A hiss, a snarl, curled back lips and folded ears. The animal looked quite upset but otherwise it looked like an animal... except for several points. The creature had intelligent eyes, not of an animal that had learned how to hold a stick in it’s maw but eyes of a deep and profound intelligence that was in stark contrast to it’s bestial exterior. More obviously though the creature, a feline, had a rail thin body and a short, fine pelt. Despite it’s build, the animal bore armour that shone a beautiful gold like its thin fur underneath, this was no wild animal. But the most obvious clue was not it’s eyes, form or even the artificial protection because at that moment the beast spoke.
Stealth made his second trip up the Dragon Mountains, near the outskirts of Ellingham in as many months. The weather was colder then it had been the first time but there’d been no hail fall so far on this trip. The cheetah neared his destination but he did so fearfully; the last time he neared this goal he’d woken up and found his blood being drained. Stealth shivered and slowly made his way up what he thought looked like a relatively dry path, pressing his armoured claws deep into the earth with each step.
He reached the first step like before but unlike before, he actually stayed there and began the climb up. At the top of the stairs the cheetah shifted to his humanoid form. He hesitated from opening the door, instead telling himself he needed a rest anyway. Stealth looked at the view from the balcony. Despite the setting sun he had a crystal clear view over the southern end of the valley and could clearly see all of Ellingham below.
He’d never noticed how nice the view was from up here but then again he had more pressing matters at the time. Stealth sighed, he had a job to do and he had to get it done, then he could leave and it would be over with.
After knocking and waiting a short time he could faintly hear... sawing somewhere deep within the house which quickly stopped followed by a faint clopping, the sound of wooden boards creaking and then a louder clopping until the sound stopped at the door that the feline waited at. Stealth gulped and stood more upright.
The door creaked open revealing a bovine in an apron. His entire apron, arms and even some of his muzzle were entirely covered with blood and even some stray... bits.
The cheetah courier gritted his teeth in an effort to keep his lunch down.
“Do you have the spare parts?”
“Th- th- ugh, wha?” Stealth stuttered, on the verge of emptying his most recent meal.
“The meat from the town.” The bull said and wiped his brow with a bloodied hand.
The cheetah swallowed the bile trying to rise up his throat, “Master-Olong-I-am-here-to-look-at-your-clock.” He said quickly, trying to take control of his stomach, “It might have a defect.”
The bull opened his mouth in shock, “Aww, I’ve run so many tests by it already. Well, come in, I’ll go find it.” He said and returned back to the warmth of the house.
‘By the gods.’ The cat thought as he grudgingly followed.
Inside the room looked the same as it did the last time, no, there were some new heads mounted on the walls.
“Follow me,” The bull said from a door at the far end of the room, “My operating space is down this way.”
“Actually, I’ll wait up here till you find it...” The cheetah cringed.
The bull morph shrugged and returned down stairs. Stealth looked about in haste and quickly closed the gap with a large bookcase and table. On the table and shelves he could see countless jars filled with alcohol in which... things had been placed. Just then the door the ‘operating space’ swung open.
“I forgot! I’m currently using it to time another circulatory cycle, can you wait a few minutes?”
“Yes!” Stealth said without hesitation, “Finish your work, I’ll just be up here. Take your time. Please. I can wait.”
“Okay, make yourself comfortable, don’t eat the things in the pantry... they’re not food, not quite.” He slammed the door shut behind him again and went back down the stairs.
Stealth gasped as he could hear the sawing recommence but he did his best to block it out. He could smell an overpowering stench of blood and organs, one even his carnivore side shied away from. The feline sighed and tried to compose himself as he looked over the jars. He quickly found a large jar of leeches, opened it up... and put his hand inside.
Seven days earlier.
“Spots!” Misha said in surprise.
“Misha!” Stealth answered in surprise, “What are you doing in my closet?”
“Huh? What are you doing in my workshop?”
They stared at each for a long moment until the vulpine understood and exclaimed, “AH!”
The cheetah frowned, “I take it you need something from me more then I need a jacket.”
“There is a small task.” He said soberly, “Follow me...”
Stealth cringed and entered the portal which should have granted access to his wardrobe. Instead he followed after the fox, feeling like he was heading to Herbert’s dungeon.
The cheetah blinked. The water was warm and cosy. Just right. There were many delicacies on offer too. The fox ushered him to the small bath in Long House ‘just to talk’. The cat knew whatever Misha wanted it was big...
“All right.” Misha said after eating some cheese, “Remember that bull I sent you to in December?”
“The leech guy. I remember.” Stealth answered bluntly.
“Well it turns out Will gave me defective parts for his contraption so they will need to be replaced – I need you to retrieve it.”
Stealth blinked, “You brought me here to tell me that?”
“Sure.” He shrugged. “I was heading to the baths anyway.”
Stealth sat up slightly from the steaming water, his visage calm but resolute, “...Misha, we’re friends, right?”
“Yup! I do consider you a good friend.” Misha answered and bit into a mince filled pastry.
“Good.” The feline’s eyes narrowed, “Then tell me... what the hell do you want from me?”
The fox’s jaw lay open and he stared at the cheetah in surprise.
“Okay.” Stealth began, “It’s the middle of the day.” He motioned his arms around the room, “We’re in the Long House bath with lots of goodies splayed about because you just need me to follow up on that butcher you sold a clock or whatever to.”
Misha put the pie down and composed himself, “As you said, it’s a delivery to a butcher so I just-”
“Why did you need me to deliver it? What was the rush? Why risk having something so intricate thrashed about on my back?” Stealth asked each question in rapid succession before the vulpine could think of the answers, “And another thing, how come each time I deliver something to a whacko there is always someone, if not you, another Long on hand to cheerfully banter, sometimes fixatedly with me, about my trip?”
“We like hearing your stories!” He countered and reached for a glass of red wine, trying to look casual.
