of soldiers, then Redwall Abbey, then all of Mossflower!
Vulpo bore his fangs as he looked farther down the mountain. The squirrels floated through the trees like smoke in the breeze. There had to be some way to slow them down. His stride dwarfed the squirrels’ easily, but he could not hope to match their climbing ability. They were flying up the mountain as if it were the simplest tree. There was no sign of the mice.
Vulpo stopped. He faced them, still far down the mountain. If they were to catch him, he would have to deal with them. Ashtail and Sefera both hopped on a rocky ledge. Sefera took a great leap to get on top of higher rock, but something went wrong. She scrambled. Vulpo blinked. Ice, that must be it. Somehow the rock had gotten wet the other day, and over night, the water had frozen. Sefera crashed back down to the ground. He could almost hear the snap. Ashtail hurried up to her and knelt down. An unconventional relief, undoubtedly, but he’d take it.
Vulpo turned back up the slope. The sky was becoming light again, solid gray clouds dominated the world above. It was a good day to die, if for nothing else.
“Go. Get to Vulpo” said Sefera.
The squirrel strained to sit up. She winced and groaned. Sefera gingerly touched her long tunic. She drew it up to her knee. Blood ran down her fur. White bone came up from her skin.
“I can’t walk Ashtail. Get to Vulpo and stop him. Or help him, depending on what he’s…” Sefera clenched her teeth and grunted again. “Get moving.”
“I’m not leaving you. A watch patrol could come at any moment” said Ashtail.
Sefera pointed up the slope. “Whatever is going on up there is more important than that. You need to get going. I’ll send the mice up to.”
“I can’t abandon you, Sefera.”
Sefera closed her eyes exhaled slowly through her nose. She looked into Ashtail’s eyes. “Get moving, hero.” Sefera leaned forward towards Ashtail and kissed him.
Ashtail froze for a moment, then smiled. “When you put it that way…”
Ashtail scampered around the large rock and up the snow. Sefera pushed herself down to the ledge and then under it, wincing at every motion. She crouched deep in the overhang. She grimaced and began examining her injury.
Part Twenty-Eight: I Am Death Knight
Vulpo watched his breath escape his mouth and blow gently into the air. It would not be long now. A branch snapped. Vulpo almost jumped from the tension. He pressed himself tightly against the ledge. The overlook was just above. Vulpo bowed his head. “Let it be over at last.”
Vulpo turned and gripped the ledge. He propelled himself up easily. Fifteen paces before him stood Grim, leaning against a tree. The other fox flinched in surprise, then narrowed his eyes.
“Black Star. Why are you here?”
“I think you know” whispered Vulpo. His soft words were carried by the wind.
“I know who you are. Some pathetic wretch, powered by vengeance, and drunk with the idea of being a hero. And I suppose you made a deal. That traitorous cat! I’ve learned something, little hero; if you want it done right, you have to do it yourself. I’ve taken it to heart” said Grim.
Vulpo felt miraculously calm. “And how have you done this?”
“I think I know who you are really, now.”
“Who?” asked Vulpo
“Only a disillusioned, crazed fool would dare attack me. You’re the one who’s been killing off my veterans, right? Their bodies have been showing up all summer, and before that.”
Vulpo took in a deep breath. Grim continued his speech. “You could have joined, fox. You’d have to be good with those blades to bring down my veterans. I offered all of you a chance. You just didn’t take it.”
Vulpo heard a slight crunch of snow. How could they could here so fast? He had not waited that long for Grim to arrive.
“All I want is to rule. To be the master, the lord. Is that so odd for a fox? I have done everything in my power to get it. I’m this close, and no ‘hero’ is going to stop me.”
Behind Grim, stealthily creeping towards the pair were three figures. Ashtail silently guided the twins over rocks to avoid sound. Ten strides behind Grim, he stopped. Ashtail and Vulpo locked eyes.
“If you plan on killing me, I’ll give you a running start. It won’t matter. I am better. I am stronger. You are just a fox.” Grim was working himself into a fury. “I am the Lord Grim, and I will be the ruler of these pathetic creatures, all of them!”
Vulpo narrowed his eyes. Ashtail stood chewing his lip, then nodded. There were more words in the nod then he could express. Ashtail was letting him take this. Ashtail but a paw on the shoulders of the mice. Of course. Ashtail believed in the warrior’s code and honor. What fanciful concepts, thought Vulpo.
