Chapter 92: Love, Forgiveness, Loyalty

Chapter 92: Love, Forgiveness, Loyalty

In Which The Refugees Maybe Get the Wrong Idea.

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Chris: Holst wakes to a mumur.  He holds still, slitting his eyes open and noting the outline of a crowd gathered around him. His eyes open wider, stunned to find all pairs of eyes fixed on him.

Yazeth: Jozra’s eyes crack open as she finally wakes from a finally deep and dreamless sleep. She’s just as perplexed as the fox, though, when she realizes that the slowly waking crowd is staring at the three of them.

Arrin: Soquan wakes at the stirring of his companions and stretches out with a yawn, blissfully unaware of the staring. “Morning guys.”

Chris: Holst sees that they’re standing at the foot of a large granite statue depicting three beasts standing in rather heroic poses.

The fox, mightily barrel chested, looked on with a softness in the eyes and face finely crafted by the sculptor, the word ‘LOVE’ engraved in large letters at his feet.

The otter, puffing out a stout chest, was posed with determination and given solid proportions.  Below his feet the word ‘LOYALTY’ was engraved.

The ferret looked on with the softest look of all, one paw placed over her heart, the other paw stretched out as if awaiting a companion’s paw. The word ‘FORGIVENESS’ was engraved beneath her feet.

It was worn as if it had been there for ages. Longer than their lifespans by a long shot.  All Holst could muster was a gulp.

Yazeth: Jozra’s eyes widen in astonishment as she takes in the statue. She glances back at the staring refugees and then to the statue again. All she can manage is a hoarse, “Err…”

Arrin: Soquan blinks a few times to make sure he’s seeing what he’s seeing, then casts a glance back at the mob, then back at the statue again. With a loud sigh, he places his head in his paws and very quietly mutters a few choice words.

Chris: Holst shrugs and plasters a nonchalant look on his face. He pats Soq’s arm. “Alright, look it says

‘LOVE’ for the fox…” he points to himself, “Really? Come on, can’t be. It’s ME.”

Yazeth: It’s too much for the poor ferret. The combined comments from otter and fox make her snicker. Grinning – because now she can’t take it seriously, it’s just too bizarre –  she moves away from the statue, stretching and trying to ignore the looks the refugees are giving her. “I think we need to find out about breakfast very soon.”

Arrin: Soquan rises with Joz and hefts his pack. “Something tells me that means something, maybe we should talk with Alvasia tonight?”

Chris: Holst shudders. “I really hope it doesn’t. Either it’s a lot for me to live up to, or the state of love in the world is very sad.” He flashes a quick grin in front of nervous eyes and begins to follow Joz.

Yazeth: Jozra’s response to the otter is a barely intelligible, “Mmm.” She heads towards the main door, stepping around the small campsites set up by refugees and trying not to feel too weirded out when said refugees withdraw in what seems almost like reverence. “I wonder where Trendorn is. He probably knows how to feed everybody.”

Arrin: The revered looks the trio is getting weirds the otter out, and out of habit he finds himself resting his hand on the ferret’s forearm, despite his visual capabilities at the moment. “I wouldn’t know where to start, really.”

Chris: Holst shrugs, his nervousness obvious. “Beats me, although I wonder if he’s feeding himself. Maybe we should just start looking and… go somewhere else?”

Yazeth: Her companions nerves are catching and the stares of the onlookers is just creepy enough that Jozra picks up the pace, muttering to the closest of these onlookers, “Gonna go find you guys some breakfast,” by way of explanation.

The great doors are reached, shoved upon, and soon the trio are standing alone on the cobbled path leading to the door. Jozra takes a breath of fresh morning air. “Whew,” she says, meaningfully.

Arrin: Soquan lets out a sigh, scrubbing a hand through his headfur as he looks around the area in search of the elusive hare. “That was… strange.”

Chris: Holst shudders a bit, trying to shake the feeling off. “We’ll probably find him where the food is if I know my hares. How’s your sense of smell now that your sight is back Soq? Think you can lead us to the kitchens?”

Yazeth: Jozra laughs at Holst’s comment, finally breaking the chilly feeling creeping up her back. “Fantastic idea.”

Arrin: The otter grins at the fox. “I’m sure I can. My nose hasn’t failed me yet!” With that the otter lifts his head, testing the air. For a moment, all he can smell in incense, then… there, the smell of cooking eggs and meat. “This way!”

Chris: Holst follows Soq with a will, happy to have a goal in mind. The thought of the statue still gnawed at the back of his mind. He could figure out his and the otter’s meanings, but the ferret… forgiveness?  Maybe it would be a good time to watch his back.

Yazeth: With the otter in lead, they’re soon close enough that the ferret can start picking up hints of delicious breakfast as well. Her stomach growls happily in response but the beginning of a frown tugs at a corner of her mouth. “We arrived so suddenly, what if they don’t have enough food for everyone?”

Arrin: Soquan pauses in his sniffing in order to reply, but continues down the corridor. “Well, Trendorn did say they’d be able to accommodate all of them. Maybe it’s taking a while because they have to cook so much?”

