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Dream Seekers

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Dream Seekers cover art

Dream Seekers cover art :3


By Sayna


Echoes will ring, echoes will fly,

Sixclawed though he be.

A hated one will answer this cry,

What hides will set us free.


Concealed the truth of his past,

His father's fire within.

The truth he may find at last,

The echoes on the wind.



Author's Note

Guess what .. it's Dream Seekers! Yay! I'm at the halfway point, almost. Yay! :D And while my hotspot was broken, I now have much better internet! :D

So I'm very happy, and it's time for dedications!

I dedicate this book to all my wiki friends and readers, especially to Lus, Reep, Astar, Salem, and Spirea. But it's to everyone who reads, whether they comment or not. Thank you, everybody ^^

And of course to my mother. She and I RPG all the time .. orally anyway. Thank her for helping me work some kinks out. XP

Lastly this goes to my father, who fixes my hotspot problems and is a great encouragement. :)

Oh yea, and it's a sub-book. No prologue. It starts at chapter fourteen where ASC left off. I suggest you read that first ;)

Oh yea. And to see all my coding correctly, download the free font Rothenburg Decorative. ;P

Enjoy some Southswardian sounding music to go with this ;) [1], [2], and [3]. I hope adding links is ok ... cause these are perfect background music while reading .. ;)

This is a song link I forgot to add, but it is perfect .. just think of our heroes in the arena, or maybe the chariot race. <3 [4]

Also this one .. seeing the Southswardian night for the first time. [5]




Chapter 14 City of Woe

The echoes of a shadow filled corridor bounced oddly about the ancient stone passage way. A shadow darker than the rest swept through it, causing the sounds.

Swartt was not in so bad a humor as last night, but he hadn't slept much. The dank, dripping echoes of his throne room had kept him awake .. that and plotting.

Yes, he had ignored his young offspring for the five seasons since his birth. Was it too late? Swartt was inclined to tell himself not so. After all, that little brat had barely seen him. Yes, he wouldn't know the difference. It would be simple, and the rewards would be great.

The thought of another six clawed warlord after him was enough to drive him on, and so he decided to pay his son a visit at an unearthly hour of the morning.

Swarrt hadn't set eyes on the child, Bluefen, or that mouse thing that he'd allowed to stay .. as a slave under Bluefen, of course .. for a good while. He was busy with his conquest, and he really had no need to visit .. it wasn't like he cared.

Now he cared, and he wasn't expecting much resistance. After all, Bluefen was timid and cowardly .. she hadn't even resisted when he'd forced her to take care of his illegitimate half-breed son.

Half-breed. That term, coupled with his offspring, made him cringe a little. Still, he had what he had, and he would have to make do with it. No .. make the best of it.

With thoughts of his wearet son becoming a mighty conquer, Swarrt yanked open the curtain that separated his wife's allotted corridors from the rest of the catacombs. He about ran into her.

Bluefen scrambled back in shock and fear, as if she hadn't been expecting him. Well, of course she hadn't. But Swartt was still disgruntled. "What are you doing up this time of morning, wench? And why do you look so fearful?"

Bluefen collected herself quickly, her answer timid as ever. "Milord .. I could not sleep. What ... do you .. want, might I ask?"

Swartt huffed. "Yes, as cowardly as ever. Look, get me my son, and be quick about it!"

The gray ferret tensed, stammering, "But milord .."

Swartt was disgusted. "I trust he's in good health? You had better of taken care of him .. you're life hangs on his, understand?"

Bluefen ducked her head. "The child is fine milord. But it is ever so early, and he may not awaken easily .. would you come back later to see him?"

Swartt was not in the mood for delays, he was in the mood for action. "Wench, bring him to me or I'll get him myself!"

Bluefen held up her paws. "Please milord .. yes, I'll get him. Wait if you would, I'll bring him."

She hurried off into the twisting passages. The mouse creature appeared in a alcove for a second, only to disappear again as soon as he saw Swartt. The warlord was disgusted with this .. did these creatures all try to avoid him? "You! Get out here where I can see you, understand?"

This was directed to the corridor, and the mouse creature. He reluctantly came out, fear in his strange violet eyes. Swartt crossed his arms. "Good. Look here. You've got no reason to be afraid unless you've broken my laws. Understand?"

The creature didn't look up, but nodded. Swartt looked around, patience growing thin. "Where is the wench? She should be back by now."

The mouse creature was slowly trying to slink away, but Swartt noticed. "Stop running off! A beast would think you were guilty of something!"

The sooty black beast froze, standing still with eyes lowered. Bluefen appeared in the cut rock doorway, stating, "Milord, wait please. He is not in bed .. he must have wandered out to play in some other room. I'll find him for you."

"It's your life if he doesn't appear wench, got that!" Was Swartt's irritable reply.

><><

Bluefen hurried off, heart pounding. Why would Swartt want the child .. now? There was only one reason, he wanted to train him .. make him into as much of a monster as he had made ..

The gray ferret choked down a ragged sob as a tear coursed down her cheek. No. No .. he could not do this!

She drew back the musty curtain that concealed her old storeroom, calling, "Esmund."

The cream wearet poked his head from behind some old barrels. "Mommy .. is he gone?"

Bluefen drew the innocent to her, hugging him with a heavy sigh. "No. And .. he's not going .. he wants you."

Esmund drew away, crying, "No! I don't have to, and I don't want to!"

Bluefen clapped a paw to his mouth. "Hush .. I'm sorry Esmund, you do have to. If you don't, he'll kill me .. Byron, and take you by force. Do you understand?"

The little cream wearet blinked back a tear. "But .. I hate him! He's so cruel whenever he sees us!"

Bluefen nodded. "I know, I know .. believe me, if I could, I wouldn't let him walk the earth. But I can't .. yet."

She put a paw beneath Esmund's chin, looking into his sparkling violet eyes. "Listen Esmund. Your name means 'divine protection'. Perhaps ... perhaps you will have some .. I named you in hope that you would. He won't leave without you, and if you are not with me when I return, he'll break my neck as soon as look at me. You are the only real reason I live, that and Swartt's negligence. If you love me my son .. please."

Esmund looked down, before looking sadly up. "Alright mother .. will he hurt me?"

Bluefen lead the child out, stating, "No Esmund, I don't think so. He wants .. to train you to be as him."

Esmund recoiled. "But I can't be like him .. he's ... awful!"

Bluefen sighed brokenly. "I know son .. but you must learn tact .. to play his game and turn it to your favor .. Oh .. but what am I saying. You are so young .. and it is his plan .. all his plan. Is there no hope left?"

She stopped at the door leading into the room where Swartt was, and took a deep breath. "Just ...."

She paused, realizing there really wasn't anything for her to say. "Be brave."

><><

Swartt was waiting with the greatest impatience, but as he heard the scuffling of pawsteps in the adjoining corridor, he attempted to mask his disgust. After all, the key to getting a child to play along, was to be agreeable.

Bluefen reappeared, leading none other than his son. Swartt hadn't had time to be bothered with the creature for months, and he'd grown into a sturdy little beast. The ferret warlord shot Bluefen a look. "At least you haven't been starving him out of spite, I will say that."

The child in question looked confused and frightened, and Swartt decided he would play his cards gently for once. He knelt, beckoning to the creature. "Come on son, I'd like to talk to you. Beast to beast, like adults, alright .. "

The warlord suddenly realized he could not remember what his idiot of a wife had named this child. Bluefen stood there, as stupid as ever, and didn't offer a bit of help. Of course, she wasn't half that intelligent. Swartt was tactful in his approach. "I'm sorry son, I've forgotten your name with all the things I have to keep track of. What is it boy?"

The child's voice was small and frightened in the silence. "It's .. Esmund."

Swartt was irritated. The wimpy names Bluefen came up with. However the ferret warlord didn't have time to be bothered with it, and right now getting this child on his side was his greatest concern. "Alright Esmund, how would you like to learn many amazing and wonderful things? I can teach you."

There was a note of bitter fear in Esmund's voice. "To be like .. you?"

Swartt wasn't sure where the child was headed, so he decided to play craftily. "Well my boy, that depends. I could make you far greater than I .. to carry the name sixclaw on forever. We could rule together as you grow, as a father and a son .. a mighty king and prince. Wouldn't you like to be a prince? I would train you as a mighty knight .. and someday son .. you will take my place as king."

"And I would be like you." Esmund seemed to have a one track mind.

Swartt sighed in longsuffering. He hated talking to children .. they understood nothing. "You could say that, if you like. More or less."

Esmund backed up, stammering, "But .. you hate me! You've never been nice to me! And what about mother and Byron?"

Swartt felt a flare of anger, mostly because this was not going according to plan. His voice was a little lower than he'd intended. "You know nothing boy, I don't hate you. And as for your mother and her slave, they will live as I have need of them. After all, you're a growing lad .. you needn't hang onto mother's apron strings any longer. It's time for you to take the mantel of what you were born to be .. a mighty warlord."

Swartt honestly thought there would be no more arguments, after all, when the Lord of the Underworld spoke as such, who dared disobey? However the innocence of the child's youth and repulsion to what he'd been taught to hate prevailed.

Esmund yanked away, crying, "No! I will not leave Byron and mother! You are a nasty, wicked creature, just like Byron said!"

Too young to understand the terrible betrayal he had committed, Esmund bolted away into the corridors he called home.

Swartt wheeled around to face the gangly, half rat .. thing, snarling, "Oh he did, did he?"

The ferret's voice was a terrible snarl, and Byron backed away, whimpering, "Please sir .. sire .. I only .."

Swartt slammed the youthful creature against one of the rock walls with ruthless strength, growling, "You thought you'd turn my son against me, fool!"

Byron yelped as the breath was knocked from his lungs, but that didn't stop Swartt from tearing his steal-enforced sixclaw across the creatures white chest and shoulder, staining it red.

If Swartt hadn't been so enraged, he might have drawn his cutlass and finished this rotten traitor off then and there. But at this point the ferret was almost past rational thought, all he wanted was to make the beast who had spoiled his plan pay .. and painfully.

"I'll send you to Hellgates, you useless half-breed!"

Byron tried to wriggle away, but there was no escaping Swartt's merciless judgment. He yelped in pain as the ferret lashed out with his six claws, tearing them into the half rat's back once .. twice .. three times. In blind terror and agony, Byron kicked out, catching Swartt in the shins. The warlord dropped him, but before the creature could drag himself away, his master kicked him in the side with brutal strength, sending him reeling into the rock wall like a limp rag.

There was no fight left in the poor young creature, and what kept Swartt from killing him was hard to say. Perhaps it was Bluefen's small cry of horror.

Swartt wheeled to face his hated wife, to see she was kneeling brokenly on the floor, face in her black paws. She looked up slowly, and Swartt paused. He needed his son's cooperation .. slaying one of his friends might not be the best way.

The ferret snarled. "You be careful wench .. take that as a warning. What happened to him could happen to you!"

Swartt spun on his heel, stalking away to think of another approach. He didn't bother to look back upon the destruction he had wrought.

><><

Scound woke slowly to realize his leg was almost numb, yet still tingling with pain. Next he realized he was laying on something hard and uncomfortable.

The weasel blinked his eyes open, to be confronted by dark shadows and a few weak lanterns. He groaned, trying to sit up and recall what had happened to bring him to this state.

It all came flooding back in a painful wave. That black rabbit with the gorgeous sword .. their duel .. her strange behavior and mastery .. the fire of agony in his leg .. Swartt's fury .. and now this.

Where was he?

"I'd not move too much if I was ya. Course I ain't. But it's just my advice as yer 'ealer."

Scound turned his head, blinking in the gloom. A dark furred cat stood nearby, mixing something. She wasn't looking at him as she spoke, and her curly black hair spilled into her face, hiding it from her patient.

Scound didn't spend his time around the Shadow Fighter apprentices, yet he knew this creature. She was pretty unforgettable though, with her jingling jewelry and gauzy outfit, as well as being one of the only cats in the horde. "Skadu, ain't it?"

She set about feeling his sore leg, remarking, "Ya. Wull you ain't gonna loose the leg, and while it'll be sore fer a liddle, I think you could walk on it now if you was careful. There was a lot of blood, but the injury is most on the surface. Ya can be happy about that."

Scound clapped a paw to his head with a groan. Skadu snorted. "I don't see what'cher moanin' about. I'd say ya was lucky."

"Lucky!" Scound's voice was desperate. "I got demoted over a liddle surface wound an' a rabbit with a purty sword? That liar Sixclaw!"

The weasel looked up as he realized what he had said, but Skadu was looking at him oddly. "Then ya hate him too?"

Scound paused. "Are ya sayin' .."

Skadu shrugged. "Hey, just cause I was bought a slave an' shoved inta bein' a Shadow Fighter don't mean I gotta want to. Kinta! Can ya git me some more water?"

The frail looking silver rat maid hurried off as a raven's wing black fox hobbled up, leaning heavily on a gnarled wooden staff. Scound raised an eyebrow. "That all of ya? I ain't never seen ya before."

This was directed to the black vixen with shockingly red headfur and paws. Her flat green eyes never changed. "Not many do, sir."

Scound nodded. "Ya I can tell. Are ya all against Sixclaw?"

The vixen spoke again, dully. "Swartt, Shroud, Nightshade .. what does it matter? None of them care for us. None would flinch at slaying us if we prove ourselves unworthy of the life they grant us."

Scound was surveying these creatures in a new light now. They weren't just thin, they were scrawny. They had haunted shadows in their adorned eyes, and they seemed half dead .. at least in spirit. Despite their beauty and jewels, they were miserable .. they were desperate. They were trapped.

The weasel sat up, stating, "Wull you three are a sorry crew .. what say I make ya a liddle deal eh? Bring a smile ta those pretty faces?"

The rat set the bowl of water on the table, asking, "And what might that be?"

Scound winked at her, starting to feel his old self again. "Ya want out don't ya? Wull so do I. I can't do it meself, you can't do it yerselfs neither. Ain't that askin' fer a deal? If it ain't I donno what is."

The fox and the rat looked at each other, as Skadu, who seemed to be the spokesbeast, answered. "How can we trust ya? Ya was the captain! Why'd ya want ta get out eh?"

Scound crossed his arms. "Look 'ere miss, I've been in this horde since before you was born. I fought fer Sixclaw, Aye, an fer Lotor the Great before him! I coulda left seasons 'for I ever came ta Southsward, but I didn't. I didn't an' I'll regret it forever. But Sixclaw lied ta me see? He's lied one too many times now .. fer sure! I ain't gonna stay fer him ta use me fer the dangerous missions, I work fer petty reward an' put me life on the line over an over see? Wull I'm done. An' I'll help ya get out too, how's that?"

Skadu crossed her arms in turn. "Aye, it sounds understand'ble. But here's my question. Why?"

Scound was a little irritated. The ridiculous, prying questions beasts could ask. "Look, does it matter? But I'll tell ya this. Yer young enough ta be me daughter .. ya all are. An' maybe I got a soft spot fer underdogs like ya .. I was one once. I am again. That good enough?"

Skadu looked over at her two companions, who shrugged, before whispering to each other. Skadu slowly reached out, shaking Scound's offered paw. "But if'n ya dare play us false, I'll kill ya myself see? That or my ghost'll haunt ya after Nightshade kills me."

Scound shook her paw, sighing, "Look, what's in it fer me ta play ya false? Now listen ta me .. there's a couple a things I gotta find out. And then I might just 'ave a plan."

><><

The darkened corridors Bluefen resided in held an air of oppression and fear, far more so than usual.

The gray ferret did her best to care for the wounds Swartt had bestowed upon her slave, though she wasn't sure how much she could really do.

Her slave. Swartt had given Byron the title .. but he was not. He was almost like her son.

Bluefen sighed, laying a paw on his head. He had no fever .. yet. But he was badly knocked about .. Bluefen was almost certain he had a few broken ribs where Swartt had kicked him. Esmund was sitting beside her, and his voice was worried. "Mother .. is Byron going to be .. ok?"

Bluefen looked away. "I .. don't know."

Esmund said no more, and Bluefen did the same. She stroked Byron's black headfur, sighing, "Kesha .. told me you'd do great things. I can only trust her."

Byron groaned, blinking dull violet eyes open. Bluefen picked up his head, giving him a little water. The half-rat drank it, slowly mumbling, "Is .. he gone?"

Bluefen made him drink some more, nodding. "For .. now. Hush though .. rest. He hurt you badly."

Byron coughed, moaning, "Yea .. I .. can tell .. I'm sorry Bluefen .."

The ferret stroked her young ward's forehead. "No, no .. it wasn't your fault. Don't think that. Swartt is a madbeast, I've said before. Just rest. Rest and perhaps he will not come for a few days. His fury should have cooled by then."

Byron's voice was painfully raspy, but he spoke anyway. "How long .. have I been like .. this?"

Bluefen got him to drink a little more water. "Hush .. rest. Will you not do as I say? But it has been several hours. Now sleep child .. that's what you need most."

Byron closed his eyes in pained exhaustion, coughing a little. Bluefen shook her head. The half-bred creature had always been surprisingly strong for his gangly appearance, but now he was helpless. She hoped Swartt would not come. She doubted he would .. right away. He would be back .. in a few days. At least that was her prayer.

But Bluefen hadn't truly prayed in seasons. If Kesha's words about how Ignasa loved vermin like woodlanders were true ... she must be an exception.

As if to prove her point, the thump of boots rang from the outer corridor!

Bluefen froze, struggling to stand as Esmund bolted away with a tiny squeak of fright. The curtain was flung away to reveal none other than the one who she pleaded to fate would not come. But he had.

Swartt was done playing, Bluefen could tell by the demonic glitter in his dark eyes. "Where is he wench? I'll find him one way or other ..."

The ferret warlord paused as Byron moaned slightly. "What? He's still here?"

Swartt sounded positively disgusted, as if he'd forgotten Byron's existence until now, and wasn't happy about remembering. Bluefen didn't look up. "Milord, I will heal him .. he will have use as a slave again!"

Swartt glared at the rat-like beast laying half-conscious on a few ragged blankets, and curled his lip. "Not fast enough. And who said you even get a slave under you? I've been too lenient with you wench."

The ferret reached for Byron, and Bluefen couldn't contain her cry. "Wait .. but what are you doing with him?"

Swartt grabbed the beast in question none too gently, sneering, "What do you think? He's a slave, and I'll sell him like one. After all, he's no use to me like this, and he's a traitor. He's lucky I don't kill him."

><><

The rising sun glittered over the golden desert sands, and the trail of assorted foot prints. Mystiquestar was enjoying herself the most; after a certain amount of time the horse had decided she liked the desert. She was certainly a lot thinner than when the adventure had begun.

Veil watched her lope ahead, come back, run a few circles around them, and bolt away again. He wished he'd been able to acclimate to the desert as well as she.

Fripple's voice came from behind him. "I'll be glad when we reach the city .. I am tired of the desert."

Veil nodded in silence. The sweltering heat they'd been living with was exhausting, and Veil imagined they were all due for a bath. He knew he was.

Catkin caught up with Fripple, exclaiming, "Oh I want to get to the city too .. I bet it will be ever so exciting! Do you .. Fripple .. do you think they'll have water? You know .. enough water to swim in?"

Aubretia pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. "According to my calculations, a city of any good size would have to at least have a river feeding into it."

Catkin was excited. "A river!"

Cedric sounded a little sarcastic from his place in front of them. "A river? Sunshine, there's an ocean."

Catkin stopped walking for a second, ecstatic. "An ocean!"

Esther seemed nervous and unusually quiet from her place on the other side of Fripple, but now she spoke .. to Cedric. "You're sure this city .. isn't .. well .. there's nothing .. wrong .. with it, is there?"

Cedric was getting some of his normal bluster back after the incident with the jackals. "Now Swipe, you just trust me. There's nothing to worry about. Nothing your guide can't take care of."

Veil felt a little irritated with Cedric's behavior, even if he'd seen it before. But the mouse's cocky pride was telling on them all, and while Veil hadn't meant to say a thing, something came out. "How long do you really think to stay with us?"

Cedric looked a little surprised. "You didn't actually think I'd just leave you guys, did you your highness? These ladies need some protection .. from somebeast who knows what they're doing."

Fripple had remained silent until this point, but now she looked up. "I can take care of myself, thank you."

Cedric waggled a paw at her. "Oh not here you can't, Princess. You've got no clue how Southsward works .. you need someone like me to help you. And besides, you look tired .. you can't do it yourself this time."

Fripple looked insulted. "I've done just fine so far, and I can do it again! And I am tired .. of you especially."

Cedric snorted. "Oh come on Princess, what'd I do this time?"

Fripple was frustrated. "It's not 'this time'. It's every time! I could almost like you if it weren't for your ... oh .. your demeanor! Don't you get that? I've tried to be patient .. as patient as I can be .. but you just never stop! You're just so .. proud!"

Cedric rolled his eyes. "If I'm proud, what are you?"

Veil tensed at this, expecting an explosion, but there was stunned silence. Fripple stared at Cedric in amazement for a few seconds, before sputtering, "Alright .. fine! Yes, I am proud. But at least I'm not proud of what I look like! At least I'm not vain."

Catkin shoved between the two mice, exclaiming, "This isn't making anybeast happy!"

Ivan's droll voice rang from behind them. "The day those two make each other happy is the day I'll eat my hat."

Catkin disagreed. "But it can be done. Now you two just need to apologize."

Fripple snarled. "He'd better do it first!"

Cedric crossed his arms. "Look Princess, I've tried to be friendly! What do you have against me?"

Fripple paused again, finally blurting, "I just .. the way you act .. and .. I don't know! Can't you leave me alone? I don't know!"

Catkin, ever hopeful, spoke out. "Then this has promise, if you don't know."

Mystiquestar's hoof beats interrupted the argument, and the horse was panting and very excited. "You guys .. come on .. you've got to see this .. come on!"

She wheeled around, loping off, and Fripple followed, glad of any distraction. Veil reached the dune they'd bolted to in a few seconds, and he knew their initial journey was over.

Like a massive fortress, the city sprawled across the landscape, almost hiding the restless indigo sea that served as its backdrop. A wide river wove from the south, turning it's banks relatively green. Houses and farms were built outside the massive stone walls, and a few ships were moored at the ocean's edge, in what would have to be a bay.

The cry of gulls mixed oddly with the desert, and yet it was a constant, faint noise here. The way was clear now, Veil could even see some horse drawn carts traveling along well worn roads.

Cedric was still irritated by Fripple's behavior, and he was a little demanding. "I got you here ... do I get paid?"

Fripple looked at Veil, who nodded with a sigh. "Yes, he does."

Fripple rolled her eyes, but she complied, digging in her satchel and counting out the money. It took her a few minutes, before she dropped the coins in Cedric's waiting paw. "Seventy sheckles, as we agreed."

Cedric counted the money carefully before pocketing it. "Alright, now .. where are you going?"

Ivan raised his eyebrow. "If you take us, how much do we have to pay you this time?"

Veil crossed his arms, stopping halfway with a wince. "We don't really have the money to pay you more .. do we Fripple?"

This was a question, and the mouse maid nodded firmly. "You aren't going to cheat us out of more money .. the city's right there. We can see it .. why don't you leave and squander your pay on whatever you plan on wasting it with?"

Cedric snorted. "Princess, let me tell you, you're gonna need me far more than money."

Fripple rolled her eyes. "Why? Cause you're hot?"

Cedric couldn't resist a little jab. "Well I am that, quite perceptive of you to finally admit it."

Fripple's glare intensified. "Look, just get out of here. Take your stupid arrogance elsewhere!"

Cedric appealed to Veil and Ivan. "Can you hear her? Come on you two, surely you realize you need a guide who knows their way around? After all you don't."

Veil couldn't help himself .. Cedric was telling on his normally understanding demeanor. "Look, this isn't working. You got us across the desert, and I thank you for that. But we can't get along .. just .. leave us. Why would you stay anyway? You have what you want."

Cedric was honestly shocked, and he reacted too fast for him to put much thought into his reply. "How would you know what I want? Why would I stay with you this long if I didn't ..."

He instantly stopped, as Fripple broke in. "You wanted your pay, it's that simple. Well you've got it. Now get lost!"

Cedric's yellow green eyes glittered with an odd mix of emotions, and he finally snapped, "You know .. fine! Have it your way Princess, but don't you ever say I didn't warn you! I don't know why I've risked my life for you .. obviously you couldn't care one way or other! So go, do it your own! I'd almost like to see you try, but I ..."

He looked bitterly remorseful for a second, before blurting, "But I wouldn't like to see you afterwards. You are a Princess .. made of ice. So go .. see if they care as much as I did!"

The mouse leapt over the dune they stood on, tail whisking behind him as he ran stiffly off, refusing to look back.

><><

Cedric's paws knew these roads, they were the places he had played in as a child. They were the roads he'd driven chariots on, rode horse's on, and walked upon as he did now. He'd entered the city with a small crowd of commoners .. nobeast had noticed him.

They once had. But he didn't matter now. His rag-bound paws led him to a small, disused alley .. a place that had offered him solace many a time. The mouse sat down wearily on some fallen rumble, before he slowly unwound the strips of fabric that had served him as shoes in the desert.

He cast them aside in a rather bad temper, before whipping the cloth off his head and shoulders, tossing it moodily away. The mouse spoke to a small sand gecko perched on a nearby cracked stone .. his only companion. "She thinks she's so brave. She doesn't know anything, and she won't let me tell her!"

The little lizard blinked emotionless eyes at him, and Cedric huffed. "It's not fair. You know I risked my life for her?"

The mouse answered for his silent listener. "Oh, why? You wonder why? Huh. Me too. I wouldn't have done that much for the ones who idolized me .. and then there's Princess. She couldn't care less, so why should I? But I do! And I don't know why!"

The gecko flicked it's tongue at Cedric in the most unsympathetic manner. The mouse snorted. "What, go after her? What are you, my Uncle Mizzah?"

The accused one slithered to a sunnier spot on its crumbling rock, and Cedric rolled his eyes. "You and Ivan would make a droll pair, wouldn't you? I can't go after her, it's not like a fairytale, let me tell you. Course .. I always thought fairy-stories were silly anyway .. but .. this is ridiculous!"

The lizard was fond of his tongue gesture. Cedric buried his head in his paws. "Oh .. you're no help! The slavers will get her .. get all of them! And .. it won't be my fault .."

He looked up, sulkily arguing with relatively no one. "No, it'll be their fault, ok? Yea .. yea .. fine. Alright, I'll go after them, get myself chewed out .. and you just don't stick your tongue out at me anymore."

The gecko did the opposite of what he was bid. Cedric looked hurt, before asking, "You think Princess will ever like me?"

His audience of one repeated his favorite gesture. Cedric rolled his eyes. "Yea, that's what I thought. Even you understand the obvious. How come I had to fall for a beast who will never feel the same? But fine. Fine, I'll try again. What good it'll do, I've got no clue. She'd rather die alone than she'd ever die with me ..."

He broke off for a second, amending his statement. "That is, live with me. But maybe I will end up dead. Maybe she might have enough humanity to feel remotely sorry."

He watched the lizard, bored with his complaints, skitter away. "I suppose there's only one way to find out isn't there? Sheesh. The messes I get myself into."




Chapter 15 Ghost of the Past

Shroud watched Swartt with an air of mocking disbelief. "You want me to try and sell that? Sixclaw, I didn't know you were that hard up for funds."

Swartt threw Byron at Shroud's feet, watching without remorse as the creature cried out in pain, sprawling to the ground. "Just get rid of it."

Shroud motioned to a nearby guard, a stoat. "Take this thing out of my sight. See if you can sell it with the other used slaves .. though if Sixclaw had one spark of humanity in him, he'd put it out of it's misery."

The fox slaver sneered as he dropped a well worn sheckle in Swartt's paw. "Of course he doesn't. And when even one sheckle is involved .. neither do I."

Byron groaned as the stoat pulled him onto his paws, dragging him roughly away. Shroud's white fangs glittered in a hateful smile as he stated, "So, Sixclaw. I heard you're going to train that half-bred son of yours."

Swartt snarled as he pocketed the sheckle, and Shroud jabbed again. "Ramon's going to run the chariot race again .. and win it. He always wins."

Swartt sneered. "He always cheats."

Shroud shrugged. "He does what we all do. At least he's my son and a full-blooded fox. Oh yes .. and his mother didn't leave him with me and vanish, either."

Swartt snarled. "Oh leave Aisha out of it .. I have suspicions as to where she vanished to."

Shroud smiled smugly. "Really?"

His ferret nemesis sneered. "I think you had a lot to do with that. But it doesn't really matter. I have the child, and one day he will be far greater than your whiny brat."

Swartt turned on his heel, but Shroud's final jab didn't escape him. "Indeed .. we will all bow to the sixclawed wearet warlords."

><><

Never in his life had Veil seen so many beasts, heard so many hooves pound dirt and cobblestone, or found so many strange cultures in one place. Southsward seemed the time worn capital of ancient ideas and customs, a fathomless pool of morphing practices and dress.

A lot of beasts wore the same sort of clothing Cedric had, sparse and white, with a splash of color in a draping belt or gauzy cape-like shawl. However some wore exotically colored outfits of origins Veil could only guess, with jewel pinned turbans or sweeping headscarves. Some wore a strange mix of the two.

Gold and silver jewelry was prevalent, even among males. Chariots seemed the ideal transportation, and their drivers paid little attention to pedestrians. Veil and his friends learned the apparent rule was for any beasts on foot to jump out of the way, about three minutes after they entered the city gates.

They were walking along in total wonderment, staring at the pillared, box-like buildings around them, when Veil heard an ominous thundering from behind. He wheeled around to see a chariot come through the gates, drawn by a chestnut. For one second Veil didn't move, thinking the charioteer would go around them, but a few moments later, that seemed highly unlikely. Veil grabbed Esther, walking in the chariot's pathway, and jumped aside, knocking Fripple and Aubretia over in the process.

Star seized Catkin's shirt in her teeth, bowling Ivan over as she leapt out of the way. The chariot driver didn't seem to even notice the beasts he could have killed, and carried on with his breakneck pace.

Fripple stood, dusting herself off and muttering, "Maniac."

Aubretia's glasses had been knocked off, and she squinted around for them. "My glasses .. where are they? Oohh .. they'd better be here!"

Fripple picked up her cousin's missing possession from where they lay bent on the ground. She attempted to bend them back into shape before setting them on Aubretia's nose. "Sorry .. they're a little bent."

Aubretia fiddled with them remorsefully. "A little!"

Catkin was attempting to fix her cape-like dress. "He didn't make us very happy."

"He wasn't intending to." Was Ivan's droll reply.

Veil had landed on his side, and Esther had landed on top of him. She picked herself up, offering Veil her paw. "Are you ok? Is your arm alright?"

Veil got to his feet, realizing he'd fallen on his injury. It didn't feel wonderful, yet not as bad as it could have. "I'll be alright. Let's keep going though."

He started off again, and Esther caught up with him, asking, "Where are we going though? I mean .. we got to Southsward .. so .. now what? Do we have something to do? You know .. like a quest?"

Veil sighed. His dream was growing blurry now, it had been weeks since he'd had it. "I've .. got to find .. some sort of secret. And my past, whatever that is."

Esther contemplated this a moment, before stating, "Veil .. I remember the day you came to Redwall. You weren't like you are now."

The ferret turned his head toward her, slowly asking, "What was I like? I know we haven't spoke of it, but I understand enough to know I can't really be a Greeneyes. However all I can remember is Redwall .. beyond that .. everything is vague .. it's just .. gone. I wish I could remember .. but I can't."

Ivan shrugged. "I remember when Lady Redfarl and Lord Arvid brought you .. that was during the war with Lotor."

Fripple spoke up. "You were very shy and timid .. afraid of almost anything at first."

Aubretia interrupted. "But I don't remember!"

Esther laughed. "You weren't born .. or maybe you were a baby. But I can still remember when Veil came .. he was a season or so older then me, and far more nervous."

Veil shook his head. "I can almost remember that part. But beyond that! That's the question."

Star cocked one ear sideways. "Well we can't tell you that."

Veil nodded. "I know. But I think that's part of what I've got to find."

Catkin was hopeful. "Maybe you have a family! Maybe we can help you find them .. wouldn't that be wonderful? I love family reunions!"

Fripple was skeptical. "I'm not so sure. Who knows what Veil's real family is like?"

Catkin paused, before countering. "I like to think they will be very nice."

Veil couldn't say he felt as hopeful as Catkin, for some reason. "Yea .. well .. I guess we'll find out won't we? If they're still alive .. or here."

Star paused at the corner they had come to, exclaiming, "Oh, look at this!"

Veil caught up with her, to see a good sized market place, filled with bustle and life .. a crowd of endless movement. He paused, stating, "Don't you think we should find an inn? We're filthy and tired .. if we had a place to rest for a while, we could get clean again and have time to discuss our next move .. whatever that might be."

Fripple nodded. "That sounds good to me."

Star started across the busy market square, calling, "Well come on! What are we waiting for .. I'm hungry!"

Veil did as the horse suggested, and the others followed suit. Aubretia paused at a little stall selling an assortment of writing materials. "Oh, ink! Fripple, I need some ink, mine dried up remember?"

Fripple groaned, falling back and stopping by the stall her cousin was entranced by. "Look, we need to keep up with the others."

Catkin and Esther had stopped to see what Aubretia had stopped for. The seller, a scruffy old shrew-like animal, looked quite hopeful at the prospect of so many buyers. "Is there anythin' you're seekin' in particular?"

Aubretia picked up a few inkwells. "Oh these .. these are perfect. Please Fripple?"

With four pairs of eyes on her .. the shop keeper's especially .. Fripple gave in. "How much?"

The shrew was pleased. "A sheckle miss."

Fripple handed over the money, sighing, "Here .. thank you sir. Come on Aubretia .. all of you Where's Veil, Ivan, and Star?"

Catkin scanned the crowd, stammering, "Oh dear .. well ... they've got to be here somewhere. They were here just a minute ago!"

Fripple crossed her arms. "Yea .. good job you guys. There are probably hundreds of beasts in this market alone! Now how will we find Veil and Ivan in that? I hope they're with Star!"

At that minute, Star shoved her way through the crowd, exclaiming, "Hey, are Veil and Ivan with you? They were right behind me, but when I looked around, you guys were all gone! Sheesh you scared me. So .. where are they?"

Fripple clapped a paw to her head. "Oh brilliant you three .. and you Library. Don't your calculations say we need to stay together in a place this thickly populated?"

Aubretia thought for a minute. "Yes, I believe they would."

Esther was worried. "Well come on! We've got to find them!"

><><

Veil and Ivan had been behind Star, when a cart driver had pulled his load out in front of them. When the way was clear again, the roan filly had disappeared into the masses.

Veil looked at his wildcat friend, who shrugged. The ferret turned around to ask Fripple what she thought the next best move was, only to see Fripple was not there. In fact none of his friends were there.

"Oh great." Veil's voice was a sigh. "Where'd they go Ivan?"

Ivan shrugged.

Veil was upset. "We've got to find them Ivan, who knows what could happen to them here?"

Ivan nodded in silent agreement. Veil leaned against a nearby stall, asking, "Where do you think they went?"

"There's plenty of things to distract them. Think about what they might like." Was Ivan's sound advice.

Veil was thinking on this, and he suddenly shuddered. "I hope Esther didn't steal anything."

Ivan wasn't comforting. "Nothing is more probable."

Veil was giving his adopted brother a look, when there was the scuff of a paw behind him. The ferret wheeled around to see a weasel, spear held up, but backwards. Without stopping to think on how odd this was, Veil drew his rapier. "Get away .. what do you want?"

They were at the edge of the market's activity, and nobeast seemed to notice the confrontation. The weasel said nothing, and Veil advanced til his sword blade was nearly touching the creature's nose. "I asked. What do you want with me?"

The weasel held his spear up, almost defensively, even though the blade was still pointing the wrong way, and some sixth sense made Veil try to spin around .. but it was too late. There was a flood of pain as something hit him over the head.

Veil fell to the paving stones, feeling a little wetness trickle down the back of his neck. He tried to struggle back onto his paws, but his head spun.

Where was Ivan? What had happened?

The ferret could vaguely feel somebeast dragging him away, coupled by a fuzzy, yet angry sounding voice. But his head hurt so ...

Veil tried to struggle, but it must have been a weak attempt at best. The strain of moving proved too much, and Veil felt himself descend into a pit of darkness.

><><

Fripple was in a fix, and she knew it. Veil and Ivan seemed to have dropped off the face of the earth.

The mouse maid was trying to keep her friends from panicking, while she did the same. It wasn't an easy job. Aubretia was calculating what could have happened to the two, coming up with all sorts of horrible ideas.

"According to my calculations, they might have been run over. In fact the statistics point to a sixty-four percent chance they could have."

Esther stared at the mouse. "Don't say things like that!"

Aubretia added in attempt to be comforting, "Of course, there is then a thirty-six percent chance they might not have .."

Esther was decidedly un-comforted. "Don't say things like that!"

Fripple interrupted. "You guys, stop it please? I'm trying to think! What would Veil do right now? You know, if we were gone?"

Star broke in. "Well .. he might set up base camp at an inn .. and eat something!"

Esther glared at the horse. "You added that part!"

Star rolled her eyes. "Ok, so I'm hungry."

Fripple was at the back of the group, Star at the front. They were traveling through a shadowed alley, and Fripple paused suddenly, staring back into the darkened passageway.

She felt a shiver crawl up her spine. Why did it feel like something was watching from the shadows? The mouse maid wheeled around, hurrying to catch up with the others. There was nothing there .. it was just her stupid phobias and the loss of the two boys playing with her mind.

Part of her really wanted to believe that lie.

She bolted out into the blinding sunlight, reaching her friends just as Catkin shivered. "Oh .. this place doesn't make me happy!"

Fripple took a moment to look around, to be met by a disturbing sight .. probably the worst she had ever laid eyes on. The place they had come to was filled with dull eyed, hopeless looking creatures of every species. Some were in cages, others chained to the rock walls of houses.

The air smelled .. filthy, and stains of dried .. and fresh blood decorated the surroundings. As they walked by, Fripple found herself meeting many a gaze, some empty, some pleading, some hateful .. but all broken. All listless and waiting for death. Some of the scrawniest and bloodiest beasts didn't even look up.

The mouse maid could imagine she had a look of horror on her face, but she didn't really care. What was this place? But she knew. She had heard her father tell enough tales of his young life as a galley beast to know .. this must be a place where slaves were bought and sold.

Fripple felt a fire of anger growing within her as she saw these pathetic creatures .. some old enough to be her grandparent, some as young as her little brothers.

She paused as she heard a sniffle beside her. Catkin addressed her, with emotion. "Oh Fripple .. they all look so sad! Nobeast could be happy here!"

Esther's voice was disgusted. "I bet the slavers are .. they make money off this."

Catkin gasped. "You mean they sell creatures like they have no soul? Like they are things?"

Fripple's lip was curling in anger toward the slavers as she answered. "That's what a slave yard is, Catkin. That's what slavery is."

Catkin was mortified. "Oh .. that's awful!"

She turned to Fripple, asking, "Fripple .. I know! We can buy them all, and make them all happy!"

Fripple stared at the otter. "Don't be ridiculous Catkin, I can't buy them all! I don't have that much money! It would be better to overthrow the slavers and liberate them."

Catkin was eager. "Oh I knew you'd have a plan! How do we do that?"

Fripple shook her head. "No, not now. I meant .. oh .. forget it. There's nothing we can do."

Esther broke in. "Wait .. maybe I could steal them!"

Fripple turned on her. "No! No, we don't need that! Who knows what would happen if we were caught? We might end up getting sold here next!"

Aubretia took some calculations. "We don't need that occurrence."

Star shuddered. "They all look so hungry! This is making me .. more .... hungry ..."

She broke off at the looks her friends were giving her. "Oh .. well .. it does!"

Fripple rolled her eyes. "Look. Let's just get out of here. Who knows the way out?"

Esther pointed at Fripple. "You're supposed to be leading!"

Fripple groaned, looking for the alley they had come through. "Umm .."

Star broke her concentration. "What's going on over there?"

Fripple followed her friend's gaze, and was not comforted by what she saw. Over there was a sort of wooden platform, a crowd .. and an auctioneer. The mouse took a step forward, entranced by this living nightmare .. this terribly cruel reality.

She'd grown up in Mossflower .. slavery was not accepted there. But here .. the remorselessness, the depravity, the pure wickedness .. it was so real. It was horrible. Fripple watched as two slaves, a squirrel and a hedgehog, were shoved onto the platform, and the bidding began. The two beasts didn't bother to get up, or even resist as they were dragged away by a guard and given to their new owner.

The whole spectacle was over in a few moments, and the auctioneer motioned for the next unfortunates. When they stumbled into view, Fripple stared in pity and shock. These two were far worse off then the first pair. One was a scrawny, filthy looking creature .. his rudder-like tail and small ears betrayed him as an otter, but that was the only thing.

The other was small, young, and mouse-like. He fell on his face on the platform, laying in a miserable heap of bloody black fur. Catkin gasped from beside Fripple. "Oh .. oh .. these two are ever so much worse looking than the others .. they must be so .. sad!"

Fripple bit her lip. Esther's voice was grim at the jeers of the crowd. "Fripple .. what if they don't sell them?"

Fripple meet the ermine's earnest green eyes, before shaking her head. "They'll kill them .. they can't want much for them."

Catkin's voice was almost a wail. "Kill them? Oh Fripple .. do something!"

Aubretia broke in. "Fripple, they can't be very expensive. Maybe .. we should buy them. To save them!"

Fripple hesitated as the auctioneer yelled, "Well come on, make a bid, somebeast!"

Catkin pleaded, while crying. "Oh please Fripple, please? I'll make them ever so happy!"

The auctioneer's cry broke Fripple from her hesitation. "I can't keep em here all day .. one last chance!"

Fripple could stand it no more, and she heard her voice split the silence. "Wait!"

The crowd turned to look at her with a rustling, and she swallowed hard in the presence of so many eyes. The auctioneer addressed her. "Well here's a taker .. five sheckles miss! I'll start you at five!"

Fripple glared at him, feeling rage against the way these creatures had been treated. "Three!"

The auctioneer snorted. "That won't pay me to stand up here missy! Four!"

Fripple snarled back. "You aren't bidding! I'm bidding! Three and a half!"

"Four!"

"Three and three quarters!"

"Four!"

Fripple glared at him. "How do I know if I say yes to four, that you won't make it five?"

The auctioneer was obstinate. "Four!"

Fripple huffed. "Alright fine. Four."

Pleased with this victory, the auctioneer continued. "Five!"

Fripple stamped a paw. "You did it again! Four and a half!"

The crowd was laughing by now, snickering, pointing .. obviously Fripple wasn't bidding like a normal beast.

The auctioneer didn't give up. "Five!"

"Four and a half!"

The auctioneer paused, looked at the beasts in question, and finally nodded. "Done!"

Catkin hugged Fripple. "Oh thank you Fripple, thank you!"

Fripple got loose from her friend's vise-like hug to pay the auctioneer, who had his paw out. A guard shoved the two off the platform, and the black mouse creature collapsed again, with a whimper of pain. Esther told the guard what she thought. "You don't shove them around! We bought them! They're hurt, can't you see that?"

The crowd roared with laughter. Fripple closed her satchel, stating, "Let's get out of here .. and get them out of here."

The auctioneer's voice rang out again. "Next!"

Fripple ignored him, and Catkin addressed the male otter. "Hi, I'm Catkin! What's your name?"

The creature looked dully at her with a expression of total confusion. Esther offered him her paw. "Here, can you walk? Catkin and I will help you."

The otter blinked at them, and when he spoke, his voice was raspy. "What? I'm .. a slave."

Catkin threw his left arm over her shoulders, consoling him as Esther did the same with his other arm. "Oh, you're not a slave anymore. We'll get you a bath and some new clothes and something to eat, and that will make you very happy. Oooh do you like hotroot? And what's your name? You haven't told us yet."

The otter stumblingly got his feet beneath him, mumbling, "I haven't had a name in seasons .. but once .. I was called .. Vinwyte."

Fripple was struggling to lift the mouse like beast, who seemed almost incoherent. She pulled him onto a kneeling Star's back, panting, "Good .. grief he's .. heavy .. what's his name?"

This was addressed to Vinwyte, who gazed dully back, rasping, "How should I know? I've never seen him in my life ... I'm an oar slave .. or was. I was paired with him .. that's all I know."

Fripple sighed. "Oh. Well .. where do we go now?"

Aubretia had the answer. "We must go to an inn, to take care of them."

Fripple groaned. "Yes Library .. but where?"

Aubretia shrugged. "Oh. Well I don't know that. Let me calculate which direction would be most likely."

A familiar voice came from behind them, laced in a little smugness, but a little disgust too. "Why don't you ask somebeast who knows their way around, eh Princess?'

><><

Veil awoke to a slow dripping, like that of something underground. He winced, blinking his eyes open carefully.

It was dark here, lit by a few flickering and ornate lanterns. Veil looked slowly around, realizing that the place he was in was well decorated .. like a prince's quarters. He was lying on a comfortable couch-like piece of furniture, draped with a soft green blanket.

The ferret frowned. Wait. Somebeast had knocked him out and dragged him away .. so why wasn't he in a gloomy cell somewhere? Wasn't that the normal place for a prisoner?

But the place he was in was no cell, it was cool and well decorated. Veil carefully felt the back of his head, starting as he felt the damp cloth pressed to it. Further inspection showed the jackal bite was also cleaned and bandaged.

What was going on?

Soft foot steps made him lay back down, only to stare as a thin chocolate furred cat maiden in gauzy clothing came in, setting something on a table. Veil started at how raspy his voice was. "Where am I? Who are you?"

She bowed, much to his shock. "I am Skadu, yer highness. Are yer wounds feeling better?"

Veil stared at her. "Why are you calling me 'highness'?"

Skadu kept her eyes respectively averted. "You are Lord Sixclaw's son, prince. What else would I call ya? Yer father ordered that you have healing, a bath, new clothes, and food and drink before ya see him. I'm ta see ta all of that."

Veil shook his head, suddenly wincing. "Ahh .. who on earth is 'Lord Sixclaw'?"

Skadu looked up in surprise, before lowering her gaze again. "Yer father sire."

Veil sat up, stating, "Look, I think you've made a mistake .. my father is in Mossflower! Well .. my adopted father."

Skadu shrugged, asking, "Show me yer right paw ... if you would, yer highness."

Veil rolled his eyes as he did as he was bid. "Stop cringing, would you miss .. Skadu? One would think I would hurt you. And call me Veil. Please stop calling me 'highness', I'm no prince."

The cat examined the paw, before holding it up for his inspection, pointing out the extra claw. "I knew ya was ol ... erm .. Lord Sixclaw's son .. you've got six claws. And all da children a Sixclaw got six claws, lemme tell ya. I should know, I ...."

A weasel appeared in the doorway, ordering, "Stop chatterin'. Go get his highness food while he takes his bath. Come on wench, move! Before I report you ta Nightshade."

The weasel raised a paw to strike the unfortunate, but Veil reached out and seized his arm before he could touch the cat maiden. "Stop! She's not doing anything wrong, sir. I was asking her questions .. leave her alone."

He expected the weasel to lash out at this, but instead he bowed low, although he had an odd expression on. "Uhh .. yes sire, a course if'n ya say so."

Skadu looked grateful, and she almost knelt as she backed away, amber eyes averted once more. "I'll get ya some vittles yer highness. Thank ye .. sire."

Veil stared after her in confusion as the weasel stood straight again, introducing himself. "I am your Highness's general, Muggra. If'n there's anythin' you need, I'll see if I can get it for you."

Veil was staring at him, and recognition suddenly dawned. "You .. you're the weasel from the market! Look, why did you knock me out .. and why am I being healed and waited on hand and foot?"

Muggra bowed. "You are Milord's son. I only carry out Lord Sixclaw's orders my prince."

Veil crossed his arms. "And his orders were to knock me out .. take me captive?"

Muggra shrugged. "I'll let his Lordship explain his reasons. Who am I to understand the heart of the Lord of the Underworld? Now it is high time your highness had a bath and new clothes."

Veil stood, as Muggra motioned to an odd pool built into the rock in the room's corner. The ferret was unsure. "Look .. I don't understand .. wait! Where is Ivan?"

Muggra raised an eyebrow, as Veil explained. "My friend .. the cat."

Muggra nodded. "Ah yes, he is receiving the same treatment as you. Why would your father wish to harm one of your friends? That is not they way he would treat his long lost son."

Veil sat at the pool's edge, pulling off his boots as he asked, "Where is my sword?"

Muggra bowed. "Your father has it, and will return it when you see him."

Veil dipped his paws in the water, asking, "And when might that be?"

The weasel almost smiled. "Whenever your highness is ready. I will see you have changes of clothing."

Veil stepped into the pool, pulling his dusty leather vest off and laying it on the ground. He watched Muggra leave, and he shook his head. This was probably the strangest thing that had ever happened to him. From wanted criminal, to outcast wanderer, to prince .. in a few weeks.

Still, no matter how well he was being treated, he couldn't help being nervous. Who was this Lord Sixclaw ... his father .. something unpleasant stirred in his memory, as he yanked of his stained, torn blue tunic and let the cool water sooth his injuries, both old an new.

What was it about the name Sixclaw?

><><

Fripple stared at Cedric in amazement .. how had he gotten .. here? The mouse crossed his arms. "You go sightseeing in about the worst places, I gotta tell you that."

Fripple stammered. "We .. got lost."

Cedric nodded. "Oh yes .. seems I wasn't the one who got lost, despite your orders."

Fripple was a little irritated. "Look .. what are you doing here?"

Cedric snorted. "I could ask you the same Princess."

His eyes darkened a little. "So you dump me .. a perfectly good looking guy .. and replace me with two near-dead slaves? Princess .. that's just .. insulting."

Fripple stared at him incredulously. "What? Replace you? I wasn't replacing you, they needed help. They would have killed them without us! And beyond that, Catkin would have cried all night!"

Cedric paused, suddenly asking, "Sunshine? She can do that?"

Catkin looked very happy, with Vinwyte leaning against her. "Oh yes! I could have, but I'm every so happy now, and I will make them happy too!"

Cedric slowly nodded. "Riiigght ... and how do you plan to do that?"

"That!" Esther began, before pausing. "I don't really know."

Cedric smiled smugly. "Well, that means you need me again, don't you? Say, where's Mute and His Majesty?"

Esther was a little upset. "They just .. vanished! Do you know where they are?"

Cedric looked slightly less smug. "Oh. No, I've not seen them. I must of picked up your trail after they got separated, I guess. And Sunshine. You ought to keep your pearls in your hair better."

He dropped a string of them into her paw, stating, "Well now that you've got these .. creatures .. where are you going to take them?"

Aubretia spoke up. "According to our previous discussion, we decided we need to get to an inn."

Star broke in. "Yes, I'm hungry!"

Esther glared at the horse. "But we don't know where to go. Could you .. well .. show us the way? Maybe?"

Cedric turned to Fripple with an air of total smug victory. "Well, what does Princess say?"

Fripple glared back. "And how much do we have to pay you this time?"

Cedric pretended to think a moment, before grinning. "Tell you what. This time's on the house."

Fripple first looked surprised, then rather suspicious. "An why would you do that?"

Cedric offered her his paw. "Cause I want to."

Fripple paused, finally shaking the paw. "Fine. But don't think I trust you .. you've got something up your sleeve."

Aubretia broke in. "Fripple. He doesn't have any sleeves!"

Cedric started off, motioning they follow him. "Nah Bookworm, no sleeves makes a beast hotter."

Aubretia caught up, stating, "According to my calculations, the effect would actually be the opposite. Less clothes would make you cooler."

Fripple rolled her eyes as Cedric answered, "However you look at it Bookworm. Princess!"

Fripple's voice was a sigh. "Yes, what is it now?"

Cedric pointed at Esther and Catkin, trying to help Vinwyte walk. "And how long do you think they can keep that up?"

Fripple followed his gaze, shaking her head. "Not that long. How far away is this inn? There are tons of them, aren't there?"

Cedric shrugged. "Sure, but you want a relatively nice one, don't you? So you're going to have to hire a chariot."

Star was walking carefully, trying not to jostle the limp creature draped across her back. "That sounds good ... I have to go so slow for him. And I'm still .. hungry."

Fripple rolled her eyes. "Fine. Where can we get one?"

Cedric winked at her. "Well it's a good thing you've got me, isn't it? Come on Princess, this way."




Chapter 16 Hatred Reborn

Veil stared at himself in the ornate mirror .. for he hadn't looked this well off since the last mid-winter feast. He had on a new, spotless white tunic with blue trim. The V-neck laced part way up, topped by a neckband of gold. Two golden armbands and gold trimmed lacing sandals completed the outfit.

The ferret truly looked a prince of some ancient kingdom .. his rapier would have made him feel almost .. complete.

Skadu smiled at him, for she'd grown far less nervous as she learned of his kind demeanor. "Ya look right swell sire, if'n ya don't mind me sayin'."

Veil shook his head, half dazed. "No .. I suppose not."

He'd dressed and eaten, and was feeling none the worse for his ordeal. Skadu looked around, saying suddenly, "Sire?"

Veil had given up trying to get her to call him by name. "Yes?"

The cat lowered her voice. "Sire, ya seem right decent fer a Sixclaw. Be .. careful milord .. I'd love ta have ya as king."

Veil frowned. "What do you mean?"

Skadu smiled. "Ya saved me a beatin' sire .. maybe worse. Who knows what Nightshade'a done if'n Muggra told her? Ain't that the right sorta warlord ta serve? Fact it's more like a woodland king .. less of a warlord."

Veil looked confused. "Well .. I couldn't be a warlord miss."

Skadu frowned. "Not be a warlord? Yer a Sixclaw. The Sixclaws is all warlords, an always will be. Fates made em that."

Veil was not feeling good about this at all. "Skadu .. tell me what you mean by warlord. I'm not a horde leader .. a murderer .. or a vermin king, and I won't be one. I serve .... another Lord."

Skadu was even more confused. "What do ya mean .. another Lord? Yer father an Shroud is the only Lords. Yer sayin' ya serve Shroud?"

Veil didn't have time to ask who Shroud was, as Muggra appeared in the doorway. "Your father wishes to see you, highness."

The weasel vanished again, and Veil turned to follow, but a soft paw on his arm made him pause. Skadu's amber eyes were earnest. "I don't know who ya serve, but you must be servin' somebeast worth servin .. and it ain't Lord Shroud. I'm glad I could meet ya .. you've made me feel warmer than I've ever felt. Somehow I donno if'n I'll see ya again .. but how ya came from Sixclaw I've got no clue. Just ... don't let him turn ya cruel."

"My Prince!"

Muggra's call made Veil break away from Skadu's gaze before he could ask her what she meant. No matter the case, he felt a sense of foreboding grow within him as he followed Muggra away.

Don't let him turn ya cruel.

Those words made him prepare for the worst.

><><

Cedric knew his way around Southsward, Fripple did have to admit. Even still, it took them fifteen minutes or so to reach a main street. As they went along, Fripple helped Star keep the unconscious mouse-like creature on her back .. but she also had a chance to observe the beasts around her.

Beyond their flamboyant dress and exotic jewelry .. there was something else. Something sinister.

Some beasts walked about in an odd daze .. like they weren't even one with reality.

Also, Fripple was starting to see something familiar in the strange place .. something that made her skin crawl.

Monocles.

At first she had thought they were simply to aid the vision of those who needed it, but as she saw more and more .. she was inclined to believe differently.

What was going on? As Esther walked by, Fripple grabbed her arm. "Esther .. wait. Look around ... do you see what I do?"

The ermine paused, complying to Fripple's wish. Her eyes slowly widened, and she whispered, "Why ... yes! But .. where did those come from? I thought Bryony found the ones at Redwall in an old tree."

Fripple shook her head. "I know. But I'm not sure I believe it anymore. Bryony may have known nothing ... she may have been set up. But something evil is going on, I swear!"

Esther frowned. "You might be right .. but who would do that?"

Fripple sighed. "I don't know. Yet."

Cedric broke their conversation. "Alright, here we are .. I say, could one of you give us a hand?"

He had addressed three horses standing by the roadside, each hitched to a chariot. The one that answered him was a tall liver chestnut with blonde feathering on his fetlocks. "I suppose. Where to, and how many?"

Fripple spoke up, motioning to the slaves. "We need to get these two to an inn ... they can ride, we will walk."

The horse cocked his head, before yawning. "Whatever. Your business isn't mine. Where to though?"

Cedric nodded. "To the Shaded Waters. You know the place?"

The horse nodded. "Yea. I'll say if you're going to get a room, you better do it. Pretty soon you won't be able to."

Fripple raised an eyebrow, and Cedric answered. "The race .. it's a big deal Princess."

Catkin helped Vinwyte sit down in the chariot as Star gently placed the unconscious mouse-creature beside him. Cedric ran his paw over the sleek, polished wood, remarking, "This is a beauty .. looks like a racer's chariot."

The horse stiffened, before answering softly. "It is. It was my brother's .. but I inherited it upon his death."

He looked away, sighing, "Starflash loved racing. He shouldn't have had to die doing it."

Cedric started. "Starflash! Say .. I knew you looked familiar! You're his brother? Eveningstar, isn't it?"

The horse flicked an ear. "How do you know that?"

Cedric paused. "I .. drove for Starflash once. We were .. friends."

Eveningstar snorted. "You do look familiar, now that I think on it."

They were walking along the roadside, and Mystiquestar broke in. "What's this race?"

Cedric answered before Eveningstar could. "It's a Southswardian icon .. has been for time imemorial."

Star was satisfied. "Oh, ok! I'm Mystiquestar, by the way."

This was addressed to Eveningstar, who raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Then where's your mark?"

Star cocked her head. "My what?"

Eveningstar tossed his blonde mane, revealing a white star-like patch on his chocolate coat. "In Southsward it's tradition to put 'star' in a foal's name only when they are blessed with the mark of the heavens."

Catkin interrupted. "Oh well yours in on your cheek, Star. Haven't you noticed?"

The filly thought for a moment, before laughing. "Oh yea, that! I forgot about that."

She flicked her draping black mane away, showing the splotch of raying white on her gray cheek.

Eveningstar smiled softly. "It is said, those with the star mark are destined to do great things. What I will do, I have no idea."

Catkin loved any conversation. "Well .. what do you do already?"

Eveningstar snorted in amusement. "I pull a chariot. Isn't that obvious?"

He shook his mane, stating, "And you may as well call me Star while you're at it .. nobeast calls me Eveningstar."

Esther raised an eyebrow. "That's confusing .. your name is Star .. her name is Star .."

Eveningstar cocked an ear. "I suppose you could call me Evening, if that works better."

He paused. "Oh, here. This would be it."

They'd turned onto a pleasant little side street, and stood before a well worn but well cared for building, with pillars holding up a balcony that overlooked the outside. It seemed fairly quiet, and a faded sign hung outside, adorned by odd symbols.

The liver chestnut looked at Fripple, who was staring at the building. "Say miss, that'll be two sheckles."