The cheetah’s ears folded back and he glared at the fox.
“What? You go to interesting places.” The vulpine argued.
Stealth’s resolve began to wane but his eyes quickly focused coldly on Misha once more.
Misha put down his glass and frowned, “Alright, I need something from that place.”
“Something having nothing to do with scouting..?”
Misha paused and didn’t say anything.
“Oh, come on, out with it!”
“Nothing to do with scouting or even the Longs...” He admitted grudgingly, “You see, it’s like this...” He sighed and leaned his head back, “Those jobs to whackos as you call them, they weren’t assigned to you by chance, well, some were but a few were handed to you over other people.”
“Obviously the jobs I did for you. They were a sham.” Stealth said coldly.
“No! Not all of them. Look, it wasn’t my idea.”
“Then WHO and WHY? Am I in trouble with the law or something?”
“You’re not in trouble but I’m not inclined to say who.” The fox answered softly.
The cheetah rose from the bath, “Then there is nothing more to talk about. Hell, I shouldn’t say anything more around you people anyway.”
“It was Andwyn.” Misha called out, “The spy chief knew you were a courier and a friend of the Longs so who better to get information from about people they’re interested in?” He sighed, “But... I’m glad it’s out, I really do consider you a friend.”
“I was never admitted to Long House as a friend, it was for work... I should have looked more closely into that.”
Misha rose from the bath and approached the cat, “We NEVER wanted to put you at risk and our feelings have been genuine. You ARE my friend!”
Stealth just glared at him.
Misha put his hand on the cheetah’s shoulder. “Stealth, believe me. I’m sorry. We never intended to put you at risk.”
The feline shrugged off the fox’s hand, “You don’t even get it; I thought we were friends but all our banter was an act!”
“You ARE my friend and always have been.” The fox said sincerely. “All the Longs are my friends. But they have a task to do and so do I. I use them to achieve what needs to be done.”
“And they KNOW that! I didn’t know AND I’m not a Long.” He seethed and looked down with folded ears, “I’m a hack scout who can deliver clocks to maniacs...”
“You are a scout and courier who can be trusted with difficult tasks. And who accomplishes them with speed and dependability. The only reason I agreed with Andwyn to do this is because I knew you could do it safely.”
“And you told him everything I told you.” The cheetah said bluntly.
“Not everything, just what was related to the mission. Personal things are none of his business.”
“It was ALL personal! I don’t chat with people so they can report it to some faceless spies. The only reason this came up is because you got sloppy and now I’m supposed to go back?!”
“Sloppy?” the fox asked in a harsh tone. “No operation lasts forever. And you were never in real trouble. I had someone nearby watching over you.”
“...who?” He asked in a cold tone.
“Finbar, he knows how to handle trouble without being seen. How do you think Olong knew you were on that trail out cold? Finbar made enough noise to bring the bull running.”
“And now I know why.” The cheetah retorted.
“Then you know you were in no ha-.”
“ENOUGH!” He shouted, “I don’t even care how safe it was, don’t you get it? This is NOT about physical risk, you deceived me Misha! How can I trust you ever again?!”
The fox didn’t answer at first but looked off into space. “Trust is such a fragile thing. Easily broken.”
The cheetah raised an eye ridge and turned to leave.
As the feline stepped out of the bath and water began streaming down his legs and tail the fox called out, “Wait! I still need you to return to Ellingham.”
“Get Finbar to do it.” He called out, reaching for his towel on the way to the bath’s antechamber.
Stealth felt around in desperation as he looked over the leeches. When he heard the clopping sound returning, he quickly recalled his hand, frantically dislodging the leech that latched onto him, and put the jar back on the shelf.
The door creaked open again and the cat did his best to act casual and hide his bloodied hand.
“I forgot, there’s a jar with something you might like, it’s not one of my experiments.”
“Oh...” Stealth began, “jerky?”
“No, it’s green and oily. Don’t worry if they move.” He said and closed the door behind him again.
Stealth gritted his teeth and made for the leeches again. After an intense shiver the feline plunged his arm in again, looking for what he needed.
Six days earlier.
The cheetah sat on his haunches, a grim and distracted look in his eyes.
A rabbit bounded up to him and wrinkled his nose absently. “What’s wrong? We’re both creatures of flight – you’ve been standing there for some time...” The lop-eared bunny asked.
The cheetah glowered as his tail flicked back and forth, “What if I told you...? I feel like sinking my fangs into your neck for real?” He asked coldly.
The whites of Padraic’s eyes were visible for a moment, “Is that supposed to be a sick joke?” He asked alarmed, “You know it cuts deep when someone takes that kind of jab at my form.”
“For what it’s worth, if our forms were swapped I’d feel the same way...”
“What the hell is your problem?!” The lapin stammered, “Having a bad day at my expense?”
Stealth rose to all fours, his amulet dangled slightly as his neck craned downward at the bunny, “Why did you go along with the bat’s plans? Did Misha order you? What did you tell them?”
“I . . . I. . .” Padraic started to say. “I couldn’t tell you. I was ordered not to tell you anything.”
“Answer me! WHAT did you tell them?!” The quadruped demanded in a snarl.
Padraic became calm and shifted up slowly to his morph form. “Only what I had too,” he spat out.
Stealth too shifted but hunched over. Clad only in his fur the cheetah morph looked wild and menacing, “Be-more-specific...” The feline said with a cold gaze, his long tail thrashing about behind him.
“They were only interested in the people you visited. What they said and what they did.” Padraic answered, concealing his prey instincts from the grilling feline.
“And you thought what of this whole thing?” The predator snarled.
“It was shameful thing. Not the act of a true warrior.”
Stealth stood up straighter, “Did you really? ‘Hey, let’s get him in on this, let’s tell him what we’re using him for’ ...no? Never occurred to you? You never objected? Never questioned? Never doubted at all? Being a loyal brother to Misha doesn’t mean being his bitch...”