“Are you just going to talk?” asked Vulpo. He slid his paws to his blades.
Grim smiled and gripped his sword hilt. “Make your move, traitor to our kind.”
“I don’t do this in hate of my people. I do this because you killed her...and more.”
Behind Grim, Kit and Lentil were whispering argumentatively. They did it so quietly Vulpo could not make out the words. Ashtail was giving them stern looks.
“Ah, so that is who you are. The friend of that vixen.” Grim drew his tongue slowly over his lips. “She was a treat. Do you know how long she was alive…Vulpo?”
Something deep from the shadows of Vulpo’s mind twinged. What did it mean if Grim knew his name?
“Do you know how long she screamed your name? How long she wept?”
Vulpo’s mind gave a shaper twinge. How long had she?
Grim smiled. “Her screams were a wonderful chorus, Vulpo, little hero.”
Vulpo actually twitched. The twins’ argument grew more insistent. Ashtail began looking alarmed. He squeezed the twins’ shoulders more tightly.
“If you want vengeance, to be a hero for these impotent woodlanders, come and take your glory.” Grim drew his sword.
Vulpo felt a tug, somewhere; somewhere he couldn’t quite pin down. Vulpo took a single step towards Grim.
Suddenly, the twins leaped forward in a rush towards the confrontation. Ashtail gave a grunt of surprise and flailed his arms out in an attempt to catch them. He managed to get a grip on Lentil and pulled him in. His paw barely brushed Kit.
Vulpo’s eyes widened. This could not be good. He charged Grim, in such a rush he could not draw a weapon. Grim sank down to a fighting stance and chuckled. He brandished his longsword but did not make a move towards his spiked shield.
The mouse bounded several times over rocks. Then, Kit’s footpaw made a soft crunching noise as he stepped on a patch of snow. Soft, but loud in comparison to the other noises they had made. Kit made a great stride, overestimating the distance towards the tree Grim still stood next to.
Grim’s ear made the slightest twitch, then he whipped around. His empty paw shot out. He gripped Kit’s neck. Grim swung the mouse around and close to his chest. His sword went up to the mouse’s neck and he stepped away from the tree. Grim smiled, showing all his off-white fangs.
Vulpo halted, still six long steps away. It might as well be six leagues. “You move and he dies, hero.”
Vulpo’s eyes widened. He chuckled imperceptibly. He thought he was a hero. He thought he was a hero!
“You know, Vulpo…” Grim smiled wider, sure of his victory. “When she died, her last breath was spent forgiving you for allowing this to happen.”
Vulpo thought that surely the crack echoed throughout the snow-bound mountain. How could I have let it happen? How? It’s my fault! All my fault! No! No! screamed a voice in his head. His eyes filled with tears. He lies! He wishes to make me suffer! called a different voice. Vulpo couldn’t identify the voices in his head. They were so like his own, and yet so different. Another voice, so similar to the others, but also like the sea and sky, rang out in his mind. Let there be blood! Finish it now! The voice faded with the arrival of another one. The mouse… it whispered. He is worthless. The last voice was his own, his loud announcement silencing the entities.
Vulpo bent his knees. He moved his paws away from his blades to his cloak. He slipped off the black cloth, leaving exposed the sleeveless leather armor and deep green cloth around his arm. Grim narrowed his eyes in suspicion. Vulpo’s sudden laugh was like ice, a black spirit from nightmares come to reality. How can I feel so alive, yet so dead inside? The thought was swept away by one of the strange entities. His legs shot out straight.
Impossible. Ashtail widened his eyes.
Time slowed to an unhurried trickle. Vulpo twisted in the air, the colors on his arm flowing in the motion. He flew over Grim. Grim’s face first flashed with disbelief, then rage. Vulpo saw the slight tension of his muscles as they brought the sword to Kit’s exposed throat. Vulpo laughed loudly, an echoing thunder.
I am the lethal blade from the dark,
The soldier of the underworld,
I am not afraid, fear is my mark.
Let shadows be unfurled.
I am the wrath and the bloodlust,
Screams and the unholy terror,
I am the one who fights what is unjust
There can be no error.
I am the slaughter,
I am the hidden might,
The blood flows like water,
I am Death Knight.
Grim completed his motion. Thick streams of blood exploded from the slit. Kit’s scream was cut short and his struggles lessened.
