Vincent brushed the snow off his cloak, frustration furrowing his brow. He just couldn't take it anymore. "You know why we're here, don't you?"
"... Huh?" The giant hornet, Kayser, snapped out of his zone-out and regarded the hyena crouched across from him.
Vincent pushed his pointer-clawtip into his palm. "Think about it. He sets the two us out here alone," he whispered, his ear twitching at a fleck of snow before continuing. "There's a lutin camp out there. He knows it. He says so..."
"Why do you think he wants us to stay put?" Vincent asked as he clenched his teeth, the cloud of his breath swirling about his muzzle in frustration.
Kayser's antennae fell from their perked position. "'Cause he wants us to make sure they don't move, like he says?"
Vincent's gaze lowered to the snow. "Maybe..." Suddenly his ears folded and he lunged from his seated position at the giant hornet, who barely had time to react. He grabbed Kayser by the edges of his cloak and stared into his big red bug-eyes. "Or maybe it's a trap!" He whispered through clenched teeth. "Think about it, Kay! Think about it!!"
"Gah!!" Kayser dropped his jerky as the hyena shook him. "Quit it! Quit it!"
"What if he wants us to think they're in camp?! What if they're coming this way right now?! What if he's in cahoots with the lutins, Kay? What if he's gonna off us 'cause we know too much? What if?!"
He fell back against the tree, eyes wide as he ran a claw through his headfur. "By the gods... it all makes sense. If he's a deadra, then the lutins would worship him. That means he's got an army... No wait— what if he an' Nasoj..."
"You're a moron..."
"What was that?"
Kayser fell to all six appendages and began rummaging through the snow for his dropped rations. "Nothing."
Vincent shifted his eyes and stroked the fur under his chin. "I'm goin' in." He stood, hefting his huge broadsword over his shoulder.
"You're... what?!" Kayser jumped to his hind legs, but teetered in the heavy snow and fell down to the middle set. "But Virmir said not to move until he and Vale—"
"Shh!" Vincent slid around the tree. "Stop making so much noise."
Kayser clicked his mandibles in irritation, then anxiously looked around the snow-laden forest. Sighing audibly, he took up his spear with his upper right hand and trotted after his squadmate.
Father was stroking his box again.
He did that often when he was alone. His bony clawed fingers gently brushing the edges, tracing the simple cracks and lines wrought upon the tiny crate by age. The dull metal edging glimmered in the candlelight. She had no idea what was in the box. And she knew better than to ask.
He remained crouched over the object for a time as she watched from the doorway, his pristine white robes spilling upon the floor. She remembered a time they enchanted her, those shimmering robes. She watched the brilliant flame dance upon the edges remembering how they once mystified. She folded her arms under her own. They no longer had that power now that they were also hers.
Her heart sank at his smooth voice, startling her from her contemplation. He rose with a grace that betrayed his age, his white hair swaying as he turned. She stepped forward meekly. She was no longer a young woman, yet still she stood before him timid and afraid. This was how it always would be.
"I take it you've not heard from your brother?"
She shook her head as she gazed upon the ground. "No, father."
He paused to stroke his chin and the light beard that almost seemed to shift in length with his hands. "If he does not arrive shortly, I fear it may be just the two of us out there..."
She gulped, sweat gathering upon her brow.
"Though you could use the experience, my dear." He grinned at the last words. The rasping of toeclaws against stone interrupted his next sentence and his gaze drifted to the doorway behind Lucile. "Grav, come."
The short lizard-man simply stood in the doorway, blinking as confusion filled his brow. "What is wrong with him?" Lucile asked in a whisper.
"Your brother's spell is wearing off... Come!" Father's voice grew harsh. "Come here!"
The ebony-robed lizard stepped forward meekly, but stopped short as soon as his tail cleared the doorway. "Not... master...?" In his claws he held a luminescent blue object against his chest.
"I am your master's master. We have been through this..." Father's icy tone only caused the confused lizard to shrink back. "Blast. He must be fixed. Where is your brother?"
Lucile clasped her hands before her chest. "He said he was coming..."
"Give that to me." Father's attention turned back to the lizard, who blinked as if the command were spoken in some exotic language. "NOW!"
Grav flinched, then slowly held the blue crystal before his muzzle, hands shaking. His eyes widened as if he saw his claws for the first time. Then he brought them to his snout and prodded it in a panic. "No... no..."
"Give me the crystal!"
The lizard jumped so violently the crystal tumbled out of his hands. Lucile made a dive for it, but it shattered upon the floor inches from her grasp. She sat upon the floor wide-eyed as a cerulean mist rose from the shards.
Oh no... it escaped... A soul...
She quickly rose to her feet as a figure formed before her. The mist congealed to a humanoid form, a translucent glowing young woman shorter than her with eyes just as frightened as Lucile's.
Then her skin fell off.
It fell off in chunks, dissipating in starry specks of light as they shattered upon the floor. Bone and sinew revealed themselves and the former woman glared upon Lucile with empty glowing eyes.
Lucile tried to scream. Tried to run. But she was utterly paralyzed. By the will of the skeleton-thing, or by her own fear she did not know, but she could not move at all.
Show it your hatred.
