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Thanks to all readers of Death Knight I! I apologize now that I didn’t have very much description of important characters in Death Knight, especially because that information becomes important here. Death Knight II picks up at the beginning of the first spring after the Grim Horde’s retreat.
Reader discretion is advised though DKII is not as gory as DKI.
I was thinking about calling this Death Knight II: The Empire Strikes Back. =D
Continued in Death Knight II: Part Two
Chapter One: Landing
Sergeant Oakpaw, he thought. The Northern Brigade’s finest soldiers had all gotten a promotion. Most of them anyway. Ashtail and Sefera had stayed low as a punishment. Oakpaw thought this a horrible idea. Keeping officers like Ashtail and Sefera down was a punishment on the army, not on them. Ashtail and Sefera. It felt strange referring to them by first name, but he couldn’t help it. It had always been on the tip of his tongue, and now that they were together it felt even easier to say. Ashtail and Sefera.
“Sarge! Get down!” shouted a soldier.
Oakpaw felt strong paws grasp his head and violently yank it down. Something whizzed by in the place where his head had been. Oakpaw collapsed into the trench.
“By Martin! Where did that come from? Thanks, Xvar” he said to the otter. The corporal smiled exasperatedly.
“Buggers just popped their ugly liddle ‘eads over the slope, mate” said Xvar.
“They finally decided to make a move, ‘eh?” spat Oakpaw. He shouted down the shallow, long pit. “Fern! Give ‘em taste of real archery!”
A great shout arose from the direction of the enemy’s position. They must be rushing the trench!
“You heard the mouse! Archers up!” commanded the squirrel in a strong voice.
Four lean squirrels bearing shortbows, two wiry otters wielding slings, and a stout badger with a hefty crossbow rose to look over the top of the trench. They paused for a suspicious amount of time, eyes widening in consternation.
“Fern! Give it to ‘em!” Sergeant Jents demanded.
Fern backed away from side of the trench and peered around the side of the badger.
“There are…lots” she said.
“What dya mean there’s lots? Of course there’s lots, this is a battle not a playgrou-ohh…”
Oakpaw peeked over the slope.
Oakpaw fell silent, then resumed command. “Corporal Xvar, take two of your group and run to Captain Yew. Ask for orders. We have time if you hurry. Fern! Get the missiles out there!”
Xvar nodded and signaled to two of his five sword bearers. Xvar, a squirrel, and another otter left the trench and ran away from the line, away to the east. Four missiles hissed over the trench and straight towards the group. The squirrel cried out and fell, arrow embedded in his back.
“Keep moving!” shouted Oakpaw. He heaved himself from the line towards the fallen beast. The otters slowed their pace, but then surged ahead as more arrows whistled by. Oakpaw bent by the fallen soldier, shivering on the frozen earth.
“ ‘Elp me sarge” he whispered through gritted teeth.
“Fern! Cover me!” Oakpaw shouted.
Fern yelled an affirmative as Oakpaw lifted the soldier quickly but gingerly. He ran back to the trench. Couldna done this three months ago he thought as he hopped in. The injured soldier moaned as they hit the dirt. Oakpaw set him down softly on his side.
“All right, soldier, we’re going to get this thing out before it gets an infection. Or you die” He said confidently.
“Thanks for the encouragement, sarge.”
Oakpaw winced at the bloody injury. He had two things going for him, though. One was that the arrow had missed the most vital areas, and the other was that the arrow went through to the other side. Oakpaw gripped a part of the longer feathered end, and snapped it in half. The soldier grunted and clenched his teeth. Xvar landed next to the surgery with a small puff of dirt.
“Back already?” said Oakpaw as he grabbed the arrowhead.
“Cap’n says we need to hold ‘em off for as long as we dare, sah” he reported.
“Yeesh, I didn’t need a higher-up to tell me that. Do you have any salve? This is gonna sting like a-”
He was cut off by the squirrel. “How much is this going to hurt?”
“More than getting it in there in the first place, but less than if it gets gangrenous” Oakpaw explained as Xvar passed him a small glass tube of unidentifiable lime paste.
“Uh…Maybe I could survive until we pulled back to-”
“Nonsense. Just think of cook Jermaine’s scones, covered in thick raspberries and cream.”
“They took cover behind some rocks, sarge! We can’t hit them, but if they get the courage to rush us, we’re done for” called an increasingly shaky Fern.
“Raspberries and cream? How in all that is good would I be able to think of-?”
Oakpaw gave the arrow a healthy yank. The squirrel gasped, mumbled something incoherent, and fell unconscious.
“Great. Maybe it was closer to the vital areas than I thought” moaned Oakpaw as he discarded the bloody arrow.
“Sarge! They’re movin up! We need orders!” shouted a worried squirrel.
“Fall back to the next trench! We live to fight another day!”
The soldiers pulled back, archers covering the retreat, Oakpaw and Xvar bearing the wounded squirrel between them. Xvar bit his lip and looked at Oakpaw sadly. Call it retreat, call it a tactical maneuver, it was still running away. A crossbow bolt pinged as it glanced off the shoulder of Oakpaw’s officer’s mail. He flinched and nearly dropped the private into the smooth seashore sand. The vermin group surged into the abandoned cover and cried taunts that stung like the arrows that nearly hit them.
“I dinah know lil mousie hearts came in such big bodies!”
