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Chapter Nine: Under Cover
“So the plan is, go in, hope we don’t get killed, find your source, and get out.”
“Essentially.” Vulpo chuckled. Ashtail frowned. He hadn’t thought it was that funny.
The pair were crouching on a barren hill overlooking the harbor village. There appeared to be a large fire burning in the town square, vermin jumping about. The buildings on and near the coast were all ramshackle, probably service huts for ships. The inland huts were similar.
“This place looks even less friendly than I remember.”
Vulpo stood, gesturing for Ashtail to follow him.
“So how are we going to sneak in here, Vulpo?” asked Ashtail. “They don’t seem the type to offer us tea and scones on the way in.” The two walked down the slope, arriving at a collection of rocks.
“That would mean they had tea and scones.” Vulpo shook his head. “I have some materials for supplies.”
“Right here, mate.” Vulpo bent and pawed at the ground near the rocks. After a moment a rough-hewn sack appeared and he pulled it out. From it he pulled a mask. Before Ashtail could get a good look at it, Vulpo brought it over his head.
“What are you dressing me up as?”
“Fox.” Vulpo replied simply. He reached into the sack and produced a long, rather dramatic cloak. He offered it to Ashtail, who took it and pulled it on. Vulpo flicked the hood up.
“This way they won’t see the edge of the mask” he explained.
Vulpo pulled out a small pouch from his bag. He opened it, letting a small pile of ash fall into his paw. He put the pouch down and began rubbing the ash over his face. Soon, his fur was covered in grime. He focused the ash on the lower half of his face. Then, he replaced the pouch in the sack.
Vulpo removed another small pouch, dirtier and covered with grime. He opened it slightly, and squeezed it, one paw at the end and one around the body. A thick paste slowly eased out. He patted it over his face. It now appeared he had large patches of mud over his fur.
He removed one final item, and then reburied the sack. He, too, flicked his hood up, letting it droop well over his eyes. Vulpo held up the object.
“What’s that for?” asked Ashtail.
Vulpo smiled and shook the bottle of grog. “Believe me, this will help us fit it more than any disguise.”
“If you say so.”
Ashtail nervously flicked his eyes about. The rough dirt paths that made for streets were relatively calm, but the few that were there were more than causes for worry. A hulking, eye-patched and scarred fox winked and smiled at him from his place outside one of the shacks. Oh please let him be drunk.
“We’re here” whispered Vulpo, stopping in front of one of the more pitiful features of the slum. Vulpo rapped sharply on the rotten wood door, and a light shower of dust came down. There was a screeching from inside. “Stop that dreadful racket! I ‘eard yew blasted beggar the first time!” Ashtail shifted nervously.
From the door came one of the most hideous old vixens Ashtail had ever seem. To her credit, Ashtail had only seen one vixen up close, and she had not been exactly average. This old fox was very lacking in the way of teeth. One fang was broken in half and a sickly shade of brown. The other front fang was nowhere to be seen. Probably a good thing. Her eyes were shriveled and rheumy.
The elderly fox’s flicked her greedy, conniving eyes between the two. “If you want that kind of potion it’s gonna cost yah. An’ there’s a charge because I don’t quite feel ri-”
“Mugwort, I don’t feel that’s necessary.”
The old fox’s eyes widened. She gestured for them to come in. When they had shut the door she addressed the fox. “Vicious! I thought ye had killed ya'self in some crazy-”
The vixen seemed to notice Ashtail again. “Hey! If ye be getting over that other one, I thought you at least be-”
Vulpo groaned softly. Ashtail put two and two together. “Hey! What kind of a mask did you give me?”
Vulpo swore under his breath. Mugwort lit up. “Ah! It not be a vixen!” she turned and looked further into the hut, at another door. “Gina! Vicious be here!” Ashtail and Vulpo exchanged a look. A slim, young vixen emerged from the door. She smiled when she saw Vulpo. She swept in close to him, pressing herself against his shoulder. Vulpo closed his eyes in silent annoyance.
“I dearly hope, Gina, that you are [censored, unless SRRF says to put it in]” said Vulpo.
The vixen nervously stepped away. Mugwort frowned. “What you be wishing, Vicious?”
“Where is the Black Coalition’s fortress?” he asked simply.
The old fox assumed a piteous pose. “Now, that information be tough to get a hold of. Iffen somebody maybe find out I tells you, I be in lots of-”
Vulpo reached into his cloak and pulled out a sparkling dagger. The handle was jewel-encrusted, and the blade was of obvious fine make. The old fox stopped talking and stared.
“Where is it?” he repeated.
“North-west. Follow coast. Two days. Mine now?” she begged.
Vulpo rolled his eyes and tossed her the knife. She caught it surprisingly deftly and smiled. “Good to be seeing you again, Vicious. I’m very glad this is not a real vixen you be bringing. Who is it, then?”
