Categories > Books > Redwall > Pride of Kavazara

Chapter 5: Wind and Ice

by Forge 0 reviews

An deadly, ancient enemy comes from the Far Northlands, seeking to satisfy a cold, base hunger. The castle of New Kavazara, Bladestone, opposes them... but it may not be enough.

Category: Redwall - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Action/Adventure, Fantasy - Warnings: [!!] [V] - Published: 2006-02-26 - Updated: 2006-02-26 - 7104 words

Gregory P. Wong

Chapter Five: Wind And Ice

"Yah!" he heard iceblinker screech.
Tigron swiveled his head to look at the snow vixen. Well, she had timed it well. He was just finishing his meditation.
Speaking of timing it well, Raezel had woken up a little past noontime, and the desert was cooling a bit. Joy. She wouldn't be doing her rendition of a frying fish again.
"Wha...? Where...?" he heard Raezel stammer.
"You took a nap," he told her, which was more or less true. No need to tell her he had given her a sponge bath while she was this close to dying, right?
It was also good that he had had the foresight to get her back into her armor and everything after her temperature had stabilized. And it was even better that she had awoken today instead of yesterday, so it only looked to her that a few hours had passed. He was a bit tired himself, making sure she didn't go into a relapse in the morning.
"Oh, really," said the snow vixen, rubbing her eyes. "Spiderspit, I've been sleeping in my armor the entire time, huh?"
"Yeah," he answered. Fleacrap. Even to him, his voice was coming out too stiffly. He made extra sure his mind was completely closed
"Whoa, what is this? No shouts of 'iceblinker?'"
Saying nothing looked like the best choice.
Raezel snorted. "Fine, fine, keep your thoughts to yourself." The other Wraith rolled her shoulders. "Weird. Last time I slept in armor, I was stiff as heck. It feels like I've gotten a massage or something."
And right now, a gong should ring, and the choir should start chanting. Spiderspit, the irony was ridiculous.
"That's nice," he said neutrally.
Raezel stared at him... hard. "Okay, what the fark?"
Damn. Well, he wasn't surprised. Raezel was too impulsive, among other things, and the list of why-I-don't-like-Raezel-Snowdance reasons was veritable litany, but stupidity, ignorance, or general denseness weren't on it. Raezel was smart. Had to bluff.
"Nothing the fark... /iceblinker/. We'll be moving out in a minute or too. It's cooling, and we're close to the ice/desert border."
He watched the snow vixen roll her eyes. "Okay, sandscratcher, take me through your realm.
He and Raezel got their stuff in order.
Well, the walk was pretty uneventful, except he was waiting for Raezel to say something.
Fortunately, noting seemed to come, so that was that.

Well, Tigron did have to admit that all this ice was freaking him out. Not to mention that it was farking dark save for the farking moon, but even then all the farking ice was a bit much.
The moment he and the other Wraith had left the borderline temperate zone, he just had to notice how farking freezing it was. Really now, he farking expected any farking minute now to see a farking tribe of farking ice statues, not farking ice foxes.
Fleacrap, it was cold.
"Draw your hood tighter around your body, and keep your canteen close to your body."
The frigid temperature was pissing him off severely. "I'm fine, iceblinker."
"Oh, you sand scratching idiot. You wanna freeze into an ice-cube marten and become part of the landscape?"
Obviously, Raezel took his silence as a "no"... which it sort of was.
"Okay, number one. Remember lecturing me in your sand dweller ways about heads and body heat? Guess what? The opposite's true. Keep your head covered as much as possible. Secondly, keep dabbing small amounts of water onto your face."
Water on the face? That made zero sense. "Oh, sure. After that I'll crack my nose off after it's frozen, /right/?"
"/Wrong/, sandscratcher. I'm telling you this so your dry lips don't split and you don't whine me to death."
Wow. That was easily the most obvious lie he'd ever heard... and there were some pretty big whoppers out there.
"And fish will fly overheard, and Wraithlord will come back from the dead to pat me on the back. Please, I've heard five seasons-olds tell better lies than--"
"Holy heck, sandscratcher. I hope you're sunny sand hasn't scrambled your brains so much that you've forgotten I lived around here. Tell me, what place has the driest air you can think of?"
He had this strong urge to scratch his head in puzzlement about why she had asked the question, not the question itself. Maybe he hadn't been perfect at breaking the heat fever. Definitely nuts.
"Where I live. Where else?"
Raezel growled. "/Nope/. There's a place that has drier air, and guess what, you're standing in it."
"Yeah, sure. I see ice flying through the air, and you think it's dry here!?"
"Use your brain, sandscratcher," Raezel said angrily. "For being such a meditative sort of beast, you're pretty dense. Think. If all the moisture is frozen into ice, how is the air going to get moist, hmm?"