The rabbit lashed out and punched the cheetah dead square in the muzzle, knocking Stealth backward and to the floor. “HOW DARE YOU Insult me like that!”
The cheetah jumped to his feet with surprising agility and kicked the rabbit in the side of his head, sending him into a wall from which he slid down to the ground. “You faked everything, it was all a sham!”
Padraic stood up slowly and walked towards Stealth. There was a dangerous look in his eyes. “All right Stealth. You want a fight. So be it. You want to fight barehanded or with sword and shield?”
“I don’t care about your noble, honourable, whatever – how about I just beat the fluffy shit out of you now?”
Stealth instantly brought up his arm and deflected the fist meant for his nose. He grabbed Padraic’s arm and pulled the lapin towards him, punching the scout in the side of his head with his free hand.
The rabbit recovered quickly and darted to the cheetah’s side but his blow was met with another block. The punch jarred the cat’s arm though, he flinched back in pain. Padraic leaped forward, his head was angled low at Stealth’s chest and the cheetah grappled him by the shoulders.
Padraic swung his head up, knocking the cat in the jaw. With the momentary advantage he punched Stealth several times in the chest. The feline fell back but pulled the lapin back with him, throwing him with the fall. The rabbit landed behind the sprawled cat on his back, their heads now opposite.
They both turned about onto their chests, Padraic looking like a practiced fighter, Stealth like a savage animal. The cheetah pounced and tackled the bunny, Padraic however surprised him by biting deep into his fur with his huge lapin incisors. Stealth yelped in pain, feeling blood trickle and bit into Padraic’s skull and even his ears.
Padraic drew back, the top of his head bloodied. The cat hadn’t bitten in anywhere near enough to do any real damage but the lapin ears were sensitive and full of blood vessels. While Padraic spat out the blood in his mouth Stealth seemed to almost enjoy the taste of the lapin’s noble blood – he quickly caught himself and spat it out, balking at the thought of near cannibalism.
As the two fighters rose to their feet they continued punching, kicking, blocking and even gnawing. Eventually fatigue set in and they took more and more damage. Both of them were now bleeding from places in their ears, mouths and noses as well as in several other places from bite marks.
With what little energy he had left Stealth grabbed Padraic behind his neck, using the rabbit’s momentum on a failed attack to throw him forward and onto the ground. As Stealth came up behind him Padraic reached back and pulled at his ears and whiskers.
Stealth bat away the clinging paws and removed his amulet, including the chain necklace, from his neck and wrapped the chain around Padraic’s neck. The feline held the two ends firm and began to pull them taught. Padraic paled and froze in shock and disbelief when he realised what his friend was trying to do, thankfully so did Stealth. The cheetah promptly released his grip and clasped his face, feeling stunned and ashamed. The amulet clattered harmlessly to the floor.
The last of their energy depleted, the two collapsed on opposite sides of the corridor, bloodied and entangled as they panted for breath.
After several minutes Padraic was the first to find his voice, “Faked? A sham? How could you think me so shallow and devious?!” The rabbit shouted.
“You chatted with me so you could find out what happened on my trips and report it. The whole time we talked and joked you were just gleaning me for info.”
“I am your friend Stealth. I would have talked to you the same no matter what.” The rabbit countered harshly.
“You asked specific questions under the guise of idle chat.” The cat retorted angrily, “How is that not fake?”
“So I asked a few questions? What of it? When I asked how you were feeling I truly cared about how you felt.”
The cheetah shook his head, “You don’t even care. Too proud, got to defend your noble honour, can’t admit when you’re wrong.”
“I care that you think I’m a fake. This isn’t about my lineage or even... even pride. You think I'm capable of stabbing a friend in the back?” Padraic asked – the pain and amazement plain to hear in his voice. “We’re practically brothers but you think I’ve been acting this whole time. And you think I betrayed YOU...” He snarled curling his lips back.
“Aye. Aye, my brother. You... you betrayed me... you say you care yet this never would have come up unless I wised up....” He wiped the blood from his nose, “All that matters is your pride.”
“You were and STILL are my friend but we all have a job to do to help protect the keep and our families.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Stealth asked softly.
“I told you. I couldn’t, I was ordered...” He coughed up a bit of blood, “If you have something to say, say it to Misha.”
Moments passed them by but the ashen and tired pair lay prostrate on the floor, naked, bloodied and slightly entangled in each other’s legs. As it was when Misha found them.
At first the fox thought he’d come across two naturalists that had taken a tumble down the stairs but when he recognised the pair Misha spluttered, “What the hell is this, free love?”
The lapin and feline lay there in silence, not the least bit interested in
bothering with a retort or much else in their state of self pity.
“I want you two in my office NOW.”
The fox berated the battered scouts for the better half of ten minutes about their appalling conduct, his surprise and disappointment. Padraic looked humbled and respectful to his leader. Stealth just seethed. He was far too tired to give any argument but his contempt for the Long was clear to see in his eyes.
Misha eventually dismissed them but not without calling out to them, “And put some clothes on you two!”
The vulpine scout sat down in his chair and slumped, a sigh escaping his muzzle. Their behaviour was not acceptable but it was expected. And he was still, in the end, responsible for it...
“Was it worth it?” He asked himself.
Three months earlier.
It was one of those rare occasions that all the Longs were at the keep at the same time and taking the opportunity, Misha gathered them all together for a meeting in his office. The fox didn’t bother with pleasantries or banter but got right to the point.
“Who here knows Stealth?” He asked pointedly.
Georgette blinked, “Is this a trick question?”
“Orix Zachary – the cheetah courier known as ‘Stealth’ who’s been working for me.” The fox sighed.
Several of them answered or made a sound of acknowledgment. Padraic, Meredith and Kershaw met him at the Harvest festival. Jotham tended him after the recent armour-incident. Caroline, Georgette and Finbar met him in passing at parties and Oberon had begun training him in various ways.
