"Ah! My darling Vale! Come give your father a hug! Yes, I am so glad to see you too!"
"What is that? You want to be just like me when you grow up? Now, now, don't be silly! Proper ladies are to remain at home!"
"Women cannot wrap their minds around the concepts of war! You are too fragile! Here, put this dress on. Oh, you are so pretty!"
"No, no, no! You can't play with toy soldiers! Here now, dolls are so much nicer! Look at how adorable you are!"
"Glory and fame? No, no, silly! There are no women generals! Come now, there are rules a delicate flower like your self must adhere to! You will bring our house glory by being a proper lady!"
"You will wear your hair up, like this! Marvelous! And more powder! You are beautiful darling, but your breasts are a little small. Here, wear these. Much better! I'm afraid you're eating a bit much, my dear. This corset will fix that. Tight? Comfort is second to beauty!"
"VALE! What are you doing?! By Akkala, put that awful thing down! Where did you get a BOW? One of your father's men? Tell me his name! He will be punished! By the gods! Get off of that horse!!"
"Darling! I've found a wonderful husband for you! You will be so happy together! And this union will bring our house so much prestige!"
"My betrothed! I am honored that you will bare my children! Look! Look at all the shiny things I have brought you! You love jewelry because you are a woman! We shall be so very happy together!"
You ran away? You always run away...
It's time to run away again, isn't it?
Cold whiteness surrounds you. Here they come, the little green men... The stench of death hangs heavily in the air. It's all your fault. You failed again, trying to be something you're not. Flee for your life!
Vale awoke with a start, the entire bed frame shaking with a jolt. The discomfort was there. She clasped her hands over her muzzle, trying to fight it. But it was too strong, and she felt as if she would suffocate and burn up. Finally she let her mouth gape and her tongue roll out. She panted heavily in short shallow gasps like a dog.
It was one of those quirks she despised about becoming an animal. The uncontrollable panting when she was warm. Some aspects she had gotten used to, but this one would always bother her. It was so degrading, even in the presence of other canids. At least she was alone.
The dreams didn't happen often, but it was always like this when they did. The cold air was soothing. Soon she would stop and be able to return to sleep. But in the meantime her mind began to wander.
Every once in a while when she had a quiet moment to herself like this it would hit her. What on Earth was she doing?
It was better than home. That was here only consolation. She repeated it over and over in her mind, willing it to be true. But by the gods...
She rolled over onto her other side, shifting her tail, feeling the weight of the covers upon it. It was like a fantasy. Everyone trying to pretend they were living a normal life. And then there was the killing, the death... She shut her eyes as the chilling air brought memories of that past winter's living nightmare...
October, 707 CR
For a short time, things actually started to look up...
I'd found my grandfather's notes!
Like any other day, the pig man and hyena were busy nipping at each other and Lady Vale was too far ahead to notice anything. We'd been milling around the forests for hours when I suddenly recognized a grove of trees. I immediately wondered off-path and began beating around the bushes. It took some time but I finally found my water-dampened pack wedged in between some branches along with a few discarded Lutin weapons. I claimed a jagged rusty knife, thinking I could perhaps sell it for a copper or two. It seemed fitting that I should obtain something from that miserable encounter that day. The other weapons were too large for me to carry.
Lady Vale was not pleased when she discovered I went off on my own. Good. Maybe she won't pet me anymore. At least she seemed more involved with the rest of the group lately.
Unfortunately the pages did suffer a bit of water damage around the edges that were facing the flap, but the majority of them were perfectly readable. Any significant rainstorm would have destroyed them, so I suppose I should had considered myself lucky for the relatively dry weather in the few weeks they'd sat out there. I bought a wooden chest with a lock to keep them next to my bed in my room. Together with my new door latch I thought they would be secure enough.
I found myself becoming somewhat used to all the walking required of a scout. At first my feet killed me every day, as the change to digitigrade paws was quite a shock. But it slowly became easier to balance on my toes as the muscles became stronger, and the pads on the bottom of my feet became rough and calloused. Of course it was nothing like walking flat-footed wearing boots, but at least it was bearable. Unfortunately the weather grew colder and colder with each passing week. I had my cloak refitted for my smaller form, so under that, my tunic, and my fur, I was plenty warm. Yet my exposed feet stung from the exposure to the frigid autumn air, especially in the mornings. I could not imagine what winters must be like this far north.