“It doesn’t matter, Mugwort.”
Gina seemed to gain new resolve. She got closer to Vulpo. “So if you haven’t gotten a mate, what’s wrong with me? I don’t see how some silly fox from-”
Ashtail didn’t see Vulpo move. All he saw was a blur. Suddenly the bejeweled dagger was gone from Mugwort’s paw. Vulpo’s arms had encompassed Gina, and not in the romantic sense that she had undoubtedly had hoped for. The shining knife gently brushed her throat. Vulpo had the gleam in his eye. Ashtail had only seen it a pawful of times, and it still chilled him to the bone.
“Never speak that way again, you tittering [censored]. Ever” hissed Vulpo. Ashtail watched as Gina’s throat moved as she gulped. Mugwort flinched and backed away. “Or else you will never speak about anything in any way again.”
“Er…maybe we should go, Vicious” said Ashtail. Vulpo seemed to awake from his trance. He released Gina and led Ashtail out the door.
“Hey! What about me pay!” cried Mugwort.
Vulpo casually flicked the dagger over his shoulder. It shot straight into the closing door. The door cracked and fell, its rusty hinges finally giving way. Vulpo smiled.
Chapter Ten: Confessions
Matar carefully but fretfully ran his claws through his paws. He turned the last corner Emeraldai’s room. Outside the door, another shadow crept up. Both figures halted in the darkness.
“Bluetail?” whispered Matar.
“Matar? Where were you?” whispered the other wildcat.
“Our lady sent me to check on the slaves.”
“Ah, right. It is time for my watch, though. Go get some sleep. You have a few hours before morning, anyway.”
“If it’s all the same to you, I’ll take this watch too. I don’t feel tired.”
“Alright, then. More sleep for me” whispered Bluetail. Matar could not see him in the darkness. “ ‘Night.”
“Goodnight, Bluetail.” Matar waited a few moments for the other cat to walk away. It was nearly impossible to tell if he had gone in the oppressing darkness. Matar chewed his lip, then turned. He slowly eased the door open and entered Emeraldai’s chambers.
Bluetail widened his eyes. He stood not three paces from the door, and could see Matar enter it, thanks to the pale moonlight coming from the inner chambers. Bluetail slunk back to the barracks, idly wondering what this information was worth.
Oakpaw sighed heavily. The battle was over for now. Every the vermin had either perished under their assault or cut and run. The archers were at the back, boasting about kill counts. Two otters with sheathed swords were comforting the new squirrel, who was staring unblinkingly at the body of a dead swordsmouse. The last melee fighter, a normally jittery hare, was silently leaning against a tree. Fern and Xvar were huddled together, discussing something. They stopped when he approached them. Xvar chewed his lip and asked him the question he must have been holding in since the end of the battle.
“Wha’ ‘appened, mate? You froze up back thar.” Xvar cocked his head slightly.
Oakpaw sighed again and shook his head. “We’ve seen combat before, but that was different. When that mouse died, I was looking into his eyes. Have you ever actually seen your handiwork up close? In battle, blows and blood have the edge taken off by the…I’m not sure what to call it. Bloodlust, maybe?”
Fern shook her head. “No. Even when you’re fighting for your life, you shouldn’t enjoy it.”
“Listening to the little voice” said Xvar mysteriously.
“What?” asked Oakpaw.
“Ya know, the voice in the back o’ yer ‘head saying ‘Oh no, oh no, I’m gonna die.’ That kind of thing.”
Oakpaw recognized the feeling. He chuckled, rather sadly. “Or when it’s really bad, ‘Why the hell did I agree to this? Why oh why did I ever want to join this horrible army?’ That one?”
Xvar nodded. “That’s the one.”
Oakpaw frowned deeply. “But really, have you ever watched someone die like that? His eyes were…so hypnotic but so heart-wrenching. I couldn’t look away, even though I wanted to.”
His corporals put a paw on his shoulders. “I ‘ope I never do, mate.” “Let’s get back to base. This wasn’t really part of the plan. Yew can send another squad, and I think the rest of our platoon is on the way, regardless.”
Oakpaw swallowed. He put on a brave face and turned to his squad. “Alright, get ready to move out! Archers, carry our fallen comrades, if you were too busy boasting to notice we have them!”
Xvar smiled at Fern. Sarge was back.
Emeraldai floated back into her room. At least that was how it seemed to Boneeye. Her black fur instantly melted into the darkness. Her gray nightdress was the only thing he could see, one side pressing against her leg, the other streaming out in the wind. Boneeye began flapping his wings as she closed the black curtains. Why was everything black in the fortress? The Black Queen was an excellent negotiator and manager of the corsair fleets, but she was eccentric, to say the least. The torture of slaves turned to an entertainment in the Firedance, and the black decoration of nearly everything. Unlike most vermin leaders, the Black Queen was more trusting of her troops. She realized that she was not a warrior, but a leader. When it came to decision-making, the Black Queen’s word was listened to and followed. In matters of war, tactics more often than not fell to the captains of her fleet.