Father's words rang in her ears. They were so clear she wasn't sure if he had just spoken them or if she merely recalled the phrase forever etched in her memory. She never was convinced hatred was the correct way to call her power. But father was never wrong.
She thrust her hands forward and tried to hate it. But how could she? She was scared to death! The skeleton-thing lumbered forward, mouth gaping as it posed to pounce upon her. But the air was so dry! Come on! Come on!
Finally she felt the moisture come to her. It congealed around her fingertips, swirling and obeying. More and more rushed to her command. Almost! The creature lunged and she let loose an intense blast of bone-chilling cold, icy knives slicing the air—
—and glancing right off the skeleton.
Her spell did nothing to the thing but cause it to stumble back half a step. It recovered instantly and grabbed for Lucile's robe.
Then it stopped, mouth gaping. Tendrils of blackness bound its bones like rope. Behind, Father stood with one hand outstretched and fingers splayed. The skeleton-thing bellowed with the fury of a Shrieker as Father clenched his fist. The blackness utterly engulfed it, crunching its bones like dried leaves before it burst in a thousand specs of light.
Father lowered his hand. "There will be no afterlife for that one."
Absolutely nothing remained of the spirit.
Lucile fell to her knees, heart nearly escaping her chest from fear. Father slid his eyes toward the cowering lizard in the corner of the room. "You..."
Grav shivered uncontrollably, thick tail twisting around his legs. Frantically looking side-to-side, he spied the doorway and made a break for it, clumsily tripping over his robes as he ran.
Ten paces from his goal his head exploded and the remains of his body fell flat on the ground.
"That is... the ugliest lutin I have ever seen in my entire life..."
"Where? Where?" Kayser whispered, poking his head out of the bush. Though his compound eyes provided a wider range of sight, distances had become blurry since his change. All he could make out was a sort of brown blob shape seated on a throne in the middle of camp. The rest of the lutins seemed standard fare— little green men about his size.
"Get down!" Vincent hissed, grabbing the giant insect's head and pushing him back under the frosty foliage. "Geez! They'll see you with your goofy antennas sticking up like that!"
Kayser clicked his mandibles as he futilely pushed up against the hyena's massive hand. "The plural of antenna is antennae."
Vincent scowled as he looked past the thin veil of snow that laced the bushy hiding spot. "It's like... some kinda super lutin or something. Look at how bloated he is! Disgusting..."
"We need to get out of here..."
"We should kill it."
Kayser slapped his forehead with his middle-right hand. "We should find our squad leader and report it... Since when are you so brave anyway?"
"Brave? Just look at the size of my sword!" Vincent grabbed the mammoth chunk of metal strapped to his back and began to unsheathe it.
Kayser held out all four hands. "Okay! Okay!!"
"Look, Kay... if you wanna go back and report to authority and establishment about stuff they already know and are hiding from us, go right ahead. Just don't come crying to me when the government decides we all need to convert to deadra-worshipism and you were too big a wussy to do anything about it."
"I— wait, what?"
"Shhhh!" Vincent scowled as he shuffled through the bushes, tiptoeing to the next tree. "If you don't stop, they're gonna hear us!"
"Father, who is it that seeks to destroy us? I thought the Keepers lived to the south." Lucile wrapped her cloak about her thin frame more as a force of habit than anything else. The swirling snow seemed more comforting than cold since Father helped her find herself. It was one beneficial effect of her Power, at least.
Father also seemed unaffected by the chill wind, but then again, few things affected him. He angled his head back towards her and grinned mischievously. "Her name is Lilith. She... tends to dabble in things undead."
Lucile gulped. "Undead?"
"Pay it no mind, child," he said, waving his hand. "Few of those sort would dare walk these grounds. Just do as I've said, and we shall prevail."
She nodded and trudged through the snow to stand by her father's side. The narrow snow-swept valley ahead seemed quiet enough. "Why does she hate you?"
Father chuckled once. "Why, she is madly in love with me," he said as he stroked his beard. Lucile only blinked as her mouth dropped. "What? I am an extremely charming and desirable individual." He grinned and bore his canines, but then his expression grew dour and distant. "She thinks I owe her a boon."
"A boon? What did she do for you?"
"Nothing." He snared and looked at the valley. "She assumes her minion aided me in my escape from Nasoj. However, she is incorrect. I intend to correct her misguided assumption after we are finished down south. But for now, we must swat her flies."
Lucile turned her gaze back to the passage where Father said they would come. The name Lilith didn't ring a bell, but the thought of sorceress who dabbled in undeath frightened her.
On the other hand, so did Father.
"Well, the both of you look cheery."
Lucile's heart skipped a beat at the voice appearing from nowhere. She spun around and glared at Melface, who stood in the snow wrapped in gray furs, arms folded and a scowl transgressing the side of his face. No tracks led to his position in the snow. "Must you lead us to the most abysmal spot on the continent, Father?"
Father was much slower to turn, and looked upon his son with disdain. "Where are your robes?"
"I gave them to my nephew, remember?" He trudged in between the two of them, nearly pushing Lucile over, then stood to take in the freezing valley ahead in disgust. "Don't tell me you're growing senile in your old age..." he added with a wink and a grin.
"Watch your mouth, or I may remove it."
