Mission #3: Rescues and Recruitment
Original story; Vengeance Quest.
Source; Chains of Hate.
Disclaimer; Redwall etc is owned by Brian Jacques. Most of the characters in this, except for the PPCers, are owned by Snowspine, known as Sounasha at the good old Pit of Humans, who kindly gave me permission to “recruit” some of them. (They belonged to her, but she's mean to them so we're taking custody *hugs poor abused characters* ;) No offence meant.) Laburnum and Foxglove are mine. Rena and Shay belong to themselves and can be found here. Ardin was first mentioned in a fic written by them here, as were Mike and Akiko. Agent Luxury first appeared in the Original Series here. Joe-Bob and Doctor Fitzgerald (I think) first appeared in Architeuthis's intelligence reports here, and Dafydd first appeared here. “Cell Block Tango” and “Good Morning Starshine” belong to whoever wrote them. Discworld and therefore Howondaland, the place where “Aargh” means “I would like to eat your foot”, belong to Terry Pratchett, who is a literary god, as does the Hedgehog Song. This will all make sense as soon as you read the fic. Oh, and I stole a line from Daegaer's “The Sound Of Omens”.
WARNING: CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR VENGEANCE QUEST! This wouldn't matter, but Vengeance Quest is in fact a pretty good fic, and this is merely a shameless mockery of it - though I hope the characters are in-character and all that jazz. This fic probably won't make a lot of sense unless you've read Vengeance Quest, but Vengeance Quest will probably make sense if you haven't read Redwall. I will also point out that this is Not For The Faint-Hearted. Just so you know. It contains a level of graphic violence slightly higher than even the violence common to Protectors fics, more bad language than I’ve used in the series so far, and a little bit of musteline slashiness (whoo-hoo! Me likey, but you might not) so the easily squicked should not read this either. If you must flame, please send them to Snowspine and not to me, as she is the one who wrote it in *ducks punch from Snowspine* Actually, don’t send them at all. They will be ignored anyway.
“. . . so there we are, screaming Sue on the floor, she’s ripping at my ankles and my God her claws were sharp, and Shay turns to me and says, ‘I thought you had the knife!’ . . .”
Agent Rena took another mouthful of coffee, and her partner Shay interrupted. “I’m telling you, be glad you haven’t dealt with a wildcat Sue yet. Be very glad.”
“The daughter of Legolas and Death from Sandman was pretty bad brain-pain-wise, but at least she didn’t cause physical pain,” Laburnum agreed through a mouthful of chocolate chip cookie. Her own partner Foxglove was too busy guzzling Coke at a frightening rate to respond.
“I really pity poor Ardin in Intelligence. He has to sit through every fic sent in, from slash to Sues . . .” Laburnum continued.
“Oh, didn’t you hear? Ardin’s off sick.”
Foxglove choked and sprayed Coke over the other three girls.
“Really?” she finally managed to splutter, wiping her mouth. “Why, what happened to him?”
“Too many Sues, I think. Poor guy came back from the last mission gibbering something about ‘the horrible, horrible sparkles’. He’s still not speaking normally, so we don’t know what happened. The real problem is now Redwall has no Intelligence operative for a few weeks, so they just push everything they find onto the agents and we have to comb through it.”
“Aren’t you glad we have more urgent things from other fandoms to deal with?” said Rena. “Bonus of being in the Floater department when it comes to fandoms, and our workload already being maxed out.”
“Speaking of which, we should be going to check on ours. See you later, tell me the rest of the story then,” said Laburnum, standing up and stuffing the last of the cookie in her mouth.
Much searching and cursing later, Laburnum and Foxglove finally managed to track down their call centre.
“I swear this place rearranges itself,” muttered Foxglove, pushing open the door and immediately leaping back because of the shrill BEEEEEEEEEEP coming from the console in the room. Laburnum’s pet Mini-Deepcoiler Marile was curled up in her tank, attempting to bend her long neck enough to cover the place her ears would be if she had external ears with her fins. As you can imagine, this was not very effective. Laburnum rushed to comfort her pet, soaking her black shirt in the process, while Foxglove checked the console. It stopped beeping and Foxglove started whimpering.
“Oh Gods. It’s Redwall. Why did we have to invoke the Laws of Comedy?”
“Oh no, no, no . . . how bad is it?”
“Don’t know. It’s called ‘Vengeance Quest’, about some squirrel chick named Riala Goldentail. The Obligatory Evil Guy kills her dad. Fairly straightforward - oh my lord, it’s rated R.”
“Eep. Still, might not be too bad – remember we don’t have Ardin to filter out the good ones now.” Laburnum dropped Marile back into her tank and flapped the hem of her sodden shirt in a vain attempt to dry it.
“Shall we go?”
The cheery call of a whippoorwill, a warbler’s tune, leaves rustling in the near-silent breeze – it was a fine spring day in the woods of the Northern Mountains. The sun shone down from its blue bed, filtering through the thin green leaves of the treetops and turning everything warm with green and gold light.
There was a flash of red-brown in the limbs of a thick oak as the tops of the branches swayed with the passing of a young squirrel.
And there were also flashes of black, blue, pink and brown in the undergrowth as the canon-compatibly-transformed Protectors slunk after the squirrel, Laburnum as a cinnamon-masked ferretmaid, Foxglove as a black-furred haremaid with the pink ribbons which had tied her hair now on her ears. Thank Mother Nature for Disguise Generators.
“I’m assuming she’s our bally target?” Foxglove hissed, pointing up. “Golly, but I loathe this bally accent. It’s sweet when real hares use it, lucky blighters, but when I use it it sounds silly.”
“Iffen she turns out to be bad enough to slay,” Laburnum pointed out. “An’ stop complainin’. I’m stuck soundin’ like I was born ‘n’ raised in a Whitechapel gutter thanks t’the bloody Disguise Genetor- Gentorat- thingy.”
“No you don’t, old pal. Whitechapel’s in London, not Mossflower.”
“Fine, I’m just bein’ forced to use real lousy grammar. An’ while I’m talkin’, wot’s a whippoorwill?”
“American birdie,” Foxglove explained. “Sort of like a sparrow, I s’pose. Don’t think you get them in Mossflower, but ‘tis only a minor error. We’ll only use it if we need to justify a really cruel death . . . heehee.” Evil grins do not look good on lagomorphine faces. The agents turned back to watching the squirrel.
She nearly fell out of the oak as a footpaw was thrust before her, and a tall, grinning squirrel stepped into sight from behind a branch. “You’re still too noisy, Riala,” the muscular squirrel reprimanded, leaning against a branch casually. A broadsword was slung across his back in a rough leather sheath, with only the leather-wrapped hilt and green pommel visible where it protruded from the scabbard. His mottled green and brown tunic blended in with the leaves and trunk, and the squirrel’s walnut-brown fur aided in the camouflaging. It was no wonder the energetic youngster hadn’t seen him.
“I try to be quiet, Father…” Riala Goldentail protested, gold-brown eyes sincere as she hopped restlessly from footpaw to footpaw. Her tunic was the same as her father’s, and in her belt was a short, thick, dark brown hardwood stick. A long cord was attached to it and coiled on her belt for easy retrieval.
Laburnum pulled the Character Analysis Device from its place on her belt and pointed it upwards at the squirrels.
(Riala Goldentail. Non-canon. Original character/potential Mary Sue.)
(Rilar Battlecry. Non-canon. Bit-player.)
“Seems fine so far, but we ain’t gettin’ to do anyfink yet an’ me neck’s ‘urtin’ wot wid ‘avin’ ter look up all the time. C’n we go off an’ wait fer the battle ‘tween Daddy and Evil Guy?”
“Certainly, old thing. I brought lemonade and brownies,” Foxglove replied, tapping her backpack.
The assassin lasses settled under a tree with their picnic. Admittedly lemonade and extra-sticky fudge choc chip brownies (recipe courtesy of Foxglove’s mother, programmed into the food replicator back in their call centre) were not canonical, but as long as they didn’t litter nobody cared. They skimmed the Words as they tried to extricate their teeth from the gooey brownies. Apparently the potential target was having a rather cute chat with her dad – it didn’t move the plot on much, but there was plenty of time for that later, and the agents found it very nice to see a little character development for once. Riala seemed to be a bit of a daddy’s girl, but not enough to be annoying. Daddy made her a present of a dagger in a neat little piece of foreshadowing.
Suddenly the atmosphere changed slightly. The agents could smell vermin on the breeze. Lots of vermin. Wordlessly, Foxglove gathered up the food and drink containers and the pair scrambled up a tree to watch from a safe distance.
The forest fell silent, hushed by the shadowy bringers-of-death that stole through the woods on silent paws. Here the sunlight, filtering through the leaves, flashed on a drawn sword; there it gleamed off of the red-brown eye of a weasel. The drey was not difficult for the expert band of assassins to find. Weasel, ferret, and fox archers melted into the undergrowth around the home, while only a single ferret, dressed in a dark green cloak fixed by a mouse’s skull, strode near the side of a tall, lithe wolverine.
Flat, reddish eyes looked over the hidden drey with a chilling mixture of anticipation and hatred, their depths not concealing a hunger for blood. Long, white, sharpened claws – overly long, even for a wolverine – tipped callused paws, one of which rested on a curved scimitar. The other fingered a bone whistle that hung around the wolverine’s neck, the slender leather cord invisible under a mane of thick black fur.
The vermin chief rubbed his claws on the soft black cloth of his tunic, watching the drey. Rilar was sure to have seen him by now. Soon the vile wolverine would issue his challenge.
“And here’s the Obligatory Vermin Horde.”
Laburnum the vermin sympathiser cheered. Foxglove slapped a paw over her mouth.
“They’ll hear you! Shh.”
They glanced over at the drey, then back to the Words crawling over the branches. It was disconcerting to sit on a branch which was not only narrow but apparently consisted only of lines of tiny text. Despite the vertigo, they managed to find their place in the Words and read what was going on.
Rilar ran a nervous paw through his fur, not quite sure how to start. He decided on a simple sentence, voice flat and angry- not at Riala, but at the vermin who had caused him so much grief.
“Nightdeath Longclaws is in Mossflower.”
The squirrelmaid fingered her stick, the weapon she called a roce, as she tried to put a face with the name Longclaws. Finally she shrugged, light-brown eyes still bewildered. “Who’s that?”
“The most evil vermin to set paw on goodbeast soil,” Rilar growled, fist clenched. “He killed somebeast- very dear to me.”
“So why don’t we just stay hidden?” his daughter inquired, all childlike innocence.
The squirrel regarded the youngster, sadness and wistfulness and guilt a maelstrom of emotions within him. He could scarcely remember when he’d been without the hardness to vermin screams and pain and blood- could barely recollect being without the fierce drive to kill that came with vengeance. He could barely remember being innocent- and young. The warrior looked down at his callused paws, soaked with the blood of so many lives. When had the pity and guilt been replaced by hard unfeeling?
When his family had been killed by the wolverine.
That was it, surely. His reluctance to slay had been fading even before, but what innocence there was had been torn away when the Longclaws killed his family and took many of his tribe as slaves. That innocence was replaced by a burning hatred and an all-consuming desire for revenge. It was a desire that only his love for his now-deceased wife, and then his golden-tailed daughter, had softened… but now, with the reemergence of Nightdeath Longclaws, that vengeance-lust had flared back up in full fury.
“Because I cannot let him kill any others,” Rilar said finally, “and I cannot let him go unpunished for what he did.”
The young squirrel nodded slowly, still not sure that she understood. “So you’ll fight him.”
There was a long silence from Riala. “And you’ll win?”
“Nope,” hissed Laburnum in a much-too-cheerful voice. “Iffen ‘e did, there wouldn’t be a story, would there?”
“Obviously. Shame, I was starting to like the poor fellow.”
“I fink that was the idea. Yer s’posed ter be upset when ‘e dies. It’s workin’ better’n most Suefics manage, at least. I guess this one ain’t so bad. Maybe we won’t ‘ave ter get ‘er at all.”
It was half statement, half fearful question. “I don’t know, Ria.” He shook his head, paws clenched. If he lost, Riala would be without anybeast to protect her. Was it selfish of him to fight the Longclaws, and maybe die?
“You’ll win.” It had the assurance of a child’s unwavering belief in her father, but the squirrelmaid was fast approaching the end of her childhood. Her eyes held fear for the warrior.
A sharp shout from outside the drey brought Rilar to his footpaws, one paw going to the hilt of his broadsword, strapped across his back.
“Rilar Battlecry! I challenge you to a duel!”