Fripple shook herself, digging out the money and holding it out. The horse skillfully used his muzzle to flip open the satchel he wore around his neck, and Fripple dropped the money in.

Eveningstar waited as Catkin pulled Vinwyte onto his paws, and Esther had to nearly pick the mouse up.

The horse dipped his head. "It was .. certainly interesting to meet you. I'll see you around? Are you here for the race?"

Cedric shrugged. "Nah .. they know better then me."

Esther added, "And if you see a golden ferret and a gray cat .. our age .. tell them where we are? They're our friends, but we got separated."

Eveningstar looked a little reluctant, but he nodded. "Of course .... if I see them."

He turned, doing a little crow hop, and trotted back toward the main thoroughfare.

Cedric nodded. "Well, let's get a room or two, shall we?"

><><

Veil followed Muggra through echoing corridors, not one of which boasted the light of day. While the faint dripping of water could occasionally be heard, Veil was sure this was not a cave .. it was made from cut rock.

The ferret didn't bother asking Muggra anymore questions, the weasel always came back to telling him his father would answer his inquiries.

Veil decided to wait until he met this supposed 'father' of his.

After a bit of walking, Muggra lifted a gauzy green curtain leading into another room. The weasel stood straight, announcing, "His Highness, Prince of the Underworld, and son of his Lordship Swartt Sixclaw!"

Veil slowly stepped into the room, trying to recall where he had heard the name Swartt Sixclaw before. Why did that seem so familiar?

This room was richly decorated with tapestries and draperies, lanterns and torches. All beasts in attendance bowed instantly as Veil passed .. all except a tall figure in a shining silver breastplate, who sat on a gilded chair, ornate enough to be called a throne.

This beast stood, revealing a flowing green cape was about his shoulders. Veil felt his heart beat faster .. for he knew this beast. In the farthest recesses of his memory .. memory he'd forgotten .. was a creature like this.

The beast smiled at him, though somehow Veil felt it was more conniving than truly friendly. "My son, it is good to see you again."

Veil could not make the memories come together properly. They were there .. but he just couldn't quite make them connect to form a clear picture. However the blurry one he was seeing wasn't comforting him. "You're my .. father?"

Swartt raised an eyebrow, though his smile never faded. "Of course I am boy, surely you remember me?"

Veil couldn't rightly say yes, yet he couldn't rightly say no. The picture in his mind was growing ever clearer, brightening in his vision. He did remember this creature .. but with the memory of light golden fur and brown eyes, came fear. The longing to run. The fire of anger toward something that could not be named. The terror of something unknown.

And yet among it was comfort, though not from the creature he was now faced with. From somebeast caring and gentle .. somebeast who's shadow had haunted Veil all his life.

"I take it you do not?"

Veil looked slowly up. "I .. do. And yet I do not. It is .. hard to recall, but I do remember."

Swartt drew himself to his full height .. a little taller than Veil. "Well I see we will have to make a new start. I must say you've grown son .. a fine young ferret, indeed."

Veil subtly wondered at why his father emphasized the word 'ferret'. He frowned suddenly, asking, "Look ... why did you capture me? If you wanted to talk, why didn't you just ask?"

Swartt looked sad. "I am sorry for that son, but Southsward is a dangerous place. I had to get you before somebeast else did. And I do think, once you've heard my proposition, you'll quite forgive me .. even thank me."

Veil did not feel so sure. He thought briefly of Esther, Fripple, and the others, but decided to leave them out. "What about Ivan, my friend? Where is he?"

Swartt smiled again. "Oh the cat? Never fear son, he is simply getting clean and resting."

Veil was not convinced. "He'd want to see me."

Swartt looked remotely irritated, but shrugged it off. "You'll have plenty of time to talk with him, once you accept my offer."

Veil was feeling rebellious. "What if I don't?"

Swartt had an answer. "Why ever would you do that? I can give you everything you could possibly want .. just listen. I think you'll find this quite interesting."

Veil crossed his arms. "Well .. tell me then. What do you want?"

Swartt smiled. "I can give you power .. wealth .. revenge .. even justice to wrongs? What is it you desire? Think it over boy .. you could rule the world. Nobeast could tell you what to do .. who to care for .. who to obey. You'd serve no one .. everybeast would serve you. Nobeast would dare accuse you of anything, and anyone who had harmed you .. their fate would be in your paws. Would that not be wonderful?"

Veil stared at him, slowly processing his words. The first inclination was to recoil, but as the understanding of what Swartt meant soaked in .. something else did too. Something Veil wished he could erase from ever having thought.

For he was tempted.

Revenge .. they would be in your paws. They would have killed you. They would have killed you with no right. You could make them pay for that .. cause face it. They'll never pardon you. What's better .. to be an outcast forever, or to be king of the world?

Veil looked slowly up, feeling like the most wretched beast alive to even consider these horrible things. Swartt's smirking smile widened as his son asked slowly, "And .. what would that entail?"

The pictures in his mind were growing together now, and they finally revealed the lost memory of this creature, as Swartt's sickeningly patronizing voice rang out. "A true Sixclaw at heart, my son. All you would have to do is swear allegiance to me."

He held out his gauntleted sixclaw. "Is it a deal boy?"

Veil could see it all now, the times this beast had yelled at him, struck him, struck his mother ... his mother! The young ferret's eyes widened as he saw her in his mind's vision once again .. clearer this time. He looked up, asking softly, "My mother ... where is she?"

Swartt paused, finally asking, "What?"

Veil felt anger grow in him as he repeated tightly, "My mother. I have a mother. Where is she?"

Swartt seemed undecided, before waving this off. "Why would that matter to you? Who cares about her? I'll give you power boy .. what's better?"

Veil wouldn't let it drop. "What happened to her? Tell me!"

Swartt looked disgusted, before stating, "Agree to my deal, and I'll tell you."

Veil felt his anger against this creature grow, as a voice rang in his heart.

"Do not play with serpents, my son. Heed me, and me alone."

Veil looked up, blue eyes sparkling as he growled, "What Lord do you serve? Malimore, or Ignasa?"

The room seemed to freeze as Swartt's eyes hardened, and he asked testily, "Maybe I should ask you the same."

Veil felt an unknown strength surge through him, as he stood straight. "I serve Ignasa."

A terrible silence had fallen, so thick one could feel it. Swartt's nostrils flared, and Veil had the feeling he could barely keep himself from lashing out. "Oh really? Well how do you know this 'Ignasa' as you call him is really real? Have you ever seen him? How do you know he is nothing more than a silly legend?"

If Veil had been unsure of his father's loyalties, he was no longer. "Because I have seen him. He has spoken to me in dreams, I have felt him, and he has given me direction. No legend could ever be that powerful."

Swartt had turned away, and as he wheeled around, Veil saw his brown eyes had turned almost black. The ferret warlord made a sweeping motion with his paw, and a nearby lantern was flung against the wall by seemingly nothing. Veil took a step back as it splintered into a thousand pieces. "You're a ... Shadow Fighter!"

Swartt sneered. "Yes I am. Which would put you and I on opposite sides, wouldn't it boy?"

Veil was slowly realizing the terrible situation he was in. "Yes .. it would."

He suddenly snapped, "But where is Ivan? Where is my mother? Tell me!"

Swartt snorted. "Why would I tell a Prophet anything?"

Veil felt his fury solidifying into hate. "Tell me!"

Swartt suddenly seemed to think of something, and he smiled with demonic cruelty. "You really want to know about your mother? Some things are better left alone you know, Prophet."

Veil felt cold fear wash over him, but he snarled, "I don't care .. tell me!"

><><

The soft footfalls in a twisting corridor went unnoticed, and this was fine by their owner. Bluefen hurried up a flight of steps, holding up her skirt as she ran.

She had to get back .. with Byron gone, nobeast was there to protect Esmund!

Bluefen couldn't bring herself to stay confined to her quarters though, for she had been exploring the farthest reaches of the catacombs, the untouched passages and long forgotten tunnels .. all in hope of finding a way out.

However she couldn't be gone as long as before. With Swartt's looming shadow hanging over her heart, Bluefen ran silently through the empty hallways, gray-streaked black hair flying behind her.

She was in the catacomb's second story, and she slowed as she reached the place she knew the openings to Swartt's throne room would be. Once a place used for final ceremonies before burial, the ferret warlord made his home there.

Bluefen paused at an opening in the rock, leading to a fifteen foot drop into this regal chamber. She breathed softly, slowly peering around as she heard angry voices. She felt herself freeze in amazed shock .. for another golden ferret stood before Swartt.

Young, tall, and princely, with fur like shining gold and dark points .. Bluefen choked back a cry of wonder.

Her Veil .. could this be her Veil? The little, scrawny child she had raised? Was this him?

No. He's dead .. you know he's dead!

But reason could not blot out hope, or reality. However Swartt's voice made her gasp softly.

"You really want to know about your mother? Some things are better left alone you know, Prophet."

The beast who had to be Veil snarled back, hatred glittering in his eyes. "I don't care .. tell me!"

Bluefen felt her blood grow cold. They were talking about her.

Swartt's next words made her softly snarl in absolute hatred. "Well, it's no great mystery she loved you, pathetic, sentimental thing. And when you were lost at Salamandastron .. well .. she never recovered. She died of a broken heart."

Veil looked stunned, and his instant reply reached a very lively Bluefen's ears. "No!"

Swartt was mocking. "Oh yes little boy .. yes. And really, it was your fault."

Veil didn't exactly reply, and Swartt motioned to Muggra. "General. Take our prince to the cells. He might think he's a Prophet, but I'm not done with him yet!"

Bluefen heard her claws scrape against the rock wall behind her, and she curled her lips in a loathing snarl. That liar Swartt would never harm her Veil ... she would sooner die!

><><

Bluefen was not the only unknown .. and unwanted watcher to Veil's ordeal, for another pair of eyes watched. Normal, muddy brown eyes that glittered with bright interest.

Scound was not necessarily totally sympathetic toward either side, though he was for anyone over Swartt. And he was quite interested in the fact Veil had openly proclaimed he was a follower of Ignasa.

Scound had met these followers of Ignasa before, seasons ago. The cream-furred squirrel prince .. his snowy father .. the young red dog-fox he'd served as guard with .. all these echoes from more than eleven long seasons ago.

Scound had grown numb. He was touched by Veil's courage and refusal to fall to the temptations his father had taunted him with. Once again, the weasel felt something stir in his heart .. something that he thought was long dead.

Was it nobility? Courage? Honor? Was it simply the longing to have these qualities? Was it the call of some greater purpose .. a better life than this slavery he was chained in?

Was it the voice of this unknown lord .. this Lord Ignasa?

Was it the mockery to not having listened the first time?

Scound watched as Muggra roughly escorted Veil away, toward the cells even lower down in the catacombs. The weasel scratched his chin. This should be useful to him .. if Swartt had a son on the side of Lord Ignasa.

Scound thought for a moment, before he followed Muggra and Veil down deeper into the darkened chambers of a kingdom that never saw the sun.

The demoted weasel watched with narrowed eyes as Muggra shoved the golden ferret into one of the first cells, slamming the door shut with a clank. He then looked around in disgust, probably for the missing guard. There weren't many prisoners, but Scound felt Muggra would have a new beast on guard duty soon. So if he was going to make his move, it was now or never.

As Muggra stalked off, Scound slipped to the iron bars Veil now sat behind. "Hey, kid. Over here .. look I ain't against ya."

Veil glared at him with dull suspicion, and Scound insisted. "Look, I .. know about Lord Ignasa. An' I think his way sounds better'n Swartt's. I can help ya kid, anythin' to get a jab at ol' Sixclaw."

The ferret seemed to comprehend his urgency, and didn't waste time. "How?"

Scound looked around, listening carefully for a second. "Is there anybeast ya know who's outside? Who Swartt don't got his paws on?"

Veil blinked slowly, seemingly contemplative, and stated at length, "If you bring them to harm ... I swear I'll ..."

Scound shook his head. "Kid, if they're in Southsward, Swartt or Shroud'll get 'em sooner or later. Might as well let me warn 'em .. that way they'll 'ave a chance."

Veil looked around, closed his eyes, before snapping them open and finally nodding. "Alright, if you put it that way. Yes, I've got five friends who came with me .. don't underestimate them though. Esther's an ermine, white with red points, and a deadeye with the bow. Star's the horse, she's blue roan pinto. Catkin's a brown otter maid, Aubretia's a young mouse with golden fur, braids and glasses. Fripple .. well .. call her fierce. She's a gold mouse with a long tail, and a long, dark brown braid ... you'll know her by her weapons."

Scound nodded, and Veil suddenly reached through the bars, grabbing the weasel's tunic collar. "Now swear by Ignasa you're not a spy, or you won't be leaving. My friends will not fall into this monster's claws, see?"

Scound understood his fear, and held out a paw. "Kid, I swear it."

Veil stared him down, before letting him go. "Fine. You'd best be telling the truth."

Scound looked around. "I am. Now kid, I'll try and come back. But I've got to get out of here, before somebeast comes .. they'll post a guard soon."

The weasel bolted away, looking back to see sapphire eyes digging into him with intensity. Scound swept around the corner, and didn't breath easy until he'd gotten a good ways from the prison.

However he'd gained something. This could be turning in his favor.




Chapter 17 A Thousand Lights

Fripple ran one of Esther's brushes through her ratted hair with a sigh. She'd had a much needed bath, and she scrubbed out her ragged clothes while she was at it. They were still torn though, and sort of .. gray.

And besides, now they were damp. She twisted the hair into a careless braid, examining it in the mirror for a second. It would have to do.

She flipped it over her shoulder, pulling on her dusty, hot boots, and buckled on her belt with it's four knives and saber.

The mouse thought for a minute, before setting her sling and stones on the bed in favor of her dusty satchel.

Fripple sighed, slipped out the door, and stepped into the next room. She started in surprise at Vinwyte, for he was clean now ... his fur was snow white. Pale scars laced their way across his shoulders and chest, and a dark crimson mark like twin curling waves adorned his right cheek.

The otter was eating a bowl of something as Fripple came in, and the black mouse was in the nearby bed .. still asleep. Aubretia walked up to her cousin, stating, "Fripple, I've been taking some calculations. We need more food .. new clothes, some more bandages. In short, somebeast must go to a market and buy some new things."

Fripple was blank at first. "Who?"

Aubretia scratched something down, before stating, "Well .. Esther might steal something, Catkin might feed somebeast hotroot, Star will just eat it, whatever it is .. and I think I'm too small. I might get run over. Statistically, that leaves you."

Fripple sighed. "I hate shopping. Fine, I will .. but where is the nearest market? I don't have a clue."

Cedric appeared in the doorway, apparently having been listening. "Well if you need a guide Princess, I've been one long enough I'm rather used to it. Oh yes. And you needn't pay me."

Fripple raised an eyebrow. "Aha .. you and I. Just .. us."

Cedric shrugged. "Unless you want to take Bookworm?"

Fripple thought for a moment, before shaking her head. "No, that will take longer .. fine, I'll go with you."

Cedric bowed in a joking manner. "After you your majesty."

Fripple sighed, turning to Aubretia. "Just ... keep an eye on things while I'm gone .. you too Esther!"

She followed Cedric out, shutting the door behind her. "Alright, let's make this fast. We need food, some clothes, and some healing supplies. I think we can get this done in less than an hour .. don't you?"

Cedric walked across the inn's first floor, observing, "You aren't a shopper, are you Princess? Sounds like you shop about like a boy."

Fripple shook her head as she followed him out the door. "Yea, I do. And you're a boy ... help me out here."

She paused, looking suspicious. "Unless you shop like a girl."

Cedric looked a little hurt. "Me? Nah, course not Princess. Tell me though. Have you ever been in a city like Southsward?"

Fripple raised an eyebrow. "I grew up in Mossflower .. in Brockhall. No, I've never seen such a place as this."

Cedric grinned. "Oh really? Maybe I can show you a corner of it. But first .. if you don't mind me saying .. you need some new clothes."

Fripple cast a glance at her ragged attire. "I suppose. There are more important things ..."

Cedric shook his head. "Nope. I'm leading this expedition, and I say you need to blend in with the crowd. Who knows what attention you could attract, looking like this?"

Fripple thought for a moment, before sighing, "Yea, ok .. you've got a point."

Cedric grinned in some triumph. "Yes I do, glad you finally admitted it Princess."

Fripple thought about telling him to quit being so .. irritating, but with Veil gone, her morale was shattered. She sighed, for some reason not wanting to start a fight. Really, she just wanted to be left alone, but she couldn't see that happening.

"Why so quiet Princess? Aren't you going to tell me to quit gloating like an arrogant idiot?" Cedric sounded curious.

"Don't feel like it. But if you really want it, I'll give it to you." Was Fripple's mumbled answer.

Cedric raised an eyebrow. "What's wrong?"

Fripple felt something snap, but she didn't fly at the mouse in a fit of temper, just muttered hopelessly. "My two best friends in the world vanish, and you expect me to be happy? Who knows where they might be now! And I can't do anything, I can't .... can't save them. I don't even know where to look."

Cedric didn't say anything for a minute, before he asked, "You've got to save them?"

"They're my friends! I feel so .. helpless! I just .. can't stand feeling helpless." The mouse's reply was tired.

Cedric looked down for a few moments, and for a few moments, nothing was said. The mouse looked up, a genuine expression of understanding on his face. "Princess, I'm sorry things had to happen this way, I really am. Maybe they are just lost, and we will even meet them."

Fripple stared at him for a moment, as if discerning his motives. A slow, wane smile flitted across her face, before it was once again gone. "I doubt it. Something awful has happened to them .. I just know."

Cedric shook his head. "Princess, your problem is your mindset .. I think I've told you that before. You need to stop thinking of the worst possible thing, and start hoping. You need to think positively."

Fripple shot him a tired, sideways glance. "It's no good to think positively. You might as well prepare for the very worst, that way if it's better than you thought, you can be encouraged. And if it's as terrible as you told yourself, at least you won't be disappointed."

Cedric blinked at her a moment. "You've totally missed the point of life Princess, really. Life isn't all gloom .. you've got to know how to have fun too. How to smile. I don't think I've seen you smile more than twenty times since we met. That's just totally out of balance .. no wonder you're so grumpy. You don't know how to enjoy the journey .. which is odd since you've lived a pretty sheltered life in comparison with somebeast like me."

Fripple looked at him oddly as his words sank in. "I'm grumpy? Well .... maybe I have been. I don't even think about it, I guess. I've been so worried the last few weeks .. so unsettled .. I don't know. Maybe I am too sheltered. But to see your kind and just uncle suddenly turn on your best friend and accuse him of murdering your aunt ... to have to choose which side of an absolutely skewed argument .. with your friend's very life on the line ... it doesn't help your view of the world. I guess it shook my trust ... about everything .. it was so sudden. I still don't even really know what happened."

Cedric paused, before stating, "Well .. that's a little rougher than I thought Princess."

He cleared his throat as they made their way down a quiet alley. "Look. I know all about being depressed. And I've gotta tell you, you've got all the symptoms. But ... I think I know what to do for that."

Fripple raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Why would you bother? I've not been exactly nice to you."

"You haven't at that. But I want to, and that's my business, Princess." He winked at her. "you need to learn how to lighten up, and I know just the thing. But first .. those clothes. Come on, keep close to me, unless you'd like to vanish like your friends."

Fripple caught up with him with a sigh. "What about the food and .. all that?"

Cedric grinned. "All in good time .. after all, I know where I'm going."

><><

Bluefen paced her corridors, under the watchful violet eyes of Esmund. She was deep in thought.

Would Swartt be coming back? Would he be more interested in Veil now?

It was likely .. after all, Veil was older. Probably seventeen or eighteen seasons now. He was the ideal target.

Would Swartt turn him as wicked as ... Bluefen shook her head with a groan. No! No, never! But Veil hadn't seemed pleased with Swartt at all, upon being told she was 'dead'.

The gray ferret pondered this. Why was Veil so spiteful to his father? Why was he even alive?

Swartt had told her the woodlanders would surely kill him, if he wasn't dead already. Swartt had lied .. again. Because Veil had fallen off a horse and been hit in the head. He couldn't just crawl off and survive on his own. Besides he spoke with a slightly northern and very woodland accent. Which meant the woodlanders had raised him .. had saved him!

Bluefen had been furious with Swartt before. She'd planned on raising Esmund to spite his father .. hate his father .. kill his father. But it had all been shadowed by hopelessness. Because if woodlanders .. supposed goodbeasts .. would kill a young, helpless child .. her child .. was there really any good in the world?

But now .. now the woodlanders she had held an unjust grudge against, had not killed her beloved son, but saved his life!

And Swartt had lied .. Swartt had lied yet again. Swartt had gone too far. This was the last straw ... her days of hopeless slavery were over.

She was going to save Veil, even if she died doing it. The only reason she had lost him, was Swartt. The reason her heart would always be shattered .. the reason her life was in ruins .. it was Swartt. The reason even Esmund, whom she had grown to view as a son, was always endangered .. it was all Swartt.

And Swartt would pay.

This was not an empty, hopeless cry of a broken heart in search of unreachable justice and revenge. This was a mother wolf robbed of her pups, a wounded dragon on a quest for blood.

This was war.

><><

Fripple wasn't sure how much more crazy this day could get. They'd got to Southsward after weeks of travel, Veil and Ivan had vanished, she'd been forced to go on an .. adventure with a beast she didn't trust at all, and now she was shopping for new clothes?

This was just .. insane.

If she hadn't seen the validness of Cedric's point about being inconspicuous, she'd have kept her ragged dress.

However Cedric seemed to find this interesting. He picked up a long white gown, asking, "And how about this?"

Fripple raised an eyebrow. "It's way too long .. you really think I can fight in something that drags the ground?"

Cedric rolled his eyes. "Alright .. what are you looking at?"

The shop they stood in was a small roadside one, lit mostly with lantern light. Fripple looked around at the piles of clothing, some far too large, some too small .. but all primarily white. "Oh .. I don't know. Something short."

Cedric dug through a shelf of dresses, pulling out a gown with a slanted skirt twice as short as Fripple was comfortable with. "Like this?"

"No, that's too short. I mean like knee length .. like what I've got on." Fripple glanced around in hope of inspiration, and noticed the shop keeper watching them with a very odd expression.

Fripple sighed, imagining the sight of a male beast trying to convince a female to buy a dress wasn't exactly normal.

The owner, a middle aged squirrelwife, walked around her counter and over to them. "Can I help you? You seem to be having a hard time deciding on something."

Cedric answered. "Yes, we're looking for something for Princess here .. knee-length. You have anything like that .. her size?"

The squirrel thought for a moment, before nodding. "Maybe .. come with me."

She walked past them to a shelf in the far corner, moving things around for a moment, before pulling out a sleeveless dress with a high green collar and simple cutwork around the neck. The garment itself was pale cream, and had a wide green belt. "That's probably the nicest one."

Fripple glanced at Cedric, who raised an eyebrow. She took the dress, shrugging, "Well .. this might work .."

Cedric nodded. "Well go try it on Princess, the night's wasting. The sun's setting out there."

Fripple looked out the open door, realizing he was right. The squirrelwife motioned to a small closet-like room in the shop's farthest corner. "In there .. hopefully this works for you."

With no real alternative, Fripple did as she was bid. She pulled the heavy curtain across the doorway, wishing there was a real door as she hurriedly yanked off her old clothes, grabbing the dress and pulling it over her head the next second. It took a few moments to smooth it down after this and buckle on the wide belt, however.

A little light came in above the curtain, but it was still dark. Fripple felt a little odd without sleeves, but it was considerably cooler. The mouse rolled up her old dress before shoving the curtain aside and stating, "Yea .. it fits pretty well."

A slow grin grew on Cedric's face, before he seemed to notice something. "Your boots Princess .. they'll never do. Nobeast wears tall boots like those in Southsward .. they're a dead giveaway. You need sandals."

Fripple thought for a moment. "Well .. I don't see any here. I'll go barefoot."

She turned to the shopkeeper. "How much is that?"

The squirrel shrugged. "That's sat there a while .. I'll let you have it for seven sheckles."

Fripple didn't like the thought of spending that much on a dress, but she realized it was unavoidable. She produced the money, handing it over. Cedric nodded to the squirrel. "Thanks for the help."

Fripple sat on a bench, pulling off her tall boots before following Cedric out into the street. "Hey .. um .. what do I do with these while we get the other things?"

Cedric thought for a moment, before stating, "Here, roll the boots in the dress. We'll think of something. Follow me, the stands with food are over this way."

Fripple didn't like walking on the sharp cobblestones with no shoes, but it couldn't be helped. Cedric motioned to a stall with some fruits, vegetables, bread, and a few fresh fish. "There's good enough. Get what you need, I've got to look at something over there."

Fripple could see the stall he was pointing too, but dusk had set in enough to make it hard to tell what was for sale there. She shrugged. "Ok. Just .. I really don't know my way back, you know."

Cedric shrugged as she walked over to the shop, selecting some bread, carrots for Star, something that looked a little like watercress .. though most of the things before her were foreign. It took longer than she would have liked, though the prices seemed reasonable. She didn't have to spend much more than for the dress.

Fripple turned around to look for Cedric, jumping to find he was behind her, hands behind his back. She raised an eyebrow. "What were you getting?"

Cedric held up a basket. "Number one, you need something to carry that stuff in."

Fripple slowly took the item, dropping her armload of food in it. "I ... well .. thanks."

Cedric held up the other paw, revealing a pair of short yet elegant lacing sandals. "And I thought you might need these."

Fripple blinked at him for a moment, before Cedric put them in her paw. "Well? Put them on Princess, you need to complete the look."

She took the offering, pulling them carefully on. "How'd you know they'd fit?"

Cedric shrugged. "Lucky guess."

Fripple picked up the basket as a rare smile of gratitude crossed her face. "Thank you."

Cedric's grin seemed a little infectious, and he had it on now. "That's the nicest I think I've ever seen you Princess. Come on .. let's get the rest of the things."

Darkness fell slowly, and as it did, the small market place became alive with lanterns and candles .. it almost glittered. Fripple was feeling like she'd completely drained herself of funds as she bought the bandages, even if she had about a hundred sheckles left.

She'd bought clothes for the slaves too, and Catkin, Esther, and Aubretia. The mouse walked back to Cedric, placing the healing supplies in the basket. "Ok .. I think we have everything."

Cedric looked through their collection, asking, "Did you get sandals for Swipe?"

Fripple groaned. "Oh .. no. I forgot."

Cedric pointed to a nearby shop. "Well there you go. Try and get her size."

The mouse watched her walk off, a little disappointed. She'd make him take her back now, right when he was getting someplace. It couldn't be helped though, he supposed.

"Cedric? Fancy meeting you here."

Cedric jumped, to find himself faced with none other than Eveningstar, still hitched to his chariot. The horse cocked an ear. "Doing some shopping?"

A brilliant idea was coming to Cedric .. pure genius. "Say .. do you have any passengers?"

The horse shook his head. "No. I'm off now .. came to buy some carrots. I haven't had any in too long."

Cedric broke in. "I've got some passengers for you. This .." He put the basket of food in the chariot, "This .." He added the clothes, "And this."

The mouse placed the rolls of bandages in with a flourish. He opened Eveningstar's money satchel, dropping in three sheckles. "Do me a favor and take this stuff back to the Shaded Waters and those .. friends of mine, would you? Keep the change."

Eveningstar was looking over his shoulder. "Is that .. Miss Fripple?"

Cedric saw the mouse maid was returning with a pair of sandals in paw, focusing on walking in her elegant new footwear and draping skirt. "Go .. move .. don't let her see you. Out .. quick!"

Eveningstar paused for a moment, before a look of understanding crossed his face and he snorted with laughter. "Oh I see how it is."

He didn't ask more questions, to Cedric's immense relief, and turned, trotting away as Fripple returned. "I got the sandals ... Say! Where's our things?"

Cedric grinned unashamedly. "I sent them back to the inn."

Fripple looked stupefied. "How??"

Cedric winked at her. "With a .. trusted friend."

The mouse maid frowned. "It had better get there .. I don't have unlimited funds you know. Wait .. why couldn't we carry it?"

Cedric smiled, doing a quick bow. "Because we, Princess, are going to find out how to make you have some fun."

Fripple stared. "What?"

Cedric grinned. "Come one, the night waits for nobeast. It's time you saw just why Southsward is called the city of a thousand lights."

Fripple followed him, asking, "But .. where are we going?"

Cedric mentally crossed his fingers. "You're gonna love it."

He heard her sigh, and stated, "Now it's near here .. a favorite place of mine. The owner's son's an old friend of mine .. great friend. He's a fun guy. But you'll see Princess. It's kind of an odd joint .. they're probably having some sort of celebration for the race. My friend .. we raced together."

"I see." Was Fripple's dubious yet somewhat neutral reply.

They'd walked out of the market, and Fripple was staring about her in wonder. The lights really were amazing .. and there were so many of them. Strings of lanterns hung over the streets, turning them alive with warm, gleaming firelight in addition to the many beasts that frequented them. Cedric seemed to know where he was going, so Fripple decided to give up for once.

The mouse's voice broke through her reverie. "Here we are."

Fripple looked at the building, noting it's pillars and high arching doorways, like the rest of the architecture of Southsward. She read the weather beaten sign with some uncertainty. "The Jackal's Den."

Cedric laughed quickly. "Oh that's a little joke about my friend's family, that they're part jackal. They're not, of course .. you needn't worry."

"Aha ..." Fripple didn't sound so sure.

Cedric pulled the door open, stating, "After you Princess."

Fripple gave him a long stare, before walking in, glad she still had her saber. The building she was in now had two stories, but the second one went mostly around the walls, supported by pillars and creating an overhang.

There were plenty of beasts here, some of which Fripple found to appear shady characters, some of which she figured could go either way. Cedric walked past her, hailing somebeast. "Hey Errik! Matey!"

The creature that looked up was slender, tawny, and fox-like, with a pair of overgrown ears, large, dark eyes, and a bushy tail. "Cedric? What? It can't be you?"

Cedric laughed. "I've returned from my wanderings abroad."

Errik, as he was called, grinned widely, slapping the mouse on the back. "You rouge! You said you weren't coming back!"

Cedric regained his breath, motioning to Fripple. "Errik, this is Princess. She and her friends are the reason I'm back .. I acted as their guide."

The mouse maid rolled her eyes, holding out her paw. "I'm Fripple."

Errik raised an eyebrow. "And you're Cedric's .. friend?"

Fripple smirked, before sighing. "I guess."

The slender fox grinned with all of Cedric's demeanor. "Oh I see. So .. Fripple. You speak with a different accent than us .. where're you from?"

Fripple shrugged. "Mossflower."

Cedric grinned roguishly. "The Princess."

Errik's eyes twinkled. "Are you really the Princess, or has Cedric here just nicknamed you that?"

Fripple sighed. "Both and. He did .. but I am one of the princesses."

Errik socked Cedric playfully in the shoulder, laughing, "Rouge."

The mouse rubbed his shoulder as Errik threw his arms around both of them, dragging them over to a table in the overhang's shadow, and depositing them at it. "Since I never thought I'd see you again and cause you've got a pretty friend, the night's on me. What'll you have?"

Cedric looked at Fripple, who shrugged. He grinned. "Well Princess here doesn't know, so I'll let you pick Errik. By the way, how's racing these days?"

Errik's face fell. "Over for me .. I'm worse off than you."

He pulled his left leg into view, revealing it was crooked. "I can walk on it pretty good .. but they'll never hire me again. So here I am in the restaurant business. But I'll get you something friends."

As he walked off with his subtle limp, Fripple could have sworn his eyes twinkled with mischief. However Cedric didn't let her concentrate on the slender, tawny fox. "So tell me Princess, is this place really so bad?"

Fripple looked around, noting the strings of softly glowing lanterns, the gilded architecture, and the odd yet rhythmic music being played near the open center of the building and what appeared to be a dance floor. "I suppose not. It's better than I thought."

Cedric looked pleased, as Fripple asked, "This race is .. dangerous, isn't it?"

The mouse was a little guarded. "Where'd you get that idea?"

Fripple shrugged. "Eveningstar said his brother was killed, I pick up that you were in a sort of accident, and Errik says he was crippled in it."

Cedric shrugged. "There are .. dangers, as with any sport. There are dangers in fencing, Princess."

Fripple wasn't sure she completely believed him, but she didn't really have time to ask either, as Errik returned, placing two glasses for wine on the table. Fripple broke in quickly. "Oh I .. don't drink. Water is fine .. yea."

Errik raised an eyebrow but complied as he did a small bow, "Yes your highness."

Cedric wasn't against a little wine. "You don't? Princess, you've got no clue what you're missing."

Fripple shook her head. "Oh I've heard Ben Stickle the cellarhog tell about how long that stuff sits. It's ... completely unappetizing."

Errik burst out laughing, as he set a plate of some fried vegetables that looked like they might have been turnips on the table. "What a way to look at it .. yes, I can see you could get on quite well with Cedric, he needs somebeast like you to keep an eye on him!"

The fox limped away as Fripple raised an eyebrow questioningly. Cedric broke into her thoughts. "So Princess, I know you've never told me much about Mossflower, but what's it like?"

Fripple perked her ears up, blinking a moment, before answering, "Well .. you've been there."

Cedric shook his head. "No, I mean .. how do you live? You say you live in this .. Redwall?"

Fripple shrugged. "Oh .. I don't live in Redwall. Well, I'd visit a lot .. my cousins all live there. I've got four, you know? And two little brothers. My uncle Groddil lived there .. he was my mentor. But I lived at Brockhall."

Cedric raised an eyebrow, and Fripple explained. "Brockhall is a manor .. it used to be Bella's .. the badger lady. But she's too old to live alone, so she gave it to my parents .. we live there. Well .. we used to."

Cedric took a sip of wine, asking, "And where'd your family go, Princess? You speak of them fondly."

Fripple shrugged. "Trubbs .. an old friend of my parents .. he's been trying to keep Salamandastron in one piece, and he asked if some Mossflowerian nobles would aid him until the prophesied sun-marked badger comes to rule the mountain. Well .. Timbal and Sayna are king and high queen .. it's sort of their duty to help a fellow kingdom. They took Gustav and Coll, but I was training under Groddil, and Groddil was training most of the apprentices .. so he couldn't leave. I stayed .. I was close to being knighted .. but then everything went wrong, and I had to leave with Veil."

Cedric was interested. "Knighted?"

Fripple shrugged. "Yea .. Veil and my cousin Luke were Groddil's best swordsbeasts, but I was in third place .. who knows. I might have passed up Luke had things stayed the way they were."

She laid her head in her paws. "I don't know why Ignasa let this happen."

Cedric seemed genuinely interested. "I've heard of your Ignasa, Princess. But I've never seen any reason to believe he exists."

Fripple looked up, asking, "You don't believe in him? Well .. I probably should have guessed."

Cedric shrugged. "Well I've never seen any proof of him .. or any real 'supernatural' power. I guess I just don't really believe anything like that exists outside of legends."

"But it does!" Was Fripple's quick reply.

Errik walked by, laying a platter of baked fish and a potato-like vegetable on their table. "Being from Mossflower, I don't suppose you've had a lot of seafood. Thought I'd let you try some."

The fox grinned. "So how's the conversation? And I assume you can sing, your highness?"

Fripple stumbled at changing the subject so quickly. "Um .. I .. erm .. yea, I guess. Sort of."

Somebeast called out to Errik from another table, and the slim dog-fox sighed, limping off. Cedric watched him go for a moment, as Fripple took a bite of the flaky, baked fish. She found it almost better than the Grayling at Redwall feasts. Cedric took a bite, asking, "So how do you know?"

"Huh?" Fripple was slow to understand quite what he was talking about.

Cedric explained himself. "How do you know that Ignasa is real?"

Fripple paused, before stating softly. "I've seen him, once. When I was very young. The memory is faint now, but he was shining gold and glowed with light .. his fur was made from light, almost. I watched him crown my parents, uncle, and aunt as the kings and queens of Mossflower, according to prophecy."

Cedric stared at her, and she sighed. "And you don't believe me."

"Well .." Cedric's voice was hesitant.

Fripple shrugged. "I can't blame you. It sounds impossible. But I saw him. It wasn't until many seasons later that I chose to follow him .. seeing isn't always believing."

Cedric took another bite of fish. "You say you follow the Lord of the Morning?"

Fripple frowned in confusion. "You call him that here?"

Cedric nodded. "More or less. But forgive me Princess, and don't be offended, but .. I thought Ignasa's followers were gentle and kind. They're the sort of beasts who forgive and aid and comfort .. should I say, I never saw them as the sort of beast who would bite another's head off over being called 'cute'."

Fripple stopped eating for a moment, processing his words. "I ..."

She sighed. "Maybe I've been a little over-dramatic. But I don't like being called 'cute'."

Cedric shrugged. "Why not? It's true."

Fripple gave him an irritated look. "Deadly, swift, fierce ... those are far more flattering."

Cedric grinned. "How about beautiful? What if I said you were beautiful?"

Fripple blinked at him for a moment, before laughing. "You can be .. so ridiculously funny sometimes. I wouldn't believe you. I'm not beautiful, but I can fence and joust, sling stones and throw knives. That's good enough."

Cedric raised an eyebrow. "You're .. serious."

Fripple took a drink of her water, actually smiling in genuine honesty. "Of course I'm serious, what else would I be? I'm not a pretty princess, but I am a warrior. And which is better, in the end? Let my two cousins claim the beauty. I like what I am, and I would never trade it for stunning looks .. they're temporal. But the skills of the mind and the warrior's soul will always be."

Cedric shook his head. "You needn't trade."

Fripple was a little surprised, but she looked pleased. "I'm glad you aren't being silly about it .. thanks for seeing it my way."

Cedric's eyes glittered with amusement. "Princess, you've got both .. you can't see that? The name 'The Blade' truly fits you, you have the beauty of a sword, and the sharpness too. And believe me, I know about how sharp."

Fripple raised an eyebrow. "Well .. I can't say I know how to answer the first one, but I will say about me being sharp .. perhaps I was a little too sharp. I ... I'm sorry about nearly getting us killed in the desert .. with those jackals. I've sort of wanted to tell you for a while, but every time .. something went wrong .. or you got all irritating .. so it never came out."

For a second nothing was said, as blue eyes met yellow-green ones, the first apologetic, the latter surprised. Cedric slowly grinned, stating, "I think I can forgive you that. It's not the most dangerous situation I've been in .. just close."

Fripple looked down, shrugging. "Aunt Rose once said chaos follows me in a wake of destruction. I think I believe her."

Cedric looked about to say something, when Errik's voice rang from across the room. "It has recently come to my attention .."

Fripple didn't pay a lot of attention, and was about ask Cedric more about the horse race, when Errik's announcement made her look up in confusion. " .. That there is a visitor from the north in our midst .. royalty even."

Fripple looked up in shock as the dog fox pointed at her. "Princess Fripple of Mossflower!"

The mouse sort of wished she could vanish as about every eye in the place turned to her, and she turned on Cedric with a glare. The mouse put his paws up, stating, "Princess, I don't know anything .. how could I? I was sitting here the whole time!"

Errik laughed. "Don't get mad at him milady, it's tradition. We don't have visitors from across the desert very often .. princesses less often. Mossflower is the land of the marks .. even we know that much. So tell me, you have good songs up there?"

"I .. um .. yea. I mean .. of course .." Was the stumbling reply.

Errik grinned. "Then you wouldn't mind singing us one?"

Fripple gulped, looking around at an expectantly waiting audience. Cedric shrugged. "You better do it Princess. He didn't make us pay you know."

The golden mouse groaned softly as she stood with the greatest reluctance, asking, "Which one?"

Errik shrugged. "That's up to you, it's not like I've been there."

Fripple thought for a minute, but the only thing that came to mind was the mark's prophecy .. for she'd always liked it. She took a deep breath, hoping she could still sing, having not done it for a while.

However she knew the tune and words by heart, and they came far easier than she'd expected as she sang the ancient dancing song.


"Though our freedom is no more,

The Fire heeds our cry.

From the mighty northern shore,

Our deliverance draweth nigh."


><><

Scound had used a half fallen in exit of the catacombs he had discovered, and now he walked along a lantern-lit side street. Or more realistically, he limped, using his spear as a walking staff.

He was in a sort of fix. He had a .. friend .. in the shipyards, one who he felt would help him .. and even a few others .. leave Southsward by ship. But Scound knew it wouldn't come freely. He'd have to pay for the favor, and it was going to be a rather hefty price.

However the weasel was conniving, and he was quickly coming up with a plan to get the funds .. and maybe even help the son of Sixclaw while he was at it. It was an underpawed plot .. but Scound was quite used to those.

All he had to do was find Veil's friends, offer to show them were the imprisoned ferret was, and demand a high price out of them. They were from Mossflower .. and they were probably rich.

So it wouldn't be a problem for them, and he'd get what he needed. It was a great opportunity for everybeast.

He was walking past the old 'Jackal's Den', when he heard an announcement that made him stop in his tracks, then limp to an arched window and peer inside.

"There is a visitor from the north in our midst .. royalty even .. Princess Fripple of Mossflower!"

Mossflower. Mossflower was the land of the marks, and the marks were those who had taken war to Salamandastron and Lotor .. that must be where Veil had come from; Mossflower!

Scound put two and two together quickly, as a mouse-like beast stood, golden fur agleam in lantern light .. contrasted by a long, dark brown braid. Just like Veil had said.

Perfect.

><><


"Feather and leaf, star and rose,

These words are not untrue,

What they'll face nobeast knows,

Still less of all they'll do.


The wild winds nobeast can tame,

For this is what they'll be.

They serve a lord of mighty name,

Through him they'll set Mossflower free!"


Fripple finished her song, happy to have sung it all the way through without her voice cracking. She got a hearty round of applause, as somebeast called from the crowd. "You know these marks? Living in Mossflower?"

Fripple stammered, unused to this much attention. "I .. well .. two are my parents."

There were murmurs of interested wonder, as Errik limped over to her, stating, "Well sung milady. And now I think you and your friend .." At this moment he reached out, grabbing Cedric who was still sitting at the table, "Really ought to dance, don't you?"

Fripple tried to dissuade this. "Oh but I .. really don't dance well .."

Errik laughed as he mischievously dragged the two out onto the dance floor. "Come on, a princess? I bet it's Cedric here that can't dance."

Cedric was indignant. "I can!"

Errik shoved him, nearly making the smaller creature fall on his face. "Then go prove it!"

The mouse shook himself, slowly turning to Fripple and cautiously holding out a paw, one eyebrow raised questioningly. Fripple considered refusing, but there was no point as Errik pushed her forward, about into Cedric.

Fripple caught herself, sighing. "Oh .. I guess."

Cedric grabbed her paw, dragging her forward with immense cheerfulness. "I think your outlook's improving!"

><><

Esther paced her room at the Shaded Waters, wondering where Fripple and Cedric had vanished too. Had they disappeared like Veil and Ivan?

And also .. where had Veil gone?

The ermine slumped across her window sill. What would the group do without Ivan's droll humored remarks .. and without Veil? Whenever they could not decide what to do or how to do it, Veil's voice of wisdom was the one they turned to.

Esther sighed. Only last night .. or this morning .. Veil had been with them. He'd promised her they'd face whatever they found together.

But now he was gone. Vanished .. like he'd never been there.

However all the memories of the golden ferret lingered hauntingly. Esther gazed up at the glittering stars, faint because of all the glittering lanterns. "Where are you Veil? I hope .. I hope you're ok, wherever you are .."

Her plaintive whisper went unnoticed. The ermine curled up in a ball on her window seat, idly fiddling with a strand of her red hair. Fripple was lucky .. Cedric liked her and followed her around. Always teasing and flirting. While she saw how it might get irritating, Esther couldn't help but be jealous .. Veil never bothered to do that.

It's not his fault .. why would he? It's not like you're .. a ferret.

The ermine sighed. Why couldn't she be a ferret? But she wasn't. She was .. close enough though!

Sort of. Of course .. maybe Veil didn't want to hang out with a thief. Esther stared at her paws, complaining, "But I don't want to be a thief, I just ... like pretty things. I mean .. it's so .. tempting!"

The ermine flopped down on the seat again, staring sadly out the window.

"Miss Esther!"

She jerked upright, looking around to see the voice had come from the street .. and a very familiar liver chestnut horse and his chariot.

"Eveningstar!"

The horse was looking up at her. "I've got a .. delivery for you."

Esther raised an eyebrow. "A what?"

Eveningstar laughed. "A delivery. From Cedric and Miss Fripple."

Esther blinked as Catkin came into the room and to the window, upon hearing the conversation. The otter called, "Oh then we'll come right down! Thanks so much!"

Esther and Catkin bolted down the stairs, through the little dining area, and out the door to where the horse stood. Mystiquestar had heard the commotion, and come from the stable beside the inn.

Catkin begin digging through the items in the chariot, exclaiming, "Oohh new clothes! She bought us all new clothes Esther!"

The otter suddenly pulled out Fripple's stained dress and dusty boots, stammering, "Fripple's clothes! But ... but .. then what is Fripple wearing? I do hope she's wearing something ..."

Eveningstar flicked an ear, laughing, "Well she was wearing a Southswardian dress and sandals when I last saw her."

Esther raised an eyebrow. "Really? Where is she now?"

The horse snorted. "Out with Cedric .. somewhere. I've really got no clue."

Mystiquestar jerked her head up. "What?"

Catkin clasped her paws together, squealing, "Oh that's so wonderful! Fripple and Cedric are finally making each other happy ... I'm so happy to know about it!"

Esther picked up the food and bandages, stating, "I need these .. the black mouse has a fever now, and I'm not sure quite what to do. I'm not a very good healer."

Catkin sighed. "Well .. we should always hope for the best Esther, no matter the situation."

><><

Fripple sort of liked dancing, in a weird way. She did however, have to pick up her tail and loop it over one arm to avoid the danger of tripping over it, or tripping somebeast else.

While she found herself unconditionally enjoying this experience, she couldn't help but feel she was missing something .. that something dreadfully important and terrible was happening. She met Cedric's gaze in mid spin, finding he was quite happy .. probably more than she.

About this second, Fripple's tail slipped from her arm, falling to the ground and tripping her as she tried to whip it out of the way. She crumpled to the ground in a rather undignified manner, with a little yelp of dismay.

Fripple sat up about the next second, as Cedric pulled her onto her paws. "Hey are you ok?"

She shrugged. "Yea. Dumb tail."

Cedric paused, before stating, "Here. I know someplace with a great view of the city .. want to go there instead?"

Fripple raised an eyebrow, before half joking, "Well I'm just along for the ride .. you know where you're going better than I .. lead the way."

Cedric grinned, not letting go of her paw as he led her to the door. She could have sworn she caught a glimpse of Errik among the tables, and also could have sworn he winked at her. Wondering subtly at this, she let Cedric drag her out of the building, and to a set of stairs that led up to the roof. He bowed. "After you Princess."

Fripple couldn't help but laugh, and did as he said, climbing the steps almost two at a time. "Catch up! I'd like to see all of Southsward!"

Cedric had a wide grin on as he followed her, bare paws pattering on the steps.

The stairs were taller than they looked from the ground, and Fripple didn't exactly look down .. on purpose. But she reached the flat roof without accident, something she was grateful for.

Cedric ran past her, calling, "Over here Princess .. isn't it beautiful?"

Fripple hurried to where he stood, and in the moment, she understood why Southsward was called the city of a thousand lights. The aurora of firelight reached for the heavens, turning the entire city into a softly glowing place .. like a flame made from a thousand.

Fripple suddenly pointed to a magnificent building in the midst of it all. "What's that?"

Cedric shrugged. "Oh that? That's the great palace, where Queen Lilly lives."

Fripple nodded, adding, "I've never seen so much light .. anywhere. Standing in the middle of it is so amazing."

Cedric stared across the landscape, stating softly,


"City of a thousand lights,

City on a hill.

Some say it's like magic,

And time's just standing still."


Fripple blinked. "What?"

"I wrote it, you could say. I write music sometimes .." He dug in his satchel, producing a plain flute. "In fact I play it sometimes."

Fripple smiled. "Really? I've written poems too. I never could play an instrument, though."

Cedric grinned. "I could play for you."

A moment of silence passed, and Fripple was about to answer, when her ears caught a sort of noise behind them. She wheeled around, to see a shadow flit across the corner of her vision. Her paw fell to her sword as Cedric asked, "What is it?"

Fripple shook her head. "I'm not sure .."

"Ya needn't draw that, I'm here ta help ya."

Both mice jumped as the speaker, a plain brown weasel, stepped into the dim light. Fripple took a step forward. "Look, who are you? How can you help us?"

The weasel crossed his arms. "Ya wanna know where yer friends went, don't ya?"

Fripple's eyes darkened. "What friends?"

The weasel looked smug. "A golden ferret with six claws .. by the handle Veil. And a cat called Ivan. Ring a bell?"

It rang a lot of bells. Fripple jumped forward, gasping, "Where are they?"

The weasel held up a paw. "Well it won't be safe for me to tell you. So you're gonna have to pay me for my trouble."

Cedric stepped in, clearly disgusted. "Look, whoever you are. You really could have picked a better time. And how do we know you're not lying? Or a spy?"

The weasel grinned. "Cause I know exactly what her friends look like, kid. Now Fripple. Is me offer inerestin' ya?"

Fripple jumped. "What? How do you know my name?"

"Veil told me." Was the answer. "He's in a real fix missy .. I'd do something ta help him if'n I was ya and he was my friend."

Fripple burst out. "Where is he! Is he captured by .. something?"

The weasel smirked. "By somethin', yea, that fits Sixclaw. But I ain't tellin' ya nothing til ya agree ta pay me."

Cedric was mad at the weasel, Fripple could tell. "How much would that be, swindler?"

The creature was cool. "Five hundred sheckles."

"What?!"

Fripple and Cedric's reply was almost unanimous. Fripple added, "I've never had that much in my life! I didn't even have that much when I left Mossflower! You're crazy!"

"Not if you want to ever see the kid again, I ain't." Was the nonchalant reply.

Fripple advanced on the weasel, snarling, "I could kill you .. I could make you tell!"

Cedric grabbed her arm, holding her back as the weasel leveled his spear at her. "Ya could, but that ain't gonna git ya far. Ain't too many a beast as carin' as ol' Scound here."

Fripple gave the weasel an instant, nearly insane glare, especially as he added suddenly, "Oh and I'd do it fast if I was ya .. I can't keep ya a secret forever. Ain't gonna be long afore I've got ta tell me boss where ya is, see? An' then you'll find your friends .. not inna nice way though."

Cedric had both his paws on Fripple's shoulders, precautionary lest she leap at the weasel in a fit of Bloodwrathing fury. "And how long do we have?"

Scound shrugged. "I'd say three days is as long as I can give ya."

Fripple suddenly turned to Cedric, crying, "How can we get five hundred sheckles in three days? It's .. impossible!"

Cedric's voice was slow .. hesitant .. reluctant and almost fearful, yet dark sounding. "Well Princess .... there might be .. one way."




Chapter 18 Insane Impossibility

Veil sat in the corner of his cell, a seemingly natural indention in the wall, old iron bars forming the rest of the walls. They looked younger than the rocks they fastened securely into, however.

The ferret had always sort of seen a dungeon as dripping and dank .. maybe molding and musty too. And while this place was slightly musty, it was more dusty and dry than anything else. The occasional dripping didn't seem to bless these cells with water .. in fact, it could barley be heard here.

Veil laid his chin on his knees, sighing. Where was Ivan? Where were the others? Were they captured .. hurt .. lost? What about Catkin .. she wasn't adept to face the brutality he was facing. And Esther .. she'd be absolutely terrified .. probably too scared to steal anything. Fripple would just fly at her captors in rash anger and get herself killed, Aubretia would .. well .. probably try and calculate something or other before bursting into tears as the hopelessness of the situation sank in. Star would make empty threats and get depressed when they didn't feed her anything.

Veil groaned .. why did his father have to be here? His wicked, oppressive, brutal father that he'd always feared and now he hated. How could he have forgotten so much?

And his mother .. was she really dead? Was Swartt just lying? Was it really .. his fault?

No! It wasn't .. it was Swartt's fault, if any. How had he gotten separated though? That part was still blurry .. something about a horse .. and falling .. and pain. Pain in his head .. side .. just pain. But it was a numb, slowly awaking recollection. Like the memory of a dream that fades just before one wakes up.

Veil wrapped his tail around his legs as he sadly thought on all he'd been through. Why was he here? What had he done? Why did he deserve this? Was he cursed by the shadow of his father? Could he ever be free of it?

The ferret stared hatefully down at his extra claw, snarling softly. "Why did I have to be the son of that monster .. why am I marked by the same curse he is? Why was it me, and not somebeast else, they chose to accuse .. to hate .. to destroy! They've ruined me! I can never go back! I used to be a lord's son .. now I've got nothing, nothing at all! What if I wanted to ..."

He paused, sighing at length. "To be normal. Why can't I be normal? It's not .. just. It's not ... What did I do to deserve this curse .. why was I even born? There is no purpose for an outcast .. even if they never deserved what they were accused of."

"Got a high opinion of yourself, don't ya?"

Veil jerked his head up as a perky, sort of stuck-up voice rang out. The ferret squinted against the gloom of the prison. "Who .. are you? And where are you?"

There was a clink of a chain, and Veil could just make out movement on a jutting rock in the cell beside his. There was a flutter of wings, and a dark shape grabbed the horizontal bar across the top of the cell, hanging upside-down with a rattle of chains.

Veil blinked up at the creature as she spoke again, voice still snooty. "I'm Loki."

Veil raised an eyebrow. "What are you?"

She snickered. "I'm a bat silly, a vampire bat. What are you?"

Veil looked away, half spitting his reply. "I'm a ferret."

Loki's voice seemed a constant, haughty laugh. "What's that about? The only thing wrong with ferrets is cause they can't fly .. like all the poor, silly land creatures. How come you don't have wings? And not ugly, feathered wings like a bird, beautiful wings like mine."

Veil couldn't help a dry humored jab. "Huh, I've got a high opinion of myself? What about you?"

The bat giggled. "Well that's because I have a reason to. After all, I am very clever, and a bat. That makes all the difference."

Veil groaned, snapping in a little bad temper, "Leave me alone .. I've got more important things to worry about than a stuck-up snipe like you."

Loki simpered. "Ooh did I make Sixclaw's little brat mad?"

Veil glared at her. "Look, who shoved you out the wrong side of bed this morning?"

The bat copied his question with mockery. "Who did it to you? Was there a lake nearby .. you look like you fell in it."

Veil rolled his eyes. "For being so clever, you're pretty sassy aren't you? And tell me this, wise one. If you're so smart, why are you in prison, huh?"

Loki looked miffed. "Ain't my fault. Your daddy pulled a dirty trick on me."

Veil didn't say anything for a moment, before he laid his head on his knees again. "Yea. He did the same to me."

><><

Shroud's place of residence was far from that of his co-partner in crime. While Swartt ruled the subterranean catacombs, the home of the dead, Shroud lived in a grand manor that threatened to surpass the great palace.

All things expensive and lovely filled it; from elegant draperies of imported silks, to gold plated furniture. Most of the floors were marble or black granite, the pillars were alabaster and obsidian, and doors were either rich curtains or even more grand, polished cypress.

The soft falls of boots echoed down a richly ornamented hall, as their owner seemed to cast a shadow of gloom in this place a king would have fought to own. Shroud himself had a sort of dull smirk on his face, his usual look after a day well done. He threw open a curtain that separated the marble floored courtyard, keeping a careful grip on the scrolls and papers in his paw.

The fox passed the fountain in the center of the yard, pausing as he reached sort of an enclosure in a corner. Shroud stared in, rapping on the bars with quiet enjoyment. There was movement in the back of the cage, as well as the rattle of chains, and Shroud could make out the form of his greatest prize .. a golden eagle.

The fox showed his teeth in a sadistic smile. "Yes, yes my pet. You do heed the word of your master."

The bird gave him a dull, listless look, before turning away with a clank of its chain. Shroud smirked, turning away. The bird was another of his little toys, things that testified to his great power. After all, how many warlords owned a golden eagle, the most magnificent of birds?

Shroud grinned, walking across the courtyard to the main part of his house. Yes, soon he would be king of all Southsward. From what he'd learned from Swartt, the ferret's creatures had wounded the rabbit queen .. that was perfect. If she was weak, there would be less resistance and less chance of an uproar at her disposal. Of course, the common beast of Southsward was pretty mad at her anyway .. using her seal was working terrifically in his favor.

The fox had entered a hallway less grand than the others, though it was still tiled with marble. He walked to a room with a guard at the door, who immediately saluted. Shroud passed the beast with no more than a glance, striding into the simply furnished place and it's lone occupant .. a badger.

The creature looked dully up from a desk he was at, and the rattle of chains proved he was far from trusted. Shroud dropped the sheaf of papers on the desk, disregarding the work the middle aged beast was already doing. "Have those copied off by morning, or no rations. You hear me?"

The creature's voice was flat and his answer rehearsed. "Yes milord."

Shroud nodded, stating, "And no loose ink on the pages like yesterday, see? I want to be able to read my records .. or at least have them read to me. So make it readable!"

The answer didn't sound like the badger put much thought into it. "Yes milord."

Shroud nodded briskly, turning on his heel and stalking off to bother some other beast under him. As the curtain over the door rustled shut, the badger's dull brown gaze turned into a hateful glare.

He picked up one of the sheets of parchment his 'master' had delivered, shaking his head bitterly.

How many lives had Shroud sold today?

For the badger was forced to record the sale of lives day in and day out, season on season, four seasons and again .. there seemed no end to it. For there was no end to Shroud's influence of evil.

The badger ran his paw through his crop of oddly golden headfur and forehead stripe. How long had he been here? How many seasons enslaved?

He had not always served the fox, but it seemed he had always served. First a memory of a green eyed cat .. then a cruel caravan master who had bought him and brought him to this place. Then the black fox with red paws .. he must have served this one for twenty seasons if he had for a day.

Or even longer. But far back in his mind, the beloved past still stood. The past that reassured him he had not always been a slave.

He never let himself think about it until Shroud's final visit with the day's earnings, but then .. the night was his.

He pulled out a piece of paper, laying it atop the record he had begun to pen. For he could write whatever he liked .. Shroud could never read it. That was the reason he was here, to write the fox's transactions in the ancient language .. so that his enemies could not read them.

If he had not known how to read and write Loamhedgian, he would undoubtedly be dead by now, the life whipped from him in some hard laboring duty. But an educated slave was valuable, and so he was.

His name nobeast knew .. except himself. Long forgotten shades of memory told him in a gentle whisper, with the voice of his mother, blurry as her memory was.

"My little Sunflash."

The badger had long given up hope of ever seeing her again. He'd really given up ever being free again.

For when one has lived in slavery for almost fifty seasons, they know the hard truth that shatters hope.

And Sunflash knew it well.

><><

Esther sat at the little table in the room where they were keeping Vinwyte and the mouse. Aubretia's sleepy voice broke into her thoughts. "Do you have those herbs mixed yet .. Esther ."

The ermine's name came out in a yawn. Esther absently handed the bowl to Aubretia, just as the door was flung open and Fripple bolted in, followed closely by Cedric.