Melface opened his mouth to retort, then promptly shut it, blinking twice. Instead he huddled in his furs, shivering. "It is so blasting cold... what in blazes did you call me for?" His ears elongated and slivery fur spread across his face.
"Nephew...? What do you mean your nephew?" Lucile interrupted. "My son... you know where my son is?"
Melface grinned. "Father, you haven't told her? You really are one evil son of a—"
"Silence!" Father stepped forward and glowered over Melface, who literally shrunk a few inches in his shadow. He turned his gaze back to the wide-eyed Lucile. "My dear, it is for another time. I will explain it when we return."
Lucile knew not to question Father, so merely bit her lip. "Yes, father..." Her son? They found him?
Father took a moment to glower at the both of them to ensure they had nothing more to say. After a long pause to assert his dominance, he resumed his calm demeanor. "Our guests are rounding the ridge. It should be obvious why I summoned you."
"Ahhh..." Melface placed a clawed hand over his heart. His body had continued to change. He was fully anthro now, looking much warmer as his bushy tail flicked in the breeze. "Are they really deadra like you say? Oooh... I do wonder what they taste like." He licked his chops.
"Servants. I said they were servants. Deadra do not simply walk this plane in large groups without repercussions. Humans likely, though it is best we are prepared."
Melface frowned. "You need all of us for humans?" He turned his head towards the frozen valley, a moue crossing his muzzle before he exploded in laughter. "Humans! Hah!"
Father leaned over Melface once more. "You wish to heckle me again, child?"
Melface did not cower this time. Instead he displayed all his teeth in a wicked grin, folding his ears back as he looked right back into his father's eyes. "I will kill them all myself."
"You will make a fool of me."
"Nonsense!" Melface spread his arms wide, then did a perfect back flip. His form shrank in the air and he landed on four paws on top of the snow, his weight no longer enough to break it. "You doubt my strength dear Father," he said as he flicked his black-tipped tail about, "I will show you my Power. I will prove myself to you."
With that, the small animal was gone. As if it had never been. Father sighed. "Reckless."
Lucile could do naught but sigh in relief. Maybe if her brother handled it, she would not have to be involved after all. Then again, Melface's abilities terrified her as much as Father's...
"Are you ready?"
Kayser gulped and nodded. This was about as close as they could get... from here on, they'd be exposed in the open. Surrounded by lutins... He peered around the tent flap to get one more look at the blurry thing as it sat in its throne. Blast his eyesight! He wondered what this super lutin looked like.
"Okay, one more time," Vincent clenched his humungous sword, drawn and at the ready. "I rush out, chop off the super lutin's head. Bam! All the lutins around go crazy without their leader. Then you rush in, grab his head and flap yer goofy insect wings and fly it above me, shouting 'All hail Lord Dokorath, God of War!' over and over again. Now the lutins, being pure evil, instantly cower at the mention of any god what-so-ever. And the fact that you're flying proves we have mystical powers beyond their control. So they instantly run away. Or start groveling. Either way, we take the head and beat it."
"Why do I have to carry the head? And why do you keep calling me goofy?"
"Geez, Kay! Do you want to get us caught?! Stop asking so many questions!"
"And make sure not to get any blood on me."
Vincent stood, clutching his sword at his side. "All right, this is it... They'll make us famous, you know, once we expose this whole conspiracy."
"Wait, don't you think—"
"Charge!!" the striped hyena bellowed as he darted out of his hiding spot, raising his sword to the heavens. Kayser sighed then followed, falling to four legs and brandishing his spear in his upper set of hands. Vincent had cleared half the distance through the snowy camp before the startled lutins snapped to attention. He braced himself for a wide cleave just as the creature sitting on the throne turned its head.
Vincent and Kayser stopped dead in their tracks, eyes wide, sputtering... "R-Rufus?!"
The portly warthog hobbled to his hooves, decked out in lutin-shamanistic garbs. Furs, feathers, animal bones, paint markings... "What're you all doin' 'ere?" He said with a wide grin, extending his arms to offer a hug.
Vincent's jaw dropped. "Uhhh..."
"Keeper! Keeper! Eeeee!" The lutins rushed around, surrounding the trio and sticking the two would-be attackers with little spears. "Keeper!"
Rufus held out his hands, flailing them in arcs. "Wait! They're okay! These are my friends!" He indicated the hyena and hornet morphs, repeating the word with slow emphasis. "Friends!"
Vincent finally recovered enough to gasp, then pointed a clawtip in Rufus' face. "You! You're the evil mastermind! It was YOU all along!"
Rufus scratched the short tuft of fur between his ears. "Uh..."
Kayser squeezed in-between the two. "Rufus, WHY are you leading a horde of lutins into the heart of Metamor?"
"Hold on guys!" The warthog waved his hands. "These are good lutins! They saved me!"
Vincent folded his ears and gulped as the lutins began circling them, chanting, "Keeper! Keeper! Kill! Kill!"
Rufus bent over and waged a finger in front of one of the little green creatures' face, as if scolding a young dog. "No! Bad! BAD!"
"Do-laki mana keen!" the lutin snapped back.
"Mani ki-niki! Keeper! Kill!" another one screamed.
"Kill!" the chorus sounded.