“I thought yall left babes a’ home when ya fought!”
The squad fell back to their next spot, cursing their foes with every heavy step.
“Cap’n, 3rd squad of the Line Platoon broke ranks and fell back. The vermin have taken the first trench” reported an otter lieutenant.
Captain Yew groaned. He desperately wished that Ashtail were here. His leadership was needed. Yew was a good enough officer, but no Ashtail. But no, Ashtail was assigned to the North East Battalion. At least he was with Sefera. The North East Battalion was attempting to hold off the regrouping Grim Horde. At least Yew’s company didn’t have to deal with that place. Sure, it was frozen, but the ice showed signs of thawing, and most of the snow had cleared up. Farther North it was still frozen over with no signs of spring coming. The Eastern Battalion, of which Yew’s company belonged to, was assigned to fend off these ‘black collection’ pirates.
“Get the resting squad out there. We need to keep those corsairs from slipping out of our lines.”
“Aye, sah. I’m on ‘i.” the otter hurried away from Yew.
Yew returned to what he was doing. He stood over a large diagram drawn in the sand. He pushed a small stick back between one of the lines and sighed deeply.
Chapter Two: An Act Of Desperation
Ashtail had always thought Sefera’s eyes were pretty. At this moment, they were the most beautiful things he had ever seen. The black middle seemed to be a portal into his dreams and happiness. Around the soulful black was a rim of tawny gold. He loved to stare deep into those eyes, at every tiny strand of gold. The gold gradually turned to a nearly transparent blue-green, the color of a seaside tide pool. From the outer rim seemed to shoot shafts of light, illuminating some parts of the eye, while leaving other parts in the dark. He could stare into those drops of starshine forever.
Ashtail ran his paw down Sefera’s lean, muscled arm. Her fur was a rich auburn color. Ashtail didn’t know how he had never noticed how soft it felt, such a silky smoothness that he had felt nowhere else.
Sefera rose up on her footpaws to kiss his cheek. Ashtail closed his eyes and breathed out slowly. He held her tightly. There was nothing else he wanted to do, ever. Despite the cold, snow-bound world around them, he felt warm.
Ashtail heard the soft crunch of snow. He whipped around and stepped away from Sefera. A mouse was rounding a large rock. The mouse froze in a sudden wave of discomfort, shifting his weight nervously.
“Captain Hunt wish…eh…requests you to uh…wants you two on the next raid.” The mouse stuttered, and then flitted away as suddenly as he had come.
“Great. This’ll be around camp within all of twenty minutes” said Sefera.
“Does’n matter,” whispered Ashtail, bending slightly to kiss her on the cheek in return. He had grown taller over the long winter.
Sefera brought her arms around his neck and pressed against his chest. “I know. But last time this happened, the other officers kept giving us interesting looks.”
Sefera released him and smiled. She gave the smile that she gave no one else. Ashtail felt his heart skip a beat or three. He wasn’t sure if it was accurate, but he felt as if his muscles were melting away.
Ashtail gripped her paw and squeezed it gently.
“Better go before they send another” he whispered.
The two began walking back to the camp together.
“What kind of raid do you think this will be?” asked Sefera.
“I’m not sure. Hunt mentioned getting deeper into their territory, though. The Black Coalition’s lines are starting to press to far forward for Commander Stone, apparently.”
Sefera pressed against his shoulder. “As long as I’m with you, it will fine”
Ashtail smiled and leaned against her. “My sentiments exactly.”
Ashtail felt the tear on his cheek freeze to his fur. He used his cloth-bound paws to adjust the wrap around his head before more of the deadly wind could get through. Winter’s goodbye kiss was almost as bad as the blizzards of full fury.
I know you’re here somewhere. You have to be. You have to be, Death Knight.
Chapter Three: Hermit
The Death Knight crept through the forest silently. The giant river pike thought it was safe. Why wouldn’t it? There were few that dared contest with it, and those that did certainly wouldn’t be out in the unholy cold. A short warm front had allowed the frozen river to thaw some. For now, it stayed running, if sluggishly. The pike slipped through the river like quicksilver, flashing in a beam of light before disappearing into the darkness.
The Death Knight slid on his belly towards the shore of the river. He smiled wickedly as the giant fish flashed in the light again. Every few minutes it swam by this spot in a familiar pattern of searching for food. The Death Knight drew his knife and waited patiently. He counted steadily in his head. Every time he hit two hundred, the fish darted by. He waited for three more flashes of silver. Then, he tensed his muscles, redirecting his slow, soft breath so that it did not even cause a dim ripple in the water.
One hundred ninety-seven… One hundred ninety-eight… One hundred ninety-nine… The Death Knight’s paws flashed like a shooting star, into the icy water. The pike slammed into his paws, and they shook with force before steadying. With a grunt of exertion he ripped the fish from the water. His knife flashed in the midmorning, clouded sunlight. The knife plunged into the fish’s throat. Warm blood sprayed from the cut, reddening the new fallen snow.
The Death Knight rose and stood away from the struggling fish. The poor beast’s own heart undid it. The blood flowing back into the blue river slowed its current. The fish heaved mightily, then stopped moving. The Death Knight smiled with a gleam in his eye and chuckled. Killing was sssoooooo easy.