Catkin jerked awake from where she was sleeping on the floor, blinking blearily up at the two, before exclaiming drowsily, "Oh that dress is ever so pretty Fripple! Eveningstar .. told us you and Cedric were .. very happy. Are you?"

Fripple shook her head. "Oh .. never mind that Catkin, listen to me! Veil and Ivan have been captured!"

Esther gasped in horror. "Captured! By who? Where are they? How .. no! We've got to do something!"

Catkin was equally as horrified. "Oh no! This is awful ... who could be happy about capturing our friends?"

Fripple leaned against the doorway. "Somebeast called Sixclaw. But we don't know where .. and that's the problem!"

Aubretia spoke up. "If you don't know where they are, Fripple, how do you know they were captured?"

Cedric crossed his arms. "We got a .. messenger."

Vinwyte cautiously stuck his head around the corner of the bed he was sleeping beside, as Esther shook Fripple. "Well? You're in charge, what are we going to do?"

Fripple dodged away from the ermine, complaining, "Who said I was the leader? I'm not the leader, Veil is!"

Catkin raised a paw. "Well, now that Veil isn't here .. maybe you can be the leader?"

Fripple groaned. "But I don't want to be! What if something goes wrong? What if I mess up and get everyone captured .. killed .. tortured .."

Catkin shook her head. "Fripple, that is not encouraging us, and it's not encouraging you."

"No, she has a valid point." Aubretia broke in. "Taking in the statistics, Fripple might not be the best leader. She is smart and loyal, and probably our best warrior at the moment, but she is hot-headed, short tempered, rash, unaffectionate, sometimes disagreeable, is not good at boosting morale, and in all other ways rather rough ..."

Fripple rolled her eyes. "Ok, ok .. you can stop now. I get the idea. I'm a mortal creature, so what? You are too."

Aubretia scratched something down. "I never said I wasn't. Now, I've taken in the statistics and I think I've got it."

Catkin was cheerful. "Ooh good! I knew we could trust you Aubretia, you're ever so smart! Do tell us please, it would make us happy!"

Aubretia pushed her glasses up her nose. "All calculations and statistics say that our leader should be Cedric!"

Everyone in the room except the two slaves exclaimed as one .. Cedric included. "What!?"

Esther pointed at Cedric. "Him?"

Cedric pointed at himself. "Me? Why me? I didn't even come from your abbey .. you know."

Catkin smiled. "Well .. he might be a very good leader."

Fripple took a deep breath. "Look, I'm not saying this out of jealousy. But Aubretia .. why him?"

The mouse maid took a look at her notes. "Well, the plain truth is he has more things in his favor than you do."

Cedric interrupted. "Look, stop it all of you. While you're arguing about who will lead .. what about a plan?"

Fripple gave Aubretia a little glare, before backing Cedric up. "He's right. And you told me there was a way Cedric ... but you wanted to wait and tell us all."

The mouse nodded. "Alright, glad to see you're getting serious here. Now look, you've heard all the talk about this race? Well the prize is a thousand sheckles, and second place his five hundred. It's a little less than three days away .. if we could win it .."

Catkin smiled. "Oh, that sounds like a very good idea!"

Fripple stared at Cedric. "A horse race? But ... "

Cedric stared levelly back. "Munch is a horse."

Esther broke in. "Wait .. are you saying Star should race? But this is a chariot race .. you know? Star can't drive herself!"

Cedric looked down for a moment, before stating softly. "I have driven chariots, and ran this race before."

Fripple shook her head. "But .. you were injured in it! I thought you couldn't go back."

The mouse scratched his chin, muttering, "Don't remind me Princess. And I can go back, though it won't be easy."

Fripple's eyes softened. "You'd .. do that for us?"

Cedric met her gaze. "I'd do it for you."

Fripple got the feeling he wasn't referring to all of them, at least not for the most part. Aubretia interrupted. "But wouldn't there have been finals you'd have to run to get in this race?"

Cedric shrugged. "Oh sure. But I know a guy .. I could probably bribe a spot off of him. And there also is the tradition of the challenger."

Esther was confused. "The what?"

Cedric explained. "The challenger. There are a series of races that lead to this one, and the overall champions of those are the ones who have a chance to run this. But every final race, they allow for a challenger .. one horse and driver to challenge the racers. They can't have run any of the other races. We haven't. So that might be our chance."

Catkin clapped her paws together. "Ooh, I see how this could work!"

Cedric gave her a look. "Right .. sure."

Aubretia broke in, "But I see one problem. We have no chariot. That leaves a serious gap in the equation."

Cedric tapped his short claws on the table. "Yea .. that is the question Bookworm .. that really is the question. I wish I had the beauty I always used .. but .. yea. We'll have to buy one. And the entry fee is a hundred sheckles."

Fripple interrupted. "Cedric. Tell me the truth. Does Star even have a chance? Even one? I'm sure these horses are tough and well trained .. I'm sure they're fast too."

Cedric brushed some fur out of his eyes, stating, "Oh she's fast Princess .. fast as lighting. She's in much better shape than when we started .. I think she's got a chance, more than one. I'd never even suggest this if she didn't, believe me."

Fripple gave him a long, questioning look, before sighing, "Where is Star?"

Catkin looked immensely happy. "Oh, Eveningstar asked her if she wanted to go with him and get the carrots he didn't get when he brought the things to us. I'm sure they'll be back soon .. you know carrots make Star very happy."

Fripple raised an eyebrow. "Aha .."

Catkin nodded. "Yes, they do. And they must make Eveningstar happy too .. he's very nice you know."

Cedric drummed his claws on the table, a tiny shadow in his eyes. "Yea."

><><

The world was cold .. and dark. Lilly groaned softly as the pain returned to her shoulder, though perhaps not as acutely as before she'd blacked out .. however long that had been.

"Lay still milady. Your wound was fairly serious .. you need to rest. Drink this for me."

Lilly swallowed the water, coughing, "Zarya? What happened? How long have I been like this?"

The badger sighed. "You've been asleep for a night and a day milady. I was a little worried at first, but .. you'll recover."

Lilly moved fractionally, regretting it the next second as pain shot up her shoulder. "Zarya, what's been happening?"

The badger was older than her queen, and had been almost like the rabbit's long lost mother for seasons on end. She shook her striped head. "Nothing really, around here. And in the city, nothing good. Swartt posted a heavier guard around the palace .. you won't be able to try again."

Zarya paused, adding, "Of course, you wouldn't be trying anyway, not with your shoulder. I want you to stay in bed at least another day, and take it easy."

Lilly shook her head, wincing as this action caused a jolt of pain. "Zarya, there's no time! Time is essential .. we need to move!"

The badger crossed her arms. "You are going nowhere. Kensly and Rihan have formed the best guard they can .. it's all we can do for now."

Lilly drank a little more, asking, "How many beasts are still with us?"

Zarya sighed. "Counting me? I think fifteen Milady."

Lilly groaned. "There is no way .. Zarya, bring out my armor, sword and shield. Keep them here at paw. Who knows when they will come? All I know is they will come. And we must be ready to make a final stand."

Zarya looked about to try and encourage her queen, but she paused, looked down, and stated, "Yes milady. It will be as you say."

><><

The shores of Salamandastron were empty, except for two creatures. An old swaybacked sorrel pinto, and his rider, a silver dog fox who seemed far younger than his mount, though an odd streak of pale gray ran perpendicularly through both his long, black beard and braided hair.

The two were only walking, as the old horse seemed to be tasked to top this speed for long periods of time. Presently his bareback rider pulled on his blonde and slowly graying mane, sliding to the ground. "I'll walk a little friend."

The horse nodded, snorting, "Thanks. Wish I could have hung onto my youth like you."

The fox shrugged. "It's the Flowers. I would have died seasons ago if not for them, you know that. Horses always outlive the normal beast."

He paused, as the horse laughed softly. "Most of the time. You've always been a contradiction Groddil."

The fox sighed. "As that may be. But I do wish to get to the mountain before sundown."

"What's that?" His horse asked in true curiosity.

Groddil spun around to see what Stargazer was looking at, and he sighed, "Oh .. I can guess."

'That' was a gangly horse and rider .. an adolescent horse for certain. As they got closer, Groddil spoke with certainty. "It's Crowwings and Gustav, I'll stake my sword on it."

The fox shook his head. "Those two were always into trouble before they left."

His horse snorted. "Constantly. Crowwings isn't anything like her parents .. her mother at least. Midnight's far too .. reasonable. I suppose she get's her sauce from her father. Diamond's always been dry humored and quick witted .. hot tempered too."

The pewter gray filly in question was quite near by now, as well as her chocolate colored rider. She rocked onto her back hooves, rearing for effect, and Gustav yelped, sliding off and onto his back in the sand. Crowwings snorted, returning to all four hooves and trotting around her unfortunate rider. "Hey, you ok? When are you gonna learn ta stay on huh?"

Gustav sat up, stating sulkily, "You .. so totally ruined that Wings."

Groddil crossed his arms, appearing stern. "And what are you two scamps up to eh?"

Gustav leapt up, long tail whisking from under his paws as he ran to the fox and jumped on him in an enthusiastic hug. "Uncle Groddil! I missed ya Uncle Groddil! You gonna train me like sis, huh? Are ya? Please!"

Crowwings seemed unable to stay still, and trotted around the two, neighing happily, "We've been practicing charging and rearing! 'Stav still can't stay on."

Gustav stuck out his tongue. "It cause you can't rear right."

Crowwings jumped at him. "Can too!"

Groddil pulled the two arguing friends apart. "Alright, that's quite enough, both of you. Uncle Groddil needs to speak with your parents, Gustav. Can you and Crowwings go tell them I'm coming?"

Both young creatures forgot their quarrel. Gustav grabbed his friend's mane, swinging up onto her back. "Sure we can! It'll be like a mission!"

Crowwing's took off from a standing start, galloping across the dunes with a jubilant whinny, feathery tail whipping behind her.

Stargazer stared after them, heaving a sigh. "Oh for a fifth of her energy."

><><

The morning sun shimmered in the desert, sending waves of heat across the barren landscape. However a small smudge of green in the sea of gold stood out clearly.

A soft breeze cooled the crystal water of a small oasis, rustling the meager foliage that grew close to the water, it's only source of life in a land of death. A lone hawk sat on a large boulder beside the pool, it's black eyes taking in all that went on.

Which honestly, wasn't much. The bird fell to preening its sandy brown feathers, scanning the surroundings every few seconds.

Suddenly it jerked its head up, bright eyes gleaming and stance alert. There was a soft humming nearby, as if caused by some sort of power. A soft flash of blue light and the creature that toppled to the ground from seemingly nowhere caused the raptor to flutter into a small palm with a startled squawk, tense and ready to bolt if anything else that freakish dared happen again.

The fallen creature looked slowly up, brown eyes wide with nervous shock. She was a foreign species to the hawk, though it could liken her to those traveling jerbilrats ... just smaller and finer-featured.

She sat up, for she'd fallen in an ungainly heap. She on a green robe .. one that looked ridiculously hot .. and a sort of necklace. Her nut brown fur gleamed softly in the sunlight .. yes, certainly a foreigner.

But where had she come from? She'd fallen into the oasis, yes, but from where? The hawk huffed to itself. These silly land bound creatures that appeared shockingly in random places from random places ... well it didn't matter. They still couldn't fly, and flying was superior to all other means of travel.

The bird did just that as the thunder of hooves rang faintly in its hearing. More land-crawlers. Well he'd seen enough of those silly beasts for one day.

><><

Bryony liked being in the company of Mizzah and his followers .. and she was certainly glad he'd agreed to help her and Glow across the desert. The jerbilrat reined his bay Arabian to a halt, pointing at the nearby oasis. "We stop there for water and previsions."

Glow shook his orangey mane, panting, "A drink .. would be .. marvelous."

Annon was becoming friends with the horse, who was near his own age. The jerbilrat wasted a wink on the blind creature, asking, "Want to race there?"

Bryony shrugged, grasping Glow's mane with both paws. "I'll do it if Glow will."

The blind horse snorted. "Fine. But be kind and tell me where the trees are Bryony."

He broke into a trot the next second, transitioning to a lope in about the next second. Annon kicked his dappled gray into a lope, haring after the two. "No fair! You got a head start!"

Bryony yelled back at him, "It is too fair! Faster Glow, or he'll catch us!"

The ivory stallion slowed to a trot as Annon's mount whisked passed. "He's going to anyway."

A sudden cry, yelp, and splash made Bryony and Glow hurry after their friend. They leapt into the trees surrounding the oasis, and Bryony saw Annon staggering out of the water, headscarf unwinding and flopping around his shoulders.

Bryony swung down from Glow's back, grabbing Annon's frightened mount's trailing reins. "What happened?"

Annon pointed at the culprit, who was standing near a large boulder and staring worriedly at them. "I about ran over her .. I pulled up so quick Whisper threw me."

The creature was a brown mouse clad in a rather familiar green dress, with a satchel and an odd little hourglass necklace. She burst into a flood of apologies. "I'm sorry .. I'm really sorry sir .. I didn't .. well I mean .. I'm sorry, honest. Are you hurt?"

Annon shook his head, looking her over. "I'm not hurt, but I'm really wondering where you came from. You .. look a lot like Bryony here .. mind telling me how you made it this far into the desert? You dress like a northerner."

The mouse looked nervously around, stammering, "I'm .. not really .. sure .. where am I?"

Glow cocked an ear. "Somewhere in the great desert?"

The mouse shivered. "The .. great desert! But .. but .. how? I'm from Redwall abbey .. how'd I get here?"

Bryony was shocked. "You're from Redwall? I'm from Redwall! But .. I've never seen you before in my life."

The creature fiddled with her longish headfur, stammering, "I've .. not really seen you either .."

Bryony suddenly couldn't help feeling suspicious. "Wait a minute .. if you're really from Redwall .. are you for Veil or against him?"

The mouse stared at her. "Veil? Who's .. Veil? I'm Ellen .. or just Lenn .. but I've never met anybeast called Veil .. I'm really sorry I can't help you .."

Bryony was getting more and more confused. "Oh come on .. everyone at Redwall knows who Veil is ... do we come from the same Redwall?"

Lenn scratched her head. "It's the great red sandstone abbey in Mossflower .. and it has been for hundreds of seasons."

Bryony felt there was something wrong with this, but she'd never paid much attention in abbey school .. she'd spent more time daydreaming about her garden and how she was going to arrange it.

Glow however, snorted in amazement. "Hundreds of seasons? What are you talking about .. Redwall was completed eighteen seasons ago at best. That's insane .. where do you think you came from .. the future?"

Lenn was staring at him, and she gulped, "What? I .. don't know. I mean I'm not sure .. I .. maybe I might have? I .. just don't know anymore .. "

Hoof beats interrupted the conversation, and Mizzah pulled his bay to a sliding halt, dismounting in about the same movement. "What's all this?"

Lenn waved shyly, stammering, "Umm .. hello sir .."

Mizzah smiled kindly at her. "What's your name miss?"

The mouse ducked her head, stating, "I'm Ellen .. of Redwall abbey."

Mizzah raised an eyebrow. "Oh, then you know Bryony? Wait .. how did you get all the way out here .. and before us? You came from Redwall?"

Lenn looked as confused as the beasts around her. "I ... I think so ... I was just there. Just a few minutes ago .."

Bryony and Glow had such a look of bewilderment on their face's, it was almost amusing. Mizzah held up a paw. "Forgive me miss .. but can you remember what happened to you earlier this morning? Anything at all? Do you feel well?"

Lenn shrugged. "I feel .. fine. Just a little hot .. and of course I can remember .. I have a .. well fairly good memory, I guess. I was in the great hall, by the tapestry, and I put my paw on the swords .. and then there was nothing but blue .. glowing blue and falling .. and I landed here."

Bryony blinked. "Tapestry? What tapestry? And what swords?"

Lenn looked at her oddly. "Why don't you know? The beautiful tapestry with the four marks .. Martin the warrior .. Lord Ignasa .. and all of the scenes from the old times. And as for the swords .. Sayna and Martin's swords. Sayna gave me hers .. for my grandfather to use for his ..."

She broke off here. "My grandfather! Wait .. it .. it worked? It really worked? He said it was special .. he said it was the key to our lost history! I .. I fell backwards in .. time? But how far .. how far did I go?"

The mouse seemed to be talking to herself, and she suddenly looked up. "Wait .. Bryony? Bryony! Yes .. the abbess of Redwall! And .. you said something about .. Veil? Veil Sixclaw? The ferret outcast?"

Bryony looked at Glow, who cocked an ear in her direction and tossed his head, glancing pointedly at Lenn. Bryony crossed her arms. "Veil fled from the abbey .. they would have killed him! For no reason, he did nothing wrong! It was Xzanthia's fault .. she did it! She brought those monocles in and deceived king Martin ... I'm trying to bring Veil back .. there's a prophecy that says he's got to save us!"

Lenn was completely confused. "Xzanthia? Who's Xzanthia? And .. Martin .. the warrior .. he's .. alive? He's actually .. still living? And .. all the books I've read say Veil the Outcast .. the ferret with six claws .. never returned to Redwall .. and wasn't very nice .. either."

Bryony crossed her arms. "Well then history's messed up. I won't believe it at all. I found the prophecy in Brockhall and in Bella's pawwriting and Bella's a Prophetess. She knows what she's talking about, even if you don't. Nobeast can fall through time, that's insane!"

Lenn shrank back, looking down. Mizzah intervened. "That's enough. Ellen .. I can't say I totally believe you .. it does sound very strange, I'm sorry."

His eyes twinkled. "Of course, I've seen many strange things, that were none the less true. So I'm not saying you're crazy. Perhaps you're simply lost and confused .. the desert is disorienting."

He scratched his chin. "But the question is this .. what are we going to do with you?"

Lenn looked slowly up, murmuring, "I .. don't know sir."

Mizzah shrugged. "Well it would appear that no matter where you came from, you'll have to come with us. You can't survive in the desert alone."

Lenn paused, suddenly blurting, "If I really .. well .. I mean .. do you know where I could get a Flower of Icetor?"

Annon paused in wringing out his headscarf, stating, "You're going to wrong way .. those things grow in the mountains of the north. You happen to be headed straight south."

Lenn's face fell drastically, and Mizzah shook his head. "I'm sorry child .. we can't help you find one of those. They're very rare. In Southsward .. perhaps you could find one. But the price would be high .. high enough even I wouldn't wish to pay."

Lenn looked away, slowly nodding as she hugged her satchel to herself. Mizzah looked sympathetic. "Why would you need one of those? Surely you could find some other pretty flower .. Icetor's Ice isn't something to be played with, I've heard many a legend about the things."

Ellen shook her head, whispering, "I need one for my grandfather. He's very sick .. nobeast can help him. And so I thought .. if they could save Sayna .. well .."

Mizzah sighed. "Ah. I see. A noble quest, on your part. Perhaps .. something will turn up. But we cannot take you to Icetor, and I won't leave you here alone. You'll have to travel with us."

><><

The corridors of Salamandastron echoed with footsteps, from the clacking of Crowwings small hooves, to the purposeful thump of Trubbs boots.

The graying old corporal turned to his two companions, a golden mouse maid and a dark brown, long-tailed male of the species. "I wonder wot the ol' chap is up ta .. he was supposed to be trainin' the recruits, ya know wot, wot?"

Sayna looked serious and a little worried. "He's got a reason. And if I know Groddil, it's a good one."

Timbal agreed with her. "Indeed. I hope nothing has gone wrong in Mossflower."

Wother, Trubbs' son, spoke up from behind his father. "I don't really see wot could have, wot?"

Sedge, Wother's scrawny young brother, gulped nervously from where he was walking, "I .. don't know Wother but .. you never know. Anything might have .."

Trubbs held up his paw. "Don't get started with that bally worrying Sedge, it won't help anyone, wot, wot?"

Sayna ran on ahead as Ffring, Breeze, and Starbuck opened one of the mountain's great oaken doors. The patrol was gathering by now, all in hearing range brought by the commotion. Quinn looked out of place among his woodland friends as he walked over to Trubbs, asking, "What's goin' on, Corporal?"

The hare shrugged. "Crowwings and Gustav say Groddil's coming."

The red fox had filled in over the seasons, he was taller and stockier than during the wars with Lotor. He followed Trubbs as Ffring called back, "Crowwings is right chaps .. it is Groddil! On Stargazer even, wot?"

Hooves rang out in the ramp and doorway, as the two beasts in question trotted through the doorway. Stargazer came to a halt, panting a little as Groddil vaulted spryly off his back and to the ground. Sayna ran to him, exclaiming, "Groddil!"

She hugged her mentor momentarily, before stepping back and stammering, "But .. Groddil, why are you here?"

"Is something wrong at Redwall?" Timbal's voice rang from behind her.

Groddil shook his head. "My dear children .. you will not want to hear what I must say."

Timbal frowned. "What happened? Is Fripple alright?"

Sayna's black eyes glittered with worry as Groddil shook his head. "I really have no idea. Not long after you left, Bryony and a newcomer called Xzanthia found a trunk of odd little monocles in an old tree. Martin took one, and some others did too .. at first I thought nothing of it. But then ... then Rose was poisoned .. with wolfbane."

Sayna gasped. "What? Is she .."

Groddil held up a paw. "She's alive, and recovering. But you know how wolfbane stains red? Veil was framed. His paws were mysteriously red, but he swore by Ignasa he knew nothing. I believe him .. he was my best apprentice .. he knows Ignasa."

Timbal shook his head. "This is terrible .. surely he was cleared, though? If that is the case?"

Groddil looked down. "No."

Sayna stared. "No? But ..."

Groddil sighed. "He's alive .. I think. Martin acted like he was seventeen again .. he lashed out without thought, blatantly accused Veil, and was ready to behead him on the spot. Bella used her influence to forestall it, and that night, Esther, Fripple, Star, Ivan, Catkin, and Aubretia vanished, along with Veil. They helped him escape, I'm sure of it. But things at Redwall only got worse. It's those monocles. They feel cold .. wicked .. they are tools of Malimore. They look so pretty and harmless ... but they wreck absolute havoc."

Timbal and Sayna stared at each other for a moment, before Sayna shook her head. "We've got to go back."

Timbal nodded. "I agree. Now."




Chapter 19 Only a Dream

"Princess!"

Fripple curled up into a tighter ball at the foot of the bed she'd let Aubretia have last night, trying to ignore whoever was trying to wake her up. Maybe if she ignored them, they would go away.

"Princess, wake up! Come on, I need your help."

Fripple opened one eye, to see Cedric standing in the doorway. She stretched, uncurling as she asked, "Ho hum ... what do you want?"

Cedric grinned, though something told Fripple it was forced. "You want to figure out how to save your friends, don't you?"

Fripple grabbed the bed post, hauling herself onto her paws. "Alright .. I'm up. What's the first order of business?"

Cedric shrugged. "I'd say get a chariot. And the horse."

Aubretia stepped in behind Cedric. "According to my calculations, it would be beneficial if I could see the race track before Star has to run it."

Cedric nodded. "Eh .. yea. I'll see what I can do Bookworm. How's your patient, while we're at it?"

Fripple felt he was trying to change the subject, but she was curious about the young black and white .. mouse-like beast as well. She'd honestly thought he was going to die at first .. and yet he seemed to be recovering somewhat.

Aubretia pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. "He seems to be slightly better, though Esther's pretty nervous about him. Of course, she's pretty nervous about everything, except when it comes to thievery and sometimes she's even nervous about that."

Cedric scratched his chin. "Well I suppose I could spare a few seconds to look at him. How's the other one?"

Fripple interrupted. "Wait .. you're a healer?"

Cedric shrugged as he followed Aubretia. "Of sorts."

They walked into the other room, where Catkin was making some simple breakfast, and chatting with a rather confused Vinwyte. Esther looked up from where she was trying to read one of Aubretia's thick tomes. Fripple raised an eyebrow. "Did you sleep very well Esther?"

The ermine shook her head miserably. "I can't. I can't help worry about Veil ... do you think they'll torture him?"

Aubretia was not a wonderful voice of comfort. "There is a probability of about sixty-seven percent .. however their are many variables in the equation. It is possible he might still be unharmed."

Esther closed the book, laying her chin on it. "I'm not going to ask the odds of that."

Aubretia was obliging. "I'd say there is as high as a thirty-five percent chance Veil and Ivan will be perfectly fine .."

Catkin broke in. "Well .. Esther .. can we be happy about that?"

The ermine groaned. "Oh .. leave me alone .."

Cedric took a look at their still unconscious .. friend for a moment, before stating, "I think he'll be ok .. he just needs a few days. He has only a mild fever, and he's young .. about your age Bookworm .. young beasts tend to heal quickly. I'd just see if I could get him to drink .. change his bandages and see if you could get a little more blood off him."

Esther sighed, standing. "I'll try."

Cedric nodded. "That's good. Alright .. Princess. Let's go talk to Munch and see what she says .. if it's a yes, we'll ride her down to the stands .. see if we can get her in and .. get a chariot."

Fripple followed him out, asking, "Cedric, stop avoiding this. Tell me how dangerous this race is! I feel like you're hiding it .. if you're going to race my friend .. I .. better know.'

Cedric paused on the stairs, sighing at length. "Princess. I don't really trust you to trust me. Maybe it's better you don't know."

She grabbed his shoulder, forcing him to stop and face her with an iron paw. "Speak. You will not even suggest this to her until I know .. I've got to know."

Cedric looked down, before he sat down on the stairs. "Alright .. I can't hide it from you forever Princess .. sit down."

Fripple huffed, sitting on the step above his. "Tell me exactly what we are facing."

Cedric sighed. "Princess .. I can't say for sure. But it's dangerous .. you pinned me on that. It's a race, it's dangerous. But it wasn't so bad when I started .. however the rules kept getting looser .. Lady Lilly just didn't seem to care anymore. They ran more racers at a time .. some horses cheated and were sharp-shod for better traction .. something that tears up the track for the others .. and .."

Fripple's blue eyes glittered fearfully. "And ..?"

Cedric didn't speak for a moment, before he reached down and unbuckled one of his silver toned armbands, pulling it off to reveal interlacing scars, places that had been so badly torn that his thick fur simply would no longer grow. "I .. was lucky."

Fripple stared at him. "Lucky? That .. was .. lucky? And you want to take my friend into this slaughter? No! No, and no! She's too naïve .. she's friendly and sweet and innocent. This is murder!"

"Princess!" Cedric raised his voice above hers, "Princess, listen to me! You don't have a choice! This is our only chance to save your friends .. you don't have the faintest clue where they are being held .. if you want to save them ..."

Fripple stared at him, before looking away. "So I have to decide whose life I will sacrifice? I .. I can't choose that! Cedric, I .. can't!"

As much as she hated it, Fripple's vision swam despite her efforts to hold in her tears. She buried her face in her paws, mumbling, "I can't. And I can't drive a chariot either."

Cedric pried her paws from her eyes, asking, "Princess, haven't I already said I would do it?"

Fripple shook her head. "But .. you almost .. well .."

"I almost died. And .. I'll go back Princess. I said I'd do it for you."

"But I .. can't ask you that! You'll .. you'll get killed."

Cedric smiled a little. "I'm touched that it matters to you. And you didn't ask me .. I decided."

Fripple tried to return the smile, but failed. "And what will we tell Star? She'll .. be terrified."

Cedric shook his head. "You may hate me for this, but I say don't tell her very much."

Fripple stared at him. "But .. she needs to know! Cedric, she's got to know what she's up against!"

Cedric was in earnest. "No Princess, she doesn't. We'll come up with a strategy, explain what she needs to do and practice it .. that way she'll have less time to .. freak out, get what I mean?"

Fripple looked down. "I .. get it."

Cedric nodded. "Alright. Now if you're serious, time is of the essence. We've got to challenge before somebeast else does. Munch cares about his Majesty and Mute too .. she wouldn't forgive herself if something happened to them and she could have stopped it. Princess .. in other words, it isn't all your decision."

Fripple slowly looked up. "You're right."

"I am."

The mouse closed her eyes, groaning at last. "Alright .. I'll ... let you race her ... but you watch out for her!"

Cedric shrugged. "Her life is mine Princess .. if one of us dies, both of us die."

Fripple met his gaze again. "Will you .. be ok?"

Cedric stood with a grin, noticing the inn keeper was watching them from his counter with an odd expression. The mouse held out his paw. "Trust me?"

Fripple paused, before slipping her paw into his and letting him pull her to her feet. "This ... once."

Cedric nodded. "Let's go talk to her. Act naturally."

Fripple followed him with a mental groan. What had she just done?

><><

"A race? The race you were talking about?"

Mystiquestar was sticking her head out the widow of her stall, munching some hay while she did so. Cedric nodded. "Yes, that's right Munch. And the reward for wining is high."

Star shrugged. "Oh, well I don't need money .. except for treats."

Fripple quickly explained. "Star, Veil and Ivan have been captured. We don't know where they are and can't find out until .. we pay somebeast. A .. lot. More than I've got. And we've got to get it fast .. the race is the only .. way."

Star jerked her head up. "Captured? When was somebeast going to tell me? Huh. Some friends."

Fripple winced a little, but sighed. "It was while you were out with Eveningstar that we learned."

The filly suddenly looked a little dreamy. "Oh yes .. he's very nice. He took me to see all the race horses .. from a distance, anyway."

Cedric looked a little glum. "Oh .. what did he tell you?"

Star smiled, by Fripple's standards, in a silly manner. "He said my blue eyes were pretty. Isn't that nice? Nobody's ever said that before cause they aren't .. normal. But he said they were special and he liked them."

Cedric nodded. "Aha .. and that's all he told you, Munch?"

The horse did not get the point at all, to Cedric's relief. "Yes. He said I looked very fast and we raced and I beat him. I felt sort of bad though .. I like him. He's awful handsome ..."

She suddenly snapped out of it, to Fripple's relief. "But .. wait! You said Veil and Ivan got .. captured? But by .. who? Or what?"

Fripple crossed her arms. "We don't know Star. But some one offered to tell us .. maybe even help us .. if we could pay him five hundred sheckles. But we have to .. get .. five hundred sheckles .."

Star pricked her ears. "Oh. Well, of course! We've got to do something fast then .. and I'll help! But .. Cedric .. you think I can actually .. win ..?"

The mouse patted her nose. "Now Munch, you underestimate yourself. Come on out, and we'll .. see about getting you a chariot. Can Princess and I ride you?"

The horse walked out of the stable, trotting around to where they stood. "Oh sure. I like running now .. almost as much as eating. It makes me hungry though .. of course then I can eat more!"

Fripple swung onto the horse's back, nodding, "Yea .. I .. see."

Cedric vaulted easily on behind her, stating, "Alright Munch, now head down the side street .. the way Evening took you last night."

Star did so, trying to be helpful. "You know, Evening has a chariot. He showed me last night .. maybe if I asked him nicely he would let us borrow it!"

Cedric gave Fripple a look, stating doubtfully, "Um .. yea .. maybe."

Star flicked an ear at him. "Well don't sound so dismal, Evening is very nice. I think he'd let me if I promised we'd be careful."

Cedric was far from convinced. "Yea. Maybe."

The streets of Southsward were just as they had been the day before, yet somehow, Fripple found them far more foreboding. Perhaps because of the knowledge the beasts who captured Veil and Ivan could be anywhere.

"You're worried."

Fripple cast Cedric a backward glance. "Why wouldn't I be? I don't know my enemy .. I hate not knowing my enemy. You can hunt down a beast you know about .. and if you don't, they can hunt you. I wish we could get this done sooner."

Cedric didn't quite agree. "It'll come sooner than we're ready for it."

"I .. suppose."

Mystiquestar spoke up. "I'm not ready now?"

Cedric answered her with a question. "Have you ever pulled a chariot?"

The horse paused. "No."

"There you have it Munch."

They had come to a thickly populated part of town, and Fripple was glad she was on a horse. Suddenly the thunder of hooves rang out, as well as yelps of pedestrians. Cedric dug his heels into Star's sides, yelling, "Out of the way!"

She leapt aside with a whinny of shock, and a chariot thundered past. Fripple shook her fist at the offender. "Idiot! Maniac!"

Cedric grabbed her paw, hissing in her ear. "Princess, keep your mouth shut! Do you really want to end up in the slave yards? That's Shroud's son!"

Fripple pulled her paw away. "Shroud?"

"He practically rules the city, at least the docks." Cedric explained. "That's his son, Ramon and the horse is Deathstrike. Leave them alone, if you know what's good for you."

Fripple stared after the two, who carved their own path through the crowded street. Cedric patted Star's side. "After him .. he's headed toward the race track."

The horse did as she was told, as Fripple asked, "He's in the race?"

Cedric's voice was grim. "Oh yea .. in fact he's probably our greatest competition."

The mouse paused for a moment, before stating, "He was the one who wrecked me and killed Starflash."

Fripple groaned. "Great."

Star paused as they had come to a less hectic part of town, in fact it was basically a park. Off in the distance, Fripple could see what she guessed was the race track. Star voiced her friend's unknown thoughts. "That's where we race? That's .. huge .."

Cedric reassured her. "When you're running it full tilt, it doesn't take long to get around it, trust me. You're only going around five times, that's all. The finals are seven."

The horse sighed, starting down the rather steep hill toward the track, which was truly massive, surrounded by elegant stone pillars and a serious of rock benches, each higher than the one before it. Fripple shook her head. "It's awfully fancy .."

Cedric shrugged. "Someday I'll have to take you to the theater .. you can see it over that way, just. It may not be as big, but it's far more detailed and elegant."

Fripple could see the building he spoke of, created on the same basic idea as the race track, just smaller in diameter. But it was taller and more ornately decorated. "And what goes on there?"

Cedric shrugged. "Plays, mostly. Maybe a concert. Once, far back in our history, beasts would fight duels there .. they traditionally ended with the death of one or even both. Sometimes beasts would try and ride feral, untrained stallions or would be pitted against starving jackals. It was .. bloody. However our recent rulers have been, for the most part, just creatures, and they outlawed the fights seasons before I was born."

Star snorted. "That .. sounds like a good thing."

"It was. Some creatures want to bring back those old ways, but so far haven't been able to."

Cedric paused. "Of course .. I don't know what will happen now, with Lady Lilly almost having disappeared. She used to appear for the people when I was a boy .. with her .. father. But no longer."

They had come to the foot of the hill, and the track's stone walls rose high above them. A small breeze rustled through Fripple's hair, as Star trotted toward some tents near the arena's outer wall. Cedric took a deep breath, and Fripple glanced questioningly at him. He grinned, though a little nervously. "Just getting ready for .. the warm reception I know I'll have."

Star's rhythmic hoof beats caused some nearby horses to look up with sort of mocking interest. Fripple didn't like the look of them, especially a rose roan mare who looked like she had draft in her blood. Another was a lanky, almost scrawny black stallion with scars lacing his entire hide .. he wouldn't pick his head up, but his eyes held a hostile, vicious, and almost insane fire. A little apart from them a large buckskin watched with a nasty smirk.

Light gray, chestnut, bay, dappled, and roan hides gleamed in the bright sunshine. The charioteers were as motley and brutal looking as their horses. Some looked up only to look away with blank disinterest, but others stared, gawked, and whispered among one another .. all mocking.

Only one beast watched them with honest interest, that being a thin chestnut stallion with white running high up his legs, and a white stripe on his face, complimenting large brown eyes. Fripple couldn't help noticing he looked about as torn up as the sour black horse, and that he looked about as scrawny too. Strangely, he also had a little copper bay colt beside him .. Fripple wondered if this was his son.

Suddenly a commotion broke out behind them, as a chariot thundered up, slowing behind them. "Move, fools, out of my way!"

Star quickly sidestepped, allowing the chariot room to pass, but the horse hitched to it stopped beside them. "Myst?"

She started. "Evening?"

The beast in his chariot yelled at him. "Take me to my tent, move it! Curse you!"

Evening flattened his ears. "Three sheckles, and take yourself. I'm not like your pitiful horses .. slaves, should I say."

The creature, a young, cocky looking mouse, threw the money at Eveningstar, "Bah .. take it fool, and Malimore take you!"

Evening snorted in reply, as Fripple slid from Star's back, picking up the coins and dropping them into the liver chestnut's satchel. "The arrogant idiot."

Cedric curled his lip. "Firm drivers ... to Hellgates with them."

Fripple raised an eyebrow, and Cedric defended himself. "They deserve it! They whip their horses half to death .. and you can see how pleasant they are."

Star was far from impressed. "What a loser .. somebeast go boil his head. What's a firm driver?"

Cedric smirked. "They work for companies .. firms .. ones that own race horses. Their job is to get every last drop of life out of the horse they race, until the poor beast drops dead in the traces. I've seen it happen too."

Star was shocked. "That's awful!"

Evening changed the subject. "So .. here to see the race? You're a day early."

"Oh, we're not here to watch it .. Cedric and I are going to run it!"

Evening stared at Star in total shocked, horrified amazement. She explained quickly, even if she didn't get why he looked .. almost sick. "You see, our lost friends have really been captured .. and if we want to save them, we need five hundred sheckles! So .. I'm trying to help. Cedric had a very good idea, I think."

Eveningstar stared levelly at the mouse, who gulped as the horse snorted, "Oh he did, did he?"

The liver chestnut took on a façade of calmness. "Myst, the grass around here is quite nice, you know. Why don't you try some while I .. talk to this beast here. I've got to discuss something with him .. we'll tell you afterwards, ok?"

Star raised and eyebrow, but nodded. "I like grass!"

Evening forced himself to smile. "Well this stuff is prime for Southsward .. Oh no you don't miss Fripple, you come with me."

><><

Muggra and two others escorted the Sixclaw prince down a dimly lit corridor, not bothering to speak to him.

Veil didn't bother speaking to them either, he knew they would not tell him where they were going, or where Ivan was.

The tunnel led into another, and finally Swartt's throne room. Veil glared balefully at his father, seated coolly on his elegant, satin draped throne. "Well Prophet, willing to listen to me now?"

Veil snarled at him. "What do you think I am, to dare say I would ever turn my back on my king? I told you before, I serve Ignasa!"

Swartt leaned forward, sneering, "Oh really, little boy? Because I know better .. you will turn your back on him whether you want to or not."

"Never!" Veil's reply was hoarse with fury.

Swartt played with a dagger he had on his throne's arm rest, demonic smirk on his muzzle. "You think boy, you think. Truly the stubbornness of the Sixclaws flows through your veins .. oh yes, you are my son in more ways than you think."

Veil didn't answer, just glared at his father with such vehemence that Swartt had to break eye contact. The warlord covered up for this by calling, "Nightshade!"

The black vixen entered through a darkened side passage, Skadu and an almost familiar silver rat maiden with her. Veil tried to meet the spotted cat's gaze, but she only did so for a second, before looking pointedly away. But the ferret had caught the sorrow and fear in her tawny eyes, and he braced himself for the worst.

Swartt motioned to Muggra and his guards. "Out. This is for those beasts who fight with shadows only."

The weasel didn't hesitate, just hurriedly did as he was ordered. Swartt's crystal white fangs glittered in the low light as he smiled cruelly. "I think two Shadow Fighters can take on one half trained Prophet .. your Lord can't save you, boy."

><><

Bluefen had kept a restless eye on Swartt and his throne room, taking chances she would not have before. If not for Esmund, she would have been even more foolhardy.

He was the only thing she cared about, besides Veil. She would save her two sons, both of them, no matter the cost. Nothing could stop her .. nobeast could make her care if she died. These two children were the only ones that had ever shown her love, only one other beast had bothered to care, and they had lain silent in death for seasons.

Bluefen hardly knew what love meant. But she knew hate. And all the hate she had hid for seasons to protect Byron and Esmund she could hide no longer. Byron was dead, if something wasn't done, Esmund would be too. And Veil. She had to save Veil!

The gray ferret reached her hiding place, peering cautiously down into the throne room. Her heart leapt with fear .. Swartt had him there again. Veil looked disheveled now, as he stood before his father, white fangs revealed in a snarl.

Swartt motioned to the black fox by his side, sneering, "Nightshade, oh great enchantress. Show this boy what true power means."

Bluefen tensed .. she had heard of this.

No .. no .. he cannot do this! He cannot!

But Bluefen knew he could .. she knew all too well.

><><

Veil had no idea anybeast was watching, in fact, he was very nearly sure nobeast cared. The ferret glared at the black vixen who stepped toward him with a sweet, yet sadistic smile. He tensed, ready for anything as Nightshade spoke to her two reluctant companions. "It is time you learned a thing or two .. even one as stubborn as this can not withstand my power."

Veil caught the gaze of the silver rat maiden, for she was staring at him in wonder ... and he found himself staring back. Where ... he had seen a beast like this! But where ...

He had no time to ponder as Nightshade sneered at him. "Prophet eh? Let's see how strong you are."

The vixen put her white paws together, one over the other, before closing her eyes. Veil cast a glance at the rat and Skadu, who were just as tense and afraid as he, or even more so.

Nightshade suddenly looked up, opening her paws to reveal the glow of green.

Veil had never seen this level of magic preformed, even if Groddil had told him much of it. Still, seeing it firsthand was freakish.

Nightshade's green eyes seemed to glow, as she threw a gentle wisp of gleaming green light at him, smiling as he flinched away from it. However it was no use. The light wrapped around him, spinning faster, ever faster.

Veil felt like he was caught in a vortex of evil .. he couldn't move. He couldn't even breath .. and yet .. he almost didn't need to.

Or else he was dying.

The ferret tried to pull away, do anything to escape the feeling of freezing in this wicked power .. but it was in vain. Suddenly the green seemed to lesson, and he could see the throne room again .. just in time to see Nightshade hurl a blast of blinding emerald light at him.

Lord Ignasa ... help me!

It was truly the last thing he honestly thought as pain exploded in his chest, sending him flying backwards to the cold stones of the floor. The world was ice .. pure ice. Veil opened his eyes a crack, to see light .. but blue light.

He was lying where he'd fallen, but the emerald light was gone.

The ferret stirred, sitting up as the last wisps of blue dissipated and the throne room returned to it's darkened state.

"Impossible."

Nightshade stared at him as Veil tried to stagger to his feet, but pain lanced through his torso again, and he fell to the floor with a coughing groan.

Swartt's boots made hollow thumps as he stalked toward the fallen ferret. Veil felt a iron paw grip his chin, wrenching his head up. He winced, opening his eyes a crack to look into his father's, black with fury.

Swartt snarled, releasing his grip as he growled at the vixen. "Fool! You did not hex him, he is still his own beast!"

Nightshade defended herself. "You saw! He has the power of the one whose name shall not be spoken .. why else would there be blue light to protect him?"

Swartt turned on her, snarling, "Shut up! You are our best enchantress! I want him hexed .. do it!"

Nightshade disagreed. "I cannot. I used my darkest spells .. he does not respond! Any more will kill him .. see what this already did?"

Veil vaguely realized he was doubled over, fighting for breath against the racking pain in his body. It was numbing a little, but was quickly being replaced by nausea.

Swartt's voice snapped in the far corners of Veil's reality. "Fine. We will try other means .. Muggra. Muggra!"

There was a pause, before Swartt growled, "Take him to his cell .. see he has food and drink. You! Cat! Go with them, see that he lives. His life is yours, got it?"

Veil felt gentle paws lift his head, and Skadu's voice rang out. "Yes Melord .. Kinta ... get me healin' supplies .. meet me in his cell."

Kinta. Where had he heard that name before?

But the world vanished into a void of darkness before he could remember .. blessed darkness.

><><

Eveningstar glared first at Cedric, then at Fripple, then back at Cedric. "What do you think you're doing?"

Fripple spoke up. "Look, we don't want to do this, it's not like we have a choice!"

"Yea you have a choice! You don't do this! You have no idea how bad it is anymore ... five of those horses you saw? I'll bet you anything they'll never leave the track alive! Or even more! You're mad! She has no chance!"

Cedric looked deadly serious as he held up his paws. "What about their friends? Who knows what will happen to them?"

Evening took a deep breath, gritting his teeth. "I don't know. But I do know what will happen if you take her into that slaughter!"

Fripple shook her head. "It's not that easy! If we don't get five hundred sheckles by the day after tomorrow, we'll all get captured too! And then what will happen to her?"

The liver chestnut took a deep breath. "Who took them? If it was the slavers .."

Cedric shook his head. "No! It's somebeast else .. we have no clue who, and we won't know til we fork up the money. This is the only way!"

Evening looked desperate. "She will die .. you will die .. you are insane! You don't even have a chariot!"

"That .. well .. we sort of wondered if you'd let us borrow yours .." Fripple felt like she was going about this the wrong way.

The horse's voice was a half whinny. "What? Borrow .. borrow? That's not borrowing, there won't be anything left!"

Cedric raised his voice above the horse's. "Listen to me! I know who killed your brother!"

Silence reigned completely for a few seconds, before Evening slowly asked, "Who?"

"It was Ramon and Deathstrike .. they put spikes on their wheels! I was ..." Cedric paused. "I was there, and I saw. In fact he wrecked me too."

Evening pinned his ears. "And you think this will encourage me to help you?"

Cedric spoke hurriedly. "No listen. He only wrecked me because I didn't see it coming. But as I recovered, I came up with a way to wreck him .. I've just never had a chance to try it. I could kill him ... you see my point?"

Evening drew himself to his full height. "So this is about revenge too."

He looked away, as Cedric explained. "It's two birds with one stone ... we could do this! If you don't .. Ramon will continue to endanger more lives, curse the races with his presence, and more blood will spill. Who knows who will fall next? Southsward is already rising in a new era .. an era of innocent death. Will you stand by and let it fall?"

The mouse stared the horse in the eyes. "How long before it's your turn?"

Fripple gave Cedric a look of slight admiration. "I think your outlook is improving."

Cedric sighed. "Your loyalty might be mildly brushing off on me Princess."

Evening snorted. "If I was a better beast, I wouldn't stoop this low ..."

He slowly picked up a hoof, sighing, "But I'm not a better beast."

"Are you guys ok?" They turned to see Star watching them.

She cocked her head. "Were you fighting? I could hear you over there."

All three looked guilty, relaxing some as she added, "Not what you were saying, really, but you didn't sound happy. What was that about?"

Evening spoke quickly. "Eh .. I was making sure Cedric here would look after my chariot in the race. Look you two, if you're going to do this, do it fast."

><><

Cedric looked at Fripple as if questioning whether or not she would come with him, and she shrugged. "I may as well."

"Then follow me."

Fripple caught a note of relief in his voice as she followed him toward the massive stone walls, through the small crowd of milling creatures associated with the race. More beasts stared at them, although plenty still seemed unconcerned with their presence.

Fripple poked Cedric, asking, "Why do we seem to attract this much attention?"

The mouse sighed. "I raced alongside and against some of these .. they probably thought I was dead, and if it wasn't for Errik I would be. But I'm sure they never expected to see me again .. and they can't imagine why I would come back."

They'd come to a tent staked near the track's wall, and Cedric looked at Fripple. "Just .. follow my lead. And don't wander off, whatever you do .. these beasts aren't exactly trustworthy."

Fripple nodded, muttering, "I'll bet."

Cedric stepped into the tent, and she stuck close behind him. A squirrel sat at a desk, sorting through papers. "Yes, what do you want ... wait ... you?"

Cedric crossed his arms. "Me."

The squirrel looked surprised, but he shrugged. "Hmm .. and what are you doing back here? Thought you'd want to get away from the races."

Cedric laid his paw on the desk. "You were wrong weren't you? I want to raise the challenge."

This got the squirrel's attention. "You .. what? Wasn't one time enough? You must really want to get killed."

Cedric glared at him. "And who's to blame for the way this place is run?"

The squirrel snarled at him. "Look it isn't my fault, I haven't got a choice see? Now you were mad enough to say you'd challenge? Nobeast's been that stupid so far. Do you even have a horse? Your last one isn't running this."

Cedric huffed, disgusted. "Sure you don't. And yes, I have a horse, chariot, and all the other components I need, thank you. I wish to raise the challenge."

The squirrel shrugged. "Fine. It's your life. What's your color?"

Fripple raised an eyebrow as Cedric stumbled. "Um .. green."

The squirrel looked unimpressed. "It's already been used."

"Blue, then. Light blue."

There was a pause, before the race official nodded. "Fine. What's your symbol?"

Fripple could see Cedric was trying to think of something, and she spoke the first thing that came to her mind. "A star."

Cedric gave her an admiring glance, and the squirrel wrote something down. "Alright. You're against the inside wall, as the challengers always are. That'll be a hundred sheckles."

Fripple curled her lip, hesitated, but dug in her satchel and counted out eighty-seven sheckles. The squirrel tapped his claws on the table. "Yes little miss?"

Fripple flashed him a glare, as Cedric threw some coins on the table. "There. Happy?"

The squirrel counted it to make sure, before nodding at length. "Alright. Race starts the day after tomorrow at the sun's zenith. Although I wouldn't blame you if you didn't show up ... cause if you didn't die last time, you will now."

Fripple glared daggers at him, as Cedric nodded sharply. "We'll see."

Fripple followed him out, the terrible weight of her conscience settling in her heart like a rock.

Had she just paid for Cedric and Star's death warrant?




Chapter 20 Hourglass

Redwall seemed to be caught in a downward spiral, a vortex of numbing cold. Roseanna, though uncomprehending of it at first, was beginning to feel it.

She was watching her little brother Richart for her mother, while Rose and Martin went to a council meeting with Skipper Keyla, Lord Arvid, and Lady Redfarl. The mouse maid sat by the cold fireplace in the gatehouse, and as she glanced across the room she caught the glint of metal over the door.

Roseanna slowly stood, walking over and taking down her father's sword.

Despite the fact Martin had been acting less and less like himself, his daughter could barely believe he would ever leave his beloved weapon behind.

And yet he had, for it lay in her paws.

The door opened, emitting Luke, who raised an eyebrow at his sister, holding their father's sword. "Why doesn't dad have that?"

Roseanna shook her head. "Luke, he left it!"

"Father never leaves his sword, for anything."

"I know! But he did .. Luke .. what's going on?"

The mouse looked moderately worried, yet he was calmer than his sister. "He probably forgot."

Roseanna did not agree. "Luke. He's been donning this thing almost every day since before we were born. Seriously .. I just don't like this anymore. Especially with how Ash acts so vacant ... and how Whegg can't get anyone to listen to him. Something .. bad is going on, I just know it."

Luke didn't seem convinced. "Anna, you now what mother says about hasty assumptions."

Roseanna stomped a paw on the floor. "Look, I'm not exaggerating! You know it to! You just don't want to upset beasts by telling the truth .. Luke, get over it! Something's wrong .. I can't believe I told myself not to pay attention when it started!"

Luke frowned, asking, "And when did it start? What do you really think is wrong?"

"I don't know what is causing it .. that's what I can't figure out. But tell me this. Why does father act so weird? He's terribly over protective of mother and us .. he's so short tempered! And what about Ash .. it's like she barely talks anymore. And you know how outgoing she was. So why don't beasts notice? What about Mayberry .. she's always hanging out around the wearet, Xzanthia. Doesn't that strike you as odd? Mayberry is judgmental of vermin, and she's not one to spend tons of time around a beast almost five seasons younger than her, vermin or not. Besides .. what about Bella? And Groddil? They vanished!"

Roseanna took a deep breath, and Luke tried to come up with a reason. "Well .. they're Prophets. Maybe they went to visit uncle Timbal and aunt Sayna at Salamandastron."

His sister looked exasperated with him. "Without telling anybeast? And at Bella's age? Seriously?"

"I don't know Anna. But there has to be a logical explanation. And you know father wouldn't like this kind of talk."

Roseanna was less tolerant than her brother. "Ok fine! I'll find out what's wrong, you just watch. And don't you go tattle on me!"

"What're you guys fighting about, huh?"

Both mice turned to see Richart watching them with utmost curiosity. Luke collected himself. "We're not fighting Richart, where would you get that idea?"

The little mouse lifted the pan he had on his head a little, stating, "'Sanna said you was going to tattle on her, an' that means you was fighting."

Roseanna snatched her little brother's headgear, asking, "Where did you get mother's pan? She doesn't want it on your head."

Richart was sulky. "It ain't a pan, that's my helm't!"

Roseanna disagreed, as she walked into the kitchen, returning the pan to its proper place. "No, it's a pan."

Luke placed Martin's sword back over the door, stating, "Father will want this when he comes back. Now I'm going to meet Gonfflet for a slinging match and tea with his parents."

Richart stuck his head out the door, yelling after his brother, "'Sanna can so out-shoot you guys!"

He turned to his big sister, asking importantly, "So what have we gotta find?"

"What?" Roseanna was surprised.

Richart crossed his arms importantly. "I was listenin' an' you said you wanted to find what was wrong. I'm gonna help you 'Sanna."

Roseanna looked dubious, but shrugged. "I don't know yet."

Richart was thoughtful. "Yea .. that makes it harder. I know! We'll go and ask Miss Trimp, cause she knows lotsa things."

Roseanna thought about the high-spirited chef, and realized Richart might have a point. Trimp didn't seem comfortable with the recent events, and neither did her ancient assistant and previous mentor, Beau the hare. The mouse maid nodded. "Alright, we'll talk to Trimp and Beau .. good idea Richart."

"I always has good ideas!" Was Richart's comeback as he happily skipped out the gatehouse, Roseanna behind.

><><

Veil woke slowly, to see the iron bars of his cell once more. The scuff of soft paws made him turn his head, to see the silver rat maiden watching him.

The ferret realized the pain that had sent him into unconsciousness was greatly faded, though he still felt half dead ... so weak. He blinked at the rat, who asked, "Are you feeling better .. Veil?"

He winced a little, saying, "A little ... wait .. how do you know my name?"

"Don't you remember me? I'm Kinta .. we played together once .. at Salamandastron."

Veil blinked at her, recollection slowly dawning. "Kinta? Yes .. wait .. yes, I remember you! Your mother was a friend of mine, wasn't she?"

The silver rat looked sad. "Yes. But she disappeared. I don't know where she went."

Veil pushed his elbows beneath him, half sitting up with a small wince. "Why didn't he kill me?"

"He don't wanna kill ya, he wants ta git ya on his side, that's what."

Veil met Skadu's tawny eyes. "I will not."

Skadu looked away. "Ya are special .. ya are strong willed an' determined. But he'll find a way. I've never seen a beast resist Nightshade's hexing, but .. he'll find another way. An' if he can't turn you, he'll see to it he shatters your soul 'fore he kills you."

Kinta handed Veil a wooden bowl of water, stating softly, "It is his way. I'm sorry."

Veil drank a little, before asking, "Wait .. why are you .. here?"

"We're to heal you. But you seem to be healing on your own." Kinta's voice was hushed, and the others did the same.

Veil carefully moved his legs, to simply reassure himself they were still there and usable. "Where .. do you know where my friend is?"

Skadu raised an eyebrow. "Yer friend? Who's that?"

"He's a gray cat. He was with me .. they have to have him too."

Kinta shook her head. "I've not heard of him. But if he's here, I can promise you nothing of his safety."

Skadu looked around, murmuring, "We should git back ta Zenith. It's a good thing Nightshade didn't bring her, but we can't stay here too long .."

"Alright, let me see him!"

The rough order was accompanied by the thump of boots, and quickly afterwards, Muggra, holding a lantern. The weasel glared at Veil, stating, "I think you've done yer job .. he looks well enough. Out, and back to your mistress, go."

Kinta bowed, reaching for the empty bowl. As she took it, Veil felt something hard and cold slip into his paw. Her intense gaze warned him to drop his paw to his side without looking at what she had given him.

Muggra watched the two carefully, slamming the metal door shut with a sneer as soon as they left. Veil caught the tiny glimmer of Skadu's tawny eyes as she vanished into the shadows.

Muggra locked the door, before huffing in satisfaction and stalking away. Veil waited a few moments to ensure he was alone, before he pulled out Kinta's gift.

Light from one guttural torch out in the corridor gleamed softly off the blade of a small, simple dagger. Veil smiled a little, truly grateful for the rat's courage. While it wasn't much, Veil was glad to have it.

Who knew what he would be faced with?

><><

Cedric and Fripple hurried back to Evening and Star, the former waiting in a sort of dread, the later being impatient.

Cedric tried to put a good face on things. "So, Star ... I got us in!"

"Yay!" Star's voice was innocently excited, and Evening winced, glaring at the two.

Fripple broke the silence. "So .. should she practice with a chariot, by any chance?"

Cedric nodded. "Oh yea .. Evening, could we start .. using that now?"

The horse rolled his eyes, muttering something like, "How I let myself get talked into this ..."

He snorted, craning his neck around and stating, "Fine. Be careful with the traces."

Cedric expertly unbuckled them, motioning to Star. "Right, back into them .. you've got to see how this feels."

Star backed clumsily between the two shafts, nearly stumbling on the leather traces. Evening winced again. Cedric buckled the girth, finding he had to take it up quite a bit for Star, who was slender in comparison to the chariot's former owner. Cedric pulled the collar on, clipping it to the girth with a sigh. "Wonderful .. we've got to take up the slack here. Hold still Munch."

He proceeded to tighten the collar considerably, until it fit snugly around Star's shoulders and chest, before bending down and clipping the bottom of the collar to the bottom of the girth.

Star snorted. "But that feels weird!"

"Sure. But it keeps the collar from slipping up and strangling you."

"Oh." Star saw the logic in this.

Cedric ran his paw along the chariot's side with an admiring whistle, before jumping in and winking at Fripple. "So Princess, how do I look?"

Fripple was dubious .. Star's mottled roan and pinto coat looked odd among the many grays, bays, chestnuts, and blacks they were among. "Um .. out of place?"

Cedric snorted. "Thanks for your vote of confidence."

Star looked around, asking, "So .. don't I get reins or something?"

"Oh yea ... well I don't use them. You give beasts something to pull on or hit you with, and by the Lands Beyond, so they do. We'll get them, they're at my place." Evening explained this with a disgusted look on his face.

Cedric felt around, before stating, "Right Munch, head over that way. There's enough room, and you're going to have to gallop with this. See how long before you get tired."

Star took a few halting steps, exclaiming, "Whoa .. that really feels weird .."

Evening sighed. "You'll get the hang of it Myst .. it's pretty simple."

Cedric pointed at Fripple. "Princess, you ride him, and race us."

Fripple look questioningly at Evening, who shrugged. "That's fine."

The mouse maid grabbed his flaxen mane, gulping, "Good grief .. you're tall .."

Evening went down on his knees, trying not to shake Fripple about too much as he stood. She didn't bother looking at the ground, just gripped his mane tightly and asked, "You two ready?"

Cedric nodded. "Munch, I'll just tell you what to do, since we don't have reins. Now go! Trot first .. then start trying faster speeds."

Star obeyed, trotting a little awkwardly at first, but quickly got the hang of it. As she broke into a lope, Evening took off after her, Fripple grimly keeping her seat. The wind whipped around Fripple's head fur, and she felt a small touch of what racing was like. After all, it had been a good while since she'd ridden a horse going this fast .. and she'd never ridden a horse this big.

Star held her own, despite the chariot. Really, it didn't seem to hinder as much as Fripple thought. Cedric suddenly called out, "Whoa! Alright, stop Munch!"