Through this arrangement, few soldiers and corsairs complained. The Black Queen made sure each of her ships was well supplied, and also made sure that if any crew members did not get adequate food, the blame was neatly tacked onto the captain. This way, the few enterprising enough to grab for power would have a hard time getting help in any assassination, and knew it. Until now. The captains, corsairs, and soldiers respected Emeraldai greatly. She had all of her mother’s sense and brilliance, but also her father’s even-headedness. Supposedly. That was the rumor. Neither Boneeye nor any of the Black Horde and Fleet had seen Emeraldai’s father. But, the logic was, if she was brought up the way she was, she should be like her mother, but she was not. She did not enjoy the sadistic torture in the way the queen did. So, her father must have bequeathed some amount of personality and temperament. Boneeye didn’t know. What he did know was that soldiers were beginning to say they served the Coalition and not the Queen. None had dared say Emeraldai yet, but the raven was sure somebeast would slip soon. The queen did not expect anything yet. If she suspected anything, Emeraldai would be dead. He had no doubt of that.
Boneeye clacked his beak as he began hovering off the balustrade. For several seasons Boneeye had been trying to convince Emeraldai to seize power. She had always believed it too dangerous. She insisted it was not because she didn’t want to assassinate her mother, and he believed her. Emeraldai may not have her mother’s sadism, but she certainly did have her ambition.
Boneeye narrowed his eyes in confusion. There was another figure in the room, he was sure of it. He caught a glimpse of somebeast before Emeraldai shut the curtain. He planted his talons back on the balcony. This would be worth listening to.
“Who’s there?” whispered Emeraldai. In the darkness she could just barely see a white figure.
“It’s me. Matar” whispered the white wildcat.
“Why are you here? The count can wait until morning.”
“I need to talk to you.”
Matar walked up to her. She could just barely see the glow of his glacial blue eyes. “What is it? I think I need to talk to you too.”
“What do you need to say, my lady?”
“What do you need to say, Matar?”
“I would rather hear you first, my lady.”
“Alright. What do you know about Boneeye?”
“He’s worked for you for a very long time. Couriering. Espionage. Anything you need done.”
Matar chewed his lip. How well did he know Emeraldai, really? He liked to think he knew her well, but…He would have to step lightly. “He is…ambitious.”
Matar’s mind raced. He decided to risk it. “He wishes for you to have more power.”
“How much more power?”
Matar groaned inwardly. Was she trying to make him speak treason? “He hopes that you rule.”
Here goes everything, thought Matar. “I don’t know for sure, but I think now.”
“How do you feel about that?”
I hope this works. “I would be ecstatic if you were the queen, my lady.”
Emeraldai smiled. She stepped closer to him. “Matar, Boneeye has been speaking with me. You are correct. Do you truly wish that I were queen?”
“Yes, my lady.”
“Would you help me?”
Matar stared into Emeraldai’s brilliant green eyes. If this was a trick, this could be his final breath. “You are my lady. My loyalty lies with you. I would help you…I will help you.”
Emeraldai smiled. “Thank you, Matar. I knew I could trust you. What did you want to ask me?”
Matar exhaled slowly in relief. “When I was down in the cells, I saw something.”
“One of the troublemakers, you know, the ones manacled above the floor.” Matar looked into Emeraldai’s eyes. “She was a squirrelmaid. It was…disgusting. Her back was ravaged by the whip. All she could do was hang there, half-conscious, she had been through so much. But, in her stupor, she still whispered a name.”
“Ashtail, I think. I don’t know who that is, but the way she said it…and I thought, ‘If I was in the dark, whose name would I cry out?’ It was so horrific. The slaves shouldn’t be treated this way.” The words gushed from his lips before he could stop them.
“Matar, I promise that when I am queen, the slaves will be treated fairly.” Emeraldai stared right back into his eyes, slightly wet. Matar was obviously very disturbed. He had rarely shown emotion before, especially when he knew she was watching. She ran over what he had said and thought about it. “Whose name would you cry out?”
Matar swallowed. He hadn’t meant to say that.
“By the talon, this moment is getting so melodramatic I think I could lose my trout.” Boneeye stepped through the curtain. He needed to step in to make sure things went well. The wildcats were meandering through this conversation in such a way he didn’t know where it would end up. Boneeye was proud of his incredibly quick thinking. Astute observation yielded fine rewards. For now he leaned on luck and guesswork along with his natural abilities. He didn’t like the feeling.
“Boneeye!” Emeraldai stepped away from Matar, surprised at how close she had come to him. Matar stepped back as well and chewed his lip furiously.