Vulpo shook his head dreamily. He awoke more readily when the scent of meat met his snout. He looked in front of him. On the fire spit was a large strip of fish, crackling in the heat. He smiled, then frowned. How in the world had that gotten here? The memories floated back to him, not the vivid images of clear remembrance, but the fuzzy imaginations that came when picturing somebeast’s story. The river, the waiting, the killing. He looked to the bloodstained chest far from the fire pit, undoubtedly packed with fish meat and snow.
Vulpo shook his head. He needed to come under control. No, I need to find new prey whispered a voice in his mind. Quiet, I, you…had my…your turn…killing is not what I am for, whispered another, more gentle voice. Other voices put in their comments. The less powerful ones were almost imperceptible, unlike the few that so often competed for dominance. It seemed they were gradually finding places where they felt comfortable in his mind. At some times, one was stronger, at other times, weak. Vulpo shook his head. He was in control. Or…was it one of them? Vulpo could not understand anymore. He had not heard the voices of his friends since the day he thought he had ended it. Now…He always felt himself, but who was he? Sometimes all he could think of was killing, the bloodlust that lurked under his thoughts. Other times he could do nothing but weep for things he had done. Now, he felt…normal. But what was normal for him, now? He felt calmer, more laidback than he had for a long time.
Vulpo reached out and took the hardened wooden stick suspended by short metal poles and brought it to his snout, relishing the scent. He felt the urge to wander again. He stood and wrapped his black cloak and new overcloak around himself more tightly, then donned his mask. Vulpo exited the dark cave lit only be the narrow shaft of a hole for smoke and the fire.
The Death Knight panted. New prey, at last! He thought. Before him was some creature, wrapped tightly in snow-covered cloth. The Death Knight snuck behind the beast, smiling. Maybe this one would last more than a few moments.
The Death Knight crept closer and closer to the slow-moving traveler. Then, when he was no more than three paces behind the creature, he leapt.
“I am Death Knight!” he shouted. His cry was deafened by the gently falling snow, but still caused the traveler to jump in surprise.
The two beasts collided and rolled to the ground, wrestling. The beast was stronger than he thought, but no match for him. The Death Knight ended up on top, staring into the small reflections of light that were eyes beneath the heavy cloths.
Stop! That’s no vermin! cried a familiar voice. So? he replied as he reached for dagger. The traveler’s eyes flashed with an emotion, and there were muffled words from the wrappings. The Death Knight could not recognize it, but he felt it was just beyond his grasp. He recognizes me! The voice surged forward, wresting control from the wrath.
Vulpo relieved some of the pressure on the beast. With one cold paw he moved some of the wrappings from the creature’s face. Pieces of a familiar face appeared.
Vulpo leapt to his footpaws and helped the beast up. “Ashtail! My friend! Why are you here?”
Ashtail blinked in surprise. Of all greetings, he had expected this one the least. Vulpo had never called him friend. His voice was warmer than he had ever heard it; in fact, it was the only warmth he had ever heard from him. His fierce determination flagged in face of such surprise.
“Eh…Hello to you to, Vulpo.”
“Come on, mate. Follow me to some warmth. My cave will suffice.”
Vulpo grasped his gloved paw and hurried him off. His words were stifled by a gust of cold wind, and he shivered involuntarily.
Within a minute Vulpo stood in front a large circular stone that seemed to be a part of the slope. Vulpo released his paw and seized the edge of the stone. He pushed it aside, revealing a glowing cave.
“It’s lighter than it looks” explained Vulpo with a grin. He ushered him inside, then followed him. He slid the stone back into its place and the howling wind ceased.
Ashtail looked around the warm cavern. A fire pit popped and hissed in the middle of the ground. A rock made for a nearby seat. In a corner by the entrance was a blood-stained, simple chest, which water leaked from.
Vulpo turned to him. “What has happened, my friend?” he smiled genuinely.
Ashtail opened his mouth. He had never seen Vulpo smile for a reason other than battle, and even then, rarely. His will was being chipped away at. Something was egregiously amiss. “Sefera…”
Vulpo’s eyes lit up merrily. “I knew it! I knew you’d be together! Do you feel it as I did?” Vulpo seemed to stand taller and his face seemed friendlier than ever. He hopped about the cavern and laughed. “The stars shone for us! The flowers bloomed just for our eyes! Everything was wonderful. She smiled in a way that was just for me!” Ashtail was taken aback. “That was how you felt?” he asked quietly. He felt his eyes wet. Those words hardly covered his feelings.
Vulpo’s ears fell back and his eyes lost their shine. “Felt…For as long as it lasted…only in my memories now.” He seemed to shrink to Ashtail’s height, an impressive feat for him. The happiness he had radiated had changed to grief.
Ashtail bit his lip. He needed to tell him now. Time was running out like so much sand in his paws. “Vulpo…”
The fox ignored him. He beat his paws against the stone walls. “How could I have let it happen? Why did it-”
“Vulpo!” burst Ashtail. He closed his eyes, a single tear ran down his cheek. “Sefera has been captured by the Black Coalition.”
Chapter Four: Chains (lol)
“Hurry it up, worthless wretches!” shouted a wildcat. “You’ll be there soon enough!”
Sefera forced one paw in front of another, each step growing heavier. They had walked for just over a day without rest, no food, and little water. She stood in the middle of a short line of captured woodlanders, manacled to each other. The otter in front of her was a Northern Brigade soldier. He was whispering comforting words to the elderly hedgehog in front of him.