Chris: Holst rolls his sleeves up. As they draw closer they hear a frantic hustle and bustle in the kitchens. Pans clattering, voices shouting, and the occasional painful smash of dropped plates. As they look upon the scene, only one word could describe it: chaos.

Holst rolls up his sleeves. “Well, might as well help out.”

Yazeth: Jozra’s eyes widen at the sight. The temple was big, sure, but it didn’t seem like it was big enough to accommodate such a kitchen. She catches sight of the hare calmly giving directions amidst the mayhem and winds her way through the crowd to him, following Holst’s suggestion. “Can we lend a hand?”

Arrin: The hare is grateful to have some extra paws amidst the chaos, and the three are sent to different ends of the kitchen. Holst is pointed towards the dishwashing station, Joz is directed to go cut up some meats, and Soquan is shuffled into an assembly line of sorts.

Chris: Holst’s ears droop a bit at the mention of dishwashing duty. He mutters to himself as he begins to shuffle over to the sink. “Wish I could show them how to make pancakes proper…”

Yazeth: Jozra doesn’t quite realize how terribly appropriate her job is until she’s well into it. She suppresses a shudder and coaxes her mind back into mundane things, like the fact that this is a kitchen and the cook next to her apparently likes to use lots of fire.

Arrin: Soquan’s ears flick this way and that while he helps assemble some sort of breakfast… thing. He can’t quite tell what it is. A wrap of sorts? He does his best to keep tabs on his companions as he works, the separation in the chaos making him uneasy.

Chris: Holst gets fed up washing dishes and seeing the pancakes being made so poorly. He walks over to a mouse and motions for him to let Holst take over. “I’ll show you how I used to make them at the camp.” He adds fuel to the fire, bring it up to a higher temperature.

Yazeth: Fortunately most of it is fish, something Jozra’s used to preparing. Unfortunately this also means her paws and forearms are now speckled with shiny scales. There’s a pause where the ferret cranes her long neck, looking for her companions but she only catches a glimpse of Holst before another basket of fish arrives.

Arrin: It’s a good hour before the hare in charge declares that there is enough of the food prepared and soon the trio is set to carrying out trays to the large foyer. Carefully as to not upend anything from his own large tray, he makes his way through the crowd to Holst and Joz’s general direction as they’re shuffled out the door.

Chris: The trays are laid out on large tables for the refugees. Luckily the hare had directed that portions be already placed on platters to lessen the chaos. As onlookers notice the trio, Holst gets nervous once more. “Don’t really know how we should address this.”

Yazeth: Jozra gives the crowd an appraising, if concerned, look. “Let’s just try to get through breakfast first,” she murmurs, hoping to completely avoid addressing it at all.

Arrin: As he sets down his tray, the crowd gets a once over from the otter as well. “Maybe we can ask Trendorn about this,” he murmurs. “It’d be faster than waiting for nightfall to see Alvasia.”

Chris: A male and female weasel approach Soq holding a small bundle out to him. The mother speaks to Soq. “Please sir, after saving us, and the miracle this morning, we would be honoured if you blessed our son…”

Yazeth: Jozra nearly fumbles the plate she’s handing out as she hears the weasel couple address Soquan. She bites her lower lip, straining to hear what Soq might say, unsure how he should, and how she would, handle the situation. At the same time she tries to act nonchalant, just passing out food to the refugees. It’s not working.

Arrin: The otter freezes mid-motion at the request and for a moment his mouth works soundlessly as his brain scrambles to come up with a reply. Finally, he manages a soft reply: “I’m no deity, I’m flesh and blood just like everyone else here. I have no power to bless your kit.”

Chris: The weasel mother falters and looks to her mate. Her mate nods and there’s a pause. The weasel outstretches a paw. “Then may I shake your paw and take your name as his middle? I will tell him that you and your friends are why he lives and breathes when he is old enough to know the value of life.”

Yazeth: Jozra breathes a quick sigh of relief at Soquan’s, and the weasel father’s, handling of the situation. She shoots a small, quick smile in Holst’s direction and returns her full attention to what she’s doing, and just in time too as she narrowly avoids colliding with another server.

Arrin:  Soquan finishes placing down the platter before gently grasping the weasel’s proffered hand gently. “My name is Soquan, and I would be honoured for you to give your son my name.”

Chris: The weasel family gives their many thanks to Soquan and this gesture catches the attention of many of the other beasts around. Holstadt pats Soq on the arm. “Handled very nicely I think.”

Yazeth: Jozra shoots a small smile over her shoulder at the otter, nodding in agreement with Holst.  As she does so she catches sight of a small fox with big ears and tries to beckon him over. Azrun gradually meanders over, eating a breakfast cake out of his hand.

Arrin: “I sure hope so.” The otter gives his two companions a small smile as they settle in step with one another, and as Azrun approaches the trio, he offers a wave in greeting.

Chris: Holstadt watches as the fox approaches, noting that he might have to do the same thing Soquan did in the next few days.