Time crept along painfully for Vulpo. He could feel every sinewy muscle draw tight as he landed behind Grim. The cool bark of the tree behind him scraped against his back as his footpaws met the ground. His mirthless laugh persisted. Vulpo felt his dagger in his paw and slipped it out from its sheath. Everyone around him seemed to move in water, from Lentil’s shout to Grim’s turn. Things were crystal clear for Vulpo. He planted a paw firmly on Grim’s shoulder. He drove the dagger forward into Grim’s back, just above the waist. The point ripped its way through the leather, the fur, and the flesh. Vulpo withdrew the dagger, feeling the sudden loosening of Grim’s stance. Grim began to fall down, still clenching the mouse. To everyone around, his dagger flashed like lightning at impossible accuracy. To him, it was simpler than drawing his dagger had been. His blade once again drove into Grim’s flesh, shallower this time, and just below the uppermost vertebrae below the neck. Grim’s arms slackened as his spinal cord snapped. His muscles went limp.
The world exploded. Or at least, that’s what it felt like to Ashtail. A shockwave of invisible energy rippled out from the foxes and mouse. Ashtail’s fur blew back, then stood up in fear. Hissing out of the dagger’s point of contact were black specters.
One emerged completely. It was clearly a fox, but not a living one. The ghost was a nightmare alive. Its black bones were clearly visible. The sunken face was like a sewn mass of skin and burnt fur. It seemed to be made of mist, or more accurately, smoke, an ominous black. The smoke streamed of its body as if blown in a great wind. The eyes were burning embers that reflected back images of fiery shadow. With a flick of the wrist, a smoking sword swept from its hand, emerging from the dark bone with a hiss.
Every instinct told Ashtail to run. More of the demons materialized from the dark fog hissing away from Grim’s wound. The monsters shouted. Their cry was more blood-curdling than Vulpo’s. Suddenly all Ashtail could think about was death. Their chilling cry dominated everything. All of his memories seemed to fade away under sudden visions. Visions of destruction and tears. Of blood and malice.
There must have been thirty, more springing out every moment. They ran on the invisible winds, down the mountain. Ashtail couldn’t move in shock and horror. Ten more emerged from the ground, along with a dark fog of shadows that covered the foxes. They laughed maniacally, from these paws grew immolated hellblades. Ashtail gave soft cry as the swords shot black fire from blood red metal. The fiends surged away from the confrontation and down the slope, towards the Grim Horde. Ashtail began to turn away, to run and find a place to hide. But something stopped him.
The smoky fog slowly turned from black to white. It fell to the ground to swirl close to the dirt. Vulpo, Grim, and Kit were no where to be seen. From the mist rose two white figures. Ashtail inhaled sharply. They were beautiful. A strong, tall fox stood with a vixen. The vixen was not quite a head shorter than the fox. She was smiling widely. The fox had his arm wrapped around the vixen’s waist. He leaned forward, his chin touching her ear. He whispered something, then the pair laughed. It was like a divine angel’s chorus. Something drew their attention away from each other. From the floating mist came a small, young fox. He ran towards the couple. The tall fox bent, and caught the young one and lifted him up, laughing. Ashtail looked closer at the fox. His eyes filled with tears. This was who Vulpo might have been, if the evil blight had not touched him. They were miraculous. Ashtail sniffed. The emotion in the mist made him lose track of time and everything.
The specters soared into the camp, bringing a wind of death upon the horde.
“Everybeast for himself!” screamed a desperate rat.
The camp exploded into chaos. Vermin were in a panic. Every soldier was screaming or shouting. The demons made of smoke and fear shrilled and thundered wicked battle cries. None could make out the words, but they did not stop running to find out. Everywhere the fiends appeared, the vermin scattered like dust in the wind. Everything was becoming insignificant in face of the looming terror. The creatures broke and run, leaving plunder and equipment behind in a desperate hope that it could pay for their lives.
Part Twenty-Nine: The End
Ashtail lurched up. What had happened? How long had he lain prone in the snow? The last he could remember were the benign, wonderful spirits.
Next to him Lentil got to his footpaws. The pair silently went to the battleground. Ashtail looked to the tree. It was occupied. He opened his mouth in shock. How had Vulpo done this to someone? And how long had he been out to allow time for it to happen?