One particularly cold morning our unit trudged through the frost laden fields northeast of the keep. We were a good two hours out and though I was glad for the new scenery, my freezing toes insisted otherwise. The sun would take a few more hours to burn the frost off, and that period of time increased every day. Claudia seemed warm and smug in her thick sheep-skinned boots or whatever she had. Blast her.
Claudia and I had formed a sort of unspoken pact to guard the rear each time we went out. Vale was always in the lead with her snooty noble attitude and Rufus and Vincent were constantly engaged in irksome banter. The human woman rarely spoke, so she was at least bearable. I suspect she felt the same way about the other three as well. Occasionally she would stop and point her bow at something rustling in the bushes. In darker reaches of the forest I had the better eyesight. Usually I would simply take a look and shake my head 'no'. She would purse her lips in a frown and we would move on.
In the fields that morning, I didn't know what it was...
Vale saw it as well, and had her shorter bow readied and aimed before even before the over-zealous Claudia. The pig and hyena dropped their bickering mid sentence, Vincent speaking for the both of them. "What the blood is that?"
We were fairly spaced out in a field of mostly low lying shrubs and the occasional taller bush. Something stirred from a particularly spindly leaved shrub a few paces to our right. It stood roughly lutin-sized, which unfortunately was my size as well, the vines of the bush clinging to it. No, rather the leaves seemed to protrude from the creature's arms and side, as if it were born from the bush itself. The rest of its body was a conglomeration of dirt and stone, looking much like dried clay. Its features became more distinguished as it took a step towards us, its body forming before our very eyes. Unlike a lutin it had a protruding muzzle and two small horns instead of ears, giving it a somewhat draconic appearance.
Mouth gaping, it extended its claws and began trotting towards us with a screeching laugh.
"He he he he he!!"
In a heartbeat, two arrows bore into its dirt-like flesh. Claudia's stuck into its chest, Vale's directly into its right eye... The thing screamed, spewing forth some incomprehensible obscenities. Yet it did not bleed. It yanked the protrusion out of the socket, the speared eye crumbling to dust, and barred its fangs. I sent a ball of flame into its abdomen and blew it to pieces.
"Holy— blast it, Virmir!" Vincent snarled as he shielded his face from the superheated air. Everyone was taken by surprise by the fiery explosion, including myself. The sharp echo from the blast bounced off the mountains a couple of times. The little monster scared me, so naturally I had poured a bit too much energy into the hastily conjured spell than necessary.
Then it began to rain body parts. I gritted my teeth and folded my ears back as the dead lumps fell all around us. Most pieces shattered on impact with the ground, dissolving to mere piles of rock and dirt. Some retained their shape, however. A claw, a leg... Vincent prodded the half of the head that had fallen in front of him with the tip of his broadsword.
The jaw moved.
With wide eyes the hyena smashed it, turning it to a mound of unremarkable dirt. We did nothing but stare at the remaining pieces and each other for a few moments.
"What was that thing?" Rufus finally ventured.
All eyes turned towards me. Of course. Assume the mage knows everything. "No idea," I murmured.
"Think we should... report it?" Rufus surmised, staring at the bush where it emanated from.
Vale crouched, warily approaching one of claws lying upon the ground. It looked as if it were a piece of a broken statue.
"Yes," she finally answered after a moment's deliberation. "We should report this immediately."
Wonderful. We walk all the way out, kill one little monster that we've never seen before, and now we get to walk all the way back to report it. Probably end up waiting outside the Patrol Master's office for five hours while Vale describes how the thing's left nostril was a slightly darker shade of gray than its right.
"Uh... guys..." Claudia's voice faltered. She was to my right, facing the opposite direction, and slowly stepping backwards. I turned around and gasped.
Behind us, over a dozen of the vile creatures were making their way up the incline we had just traversed...
"Oh, blast it!"
"He he he he he!!!"
We bolted in the opposite direction, which was unfortunately northward and away from the keep. Blast my short legs! I soon found myself trailing behind the others, despite my best attempt at a sprint. I hated being cursed to a childish body.
