A confrontation with the Order of the Falcon earn a rat goddess's sympathy.
The glowing fireflies wafted in the distant field, their light atill visible from the edge of Gastopan. The town was quite the antithesis of the neighboring Merry Mouse World that Raelle had just stormed out of; there were but a few lanterns hung outside houses, and the rest lay in slumber for the night in darkness. Raelle's mind wandered back to a mere twenty-four hours ago, when life was simple and her purpose was clear. Get amulet, kill Gavin. And then her strength was sapped away and everything changed.
Raelle lifted the Tanuki Amulet in her hand, straining to see it in the darkness. Had it turned that color before or after her loss of power? She cursed herself for not being able to remember. As her thoughts went silent, a small voice in her heart wondered.
Why, Tanuki? I don't understand. I'm trying to do your will...
A tear slipped down her cheek. She quickly wiped it away as she saw Gavin approaching her.
"Our Falcon buddies are catching up to us. I saw them coming through the main gate of the park just as I was leaving."
Raelle looked around her anxiously. "Maybe we could break into one of these houses and hide out until they leave..."
"That won't be necessary." A new voice in the darkness startled the two as they wheeled around quickly. A man with a grizzled grey beard and staff stood before them.
Gavin instictively brought his bo staff in front of him and assumed a defensive stance. Raelle ran behind Gavin, surveying the area as quickly as she could to try to find the best escape route, but instead spotting several more humanoid figures in the darkness.
"We mean you no harm." The man raised a hand plaintiffly, speaking with a gravelly voice, and cleared his throat. "We are of the Following of Nyvim, Protectors of the Weak. We have been monitoring your actions since your arrival."
Gavin and Raelle stood silently as the man cleared his throat again, and his steely grey eyes rested on Gavin.
"We have deemed you mean us no harm, but instead are fleeing persecution. We shall help you."
"Ummm, I don't mean you any harm, either..." Raelle said, smiling nervously.
The old man considered the were-raccooness with a wry smile and an almost piteous look. "Of course you don't. Now, let us make haste."
Gavin and Raelle exchanged glances. Gavin shrugged and began to follow. But Raelle followed begrudgingly.
What does he mean, "Of course you don't."? Any regular acolyte of Tanuki would have pounded him for an insolent comment like that.
But I guess I'm not a regular acolyte anymore...
Raelle brushed the amulet with her fingers again, and again, her eyes began to water.
Why, Tanuki? Why did you take my power from me?
The dingy antechamber of the Temple of Nyvim dipped into the ground in a series of steps, and flared out at the base into a wide, ovular room, which was empty except for two torches. If he squinted, Gavin could make out the elaborate carvings into the rock, but he didn't have much time to investigate, as their hosts were walking briskly through the doorway which the torches flanked and, well, the Temple proper was much more engaging to his interest.
He had heard, of course, of the were-rats that worshipped Nyvim, the rat god that swore protection to any victim, friend or foe, and was glad he wasn't trying to make them angry this particular visit. About twenty were-rat acolytes stood, all armed with glimmering armor and weaponry that Gavin wouldn't have hesitated to try to lift in another circumstance. But he was grateful that they were on his side this time, and he had to admit they looked pretty tough.
Still, though, it was a gorgeously glimmering place. He could make a small fortune if he could nab an incense burner alone...
"Don't even think about it." Raelle cautioned with a stern voice, recognizing the expression on Gavin's face.
"Just taking inventory this time." Gavin said with a smile.
"You're hopeless." Raelle muttered crossly.
"You're just upset because he said you weren't a threat."
"I'll show you who is and who isn't a threat, as soon as we get out of this." Raelle growled.
Gavin only smiled wider. Raelle was so easy to taunt.
"These are the two we heard about, Master Bockler." As they stepped into a small room at the back of the temple, the elderly man addressed another man knelt in prayer, who looked even older. Bockler stood and turned to face them.
"Thank you, Eston." Bockler saluted their escort, and Eston and his men left Gavin and Raelle alone with the older man.
"We will do what we can to help you. The Order of the Falcon will be here soon, without a doubt, so it will probably be best for you two to stay in here until we give the all clear signal." Bockler spoke quickly and gruffly, but with a sort of gentleness typical of acolytes of the Four Sworn Defenders of the Weak.
"Thank you. Tanuki will surely repay your kindness." Raelle bowed abruptly.