"And while you're pondering that, make sure you don't work yourself into a sweat. For that matter, keep any moisture away from your body. Frostbite is a really nasty thing, you know. Your limbs turn a rather pretty shade of red, then black, and they'll snap off."
"All right. Raezel one, Tigron zero. Happy now, oh Mistress of the Frozen Lands?"
The other lieutenant gave an indignant snort. "Actually, no. The moment you're out of my life would be the time I would be happy."
He shivered, and he didn't think it was the cold. He remembered what he had been thinking only a day ago.
But, oh yes, Raezel Snowdance was making him regret it. Yep, maybe it would have been better to-
No... don't think of that. What was done was done. And somehow, the little anger he felt wasn't... strong enough. He just had too... what? Endure?
Damnation and Hellgates. Life was totally messed up in the head.
He followed Raezel as she maneuvered through the ice fields.
Then he shivered some more. Geez, his little "should-I-have-saved-the-ice-fox" thoughts shouldn't be bothering him that much. Really, now, it wasn't that numbing, was it?
And then his knees started to quake, and it was spreading to the rest of his body.
Oh, no.
He felt himself sink to his knees.
Why was it getting warmer?
But the better question was "what would Raezel do?"

Oh, damn, what was she going to do? Raezel ran over to where Tigron was lying, and she immediately recognized really bad hypothermia.
Well, too bad for him. Let him get swallowed up by a blizzard, and boom, no more problems.
"/The completion of the mission supercedes all else/. /If one of you becomes so incapacitated as to be immobile/, t/he other will have to/... /have to abandon the fallen one and continue the mission/."
But... she and Tigron were too... connected for that. Who else but sandscratcher over here could ever, really, understand what had happened. When she had seen...
Damn, those memories were painful. Fleacrap.
But those memories would be her own if Tigron was erased from the picture. Yeah, no one to...
No one to understand her.
But so what? Even sandscratcher had told her, those years ago, that he didn't like her. Well, tough luck for him. He wasn't happy with her, so there wasn't any need to help.
But only he could understand the pain...
She swept off her cloak and wrapped Tigron as best she could. Fleapcrap! There wasn't enough time!
She dug her gloves into a close snowdrift and began to fling snow away. Believe it or not, holes-in-the-snow were excellent for keeping warm.
If the occupants didn't turn into ice cubes while waiting for it to be dug.
Damn, damn, damn.
Finally, it was done. About three feet deep, and something like seven feet in diameter.
She dragged Tigron's shivering body back into the impromptu shelter, and made a really bastardized bed with the blankets. He needed heat... fast. His skin was pale, and he was shivering like mad. His body had just gone crazy, no longer able to keep his temperature high enough. She felt his forehead
Spiderspit! He was freezing!
And it was worse than she had thought.
Yep, heat was needed... and, fun time, only body heat was available.
Ooh, if anybeast back at Bladestone found out about this... geez.
First, that armor had to come off, since leather was a rather poor transfer point for heat.
He was wearing pauldrons, so it was a bit more difficult to get those off. Damn. Tigron's cotton shirt wasn't all that thick, but it still wasn't ideal. She gulped, and unlaced Tigron's shirt. She slipped it off.
My, what broad, strong shoulders he had... and that muscular abdomen... and...
Cripes! She so didn't need those thoughts right now.
But they really couldn't be helped. It was an... awesome body. Muscular, but not too much. Perfectly proportioned and all. Tigron even had a scar running diagonally across his chest, going down towards his left hip.
And he had gotten it from...
Dammit, she had to stop being distracted. Goofing off about Tigron's--admittedly sexy--body was going to get him killed.
She hovered over his quaking form.
Oh, Dark Forest...
She hugged him tightly. She wrapped her arms under his, and allowed her body heat--since she was used to the cold, she had plenty to spare--to flow into Tigron.
He should be stopping now... dammit, he wasn't! Somehow, she wasn't transferring enough heat? What could it be?
Oh, spiderspit, her shirt. Thin as it was, it still wasn't providing a good enough medium for her body heat. Tigron was still dying from the cold.
Okay, no, she wouldn't do that. Even a dying Tigron wasn't worth it.
But who else would be, if not him?
She swallowed, hesitated, and unlaced her tunic.
And slipped it off.
Actually, it was less of "slipped it off" and more of "tore it wildly from her body," but that was just the wrong context for this situation. Life and death circumstances had a tendency to mess up contexts. Ugh.
Then she hugged Tigron again. Oh, if anybeast back at Bladestone ever heard about this, she'd never hear the end of it.
It was a really nice body, especially when touching it like this. So strong, so muscular...
Tigron's trembling slowed down a bit, so she was giving him enough heat. And then she felt Tigron's arms encircle her body.