"What are you waiting for, Virmir?" Vincent yelled over his shoulder. "Blast them away!"
I curled my lips in a snarl. The insipid hyena never missed an opportunity to demonstrate how little he knew about magic. Of course I had my hands outstretched to my sides, conjuring crimson energy within my palms. This had to be a real spell, not a poofy plume of flame like I threw at the Metamor guards weeks ago. But casting and running is extremely difficult, and near impossible when one is fleeing for his life. Not to mention the fact that I was being left behind. Non-mages constantly assume that we can pull unlimited power out of thin air. I suppose choosing not to study magic and stupidity fall hand-in-hand.
I stopped in my tracks and spun around, the fur on my neck and back rigid. Having a good start on the spell already in place, I cupped my claws on top of one another just above my right hip. The fireball appeared between at once, the warm soothing flame massaging the skin under my fur. Fire can never hurt me so long as it burns my own aura. Blast it, there were a lot of them... I thrust my hands forward, sending the burning orb slamming into the leading creature before shielding my face from the impending explosion. Once the flame leaves my hands, it is as deadly to me as it is to any other.
The rush of superheated air nearly knocked me on my tail. The little monsters shrieked in shrill voices, many of them flying skyward, wrapped in flame. I think I took out five or six, but I didn't have time to count. I turned and resumed my run as soon as I regained my balance.
By that point I was becoming exhausted. My tongue involuntarily hung out of my mouth as I took in short gasps of cool air. I hated panting. I glanced up, expecting to have fallen far behind the rest of the squad, but much to my surprise Vale stood there waiting. Her gaze was fixed behind me as she coldly stared the surviving creatures down. In her right claw she wielded a long slender blade, though it was less slender than swords I've seen of eastern design. The mirror-like metal reflected the image of the dying flames behind me.
The russet-furred dhole waited for me to catch up, then ran by my side. I suppose she realized I was the only one capable of fending off the beasts, so thought it safer by me. A shallow ravine loomed ahead, and Vincent, Rufus, and Claudia disappeared down into it, perhaps thinking the forest on the other side would offer us the chance to loose the beasts. My eyes widened as Vale and I approached the edge before the decline and looked down. The three were surrounded by perhaps two dozen of the creatures... What were these things?!
Two creatures broke off of the group and began trotting up the hill to meet us. Six of our original pursuers caught up and the eight quickly formed a ring around Vale and I. Blast it! A rumbling growl emanated from my throat as I extended my claws, desperately trying to summon flame before they could close in. They were hideous things, like mounds of dirt held together by spindly plants. Some bore metal weapons, jagged swords and knives. Others seemed to have weapons comprised of the same materials as their earthy flesh.
We stood back-to-back, Vale with her gleaming sword held low, me with my burning hands outstretched. I took a few steps in reverse as the circle began to tighten, but jumped when my tail brushed against hers. (The creatures merely had me nervous.) Blast it! A near fatal distraction. A clay-and-plant monster thrust its spindly sword forward, barely clipping my left arm. I sidestepped to the right, nearly tumbling over, and grasped the thing by its earthy arm for leverage. Got you. Close contact was enough, and I poured the flame into its body, setting it ablaze. It flailed around screaming as it withered and died. Motioning towards the next nearest creature, I discharged the magic stored within my other hand with similar results, and directed my attention to another after finding I had enough energy stored in both hands for one more.
And at this point I made an unnerving observation. Most sentient creatures become horrified upon seeing members of their party burned alive, screeching as their bodies twisted, trying to fight the flames. Humans are easy to scare. I've seen an entire goblin horde turn tail and run at a simple burning of their front line. Even lutins, in my limited experience with them, are terrified of flame. Some flee, some hesitate. In any case, the display allows me another chance to conjure more spells. Unfortunately, the monsters I fought that day weren't intimidated in the least.
Another one leapt over the bodies of its burning brethren, brandishing some sort of stone mace that should have been too heavy for its spindly arms to carry. My short sword was out in a flash and I clumsily deflected it. We began circling each other, and I caught a glimpse of how Vale was faring behind me. She was swinging her blade around in huge arcs, smacking the remaining four little monsters away one after another. She lunged forward, stabbing one right through its heart, or rather where it should have been. The creature merely shrieked once, then struggled to move forward, slashing at Vale's knees. Her sword was stuck, and she shook the thing around before she was able to free it just in time to sever the axe-wielding limb of another creature. The one with a gaping hole in its chest rose to its feet immediately.