The squirrel warrior’s eyes narrowed as he walked to the window and saw the wolverine as he took off his glove and slowly, deliberately tossed it to the ground in a gesture of challenge. “Longclaws,” Rilar growled.
“Why’d he do that with his glove?”
“‘S tradishunal ter slap yer enemy in the face wid a glove or throw one at their feet when yer challengin’ ‘em. I guess ‘e couldn’t reach ‘is face, so ‘e went fer the other method.” Laburnum grinned. “‘Member that Simpsons episode? Glove slap, baby, glove slap!” she sang in a whisper.
“Wow, you mean a fanfic author actually did research? That’s unusual.”
“‘S only unusual in the fics we see at work normally. Good authors do research. I like ter research.”
“Now that is weird.”
“If we weren’t sat in a tree, I’d punch yer fer that,” Laburnum said with a scowl.
He turned to Riala. “Go up- out the ceiling exit. Hide yourself in the trees and whatever happens, don’t let him know you’re there! Go!”
Fear and worry was plain on the young squirrel’s face, but she complied, scampering up the walls of the drey and out through a trap door in the ceiling. Rilar waited until her golden tail was no longer visible, then stepped outside, battlelight in his eyes. The wolverine smiled- a poisonous, wicked smirk of anticipation- as he saw Rilar walk out of the drey, pushing the low pine branches out of his path.
The squirrel’s sword slid from its sheath with the ominous hiss of steel on leather, and he flipped the glove into the air, catching it contemptuously. “I accept your challenge, Longclaws,” the warrior said quietly, sliding into a fighting stance, blade held steady before him.
The wolverine chuckled, drawing his black-hilted scimitar. “Are you ready to die like your family died, Battlecry? Or should I take you as a slave like I did your friends?”
Rilar’s teeth bared in fury, and he tensed to spring, but then relaxed, shaking his head with a harsh, mirthless laugh. “Anger never won any fights, softclaws. Shall we fight or throw insults?”
“Throw insults! Throw insults!” Foxglove hissed.
“Fox, I’ve told ye afore, this ain’t Mystery Science Theatre. Shut up!”
“By all means- fight!” the wolverine hissed, darting forward with a sharp slice of his scimitar. Quick as sunlight, the squirrel’s sword whirled up to block it, steel on steel filling the clearing with its bell-like clang.
In the tall pine, Riala Goldentail watched nervously, worried and yet caught up in the blur of flashing swords. Neither squirrel nor wolverine could seem to get the better of the other. They were evenly matched, and both were soon sweating heavily from the furious fight. Suddenly Rilar tripped, nearly falling to the ground, and Nightdeath sliced in with a cruel smile on his face. The squirrel rolled, driving upward with his blade, slicing into the wolverine’s left thigh and then springing up with all the speed and agility of his species. He closed in again, hacking and slicing into the wolverine’s flesh. The Longclaws blocked a side thrust from the squirrel, then twisted, his sword biting into Rilar’s arm. They traded blow for blow after that, but it became increasingly clear that the warrior squirrel was winning the battle.
Nightdeath growled three short times, and his ferret guard blew on a bone whistle. It was obviously a signal. Riala froze, frightened, as Nightdeath and Rilar stood watching each other. The Longclaws was smiling triumphantly, while the squirrel was crouched in a wary stance.
“Game over, Battlecry,” the wolverine said smugly.
There was the twang of bowstrings from all around the clearing, and Rilar jerked from the blows of so many black fletched arrows.
Someone was screaming, yelling denial, shrieking the word “No!” over and over. Riala realized it was she as a hoarse shout rose from the dying, arrow-riddled squirrel on the ground. “Riala! Run!” Somehow he could still yell with arrows protruding from his body. She tried to run, but her numb limbs wouldn’t obey. The clearing fell absolutely silent, every head turned toward the pine Riala hid in. It was so quiet that the squirrelmaid could hear the rattling exhale of her father, could see his eyes glaze over as he breathed his last.
The cold, triumphant smile was still on Nightdeath’s face. He motioned toward the tree. “Fire.”
Riala ran as the hiss and whistle of passing arrows rang in her ears.
Laburnum and Foxglove made tracks likewise, as fast as a ferret and hare can move on the lower branches of trees, not being animals built for climbing. The hordebeasts were non-canonical characters, although by no stretch of the imagination were they Mary Sues, and the agents were not sure if that meant the vermin could see them or not. Even if they couldn’t, a mis-fired or ricocheting arrow might just happen to attempt to pass through the space currently occupied by an agent’s body part.
Once they reached a safe distance, Laburnum perched on a branch and pulled up the Words window on her laptop while she caught her breath. Foxglove tried to look over the lid of the laptop and read it upside-down.
“So, she lurks around fer . . . three days? We can’t wait three days till somethin’ ‘appens! An’ even then all she does is cremate ‘er Daddy an’ swear vengeance, then we ‘ave ter wait another day ‘fore the action starts up again. Long time gaps ‘re alright ter read, but ter live? We’ll be ‘ere bloody weeks!”
“Portal, old chum?”
“Why, certainly, madarm,” said Laburnum, in a weird mockery of the hare’s accent filtered through that of a ferret. “‘Tis why the jolly ole Portal Thingy was invented, after all, ‘tis it not?”
The next day, the squirrel was walking slowly down a wide, much-used path, following the tracks of the Longclaws’ band, vengeance the one thing on her mind. She was not filled with the bloodwrath, however, and her senses were alert.
Riala’s keen ears swiveled at the rustle of leaves in the woods nearby, and she tensed, roce in paw immediately. Light brown eyes, just recently carefree with a childlike innocence, now hard and calculating, searched the trees. She heard the twang of a bowstring and threw herself sideways to the ground, hearing the whistle of an arrow passing by just where she’d been standing. Her searching gaze caught movement in the brush, and she threw her stick. It struck the archer with a solid thunk, and there was the snap of bones and a scream of pain. She’d hit his arm. Smiling thinly, the squirrel retrieved her roce and dashed into the woods, searching for the archer. Out of the shadows, a dagger sliced her throwing paw, though not deeply. She hissed in pain, whirling with her roce, but it struck nothing but air. A weasel grinned at her through the shadows, a knife in his paw. One arm hung limply at his side.
“You’ll pay for that, missy,” the vermin snarled.
Fortunately for the agents, neither of the combatants noticed the mysterious maidens hiding in the underbrush, stomping their footpaws rhythmically and chanting “Fight! Fight! Fight!” under their collective breath.
Riala blocked the dagger thrust with her stick, the blade making barely a mark on the hard wood. She drew her own knife, driving it into the weasel’s stomach and upward into his chest. He stared at her, blood spurting from his wound, the expression on his face the picture of disbelief. Then he gurgled from the blood coming up his throat and fell, lifeless, as the horrified squirrelmaid unsheathed her dagger from his heart. Blood drenched her paws and dagger, and flecks of it were on her tunic. She stared, stunned, at the bloody corpse at her feet.
“What did I do?” she whispered.
I killed. He was living, breathing, thinking… and I killed him. But then her shocked thoughts went to her father, and then to Nightdeath, and her paw tightened on the dagger. Can’t trust vermin. Longclaws killed Father… and so there’s no reason not to kill murderers. It’s justice.
Laburnum spoiled the dramatic moment somewhat by singing softly under her breath; “He had it comin’, he had it comin’, he had it comin’ all along. I didn’t do it, but if I’d done it, how could yer tell me that I was wrong?”
“And you nag me constantly about this not being Mystery Science Theatre?”
So reconciled, Riala hardened herself against the grisly sight of the dead weasel. Whatever shreds of childhood innocence or tenderness that might have still clung to her heart now stripped away, she moved on.
The stunned agents watched the squirrel walk away.
“Wow. That was . . .”
“Gory? Creepy?” suggested Laburnum.
“Good. Really good. Realistic reaction, no ‘Sue splat faceless vermin goon’. She’s tough, but she’s not Warrior Sue. She actually got wounded in the fight, and it took effort for her to win. Messy, though.”
“Messy is good. Plunder good, slayin’ good, dis de blade wot shed yer blood!”
“Alright, missy, this is the last time I let you have a carnivore body for the disguise. And Raventail was not Jamaican last time I checked.”
“Not my fault I’m real crap at accents. ‘Specially wid this bloody pre-geniterated one.”
“Generated,” Foxglove said, and dodged a punch from Laburnum. “Can’t say I lost my childhood innocence after my first kill, but then I don’t think Sues count.”
“So, are we agreed squirrel-chippy ain’t worth killin’?”
“Yes. Well, that was a jolly short mission.”
“Um, no it ain’t. We’ll get in big trouble if we don’t at least read the rest of the fic for testin’. Get yer laptop, we’ll ‘ave a flick through.”
Foxglove pouted. “I was hoping we could head back home and I could drop this bloody accent. Ah well, A and B the C of D, wot wot? Shall we stay here? It’s a bally beautiful day, shame to waste it.”
“Umm, can we go somewhere which does not have a fresh corpse three yards away?”
“Oh. That. Sorry, I forgot.”
“Ye just watched the poor critter stabbed! How can you ‘ave fergotten already?”
“Because I’m stupid. Is that what you wanted to hear?”
The pair tried and failed to keep straight faces, and walked away together laughing uproariously.
“Getting anywhere wid it?”
“I’ll finish this chapter before you yet, Miss Competitive!”
The agents had got bored and entered into a speed-reading contest. So far they had been there for four hours and were halfway through Chapter Ten. (Both were incredibly fast readers, thanks to both having been practising since they were roughly three years old.) Laburnum was enjoying the chapter rather more than the previous ones, having a soft spot for vermin. Although Chapter Eight, where Riala had been thrown out of the Wanderers of Mossflower for torturing a stoat for information and then killing her, had been an extremely intriguing bit of character development, especially since in exactly the same chapter there had been hints of Riala becoming a big-sister figure to another squirrelmaid. Borderline-neurotic characters are so hard to write, and so entertaining when you find them done well, Laburnum reflected. It was so nice to investigate a bearable, in fact good, story for once. She guiltily found herself hoping for Ardin’s recovery to take longer than usual, just so they could see the good stuff as well as the usual garbage.
Unfortunately, just as she got to an interesting part, she remembered she hadn’t been to the bathroom all day, and suddenly really needed to. She mentally swore. Why did this always happen to her?
“Uh, Fox, I’m gonna have ter quit the contest, ‘cos I kinda need to, y’know, go. I’m portallin’ back to HQ, won’t be long.”
“Laburnum old pal, we are outside. In a woodland. With lots of trees and bushes. Why do you need to go back to HQ?”
“I ain’t goin’ to the bathroom in a forest! Jes’ ‘cos yew spent ‘arf yer child’ood on campin’ trips don’t mean I wanna try wot yew did.”
“Fine, fine, go. You know this means you forfeit the contest? So I win!”
“Wotever, jes’ keep readin’ while I’m gone. Sooner yer done, sooner we can go ‘ome.”
An hour later, Laburnum reappeared.
“Sorry I took so long, I got there no problem, then the Sunflower Official dragged me off to ‘is office ter yell at me fer comin’ back widout yew, so I ‘ad to explain, then I ‘ad ter avoid that creepy nympho Luxury in the corridor, then Rena cornered me an’ insisted on tellin’ me the rest of . . . wot’s wrong?”
Foxglove’s expression was fixed in a faint, not-entirely-in-touch-with-reality grin; the expression of someone who has just seen something extremely unpleasant.
“Read Chapter Thirteen.”
“But I’d only just got ‘arfway through Chapter Te-”
“Read Chapter Thirteen.”
“Ohh-kaayyy . . .”
Laburnum picked up her laptop again, clicked the link and started to read. Her eyes slowly became wider as she read, finally reaching their limit, then scrunching shut again as she slammed down the laptop lid and wailed “Oh, YUCK!”
“Yeeeessss,” Laburnum shuddered. “Thank yew so much. Guess that ‘splains the R ratin’. I ain’t gonna sleep tonight now.”
“And yet you can watch ‘Law and Order: Special Victims Unit’ without flinching.”
“That’s different. I actually cared wot ‘appened to Stormsong. ‘E was me favourite!”
“Shall we call the Disturbing Acts of Violence Department?”