Bockler chuckled cynically. "He hasn't before, young one. But no matter. You need help, so we will help you. That is our God's way."
Raelle stood silent as Bockler turned and smiled at Gavin. "Be safe, young ones." And with the old man's exit, the heavy door clanged shut.
Gavin took a seat on the stone floor of the room, leaning against the door. "Seems like Tanuki isn't Mr. Popularity among the folks around here."
"Tanuki does have a lot of enemies." Raelle admitted.
"You'd never know from his acolytes." Gavin said in a sarcastic tone, bracing himself for the inevitable wrath of Raelle's temper, but surprisingly, it never came. Instead, she turned her back to him, her shoulders tilted in a slump.
"Heh, yeah." Raelle said unenthusiastically.
Gavin sat up, looking at the moping raccooness. He did feel sorry for the way she lost her strength and all. She wasn't used to having that sort of stuff happen to her.
Of course, it would have been nice if she'd showed the least bit of gratitude for getting her silly bauble back for her. Sometimes, he really didn't understand the way that crazy girl's mind worked.
Raelle slumped against the wall, clutching her amulet. "I'm tired." she muttered.
"Then sleep." Gavin shrugged. "Looks like those guys have our backs."
As if in response, a lound shout rang through the temple, and Gavin could here a clash of swords and more shouts following. The battle had begun.
"Looks like the falcons have arrived, hunh?"
When Raelle did not respond, Gavin turned to the raccooness.
Raelle was leaning against her knees, fast asleep.
"Guess she really was tired." Gavin sighed, and stood up, surveying the room they were in. It really was a pretty boring room. The torches burned on the barren room, held on by very comparitively plain holders. No decoration, no stuff to paw through. Just steps leading down to a small altar with a... wait, what's that?
Gavin knelt by the alabastar altar, and saw a small pouch. Bockler must have left it, Gavin reasoned.
Gavin looked back to Raelle, who nodded peacefully, and returned his gaze to the pouch. Without any further hesitation, he picked it up and emptied its contents into his hand.
It was cheese. Red-looking cheese.
Gavin shrugged inwardly. Made sense. He popped the cheese into his mouth.
Mmm, it was actually pretty good. A little salty.
But what was that glow formulating behind the altar?
"Greetings, stranger." A voice boomed through the room. Gavin jumped to his feet with a start.
"Who the...?" Gavin squinted as the light everything; he could barely make out the figure at the center of it.
"I, young mortal, am Nyvim."
Gavin stumbled backwards, catching his fall with his arms.
"The Nyvim?" Gavin sputtered dumbly.
The light faded, and a furry young were-rat female was staring back at him.
"That's me!" Nyvim intoned cheerily, if still rather loudly.
Gavin's mind reeled. He stared back at Raelle, who still sat asleep at the back of the room.
"She won't hear or see me." Nyvim said in answer to his gaze. "The cheese, and all."
"Oh." Gavin said, blinking the remaining spots of light out of his eyes. "Could you possibly speak a little more quietly, Miss Nyvim?"
"Oh, sorry, mortal." Nyvim's voice assumed a normal tonality, albeit a little squeaky.
"Thanks." Gavin stood, finally able to focus on the godling before him.
"So, you two seem to be in quite a mess."
"Yeah, uhhh, something about Tanuki's amulet breaking and Raelle kinda not having her usual strength. It's her problem, really. I don't understand much about it."
"Tanuki." Nyvim said expressionessly. Gavin gulped, hoping he hadn't turned Nyvim against them by the mention of the pendant.
"But I also sense... Shinkou?" Nyvim concentrated as she spoke. "Oh my, that's interesting. He hardly ever wakes up for anything."
"God of Midnight. Kinda dark and mysterious. No followers, really. Keeps to himself. A nice guy, from my few experiences with him."
"We haven't met any god like that..."
"Well, you haven't, but his aura's all over this one... Raelle, you said her name was?"
Gavin nodded in response.
"Yup, definitely has the aura of Shinkou."
"What does that mean?"
"Who knows?" Nyvim shrugged her shoulders, then came to kneel beside Raelle. Nyvim put a furry hand on the were-raccooness's head.
"She's having very troubled dreams. Of course she would be. Her life force is horribly depleted, and she knows it."
Gavin knelt, too, looking at the were-raccooness. "Do you know what caused it?"