Yazeth: Azrun dusts crumbs off his whiskers and then smirks and mocks, “So here’s the saints I’ve been hearing about all morning.”

Jozra glares at the kit fox. “Don’t cause trouble. We’ve enough of that already.”

Arrin: Soquan groans in response to the ribbing, wearily scrubbing a paw across his face. “Really. Honestly, blessing kits? What’s next, curing the sick and injured?”

Chris: Holstadt sizes up the fox and decides to let it go. He thinks briefly, about his time in the work camp, about the souls he saw suffering and those surviving beatings and hardships as he watched through gratings and could do nothing.

A barrier shattered in his mind and heart. “We’re giving these beasts hope right now and that’s all they have. Maybe we don’t have what they expect, but maybe tending to wounds and trying to mend broken spirits is what we should be doing.”

Yazeth: Jozra nods slowly, what Holst is saying makes a lot of sense. Azrun brushes it off with a flippant wave of his paw as he selects another small corn cake from one of the recently delivered trays. “Whateffer,” he says as he stuffs it in his mouth and saunters away.

Jozra narrows her eyes in thought as he walks away. Something about her fellow Scorpion is not quite right, not what she remembers, and he has the same haunted eyes of the other refugees.

Arrin: The otter watches Azrun walk off for a moment before replying to Holst. “I’m all for lifting spirits. And I don’t mind being looked up to, if it’s for something I did. But I am not a deity, just because I woke up under a statue of one.”

Chris: Holst nods, calming a little bit, and looks out over the destitute masses with a faraway look in his eyes. “I don’t think we should get caught up with whether we’re magical or gods for real. I guess…” Holst pauses, quelling a quaver in his voice. “…maybe a god isn’t about blessings or magic. Maybe it’s just about caring and helping. And maybe, we can be ‘gods’ for them in that sense.”

Yazeth: Jozra bites her lip, still very uncertain about the sudden mystical turn everything has taken. The deities of Oparanth are fierce, and best avoided. “There’s so many of them,” she says, pensive. “Where are they all going to go? I don’t think Kodan’s big enough for all of them.”

Arrin: Soquan watches the refugees descend on the food table en masse while he replies, a vaguely concerned expression flickering across his face. “Perhaps once we find our missing hare, we’ll have a better idea what to do, but I think for now we may just need to keep our ears open and put the word out once we set off again.”

Chris: Holst nods as if finally deciding on something. He smiles at his friends. “Love, eh? …really?”

Yazeth: Startled, Jozra looks up at Holst with a “Huh?” just in time to catch a pair of tall ears moving through a crowd that parts, muttering. She gestures in the hare’s direction, “There he is!”

Arrin: Soquan’s head turns to the direction of the ferret’s gesturing and he sets off towards the hare, confident his companions are behind him. The hare’s name is hollered through the din of the crowd and the trio arrive just as the hare turns towards them.

Chris: Holst notes the noise level and relative exposure of the group. “Maybe we should go somewhere more quiet?”

Yazeth: Trendorn inclines his head, his long ears swivelling around to lay flat against his neck and shoulders as he does so rather than accidentally whap any one of the trio with the tips. “This way,” he says, and leads the three to a small office with walls of bookshelves and tiny skylights set into the ceiling.

Arrin: The trio follow the hare and Soquan offers a small smile as they settle around the room. “Hello again, Trendorn.”

Chris: Holst grins as they enter the room. “Pretty nice.” He leans against one of the bookshelves. “So we’ve come this far, but keeping this lot fed and sheltered is going to be a tough job.”

Yazeth: The room has a broad table, overcrowded with books both open and closed in a manner that suggests someone has been doing some research. The only other furniture is a comfortable armchair with good lighting and a few stools meant for the table.

Trendorn gestures to these in an invitation to sit but remains standing himself as he tucks his paws back into his sleeves. “Of course. Our resources are thin as well, the loss of the bridge has limited our trading opportunities until recently. I’ve begun to gather messengers to approach other communities about the possibility of taking in many of the refugees.”

Arrin: Gingerly perching on one of the stools, Soquan nods approvingly as the hare speaks, shooting a glance at his companions before speaking. “After what they’ve been through, these beasts deserve a nice place to stay.”

Chris: Holst nods, thinking a bit before adding, “The thing I wonder is how we keep it from happening to them again.”

Yazeth: Jozra crosses her arms and leans against one of many sturdy shelves. “I have… thoughts on that.”

The hare inclines his head slightly in the ferret’s direction. “I’m sure you do. And,” he adds, facing the fox again, “there are a few towns I can think of that will be sympathetic to their plight and vigilant against pursuers. Though they may not be enough.”

 

HERE ENDS CP-ALPHA.

To be restarted…

Chapter 91: Sanctuary

Chapter 91: Sanctuary

In Which Trendorn Comes to the Rescue.

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GAP BETWEEN ARRIVING AT SAFEHOUSE AND TRENDORN’S INVITATION

MISSING GAP! Wed Nov 15 20:07:48 2006

Yazeth: Jozra nods again at Holst. “Sounds like a plan.” She turns towards Trendorn. “Do you think it would be a good idea to take small groups to the temple one at a time instead of having a huge crowd?”