“It will be okay. I’m sure they are fine. Yes, they are with your husband. Yes.”
The iron-studded whip cracked and hissed in the air. The otter cried out and nearly fell. A thin spray of blood shot into Sefera’s face.
“No talking, stubnose” sneered the stoat slavemaster.
“You think I’m afraid of you, pussycat?” growled the otter. “I could eat you alive.”
“We’ll see about that!” hissed the vermin. He brought his arm back to snap the black whip again.
Sefera intervened. “Coward!”
The stoat dropped his arms and walked up to her, his rotten fish breath turning her nose. “Would you like to say that again, squirrely?” he whispered.
“What was that garbage breath?”
The slavemaster momentarily snarled, then leapt back as a thick clump of spit hit his face. The otter in front of Sefera moved his tail. The staggering wildcat tripped over it and fell to the dirt. He was scrambling to his feet when another whip cracked.
Sefera fell to the ground, the pain from her back a mighty clap of thunder. Her thin shirt was frayed and was loose about her shoulders from all the blows she had taken.
“That’s enough” hissed the wildcat. The stoat stood up and sneered. He brought his whip back and Sefera readied herself for the sting. The wildcat put a paw on the stoat’s, holding him back.
“That’s enough, stoat. The Black Queen does not like her entertainment damaged more than necessary.”
The vermin grinned in reply as the cat returned to his place at the back of the line. He narrowed his eyes and grinned evilly. “Did jya hear tha, squirrely? The Black Queen may have some worth in you.” He laughed and walked away.
Sefera stood and began shuffling again. There will be retribution for this.
Chapter Five: The Death Knight Rides Again
Vulpo’s grief turned to anger. “What?” he shouted. He lunged at Ashtail and clenched his shoulders. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Vulpo released him and hurried to the back of the cavern, a narrow and crowded passage. There he began riffling through a pile of cluttered items on the ground. “How did this happen?”
“We were on a raid…we…I” Ashtail’s head fell and face crumbled.
Vulpo stood. Around his waist was his thick belt, with pack. He slipped off his cloak. He reached into the clutter of equipment and drew out the chestpiece of his leather armor and his giant claymore.
“Never mind. Where?” asked the fox. He pulled on the armor and fastened the straps over his black shirt. He strapped the claymore sheath to his belt and donned the cloak again, flicking its hood up with a deft twist of the wrist. Vulpo reached into the pile again and removed twin sheaths. The dark brown leather was well maintained and oiled. The black leather grips of the scimitars were equally well-kept. Vulpo swung them around his shoulders.
“They are going to their fortress. I don’t know where it is, but I will find it.”
Vulpo felt a disturbing twinge of memory in the back of his mind. He threw on his overcloak. “How far are you willing to go?”
“To my death.”
Vulpo swept close and gripped Ashtail’s arms again. “Don’t say that, Ashtail.”
“What? Isn’t that what you’re all about, Death Knight?” asked Ashtail in surprise.
“I died on my quest, and I don’t think I will ever forgive myself. Only now have I begun living again. Don’t follow my path, Ashtail, whatever happens. One Death Knight is one too many.”
Ashtail winced. Of all things, he did not want to follow Vulpo on that path of vengeance. He could not imagine anything more painful. “So what do we do now?”
“I have a source. But we must hurry, who knows how much time is left?”
Ashtail put a paw to his forehead. Vulpo pulled some slabs of fish from the chest, unceremoniously shoved them in his pack, and pushed against the door. “Let’s move.”
“How did you find me?” Ashtail heard Vulpo despite the howling wind.
The two had been trudging through falling snow for nearly an hour, but Vulpo had been in no mood for questions.
“I had clues. There would be stories if you had gone to Mossflower. Some of the prisoners mentioned a place in the North. A place where few go and fewer return. Corpses turning up, blood in strange places.”
“I was hoping I was less obvious.”
“What’s more obvious than killing vermin and letting their cadavers rot?”
“How is not killing uncontrollable?”
Vulpo paused and stopped walking. Ashtail trudged up to him. “What happened that day, Vulpo?”
“It…doesn’t matter, squirrel.”
“Don’t ‘squirrel’ me. Your saving my tail gives you first-name privileges.”
“Look, we need to get going to the harbor. We don’t need to stop for a while.”
Vulpo began hiking again. Ashtail caught up. Ashtail felt awkward. Of all times, this was probably most out of place.
“Look, I didn’t bring much food to get here. I haven’t eaten for a day. Do you have anything?”
Vulpo reached in his cloak. He produced a hip flask.
The fox gripped the cork, numb paws fumbling to open the cap before finally pulling it away. He looked inside.
“Tomato? How the heck did you get tomatoes to make tomato soup?”
Vulpo shrugged and passed him the flask. “Not sure. I, uh, don’t remember it.”
“Does this happen often?” asked Ashtail, bringing the lip to his mouth.
“Increasingly this winter.”
Ashtail let the cool liquid flow past his lips. A foul taste filled his mouth. He bent over and spat the disgusting liquid onto the snow. Vulpo took the flask. Ashtail stood erect with a deep grimace. Vulpo had the lip of the flask in his mouth and head far back.
“There is no way that’s tomato. That is, I swear, blood.”