“Eeeehhh, actually, I don’t think so. It’s . . . as near ter tasteful as that can be, not too graphic, an’ it’s character development fer wossisname, ‘avin’ ter watch it ‘n’ realisin’ wot an ‘orrible critter Longclaws really is, so I guess it’s justifiable . . . but I feel so sorry fer the poor weasel. Nobeast deserves that.” Laburnum clenched her fangs and fists, and shuddered. Foxglove recognised her partner’s vile mood and tried desperately to think of a way to combat it, otherwise both would be seeing Doctor Fitzgerald very soon – Laburnum for her stress-induced anxiety problem and Foxglove for injuries inflicted on her by Laburnum for saying the wrong thing while Laburnum’s anxiety problem was flaring up. It was worse than pre-menstrual stress, not least because she got it at least once a week instead of monthly despite her already heavy medication.
An idea suddenly hit.
“You know, Laburnum my dear friend, we do have an extreme shortage of agents . . .”
“So, poor Stormsong is a well-rounded character and so safe from us, and he’d happily come with us if it meant being alive at the end of it . . .”
The penny dropped. Laburnum looked up. A sneaky smile slowly spread across her face.
“Why Fox, you wily critter. You was appropriately named.” Foxglove smiled and did the nearest thing to a bow one can manage while sitting between two tree roots.
“And, if I remember correctly, Subcaptain Skyfire was that stoat which Riala killed, but since the chapters are written out of time order for effect, we can nab her as she runs away from the horde. So Stormy won’t be lonely.”
“Hmm, per’aps we’d better portal back ‘n’ pick up some campin’ stuff. We’re gonna be ‘ere a while. But portal to the right time period. I’ll wait days, but I ain’t waitin’ seasons.”
“And there’s another gadget we’ll need to nag the SO for.”
Foxglove explained the workings of the Simulation Generator, or SimGen. Simulation Generators were small machines which produced an exact copy of a character who was about to suffer something extremely unpleasant. The unpleasant thing would happen to the copy and the character would be safe. However, if used too often or too recklessly the SimGen had a tendency to produce sentient clones, which understandably objected to what they were made to do. The Flower Officials had controlled the use of the SimGens ever since a sim had escaped and tried to take the real character's place, causing weeks of paperwork. The girls really did not want to release a sentient clone in a goodfic. They probably wouldn't be fired (or killed), but they didn't want to find out what they would be subjected to. The Flower Officials were known to have a nasty line in poetic justice - but then, so were the agents.
Time crawled on-hours to days to weeks, and slowly Kiern’s life returned to normal. He began sparring with Skyfire daily, and soon began winning all their matches. He began sparring with others in the horde and winning all of those, too. He just hadn’t resumed sparring with the Longclaws-not just yet.
As he headed back to his tent one morning, cool air drying the sweat from his fur, he noticed a strange tension in the horde, murmurs through the breezy air.
“Longclaws not looking too pleasant…”
“…death for somebeast…”
“…wonder what it is?”
Kiern’s mouth pressed into a thin line and he quickened his pace. An execution? He’d better get into his dress uniform, then… in case the rumors were true.
He ducked into his tent, tore off his sweaty marching clothes, dug into his pack for the carefully folded dress uniform, black crisper than night. He’d just pulled on his breeches when a whisper of cloth and air alerted him to somebeast’s entrance.
Kiern turned to see Stormsong, gray face seeming grayer than normal, eyes holding a sort of desperation and despair. “Stormsong-“ Kiern stared, concerned. “Are you-well?”
A harsh laugh from the gentle bard. “For the moment, Kiern… for the moment.” He took a step closer. “I be needing to apologize to thee… because I be about to do something fair selfish.”
Confusion crossed Kiern’s face. “What-“
-but his words were stifled by another mouth on his, by arms wrapping around him, by a lithe body pressed against his own.
A clicking noise, followed by a whistle, interrupted. Both mustelids spun round, Kiern picking up his sabre, Stormsong leaping away from him, to see two strangers in the corner of the tent. A ferret and a hare, both maidens barely out of cubhood. The ferret was tallish, with brown face markings and the remains of baby fat, and was holding a paw-sized grey box with a glass circle in the centre up to her eye. The hare was shorter and skinnier, with unusually dark fur and vivid pink ribbons tied around her ears, and was holding a strip of cloth in one paw and a rope noose in the other. Both wore black short-sleeved tunics with the runes “PPC” in red on the left breast, and breeches made of a strange blue material. Daggers hung from their belts, along with several small metal boxes of no readily apparent purpose. Both were grinning in a most disconcerting manner. Neither Kiern nor Stormsong had noticed them enter.
“Excuse me friend’s bad manners,” said the ferret with a sweet smile. At least, she probably meant it to be sweet. It actually looked more like the expression on the famously sadistic Captain Deathcry’s face when she was given a fresh victim (but then, what can one expect when one is forced to go through life with a name like Deathcry?) She released the little box, which swung on a strap around her neck. “We’re in a rush, or we wouldn’t’a butted in. I s’pose there’s no chance ye’d do that again . . . ?”
“Where in the name of Hellgates did you come from?” snapped Kiern, pointing the sabre at them. Not that he would use it unless he had to - he couldn’t kill unarmed youngsters in cold blood. Even if they had just viewed the most socially awkward moment of his life and seemed to be finding it funny.
“Oh, don’t bally well mind us. We’re just here to rescue your friend, wot wot?” said the hare.
“She means yew,” the ferret informed Stormsong, who was by now confused as well as frightened. He had never seen this pair of lunatics in his life, and how they had managed to enter the tent without him hearing them (even though he had been somewhat . . . preoccupied) he did not know.
“What exactly is happening?” the stoat captain demanded.
“Nothing ye need concern yerself with right now,” said the ferret, unhooking a black box from her belt.
“What’s tha-” The haremaid had taken this opportunity to sneak up behind Kiern, and she jammed the cloth into his open mouth, gagging him. He made a muffled yelping sound, and was distracted for the second long enough for the ferret to knock the sword out of his paw. The hare reached round and roped his paws together, then looped the other end of the rope around one of the tent poles as he struggled with the knot.
“Sorry ‘bout this. I know that won’t ‘old ye fer much time, but we don’t need much,” said the ferretmaid, in genuinely apologetic tones. “Please don’t try ter escape yet, we won’t be long.”
Stormsong was still standing stock-still, jaw hanging, unable to think what to do. He blinked as the ferret turned to him.
“How . . . ? What? Why?” he spluttered incoherently.
“Long story, it c’n wait. You can’t. ‘Old still.” The weasel’s immediate reaction when he heard this, especially when combined with the grin on the ferretmaid’s face, was to make a dash for the tent flap. The hare tackled him, clapping one paw over his mouth to prevent him calling for help. He was aware that Longclaws had it in for him, but if he raised the alarm about these maniacs, maybe the wolverine would forget about him, at least for a short time. This was now, of course, a moot point, since he was pinned to the ground by the haremaid, who was a lot stronger than her scrawny frame looked. She scrambled upright, dragging him with her. Kiern had by this point managed to free his paws from the hasty binding, but the ferret had picked up his sabre in her free paw and pointed it at his throat.
“Don’t try anyfink, bucko.”
The worst swordsbeast in the world could not have failed to make a hit at that range. Kiern wisely stood still, undoing the impromptu gag and awaiting his chance to snatch the sabre back.
“Look ‘ere, we’re savin’ yer matey’s life. No fanks ter yew.”
Stormsong made an inquisitive and frightened noise through the haremaid’s paw. How did they know?
“Saving his life?” Kiern asked.
“Poor fellow’s for the chop. We’re removing him before any damage is done, wot?”
“Why is he ‘for the chop’, as you put it?” asked the extremely bemused stoat.
“Slow on the uptake, aintcha?” said the ferret, smirking like an adder in a mouse colony. She blew a kiss to the outraged Kiern.
“Why did you bring me into this? I didn’t ask him to kiss me!”
“We know. That’s why yer boss ain’t sendin’ yeh to the Dark Forest wid ‘im.” Her cheeky grin was replaced by a look of dark hatred for a brief second. “Someday that wolverine’s gonna get wot ‘e deserves, but not at our paws. I don’t wanna deny Goldentail ‘er fun.” She shrugged, gripped the sabre hilt under one armpit and opened the black box. It contained a mirror, which she flashed at Stormsong, the hare releasing his snout so a clear reflection of his face was produced. “Awright, open yer lute case.” The hare let go of Stormsong’s paws, allowing him to open the case, which he did, since he didn’t want to find out what would happen if he didn’t cooperate. She shone the mirror at his precious instrument as well, then fiddled with some buttons inside the box.
“Now, this is gonna frighten yer, but if yer scream, folks’ll come to see wot’s goin’ on an’ we’ll all die. So please don’t.”
She pressed something, and a beam of light shot out of the end of the box. At the other end of the beam, another creature materialised, motionless and vacant-looking. Stormsong owned no mirror, but he had seen his reflection in water and other shiny surfaces enough times to realise that this was a perfect copy of him. He didn't scream, but he leapt about a foot in the air, pointed at the copy and started to gibber uncontrollably. The hare took hold of his paw.
“Whoa, calm down. It’s harmless.”
“But - but - how-“ His voice trailed off. The hare looked at her friend.
“Howsabout I take him back to camp while you tie up the loose ends? He needs a chance to recover, and I’m less threatening than you.” The ferret nodded, reattaching the magic box to her belt.
“Okay,” she said to the copy, “go an’ get killed.”
She pushed the copy gently, and it walked slowly outside, still expressionless. The hare produced a similar box and fiddled with it. Soon a glowing vertical hole, as large as a doorway, appeared in the air. The jacks were barely surprised by now.
“Alright, go through,” the hare said, nodding at the hole. Stormsong looked hesitantly at it.
“Put it this way,” said the ferret, sounding annoyed. “Wot can yer find through there that’s worse’n wot’ll ‘appen if yer stay?” This was logical, although not particularly comforting.
“Oh, just bally well get in there!” snapped the hare, pushing him. The weasel stumbled into the hole and vanished completely. Kiern gasped.
“What in the world . . . ? Is this some kind of bizarre nightmare?” The ferret took hold of his shoulders.
“Mm, up to a point, yes. Now, relax an’ eat this.” She pulled a glass bottle from her pocket, removed the stopper and proffered a round white pill from it. By this point he was so bewildered he would have gone along with just about anything. He took the pill and swallowed it. It tasted faintly soapy. The mysterious ferret stepped through the portal, which disappeared as her tail-tip went through.
He looked up. Stormsong had gone. There was a faint scent of some other beast, but it must have been his imagination. Nobeast but the healer and himself had been in the tent that day. Though he was sure he could smell ferret . . . and hare? And something else, something subtly wrong . . . There was also a funny taste in his mouth, which, as recollection oozed horribly up from the depths, could have been Stormsong’s breath. He ran his tongue over his fangs and rethought that theory. Last time he had checked, Stormsong was not in the habit of eating soap. Neither was he, so where had it come from? For that matter, where had the mild but sore rope-burns on his wrists come from?
Kiern stood frozen in time by stunned confusion, shock, incredulosity, staring blankly at the motionless tent flap. What… just… happened…?
Several miles away, Stormsong fell through the other side of the portal into a clearing containing a tent of what he managed to register as an extremely ugly shade of blue, closely followed by the haremaid. By this point, he was terrified out of his mind. So he did the only logical thing. He started to scream hysterically and tried to run away.
The haremaid really could move quickly. She grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him until he shut up. The ferret reappeared and the glowing hole closed up behind her.
“Hey,” she said, nodding to the hare. “I think we’re cleared up.” She turned to look at the weasel. He had stopped screaming, but his ears were flat against his skull, his tail was tucked between his legs and every exposed hair was standing up, giving the impression of a toilet brush in a tunic. She stifled a laugh, then tried to look friendly, not succeeding very well. At least she’d stopped grinning at him in that horrible way.
“Whoa. Calm down. I won't say we’re harmless, ‘coz that would be a lie, but we ain’t gonna hurt you.” Stormsong was incapable of replying, but he did manage a shrill whimper. He breathed deeply for a few seconds, trying to relax a little. After all, he was still alive and it looked like he was going to stay that way. Finally he relaxed enough to breathe properly, although he was still so tense he made his own lute's strings look like jelly.
“Feeling better, old thing?” asked the hare. Stormsong shook his head.
“What in the name of Hellgates are you doing?!”
“Alrighty then, introductions’ll make this a whole lot easier,” said the ferret cheerfully. “My name’s Agent Laburnum, me pal’s Agent Foxglove.”
“Agent being the bally old rank, not the name,” Foxglove pointed out, with a flick of her beribboned ears. “We already know you.”
“How?” snapped the weasel.
“Long, long story. But it's not like we’re going anywhere yet. Why doncha siddown and listen?”