"Wait!" Rufus threw his hands into the air. "Do'lana mana hiki!"
Dead silence engulfed the camp.
"Do'lana mana hiki?" a smaller lutin ventured.
"Do'lana mana hiki!" A chorus of chanting began. The lutins abandoned their posts and began running around the camp gleefully. "Do'lana mana hiki!"
Vincent's jaw dropped. "What in blazes did you just tell them?"
Several wooden kegs fell at the keepers' feet. "I don't know!" Rufus said, grinning. He bent over and grabbed one of the kegs. "Whenever I say that, they start passin' out beer!"
The hyena's mouth trembled wordlessly for a moment as he watched the little green men tap the kegs and pass out mugs filled to the brim with frosty ale, the keepers not made an exception. Taking his mug he hugged Rufus vigorously. "I'm sooo glad to see you're alive!"
Alphonse listlessly watched the rolling white landscape pass him by. At least he was walking. The last time they had to stand still outside that town for three hours straight he nearly froze to death. But walking kept the muscles warm.
Being part of the front squad was a double-edged sword. At least he got to see the scenery ahead unimpeded. But unfortunately it meant his group was first to fall into any would-be traps, and that meant he actually had to pay attention. At least that took the edge off of the boredom. Still, he missed the fodder squad of lutins up front. Good lutins were hard to find these days. Why had they abandoned Nasoj?
Sure there were rebellions, but those had always been quelled. Just like these now. The last town in particular was quite fun... Lord Draven had allowed them to raze it to the ground because they would not renounce their independence. Long live Nasoj! Pillaging was so fulfilling...
Alphonse's daydream was interrupted by a jab from his friend Tibult. "Hey Al, lookit' that! Think I can hit 'im?" He followed his squadmate's finger down the path into the open snow-swept valley. A lone animal sat in the army's way. Too big for a rabbit, too small for a wolf... Its slivery fur and black edgings contrasted the white snow sharply. "What is it, anyway?"
"Looks like some kinda fox... though I thought they had white fur this time of year," Alphonse mused, rubbing his chin. "I'll bet it's rabid." He could swear the thing was grinning at them...
"Don't care, I'm eatin' it," Tibult replied, knocking his bow. Tibult had the habit of shooting every single animal he saw. Not that Alphonse could blame him during boring marches. The arrow whisked through the air, whistling as it struck the snow—
— several hundred feet behind? Tibult never missed that badly. Was it the wind? Or was the animal somehow... closer? Much, much closer...
"Good day, gentlefolk." The entire front guard halted, crashing into each other as their mouths gaped. The fox turned his right paw over and idly regarded his claws, flicking his tail about. "You seemed to have wandered into my territory. And for that, you can not be forgiven..." He slowly raised his glance. Ice clutched Alphonse's heart as the fox looked into his very soul... and smiled.
Murmurs whispered throughout the small mob of soldiers.
"Did the fox... just talk?"
"Did he just... threaten us?"
"You'll make a pretty hat, foxie," Tibult retorted as he readied another arrow. Snickering laughter resonated though the crowd and the creaking of a few more bowstrings filled the air. Except for Alphonse. The creature's eyes wouldn't let him go...
"Oh, heavens!" The tiny fox stood on all fours, swaying his tail hypnotically. "Surely the lot of you are too strong for little old me..." He lowered his head, as if preparing to pounce on a mouse under the snow. "How about we make a game of it? I challenge your strongest." More chuckles rose from the group. "What is the matter? Surely your strongest isn't afraid of a tiny animal?" he shouted at the crowd.
"I shall be the one to slay thee, then!" Tibult retorted in a mocking tone. He stepped forward and effortlessly loosed the arrow at the gray fox—
— then fell over dead, gurgling as crimson blood melted the snow around his head.
"Tibult!" Alphonse kneeled beside his friend, horrified at the arrow stuck in his neck. How did—?! That was impossible! There was no way anyone could ever shoot an arrow backwards!
"The moron shot himself!" a soldier observed mockingly.
The fox's expression did not falter. "Next!"
A shadow fell upon Alphonse and a billowing voice roared above. "WHO challenges the strongest?!"
Alphonse literally leapt out of the way to avoid getting stepped on. Rastalfo was a giant. Literally. Towering over 15 feet tall and weighted down by massive crimson plates of armor, he obliterated the delicate snow with thunderous thumps as he stepped over the dead body. "Rastalfo crushes enemies of Nasoj vwith pinky finger, yes? Heh heh heh..."
The fox sat on his haunches and began inspecting his claws again. "Oh, heavens... Truly I am terrified."
"What is 'dis? A little rat? Vwhy is a little rat holding up the line?!"
"Watch who you call a rat. Though your confusion is understandable. You seem a fine example of brain-paraplegia."
The giant blinked a few times.
The fox sighed. "Your mother is very fat."
Rastalfo's eyes widened. "WHO talks about Rastalfo's mother?!" The pupils of the giant seemed to disappear as his eyes glowed white with rage. Veins throbbed along the sides of his bald head. "Rastalfo will kill you!!" Everyone headed for the hills, tumbling over each other as they struggled to get out of his way.
