The rescue party makes a shocking discovery!
Adept Paws 4 - Stones
by Tempe O'Kun
Rea blinked at the dust swirling through the jade pillars, long-dead faces lingering in their every surface. From the roadside outlook, she could see hundreds of them, stretching on through the dead valley in staggered, tilting clusters. The ground ran pale and dead under her pony's hooves. No trees grew here, no shrubs, not a single blade of grass.
She tucked her fluffy auburn tail around her body. No matter how many miles this shortcut saved, it only sucked the hope from her heart. "What is this place?"
"It is Varagan, foxling." Rin's voice came heavy as lead. "Sister village to ours."
Varagan. Rea had heard that name as a child. "What happened to it?"
The leopardess fingered one of her blades. "Before my time, though Toskun remembers. I am told one of the winged lords took issue with the town. I know not why. The few who managed to escape came down from the mountain in shocked horror. Some did not speak for days. One never spoke again. It was after that the dragons gave us our magic."
Behind them, the floppy-eared druidess chanted and wove a trio of spells. She tossed them over the cliffside with gentle motion. Each smokey web tumbled and curled, unaffected by the wind. When Rea raised her ears at this, Rin placed a spotted paw on her arm. "I suspect those are quieting charms, telling the spirits not to linger here, not to resent their fate."
Toskun growled. "We should ride on." He heeled his pony into a trot, heading up the path.
Jax's father followed, his tail stiff, his ears alert. Cats had a funny way about spirits.
Movement caught Rea's eye. She peered down into the valley, trying to spot where it came from. Among the streams of dust and soot, the jade carvings stood crooked, each one different, each side's face grotesque with exaggerated expression. Broiling hate, mocking glee, abyssal sorrow; every shade of unhappiness found a face there.
"Best not to look too long, foxling." Rin nodded at the wasted expanse. "The faces move if you pay them too much attention."
Rea reined her pony around to see the canine druidess leaving, her paws folded in meditative silence, robes blowing in the wind. No trees tamed the wind here, so it gusted, like on the lake. It kicked up sand in patterns across the road to Varagan, old but not overgrown, since growth proved impossible in places gripped by such a pall of unending shadows.
The five of them rode without conversation. Desperate for some sound other than the creak of saddles and the clop of hooves on gravel, Rea came up beside the leopardess again. "Tell me about the winged lords."
"They rule the cities of the bats and they use blood magic. Nasty creatures. Demons, they say."
A chill skewered Rea's chest. "And that's where the bats took Jax and the others?"
"Most likely." Rin ran a paw over her spotted ears. "The Grand Stoat should head them off. He has his warriors."
Rea's parents sometimes crafted spears for the faerret warriors. They used jewelry tools. She swallowed, nervous. "And if the faerrets can't stop them?"
Toskun snorted from the head of the group, his broad back still to them. "Then we test how immortal these demons really are."
Rea's paw dropped to the dagger at her belt. She wasn't sure about the winged lords, but immortality was a far cry from where she felt.
* * * * *
Further into the mountains, the woods cleared. A single line of grey stone trailed down from a peak and on toward the plain.
Rea pointed. "An aqueduct?"
The leopardess nodded. "Yes." She swept a paw toward a small cluster of buildings under one part of it. "And a way-station. We can ask if anyone there has seen the bats."
As they approached, Rea saw the locals had other problems. Great segments of the aqueduct had collapsed. Four cats high on scaffolds lashed wooden troughs into place, bridging the gaps, but water dripped and gushed around them. The ponies' hooves sucked through the mud with every step. Huge blocks of stone lay scattered like a child's toys, some still half-buried in buildings and atop the holding well.
Toskun raised his paw to hail the workers. "Ho there! What's happened?"
A soaked cat popped up from inside the trough, looking small and displeased. "Half the structure collapsed! A wonder the spells held this long after The Night."
The young fox pulled her tail to her lap, brushing mud from the white tip. "What night?"
The cat scowled down at her. "What other night? The night all magic stopped!"
All eyes flicked to Tara, but the canine druidess gave a cautioning shake of her muzzle.
Rea edged her pony back toward the leopardess constable, whispering: "What is this cat talking about?"
"Say nothing, foxling." Rin cooed back, her expression cool. "Even if we had time to help them, the druids have no spells to fix buildings."
The young vixen nodded.
The druid spoke in a peaceable tone, though her words carried far and clear. "Is anyone here hurt?"