Ashtail looked to Lentil, then walked next to him. He put his paw on his shoulder. Kit stared up into the sky, not seeing anything. He was far away in the Dark Forest. Lentil cried out and accepted the shelter of the older woodlander’s arm.
The squirrel looked up and around. Vulpo was no where in sight. Not even his black cloak were on the frozen earth. Maybe he, too, had gone to the Dark Forest. Ashtail wasn’t sure if it would be a good thing or not.
Commander Frost flicked his tail. His fellow commanders stood next to him on the battlement.
“Is it over?” came a call from below.
Frost turned around and surveyed the courtyard. The soldiers stood in formation. Only a portion of them had witnessed the flight of the horde, and stories were whipping everywhere.
Head Commander Riptide held up his paws. The sun shot through the clouds in a shining beam of light, silhouetting the otter in a pose of victory.
“They are gone! The Grim Horde has retreated!”
The cheers thundered out and did not die out for a long time.
“We have lost one score of our troops for various reasons, milady. All unaccounted for. They could have deserted, been slain, or simply have gotten lost, among other things.” said the male wildcat with a sibilant hum.
“Thank you, Matar, go wake the soldiers, we return to the Black Queen.”
The white wildcat slipped out of the shallow cave softly, leaving Emeraldai to her thoughts.
Emeraldai’s face darkened. She would remember that fox, that Vulpo. He promised to kill Grim. He seemed to have done that, but he had not fulfilled the rest of the bargain. The Black Coalition would have seized control of the horde. Everything had gone wrong when those…things…had appeared.
Emeraldai left the cave and surveyed her four score warriors. Two score trusted wildcats, and two score bloodthirsty corsairs from her highness’ fleet. She wrinkled her nose slightly in disgust. This was a long enough campaign without having to deal with unclean pirates.
“Corny Loss! Have another tankard!” Commander Stone laughed cheerfully as his friend gave him drunken salute, then downed the provided flagon of ale.
The soldiers were having no lean winter. Great kegs of ale were brought out and discipline was slackened in celebration. Groups of friends gathered around and on top of tables.
Oakpaw Jents blew loudly into a reed pipe. Next to him a hedgehog pounded on a drum. Other woodlanders played various instruments from horns to small harps. The center floor had been cleared and had become a raucous dance hall. Oakpaw jumped back when an overzealous pair careened away from the pack.
A hare clapped his paws together with the beat. He gave a mighty leap and sang out.
Ashtail stood in the doorway, admiring the festivities. Sefera walked up to him, carrying two wineglasses in one paw and a crutch in the other.
“Why the deep look? They ran away! We won! You should be happy!”
Ashtail smiled and accepted the cordial. “I know. It’s just…” He paused.
“It’s just you can’t get over the fact that I kissed you?”
Ashtail chuckled. “If that was all I had on my mind, then I’d be dancing with you right now.” Ashtail gestured behind them, outside. “I just don’t think this is over.”
Sefera laughed. She punched him in the arm. “You’re not dancing with me because I can hardly walk. Stop thinking too much and enjoy yourself.” She paused and lowered her voice. “What actually did happen out there? I was in that crevasse, and you never told me the full story. Rumors are flying around everywhere.”
Ashtail smiled widely and set down his drink. “Come on outside. I’ll tell you everything. It’s not so cold, others won’t bother us either.”
Ashtail offered her an arm. She accepted it. Ashtail stately escorted her outside.
It Is Never Over
A harried raven woke from his shallow and uncomfortable slumber. Boneeye stretched his wings and peered out into the bare trees. He could just barely make out the blur of the Brigade Bastion in the distance.
“By my flight feathers, at last that’s over” he shook his head. He had flown as long as he could before his wings gave out. At least he had made it away from those…things. Suddenly, he heard a sound. Boneeye jumped and hid himself behind a snow-covered rock. He peaked out as the sound got nearer. What was he doing here?
Vulpo stumbled over a stray stone.
“It is over at last! I am free! I can remember her in happiness!” he said joyously.
His tone hardened and the joy fled.
“Free for the killing! I must have blood! I must make all of them pay! This is not enough!”
Vulpo fell to the dirt. He beat the ground and his voice came in a desperate pull. “How could it happen? Why did I let them die?” Vulpo got to his knees and clenched his temple.
“Get out of my head!” he shouted into the empty, bare forest.