That damned-
No, wait, the other lieutenant wasn't trying to cop a feel here, his body was just acting instinctually by drawing a heat source closer. But it would have been nicer if the heat source wasn't /her/.
She took a closer look at Tigron's face. Strong-featured and handsome, definitely. Good looking, very good looking.
With a face-and a body, yeah-it was easy to why fems back at Bladestone-heck, anywhere-would be kicking, punching, biting, and screaming to get /this /close to Tigron /without /their tunics on
And here she was, half-naked, hugging an equally not-quite-so-clad Tigron... and she didn't even really want it!
The thing was, she understood why others would be fighting. Nice body. Handsome, too.
Oh, fleacrap. This was gonna be one heckuva long night.

Tigron did have to admit life was good with Grimtooth, though there were some low parts. For one, even after nearly a season of participating in skirmishes and all that stuff, Grimtooth had yet to let him on one of those major raiding parties. Tanth had never told him what went on those assault excursions, either.
It was as annoying as heck.
And there was this weasel, Durtback, who had a serious axe to grind with him. Literally.
Well, now was not the time to think about it. The horde was traveling up the western coast, south, close to the temperate band. And the beaches here were awesome.
Most of the hordebeasts were off doing their own things, so it hadn't been hard to find an unoccupied beach. Perfect place for peace, quiet, and practice.
He finished his meditation and rose to his footpaws, dusting off his clothes. Practice? Nah. Might as well get back to the encampment.
He maneuvered his way back to the tent area. Odd. Half the camp seemed to be missing. Maybe...
Oh, fark. While he'd been at the beach, Grimtooth had gotten the horde assault group together and gone off again. Damn!
He hurried back to his tent. If he did this fast enough, maybe he could track them. He found his tent.
Oh, good, his tentmates were gone. No need to explain what he was doing to them. He hurriedly got his stuff together. Cloak, sword, hunting knife, provisions.
Wait... where did he put those...
Never mind, he could survive a day without those. They made him fat, anyway.
He dashed out of the tent. There! He could still see the dust cloud. The marauders had a four or so hour head start on him, but nothing a good run couldn't cure. Spiderspit, but it would have to be a fast-
"Tigron?" came a familiar voice. Uh-oh, it was Tanth.
"Uh, yes, sir?"
"Where are you going? And you can drop the 'sir'. There's no one who cares around here."
What could he say? If Tanth knew, the ferret would just order him to stay. But he didn't /like lying on a general principle, and he liked lying to Tanth even less. He respected the ferret officer, maybe even more than he did Grimtooth. Strange how the world worked, huh?/
Well... looked like honesty won this round.
"I was leaving to... to follow Chieftain Grimtooth's assault party, Tanth."
Tanth was silent. Oh, well, at least he'd tried.
"Are you aware of the full details of those assault groups, Tigron?"
Okay, not the answer he had expected. Roll with it.
"Er, no."
He saw Tanth nod, and he swore he saw a look of sadness in the ferret's eyes.
"You know what reprisals are?"
Where was this going? "Yes. Um, basically attacks mounted on a settlement for revenge, right?"
"Yes... and that is exactly what most of Grimtooth's assault bands are for." He noticed that Tanth didn't use the honorific for the horde leader. And besides-Wait.
"What? Reprisals?"
"Tigron, right now Grimtooth and his band are... punishing some warriors and their families in the most painful way possible."
Wha...? "You mean...?"
"Yes. I don't know where he's going right now, and I don't /want to know what Grimtooth does when he gets there. All I know is that Grimtooth has a very..." he noticed that the ferret was looking very uncomfortable right now, "very inventive mind that matches his sadism."/
Something wasn't adding up... What could it be? Maybe it was the way Tanth looked saddened and disgusted at the same time... wait. That was it!
"Tanth, if Grimtooth does such things, why do you follow him?"
And that was a major question. Tanth was a... good beast. He didn't think the ferret approved of such tactics.
So, why was Tanth sticking around?
"Tigron Sandstar, listen," he heard Tanth hiss. Oh, fleacrap. He'd never heard Tanth like /this before. "Why I continue to serve Chieftain Grimtooth"-he noticed the honorific attachment-"is my /secret, and /mine alone. Is that clear/?"
He gulped. Tanth looked /very angry. "Yes, Junior Officer Tanth."/
He noticed the ferret blink and lose the angry look. Tanth shook his head. "Tigron, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have snapped like that."
"It's, uh, okay, sir. I shouldn't have pried like that."
Tanth nodded. "They headed off to the east, and by the look of their equipment and provisions, it doesn't look too far. If you hurry, you should catch up with them."
Well, that was an obvious send-off. He saluted, and turned to where he still-faintly-saw that dustcloud.