She slowed, stopping and tossing her head. "That was .. kind of fun!"

Fripple was feeling pretty good about it too, until Cedric continued. "Ok, that's the spirit! Come on, now we have to practice maneuvering and passing .. Evening, want to help us?"

Fripple sighed. Apparently they still had a ways to go.

><><

Roseanna pulled open one of the doors to Great Hall, slipping in with Richart behind her. Redwall seemed gloomier by the day, and while Roseanna tried to tell herself it was her wild imagination, she wasn't so sure anymore.

Richart skipped across the hall, jumping in and out of pools of colored light. His sister didn't feel that lighthearted.

She hurried past him, down the flight of stairs to Cavern Hole ... Richart practically jumped down them. The warm glow of the kitchens invited Roseanna, and she slipped into them .. they weren't quite as peaceful as she'd hoped.

Trimp waved a spoon emphatically at a young rat with an amazing shock of ebony headfur. "Now young master Filip, what has I told ya about sneakin' scones behind me back, hmm?"

Beau stood by the plate of scones in question, popping one into his mouth as he joined in. "I say top hole offence, pastry pilferin'! Give that rotter what he's asked for and put him on a fizzer for a week, wot wot?"

Filip scowled. "Ya, well I didn't ask to work in your rotten kitchen! I'm hungry!"

Trimp softened a little. "Well if'n you want something, why don't you think to ask for it?"

Filip was still hostile. "Huh, cause you wouldn't give me it anyway. Just cause I'm a rat. I never asked ta be a rat, an' everybody blames me for it."

Beau broke in. "Course you're a rat young sir, and there ain't a thing wrong with that. Tell me then chap, if you weren't a rat, what do you want to be?"

Filip scowled. "I donno."

Roseanna didn't like Filip very much, he was bad tempered and lazy. Trimp left off talking to him and turned to the waiting mouse maid. "What can I do for ya miss Roseanna?"

The mouse cast a glance at Filip, whom Beau had escorted back to a tub of dirty dishes. Now that she was here, she wasn't sure how to voice what she was thinking. "Well .. I .. Trimp .. haven't you noticed how .. strange things are lately?"

Trimp grew serious, as she turned to chop some waiting water cress. "Yes, so I have miss Roseanna. An' I'll have you know, I don't like it one bit. Haven't said much cause everybeast thinks things is fine, an' a beast can get called all sorts a things they ain't if'n they go around sayin' what they think."

She paused. "Course .. sometimes a beast's just gotta say what they think, no matter what happens."

"Well said me'gel! Forward ta the bluffs an' a stiff upper lip, that's the ticket." Beau hobbled up, leaning on his walking staff.

Trimp sighed. "It's not that simple Beau, I sure wish it was. But I don't know who to trust anymore."

Roseanna agreed. "And that's the greatest problem I see. Beasts like my father .. Lady Redfarl ... some of the brothers and sisters .. like Sister Columbine .. I mean .. it's just everywhere. Everybeast seems at odds .. so who can we trust?"

Beau pondered this for a moment, before he stated, "Well it seems we can trust each other, wot?"

Trimp shook her head. "Maybe. But this madness seems ta take beasts at random .. who knows who's next?"

"What if ..." Roseanna paused.

Trimp raised an eyebrow. "Hmm? Speak up miss Roseanna."

Roseanna said nothing for a moment, before blurting, "What if these beasts that are suddenly acting so strange .. what if there's something in common between them. You know, something that's causing this. Because my father had served as a good and just king .. until now, when he suddenly doesn't. I told myself it was because my mother was hurt at first .. but now .. now I'm not so sure."

Trimp was solid in her beliefs. "It's dark magic. I'm just certain .. what else can play with yer mind?"

Beau wasn't in total agreement. "I say Trimp, that's a bit far. How could it get in, wot?"

Roseanna frowned. "I may be young, but can I say .. perhaps we have not been watchful?"

"That's exactly what it is, miss Roseanna, I'm gonna bet ya anything. We haven't been thinking much 'bout Lord Ignasa cause of how peaceful it's been. An that's jist askin' fer trouble .. well, here we've got it." Trimp was decisive.

Roseanna crossed her arms. "The question is this .. how do we stop it?"

Trimp shook her head. "That's the thing .. I donno if we can. If it really is black magic, how can we fight that? Only Lord Ignasa can fight that."

Beau coughed. "Hmm .. well speaking from a military standpoint, I think our best chance is to observe, wot wot? Let's find our enemy first, then shoot our arrows. At least we'll have something to aim at, and give it all we've got. That's what ol' Luke and Vurg would've said, wot?"

Trimp nodded. "That's true. An' let us pray Ignasa gives us wisdom .. I'm tellin' you, this is downright creepy. Why haven't we had this conversation before?"

Beau and Roseanna looked at each other, shrugging. Trimp crossed her arms. "I'm thinkin' it's cause something don't want us to. We've been blinded jist like them, an' that's the truth."

Richart had been listening, and he spoke up. "You mean this is like .. a battle?"

Trimp's gaze was grim. "Yes it is ... a battle of the mind and the soul .. an' those are the worst sometimes."

><><

"To the right! Dodge him!"

Sand and dust flew as Evening bore down on Star, who, instead of doing what Cedric said, simply dug her hooves into the ground. Evening ran past in front of her with a snort of surprise, turning about and trotting back.

Cedric sighed. "No, no Munch, that's clever, but it won't work in the race. You've got to dodge him, that's the short and long of it. Let's try again."

Star snorted, before tossing her head. "Oh .. fine. Can we eat soon?"

They'd been practicing since early morning, and thankfully, seemed to be getting somewhere. Star was no longer so clumsy with the chariot, she could maneuver better, and she wasn't completely out of breath either.

Cedric sighed. "All right, fine. Let's go back to the inn. Evening can get the reigns and .. then I'll try to get Bookworm where she can .. calculate the track."

Fripple absently patted Evening's mane, asking, "Will that really help?"

Cedric offered her his paw. "We'll make use of every advantage we have. Aren't you coming Princess?"

Fripple was uncomprehending until Evening gently shook her off. "I've got to get the reigns. You ride with Cedric."

The mouse maid let herself be pulled into the chariot, muttering, "Oh .. wonderful .. will this thing hold two?"

"Sure! Brace yourself and grab the chariot .. or you could hold onto me .." Cedric's eyes glittered with an amount of mischief.

Fripple gave him a warning glance, grumbling, "I think the chariot works fine."

Cedric grinned. "Ok, but don't say I didn't warn you. Go on Munch .. trot up the hill. That'll be good for you."

The horse tossed her head, leaping forward almost eagerly. Fripple made an odd little squeak, lost her grip on the side of the chariot, and grabbed Cedric to keep from falling out. The mouse laughed. "What'd I tell you Princess?"

She got her balance again, stating. "I'll be fine. It just took me by surprise is all .. Eeep!"

Star started up the hill, and Fripple found herself hanging onto Cedric yet again. He laughed good naturedly. "Right, you've totally got the hang of it."

Fripple glared at him, though she couldn't keep from smiling. "Well, stop grinning like a corsair with stolen treasure, and show me how to do this."

"What a way to put it Princess. Now stand next to me so we don't unbalance this thing, keep your knees bent, and relax a little .. good grief you're stiff, that'll never do."

Fripple followed his advice, and he nodded. "Good, now just don't fall out .. hmm. Here, I've got it."

He grabbed her around the waist, ordering, "Now lope Munch, lope! Up the hill."

Star grumbled, but did as he said. Fripple glared at him. "What kind of conspiracy is this? I'll have you know that if you try this any other time, I'll deck you."

Cedric just laughed.

><><

Esther watched Aubretia make some calculations, study them, and make some more. "What are you working on? Something on where Veil is .. maybe?"

Aubretia pushed her glasses up her nose. "No, I don't have enough fact to properly calculate anything past the obvious realization he and Ivan have been captured by an unknown enemy."

Esther sighed. "Oh .. that's very .. comforting."

Aubretia didn't quite get her friend's meaning. "Isn't it? At least we know he has been captured instead of being run over, which gives him a ... thirty-two percent chance of being alive and unharmed as opposed to a point seven chance ...."

"Oh I feel so much better!" Esther sarcastically returned Aubretia's comment in hopes she would be quiet.

The golden mouse maid might have continued with her uncomforting attempts to be comforting, if their unconscious patient hadn't stirred. Esther ran to his side, glad to be away from Aubretia's calculations. She laid a paw on his forehead as her young friend asked, "How is he? I'll enter the information in my document of our trip."

"Well .. I don't think he's got a fever anymore. I'll have to ask Cedric when he comes back but ... yea." Esther wasn't great at making decisive decisions.

The black mouse coughed, slowly opening dull, but startlingly violet eyes. He stared blankly at them, with complete confusion. "Where ... am I ... who .. are you?"

He fell into a fit of hoarse coughing, and Esther carefully patted his head. "Don't talk .. it can't be very good for you .."

"It's not. According to my calculations ..."

Esther cut Aubretia off before she could impart something disturbing. "What my friend means is you need rest. Oh .. here! Have a drink, that should help .. I think."

The mouse drank slowly, and Esther had to hold his head up lest he choke. As weak as he was, his eyes regained some lost glitter as Esther set the cup down, and Aubretia suddenly asked, "What is your name?"

He blinked at her for a few minutes, before rasping softly, "Byron. Why .. am I still alive .. or am I?"

Aubretia took some calculations. "Hmm .. according to my calculations, you are breathing, talking, and coherent, which all amounts to my firm hypothesis that you must be alive."

Esther rolled her eyes, but Byron didn't look completely confused, just nodded slowly. "Yes .. that .. does make sense .."

His glimmering violet eyes closed wearily, and he relaxed again, breathing slowly but evenly. Esther put a paw to her lips, whispering, "Come on Aubretia, let him sleep .. after all, that's what he really needs .. well .. I think."

Aubretia trotted after the ermine, confirming this realization. "Indeed. He has at least one broken rib, and quite a few bruised ones .."

Esther held up a paw. "Yea, you've encouraged me enough for one day .. ok?"

"But Esther, according to my previous observations of life, encouragement boosts morale, which in turn makes you far more sure of yourself, a quality which would help you greatly ... perhaps I should keep at it."

Esther sighed, giving Aubretia a long look. She was about to say something, when Catkin's voice rang from the other room. "Oh Esther, Aubretia, Vinwyte! Come and look at this! Star and Cedric and Fripple are back, and they've got a chariot like they wanted! Oh this makes me so happy!"

Vinwyte obediently went to the window, as he was extremely careful to follow every order or suggestion to the letter. Esther sort of suspected this had something to do with the fact he was of the mentality they were his masters, and he didn't want to displease them.

Esther came to the window, blinking down at Star, who pranced importantly. "We got the chariot, and I'm going to race! Oh .. hey, do you guys have anything good to eat?"

Catkin nodded. "Oh sure ... oohh Fripple. I'm glad you and Cedric have finally learned to make each other happy! It makes me happy!"

Fripple suddenly seemed to realized Cedric still had his arm around her, and she pulled away. "Ok, ok we're not moving anymore, so let go of me. That is awkward."

"I think it's happy!" Catkin called down.

Cedric jumped out of the chariot as Esther exclaimed, "Hey .. isn't that Eveningstar's? You didn't ... steal it from him, did you?"

Star was horrified. "Of course not! I wouldn't let them steal from Evening, he's so nice. He loaned it to us, and he's getting the bridle and reins now."

Fripple crossed her arms as Cedric called, "Swipe, we wouldn't steal it from him, that's more like your idea."

Esther paused, thinking a moment. "It is? Erm .. well .. I don't know .. I don't think I would want to steal from Evening. You know .. he's .. well .. kind of helped us."

She trotted around to the stable, stating, "Yea, don't. I'm going to get something to eat; I'm hungry."

Cedric laughed, calling, "What's new Munch? But yea, go have a nice lunch. You've earned it. Come on Princess, let's eat something ourselves .. I'm about as hungry as she is."

Fripple followed him. "I really don't think that's possible."

><><

Roseanna excused herself after a little more talk, explaining her parents might get home soon, and with the edgy mood Martin was in, it was best if she be there.

Trimp was understanding. "Oh yes, you just run along miss Roseanna. That pa a yors is off his rocker so he is .. best to humor the poor beast for now. I don't think he's really at the bottom a' this awful madness."

Roseanna called to her brother. "Richart, come on. We need to go home."

The little mouse tumbled out of a cabinet he was hiding in, asking, "Now?"

"Yes, now." Roseanna absently stated as she realized Filip was not scrubbing pots anymore .. in fact, he wasn't anywhere in the kitchen.

The mouse maid frowned as she slipped out the door. Where had that rat gone? And .. why did she feel so unsettled about it?

Would he .. tell on them?

He might .. I don't like to think it of anybeast .. but ..

She was walking along the empty Great Hall, when a scuff made her perk her ears up. The very one she'd been thinking off was leaning coolly against a nearby pillar, watching her with sharp gray eyes.

Roseanna wasn't pleased at being startled. "Oh .. what do you want?"

Filip watched her a moment, before stating, "What do you know about this 'maddness'?"

Roseanna paused, before exclaiming, "You little sneak! How is that any of your business?"

"It just is." Was the flat, obstinate answer.

"Ooohh!" Roseanna had never liked Filip, she couldn't stand beasts who wouldn't give her a straight answer. "You tell me why or I won't tell you!"

Filip sneered. "I could tell on you, how's that? You better just tell me, Anna."

"It's Roseanna to you, loser. And who are they going to believe better? The princess, or a rat?" Roseanna had her own brand of sharpness.

Filip scowled. "Loser yourself, it isn't my fault I'm a rat! Don't you blame me for it! Princess or not, you don't get away with that!"

"I will fight you ..." Roseanna clenched her paw into a fist to prove her point.

Filip snarled, but backed up a little, not really ready to fistfight a beast at least three seasons his senior. "Alright, alright .. Roseanna. I can't fight the princess, I'll get in trouble."

Roseanna felt slightly disappointed, she would have liked to deck Filip for calling her a loser. The rat however, was not done yet. "But I want to know. What is this madness anyway?"

"Why do you want to know?" Roseanna was determined.

Filip looked cornered. "I don't wanna tell you."

Roseanna clenched her jaw. "Then we're even. How do I know you're not a spy or something?"

"I'm not! I just wanna know, ok?"

Roseanna glowered at him. "No, you've got a reason. Now tell me or I won't tell you anything."

Filip glared back. "Oh .. fine. So you know good and well something's wrong with my sister, and something's wrong with the rest of the world for not noticing. And I wanna know .. how to stop it, see?"

"You want to help Ash?" Roseanna was surprised Filip really bothered to care.

He tried to cover for himself. "Well ... ok .. sort of. And I want to keep myself from getting .. whatever it is."

Roseanna huffed. "Look, if I tell you, you can't tell anybeast else .. and I'm not sure I trust you."

Filip scowled. "Well I don't trust you either, how's that? But I don't wanna tell anybeast, I don't trust them either, see?"

"Fine. But I'm trying to find out about it. I don't know very much."

"You were talking like you did, with Trimp and Beau."

Roseanna didn't like telling Filip she didn't know something, but it was unavoidable. "Yea well what you heard is what I know, ok?"

Filip scowled. "But you've got a plan to find out, and I want to be in on it. I mean seriously, Ash may be a jerk sometimes, but she's still my sister. Besides, she's your friend, don't you want to help her?"

"Sure I want to help her. But you're not my friend, you're more like a rival." Roseanna grumbled.

Filip's gray eyes sparkled. "Of course we're rivals, you've got .. like .. everything, and here creatures blame me for my species!"

Roseanna countered. "They weren't always like this, and you know it good and well!"

Filip growled back. "Which is why I want to find a way to stop this. I'm in it for me, you're in it for you .. so fine, I'll help out. What's the plan?"

"I don't really know yet!" Roseanna was frustrated.

Filip rolled his eyes. "Oh gee, do I have to come up with everything too?"

Roseanna clenched her jaw. "Look, I have to take Richart home. If you really want to help, observe what's going on. Oh. And if I find out there's been a leak, I'll know who to blame."

She grabbed Richart's paw, dragging him away.

Why did that smart-aleck Filip have to ruin everything by showing up? Now look at what she would have to put up with!

><><

Night had fallen softly over Southsward, and the race track.

"So, how are we getting in again?" Star cocked her head at Cedric.

The mouse winked at her. "Now Munch, I know beasts, remember?"

The horse paused, before nodding contentedly. Fripple poked Cedric, muttering, "Are you really serious, or just joking around? The beasts who recognized you earlier didn't seem excited to see you."

Cedric looked momentarily unsure, before grinning. "They just know I upped the competition."

"Right." Fripple sounded sarcastic.

Cedric sighed. "You know Princess, sometimes I wish you wouldn't take everything so literally. Seems like every joke I make, you completely don't get it."

Fripple raised an eyebrow. "Aha .. well I can never tell when you're joking or serious."

Esther spoke up. "From what I've noticed, it seems like he jokes most of the time ..."

"According to my calculations ..."

Cedric held up a paw. "Now Bookworm, save those calculations for the track. We're here."

Eveningstar nodded. "Right. Now where's your .. acquaintance?"

"I don't know yet, I've got to find him. Unmistakable guy though .. he's a little rat, yes, literally Princess. Used to run the races with me, but he got wrecked a season before me .. and took up watching the gate some. He never could get away from the track .. he loved it too much."

Star cocked her head. "You know, I've noticed something .. it seems as though there are an awful lot of wrecks .. aren't there?"

Cedric didn't meet her gaze. "Well .. it has its risks Munch."

They'd reached the gate, which was not guarded by a rat, but a shrew. The creature looked tired, and he snapped at them. "And what do you want? To see the track I suppose?"

Cedric shrugged. "Yea, if we can. Look, is old Crook around?"

The shrew blinked at him. "What, Crookpaw you mean?"

About that moment a beast appeared in the massive arched doorway, leaning on a staff. "Cedric? I say .."

The rat hobbled forward, exclaiming, "They all told me the street rat was back ... matey I didn't believe it!"

Cedric rolled his eyes. "Oh they still call me that, eh? Well us rats always whipped their scurvy tails, didn't we?"

"In the good ol' days lad .. yea, once." Crookpaw looked a little sad.

"I didn't mean it Crook, sorry. But look, I'm racing again .. I'd like to see the track, you know?" Cedric clapped the rat on the back.

Crookpaw shrugged, surveying Cedric's companions. "Hmm .. you always were one to make bargains with death, weren't you Rat? Well I suppose if you cared to give your ol' matey a few sheckles for his trouble ..."

Cedric dropped three coins in the rat's paws, stating laughingly, "It's a deal, you old crook."

Crookpaw grinned, revealing he was missing a few teeth. "Alright matey, you've got it. Hope you don't mind sharing the track, though?"

Evening looked wary. "Who's out there, by chance?"

The answer was careless. "Oh, that chestnut stallion .. Firewing, I think it is."

Star started through the massive stone arch, stating, "Whoa .. this place is .. huge."

Cedric caught up with her, joking, "Course it is Munch, horses have to be able to fit in it."

He ran ahead, calling, "Bookworm, come with me. I need your .. calculations."

Aubretia followed him, pulling out parchment, inkwell, quill, and straightening her glasses. "I'm ready. How wide is the track, crosswise?"

"I ... well .. " Cedric looked blank.

Aubretia shrugged. "That's fine, I can estimate it. Now tell me the scenario if you would?"

Fripple ventured a guess. "Basically everybeast tries to wreck the beast next to them?"

"Not quite Princess, it's more of a .. deadly art. Now over there is the starting line. See those arches in the wall? Well each horse has one, and they line up on the track. We're against the inside wall, see?"

Fripple did see, there was a high wall in the center of the track, keeping it a ring. Cedric continued, looking to see that Star wasn't listening. "And the bad thing is, everybeast wants to be on that inside ring. So the racer on the inside gets slammed against the wall if they can't outrun the others .. something that's pretty impossible."

"Hmm .. I see." Aubretia wrote something down, sketching a little. "Oh wait ... I have it. It's completely simple."

Cedric looked pleased. "What is it then, Bookworm?"

Aubretia smiled. "You simply don't move until they've all gone past you, then catch up on the outside!"

Cedric blinked at her as if he hadn't heard her right. "What? That's your plan? Seriously?"

"Of course it is. It's completely foolproof, you'll never get hit if you don't get in the other racer's way." Aubretia could have infuriatingly blind logic sometimes.

Cedric groaned. "Sure you won't. But you won't win either, now will you?"

Aubretia gave him a confused look. "Of course you will, or at least have a chance. You just have to catch up on the outside."

"But .. Bookworm .. I .. that's .. crazy! Let them get a head start, when I have so little in my favor already?"

"It gives you better chances than if you are trampled. You have a twenty-eight percent chance if you try my way, and, from my calculations, about a point one chance if you try it your way. Ok, maybe a little more. But logically and mathematically, giving them the head start is your best chance."

Cedric thought for a good few minutes, as if making his own calculations. "I .. that has never been done."

Fripple spoke up. "There always is a first time. Truthfully, Library's got a point. Let's say there's eleven chariots, but if a third of those get wrecked in the first few minutes .. um .. and .. well I'm no .. scholar, but I'm going to guess you don't want to be in the middle of that."

"But .." Cedric suddenly paused. "Hmm. Well .. I see your point. But we're going to have to test this .. see if Munch can make up for lost time. Hey Munch!"

The pinto jerked her head around, snorting. "What?"

Cedric jumped into the chariot, ordering, "Back up, get ready. We're having a quick rehearsal. Evening, you act like you are going to shove us against the wall .. and then race us around five times, charging us, ok?"

Evening sighed. "Well I suppose it's good exercise."

Esther walked over to Fripple, asking, "This is more dangerous than Cedric makes out, isn't it?"

Fripple paused. "Yea ... he likes to make us think it's nothing. It's .. well .."

Esther sighed. "I wish .. I wish .. oh .. I don't know what I wish! I wish none of this had ever happened! Everything's just gone .. horrible! Need I list it? So first we have to flee our home to save our friend's life, we get attacked by jackals, waylaid by sheepherders, lost, and after all that, Veil and Ivan get captured. What else can go wrong?"

Esther flopped against the outer wall, and Fripple grimly shook her head. "You don't want to know."

Esther groaned. "Oh, yes you're right. I don't .. oh I really don't. And Veil ... I might never see him again!"

"You aren't the only one. And Ivan too." Fripple reminded her friend.

"But it's so different for you! You don't ... well .. um .."

"I don't what?" Fripple raised an eyebrow.

"Excuse me .."

Both wheeled around, to see a chestnut stallion watching them. A bay colt watched curiously from nearby. Fripple spoke first. "Yes?"

The stallion had an empty chariot, and Esther ventured a question. "Um .. where's your driver?"

The chestnut made a face. "Oh, he broke a rein .. he's off to get another. But I've got to talk to you .. about the horse you've entered. You .. look, I've got to tell you it's crazy .. she'll never make it! You can't possibly hope to win .."

Fripple sighed. "Actually that's kind of the whole plan."

The horse rolled his eyes. "Oh Hellgates ... no. I'm simply telling you this for your own good. She looks like a sweet little filly, and she even looks fast. She's probably very nice, but to win this race, you have to be brutal."

"According to my calculations, you're not very brutal." This was Aubretia's contribution.

The chestnut sighed. "I was cursed with speed, I didn't ask to be here. I have to protect my brother, and I really don't have a choice about this."

The bay colt watched them with curiosity, and Esther asked, "Oh, is this your brother?"

"Yes this is Nix .. or should I say, Phoenix. If I don't win this race, my master will take him to pay for all the times I've lost."

The little colt looked down, and Fripple surveyed the many scars all over the chestnut's hide. "Oh .. I'm sorry. I guess you're .. Firewing?"

The horse sighed. "Yes. And as a friend, I'll tell you this. Some of these race horses are stuck in the same boat I am, some are after the money for themselves, and others .. others are just willing murderers. You can't take that poor filly into this .. it's slaughter."

Fripple looked away. "We too, are in the same boat you are. We just want to help some friends who are in terrible danger .. this isn't our idea of fun."

Esther shook her head vigorously. Firewing paused. "I see .. perhaps I've misjudged you. But understand that when I race her .. I .. won't try to kill her. But if I have to .. I have to. I am truly sorry."

Fripple took a deep breath. "I understand .. everybeast for themselves."

"I'm sorry we have to meet on these terms, for you all seem good creatures. I'd hate for you to hate me for what may happen tomorrow .. but .." Firewing hung his head.

He suddenly looked up. "I can't do much, but I will tell you this. Watch out for that Deathstrike. He cheats .. and then there's Northernaurora, the rose roan? She's vicious .. completely so. But watch out for Clawslash, the black ... he's insane. Mostly feral and totally unpredictable .. yea. Don't underestimate him."

Aubretia wrote down every word he said, and Fripple sighed. "Thanks. No .. honestly, thank you. We'll be .. careful."

Esther interrupted as Star and Cedric thundered past, Evening loping behind them. "Star's very fast .. you know?"

Firewing nodded. "I can see that .. but it's what she does in a chaotic and bloody race that really counts."

><><

When the group arrived at the inn late that night, Cedric sent Star straight to bed. Catkin had stayed behind and made a midnight snack, though most found themselves decidedly not in the mood .. partially because of the race, mostly because of the amount of hotroot in Catkin's shrimp soup.

The otter maid found a candidate in Vinwyte however, for he was fond of hotroot. Of course, she probably could have told the albino otter to stand on his head, and he would have done it.

Fripple wondered how they were going to convince the otter he was not their slave, but at this moment, it wasn't her top priority.

She watched Cedric walk out, toward the balcony. Fripple paused, before following .. she had to get a few things straight with that mouse.

He leaned across the balcony railing with a sigh, muttering, "What am I doing?"

"I'm wondering the same thing." Cedric jumped, for he hadn't heard her coming. The mouse looked away. Fripple pushed the subject.

"Why are you really doing this? You're risking my friend's life .. and your own .. to save a couple creatures you don't even like. Something doesn't match up here."

Cedric grumbled. "Look, I don't want Mute and his Majesty dead, ok? And you care about them .. you need them. So I'll do what I can, and this is what I can do. See my point Princess?"

Fripple sighed. "I suppose. Though I thought .. we didn't ever get off on a good paw .. well .. maybe I wonder why you care that much. Maybe you're .. a little more loyal than I thought you were."

"Hey, you admitted that much? Maybe you're a little nicer than I thought, after all."

Fripple shoved him, though not hard. "Don't avoid my question. Why do you care that much? Is this all just about your revenge on this Ramon? Are you just ... using us to your own advantage?"

Cedric looked honestly surprised. "What? No .. don't think that Princess. Though I'll admit it's the kind of thing I'd normally do. Still it's .. different this time."

"Why? What makes us any different from other beasts?"

Cedric paused, then sighed. "You wouldn't believe one word I said if I said them. It just is."

Fripple didn't give up easily. "Try me. I've .. learned some things over the last week, believe it or not."

"I believe it." Cedric stated, before pushing some loose headfur from his eyes. "Oh .. fine. Alright, if you want to know the truth .. I care about you."

"Why me in particular?" Fripple was a little blank.

Cedric thought for a moment, before grinning. "Cause you're the toughest, deadliest, warrior princess and the weirdest girl I've ever met. How's that?"

Fripple raised an eyebrow, though she looked a little embarrassed. "Well .. I'm picking up that you're learning how to flatter me .. but I .. "

Cedric sighed. "Forget it Princess, I'm not sure you'd ever get what I meant. Besides, I need to be in one piece for this race. But here."

He pulled off his double headed spear. "I can't take this .. and if I don't come back .. wield it for me. I know you can, Princess."

Fripple met his gaze for a moment, as she took the simple yet elegant weapon. "I will. On my honor as a warrior and milord Ignasa."

She paused, sighing. "But come back."

"You care that much?"

Fripple paused. "Ok fine. You've grown on me like moss on a log. Now don't get yourself killed, see?"

"I'll take that as a compliment, and I'll do my best not to." He grabbed her paw and kissed it, winking at her. "And that's for good luck Princess."

The mouse bolted back inside before Fripple could say a word. She stared after Cedric in silent amazement, before slowly looking down at his spear. She shook her head, whispering, "Oh Lord Ignasa .. I don't know what to do anymore. But protect him .. please protect him."




Chapter 21 Race Against Reality

Chapions and challengers

The champion and the challenger ... >:)

Morning dawned as glorious as possible, almost cruel mockery, in a way. Fripple awoke slowly, to realize she was still on her window's balcony, like last night. She yawned, stretched, and paused as there was a clink.

Fripple picked up Cedric's spear, sighing as her dread returned. She stood with a sigh, adjusting her belt and fastening the weapon in it.

Esther appeared in the doorway about that moment, asking sleepily, "Are you ready to leave? Cedric wants to get there before the crowds do .. um .. why do you have his spear?"

"I'm ... watching it for him. He asked me to .. no, I did not steal it."

Esther blinked. "Oh. I see .. yea, well that makes sense. Catkin .. made breakfast."

"Wonderful." Fripple's voice was a heavy sigh.

"Alright, I know it's spicy, but it's not that bad ..." Esther stated.

Fripple shook her head. "It's not that, I'm just worried about the race."

Esther paused, sighing, "Well .. we can't really go back now. We're just going to have to do this .. no matter what happens. I guess that's .."

"The warrior's way. It is Esther .. you're right .. and like it or not, we're warriors. All of us." Fripple finished her friend's thought as she walked into the inn.

Cedric was trying to eat some of Catkin's porridge, and eating a lot of bread with it. Esther sighed. "I think one of us should cook sometimes, don't you Fripple?"

She nodded. "I suppose. Though Catkin is the one that really likes doing it."

Catkin handed Fripple a bowl at this very moment, stating cheerfully, "I made you some breakfast! It's porridge, otter's specialty .. I'm sure it will make you happy!"

Fripple nodded wanly. "Aha .. erm .. yes Catkin, I'm sure it will .."

Cedric set his breakfast down. "Yea .. I'm going to get Munch ready."

Esther shrugged. "So .. um .. who should stay behind? I mean, we can't take Byron, he's still healing. In fact he hasn't woke up yet, and of course somebeast's got to stay with him .. you know?"

"If you wish milady, I can stay .. you have been nothing but kind to me, and I'd like to do something for you as well." Vinwyte was watching them carefully as he said this, as if a little afraid of Esther's reaction.

Catkin answered first. "Oh that's so nice! You can stay if you want to, but of course we're nice to you! Why wouldn't we be?"

Vinwyte gave her an odd, contemplative look. "I am your slave ... beasts are not kind to their slaves. In fact you've treated me like a king since you saved my life .. and I .. never dreamed creatures could really be that .. kind. At least to a slave."

Catkin sniffed, and hugged Vinwyte, who flinched at her sudden movement, immensely shocked. He looked like he had no idea how to react .. it was almost amusing. "Oh that's so sad! And you're not a slave, that's awful! We don't have slaves, we have friends!"

Vinwyte looked beseechingly at Fripple, as if to question Catkin's sanity. "I .. um .. miss .. I'm not sure .. I mean I ... well .."

Fripple grabbed Catkin, stating, "I think you're making Vinwyte uncomfortable .. do you want to come with us?"

The albino otter looked relieved as Catkin let go of him, exclaiming, "Oh of course! I would love to see Star race .. it would be so nice if she'd win!"

"Wouldn't it?" Fripple's voice was a little grim. "But why don't we all go, Vinwyte can stay with Byron .. and .. well .. we'll all be back by late this afternoon. Hopefully."

Catkin was oblivious. "Of course we will! And then we'll get Veil back and everything will be happy again!"

Fripple didn't feel half as optimistic.

><><

In direct contrast, Shroud was feeling quite optimistic. His son would once again win the race, no doubt .. just like he had for two seasons now.

In fact, Shroud was feeling so good about this whole thing, he felt like paying Sixclaw a visit. It wasn't lost on him that Swartt had recaptured that supposedly dead son of his .. and that the boy was a Prophet. What beautiful irony it was.

The black fox paused as he reached the outer courtyard of his villa, to see a cream, middle aged weasel scrubbing the tiles. Shroud smiled inwardly, though he didn't bother to manifest it.

He strode past her, sneering, "After you're done with that, see to it the foyer is just as clean."

She didn't meet his gaze, just muttered, "Yes master."

Shroud nodded .. the feeling of total control was a wonderful thing. "Good. And clean my pet's cage."

This evoked a cringe of fear, but the weasel didn't dare refuse. "Yes my master."

Shroud's white fangs glimmered in a sort of smile as he stalked away. Today was a glorious day .. it was going perfectly. The black fox paused as he caught sight of the captain of his guards crossing the courtyard. "Captain!"

The beast, a stoat, hurried over. "Yes milord?"

"Watch the race for me, I haven't the time today."

"Of course lord. After all there is no doubt as to who the winner will be."

Shroud smiled, genuinely. "No, there isn't, is there? And we Bloodpaws shall keep it that way."

><><

Veil woke to the clang of his cell door as the guard deposited his breakfast, stale and meager as it was. The ferret slowly sat up, ready for any sudden pain from his ordeal with Nightshade, but there was none.

He'd never have thought he'd be reduced to eating the dry and tasteless scraps he was fed, but hunger drove him to. Veil drank the tepid water, trying not to think of the River Moss's crystal springs.

He knew the guard would change soon, as it always did. It wouldn't matter though, none of them would speak to him, or tell him what he needed to know. Like where Ivan was, especially.

There was a clink from the barred door, and Veil looked up to see Scound watching him. He got to his feet, stumbling to the door and asking quietly, "Scound! Have you told my friends? Where are they? Where's Ivan?"

The weasel nodded. "Yer friends are doin' what they can ta help ya, I promise. An' I am too, see I know where the cat is. He's imprisoned farther down this hall, ok? He's alive, I swear. Now I'm hopin' ta bring yer friends by tonight, but they're jist having to get me a few things first."

Veil was suspicious. "What do you mean .. I thought you were going to tell them where I was!"

"Yea, I am. But it ain't easy for me either, see? So they're helping me out for my trouble, and in turn I'll help them. Pretty simple."

Veil stared at the weasel. "You're using us and .. using me? Don't you dare do anything that might endanger them .. tell me the truth. They are not in danger, yes?"

Scound didn't give him a straight answer. "They're fine. Now I gotta go 'fore I get caught see?"

He bolted down the passage, away from where Veil knew the guard was. The ferret stared after him, slowly leaning against the bars. What did Scound mean? Was the weasel putting his friends in additional danger? Fripple .. Star .. Esther .. he knew they would all give their lives for his. What did that crazy Scound think he was doing?

Veil's paw fell to where his rapier hilt was .. or .. should have been. However it brushed against the hilt of Kinta's dagger instead.

The ferret's sapphire eyes narrowed as a crazy plan came to him. He knew it was rash .. in fact he could barely believe he was desperate enough to try what he was thinking of.

Yet he was. He couldn't just sit here .. he had to do something. Besides, everything was in place .. Scound had run away from the guard's station, which meant the passage had to lead somewhere. He'd said Ivan was in a cell further down. Besides, Veil had a knife .. with a little luck, he might be able to pick the lock. He'd seen Esther do it before, hadn't he?

The ferret felt the lock carefully, pulling out the knife and fitting it in the keyhole. He tried turning it, wiggling it, and twisting it .. but nothing would work.

"How does Esther do this? I wish she was here right now." Veil muttered.

A titter came from the adjoining cell. "Silly fur beast never get out that way."

Veil turned to glare at Loki, watching him with her bright black eyes. "Well alright wise one, do you have a better idea?"

For some reason Veil felt sarcastic. In all honesty he felt pretty hopeless .. even bitter. Loki was no help for his mood. "I can get fur beast out, if fur beast listens to Loki."

The bat held up her chain, stating, "Fur beast pick lock on this, it's easier. Loki fit through bars and open door from outside, then fur beast free."

Veil sighed. "And how do I know you won't fly off and leave me as soon as I do that?"

"Fur beast have to trust Loki, he doesn't have choice. Leaves Loki chained, fur beast stays here .. Loki run away, fur beast stays here. But fur beast has a better chance if he lets Loki go free."

Veil saw her point. "Oh .. alright fine, come over to the bars and I'll see what I can do."

The vampire bat flew over with the flap of her leathery wings and the soft clink of her chain, alighting awkwardly on the ground. "Fur beast hurry, Loki hates being down on floor .. she made for sky."

Veil reached through the bars, carefully twisting his knife blade in the manacle's simple lock. This one came loose after a few tries, and Loki quickly flew to the front of her cell, working on squeezing through the iron bars.

Veil stuck the dagger back in his belt, stating, "Now open my door .. Loki."

She landed on the bars of Veil's cell, pushing down on his door's latch. There was a click, and Loki flew quickly to the ceiling, latching onto a crevice and hanging from it. "There, fur beast free. Come and we find a way out of cursed tunnels."

Veil cautiously opened his door, whispering, "We've got to get my friend out first .. look for a gray tabby cat, ok?"

><><

Cedric pulled on Mystiquestar's bridle, patting her neck. "Hold still Munch, this won't take long."

Star made a face as the graceful bridle's chains and leather fell into place. "Ukk .. it feels so weird."

They were in the small stall of cut rock that had been assigned to them, and the bright light of a Southswardian day spilled through the arch's tunnel. Cedric fastened the reigns to the top of the collar, throwing them into the chariot as he picked up a bowl of blue dye. "Sorry Munch, that's the way it is I'm afraid .. here."

He dipped his paw in the dye, swiping it across her shoulder a couple times to make a star. He pulled on her reigns. "Get your head down here .. close your eyes really fast."

She did so, and Cedric made a star over her left eye. "There. I'd say you're .. as ready as you can ever be, Munch."

The horse paused, before stating. "Alright Cedric .. now that we're here, let's be honest .. I'm not stupid."

Cedric set the bowl down, swiping the dye across his own shoulder several times. "Course you aren't Munch, nobeast said you were."

Star's blue eyes glittered softly as she confronted her driver. "I have the feeling you thought it."

Cedric wiped blue off his paws with an old rag, trying to remain cool. "Now Munch, whatever gave you that idea .."

"Because you haven't told me the full truth, and I know it. I'm not dumb, did you really think I wasn't going to figure out that this race is really dangerous? That we could die?"

"I .." Cedric paused. "I'm sorry Munch. I didn't want you to freak out before .. maybe I should have told you."

Star stamped a hoof. "Just tell me what to do. There's no going back now, and we've got to save Veil .. just prepare me."

Cedric paused as he heard some faint announcing on the wind. "And our first contestant is Ravenwinds, native to the outlying province of Sehrue .."

The mouse bit his lip. "Ok, you're going to have to take chances, and it's going to be bloody sometimes. If you get scratched, you keep running. And most importantly, follow my commands. When I pull on those reins, I mean it, and a moment's hesitation is the line between life and death."

Star gulped, but nodded. "I .. see. I'll .. do my best."

Cedric patted her nose. "And that's all I ask of you Munch .. that and you be brave, no matter what. If you loose me but are still on your feet .. run. Get to the inner or outer wall and stay there. I'll be beyond help, don't bother trying to save me .. understand?"

The announcer was heard again. "fourth contestant is Northernaurora, native to the province of Sesseria, driven by Johan, also of Sesseria .. our fifth is Clawslash, native to the city itself, section thirteen .."

Star hung her head. "I .. think I do. Yes."

"Our seveth contestant and leading champion is Deathstrike, native to the city, section one, he is driven by young Lord Ramon .."

Cedric smiled wanly. "Good. And if you make it out and I don't, I guess it doesn't matter, so tell Princess I love her."

"The ninth contestant is Cateyes, native to the province of Mizvar .."

Star pricked her ears up, before hanging her head. "Yes .. I .. I will."

"Our eleventh contestant is Firewing, native to the city, section eight .. driven .."

Cedric swung up into the chariot, taking the reigns as the announcer's voice rang out again. "And contrary to past news, we do have a challenger .."

Cedric slapped the reigns gently on Star's back. "That's us Munch .. walk through the arch to the line all the others will be on."

She did as he said, walking hesitantly into the bright sunlight as the announcer continued. "And not only do we have a challenger, she is Mystiquestar, native to .."

There was a sudden pause for a few seconds.

"Native to Mossflower and driven by Cedric, who is native to the city, section seventeen."

><><

Fripple watched each horse and driver walk to the line, all tough, determined, and some even vicious. Her heart sank to see so many .. that would make it far harder .. and far more dangerous.

"Princess .. er .. that is miss Fripple?"

She wheeled around to see none other than Errik limping through the stands to where the group stood. The slender dog fox looked around, asking, "And where is Cedric eh? Thought he'd like to watch this .. isn't he here?"

Fripple suddenly realized they had not told Errik about the race. "Um .. he's here .."

Evening had insisted on watching, even if he looked a little out of place in the stands and not the race itself .. thankfully whoever had built the seating had done it on a grand scale. The horse snorted. "He happens to be racing."

Errik ran to the rail, stumbling a little as he grabbed it. "Oh no .. you're kidding! He's insane!"

"No he's not, he's trying to help us save our friends, and that's nice."

Errik stared at Catkin, stammering, "Friends? What friends .. do you know one thing about this race?"

Esther sighed. "She doesn't."

Errik looked downright afraid. "No .. not this again! You don't have any idea .. Oh my friend .. may the powers of the heavens give you their favor!"

Fripple walked to stand beside the fox. "Only one power can save him ... the power of Lord Ignasa."

Catkin was confused. "Why is everybeast sad about this?"

Esther gave her a worried look and Evening answered grimly. "Just watch .. you'll see."

The announcer's voice rang out again, carried on the soft breeze and echoing about the circular track. "Now, by the approval of our own Lady Lilly, let the race commence .. in one .. two .. three .. and .. now!"

The echoing sound of a gong rang out, accompanied by cheers from the full stands as it seemed all eleven horses leapt forward at once!

><><

Cedric didn't let Star jump off the finish line, instead he firmly held her back as ten other horses and chariots thundered forward, Ramon and Deathstrike making a path of destruction for the inner wall.

Cedric released the reins, yelling, "Alright Munch, go! On the outside, now!"

She obeyed instantly, even urgently, ears pinned flat to her head. The conditions were so dusty Cedric had a hard time seeing where to go, so he let the horse run straight through. They passed a pewter gray colt and his driver, but while they fought to get the lead again, Cedric barely noticed them.

Ramon .. where was Ramon?

He had good reason to watch for the black fox and his sadistic horse, for they had tried to dispose of the street rat and his filly first off. However they'd made one serious miscalculation, and that was the assumption Cedric and Star would leap forward with the others and try to outrun them.

Ramon and Deathstrike instantly had made for the inside wall, wrecking any unfortunate in their way ... but they did not find their quarry.

The thunder of hooves resounded in Star's hearing, frightening and half disorienting her. She was running near the front of the racers left on their feet, and that might have amounted to seven.

The horse glanced behind herself, in time for Cedric to slap the reigns on her back. "Go Munch go .. keep ahead of them!"

She saw who he meant, Ramon and Deathstrike were after them .. hot on their heels. The black fox looked completely furious as he yelled, "I killed you street rat!"

Cedric didn't bother wasting energy on an answer, just slapped the reins on Star's back as they made a full lap, running across the starting line in a blur. But Deathstrike tossed his head, stretching out and gaining a little ground.

Star thundered past the shattered pieces of a wrecked chariot, just nicking their axle .. to Cedric's dismay.

Ramon laughed as he lashed the reins across his horse's back. "Looks like I'll kill you again!"

><><

Sunlight streamed slowly through Lilly's window, waking her late. She'd been pretty much out of it for the last few days, gradually recovering from her shoulder wound.

The rabbit yawned, moving her arm experimentally. It was stiff and sore, but the pain had numbed greatly.

Lilly sat up as the morning air caused her sheer curtains to billow subtly, bringing her the faint noise of cheering. For one second, the rabbit was confused. Why would there be cheering at this time of morning .. or afternoon?

And then she knew. It was the horse race .. had she really been down for this long? Had she really forgotten, even for a moment?

She ran to her window's high balcony, staring across the half deserted streets of Southsward. It was the chariot race, alright.

From her palace both track and theater were visible, even from the distance. Lilly might not have been able to see in any detail, but she could hear the roars of the crowd and see the ascending dust .. it was enough.

The rabbit clenched her jaw, wheeling around and calling, "Zarya?"

There was silence, and Lilly opened her door, sweeping through an exotically decorated hallway to the top of the double staircase leading down to the marble tiled ballroom. "Zarya are you here? Is anyone here?"

For a moment she felt a little panic, but about that moment the badger appeared in the hallway leading to the kitchens. "Milady?"

Lilly breathed a sigh of relief, starting down the stairs. "There you are Zarya, thank Ignasa. Where is Kensly?"

"Watching the race lady, as you ordered." Zarya paused, adding, "And I was going to bring your breakfast up, but now that you're here .."

Lilly smiled wanly. "Yes, I'll eat it down here. Though I'm afraid I'm not very hungry."

Zarya sighed. "I understand Milady. I'm worried about Kensly too, what with that extra guard and all .. oh it's bad. I wish we could find just a little good in Southsward .. but I'm beginning to wonder if there's any left."

><><

Thunder, cheering, blood, and dust seemed the staples of this race, Fripple was quickly learning. The chestnut Firewind had gone down in the initial start, and he hadn't gotten up. From the crimson stain he was laying in, Fripple guessed he wasn't going to.

Two other horses and their drivers lay dead or grievously wounded, and the racers were none too careful about not treading upon the fallen. They were on the beginning of the third lap now, running in a pack with Cedric, Ramon, and their horses in the lead.

Northernaurora, unmistakable due to her rose roan coat, was almost directly behind them, when Cateyes, the buckskin tried to pass her too close.

The mare lashed out, snapping her teeth inches from the stallion's ear. He instinctively dodged, knocking into the chariot at his side.

It was to his great misfortune, for the horse was Clawslash, and the insane black stallion lunged for the offender with no mercy, despite the lashes his driver bestowed upon him. Cateyes tried to outrun the black, but Northernaurora saw her chance to rid herself of two competitors at once.

The rose roan jumped forward, sending her chariot wheels momentarily under Cateyes legs. He tripped, falling heavily just as Clawslash jumped forward, tired of the whipping his driver was giving him.

The dark gray colt Ravenwinds couldn't quite dodge Cateyes or his driver, and neither could the others behind.

Ramon meanwhile, drew his chariot alongside Star herself, lethal spinning knife blades gleaming in the sun. The fox swung his chariot away slightly, with a spine-chilling laugh of triumph.

However he laughed too soon, for Cedric guessed his purpose. The mouse hauled back on the reins, yelling, "Whoa Munch! Stop!"

She skidded to a halt as Ramon and Deathstrike swerved across their path in front of them, slamming into the outer wall, snapping one of the knives from its axle!

Star jumped forward again almost instantaneously, trying to regain her momentarily lost lead. Northernaurora was ahead now, but Star was plainly faster than the other mare, who looked like she was at least part draft.

Ramon pulled Deathstrike away from the wall with a yell of fury, fighting to catch Cedric and Star again .. obviously to make them pay for such humiliation.

><><

Veil and his new companion hurried silently down the corridor of cell after cell .. all of them notoriously empty.

"Sixclaw keeps prisoners short times .. not long."

Loki's explanation didn't help Veil feel any better. They'd gone a ways, continually looking in each cell and finding no Ivan. Veil was beginning to wonder if Scound had been lying all along, when Loki's voice rang softly out from the dim lighting ahead.

"I found fur beast's friend, he come here!"

Veil ran to where the bat was hanging from a crevice in the ceiling, peering quickly into the cell she indicated. "Ivan? Ivan!"

The gray wildcat limped to the door, for once actually smiling in relief, though it was lopsided from a jaw wound. He looked scruffy, dirty, and bloody on top of it. Veil grabbed the door's latch, which thankfully opened from the outside, though it locked on the inside.

Ivan paused in the doorway, asking, "What are we doing?"

Veil carefully shut the old door, holding it off the ground to see it didn't creak. "Escaping. I think us being .. wherever we are .. is putting our friends in more danger, and I won't have it."

Ivan paused, before shrugging. "Alright. What's the plan?"

"That's for Aubretia to come up with and me to approve of, isn't it?" Veil's voice was dry.

Ivan raised an eyebrow. "Hey, that's my line brother, we all know I'm the sarcastic one."

They were moving down the passage once more, Loki flying overhead. Veil sighed. "Yes well, I've been through .. a lot. What'd they do to you?"

"Me? They whipped me."

"That's all?"

"Isn't that bad enough?"

Veil shrugged. "I suppose, yes. That's not what they did to me .. I almost wish it was. Hurry though .. we've got to get out, one way or another."

"That all silly fur beast can think of? Fur beasts follow Loki; Loki knows the catacombs."

Veil paused, before chasing after her. "Hang on .. catacombs?"

><><

Cedric saw Ramon practically whipping Deathstrike in the corner of his vision, gaining on the outside little by little. The remaining axle blade spun unhindered, gleaming with deadly beauty.

Northernaurora was falling behind now, lagging a little after her sudden burst of speed. They were approaching the starting line again, on their final lap .. and the wreckage around it gave Cedric a sudden inspiration!

If only he could make it work! The finish line was perhaps thirty yards from the starting line .. there was enough time for Ramon to wreck him.

And vise versa.

The black dog fox was nearly upon them, and Cedric knew he wouldn't bother with being showy and taking out the horse like last time. No, he'd go straight for the wheels.

Ramon swerved away a little moments before they reached the starting line, and Cedric cought sight of a wrecked chariot close on his left .. while Ramon was coming from the right. Cedric knew there was only one chance .. one insane, near impossible chance. Yet he took it, yelling, "Run Munch! Run if you ever want to eat again in this life!"

Fear renewed Star's strength momentarily, and she leapt forward at this dire threat .. probably the very worst thing anybeast could have told her.

It wasn't for long, but it was just enough to change the face of destiny. For Ramon sent Deathstrike at them just as Star sprinted forward in fear .. and the black fox's chariot smashed into the wreckage of one of his previous victims.

Ramon was flung into the dust, instantly trampled by the young Ravenwinds, who was just swift enough to escape the chaotic bloodbath that resulted.

Deathstrike had wrecked directly in Northernaurora's path, and she ran onto his half broken chariot, impaling herself. The rose roan fell with a horse's hair raising scream of agony, and Deathstrike wheeled about to punish whoever had run into him.

He found himself faced with Clawslash, who skidded to a stop despite his driver. Mad already and disoriented by the scent of fresh blood and the groans of a dying horse, the insane black turned on Deathstrike and attacked him. Within seconds both horses were locked in a vicious fight to the death in the middle of the track!

The crowd was roaring by now .. it had been quite a while since they'd seen a race this dramatic and action packed. Deathstrike and Clawslash reared, kicked, and bit, further trampling Ramon's limp, bloodstained form .. as if to assure the wicked young fox would never again rise.

Cedric took one look behind himself, before turning to face the fast approaching finish line. However his left wheel had taken a harder beating than he had thought and was wobbling disturbingly.

The mouse looked desperately toward the race's end .. for he had to cross the line in his chariot or be disqualified. But if that wheel came off he was as good as dead.

Time almost seemed to slow as Star galloped, her hoof beats splitting the air. Ravenwinds was still behind them, though he couldn't get the lead in time.

Cedric watched the wheel spin unevenly, bracing himself to do one of his oldest and favorite stunts as soon as the finish line was crossed. Star whisked over it and kept running, but Cedric wasn't going to wait.

He vaulted from the chariot, landing clumsily on Star's back and almost falling to his death beneath her hooves, but grabbing the traces saved him. The cheering was deafening by now, though Cedric wasn't listening to it. He pulled on Star's loose reins, praising her in dumbfounded amazement. "Munch .. Munch you wonderful idiot! We did it .. we really won Munch! Oh Hellgates I'll give you all the carrots you want from now on!"

This stopped Star, who skidded to a halt. "Carrots? And I won? We're not dead?"

Cedric patted her neck, slowly realizing he had just won the race he had dreamed of winning for most of his life. "You did it Munch .. there isn't another horse like you alive, I'll swear it!"

Star was feeling jubilant too, and proved it by suddenly throwing herself onto her back hooves and clawing the sky! Unfortunately the glory of this moment was shattered as Cedric fell off with a little yelp and the ash chariot staves snapped, one completely in half, the other just flopping loosely.

Star jumped forward with a little cry of surprise. "Oh! Oh what happened?"

The crowd was roaring .. mostly with laughter, except for those focused on the continuing horse fight, which Deathstrike was quickly winning. Cedric glared up at Star from where he'd fallen, slowly dragging himself to his feet. "Ohh .. ow! Munch, you never rear in the traces! See what happens?"

Star craned her neck, peering at the wheeless, now shaftless chariot. "Oh .. I won't anymore, then. Cedric, do you think Evening will .. mind very much?"

The announcer's voice was a stunned sound, and it echoed around the stadium. "It seems we have a winner .. our challenger! It isn't every day you see this .. the powers of the heavens must have granted these two their favor .. Mystiquestar of Mossflower, and Cedric of Southsward!"

A sudden scream made everybeast wheel around, to see Deathstrike catch Clawslash by the throat and twist with absolute savage strength. The black fell to the ground, landing with a dull and lifeless thud. Deathstrike was bleeding from multiple wounds, yet they were all skin deep. The wild, feral light in the bay's eyes faded, and he suddenly seemed to realize what had happened.

The stallion looked from Ramon's trampled form, to his shattered chariot, and finally to the winners. A look of hateful astonishment crossed his face, and he suddenly screamed a furious challenge, lunging for the offenders.

Before anybeast could move, the thunder of hooves rang out as none other than Eveningstar ran across Deathstrike's path. The liver chestnut reared, lashing out warningly with his forelegs and tossing his flaxen mane aggressively.

The already wounded bay took a slow step back, pinning his ears and neighing challengingly as he backed away. Cedric looked toward where Evening had come from, in time to be knocked down once more, this time by Fripple. She hugged him tight enough to evoke a little groan of pain, and quickly released her grip. "Oh .. I'm sorry Cedric, I didn't think about your fall off Star .. "

Cedric slowly sat up, wondering how stiff he was going to be by tomorrow. "That's .. alright Princess."

She jumped up, pulling him onto his paws as Catkin hugged both of them. "Oh you did it Cedric! Oh I was so worried!"

The otter grabbed Star by the neck, hugging her too. Esther threw her arms around Star's shoulders, exclaiming, "You did it Star! You wonderful horse .. now we can save Veil after all!"

Evening stood by, a little left out .. but only momentarily. Catkin let go of the others and hugged him. "Oh thank you Evening, we couldn't have done it without you!"

Evening cast a glance at his wrecked chariot. "Um .. yea."

Catkin looked around a little, happiness fading. "But .. oh it's so awful ... can we get out of here now?"

Star mischievously head-butted Cedric, exclaiming, "We really did it! I can't believe it!"

Cedric fell on top of Fripple, who quickly pushed him off. "Alright, that's way too awkward!"

Errik hobbled down the stone steps into the arena next, limping to his friend. Cedric was just getting back on his paws, but the tawny fox knocked him down again with a friendly yet winding punch to the shoulder. "You .. did it Rat! Whew mate .. you sure had me scared .. you devil."

Cedric didn't bother jumping back to his paws. "Can I stand up, or will I get plowed back into the dirt as soon as I do? Gee, pretty soon I'll look like I did get trampled."

Errik pulled him back onto his feet apologetically, brushing dust off a little roughly. "Sorry mate, I just can't believe it! You won this thing .. Hellgates you really did!"

Evening stomped a hoof. "Ahem. Somebeast needs to buy me a new chariot. I don't exactly have a career without one."

Cedric staggered a little, nodding, "Yea .. we'll buy you one .. I think we ought to be able to do that much with what's left."

The race official and a couple guards were walking towards them, and Fripple recognized the squirrel they had spoken to in order to enter the race. He looked amazed, and a little ashamed, in all honesty, and his voice was soft. "I didn't think you could do it .. Cedric. But you proved me wrong. Here."

The squirrel dropped a decent sized sack of clinking coins in the mouse's paws. "I'll admit it, you've earned this. The banquet is as always, tonight at the setting sun .. I expect to see you there?"

Cedric looked around. "I .. uhh .."

Fripple broke in. "Perhaps. But we lead a busy life."

The squirrel raised an eyebrow, but a commotion made them turn around .. to see a pitiful sight. For not everybeast had been as lucky as they.

What lay before them was the result of evil .. and it was more than cruel. The little bay colt, Phoenix, had run to his wounded older brother. Firewind was slowly trying to stand again, though most of the blood seemed to come from his right foreleg .. which was covered in dark crimson.

However a couple other beasts were with them, and Fripple didn't get the idea they were there to help. Her suspicion was proven as the creature surveying the damage, a burly stoat or weasel, grabbed Phoenix by his scruffy mane, despite the colt's squeal of frightened protest.

Firewind struggled vainly to stand, his voice carrying to where they stood. "No! Don't take him, I'll do anything .."

The stoat snorted. "You can't do anything though. I just follow orders."

Fripple felt herself run forward, yelling, "Hey! What do you think you're doing?"

The stoat had a rough demeanor, and he sneered. "What does it look like? He can't pay his debts to my boss .. in fact he don't even have a chance to. So by law we take what belongs to him, and the only thing of value 'appens to be this."

Nix tried to escape his captor's grasp, but it was futile. Fripple snarled. "Oh no you won't ... I'll .."

She paused, before blurting, "I'll pay his debt! How much?"

Cedric broke in. "Princess .."

Esther's voice was soft. "No .. she's right. We .. sort of caused this. I saw .. Ramon thought you were against the wall .. that's why he went for it. That's why .. this happened."

Fripple glared at the stoat and the other beast with him, a jerbilrat. "We will pay .. how much?"

The stoat laughed. "At least one 'undred sheckles, for the entry fee. Why don't we say two 'undred missy?"

Fripple grabbed the sack of coins, snarling, "One hundred and fifty, it's more than you'd ever have gotten out of this poor beast!"

The stoat looked at his companion. "Ya think the boss'll be 'appy with that?"

The jerbilrat shrugged. "Probably. Firewind never brought him that much even as a cab horse."

The two fell to arguing some, and Fripple lost her patience. "One hundred and eighty, take it or leave it! You won't get that much out of the colt for seasons, if ever."

The stoat paused, but his partner was a little more agreeable. "Fine. Though why you'd want to buy a half-dead horse I'll never know."

Fripple dropped the coins in his paws. "That's our business, just leave the colt and .. be gone from here."

The creature sneered at her. "You're a feisty little wench, aren't you .."

Cedric backed her up. "Look, get out of here. You've got your money, now as she says. Be gone."

The jerbilrat laughed as the stoat let go of Pheonix. The colt jumped away, shaking himself, before he ran to Firewind's side. Aubretia spoke out for the first time since the race. "According to calculations, we haven't anyplace to put them .."

Errik gave Fripple an admiring glance. "I donno where you come from Princess, but it must be a good ol' place .. to raise creatures like you. I've never seen the like. And mate .. you really agree with them?"

Cedric sighed. "We've been through a lot. I'm .. starting to see things different."