Vulpo lowered the bottle and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. He sniffed the flask and nodded.
“I guess it is.”
“Why is that in a hip flask?”
“I told you, I don’t remember.” Vulpo shook the bottle and turned it downward. Nothing flowed out.
“So you just drained a bottle of blood?”
“I suppose I did.”
Ashtail winced. “And it doesn’t bother you?”
“Not in the least.”
Ashtail shook his head with a massive grimace. “That’s sickening!”
Vulpo shrugged and set off again.
Chapter Six: The Black Queen
Emeraldai smiled and opened her mouth wide. She dropped the small, squirming fish down her throat and swallowed. She looked to her right to her mother, the Black Queen, lady over the coalition. Her mother was nearly identical to Emeraldai, with a few seasons on top. Black, midnight fur with glowing, piercing emerald eyes that always seem to be watching. Her mother held up a paw. It was time for the next round of festivities to begin.
The crowded feast hall was hushed. The vast majority of guests were wildcats, with a group of stoats, martens, ferrets, and a wolverine spread around. Their tables were laden with bones, chunks of food, and utensils. The door at the end of the long hall opened. The guests’ heads all snapped in its direction, expecting another entertainer. Instead, a heavy stoat accompanied by a wildcat officer entered. The stoat, dressed in a bloody jacket and exotic hat, approached the head table. He stopped in the middle of the room, on the expensive marble floor.
“Yurr majester,” he said officially, sweeping the gaudy hat from his head and performing a dramatic bow.
“And who are you, master stoat?” asked the Queen in her soft, sibilant voice.
The stoat hesitated, staring into the queen’s hypnotic eyes, then remembered himself. “Captain Bloodhide, master o’er the Crimson Shadow of yurr majester’s royal navy, yurr highness.”
“And why are you here?” asked Emeraldai.
“I bring news of yurr majester’s campaign.”
“Well let’s have it.” The queen’s voice was hardly above a whisper, soft and gentle, but not another beast made a noise. Emeraldai recognized it as her most dangerous tone. The Black Queen did not enjoy her feasts being interrupted.
“Thurr Western line o’er thur North’n Brigade has showed signs of weakness. The Crimson Shadow holds gifts furr yurr majester’s court. I harv a more detailed repurt ash wull.”
“Deliver it in the morning, stoat” whispered Emeraldai.
The captain gave another ostentatious bow and nervously left the room.
“Let the entertainment begin!” announced the queen.
The guests all clapped, with some scattered cheering. The queen’s grand dinners were always fascinating, though one had to watch one’s step.
From the door came a team of vermin and a manacled and gagged prisoner. A ferret gave a simple bow towards the head table while two foxes manipulated the prisoner’s chains. The ferret bent at the mouse slave’s footpaws. The foxes released the manacles around the mouse’s arms. One kept his arms pinned to his back while the other passed the chains to the ferret. The ferret took the chains, latched them around the manacles around the mouse’s legs. The mouse shoved his knee forward into the ferret’s face. A soft crunch met the spectators’ ears. The ferret flinched back, rubbing his nose, then smiled at the mouse.
“Lots of energy, then! Good!”
Emeraldai thought she could hear the ferret swearing softly as he patted the stone floor. Then, he found what he was looking for. A small, white metal ring protruded from the marble. He latched the manacles to the ring, then smiled widely at the mouse.
Emeraldai yawned and leaned back. She had seen this entertainment countless times before in her mother’s court. She found it unnecessary and mildly disturbing. It was the Black Queen’s favorite, however, so she dared not mention it. She reached forward and picked up her wine glass. She made sure her mother was affixed by the show before wrinkling her nose in distaste at the red liquid. There was nothing she could do about it though. She brought the sanguine glass to her lips and winced. Blood was all very well in battle, but drinking it was a tad beyond Emeraldai’s tastes, literally and metaphorically.
The ferret had finished securing the mouse. He stood up and gestured to the main door, partially ajar. Two rats came in carrying a smaller-sized cauldron, bending under the weight. The rats bore the cauldron to the marble floor, and the fox with free paws helped hold it. The three heaved the cauldron up, then tipped it over the mouse’s head. The mouse was drenched in a thick, golden mixture. The fox pinning his arms leapt back but was unsuccessful in avoiding the splash.
The vermin backed away from the mouse. The mouse shook his head to get the liquid away from his gagged mouth and moved the old chains around his feet. The chains were too tight to allow movement more than a step, but his arms were free. He around the room, glaring at the vermin. The mouse then bent and began jerking the rusty chains. The ferret bowed to the queen once again. He walked to the edge of the head table and plucked a torch from its tall stand on the side of the table.
“And now I present,” announced the ferret officially “the Firedance!”
The ferret threw the torch. All eyes in the hall were locked on it as it flew in a bright, orange arch. The torch hit the mouse, and with a flash he ignited. The oil soaking his fur lit up as quickly as his screams arose. The gag fell away, a tattered, burning rag. The vermin in the room stood and cheered as he indeed, danced, about. The fire team pranced around, careful to stay out of reach of the conflagration of flailing limbs.
That’s when things went wrong. The fox who had pinned the mouse’s arms to his back got too close. The mouse’s death throes snapped the rusty chain and he propelled himself at the fox. His tackled his tormentor, and the fox’s soaked arm lit afire. The room was filled with the stink of burnt hair as the two fell to the ground.