“I have a choice?”
“Nope. Sorry.” Stormsong sighed and sat down next to the maidens.
“Well,” Foxglove began, “we’re assassins by trade, but today we’re on recruiting duty, and you’re the lucky recruit. See, we work for a group called the Protectors of the Plot Continuum. PPC for short . . .”
Over the next two hours, Stormsong learned much of the mysterious organisation, the duties of its agents, the workings of the various gadgets which had played a part in his rescue and his own origins in the mind of a bored human writer. He found himself thoroughly ticked off when he learned he was not the major character. Yesterday he would not have believed a word of this story, but by now he had decided he was having a particularly weird and unusually vivid dream. He wondered if somebeast had been sneaking the famous “magic mushrooms” into his food - he wouldn't put it past them.
“. . . and so we’ve technic’lly press-ganged yeh, but since yer only other option is best summed up as ‘die ‘orribly’, we didn't think yeh’d mind. Oh, and I’m sorry about beatin’ Kiern up, but it was that or get a sabre in me ribs.” Stormsong nodded, shuffling slightly further away from her. She seemed nice enough, but she made him extremely nervous. “Come on, I didn’t hurt him much.”
“I hope you’re grateful, me bucko. We saved you before you lost any major bits - or even minor bits, you lucky thing - and we even got your banjo.”
“It’s a lute,” Laburnum pointed out, then turned to the weasel. “So. Comin’ with us?”
“I would have much preferred to be asked,” he replied. “Thou hast given me no real choice.”
“We know,” Foxglove said cheerfully. “Imagine how you’d have reacted if it wasn’t life-or-death. You’d have laughed - or run for the boss and then it’s scratch two agents.” She seemed remarkably calm, even flippant, as she spoke the last sentence, considering that if they had been caught they would have died in unutterably horrible ways over perhaps a week.
“Aye,” Stormsong sighed. Laburnum patted his shoulder sympathetically.
“I know yer gonna miss Kiern, but heartache heals. Skulls wid arrows through ‘em don’t.”
“That was tactless,” Foxglove observed. Laburnum shrugged, walked over to the tent, and appeared to tear a hole in the front. On closer inspection, Stormsong realised that the “hole” was edged with tiny metal teeth which had held the edges of the opening together until Laburnum had pulled a small tag which prised them apart.
“Meh. Yer hungry?” Laburnum entered the tent. The weasel could glimpse her through the opening, fiddling with the catches of a large lurid-orange box, which presumably contained food. She held up a small metal box, indistinguishable from the other small metal boxes fastened to her belt, and stared at it. “Oops, I packed the spare Disguise Gen-thing by mistake.” She shrugged, put it to one side and rummaged in the large box again.
“A bit. Wait, I was meaning to ask – why do you want a photo of them?”
“Because I fink it’s cute, and because I can ick out Rena an’ Shay wid it.”
“What be a photo?”
“Uhh, we’ll explain later.”
The tent was slightly too small for three to sleep comfortably, especially when the food box was added, and Foxglove kicked in her sleep. On top of that, the ground sheet was sewn to the sides, making an entirely-enclosed space, and the strange shiny material (Stormsong was unfamiliar with PVC) crackled every time a sleeper rolled over. Somehow the trio still managed to sleep, Laburnum for a lot longer than the other two, until Foxglove jumped on her, singing “Good Morning Starshine”. Laburnum woke up with a yell and kicked her partner in the stomach.
Once the chaos had died down a little, Laburnum tottered outside, rubbing her eyes.
“You awake yet, sleepyhead?” Foxglove asked cheerfully. “We’ve been up since dawn!”
“Fox, express ‘appiness this time in the blinkin’ mornin’, I’ll kill yer. Wot’s fer brekkfist?”
Foxglove poked at the full frying pan over the campfire. “I brought the ingredients for a full English breakfast. I know they're terribly fattening, but I missed them, my dad used to fry ‘em up on Saturday mornings. Want some fried eggs?”
“When I want to eat scorched bird menstruation, I’ll be sure an’ tell yer.”
“Menstra-what?” asked Stormsong, swallowing a mouthful. Laburnum shook her head.
“Jest eat yer brekkfist. C’n I ‘ave some toast?”
As the group stuffed their faces (at least the girls did – Stormsong was rather more mannerly about it) they discussed the plan for the day.
“Alrighty, so Skyfire runs off, comes back to the clearing and buries what she thinks is you,” Foxglove said, nodding to Stormsong. “Then she wanders off somewhere, and the readers don’t see her again till Riala gets her paws on the poor creature – or at least, our copy of her, because we’ll have picked her up by then. Let me see . . .” she fiddled with her laptop.
“Don’t spill grease on that!” Laburnum warned her.
“Okay, we won’t use the Portal Generator unless we absolutely have to, after how Stormsong reacted to it – sorry about that,” she added. The weasel shrugged, but didn’t say anything. “Anyway, if we start walking now we should get to the camp round about as she leaves. Stormsong, you should probably stay here, she doesn’t need a creature she thinks she just buried greeting her suddenly.”
“Fine, let’s go,” said Laburnum. “Wait – the story don’t have exact directions, which I s’pose is fine, ‘cos ye don’t want ‘arf the tale taken up wid directions. But ‘ow the ‘ell do we find the place?”
“Easy enough. We just follow the way the Words point . . .”
Ex-Subcaptain Skyfire clambered to her feet and wiped her sweaty brow with an earth-stained paw. She’d done all she could to give Stormsong’s mutilated remains a decent burial, even if it meant pushing the maggot-ridden, bulging-eyed, bloodstained corpse into the paw-dug hole with the tip of her sabre while looking away and trying hard not to inhale.
“I’m sorry, Stormsong,” she murmured. “I hope you rest in peace now.”
Less than half an hour after Skyfire left the clearing, two strange creatures dropped suddenly from the lower branches of a tree in front of her. The drama of this was broken somewhat by the young ferret yelping and starting to swear under her breath about having broken her ankle, which she plainly had not done as she managed to walk towards Skyfire with only a small amount of difficulty. The even-younger-looking hare looked back at her, shook her head, then turned to Skyfire with a wide smile and paws outstretched. Skyfire whipped out her sword.
“Well, here’s a nice how’d-ye-do. Ex-Subcaptain Skyfire, I presume?”
“How do you know who I am? Talk, brat!”
“Oh, that’s nice. We’re savin’ yer life, lady,” said the ferretmaid grumpily, rubbing her ankle.
“I can take care of myself without the help of a pair of . . .”
“No, you can’t. If you keep wandering through Mossflower, you’re going to run into a psychopathic squirrel by the name of Goldentail. Not an experience you want, I’m sure.”
Skyfire lowered the blade slightly. The maidens stepped forward, but not in a threatening manner.
“We jes’ want yer ter come wid us. There’s an ole friend o’ yourn ye might like ter meet.”
Skyfire considered her options. Sheer curiosity, a common natural aspect of stoats, combined with the knowledge that she didn’t really have anywhere else to go, and she could take down these two easily if they proved to be hostile, decided the matter. She nodded briefly.
“Alrighty then,” said the hare with a disproportionate amount of cheerfulness. “This way.”
Skyfire followed the two very strange strangers off the beaten track, wandering through undergrowth for an hour, listening to them bicker and have giggling fits over things they said that made no sense to her and turning round occasionally to ensure she had not left them (which she sorely considered doing several times, but they always managed to stop her when she tried).
Eventually, they reached a tiny clearing containing a strangely shiny bright blue tent. A green-clad, grey-furred creature sat with his back to them. Why was he so familiar?
“Hey, we’re back,” the ferret called to him. He turned around.
“Good morni . . .” he started to say.
Skyfire recognised him. She had last seen him horribly mangled and lying in a shallow hole, which had been the best grave she could dig with her bare paws. Her mouth opened and her jaw flapped up and down a few times, but no sound came out. Finally, she did the most logical thing she could. She fainted.
Foxglove dragged the unconscious stoat into a sitting position, or at least a slump, against a tree and patted her face, cursing under her breath. (Foxglove could curse in ten terrestrial and five fictional languages already and was picking up more every day at HQ. Laburnum was quite envious of her - languages had never been her strong point.) Stormsong stood nearby, shaking his head and tutting, as Laburnum put the SimGen away and shoved the Skyfire clone in the direction of the path. It vanished into the treeline.
“Okay, that could probably have gone better,” Laburnum conceded. Skyfire moaned and struggled upright. “Ye feelin’ alright?”
“Ye-” Skyfire tried to answer, then caught sight of Stormsong. “Aargh!”
Laburnum wondered briefly why the stoat wanted to eat her foot, but then remembered that she wasn't in Discworld.
“AmIdead?” squeaked Skyfire, trying to burrow into the tree root with her shoulder blades.
“Nope. Technically you probably should be soon, but you ain’t, and if we have any say in the matter, you’re staying that way,” Foxglove said.
“Long story,” said Laburnum, and promptly launched into said story. Foxglove and Stormsong joined in, thus confusing Skyfire even further, but eventually she managed to absorb the information that she had technically been kidnapped and was now going to have to work for a demon-slaying organisation. Well, it couldn’t be much worse than the Nighthunt; the “agents” were never executed, no matter what they did (she had not been told about the punishments they did use, but she guessed they couldn’t be as bad as the Nighthunt’s) and at the very least, she wasn’t alone anymore.
Once they had finished speaking, the group sat in silence, unable to think of anything to say as Skyfire tried to come to terms with her situation. She was taking it remarkably well, to say she had just apparently seen a friend come back from the dead.
“Well, I see you remember your friend,” Foxglove said awkwardly. The stoat laughed mirthlessly.
“Yes. Usually when I’m trying to sleep. No offence meant,” she said to Stormsong, “but I never, never, never want to see somebeast do what they did to you ever again.” She shuddered.
“Please, describe it not,” he said, holding up a paw. “I know not what happened to the copy of me, and I wish it to remain that way if possible.”
Skyfire nodded, then remembered something.
“Wait. Stormsong’s here, and you made a magical copy of him to take the damage at his execution. So I just buried a dummy? I spent three hours grubbing in the dirt next to a stinking, rotting corpse for nothing?”
Foxglove and Laburnum looked at each other.
“Well, see, there’s a perfectly good reason fer that, an’ we’ll tell it to yer after we pick up the other new recruits. . .” Skyfire’s withering scowl changed Laburnum’s mind. “No, really, there’s a liddle bird who used to follow the ‘orde around an’ ‘e’s gotta ‘ave seen yer buryin’ the body, so’s ‘e c’n tell Goldentail ‘bout it when she comes by ‘ere later an’ make ‘er feel guilty ‘bout killin’ wot she thinks was yew, but is really the copy we made.”
“And you expect me to believe such a ridiculous story?”
Foxglove stared at Skyfire. “A little bird spying on your old horde offends your sense of likelihood, but you have no problems believing two demon-slaying maidens you’ve never met used magic to save yours and your friend’s lives?”
Skyfire concluded that the haremaid had a point.
“What other recruits?”
Screaming protests, coarse laughter, and the sounds of struggle jerked Kiern’s attention to a circle of tents by the Nightblood encampment. Seasons… what have the bloodthirsty assassins caught this time…? He grimaced and headed towards Veneno’s tent, the seeming source of the sounds. He didn’t bother to knock, simply brushed by the sneering guards and ducked into the tent.
There was Veneno, flat amber eyes grinning over a pair of bruised and beaten otters bound to twin posts in the spacious tent’s center. And Deathcry, gnawing on yet another bone, a low giggling coursing from her throat, dagger tickling the female’s dark throat. And… Nightdeath Longclaws…
The wolverine looked up as Kiern entered, and a smile flickered across the angular face. “Ah, good; I was just about to send one of the Nightblood to bring you here.”
Kiern looked from male otter to female otter, to Veneno, to Deathcry, and finally to his chief. “What is all this?”
“Veneno’s assassins captured these two, apparently scouts, not far from the castle,” the Longclaws said.
The male otter snarled. “Never would’ve caught us if ‘e hadn’t used poison!”
Veneno leaned in close, smirking in the otter’s face. “We’re vermin, aren’t we? I thought that was expected of us…”
The otter strained against his tight bonds, glaring utter murder. “Scum… dishonorable stinkin’ pike…”
A sigh from the Longclaws. “At any rate… I want you, Veneno, and Deathcry to interrogate these two. Use whatever methods necessary—“ and the fox and ferret grinned with bloodthirst “—but do not kill them. They will still prove useful. Kiern, you know what questions to ask; Veneno and Deathcry will make sure these two answer.”