The rest of them however were surprised to discover that ‘stealth’ was a person!
“How are things, does anyone chat to him, ask him where he’s been, that sort of thing?”
Some of them nodded and shrugged.
“Good. Report everything he has told you. From now on you’ll report everything he tells you to me.”
“Boss...” Padraic stuttered, “He isn’t a backstabber...?”
“No, Andwyn wants to know all about the people he visits. And you are not to tell him anything about that. If he asks, you are just interested in hearing what happened to him.”
“Well, weird things do seem to keep happening to him,” Finbar commented.
“That’s because Andwyn has seen to it, and you will report on what has been happening.”
Many of the Longs began to baulk and complain.
The fox waved a hand to silence the objections. “I am not happy about this either but these are orders and I cannot ignore them.”
“Since when?” Finbar scoffed.
“Since the bat helped me recover Whisper. I owe him a favour. And also it can be unhealthy to annoy a person who knows how to use poison.”
“You’re afraid of him?” The ferret asked deadpan.
“Aren’t you?” The fox countered. “I am not exaggerating about his skills with poison or his willingness to use it.”
“Are you saying he’ll try to kill you?!” Caroline asked in fright, grabbing the fox’s arm as a fresh wave of objections filled the room.
“No but I must stay on his good side.” The fox answered. “And I do owe him a favour for helping with Whisper.”
‘Obviously this creature has an imbalance of humours due to the lack of bones. Which is the source of the humours. So it has grown multiple limbs to compensate.’ The bull scribbled down in his medical journal, “It propels itself along through the water by spinning its tentacles.”
As he looked it over two of the tentacles twitched. Not uncommon – he’d even practiced making them move with small bursts of lightning and it always fascinated him but then the limbs twitched again and again.
“Interesting. I must document this behave-” The tentacles suddenly lunged and grappled him around the neck! “Urk!”
As the bovine struggled with the limbs, more of the creature began to twitch and rise. With all his might, Olong grappled the tentacles and ripped them from the awakening animal body. The two tentacles still wrapped around his neck but they went limp. The relief was short lived as he still had to deal with the octopus.
The bull healer absently placed his hand on a side table and felt a bite! There he saw a large snake on his hand yet he knew it posed him no threat – he’d dissected it and removed the poison glands already...
Crushing the snake’s head in his thick, powerful hoof-hands he got a glimpse around at his surgery. Insects pulled themselves free of nails in the walls. Jars of preserved, small animals like rats climbed out and scurried away. Half dissected creatures rose up and crawled towards him, dragging their entrails behind them. All of them, thousands of them, were heading toward him.
The dead were walking! The dead animals he experimented on, they were taking their revenge!
Olong ran into a cage immediately behind him and slammed the door shut. While large animals pawed at the wooden bars, smaller rats and insects could squeeze through and began crawling up his legs. The bull desperately fought them off but his eyes strayed to the bars in front of him when the octopus lunged and landed on the cage, it’s remaining tentacles wrapping around the bars, gradually squeezing and bending them.
Two days earlier.
Stealth busily combed the fur on Edmund’s horse. He was no knight or soldier but Ed seemed to like giving him odd jobs for their unit. The cheetahs were very close, there was no doubt. And they enjoyed supporting each other. Just the other day Edmund found out through the grapevine what happened with Andwyn. The paladin was not at all happy with what he heard but he didn’t answer with violence!
The feline sighed and rubbed a large bruise on his chest. The rabbit bit him good. He tried to forget about the fight and anything to do with the Longs for that matter, when someone else entered the stable.
Stealth seethed under his breath and tried to ignore the otter – even among the strong funk of the horses he could pick up Caroline’s scent. Not wanting another lecture he had nothing to say to her.
“Orix?” The Long asked gently.
“Don’t call me that.” He answered bluntly and continued to scrub the horse, “I hate that name.”
Caroline sighed and walked closer, “Can I talk to you for a moment?” She put her hand on his shoulder, “Please?”
Stealth stopped scrubbing but didn’t turn around, “I suppose he sent you.”
“No, no one sent me. Please, can we talk?”
“Fine.” He said and stood up, “Over here.”
The feline led the scout back out of the stables and over to a soft patch of grass nearby. He sat down on the grass, his back resting on the wall of the stable. Caroline sat down next to him. She looked at the cheetah but his eyes were elsewhere.
“It sure is nice out here.” She said.
Stealth remained silent and just looked up at the sky with a bored and mildly irritated expression.
“Misha should have told you. He should have trusted you,” Caroline paused a moment. “But he has a problem with trust. Recently he had a friend betray his trust and try to kill everyone.”
“Like he betrayed mine?” The feline asked, gazing up at the sky.
She shook her head. “No! Misha used you to help the keep and save lives. Bal . .” she stopped suddenly and continued in a softer tone. “His friend betrayed everyone and tried to kill everyone in the Keep.”
Stealth looked at her for a long time, “I’m paying the cost for... ‘His friend’s’ betrayal?”
Caroline nodded her head slowly.”We all are,” she said sadly. “We all are.”
“So what am I supposed to do about it?”
“Trust him this one time. He meant you no harm or dishonour. And you really are our friend.”
“It’s true, that’s why I’m here.” She countered.
“But he needs me to return to Ellingham.” Stealth shot back.
The otter slowly shook her head. “If it’s necessary we will send someone else, it doesn’t take much to slip in to a house and steal a possession.”
“Then why ask me in the first place? ...there’s something I’m missing here, there’s more to it then that.”
Caroline spooked him when she flicked his sensitive nose with an index claw. “Do not go down that path. There is no conspiracy here. I’ve seen people consumed by paranoia and I won’t see it happen to you.” She said in a sharp tone before saying in a calmer one, “I’ll admit we need to know things you can tell us. Other then that Misha wanted you to do this because he knew you can.”