I brought my blade up to deflect the heavy mace once more, but my sword was so small and flimsy... With a yelp I dropped the weapon, the painful vibrations from the block traveling up my arms. I reeled for a moment before falling backwards on my tail. The monster wasted no time, smashing downwards with its mace. I fell backwards and rolled out of the way as it struck the ground, dust flying into my face. In front of me was a small weed. I plucked it out of the ground as I turned upright and threw it at the creature's foliage-laced chest, sending a plume of flame with it. The plant caught on fire as it hit the creature, and it frantically slapped at its leaves to put the fire out. The time bought was insufficient, however, and the monster quickly pressed its foot into my stomach as it hatefully leered at me. It had three clawed toes, two at the front and one at the heel, all digging into my flesh. I felt as if they would pierce my intestines... Then the creature raised its weapon high...
A flash of silver suddenly split the thing's head from above, the blade becoming lodged at the base of its neck. With a violent jerk Vale ripped her sword from the monster's head and delivered a firm kick to its side, sending it smashing into the ground. The remaining creatures became excited at seeing me lying there like a wounded animal, but the noble was quick to step over me, slashing them away. I simply lay there for a moment with my eyes wide, anxiety paralyzing me.
Right. I snapped out of it and swapped fear for anger. Seething rage. I rose to one knee as I clenched my fists, crimson flame slowly beginning to flicker about them, traveling upwards to my body. All the while Vale danced frantic circles around me, narrowly keeping the little monsters at bay. They were relentless, insane little monsters. They kept coming even after the noblewoman had managed to sever some of their appendages. Biting, clawing, anything they could do to kill... It was a harrowing thirty seconds...
"Get down!" I screamed the instant the spell was ready.
Vale flashed back a frightened glance and hesitated for an instant, but complied by falling to one knee. Blast it, when a mage tells you to get down, you do it! I leapt towards her in a single bound and touched the back of her neck with my right claw to ensure that she would not be scorched. The delighted creatures swiftly descended upon our prone forms. I shut my eyes and slammed my left palm into the dirt.
The Feaular Tranj, or Fire Bomb, always hurt my ears. But performing it with the sensitive ears of a fox proved a hundred times worse. The white flash engulfed everything, and the violent BOOM bounced off of the distant mountain walls five or six times before fading. I held Vale in position for a moment just to be safe, then slowly opened my eyes.
We stood in the center of a fifteen foot diameter circle of charred ashes. The grasses and bushes fifty feet and out rustled as bits of burning bodies fell from the sky. I would have taken the chance to laugh maniacally had I been in a better mood. Instead I fell backwards in the soot and clamped my ears shut, trying to will away the horrible ringing. My entire body ached. Vale fell on her rear and did the same, additionally blinking her eyes over and over again. Probably should have told her to shut them.
"Are you all right?"
I felt a tender claw on my shoulder. I apparently zoned out for a moment. I was shocked to find myself curled in a fetal position, tail between my legs. I hurt in a bad way. Not from running or being nicked by weapons, but magical fatigue. Blast it, I wouldn't have had any trouble with such a string of spells with the proper preparation. But the patrols were so eventless and boring I had begun to get lazy in preparing myself each morning.
"I'm fine," I muttered as I pushed her hand away. I sat up. A little dizzy, but I'd been through worse. Magical fatigue is a difficult thing to describe to non-mages. Normally it manifests as simple tiredness or soreness throughout the body. But in more extreme cases it can be a dull pain in the heart that spreads outward as it intensifies.
"You're injured," Vale observed, pulling back the fabric on my left arm. That was of course the least of my pains.
"It's nothing," I waved her off as I managed to get on two feet. I held my tail firmly against the ground to avoid falling over. But I reared forward as I lost my balance, and she caught me by my chest. On her knees she was eye level with me. Curse this form...
"Can you go on?" she asked as she handed me my sword.
"We need to find the others."
Oh, blast it!