Kiern’s mouth thinned to a tight line. “I must work with… them?”
“Aye.” The flat ebon gaze fixed on Kiern’s. “I raised you a bit too honorable, it seems… We must be hard, oftentimes. Woodlanders are not worthy of the same honorable treatment as our kind. And methods must sometimes be harsh… Do you understand?”
Anger burned within, but the guardcaptain lowered his gaze and nodded. “…Aye. I understand.”
A curt nod. “I’ll be in my tent. Meet me there when you’ve all the information you can extract.” With that last and a salute, Nightdeath Longclaws strode from the tent, and Kiern stared blankly at the ground.
A cry of pain jerked his gaze up to the two otters. Veneno was tickling the female with his scythe, cutting thin lines of blood here and there, while the male raged at his bonds. Kiern’s jaw clenched and he grasped Veneno’s scythe, pulled it away with a glare.
“I have not begun questioning,” he said, barely holding back a snarl. “No need to start your torturing already.”
Veneno snickered and pulled away, bowing with mock respect. Kiern grimaced and turned to the otters, who stared at him with eyes full of hatred.
“Let’s just get formalities out of the way first… What are your names?”
Kiern sighed. “I am Kiern, this is Veneno, that’s Deathcry. Your turn.”
No answer from the otters.
Deathcry giggled, high-pitched and eerie. “Ssshould I take the anssswer from them?”
“Deathcry… no.” A grimace. “Simply names, otters…”
“Unless you’d rather we call you Bloody and Agonized,” Veneno said.
Kiern glared at him for silence. “It is no difficulty to give us your names, and compromises nothing. What would we do with that?”
The female otter snorted. “Tell Castle Floret ye’ve captured us?”
A shrug. “Don’t need your names for that; we can just as easily bind you and drag you in sight of them.”
The male snarled and struggled forward as if to attempt to rip Kiern’s throat out, but the female held up a paw. “No, th’ stoat speaks true enow…” A nod. “I be Hyacinth, an’ this be Strongpaw.”
Deathcry chuckled and sidled up to the male, looking him up and down. “Aye, I can sssee why he wasss named Ssstrongpaw…”
“Enough, Deathcry…” Kiern’s teeth ground together in frustration. “So the two of you are scouts for this ‘Castle Floret’?” More glowering, and Kiern breathed out a sigh. “Why are you being so difficult?!”
Strongpaw snarled. “We’ve honor, scum! We’d protect our home despite anythin’, no matter what ye’ll do te us! An’ if protectin’ it means not answerin’ a question out of yer mouth, then so be it!”
A low laugh from Veneno. “Death thinks this is where our job begins, guardcaptain…”
Kiern opened his mouth to protest, then shut it with a click of teeth. Have to… allow this… So he forced his attention on the two otters and the two torturers, stomach twisting into knots.
Veneno slid over to Hyacinth, leering inches from her face. “Deathcry… think these two are mates…?”
“Yesss… I sssaw them before, when they thought none were watching…” A sadistic giggle. “Yesss, they—care much for each other…”
The black fox raised an eyebrow. “Well… Death knows the power in that…” He cast a laughing glance Strongpaw’s way, and a dagger appeared in his paw, blade caressing the female otter’s cheek with blood. She stiffened, eyeing the blade in motionless silence. “A pretty one, for a woodlander, is she not?”
Kiern’s mouth thinned. This is… disgusting…
“Ssso, woodlander… will you cooperate with usss… or mussst we have our fun with your love there…?”
Strongpaw glared daggers at Deathcry, whose chewing bone tickled his jaw. “Ye sick vermin…” A whimper jerked his gaze to Hyacinth and the blade digging ever deeper in its designs along her cheek, her neck, her shoulder… She shuddered with pain and revulsion as Veneno’s tongue licked out to lap the blood from her face. The male otter hissed with fury. “Stop it!”
Deathcry smirked in Kiern’s direction. “Asssk your questions, sssir…”
“…right…” Kiern swallowed bile from a cotton-dry mouth. “How many guard Castle Floret?”
A snarl. “I’ll never tell ye that!”
The stoat’s eyes closed as a strangled cry erupted from Hyacinth; Veneno’s blade had traveled down from her throat to her navel, slicing a thin line of blood and slitting open her tunic. Just focus on asking questions… “What species guard the castle?”
“Stop hurting her!” growled from the male otter.
“How are they armed?”
The female otter’s cries grew to a sobbing scream. Kiern’s eyes snapped open to see Veneno’s paw on her dangling wrist. He broke it…?
Deathcry laughed, eerie and empty. “Ask away, guardcaptain…”
“…Who leads the castle…” Hiding a flinch at the agonized gasps from the female. “How are they guarded… What is the method of defense in case of an attack…”
“What… what are you doing?!”
“Whatever the bastard’s doin’, ‘e won’t be doin’ it fer much longer iffen I ‘ave anyfink ter say ‘bout it.”
There was a pause, and torturers and victims alike looked to the tentflap. A ferretmaid stood there, dagger in one paw and black box in the other. Before the horde officers had a chance to react, she darted forward and cut the ropes holding Strongpaw. Kiern blinked, wondering where he had seen that face before, then drew his sabre. Veneno reflexively grabbed his scythe and swung at terrifying speed, but scythes are not intended to be used in the confined spaces of a tent, and the blade hit the post Hyacinth was tied to. It stuck fast in the wood, and by the time he freed it the ferret had kicked Deathcry in the stomach and cut the otter jill free as well. She swiftly sheathed her dagger and her paw moved towards the box in the other paw, but Kiern’s sabre flashed forward. A scream from the maid, a crunching noise, and she was clasping her bleeding paw and staring at the now-useless pieces of metal, glass and wire fizzing and sparking at her feet. She recovered quickly, grabbed the otterfem’s unbroken wrist in one paw and the male’s forelimb in the other despite the obvious pain the grip caused her, and dragged them from the tent. Kiern shouted “Get them!” Hordebeasts looked up at the fleeing creatures, then grabbed weapons and followed them.
“What are you doing?” gasped Strongpaw at the ferretmaid.
The otters were bright enough to do so, and the trio ran at top speed to the treeline, with Nighthunt beasts in hot pursuit. Fear lent them speed, but unfortunately the horde had the same advantage, as they were aware what Longclaws would do if the prisoners escaped. Somehow they made it to the trees ahead of the pursuing vermin, and Laburnum started to rummage in her pockets.
“What are you doing?” asked one panicked otter.
“Jes’ lookin’ fer the Portal . . .”
Memory clicked into the agent’s brain. She had left the Portal Generator back at camp with Foxglove and the two recruits.
Her scream of “SHIT!” was heard from there to Terramort Island.
Foxglove, with her sensitive hare’s ears, heard her partner’s voice echo faintly from nearly four miles away. As she looked around to pinpoint the sound, she spotted the Portal Generator lying on top of the food cooler. She rocketed up from a sitting position, hit her head on the top of the tent, scrambled out the entrance and started to run towards the sound.
“Ohno. Ohmigosh. Laburnum’s in big trouble. Bugger and blast, why this now?”
Skyfire and Stormsong, who had been sitting by the fire conversing, jumped up and followed her.
“What? What’s happened?”
“Laburnum left the Portal Generator in the tent! She’s in trouble, she’ll be caught, we’ve gotta save her . . .” Foxglove’s voice became shriller as she panicked. Stormsong slapped her face and caught her paws.
“Stay calm, Foxglove. If thy partner has indeed been taken by the Nighthunt, there is nought we can do but pray she has a swift and painless end. I’m sorry, child.”
“I’ll give you a fucking swift and painless end! That’s my friend we’re talking about! I’m not leaving her! Besides, the SO would kill me!” Foxglove screamed at the top of her voice. “Just because your friend was too scared to stop them killing you-” She realised what she had said and stopped as if she had been shot, then breathed deeply and said dully, “I’m sorry. There was no excuse for me bringing that up.” Stormsong raised a calming paw.
“‘Tis of no matter. Thou wert upset.” Skyfire wrapped a paw around Foxglove and pulled the now-sobbing maiden into an awkward hug.
“I’m afraid he’s right. If we tried to use your magic doorway to fetch her, we’d just get ourselves captured too.”
“No. I know there’s a way. There has to be a way . . .”
Laburnum knelt, paws bound to her tail and ankles tied together, in front of Longclaws’ tent, beside the similarly bound otters. Her nose was bleeding over her lips and chin. The wolverine watched her impassively as Kiern continued with his report.
“When we brought her to the ground, it was nearly impossible to bind her because she flailed her limbs about as hard as she could, not caring what she hit. Three beasts have broken noses and another a fractured forelimb thanks to her kicking them. She screamed at an astonishing volume all the time, using language I would never have expected to hear from such a young maid. When I approached and tried to calm her, she told me to go and do something extremely indecent to my mother, then lunged forward and tried to sink her teeth into my face.” Kiern rubbed at the shallow toothmarks in his cheek and snout. It was only by sheer luck the ferret’s fangs had missed his eyes. “Once her paws were bound, she seemed to collapse from exhaustion, and did not resist as we dragged her and her comrades back.”
Nightdeath Longclaws stepped forward and pulled Laburnum’s head up with a claw under her chin.
“My goodness, you’re a little battler, aren’t you?” he said in a deeply sarcastic voice. “Now what were you thinking, trying to release our prisoners? You’re one of us, you have no reason to assist the lower orders.”
“Lower orders, me tail!” snapped the ferret. “I’m more of a Southswarder than I’ll ever be one of your mob.”
“That’s no way to speak to your future lord, wench,” snapped a black-furred fox with a scythe, holding the blade perilously close to the ferret’s nosetip.
“Oh yes,” she replied. “That comin’ from Mister Delusions Of Grandeur Whose Name I Can’t Remember How To Pronounce. Yew sure yer talkin’ ‘bout Fluffy an’ not yerself?” She nodded towards the wolverine as she said this.
“Fluffy!” gasped a stoat jill wearing captain’s insignia. Laburnum assumed this was Astarte Darkmoon, horde bicycle. She found herself disappointed that, thanks to the timezone, she could not call the stoat this to her face. There’s no point in an insult unless the victim understands it. There was no change to the wolverine’s expression, but she knew her remarks were hitting home. The otters turned their heads and looked on, horrified.
“Yeah, bloody Fluffy. Look, I’m already gonna be tortured, raped, killed, skinned an’ eaten, not necessarily in that order. So what ‘ave I got ter lose by tellin’ yer wot I think of yer?” Not to mention I hope to be rescued before it comes to that, she thought. She smiled in a way which Kiern found disturbingly familiar and turned her face to the shocked horde. “Rats an’ weasels an’ foxes, oh my. An’ don’t fergit me own breed.” She said this in a tone of utter contempt.
Veneno stepped forward and ran a claw down her jawline.
“Perhaps you have nothing to lose, but what about your otter friends? Mayhap they shared the valuable information they possess with you . . .”
“I’ve never seen ‘em in me life before terday, moron,” Laburnum snapped. “An’ last time I was in Southsward was to assassinate the princess, so I didn’t exackly examine their stratchedy.”
“Southsward doesn’t have a princess,” objected Strongpaw from his position on the ground.
“Shows yer ‘ow good an assassin I am, then, don’t it?”
“No, I mean the royal family have not produced a daughter.”
“Well, this was ‘bout five, six ‘undred seasons ago,” Laburnum said airily. In fact this was perfectly true – one of the training missions had been to Southsward. She was mildly surprised when Longclaws didn’t even blink.
“You’re a really bad liar, do you know that?” he said.
“Wotever. Your loss iffen yer don't believe me. An’ getcher tongue off me face!” the ferret snapped at Captain Veneno, who was licking the blood from a wound on her temple. He ignored her. She sighed. “Look, c’n we jest skip past the indecent assault ter the bit where I escape ‘n’ kick yer arse?”
The black fox smirked in a way Laburnum had never seen on anything which didn’t have scales.
“No,” he said, slipping a paw under her shirt and running his tongue down her cheek. Unfortunately for him, Laburnum had started wriggling her paws in the ropes in the hope of loosening them as soon as they had been tied. She had not loosened them enough to escape, as the ropes had been very well-tied, but enough to reach her paws round to her belt and pull it until the Disguise Generator was within the reach of one fully outstretched claw. Said claw pressed the Delete button.