The cheetah just stared at her and rubbed his nose.
“So please, trust him. Trust him this once.”
Stealth slumped back and sighed, looking at the sky once more, “I’ll try.” He said softly.
“What the hell is going on down there?” The cheetah asked. He approached the door and then stoped when he saw two floppy brown ears behind a couch.
Stealth rolled his eyes. Was it Padraic? Would the Long be so slack? The feline grappled the bunny by the scruff and pulled it up, “Hah! Too cold outside?” He asked, mocking the lapin, “Wait here.” He said and placed it down on the couch.
The bunny promptly jumped down and scurried under the couch as the cat approached the door and turned the handle.
“Huh...” He pushed and pulled but it made no difference, “Guess he locked it. He sounds really busy.” The cheetah turned around and found the bunny hiding under a table on the opposite side of the room. “Oh you can do better then that!” Stealth said and walked over to scoop up the rabbit.
Once the bunny was in his hands, Stealth turned it about. A gasp escaped his throat. Eyes lacking any pigment gazed back at him. He dropped the rabbit to the floor and noticed another lop eared bunny on the floor near by.
“Padraic! We need to get out of here.” He said and picked up the LIVING rabbit.
For the first time the cheetah noticed the other bunny was missing it’s innards. A gaping hole could be seen under it’s fore legs.
“We need to go now.” He repeated softly.
At that moment the front door began being pounded by some unknown force behind the portal. The cat clenched the little lapin tight as the door leading to the operating area began being rocked by a similar tempo.
The rickety wooden bars shattered with the force of the undead sea creature. Olong frantically began punching and tugging at the bars overhead. More undead and dissected animals already perched there, gradually dropping down on top of the bovine but he tried to ignore them; the roof was his only hope.
Between attacking the bars above, he punched and kicked, even crushed the creatures nibbling on him as he felt the sharp, throbbing pain of countless bites and his own blood trickling down.
Eventually he pulled two bars free from above and pulled himself up on the remaining bars. They bent and strained under his weight, keeping him in reach of the undead octopus which now wrapped around his legs while insects and rodents scurried up its tentacles. But the bull’s superior strength won out and he pulled himself free of the onslaught.
Once on top of the cage Olong climbed up the wooden beams of the staircase directly behind until he was able to climb up over the railing at the top. It was there he blinked, halted by the mutated plant that wrapped its vines around the door, even growing into the gaps of the walls. At first the bull kicked the door, trying to smash it open with his thick hooves but the plant almost seemed to absorb the blows... fortunately luck and irony seemed to be on the healer’s side that night.
Some of the bovine’s tools were stuck in the plant – either he’d been working on this recently or the plant absorbed them in it’s mutated growth. Either way he frantically pulled free a hatchet and hacked away at the plant, kicked the door and rammed his horns into both the plant and the door. The plant attached some small vines to his horns but not enough to slow the desperate bull.
Even as things crawled all over and recommenced their nibbling of his heels, Olong kept up his attack on the portal until eventually the plant lost it’s purchase and the door swung open.
Three hours earlier
“You’ll do it?” Misha asked, pausing from work on his models.
“Aye, now tell me what you need. Not a big briefing, make it quick and let’s get this done.” He paused and took a breath, “But there are no promises on delivery....”
“Fair enough. Thank you for helping me!” The fox said and stood up, “Now listen carefully...”
Stealth gasped as the bovine entered, covered in bugs. Olong slammed the door shut behind him and began placing objects in front of it while desperately shaking himself free of insects. The cheetah stepped on the fallen bugs, crushing as many as he could under his steel clawed feet and helped to apply his own weight to the door in a vain attempt to keep it shut but it slowly slid open allowing dead things through.
Stealth repeatedly demanded to know what they were and what was going on but the bull just repeated, “The dead walk! The dead walk!” over and over.
They eventually had to retreat from the door when it was clear keeping the things out was a lost cause and they were being buried and even nibbled on by the things.
Stealth cried out as he felt the zombie-creatures crawl up in between his armour and pelt. The cat crushed as many of them as he could by pressing the plates to his flesh and did his best to ignore the rest.
The morphs retreated back to a table which they toppled over as an impromptu barricade. While Stealth frantically tried to force the repulsive things back and keep them out of his suit, Olong opened up a small closet and pulled forth a cross bow, battle axe and battle hammer.
He handed the axe and bow to Stealth. The cheetah jabbed frantically at the undead rats around his ankles while the bull swung the hammer, crushing the undead octopus into paste... he wondered briefly about that; sea food as a paste, sold to carnivores to be spread on bread. It could put said bread on the table, Olong thought as he crushed a dead bird into the wall.
“I think we’ve got a good handle on these things.” Stealth called out as he stepped on rats and mice, “They’re just dead things and their jaws are half decomposed.” He said, prying off a rat that tried to nibble on his knee plate, ‘we stand to become very ill, though...’ he thought with a grimace.
Suddenly all the windows along two walls shattered. Undead cows, goats and sheep rammed their heads into the window frames, cutting their heads on the glass. The smaller creatures crawled in through the portals and fell on the floor but they slowly got to their hooves.
“How many dead animals do you have, Olong?”
“I... I lost count! I can’t help it if I get lost in my work!” He said and took the head off a monkey.
A snake began slithering towards the cat, more alarmingly its belly churned violently. The snake’s side suddenly burst open; a plague of undead and half digested rats poured forth and scurried alongside the snake toward Stealth.
Stealth took up the cross bow and notched the first of what he knew would be many bolts. He aimed and shot a bow bolt into a rat, pinning it to the ground. The rodent seemed none the worse and did its best to drag itself towards the feline but it was stuck firmly in place.
Stealth notched another metal bolt and shot it at a goat as it climbed through the window. He struck it in the head and the animal slumped over, its middle still on the windowsill.