Interesting, thought Emeraldai as she sipped from the glass.
Chapter Seven: Bad News
“Move it, soldiers!” whispered Sergeant Jents.
The squad was stealing through the twilight. Their mission was to gain back some of the ground they had lost the previous day.
“So what was the plan, Sarge?” asked Aulda, a jumpy squirrel sent to replace the injured squirrel.
Oakpaw rolled his eyes. This squirrel was trying his patience. “I told you private. Sneak up to the line we lost yesterday, kill anyone there, and hold it until another squad can get up to reinforce us.”
“Right, right. Of course, of course” babbled the squirrel nervously. “Right. Right.”
“Can it! This is a stealth mission” growled Xvar.
The squirrel stumbled over a rock and fell to her face. Oakpaw groaned inwardly. Aulda would be the death of him at this rate. Most unfortunately, literally. Oakpaw heard a loud crunch of snow behind him. He whirled around and looked at his squad.
“Whoever made that sound is dead! You hear me? Dead!” he hissed angrily.
“Sorry” came the innocent sounding response.
From behind a snow-cracked tree came a mouse in a private’s uniform.
“What is it?” growled Oakpaw.
“Cap’n Yew sent me. The route you’re taking won’t work. There are three ways you can go. Two, including your intended route, is too heavily guarded, you need to go-”
There was a loud hissing as a crossbow bolt flew past the squad. The bolt shot in and out of the mouse’s throat with the speed and power it had. The mouse fell to his knees, paws at his throat.
“Take cover! Get that bastard!” shouted Oakpaw. He leapt towards the injured soldier. More arrows flew past his head as Oakpaw dragged the soldier behind a large tree. He leaned the mouse against the trunk, then looked at the bolt’s hole. He almost fainted. Blood was gushing from the hole in a mighty torrent, spattering his uniform. There was nothing he could do. He looked into the mouse’s eyes and immediately regretted it.
“Sarge! We need you!” shouted Fern from a tree ten paces away.
The doomed eyes were filled with tears, fear, and desperation. They pleaded with Oakpaw to save his life, to make the pain stop. The mouse gurgled as his own blood began choking him.
“Sarge! Oakpaw, curse you!” screamed Fern.
Oakpaw felt tears in his own eyes. He bent towards the dying mouse and stared into the heart-wrenching eyes.
“Know that you die a hero” he whispered.
The eyes seemed to glimmer, then glazed over in the welcomed embrace of death.
Oakpaw was brought speeding back to the battle as a crossbow bolt slammed into his shoulder. He ducked behind the tree, then stood.
“Fern! Cover Xvar and I! Stick ‘em like pincushions!”
Oakpaw thought he heard his squirrel give a quiet admonition of relief. Fern stood and pulled back her bow. Oakpaw ran out from the tree, weaving through the trees until he crashed into one adjacent to his otter friend.
“Ready?” whispered Oakpaw.
“We are the Northern Brigade…”
“Defenders of Mossflower…” said Oakpaw.
“Soldiers of Might…”
“And Slayers of Darkness” completed the sergeant. Oakpaw breathed in and out slowly, drew his sword, and came out from the tree. “Charge!”
Oakpaw and three of his soldiers burst from their cover and out into the open. They jumped over rocks and patches of snow. The entire experience seemed surreal to Oakpaw. It was as if he was moving through water as arrows and crossbow bolts whistled by him. His leather-booted footpaws seemed to move exactly as he told them, touching each rock he commanded them to.
The warriors locked onto the enemies’ position. The vermin were huddled around one of the large boulders so common in the Northlands. Oakpaw moved in unison with his soldiers. He raised his sword as he crashed into the vermin.
“So who gave you permission to find me?” asked Vulpo. Ashtail had the feeling that the silence in the early morning after the blizzard was getting to the fox as much as it was to him.
“Great. So we have an AWOL squirrel-”
“-and a fox who talks to himself.”
Vulpo chuckled. “True. Let’s take on a horde. What’s up for next week?”
Ashtail laughed in spite of himself. “Don’t forget infiltrating an enemy fortress-“
“-and rescuing your lady friend.”
The pair stopped laughing as they remembered their original purpose. They began hiking their way through the forest again.
“Is this how it felt when you set out for the first time, Vulpo?”
“No…It was different. I couldn’t think about anything but killing. Blood. Death. That kind of thing.”
“But this was after you…found her.”
Vulpo stopped. He fell to his knees. “How could I let it happen? Why did it happen?”
The fox began weeping. Ashtail was taken aback. He bent by his friend. “C’mon Vulpo. It’s not your fault. You know that. I’ve never seen you like this mate.”
Vulpo seemed to recover amazingly quickly. “You’re right. Look, if that ever happens again, get me out of it.”
“Does this have anything to do with why you attacked me when saw me yesterday?”
“I guess. Look, if I become…like that… just get away. It’s not worth it to help me. I can’t control it.”
“You controlled it now, with my help.”
“Ashtail, that was different, it would be too dangerous. You were lucky last time.”
“If you say so mate” Ashtail adjusted his pack and moved his head wrap down from his face. “Where are we headed, anyway?”