Veneno suddenly found his vision obscured by a mop of brown curls. The body under his paw seemed to change shape and the fur vanished, leaving skin as bare and smooth as a newborn’s. Screams and gasps echoed from the horde, and he stepped back to see the decently-plain ferretmaid had been replaced with the ugliest creature he had seen in his life. (The author would like to interject here, requesting that the reviewers do not send her any comments about mirrors. Thank you.)
“Pretty, aren’t I?” said the monster, in a rather more refined voice than the ferret had used. She shook her grubby earlobe-length mane back over her shoulders, licked blood from her plump pink lips and bared ugly square teeth at the horrified vermin. “God, it’s a relief to get rid of that stupid accent.”
“Mother Nature, it’s hideous!” wailed Captain Sharshek of the Nighteye section, the rat who had betrayed Stormsong in order to inherit his position in the horde.
“This coming from you, snitchy?” the prisoner snarled.
“Augh, I put my mouth on that thing!” said Veneno in a tone of utter disgust, scrubbing his paws on his tunic, then wiping his tongue on his sleeve. Captain Deathcry looked intrigued and moved in for a closer look.
“Perhapsss you’d be more willing to let it near your mouth if it wasss roasssted?” she hissed, grinning at her idea of a joke. “Whatever it isss, it’sss plump, and at leassst we would not have to worry about ssshaving off asss much fur asss usssual.”
“Don’t touch me, slaughter-slut!”
“No, Deathcry, do not touch her – yet,” interrupted Longclaws. “I know she knows more than she lets on. She must know these otters, or she wouldn’t have bothered entering our camp to save them. Perhaps we can extract information from her – or failing that, with her.” He stepped forward and tried to drag Laburnum upwards by the scruff of the neck, realised the skin there was no longer loose enough to grip, and instead dragged her upwards by the collar. “So, willing to talk, or do we have to hurt you?”
“I don’t know anything and I’d rather eat my own eyes than tell you if I did!” Laburnum spat.
“Ah, good idea,” said Deathcry, sounding pleased. “Mussst remember to tessst that one.”
“Don’t be silly, little one. We’ll get the truth from you in the end, why prolong the suffering of both yourself and your friends?” He suddenly threw her to the ground. She gasped as she landed painfully and heard a loud crack from her ribcage. “Everybeast tells the truth in the end. Make it easy on yourself.” Through the haze of pain, Laburnum managed to register how reasonable he sounded, as if he was persuading a naughty child to put the biscuit tin back before Mummy found out. Not to mention how incredibly cliché his words were. She groaned and spat blood at his footpaws.
“. . . told y’ . . . dunno ‘bout S’ths’d . . .”
“Lie and you only prolong your pain,” snapped Veneno.
“. . . m’ friend Foxglove . . . sh’s gonna come get me . . .” Laburnum mumbled deliriously.
“Your friend Foxglove? Who is she?” The wolverine verbally pounced on the tiniest scrap of information. “Is she a Southswarder?”
“No . . . she’s got nothin’ t’ do with this. Let her go.”
“Your friend Foxglove will live up to her name if I see her,” Veneno hissed into the girl’s face, “because I will slice her throat, stick my paw deep into her head through the cut, and push her eyeballs out with my claws.” He mimed the motions as he spoke. Laburnum resisted the urge to be sick on him or point out that this was physically impossible.
“Let the poor creature go!” shouted Hyacinth. “Whatever she is, she’s hardly more than a pup!”
“Ah, the maternal instinct,” said Longclaws, knowing he was winning. “What would you do to protect a cub, even if it isn’t yours?”
“Look here, you bastard,” the otter continued. “You can do what you want to us, but leave the child alone. She’s not a Southswarder, she has nothing to do with us. Just let her go.”
“And we will,” Kiern told her stiffly. “As soon as you tell us what we want to know.”
“Oh Gawd, guardcaptain, does the stick up your rear have a stick up its rear?” snapped Laburnum. Gasps echoed from the hordebeasts once again as Laburnum smirked. “I’ve always wanted to say that to someone.”
“Why you little . . .” the horrified stoat spluttered, trying to find a suitable way to end the sentence.
“Sharp-tongued slattern?” Laburnum suggested politely. “I told you, I’ve got nothing left to lose.”
“How about the sssanity and livesss of your otterfriendsss?”
Laburnum shrugged as best she could when lying on her side with bound arms and broken ribs.
“We die whether we tell you anything or not. Right now I’m past caring.” Come on, Foxglove, I’m here! Come and HELP me! she mentally screamed.
“Really?” asked Longclaws. “Captain Veneno, do what you will to the female otter. Deathcry, Sharshek, restrain the other prisoners. Let them see him work.”
“With pleasure, sir,” hissed the fox. He stepped over to the whimpering Hyacinth and produced a knife. Laburnum felt the ferret captain pulling her into a sitting position and holding her face towards the otter. She tried to look away, but Deathcry was stronger than she looked. Her claws pried Laburnum’s eyelids apart. Out of the corner of one eye she could see Strongpaw being treated likewise by the rat captain, but she found her eyes being drawn back to Veneno, who was cutting away the remains of the otter’s clothing, ignoring the fact that he was breaking the skin in the process. Hyacinth wailed.
“Stop!” Laburnum shouted. “Blood I can stand, that I can’t.” Veneno stopped, poising the dagger above the otter’s navel.
“Ssso, willing to talk now, brat?” Deathcry almost purred in Laburnum’s ear. She looked up at the otters, smirking. “A lesssson here; never tell a child your plansss.”
“We didn’t,” replied the angry Strongpaw. “We told you, we’ve never seen her before, fool!”
“Let go of my face and I’ll tell you. And I am not a child.” Deathcry loosened her grip enough for Laburnum to move her head. She stared down at the ground between her knees, eyes flicking as if looking for something. Then she took a deep breath, licked her dry, blood-flecked lips and muttered, “Dammit.”
“What?” asked Kiern, leaning over her shoulder, trying to see what she had seen. All he saw was a patch of ground. This was only to be expected, since the characters in a story cannot read the Words which make up the world around them. Laburnum had been searching desperately through the Words to find the answers to the questions. Sadly, the author had apparently not spelled them out in the text, which would not have mattered in other circumstances but mattered very much in this one, and since Laburnum was understandably unfamiliar with the time period of Southsward that the author was using, she had no clue as to the answers. She was mentally using every obscenity that she knew against the author, but out loud she merely sighed.
“I admit it. I was bluffing. I was hoping I could pass off a fake answer.” Longclaws laughed, low and terrifying.
“Always a mistake around expert . . . information collectors. Deathcry, teach her a lesson.” The ferret nodded and pushed the prisoner to the ground, twisting her bound arms up in the process. A quick swing of the paw, and Laburnum shrieked as her arm went crack. Veneno laughed eerily, then returned his attention to Hyacinth.
“Don’t! I’ll tell you all you want to know, I’ll tell the truth, just stop!” Strongpaw shouted.
Longclaws held up a paw.
The otter nodded, and started to detail the defence plans of Southsward. The horde’s scribe Woodrell hurriedly scrawled notes, while Kiern looked pityingly at the prisoners, as if to say, See, all beasts break in the end. Laburnum honestly didn’t care whether they got the information or not, since either her plan to rescue the otters or the plot of the story was down the drain either way. In the original plot, the otters had broken and told under torture in slightly different circumstances, but as long as Kiern was angry with Longclaws and the information was procured the plot could repair itself. Since the SimGen was broken, she couldn’t rescue the otters without causing a huge plothole, and since this was a goodfic the Sunflower Official and his ilk would be extremely annoyed if she did. All this, however, was now a moot point, as she was now quite definitely convinced she was about to die. Foxglove and the recruits appeared to be unavoidably held up. She tried to focus on something else, but all she could find to focus on was Strongpaw’s description of Castle Floret’s defences. It was better than nothing. Wow, that many otters in Floret? I never knew that, she thought deliriously.
Finally, the otter fell silent. Woodrell’s quill scratched for several seconds, then he wordlessly pawed the parchment to Kiern, who examined it and nodded to Longclaws. The wolverine clasped his paws together and spoke disturbingly cheerfully.
“Well then. We have the information we needed. I must thank you, you’ve been a great help.” He smiled quite politely at the defeated otters and human. “Well, we would seem to have no further use for you. Nighthunt, kill these two.” He dragged the otters upright and shoved them towards the horde.
Laburnum had never seen that particular method of killing before, and she watched in horrified fascination. The otters were torn at with knives and claws alike, sometimes with teeth. Finally, they disappeared in the press of bodies, but nothing drowned out the screams, not even the jeers and battle whoops from the vermin.
Laburnum’s voice rose to join the shouts from the horde. She hoped the otters were still capable of hearing what she had to say.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I tried to save you! I did what I could!”
Eventually, the screams stopped. Laburnum could not see the otter’s bodies, but from the noise and what she had seen of their deaths, she guessed that what was left of their pelts wouldn’t make a doormat. She blinked a few times, too shocked to do anything. Finally she spoke.
“Is that all you have to say?” asked Longclaws, sounding astonishingly bored, considering what had just happened.
“No,” Laburnum replied, and launched into a stream of invective which would have melted steel. Even Kiern didn’t understand some of the words, but he noticed Astarte Darkmoon seemed to be making mental notes of them, even at this inopportune time. Longclaws’ expression stayed perfectly fixed, but his temple started to twitch.
Kiern reflected that it was probably the strange creature’s implying that Longclaws had had Stormsong executed because he was in denial about his own orientation that really did it for the wolverine. He suddenly grabbed her by the collar and slapped her around the face with open claws. That seemed to calm him a little, not least because it shut her up. He regained control of himself impressively quickly.
“Very well, if that’s how you want to play,” he snarled at the girl hanging from his paw. “Any last words? You may not be capable of speech later.”
Great, Laburnum thought. Hope Fox sees my mangled corpse when she arrives too late. Some friend she turned out to be. Okay, what are my chances of getting through this without screaming? Nil. Fine, prepare most heart-rending scream possible just to upset dumb guardcaptain. Last words? Can’t think of anything on the spur of the moment. Oh well, I’ll go out with a bang. She spat neatly in Longclaws’ face. He wiped the bloody phlegm away with his other paw, shrugged, then hurled her at the front row of vermin.
By sheer luck, she did not land on a bladepoint. Paws clutched at her, ripped her clothing and pulled out clumps of hair. She squeezed her eyes shut as she felt somebeast undo the buckle of her belt and pull it off, taking her equipment with it. More paws yanked off her shoes and socks, then fiddled with the zip of her jeans. The vermin didn’t especially want to touch her, but they recognised good clothing as valuable when they saw it. Fangs pierced her ear, a dagger sliced along her torso, a footpaw connected with her already-cracked ribs. She shrieked.
She suddenly realised she wasn’t the only one shrieking. Captain Darkmoon was screaming at the top of her voice. The beasts attacking Laburnum dropped her and started screaming as well. Laburnum managed to look in the direction of the panic, despite her multiple breakages, and gasped. The gasp quickly turned to relieved laughter.
“Foxglove! I’m over here!”
The glowing portal was still wide open, illuminating the trio from the back. Foxglove had evidently remembered about the spare Disguise Generator. All three had added somewhat to their normal appearances. They now had huge, ragged and torn bat-wings protruding from their shoulder-blades – no use for flying, but terrifying in appearance. Flames flickered over their bodies, but caused no damage. Their claws (or, in Foxglove’s case, nails) were longer and much sharper than usual, as were their teeth, which had become yellowed and broken, but the jagged edges were razor-sharp. Their eyes literally glowed crimson, like tiny lava pits.
Laburnum found the disguises rather stupidly cliché, but evidently the vermin hadn’t read as much as she did. None resisted as the “demons” ran towards Laburnum. Several of them hurled themselves to the ground, tore their fur and wept in terror. Kiern regained his composure swiftly, drew his blade and leapt to Longclaws’ side. The wolverine was squinting at the grey weasel in demon costume. His eyes widened.
“Stormsong . . . ? No! I saw you killed once! What does it take to kill you again?”
He stepped forward, but Foxglove threw something at a nearby campfire, which had already burnt down to embers. It exploded with an impressive flash. Longclaws clutched at his eyes for a second and that second was too long, as that was all it took for the little group to snatch up their injured comrade (who yelped and begged them to be careful of her wounds) and run back towards the glowing doorway.
“What are you morons waiting for?” he howled. “Get them!”
“No, noooo, let ‘em take ‘er!” wailed Sharshek. “They want their prey, let ‘em have her!” As he said this, the creatures drew level with him, and the grey weasel glared. The dark human looked, nodded, and the weasel approached the rat captain. Sharshek dropped to his knees and begged for mercy. The weasel stared impassively at him, then bent down until their nosetips touched.