“Go on. Things tend to work out the way I guess them to.” Boneeye spoke the words as if following a script. He felt that he knew what was going to happen, though he had no idea how. The wildcats stood still. Boneeye decided that things were indeed as he had guessed. The two would have to be brought up to a quicker pace, if jarringly.
“Matar, Emeraldai and I have agreed that the time has come to seize power. You have just agreed to help. We must work on a plan.”
Emeraldai nervously glanced at Matar. She was somewhat relieved that Boneeye had interrupted them, but mostly sad that he had come. She had not felt so nervous, but so anticipating at the same time for as long as she could remember. She had a feeling of what Matar was about to say. She wanted the moment back. “Is this really the time, Boneeye?”
“The longer the planning the more likely we are discovered.”
Makar recovered from the shock and resumed his normal stoic manner. “Right. If Emeraldai is to become queen safely, we must act soon.”
Boneeye nodded. “Any suggestions?”
The three stood. None of them were sure if the others were actually thinking, but just watching each other.
Emeraldai spoke. “What method would we use?”
Matar spoke up. “We could organize a rebellion. The soldiers prefer you as their leader. You are brilliant, but not cruel. Smart, but not so eccentric. A leader, but also a warrior.”
Emeraldai felt herself blush slightly. She had heard Boneeye say such things, and hadn’t blushed. Boneye stepped in. “Also, we could go for a more direct approach. Poison. A dagger in the night.”
The three went over various plans. Each had its own advantages and flaws. The three stopped their discussion when they saw the sky outside had began to lighten. Boneeye clacked his beak. “It would be best if I went to my perch in the tower. Matar, it would be best if you acted as if everything was normal, so you should stay guarding for another hour.”
Boneye pushed the curtains aside and the cats heard the flapping of wings. Matar began walking out. Emeraldai caught his arm. “Matar…”
Matar bowed his head. “I am just a guard.”
Emeraldai got closer to him. “You are more than a guard. I didn’t bring you with me to the Grim Horde because you did a good job protecting me.” Emeraldai gripped his other arm.
Matar leaned in closer to her. “That is all I am here for.”
“Matar, I will be queen soon. And you can be here for so much more.” Emeraldai put her arms around him.
Matar stood awkwardly, then put his arms around her. He whispered into her ear. “Do you mean that, Emeraldai?”
Emeraldai pulled away and smiled. “That’s the first time you’ve called me Emeraldai without saying Mistress Emeraldai.”
“We’re not sure about the time. I should go in case the next guard comes.”
Matar left the room. Emeraldai stood silently, her emotions fighting for control. Greed and Honesty. Slyness and Truth.
Chapter Eleven: Dreams
Ashtail sighed heavily as the two left the shantytown. He removed his mask and pushed his hood back. Vulpo wiped some of the mud from his face. Ashtail looked at him.
“Who the heck was that banshee?”
Vulpo breathed out slowly, removing a waterskin from his cloak and taking several gulps before replying. “Well, after…what happened, I needed a way to find Grim and his warriors. This was the only place I knew of that might have information. I came here, found Mugwort, gave her a false name, paid her with what I stole or took from my kills, and you know what happened after that. She is…eccentric to say the least, but she can find where people are.”
“What about that Gina vixen?”
Vulpo’s face darkened. “I was bad, those first seasons after I lost Aspen. You think I have gotten worse? The voices? No, I was worse then. Babbling. I did my best when around others. I’m not sure how good that was. Sometimes I’d get like you saw me, blubbering, worthless” The fox shook his head. “One time, when I was coming to her for more information, that happened. I snapped out of it pretty quickly, but they figured out what happened, or at least some bizarre version of it. That old hag…urg.”
Ashtail nodded. He could guess the rest. The two walked down the tideline, its waves emitting a dull rush. The sun was rising, a dim shine penetrating the gray. It looked like it would be another gloomy day in the North.
“How much ground will we make today?”
“I’m not sure. When was the last time you slept?”
“Same for me.” Vulpo chuckled. “How are we even moving? Determination only goes so far”
Ashtail gave him a curious look. Vulpo frowned again. “Oh. I suppose it’s not funny.”
“Vulpo…what’s going on with you? At the bastion, you were virtually emotionless. Now?”
Vulpo breathed out slowly. “I don’t know, really. It’s like I’m…broken. I argue with myself in my thoughts. My temperament and personality changes.”
“I think I’ve figured out some of it though. When I’m, well, normal, it’s like I was…before, close enough anyway. Then, when there is any chance of blood…I am…”
“Right. Then, sometimes all I feel is guilt. Irrational guilt. But it’s been better. Back there, I was in control of myself. If I was possessed by bloodlust, then there would have been real casualties.”
“So…you’re slightly crazy.”
“Slightly?” Vulpo chuckled again.