At that moment the front door burst open, a rabbit warrior sprung forth and sent two arrows in quick succession at the animals trying to crawl in through the windows.
“Why didn’t anyone open the bloody door?”
“Padraic?!” Stealth gasped, twisting a rat’s neck in his hands, “Wait, so who’s that?” He asked and looked around for the full form lop eared bunny.
He found it near the undead snake! The zombie snake shot fourth and swallowed the rabbit whole... the lapin meal could be seen moving down through the gullet and then popped out through the hole in the stomach made by the rats. The bunny then hopped away, unharmed.
“We need to get away from here!” Padraic shouted. “This is no place to fight.”
The Long spun about and found his path blocked by a big... thing. A skeletal yet powerful paw swung down at the rabbit who leaped back in a summersault. An undead bear blocked the exit, forcing its way through the door frame. The ursine was bigger then the portal so it was stuck in the frame, desperately flailing and swinging its paws.
Padraic cursed and turned his attention to the more imminent threat of the smaller creatures entering through the door opposite which led to the downstairs lab. He notched and loosed arrow after arrow at the rodents and reptiles that streamed in.
“The jars!” Padraic shouted, “The preserving alcohol jars, get some cloth in them and light them up.”
Stealth tore up a bloodied but dry cloth and dipped them into the jars on the bench and bookshelf one by one. The feline did his best to ignore the throbbing undead heart in the jar he held and lit the alcohol soaked cloth on top from a candle.
He threw the jar of bronze liquid at the ground in front of the back door. The vicinity exploded into flames, thousands of small creatures perished. As they perished in the flames they didn’t seem to even notice their fate.
The other creatures crawled around the fire, some even scurrying across the walls and ceiling while the bigger zombie animals just trudged through the fire ball. Padraic pinned many creatures to the walls as they scuttled across and kicked closer ones away and into the fire.
The cheetah threw other flaming jars at creatures in the windows sending them and the zombie-stock bursting into flames. It was a good thing the house was made of stone...
Amidst the melee the ground suddenly creaked.
Stealth looked up from a dog he’d cleaved in two, “What was that?”
Several of the floor boards that were on fire warped and snapped as a creature began forcing its way up through the floor and blaze.
“...shoot it,” Stealth said softly, “Shoot it in the head!”
Padraic felt around for an arrow of a dwindling supply on his back. Fortunately the monstrous creature ignored them, looking quite full already. Instead it nosed at the contents of the closest table.
“No, not the Dragon Dust!” Olong exclaimed as the undead reptile sucked up the powder.
Padraic’s eyes narrowed, he dipped his arrowhead to the burning cloth of Stealth’s Molotov cocktail then aimed and shot it directly at the anaconda’s belly. The flaming arrow hit its mark and sizzled slightly as it sunk in like an object sinking into a marsh. The undead reptile’s belly began to grow and inflate to an incredible size as its scaly hide pulled taught.
The cheetah and bunny hid behind the overturned table. A moment later the snake burst open with a sickening splatter, it’s guts and stomach contents going everywhere. The spray covered the bull who didn’t seem to mind...
The spray included large chunks of ice – before it’s arrival the snake must have raided the ‘meat’ locker down below and now what ice was in the flames was fast melting but also extinguishing the fire, allowing more creatures through.
It got to the point that Padraic had to abandon the use of his beloved bow in favour of his sword. The rabbit hacked and slashed away while the cheetah cleaved everything with his battle axe. Anything that was still in a state of animation after that was soon squished into a fine paste by the bull’s battle hammer.
They began to get swamped and more and more ghastly creatures covered them faster then they could shake and bat them off. Padraic finally resorted to punching and kicking but even his powerful burly arms and lapin legs could not keep up.
They continued to gouge, stab, kick and punch but like a rising tide, the plague of undead creatures swamped them, from the large farm animals which boxed them in to the rats and insects which coursed over their pelt and held them down. They formed a solid wall that at the same time moved and squirmed over their flesh.
“Beautiful isn’t it?” a new voice said.
“Halt! Who...” Padraic started to say but a large, dead roach entered his mouth. He spat it out and kept his muzzle shut tight! He could already feel it’s friends crawling over and inside his ears...
“Without death there is no life, without life there is no death.” The strange man said to the three ensconced in dead things.
“The undertaker? The undertaker from the town?” The bull blurted quizzically as he looked at the man.
“That is what you know me as...”
“No! You’re a necromancer!” Olong gasped, a bug itching his nose.
“Nay, I am THE necromancer...” He said and pointed a finger, “Now open wide.”
As he said it, the three felt their jaws forced open by the undead rats. A countless number of insects waited to swarm inside and march down their throats – the beginning of a slow and horrible end.
Stealth whimpered while Padraic defiantly seethed at the monstrous mage. Olong somehow found the whole thing fascinating. But none of them noticed the little lop eared bunny in the corner of the room paw at a table leg, tipping over the jar of leeches.
The necromancer didn’t notice the sound of the falling jar under the noise of his undead army but Padraic did.
“Wait!” He said, the plague about to enter his muzzle, “I have something I need to say.”
The necromancer halted the three keepers’ fate for the bunny to speak.
“I... I just...” He started but stopped when the mage obviously became aware when the jar shattered.
As he turned around, a leech, a leech larger then the rest grew out of the shattered remains. The creature continued to grow in size. By the time the man turned around fully to face it, the leech was the same size as him. It lunged forward and latched onto the man’s mouth.
The necromancer’s eyes went wide with fear and pain as the leech began to suck. The plague of undead stuttered and weakened as the man’s body began to shrivel and pale. His bones showed through his flesh, his eyes sunk back into the sockets. The mammoth leech became even bigger and fatter. It sucked up blood and even organs, all of the man’s insides were fair game for the creature. Eventually there was nothing left but a drained husk and loose clothing. The undead army completely weakened and fell – the dead becoming dead once more.