"No, just wet!" The cat wiped his brow, then flicked the water on the other three workers. Another cat hissed in displeasure, though Rea was unsure how much wetter they could get. The first cat ignored it and continued: "Lucky, I suppose, though the great crash chased all our customers away in the dead of night."
Tara and the constables continued talking to the cat, but motion caught Rea's eye.
Jax's father flicked his tail again. She knew that gesture well. Jax did it whenever something captured his attention. She trotted her pony up to his. "What?"
"I..." The older cat tilted his head, ears swiveling toward the well. "I hear something."
Together they approached the stone well. Green and brown moss covered the sides, save where the massive weight of the aqueduct had shattered ancient stone. One end of the slab lay embedded in the mud and scraps of grass, the other covering the entrance of the well.
Jax's father slipped off his mount and pressed an ear to the slab. His eyes, so like his son's, flashed up to the young fox. "Someone's in there."
Rea straightened in her saddle. "Tara! Rin! Badger! I think you'd better see this."
Both constables and the druidess turned, though Toskun's gaze had a definite sharpness. The vixen smirked just a little.
All three rode up and examined the well. The cats watched from the scaffolding.
Rea tapped a pawpad on the slab and explained.
After a brief exchange, Toskun got tired of talking and gripped the slab. His claws dug into the stone as he strained against it, green sparks flinting off them.
"You won't be able to budge that." The cat laughed from the scaffolding. "Though if water's what you're after..." He swept his paws out across the flooded expanse.
The badger growled and shifted to redouble his efforts.
"Wait." The druid's voice breezed like the morning wind. "Perhaps some subtlety is called for."
"You're going to magic it off?" Rin arched a spotted eyebrow, her voice a hushed purr.
"Nothing so blatant." The canine gave Rin a gentle smile, then eyed the felines on the scaffolding. "Please distract our friends up there."
Rin nodded and saunter back to the aqueduct. Rea marveled at the fact that, even walking through mud, the leopard could attract as much or as little attention as she saw fit.
Tara ran a paw over the stone slab with purpose and care. "Whether or not what that cat says is true, these aqueducts didn't just lose their spells on a whim." Exhaling, she scooped a pawful of seeds from a pouch at her belt. With deliberate motion, she stuffed seeds into an almost undetectable crack. The crack ran the length of the slab and, once it she had it stuffed, it became visible. The canine then reached into her robes, as if looking for something, muttering a chant and wiggling her fingers. She withdrew a thin spell coiled around her finger and spread it down the fracture.
The seeds sprang to life, their leaves reaching toward the morning sun. Everyone jumped back as the slab shuddered, then split down the middle. A thunderclap. The halves of the great stone splashed into the mud on either side, revealing the black depths beneath.
Everyone jumped back, except Tara. The cats on the scaffold leapt down into the mud, fearing another collapse, then scowled at the group when nothing else happened.
Toskun shrugged, gesturing at their now exposed well. "You're welcome."
When it became clear nothing catastrophic was going to happen, Rea peered into the dark space.
Far below, two eyes glinted in the darkness and sunlight caught on water and wet fur.
An otter splashed against the inside of the well, sputtering and coughing. "What by the worlds took you people so long?!"
* * * * *
The fires of the inn roared, stoked by the frantic innkeeper.
Toskun crossed his arms. "Why didn't you yell?"
Wrapped up in a blanket, the otter chittered with an unotterly huskiness. "I did! I yelled until my voice went hoarse."
"We couldn't have heard you!" The proprietor rubbed his feline paws together. "Besides, you were only in there overnight."
"Enough to water-log an otter!" The slick-furred fellow slapped his wet tail across the table. "What sort of rest stop leaves its guests sealed in a well?"
Rin leaned back, purring. "A quieter one."
A smile trembled its way to to Rea's muzzle, but the thought of Jax missing banished it again.
Tara rested a paw on the otter's shoulder and, as if ensorcelled, he relaxed tail to whiskers. The canine turned to him. "What is your name?"
"I'm Flots." The young otter spoke around bites of the lemon trout the innkeepers had dished up for him. Like most otters, he forsook silverware in favor of picking the flaky white fish up between his paws and munching. He gave the group a buttery grin. "And I know you used magic to free me."
Rea gasped. Toskun growled. Tara watched, unperturbed.
"Keep your voice down!" Jax's father hissed.
Flots ignored the feline and whisked a webbed paw though the air. "I have something you want: silence. The question is, what do you have that I want?"
The badger flexed his clawed paws. "Restraint."
Cheeky and confident, Flots snatched a stray flake of fish and nibbled it away. "Mmm! Quite good fish, this river trout. Reminds me of home." A chittery laugh rumbled from his slender body. "No worries, badger. I'm sure we can come to a fair little arrangement." He patted the constable on his striped cheek.