“Until next time, Captain,” it hissed, then turned and ran for the door. The petrified and superstitious hordebeasts did nothing but stare and pray. The musteline “demons” stepped into the portal and vanished, and the dark human supported her companion on her arm and handed her a small metal stick. The escapee turned slowly and painfully towards the terrified vermin and spoke, smiling ironically.
“So long, farewell, auf wiedersehn, fuck you!”
She squeezed her eyes shut and held up the stick.
Kiern blinked. All around him, confused creatures rubbed their eyes and wondered why they were seeing spots, or why they were kneeling on the ground. He shook his head. Mind must have wandered for a minute there, he thought, feeling more than a little disoriented. He looked down at the scroll in his paw. Oh, right. The information. Give it to Longclaws. I must be overtired. He followed Longclaws into his tent, where they could speak without beasts eavesdropping. Longclaws dropped his cultured voice when alone with the guardcaptain, in favour of a strong Northern burr.
The wolverine took the parchment, barely glancing at it. “Aye. Good.” A sidelong look at the stoat. “An’ had ye much trouble with th’ otters?”
Kiern forced himself not to flinch. “A bit.”
He swallowed. “Veneno and one of his assassins had to… rape the female… before either would talk.” Did they? Yes. Of course they did. How could I forget that? I just saw it. I am overtired!
“Ahh.” The slightest of smiles. “That be explainin’ th’ sick look on yon face of yours…”
Nightdeath shook his head. “Only tae one who knows ye well enow,” he said. “Ye be utterly repulsed, aye? Wonderin’ why I be makin’ ye do such?”
Kiern closed his eyes and nodded. “Aye, sir.”
“Aye.” The Longclaws leaned back against the tent’s center pole. “Ye’re tae soft, Captain. Ye’ve a stomach that turns at torture an’ rape, an’ seein’ I be allowin’ it, e’en orderin’ it, ye’ve been doubtin’ me. Fighting ‘honor’ an’ loyalty tae me.”
The stoat’s eyes widened and he met the wolverine’s ebon gaze. “What…”
A chuckle. “I ken ye better’n ye ken, Kiern… I raised ye, after all.” A sigh. “We live in rough times, an’ we be surrounded by rough types. Coarse types. T’would be grand tae not need tae kill, or torture, or rape… but ‘tis needed, at times. Would ye use a smile on an adder, or would ye use a blade quick, afore it could bite ye?”
“…A blade, of course…”
“An’ ‘tis th’ same with anythin’ else, especially leadin’ a horde. Ye must be ruthless, kill before ye can be killed, gather information any way necessary so fewer of yours need die. Do ye understand?”
Kiern barely registered the rest of the conversation. What had happened there? Why was there a large gap in his memory? He wandered away, shaking his head. Really must get more sleep, he told himself.
Suddenly a vaguely familiar sharp scent hit his nostrils. His whiskers twitched as he pinpointed the source. He turned, to see Captain Sharshek. He looked at him with his usual distaste, which changed quickly to disbelief.
“Sharshek, would you please explain to me exactly why you appear to have wet yourself?”
“Umm . . .”
Agents and recruits fell in a heap inside the tent, Skyfire supporting Laburnum to ensure she didn’t cause further damage to herself. Foxglove collapsed, remembered she still had the bat-wings on, and yipped as the clawed “finger” on top of one wing poked her in the kidneys. She turned to Laburnum.
“Really sorry we didn’t get there earlier! Are you gonna be okay?” Laburnum grinned fixedly.
“I’m fine right now, but in a second the shock’s gonna kick in so you should probably . . .” She collapsed, sobbing hysterically.
“Uh-oh. Gimme a sec to switch the disguises off . . .” Foxglove removed the batteries from the Portal Generator and put them in the Disguise Generator in record time. “Sorry, sorry, sorry, but we rigged up the disguises, then found out the portal thing’s batteries had run down, and I wasn’t sure if taking the batteries out would delete the disguises, but it didn’t so it’s okay . . .” she rambled as she did so. Finally, she managed to press the Delete button, and suddenly there was a lot more room in the tent as three sets of wings vanished. The now normal-looking Skyfire drew the sobbing Protector into a hug and patted her back gently, avoiding the knife-wounds.
“Shh, shh, it’s going to be alright,” she said nervously, realising how pathetic she sounded even as the words left her mouth. There was a sudden unpleasant and instantly recognisable noise from Laburnum. The stoat’s eyes widened, then her face screwed up in disgust.
“And h-here y-y-you t-th-thought y’d ‘ave t-to w-w-wait till y’ were a m-mother b-b-before y’ g-got b-beasts bein’ sick d-down y’ back,” Laburnum managed to choke out. “S-s-s-sorry.”
“Never mind,” Skyfire sighed. “Not your fault.” Stormsong crawled behind her and examined her sticky tunic.
“Oh my. There be blood in this. Hardly surprising after what poor Laburnum hath been through.”
Foxglove dug in the box containing the food and camping equipment and produced a first aid kit.
“Painkillers here. Doc Fitz’s special make, you wouldn’t feel it if I chopped your legs off after you’d taken one of these.”
Laburnum swallowed the pill, lay back and let Stormsong examine her wounds.
“Thou art lucky, friend. One broken forelimb, three broken ribs, broken nose, several lacerations and bite wounds, but still, thou hast thy life. ‘Tis a first for a victim of the Nighthunt.”
Laburnum winced. “Don’t feel too lucky. Owie. Can you see my ribs through my side?”
“Nay, the wound be not that deep. ‘Twill need stitching, though.” Foxglove passed him a needle and thread, a roll of bandages and a tube of antiseptic cream, telling him to smear it on the wounds and dip the needle in it. Thankfully for Laburnum’s low pain threshold, the painkillers were every bit as strong as Foxglove had said, and she lay completely still while the weasel sewed her up and tied a sling for her broken arm from the bandages. Foxglove dug out the cooking pot, matches, a water bottle, the teabags and what seemed like about a thousand sachets of sugar.
“Time for hot sweet tea for you, Laburnum. It’s supposed to be good for shock.”
“I hate tea.”
“Drink it anyway,” Stormsong told her. “‘Tis preferable to suffering the effects of shock and blood loss.”
“Must say it took you bloody long enough to get there!” Laburnum said, too exhausted and weak to snap.
“Not my fault,” Foxglove explained, unzipping the tent door and continuing to talk as she relit the little firewood heap. “I thought up the plan – easy, you know what vermin are like when it comes to superstition – then found out the bloody stupid Portal Generator’s batteries had run out! So we had to put in the batteries from the Disguise Generator because the neuralyser’s batteries don’t fit, then test to see if the disguises stayed put when we went through a portal. Besides, it’s the sodding Laws of Fiction. We always get assignments sent just as we’re about to fall asleep, if we say ‘it can’t get any worse’ it always does, and the rescue mission always arrives in the nick of time before the victim is killed!”
“Wouldn’t the nick of time be just as Fluffy-boy was about to throw me to his goons, not after they started trying to eat me alive?”
“Only in a lower-rated story.”
Meanwhile Skyfire had been staring at Foxglove’s face. She finally plucked up the nerve to crawl out of the tent and speak quietly to Foxglove.
“Is that really what you look like? All the time?”
Laburnum sighed. “Fine way to spend . . .” – she suddenly sat upright, causing Stormsong to stab his own paw with the needle and use a word they had not until this point been aware he knew – “MY SIXTEENTH BIRTHDAY! My God, how could I have forgotten my own birthday?!” Laburnum slumped, head in hands. “Great. Worst birthday ever. I am going to kill the SO for this.”
“Well, it was good for one thing,” Foxglove pointed out. “I’d hidden a pack of balloons in my pocket. I was going to get them out for a surprise party when you complained that I’d forgotten. I blew one up and filled it with salt and sugar, then threw it in that campfire. Didn’t you wonder what the explosion was?”
“No, I was a little preoccupied with other things. You know, watching two otters be eaten alive, being violently assaulted by homicidal wildlife. Just small, unimportant stuff like that.” Laburnum sighed again. “Oh well. I’ve been bitten, clawed, licked, pissed on and pawed about by a bunch of animals already, a few more won’t make any difference . . .” She remembered her audience. “And I just humiliated myself because you don’t understand the context of that, didn’t I?”
Both mustelids nodded. Laburnum slapped her forehead.
“Be careful! Thy stitches, remember?” Stormsong gently reminded her.
“Whatever. Is the plot gonna be okay? We screwed up bad, and I don’t want the ending changing because of it.”
“Nah, we’re safe,” said Foxglove. “We used the neuralyser, they won’t remember a thing, and goodfic plots are pretty resilient. Maybe a few sentences will be phrased differently, or they'll stand three yards to the left of where they were going to be if we hadn't messed it up, but that’s pretty much the extent of the damage. So, Burnsey – revenge time?”
“Once I’m capable of movement again, yes. And this time we’ll be more careful. It was my own dumb fault. Kiern may be stiff-necked, rule-obsessed and brainwashed-” Stormsong and Skyfire winced “-but that doesn’t make him incompetent, and I guess we got too used to relying on the element of surprise. It’s always worked before.”
“Yes, but you used it on those demons – what were they called? Mah-ree somethings?”
“Mary Sues. And they don’t really sound very intelligent, from what you told me.”
“They’re not,” Foxglove agreed with Skyfire. “If we want to get Deathcry and that fox with the unpronounceable name on their own, we portal in while they’re asleep, nerve-pinch before they get to do anything, and tie them up before they wake up. Then we do what? We can’t kill them, they still have to be capable of fighting in the big finale later. I’m perfectly willing to give them one of my patented beatings. I use them on my brothers – minimum damage, maximum pain.”
“No, pain doesn’t have much of an effect on that type of mind. Foxy-boy thinks he is Death and so can’t be killed, and I have the horrible feeling Deathcry’s a masochist as well as a sadist. No, what we need to do to them is public humiliation. But you can beat them as well if you like . . .”
When Protectors want revenge, they don’t mess about, even when inflicted with temporarily-disabling injuries. Shortly after dawn, Captains Veneno and Deathcry were reported missing. They were found shortly afterwards – given that they were within hearing distance and yelling fit to wake the dead, it was difficult not to find them. Both had been beaten up, but that was nothing compared to what had been done next. Deathcry had been stripped naked (her clothes were dumped in a heap several yards away, along with both captain’s weapons), tied up in an uncomfortable position and then buried up to her neck next to an anthill with honey poured over her face, resulting in rather large, sharp-jawed ants crawling into ears and nostrils. Worse, so were a couple of wasps and bees. Veneno had been strung from a tree by his ankles, and was stuck from navel to knees with hedgehog quills which took three healers the best part of the morning to remove. It would have taken a shorter time, but every time one realised he or she was about to snigger, they had to leave the tent for fear of the psychotic captain’s wrath. On top of that, the healers discovered evidence that the handle of his scythe had briefly been stuck somewhere highly unpleasant. Nobeast dared to ask what exactly had happened, and even if they had the unfortunate captains could not remember, however hard they tried. It was as if a patch of time in their minds had been erased, from when they fell asleep the previous night till when they found themselves in the painful and embarrassing situation they had been put in. Rumour spread that when Nightdeath Longclaws had had the situation described to him, he had insisted on being alone in his tent in order to have a fit of laughter in private. Beasts who saw Veneno kept humming the famous song “The Hedgehog Can Never Be Buggered” as soon as the bandaged, limping and extremely annoyed fox captain was out of earshot. Those unfortunate enough to misjudge the fox’s hearing range limped for weeks afterwards.
Meanwhile, Captain Sharshek was busy trying to conceal the fact that somebeast had cut the words “I SUCKED PRICK FOR THIS JOB” into the side of his tent with a dagger, carefully leaving narrow strips of cloth to hold up the middles of the letters. He sewed up the cuts, but couldn’t do anything about the legibility of the words, as sewing them up merely highlighted them and he didn’t have enough cloth to patch over a whole tent-side. Much mirth was had among the horde that day, the literate members repeatedly reading the graffiti on the tent to their not-so-educated brethren, except among the beasts who had been on sentry duty, who found themselves trying desperately to explain how somebeast had managed to do all this without being seen, and Captain Sharshek, who also had a second lot of embarrassing explaining to do after the incident the night before. Of course, Longclaws did not believe one of his captains, even Sharshek, would be stupid enough to write inflammatory graffiti on his own property, quite apart from the fact that Sharshek could not in fact write, but Sharshek was at a total loss to explain who had done it.