Vulpo blinked and looked around. Where was he? Then, his eyes settled. It didn’t matter where he was. He ran, and she ran to him as well. The bare trees and ice that had been around him for as long as he could remember were nowhere to be seen. They ran through lush fields of knee-high grass. They were mere paces away.
Vulpo reached out. “Aspen!”
I love you. No lips moved, but it didn’t matter. Vulpo’s paw was scant inches from hers. His face was glowing with joy, a giant smile across his cheeks. Aspen was beautiful. Her eyes were like the sun after centuries of darkness, her bright smile food after a decade of famine. Vulpo stretched his paw out. Why hadn’t he touched her? They had been running, why were they not closer? He stretched farther. All he wanted was to touch her. His paw reached out painfully slowly. Then, just before they met, the field disappeared. The scene seemed to shatter, shards of happiness giving away to black sky and rocky soil. Aspen’s eyes filled with fear. That alone caused icy daggers of sadness to rip through him. She spun around, looking into darkness. From the shadow emerged a demon. It was cloaked in black. From over its back it pulled long, cruel scimitars. Vulpo couldn’t move. The figure laughed wickedly, eyes shining with bloodlust under the mask. Why couldn’t he move?
I am the slaughter,
The demon swung both blades straight at his love. The dark, blood-stained metal hissed with speed.
I am the hidden might,
The scimitars ripped into the vixen. Vulpo’s eyes widened.
The blood flows like water,
Aspen fell, both blades deep in her body. Her mortal breath came out in a heave. Why couldn’t he move? The figure straightened. His dark, gloved paw went to his mask.
I am Death Knight.
The figure pulled the mask violently from his face. Vulpo stared into golden eyes. His eyes.
Ashtail started. He looked to the cave entrance. Silhouetted against the gray sky outside was Vulpo. He had one paw to his face. He was whispering.
“Never. I am not the Death Knight any longer.” His voice escalated to a shout. “Never again, dammit!”
“Missy? Missy?” Words floated through Sefera’s consciousness like dust in the wind. She surfaced from the place she had been. She lolled her head sideways. The soft, kind voice persisted. “Missy, they’re coming with water.”
Sefera smacked her dry lips. The thought of a drink alone roused her. She looked to the voice. It was the otter, arms manacled at his sides and footpaws planted firmly on the ground. Her head swirled painfully, trying to make sense of it. She shifted her footpaws on the cold stone floor. Where was the plank? Why were her arms at her sides? The otter noticed her distress.
“They moved us to the ground. You weren’t really awake, moaning.”
Sefera nodded. She had a dim memory of filthy paws gripping her arms, too weak to resist.
“How long have…urr.” She shook her head. She needed to stay awake, but thinking was like fighting through thick mud. A weasel with a large bowl was making his way around the room, stopping to pour water down prisoner’s throats.
“I don’t know. The door doesn’t show any light. It was sunset when they brought us in. You all right, eh? You don’t look so good.”
Sefera looked to the otter. She cocked her head quizzically. “We are in a prison.”
The otter chuckled weakly. “Healthy enough to have some humor, then. But really, I’m better off than you and we’ve been through the same. Do you feel sick, missy?”
Sefera mumbled incoherently. The otter chewed his lip. “Sefera! Wakey wakey, eh?”
The squirrel’s head snapped up. She had no memory of it going down. She turned to the otter. “What’s your name?”
They were interrupted by the weasel. His face plastered in boredom, he shoved the bowl roughly in the otter’s mouth, who slurped greedily. The weasel sighed, then pulled the bowl away. He stepped over the Sefera. She stared into the bowl. The water had a slight tinge of brown. Saliva from various prisoners floated on top of the surface, along with other unrecognizable things. It was beautiful. She bent her head into the water.
After a moment, the weasel sighed again and walked away. “Why do I always ‘ave to give’m drink? Why can’t Krag do it every once in a while? Disgusting slaves” he grumbled.
The water seemed like far too much for Sefera’s senses. She bent her head down again. She wanted to go back. She wasn’t sure where it was, but Ashtail was there. Words echoed through her troubled head.
“I told you, Sefera. Call me Inkeyes. Speaking of eyes, yours lo…”
The words faded away into darkness.
Chapter Twelve: Spy
Bluetail saluted to his fellow guards without breaking his pace. They stared down their noses at him and crossed their spears, barring his path. So much for fellowship. then.
“No one enters her dark majesty’s study without being called” The meathead of a wildcat blinked and showed no emotion, obviously having said this far too many times for his liking.
“I am an exception.” Bluetail attempted to persuade the unmoving guards. Dark majesty. Nobody’s too full of themselves here.
“Everybody’s an exception.” The other guard rolled his eyes.
“Look lardball, I need to speak to the queen.”
The stoat and wildcat rolled their eyes and sighed. They were used to it. It would take more than an insult to sway them. Next time, I need to keep to the regular method.
“I am Bluetail.” He swirled his cobalt-striped tail so they could see it.