She scampered off, and I limped after. Argh! What in blazes did I get myself into?
We made our way down into the ravine we saw the others get ambushed in a moment before we were trapped ourselves. The grasses were padded down and the shrubbery torn in a wide area, but there was no trace of any living thing. Blast it, there were a lot more of them there than we faced ourselves. Vale's eyes were wide with concern, and she stooped down to sniff the ground like the canine she'd become. A little unexpected for a noble. I suppose she really did care about them. I could do nothing at that point but stand there with my mouth gaping like an idiot.
I only had a moment's rest before we were on the move again. "This way." She pointed, and I followed. She sniffed the air as she went along. How did she do that? My own sense of smell had been magnified with my transformation, but that only meant everything stunk a lot worse. I couldn't possibly conceive picking out an individual scent and tracking it. Perhaps with time.
After a few minutes of trotting along I gained enough of a handle on my exhaustion to resume rational thought.
"Lady Vale," I let skepticism drip into my voice, "we are tracking a small army..."
"Yes..." She slowed down, flicking her black tail back and forth.
"... of unholy demons that can only be killed with fire." I caught up and walked by her side, taking a deep breath so I could talk coherently between the panting. "We were barely able to kill a handful back there. I cannot throw many more spells..."
She stopped and slowly crouched down. I hated that. Did she think she needed to be at eye level with me? Maybe she was just tired.
"I know..." She pinched her sinuses with one claw, stabbing her sword into the mud with the other. We were in a peaceful grove. Brown-leaved trees high above, leaves rustling in the wind. Her blade reflected the sunlight that crept through the branches. "I know..."
"What would you have us do? Turn back?" she asked sharply.
"And call for help. Yes."
"Help will never make it in time."
"They're going to kill us. There's no way we can fight them all."
I wasn't sure if she heard me or not. She stared ahead at something past the bushes. She rose, blade in hand, then darted off.
"Oh, gods... no!" She wailed as she leapt over a shrub.
"What?" I demanded as I pushed through the bush, unable to see. "What is it?" The foliage was taller than me, and I stumbled through it. Blast it! I fell straight forward to the other side, picking my head up just in time to avoid landing square on my nose. What was it? Vale kneeled in front of something... a body?
I pushed myself off the ground. The dhole morph's ears hung low and her tail limp. She crouched next to a human female in leather armor. And a bloodied chest. It was Claudia.
My ears perked so high I felt as if someone yanked them up. Oh, gods... no... I stumbled backwards, nearly falling over again, unable to believe what I saw.
My knees felt weak and the world began to spin. I felt a sharp pain in my tail, and suddenly realized I was wringing it in my claws. I will not describe Claudia's wound.
Vale turned, her tear-soaked eyes boring into me.
"Virmir, go." She stood, raising her mirror-like blade.
"There's a Signal Tower to the southwest. Go get help. Hurry!"
"And what are you going to do?"
She bore her fangs now. "I'm going to find them."
"You're going to die."
"Go NOW! That's an order!"
Without another word she leapt over the body and disappeared into the bushes. Blast it! She was so reckless and stupid. She was sacrificing her life for a smelly pig man and a rude hyena who were probably already dead. Two cursed freaks that had never shown her an ounce of respect.
Bah! It wasn't my problem. I wasn't able to do much more anyway. I'd just do as I was told. Let the Long Scouts or the regular army handle it. I didn't belong at Metamor in the first place. Honestly, who cared if they all died? I'd probably just get assigned to another squad and finish out my term.
I looked at Claudia and shuddered.
"He he he he he!!" The voice echoed in the distance...
Then came another scream, then the repeated clanging of metal...
I shut my eyes and gritted my teeth.
Vale did not know fear. She would never experience that emotion again. She would much rather die.
She met the onslaught head on, slashing her father's blade into the neck and halfway down the chest of the impish creature. Her father's blade... why did she still think of it that way? It was hers, and hers alone. She made it hers when she bloodied it, and that would never change. It was a man's weapon, too long and heavy for a delicate woman. But she wasn't really a woman. She was a monster now.
She yanked the sword out, sending the creature reeling. Two more took its place, and she slashed again. Duck and weave, dance around their blades. The sword hummed as it cut the air. It held its silver gleam despite all the abuse. More of the plant-and-earth creatures came, their fanged muzzles snarling in glee.