"Now this should be fun," Tibult mused, "that lumbering blockhead hasn't gotta chance of hittin' that thing." Alphonse nodded, but then did a double take.
"Tibult?!" he sputtered, mouth agape. "But how...?" He looked back to where Tibult had died. He was sure of it! But apart from footprints, the snow remained undisturbed.
"What?" Tibult regarded him questioningly. "What's wrong with you?"
Alphonse rubbed his temples. "Uh... nothing. Never mind..."
Meanwhile, Rastalfo swung at the tiny animal with his colossal halberd, cutting gouges into the snow with each miss. "Die! Die! DIE!!"
The fox merely jumped out of the way each time. "One circle," he said with a grin, having successfully made his way around the lumbering beast and back to where he started in his series of leaps. He began a second arc, quick dainty steps in the snow as he continued the counterclockwise revolution. "That's two..."
"Waaaargh!!!!" the giant screamed in frustration as he beat the snow around him, blade lodging in the frozen ground underneath. Snickers rose among the soldiers. The fox bolted, effortlessly gliding around him once more.
"And three." He stopped and sat on his haunches. "Now, you belong to me." Rastalfo turned and poised his halberd for a quick life-ending stab. "Tell me, o large one, what do you fear?"
The giant stopped. His eyes shifted from side to side as if searching for his
target, despite it sitting before him. Suddenly he stabbed upward at open air,
then dodged an unseen blow. Frustration furled his brow. Again and again he
traded blows with his invisible adversary, each time attacking a point higher
and higher until he struck at the sky above. "No... no...!" Finally
he fell over backwards, tremors rumbling the ground as he shielded his face
and screamed. "Nooo!"
Gasps emerged from the dumfounded soldiers as they watched the imposing giant writhe upon the ground. "What's wrong with him?"
Rastalfo gave a final heave, then clutched his heart, one last breath escaping his lungs as his terrified eyes stared at the overcast sky. All the while the fox playfully wagged his tail. He bounded upon the giant's chest, such a tiny thing compared to the imposing carcass, and sat upon his haunches with his eyes closed. Hovering his muzzle over the behemoth's gaping mouth, he drew his head and ears back as if he were wafting a heavenly scent. "Mmmmm... delicious."
Murmurs echoed throughout the handful of front guard soldiers. A few bolted in favor of the direction they came, but stopped dead in their tracks when they found themselves blocked by a much more fearsome looking group.
"What is the meaning of this?" Alphonse turned as soon as he heard the rasp of Lord Draven's voice. Dressed in imposing black armor with red trim, a flowing black cape, and sporting a stylish coal-black ponytail, Draven was among Nasoj's most feared wizards. (But then again, every mage under Nasoj claimed that title.) Behind him trudged the three dark-cowled auxiliary mages. Whispers among the men claimed they were Moranasi, but Alphonse doubted that.
"L-Lord Draven," one of the fleeing soldiers staggered, dropping to his knees and sinking into the snow.
Without missing a stride, Draven lifted a boot and kicked the man square in the chin, sending him spiraling into a snow bank. "Cretin!" The dark mage pointed at the fox with a gloved hand, flipping his cape dramatically. "Detain that thing. Nasoj will be pleased to learn I've captured one of his missing pets."
"Pets? Oh, dear..." the fox replied from his perch atop the carcass. "I'm afraid you have the wrong fox. Though surely he has plenty of pets already. I mean, look at all the talking monkeys..."
Draven ignored the gibe. He advanced, hands escaping from the confines of his cape and emitting a crimson glow. The trio of mages fanned out to either side of him, staves crackling with energy, and together the four began to form a ring around the fox.
The fox would have none of it. He leapt from the dead body and dove at the mage to his far right, dodging snaking lightning that spewed from the wizard's staff. He darted past the mage, then swung around behind Draven and the other two, continuing the arc until he returned to the body once more. "One circle," he mocked with grin. Explosions tore apart the snow all around as he zigzagged his path, the mighty Lord Draven swearing at each miss. "That's two."
A crimson flash suddenly knocked him out of his revere, and he tumbled upon his side into the snow. Before he could scramble to his feet a snaking arc of lighting grabbed him, his fur bristling has he struggled to move. Growling, he stepped forward as the stream of magical energy danced between him and the mage's staff, but his progress was arrested when a second bolt joined the first, and he was forced to the ground. The third mage joined with his own binding power, lights flashing around and melting the snow. The intense energy pinned him to the mud, and he looked up hatefully with a single eye as Draven hovered over him.
"Hey, guys..." Kayser clicked his mandibles impatiently.
"Hee hee heeee..." Rufus hiccupped. "Ohh... I don't feel so good-ish..."
Vincent blinked, a single tear rolling down his furred cheek. "I... I love you, man."
Rufus' eyes began to water as well. "I know..."
Vincent snapped to attention, then squinted as searing pain filled his skull. He looked down and noticed for the first time ropes tightly bound him to a wooden stake planted into the ground. Just a few feet away Rufus suffered the same fate, bindings haphazardly tied around his pudgy frame. "Heeeey..." His eyes shot above and found Kayser dangling from a tree limb, tied up in much the same way, mandibles clicking furiously. "How did— When did we get tied up?!"
Rufus nodded his head upwards, nearly falling asleep. "Huh? Oh, they do this sometimes."