He heard the ferret speak again. "It was nice knowing you, Tigron. I hope we can meet again, under better circumstances."
What? He was going to be gone for a day or two, tops. Whatever. There'd be time to think about that on the way. But still, it was a pretty odd thing to say.

Not a bad landscape. At least it wasn't ice.
Tigron was still moving rapidly, trying to keep the dust--no wait, now it was smoke--in sight. Aforementioned dust had transformed into said smoke no more than a few minutes ago. He was still a good thirty minutes away, maybe, so he'd have to run a tad faster to get there.
Interesting place to wander through, though. A bit greener than he was used to, but here and there were plenty of big rocks, so it wasn't too alien.
But what was bothering him was that there were plenty of places to set up an ambush. Really now, just hide behind a boulder, and /poof/, instant ambush. Well, that really didn't matter. Who would be trying to--
A leg shot out from behind a boulder and tripped him.
Dammit. Irony sucked.
He rolled, allowing his shoulder to take the shock. It hurt, but it could have been worse. He rolled onto his back and yanked the longsword out just as something furry and white landed on his chest.
He felt cold steel at his throat the same time his sword felt resistance of another's. He looked at the neck's owner.
Oh, heck no.
"/BLOODY SPIDERSPIT!" he roared./
"/DAMNED FLEACRAP!" Raezel screeched back./
He growled and shoved iceblinker roughly. He got up hurriedly, and he saw the female snow fox jump to her footpaws, too.
What in /Hellgates was she doing here?/
Okay, calming techniques. Right now there were two very angry beasts-yeah, he was counting himself in the "angry beast" category-with weapons, screaming at each other, which was just begging for all types of unfortunate physical conditions, most of which ended in the loss of body parts and/or the cessation of natural bodily functions. Calm. Let the techniques calm him down. There...
"What in /Hellgates are you doing here!?"/
Well, at least he'd /tried/.
"Me? I should be asking you the same damned thing! Why are you following me!?"
Well, he could tell iceblinker was asking a valid question. Hmm... He took a look at her mind. It turned out she had run into Tanth first and run off. Well, no need to lie to snow vixen.
"I saw Grimtooth's group's dust, and I followed! You happy? It was Tanth's idea."
He saw iceblinker seemingly deflate, and some of the anger disappear from the snow vixen's mind. His did, too.
Well, most of it. Okay, part of it. Actually, only a little bit. Geez.
Iceblinker shook her head. "He told me the same."
He rubbed a paw over his face. "Okay, good. Now, iceblinker, I think we should-"
"Haul our arses to where Grimtooth is? Sure. Hey, those were /your words, so keep that look off your face."/
Well, joy. Raezel for sure had a talent for reading minds, too. But that was a matter for another day. Time to get going.
"Well, let's go then."
"You go first."
He felt adrenaline shock his veins. Spiderspit...
"Yeah, sure, why would I want to do /that/?" he muttered. Then he took a brief look at her mind. Oops. He'd just completely misunderstood-
"What, you think I want to stab you in the back? Let's see, maybe I'm /tired/, and I'd like a rest, hmm?"
He gave an exaggerated shrug. "Okay, I'm sorry. You go rest your poor little footpaws, and I'll track Grimtooth." He turned and started to jog away. Hmm, might as well have the last word. "But, hey, it's not my fault you're too weak to keep the pace. Have fun."
He heard Raezel yell something at him, but the snow vixen was too far back.
He continued on. It wasn't really so bad now, since the ground wasn't littered with small rocks he had to keep dodging around. Damn, that part had been annoying.
And the dust cloud looked very weird now. It wasn't all gritty and course, but now it looked black and whispy. Oh, drat. It was smoke! Better run harder. Luckily, he was almost there.
He felt a twinge in his head. Oh, fleacrap, it felt like a bunch of beasts up ahead, and they were... hostile.
And then a leg shot out from behind a boulder and tripped him.
What the /heck was this? Looks like the legs had become a farking trip-magnet. /
He rolled, letting his shoulder take a shock. Well, a trick could work more than once...
And then he felt several sets of paws pin him down to the ground.
Guess not.
Something /extremely hard smashed into his right cheek, and stars bounced around. Fleacrap. He felt those same paws-still pinning his limbs-yank him up to his footpaws. Concentrate... get a lock on that mind signature. Who could it-/
Oh, no.
"Weel, Tiggy, it be fancy seein' yew here," he heard Durtback say.
Oh, farking Hellgates no.
"What do you want, Durtback?" he croaked.
"Wot yew think, Tiggy?" If that damned weasel didn't quit with the "Tiggy", he was going to beat the living daylights out of him. "Yew know, whens a beast beats me at somethin', I don' be liking it much."