Toskun's powerful paws clasped down on the otter's arms, hauling him up and carrying the squirming, squeaking mustelid outside. Once they were in the street and out of the cats' earshot, he set the fellow down.
The leopardess leaned in, face level with the otter's. "Speak, otter." She cooed. "What is it you want? Gold?"
"Nothing so trite!" Still restrained by Toskun's grip, Flots placed a paw to his slick-furred chest, offended. "You might be the last people in the world to have you-know-what. Wherever you're going, it's toward adventure and I want in!"
"What?" Rin gave the druid a wry look, though the canine was still placid as a glassy lake. She crossed her spotted arms and looked the otter over. "Why?"
"Why not! Adventure is the point of living. Without it, life is drudgery and dross!" Flots straightened his vivid green vest and trousers, puffing up to an intrepid pose.
"What good are you?" Toskun growled, releasing the foolish otter.
"That depends on where you're going." His little ears flicked, spinning around to look back at the druidess. "Where are we going?"
The badger huffed. "That's none of your--"
"The City of Fangs, most likely." Tara stood, silky ears swaying as she turned her head. "To the keep of the winged lords."
"Well, what luck! I happen to know my way around inside the keep." Flots flashed her a winning smile. "You'd be fools not to bring me."
The druidess gave a serene blink and no further answer. The otter's grin faltered as the others stood in a silent circle around him.
Rea cupped her ears at the otter, whose fur was soot-black, unlike the chocolate color of those in her village. "Why do you have giant metal clam shells on your butt?"
"These are the buckler-axes, made at the finest blacksmith's shop ever to float on a river." He flipped them off his belt and onto his paws. With a twirl of his limber body, the cupped disks hissed through the air on his paws, sheering off the tall grass next to him in sloping patterns.
Toskun gripped his sword, but otherwise made no move.
The otter straightened with pride, a hint of the motion lingering in his hips. "Impressive, no?"
Rea stood stunned.
"And they are shaped to aid in swimming as well." He examined one sharp edge. "Could be of great help on an adventure such as yours."
The constable grumbled: "We don't need your help, otter."
"Sure you do!" Flots flipped the blades away and patted him with a webbed paw, his voice filled with casual assurance. "I'm better than ten leopard ladies!"
"No." Toskun crossed his arms. "Leave."
"What? Are you going to just walk up and start breaking down doors with your thick badger skull?"
The constable glared so hard that the lines on his forehead nearly met. "I may."
"Oh, boss..." His leopardess lieutenant cooed, placing a paw at the small of the badger's back. "Just allow the fool to come along. If nothing else, it'll keep him from selling us out to the King."
"And what's to stop him from doing so once we're there?"
"Simple..." She smiled, giving the otter a predatory smirk. "He betrays us, we'll kill him."
Flots's long body wriggled, his smile growing nervous.
Rea understood their caution. In a reasonable world, they'd just use magic to get in, if needed. But as things stood, it would be better to keep that power in reserve. Otherwise, word might get around that Lagan had magic and no one else did. Besides, if he knew how to get into the Citadel, they needed him.
"I say we bring him, yes-yes-yes!" Chib-bib flitted about with each nod.
"By my tail!" Toskun threw a paw to his chest, releasing the other from his sword. "How did you get here?"
"Easy and quick! Giants are sloooooooooow." The little faerret performed a languid roll in mid-air to prove his point.
Rea laughed and scritched his tummy.
"O-o-o-o-o-o-o-oh!" Purrs undulated down his long body.
The otter gasped. "One of the fey folk?"
"Yes!" Chib-bib lifted his tiny paws, color blazing up his body. "Trifle with them, otter-giant, and I shall steal the left half of everything you own!"
Flots ducked, small ears flicking back. He looked between the constables and the fiery faerret, as if worried to twitch a whisker. "I had no plans to."
"Ha-ha-ha! Otters-giants have plans for fish and fish for plans! They grow hungry when one appears!"
The otter rubbed his paws together as the flame-orange Chib-bib corkscrewed around him. His thick tail tucked down. "I give you my word of honor, stoat-tenné."
The faerret fluttered to a stop, hovering before Flots's muzzle. "You'd better!" He poked the boy in the nosepad, making him blink. "Otherwise, you'll ott for naught!"
There you go, that's four chapters of AP now. I have to admit, I really like writing about faerrets. Editing by SillyNeko and Vendetta Leopard. :)
Please let me know what you think!