Arrin: The babe grasps onto Soquan’s paw and he grins unconsciously as he speaks to Kirrian. “I just need you to look after this little guy until my sister can make it down here, that’s all.” Trendorn nods serenely at the ferret. “I believe that would be best, child.”

Yazeth: Jozra gives Trendorn a small smile as he folds his paws back into the sleeves of his purple robes. She turns back to Holst, “Guess that’s what we do, then.”

She notices the burly beasts that had been grabbing Trendorn still hanging around, looking somewhat sheepish. “You guys going to give us a hand or what?

The vixen’s face softens as she sees the babe and begins to comprehend. “Of course the little one would be welcome here.”

Arrin: Soquan gently lifts the babe from the cloak and transfers him to his arms there the babe’s head rests against his shoulder. The babe gives a happy squeal and makes a grab for the otter’s whiskers. Soquan grins at the vixen. “Thank you Kirrian, I apreciate th-ow!” The kit gives a tug at the small pawfull of whiskers.

Chris: Holst notices Soq talking with Kirrian and whistles for him to come along. Cocking his head and trotting off as the crowd meanders forward.

After a few hours of confusion and frustration, most of the beasts in need of shelter were given a warm place to sleep for the night. Some went without respectable beds, but dry and warm was good enough.  Holst, Soq, and Joz sat on the steps, taking a breather after their long day.

Yazeth: The ferret yawns and stretches, a somewhat satisfied smile sketching across her lips. Everything isn’t nearly taken care of by far, but at least they succeeded in getting the refugees to a safe place!

Arrin: Soquan gives a wide yawn, sending a tired grin toward his two companions afterward. “I can’t believe we made it back here so quickly. Not even a week…”

Chris: Holst grins at the two. “So what about that vixen, what part did she play in all your shenanigans?”

Yazeth: Jozra rolls her eyes and waves a paw in an almost dismissive manner. “Oh, that. Kirrian has this idea in her head that what she thinks is always right, no matter what.”

Arrin: Leaning back and stretching out his muscles, he adds in his two cents. “She can’t make up her mind weather Joz is a helpless ferret maid and I’m a big bad female beating brute, or if we’re both troublemaking criminals and need to be chased out of town.”

Chris: He gives a bit of a chuckle as he adjusts his jacket. “Still getting used to wearing this thing…” he pauses to reflect. “Never thought about what we do now though. What’s in store?”

Yazeth: Jozra thinks quietly for a long moment. She knows what she has to do, but now is not the time for it. There’s still things that need to be done here first. “Well, I guess we need to make sure the refugees are more or less settled here.” She grins a little, “though I think Alvisa may already have the solution. She usually does.”

Chris: He nods. It wasn’t exactly what he was looking for, but that was alright. “Yeah, I can focus on that for now.”

Arrin: Soquan gives a sleepy nod in acceptance to Jozra’s statement. “Sounds good for now.”

The three talk a bit longer before deciding to turn in for the night. The lack of the adrenaline they had been running in since their escape weighed heavily on the three beasts, and slowly, yet surely, they make their way to the open-aired foyer that the rest of the refugees have bedded down in.

They head for an area out of the way of the rest, at the base of a statue. Whatever the statue it is of, the three can’t make it out in the dark. Soon the three are bedded down and sleeping peacefully for the remainder of the evening.

Chapter 90: More Mouths to Feed

Chapter 90: More Mouths to Feed

In Which We Keep Ending Up Back Here.

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Catamount: The next few days were filled with constant walking, following the trail to the north. Though there were no signs of hares following behind them, the refugees moved as fast as possible, stopping only when necessary to sleep for a few hours and often eating on foot.

The grasslands swiftly give way to woodlands and at a fork in the trails, Soquan and Jozra advise taking the westerly most one, hoping the bridge to Kodan has already been completed. Despite their exhaustion, the refugees press forward. Even though the hares don’t seem to be a problem any longer, supplies are running low. In the ghettos of Afrin, ‘all you can carry’ is not enough.

Arrin: The refugees race along the riverside trail in the late evening, the sound of rushing water filling their ears. Ahead of them, is the light at the end of the tunnel, those with seeing eyes can spot the lights of the city of Kodan shining faintly though the trees in the distance across the river. Soquan grins ruefully and turns to address Jozra beside him. “You know, it seems that no matter how hard we try, we keep ending up back here.”

Chris: Holst cocks an eyebrow at them, realizing there still wasn’t all that much he knew about the pair’s past. “Really now?”

Catamount: The ferret chuckles, “Yeah.” Turning to Holst, she explains a little. “We passed through here on our way south and had some… adventures with this safe-house we’re heading for. And then when leaving we had some troubles and I…” She grins sheepishly, “…kinda fell in the river and we had to come back.” She shrugs it off. “It probably makes for a better campfire story.”

Arrin: Soquan reaches out to clap the fox heartily on the shoulder. “Don’t you worry, you’ll hear the whole story soon enough.”