"They just randomly tie you up?"
Rufus shifted his eyes. "Well they never tied ME up before..."
Kayser kicked his partially free legs, the tree branch creaking as he swayed in the air. "If you morons hadn't gotten so drunk on ale they gave you, we might have had a chance when they jumped us!"
"Oh, you are NOT blaming this on me!" Vincent snapped back up at the dangling insect. He paused to sniff the air a few times. "What's that smell?"
Rufus shut his eyes and grinned. "Mmmm... they're makin' their soup."
"Soup?" Vincent's eyes went wide in grim realization. His head spun back and forth frantically until he found it. "Holy mother of Klepnos..." Within the main camp lay a huge bubbling cauldron, lutins dancing around it as they sang. Vincent's jaw dropped. "They're gonna eat us!"
"Eat us?!" Rufus sputtered as he snapped awake. "Why would— oh right, giant pig..."
Vincent shook his head as he thrashed against the ropes. "I don't deserve to die!"
"Oh boo-hoo!" Kayser hissed from above. He kicked some more and he began to spin on the end of the rope. "I hope they throw you in first, you paranoid hairball!"
"Oh yeah?" Vincent shot back. "Well I hope they—"
A wave of heat smacked the hyena in the face, cutting off his rant as his eyes widened once more. A ring of fire burst from the frozen forest ground and surrounded the tied-up trio. "Wha-what?!" Something severed his ropes from behind and he fell face-first into the snow. Spinning on his back, he looked up at the imposing figure hovering over him. A red blurry shape, carrying a wicked burning blade... "No... no!" He screamed, covering his face. The deadra had come for him! With a flaming sword! "It was the insect's fault! I swear it!"
Vincent lowered his hands from his face and sat up. "Uh... Vale?"
The red-furred dhole morph threw Vincent's heavy sheathed sword into his chest and he fell back into the snow. "Get up and run. Now!"
She turned and proceeded to chop down Kayser and free Rufus just as the spell causing her blade to burn wore off. "Lady Vale! Am I ever glad to—"
Rufus' elations were cut short by her snarl. "You've been drinking again..."
She shook her head. "Just run! Virmir can only hold them off for a moment!" She pointed to a copse of trees away from the flame that wisped around. In the distance an unseen lutin shouted "Keeper!" Then a wailing, "Eeeeeergh!!"
Vincent bolted for the trees, terror-stricken and unsure whether to fear the lutins or his irate fire-mage squad leader. Probably both! Tearing and tripping through the frosty underbrush, he pulled ahead of the fleeing group until he could run no more. After a sprint of several minutes he collapsed against a tree and gasped for air, breath swirling about his muzzle.
Kayser came next, followed by a very out of shape Rufus. The two fell on top of each other in a heap. Vale followed a minute after, sword drawn and ears darting about. He gulped when she glared at him, but she said nothing.
Finally he spotted him, a tiny black-cloaked figure emerging from the underbrush. Vincent's knees began to shake as he struggled to stand up straight. Ho boy...
Virmir seemed much less concerned about running than the others, instead trudging along, panting his exhaustion. He fell to his knees in the snow several feet short of the rest of the group's resting spot, and Vale rushed over to help him. "Do you... require a piggyback ride, sir?"
The child-cursed gray fox mage's ears folded back, and he slapped at her with both hands. "Get away from me!" After a stubborn moment's rest, he lifted his eyes and stared hatred at the hyena leaning against the tree. "You. "
Vincent's tail fled between his legs and he dropped his sword. "I-I can explain!" He stumbled in reverse as the tiny fox stormed towards him. "W-we were trying to s-stay put just like you said! B-but we were ambushed! There were hundreds of lutins! Thousands!"
Vale scratched the fur atop her head. "There were like, twelve..."
Virmir stopped at Vincent's foot and glared upward at him, lips curled in rage and eye twitching. "Bend over." Wided-eyed and wimpering, Vincent leaned over the little fox. "Farther!" When he came in rage, Virmir slapped the hyena across the muzzle, flipped his cape, then walked away.
Vincent yelped and fell backwards on his tail. Nursing his cheek, a single tear rolled down his face. "He... he didn't have to hit me..."
"As for you—" Virmir pointed at the shivering hornet.
"Uh, sir.... I'm getting a little cold, sir..." Kayser interrupted, mandibles chattering.
Virmir smacked his forehead and grabbed the pendant hanging around the insect's neck. A warm glow engulfed the stone.
Virmir's gaze turned to the pudgy Rufus, who stood in the snow with a wide grin. "As for you— wait..." The fox stammered, blinking a few times. " I thought you were— Why aren't you dead?"
"You saved me!" the warthog shouted, arms wide.
Virmir took a step backwards as the warthog's shadow engulfed him. "I-I didn't mean to! I mean—" Rufus wasted no time grabbing the fox and squeezing him in a tight hug. "Gah!! "
"Father! You must help him!" Lucile tugged at her father's robes, tears welling in her eyes. "They'll kill Melface!"
Father remained as impassive as ever, arms folded under his robes as he coolly watched the wizards bind his son with their spells. "You save him."
"Me? But I cannot— my Power isn't like yours!"