Errik nodded. "Well then, in that case. Let me have a look here .. see what can be done."

The fox walked over to Firewind, who was watching them in disbelief. Errik patted his shoulder, feeling down the upper part of his injured leg. "They got you matey, didn't they? Can you put weight on that?"

The horse tried, quickly picking his bloody hoof up again. "I'd .. rather .. not. But .. thank you .. how .. we are forever .. in your debt .. for no other beast would have cared."

Errik felt the wounded limb, disregarding the crimson staining his paws. "Well it ain't broken, that's the good news. Bad news is it's torn to shreds .. you'll limp forever. And probably never go past a trot again."

The fox pulled off the scarf he had draped around his shoulders, tying it tightly about Firewind's wounded leg. The horse shook his head. "Then we're dead .. after all. There's .. nothing I can do .. no job I can get to support us .. and Nix is too young .. maybe you should have left us."

Catkin sniffed. "Oh no! We couldn't have done that! We'll think of something, won't we?"

Errik spoke up. "Seems like I'm always helping wounded racers, aren't I Cedric mate? I could almost make a job of it. I can look after them if you like .. our old horse died a few months ago, and the stable's empty. They could come along with me .. if you can walk that is."

This was addressed to Firewind, who winced. "I'll .. do my best."

Aubretia broke in. "Ahem. According to my calculations, Fripple, we need to find the beast who wanted you to pay him."

Cedric shrugged. "I'm pretty sure he'll find us, after all, our three days are nearly up."

><><

At the same moment Fripple, Cedric, and the others left the race track, Veil and Ivan found themselves faced with Swartt's guards. Or at least .. able to see Swartt's guards.

Thankfully they hadn't been seen themselves. Veil backed up, breathing softly as he motioned they should back away. Ivan didn't question him.

When they'd retreated a ways into a dark hallway, Veil turned to Loki. "Look, what are you trying to pull?"

Loki pouted. "Huh, it's not Loki's fault, Sixclaw change face of catacombs since he make home here. Loki doesn't know where he puts the guards! Now we have to go other way."

Veil took a deep breath. "Ok .. ok .. but we've got to hurry. It won't be too long before he finds us gone!"

"Loki knows this silly fur beast .. you .. come this way!"

She flew off down a nearly black corridor, Veil heaving a sigh as he took after her. Ivan ran beside Veil, muttering, "She's going to get us killed."

"Do we really have a choice?" Veil panted.

Ivan paused almost in mid-stride, before dashing forward again. "Guess not."

The patter of their paws echoed dully through the black corridor they ran through unguided, and Veil called out as quietly as possible. "Loki! Loki we can't see!"

Her high pitched voice came back. "Who needs see? Can't you hear?"

Ivan was droll. "Hear what? You?"

"Loki forgets fur beasts were so blind .. yes we must find you light if that what fur beasts need."

Veil heard the bat's rustling wings as a weight dropped onto his shoulder. "Loki see for you silly fur beasts .. you go straight ahead, have no trouble."

Veil was not used to finding his way in complete darkness, but Loki was, honestly a great help. "You turn now, tunnel curves."

Ivan bumped into Veil, muttering, "Sorry."

Loki laughed. "Fur beast so blind it funny. Look, you run .. nothing in fur beast's way, Loki knows."

Veil grumbled, jogging a little hesitantly. "You'd better be right .."

Loki tittered. "Course I am silly fur beast .."

Her voice broke off as Veil's paws came down on the stone floor, and there was a sudden crack!

><><

Skadu was making some meager dinner, and Zenith was helping. The black fox cut a coarse loaf of bread with surprisingly nimble fingers. "When do you think Nightshade will be back?"

Skadu shrugged. "Donno. She seems pretty busy .. an' a course the race is today, ya know. With that Ramon in it, she's probably watchin' or somethin'."

Kinta walked over. "Don't you feel that this is just the calm before the storm? How long have we been her apprentices? She's bound to get rid of us sooner or later."

"It's this takeover. After that our lives ain't gonna be worth half a sheckle." Skadu's voice was a sigh. "Course I'm gonna give her Hellgate's fore I go there."

Zenith's soft voice was sad. "But we can't. And I'm .. scared, really. I don't want .. to go to Hellgates."

Kinta patted the fox's shoulders. "My mother once told me of a good lord, one who was the opposite of Malimore .. as different as the day is from the night. She said he took all goodbeasts to his Lands Beyond .. maybe we would go there."

"I donno Kinta." Skadu's voice was tired. "All those stories ya tell us seem ta good ta be true."

"They sound wonderful .. I wish they were real. Or if they are .. I wish we could have proof of them." Zenith sounded wistful.

"Don't we all?" The three wheeled around to see Bluefen watching them, with Esmund beside her. "I've long dreamed they were true. And I might have .. I might have seen proof, even. But I don't know. It's been so long, and what Kesha used to say has faded .. and .. if only I had listened then. But I'm still searching."

She sighed. "Still, I came to ask you if you'd look after Esmund. Ever since Swartt killed Byron .. well, I can't leave him with me. And I think he'll be safer with you than alone. I've noticed Nightshade seems pretty preoccupied, doesn't she?"

Zenith nodded, leaning on her staff. "Yes, she is. But we would love to watch Esmund! It would take our minds off things."

Bluefen smiled faintly .. something she didn't practice often. "It's only for a few hours each day, but I'd be very grateful. You see I .."

Zenith suddenly swiveled her ears, whispering, "Hush! What is that?"

Esmund cocked his head. "What's wrong?"

The blind fox looked bewildered. "I hear rumbling .."

Bluefen suddenly froze. "Wait .. yes, I hear it too!"

The next few things happened quickly. The rumble and creaking continued for a few seconds, before part of the ceiling crashed to the ground in a cloud of dust .. just outside the old doorway to the seer's rooms.

Skadu looked disgusted. "Oh these filthy ol' things .. I hate 'em. One a these days it's gonna do that on me head .. stupid catacombs!"

Bluefen had grabbed Esmund and dodged away from the doorway, but now an angry voice rang out. "Ooh you stupid fur beasts .. what you think, taking bad path like that?"

Another voice answered the first, angrily. "You were leading us! What were you thinking?"

Kinta looked afraid. "The guards! Bluefen .. you and Esmund have to hide .."

Skadu grabbed both ferret and wearet in question, dragging them to an adjoining room. "Quick, in 'ere .. it's a closet. Kinta .. Zenith .. come on you two, inside!"

><><

Veil sat up with a groan, rubbing his head. One moment, there had been a floor beneath his paws .. and then it had vanished. Or more realistically, broken. There were a few torches in this passage, and Veil was relieved to see Ivan getting up, even if he was holding his ribs.

Veil turned on Loki, who took to the air, squeaking, "Ooh you stupid fur beasts .. what you think, taking bad path like that?"

Ivan growled at her. "You were leading us! What were you thinking?"

Loki sniffed. "I told you good path! Fur beasts fell down bad path! Now look what happens, why you not learn Loki knows the way? Not down, up! Silly fur beast don't know the simplest things."

Ivan winced. "We've got to get out of here .. what if the noise brings a guard?"

Veil struggled onto his paws. "Yes .. through here, quick!"

He limped to the nearest doorway, which lead into a space that was more of a room than a corridor. Loki flew in overhead. "Now what, silly fur beast?"

Veil looked around, spotting another door. "Through here! Ivan, are you ok?"

The cat hurried through the door, though he still held his side. "Yea. Come on .. sure is dark in here."

Loki flew in as Veil came after Ivan. The cat was right, it was dark .. and almost stuffy. The rustle of wings ceased as Loki found a place to hang upside-down, grumbling half to herself. "Huh .. silly fur beasts .. why you so stupid Loki knows not. You fly down, not up .. so stupid. So not right. And you choose baddest paths .. huh fur beasts blind, deaf, and fat .. no use at all. And they bring friends in dumbest places .. why are you all in this closet? Make no sense!"

Ivan's voice was droll in the darkness. "It's just the three of us. And with the meals around this place, I feel like I'm far from fat."

Loki was unforgiving. "Why else you break floor and fly down? You too fat still. And stupid. You bring friends and then forget they here. Fur beasts. Huh .. idiots."

Veil broke in before the bat could continue her derogatory rant. "Loki what are you talking about, friends? It's just the three of us .. you mean you're our friend?"

Loki's voice was disgusted. "You not Loki's friend, you not just have fur for coat, have fur for brain. You so stupid you forget own friends in closet. And fly down. Loki not fly down, you need fly up."

Ivan was feeling around, and his paws came in contact with fur. "Veil? Is that you ... Yeeeow!"

The cat's voice rang out again, a little muffled. "Veil what are you thinking, clawing me? Your claws are a lot sharper than I thought .. wow .. longer too!"

Loki sounded almost amused. "Ha! It true what Loki says! Fur beast can't even see own friends when they wing-length away .. and they hurt each other. So stupid .."

Veil chose to ignore the bat. "Ivan, that's not me .. is some beast else in here?"

"I don't know Veil .."

"That's what Loki try tell stupid flightless fur beasts! Friends are in closet!"

"Wait! What ... Veil!"

One voice rang above the other's, shocked .. and in a way .. almost familiar. "Zenith .. Skadu .. get me a light! Quickly!"

There was a little scrambling, and a few clicks of a flint, before a torch was lit. Loki flinched, squeaking furiously. "Oooh you stupid fur beasts, make Loki as blind as all you! Get fire thing away .. too bright!"

However Veil wasn't paying attention to Loki, he was staring at the almost painfully thin, worn ferretwife with smoky gray-blue fur. She was still stately, but her graying hair and dull sapphire eyes betrayed somewhat premature age. However she was smiling now, tears glistening in her eyes as she placed her roughly furred paws on Veil's shoulders, staring at him. "Oh Veil ..."

Veil knew .. he knew even if his father had lied. "Mother!"

Bluefen threw her arms around him, crying, "Oh my son, I have found you at last!"




Chapter 22 Failure in Success

Slugwort was not having a good day at all .. in fact it was a terrible one for him. He'd been doing his job, totally minding his own business and guarding the cells just like he was told.

One moment Swartt's son had been where he belonged, and when Slugwort had checked next, he was gone. A little more investigation revealed the gray cat and even the bat who'd once been there .. were missing.

Slugwort was making his way through the catacombs to Swartt's throne room, rehearsing what he would tell the ferret.

"So .. uhh .. two of 'em jumped me. Yea, from behind!"

The silver rat paused. "No .. that is, when I tried to feed them they .. feed them like you ordered milord .. well yer son jumped on me, his friend hit me an' they left me fer dead .. and took the bat too! Or .. no .. they .. they snuck out. No! Oh no I wasn't sleepin' lord! Well .. the cat grabbed me through the bars .. oh .. Oh what am I gonna tell 'im!"

Slugwort stopped in a corridor near Swartt's throne room, half considering running off or trying to find some other, stupid beast he could wheedle into breaking the news. However the sound of approaching boots made him freeze and wheel around .. to find himself faced with an unfamiliar stoat.

Slugwort tried to make up for his surprise. "Look, who are ya? I ain't seen you round here much, I don't think .."

The stoat had a far sharper and more confident demeanor than Slugwort, and he got straight to the point. "You are a servant of Sixclaw?"

Slugwort stumbled a little. "Uhh .. yea but .. who're ya .."

The stoat didn't answer him outright. "My master Shroud is visiting Sixclaw, you'll take a message to him."

"I will? I don't have ta do nothin' I don't want ta .. ya take it yerself .."

Slugwort's voice broke off in a squeak as the stoat slammed him against the wall, eyes glittering with something akin to desperation. "You will tell him, got it rat?"

Slugwort gulped. "Yea, yea I'll tell him ok? I'll tell him!"

The stoat dropped him, growling, "Good. Now here's what you say .."

As Slugwort listened, his heart sank farther. Now he knew why the stoat was so desperate to have another beast deliver this message.

><><

Swartt paced his throne room, glaring at Shroud. "And why have you come here? To torment me? Haven't you anything better to do, oh great slave master?"

Shroud smirked. "Oh yes, I didn't only come to taunt you, why would I let you waste that much of my time. But I know something you do not, Oh Lord of the Underworld."

"And what would that be?" Swartt was in a bad mood already.

Shroud's crystal white fangs gleamed in the torchlight, and his demonic red eyes glittered. "You think you keep the beasts in that palace so securely trapped? My spies say different."

Swartt snarled. "What in Hellgates do you mean?"

His fox nemeses rubbed elegant claws against his gold-trimmed navy blue robe, coolly admiring how they glittered sharp in the dim lighting. "It so happens my spies report they saw a mouse in commoner's clothing sneak from the palace grounds. Your buffoons never even knew the beast existed, let alone that it crawled through a hedgerow ten feet behind them."

Swartt glowered. "They are common rabble. Yours are trained assassins, I'm certain."

"Oh, you mean you have no beasts of skill among your horde?" Shroud made a quick jab.

The sound of steal on steal rang out as Swartt drew his cutlass. "I am tired of your useless banter dog. I could shred you to ribbons with this!"

Shroud pulled out his wicked looking studded whip, sharp metal shards gleaming where they were woven into the fibers. "Ahh I'm sure you could Sixclaw. But I have torn many a beast to ribbons .. finer shreds than you ever have."

Swartt growled in frustration, and Shroud sneered. "You're so rash Sixclaw. Learn to be a gentlebeast polecat; it's so much more disturbing to your enemies if you tear them apart with a smile. A snarl is simply too uncouth."

Swartt lost his temper. "Out! I'll not be insulted like this. Muggra, take Lord Shroud away .. send him back to the sunlit lands he so gently rules."

Muggra started forward, only to stop as Shroud flicked his whip inches from the weasel's face. "Ha, your pitiful scum Sixclaw .. teach them to grow a spine. I'm sure a beast as brave as you can do that much."

The fox smiled. "Oh, and how's your little son thing going on? Nightshade said you found your first son .. he sounds like quite a beast. A Prophet she said. Well isn't that interesting .. I guess he gets that from his sweet little mother .. a pity he didn't get a little of you. Somebeasts have all the luck I suppose. Ramon's won the chariot race again, I'm sure .. he's a chip off the old block, I'm proud of that boy. He'll get someplace in life."

Swartt's ears were pinned to his head as Shroud continued. "I guess that makes me the father of Southsward's famous charioteer ... and you're the father of a Prophet! Oh what irony is this?"

Swartt's voice was a growl. "Get out of my sight, spawn of Hellgates!"

Shroud smirked, and things might have turned out in a duel, but some scuffling in the doorway made the two warlords look up. A silver rat stumbled into the room, looking decidedly terrified.

Swartt snarled. "Slugwort? What are you doing here?"

The rat looked miserable. "Wull .. see I .. wull .. the thing is .. wull I just .. have a message fer .. wull fer botha ya I guess, but I .."

Shroud sneered at him. "Well speak up then rat, let's hear it! Honestly Sixclaw, teach your soldiers to talk."

Slugwort stumbled. "Wull see I was walkin' along an' I got .. uhh .. wull one'a yer crew stopped me Lord Shroud. An' he made me take ya a message .. 'bout the race, see?"

Shroud grinned. "Ah and did young Ramon win? Without a doubt. How many racers did he kill?"

Swartt glared at Slugwort, who spoke nervously. "Wull .. I think he killed 'lot .. but then .. wull .. from whut yer beast said .. wull .. one of 'em killed 'im."

Shroud stared in disbelief, before he burst out laughing. "Sixclaw, how dumb are your creatures?"

Swartt was suddenly on Slugwort's side. "Rat, keep talking. I want to hear this."

Slugwort gulped. "Yea .. uh .. well, that's what the beast tol' me, I'm only sayin' what he said first .. cause I ain't seen nothin'. That's just what I was told .. nothing more. Yer guard said a mouse 'ad wrecked Ramon an' killed 'im."

Shroud looked less sure, but still tried to make light of the situation. "I don't believe a word of it. No mouse could wreck Ramon .. I'll go speak to my son myself."

Slugwort held up a hesitant paw. "Uhh .. I don't think that's really gonna be .. really possible .. see, yer creature said he'd been trampled pretty bad .. guess yer horse Deathstrike got ina fight with some other horse .. right on top a 'im .."

The grin on Shroud's face dematerialized as he snarled at Slugwort. "You liar! Say you lie!"

Slugwort backed up, gulping, "Uh .. no lord .. I'm jist sayin' what the other beast was sayin' .."

Shroud's face morphed into complete fury, and his voice was a guttural sound. "This is a lie from Hellgates .. you fool, that you dare lie to me!"

Swartt was smirking now. "Oh no it's not Shroud .. I've read his thoughts. He's completely honest."

Shroud turned on the ferret. "And what are you grinning about?"

Swartt sneered. "My son might be a failure, but at least he's still around."

"Umm .. Lord Swartt .. about that .." Slugwort's voice was timid. "The thing is .. wull .. he not quite as .. wull .. you know .. not quite as here as we'd hoped .."

Swartt snorted. "What? Speak Slugwort! I can hardly hear you!"

The rat took a step back. "Wull .. master .. it's yer son. He's .. sorta .. gone."

"Which one?" Swartt wasn't convinced. "And he's dead?"

"Um .. no .. the oldest one Lord .. you know the golden one .. well er .. you know the one ya lost. I think he's .. still around .. that is .. somewhere .. but he's not .. here. That is, in 'is cell .."

Swartt snarled. "What? Not here? Then where is he?"

Slugwort gulped. "Lord that's what I don't know .. an' I'm tryin' to figure out. See he took the cat .. an' the bat .. you know .. Loki .. an' they all vanished!"

The responses of the warlord's were different.

"Loki? You mean that's where my spy went?"

"My son escaped? You let a Prophet loose in my kingdom??"

Slugwort tried to save himself. "Um .. yea .. see, I'm tryin' ta find em .. you know .. all of 'em .. an' .. see, wull .. that creature .. you know, from Shroud .. yea um .. Lord Shroud .. well he said .."

Swartt was about fed up with his hordebeast, and Slugwort ducked a flash of green power, crying, "He said the challenger was from Mossflower!"

Both Shroud and Swartt paused, the latter blurting, "What? From Mossflower? Why would anybeast come all the way from Mossflower? You expect me to believe that? My son and his cat friend were from Mossflower, and you don't see that every day .."

The ferret paused, thinking on his own words. He suddenly snarled, "Wait .. and you say the Challenger won?"

Slugwort was not comforted. "Um .. yea .. I think so .."

Swartt paused only a second. "Muggra! Get a few search parties to scour these catacombs for my son! Then bring fifteen able beasts and meet me .. we need to properly greet this challenger, don't you think?"

Shroud suddenly broke in. "What are you thinking Sixclaw? Those beasts are mine!"

Swartt smiled wickedly. "Only if you find them first."

><><

Veil stared at Bluefen. "Mother .. mother it is you! But how .. Swartt said you .. died."

The happy look on the ferret's faced faded, and she spat. "Yes, your father always lies. He lied when he said the woodlanders would kill you .. and they raised you instead. They .. saved you."

Her eyes were searching, as if asking he confirm this, and Veil smiled a little. "Yes .. they did. Mother, this is my brother .. adopted brother .. Ivan."

The cat was holding a paw to his face, which was bleeding .. he smiled a little lopsidedly. "Hey."

Bluefen looked confused. "You were raised by .. cats?"

Veil nodded. "Yes, Gingivere and Sandingomm .. there are quite a few vermin living at Redwall."

"Then .. the woodlanders are as I thought! They do not judge by species as Swartt said .. the liar, I'll kill him! I thought I had nowhere to go .. but oh my son. They saved you, and they loved you when I could not .. they must be the greatest beasts alive!"

Ivan drolly wiped blood from his face. "They have their faults. Ahh .. whoever got me .. golly, they got me."

Skadu slowly stood with a rustle of fabric. "I .. wull .. that was me. I thought ya was a guard."

Ivan stared at her with amazement, and Veil turned back to Bluefen. "I .. gave up all hope of finding you again."

Bluefen hugged him. "Me too my son .. and see how much you've grown since I last saw you! You .. must be .. almost an adult."

Veil was about to answer, when something poked him from behind. The ferret jumped, turning to see a young cream furred creature staring up at him with large violet eyes. "Are you my big brother mommy talks about?"

Veil stumbled at this. "What? I .. but .."

Bluefen put a paw on his shoulder. "Veil, this is Esmund. He's your little brother .. well .. your half brother."

Veil wasn't sure how to react. "Oh .. I .. see .. um .. he's your son?"

Bluefen looked momentarily disgusted, before her eyes become stoical. "No. By blood he's Swartt's. But your father left him to me, and I have raised him. I am his mother."

Kinta slowly stood up. "If you don't mind .. should we get out of here?"

Bluefen's eyes widened. "Yes .. what am I thinking .. we cannot stay lest Swartt find us. I will not loose you again my son .. he will have to kill me first."

Veil shook his head, hatred sparkling in his eyes. "Ignasa forbid he should ever have the chance."

Bluefen slowly met his gaze. "Son, there isn't much time. But as we go, tell me of your Ignasa. Of your faith. Of your power. I saw .. when Swartt tried to hex you. There was blue .. glowing blue, and Nightshade's power dissolved to nothing in a blinding flash .. something protected you. I want to know what it was my son .. no .. I must know."

Veil put a paw on her shoulder. "Then I will tell you. But .. can we really all go?"

Zenith's soft voice broke in. "We will only hinder you. I will stay."

Skadu started. "But Zenith .."

"She's right. I will stay too." Kinta put her paws around the fox's shoulders.

Veil's voice was determined. "It won't be forever .. I admire your courage. But I'll be back. I feel it .. I must face my father someday, whether I want to or not. I swear it is part of Ignasa's plan."

Ivan nodded. "But for now .. we need to find the others. With their help .. and a lot of luck .. there just might be a way."

><><

The victorious champions of Southsward's race were finding it a little hard to get back to their inn .. they were continually swarmed by admirers. Fripple grumbled. "Well now I see what it's like to be famous .. it's stupid."

Catkin sighed. "Well, they are just excited."

Esther frowned. "Still, I don't like it. This was supposed to get us the money to find Veil and Ivan. It wasn't supposed to get us this well known .. the wrong beasts will learn .. you know?"

"Oh I know Esther, I'm worried about it. We're way too famous now .. the whole city knows we're here." Fripple looked down. "Maybe this wasn't the best idea."

Aubretia took some calculations. "Actually, I think this was the only way. My calculations say so."

Fripple sighed. "I don't know Library .. I don't know."

Cedric made light of the situation as they dodged around some beasts. "Well we got what we needed, now didn't we? Look, it'll be fine. You girls just aren't used to popularity. These beasts couldn't care less about where we came from or what our life story is, they just want to see us. Cause we won the race."

Fripple huffed. "Well that's stupid ... Yea, I can sort of see why you were the way you were when we found you .. you expected this out of everybeast."

Cedric looked away for a moment, before sighing, "It was the only positive emotion I'd ever gotten .. they liked me Princess .. they liked me. What else can I say? Nobeast had ever cared that much for dirt like me .. I was a commoner. I didn't have parents, and I had no idea who my father even was. Then when I started racing .. even winning .. beasts started to care. They idolized me. I'd never felt like that before. It was cool .. you know? I wanted more."

Fripple raised an eyebrow. "It was fickle though. They never really cared."

"I know. When I was wrecked and left for dead, I found that out. But you see Princess, I thought that popularity was what kindness was. What friendship was. Even what .. love was. However, then I met you guys." Cedric shook his head. "And you .. you were different. You weren't like that. The way you treated each other .. how you would fight, and make it up .. and stand by each other .. well .. I wanted that. I was jealous."

Cedric looked down. "And so .. I thought I could impress you by being cool. I mean really .. I thought that would buy me your friendship. But I was wrong. And now ..? Well, now I'll be honest for a change. Maybe I wasn't so special. Maybe you were the special ones. But I still want to have what you have .. maybe for once, I want to find a place where I can really belong. Just like you."

Fripple sighed. "We don't belong though .. we got kicked out of our home .. by beasts who raised us."

Cedric met her gaze. "But you have each other. Maybe what I'm trying to say, is I don't just want to be the guide anymore .. I want to be one of you."

Catkin patted his head. "Oh you are already!"

Cedric looked at Fripple. "Am I, Princess?"

She sighed. "Well .. don't ask just me. What do the others say?"

"According to my calculations, you have been for a long time. Not officially, but by statistics .."

Esther broke in. "Yea, you are. I mean .. I think so .. why wouldn't you think so? You risked your life for us!"

Mystiquestar yawned. "Yea .. you are .. I'm really hungry too. And awful tired .. it's horrible to be more tired than hungry."

Everybeast burst out laughing, and Cedric patted the horse's shoulder. "Let's get you back to the inn Munch .. you deserve some good dinner before we go look for Mute and His Majesty."

The mouse turned to Fripple as they entered an alleyway, asking, "So Princess, I gotta ask .. are we even .. friends?"

Fripple raised an eyebrow. "What are you talking about .. why wouldn't we be? You obviously care about us .. you risked your life. You make me admire you for that .. shows you can be truly noble. I think we've all learned something."

Catkin hugged both Cedric and Fripple. "Oh, we're all friends, and we will be forever! Nobody can change that."

Esther paused, then grinned. "Yea .. after all, friends stick together .. right? And we're going to get through this. And .. can I ask .. when will we find Veil? I mean .. I'm .. really worried."

Cedric nodded. "Let's get back and then I guess .. Princess and I might try to find that .. weasel. Here, let's get off the main drag .. we'll never get anywhere here."

He led them into a shadowed alley, stating, "Hey, this is even a short cut. Princess! I'll race you to the end of it!"

Fripple snorted, chasing after him. "No fair! Cheater, you got a head start!"

Evening rolled his eyes. "Would you look at them? He just drove a race, and now see what he does?"

Star shook her mane. "Oh that's just the way Cedric is. And watching those two is making me even more hungry!"

Catkin pulled something out of her satchel. "Hotroot?"

"Oh! Umm .. nah .. it doesn't agree well with me." Star's reply was quick.

Catkin shrugged, taking a bite of it herself. Esther looked behind them. "Aubretia! Catch up, you don't want to get lost or kidnapped!"

The golden mouse was examining a gecko on the sun drenched wall of a building, and she looked up as Esther followed the others around a corner. "One second!"

><><

Two sets of paws pounded the cobblestone, Fripple only slightly behind Cedric. "I'll win .. even .. if you cheat!"

Suddenly Cedric skidded to a stop, grabbing Fripple and yanking her back. She glared at him. "What .."

However a guttural voice broke in. "Well hello, oh heroes of Southsward."

There was a clinking as about ten other beasts surrounded the group, making them back up into a circle. Fripple glared at the beast who had spoken, a tall, light golden ferret .. he looked like an older version of Veil. "Who are you? And what do you think you're doing?"

The ferret laughed. "There is part of Southsward you've never seen .. I'll be showing you."

Cedric broke in. "We didn't ask for a tour, let us pass!"

He tried to shove past the ferret, only to be belted across the jaw with a metal gauntleted paw. Fripple drew her saber in a flash as Cedric staggered back with a gasp of pain. "Get away from him, and leave us all alone, or taste my blade!"

The ferret smirked, flicking his good paw. Fripple cried out as the weapon was knocked forcibly from her grasp by nothing visible, twisting her paws as it flew from them.

"Most impressive, but no use. That was your warning."

Fripple glared hatred at him as Cedric carefully pulled his spear out of the belt she had it in, suddenly whipping it out to point at their attacker. "What do you want?"

The ferret sneered. "You're more cooperative, aren't you now? I believe actually, I have something you want. A certain golden ferret by the name of Veil."

Esther leapt forward. "What? Where is he? What have you done with him? Tell us now!"

The ferret smiled demonically. "Oh I won't tell you .. I'll show you. Muggra, take them. Oh yes. Call me Lord Swartt Sixclaw .. your own Veil's father. I should have known that brat would have friends."

Star tossed her head. "We don't have to go with you!"

Swartt paused, sighing. "I just new you'd be this way .. just like him and that cat friend of his. Well then .."

The ferret lunged suddenly, grabbing the nearest beast, which happened to be Esther. "I'll have to make you. You fight, she dies. See my point?"

Fripple's blue eyes gleamed with raw fury, but she growled. "We see it."

Swartt laughed as Esther fought against him, to no avail, for he was far the stronger. "Then drop your weapons. Now."

There was a clinking as the trapped beasts obeyed, and Swartt nodded. "Good. I think I'll keep this one a while, just so you don't get any fancy ideas. Now. We return to the underworld .. move."

><><

Aubretia was pressed against the wall, breathing ever so faintly from pure terror. She had seen all that went on, and was on the verge of frightened tears .. if only somebeast was with her!

Anybeast. But she was alone .. completely alone, and lost. Cedric knew the way, she was only supposed to do the calculating! All the other occupants of this alley had vanished, gone down another and from her sight.

Even the dancing sun seemed foreboding now, and every shadow on the mortared walls of houses seemed alive.

Aubretia stepped out into the dappled sunlight that spilled over the flat roofs of buildings, timidly making her way through this terrifying place. She stared into every adjoining alley, gulping hard as she fingered the hilts of her twin throwing knives. She rarely used them, but now seemed an opportune time.

Suddenly, one of the shadows moved in its own power, stepping out in front of her. Aubretia made a little scream of pure fright, drawing a knife. "G .. get away! I .. I will throw this! I will!"

The creature, a middle aged weasel, blinked at her. "Aye, an' if'n ya throw it, what'll that get ya? I kin help ya liddle miss, an' it seems ya need some help."

Aubretia slowly lowered the knife, taking a deep breath. "Who .. are you?"

The weasel held out his paw. "The name's Scound. Why ya poor liddle thing, yer cryin'."

Aubretia wiped some dusty tears away, whispering, "My friends .."

She suddenly held the knife up again, gasping, "Are you with that ferret who took them? Are you a spy?"

Scound shook his head vigorously. "I ain't wid him, I'm tryin' ta run away. An' ..."

The weasel's plain eyes darkened. "An that Sixclaw! Yer friends came through, they did wot they said .. they was gonna pay me! But that Sixclaw .. that Sixclaw! 'E stole me pay .. got yer friends .. I'm done wid dis! No more scringin .. I need a plan! I had a perfect plan .. I was gonna be rich! An' now see wot that polecat goes and does! So help me if I don't get me money, an' that dog can go to Hellgates!"

He paused at the look of surprise on Aubretia's face. "Sorry miss, I didn't mean ta say dat, but the polecat deserves it. Now, 'ave ya got any more friends, or are ya the last one left?"

Aubretia slowly shook her head. "No .. there are two more .. at the inn. But I don't know where it is."

Scound smiled. "Maybe I kin help .. what's it called?"

Aubretia sniffed. "The Shaded Waters."

"Why, you mean that? That's right near 'ere missy .. follow me, I know right where dat ol' place is." Scound started down the alleyway, and with a sigh Aubretia followed, for lack of other options.

><><

The day's gentle breeze blew sand restlessly across the desert dunes, broken only by the clop of horse's hooves. Mizzah pulled his bay steed to a stop at the brink of a dune, and Lenn, sitting behind him, gasped. "Whoa ... that is .. Southsward?"

The jerbilrat nodded. "That it is .. my family once ruled there you know? In fact the old king is a distant cousin of mine."

Bryony spoke up from where she sat on Glow. "Then you're like .. a noble here?"

Mizzah shrugged. "I suppose I am .. or could be, if I wanted. But I am a nomad, and the desert is my kingdom. I was born to roam it, not live in a villa in a city somewhere. However for now .. let us go. We must find Veil, Fripple, my nephew, and all the others."

He spurred his horse into a trot, speaking to Bryony and Glow as they headed down the slope toward the dusty city gate. "Where do you think your friends might be?"

Bryony shook her head, and Glow snorted. "Anywhere."

Lenn sighed. "It's like .. looking for a needle in a haystack."

"A really big one." Bryony agreed, almost smiling.

In the days since they had met Lenn in the oasis, Bryony had come to enjoy the shy mouse's company .. even if she still felt the poor creature was very confused. Lenn could say the oddest things sometimes .. like that there was a bell at Redwall abbey.

Bryony knew good and well there were towers .. but there was no bell. Lenn also seemed amazed that Martin the Warrior was alive .. and he'd been alive all of Bryony's life. However the mouse maid didn't seem mad, for she was friendly and kind .. obviously she just wanted to fit in with her new companions.

Bryony wasn't ready to believe Lenn had traveled through time .. after all, that wasn't possible, and it was frightening to think about. She chose to believe Lenn had gotten lost in the desert and was a little confused about some things.

Part of her knew it wasn't true.

However Lenn didn't speak of her past very much anymore, she seemed to quickly understand that what she said was hard for the others to comprehend. She would make some involuntary references to her Redwall .. which seemed so very different from Bryony's.

She referred to it as old .. as withstanding the ages .. but Bryony knew it to be young. Lenn said hardly anybeast carried weapons .. Bryony knew that was wrong, plenty a beast was armed.

She said they had an abbot. Bryony couldn't believe that .. with the marks, an abbey leader hadn't been appointed since Germaine's death several seasons ago. There was talk of doing so, but nobeast seemed ready to take that sort of responsibility.

Redwall was more of a castle than an abbey in Bryony's mind, and in Lenn's, it seemed more an abbey than a castle.

Things just didn't match up. Still, Bryony decided not to be terribly judgmental .. even if she felt that something wasn't right.

It had been at least four days of hard travel, and Bryony wanted a bath. And new clothes. Glow felt the same .. at least about the bath part. Lenn too, was tired of her dusty, hot dress. Mizzah had promised to buy them new clothing when they reached the city, because it would be more efficient, and it would help them blend with the crowd. Northerner's clothing was an attention grabber in the City of a Thousand Lights.

They'd trotted through the gates, and were making their way up a dusty old side street. "We want to get toward the center of this place .. we're probably in section twenty now. Not a wonderful place to be after dark."

Bryony was confused. "Why not? And section twenty?"

Annon answered. "Oh, the city is so large they've divided it by sections .. section one would be near the palace and wealthy manors, as opposed to the ship yards, which are section fourteen or something."

Mizzah nodded. "We'll aim for section three .. there are good shops and inns there. I'm not sure how we'll find your friends, but word travels fast in the city. Something will turn up."

Lenn's voice was questioning. "But it's so .. big! They could be anywhere."

"My nephew was with them, and he knows the city. They're bound to be around section three or so .. he knows better than to go just anywhere." Mizzah was reassuring.

Annon spoke up. "The crowds seem rather thin father .. I expected more."

Mizzah frowned as he looked around. "Hmm .. you are right Annon. I wonder why .."

One of the few from Mizzah's tribe who had come with them, Jeshu, spoke up. "Chief, isn't it about time for that race?"

"Oh yes, the race." Mizzah nodded. "I bet that's it, I forgot about that."

Annon joked lightheartedly. "Bet cousin Cedric wished he could have been in on that, don't you think father?"

Mizzah nodded. "Yes .. oh that boy. Somehow I feel some responsibility for him, even if his mother was a disgrace to our family. But I'm sure he did .. it's good he didn't have a chance, he would have killed himself and whatever poor horse he drove."

Annon raised an eyebrow. "Think they went to watch?"

Mizzah frowned. "I don't know. We might pass the race track, just to see if we spot them, or hear news of them."

He spurred his bay into a trot as they rounded a corner. "It's this way."

Bryony had her paws buried in Glow's mane, touching his neck to guide him or warn him of anything in their path. However they were behind the others, and there wasn't much to hinder them but dust.

There was enough of that.

Bryony stared at the towering buildings, the bustling markets, the alabaster pillars, and the beasts who lived here. "Glow .. have you ever seen such a strange place?"

The roan snorted. "I can't see it, but it sure smells strange. Like .. a constant mixture of opposites. I sense heat .. and yet some cool, I hear noise and yet some silence, I smell death .. and yet life in its midst. It is as you say .. all very strange."

They had entered a park-like area, and the crowds were thicker here .. the horses were forced to walk. Glow snorted in surprise as a few beasts bumped into him, and never stopped. There was a general din, but Bryony suddenly paused as she heard a group of beast's nearby chatter.

"That race mates .. have you ever seen the like?"

"No, never! And who would have thought .. the challenger won!"

"Aye and not just any challenger .. the street rat and a pinto from Mossflower!"

"Ha! Yea, Cedric couldn't win before .. even racing the best horses! Now he shows up with a little spotted filly and kills Ramon .. the champion of three races in a row! Wonders never cease!"

Mizzah pushed his bay in front of the speaker, stopping the beast. "What? Did you say .. Cedric? And a pinto filly .. was she mixed roan?"

The creature, a squirrel, laughed. "Unbelievable isn't it? Cute little horse and all .. the fastest I've seen alive, I swear!"

Annon stared. "That's Mystiquestar! I know she's fast .. but .."

Mizzah broke in. "Where are they now?"

The squirrel shrugged. "I don't know. Somewhere in Southsward."

Bryony glared after the squirrel as he sauntered off. "He wasn't very helpful."

Mizzah shook his head. "No .. but I know where to ask .. beasts at the race track might know."

He urged his bay down the hill, the others behind. They had to go slow for the crowds, but Bryony could see two grandiose structures, one larger than the other, but the other taller and more intricate.

They were nearing the larger of the two, and it's stone walls and pillars reared high above them. Bryony couldn't keep from looking up.

However a little cry of shock from Lenn made her look around to see a slim tawny dog fox leading a badly wounded chestnut .. his right foreleg was soaked in dripping crimson. Glow tossed his head, asking, "Who's bleeding?"

The fox looked up at this, sounding incredulous. "You can't see?"

Glow paused. "No. I can't."

Mizzah frowned. "Your horse is badly wounded .. was that done in the race?"

The chestnut looked up, moaning, "Yes, it was. Ramon .. and I'm not his horse .. as such."

Bryony noticed a little bay colt with them, and felt even more pity than before. The fox nodded. "Firewind's his own horse."

Mizzah paused, suddenly asking, "Do you know a beast called Cedric?"

The fox perked his ears. "Yea, course! Cedric's an old mate of mine .. and I've met all his friends too, interesting bunch of creatures, I'll say."

Bryony leaned forward. "Was one of them a tall golden ferret?"

The fox shrugged. "Don't know any ferret, though there's an ermine with them. Look, I've got to get this creature to a place he can rest."

Mizzah nodded. "Of course. In fact, seeing as you're my nephew's friend, I'll have my healer go with you to help. Jeshu, if you would?"

The nutmeg jerbilrat nodded. "Of course milord."

Mizzah held up a paw. "Quickly, one thing. Where are my nephew and his friends now?"

The fox nodded. "Thank you sir .. I'm Errik by the way. And they'll have gone to their inn .. I think it's the Shaded Waters."

><><

Aubretia burst through the door of the group's room at the inn, making both Vinwyte and Byron, who was awake now, jump.

The mouse flopped down in a nearby chair, pulling out her parchment and quill. "I've .. got to calculate this."

Vinwyte spoke up, respectfully. "Milady, is everything .. alright?"

"I wouldn't say dat, there's been a few .. changes in'a plans."

Byron stared at Scound, standing in the doorway. "Captain!"

The weasel shook his head. "Not captain no more .. Swartt demoted me cause of a silly rabbet with a fancy sword ..... say! How'd ya get 'ere? I thought ya was with Bluefen!"

Byron looked down, carefully rubbing his ribs, and wincing. "No .. I got in trouble .. Swartt nearly killed me .. then he sold me to Shroud. I guess I got paired with .. Vinwyte here to be sold, and these beasts bought me .. us."

A wail from Aubretia made them all jump. She sniffed. "Oh there's .. there's no hope! We have only a five percent chance .. of getting them all back .. and .. I can't do it by myself! I can't!"

The golden mouse maid buried her head in her paws, and uncharacteristically sobbed. Vinwyte looked like he didn't know what to do, but Byron looked at Scound. "What .. happened?"

The weasel shook his head. "Sixclaw got all 'er friends, poor liddle thing."

Byron looked afraid. "Is he .. anywhere near here?"

Scound shook his head. "Nah, he's back in the catacombs."

Aubretia looked up, wiping tears away. "Wait .. catacombs? Is that what he meant by the underworld?"

"That's right missy, there's a 'ole mess a the things unner the city. Not many beasts know about 'em, they're awful old, and their entrances are well hidden. Only a beast who knows what they're lookin' for will ever find 'em."

Aubretia paused, looked at her tear-stained parchment, and sniffed. "Oh .. this is hopeless!"

She looked about to burst into tears again, but Byron intervened. "Miss Aubretia, please don't cry! Look, Captain Scound knows how to get in .. and I do too. Wait ... I know another way .. it's not safe, but it's hidden."

Vinwyte shook his head. "You can't walk."

Byron stubbornly slipped out of bed and onto the floor, grabbing the bed post to steady himself. "I can .. just get me a walking staff of some kind."

Aubretia sniffed. "But what good is it? The odds .. are so far against us!"

Byron shook his head. "That might be true miss Aubretia .. but .. well .. they might be wrong. And you'll never know until you try."

"You .. really think that?" Aubretia pulled her glasses off to wipe her eyes.

Byron limped carefully to the table she was sitting at, leaning on the opposite side from her. "Bluefen always said while our situation was hopeless, we had to keep trying until we died."

Scound broke in. "That ain't awful hopeful, ya know .. if'n yer tryin' ta cheer the liddle miss up."

Aubretia looked up, rubbing her nose. "Wait .. you're all going to help me?"

"I would have died without you miss .. and your friends. I .. well I've got to try to help. I can't fight but .. maybe I could help you find them." Byron's strange violet eyes were honest.

Vinwyte nodded. "We're at your command milady .. after all, didn't you buy us?"

Aubretia paused, before sighing. "No, we freed you. You don't have to help unless you want to."

"It's .. really .. my choice?" Vinwyte looked like he was still trying to grasp this. "I .. can't remember really having a choice."

The otter shook his head. "No .. I could stay here .. I guess, but I would be ever so ungrateful for what you did .. I'm getting my strength back. I'm not skilled, but I will fight for you .. as best I can."

Aubretia frowned at her smeared calculations. "Oh. You might have told me you were helping, it makes the equation a little different."

She pulled her chair up to the table, pulling out a new piece of paper and writing some new notes and configurations. Byron observed in silence for a moment, before stating, "You're awfully smart, miss Aubretia."

Scound crossed his arms. "Shouldn't we git goin' .. action's what counts now."

At that second there was a rapping on the door.

><><

"The exit I'm taking you to is one Swartt knows of, but he's scouring the catacombs for you by now, I'm sure. We'll kill the guards if there are any. Then you will get out and find your friends .. but I will stay."

Veil stared at Bluefen. "Mother!"

She shook her head. "What about Esmund? Skadu and her friends will watch him until I get you out, for you must escape. But I cannot leave him, and neither could we take him with us .. not when we very likely will have to fight and kill to get to the surface."

The ferret sighed. "But for now. Tell me of Ignasa. Once I had a friend, Kesha, and she told me. But it has been so long, and fool that I was I did not listen well enough then. She said Ignasa forgives and sets creatures free, as I recall. Is that true?"

Groddil's teachings came back to Veil's mind, and he nodded. "Yes .. it is. He hates all evil, is against the wicked with wrath, but he says all those who believe they need him .. and call out to him .. are his children."

"Even vermin? I mean .. I know you are son, but I mean vermin who have grown up vermin and .. are evil." Bluefen looked down. "For I am .. wicked at heart."

Ivan caught up to them, stating drolly. "You seem a good sort of vermin, honestly. You didn't have to risk your life to help us."

Bluefen shook her head miserably. "No .. no, you do not know what wickedness my heart holds. I risked your life Veil .. just so I could have a better chance to kill your father. I was so desperate, I planned to train Esmund for the sole purpose, that one day he might slay Swartt for me. He was going to be a tool in my revenge, and even while I love the child, I might yet teach him. I thank your lord you came and stopped me .. hatred .. my hatred would have become his. And my hatred had destroyed me .. I would have knowingly destroyed him. It is wicked, purely wicked, and yes, I even know it! I started to teach him .. it is my fault Byron died! And when Kesha said he had a destiny .. I ruined that."

She looked away. "But I cannot help myself. I would still. It is the hatred .. those fires of vengeance .. that beast that never dies. I dreamed that the day I could finally take Swartt's life, then I would be free. But I won't .. it is my master, and it will forever want revenge until even the things I hold dear I might harm .. because they are Swartt's also. I fear it now .. but I can't escape it, ever."

Veil felt chills run up his spine to hear Bluefen speak this way. "You mean you could even hate me?"

"I do not know .. I do not know. I do not want to! But I am half insane .. you don't know what a lifetime of slavery causes." Bluefen looked twice as old as before, in the flickering torchlight.

It was disturbing to hear his mother talk of turning her hatred against her own children, because they were Swartt's. And yet he knew the fear of uncontrollable emotions .. he had been there. Deep down, he was there .. though there was one difference.

He had Ignasa to calm him, and Bluefen did not.

"Mother .. I have felt that kind of hate. But Ignasa can .. stop that. I just .. haven't trusted him enough, I guess." Veil was almost hesitant around her now.

Bluefen looked dully up at him. "Please do not fear me son .. I am not my own beast sometimes anymore. I fear I really am going mad .. I plead with my very soul that I would never hurt you or Esmund because of Swartt .. maybe I'm just as bad as he. Oh irony .. how cruel it is, when I swore I would sooner die than be as evil as that Sixclaw!"

Veil gently touched her shoulder. "Ignasa .. can save you from that fate mother."

Bluefen stopped walking, turning to face her son. "How?"

Oh Ignasa .. tell me what to say .. make me convince her .. please!

Veil's thoughts were a silent plea as he spoke, but somehow the words weren't all his own. "Ask his forgiveness .. trust in him. Just .. believe he can save you and break your chains. That really is all."

Bluefen opened her mouth to answer, but there was a commotion from further up the tunnel. The ferretwife grabbed the torch from Ivan, quickly putting it out. "Hush, guards! Hide in the shadows .. if they see us we can't let them live to talk."

Veil felt his skin crawl, and he shivered, suddenly whispering, "I .. don't think that's just guards."

"What is it?" Ivan's voice was deathly serious.

Veil shook his head. "Something evil .. I'll look."

Bluefen was the farthest away from the opening to the main tunnel, and she sounded worried. "Be careful Veil .. stay out of the light, they've got torches."

Veil nodded in the darkness, slowly peering around the corner. He meant to stay out of sight, he really did. But the shock of the scene before him was too much .. of all the things he'd expected, this wasn't it.

His friends .. and his father, with an iron grip on Esther. Veil felt his nostrils flare and for once, he acted before he thought. He drew his knife, jumping at Swartt and knocking him forcefully against the wall, planting a knee on the ferret's chest to keep him on the ground.

Esther wrested her arm from the warlord's loosened grip, and Veil pressed the knife against his father's throat. "Tell them to let my friends go, or I'll kill you!"

For one second, everything froze, although Veil was vaguely aware of a scuffle behind them. However Swartt was fast, so fast Veil didn't see him move his paw until it was too late.

The young ferret felt himself be thrown roughly to the ground by invisible power, all his breath knocked away. Esther was fast too, and in the corner of his vision, Veil saw her grab the knife. However Swartt was just as much a thief, and he'd been in practice longer.

Before Esther could get a chance to move for the warlord, he sent her flying with a careless flick of his paw. The ermine slammed into Veil, knocking his breath away all over again.

Fripple had one of the guards on the ground, as did Ivan, Cedric, and the two horses .. even Catkin's guard lay stunned against the wall .. but more came running. Swartt stood slowly, brown eyes alive with fury. "Good try son .. but learn to kill while you can. You'll never get the chance again."

Veil tried to get to his knees, but one of the guards knocked him down with a spearpole, causing him to lurch forward and fall over Esther, still recovering. The ferret snarled, revealing his white fangs. "What are you going to do with us?"

Swartt looked thoughtful. "What am I? Yes, that is the question. I think execution would be in order, but perhaps .. I'm kinder. Or maybe just more .. sadistic."

Esther looked fearfully up at Veil, who felt even more hate for Swartt because of it. The ferret warlord sneered. "Helpless anger is the worst, isn't it, son?"

Veil didn't move, just glared balefully up at the other ferret. Swartt smirked at this. "Guards. Take our visitors to proper accommodations .. let them see each other. Yes, put them all in a cell and the horses in another. Why shouldn't they be together after how hard they have fought?"

Veil stared at the warlord as he was shoved onto his feet, and Esther was too.

Why would his father do that .. unless .. there was something in it for him.

Also, Veil quickly realized two beasts were very much missing ... Bluefen, and Aubretia.




Chapter 23 Sands of Time

Lords of Shadow

Swartt and Shroud .. plotting .. :/

Veil found himself thrown into a cell, along with the others. Swartt watched with satisfaction as the door was slammed shut, giving Veil a demonic smile of victory before ordering, "Guard both ends of the prison corridor. Eleven guards at each end, switched out by the hour. There will be no more escapes."

The warlord stalked away, Muggra with him. Nobeast moved from the place they'd been thrown, until the guards fell to their assigned positions, the ends of the corridor of cells.

The first beast who moved was Esther, who suddenly shocked Veil with a tight hug. "I didn't .. know if I'd ever see you again!"

Veil felt himself smile the tiniest bit. "Well .. you did."

He looked down, laying his chin on his knees. "I .. got you into this, didn't I? All of it. I shouldn't have .. jumped out. He wouldn't have known .. and I might have been able to save you. I'm so ... stupid."

"You're not .. I'd have done the same." Fripple sighed, wiping blood away from a cut on her arm. "It's good to see you both again though, even if we're all going to die now."

Catkin frowned. "Fripple, don't go there .. I'm sure something will turn up. And on the good side .. we're all together again!"

"In prison." Ivan was droll."

"Hey wait Princess .. where's Bookworm?"

Veil blinked at the speaker, none other than Cedric. "Wait .. how are you here? I thought we sent you away."

Cedric shrugged. "I don't give up easy."

"He came back and sort of .." Fripple paused. "Helped us a lot."

Esther nodded. "Yes, he and Star even ran the chariot race to get money to pay somebeast so we could find you .. but .. now .."

"That Sixclaw guy took it." Cedric sounded disgusted. "After I risked my neck .. I was hoping for a few hundred off that, but .."

"Money wouldn't do you any good now, anyway." Veil deemed it his imagination, but Fripple looked almost compassionate.

Cedric sighed. "Yea, guess you're right Princess. Sorry it all sorta went wrong your Majesty."

Catkin pulled out some hotroot, nibbling on it. "We shouldn't give up .. Lord Ignasa will help us."

Veil felt a chill for saying it, but it came out anyway. "He .. hasn't helped me a lot recently, I'm afraid."

The ferret took a deep breath, looking around before he asked, "So .. where is Aubretia?"

Star, in the next cell with a liver chestnut, shook her head. "I don't know. I saw her a little before we got captured. Oh and this is Eveningstar, Veil, Ivan. He met us after you two got .. captured."

Ivan sighed. "And now we're all captured."

Fripple scowled. "That .. he .. humph. He took my saber .. I can't stand being weaponless. We've got to get out of here. Esther, can you pick the lock?"

The ermine stood, walking over to the door and feeling around the lock. "I'm .. not really sure .. sorry .. this is weird .. it only opens from the outside. Like Redwall's gates only open from the inside .. you know? I could never pick those ... sorry .. really."

Esther turned to Veil, asking, "How .. did you and Ivan get out?"

Veil shook his head. "We had help from a bat .. but she's not here anymore, she probably isn't even in the catacombs."

Fripple sighed, turning to the horses. "Could you kick .. well .. kick the bars down?"

Evening sniffed them. "That's cast iron miss Fripple. I think I'd chip my hooves down to the fetlocks trying."

Cedric put a paw on her shoulder. "Princess, it's no good. We're stuck, and you've just gotta realize that, I'm afraid. This is a mess bigger than you can fix .. than any of us can fix. All we can do is try to stick together at this point."

><><

Aubretia stood slowly as the knock sounded again. Scound was unsure. "Ya really think ya should open that?"

However a familiar voice came from outside. "Veil? Aubretia .. Fripple .. anybeast? Is it you?"

Aubretia yanked the door open, exclaiming in shock at who she saw. "Bryony!"

The golden mouse gaped at the black one, asking, "How .. did .. I mean .. where's my parchment .. this defies all calculations! How did you get here?"

Bryony motioned to the brown mouse maid, and none other than Mizzah and Annon behind her. "I had a little help .. Glow's waiting outside."

"Wait, Glowingsparks? Glow's here too?"

Byron limped up, holding out the parchment. "Here are your things, miss Aubretia."

She took them, scratching a few things down. "Oh yes, and this is Byron. And Vinwyte. And ... Scound, I guess."

The weasel of that name looked confused, and the other two much the same .. although Byron was staring at Bryony so hard she looked uncomfortable. "Um .. hello."

Byron shook his head. "Your name is Bryony?"

She nodded slowly. "Yes .. it always has been .."

Aubretia found herself looking at the two now, making instant mental note on how alike they looked. They were both variations of black, both slender-boned, large-eyed, sharp-featured, almost gangly .. and both had an abnormally long tail.

That's why Byron had seemed sort of familiar .. he looked a lot like Bryony! The mouse looked surprised now, as he asked, "Who are your parents?"

Bryony looked somewhat offended. "I don't have any. And I've never seen you before .. why are you asking such rude questions?"

Byron held up his paws. "I meant nothing .. but Bluefen used to tell me I once had a twin sister named Bryony .. black with golden points .. and she said we were separated at birth .. at a place called Salamandastron."

Bryony looked astounded now. "Wait ... but I .. Rose said I was found at Salamandastron .. that a weasel brought me to Lord Arvid .. in a war with some ermine, called .."

"Lotor." Everybeast turned to look at Scound.

The weasel shrugged. "His name was Lotor. An' ya were. Yer mother was a gold rat .. she got killed by a Shadow Fighter called Velox."

Bryony frowned. "But .. how do you know sir?"

"Because I was dat weasel .. the one what took ya ta the squirrelprince."

Byron's voice was soft. "Bluefen said my mother was a golden rat .. and my father was some black mouse Shadow Fighter."

Aubretia frowned. "The mouse Shadow Fighter of the wars with Lotor .. I read about him somewhere, but now I can't remember .."

Bryony had a hard time taking this all in. "Wait .. so .. I'm your .. sister? And you .. like .. saved my life when I was a baby?"

Scound nodded to the question pertaining to him. "Yah. Ye've sure growed a lot since I last saw ya."

Byron shrugged. "Well .. statistically .. I believe so."

Bryony plopped down in Aubretia's now vacant chair. "Oh boy ... the things adventures do to beasts. Somebeast get me some water, I think I've got sunstroke."

The brown mouse maid looked worried. "I'll get you some Bryony."

Bryony nodded. "Thanks Lenn ... wow .. so I'm .. half rat?"

Mizzah spoke up. "Sorry to break up this .. reunion, but is my nephew here?"

Aubretia paused, before shaking her head. "No .. he got captured! They all got captured except me, just like Veil and Ivan!"

Lenn came back through the door with the water, asking, "Who's captured?"

Bryony sat straight up. "Veil's been captured? No! That ruins everything!"

She fumbled in her satchel, shoving a ratted parchment in Aubretia's face. "This! It completely ruins this!"

"This is a page from my diary." Aubretia sounded confused.

Bryony sighed, pulling out a different piece of ratted parchment. "Sorry, they look the same. I meant it totally ruins this!"

Aubretia adjusted her glasses, reading.


"Four are not one when two are gone,

Echoes of evil shall rise.

Only a breath of morning song,

Could break this spell of lies.


A chosen one and chosen true,

Has a call to answer.

Far from home but not alone,

He has a home to fight for.


Echoes will ring, echoes will fly,

Sixclawed though he be.

A hated one will answer this cry,

What hides will set us .."


Bryony broke in. "Glow and I think the last word is free. Don't you see, it's a prophesy about how Veil will save Redwall!"

Aubretia stared at her. "Save Redwall? Bryony, what are you talking about? Veil can't ever go back to Redwall, they'll kill him! Besides that, he's captured by this Swartt Sixclaw .. and .."

Bryony looked determined. "Then we've got to get him back. There's a Shadow Fighter loose in Redwall abbey, and so many beasts seem deceived and almost insane .. they tried to accuse me of helping Veil murder, as if he would have!"

><><

Shroud's household was in a tumult, due to the death of Ramon and the injuries Deathstrike had sustained. The bay horse stood in the magnificent villa's courtyard, marble beneath him stained red as he explained the happenings in detail to Shroud himself.

The black fox's red eyes almost glowed with wrath as he listened, snapping finally at the end, "Ramon said he killed a mouse like the one you describe, a few races ago."

Deathstrike shook his head. "I know, and we did .. or I thought we did. He did get thrown against the wall in that race, I remember, but I thought for sure blood loss would kill him. Some fool must have saved his life .. and he came back for revenge!"

The bay paused. "And that pinto pony .. I'd love to tear her to pieces for what she did!"

"I take the mouse, and you can have the horse to do what you like with. But I'll skin that spawn of Hellgates with this whip, I swear it on Malimore!" Shroud's voice was a guttural sound.

Deathstrike nodded to the villa. "Better comfort your mate a little first, Nightshade's pretty hysterical."

Shroud sighed, nodding. "I suppose. And get you a healer .. guard!"

The beast passing them paused. "Yes Lord?"

"See Deathstrike is healed of his wounds."

The creature gave the horse a look, before nodding. "Yes Lord."

Shroud nodded. "Go with him."

As Deathstrike started off, Shroud glared at the floor, splattered with blood. The fox snarled. "Arrg .. Aisha! Aisha, where are you? Get out here now!"

It was a moment, but a cream furred weasel with violet eyes appeared in a doorway to the villa's courtyard. "Yes Milord?"

Shroud snarled at her, pointing to the blood on the floor. "Clean this up scum, and for your lateness .."

The studded whip appeared in Shroud's paw, and its lash swung out, catching the almost frail looking weasel across the back. Aisha sprawled to the ground with a small cry of pain as her blood mingled subtly with Deathstrike's.

Shroud grinned in demonic pleasure at causing a beast pain, even more so than usual. He brought his whip down again, though this time he evoked no scream. This seemed to irritate him more, but as he raised the whip to deal out more brutal punishment, a couple guards came running through the villa's outer doors.

"Lord Shroud!"

The fox lashed Aisha once more to prove his point, before stepping haughtily over her and asking, "What is it?"

One of the guards spoke up. "Lord, we saw Sixclaw capture the beasts you were after. He got there just before we did."

"What?" Shroud's voice was a snarl. "Swartt, that polecat! I will have my revenge .. I will yet. Swartt never could resist a little gold .. get me fifteen guards .. we're going to pay Sixclaw a little visit for this."

Nobeast noticed the weasel struggle to sit up, pulling her torn rags back around her shoulders with a wince. But it was a hateful wince.

She picked up her mop and bucket, staggering onto her paws with a snarl of pain, the fury in her violet eyes glittering with vicious intensity.

><><

Mizzah took the parchment from Bryony, asking, "You say deception seems the greatest enemy at your Redwall?"

Bryony nodded. "Yes .. and that Shadow Fighter Xzanthia!"