Chris: Holst chuckles a little bit and shakes his head. “I’m sure I will.”

Catamount: Jozra peers ahead as a small tan shape races back towards the three. The image quickly resolves itself as Azrun. “Found the bridge you were talking about up ahead, Joz. Looks passable. Zander wants you guys up in front since you’ve been here before.”

Arrin: Soquan nods at Azrun and turns to the ferret. “Shall we head upfront then, Jozra m’dear?”

Catamount: “Might as well. I’d pay to see the look on Kirrian’s face, actually.” She gestures to Holst. “You’d better come too if you want a chance at seeing steam boil out a vixen’s ears.”

Chris: Holst cocks an eyebrow and gives a crooked grin. “All you had to say was vixen.”

Arrin:  Soquan chuckles and shakes his head “C’mon lover boy, maybe your smooth moves will settle Kirrian’s temper a bit.”

Catamount: Jozra chuckles as Azrun smirks and rolls his eyes. “Looks like the front of the pack may have reached the bridge already. Let’s go.”

The four start trotting towards the front of the group of refugees, quickly catching up as the new bridge, while complete, is only wide enough for a single cart, slowing the tide of weary beasts. Azrun takes off again, working as ‘trail sweep’ while Zander, Jozra, Soquan and Holstadt approach the city of Kodan.

Most of the buildings are dark, as the owners have gone to bed, but a few lights glow here and there. And as the group begins walking up Kodan’s streets, more lights flicker on.

Chris: Holst’s eyes flick left and right to each light and movement that he happens to catch. His grip tightens around his chain.

Arrin: While the group treks tiredly through Kodan’s streets, Soquan looks at Jozra with a sleepy smile. “Remember where the place is Jozra?”

Catamount: The ferret glances at the otter with a wry grin. “I’d rather forget, actually, but yes.”

She leads the group deeper into the town, ending up at the front of a large house. Jozra eyes the house with a mixture of satisfaction and dread and then looks backwards, noting the tired and hopeful faces of the refugees. She hesitates just a moment and then walks up the front steps and raps on the door with several heavy blows.

“…that should wake them up.”

Chris: Holst appeals to Soq with a shrug. “What am I missing?”

Arrin:  Soquan grimaces. “We aren’t exactly on friendly terms with the owner of this place. Forcefully ejected from the building last time actually. Joz and I will tell you the story later.”

Catamount: Jozra’s statement may have been a bit of an understatement, for no sooner had Soquan finished speaking than several lights throughout the house flickered on, and a just a few moments later the door was pulled open by a concerned, then astounded, then near furious Kirrian with Sola and Dawn right behind her.

Chris: Holst blinks at the scene. He takes half a step forward, sensing the tension in the air.

Catamount: Sola gave a startled “Yeep!” at the sight of Soquan and Dawn glared icy daggers at Jozra but Kirrian, perhaps surprisingly, actually saw past the otter and ferret and noticed the dog-fox and rat beside them as well as group of weary beasts behind them.

Arrin: Soquan tries to diffuse the situation quickly before the whole town awakens due to Kirrian’s yelling. “Look, we don’t want any problems Kirrian, but as you can see, we have a lot of tired beasts here that need a soft bed and warm food. You were the first beasts that came to mind and I hope whatever grudge you hold against Joz and myself won’t cloud your judgment with these others.”

Chris: Holst clears his throat as his brain registers the vixen. “Any help you can give would be greatly appreciated, we’ve come a long way from Afrin.”

Catamount: The vixen gave first Soquan then Holst long, appraising stares before finally shifting her gaze to Jozra. “I should have known you would be back.”

Kirrian’s charitable side is too large to let her rivalry get in the way however, and she sighs, relenting. “I don’t have nearly enough room for all of these people. Did you honestly think we could take even a quarter of them? I think we can make enough room for the very young and the very old and the sick, though. Sola? Go get the kitchen running again. It looks like we have more mouths to feed.”

Chapter 89: Holst’s Confession

Chapter 89: Holst’s Confession

In Which the Fox Speaks the Words of Innocence and Broken Pride.

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Chris: Holst brings a forearm across his forehead to pull the sweat away from his brow.  The sun has set but their will to be free has pushed them past the sun’s ability for the day, but they were starting to lag.

Catamount: The low, rolling grasslands they have been fleeing through are flat enough to let them put quite a bit of distance between the refugees and Afrin but strenuous enough that even the seasoned Scorpions in the party are feeling exhaustion creep up. Some of the younger escapees have already fallen prey to it and are carried by some of the sturdier beasts.

Arrin: Soquan plods along side Jozra, one of the children perched on his shoulders while he carries the small kit from Afrin in a sling across his torso. He sends a weary grin her way. “Should be just a few more days to Kodan if we keep this pace up…”

Chris: Holst tugs the foxmaid a bit and she keeps her weary pace up. His heart sinks a bit and he looks to Soq and Joz. “Guys… might be best if we pitched up camp soon. I don’t know how much longer these kiddos can take it.”