She was going to die. She deserved it, as everything was her fault. If only someone competent had been leading in her place, none of this would have happened. She took slight comfort in the thought that at least one member of her squad had escaped with his life.
Hack and slash. Limbs flew from her opponents. Chunks of their clay-like flesh speckled the ground. They felt nothing, and got up again and again with mocking sneers. "He he he he he..." They closed in, tightening the noose. Closer and closer with their poking, stabbing weapons...
The crimson flash nearly blinded her. Her head darted back and forth and she forced her ears against her skull to shut out the shrill screams of burning imps. A wall of fire circled her, the flames utterly consuming the dead leaves on the forest floor. Virmir dropped from the branch above, landing by her side.
"Plant your sword into the ground." He had that commanding tone again, like when he cast the other spell. A tone that she dare not disobey. He was frightening. His eyes nearly glowed crimson, his lips curled in a feral snarl. His right claw pointed towards the dirt between the two. His left was literally burning, and his black cloak waved upwards in an unfelt breeze.
She jammed the sword into the earth as told, nervously looking around as the circle of fire that protected them began to die. The silver furred fox clasped the blade just under the hilt and slowly ran his claws downward all the way to the ground. As he moved his hands, the metal that he touched turned a bright red, brilliant flames bursting from it. When he was done, her weapon was a glowing sword of fire.
At that moment the surrounding wall of flame disbursed, and the impish creatures who had not been scorched greedily stormed the two canids, brandishing their jagged weapons. Lady Vale took the burning blade and sliced through them like butter. Their plant-like protrusions withered and died under the force of the sword. They screamed as their bodies were cleaved in two, each half engulfed in flames. She killed all eight in less than a minute.
The sword flickered out just as the last one died, regaining its normal mirror-like sheen, though Vale could still feel the heat emanating from the metal. She turned to see Virmir crouching low, doubled over as if his stomach ached. His triangular ears drooped and his eyes were shut. He blinked them open at the silence and stood upon noticing her gaze, any semblance of pain erased from his visage.
"If we are to save them, we'd best do it more carefully." His black tipped tail snaked in and out from under his cloak, and he folded his arms smugly, irritation plain in his eyes.
Vale scratched behind her ear, her heart still fluttering from the experience. "Right..."
Of all the stupid things I've done...
What was I to do? Leave her to die? My chest ached. The pain began to spread to my limbs. Stupid. To put myself at risk like that. Why should I care what happens to her? I didn't. Really.
I suppose I was merely doing my job. I was dedicated, a man of my word. Fox. Fox-child. Whatever.
I had convinced Vale to move more cautiously, thus allowing me to catch my wind. The pain would go away soon, I knew, and then I would be able to cast more. It always did before at least. Pushing oneself every once in awhile isn't a bad thing, but it is a good idea to stop when it hurts...
We tracked the little monsters for a few hours, moving cautiously through the thick underbrush. I began to wonder if I could convince Vale to return with me for help, but the look of determination in her eyes never faltered. And there was no arguing that would mean many more hours of lost time. The entire trek I expected to stumble upon the hyena or boar's body like we did Claudia. I did not wish them dead, but if we had proof, then we could end this fruitless chase.
Instead we came to a cave.
Two monolithic boulders flanked the black opening, and smaller rocks piled all around. The brown-leaved trees provided a fair amount of shade, but it was still plain as day. We searched around the mouth, fully expecting some sort of ambush, but found none. Finally, we pressed our backs against the opposing boulders and peered into the blackness.
Nothing. I considered myself to have excellent vision in the dark, but looking into darkness from daylight was impossible.
Vale took a few whiffs. "They're definitely in there." She said in as close to a whisper as possible with a muzzle.
"The creatures too?" I asked.
She shook her head. "I don't know, I can't track those things. They smell like dirt, and I can't tell the difference. I've just been tracking Rufus and Vincent." She ended with a slight smile. "Rufus is very easy to track..."
I took a deep breath through my nose, trying to smell whatever it was she was smelling.
"No," she corrected me from the other side of the opening. "Take in short, strong sniffs."