"Xzanthia? A Shadow Fighter?" Aubretia sounded shocked as she took calculations. "That seems impossible, by these equations."

"Believe me, I saw her use green light to hex Ash!" Bryony sounded scared.

Lenn spoke up from nearby. "Hex? What's that?"

Bryony shivered. "I don't really know .. it's all I could liken it to. It was like Ash's self-will was gone or completely suppressed .. she was just an empty, controllable shell. It was ... freakish."

Lenn looked frightened by this description, as Mizzah broke in. "But that would also be deception, would it not? This Xzanthia hid her true self?"

"Oh yes sir, so very much." Bryony was earnest.

Mizzah nodded. "Then it comes back to deception, and I think, that in a way, the riddle has given you the answer you need. Only a breath of morning song could break this spell of lies."

Lenn looked like her mind was elsewhere. "Isn't the Morning Song a name of Ignasa ..?"

Aubretia shook her head. "I cannot properly recall. But morning is often in his names, or fire .. anything that has to do with light. 'The Morning Star', 'Lord of the Morning', 'Lord of Light' ..."

Mizzah crossed his arms. "I don't think I have ever heard the name Morning Song used to refer to Ignasa, seeing as it is 'song', I feel it refers not directly to him, but to his words of truth."

"What if it really is a song?"

Everybeast turned to look at Lenn, Bryon speaking first. "What do you mean?"

Lenn shrugged. "I mean .. what I say .. what if it is a real song?"

"If it was miss .. where could we find it?" Byron sounded hesitant.

Lenn shook her head. "It's probably not .. I don't know."

Vinwyte broke in. "Forgive me, is that the most important thing right now? Maybe if we freed the others, they could help us find this morning song."

Scound spoke up. "I'm wid him, the otter's got the right idea. Kid .. which entrance were ya thinkin' of?"

Byron leaned against the table, stating, "The one that comes out in section .. six, I think."

Scound whistled. "Well that's a run down one ta pick, ain't it now? Look, if yer gonna start snoopin', at least get some clothes that look the part."

He was motioning to Lenn and Bryony. Mizzah nodded. "Yes, that's the first order of business, that and getting our friend Byron here some crutches .. I think he'll need them. After that .. well, I guess we'll be paying these catacombs a visit."

><><

"Now what?" Ivan was good at bringing the direness of a situation to the forefront.

Veil shook his head. "I don't think we can do much .. except maybe try to figure out what they plan to do with us."

Star snorted. "What good will that do? I'm hungry!"

"I'm afraid that's something you'll have to get used to at this point." Fripple's answer was a sigh.

Cedric frowned. "I'm the most worried about how they're acting. I mean .. they put us all in the same cells? Where we can talk?"

"I know, and it worries me. My .. father .. is bound to have something horrible in mind." Veil looked down.

Esther spoke up, laying a paw on Veil's shoulder. "He's .. really your father?"

Veil sighed, giving her a dull sideways look as if to discern whether or not she disliked him for the fact. "Yea."

The ermine looked down, before whispering, "If .. it's any consolation .. I'm sorry."

"You don't have to like me if you don't want to. It's my fault you're all here .. you never should have come with me. You could be safe at Redwall .. instead we're probably all going to be tortured to death."

Veil put his face in his paws with a heavy sigh. "I think this was my path to walk .. alone."

"That isn't happy!" Catkin tried to keep her positive mood.

Veil met her amber gaze, stating, "Catkin, I'm sorry I've got to say this. You've really cheered us all up through .. everything, but this isn't happy. You've .. got to see that this time."

Catkin looked down, nodding sadly. "I .. I know Veil. I just think if we're sad .. well .. that's what they want, isn't it? Isn't that like giving up?"

"She's right .. I think."

Veil looked at Esther questioningly, and she quickly explained herself. "I don't mean be .. blind .. but .. if we give up .. well .. that's what they want, right Veil? They want to break our will .. don't they."

For once, Esther's words ended with certainty and not questioning.

"They do." Veil looked up. "You're right .. we can't let them .. and yet .. it's hard."

Nobeast spoke for a moment, before Fripple broke the silence. "Veil, you were our stronghold of faith. What .. what happened to you?"

The ferret bit his lip, finally blurting, "I doubted .. I let him tempt me .. I didn't know I could even think such wicked things, and yet I did! I can't even trust my own heart anymore .. I .. perhaps I am afraid of myself, more than I am afraid of Swartt. I asked Ignasa .. to never let me think like that again .. but .. I still fear I might."

Esther didn't say anything at first, just reached out and put a paw on his shoulders. "I know what you mean .. I really do. Honest."

More might have been said, but the clinking of keys and thump of boots in the corridor made them all freeze. Veil recognized Muggra, who pulled down on the door's handle, opening it. He nodded to the guards behind them. "Take them, as Lord Sixclaw ordered."

Fripple kicked the guard who grabbed her, but while he glared at her, he did nothing but drag her out. Cedric leapt to his feet, yelling, "Hey, leave her be!"

Another guard grabbed him, as Muggra seized Esther by the arm, yanking her onto her paws. Veil heard himself growl as he jumped up, snarling, "What are you doing? You may as well tell us."

Muggra shrugged. "Not my duty."

Veil growled threateningly as another guard grabbed his arm, shoving him out the door. The young ferret was practically thrown into a different cell, farther from the two horses. He looked up in time to see Muggra shove Esther in after him, slamming the door shut with a sneer.

The weasel walked away, and Veil helped Esther sit up. "Hey, are you ok?"

She nodded, rubbing her arm with a little wince. "I'll be fine .. he just yanked me around some."

Veil blinked at her as the oddness of what had just happened dawned on him. "Wait .. why are we still in prison? I thought he was going to have us killed."

Esther shrugged, before nodding. "Yea ... this is so .. creepy. Veil .. can I say this? I'm .. really .. sort of .. scared right now. Look .. they're just separating us into pairs so we can't .. talk as a group."

"You're right .. I wonder if there's more to it than just that though .. Shadow Fighters never do things simply on random." Veil sounded grim.

Esther scooted up to the bars, peering out. "Hmm .. I think they put Fripple with Cedric .. they left the horses together .. they put Catkin with Ivan. That's sort of weird .."

Veil scratched his head. "It all seems sort of off .. why would they put Cedric and Fripple together .. she doesn't like him at all."

"Oh no, they're getting along much better now! Fripple even went out with him once."

Veil stared at Esther, who nodded to confirm her words. The ferret looked down, finally asking, "And the horses like each other?"

Esther nodded. "Oh yes .. Star's just crazy about him .."

Veil shook his head. "I don't like this. I don't get Ivan and Catkin, but .. I guess there aren't any other cats or otters with us. But .. Why'd they put you and me together?"

Esther strove to look indifferent. "I .. haven't any idea .. weird, huh?"

"Maybe not .. they put us with similar species, and probably by our closest bonds. And the thing is, you'd think they'd do the exact opposite."

Veil turned to face Esther, who looked nervously around, swallowing hard. "Veil .. I .. really don't like this."

Veil nodded. "You're not .. the only one. This looks really bad .. it all bodes extremely ill in my mind. Swartt's definitely planning something."

Esther scooted a little closer to him, shaking her head. "And whatever it is .. I really bet it .. won't be anything good."

><><

The clump of boots echoed through the tunnels, as Shroud and his guards made their way through the maze of catacombs.

The black fox threw aside the gauzy green curtain with arrogant distain, storming into Swartt's throne room.

"Sixclaw!"

Swartt looked up from sharpening his claws, slowly standing up from his draped throne and letting his green cape fall to the ground behind him. "Hmm, Bloodpaws. Yes, I've been expecting you."

Shroud took a deep breath, standing to his full height. "You should be Sixclaw. My son's murderers. I want their lives."

"I told you whoever found them first."

Shroud snarled. "Very well, but I want them. I'll pay you for them .. a hundred sheckles Sixclaw, for the two. The jerbilrat and his spotted nag."

Swartt buffed his claws on his metal breastplate, smiling coolly. "Oh, and what would you do with them? Tear them to shreds with your little whips and leave them to bleed their lives into the dust? I admit it would cause them pain, but you know as well as I that tearing the hide into ribbons is not half as bad as shredding the soul."

"What are you talking about Sixclaw? When in Hellgates did you refuse a hundred sheckles? Look I'll make it five hundred!" Shroud's red eyes glimmered with fury.

"Tempting, tempting .." Swartt was deliberate. "But .. just not tempting enough."

Shroud looked like he could barely control his temper. "What do you want with them fool? I don't want your Prophet son or his friends, I want the rat and the pinto!"

Swartt smiled. "Don't you see Bloodpaws? They are his friends too. And more interesting yet, both of the beasts you want seem to have an .. affection for another in the group."

Shroud clenched his teeth. "Spawn of a vulture, you think I care?"

"Ah but you should Shroud, as the genteel creature you are. As the calm, collected creature you are. As the plotting, intelligent, and in all other ways conniving and wicked villain you are." Swartt's smile revealed razor sharp fangs.

The ferret sighed. "Ah, what to do. I certainly see your point, you so wish revenge. But I .. have a little .. festivity planned."

Shroud stared at him. "What? What are you talking of Sixclaw?"

Swartt grinned. "As you know, my takeover is complete. The city is brainwashed, and they think queen Lilly has authorized these terrible laws. So I will rid Southsward of her tyranny, and sit no more in this underworld, but on her throne, as king of the south!"

He held up a paw. "But I must test the hearts of creatures. Are there yet enough to try and overthrow the new king? And so my son and his friends will aid me in this, while .. entertaining all of Southsward and bringing in a new age of unmatched glory!"

Shroud sneered "Oh really? And why should you be king? I made those monocles!"

Swartt smiled. "Indeed. But who sent them to Redwall abbey, a stronghold of the one whose name shall not be spoken? And who imprisoned the rabbit queen and stole her seal? Who lets your dear mate keep her apprentices in his realm? But more importantly, who do the commoners hate more than Shroud Bloodpaws, seller of souls and lord of the slave trade?"

Shroud snarled, finally snapping, "So be it, but I rule jointly. Now. The captives. What fool thing have you come up with?"

Swartt nodded, stating. "I have a thought. Perhaps I show you how they act, and while we go, I unveil my plan .. which I feel you may find most interesting. But leave your guards to await your return here. Otherwise .. I won't even let you in on it."

"Sixclaw, I could send you to Hellgates!" Shimmering green danced around Shroud's right paw.

Swartt held up his left paw, letting glowing green shimmer between his claws. "But you might come with me, Bloodpaws."

Shroud snarled. "Fine. Fine I will come, but don't think you've won."

"Won? We're partners. If one wins, the other does also. Come along Shroud, and do let me tell you something .. I feel you'll quite enjoy."

><><

Bluefen's paws skittered through the empty catacombs, back to the seer's quarters. Her vision was blurry, but she was too lost to cry. There didn't seem enough left in her to even bring tears.

All this .. through all she'd faced, she'd found her son, only to have him stolen from her the next second.

She tripped, her torch falling from her paws and landing a few feet away, sputtering but still burning. Bluefen lay still, watching it spit and dim, flare up, die back down, and repeat it's endless efforts to continue burning.

"Once the wood is gone, you will die .. it is all futility, cannot you see?"

Bluefen's voice was muffled as she spoke brokenly to the lifeless object. However on in its fight it continued, no matter its inevitable end.

It was like her. It was left to die, yet on it struggled to live. It was uncared for, yet it strove to survive. And all for nothing, for when its time was up, all its efforts would be in vain. It could not grow strong yet would not fade completely, stuck in a futile pattern of its slow death .. scorching the stones it lay on.

And as she found this meaning, Bluefen found the strength to cry. Her tears fell bitterly to the cold stone floor, and her shoulders shook as she whispered a plea .. though she didn't know if any would care to answer.

"What .. have I done? I am just as it, I ruin the things close to me, I live for hate. Hate is what keeps my fire alive .. I am tired. I am done .. Oh Lord of the Morning .. if you would listen .. to the wretched creature's cry ... forgive me, I plead. I was so wrong .. so wicked .. so hateful! Oh I may not have shown it like Swartt, but you know milord, you know! I beg you to forgive me, even though I never could deserve it .. but as you show others, please show me mercy! Save me from this fate, I cannot save myself. I am done fighting in my strength, Oh Ignasa, king of all .. please give me yours!"

The ferret buried her face in her paws with a broken sob, never once moving to get up. But she didn't have to. The torch may have been burning lower by the second, but her soul felt free .. as though something had shattered her chains, healing the wounds she'd bore all her life.

Tears may have fallen, but they were tears unlike Bluefen had ever shed, tears of joy and freedom. The ferret's whisper was soft, but it was the most sincere thing she'd ever said. "Oh Lord .. Milord .. may I serve you forever, never let me stray. Thank you Milord .. I am free .. I will never be a slave again!"

She slowly sat up, eyes widening. "And what a fool I am .. what a pawn of Malimore! For I must take the child .. he must not fall to his father's paws .. I will get Esmund out .. and Kinta! And Skadu, and Zenith .. we will all be free."

Bluefen stood, picking up the torch and watching it flare to life with renewed vigor once it was held again as was intended. "What little life I have left, Lord, let me serve the only one who has shown me real love .. show me the path I must walk, and let me fight the fight of a true and noble warrior!"

She hurried down the tunnel, looking once more at the place she had brokenly fallen .. only to arise again complete. The hate that had consumed her was changing .. turning into something she had no name for. Yet it was far more powerful than hate had ever been.

And a good sort of powerful .. it was calming, determined, honest, and strengthening by the second. Bluefen wondered if her soul could even contain it .. but if it did kill her, it would be a beautiful death.

However she grew stronger with it, and her resolve solidified. She burst through the doors to the seer's chambers, leaning momentarily against the doorpost. Zenith's ears shot up as she asked, "Bluefen? Is it .. you?"

The ferret's voice was soft. "It's me Zenith."

Skadu started forward. "Ye've been cryin .. and yer hurt too!"

Bluefen glanced down at her elbows, to realize they were bleeding a little from her fall. "I don't even feel them .. it doesn't matter. Esmund, come here."

He did so, smiling up at her. "Mother, you look happy!"

Bluefen hugged him, whispering, "I am Esmund .. I really am. Now .. I am leaving the catacombs. Kinta .. Skadu .. Zenith .. come with me."

Kinta started. "But how? We can't get past the guards."

"I know. But I think I know another way. And anything is better than waiting for death here .. I have finally realized this."

Skadu paused. "Wait, where's Veil an' 'is friend?"

Bluefen looked down, anger returning for a moment, before she sighed. "Swartt captured them again. And I won't ever leave them. But I must get Esmund somewhere safe .. please come with us!"

Zenith slowly stood, taking hold of her walking staff. "I will go with you. I am afraid every day, every minute .. I want freedom .. but .. I always wanted somebeast else to lead. Because I cannot."

Kinta hung her head, before walking to a table and picking up her set of short wooden poles connected by chain. "I should have led .. but I was too afraid. Somehow .. I'm not so much, anymore."

Skadu paused, before sighing and picking up the bread knife. "Oh .. I guess I'm in. Nightshade hasn't been back fer a day or so .. guess the time's as good as any. Don't got nothin' else to do, I s'pose."

Bluefen nodded, taking a torch down from the wall and lighting it. "Alright, now I've found another way out than the usual .. there shouldn't be guards."

><><

Mizzah knew his way about the city better than the others, and he'd taken Annon and Vinwyte with him as well as Lenn and Bryony. The jerbilrat nodded to them. "I'll let you pick out what you like. Keep in mind we'll be in run down catacombs and get something practical."

Bryony sighed, but nodded in understanding. "Alright."

The streets were busy and crowded, and Bryony couldn't help but feel shivers. Maybe because she knew Veil and the others had been captured here.

Glow had stayed at the inn to rest, as had Byron and Aubretia. Scound had vanished, though Mizzah had originally planned on making the weasel come with them. However he seemed as slippery as a fish .. not one to go along with much of anything.

Mizzah had been disgusted at this as well as suspicious, but they couldn't waste time looking for Scound.

Maybe this too, was part of what made Bryony nervous. She didn't like to think bad things of the weasel, but she wasn't sure he was trustworthy and knew Mizzah felt the same.

Also .. she was still trying to get over all she had learned in the last hour. Mizzah's voice broke through her thoughts.

"Alright, here. Come with me." He pointed to a shop with all sorts of clothing in it. "Annon, Vinwyte, there's a carpenter's stall right next to this shop .. see if you can find some crutches for Byron there. Meet us back on the steps .. and whatever you do, don't leave this area. It's crowded .. we shouldn't have any trouble here."

Annon paused. "Father, what kind of trouble are you thinking we could have?"

Mizzah shook his head. "I don't know son, but .. look around. See all the monocles? This city is far worse of than the last time I was here. Just be careful."

><><

"I .. will get out .. of here .. stupid rock .." Fripple pried on the loose stone she'd found in the back wall of the cell she was now in.

Cedric sighed. "Princess, all you're gonna do is break your claws. You may need them."

Fripple gave up as the large rock settled back in its space, pinching her fingers. She yanked them out, wincing and holding them tightly with her other paw.

"What'd I tell you?" Cedric shook his head. "There's no point. If we got out of this cell, we'd still be lost in these .. catacombs, and sooner or later, they'd find us. Besides, I'm getting the feeling they've got some secret place they can observe us from."

Fripple wiggled the claws on her left paw experimentally, wincing. "Where'd you get that idea?"

Cedric picked up her injured paw, looking it over. "It's just a little swollen .. it'll be gone in a few minutes. And as for how I guessed it .. they seem to have separated us with reason, now haven't they?"

Fripple looked out of her cell, stating, "Well, they put Ivan with Catkin .. that's weird .. Star and Evening .. yea .. I could see the point there .. Veil with Esther .. yea, Esther's crazy about Veil, it doesn't take a Shadow Fighter to know that. Huh, they put you with .... um .. me."

Cedric shrugged. "Well, at your abbey, didn't they teach you about Shadow Fighters? I've .. never really seen anything like this."

Fripple nodded. "Yea, they did. Groddil said Shadow Fighters exploit every weakness, they love torture of the soul above anything physical, they are willing to research anything they feel will benefit them, and there is no pity among them."

"That ... yea. That's kind of the drift I got." Cedric looked down.

Fripple raised an eyebrow. "Aren't you going to come up with something?"

Cedric shook his head. "Princess, I try to be a pretty optimistic guy .. but this .. is .. unlike anything I've faced. I've faced slavers, bandits, jackals .. but this Swartt .. well he seems smarter than any."

Fripple nodded. "He's wicked. But .. I don't get how you never knew of him if he's been living under your city. How could he maintain a kingdom in forgotten tombs .. feed an army without the light of day? It make no sense, unless ... unless .. he had help."

"A partner to supply him with food and clothes, in return for ... something. Who has enough wealth and power, coupled with evil to ...." Cedric broke off, suddenly answering his own question. "Shroud ... I bet anything it's Shroud. This kinda backhanded thing would be just like him."

"You killed his son." Fripple's voice was laced with fear.

Cedric shuddered. "Don't remind me. He killed my mother .. I'll be next."

Fripple's eyes flashed. "He won't take you!"

Cedric met her gaze, shaking his head. "You can't stop Shroud, Princess, you've got no idea what monster you're up against. And I have the feeling he will take me if Swartt is in alliance with him. I .. I've never been one to pray .. but .. maybe you should. Maybe your Ignasa will save us."

Fripple slowly looked up. "Ignasa .. I haven't called upon him .. have I? I've .. forgotten. I thought I could .. just do it myself .. but .. maybe I've been wrong all along."

"Anything is worth a try at this point Princess .. anything."

Fripple nodded, looking away as she whispered, "Ignasa .. please. Help us out of this .. I .. I don't know what to do."

She didn't look up as Cedric asked, "That's .. all you have to say?"

"I don't know anymore." Fripple's voice was muffled. "I feel lost .. like Ignasa has left me. I'm .. just so .. lost. And helpless. I hate being helpless."

Cedric put a paw on her shoulder, meeting her damp gaze. "I'm as helpless as you. And you'll never be helpless to me .. you are the strongest beast I've ever met."

Fripple looked down. "But it was all on the outside! I'm only tough on the outside, it's my shield for my fear. And now .. now I'm not sure I can really hide behind it anymore. I'm afraid of that. I .. don't let many beasts over that wall, and the ones I do I can't bear to loose. And you .." She paused.

"I didn't let you in, you just came in. I tried to keep you out .. do anything to keep you out .. but .. you're like moss on a log, you don't leave. I'm not sure how you did it .. or why you did it .. but you did it."

"You couldn't bear to loose me?" Cedric sounded fascinated.

"I would die sooner. That is part of me .. I may be afraid, deep down, of many things, but to see somebeast I care about hurt .. it brings out my Bloodwrath. Father always said I had too much of my mother for my own good."

><><

"What do you say Shroud, just see them? Does that not spark the imagination?"

The black fox glared at Swartt as they returned to the ferret's throne room. "Oh it sparks mine."

Swartt's smile glimmered. "Are you with me in this?"

Shroud huffed. "Your plan is good, but somewhat oversimplified .. I think I could aid it."

"Why don't you, Bloodpaws?"

Shroud's agreement was snappish. "Fine. But this is also according to my conditions .."

Swartt was patronizing. "Of course, Bloodpaws, of course. Depending, naturally, on those conditions. What are they to be, enlighten me."

"Give me the rat, his princess, and the two horses. Malimore take the rest, but those four are mine to kill, and mine alone. Understand Sixclaw?" Shroud was straining to keep his temper in check.

Swartt waved a careless paw at him. "Take them, they would only hinder my purpose .. for my son must learn a hard lesson .. nobeast defies the King of Southsward."

Shroud drew himself to his full height, his red eyes glittering with suppressed malice. "Indeed Sixclaw .. oh indeed."

><><

Bryony whirled around in front of the mirror set on one of the shop's walls, watching her white skirt flare out. Mizzah was paying the shop keeper, and Lenn was walking experimentally in her stiff new sandals.

Mizzah closed his satchel, nodding to the mice. "I think you look the part, but we'll ask Annon and Vinwyte. Come on, we need to keep moving."

Lenn followed him out of the shop, sighing, "Oh thank you, it's ever so much cooler."

"Yea, it really is nice." Bryony agreed. "Thanks Mizzah."

"Keep up you two, I see them over there." The jerbilrat chieftain led them to his son and Vinwyte, who had some crutches, as well as a new bow and quiver of arrows.

Annon laughed. "You were gone awhile father."

Mizzah shook his head. "Too bad Zillah isn't here, I could have been gone longer. What are you two young rouges up to eh? I thought you had a bow Annon, about six different ones, in fact. And I feel that one there is slightly too large for you."

Annon grinned. "But isn't she a beauty? And what's more, I'm going to teach Vinwyte to use this one .. he needs a weapon, don't you think?"

Mizzah nodded. "Hmm .. true son. I'd have started him on a dirk, but no matter. I'll let you handle that. Let's get back to the others."

The jerbilrat led them into an alley adjoining the market, Annon explaining how the bow worked to Vinwyte.

"You hold it like this .. load the arrow, pull back like this .. then when you want to shoot, let the string slip off your claws, nice and smooth."

He handed the bow to Vinwyte. "Here, you have a try."

The otter kept walking, asking hesitantly, "So I hold it like .. this .."

Annon nodded, fitting the arrow on the string, "And do that like so .. keep it pointed away from everybeast."

Vinwyte nodded. "And then I draw back like .. this? And .."

"Halt by order of Lord Sixclaw .. arrgh!"

There was a whistle as Vinwyte released his arrow from surprise, and it sank through the speaker's torso, low and to the side. The beast, a rat, fell back with a cry of pain, as five other creatures, vermin as well, surrounded them.

The rat struggled to sit up, gripping the crimson shaft protruding from the top of his hip, groaning, "Take the fools fer that .. arrgg mateys that white 'tter there's gone and near killed me!"

Mizzah drew his longsword, growling, "Get back! What do you want with us?"

Annon whipped off his own bow, suddenly realizing Lenn was weaponless. He dug in his belt, pulling out a long thrusting knife. "Here miss, anybeast can use on of these. You might need it."

Bryony pulled out her only weapon, the knife she'd always used to prune her garden at Redwall. Another vermin answered Mizzah, for the rat was still staggering onto his feet with the aid of his spear.

"We've followed ya, an yer liddle maids there 'ad the dress of northerners on, see? An' our lord want's all northerners. So we'll be takein' ya .. alla ya."

Mizzah slashed out with his sword, cutting through the vermin's spear pole like it wasn't there, decapitating him in the second. "That's what I thought. Annon, Vinwyte, watch out for the maids."

The jerbilrat jumped after a different vermin, and steel met steel with a clash. Bryony found herself faced with a fox, and she dodged the creature's sword slash, pulling Lenn away with her. Both mice fell to the alley's dirt floor in a heap as the fox came after them.

Lenn whipped out the knife Annon had given her, crying, "Get away!"

The fox paused to laugh mockingly, only to be plowed over by Vinwyte. The otter wrenched his adversary's sword from his grip, slashing down with it in the next moment.

Annon had shot his attacker, and Mizzah had dealt with the beast he'd been fighting, as well as the wounded rat. Lenn got to her feet, swallowing hard. "You .. killed them all?"

Mizzah methodically wiped blood from his sword. "It's a law of the desert miss, kill or be killed. That fox wouldn't have spared you if Vinwyte hadn't killed him. Still, I'm sorry you had to see that."

Annon staggered up, holding his bleeding arm. "That's why .. bows are for long range .. ahh!"

Mizzah looked worried. "Son, are you alright?"

"Should of seen the other beast .." Annon winced.

Mizzah looked at the dead weasel, nodding. "I can see him. Come on, there may be more, and we need to get that arm of yours treated."

><><

The echo of paws rang throughout the empty halls of the catacombs, darker, more rundown passages than Swartt made his home in.

Bluefen's voice was soft, but urgent. "Hurry, it's right this way. Just a little ways farther, and we'll be on the streets of Southsward."

Skadu looked up from where she was helping Zenith. "An' then what'll we do?"

"I don't know. We'll find somewhere .. relatively safe. Like an inn." Bluefen was determined.

Kinta caught up with her. "We have no money!"

"We 'ave our jewelry .. maybe they'll take that." Skadu was never one to give up.

Bluefen nodded. "I have a little gold, we'll come up with something .."

They came around a corner, face to face with three guards .. mutual shock resulting. This only lasted for a second however, before one of the soldiers saw Esmund. "Hoi, it's Sixclaw's son ... what're ya doin' this far from yer quarters?"

This was directed to Bluefen, who paused only a second, before grabbing Esmund and bolting back down the corridor, yelling, "Come on you three, run!"

They did so, even Zenith, who had all she could do to limp. Skadu grabbed ahold of her crippled friend, half dragging her down the tunnel. Bluefen chose passages at random, it didn't matter greatly which one they took at this point.

The guards were hot on their tails, and Bluefen heard the one in charge yell to his companions, "Git 'em mates, Sixclaw'll fergive us for not findin' those woodlanders if'n we keep 'is other son 'ere!"

Bluefen ran even faster .. these guards must have been some sent out to find Veil's friends, and were returning empty pawed!

Suddenly Bluefen came face to face with rock wall, the three seers skittering to a halt behind her. Kinta gasped. "Oh no! Now what?"

The guards were approaching fast, and Bluefen put Esmund in one of the dead end's corners. "Zenith, protect him. Skadu, Kinta .. three against three."

The ferret drew her dirk, Kinta pulled out her odd weapon of hefty wood and chain, and Skadu whipped out the bread knife before unsheathing her claws and jumping at the biggest guard, a stoat, with a snarl.

Kinta faced the rat of the group, holding both the wooden poles out so the chain between them was taunt, deflecting her adversary's initial downward spear slash.

Bluefen found herself faced with the leader, a ferret like herself. He laughed, meeting her dirk thrust with his spear, suddenly twisting and knocking her over with his superior strength. The tip of his spear's cross haft ripped across her right cheek, tearing open the old scar Swartt had given her when they fled from Salamandastron long ago.

Bluefen fell to the ground heavily, expecting the ferret to take her head off the next second, but he didn't, just advanced on Zenith, who acted like she didn't notice him .. the blind fox seemed focused in the opposite direction.

Bluefen grabbed hold of her dirk, but she knew she would be too late as the guard silently raised his spear.

Zenith suddenly whirled around as Esmund tugged franticly on her skirt, pointing in silent fear. The blind fox's walking staff belted the ferret across the muzzle, but her bad leg collapsed and she fell on her face in the next second.

Bluefen leapt up, dirk leading the way. She stabbed the ferret between the shoulder blades, and he toppled forward on Zenith and Esmund.

The ferret wife yanked him off the two, pulling her knife from his body. "Zenith, Esmund, are you alright?"

Zenith struggled to her paws, gasping, "The others .. help them Bluefen!"

Skadu had the smaller stoat weaponless and on the ground, Bluefen was in time to see her slash down with her knife. Kinta was still trying to stay one step ahead of her opponent, who suddenly slammed her against the wall, raising his spear to kill. Kinta ducked, swinging her odd weapon with desperate strength. One of the wooden poles connected with his neck, and there was a sickening crack.

The rat fell silently, head at an odd angle. Kinta stepped back with a gulp, and Skadu staggered to her feet, trying to staunch the flow of dark crimson down her left arm. "He .. 'ad a dagger .. ahh! I .. didn't see it comin'."

Kinta had a cut on her leg, as well as the resulting bloody rip in her skirt. Zenith was rubbing her twisted leg, trying not to wince, and Bluefen could feel sticky wetness running down her cheek.

She shook her head, panting, "We can't face anymore .. they were trying to take us alive .. if they'd really wanted to kill us, we'd be dead."

Esmund's voice rang from behind them. "Mother, see what I found! Come look mother!"

Bluefen picked up a fallen torch, walking over to the little wearet and asking, "What is it dear?"

Esmund pushed on a part of the wall Bluefen noticed was indented out. "I .. think .. this .. wall .. moves .. if you .. push .. really awfully .. hard .."

Bluefen handed the torch to Kinta, helping Esmund shove on the wall. It slid fractionally to the side, and Bluefen threw all her weight against it.

The indented piece of wall slid over a foot or so with a scraping groan. Esmund fell over, for he'd been trying to move it. However the wearet picked himself in the next second, stating with excitement, "Oh, I found a passage! A secret passage mother!"

Bluefen shown her torch into the dark room, to see pillars, a few dusty crates and some pieces of furniture. Kinta limped slightly now, but she slid past Bluefen into the large room. "It could be an ancient king's tomb or something."

Zenith had joined them, and she shook her head. "I smell .. the smallest bit of fresh air."

Skadu walked carefully through the opening, holding a dead guard's spear. "We could be in luck then .. what if'n it's got a outlet?"

Bluefen helped Esmund through, before entering herself. "That's what I'm thinking .. help me close this door."

She handed the torch to Zenith, inserting her claws into a crack and pulling the wall slowly back. "Skadu .. I know your arm's hurt, but could you .."

The cat joined her, sticking her long claws into a crack and yanking hard. The wall slid back into its former place with a distinct click.

Skadu pulled her claws out, sighing, "Oh .. whoops."

Kinta looked worried. "What .. if we're locked in a tomb?"

"It doesn't smell like the rest of the catacombs .. the air smells cleaner, almost." Zenith was sniffing carefully.

Esmund motioned they follow him as he tugged on Bluefen's skirt. "Come mother, let's see what's through that hole over there!"

Bluefen did as he said, taking the torch from Zenith and walking up the small flight of stairs to the gilded doorway. As she looked into the next room, she frowned. "This place is huge .. it's bigger than any room I've ever seen in the catacombs."

Zenith was hobbling worse than before, and she leaned against a stack of crates to steady herself. However they weren't balanced well, and both Zenith and the boxes fell to the ground with a loud clatter.

Almost the next second there was an unfamiliar exclamation from a ways away, and the faint creak of a door. Bluefen grabbed Esmund protectively, drawing her still bloodstained dirk .. they wouldn't go down without a fight.




Chapter 24 To the Theater

Esmund's voice was soft as he asked, "Mother, what is it?"

"Shh!" Bluefen's whisper was almost a hiss as there was a creak, and a door swung open in the wall a ways away. The creature that stepped through it was a shock though, tall and thickly built with a white stripe down her forehead and face.

Bluefen froze, for she could guess this beast's species .. something she'd not truly seen face to face.

A badger.

The intruder froze, staring at them in shock for a moment. She had a stout mop in one paw, and a large kitchen knife in the other .. which was enough to make Bluefen keep her weapon up and ready for trouble.

The badger finally spoke up, voice stern and suspicious. "What are you doing in my basement?"

Skadu spoke out first. "Yer basement? How's this yer basement?"

The badger looked from the cat, to Bluefen and Esmund, to Kinta struggling to help Zenith back on her paws. "Fine, it is Milady Lilly's basement. Either way. What are you doing in it, and with injuries and bloodstained weapons. It does not bode well in my mind."

"We found a secret passage, I found it." Esmund was undeniably innocent and cheerful about his discovery.

Bluefen quickly spoke up. "Lady, we are sorry. We are simply trying to escape Sixclaw's rule, and had to fight some of his guards to do so."

The badger looked around, tense. "Swartt's guards are in here?"

Kinta quickly shook her head. "No, we killed them, and .. what's left of them is in the catacombs."

The badger frowned. "Catacombs? You mean the tombs of the ancient kings? That's where Swartt lives? And it connects to our cellar?"

She seemed pretty confused by this revelation, and suddenly shook her head. "No, look. You will show me. All of you, keep ahead of me and show me the secret passage."

Zenith was leaning heavily on her staff, and she asked quietly, "Milady, can't I sit on a crate right here? I won't go anywhere, I am just tired."

The badger looked very suspicious. "Why? So you can stab me from behind?"

Kinta came to her friend's defense. "Milady, please! Zenith is crippled and blind, and she twisted her bad leg even worse in the fight. She wouldn't ask such a thing unless she was seriously hurting, I promise."

The badger seemed to notice the vixen's practically dragging leg for the first time, and she sighed, waving a paw in front of her face .. with no response. She nodded. "Fine, sit down. And I'm not 'milady', Queen Lilly is. I'm her chief housemaid .. and her only housemaid at this time, Zarya. Now go on, all of you. Show me where you came in. And leave your weapons here."

><><

Cedric and Fripple had little time to talk, as did any of the others. The clack of boots and padding of bare paws rang out, accompanied by the slam of a door as Muggra and ten others walked in.

The weasel captain nodded to his guards. "Take the ones milord asked for, leave the others. They can stay the night here."

They came to Ivan and Catkin's cell first, opening it and yanking the cat roughly out, before slamming the door shut despite Catkin's cry of protest. The two horses were next, Eveningstar being the one to get dragged out into the corridor.

Veil stood in front of Esther when they came to his cell, but Muggra stoically knocked him down with his spear pole. "Out of my way ferret."

Veil jumped up again as another guard grabbed Esther, not heeding her struggles. "Stop! Let her go .. what are you doing with her?"

Muggra slammed the blunt end of his spear into Veil's torso, watching flatly the ferret fell winded against the wall. There wasn't malice or hate in his voice as he spoke, just a flat, honest answer. "I can't tell ya; I don't know. Ya should have gone along with it boy, between ya an' I, I'd serve ya over yer father. But ya couldn't play his game, an' I can't help ya now. I just do me job, it's all a horde beast can do. Nothing personal."

Veil got to his feet as the weasel slammed the door in his face, turning away and heading toward Cedric and Fripple's cell. He met Esther's terrified gaze, Ivan's worried brown eyes, and Eveningstar's nervous yet angry look .. but especially Esther's .. maybe because she wouldn't stop staring at him with her wide jade eyes.

Muggra shoved open the last cell, pushing Fripple out of his way with his spear. The mouse grabbed ahold of the pole, attempting to wrest Muggra's weapon from his grip and use it on him, but the stronger weasel knocked her carelessly against the wall. Cedric jumped at him, yelling, "Get back .. you will not take her!"

Muggra sneered flatly. "I don't want her, I want you."

Fripple staggered back to her feet, snarling, "You'll have to kill me first!"

Muggra leveled his spear point at her despite Cedric's cry of protest. "Milady, I would be the greatest fool ta do such a thing. Lord Sixclaw would mount me head on me spear and use it as 'is standard."

He slammed the door in her face, dragging Cedric out with him. Fripple jumped on the bars, yelling after him, "Then .. fight me for him .. them! Just .. don't take them away!"

Muggra cast her a backwards glance, shaking his head. "Not my duty. Take it up with Lord Swartt if'n ya see 'im again."

Veil couldn't help himself, and he yelled, "Then tell .. Lord Swartt .. that I want to speak with him!"

Muggra paused at the end of the corridor because of how hard Esther was fighting him, despite her shackles. The weasel yanked hard on her chains, nearly pulling her to the ground as he replied stoically. "Oh but he doesn't wish to speak with you."

The corridor's door slammed shut behind him with a clank .. one that sounded like the end of hope to Veil. The ferret slumped against the wall, face in his paws and tears threatening to spill.

Why couldn't he have just been quicker .. slyer! He could have bluffed his way out of this, and all his friends might be safe now.

But no. No, he had to be honest .. chivalrous .. noble. And look where it had led him.

His unspoken cry was one of sorrow, fear, and even wounded betrayal.

"Ignasa, what are you doing? Where are you? I did this for you .. I stood up for you .. what more do you want? Why won't you stand up for me Lord, why?"

><><

"It was right here. This piece of the wall moved." Kinta explained, pointing to the indention in the cellar's rock wall.

Zarya was dubious. "It looks just like the others .. see?"

Bluefen did see as she held up her torch .. the cellar wall had many of the indentions, spaced evenly from each other.

The ferretwife felt about the wall and floor with her foot, asking, "Esmund dear, where were you standing when you found the wall could move on the other side?"

The little wearet didn't hesitate, just walked directly to the wall, stating, "Right here. An' I did this."

He fell against the wall dramatically, his elbow hitting a small jutting rock that sank back into the stones with a click. Esmund nodded. "Yes, an' it clicked just like that. When the ferret fell on me an' miss Zenith."

Zarya motioned to all of them. "Alright, stand against the wall, where I can see you."

The badger stuck the kitchen knife in her belt, sticking her long, blunt claws in a crack, yanking hard. There was an instant groan, and the wall slid open a good ways.

Zarya frowned, eye's widening as Bluefen held her torch up and they could plainly see the three dead bodies of the guards. Skadu was holding her arm, still sluggishly bleeding. "Now do ya believe us?"

The badger slowly nodded. "I'm beginning to .. wait .. hush!"

There was instant silence, and the group could hear faint, echoing shouts and orders being given. Zarya grabbed hold of the wall, instantly shoving it shut with a scraping and a subtle click.

She didn't pause, just ordered, "Quick, back to your friend. Light may be able to shine through that wall, and I don't want them finding us."

Silent obedience followed, and Zenith looked questioningly up as they returned. Zarya paused to look them over, before sighing. "Up .. all of you. You'll have to appear before Milady Lilly, and I certainly can't leave visitors .. of any kind .. in the basement."

Zenith struggled back to her paws, and Zarya looked compassionate. "You can't make it up the stairs to the kitchen .. not like that. Here."

The badger picked the scrawny fox maid up without batting an eyelash, nodding to the others. "Go up the stairs .. go on. I still don't completely trust you, though you seem honest."

Bluefen grabbed Esmund's paw, helping him ascend the flight of at least fifteen stairs. She pushed open the door at the top, blinking in the sudden light of a large, marbled kitchen.

Esmund did nothing but blink for a few moments before gasping, "Oh .. oh mother! It's so bright!"

Only Zenith was unaffected by the light, as Zarya set the blind fox in a nearby chair. Kinta was blinking, and her voice was excited. "Daylight .. real daylight .. oh I missed it! I never even knew how much!"

Skadu winced at the sudden light, blinking hard. "Ugg .. sun's brighter than I remembered."

Bluefen just shook her head, letting her eyes adjust to a brightness she'd almost forgotten existed. Zarya raised an eyebrow as she stated, "One would think you hadn't seen the sun in a season."

Bluefen sighed. "Make that seven .. or so."

There was a scuffle in the door, and a tan and black squirrel appeared. "Zarya, ma'am, when is supper? Do we have to wait for Kensly to get ... wait .. vermin!"

He pulled out a small axe, but Zarya held up her paw. "Enough Reihon, get Lady Lilly for me. Well? Now!"

The squirrel had remained frozen a moment, but now he leapt into action, disappearing from the kitchen. Zarya sighed, picking up a clean dish rag and nodding to Skadu. "Hold out your arm .. we should stop the bleeding, though it's not bad anymore."

The cat obeyed, and Zarya wrapped the rag around the injury, tying it snugly. Esmund was looking all over the kitchen, for Bluefen couldn't keep him still. He tugged on Zarya's skirt, asking, "Where's your torch?"

Zarya raised an eyebrow, smiling a little despite herself. "I put it out little one, it's not nighttime. There's no need for a torch."

Esmund was confused. "Nuh-uh, if you put it out, it would be dark. An' it's very light .. so .. where is it?"

Bluefen stepped in, picking him up. "Dear that's the sun. You've never seen it .. but it's real."

"He's never seen the sun?" Zarya was surprised.

Bluefen met the badger's gaze. "No. He was raised in the catacombs. I was a slave and as good as a prisoner."

Zarya looked compassionate. "Oh, poor thing. He's your son?"

Bluefen paused, finally stating. "He is my .. stepson, by blood. But he is as good as my son, and I love him as such."

There was a step outside the door and a graceful spotted rabbit of about thirty stepped in, a confused look on her face. "Zarya, what is this Reihon says about vermin in the ... kitchen? Where'd they come from?"

Zarya shrugged. "The basement. Actually through a secret passage from the catacombs."

Lilly stared. "The tombs of the ancient kings? I thought they were mostly filled in and inaccessible."

Kinta bowed, stating, "No my queen, they are .. in a way, livable. Swartt Sixclaw makes his home there, and we fled from him."

Lilly paused, clenching a paw at length. "Of course! That's how he disappears at will! What have we been thinking, sending Kensly and Cyrus all over the city to find him .. he's been under us!"

She looked upon the group of bedraggled, scrawny, seer vermin in her kitchen with sudden compassion. "You fled from him? How he treats his own creatures is despicable .. and this one so young .."

The rabbit broke off as she caught sight of Esmund's right paw, and she looked at Bluefen with confusion and surprise. "Six claws .. he has them .."

"Swartt may be his father, but I have raised him to despise Sixclaw. He is young and innocent, he knows little." Bluefen was defensive. "Do not judge him for it, please Milady."

Lilly shook her head, finally nodding. "I will watch him, and make my own decision. But I understand what you mean. Listen all of you .. tell me your names. Why did you run from Swartt?"

Kinta spoke first, voice soft. "Milady, I am Kinta. My father is one of Swartt's henchbeasts, and has been for many seasons .. my mother used to look after me, when we lived at Salamandastron. She was a Prophetess of Lord Ignasa, but she vanished the night the marks conquered Lotor the Great. Swartt took my father and I with him, and he convinced my father to apprentice me to Nightshade. I am terrified of Malimore, and I only wish to be free .. and maybe one day .. find my mother. Or at least what happened to her."

Skadu shrugged. "I ain't got such an' iterestin' story .. I was just an orphaned kitten. Shroud got me, and he gave me ta Nightshade as a present. But I saw .. saw one of her apprentices succeed in 'er training, an' I knew I could never be that awful .. it was too creepy. Makes me fur stand on end, milady."

Zenith didn't look up right away, but when she did, her voice was almost bitter. "I had the misfortune of being Shroud and Nightshade's daughter. I was blind .. I was crippled. But they never throw away anything that might bring them one sheckle. I hate and fear them both, I just want to get away from it all .. forever."

Lilly sighed, shaking her head. "I am truly sorry .. yes .. I've heard stories like this before .. long ago. But you are all young .. what of you?"

This was directed to Bluefen, who answered dully. "What of me? Yes, what? I was just like Skadu, an orphan picked off the streets of Southsward by Shroud. He has caravans .. I'm sure you know .. and he sold me to Swartt. I was his wife, I suppose. But a slave, that's all I was. He destroyed my children .. or tried to, and he has my son captive even now. I have long desired revenge above escape .. but .. that has changed. Esmund must be free before I go to face Swartt again."

Zarya shrugged. "You see how it is Milady, we can't kill them, and we can't send them out to be killed by Swartt's guards. So what are we to do with them?"

Lilly blinked at that badger. "They must have baths, healing, new clothes, and food, that's what we will do with them. Welcome to the palace .. it may be our prison .. but it's a lavish prison. And there's plenty of room to spare."

><><

Fripple lay on the floor of her cell, curled up in a heap of misery. She could just imagine what they would do to Ivan .. Evening .. Esther .. and Cedric. She didn't want to, but her mind created plenty of bloody scenarios, each worse then the last.

It had been at least an hour, but it seemed like forever. Suddenly the slam of a door shattered the silence, as none other than Muggra walked in, followed by five or so other guards practically dragging Evening.

The horse's head was down, his legs trembling, his coat slick, and there was a wild .. fearful light in his eyes. Muggra opened a cell, slapping Evening on the side. "Yah, git!"

The horse staggered in, falling to his knees and then his side almost instantly. Muggra slammed the door, not bothering to take the ropes off the almost incoherent creature.

He nodded to Mystiquestar, watching them in total horror and fear from her cell. "Get her, come on. Hellgates she'd better work or it's somebeast's head!"

He pulled open the door to be confronted by the pinto's hooves. "Get away .. get away from me! What have you done to him?"

Muggra lashed his spear at her, snarling, "We can do this the hard way or the simple one, but either way it's happening. So move horse, come on. You are coming, one way or another."

Star paused for a moment, and it was enough for some other guards to fling ropes over her head. Muggra nodded. "Good, get back to Sixclaw and Shroud .. they won't be patient about this .. not after the other one failed. Move horse, go!"

Star was dragged out of the corridor, but not without resistance .. all futile. Muggra slammed the door shut behind him, and the sounds of scuffle faded.

Evening never moved, and Fripple could see only his flaxen mane and dark back. That horse wasn't one to act like this .. they must have done something terrible to him.

But there was no blood. That was the scariest thing .. there was no blood, but Evening acted like they'd tried to kill him.

What were they doing?

><><

"Hold still son .. I wish Jeshu was back, but I'm sure he's got his work cut out for him with that poor horse."

Mizzah cleaned Annon's wound, a fairly deep cut across the shoulder. They were back at the inn, and Byron was sleeping again. Bryony and Aubretia were looking over the riddle with Vinwyte watching .. occasionally giving some sort of input.

Lenn brought some herbs to Mizzah, stating, "I found these left in the cupboard there .. they should help with healing."

Mizzah sniffed them, nodding. "Yes, I believe they would, thank you."

He stuck them on the wound, tying it up with a clean cloth. "There you are Annon .. where was your knife?"

Lenn spoke up first, quickly. "He .. gave it to me sir .. it's not his fault. Here .. I'll give it back."

"You'll have need of it. Keep it, I have another in my saddlebags, I just have to go get it." Annon smiled a little, and suddenly continued. "Can you use that at all?"

Lenn looked down at the gleaming thrusting blade of about thirteen inches she was holding in her paw, slowly shaking her head. "Sort of .. I mean .. I .. well I get the idea. But I wasn't sure how to stop that fox, his blade was far longer than mine, and I was much smaller than him."

Mizzah washed his paws off. "That makes no difference whatsoever. He has advantages, certainly, but you did too. What would he have done if you had lunged and impaled him? You could of, he had his guard down. But he judged you correctly, and you did what he expected, nothing. So do what he doesn't expect, dart forward and kill him .. advice for next time. Because I'm sure there will be one."

"I .. I'm not sure I could really .. actually kill somebeast .. I mean .. for real." Lenn looked slightly afraid.

Mizzah put a paw on her shoulder. "Little one, I told my father the same thing once. He laughed and told me this. Son, we don't kill for the sake of killing, we kill to protect ourselves and those who mean the most to us. You come from a line of desert kings, your ancestors built the city of a thousand lights. And I trust they all killed somebeast at some point."

The jerbilrat paused. "Not to say, it isn't hard for a novice. But the truth is, you don't even have time to think about it in battle. You just do what you must. However .. how would it be if I taught you and miss Bryony something of swordplay? We won't be going until tomorrow, probably dusk. That's the earliest I can really see us going."

Lenn smiled a little. "I'd .. feel better if you did, sir."

Mizzah nodded. "I think I would too. Bryony! How much of fighting has your friend Glow mastered?"

Bryony shrugged. "Flyingsparks is his father; I'm sure he knows some."

Mizzah shrugged. "We'll ask him. What's your weapon of choice?"

Bryony paused. "I .. really don't think I've got one. I was a gardener, not a squire like Veil or Fripple."

"A gardener? You can use a hoe then. I'd say a spear or pike .. we'll see what we can come up with." Mizzah was firm. "We'll be entering the heart of our enemy's territory. I won't stand for anybeast to be unarmed."

><><

The sun was setting over the great palace, turning the white marble pink with reflected light .. it all had an air of perfect serenity.

Almost.

Lilly stood at an overlooking window, knowing Swartt's guards were around her palace. She couldn't see them, but they were there .. without a doubt.

Kensly would return soon, with news of the race .. though Lilly was certain it would be bad. While she'd sent the mouse out in the dark of morning, she'd not expected him to return until nightfall.

He'd watch the race, buy food, and gather information .. besides, dark was the best cover for getting past the guards. Still, Lilly wished he'd get back soon.

There was the skitter of paws behind her, and the little cream wearet ran to where she was standing at the window, staring out. "Oh mother .. outside is so big!"

Bluefen walked up behind them, apologizing for her son. "I'm sorry milady, he's very excited."

Lilly couldn't help but smile at Esmund, who looked much cleaner than before, and was dressed in something better than the dingy, worn out tunic he'd had on. Bluefen too was far less dusty gray; her fur really was iridescent blue gray.

Lilly helped Esmund get a better look out the window, stating, "He's fine .. I don't blame him for curiosity."

Bluefen paused. "Milady, I have been thinking. As I said before, Swartt has my eldest son .. a Prophet of Ignasa .. captive, and I must help him escape. Your palace .. at this time, seems the safest place in Southsward .."

Lilly frowned. "Are you saying you .. wish to return to the catacombs?"

"I must. I always knew it would come down to this, and it has. I am willing to die if Swartt also dies .. if that is what you're asking milady. But that is not Esmund's fate, nor the seer apprentice's .. it is mine alone." Bluefen heaved a sigh.

"You are asking if they might stay with us." Lilly was understanding, but as Bluefen nodded, the rabbit shook her head. "No, I cannot allow it. You can't go on a solo mission to kill Sixclaw, that is suicide."

Bluefen took a deep breath. "I realize."

Lilly was firm. "No. You won't go alone .. we will go with you."

Bluefen blinked. "What?"

Lilly crossed her arms. "Until now, I knew not where the Pitiless One made his kingdom. Now I do, but I do not know the way. You know the way, and I would be more the fool not to ask your help. We number at best a score, but together, we could get through these tombs and kill Sixclaw .. what is a snake without its head? I could save my city."

"And I could save my son. But .. do you trust me that much?" Bluefen was questioning.

Lilly paused, shrugging. "Who do you serve? Which lord?"

Bluefen frowned. "I serve neither Swartt nor Shroud .."

"No, I mean Ignasa .. or Malimore."

"I .. think I serve Ignasa. No .. I know I do." Bluefen was determined.

Lilly smiled. "Then there is your answer."

Bluefen wasn't used to trust. "And you really .. believe me?"

"Do I have a real choice? I don't know why they haven't killed me and my few loyal guards yet, something must be done. I didn't know the way before .. but now, with you and your friends .. I have a chance." Lilly was honest

"What are we talking of?" Zarya's voice came from behind them, as well as Skadu and Kinta's.

"Ugg .. baths. Kinta, 'ow can ya stand the things?"

"I rather like baths, actually .. that was lovely."

"No, that was torture ... um .. well .. not .. bad torture, but still Kinta .. my fur ain't gonna get dry again, I swear!"

Lilly looked almost amused, as she asked, "Where is the other one .. Zenith?"

Kinta answered. "She's tired .. she didn't mean to, I'm sure, but she fell asleep in the room Zarya gave her. We didn't like to wake her up .. she needs rest."

Zarya agreed. "Yes, she'll be stronger for it. But where is Kensly? Has he come back yet? It's nearly dark."

"Not yet. I hope he'll come soon." Lilly sounded worried.

At this second, the double doors at the end of the marbled hall creaked open, emitting the young mouse. He slid a little on the floor running to them. "Lady Lilly, Oh Lady Lilly! You will never believe what I heard, never!"

He skidded to a halt at the sight of the vermin. "Wait .. where'd they come from?"

"The basement." Zarya was only half joking. "But what did you learn?"

"Milady .. should I tell you here .."

"You may speak before our guests, Kensly. Go on." Lilly dissuaded her knight's fears.

He nodded, excitement returning to his face. "Oh it is a wonderful day for Southsward Milady, for Ramon is dead, yes, the slayer of the track! The challenger .. was the street rat, Cedric .. and a pinto from Mossflower! They won Milady, they won, and they killed Ramon!"

Lilly stared. "What? Kensly that's .."

"I know milady, it was impossible! But I swear, they did it! That little horse .. she was insanely fast .. and the rat's always been sly, from his former races. Ramon did his best to kill them, but by Lord Ignasa, they wouldn't die! They let him run into one of the chariots he'd wrecked, and his own horse trampled him to death while fighting another!"

Lilly shook her head. "Kensly, the rat? You mean that orphan stable boy who became such a sensation for several races? But Ramon killed him and his horse in the first race Shroud controlled, you told me."

Kensly was in earnest. "No milady, he lives. I don't know how, they left him laying in his own blood, but he came back. You know he was unmistakable. It was him. With a new horse, a pinto from Mossflower."

Bluefen broke in. "From Mossflower? Wait, what sort of pinto?"

Kensly looked at her a moment, before stating, "A sort of .. blotchy mixed roan. With blue eyes .. quite striking. Not the kind of coloration you see in Southsward, our horses are of pure and ancient strains .. they don't have that much mixed blood."

Bluefen looked afraid. "Milady, that is my son's friend! She was with the ones Swartt captured, I saw them in the catacombs. I saw no rats, but two mice .. or .. at least mostly mice. One was gold and the other reddish with dark points."

"That's him .. you mean .. Sixclaw captured them? After all that?" Kensly looked stunned.

Bluefen sighed, nodding. "I'm afraid so. And I think .. may I be so bold milady .. as to say if they are from Mossflower, and some fairly important .."

Kensly nodded. "That was the big gossip, that the rat has a girl now. And not just any milady, a princess from Mossflower! A daughter of the marks, like all those stories from across the desert say."

Bluefen opened her mouth to say something, but Kensly spoke again, looking far more downcast. "That was the good news Milady .. but .. there's some bad as well."

Lilly groaned. "I knew this was too easy .. for the son of Shroud to simply die. Well tell me Kensly, what is it now? More taxes in my name? Another race?"

Kensly was reluctant. "Worse. I didn't see the notice until late in the day .. just an hour ago, probably. But it's real Milady .. crushing defeat. I never thought they would dare to do this, but I see their motives. Either way it works, they've won. The city is either so far gone they will endorse this, or they will turn upon you .. this is Southsward's death warrant."

He held out a piece of parchment, which Lilly slowly took, brown eyes widening as she read it. "No .. that which the ancient kings fought so hard against .. they would bring it back to life and say I wished it? Me, the one so many grumbled that I should rule .. I was not of the blood. And I who swore to my father I would uphold our laws .. no. They have gone too far. This is war."

She turned to Bluefen, Skadu, and Kinta. "How well do you know the catacombs?"

Bluefen spoke up. "I spent seasons exploring what parts I could .. even mapping them. I drew a map, but I forgot it back in my chambers .."

Lilly looked excited. "Do you think you could remember enough to draw it again?"

"I believe I could .. to some extent. Where are you trying to go?" Bluefen asked.

Lilly swallowed. "The theater. Fellow Southswardians, we have tonight and tomorrow left on this earth, for the next morning will shine upon not a queen, but a king. We must take the greatest risks if not only we are to live, but if our land is. We prepare for the final battle of this war .. are you with me?"

Kensly and Zarya never hesitated. "For Southsward!"

Bluefen laid her paw on Lilly's arm. "Milady, this fight has been mine since I was sold to Swartt. I let fate write it on my soul, and by Ignasa who gives me strength, I will write it on the stones of history!"

Kinta and Skadu had been talking, and the cat spoke now. "We're with ya, this 'as got ta stop. Or we've got ta die tryin'."

"Thanks for inspiring me. But yes, I'm with you. It's the right thing to do." Kinta sighed.

Lilly nodded. "I truly thank you for your support, and I understand the fear .. even I can feel it. Zarya, Kensly .. get the guards. They will have a free choice, for what we must do is deadly .. not all will live. But no matter the costs .. we will be going to confront Swartt. The sooner the better .. Kensly, take count of the armory. We must be prepared .. for our prison is safe no more."

><><

The faint echo of pawsteps rang along the black granite halls of Shroud's manor, and the cream weasel Aisha made her way down a flight of stairs with a tray of supper in her paws. Her back still stung where Shroud had whipped her, for his whips didn't just cut, they tore.

She wished she could eat what she carried, for the smell was tantalizing .. far better than what meager scraps she managed to survive off of.

Being Shroud's most hated slave was the worst job anybeast could ask for, and she knew good and well, she only lived because he was not done making her suffer. And all this for one foolish mistake.

Oh, it wasn't her fault, she'd never be brought to say that.

It was their fault.

And one day .. she'd get a chance to run. That or Shroud would kill her.

Either way, it would be a better existence than the one she called reality.

She paused at the curtained doorway of the creature she fed morning and night without fail .. unless of course, he'd angered their master. The guard lounging on the wall nearby looked quickly up as she approached, only to look away again with a yawn. "Oh it's you. Well, feed him and be done with it."

The cream weasel ducked through the curtain, pausing as the badger looked up dully, sighing when he saw her. "Oh, just you. Why hasn't Shroud been down yet, eh? Care to tell me?"

Aisha looked around, softly answering, "Here's what I heard. Shroud's son Ramon got killed in the race, and things have been in an uproar ever since."

Sunflash blinked at her. "Is that part of why your clothes are bloody?"

"Part of it. Shroud took it out on me .. he got interrupted, or I'd be dead or dying. And listen, I've been thinking .. we may not get along on the best scale, but would you help me?"

The reply was flat. "To do what?"

Aisha was serious. "Look, you may think I'm crazy, but I'm desperate. I don't have such a nice job as you, and I want to get out. This is the best time .. they're all distracted. You're a badger .. you could help me get past what guards are left .. Shroud took a lot with him!"

Sunflash was not convinced. "How would you unchain me?"

"Oh come on, I can steal the key. Just .. would you do it if I freed you?"

"What's taking so long in there? You're only supposed to feed him, how long does it take?" the guard's voice rang from the hallway.

Aisha hurriedly picked up her tray. "I'll be back."