Catamount: Zander, the unofficial leader of the group, has also fallen behind, his limp getting worse as the day wears on. He overhears Holst’s statement and nods in agreement. “The elders are stumbling too. And I’ve been hearing bellies rumble.”

Arrin: Soquan gives a short nod shifting his load just a little bit. “Just a few hours rest would sound wonderful. We could recharge before our mad dash to Kodan.”

Chris: Holst turns to the both of them, a wry smile shows his fangs. “Well I’d suggest a place to set down, but this city-beast wouldn’t know a good place to camp if he was sleeping in it.”

Catamount: Jozra chuckles and then waves Azrun over to the group. “Here we have a famous runner” She grins mischievously at the kit fox, “I think he should scout a place for us to camp.”

Azrun quirks an eyebrow and then sticks his tongue out at Jozra. “Your just jealous because I always beat you in foot races.” With that he takes off at a jog up the road and is soon out of sight in the swiftly approaching full darkness.

The group continues to plod on and the twilight is mostly gone by the time Azrun returns. “Found a place just up the road and off the trail. It’s not perfect but it should do for a few hours.”

Arrin: The otter nods at Azrun. “I suppose it’s that or nothing. A few hours will do everyone some good.”

Chris: After pushing his sore muscles a bit more, Holst reaches what he figures would be the spot and half-collapses to the ground. The foxmaid allows a bit of a laugh while Holst is merely glad for her happiness at his expense.

Catamount: Azrun’s discovery is a dip in the landscape. Large enough to fit the entire group and then some; deep enough and far enough away from the trail that it cannot be easily seen from the trail.

The tired beasts settle down in relief. Some falling asleep where they land, others pulling out supplies for a meal. Jozra and Azrun disperse about the camp, warning the refugees not to light any fires.

Arrin: Tiredly, the otter picks out a spot for the night and heaves the kit off of his shoulders with a groan. He places her gently on the ground and sends her off with the others before sinking gratefully to the ground.

He looks down at the babe in the sling, who had, surprisingly enough, stayed quiet during their dash. The marten kit’s eyes flicker open, and blue eyes meet brown and an odd feeling swells in his chest.

A tiny paw reaches up, grasping at the shell around the otter’s neck, he smiles. “I suppose I better scrounge something up for you, eh kiddo?”

Chris: Holst heaves to his feet, his instinct to keep a watchful eye over the proceedings winning over his tiredness. He pats the foxmaid on the shoulder. “Get some sleep yeah?” He walks over to Soq. “How’d the babe fare?”

Arrin: He gives the fox a grin. “He’s fine, just a bit hungry for the moment. Probably needs a change too…”

Catamount: Jozra finally meanders back over to the spot Holst and Soquan have claimed, bearing a few hunks of bread and cheese. It’s not much, but it’s enough for the three of them. She sees the babe and winces. “I probably should have brought some more for the foxmaid too, huh?”

Chris: Holst smiles and takes his portion, his mouth watering just at the sight of the morsels. “I’ll give mine to her.” He gives a bit of a chuckle, “I’m used to not eating all that much these days anyway.”

Arrin: He waves off the ferret’s worry, although unable to speak with the bread in his mouth. He rummages though the bag he had been carrying along with his pack and produces a bottle. He gives it a slight wave in front of the ferret to show his point, and once he’s swallowed his mouthful, he proceeds to feed the kit.

Catamount: Jozra chuckles at the otter’s actions and takes a seat, taking a bite of her portion as well. After a moment she eyes Holstadt with a mixture of concern and curiosity. How to ask about his stay in Afrin’s ‘labor camps’?

Chris: Holst returns from giving the food to the fox maid, sitting down next to Joz and grinning along with her.

Arrin: Soquan, for the time being is content just to sit with his friends, happy to be in comfortable silence of both of their company.

Catamount: All too soon the food is gone. Zander hobbles by with Azrun at his heels. “Any of you willing to take a watch at some point? We only need a couple more volunteers.” The woodrat shoots Jozra a quick look that she reads as, “Not you.”

Chris: Holst merely nods.

Arrin: Soquan nods as well. “Sure, if you need me.”

Catamount: Zander nods and makes a little note on a piece of parchment he’s carrying. “Alright. We’ll send someone when it’s your turns, though we might get enough people for tonight.” He gives a preoccupied wave and hobbles off, Azrun trailing him and rolling his eyes in amusement.

Chris: Holst smiles broadly as the two are off.  He turns to Joz. “I’m surprised you didn’t take a shift.”

Arrin: He shoots Holst a look. “Joz hasn’t slept right for two nights now. Zander and I wouldn’t have let her.”

Catamount: The ferret chuckles somewhat sheepishly. “Yeah, I could use the rest. I’ll probably take a watch tomorrow night.”

Chris: Holst shrugs. “I didn’t mean any disrespect, just curious.” He glances over to make sure the foxmaid is sleeping soundly.

Arrin: Soquan shifts the small babe in his arms. “Why don’t you go get some shuteye Joz, maybe go catch up with Zander and Azrun?”