The wildcat gave an exaggerated yawn. “Why didn’t you just say that?”
The two guards pulled their spears back to their sides. The ash door was free to open. Bluetail gave a sarcastic bow. “Thank you so much.”
The wildcat stepped forward and opened the door. The room was dark, black curtains pulled over the window and only a fireplace giving light. At the mahogany desk sat the Black Queen. Her piercing eyes flashed as she looked up to him.
“What?” she sneered.
Bluetail forgot himself. The Queen’s eyes fixated him. They were enchanting. Pretty, but dangerous. Black widow pretty. She coughed softly, a rare gentle reminder.
“Information, dark mistress.” He gave a deep bow, but mentally scoffed. Working for the Black Queen meant having to deal with her ego and eccentric nature far more often, but with it also came large rewards.
The shadowy cat leaned back and gave a glimmering smile. “Begin.”
Bluetail nodded. “I went to my post at the regular time, but just as I arrived, Matar came up from the other end of the hall, in the direction of the great hall and grand stairway. He seemed harried and nervous. I asked him why he had not been at his post. He claimed your daughter had sent him to inventory the slaves. He then insisted that he take my watch. I accepted.”
The Black Queen’s brilliant eyes narrowed. Bluetail sped up the cadence of his speech.
“I stepped back, deeper into darkness. There, I waited. After a few moments, he opened the door and slipped inside. I stood, waiting.”
The dark wildcat rose from her chair. “And how long was he inside my daughter’s room?” Her sibilant voice was even more silky than usual.
Bluetail slipped a lie as smoothly as possible. “I’m not sure. It is impossible to tell time in such darkness. When he came out, I left and waited at the barracks. I stayed until he came down, when the shift was over, so he would not suspect anything. Then, I came here.”
The Queen lashed out with her razor-like claws. They raked his torso. Bluetail gasped and fell backwards to the ground. He bit his lip and touched his chest, now warm with new blood.
“Lies! I know you, Bluetail. You went back to the barracks as soon as Matar went inside so you could sleep! Now, get on your feet, you wretch!”
Bluetail grunted as he stood. The scratches were not deep, but still incredibly painful. He decided a denial would just be digging his own grave, so he stood, leaning against the desk, in silence.
“Do you have anything else for me?” she hissed.
Bluetail bowed his head. “No, mistress. I apologize, I shall strive to serve you better in the future.” Witch.
The Queen pointed to the door. “Then get out of my sight. And clean yourself up. I don’t want any suspicion.”
Bluetail bowed and stepped backward. He repeated the motion until he was to the door. Then, he gave a deeper bow and exited the room.
The injured wildcat exhaled deeply. The guards on either side of him snickered loudly.
“Who asked you?” he grumbled, pulling his thin cloak over the expanding bloodstain and wincing in pain.
Chapter Thirteen: Fear and Doubt
Vulpo’s eyes snapped open. His head hurt, but he felt rather jovial. The pain steadily increased as he sat up, but he paid it no heed. He was alone in the cave. The fox lay flat again, then smiled. With a quick, powerful exertion he propelled himself to his footpaws using only the taut muscles over his stomach. He smiled wider, and bowed to an invisible audience. The pain in his head spiked. With a sudden wave of nausea, he fell back to the cave floor.
Why did you do that? It is a waste of energy, whispered a voice.
Vulpo’s paws went to his face. Who are you? he thought.
I am Vulpo. We are Vulpo, of course.
He curled up as the pain increased further. What? Are you trying to take control?
He felt the entity emit a weak feeling of annoyance. No. Vulpo is in control. We are Vulpo.
What? Why- He ended the thought as another wave of torment shook his body.
Are we in pain? I believe it is because you are denying thyself.
More words began floating towards him, but they were drowned out by another, more powerful wave of pain. He felt that surely he would black out. The strain weakened slightly, then came in a steady throb. More confusing and unrelated words surfaced. Finally, the pain lessened to a bearable ache. He felt the presence of a new entity.
I’m here, Vulpo.
Who are you?
It’s me, Raúl.
I haven’t heard you. I thought I…
No, I’m not that Raúl.
I’m still the friend you have known, but not some ghost.
When you bond with someone, you are never really without them.
So…you’re my…memory of him?
You could think that, yes.
So you are like the others, trying to take control.
I’ve been here. I was in control from time to time when you sat in lonely cold.
But why are we…he paused. …speaking?
Well, Vulpo, by denying the Death Knight, you’ve caused something strange to go on in your mind. An imbalance. Now, whoever is in control can speak with the rest of us without easily losing control.
Vulpo felt a slight tug at the back of his mind. He lay back, moving his paws from his face and to his sides. Us?
Think. You’ve found the Death Knight. And your Grief and Remorse. And me.
So…you’re all parts of me?
Then what about when I feel like me? The tug in the back of his head increased to a steady pull. He flinched.