I frowned, knowing that I would look silly. But she was serious, so I angled my nose to the darkness and gave it a shot. Indeed, I did detect the mixed stench of alcohol and filth. I grimaced, covering my nose with a claw.
"Told you." She smirked.
I merely narrowed my eyes. "So, we're going in?"
I was on the right side of the opening. I brought my left arm to my hip and bent my fingers like a claw, cupping my right hand over them and angling my right shoulder forward so may back was against the wall. I gathered energy just under visible levels. Blast it. Still hurt...
I nodded at Vale and she nodded back, her silver blade readied in two hands, her back and tail pressing against her wall. We stepped into the cave together and advanced with caution. The circular entryway was wide enough for two men to walk side by side, so we were by no means crowded. Blast the sharp rocks. I stepped on several on my way in before my eyes adjusted to the darkness.
A bland gray tunnel snaked before us, extending several hundred feet at a shallow decline before the variations in the crooked path bent the walls too much to see beyond. We pressed onward at a snail's pace. I resisted the urge to send a wave of flame down the tunnel and just be done with it.
What horrible surprises lurked in the darkness? Some sort of ambush? Another army of plant-and-earth monsters? Some new threat?
No, a dead end. Of course...
A rocky room greeted us, boulders from half-collapsed walls strewn about. Slate shifted under our footpaws as we tried to keep our balance. The floor was vaguely even, and in the center was a circle of stones that emanated a pale blue light. Crystals, perhaps?
"What is that?" Vale whispered.
I held up a claw and she stayed put. Some sort of magic, that was for sure. I inched closer, crouching down to examine them more closely. Five crystals jutted from the sandy cavern floor, circling an otherwise nondescript patch of ground some four feet in diameter. Each emanated just enough blue light to collectively illuminate the cavern.
"These are power sources." I pointed to the closest to my feet as I stood. Vale had neared by then, the outline of ears perked in curiosity visible in the pale light. "They're powering a spell." Couldn't put it much more simply than that to a non-mage.
"What does the spell do?"
"No idea," I replied, folding my arms and looking down at the circle. I wagged my tail back in forth, feeling the weight of my cloak upon it. What now?
"Their scent ends here," she informed me.
"Could they have backtracked?"
"Then I would have—"
"— picked them up again outside, right, right..." I cut her off. Blast it. I didn't like where this was going. "Back up," I asked as I waved her off again. I grabbed a rock and took a few steps back myself. I then tossed in into the circle.
The sand rippled like water. The stone was gone.
We leaned over the circle, our eyes wide and ears standing straight up. "Interesting," I muttered.
Vale waited until the ripples died down. "They're in there."
No, you think?
She waved her longsword over the sand, then stuck it in.
"DON'T!!" I screamed as quietly as possible, clenching my teeth. My fur and tail stood on end and the pain in my chest magnified as my heart throbbed.
The sand merely rippled around the blade like water. When she pulled it out, nothing clung to the silver metal.
"I'm going in," she declared as she stared down at me.
I shook my head and bent over. "These crystals are shot." I pointed to the one by my foot. Up close, each clearly displayed large cracks, distortions in their blue hue. "They're overstressed. They could go out at any time, closing the portal and trapping us on the other side. Furthermore, if one shatters when we're passing through, we will die instantly." I pointed a claw upward, no where near the end of my list. "Not to mention the fact that we have no idea where this leads. And—"
"Two of my men are on the other side, Virmir. I'm not going to abandon them. If I have to suffer their fate then so be it. I'm not making you come with me. If you want to turn back, you're free to do so. Go get help."
She rose her blade and hopped right into the circle, disappearing as if she fell into a pool of water. The distorted pool of sand waved up and down but did not splash.
My mouth hung open.
"Blast it!" I curled my claws upwards and growled. Argh! What a fool! I will have no part in this madness! Yes, ignore the mage!! The blasted Keepers are all insane! Every last one of them!
I spun around and stormed towards the exit, tripping on a rock in the process. Blast it! I paused to lean on the cavern wall with one arm, glancing back at the still rippling circle.
I'm requesting to be transferred to a different squad once this is all over. That's for sure.
I stepped to the circle's edge, grabbed my tail so it would not catch, then jumped in.