“By noon we’ll reach a harbor. Dingy, filthy place, but I’ll be able to get information there. Corsairs use it to sell plunder or resupply, but when they’re gone it’s pretty quiet. We’ll need disguises though. Some, er, ‘citizens’ would rather bite your head off than look at you, mine included.”
“Are you saying that this place has a noon?” asked Ashtail as he looked up into the solid gray sky.
Chapter Eight: Plans
Matar shook himself awake for what seemed the hundredth time that night. He stepped away from the door he was leaning against. He was, as usual, guarding the door of his mistress, Emeraldai. He was one of very few she trusted to guard her as she slept. Matar idly brushed his white fur with his paw. He understood why the Black Queen would have him guard her daughter, but really, who would attack the princess of the coalition? Princess. Emeraldai did not enjoy that term. She said it implied that she was some prissy, worthless pussycat. Matar knew this was by no means true for her.
The door creaked and Matar turned. Emeraldai’s green eyes shone in the dark, her black fur melting into the shadows. He felt none of the hypnotism that others experienced when they gazed back into those beautiful emeralds. “Matar.”
“Yes, my lady?”
“I just remembered, you need to take an inventory of the slaves. Another line came in just before the feast. Go to the dungeons.”
“The Black Queen wishes that you are guarded at all times.”
“Bluetail will be here soon. I think I can fend for myself against this rabble.”
Matar felt Emeraldai’s paw brush by his face as she gestured around the empty hallway. He smiled. “Of course, but it may be dangerous” he chuckled.
“Thank you Matar” said Emeraldai as she disappeared back into her chambers.
Matar walked away from his post and down the dark hall. He smiled, then his face slowly fell. Favor from Emeraldai was always excellent to have, but the Black Queen did not approve of how much he in particular was getting. Emeraldai favored him far more than the others. Some of it Matar had gone out of his way to get, but lately his wildcat mistress had been placing much more trust. He had been appointed as a guard of the Dark Fortress, but Emeraldai had started changing his duties. He had been brought along when she had gone to negotiate with the Grim Horde, unusual for a guard.
Matar carefully made his way down the steep stone stairs. When he reached the bottom, he automatically turned right. He had been sent to check on the slaves and prisoners so many times that once he got down from the precarious steps, he could drift away in his mind. He turned one last corner and walked into two guards standing outside a heavy wooden door. Seeing him coming into the light of their torch, they instantly jumped to straight attention and saluted.
“Calm down, mates. It’s just me, Matar.”
If anything, the weasel stood straighter. The other guard, a wildcat, loosened slightly. When he replied, the tone was partly apologetic and partly friendly, as if he wasn’t sure if he was behaving correctly. “Well, it’s be’her than the queen ‘erself.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, you an’ the princess being all fermiliar…” the cat shifted nervously and looked to his friend beseechingly for assistance.
“Who told you that? I have the same rank as you; guard.”
The weasel came to his comrade’s aid. “Yeh guard ‘er ‘sclusively an’ a’ nigh.’ ”
The other guard stepped in. “An’ you went with ‘er on tha’ trip.”
“I am her guard. She trusts me.”
“Tha’s wha wurr say’n” mumbled the weasel.
Matar stepped closer. The guards shrunk back, expecting a blow, but Matar didn’t make a move. Instead he reached for the door handle. He pulled the heavy door open as the guards stepped away to give room. He sighed and looked at them. They withered again.
“I don’t want to hear any of this nonsense again, mates. I’m just a guard.”
Matar took one of the torches on the wall and went inside the cells, closing the door behind him.
“ ‘E’s def’n’tly more that ‘trusted,’ eh?” whispered the weasel.
“ ‘E doesn’ act like i’. I like ‘im, eithah way. Any’un else woulda sliced us up an’ left us fer the gulls.”
The guards nodded and leaned against the wall in silence.
Emeraldai leaned against the balustrade of her balcony. The black linen curtains flapped in the chilly breeze. She heard a faint flapping of wings and looked up. A black shape gracefully fluttered down on the balcony. She nodded in greeting.
“I was wondering if you’d show up”
“Did I miss the feast night?” asked Boneeye, clacking his beak hopefully.
“I’m afraid so, Boneeye. Replacing Triptalon has caused you to be out spying a tad more often, hasn’t it?”
“It is worth it to bring back quality information for you, my lady” the raven bowed officially. “Is all at the fortress well otherwise?”
“So it seems. I just sent Matar down to the cells to check on the prisoners. Another line was brought in today.”
Boneeye narrowed both his white and his golden eye. “It that it then? All about Matar that has happened?”
“What do you mean?”
“Lately it seems that’s all you talk about. ‘Matar’ this and ‘Matar’ that” he warbled.
“He is a faithful and trustworthy guard, Boneeye.”
“You say that, but I’ve seen you around him. You act…differently.”
Emeraldai blushed. Boneeye almost widened his eyes, but maintained his emotionless façade.
“Okay Bonesie, I can’t hide anything from you. I like him, alright?”
Boneeye winced. He did not like that nickname, but it didn’t bother him much when his mistress said it. “Your mother would not approve.”
“It doesn’t matter what she thinks.”
Boneeye jumped excitably. “Does that mean you’ll do it? You know you should!”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Well, I’m not sure...”
Boneeye’s mind raced. If he thought quickly, he could have a lot of good things coming to him really soon.