Catamount: The ferret stretches and looks around their area. “Seems to me Zander and Azrun are pretty busy right now. This might be the better place to get some sleep.”

Chris: Holst merely nods. Then, after a pause, sighs. “It all happens so fast you don’t have time to question it… but now I wonder; what are we doing exactly?” He grins a bit at himself.

Arrin: The otter looks at Holst, “What do you mean? Like, where are we going?”

Chris: Host nods again, halfheartedly. “I know the name, it’s just that… What’s our goal?” He sighs, “Maybe I’m just thinking too much.”

Catamount: Jozra smiles slightly, though her eyes keep a seriousness. “We need to get these people to safety first. After that…” The ferret is conflicted. She knows what she must do after that, but it’s another one of those Things she can’t tell to her friends.

Arrin: Soquan picks up the silence. “After that, the three of us will have a little talk and well see where we go from there.”

Chris: Holst nods, satisfied. “I can accept that.”

Catamount: “Holst…” Jozra hesitates, acutely aware of her own secrets, but she’s been curious about this for most of the day. “…did you have that tattoo before?”

Chris: Holst’s eyes fall to the ground and then to his outstretched forearm, his tattoo visible even under the moonlight. “It’s from long ago, I’ve just become accustomed to covering it up since it carries so much shame. But if I told you it represented some part of me left behind I would be lying.”

Catamount: Jozra’s brow wrinkles in concern and curiosity, though she dares not pry any further, her own secrets clamoring for freedom.

Arrin: The otter remains silent during Holst’s explanation, and gives a slow nod at his explanation, not pressing further.

Chris: Holst sighs. “Normally I’d stop there, but…” He brings his eyes up to meet theirs hoping that they held some depth. “After what you’ve done for me, you deserve to know.”

He pauses, fighting his urge to swallow the emotion; and then he broke free. “I was a hit man. Applied to me, that term meant I was a murderer willing to accept bribes.”

“I never stopped to ask myself why. I was good at it, but more importantly, I simply didn’t care.”

He prods his tattoo. “This is a mark of that trade, but only the center part. The cross, heart and wings came later as I proved time and again how cold-blooded I was.”

He stroked the wings. “I passed the final test as far as the syndicate knew, but inside was a different story. “

“I wanted to prove to them that I was the best. All I had in my way was one final test. A foxmaid just like her…” His hollow eyes roamed over the maid in question to check her regular breathing.

“I choked the life out of her. She didn’t know why, the question begged in her eyes even as the life faded from them. I never asked myself until then, when she went limp in my paws.”

“To this day I ask myself and I remember her eyes.” He looks over at the unnamed foxmaid. “They were just like hers. And when she looks at me maybe she finds comfort.  Maybe… I can say sorry.” His eyes sink again, worried that he might’ve lost the only friends he’s ever had.

Catamount: Whatever judgment Jozra has been building up against Holst as he told his tale were quickly shattered as her mind’s eye reminded her of a snowy night filled with fire and screams. She reaches for Holst’s paw and clasps it, though she finds her voice somewhat hoarse when she speaks.

“If redemption is what you’re seeking, this…” She gestures around the now mostly quiet camp as exhausted beasts try to regain strength for the next day. “This is the best way to do it.” She smiles sadly at the fox.

Arrin: He nods in agreement with the ferret, clasping the fox’s shoulder in his paw, “Joz couldn’t have said it any better.”

Chris: Holst nods grasping Joz’s paw tightly and patting Soq’s shoulder. He allows one tear to stain his cheek. “That is the only tear I will ever allow.”

He smiles at them both, relieved after the years of his guilt torturing him. He would care for this foxmaid’s life, his friends, and the hundreds of beasts around him. He would care.

Chapter 88: Escaping Afrin

Chapter 88: Escaping Afrin

In Which Our Heroes Get the Show on the Road.

———————————————————————————————

Chris: Holst trots back into the building they came from, tossing the key ring into the yard on the way. “I’ll take us past the infirmary first.” After threading down a few halls, across a courtyard, into another building, Holst opens a door bearing a red cross.

Arrin: The otter’s eyes sweep the room briefly before they fall on the only figure in the room, a small figure curled into a fetal position on one of the beds. Slowly, the otter approaches. Soquan freezes as he hears a babe’s cry, and with a questioning look towards Holst, he moves again.

Chris: Holst stays at the door with the foxmaid. He merely shrugs at Soq.

Arrin: Soquan arrives at the female’s side, placing a gentle paw on her shoulder. Her head snaps up wobbly, and after a hushed, serious sounding conversation he stoops slightly to retrieve a swaddled bundle from close to the female.

He looks sadly at the female for a moment, giving her face a comforting stroke before his paw goes to the kitchen blade at his belt. All it takes is one quick movement and the female is gone, her head lolling to one side. His face grim, Soquan leaves the blade at the bedside and strides past Holst and towards the door, his voice full of emotion as he speaks. “Let’s go.”

Chris: Luckily, Holst had anticipated something gruesome could have happened in that room and had kept the foxmaid in the hall. He was surprised at his own feelings however.  Truthfully, not what kind of feelings, but the fact that he had begun to have them.