As I fell through the blackness, a cool and almost refreshing wind blew through my fur. I looked down, hoping to see where I might land, but there was nothing. So I reached downwards with tendrils of levitation magic and felt something hard coming up fast. Bracing myself, I managed a decent landing on two feet and one hand. At least I didn't fall on my tail for once.
"Virmir?" Vale's voice timidly called out through the darkness, echoing as if it bounced off of hard walls. Nothing at all was visible. And I mean nothing. My excellent night vision failed me utterly for the first time since I assumed this form. It was like we were shut in a coffin and buried deep beneath the earth...
I squinted in reaction to the blinding witchlight I cast above my head. We fell into some sort of cavern, the stone walls encircling us painted in an orange-red hue by the fireball floating above. Vale sat amongst a pile of rocks, her black tail draped around her front. She was nursing her right footpaw with her hands. Oh, blast it.
"Are you all right?" I asked, letting disapproval drip into my voice as I folded my arms under my cloak.
"Yeah... I'm fine." She said as she stood. She took a few tentative steps with only a slight limp, so she was either a good faker or mostly unharmed.
I glanced upward at the ceiling, watching the ripples in the stone made by my passage fade away. We did not actually pass through a portal, but rather the spell served to shift the phase of the rock, making it so we could move through it like air. Considering the fall took several seconds, we could have been hundreds of feet underground... Returning would be a challenge indeed.
"Well... let's get moving," Vale said as she pointed towards the only exit— a hole in the wall halfway closed up by fallen boulders. I found myself sniffing the air out of curiosity, and confirmed it was the right way to go. The remnants of another scent lingered in the air. Burning torches perhaps? We certainly were not the first in the cavern...
"Thank you," she said suddenly after we climbed the top. The tunnel beyond was relatively easy walking, though my light failed to illuminate more than several feet beyond us.
"I was... I was really scared..." she continued. Wonderful. Now she was going to get emotional on me. Thank the gods the curses did not change me into a woman.
I did not look at her, instead merely angling an ear in her direction. The ears were difficult to control sometimes... What was I to say? You're welcome, moron? An awkward silence followed, which eventually lost its awkwardness as the minutes dragged on.
We continued onward through the twisting corridor for at least an hour, though it was impossible to tell the passage of time with the total absence of the sun or any indication of the world above. The dank air became difficult to breathe, and the passageway became tighter and more rugged as we pressed on. When we arrived in a larger room my heart skipped a beat as I thought we had just walked in circles, or perhaps backtracked somehow. But I soon recognized the room to be different than the one we first entered.
"Are you all right, Virmir? You don't look so good..."
She had caught me clutching my chest. Blast it. I wasn't. The pain had not subsided, and I was dead tired.
She knelt and tried to look me in the eye, but I averted my gaze. Why must she insist on doing that? Her ruddy fur glowed vibrantly, cast in the sheen from the sphere of flame bobbing above my head. I tried to look alert, but my drooping ears probably gave me away.
"Are you sure? Maybe we should take a break. I could use a rest myself." She pointed to one of the piles of boulders building up to the walls on either side of the room. "If we sat up there, then we'd be able to get the jump if anyone walks by."
I nodded. She was using logic for once. "Very well."
I sluggishly followed her up the rocks and found a moderately comfortable spot to sit in between two large slates. Another boulder jutted up in front of me which obstructed my view of the path below. I rested my aching footpads on it. Vale found a seat to my right.
"I'm going to disperse the witchlight and try to recover some of my energy," I explained. "I may become unresponsive for a while. Don't go anywhere by yourself. Wake me in a half hour. Or especially if you hear anything." Fancy wizard-speak for a nap. They never figure it out.
Vale nodded and I let the fireball fizzle away. Much to my surprise, the red-orange walls of the cavern melted into a dim blue, rather than pitch black as I had expected. All along the walls were faint cracks which emanated a cerulean light, much like the crystals on the surface. They were simply too dim to be noticed under my witchlight, but now they were almost enough to properly illuminate the cavern. Interesting. I turned to see the blue reflected in Vale's wide eyes as she looked about. I would ponder this after my nap. I closed my eyes, the pain still welling in my chest. Sleep claimed me in a few short minutes.