Oh, drat. He was angry because of /that/!? "Hey, get over it! I beat you /once/, at /sparring/, for crying out loud. When somebeast beats you, it isn't--"
And then the stars were back. Ouch. Durfang had just walloped him across the face.
"Weel, too bad fer yew, Tiggy. I don' like beasts beatin' me. I be thinking it be a good time ta show yew why it be bad to humiliate Durtback."
Well, this was going nowhere. "Do your worst."
Durtback punched him across the face again. And again.
And again.
And then he lost track.
When it finally stopped, he groaned and looked up. Ouch. His face felt like one big bruise.
He saw Durtback rubbing his knuckles. "Heh heh. Yew know, Tiggy, Chief Grimtooth's liddle expedition be really fortunate. Yew know, slip away, and wait fer yew."
He tried to calm himself, but couldn't manage it. Fark, he was frightened. Yeah, when captured by a beast who had a reputation for being an excellent fighter and a somewhat-torturer, that tended to happen. But guess what? He wasn't going to gibber in front of the weasel.
"Was that the best you could do? I've felt farking /raindrops that hurt more."/
He watched Durtback crack his knuckles. Well, time for round two...
"Wait. I gots a better idea," he heard the weasel say brightly. Oh, joy. He didn't like the sound of that. This couldn't get any worse, could it?
With a quick motion, Durtback reached forward and yanked out his longsword.
Now he didn't like the looks of this, either.
And yes, it could get worse.
His sword had been in the family for generations, and it was a damned fine work of art. Intricate bronze hilt, guards that projected at right angles to the blade and thickened and curved bladewards at the ends. Add that to the thin, more-or-less flattened diamond-cross-section blade that had wraithstone engravings, and he had a theft waiting to happen. Spiderspit.
And that bastard Durtback shouldn't be holding it.
"Put it back, Durtback," he snarled.
He heard the weasel chuckle. "Now, why would I wanna do that?"
And he barely saw Durtback move.
Dammit! A line of hot pain burned on his chest. That farking weasel had just sliced him across the chest. It hurt!
"Havin' fun, Tiggy?"
Oh, yeah, sure, he was /ecstatically enjoying this. Damn, how stupid could this weasel be!?/
"It's the annual migration of the snow grouse," he stated. Geez, that slash was hurting like heck. Ignore it.
He grinned as Durtback wrinkled his face in confusion. "Wot stupid answer be that?"
"It's really quite simple: ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer, you moron."
Uh-oh. Now Durtback looked royally furious. The weasel walked up until he was right in his face.
Geez, the other hordebeast smelled bad. And he really didn't like the look on that face.
"Looks like yew're gonna die real painful-like, Tiggy. And I gots the best idea how ta do it, too."
The weasel reached forward and took a hold of his tunic, digging fingers into the cut. Oh, fleacrap. He saw Durtback sneer as he felt his tunic ripped in half.
Oh, fark, he could see what Durtback wanted to do. No...
He pulled on the beasts holding his arms, but they wouldn't budge. Damn! There was even somebeast holdings his thighs tight, so he couldn't even kick. He struggled again.
"Weel, Tiggy, time to die. See, I is gonna gut yew, and I wanna see yer face when yew see yer guts spill out. It's gonna hurt, Tiggy."
He watched the sword draw back.
And then he heard a whizzing sound, a meaty thunk, a groan...
...and he felt the hold on his right arm slacken.
Only a few seconds...
Sintaka was an art that emphasized limb-traps and motion redirection. Now, since the beast on his right wasn't doing the job correctly--meaning he was probably dead, but that was really a minor point--he was overbalanced on his left. The rat on his left was pulling, keeping his arm immobile. For all the farking good it would do.
Since the rat was happy pulling, /he was glad to help the rat along. He lightly pushed the rat back, and with a little twist that broke the hold, "helped" the rat go left. Which meant down. With the same motion, he backhanded the beast behind him. Well, that particular individual was now stunned, since, well, a fist to the side of the head had a tendency to put flashy little stars across the eyes./
In one motion he ripped the arms from his legs and kicked backwards. It was hard to tell, but Mister Footpaw said the face belonged to a stoat or ferret. Whatever.
And now, of course, that sword. Durtback, that bastard, was coming at him /his sword held in the both paws--the idiot obviously didn't quite get that his longsword was single-pawed--and was aiming at backhand cut at his stomach./
He sidestepped to the left and shot his left paw forward, banging Durtback's slashing arm and adding to the followthrough. Durtback stumbled, since, of course, he'd added more "swing" than the weasel had probably been expecting. He locked up Durtback's right wrist with his left paw and broke that paw's hold on the hilt. He maneuvered the arm out, so it almost looked like the weasel was going to give him a hug. He rotated so that his right shoulder faced the weasel's face, and slammed his right fist twice into Durtback's chin with two snap-uppercuts. But those were only to stun the weasel. The /real attack came when he yanked down on Durtback's arm, making the weasel stumble down, and smashed his elbow up into the descending chin./
Well, the sword dropped after that little stint. Score.