She walked out without a backwards glance, dully bowing to the guard and walking calmly away.

She'd always been good at acting.

><><

Veil awoke slowly, with positively no idea what time it was. It might have been late at night, early morning, or the middle of the afternoon .. the catacombs always looked the same, black.

In fact he couldn't remember falling asleep, but he must have. The torch had gone out, and the only light shone through the cracks of the corridor's door .. the guards outside must still have torches. However there was really no sound at all, and Veil guessed they might be sleeping .. though that didn't seem terribly likely.

They could be listening in silence to see if the prisoners would try and converse. That was pretty hopeless, seeing as they'd been placed in cells far enough apart they would be forced to speak up to hear each other and any plot they made could not be kept secret for this.

Veil realized his cheek was against the floor's stones, but he didn't bother sitting up. The cool rock was almost soothing.

He'd never felt so helpless and worthless in his life .. there was nothing he could do. He rolled onto his back, staring into blackness so dark he couldn't see his paw in front of his face.

Fripple must hate this .. she's always been scared of the dark, ever since we were kids. She tells everybeast she's grown out of it, but that's not true.

This thought was sudden and uncalled for, Veil didn't even know quite why he'd thought it. Still .. it was true. The dark didn't scare him .. in fact it offered a sort of security. But everybeast had their own phobias .. he had never liked loud, verbal fights .. he'd always liked to settle things with a duel rather than yell. They reminded him of his father .. even when he couldn't remember his father specifically.

Esther hated being alone .. it terrified her. She always wanted to be with somebeast, although she often vanished into the crowd. Thinking this made Veil feel even guiltier .. she was probably really scared right now.

If only he could save her .. get her back .. and all the others too. The ferret closed his eyes, still weary. But as he drifted off, he swore to himself he'd get another chance.

Just let them open the cell door, and he'd get away .. he would!

Somehow or other, he'd fight his way to escape and free his friends empty-pawed .. or he'd die trying.

His mutter was barely audible, but it echoed in Veil's mind like the truth he'd refused to admit all along. "Maybe that's my destiny."

King Martin wanted him dead. His father wanted him dead. He was starting to think Ignasa did too.

He'd have preferred a happy end .. but nobeast could cheat death.

"If I must die .. let me die fighting, oh Ignasa. Don't let me cower like a vermin .. I'm no hero, but let me stand firm like one. I will not be my father!"

><><

"Where is it Byron, do you know?" Mizzah sounded a little worried.

They stood in an old, run down alley of section six, in the dark of early morning on the second day since the race and the capture of Aubretia's friends.

Glow was to be ready for action any moment they should return, though Mizzah had made him stay behind for fear he would not fit into the catacombs or his hooves would bring the ancient tombs down on their heads.

It may have only been forty-eight hours, but Aubretia was deathly concerned about their narrowing chances. Byron hobbled past the jerbilrat on his crutches, sighing, "I'm sorry sir .. this alley is the right one, I just know! But I only got to see out once, and it's very hard to spot from the outside."

Lenn was scanning the ground with Bryony, looking for any black hole or pile of rubble. Suddenly the older brown mouse pointed at something that looked like no more than a shadow. "There .. is that it?"

Bryony ran to the spot, digging away some loose rocks and grit. "It's a hole alright .. it's almost all filled up with junk though."

Mizzah knelt beside her, pulling a large rock away. There was a rumble, and a small pile of rubble shifted, clattering down into the chasm. Lenn dug out the torches Mizzah had put in her satchel, handing one to Annon, behind her.

Mizzah stood, taking the other. "It's good we didn't bring Glow along, Vinwyte will have all he can do to get through here. Come in after me, if I say it's alright."

"Father, shouldn't I .." Annon began, but Mizzah had already slid down the hole.

There was silence a moment, but then light flared up in the darkness of the pit. "It's safe .. come down one at a time, and softly. Don't make loud noise, I'm not quite sure what's holding the ceiling together, but try not to disturb it."

Lenn swallowed, but being closest to the opening, she slid through next. Bryony followed her, her sandaled paws hitting the floor with a soft thump. The drop was about four feet .. like there should have once been a flight of stairs where now there was only crumbling rock.

Mizzah shown his torch around as Annon slid in, followed by Aubretia and finally Vinwyte who helped Byron with his crutches.

Bryony felt afraid of this dark netherworld, and in contrast, Lenn seemed far more interested than fearful. The mouse maid lit her own torch and held it high, slowly brushing her paw across time worn stones. "It's like .. a world within a world. But it's so lonely and forgotten .. I just feel it holds secrets unspoken for centuries."

Mizzah caught up with her as they descended a flight of slowly widening stairs into a hall flanked by cracking pillars. Glazed tiles of azure Lapis Lazuli decorated the floor in a swirling pattern, accompanied by strange writing that was worn from the steps of long forgotten paws.

Lenn knelt to trace some, asking, "Is this Loamhedgeian?"

Aubretia studied it, nodding, "I believe so, or some hybrid of it. It seems to say King .. Mosi .. found .. no, founder of .. something. But this part's too rubbed out to read. Anyway it's just a dedication."

She stood, and Lenn did also. Mizzah turned to Byron. "Do you remember this place?"

The mouse nodded. "Yes, some. It was about a season ago, but I remember the blue tiles. We keep going straight, I think."

Annon held up his torch, illuminating the slanting square doorway to another large, pillared room. Lenn ran her paw against a pillar's cracking alabaster finish, starting as a chunk broke off in her paws.

Vinwyte shook his head. "These tombs don't seem too sturdy."

"No .. we must go softly. Try not to touch anything." Lenn was in complete agreement with the otter.

They had gathered in a less glamorous hallway, simple cut rock with crumbling places. Bryony leaned against it, squeaking in shock as the place gave way with a crack, and she practically fell into a gaping hole. The black mouse caught herself, gasping, "Oh! I think I found a secret passage, Mizzah!"

Aubretia opened her mouth. "Bryony. According to my calculations it is far too shallow to be a passage, as these are catacombs and it statistically seems probable, I bet it's a .."

But the mouse never took another beast's word, she always had to find out for herself. And she did, as she pulled some rubble away to reveal tattered cloth and the skeletal remains of a mouse-sized creature.

Bryony leapt back with a scream of horror. "Oh! Oh it's a .. tomb!"

Mizzah clapped a paw over her mouth, and the entire group froze as the hallway groaned, some rock falling from the ceiling a few feet away.

Everybeast held their breath, but the rumble dissipated. Mizzah breathed a sigh of relief, voice stern. "Make that noise again, and it won't just be that beast's tomb. It'll be ours too, understand?"

Bryony nodded as he let go of her, gulping. "I'm sorry. But it shocked me so .."

"And that is why you should listen to Aubretia. We've got to work as a team to do this." Mizzah was firm. "Don't scream again, I don't care if the skeleton sits up. Not that it will."

Lenn didn't look at the uncovered grave. "Can we .. keep going?"

Mizzah nodded, but was interrupted by an odd rustling. The group froze again, afraid the unstable tunnel was about to cave in after all!

><><

For Fripple, life was black .. both physically and spiritually. She wasn't the optimist, she was the pessimist! It was Cedric and Catkin that convinced her everything would be alright .. but she couldn't talk to Catkin and Cedric could be dead or dying now.

Time seemed to drag, even if she'd finally fallen asleep from total exhaustion, curled in one of her cells corners. She'd woken up again, in time for the guards to feed them a surprisingly large amount and give them fresh water.

She'd eaten and drank, but the dread and suspicion only grew. Part of her wanted to refuse just to smite their captor, but she'd been too hungry and thirsty.

After they'd left and darkness had filled the corridor once more, she'd curled into a ball again and thought about home .. her family .. Gustav, Coll .. her mother and father .. and if she'd ever see them again.

Now she was waking up again to complete darkness .. something she was almost getting used too. How long she'd slept was purely debatable .. it might have been three hours or three days, though the former seemed most likely.

Despite her fear, Fripple was ready for something to happen. It would be bad for certain, but whatever it was, it couldn't be worse than the fear of what it might be.

We'll probably die .. but anything's better than this. Let's just do this and get it over with .. whatever it'll be.

She never dreamed her unspoken demand would be answered, and yet in a few minutes, it was.

The clump of boots and the slam of the corridor's door rang out, as Muggra came in, flanked by ten guards, or more. Fripple rolled her eyes, tired of seeing the weasel. She stood as they pulled Catkin from her cell, clapping chains on her without batting an eyelash.

Fripple jumped up as Muggra yanked open her door. She glared balefully at him, snarling, "You want a fight? I'll give you one!"

The weasel paused, before darting forward and knocking the mouse to the floor. "Chains, now!"

Fripple bit Muggra in a moment of fright, but the guards clamped manacles on her wrists momentarily. Muggra rubbed his bleeding paw and Fripple yelled, "Coward! Unchain me and face me again .. I'll kill you for that!"

"Not my duty." Muggra's voice was tight with anger. "Keep her still."

This was an order to the stoat and rat holding Fripple's chains, though they didn't look excited about their job. A group of guards had dragged Eveningstar from his cell, and the horse looked noticeably better than when they had brought him back earlier .. he was tossing his head and half-rearing.

Muggra opened Veil's cell, and the ferret didn't move from where he was standing against the far wall, refusing to look up. "Come on ferret, we can do this the easy way or the hard way .."

Veil didn't move his head, but his voice was low. "The hard way!"

He leapt at the weasel, knocking him flat on his back and wresting the spear from his paw. He'd have killed Muggra, but was intercepted by another guard.

"Get him you fools, don't let him escape!" Muggra was struggling to his paws.

Fripple kicked one of her guard's in the legs, yanking the other over with her tail. Veil ran one of the guards through with his spear, fighting to get to the door. Evening kicked a guard in the ribs, watching as he flew into the wall with satisfaction. Even Catkin shoved her guard against the wall in fear, lashing her chains across his face.

"Go Veil, get out of here!" Fripple punched a guard in the jaw, grabbing his long dirk and stabbing him with it.

Veil had almost made it to the door, when he was sent reeling into the wall by unseen force. Swartt stood in the hallway, slowly walking in and grabbing his son by the throat. "Little fool. Guards. Chain him."

Veil grabbed at his father's paw, standing on tiptoe to relieve the pressure on his neck. Swartt suddenly dropped him, wrenching his paws behind his back and letting the nearest guard clap the chains on.

Swartt smiled thinly as the others were also suppressed, before turning to Veil. "Impressive. Most impressive. Like a true Sixclaw .. yes. But you're ahead of yourself little boy .. I've so much more experience."

Veil's voice was raspy. "Where are my friends, tell me!"

Swartt grinned with demonic pleasure. "Oh I won't tell you .. I'll show you."

><><

The rustle grew, and all the explorers remained still, mostly trying to discern where it was coming from. Suddenly there was a slight yelp from Vinwyte, and an angry screech.

"Eeeeek! Stupid fur beast .. let go! Fire thing blind Loki .. get it away!"

Vinwyte was standing there in amazement, holding onto a small, brown, and fuzzy struggling creature with leathery gray wings. "You let Loki go, stupid .. blind .. deaf .. fat .. idiots!"

The albino otter barely blinked at her struggles, for he was by far the stronger of the two. However, he was far quieter than his argumentative captive. "Idiots! Choose bad paths .. make bright fire things .. not know when own friends in closet .. fur beast dumb as rocks! Let Loki go!"

Mizzah cleared his throat, meeting the bat's gaze. "We know where our friends are, and this is a closet?"

Loki struggled some more, sneering, "Oooh Loki knew it! Fur beasts all stupid .. they not know what closet means! Let Loki go!"

Annon was droll. "Or don't let Loki go, how's that?"

Lenn blinked at the bat, asking, "You think this is a closet? Is it? With a grave in it?"

Loki stared at the mouse, suddenly starting to fight again. "Fur beasts all mad! Think graves are in closets? Let Loki go now!"

Aubretia pushed her glasses up her nose, asking, "Do you know your way around these catacombs?"

"Loki not have speak with crazy fur beast, let Loki go!" She fell to trying to bite Vinwyte with her overly long fangs.

Annon had an amount of cunning to him, and he put it to good use. "Oh, I suppose you mean you don't know your way around here? Well that's alright, even we don't know that ..."

The bat stopped trying to sink her fangs into Vinwyte, turning her wrath to Annon. "Stupid fur beast think he know more of catacombs than Loki? Ha! Loki lived here all life. Loki know all catacombs, yes! Know all ways, find good paths! Find treasure! And fur beasts .. fur beasts find all bad paths! Go boil head!"

Byron was surprised. "Treasure? How can there be treasure, Swartt would have found it."

Loki laughed mockingly. "Ha, fool Sixclaw find this? Him not find treasure of Morning Song, him fall in pit sooner, far sooner!"

Bryony jumped in. "Morning Song? Did you say Morning Song?"

The bat sneered. "It true Loki say fur beasts deaf, you not hear what Loki say, why speak?"

Mizzah looked exasperated. "Look, where is this Morning Song?"

"Loki can't tell you, you never find. Only Loki find." The answer was stubborn as usual.

Bryony was excited. "Mizzah, the Morning Song is part of the riddle! It's what can break the spell of lies! Maybe that's the answer .. to everything .. if we could break the lies."

Lenn's voice was soft. "Forgive me .. I'm not saying it's a bad idea .. but aren't your friends captured? Should we help them first?"

"What does Mizzah think, he is our leader." Aubretia was matter-of-fact.

The jerbilrat had been looking down, but now he blinked. "I am sorry .. I was asking Ignasa for guidance. I feel we must find this Morning Song."

"It could be a false lead .. it could be anything .. and she might be lying .." Byron was dubious.

Mizzah smiled. "Yes, it could be .. but somehow I think not. Loki, will you take us there?"

The bat snarled. "Loki take you see Morning Song? You go boil head .. Loki take stupid fat fur beasts nowhere, they choose bad paths!"

Annon pulled out a spare bow string, wrapping it once around the bat's neck and then around her body multiple times, pinning her wings to her sides. "How about we don't let you go until you take us there?"

Loki suddenly looked afraid. "No! No stupid fur beasts not ask Loki go back there! Big trouble there ... big monster .. yes .. big, mad, dangerous .. you not kill! Kill you, you not get treasure!"

Lenn looked around. "A monster? What kind?"

"Big .. with .. wings .. claws .. teeth .. it kill alla you and Loki, no make Loki go back! Oh please!"

Mizzah was unsure. "I don't believe in monsters, if they aren't some kind of animal .. what species was it?"

Loki paused. "Um .. it jackal .. no! It .. dragon! Breath fire thing .. yes!"

Vinwyte frowned at the bound creature sitting on his metal wrist cuff. "You seem unsure."

"Oh .. fine, it too dark to tell. Breath fire, make loud growl .. like .. this!" Loki fell to making odd squeaking growls, ones that made her story even less believable.

Vinwyte turned to Mizzah. "What do we do with this one?"

Mizzah shrugged, though his eyes were twinkling with mischief. "I'd say we make her show us, despite this ferocious monster. And if not .. I could tickle some truth from her with my blade .. what do you say, Sir Vinwyte?"

The otter blinked. "Me? Well .. perhaps you could whip her .. pull her wings off .." Vinwyte was completely honest, reciting a list of tortures he'd seen as an oar slave.

Loki stopped growling, wailing, "Oh no! You not pull Loki's wings off, no! Loki take you, Loki take you, but oooh you be sorry!"

Mizzah shrugged. "We'll see. Which way?"

The bat gestured with her head, and Vinwyte wrapped what was left loose of the bowstring around his arm. Loki grumbled. "Why you tie Loki to you, what good it do?"

Vinwyte shrugged. "If you lead me off a cliff, you come with me."

Lenn looked nervously at Bryony. "You .. think there really is some sort of monster?"

"I'm not sure. I .. think she's lying, but she seems awfully afraid .." The black mouse was worried too.

Aubretia shook her head. "Statistically, if dragons exist, I'm not sure how one could fit down here, or how it would survive. Still .. let's keep our eyes open."

><><

Fripple didn't look up as the guards dragged her through hall after hall, each the same, each dark. She could feel a little wetness running down her wrists where the chains had dug in during her fight in the prison.

The dirk had been pulled from her paw, but they hadn't killed her.

She'd slain one of them, and they let her live.

Fripple knew it would only be for a time. They had something so awful planned, Swartt must figure his guards were expendable in comparison.

Also, she must be an integral part of whatever it was, and all the friends she had left. But Swartt had told Veil he'd show him what happened to the others.

A bitter tear coursed it's way down her cheek, and she couldn't stop it. She didn't even want to.

Veil's voice was hard from his place beside her, as he challenged Swartt, walking in front them. "Why don't you just kill us?"

They'd been walking for a while, and now Swartt slowly turned to face them, cape swirling behind him. "Because I have planned your death very carefully .. it will indeed be one of the greatest spectacles Southsward has ever seen. You are so honest son .. so simple. But don't worry .. you will die. All of you. Guards. Take them to their final battle .. one I've prepared specially for them."

Fripple felt the chains tighten again, and to her horror, the guards were dragging her away from the only friends she had left. The mouse threw herself against the chains, crying, "Veil! Catkin! No!"

Veil tried to stop, but his guards yanked him along. Catkin looked terrified, and Fripple called out to her, with the only thing she could. "Catkin, trust Ignasa! Don't give up! Don't let them win!"

One of her guards yanked so hard on the chains she almost fell over backwards, only to have one of them shove her back on her feet. She was alone now, lost in this suffocating maze of tunnels .. her friends taken to their lonely deaths, and certainly she was headed for hers.

Just let them try it .. She fell to sizing the guards up. Three of them, a short, unimposing silver rat, a sinewy, almost familiar weasel, and a scrawny fox. The rat looked like a pushover .. he might not be, but Fripple was willing to give that a chance and go for the others first.

She moved her claws experimentally, feeling at the chains. She couldn't fight with her paws behind her back .. could she jump over the chains? Her tail would get caught .. but maybe it was worth it.

Fripple was about to do it, as insane as it was, when the fox stopped at a heavy wooden door and pulled it open. "Get it over with .. she's dangerous, boss said so."

Fripple snapped her teeth at him, snarling, "I will take you all with me, so I swear!"

The fox was amazingly fast, and Fripple figured she was dead. However he wasn't trying to kill her, and this was proven as he pulled out a knife, cutting her dress up the side and yanking it off, leaving her in her short sleeveless chemise. Fripple yelped struggling against her chains. "You creep! Get back!"

The fox dipped his paw into a bowl of dye the rat was holding, grabbing Fripple's chin and swiping blue over her eyes and down her cheeks. The mouse yanked her head away, trying to bite the fox, but he dodged, marking her shoulders with blue.

The mouse snarled as the fox shoved her through the doorway, quickly unchaining her and slamming the door behind her.

Fripple jumped at the iron bars of the door, yelling, "You give me back my clothes!"

The fox sneered. "Ha, yea right. Boss's orders. Your clothes are in there. Scound, see she does what she's supposed to."

Scound .. why did that seem so familiar ..?

Fripple sighed, looking around the small room for the first time .. to see the last thing she suspected. Multiple suits of armor, boots, wrist guards, and enough weapons to outfit at least five creatures. The mouse slowly examined a set of black leather, in two pieces.

"Ya better use some a that. Friendly advice."

Fripple cast a glance at the guard as she pulled down a short, sleeveless tunic of chain mail, yanking it huffily on. "Yea, well why do you bother? And do I know you?"

The weasel shrugged. "More or less, I know a lotta beasts."

"You!" Fripple suddenly realized. "You were going to make us pay five hundred sheckles to find Veil .. so Sixclaw's your boss. Well we got your money, why'd you have to go tell your dear boss and ruin us?"

Scound shook his head. "Now miss, it ain't like that! Swartt found out on 'is own .. ya had yer name announced at the race fer alla Southsward, it ain't my fault!"

Fripple glared at him as she pulled on the black leather pieces. "Yes, it was! Cedric might have died because of you, and Star too! You .."

The weasel crossed his arms. "It didn't work fer me either, I didn't want all this! Things 'ave gone all wrong fer me too, so don't blame me fer everythin'. All I wanted was ta get outa here, an' that sure ain't workin. Yer friend, the liddle gold mousey? She's safe, with somebeast called Mizzah and a black mouse named Bryony."

Fripple paused in pulling on a set of crossing leather belts with layered leather spalders, asking, "Mizzah? He's here? With Bryony? Bryony?"

Scound nodded. "Sure I swear it's the truth, as I stand 'ere. Donno where they is now, they was talkin' bout findin' ya, but it's been forty-eight hours. I tried ta help 'em out .. I took yer friend back to yer inn, but then I 'ad ta come back or I'd get in trouble fer shirkin' duty. There's only so many places ta hide in Southsward, an when Scound disappears .. he doesn't half disappear, lemme tell ya."

Fripple sat down on a bench carved from the rock, slowly pulling one of her sandals off. Cedric had bought those for her .. in fact, that was the moment she'd started to forgive him. She felt almost sick as she set the finely beaded, gold stitched shoes on the bench beside her, knowing they could not aid her in battle.

Her voice was tight as she pulled on short boots. "Look. What is going on?"

Scound shrugged. "Swartt's havin' ya fight somethin' .. more, I don't really know. He don't trust me no more, if Slugwort weren't so lazy I'd not be here, an' as it is, I've gotta go guard Sixclaw .. where ever 'e want's me."

Fripple picked up her saber, staring at it a moment before sticking it in her belt and gathering as many knives as she could. Scound sounded tired. "I 'ate Sixclaw too miss, an if'n I see a way, I'll 'elp ya. Course I'm more interested in gettin' away wid me life .. but .. yea."

Fripple paused as she picked up a tail barb, before slipping it onto her tail and tying it securely on with leather straps. "Where are my friends?"

"They're in on this too .. Sixclaw made sure a that. I donno what yer up against, must be awful, if'n he's willin' ta arm ya this well."

Fripple picked up a spear for good measure, facing Scound through the bars of the door. "Alright. Take me where ever you plan to .. but I will kill whatever he puts me up against, I don't care what it is! I will not fall!"

Scound shook his head. "I'll wish ya luck, yer gonna need it .. I know that much about Swartt. Stay there."

The weasel vanished from her view, and the next second the wooden portion of the wall opposite the door she'd come in rolled up like a portcullis. Scound's voice came from above her somewhere, muffled. "Through there."

Fripple took a deep breath, drawing her saber and stepping through the door into a dim tunnel. The next second the heavy wooden door came down with clanking slam!

><><

"Idiot fur beasts .. go take Loki ... and selves .. to deaths! You all die, yes yes .. then you sorry not listen to Loki!"

The way the bat carried on and on in this manner frightened Bryony greatly. Her imagination came up with all sorts of dreadful monsters.

These halls looked like underground palaces, each elaborately painted with scenes and tiled with granite, marble, porcelain and alabaster. Strange writing laced it's way across pillars and walls, and realistic paintings of stellar constellations adorned the ceilings.

Niches frequented the walls, some filled with plaster, some crumbling and gaping. Aubretia was writing down figures in her book, reading the writing on the walls to a fascinated Lenn.

"The tombs of Hitep the Just and .. Nefena his .. queen .. long their reign .. of abundance .. shining stars of .. the south. Their names .. a lend .. legend."

Lenn traced the crumbling stone of a life-sized statue carved directly in the wall. "This place .. I never dreamed such skill and beauty existed!"

Loki did not appreciate the ancient beauty one bit. "Humph, you stupid fur beasts. Blind to danger, fat .. choose bad paths .."

"Oh give it a rest, loudmouth." Annon was not in the mood.

They'd entered a temple-like room, with towering, flanking pillars whose tops looked like lotus blooms. Loki suddenly crouched down on Vinwyte's arm, squeaky voice soft and afraid. "Ohhh now you done it, you in Deathbringer land ... you flee now, now!"

Lenn and Aubretia froze as there was a growing rustle, not unlike Loki's wings, but much louder. Mizzah slowly drew his longsword, and Loki gasped. "Oh no, no! You not draw steel on Deathbringers!"

The loud rustle stopped as soon as it began, and a moment passed before a hard but almost feminine voice rang out. "Why bring fire things to land of Deathbringer tribe, fur creatures of overworld?"

Mizzah looked around, trying to discern where the voice was coming from. "We mean no harm, we simply seek something called the Morning Song."

There was a pause, but he was answered. "Know not of Morning Song. Put blade away, majesty Deathbringer wishes speak with you."

Mizzah took a deep breath, sheathing his sword. There was an instant rustling, and a small bat with long fangs and black eyes fluttered out, perching on a cracked and broken pillar nearby. "I majesty of Deathbringers. Why you trespass on land with fire things?"

Aubretia spoke up. "Your majesty, we seek only the Morning Song, nothing else. We didn't know it was your land, but we would like to settle this peacefully, if we could."

The chestnut bat laughed in a high-pitched voice. "Peace she says? As if majesty Deathbringer would fight fur creatures who bring traitor to royalty bound? Name is Freyna, you welcome here. Bring runaway back, Deathbringer tribe in debt to you."

Lenn's voice was small in the silence. "You .. have a tribe .. milady?"

Freyna laughed again, softly. "Odvin, Reskan, show selves for fur beasts!"

There was more rustling, and a strong looking black bat landed beside Freyna, a silver white male hovering behind them. "This Reskan, son of majesty; Odvin majesty's advisor. We pleased see fur beast who capture treacherous snake Loki."

Loki shrank down some more, squawking, "Oh great majesty, Loki not wish bother you .. fur beasts bring, make Loki show treasure of Morning Song!"

Freyna sneered. "Loki traitor, betray king majesty and daughter, they dead for you! Majesty Freyna glad she see foul worm who kill husband again, you face penalty you know well."

Loki broke down with a wail, climbing up Vinwyte's arm and pressing against his neck. "Oh no majesty, please no! Loki fur beast friend, yes, good friend!"

Freyna watched with an air of destain as Vinwyte gave the bat a very wary sideways glance, and Annon snorted. "Majesty say this .. Loki big liar. Lie big heap of lies. You die as traitor does, no mercy for one who kill majesty's family."

Loki burst into tears, sobbing, "Oh nooo! No majesty please! Loki sorry, she not want hurt king majesty, Shroud make her! He say kill if she not!"

Freyna had no compassion. "Now I kill. Odvin, bring majesty's axe."

Loki wailed, sobbing unashamedly. Freyna smirked with distaste. "Foul little beast, bring bad name to all Deathbringers. No honor in life, no honor in death. Majesty not surprised."

Loki broke in desperately. "No, no, Loki alone know treasure of Morning Song! Help fur beasts find, yes, yes!"

Freyna turned to Mizzah. "Fur beast need Morning Song? Only if very badly."

Bryony curtsied. "Milady, we must find it, for it is said to break the spell of lies .. Swartt Sixclaw and Shroud Bloodpaws' lies."

"Foul useless worms they!" Freyna felt strongly on the subject. "They misbegotten snakes! Sixclawed ferret bring sword on king majesty after Loki betray! Freyna majesty kill them, yes, drink blood!"

Aubretia looked surprised, gulping as she wrote something down. "Interesting .. customs .."

Freyna sighed, looking somehow older. "Majesty sorry, hurt still. Make sixclawed one pay, hurt less."

The bat queen straitened, filigree golden chains that formed her crown clinking. "Majesty let snake Loki live to find Morning Song. Then kill."

Byron limped forward, asking, "Sorry, but Mizzah? What about your friends?"

Freyna looked interested. "Fur beasts have friends? More?"

Aubretia nodded. "And they've been captured by Swartt! We chose to find the Morning Song first .. but .."

"But you worry for friends. Majesty knows, yes! She send guards, see outcast returns for death. Then majesty and tribe go find friends in cells and tell them have hope, you come soon."

><><

Lilly, Kensly, Bluefen, Skadu and Kinta, Zarya, and a group of other guards stood in the great hall, looking over the map Bluefen had drawn.

Lilly had assigned two guards to stay with Zenith and Esmund, who it had been decided would stay, Zenith preparing to heal the injured that returned .. if any did.

Bluefen looked stunningly deadly in the leather armor Lilly had managed to fit her with, Skadu and Kinta did too. Kensly wore a breastplate of tightly interlacing leather, layered metal spalders, leather wrist and knee guards, sandals and a kilt of blue beneath it. The mouse pointed to the map, asking, "We go in this way .. and try to find Sixclaw and Bloodpaws?"

Lilly placed her blue jeweled war helmet on her head, walking forward with the slight clink of gold leafed metal plates. "Yes, but first we must reach the theater .. the fight was scheduled for this morning .. we must hurry."

Zarya twirled her heafty spear. "I almost want to give them a taste of what they've given us, even if I die doing it."

Lilly almost smiled. "I know what you mean. For all the souls they've sold .. for keeping us captive in our own palace .. they will fall. I feel the tide will turn today .. how, I know not. But we fight for Ignasa, he will fight for us!"

Kensly ran his paw along his sickle like blade, in total agreement. "Let's show them how Southsward fights!"

Bluefen nodded. "I haven't fought enough .. I'm going to fight back now. Wherever he has my son, I'm going to save him."

Lilly laid a paw on her shoulder. "We're with you. Differing reasons, yes, but the same motivation. Lead the way, my friend."

Bluefen slowly smiled at the younger creature, before nodding. "You know the way to the entrance .. but yes. I will do my best, milady."

><><

Fripple walked slowly down the corridor, looking around with nervous suspicion, saber at the ready. This place was dark, and she had the spine chilling feeling she was being watched.

The mouse's boots made hollow thumps on the floor, though they were slow and hesitant. She came to a door set in the side of the tunnel, cautiously walking to it and trying it.

It was locked. Obviously they wanted her to go one way, and one way only .. straight.

The tunnel took an abrupt turn, and Fripple went around the corner with caution. She could see light now, bright light of morning at the tunnel's end, and more then that, hear a low roar. All sorts of things came to mind, but it was a continuous sound, a mess of many noises mingled as one .. not the sound of any one creature.

Fripple glanced behind her, half wanting to stay in the dark of the hallway .. but she had to help her friends. They had to stick together.

She wheeled around, running for the light at the end of the tunnel. Time was almost slow as her paws hit the ground, taking her closer to that light.

The mouse skidded to a stop outside the arch that framed the tunnel's entrance, gasping at what she saw. And she knew now .. she was in the theater Cedric had pointed out the day they'd signed up for the race, with a crowd and all.

There was an ominous clanking, and a set of metal bars dropped over the arch she'd come through.

Fripple took a deep breath, straitening up as the crowd cheered .. though she stood with a rebellious sneer. As her eyes adjusted to the light of day, she noticed Veil standing in front of another tunnel nearby. She ran to him, asking, "Now what? And .. why didn't you choose better armor and take more weapons?"

The ferret glanced down at his hardly protective gear, rapier and one dagger, shrugging, "This was all I had to choose from. Believe me, I took it all."

Fripple stared. "Really? I had enough to outfit an army, almost."

Hoof beats rang out as Eveningstar emerged from a tunnel, blue warpaint and plate armor completing his look. Fripple glanced at Veil's blue markings, stating, "We're all marked with blue!"

"We all follow Ignasa. Why would they not identify us as enemies?" Veil's voice was grim.

The was a clinking as Catkin joined them, wearing slight leather armor and holding a long knife. Fripple stared. "What? Catkin, didn't you have weapons?"

"Yes," The otter sounded afraid. "But I really don't like fighting!"

Fripple sighed, pulling off her spear and shoving it into Catkin's paws. "There, you can throw a harpoon, you can throw that. You'll need it."

She paused as there was faint clinking from the other side of arena, though some rock obstacles blocked the view.

Fripple lashed her saber. "Whatever it is, they've let it in. Let's go kill it .. we've got to."

Veil nodded. "Stick together. We'll beat this thing as one .. don't get separated, whatever you do!"




Chapter 25 Our Darkest Hour

Fripple; Daughter of the Hawk

Fripple in battle .. >:)

Loki had fallen into blessed .. though fearful and sulky silence. The echoes of dripping water could be heard, and Byron looked around the hall they were in. "We must be near the great river."

Aubretia took some calculations, asking, "The river runs through the catacombs?"

One of the bat guards sent with them tittered. "No, river runs above catacombs. They come close to river's banks but not go under .. Deathbringers glad, not need flood."

Vinwyte paused as they came through a tunnel to see separate tunnels, one going left and fairly flat, the other going right and down a flight of crumbling stairs. "Which way?"

Loki sulkily jerked her head in the direction of the stairs. Mizzah turned to the two guards flitting over their heads, asking, "Is that right?"

The one that seemed the spokesbeast shook his head. "Not know, at edge of Deathbringer land. We not go there, curse of evil there from when Deathbringers fought Darkshadows long 'for my father's father born."

Aubretia started down the stairs, asking, "Are these .. Darkshadow .. things still here?"

The guard, a sooty gray bat followed her, lighting on her shoulder. "No, no, all Darkshadow tribe dead or join Deathbringers long 'for my father's father born. But many Deathbringers killed in war, we not go to cursed place now, bad feeling there. Too many bats died, we stay away .. ghosts come back to haunt, who knows?"

The bat looked nervous, and Aubretia tried to settle his fears. "Actually, there is no such thing as phantoms, ghosts, or any other such fabled creature. So you needn't worry."

The little guard ruffled his fur, looking fluffier than ever. "Oh yes, yes, Velkin knows. Him not afraid, not very."

Bryony looked around, noting that while this hall still had paintings, they looked a different style; more realistic and less flat and stylized. Lenn and Aubretia were taking note of this, and the older mouse nodded. "Yes .. I think these halls are even older than the first ones .. and oh, look at the floor!"

They'd come through a massive arching doorway painted with stylized lotus flowers, and the hall before them stretched out majestically. The tile on the floor was amazingly well preserved glazed and colored porcelain, creating sweeping mosaics of an indigo river with rushes, waterfowl, boats, and even creatures fishing or running along the banks.

For being flat on the floor, it was shockingly life-like .. Bryony almost expected her feet to get wet as she stepped onto the indigo tiles.

On the walls were pictures of the city itself, rearing about the river, and above it all the sun and clouds were painted on the ceiling far above. As they walked the hall's length, the picture's setting never changed, but it grew darker, skillfully changing to nighttime.

The city danced with painted light now, and white tiles in the river depicted reflected stars. The stellar constellations were in their perfect places above them, even in line with the points of a compass.

Aubretia was in awe. "Whoever designed this .. they knew directions and the stars. This is amazing!"

Loki sulkily pointed through two sets of pillars. "Through there, you go. Find Morning Song."

Mizzah walked through the pillars, shining his light in them, to see an alabaster glazed wall painted like a palace's doors, with the floor's tile river flowing under it to seemingly nowhere. If the wall's plaster hadn't been cracking, the painted doors could have fooled the viewer into thinking they were real.

Annon crossed his arms. "Oh really? I see painted doors."

Loki struggled against the bowstring that bound her, squeaking, "No, up to side! Wall cave in there near pillar, you go through."

"I see nothing." Vinwyte sounded unsure.

Loki sighed. "Walk toward wall, hole hide behind pillar."

Mizzah did as she said, suddenly seeing what the bat meant. The wide pillar was set perhaps three feet from the abrupt, almost seemingly misplaced wall .. and right where it met the side of the hall, part of it had fallen in. This left a gaping black hole about two feet wide, with a sizeable pile of rubble near the floor.

The jerbilrat walked over to it, climbing over the rocks and vanishing into the darkness. His voice came echoing back to them. "Come in here all of you .. you must see this!"

><><

Fripple walked beside Veil, saber held tensly. "Should we split up and divide its attention? I could distract it, I'm fast. Unless it's a bunch of soldiers."

"Let's discover our enemy first, once we know, we will be able to decide how to fight it." Veil was logical.

Catkin was looking around nervously. "Fripple .. Veil, I don't see anything. Where .. is it?"

Eveningstar tossed his head, snorting. "They must want us to go through those blocks in the middle to reach .. it."

Fripple sneered. "Oh, I'll use them."

She put her claws in a crack between the stone blocks, hoisting herself onto them. Veil blinked up at her. "What are you doing?"

Fripple laughed drily. "I'm going to surprise it, what else?"

"Be careful. I'll cover you from the ground." Veil raised his rapier, advancing along the wall of stones, Catkin behind.

Evening reared slightly, trotting forward in plain sight. Fripple drew a knife, holding it in her left paw. She paused, catching a glimpse of movement below her and on the opposite side of the wall her friends were on.

In split second decisions, Fripple often made the risky choice. She launched herself off the wall, bringing her saber against whatever it was. There was a clash, and the flash of steel.

Fripple paused as she saw who she'd attacked, gasping. "Cedric! What .. I thought you were .."

The next thing that happened shocked her, for the mouse brought his spear at her head. Fripple ducked, slamming her saber against his spear. "What are you doing? I'm not the enemy, it's whatever they put in here for us to fight!"

But he didn't answer, just attacked again. Fripple jumped back, defending herself but not wanting to advance. "You idiot! What has gotten into you?"

To her shock, he seemed far stronger than the other times they'd dueled, and he slammed her against the wall. Fripple felt a trickle of fear, but Cedric backed up one step, and she got a chance to look into his eyes.

They were fearful, yet dull and somehow .. flat. Dead. For one moment, a flicker of life showed in them, pained, agonized life .. the look of a beast unable to do anything but the will of another, even if they wanted to.

Fripple jumped up, even though her heart had fallen to her boots. "Cedric .. they didn't .."

He lunged for her, spear leading the way, fear once again the main emotion in his yellow green eyes .. that seemed greener, somehow.

Fripple leapt away, bringing her saber against him. She advanced now, for she knew. Groddil had taught her enough for her to know.

She felt hatred, helpless, burning anger boil in her, not for Cedric, but for Swartt. And even for herself. I am such a fool .. what have I done? If only I would have bothered .. to tell him more of Ignasa ..

She was an idiot .. and a traitor to her own friend. If she'd just been brave enough to tell him the hard truth! But she had to try to get along ..

The clash of steel exploded again, as saber and spear crossed with a flash of reflected sunlight.

And Swartt had hexed Cedric. So that was why he'd let them talk.

Oh fool, fool that I was! I should have known!

She jumped over a low spear slash, feeling the tip of steel slice shallowly over her tail, and the first drops of crimson spattered to the dust. Fripple jumped to the side, lashing out so hard she knocked Cedric's spear aside, cutting him across the shoulder.

There was instant remorse, but no time for it, as the spear swung again, nicking her ear. Fripple swung her tail, but Cedric jumped over it, steel meeting steel yet again.

This fight was meant to end one way.

They were supposed to kill each other. And Fripple knew it was far too possible.

><><

Veil had paused as Fripple disappeared from her place on the wall, and the clash of metal rang out. The ferret tensed, about to leap over the wall, but Catkin's excited voice rang out. "Ivan? Oh Ivan, you're ok!"

Veil, wheeled around to see the cat leap easily over a nearby stone wall, flail at the ready. Catkin darted forward, and to Veil's shock, Ivan attacked her!

The otter dodged with a gasp, tripping and falling to her back. "Ivan, what are you .."

Veil jumped forward, bringing his rapier against his brother. "Ivan, have you gone mad?"

The cat didn't answer, brown eyes dull as ever, but listless and almost afraid now .. controlled. In fact his eyes were .. greenish.

Veil gasped in horror, as the past events made total, sick sense. But Ivan? How could they hex Ivan?

The gray cat was strong already, and he seemed even stronger now. Veil knew he had to end this fight, as Ivan shoved him against the wall. Catkin held her spear up with a cry, but she couldn't bring herself to throw. "Don't hurt him, how can you?!"

Ivan paused at this noise, and Veil braced himself against the wall, kicking his brother hard in the knees. Ivan staggered, doubling over, and Veil seized the moment, even though his gut wrenched liked somebeast had kicked him, to do what he did.

Veil brought his rapier hilt down on Ivan's head almost as hard as he could, wincing as there was a crack and the cat crumpled motionless to the ground. Catkin rushed foreword, gasping, "Veil .. what .. how could you?"

The ferret panted, feeling all the worse. "He's been hexed .. they're controlling him .."

A horse's scream of challenge rang from nearby, and Veil turned to see Star and Evening locked in a rear, the mare snapping for the stallion's throat, while he could barely bring himself to do more than defense.

Catkin's eyes were full of tears, as she sobbed, "Oh how .. how can they?"

Veil shook his head, looking around. "They can hex any that don't truly follow Ignasa and have his protection .."

The ferret froze, thinking for one second. Ivan and Star had been hexed, he could hear the clashes of a duel behind the wall .. Fripple, likely against Cedric, so where was ...

A sixth sense made Veil throw himself and Catkin to the ground, and in the very nick of time. There was a hiss, and a green fletched arrow sank into a crack between stones, where Veil's shoulder had been moments before.

Esther leapt off another rock wall, arrow on the string and green eyes glowing greener than ever, with total fear.

No ..

Veil jumped up, wishing he had a shield as he dodged the next arrow that flew at him.

How could he ..

But Veil knew .. this was all part of Swartt's sick plan of revenge. "Esther, don't do this!"

He knew it would make no difference, but the words came out anyway. The ermine ran at him, and Veil knew he had to get rid of her bow if he wanted to live .. and wanted her to live.

She drove him away from Catkin, out of the rock obstacles and toward the opposite side of the arena from where he'd entered it. Veil could vaguely hear the enthusiastic roar of the crowd, and he felt resentment to their ignorance and in some cases, base enjoyment of this cruel show.

They thought Veil and his friends where either slaves who had no connection, or hired fighters with no connection.

How far from the truth, and the truth that stared them in the face!

Esther suddenly dropped her bow of her own accord, drawing a slightly curved rapier with fluid, almost beautiful grace. Veil stared .. Esther only knew the basics of swordplay, she was an archer! But as she advanced, sword held as if she had fought with one all her life, Veil knew. Swartt was controlling her .. somehow. She wasn't just hexed, he was using her like a puppet!

Steel clashed in the bright sunlight, Esther moving so fast and expertly she made Veil's movements seem clumsy. The ermine landed to the side, eyes sparkling with such terror Veil felt complete pity for her. He dodged, trying to disarm her in hope he could stop her controlled and sudden mastery before one of them wounded the other.

However he was knocked backwards by strength he'd never have dreamed Esther could command, and he knew she couldn't.

That Swartt .. he would pay for this! No .. by Ignasa's mercy, he would die for this!

><><

Bryony followed Mizzah through the gaping hole near the wall, clambering over the fallen pile of rubble. She slid onto the smooth floor once again, realizing it was tiled with the same glazed porcelain as the room on the other side of the crumbling wall.

In fact it was simply a continuation of the hall before, the tile river flowing between three sets of rearing pillars, to the end of the room. Bryony let her gaze sweep across the floor, to the gold tiled, almost flower-like star the river seemed to flow from, though forever frozen in place. She slowly lifted her head, staring at the glittering gold jewelry, statues, weapons, and figurines that sat on the ledge that was built into the wall.

Lenn came through the opening, with Aubretia and Annon, followed by the others, even Byron.

Bryony slowly walked to the ledge, gently picking up a small chest, made from cypress wood and gilded with a gold depiction of Ignasa. The black mouse's voice was soft. "What is this place?"

Aubretia joined her, picking up a rich necklace. "I'm not sure. Do you see any writing?"

Lenn was examining a heap of beads, ones that were strewn about as though they had somehow fallen. Annon and Vinwyte had joined them, blinking in the glitter of the reflected gold. Annon laid his paw on a small trunk, starting as he knocked it over, and its lid fell open, spilling light into the room, cold, blue light.

Lenn gasped, exclaiming, "Oh! Oh look!"

She held up the delicate crystalline flower that held an afterglow like the moon on snow. "It's a flower .. a Flower of Icetor! But .. why down here?"

Mizzah shook his head. "I am not sure .. but the ancient kings had great wealth. It could be the beast who built this place had acquired the Ice of Icetor .. by some conquest or trade."

Bryony had noticed something rough hiding beneath the strewn beads in the extra light, and she reached for it. Her paw connected with something not unlike bone or perhaps rock, and she drew out a large clam shell, that glowed dull gray-white among its splendid surroundings. The mouse frowned, examining it, "Umm .. maybe he liked to collect shells too?"

Vinwyte sounded thoughtful. "Maybe. Or maybe .."

The otter reached out with the paw opposite the one Loki sat on, sticking his webbed claws into the crack between the top part of the shell and the bottom. It opened with the creak of old hinges, and Bryony stared. "Ohhh ... how beautiful!"

The shell was lined with blue velvet, and in it sat seven of the largest pearls Bryony had ever seen. The treasure of Holt Willow in Mossflower was nothing like these, which were without blemish, each the same size, and even tinted pink.

Lenn shook her head in wonder, suddenly pointing to the lid of the shell case. "Look Aubretia, writing!"

The golden mouse nodded, reading the strange letters carefully. "One pearl for .. integrity .. One pearl for .. morality. One pearl for .. loyalty, One pearl for love. One pearl for .. wisdom, One pearl for .. mercy, and One for .. the sovereignty of Ignasa above. Seven perfect tears .. shed, A .. curse to the dead, Though Ignasa's .. good will, These none can .. fulfill."

Mizzah blinked, staring at the pearls. "These are things of wonder, I have never heard anything of them, though you would think they would have their own legend."

"Maybe there's a reason they don't, for indeed, logically, one would think they would." Byron spoke thoughtfully. "Also, why would anyone bury them down here, for centuries?"

"The riddle does say 'A curse to the dead'. Perhaps they are cursed." Aubretia was just as thoughtful.

The bat guard, Velkin, spoke up. "Great treasure here, yes, yes. You find Morning Song? Must take traitor to crown back to majesty."

Aubretia looked around. "No .. Loki, why did you think this treasure had something to do with a morning song?"

The dusty brown bat looked sulky. "Humph, you not see, you stand on. Fur beast have fur for brain."

Velkin cuffed her over the head. "Speak bad things of majesty's guests, you make fate all worse, much, much!"

Loki shrank down more, muttering darkly to herself.

Aubretia turned to the star they stood on, and everyone stepped away from it. The golden mouse knelt, feeling the gold tiles carefully as she read the only piece of modern writing, carved across the star's middle, and looking newer than the rest of the chamber. "Song of the Morning."

She translated the ancient writing below it. "To defeat .. the lies .. follow .. the point .. of True North."

Mizzah nodded. "This depicts the north star, I'll be bound."

Lenn turned around to face the wall, still intact in it's center. "I don't see anything there .."

Byron was looking at the bottom point of the gold tiled star, suddenly exclaiming, "The river! See where the real north star on the ceiling reflects with the tiles?"

Aubretia ran to the place, tracing the 'reflection' of the north star painted on the ceiling, and seeing for the first time the ancient writing created cleverly with dark blue tiles, in a way that could fool the viewer into thinking they could be ripples.

The gold mouse pulled out her paper and quill, quickly writing the ancient song down. "I don't know the tune, but this must be it."

"What does it say?" Bryony was excited.

Aubretia opened her mouth to read the song aloud, but there was a sudden screech from Velkin. "Eee get foul snake, no escape!"

Loki had used the distraction of discovery to twist around and get her teeth into the bowstring that bound her wings. Being new and unwaxed, it shredded easily under her razor sharp fangs.

Vinwyte grabbed for Loki, but she swooped up above his reach. Velkin's fellow guard dove for her, but the wily little bat spun away, though forced to land on the ledge of treasure, near the still open case of pearls.

The temptation must have been too much, for Loki dodged to the side, scooping up one of the seven pearls in her claws, and flying for the ceiling.

Velkin charged after her, but Loki was desperate. She swooped around the top of one of the pillars, like a disembodied shadow, flitting straight for the entrance. However the other bat guard lunged in front of the crack, and Loki swerved away again, flying straight for Velkin.

The pewter gray guard let out a squawk of surprise as Loki suddenly flew over his head, laughing as the two guards rammed into each other, both falling, half stunned. Vinwyte jumped forward, catching Velkin, who seemed worse off as the other guard caught himself, shaking his head as if to clear it and giving chase.

However Loki wasn't making for the opening anymore, but a corner at the back of the room. She seemed trapped, but she had reasons. Ones that become quite apparent as she swooped into a sizable crevice that Bryony had thought was just part of a pillar's shadow!

The other guard followed her with an angry screech as he swooped through the opening, and the next second, Bryony felt a slight rumble!

><><

Fripple jumped over Cedric's slashing spear, swinging out with her saber and cutting through his thick cheek fur. He staggered back a little, but jumped forward again in the next second.

Fripple was breathing hard, not because she was tired, but because of the red creeping over the edges of her vision.

She advanced again, feeling horror mixed with fury as the red began to tint the way she saw her surroundings. If she went mad, all would be lost.

Fripple tried to shove the feeling away, and keep a level head, but the anger was overpowering. She barely felt Cedric's spear take her under the right eye, though her cheek felt sticky and wet.

She swung her saber, only to have it blocked again. Cedric had as many wounds as she did, and if not for the Bloodwrath, Fripple knew she would be weakening. Yet the mouse wouldn't .. or really, couldn't lessen his attacks and power, for whatever was controlling him was still strong.

Fripple thrust, expecting him to block her, but he jumped away instead, and her blade slashed across his side. Crimson quickly soaked into the white fur of his underbelly, but he barely reacted, just charged her with such force Fripple was knocked backwards.

The mouse yelped as she slammed against the stone wall, and the world felt fuzzy .. she knew she was dead.

Ignasa ..

The next thing she knew there was searing pain across her face, and a flood of warmth running down her nose and into her eyes. The pain cleared her head, and she jumped forward, her saber ripping a shallow wound across Cedric's shoulder and tearing through his leather armor.

The mouse actually staggered, almost falling onto his back.

Ignasa help us! Save us, only you can .. or save him .. just him .. please! Even if I die ..

Cedric jumped up again, far quicker than he ever should have been able to. His spear tore across Fripple's leg, and she couldn't help but stagger, falling with a small cry.

Fripple rolled, swinging her tail and ripping the barb across Cedric's knees as she scrambled to her feet, the pain disappearing in the rush of battle.

She growled, drawing a knife as Cedric lunged, and she dodged to the side, circling him. The mouse maid shook blood out of her eyes, jumping at her foe with a wild yell and driving him back with a furious bombardment of cuts.

The blood was rising in her vision, but she was tiring, and she had no choice but let it try and take over.

Ignasa, save us!

><><

Aisha stood by one of Shroud's near-empty manor's windows, watching Nightshade cross the courtyard with purpose. The cream weasel was neither surprised nor sorry the black vixen was leaving, Aisha had guessed that once Nightshade snapped out of grieving for her dead son, she'd be on the move.

Where she went and what she did, Aisha didn't care, so long as it didn't affect her.

The weasel grabbed her mop and bucket, hurrying down the hall toward the courtyard. She crossed it, heading straight for Sunflash's chamber. She knew there'd be a guard, but she knew she'd better take the chance, because he was one of the last ones left.

Aisha practically ran across the marble courtyard, but the one guard by the doors barely batted an eyelash .. she was always late for the next order it seemed, anyway.

The weasel hurried down some stairs, through a hallway, and down another staircase.

She set her bucket down, sticking the mop in it and starting to clean the floor. A little down the hallway, the guard broke out. "Hey, what are you doing?"

Aisha bowed respectfully, murmuring, "Mistress Nightshade's orders."

The guard couldn't hear properly. "What?"

He strode toward her, ordering, "Speak up now, why are you here?"

Aisha pretended to cringe, but she really ducked, kicking the bucket of water over at the guard, leaping at him as he slipped and bringing her mop handle over his head with a crack.

He crumpled to the ground, and Aisha slipped on the water she'd spilled, cutting her arm on the unconscious guard's fallen spear. She staggered to her feet, barely looking at the blood mingling with water. "I have my reasons."

The weasel turned her back on the guard, keeping his spear in paw as she walked into Sunflash's room. The badger was already looking at the door, and he blinked at the blood running slowly down Aisha's arm. "What happened out there?"

"I got rid of your guard." Aisha was matter of fact as she pulled a key from her skirt, stating, "I got this off Shroud's desk .. he was in such a hurry he forgot to lock his office. Now will you help me?"

"Do what?" Sunflash's voice was dull.

Aisha rolled her eyes. "Help get me out of here. Will you? After we get out, you go one way, I go another, and we never see each other again. Deal?"

Sunflash seemed to think for a moment, before nodding. "Fine. Unchain me, and I'll help you."

Aisha inserted the key in the heavy lock, turning it with a click. Sunflash rubbed his wrist as she undid the other fetter, handing him the key. "Do your own feet."

The badger did so, slowly getting to his paws, for it had been months since he'd properly put weight on them, though Shroud would take him here and there every so often ... but not very often.

Aisha crossed her arms. "And I've got to get you a weapon, I suppose?"

Sunflash paused, before overturning the sturdy cypress table he'd used for writing down Shroud's records, and ripping one of its thick legs off. "Not really."

Aisha was agreeable. "Oh .. that'll do. Come on, let's get out of here."

He followed her out into the corridor, starting to see the still unconscious guard laying in a puddle of water, mop and bucket strewn nearby. Sunflash raised an eyebrow, as Aisha shrugged. "I gave him something to think about when he wakes up, but that'll be a while. Leave him, Shroud will punish him plenty."

Sunflash nodded, following her up the stairs and toward the courtyard. Aisha's voice was low. "Look, the guard is standing in the doors, and honestly, I didn't see any others. Whatever Shroud is up to, he took almost all the guards. Forgot about me though."

Her violet eyes sparkled with triumph momentarily, though they sobered as she paused at the shut doors. "Hush. I've got an idea."

The weasel raised her spear, knocking on the doors. There was a confused noise from outside, and Aisha pushed Sunflash behind the door as the guard hesitantly stepped through it, looking around.

Sunflash took over, whacking the guard over the head with a decisive clunk.

The creature collapsed, and Sunflash walked out into the light of the courtyard, looking warily around as if he expected Shroud to appear any moment. Aisha suddenly stopped, stating, "You know ... I want to spite Shroud a little more."

Sunflash paused. "What?"

Aisha jingled her keys, grinning and pointing to Shroud's eagle's cage. "Let's let him out! He might even try to find Shroud and kill him, wouldn't that be a bonus?"

"Skarlath? You mean Skarlath?"

"Hey, I don't know his name. But he's half wild, maybe we'll get lucky and he has a taste for Shroud, or Swartt, or both of them."

Aisha hurried over to the cage, sticking the key in the lock and turning. The large bird watched her with fierce golden eyes, tense and ready for anything. The weasel opened the cage, setting her spear aside. "I'm a friend, ok? You know me, I've never been mean to you, and I helped the badger even. I'll set you free, alright? Just let me undo your chains."

Skarlath looked at Sunflash, and then Aisha. He didn't speak, but didn't move either as the weasel quickly undid his fetter, scrambling backwards as soon as this was done. The eagle looked at his freed talons, and suddenly made for the open cage door. He knocked Aisha over, spreading his wings with a wild screech and taking off clumsily, almost falling back to the courtyard.

However the beast was determined, and he cleared the ground, soaring into the bright Southswardian morning, screaming a wild challenge.

Sunflash stared after him, shaking his head. "Where is he going?"

Aisha shrugged, dusting herself off. "Huh, how should I know? Least Shroud won't have him as a prize."

"I've got to go after him, we were friends once! And .. I hope we still are." Sunflash looked worried.

Aisha shrugged. "That bird hasn't talked in seasons, he's practically feral. But do what you like. Thanks for helping, and the best of luck to you. I'm getting out of this rotten city .. find a ship that'll take me as cook or something, and I'm never coming back, never!"

><><

Esther spun with the grace a master swordsbeast might have envied, bringing her rapier against Veil's with amazing power. Veil jumped back, ducking as Esther thrust and pain lanced across his unprotected shoulder.

The ferret was getting a vague idea in his head .. a crazy one, but he was willing to try anything.

He could hear the two horses fighting nearby, even feel their hooves shake the ground, and a challenging neigh rang in his ears. Veil jumped away, actually dragging Esther with him .. hexed or not, she was still Esther.

Evening dashed away from Star's deranged attacks, obviously not wanting to hurt a mare, especially one he'd grown fond of. The larger horse aimed a kick at Star, though he didn't execute it very well. The pinto only attacked harder, blue eyes glowing disturbingly green.

Evening bucked, charging away across the arena, Star snapping at his heels .. almost trying to drive him back toward the place they'd been fighting ..

Esther had landed heavily, but now she struggled to her feet, bringing her rapier against Veil's. The ferret acted on his hunch, attacking fiercely and driving Esther back toward one of the rock obstacles. If he could just get her behind it ..

But she countered with vicious intensity, and Veil guessed Swartt had guessed his objective.

Ignasa, give me strength!

He attacked again, pushing his advantage of truly knowing the sword, driving Esther back, ever closer to those rocks .. this could be his chance. If his hunch was right, Swartt would have to show his scurvy hide.

Esther's eyes shone with total fear as Veil drove her around the side of the rocks, and the change was so sudden Veil was taken off guard. The ermine's movements got clumsier and clumsier as she stumbled around the rocks, and Veil swung his sword to disarm her.

Her rapier flew from her paws, she slammed against the wall, and Veil's thrust was too powerful, proven as it slashed across her shoulder.

Esther's breath was ragged with obvious exhaustion now, in fact Veil highly suspected the hex was the only reason she could still stand. Her eyes still glittered with nearly insane fear, but they weren't glowing .. there was no power behind them.

Veil took a step back, and Esther held her shoulder, suddenly speaking in a desperate voice .. almost a faint cry from her innermost being. "Veil .. help me .. he .. he said I had to kill you .. I .. but I .. I have to! Please .. save me from him!"

Veil hadn't seen this coming, but apparently even while hexed, beasts could still think. An invisible sword seemed to find his heart as he realized he couldn't help Esther .. he couldn't undo a hex, even Swartt couldn't!

Oh Ignasa .. I can't do this .. I can't save her .. show me what to do! Save us both, Ignasa please!

"Esther .. it'll be ok .. I'll .." Veil broke off, realizing even more how helpless he was. He couldn't make his father undo a hex .. they were permanent! Except to Ignasa .. and Ignasa was the only one who could save them now.

><><

Bryony braced herself as the shaking rapidly grew. "The room's caving in!"

However it wasn't so much the room, as it was the small shaft Loki and her pursuer had vanished into. A pile of rubble crashed down in it's mouth, some spilling to the floor and smashing porcelain tiles, and some of the wall's painted finish crumbled to the ground.

Mizzah slowly straightened as the rumbling stopped, and Aubretia sighed. "I thought that would be the end of us for a moment .."

Velkin was still groggy, but he weakly fluttered up, asking, "Where other guard? And treacherous snake?"

Vinwyte examined the now filled rift, shaking his head. "I doubt they could have made it .. this is completely caved in, what on earth was it?"

Annon shrugged. "The beasts who sealed this chamber had to get out, of course. This shaft probably led into more catacombs, but it wasn't built to last like this room. So the noise the bats made must have brought it down on them."

Velkin looked afraid. "Oh no, no! What majesty say?"

"What majesty say about what?"

Freyna, Reskan, and Odvin were watching them from the room's opening, much to the surprise of its occupants.

Velkin cringed, hiding slightly behind Lenn. "Oh great majesty, Velkin sorry, so sorry! Snake Loki get away!"