The conversation was interrupted by a loud booming fist against the door. Raelle stirred, and hearing a second pounding against the door, sat upright.
"What is it?! What's there?!" Raelle looked panicked, and stared right through Nyvim with unseeing eyes.
"I'd best go. My followers are suffering, and I must lend them my power." Nyvim said, standing and walking back to the altar. "But I will also grant you both my blessing. It's not much, but it'll help her find the courage to do what she's going to need to do to get her life force back."
"And what's that?" Gavin intoned, but found it hard to see through the aura that engulfed him and Raelle.
"She'll come to know." Nyvim smiled. "You'll have to protect her until she does."
"Stop talking to yourself, you idiot, the door's not holding up!"
"Good luck, young ones."
Gavin turned his head away as the goddess vanished, and his vision fell upon the door. It was bowing at a weird angle, a not-entirely-together angle. An unhealthy angle.
The door fell off its hinges as the glow vanished, and visible through the entry were eight acolytes of the Order of the Falcon, severely worse for the wear, but not as much as the incapacitated were-rats that Gavin could now see in the main chamber.
"We've got them!" the acolyte at the front of the group cried, pointing at Raelle. "Give us the amulet now!"
"Fools! Kill her and take it from her dead hands, before she has a chance to use it on us!" a voice toward the back roared.
Gavin wasn't sure what consensus the acolytes had come to regarding whether to kill Raelle or grab the amulet first, but he knew they didn't want to stick around and find out. Their eyes were on Raelle, and he slowly inched his way along the wall on the other side of them. Despite it being a somewhat small room, they didn't seem to notice his movement or even his presense.
He moved a bit quicker, and when the group began to step over the fallen door he rushed forward and gave the one in front a forceful shove. His heel caught on the rim of the door and he tumbled into the acolyte behind him, causing a slight domino effect as the entire group struggled to maintain their footing. Gavin turned to gesture to Raelle, but she was already at his side, taking advantage of the confusion. They dashed through a gap in the doorway to the left of the Falcon huddle and into the main temple hall. An acolyte at the rear attempted to grab Raelle as they passed, but Gavin smacked the man's hand away with his staff. His own wrist stung with the blow, and he knew it would bruise later, but now was not the time to be worrying about it.
The Falcon acolytes were unfortunately not long in regaining their composures. "After them!" one cried, and the group emerged quickly from the small altar room in pursuit.
"We have to find someplace to hide," Raelle said, "How did you sneak up on them like that? I didn't even notice you moving..."
"Well in my line of business... never mind, this way," he said, spotting a narrow passageway and pulling Raelle into it before she could possibly object. He hoped that the acolytes would pass it up, but ten seconds down the hallway he heard shouts from behind.
They rounded a corner, and several doorways lined the walls. The first couple were locked. Raelle found the fifth one one down and it opened successfully. They dashed in and closed the door behind them.
"Crap!" Raelle said.
"What?" Gavin asked, looking around for a weapon or a hiding place or something useful. The room was fairly barren except for a large armoir and a bench along the far corner. It had a small window near the ceiling above the bench, but it had been boarded up.
"It was unlocked because the lock is broken," she replied. Before they could say anything more, though, they heard someone in the hall giving orders, followed by heavy crashes. Presumably they were kicking down the locked doors.
Gavin tried the armoir, but it was locked. Raelle stood on the bench and pried the boards loose from the window. They came away fairly easily. There was no pane in the window, and a slight breeze entered, blowing in some cool night air. Footsteps sounded loudly in the hall outside.
The door swung open. The acolyte in the lead raised a lantern into the room, casting odd shadows about. Others entered. One took an axe to the armoir doors. It swung open after a few blows, revealing emptiness inside. "Look," another said, pointing at the window. He moved to investigate. "The boards look freshly pulled. They may have escaped through here."
The acolyte in charge moved closer to inspect. "Two of you go through that window, see if you can pick up their trail. The rest of you, keep looking through the other rooms. This hallway doesn't go anywhere else, so if they're not out there, they've got to be in this wing somewhere." Subsequently two acolytes squeezed their way through the window, and the rest vacated the room. The last one out paused for a moment, holding the lantern aloft, peering strangely into the dimness. He shook his head and left. Echos of activity continued from the hall for several minutes after that.
Huddled in the darkest corner of the room, defensively crouched, Raelle and Gavin looked at each other.
"What just happened?" Raelle asked.