“You could do whatever you wanted. You could have anything you wanted,” Boneeye watched as Emeraldai’s eyes glazed over in imagination. “An end to the Firedance. A stable domination of the North. Matar.”
Emeraldai chewed her lip. “Alright, I’ll do it. But we’ll need help. Only those who can be trusted. Absolutely nothing can go wrong. We cannot be discovered.”
“Of course, my lady. But who can be trusted? As far as you know, I work for the Black Queen as much as I work for you.”
Emeraldai rolled her eyes at him. “I am more observant than that, Bonesie. All I know for sure are you and Matar. I’m sure he isn’t a toad. No one but you has been as loyal. Bluetail…I’m not so sure. He may be. But he was appointed by my mother without my recommendation, so I haven’t watched him for as long.”
“Who’s guarding you at the moment, anyway? I believe Matar would normally be ending his shift…wait, if you sent Matar down to the cells, who’s outside?”
“No one. I think I can defend myself from the shadows and moonbeams.”
Boneeye gave her a disparaging look. “You are not supposed to be left vulnerable,” then he chuckled. “Sorry, I forget that you are not a kitten anymore.”
Boneeye felt a twinge of emotion in the back of his head. For seasons, he had served Emeraldai. For seasons, he had let himself be motivated by greed. He would always be closest to Emeraldai, even if it was a fake act, a carefully formulated balance of engineered kindness and careful moments of emotional distance. Now it seemed like everything was coming together. But still, there was a feeling in the back of his mind, his conscience. All through the grand act he performed, he had thought it was just manipulation. Lately he hadn’t felt right about it. He acted more real around Emeraldai, and caught himself deviating from the script he had thoughtfully devised.
Matar called out into the echoing prison. “All unmanacled slaves to the front.”
There was a quiet groan throughout the dark communal cells on either side of him as prisoners were roused by his voice. Gaunt mice and shifty stoats dragged their feet to the bars at the front of the cells. The roughly two score prisoners were all either newly-captured slaves awaiting assignment or rebellious corsairs of the Black Coalition. They all stood in silence, eyes either afraid in fear of undue punishment, or glazed and emotionless in dull acceptance. Matar felt sad at that. If the slavemasters were so cruel that the prisoners gave up all hope and will, something was wrong. Things should not be like this. Slaves in servitude, yes, but the unnecessary punishment was just that. But I am just a guard. He shook his head to banish the thoughts. He was there to serve Emeraldai. No, I am here to serve the Black Queen. Matar counted off the slaves as he thought. But things could be different. Emeraldai will be queen one day, and…But I am just a guard.
Matar reached the end of the more unrestrained prisoners. He waved them away. They sullenly returned to their rotten, bug-infested pallets of straw. Matar opened the wooden door to the manacled slaves. There were no bars here, for the prisoners were all chained to the wall. The lucky ones were bound with the footpaws on the ground and arms tight against the wall, but hanging by their sides. Matar actually flinched when he approached a pair of the unlucky ones. The two must have been trouble makers in the line. The otter had the heels of his footpaws on a narrow platform, his arms far over his head. With his ankles chained so close to the wall he could not hold his balance correctly, so he leaned far forward with his arms twisted behind him. For now he was gamely trying to get his balance so his arms didn’t ease their way out of his sockets. When he saw Matar, he pulled himself up, bearing his entire weight on his arms. He bared his teeth.
“Here to torture us some more, you filth?” he growled.
“I’m not here for that, otter.”
“Ha! Right! You blighters are all the same. What sick game are you playing now? Trying to gain my trust, just so you can smash it to pieces? Dirtbag!” the otter spat into his face.
Before Matar could react, the squirrel to the right of the otter mumbled something. “Ashtail…”
He turned. The squirrel had a larger platform to stand upon than the otter, and with some luck had gotten herself into a standing position. Now she fell forward. Her eyes opened wide with sudden fright. In a flash Matar realized that she could easily rip her bones from their sockets. At the last moment, the squirrelmaid flexed her arms and pulled herself up. In the instant before she pulled herself back up, Matar saw her back. It was bloodstained, ugly dark scars from an iron-studded whip criss-crossed it. She mumbled something again, then passed out again in her lucky standing position from the pain and stress.
“Who is Ashtail?” whispered Matar.
For a second the otter forgot where he was and the corners of his mouth curled upward. As if I couldn’t figure it out from the way she talked about him. He remembered himself “None of your business, cat.”
“Is he her…?” Matar’s conscience screamed. What was he doing? What was he a part of? His emotions fought each other viciously. Why did this bother him suddenly? If I were alone in the dark, who would I cry out for? This beast, this squirrel feels like I do about- Don’t! Can’t think it! I am just a guard!
Matar wobbled slightly, then steadied. “I…need to go.” He turned from the scene, from the ugliness.
He rushed from the prison into the halls. He nearly bowled over the weasel and cat.
“Wha’s yah ‘urry, sah?” asked the weasel as he stumbled back.
“First, don’t call me sir. Second, out of my way.” He pushed the two aside and nearly ran to the stairway.
“What in blazes is ‘is problem?” wondered the wildcat as he helped his mate up.
And with that lovely sentiment, no more Death Knight II for a while. What I have needs some editing, and I need to have a larger backlog. Next update will probably be in another segment, this thing gets hard to edit. But in the mean time;
Merry Christmas! from Santa Claws