"You have a Power and your own place. All of the mages are distracted. The time has come to do as we discussed. Show them, Lucile. Show them your hatred."
Eyes wide and lips trembling, she fell to her knees and ran her hands through the snow. "But... it's so much..."
"Then he will die." Father shrugged and turned the other way, flipping his robe in the wind.
Lucile clenched her teeth and looked out to the valley. Maybe she could... But it was so much snow! Still, she had to try. "I'll do it." She shut her eyes and felt the snow around her, the tiny crystals shifting with her touch. Hatred? No, that couldn't be right. For Father, maybe, but not for her. For her, it was something else. She willed the tiny ice crystals to obey. Please!
She felt the snow farther and farther away. How it sloped down around the ridge and rolled along the ground. She felt it compact under the soldiers' feet, and melt around the spells that bound her brother.
They were there, of course. She felt them. Sleeping, waiting... Hidden under the white blanket until favorable conditions existed. Of course they were there. She scattered them everywhere last summer. That was her job. But winter had to cease for them to be of any use...
Alphonse was glad to see the fox... fox-spirit, deadra-fox— whatever it was— detained. Lord Draven and the mages took their time with the binding spells, the dark wizard taking great pleasure in the thing's screams. And rightly so! Rastalfo wasn't the brightest or the best smelling warrior, but he was a godsend in battle. How the tiny thing was able to bring him down was beyond him. He wiped a bead of sweat from his brow in relief.
Then he undid the lacings on his cloak. Was it getting warmer? He wiped off more sweat. Maybe he was having a hot flash? But all the other soldiers seemed antsy too... He gasped as a fog seemed to rise from the earth. No, it was steam...? The snow was evaporating!
"What's going on?" Tibult asked, removing an outer layer of furs. He grabbed another arrow and looked around. Alphonse nearly tripped as his foot sunk in the mud, but steadied himself. What was going on indeed?! He pulled his boot from the muck and watched in fascination as tiny plants blossomed from the murk, the snow nearly completely gone. Plants growing this far north? In winter? This was insane!
"He he he he he..."
Something grabbed his legs. He screamed and fell backwards, kicking at the ground. Two muddy hand-claws emerged from the earth, the dirt encompassing them solidifying into hard clay. A draconic head popped up, followed by a torso thickly wrapped in a leafy vine. A menacing grin crossed the thing's muzzle.
"He he he he he!!"
Alphonse thrust his sword into the plant-and-earth thing's chest. It merely hissed and pushed forward, short claws grasping for his face. "Ho geez!!" He jumped back and watched in terror as the short thing reached into the ground and pulled a glob of mud free. The dripping dirt elongated and solidified in its claw, turning into a crude sword made of clay. All the while the creature seemed particularly unconcerned about its impaling.
The northerner finally made it to his feet, eyes wide in panic as he watched them spring from the ground. Everywhere! A mad battle ensued. The soldiers temporarily had the advantage in numbers, but the clay monsters would not fall! Limbs severed, arrows within their chest, they advanced, madly cackling all the way. "He he he he he!!"
Sword lost in a creature's chest and arrows proven useless, Alphonse drew his hunting knife and stepped in reverse, trembling. Three of them advanced upon him, vines curling around their torsos, teeth glistening. "Nooo! Get away! Get away!!"
"He he he he he!!"
"What is the meaning of this?!"
Lord Draven threw his head to the sky and bellowed his rage. Out of nowhere— nowhere!!— two of his mages were slain— stabbed in the back by some grimy little monsters! "Arrrrgh!!!"
He extended his hand and bathed one of the little beasts with liquid flame, reveling in its death-scream. How dare they! Who was to blame?! Who?!
His third mage still lived, having turned at the last moment to repel the attack with his staff. He flung his lightning about madly, nearly overwhelmed by the little things. Draven sent a pair of fireballs over to pick off two creatures that threatened to flank the other mage, but he didn't have the time to worry about him right now. Whoever cast this snow-melting spell would pay!
Stomping through the mud, he glanced at the fox-thing he held in bindings moments ago. The four of them had drained the wretch badly, so he doubted it would get back up any time soon. He scanned the horizon for the source of the spell weave, finding the power rapidly diminishing since the deed had been done. There! The hills surrounding the valley still retained snow, and halfway up a slope two figures stood, nearly invisible apart from the red edging on their white robes...
"How DARE you!!" he screamed, allowing his anger to get the better of him. He splayed the fingers of his right hand and let loose a tremendous sphere of flame. The burning orb crackled through the air, hurdling at the hidden targets. He mentally kicked himself for giving a warning before taking the shot, but he had nothing to fear. It wasn't like a mage in existence was a match for him.
The taller one— an old man— raised a hand and the flame struck and invisible wall, fizzling out of existence much more quietly than intended. Fair enough. He wanted to flaunt their impending deaths in their faces first anyway. The other figure, a woman, remained crouched in the snow, looking quite exhausted. She was the one who cast the spell. She would die first.
Draven marched out of the muddy valley and back onto the snow, both hands burning with crimson fire. His black cape billowed in the breeze as he ascended the ridge. The old man turned to the woman for a moment, then made his way down the ridge alone, white cloak billowing just as fiercely. "I am the one you want," he shouted once they were witching hearing distance of each other. "In fact, you've been looking for me for quite some time."