He snatched up his weapon. He really, /really felt like letting Durtback have it right there, but he wanted the weasel to at least put up a fight. It was more than the prick deserved./
He watched Durtback stumble around a while, and then he sighed as the weasel drew out a rusty cutlass. Damn. Ugly as the weapon was, Durtback sure as Hellgates knew how to use it. But it wouldn't mean crap, since he was, one, a better fighter, and two, very, very angry. He got into his fighting position and slowly advanced, the sword ticking back and forth. He was just gonna put away the weasel fast. In bloody bits. After taking off the head.
Yep, very pissed off at the weasel. Even his calming exercises weren't going to help.
"Wait! That one's mine!" he heard somebeast say angrily from behind him.
Oh, no, not now.
"Stay away," he grunted at iceblinker, not turning his head. Drat, what was she doing here? He made sure he kept his voice controlled. "He's mine."
Then his mind twinged. Fleacrap. A leg slammed into the backs of his ankles, sweeping his footpaws out from under him.
He leaped back to his footpaws. Spiderspit, looked like Durtback /was iceblinker's./
And the snow vixen was a good fighter, too. Raezel stood square with her opponent, knees bent slightly, and the twin sickles held high. Not too interesting. What was interesting was when she /moved/. The snow vixen's footpaws were in constant motion, and she... /whirled/. There wasn't a better way to describe it! All of the snow vixen's motions were spinning attacks, horizontal, vertical, and everything in between. It fit Raezel perfectly. And it was... beautiful to watch, too. Raezel was like a sandstorm, swift, shifting, untouchable. It was like the snow vixen was pure reaction, molding to whatever the situation threw at her.
Definitely Raezel Snowdance.
Durtback aimed a slash, iceblinker banged it away and dug the point of the right-paw sickle into the weasel's skull.
Well, that was over quickly.
He growled and put his longsword back. Spiderspit. His tunic was a definite goner. Oh, well, he could always find another one. It had been getting frayed around the sleeves, anyway.
He sighed and saw Raezel step over to a dead fox-the others had gotten away, dammit-and pull a throwing knife from the corpse's neck.
Very nice throw. The knife had come in at an angle that severed the spine when it dug in. Instant kill. Damned nice throw.
But it was iceblinker, so he wasn't saying a thing.
"We're only about fifteen minutes away from the smoke," he heard the snow fox growl. "That is, if you're strong enough. That cut doesn't look deep, but it'll get infected like mad. You're lucky it wasn't that rusty piece-of-crap cutlass that did that. Ever heard of lockjaw?"
Oh, great. If irony was a little pin, he'd have been pricked to death yesterday. Spiderspit.
"I'll be fine, iceblinker." He noticed that the snow vixen's eyes narrowed. Well, good. "Let's move to the rocks near the perimeter. You're /sure it's a tent settlement, right?"/
Iceblinker snorted. "No, since that's why I'm only /thinking /it. By the way, nice to know you can see into me head."
He sighed. Well, just keep the mind closed and it would be fine.
"Fine, I'm fine. Let's get going."
But wait. He really didn't feel like doing this, but...
Oh, well, he had to get it out of the way. Geez, was he /really doing this./
"Thanks for saving me."
He saw that Raezel was just staring at him. Then the snow vixen turned back towards the smoke.
"Yeah, whatever. But we're even now, sandscratcher."
But, somehow, that didn't come out as hotly he had thought it would.
He and iceblinker went on for a bit, until they were at the perimeter of the burning tent settlement. He and iceblinker ducked behind a large rock.
It was a bit creepy how quiet it was, but he didn't come here for nothing. He nodded to iceblinker, and jumped out from behind the rock.
Im... Impossible!
This was just a nightmare. It had to be. This couldn't be real. Any second now Mother would wake him up and comfort him, and Father would smile and make sure he was doing the calming excercises correctly, and little Zef would poke fun at him.
That was the only reasonable explanation. It was the only sane one.
But cold logic told him he wasn't dreaming, that this was real, undeniably, triple-damned, burning-Hellgates real.
Out in front of the camp, he saw seven tall, thick wooden poles sticking into the air. Attached were... No...
One had the still bloody body of a sand marten. Father's wrists were crossed over his head, and a thick nail was stuck-Hellgates-through the wrists and into the wood. Dark Forest, Father was secured by thick ropes lashed around the wood.
The others... Mother. Zef. Raezel's parents. Raezel's brother and sister. Fleacrap, behind those seven, deeper in the camp, were many dozens more...
He collapsed to his knees.