Well, that is similar to how you were…before, right? But, other voices are parts of that. So, really, that…entity is just us switching between each other easily and rapidly. Strong entities, such as the Death Knight, give off a powerful emotion as they take control.
Then…who am I now?
I suppose you are…the dramatic side of you.
I have a dramatic side.
Apparently, mate. I always knew you were a bit of a showoff.
Sounds more like you, Raúl.
There was an echoing chuckle. Vulpo smiled, then winced as the pull replaced the pain. So…what does denying the Death Knight mean?
You seem to subconsciously resist him. He tried to take control as you slept. Others things began-
The pull suddenly sharply increased to a yank. Vulpo closed his eyes.
You are pulling yourself back together. Goodbye, my friend.
Wait! Why can't I speak to- The pain coursed through his body. He arced his back. The agony overtook him and the cave ceiling faded into darkness.
Vulpo sat up and scratched his head. What just happened? He stood up. He shook his head. A dream. It had to have been a dream. There was a lingering feeling of doubt. How could he feel that much pain and not wake up?
He dismissed the thought. Just a bad dream. Bad dreams happen. When was the last time he had a meaningful dream? He shivered. It wasn’t the cold.
He shook his head. Thinking was not him. Reactions. Instinct. Cunning. Planning. He did not think and ponder. He had a mission. He looked to the ground. Ashtail wasn’t there. Vulpo looked out to the entrance. Soft blue-gray light shone in. He walked out of the cave in the early morning chill. Surprisingly, it felt invigorating rather than numbing. He scanned the horizon. The shoreline was off to the west. The north was covered in thick mist, rolling over the land, finally clearing in barren forest and scrubland. On a rocky outcrop sat Ashtail, back to him. He walked up to the squirrel and crouched. Ashtail didn’t seem to notice him, but continued looking off into the misty North, their heading.
Vulpo didn’t disturb the silence, but instead sat next to him. They sat on the ice-patched rock, not speaking a word or moving a muscle. After what seemed short, but what must have been minutes, Ashtail pulled his paw away from the rock and to his face. He gave a soft sob. Vulpo extended a paw and put it on his friend’s shoulder.
Ashtail spoke. “What if she’s dead, Vulpo?” He sobbed again. “What if we’re too late?”
Vulpo swallowed. There was a tug at the back of his mind. He shoved it away. “We won’t be.”
Ashtail ignored him. “What if they’re torturing her? What if she dies from torture even as we arrive? How could I live?”
Vulpo’s grip tightened. “Do not let that become true. We don’t know. It’s impossible to know! Don’t do it to yourself. All it leads to is more hurt.”
Ashtail bowed his head. “The thought…I can’t bear it, Vulpo.”
The white fox nodded, though Ashtail couldn’t see it, head in paws. “I know. I know.”
Ashtail raised his head and stared into Vulpo’s golden eyes. The glinting eyes encompassed him. The hypnosis did not give him pause, as they used to, but calmed him. His sobs stopped. “I love her, Vulpo.”
Vulpo felt tears come to his own eyes. “We will get to her. What are we waiting for? By the end of the day we should at least be in view of the fortress.”
Ashtail got to his feet. “You’re right. I’m worried. You’re right. As usual, it seems.”
Ashtail led the way back to the cave. There, they picked up their packs. The two began their day’s journey into the lands further North. Vulpo stayed behind Ashtail. The silence unnerved him. No birds. No wind whistling. Only the dull moan of the sea. Silence led to thinking. He couldn’t think. Thinking made it harder.
“Describe her.” He whispered.
Ashtail looked over his shoulder to him. “Why?”
“Keep your mind on your purpose.”
Ashtail looked back ahead and sighed. “She’s so wonderful, Vulpo. Everything about her. I can’t explain it. When I’m with her, I just know everything will be alright. All else pales in face of her. I would die a thousand times over to know she’s safe.”
Vulpo put a paw to his face so his friend would not see his tears.
Chapter Fourteen: All Alone
Oakpaw leaned against the support beam, brooding. Technically he wasn’t supposed to be putting anymore weight on the beam than he had to, but that didn’t bother him. His squad was outside, eating. He stayed in his personal tent, not wishing to speak to anyone. A breeze rustled the entrance flap, and he saw his squad. Xvar and Fern sat at the base of a bare tree. The otter was making hand gestures in a demonstration of some combat method. Fern laughed. The rest of the soldiers sat together on a collection of rocks. The newer, younger soldiers sat quietly, probably feeling numb from their first battle. The veterans were trying to engage them in conversation. Oakpaw sighed as the flap closed with the vanishing gust of air. He turned away and sat on his cot.
They had lost too many. One was too many. He couldn’t talk to anyone about it. Fern and Xvar were fine soldiers, but no one for him to talk to. His superiors were wrapped up in their own problems, and wouldn’t be much help anyway. His fellow sergeants were always away, or asleep, or at best, in no mood to speak with.