"Oh?" Draven raised a brow. "It is you..." He grinned. The creature he had just subdued wasn't the same one after all... He had no idea there was more than one. "You're the one we broke free."
The old man wagged a finger. "Uh uh uh... I escaped from Nasoj on my own accord. And you have just revealed your true allegiances to me."
Draven dispersed the flame and folded his arms. "Heh... of course. Nasoj was master once, but the Dark Queen has shown me True Power. It is only a matter of time before all falls into place. But for now..." He pointed to the old man. "You owe Lillith a boon. And as her agent, I intend to ensure rules are followed."
The old man stroked his beard and grinned. "Make me."
Draven clenched his teeth. "Cur." He splayed his hands, two globes of fire surging from his palms. "So be it!" With that, he thrust both hands forward, sending a bright wave of flame hurdling up the hill at the old man. He wasn't surprised to see the attack deflected by an unseen force— merely a diversion, that was all. Draven's form blurred as he leapt from rock to rock, white hot flame encompassing his right arm. With unnatural speed he flipped and landed at his adversary's backside, then turned to thrust his burning punch into the old man's back.
His fire punch hit nothing but wind, and time stopped as pain filled his gut. The old man kneed him in the stomach with enough force to crack his armor. He sputtered, spitting blood into the snow. With a graceful flowing twist, the old man spun on his heel once, then planted his boot directly into Draven's temple. The dark mage flew right off the side of the hill, tumbling in the snow for several hundred feet until he landed in a crumpled mess. The avalanche caused by his wasted fire attack followed in full suit, burying him in white fluff.
Pain rocked his world as he lay there in utter disillusion, buried in the cold darkness for several moments. Finally awareness returned to him and he crawled out of the snow, seething mad at wounds that were taking far too long to heal. "How... dare you!!" Pain still laced his insides and his head felt as if it would burst.
The old man calmly walked down the hill, having made it almost the entirely of the way to the bottom during Draven's moment of incapacitation. "I suggest you show your True Self, else the next one will be the end." Draven gritted his teeth as the old man smugly continued. "You need not worry about your secret. All of your men are dead." The white and red-clad wizard indicated the valley behind, which consisted of nothing but the little creatures shuffling through a mass of dead bodies.
Draven stood, wincing, but managed to stand up straight. "My True Self, huh?" He coughed and wiped blood from his mouth, managing to turn the gesture into a chuckle at the last moment. He stood taller and his muscles bulged. "Very well! I shall show you Lilith's gift!" His armor exploded, flying off in chunks under the pressure of his expanding body. A thick black fur replaced his skin, and his face contorted as a lupine muzzle burst forth. "No one stands a chance against the might of Lilith! No one!"
Still wearing half a tattered black cape, the towering werewolf pounced the old man from a distance of twenty feet. Vengeance was his! Lusting for the taste of blood, he crumpled the feeble body with his overbearing weight and proceeded to rip and tear, grabbing the white robe in his teeth and shaking it violently. Die! Die! DIE!! Snarling, he took the feeble rag doll in his claws and tossed it into a snowbank.
Poised for a second death-pounce, he spat out tattered remains of cloth when he noticed only the robe lay in the snow where he tossed the body.
"I should thank you."
Draven the werewolf spun. The fox! He got back up! He snarled and poised to attack, but there was something different. This fox was far older, fur whitened around the eyes with age. And this one wasn't smiling.
"You've given me a reason to hate you now..." the sliver furred fox spoke with the deep eloquent voice of the old man. The wolf-man had no interest in speeches. He just wanted to kill it. But somehow, he could not move.
The fox approached with slow deliberate grace, black-tipped tail flowing in a hypnotic wave. "I have a Power. Would you like to know what it is?" Then the grin came. A gesture of cold, calculating hatred. Draven struggled to move. What was going on?! The fox sat on his haunches. "You see, when I hate something, it disappears."
The wolf howled in agony as pain clawed at his limbs. Blackness crept up his hands and feet, tearing them apart into nothing. In horror he watched his hands disappear and the agonizing black fire move up his arms. "What— who are you?!"
"Merely a shadow, waiting his turn." The darkness overtook him. "I am Retan."
The plant-things... everywhere! Everywhere!!
What could he do?! Hide! Hide!
Alphonse curled into a fetal position. Go away! Go away! So cold...
"Oh! Father, look. One survived! How delightful..." The dead body resting upon him was pushed aside, and a claw-like hand pulled him up by the collar. A human? No! Those eyes! It was the fox! The deadra fox! He struggled with all his might. "He's adorable! Can I keep him?"
"Melface, your last pet's mind broke while carrying a delicate crystal." Another one? No! This one an old man in white and red! He's fake! The deadra walk the earth! "Just eat his soul and be done with it."
"Oh come, Father. You know how squeamish that makes Lucile."
The woman, also clad in white robes with brilliant red edging, sighed. Alphonse locked eyes with her for a moment, gasping in terror. Another one! Three!!
"Besides," Melface continued, pinching Alphonse's cheek tightly, "I'm sooo full from that behemoth. At the very least I must take him home for a snack later."