Stormsong and Skyfire never did find out where Laburnum and Foxglove had got a hedgehog skin from, much to their secret relief.
Two frightened-looking mustelids and a cheerful human girl supporting another rather battered-looking girl hopped through the portal into Doctor Fitzgerald’s surgery-cum-laboratory. The stoat and weasel looked around in surprise at the room. It was made entirely of plates of silvery metal; walls, floor, ceiling. A large table with worrying-looking leather straps on the sides stood in the centre of the room. The walls were lined with cabinets and racks containing instruments that Captain Deathcry would have sold her twisted little soul to experiment on a prisoner with, and glass bottles and tubes containing varicoloured liquids. Some had unidentifiable things floating in them. Skyfire could have sworn at least one of them was moving.
Fortunately before either she or Stormsong had a chance to panic, a grey-haired, white-jacketed human appeared from behind a row of cabinets, gasped, and said, “Good lord, what happened here?”
Weasels and stoats are not good at reading human expressions, but they could tell by the tone of voice that this new human was concerned for the group’s welfare and was apparently going to help them, despite the fact that they seemed to be in a torture chamber.
“Injured in action, Doc Fitz,” Laburnum told the human. “New recruit did a pretty good patch-up job, but I need fixing permanently.”
“Yes, of course – Laburnum, isn’t it? Just sit down and wait. Might be a while, I’ve just finished patching up Klitch from Salamandastron, you really don’t want to know what happened to him . . .”
“Let me guess,” said Laburnum, cynical as ever despite her multiple injuries. “Either it’s an angsty Ferahgo-abuses-him fic, or a Mary Sue killed him off too early.”
This having meant precisely nothing to the new recruits, they wandered around examining the equipment as “Doc Fitz” did something with beeping metal objects and chattered to Foxglove and Laburnum. Stormsong was impressed with the wide range of odd-looking objects. Presumably they were used for healing, since the white-coated male human appeared to be a healer of some sort, but what exactly any of them did was a mystery.
Half an hour later, they were roused from their inquisitive reverie by Laburnum saying, “Okay, that’s taken care of. Best go face the music with the SO.”
The recruits turned to see Laburnum standing normally and painlessly beside the table. Her bandages and stitches had been removed, and though her shirt was still torn and bloodied, the same could not be said of the exposed skin, although blood was still crusted in her headfur and under her silly flat claws. There was no bruising or scarring. Her arm no longer needed the improvised sling. Her nose was no longer broken. Stormsong gawped.
“Thou art healed fully? But how? In such a short time!”
“Doctor Fitzgerald is very good at what he does,” said Foxglove, smiling.
“True. I’ve had a lot of practice in this field, and in my job you have to be good at it,” said the doctor, not showing off as such but not exactly modest either. He said it as if he was telling the group that one and one made two. “Besides, I do have the special equipment. Cell-repairing lasers and such. Thank the sci-fi fandoms.”
“Go on, touch the place my wounds were,” said Laburnum, rolling up the tattered hem of her shirt slightly to expose the place on her ribs where she had been kicked. “It’s not even sore now.” Skyfire poked the skin gently. Laburnum didn’t flinch. Stormsong looked admiringly at Doctor Fitzgerald.
“I must see the wonderful magic thou hast used! ‘Tis a work of genius!”
“Later, bucko,” said Laburnum, grabbing his paw. “Gotta go talk to the SO. See you, doc.”
The group left the lab at a brisk walk.
“Now the geography of this place is a little weird, so we can only find the place we’re looking for if we pretend we’re not looking for it. So keep chatting and don’t look where you’re going.” This made about as much sense as anything else the mustelids had been told to do, so they kept their mouths shut and did as they were told, correctly assuming that the agents knew things they didn’t. As they walked, Foxglove pointed out various other agents.
“That’s Mike and Akiko, they work the Bad Slash beat in Mossflower. That’s Joe-Bob, he does Harry Potter – poor guy, the workload there is traumatic to say the least. And there’s Dafydd from Geographical Aberrations. I’d advise you to keep away from him for the first few weeks, he starts fires. Oh, and keep away from Agent Luxury at all costs. Never mind why. Just don’t go near her . . . .”
Eventually, the group stopped at a door which looked no different from any of the other doors they had passed except for the plaque on the door. Stormsong and Skyfire sadly could not read, at least not the letters used by the PPC for door plaques, but the agents knew it read “Sunflower Official – Department of Mary Sues”.
“Well, I guess we’re here now,” murmured Foxglove nervously. “Oh my god, we are in so much trouble.” She raised a hand to knock on the door, but before she could, a cold voice said, Come in.
Actually, it would be more accurate to say it thought Come in, as the words seemed to reach the group’s brains without passing through their ears first. The musteline recruits shuddered softly and tried to imagine what the mysterious “SO” looked like. He must be a powerful wizard to terrify Foxglove and Laburnum so much, they thought. A tall human, white of headfur but even more powerful for his many seasons of experience. Possibly a mute – it would explain why he seemed to talk telepathically. Wearing a cloak, probably carrying a staff of ancient, warped wood.
They stepped over the threshold behind the humans. What they actually saw shocked them into speechlessness. A giant bright-yellow sunflower, wearing a strangely-cut grey suit, sat at a metal desk, riffling through some papers with one of its surprisingly prehensile leaves. How it was reading the papers was impossible to tell, because it had no visible eyes. Skyfire and Stormsong stood and blinked.
“Uh. Hi, sir,” said Foxglove with a wave. The sunflower looked up, or at least the front of the flowerhead turned towards them.
“This be thy mysterious ‘SO’?” hissed Stormsong.
“Yes. SO – stands for Sunflower Official. What did you think it was?”
Stormsong, who had been imagining that the acronym was a shortened version of something to do with Sorcerer or Spellcaster, was completely nonplussed. The flower seemed to stare at him with the eyes it didn’t actually have.
So these are your new recruits? came the voice, presumably from the flower.
“Um. Two of them. There was . . . an unfortunate happening with the other two.” Foxglove told a brief version of the story.
I see, “said” the Sunflower Official. You messed up and lost two potential recruits, along with several hundred dollars’ worth of equipment. Do you know how much it costs and how long it takes to make one Simulation Generator?
“Not to mention nearly lost my life!” Laburnum interrupted, hoping to garner some sympathy. No such luck.
Then you bring back a pair of technically illiterate animals who jump at their own shadows. Have you any idea how hard it could be to train these two up?
“Well, it’s hardly surprising they’re nervous, given their backstories and what’s happened to them recently! And we didn’t think they’d make very good assassins in the first place, they’re not vicious enough, but Bad Slash or Intelligence might . . .” Foxglove tried to say.
Which department they go to - if they stay here at all - is of no consequence at this moment. Give me one good reason why I should not punish both of you for this whole fiasco.
Laburnum took a deep breath and started to speak through gritted teeth.
“Your associate in Intelligence overworked Ardin so much that we have to sift through the entire contents of the Redwall fandom for the next several weeks. We go into this fic, find characters worth recruiting, attempt to do so even though we did not for any reason have to, and I get captured by a vermin horde in the process. I have to watch two potential recruits killed messily, get beaten up and have my equipment and half my clothing stolen. These guys save me in the nick of time before things get any more disgusting, at great risk to themselves. I get back to camp, in hysterics and extreme pain, then remember I was so overworked, thanks to you, that I forgot my own birthday. Then we get back here, with two recruits, which is not as many as we were trying for but better than none, and you chew us out over one little mistake which essentially cost you a few lumps of electrified metal.” She breathed in deeply several times, eyes squeezed shut, then opened them and yelled at the top of her voice. “SO GIVE ME ONE GOOD REASON WHY I SHOULDN’T CLIMB OVER THAT DESK AND RIP YOUR BLOODY PETALS OFF ONE BY ONE, YOU INCONSIDERATE CHEAPSKATE BASTARD SON OF A MUSHROOM!”
The shout rang round the walls. Laburnum fell back against the wall, panting. The others stared at her with horror (in Foxglove’s case, tinged with amusement). If the SO could have blinked with astonishment, it would have.
Well, perhaps I was a little hasty, it “said”, sounding distinctly ruffled. I’m willing to overlook this unfortunate messy business this time. Don’t let it happen again. Foxglove, take the new recruits down to the training school. Laburnum, go to the General Store for some new clothes before yours fall off or decompose. And all of you should take baths.
“Thank you, sir,” said Foxglove, leading Laburnum gently but firmly to the door. That’s a lesson for you, Mister Sunflower, she thought. Do not mess with a Bloodwrath-affected teenage girl who works as a PPC assassin, even if you are supposedly her boss, and especially if you know she knows where to get hold of a flamethrower.
I can read minds, you know, called the Sunflower’s mind-voice.
“Oh bugger it,” Foxglove muttered aloud.
I don’t especially care what you think right now. Just go.
“. . . and on top of that, I never did find out what they did with my shoes.” Laburnum swigged her Bleepka, which everyone except her thought was non-alcoholic. She had reasoned it wasn’t theft if she paid for a non-alcoholic one and switched it when Leto Haven at the General Store wasn’t looking, but then assassins’ morals are flexible at the best of times. “But the Psych Dept got me sleeping normally again - or would have if I wasn't always being given work when I tried to get to sleep - and we got to beat the creeps to within an inch of their lives, and the guys seem to be settling in, and the stolen equipment pieces got broken by the vermin toying with them before the suckers figured out what they did and caused any damage with ‘em. So, a successful mission overall, but let me tell ya, I never, ever want to go recruiting again.”
“I did wonder why you two were suddenly being referred to as the Deathwish Duo.” Rena took a mouthful of coffee with rather more delicacy than Laburnum had from her own drink. “Could be worse. Weren’t you known as Laburnum ‘Sanity Impaired’ Steelfang at the Fanfiction University of Redwall?” Laburnum nodded proudly.
“First agents I’ve known who not only nearly got themselves killed, but lost two potential recruits and valuable equipment all on the same mission. The SO must have gone crazy!” said a gobsmacked Shay.
“He did. Let’s just say we out-crazied him,” Foxglove said with a shudder. “I have never been so thankful for the agent shortage, because it means he couldn’t kill us.”
“Nice way to spend my birthday. Sour sixteen?”
“What, did you threaten to use the SO for a cake candle?”
“No. But actually that’s not a bad idea. Remind me to use it on my birthday if I want a pay raise.”
“Oh no, Fox, not unless you pay Rena the royalties . . .”
[Author's note; Whoo! Goodfic! Yay! And recruiting, and cute gay weasel boys! Okay, only one gay weasel boy. But he was an entertaining character, and probably far cuter than he ought to be, considering his unpleasant death – and unpleasant life, come to think of it. Poor thing. Anyway, I know this was pretty dark for a PPC fic, but I felt it was appropriate considering the darkness level of the chosen fic; I wanted to practise writing something that wasn’t pure comedy; I didn’t want my agent girlies to succeed at everything they did, since that’s a Sue power; and I did want to show their friendship beyond it being “I need someone to banter with, you’re here, you’ll do”. I was quite surprised by how dark it ended up, not to mention how foul-mouthed the agents became, although with good reason. I killed off the otters partly for darkness, and partly because I already had enough characters to deal with, and adding two more with practically no distinguishing characteristics seemed like a really bad idea. But comedy is good, so the series will go back to its usual content of dry wit, wacky slapstick and senseless but amusing violence next installment, with two seriously confused recruits added. It’s nice for the agents and good for their sanity to save a life instead of end one for a change. Of course, the way it turned out, the mission as a whole was pretty bad for their sanity, but it was nothing a few weeks of therapy, drinking bootleg Bleepka heavily and viewing equally nasty things happening to others couldn’t cure, at least in the Protectors universe. The phrase Foxglove used, “A and B the C of D” means “Above and Beyond the Call of Duty”, and is often used by Redwall’s hares. See, txtspk was invented earlier than we thought. And I am convinced that Pratchett’s Hedgehog Song is secretly highly popular among Mossflower’s vermin. Don’t worry, Laburnum knows better than to develop a drinking problem, even after this little trauma. She’ll just ask the Psych Dept to up her medication. No, I don’t know where the agents got a hedgehog skin either, though it’s probably from a Sue’s sidekick. Nor do I know for sure what happened to Klitch in the badfic realm. But I do know that one of the hordebeasts of the Nighthunt is suddenly wearing loafers and a patent-leather belt and can’t remember where he got them, and the ground around the camp is littered with bits of plastic, wires and extra-powered batteries which nobeast can figure out what to do with.]
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