Stealth trembled, not really realising it was over. He eventually regained his senses, however, that unfortunately meant he began to realise just how rancid he was. The cheetah immediately leapt up and shook himself off... some of the dead bugs and their stray body parts were still in his armour suit. He willed off the suit and brushed his fur frantically but it still smelt horrible and it was well coated with blood and or a blood-like fluid.
Padraic was in a similar state, batting at his fur as if it were a throw rug though he didn’t disrobe. Olong just stood there, fascinated. And then there was the other. They all looked at it, the leech – the leech that... saved them.
“What?” It suddenly surprised them by asking, “Don’t look at me like that, I was thirsty!”
“You’re the spy.” Stealth said. “The one with five red stripes I came here to retrieve.”
The leech woman – it had a feminine voice – flailed her humanoid arms about, “Tell the realm!”
“What is going on?” Olong asked, confused, “What are you talking about?”
“This operation was blown the moment you shifted.” The cat said to the leech, his armour melding with him again. “And I don’t work for intelligence; I just came here to pick you up, after you failed to hitch a ride out on my tail tip from the last time.” He grabbed the spy’s slimy arm, “Now it’s time to go.”
“What is going on?!” The bull demanded. “The keep is spying on me?!!”
“Hey, doc, we didn’t see half the stuff in here if you didn’t see us spying.” She called out as she was dragged to the door by the disgruntled cheetah.
Padraic grabbed what was left of the mage off the floor and followed them out the front door, past the bear’s corpse. The full form bunny that saved them earlier hopped through the door as it closed but no one noticed it or really cared. After Stealth led the spy to the bottom of the stairs she stopped and pulled her arm free,
“Hold up, I can’t go like this, I’m too fat!”
The cat sighed, “Well how long till he’s out of your system?”
“About a year or two.” The spy answered.
Stealth frowned and looked into her six to eight eyes, “So what now?”
As the leech retched nearby, the two mammals turned their eyes and ears away though kept to themselves. The feline idly glanced at the rabbit, his eyes impassive, he turned away again.
“Stealth,” Padraic said softly. “What we did was wrong.”
“And?” Stealth asked bluntly.
“I’m sorry Stealth.” The rabbit finally said.
“So am I.” The feline answered without looking up. “For what I said and what I almost did.” He ignored the retching and the little bunny hopping about at their feet, “...can you ever forgive me?” He asked, finally looking up.
The rabbit slowly nodded his head. “Yes I can. Your emotions got the better of you... what about you, can you forgive the Longs? Can you ever forgive Misha, or me?”
“Yes...” He nodded slowly, “Just promise me you won’t use me like that again.”
“I swear it!”
The cheetah reached out a hand to pet the rabbit on the shoulder, he was caught off guard when the lapin suddenly took him into a tight hug.
Stealth returned the hug and regained his voice, “Our next fight will be a sparing match... and I’ll win.”
“We’ll spar but I’ll win!” The rabbit boasted!
Stealth turned the hug into a noogie.
Padraic chuckled and squirmed. He never thought he’d be glad to receive a noogie but it was the sort of thing to lighten their moods after the unspeakable fight they’d just endured. The poor lapin would be washing out his mouth from that roach for many months to come.
“So what do we do with this?” The cheetah asked, looking at the little rabbit at their feet after disengaging.
“I think she likes us.” Padraic said as he looked at the lop-eared bunny.
“How do you know it’s a- oh, right...” The feline picked up the rabbit off the cold ground, “You fancy a pet?” Stealth suddenly gasped and flailed about slightly.
As he held it the rabbit got bigger and bigger until he had to drop it. What was once an adorable little animal soon transformed into a humanoid rabbit.
“Hi there, handsome.” She said, looking at Padraic.
The female bunny morph had a perfect form, stood on digitigrade foot paws and bore a large and bountiful bust. Also, she was clad only in fur.
“Well met, Lass.” The male rabbit answered as he accepted a kiss from her and offered his own.
“Padraic!” Stealth said. “This isn’t even the time
for courting, you too!”
“Courting?” Padraic asked. “I just wish to thank her for helping us.”
“I thought you have a girlfriend.” The cheetah said.
“Well I’m not betrothed to her.”
‘Bunnies...’ the cat thought. ‘There’s another reason you’re a bunny instead of a wolf...’
“Urp, ugh.” The leech spy groaned as she finished retching and then gasped, “Oh my gods, that’s disgusting!”
“We know!” Padraic called out between nuzzling.
“No! Look at this!” She pointed a spindly tentacle-like arm at the huge puddle of blood.
The mammals looked and shivered at what they saw, the blood and bits began to spasm and contort as it came to life!
The Long gasped and ran up to the leech as the pile of retched body parts, blood and gunk formed a blob.
“Out of the way, woman!” He ordered and nocked an arrow.
Even the shrivelled husk melted into a sort of crimson liquid around the female rabbit’s foot paws, slithered down the slope and joined the main blob. As the bloody blob slithered away Padraic shot arrow after arrow at it. None of the projectiles had any effect, the blob slithered away a distance before it stretched and separated, draining away into cracks in the ground.
The three keepers gasped in silence. Time seemed to stand still as they gawked at the empty patch that it escaped into.
The sounds of grumbling and pouting seemed to echo and resonate over and over on the plateau in the dead of night.
“No! I must study it!” He pouted as the lapin dragged him away from the house.
“That thing is out there, it is still alive and it is not safe for you here.” Padraic grunted. After the shock wore off he was the first to realise the threat the bovine faced, “You can return after the house has been well warded.”
“But what does he want with me anyway?!” He demanded, turning his head back to look where he was being rudely snatched from, “I am but a humble student of medicine.”
Padraic’s new female half – now donned in borrowed garb from the watch – spoke up, “Well somehow he must have confused you to be a rival... practitioner of the undead arts.”
‘Which in a way you are’ Stealth thought to himself as he looked on.