Freyna snarled. "She do what? Majesty kill this traitor in slow torture, tired of stupid games! Where she go, Velkin?"

The little guard stammered. "She fly through small tunnel, and it fall! She hurt Velkin, kill other royal guard, Velkin fall to death too if not for otter. But tunnel fall on Loki, she dead now."

Freyna huffed. "No good snake, that Loki. Not even let majesty kill, she best stay dead! But we search later. Must tell fur beast bad news .. find this morning song?"

Aubretia nodded. "Yes, I wrote it down .. what bad news?"

Reskan glanced at his mother, answering. "We fly to Sixclaw's cells, much fast, yes. But cells empty! Majesty Freyna catch guard, make talk. He say Swartt take friends of good fur beasts to arena, play Swartt's game."

Freyna licked some blood off her fangs, snorting. "And when Swartt play game, it no good for beasts he play with. Guard say also Shroud help. Then we kill him, come back to tell you."

Mizzah stared at her. "Game? Arena? You mean the theater?"

Freyna nodded. "Arena, theater, all same. You go, we take. Fly fast to save friends, or they die sure!"

"But I can't run!" Byron looked upset.

Velkin landed on his shoulder, stating, "You go at own pace, Velkin help majesty's friend."

Mizzah thought for a moment, before handing the mouse his torch. "There. We will follow you, your majesty."

Bryony spoke up, quickly, "Wait, we should get Glow, he'll want to help! But he's at the Shaded Waters! We might need a horse .."

Annon climbed out of the treasure room's opening. "We can't help that, come on! Which way to the theater?"

Freyna swooped out after him, ordering, "Reskan, get fur beast's horse. All the rest, follow me!"

Lenn jumped over the pile of rubble, running beside Aubretia. "What are we doing?"

"We have the Morning Song." Aubretia's voice was determined. "Now we've got to sing it!"

><><

"Bluefen, which way?"

The palace creatures had been in the catacombs for a little already, and now had come to yet another fork in the tunnels. However Bluefen didn't hesitate, just ran down one of them. "This way! Be ready, we'll be passing the cells soon, and .. Yaah!"

She broke off as she tripped over a lump of fur, falling to the stones and rolling to avoid any cuts that might be being brought down on her. However she sat up again soon after, blinking. "What ..."

Kensly shoved the pile of fur, rolling it over to reveal the creature was quite dead, laying in its own blood with a gash in its throat.

Lilly looked closer a moment, before summing the situation up. "We're not the only ones down here."

Bluefen got to her feet, suddenly running to the door in the wall a few yards away, yanking it open and running in. Her stunned voice came back to them. "They're gone! This is where Swartt keeps his prisoners, but my son is gone .. there's nobeast here!"

She appeared at the doorway, leaning against it and staring almost insanely at the ground.

Lilly spoke up. "My friend, I am sorry. Perhaps he has chosen to keep them elsewhere."

"No." Bluefen's voice was afraid. "No, it's worse than that, and why didn't I think of it? Oh Milady, we must hurry! Oh quickly!"

She bolted down the hallway, Lilly close behind her. The ferret's voice was laden with dread. "Your seal was used on the game's edict?"

"Yes, foul demon Swartt is!"

Lilly paused at her own words, and Bluefen nodded. "And so you have guessed it. He's using my son and his friends as part of this! This way milady! I will kill him for this, his wickedness has gone far too long .. somebeast must end this!"

><><

The Shaded Waters had a little patch of grass, one that connected with the alley behind it. Glow grazed here, able to hear Mizzah's horses in the stable.

The mismarked roan flicked an ear, tired of their company. Non-talking horses were so simple minded. Glow took a bite of grass, chewing slowly and thoroughly. The two-legged beasts couldn't understand the equine language, but he could .. he wished Mizzah's bay would shut up about how he hated stalls.

Glow dully wondered if something interesting would happen, and to him. He had the feeling something quite interesting was happening in the city, from all the paws and chariots that had been passing by on the street. Now it was pretty quiet.

The young stallion sighed, lowering his head to take another bite of grass, however jerking it up again at the sound of heavy footpaws. Glow swiveled his ears, inhaling deeply, mouth partly open.

The horse trotted toward the nearby alley, breathing in again as he felt the creature skid to a stop nearby. A voice was added to his senses. "Have you .. seen a golden eagle fly overhead, by any chance?"

Glow was surprised .. this beast was large, and smelled a lot like .. Bella! "Bella? You're down here?"

Something wasn't right about this, but Bella was the only one who smelled at all like this beast did.

"Bella?" The voice was far lower than the badger lady's, but it was also shocked. "How do you know my mother's name?"

Glow wished he could see, for once. "Your mother? Who are you? You're a badger?"

"Yes .. what else would I be? I'm Sunflash, but where is my mother? I thought she'd have died of old age by now."

"She lives in Mossflower, I just thought .. you smelled sort of like her."

Sunflash sounded confused. "Smell?"

"I am blind." Glow stated this as a simple fact. "But don't underestimate me. I'm confused though .. You're looking for a golden eagle? And you're Bella's son?"

Glow sensed a paw reaching for his muzzle, and he paused as a heavy paw gently stroked it. "Yes. I've been a slave for a long time .. but then .. a weasel let me go. It was all quite .. sudden, if you know what I mean. But the eagle is an old friend, and I want to talk to him .. I think he went this way."

Glow shook himself, sniffing as another odd sent reached his sensitive nostrils. Sunflash's paw left his muzzle. "What is it?"

About this moment, there was an odd screech, and Sunflash broke in with an exclamation of surprise. A high voice quickly spoke. "You no fear Reskan, son of majesty Deathbringer. He help good fur beasts. You called Glow?"

The horse cocked an ear. "Yes .. my friends sent you?"

"Majesty friend of your friends, sent me come get you. Say there great trouble with other friends Sixclaw have captive, they have to fight in theater! Shroud slave master there too, it bad, bad yes!"

Sunflash's voice broke in again. "The theater? That's where Shroud went? Well I bet it's where Skarlath went too .. and now that I'm free, I've got a score to settle with that fox."

Glow crow hopped slightly. "Reskan, take us there!"

><><

"Esther, listen to me. Look at me .." Veil prayed she could still hear him.

The ermine looked up again, green eyes shockingly dull. Veil took a breath, but the next second the fire in Esther's eyes flared again, and she ran past him for her fallen sword. Veil jumped for it, grabbing the hilt before she could.

Esther skidded to a stop, running past him. Veil caught sight of black tipped buff fur, and he knew Swartt was back. They were near where Ivan lay unconscious, and Esther grabbed the cat's flail, swinging it at Veil.

The ferret dodged, crossing his rapiers in defense. The impact was amazing, and Veil staggered. He jumped away, seeing Swartt, standing in the shadow of the stone blocks, lash out.

Veil threw himself to the ground, hearing the flail whiz above his ear. The rush of battle was surging through him, and he kicked out, thrusting with his rapier in the same moment.

There was a cry, and blood spattered onto him. Esther leapt away, holding the flail, a weapon far to heavy for her. Crimson slowly ran down her side, and despite Swartt's power, she was gasping.

He's killing her .. Oh Ignasa! I'm such a fool, to think I could fight this power for you. Fight for me .. us .. please!

He never dreamed his prayer would be answered.

And yet it was, though far from how he thought it would be.

><><

Aubretia and Lenn were running next to Mizzah, Annon, and Vinwyte, Freyna and Odivn ahead of them.

"There be guards, sure, you help majesty kill!" Freyna's order came none too soon, as they ran around a corner to see at least ten guards and a barred entrance.

Mizzah drew his sword, yelling, "Vinwyte, get those bars out of the way! Aubretia and Lenn have to get through, Bryony too!"

Annon lashed out with his long knife, calling, "You heard him, go!"

Aubretia drew one of her knives, throwing it at an attacker and instantly killing him. Vinwyte dodged the next ones spear thrust, punching him hard in the jaw.

Bryony grabbed Lenn's paw, dragging her toward the bars. A guard came after them with a yell, and Lenn ducked to the side, drawing her knife. Bryony whipped her spear out, and the guard paused, looking warily at the two mice .. not sure which he would rather turn his back on.

He fell the next second, Aubretia standing behind him, bloody knife in paw. She jumped over his fallen form, running for the bars and looking around. "Ahhg .. the winch must be in a room above us."

"What do we do?" Bryony sounded desperate as the sounds of fighting increased. "If we don't get that open, they'll kill us in here, we're trapped!"

Lenn was looking around, and she grabbed a dead guard's axe. "Here, use this as a lever!"

Aubretia grabbed it. "That's genius, of course!"

She stuck the tip of the axe blade under the bars, shoving on the handle. "Arrg .. it's too heavy! Help me!"

Bryony and Lenn shoved down on the handle, and the bars moved up. Vinwyte was with them the next second, and he shoved down, bringing the bars up a few more inches. "Now go, quickly!"

Aubretia rolled underneath it, jumping up and helping Lenn through. A guard was running for them, and Bryony practically threw herself to the ground and rolled, clearing the bars just as Vinwyte yanked the axe away, beheading his attacker with a swift slash.

Bryony looked quickly around, seeing several fights, mostly the one between Star and a strange horse. But Star didn't look .. normal, she looked half mad, with almost greenish eyes.

Aubretia grabbed her two friends, pulling out the parchment she'd copied. "Quick, we need to get closer, or they won't be able to hear us!"

She tripped the next second, glasses knocked off her nose and spinning away. "Oh no .. no I've got to find them .."

She shoved the parchment at the nearest available beast, Lenn. "Sing it, quick! Bryony, help me find my glasses, I can't see! Not enough to read or fight, at least!"

Lenn grabbed the parchment, with no idea of what she was doing. The crowd was cheering, though a lot were watching these newcomers with curiosity. Lenn swallowed hard, glancing down at the parchment in her paw for a second, realizing it was a simple rhyme .. its rhythm not unlike many songs she had heard and sung.

In a moment of inspiration, she took a deep breath, singing the new words to a familiar tune .. and what curious words they were!


"Sun that dawns in golden east,

True north fades in lighting sky.

Both in day and dark of night,

Truth will guide our hearts to fly."


She sensed Aubretia and Bryony behind her, as they joined in too, reading over her shoulder.


"Echoes loud our Morning Song,

You were right and we were wrong,

Lies can only strive so far,

Break our chains, oh bright north star!"


The effect was slow, and yet there was an effect. It was like when one lights fire to parchment, it spreads slowly at first, but soon flares up. At first it was only Lenn, Aubretia, and Bryony singing, but slowly the crowd nearest them stopped their noise to listen.

Reactions were varied, some cringed, some looked angry, and yet pained, and some looked like they were just waking up from sleep. Suddenly Lenn realized they weren't the only ones singing, some of the crowd were too.

Now it spread like wildfire, growing by the minute. Those in the crowd who were singing looked stunned, as if they were only seeing things the way they were at this moment. The beasts who would not sing tried to cover their ears, as if the song hurt them.


"Sun that sets in fiery west,

True north climbs into its place.

Healing fire in night and day,

No lie stands before your face.


Echoes loud our Morning Song,

You are right and we are wrong,

Ignasa, Lord of near and far,

Break our chains, oh bright north star!"


The song seemed to work magic, as Star had stopped attacking her fellow horse, and she was standing with her head down, her legs shaking. The wild light was fading from her eyes, and as Lenn started the repeat the first verse, Bryony and Aubretia backing her up, the horse took a stumbling step, falling to her knees and sides heaving.

As she looked up in confusion, her eyes were crystal blue again.

><><

At first, Fripple didn't hear the song. Her reality was one of blood, steel, and a growing inner fire .. she'd snap any second now.

Her vision was blood red, her ears pinned flat. However as the song grew louder, it broke through her near insanity. At first it registered as the noise of the crowd, but it worked its magic upon her too, and she paused, saber recoiled to strike.

The crimson started to fade from her gaze, and she stared at Cedric, who was staring at her, the green fire dying in his eyes. They returned to their normal yellow green, and Fripple stammered, "Cedric .. is it .. you?"

He was staring at her, at the blood on his spear, and at the blood soaking her golden fur. "Princess .. what .. "

But his voice was blurry, far away. The pain came now, in a crashing wave, and so did the darkness .. blessed darkness.

Fripple heard her saber clatter to the ground, felt herself fall with it, absolute exhaustion from blood loss taking over.

The last thing she felt was something heavy falling on her, and it knocked her breath away.

The last thing she thought was that she'd wake up in the lands beyond.

><><

Veil felt himself freeze as the song rose in volume, even if he didn't mean to. In the corner of his vision he could see Swartt, almost on the ground with his paws clapped over his ears.

Esther was standing directly in front of him, flail raised, when the glow faded from her eyes, and she released her grip on the heavy weapon.

She stared at him, gasping, "Veil .. "

The next second she fell, and Veil instinctively grabbed her, both of them falling to the ground. "Esther, are you .."

But he knew, she was her own beast again. Though half dead from all that Swartt had forced her to do.

Swartt was struggling to stand up again, though he looked uncharacteristically weak, almost like he was choking for air. Veil knew what he had to do, there would never be a better time.

He gently laid Esther next to the stone wall, probably the safest place she could be, in her incoherent state. The ferret grabbed his rapier hilt, drawing his dagger and heading for his father.

Swartt looked up, agony written in his brown eyes. However he saw Veil coming, and drew his cutlass with a cough. Veil was surprised at this, but he suddenly realized after controlling Esther, and this song, Swartt's power was drained.

He advanced quickly, clashing filling the air again. Swartt seemed content to defend himself at first, and Veil felt the hatred for his demon of a father grow. The intensity of battle filled him, and Swartt was all he could see .. let this beast die in his own game.

Veil attacked with more fury than he thought he could muster. His rapier flashed in the sunlight as he brought a cut down on his father with wild strength, shoving the ferret's cutlass away slightly and ripping across his right eye.

Swartt snarled in pain, leaping back and glaring at his son with wicked intensity, blood slowly flowing down the right side of his face. His right eye was closed, but his left one glimmered with hate.

Veil knew he'd provoked the warlord, especially as the ferret came after him with a blindingly fast attack. Swartt's cutlass slammed into Veil's rapier without mercy, knocking him against the wall.

The next thing the young ferret knew, burning pain slashed across his left eye, and blood splattered onto his shoulders. Veil ducked away, not daring to open the injured eye.

Swartt was grinning at him insanely. "Oh, you'll wear that the rest of your life, won't you? What you do to me, I do to you. And you failed me boy, you ruined my plans. You're too clever for your own good. Looks like I've got to kill you myself."

Veil braced himself, glaring at his father through his good eye. "Ignasa will punish you, even if I die."

Swartt let out a wild yell, attacking with vengeance. Veil ducked the charge, spinning around and tripping his father. The ferret fell, cutlass spinning just out of his grasp. Veil tried to run at him, only to be blocked by something invisible.

However it was weak, and Veil called out wordlessly. Ignasa, please! Destroy his power, it cannot stand before yours!

There was a flash of blue, and Veil felt himself jump forward again, kicking Swartt down before he could get up. The warlord stared up at him in utter shock, and Veil raised his rapier to kill!

But victory was not yet to be, for the very next second there was a screech, and Veil felt something latch around his shoulders, pulling him off the ground!

Veil yelled, trying to slash his rapier at his attacker, but it met something hard and went spinning to the ground, now a good ways below. The ferret cocked his head to see his abductor out of his good eye, and realized it was a golden bird .. large enough to carry him.

They weren't over the arena anymore, but flying away from it.

"Oh no, let me down! You don't understand, they need my help!"

But the bird seemed oblivious to its captive's pleas.



Chapter 26 Fire of Dawn

DmS &#039;The Warrior&#039;s Reckoning&#039;

The final showdown .. >:)

The next few seconds were absolute mayhem. There was a clinking, and Bluefen ran into the arena, follow closely by Lilly, Kensly, Skadu, and Kinta.

They were just in time to see the golden eagle take off with Veil, much to Bluefen's dismay. "No!"

However they could do nothing, especially as a group of guards tried to stop them.

Shroud had run out now, and he was livid. "Who let that bird out?"

He paused, suddenly turning on Swartt, "It was your little weasel, Aisha! I'll guarantee it!"

"Oh, that's where she went? I might have known. Well she's done me a favor, the bird must be hungry and smelled blood."

Shroud laughed. "Oh you think? Fool, that eagle can talk, and it came from Mossflower."

This was too much for Swartt, who threw a flash of green at Shroud. "Idiot, you and your stupid pets! Where's your pet badger; is he coming too?!"

The black fox was caught off guard for once, and he couldn't duck quite fast enough. The power shot across his arm, tearing through fur and burning skin.

Shroud staggered back with a cry of pain, suddenly blasting green at Swartt. "You'll go to Hellgates for that!"

Catkin had come out of hiding, joining Aubretia. "Oh Aubretia, you're alright!"

She paused upon seeing Bryony. "Bryony? How'd you get here?"

The black mouse lashed out at a guard, yelling, "It's a long story, I'll tell you later!"

There was a clinking behind them, and Vinwyte and Annon joined them. Lenn lashed at a guard with her knife, felling him. "Where's Mizzah?"

Annon kicked a guard down, stabbing him as he answered, "He's coming, he had to go release the winch."

Catkin threw her spear at a guard, wincing a little as it impaled him. Vinwyte swung his axe at the next beast, and as he fell, Aubretia dispatched the last guard with a thrown knife.

There was a pause, and Mizzah came running. "What's going on? Where is Veil and my nephew?"

Annon shook his head. "I don't know about Cedric, but Veil .."

"He got carried off by an eagle!" Catkin sounded distressed. "Wait .. Mizzah!"

The jerbilrat nodded, suddenly pointing to another group of creatures beset by guards. "We can't change that, but Veil would want us to keep fighting. Let's help them, come on!"

Lilly impaled a guard, spinning around to kill one behind her, as Kensly tried to help defend her. Bluefen was fighting mad, trying to get at Swartt, who was locked in battle with Shroud.

The ferret and her seer friends couldn't break through the guards they were faced with, however. Kinta was forced to use her weapon as a club in the short distance, and Skadu had gotten ahold of a guard's spear, and she was making good use of it.

The other royal guards were faced with more of Swartt's beasts, and they couldn't reach their queen. However they were soon joined by Mizzah and his creatures, the jerbilrat taking on the queen's attacker himself, only realizing she was the queen as he killed the guard. "Your majesty!"

Lilly nodded to him. "My thanks, excuse me .. I've got a slaver to fight!"

There was a gasp from the crowd as the rabbit queen ran at Shroud, and cheer as she yelled at him. "Shroud, face what you have wrought on me and my city!"

The fox paused in trying to kill Swartt, who was losing, backed up against the stone wall, breath grating.

Seeing the queen coming, Shroud threw green fire at her. However Lilly dodged with a snarl and not a bit of surprise. "I've fought your kind before, and you can only do that so long before it kills you!"

Shroud was the one who had to looked surprised, but his right arm was still whole. He pulled out his whip, snapping it expertly. "Fine little queen, but these are my beasts now!"

Swartt staggered to his feet, looking around wildly. He was in time to see Bluefen kick a guard down, beheading the creature without a moment's hesitation. His wife snarled, meeting his gaze with eyes of such righteous fury, Swartt felt fear.

The ferret shoved it away, knowing Veil could come back any moment. He needed insurance.

As he caught sight of Esther, lying unconscious by the wall, he knew he had it.

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Veil struggled against the bird's talons, though in the back of his mind, he realized it wouldn't do much .. he'd fall to his death.

The eagle had flown toward the palace, and he landed on the roof of the highest turret, dropping Veil. The ferret landed hard, his breath knocked away.

The bird towered over him, it's voice an angry hiss. "You not Sixclaw!"

Veil gasped in air, shaking his head. "No! I was trying to kill him! I would have too!"

The bird looked suspicious, suddenly reaching out with his talons and grabbing Veil's right paw for inspection. "You have six claws, hate all Sixclaws like hate all Bloodpaws! You die!"

The eagle jumped for him as Veil threw his paws up to cover his face, crying, "I serve Ignasa!"

There was an instant pause, and the bird asked, "You say what?"

Veil took a deep breath. "That vile creature may be my father by blood, but Ignasa is the father of my heart."

The bird didn't answer, it seemed to be thinking. Veil broke in. "Look, I didn't ask to be his son. But please let me go! My friends need me!"

The bird thought another minute, before stating, "Skarlath kill all enemies .."

He reached down with his beak, and Veil thought it was over. However the next second he felt himself being tossed on the eagle's back. The creature spread it's wings, stating, "And help all friends. We go!"

"Go where .. Ahhh!" Veil found himself clinging to the eagle like a horse as the bird took off, swooping over buildings with unmatched grace. The ferret caught sight of the theater again, though it was still too far away to discern what was happening.

However in a matter of what seemed minutes, the eagle was sweeping over the arena again, close enough to see what was going on. He caught sight of Bluefen running across the arena, and he quickly saw what she was after, Swartt, with Esther.

Veil yelled above the noise of the wind. "Skarlath, let me off, I've got to help my friend! Swartt will kill her!"

The bird squawked in acknowledgement, landing on one of the rock walls and shaking Veil off. The ferret landed on Ivan, who was just getting up. The cat blinked at him, groaning, "It's raining ferrets? Veil, what happened? Did I .. I mean .."

Veil nodded. "You tried to kill me, but you .. were hexed. Swartt has Esther, and my mother's after them .. I've got to help!"

Ivan staggered to his paws, gasping, "Then let me help you. I may be tired, but I'm going to fight for the right side before this is over."

Veil looked around for some sort of weapon, catching sight of the rapier Esther had been using. He grabbed it, chasing after Bluefen as she vanished into one of the tunnels, one of the only ones that didn't have its bars down.

Veil could hear Ivan behind him, but he wouldn't let the doorway out of his sights. They burst through it, staring about at the empty tunnel.

Ivan leaned on his mace, panting, "What now?"

Veil caught sight of crimson stains on the floor. "That way!"

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Kinta and Skadu fought back to back, as Bluefen ran after Swartt. Skadu blasted a smaller guard's spear from his grasp, stabbing him with her spear. "Good luck me friend."

"What?" Kinta asked.

"Fer Bluefen. She's after Swartt with Veil and 'is friend, the cat." Skadu explained, looking around for more guards.

They were standing near the wall, near the open tunnel they'd come through. Kinta was facing the door, when she tensed. Skadu turned to see her friend was staring at an unimposing silver rat.

"Father!"

The creature looked afraid. "Kinta, why are ya killing Swartt's guards? I can't pertect ya from him if ya do that!"

Kinta looked angry. "A fine job you've been doing so far. I never saw you, you just left me to that .. that witch! What kind of father are you?"

"I didn't want ta!" Slugwort was distressed. "Ya gotta believe that, Swartt said I couldn't 'ave ta be watchin' ya, an if'n I didn't get rid of you, he would! I didn't want that!"

"So you gave me to a monster instead! I was starved, disgraced, terrified every moment .. you are a coward to serve Swartt for so long!" Kinta's voice betrayed emotion.

Slugwort broke in. "But no more, see? I'm gettin' out, an ya should do the same!"

Kinta stared at him. "Go .. with you? No, I fight for the woodlanders!"

"They'll kill ya Kinta, that's what woodlanders do. Pertend ta be friendly an then stab ya in the back .. come with me!"

Kinta's tolerence snapped, crying, "How can you believe all the lies Swartt feeds you? Come with me, fight for Lord Ignasa and not Malimore!"

Slugwort paused, then shuddered. "Nah .. Kinta .. they'll kill me fer what I've done in the past."

"And what have you done, besides be a whining coward?" Kinta's voice was fierce. "It's just your stupid excuses!"

Her gaze softened. "Father, I could forgive you for that, if you'd just be brave for once! Lilly could too! Please father, come with me. Come away from the darkness .. Ignasa can forgive you!"

Slugwort paused, almost looking tempted, before he stammered, "But .. what about Swartt. I can't .. he'll .."

"Stop making excuses! You know the truth, you just hide from it .. Swartt is fleeing, yes your mighty lord. And he's got beasts on his tail to kill him. After what you've helped Swartt do, you can help Lilly reclaim Southsward. Father, for once in your life, do what's right!"

Kinta's blue eyes were sparkling with intensity, and Slugwort looked away. "I can't .. it's just too 'ard!"

The rat turned and bolted, Kinta yelling after him, "Mother would not be proud!"

Slugwort hunched over in shame, but he still ran. Kinta turned away, sighing heavily. Skadu patted her friend's head. "I'm sorry Kinta .."

The rat's voice was a little slurred. "No .. it's his choice. We aren't on the same side, and we never were. Now come on .. there's a battle to be fought. For Ignasa!"

She ran forward, nunchucks held at the ready.

Skadu bolted after her, spear raised. "I'm with ya, friend. An' I will be forever!"

><><

Lilly leapt away from a slash of Shroud's whip, ducking under the lash and thrusting. The slaver fox jumped over her blade, bringing his whip down with a crack!

Lilly staggered for a moment, though dodging away.

Shroud ripped off his blue cape-like robe that fastened in the front, though wincing as the sleeve left his injury. Lilly flicked one of her long ears, trying to shake the blood from Shroud's whip cut out of it.

The fox came after her, with full freedom of movement now that he wore only his kilt. Lilly dodged another whip slash, swinging her sword in a powerful arch.

Shroud jumped away, burned arm hanging loosely at his left side.

That was the weakness she had to exploit, Lilly realized. However Shroud was determined to keep her on his right, for he guessed her motives.

The crowd was roaring by now; no matter the state of their hearts, very few liked the dreaded slaver of Southsward .. he wasn't partial when taking captives to sell. And to see the queen fight him! Well, it was a sight worth seeing.

There was a sudden screech, and Shroud was just in time to duck away from Skarlath's seeking talons. He flicked his barbed whip at the bird, having to dodge a sword thrust of Lilly's.

The fox seemed in pain already, by the way his expression was a continual tight grimace.

Lilly took advantage of this, staying just out of reach and forcing Shroud to lunge after her.

Suddenly there was the flurry of wings, though unlike the eagle's. A crowd of about six bats all fell upon Shroud, attacking his head. The slaver yelled, trying to duck away, but they were inescapable.

Lilly thrust viciously. Shroud managed to dodge, but he couldn't keep it up. Lilly raised her sword again, but one of the bats facing her cried out. "Get down .. quick!"

The rabbit felt she should obey him in that split second, and she threw herself to the ground .. not a moment to soon.

A fractional moment later there was a brilliant flash of green just above her head, and a sudden strangled cry!

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Nightshade was not stupid, and it hadn't taken her long to figure out Shroud and most of the guards were gone. Soon after, she made a good guess where they might be.

She'd got one of their unintelligent horses, not wasting the time to saddle it, just pulled a bit into its mouth. The black vixen had whipped her mount all the way to the arena.

She'd tied the animal to one side of the theater, hurrying down into the tunnels.

The fox had come to a metal grated entrance, just in time to see Shroud being attacked by the rabbit queen, and what looked like a flock of bats!

Nightshade was frozen for one second, and one second only. She glared murder at the rabbit's back, and without a care to the bars before her, she sent a flash of green at her mate's attacker.

But horror of all horrors, the rabbit dropped to the ground just as the power shot over her head, hitting Shroud full in the chest and sending him flying.

Nightshade stood frozen for one moment, before the cheers of the crowd hit her ears, and a strangled cry burst from her. She didn't look again, even if she had murdered many a time.

She had put all her fury into that, and Shroud was undoubtedly dead. And for once, she didn't want to see the destruction she had wrought.

The black vixen pressed against the stone wall near the tunnel's mouth, staying out of sight while her mind raced. What to do now? Should she claim Shroud's position and estate? She could, she had enough power to make their guards obey her. But there was the problem of this unforeseen revolt. She didn't see Swartt, which could well mean she was the last Shadow Fighter left.

Oh if only at least one of her stupid apprentices had succeeded! If only Xzanthia had not been sent north with Tyre!

Wait, her daughter. The creature was crippled, and fever may have claimed her sight, but with her son and mate dead, Nightshade was willing to try anything. Zenith was the one she'd neglected the most, and perhaps she'd learned something.

However, before she could bolt toward where she made her apprentices live, she heard a familiar voice from the other side of the tunnel's bars.

"Now what Kinta?"

"Let's help Kensly and the guards. I'm glad Zenith didn't have to see .. well .. be here for that."

"Wull she'd not be much 'elp here, she's better off at the palace. An' I ain't sorry Shroud's dead, lemme tell ya. Funny though .. 'ow he died. Guess his power reflected off somethin', but it's kinda weird .."

Skadu's voice faded from Nightshade's range of hearing as the two bolted across the arena. Now the black fox was frozen for another second .. if she'd had the presence of mind she'd of blasted Skadu and Kinta for good measure.

But her daughter was at the palace? The palace?

Nightshade didn't waste time thinking, just started her way back to where she'd left her horse. It didn't matter what side Zenith had chosen.

Just because she chose a side didn't mean she could stay on it.

><><

Lilly slowly got to her feet, blinking in wonder at Shroud's limp and mangled form. The bats had lost two of their number, but the one who seemed the leader was still alive.

She shook herself, looking around suspiciously as if for anymore bursts of power.

Lilly looked for another fight to aid in, but there was relatively no action left. Only the golden eagle was still fighting, and his fight didn't last long .. he quickly came out the victor.

However the scream of a horse rang out from nearby, and Lilly wheeled around to see one fight she hadn't noticed .. between a stocky bay and a taller liver chestnut.

She moved forward, but Kensly suddenly ran to her side. "No milady, they are horses! Either one would trample you, please stay back!"

The liver chestnut was bleeding and taking the worse part of the fight, being slighter than his burly opponent and not seeming particularly skilled. He resorted to ducking away constantly, though Lilly suddenly realized he might be bluffing his incompetence, from the fire in his eyes.

The bay ruthlessly lunged over and over, not giving the other a chance to wheel around a kick.

Lilly could hear the crowd roaring, and guessed quite a few bets where being made.

The bay forced the darker horse to rear, then struck out with a fore hoof, catching the beast in the chest and sending him reeling against the wall.

The horse lay where he'd fallen, glaring groggily up at the other stallion as he clawed the air in victory. Lilly could already see him tense, as though to spring back up, though he could never do it in time.

However the next second there was a shrill neigh, the thunder of hooves, and the pinto mare head butted the bay in the shoulder. The stallion was thrown against the wall, and in that second the chestnut lunged for his goal.

His teeth closed upon the bay's right foreleg, and he twisted with a powerful jerk of his head.

The bay screamed in pain as there was a crack, and the liver chestnut staggered to his feet, shaking himself.

The bay was down now, and he wasn't getting up from the way he struggled, leg hanging askew.

Kensly's voice was awed. "That's Deathstrike, Ramon's horse! He ran the races!"

"He ain't runnin' nothin' no more." Skadu's voice was a snort.

This was proven as the liver chestnut glared at his fallen foe, voice loud enough for all to hear. "That was for what you wanted to do to Myst in the race."

He reared, yelling, "And this is for what you did to Starflash!"

Lilly looked away as his hooves came down on Deathstrike's neck, breaking it instantly. The liver chestnut turned away, eyes dark.

The mare looked down, hanging her head and laying her ears to the sides with a heavy sigh. "I'm sorry Evening, I .. I .."

His eye's softened. "Myst, you were hexed. It wasn't all your fault."

"Milady, what about the people?" Lilly turned to Kensly, a little blank for a moment, before she realized what he was saying; she had a stage, she had better make use of it.

Lilly stepped toward the center of the ring, practically yelling to make herself heard around the theater. "Creatures of Southsward, what you have seen today is a manifestation of what has really been going on under your noses. I have been kept hostage in my own palace by these devils, unable to stop anything they did, using my seal. It was not I behind the evil done in Southsward, it was Shroud and Swartt, who's been living in the catacombs beneath you. You have been deceived, oppressed, and perhaps even hexed by them. The monocles you carry have blinded you. If you still serve the Lord Ignasa, if you have not fallen to the darkness, rid yourselves of the things, for they come from Malimore himself! I will not have them in my city, they are deadly! All who were ever my friend, my guard, or loyal to me in their hearts, my creatures, stand for Southsward today! Take this city back; take your lives back!"

There was a hush, then murmurs. There was a yell from one side of the arena as a tawny fox fought his way to the rail. "I'm with you Milady!"

Cries of affirmation burst out all around, though at least a fourth of the crowd looked angry, and still more seemed unsure.

The tawny creature who had called out first had vanished again, and Kensly's voice was grim. "They won't all listen .. there's going to a be a fight again. And where's Zarya?"

Lilly looked around, groaning, "Oh .. I don't know! And Bluefen .. where's Bluefen?"

"She went after Swartt, Milady." Kinta spoke up quickly.

Lilly sighed. "Oh help us .. she couldn't!"

"She could." Skadu was a little droll. "She's doin' what she's dreamed of fer seasons .. an Veil's there too."

The noise of the crowd was deafening again, and Lilly readied herself. "Looks like we've got a revolt on our paws. Kensly! Get all who are not fighters and the wounded .. try to take them into the tunnels. They may be safer there .. it's all we can do."

Mizzah nodded, as he had ran up beside them. "Good plan, I'll do what I can. Lenn, Aubretia, Bryony .. go with them."

"I want to help, Mizzah, I can fight, if only a little!"

The jerbilrat put a paw on Lenn's shoulder. "Then protect the wounded, while others cannot. I must find my nephew .. who knows what may have happened?"

"Sir .. Mizzah, let me help!"

The voice came from behind, and from the slender tawny fox Lilly had seen in the stands. His voice was hurried. "I came to see what on earth was going on, and I saw the earlier fight .. they were over here last I saw them!"

He took off running, Mizzah behind him. The jerbilrat's voice was worried, and loud to be heard over the increasing crescendo. "Who was fighting who?"

"I'm not sure, but my friend was against that Mossflowerian Princess .. they looked pretty well matched. I tried to get through the crowd, and I didn't see a whole lot more .."

He broke off as they came around a corner, where two walls met. Mizzah groaned, running forward to where the two in question lay in a crumpled heap, crimson staining them, the stones, and the ground they lay on.

The jerbilrat quickly put a paw beneath Cedric's shoulders, raising his head. "Oh the little idiot .. What has he done? Poor, foolish creature .. Ignasa, don't let him be dead!"

However he wasn't, and amazingly, his wounds weren't bleeding, though they had been.

Errik's voice was worried. "But her highness .."

Fripple coughed, looking blearily at Mizzah. "Mizzah ... how .. ahh!"

She'd reached for her torn face, and Mizzah quickly pulled her paw away from the wound, speaking gently. "Don't do that young one .. I'm sorry."

Fripple was struggling to sit up. "I can walk .. uhhng .. if somebeast .. helps me .."

She broke off at the sight of Cedric, falling back down. "Is he .. did I .. kill .. him?"

Errik helped her sit up, half picking her up. "Nah .. I pulled him off one arena looking like that, and we can do it again. But not if we don't get you two out of here and some healing."

Fripple leaned on Errik, trying to keep her legs from buckling. "I ... will .. walk away .. but thank .. you."

Mizzah had to pick up his nephew. "Hurry, as fast as we can .. get in the tunnels!"

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Nightshade ran, paws pounding the stone floor of the tunnels. She could hear the faint echoes of mayhem above her, and now she heard heavy pawsteps behind her.

She cast a glance back the way she'd come, to see a badger with a spear after her. Nightshade groaned mentally, running even faster. She wanted to conserve her power, not use it on a badger she could probably outrun anyway.

If she could just make it to her horse!

The fox threw herself forward, bursting out into the alley where she'd tied the animal, and it was still there. However as she reached for its mane, another badger came around the alley's corner! No .. he was Shroud's record keeper!

Nightshade didn't bother asking herself how he'd gotten out, just vaulted onto her mount's back, grabbed the reigns, and dug her heels in.

The beast reared, catapulting past the newcomers and knocking the pale roan with the badger onto his haunches. Nightshade clapped her heels in the horse's sides once more, not wasting the time to look back.

Behind her, Glow staggered back on his hooves, snorting. "What .."

Sunflash's voice was a growl. "That's Nightshade .. where she is, Shroud isn't far away."

"Oh he's far away this time sir .. In Hellgates." The creatures turned to face the female badger, who nodded. "I saw it myself."

Reskan fluttered up hurriedly. "If that so, queen majesty want me! Must go help, fight in there .. you know!"

With this, he was gone, and the female badger nodded to them. "I'm after Nightshade."

"Wait .. I'm not sure that's such a good idea ma'am .." Sunflash spoke up. "She's dangerous .. believe me, I've seen."

"Would you have me leave milady's palace in such danger? There are beasts there unable to defend themselves, and they need my help."

Glow broke in. "Sir .. Sunflash .. perhaps we could help her? If Shroud is dead already, you can't kill him."

The badger listened to the horse's voice of reason. "Well .. that is true. I could kill his mate though .. she was just as cruel as he. And somehow .. I feel like taking at least one of them on."

Glow started forward. "Let's go ... which way?"

"Come on, follow me!" The other badger's voice was urgent as she ran down an alley, the others behind.

><><

Back at the palace, little had happened. Zenith had prepared healing supplies, but she had no patients so far. The noise from outside carried on the wind, and the one guard left with them, a vole whom Zenith had learned was called Cyrus, was constantly on alert.

So far the most dangerous thing that had happened was when Esmund had slid down the grand staircase's banister.

Now Zenith could hear him scuffling a little at the window behind her, and he suddenly spoke. "Miss Zenith, when's mother coming back?"

"I don't know Esmund .. hopefully soon." Zenith tried to keep the worry out of her voice.

"Will she bring my big brother?"

Zenith paused, thinking of the creature Bluefen had spoken of as her son when they had met in the seer's quarters. She shook her head. "Well, I do hope so. I can't promise you anything though, I'm afraid."

Esmund's tone showed he understood. "I know. Mother told me she might not come back .. but I still want her to!"

"I know Esmund, I think we all do." Zenith sighed. "And I wish I could help them, but they are right .. I would only be in the way."

The little wearet scurried over to her, stating, "Maybe we can't help them, but we're gonna d'fend the palace, right miss Zenith?"

"Yes we are." The black fox picked up her staff, limping toward the door. Esmund followed her, skipping ahead down the hallway. Zenith could hear him as he stopped on the balcony overlooking the great hall.

She came after him, pausing as she sensed Cyrus coming up the stairs. "Oh there you two are? I was about to come check on you. Everything seems quiet here, and I locked the main doors .."

Zenith turned her head toward where she knew the doors to be. In truth she wasn't stone blind, for she could tell the difference between dark and very brilliant light.

But her hearing was far more sensitive than most, and she suddenly cocked her head. "I hear hoof beats."

Cyrus said nothing for a few moments, before he answered. "Yes, very faintly .."

"But they're coming this way, and it's a lone horse." Zenith felt unknown apprehension rise.

Esmund tried to be cheerful. "Maybe .. it's mother?"

"I don't know." Cyrus sounded unsure. "Get out of sight, I'll tell you if it's safe."

Zenith nodded, grabbing Esmund's paw and limping back down the hallway. They hadn't gotten far when there was a loud bang, and the sound of massive slamming doors!

Zenith paused in her tracks, the scent of smoke reaching her sensitive nostrils. Deep down, she knew Cyrus would need help, even if she wasn't much good at being helpful. She quickly pushed Esmund into the room they had been in, ordering, "Hide Esmund, quick! It could be your father, do you understand?"

"It is?" Esmund's voice was scared.

"I don't know if it is or not. It's not good for sure .. stay here!"

The black vixen could smell the sharp scent of burnt cypress, and hear sounds of a scuffle in the great hall as she limped down the hallway. Just as she made it to the top of the double staircase, there was a cry of pain, and the acrid smell of singed fur.

Zenith stumbled to the stairs, grabbing the banister to steady herself. "Stop, whoever you are!"

The silky, alluring voice that floated up to her made her cringe .. why hadn't she guessed it?

"Oh come now girl, you know your own mother."

Zenith felt her ears pin, and she gripped the railing harder. "What do you want with me? You hate me!"

Nightshade laughed. "Oh I never hated you, come child, don't be ridiculous. Your father and brother lay slain by these followers of the one who's name shall not be spoken, and they deceive you as well?"

Zenith clenched her teeth. "I am almost twenty-one seasons old, I am not your child. You have always hated me for things I had no control over, and you only want what I could give you now."

She spit in the relative direction Nightshade's voice was coming from. "So tell me mother, you're so desperate you'll seek help from the blind one? The lame one? The useless one? Can't Ramon's ghost do more than I? Call him back from Hellgates, get him to do your wicked bidding, at least he's not crippled like me."

Zenith could feel her quiet, hopeless sorrow rear into bitter resentment as she spoke these barbed words, readying herself for anything.

Nightshade's voice was hard. "Stop acting like a spoilt child, if you're so grown up. If you wanted my attention so badly, you've got your chance to prove your worth."

Zenith had been slowly making her way down the stairs, and she guessed she must be nearing the floor by now. "Oh, I get a chance? Now that Ramon's dead? If you weren't so stingy, you'd have killed me, I'm sure of it. And I agree with you, I am the worthless one. But I will fight you if I have to, and I'll die knowing I'm braver than you."

Nightshade's tone was almost a smirk. "You, fight me? Oh come, come girl .. what does it avail you? What do you have that's so important? What is it you would die to protect? Oh, you do not have an answer? Yes, I thought not. You have no life to fight for, and you have no reason to resist me."

Zenith's paws had found the floor, and she felt boiling anger. She threw herself forward on the instant, feeling her staff crack into something solid. There was a cry of pain, and Zenith felt herself crumple to the ground, rolling away desperately.

Sharp pain jolted up her twisted leg as she fell on it, but she staggered to her feet with the help of her staff. Nightshade's voice was a snarl. "Oh, you want to play that game? Well, I'll play it."

Zenith could see the faint intensity of light to one side, and she was just in time to throw herself to the ground and roll, while a searing blast of power zipped past her ear. However she was done for now, as she swung her staff through empty air.

There was another flash, and the gnarled old stick was wrenched from her grasp. Nightshade's voice was a purring sound of victory. "Ahh, fool, like all the others."

"I won't ever serve you! I hate you, as you've always hated me! I don't serve your lord, I won't! I would rather die!" Zenith snarled with wrath.

Nightshade's voice was a mocking sigh. "I tried to reason with you, but some beasts never listen, do they? No. Then it shall be as you wish."

Zenith could pick up the growing glow of power, presumably around Nightshade's paws, and she rolled, though she guessed it would be no use. However there was a little cry from high up.

"Miss Zenith!"

The black fox froze in horror .. what was Esmund thinking? But the next second there was a clatter, and a pained yelp from Nightshade.

Zenith dragged herself backwards, blunt claws scrabbling on tile. The smell of blood hit her nostrils, though she couldn't imagine Nightshade being injured. The next second there was a confusing explosion of sounds, so fast and loud that they did not tell Zenith a proper story of what was going on.

There was what sounded like the clatter of horse hooves on marble, the heavy, muffled thuds of large paws, a roar, a yip, and a horse's whinny of surprise. More went on, but it was blurred and even more chaotic than the previous noises.

It continued for a few moments, but then there was silence, and the next second a cry of worry and large paws gently pulled her to her feet. "Zenith, are you hurt?"

The fox recognized Zarya's voice. "I'm .. fine .. what about Esmund and Cyrus ..?"

"I'm alive .. " The vole's voice was a groan.

Zenith staggered, asking, "But Zarya, what's going on? What happened? Why aren't you fighting out there? Where are .. the others?"

The badger's voice was a sigh. "It's a long story. While we help Cyrus, I'll tell you .. I'm just glad we got back in time."

><><

Veil's paws pounded the stones of the ancient catacombs, each step taking him deeper into a haunting netherworld. He wasn't even sure Swartt knew where he was going anymore, the blood on the floor betrayed him to be seemingly choosing tunnels at random.

But now there was another problem .. the blood trail was lessoning. Veil hoped it was because Esther's wounds had started to heal, and not because she was dead. Of course Swartt was bleeding too .. or had been.

There was no sign of Bluefen, and Veil was afraid for her. He realized she knew parts of the catacombs, and might run ahead in hope of ambush .. but Veil hoped not.

The ferret paused at a fork in the tunnels, Ivan coming to a panting stop behind him. "Which way now?"

"I don't know .." Veil held his torch high, peering down the tunnels in turn. Suddenly he caught sight of a faint splash of red on the ground, and he jolted forward. "This one!"

The young ferret knew he was not mistaken as he saw more blood soon after, smeared on the wall this time .. had Swartt stumbled? Shadow Fighters could use their power to see in the dark .. unless it was too weak.

The tunnel ended suddenly, leading out into a large, pillared room. Stairs lead down to the floor, and another set of stairs lead up to a row of shadowed pillars. Veil skidded to a halt, for Swartt was dragging himself .. and Esther up them.

The ermine was awake, for she weakly tried to dig her claws into the steps .. though to no avail. However her eyes widened as she saw Veil, though Swartt saw him too.

The warlord dropped Esther on the stairs, holding her down with a footpaw and pointing his cutlass at Veil, panting, "One move boy .. just one, and her head comes off. See?"

Veil didn't move, he didn't dare, and neither did Ivan. Esther glared up at Swartt with a mixture of anger and terror, resulting in desperation.

Veil struggled to keep his voice steady. "What do you want?"

"What sort of a question is that boy? I want all of Southsward, I want power, I want to rule! But firstly, I want my life. Which is what she will do for me, because at this time it's just you and me kid, and it looks like we'll be here a while." Swartt snarled, fangs gleaming in reflecting torch light.

He laughed almost madly. "And your light won't last forever, but my power enables me to see no matter how dark it is. Should have joined me when you had the chance. Ah but you are the fool, in so many ways."

Veil was tensed to spring any moment, and he felt Ivan slowly take the torch from his paws. Swartt sneered. "Oh it's no good boy, you can't stop me, you never could. It's your sentiment .. your idiot compassion. Under it .. you could be a mighty successor to my name. But no, your honesty makes you weak, and it's what's going to kill her."

Veil glared up at him, not sure he could play this game. "What will this avail you Swartt? You are defeated .. your kingdom has fallen."

"Oh but I can cause you more suffering boy, and that is why I have her. She will aid me." Swartt grinned.

Esther glared up at Swartt, snarling weakly. "Ignasa will judge you."

Veil felt a little surprise at this, but the fire of truth burned in Esther's gaze as she growled, "Leave Veil alone!"

Swartt stooped a little, running his gauntleted paw across the ermine's cheek. "Oh but my dear child, my son and I have a score to settle. You will just be my tool of torture."

Esther flinched away, going limp for a moment, before she surged upwards, shoving Swartt away with what looked like all the strength she had left. "No I won't!"

The ferret staggered back as Esther slumped to the steps again with a whimper of pain, and Veil ran forward. Swartt fell awkwardly on his side to avoid falling backwards down the atairs, regaining his feet just as Veil brought steel against him with a clash!

The warlord snarled, using a powerful combination to try and sidle past Veil, but he couldn't make it, for the ferret was furious. Veil launched himself harder into the attack, forcing his father up the stairs.

Swartt's counter-attack was brutal however, full of desperation. He blasted Veil's rapier from his paw with a twisting cut, and there was a pause.

However the ferret didn't run Veil through, even if he could have. Instead he sneered, moving toward where Esther was watching in helpless fear.

Veil was faster. He couldn't say what possessed him to do what he did, but he ran past Swartt, dropping to the stairs beside the ermine and drawing his dagger. "Get back!"

He could hear Ivan coming, but Swartt flung out a paw, and the cat was knocked against the far wall where he collapsed, gasping for breath. The torch fell to the ground, and its flame decreased considerably, plunging the room into more guttural shadows then before.

The ferret warlord's teeth where clenched in pain as he did this, but he kept his rapier trained on Veil, brown eyes aglitter as he raised a paw, voice steady. "After all this, you are determined to die with her? Touching .. but futile."

Esther was looking up with fear, and Veil couldn't keep the hate from his gaze. "Then kill us, but Ignasa will raise up others to defy you. You will die in your own evil; it will destroy you!"

Swartt laughed with mockery as a few gleams of green started to swirl around his paw, but it was the last time he had a chance to.

There was no battle cry, no yell of rage, just a flash of silver in the dim torch light as a shadow plowed into Swartt, sending him flying backwards off the stairs. A strangled noise of shock ripped itself from the warlord's throat, but it was the last noise he ever made. for there was a flash of steel as the two beasts fell, and Swartt's cry was forever silenced as the blade took him through the neck.

But he fell still, though dead, and the other beast with him.

There was nothing Veil could do, nothing that could be done. The creatures tumbled backwards, the weight of Swartt's body causing him to roll to a stop first. The other beast slammed into the first set of stairs with a short gasp, and Veil knew who it was as the torch light revealed graying black hair and blue gray fur.

Veil jumped for her with a cry. "Mother! Mother, what .."

He skidded to a stop beside her, wincing himself as she looked weakly up at him, the fierce glitter fading in her blue eyes. "Oh .. my Veil .. I couldn't let him .. kill you or your friend .. could I?"

There was blood everywhere it seemed, far too much. And Veil could see why too, for Swartt's cutlass lay nearby, stained red. Bluefen coughed a little, murmuring, "Of course he .. killed me too .. I knew .. somehow. But he .. is dead .. and he shall never hurt .. you, or Esmund .."

"Mother .. don't talk like that, we'll .. you'll live, you have to!" Veil could hear Ivan getting to his paws, and the light flared up again as he picked up the fallen torch, but the ferret paid him no heed as he tried to stop his mother from bleeding her life away.

Bluefen weakly touched Veil's cheek. "No my son .. I chose .. this long ago. Take .. care of Esmund .. for me .. because I go .. to Ignasa. And I .. will be free .. at last."

Veil could feel tears come, but the will to let them fall seem stolen. He slowly let his blood stained paws stop their worthless effort, for not even the best healer could save his mother. Her eyes glimmered with the last bit of strength she had. "Protect .. the ones you love .. even unto death .."

She coughed, eyes suddenly widening as if she remembered something. The dying ferret clutched at Veil's shoulder, whispering. "And beware ... your sister!"

Her paw released its hold as the life left her, and she fell back instantly, blue eyes clouding over forever. Veil hardly heard her words. While he did hear them, they hardly mattered in that second. "Mother! No mother .. no .. not you. Why you? Why?"

He fell silent, and his tears did too .. for there was no holding them in. Moments passed in total silence, the flickering of the torch the only movement. Veil felt for a second, that the world was frozen like this, but it wasn't .. it never would be.

Veil slowly let Bluefen slump to the floor, turning a haunted gaze to his living friends. Esther was staring at him in stunned, horrified shock, tears in her eyes as well. Suddenly she shuddered, collapsing to the steps she lay on from total exhaustion.

Veil felt fear seize him, for he could not stand to loose yet another, and he staggered back to her, gently putting an arm beneath her shoulders. She stared up at him dully, whispering, "This .. it's all my fault! If only .. I hadn't been hexed this .. wouldn't have happened!"

"Oh Esther .." Veil felt something in his heart go out to her, and he picked her up, stating, "Whether you were hexed or not, my mother was destined to fight my father. It was as good as prophesied, for her heart could never be free while he lived. And she is free now .. she can never be a slave again."

Esther shook her head, murmuring, "I'm sorry .."

But she went limp too, though only unconscious. Veil looked dully at Ivan, who looked away. The ferret wanted to stay here, perhaps forever .. he didn't know if he could face anybeast, and especially not Esmund.

However they couldn't stay here, Veil knew Bluefen would be disappointed should he give up. "We've got to go back .. you're exhausted, Esther needs a healer .."

"And you do as well." Ivan pointed out, nodding in the direction of Veil's still sightless right eye.

Veil's voice was a tired, grief-filled sigh. "I don't care. We can't leave Bluefen .."

Ivan stooped wordlessly, picking up the blue gray ferret's body. He nodded to Swartt's mangled, bloody form. "What of him?"

A slight bitter edge formed in Veil's voice. "He is the king of the underworld. Let him rule it forever."

Ivan paused. "Wait."

He reached down, yanking the necklace of teeth from the dead warlord, and picking up his cutlass. "We may need these."

><><

Scound bolted away from the theater, for there was no reason for him to stay and be killed in that massacre. And as it was, he had about seven beasts who'd run with him. Swartt had vanished, they had no leader .. and they were willing to follow anybeast with the initiative to lead.

Scound had been waiting for this .. without ever realizing it even. He was relishing his newfound leadership.

The weasel lead his crew to the docks, which were basically empty, the main population of Southsward being near the theater.

One of the creatures with him, a scraggily ferret that was by far not the brightest, spoke up. "Uhh .. sir .. captain Scound .. where's we goin'?"

Scound grinned at being called captain again. "Why we's gonna git a ship, that's what. We'll go be pirates, though we ain't gonna be bad ones, bad beasts always come ta bad ends. So the only beasts we fight is ones what bring harm ta others."

"Uh .. but I donno 'ow ta sail a ship." The ferret looked unsure, as did the others.

Scound shrugged. "Aye, wull that's ok mateys, yor captain 'ere sailed the seas with ol' Ripfang in is youth. I'll teach ya what ya need ta know."

They were standing on an abandoned wharf, looking the anchored ships over, when one of the beasts growled, "Hoi mates, we gotta spy .. jist saw 'em duck off that way!"

"Wull let's git em! We can't be havin' spies! Halfa ya go that way, the rest come with me, an' we'll catch 'em before they git's out!" Scound wasted no time in carrying out his plan, bolting after the fugitive he too could see.

The creature tried to run faster, only to be met by the four beasts sent to cut it off. However even as they seized the beast it kicked, bit, scratched, and fought viciously, though it was quickly overpowered.

Scound skidded to a stop as one of the beasts spoke up. "Captain this beast's insane .. bout chewed me fingers off .. can we kill 'er?"

Scound paused. "Wait, her?"

He pushed the others away, to see a frail looking cream weasel curled in a self-protective heap, still healing scars lacing across her shoulders. She slowly looked up, stunning violet eyes frightened, yet sparking with a will that would not die. "I'm not going back to Shroud, I hate him! You will have to kill me first, so go on, kill me! I will not serve that beast again!"

Scound hadn't quite seen this one coming. "Wull .. we ain't gonna take ya ta Shroud, we're just tryin' ta escape. Here .."

He held out a paw, but she flinched away. "Why did you chase me?"

"I thought ya was a spy a Swartt's, sorry .. " He paused, realizing he did not know her name.

The light furred creature slowly took his paw, though mistrust still smoldered in her eyes. "Aisha. My name is Aisha. And how do you plan to get out?"

Scound was feeling a little better about this. "By takin' a ship .. one'a Shroud's, preferably .."

There was a little screech, an odd rustle, and a shadowy beast awkwardly pulled itself out of a crack in the nearby foundation of an old tavern, flopping to the ground. Scound watched with interest as the beast glared at them, and he caught sight of something smooth and pinkish white in the bat's claws.

She awkwardly flapped one wing, though the other seemed immobile and crooked. "Reekk! Fur beasts leave Loki 'lone, you done enough! Choose bad paths, bad, stupid paths over and over yes! Mean ... blind .... and fat!"

Scound raised an eyebrow. "Who're ya callin' fat? An' what's ya got there?"

The bat crouched over what she held, hissing, "That Loki's! She find, she keep, no give to stupid fur beasts!"

Scound thought for a moment, stating, "Ya know, what if ya came with us? We're gettin' far away from Southsward."

Loki paused, suddenly asking, "Far away .. never come back?"

"Yea, that's the idea. But we gotta get goin' see, so make up yer mind. Ya could be me night watch .. ya'd be good at that." Scound waited for her response.

The bat thought for a moment, before huffing. "Fine, you take Loki. You carry though, wing broken .. tired, no walk."

Scound nodded to the scruffy ferret, who picked the bat up, giving her fangs a wary glance. Aisha spoke up from where she was standing in silence. "Which ship do we take."

Scound raised an eyebrow. "Yer comin' too?"

"May as well, there's no place in Southsward for me. Now which ship?"

Scound stepped forward, pointing to a sleek-looking vessel with one mast. "That beauty right there. Looks like a flat bottomed one, those is always the best .. that's why they kin moor it so close .. on the pier even. Looks awful lonely don't it .. come on mates!"

There was no beast aboard, though the anchor was lowered. A little search aboard proved they were in luck, for the ship was provisioned for sailing. Scound had missed planks beneath his feet, and to captain a ship of his own!

For it was his now. The bat, Loki, was in a rush to be off. "Come, we go, we go! Not let beasts find us!"

Scound grinned suddenly, all his time on the Bloodwake flooding back. The weasel took his place at the wheel. "Come on mates, hoist anchor an loose the sails .. the wind's at our back, let's make the most a what we got!"

It took a few tries, but with Scound's advice, they managed to get the ship out of the harbor and to open sea. Scound was standing by the wheel, watching the sun drop into the horizon, when a voice spoke from behind him. "Where are we going?"

Scound cast a glance at Aisha, smiling. "I figure we'll drop by a port an' get a crew who want's an adventure. There's a whole world out there, ya know? An I'm gonna see it before I die .. cause I never got ta."

She raised an eyebrow. "You don't want to be like .. Shroud, or Swartt, do you? To lead like that?"

"Nah, course not! I hate the two of 'em! I'll rule fair, so I will. I know what it's like ta be low ina horde, an I ain't gonna see that happenin. I jist want freedom. Who knows, maybe we kin find a new land .. one just fer us."

The wind whipped around them, billowing the sails, and Aisha slowly grinned. "I like the sound of that .. freebeasts."

"Aye." Scound felt true happiness for the first time in seasons. Perhaps they had little money, a poor crew, and few weapons. But they could acquire those things, given the time .. for they had no lord to take what they earned. "Aye, we're freebeasts."



The End



I'll sell my rock, I'll sell my reel,

I'll sell my only spinning wheel,

To buy my love a sword of steel,

And may you go safely my darling.


Go, go, go, my love,

Go quietly and go peacefully.

Go to the door and fly with me,

And may you go safely, my darling.


But now my love has gone to France,

To try his fortune to advance.

If he e'er comes back, 'tis but a chance,

Oh may you go safely my darling.


I wish, I wish, I wish in vain,

I wish I had my heart again,

And vainly think I'd not complain,

May you go safely my darling.


From Siúil, A Rúin (Go my Love) a traditional Irish song. It so happens that most of the song is sung in Irish, the awkward parts are translated in English.

Here is a link to the best version I've ever heard. [6] :) enjoy ^^


Final Note

Well, once again, it's a sub-book of 'Accused', no epilogue. That comes on the end of the next book. ;)

Oh my gosh the sadness! You don't know how hard it was to kill Bluefen! *cries* I know you guys are probably all sort of mad at me but I feel the loss as well .. :'( I'm sorry I had to do that .. (no really) Somebeast give me a virtual Kleenex please *Sob* D::::

Well .. as sad as it is .. this next book is coming! So keep reading with The Veil is Torn, and find out what happens when the accused return to save the accusers! :)


Some LEGENDS are told Some turn to dust or to GOLD But you will remember me For CENTURIES 23:34, September 17, 2015 (UTC)

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