And some were on fire.
This couldn't be real, because if it was, if he kept looking at the battered bodies of a loving family-Spiderspit, /two loving families-he was going to go completely, irrevocably, numbingly mad. Spiderspit, it was too much, too much!/
Anywhere, look anywhere but at... at... that!
Look at...
He wordlessly drew his arms around Raezel Snowdance and hugged her close. Focus on Raezel... on her pretty face, on the tears, on those piercing blue eyes... anything but that!
He felt the snow vixen's shuddering arms wrap around him too. Of course... he wasn't the only one trying to stave off the horror.
Dammit, his calming exercises were as helpful as dirt right now, but he had to try. He had to try to shut it out... before something happened.
"Hey! Wot're yew doin' here?" he heard a whining voice grate out.
"Ne'er mind. Yew be jus' stragglers, eh? A bit late, since the fighting an' fun be long done. No torturin' or treasure fer yew tew, heh heh."
Fun? Oh, Dark Forest. He felt anger, hot boiling anger, begin to seep into his body.
"Wha... what happened here?" he heard Raezel croak. Did he want to hear the answer?
"Oh, weel, yew know how it works. Chief Grimtooth be wanting tribute from there sand marten and snow fox tribes, and they refused it. So, when the chief went an' sent a buncha beasts ta go and collects it, them idiots beat off tha collection team. Weel, Chief Grimtooth came back ta personally fix these stupid beasts. Heh heh, yew don' mess wid the chief."
Something wasn't right.
"But wait. How did... how did Grimtooth find our families"-Fleacrap, he had let it slip whose family they were-"since we've kept ourselves hidden so well?"
"I dunno 'bout the details, but the chief did said that some new beasts came ta camp one day. The chief tracked down tha families, since he saw them new beasts were good fighters and though' they would be havin' treasures. Not so much, but a nice amount." The fox rubbed his nose and pulled out a flint. "Well, time ta light them up, heh heh."
"You're not going to burn or families," he heard Raezel growl. If he had been the fox and he had heard /that tone, he would have turned around and walked away very quickly. As in run./
But the fox wasn't him.
Now the fox was both ugly /and /mean-looking.
"Yew know wot? Wes gonna torch those bodies, an' yews'll like't. Yew be happy that the chief won' have yew two lit up, too."
"You. Will. Not. Touch. Our. Families," he snarled. "And you can tell that motherfarking bastardized arsehole Grimtooth to go /screw himself."/
Now the fatty fox was very angry. The ugly lump drew out an axe and stepped forward. So did the other dozen hordebeasts.
He drew his sword, and...
What... how...?
He suddenly found himself standing on top of a bloody body. Actually, a whole bunch of them.
That's what happened. It had gone so quickly, in a bloody blur. He looked at Raezel again. Bloody sickles, bloody sword... a nightmare.
But this was much, much worse than any nightmare. There wasn't any way to wake up from this one. All those calming exercises were worthless.
The rest passed in a blur. Taking down the... the... the bodies. Burying them. Finally letting the shock hit. Collapsing into Raezel's arms as he wept uncontrollably. Feeling Raezel's tears. Leaving. Deciding on Bladestone.
And starting a new life.

Lieutenant! Finally, after two seasons of the academy, he was a Wraith lieutenant!
But so was iceblinker. Damn.
Still, though, a lot had happened in those two seasons. He and iceblinker were the youngest Wraiths, at only seventeen. It had been a humongous shock to find out he--well, /they--/had Wraith potential. Geez, he'd been hoping to be a Pathfinder, and heck, he got this instead.
Better yet, he'd somehow even gotten the interest of an old expert fighter, Colonel Drak Summerscythe. Well, "gotten the interest" was an understatement, since the colonel had given him a beautiful, deadly, wraithstone-inlaid scythe, Dusk, as soon as he'd learned to use it alongside his sword.
But that /still didn't tell the whole damned story. Dusk had been Summerscythe's. Really neat./
And to top it off, some of the ridiculously skilled weaponsmiths had enhanced his sword. To some extent. It had been just a couple runic wraithstone etchings on the blade. But, yes, it was a big change. That longsword was now Dawn.
Dawn and Dusk were his.
There wasn't anything planned today, since he was off duty. Thinking was a good thing to do now, wasn't it? It was calming, at least. As long as he wasn't bothered, that is.
He sighed, drew out Dawn and detached Dusk, and put them blades first into the earth. Behind him, the massive Bladestone walls-massive, somehow, just really didn't describe those walls-cast a shadow. It was, what, a little past noon?
He let his breath grow deep and slow, and--
"/What do you want/?" He mindspoke to iceblinker. What was she doing here?
"/I want to talk/, /sandscratcher/." Was that anger in her voice? Now what?