“So he wants to have you done away with!” Padraic grunted as he continued leading him away.
A gender morphed watchman shook her head, “What was a necromancer doing in our town?”
“Taking shelter for any number of reasons.” An AR answered as he looked over the gory site within the house, “But its news to me.”
Stealth began to fidget and became ever more restless until he finally spoke, “Let’s go home.” The cheetah said. The others didn’t argue.
“But, but, you lied to me!”
“I had to lie! I’m protecting the keep and my family.”
Stealth scoffed. Whatever name the lapin spy provided the Long when they first met had been an obvious alias. That Padraic was sore about the deception proved a kind of delightful irony, Stealth thought.
Padraic scowled at her. “Well do I ever get to learn your real name?”
“My name is Carousel,” She leaned in close and whispered in a barely audible tone, “Why don’t you ride me sometime?”
Padraic’s eyes widened though he tried to take it in his stride. The Long was a little surprised and a little speechless at first. But delighted...
“I suppose this time next year the valley will have a lop-eared plague.” Stealth said, providing the first of what would presumably be many jabs aimed at the pair.
“Yes! A lop eared spotty plague!” She said, eyeing the cheetah...
Stealth gawked, eyes wide and mouth agape while Padraic was in a similar state.
“Nice-to-meet-you-milady-I-must-go-now!!!” The cheetah stammered and power walked away.
Padraic turned his gaze to Carousel who took him by the hand. As they headed to the baths the two laughed long and loud.
The feline headed to the baths but instead found himself in Long Hall. Undeterred, he continued on towards the exit, even ignoring the approaching fox.
Misha shouted in vain but it did him no good. The fox felt powerless, even hurt. He ran after Stealth and blocked his escape, the cheetah merely shouldered past him. Misha went so far as to grapple his arm which prompted the cat to forcibly pry himself free and turn to confront the vulpine. Stealth’s muzzle contorted into a snarl.
“What’s wrong with you Stealth?!” The fox growled.
“I did what you wanted, I don’t have to do anything more. I’m not telling you a word, do you hear me? Not one word!”
“What? What’s wrong with you?” Misha asked. “You’re still mad aren’t you?”
“I...” He stoped and remembered what Caroline told him some days earlier, “Misha, do you trust me? Be honest.”
Misha was silent for a moment. “Yes,” he said solemnly. “Yes I do trust you.”
“But...?” Stealth added.
“But what? You are my friend Stealth. That is no lie.”
“Then tell me, how can I trust you?”
“I . . .” the fox stuttered and fell silent.
“You were hurt by a friend.” The feline commented softly.
“Someone I thought was my friend.” He said softly.
“So you understand what it is to loose confidence in people.” Stealth continued.
“I do understand. I really do and I’m sorry.”
“Then give me your word, next time you’ll tell me?”
“You have my word. That I swear!”
The feline solemnly held out his hand.
Misha slowly clasped and shook Stealth’s hand. Then he suddenly hugged the feline.
Stealth laughed, “You Longs are all softies.”
Misha laughed. “Don’t tell anyone!”
“This doesn’t change how I feel about the bat.” The cat seethed, “I’m liable to beat the shit out of that conniving bastard.”
“No, Stealth, you are not going after Andwyn,” Misha ordered in a firm tone of voice. “The bat is unreachable. You would never get close. The spy master has guards and probably several traps and something poisonous at hand.”
“Fine.” He pouted then his eyes widened, “If you’re not reporting to him anymore, is he going to be watching me now?”
“Of course! He watches everyone, even me,”
“But you’re somebody.” The feline pouted. “I’m just some animal-guy who goes from point A to point B...”
“You’ve never just been an ‘animal guy’ going between two points.” The fox countered. “Andwyn picked you for a reason. Like me he thinks that you have some great skills and abilities.”
“I don’t care.” The cheetah said bluntly, “He’s still a conniving bastard.”
“Of course he is, he’s a spy and that’s their job – lying, stealing, killing and cheating.”
Stealth took a deep breath and looked at the ground, “Misha?”
“Yes?” The fox asked.
“I need a good, long bath.”
“More then that! Take a bath to get the worst of the gore off you. Then we’ll get you sponged down with disinfectant before all your wounds get infected with some nasty disease. And be sure to burn your clothes. No telling what nasty plague is resting in them. I’ll have Padraic do the same.”
Stealth raised an eye ridge, “Burn my armour suit you mean...?”
“Ah . . . the clothes you’re wearing now and give the suit a good scrubbing.”
The feline cringed, “Anyway, isn’t it a bit late for that? I’ve probably got a super plague coursing through my veins by now...”
“Best to be safe. And we’ll have a healer look you over. It might mean spending a few days in quarantine to keep you from spreading something to the rest of us.”
The cheetah blinked and then suddenly reached out his arms at the fox like a walking undead.
The fox stepped backward out of reach. “Stop that! Or we’ll make sure they use alcohol on your wounds. They sting like hell!”
Stealth laughed, “Sorry Misha but somewhere in that hug you came into contact with me... You need to bathe too.”
“True but I won’t need the disinfectant bath!”
“Perhaps not,” He said and grabbed the vulpine’s wrist, “But a good bath just to be sure. And don’t forget to order lots of goodies...” He said, leading the Long to the baths.
The fox nodded enthusiastically. “Of course! Wine, cheese and those little sweet meats you like!”
Midnight was upon the Outpost when a letter spawned on Nestorius’ desk. The mage didn’t detect any magical residue so it had been deposited there physically by someone of great skill for the lion not to notice their arrival or departure.
The letter bore no seal, no trace of it’s origin but he could detect no trap either, magical or otherwise. With a sharp claw the feline cut open the letter and removed a single sheet of parchment.
“The Ellingham Incident...” He read to himself.
After a few moments Nestorius put down the parchment and looked thoughtfully at his jet black furried hands.
“So you have returned.”