The mouse sighed, absentmindedly toying with the stripes on his sleeve.
“Thank you, return to your post” said the squirrel vacantly.
The mouse stared at a hole in his well-traveled boot, dying inside. Why did it have to be him? If he had just taken an extra minute on his patrol, he wouldn’t be standing here, unable to do anything.
“You may go” repeated Commander Stix.
The mouse jumped to shock straight, then gave a bow before speeding out of the room.
Commander Stix sank down into her seat. She wasn’t angry, she wasn’t sad, not exactly. Shock and disbelief were more accurate. Something suddenly overcame her. What was she going to do about it? Sitting in shock was not Commander Stix, no!
The squirrel stood, a slow, steady charge seemed to be building, just waiting to be unleashed. She exited her study and headed down the stairs. Her eyes gradually narrowed, planner’s formulations taking over. What had that awkward little mouse said? She was gone. Within the day so was Ashtail. Fool! He couldn’t get her alone. It would take an army to get her back.
The harshness of her thoughts weakened. He was doing all he could. And he was doing it for her daughter.
Sefera came awake slowly, as if her consciousness was no more than the sun kissing the horizon. The room seemed darker than ever. She turned her head and called out softly.
“Ink…Ink…” What was his name? Why couldn’t she remember his name? “Where are you?"
Her only reply was silence and shadows. She pulled her head straight, desperately trying to focus her eyes. As she looked about, her sight seemed to grow steadily clearer, a veil being lifted. Where was she? As her vision solidified, she saw her dank surroundings. The walls were damp stone. The squirrel looked down. She was sitting on a rotting pallet of straw, leaning against the moist wall. She shifted her weight slightly. As she did, seeming hundreds of ticks and small creatures leapt up, angry at their interrupted peace. A thought struck her. Why hadn’t she noticed she was on the pallet? What had taken her so long?
The door across from creaked. A thin shaft of light shot into the room. It seemed as if it were aimed directly for her eyes. She blinked and wanted to cringe, but kept her eyes open, even as they watered in the unexpected light.
“Is this the one for the next feast, Krag?”
“Yes sir. Firedance number one.”
“My name is Matar.” The dark silhouette of a head appeared in the thin doorway. The door creaked wider until the full outline of a wildcat was visible. He stood silently for a moment.
“What did you do to her? The queen wants her…performers…untouched.”
Another shadow slipped into the room. Sefera moaned and turned away as she felt grimy paws touch her arm. “Ho, she’ll be fine. ‘nly ‘as to stay a little longer. This’ll come off easy ‘nuff if we need it to.”
The wildcat didn’t move for a moment, then turned away. “Come on then.”
The vermin left the room. Matar closed the door behind them, and she was left in darkness. What was wrong with her?
Vulpo chewed his lip. Was some cruel fate playing with him? He scoffed inwardly. Fate was for cowards unwilling to face the darkness around them. If everything was written in stone, not a single beast bloody well knew where that stone was or what it said. Saying something is fated was the same thing as saying that you don’t want to do anything about it. Cowards.
Ashtail seemed so like him. Filled with hate, willing to do anything. He couldn’t allow it to continue. He would not wish such depths of depression. To rather feel pain than nothing at all. The Death Knight was a curse.
The fox looked to the squirrel, plodding away just steps ahead of him. His steps were neither careful nor deliberate. He wasn’t paying attention. Vulpo picked up his step, then fell back. What did he know? No one could’ve helped him before, or now. Why should it be any different for Ashtail?
A cackling laugh, hardly louder than a whisper, made its chilling path through his head. His eyes hardened, and he stepped forward.
Ashtail mindlessly stepped over thin brush and stone. His thoughts were far away. Could he imagine a worse torture? Never. Ashtail vaguely remembered sunny days from long ago. Playing with friends. Imagining great adventures of when they were all great warriors fit for legend. Save the princess from the castle. He spat derisively on the ground.
It sounded all very fine when no one died. He would rather stay out of legend, a name fading into the dark of time than be remembered as one who had to something like this. His heart ached. And what if he failed? Surely he would die. A rock skipped along the ground from behind him, skittering away from the footpaw that had glanced against it. Vulpo was still there, as much as the two stayed in silence. Vulpo.
Vulpo had been like him. Just like he was now. He was alive. Ashtail felt his mood plummet deeper into despair. Alive. It seemed a joke to call him truly alive. Voices. Sadness. Greif. Could he live like that?
Ashtail felt a paw on his shoulder. He looked into golden, hypnotic eyes.
“It’s going to be alright.”
His anger, to his friend and to his situation, was forgotten. The sadness was quelled to a dull throb. Ashtail gave a weak attempt at a smile. The corners of his mouth curled slightly, then fell.
“Not worth faking.”