"/Well, go ahead/. /I'/m/ not going anywhere/, /iceblinker/."
He heard footpaws padding up behind him. He really wanted to turn around, but no, better not appear nervous to the snow vixen. Besides, what could she do? Geez, he must be getting ragingly paranoid around her. Spiderspit.
"/If it wasn't for standing regulations/," he heard Raezel start. The mindvoice stopped, and then he heard Raezel speak out loud. "I'd have killed you by now."
"Don't act surprised, and don't play dumb, you prick," he heard Raezel hiss. "I just had this /stunning revelation."/
He felt himself bristle. "Oh, what would that be?"
"Hey, you didn't ever touch my family directly, so that makes you lower on my list than Grimtooth, nut you know what? They wouldn't have been killed if it wasn't for you."
Okay, this was getting out of paw. "All right, this is getting stupid. Either shut up, or get the heck out of my space."
"Why?" iceblinker growled again. "I wanted to go to Bladestone when I was young, remember? You ever think that because I was a 'stupid farmer vixen' I'd abandon that idea and go to some arsehole like Grimtooth?"
This was the... /stupidest /thing he'd ever heard. "Fine, if you've suddenly gone nuts on me, fine. But, you know-" he trailed off.
Wait. If...?
He snarled. "It works both ways, iceblinker. I wanted to be a Pathfinder."He spun around and leaped to his feet. "Maybe /you'/re the one who killed our families. Did you ever think about that!?"
He watched iceblinker snarl. "Don't be blaming me for what /you /did, you farking /bastard/."
What, now the snow fox had tunnel vision? Typical idiotic iceblinker. "How about it being /your /fault, you farking blame-laying moron. I kind of miss my family."
Damn. Now Raezel was having thoughts of bloody--very bloody--murder. Well, so did he.
But if Raezel so much as twitched towards those sickles on her back, there would be death. Oh yes, very ugly death.
Or... maybe. Iceblinker's had those sickles connected to a combination staff/baton set that would be ugly as Hellgates to face off against. Frost, was it? Whatever. He just knew Raezel was bloody good with it.
Maybe now would be the time to kick in the calming techniques.
"What's done is done," he grated, "and chopping each other won't do one single farking thing. So try this: go run off and play with your litle precious beanball, and just /stay the fark away from me."/
He spat, stowed his weapons, and walked off. Well, iceblinker was speechless. Or, probably, the snow vixen was just too furious to talk back. Who cared?
But, somehow, saying those words to Raezel left this really bad ache in his stomach. But... things happened.
The less he saw the snow vixen, the better.
Why did it hurt to think that?

"Ahh!" Raezel heard Tigron yelp. She turned around and saw that the sand marten wad sitting up on his own blanket.
Goody, the other lieutenant was up. Hopefully she'd replaced the armor well enough that Tigron wouldn't notice what had, well, happened last night.
It had been tough as Hellgates to manage that hypothermia. Luckily, Tigron didn't run into anything worse, and was stabilzed by morning. The sand marten had come a couple inches away from freezing to death. Well, it was morning now,so there wasn't a chance Tigron Sandstar wouldn't become Tigron the Icecube.
"Well, hope you had a good sleep. We're moving as soon as you'd like to."
"Sure, sure, iceblinker. Whatever you say."
"Well, great. Let's uh, get ready to move."
Fleacrap, this wasn't going well. She was sounding way too uppity. Cripes.
She watched Tigron swipe a paw across his face. Uh-oh.
"This is really weird, but I can't remember what I did yesterday." good, Tigron thought only a few hours had passed. Phew. "Spiderspit, this is damned annoying. Ah, fleacrap, hopefully it'll pass after a while."
Good. The other Wraith had been in la-la land the entire time, so he wasn't going to find out that she had--
"But I do remember having a dream where somebeast was huggng me. Drat, that's weird."
Oh, spiderspit. A very large gob of spiderspit. Well, time to act like "iceblinker."
"Well, good for you."
Okay, was that a suspicious look Tigron had now?
"Okay, something's up. For one, you're one perky iceblinker today. Number two... I can't put a finger on it. How about you just tell me, oh Ice Queen."
This was just great. Plus, this wasn't a surprise. Tigron sure loved to go all meditative, but the sand marten wasn't dumb. Very far from it, really. Well, she just had to play this smart.
"Just you're freeze-dried brain acting /funny/, sandscratcher. Now, how about you pack your stuff and go, so I won't have to watch you turn into Tigron Iceblock."
She heard Tigron grunt, and she and the other lieutenant got the equipment squared away.
Now... on to Mossflower! Hooray!
Yeah, yeah.
Well, the walk to the southern ranges wasn't hard, and Tigron didn't say a word either. Great.
Now just the future to worry about. Cripes.
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