He nodded, closing the door behind them.  After countless doors and passageways the two arrived to the yard and began heading to the guard house.

~

Catamount: Azrun and Jozra had met up with Zander soon after leaving the compound. Not that he was hard to find with his huge entourage of freed prisoners.

The woodrat had managed to get the people organized and they were gathering together supplies for the upcoming trek to Kodan. The group of children are quickly able to incorporate into the larger group, many meeting up with estranged parents and other adults taking others under their wings.

Mission completed, the three Scorpions quickly have a short conference and then Azrun and Jozra head off to the guard house.

~

Arrin:  Soquan fusses slightly over the small bundle in his arms. “He’s so tiny… how could anybeast hate someone this small and helpless?”

Chris: Holst merely shrugs. “Sometimes it’s not hate. Sometimes it’s just a lack of remorse coupled with orders. Since those giving the orders are distanced from what they’ve created, terrible things can happen.” He squeezes the foxmaid’s paw unconsciously as he leads Soq out of the yard and eventually to the guard house.

~

Catamount: Azrun and Jozra arrived at the guardhouse before Soq and Holst. Had the otter and red fox approached a little quieter, they might’ve caught the ferret and kit fox acting almost like kids let loose in a toy shop.

Kids with the intent to take the toy shop with them.

Azrun opens the door as the others approach, quickly looks them over and beckons them inside. “Good, we’re going to need some help carrying all of this to the mob.” He gestures to the weapons bundled up and strapped together, ready to move.

Arrin: Soquan motions briefly to the babe nestled in one arm. “I’m afraid I can’t be too much help, but I’ll carry what I can.”

Chris: Holst releases the foxmaid’s paw and walks into the structure with the intent to help. His eyes, however, catch a glint from something hanging on the wall. He walks over and almost ceremoniously dons his black duster, placing his chain across his shoulders before turning the collar down over it.

With a final touch he removes his gloves from the breast pocket, donning them as well. A thin smile spread across his face as he turned back to his companions. He paused almost as if to wait for compliments. “Aw come on…” His fangs showed in a crooked grin. “You know you missed me.”

Catamount: The ferret chuckles, knowing the feeling. Almost of their own accord her fingertips brush the top of the hilts of both, both! her knives. Azrun is already wearing his bow and quiver like they’re a part of him.

“Here’s your pack,” Jozra hands the bag to Holst and then eyes the foxmaid. “Do you think you can carry some things for us?”

Chris: Holst slings it over his shoulder and stoops to pick up a few things. He is delighted to note the foxmaid nods and stoops to pick up more than he had initially.

Catamount: Jozra smiles encouragingly at the foxmaid and then hefts some more items to carry herself. “We only need to get this to Zander’s group. If we run into any… trouble, we’ll need as many beasts with weapons as we can.”

Arrin: Soquan picks up a few bundles of weapons, carrying them neatly under his arm. “Good idea, Joz.”

Chris: Holst walks outside with the foxmaid in tow. A rather diverse collective of beasts throng about randomly. He wades through the sea of beasts and comes upon a group of stout beasts dragging sledges. He sets his weapons down, grateful to strain his muscles on his own accord.

Arrin: The otter relinquishes his load as well, careful not to jostle the sleeping babe. He pauses a moment to adjust his cloak into a sling-like state before heading back for another load.

Catamount: Jozra and Azrun deposit their loads and as the kit fox heads back with the otter, Jozra approaches Zander. “Are we about ready? I think we need to be on our way as fast as possible.”

Chris: Zander ticks a few digits as he collects his thoughts, ending the process in a nod and a bit of a grin. “We’re ready to move as soon as the sledges are full, which should be …” He watches as the kit fox and a few others return with bundles. “Now.”

Catamount: Jozra chuckles. “Lets get this show on the road, then.”

Arrin:  Having been following the conversation between the small group, Soquan hops onto a boulder nearby that gives the otter enough leverage to look over the swarm of beasts. “Alright you lot, can I just say a few things here?”

The otter doesn’t shout, but he manages the make his voice carry over the rabble of beasts. The chaos stops and eyes turn towards him. “We’re about to get moving here, and we’re going to be moving HARD and FAST. I know you’re all tired, hungry and overworked, but those hares will be riding our asses the whole time and we can’t afford much lagging. Now, you don’t have to come with us, although it’d be best if we all stick together.”

He pauses to look over everyone again. “We’re heading north, to a city called Kodan. Now, this probably won’t be a permanent home for most of you, but at least it’s away from here. Now, are we all ready to go?”

Chris: A hush settles over the crowd. Then, waves of confused and discontent conversations roll across the beasts. Holst notes this and hops up onto the rock, placing a paw on Soqs shoulder.

“Friends, I too slaved away at the paws of these hares. This brave otter, however, I am proud to call a friend. He speaks for us. He is with us. Without him our escape would not have been possible. Trust his judgment as you would trust mine.”

Arrin: Soquan turns slightly to grin at the fox before turning back at the group. “I don’t presume to be a leader, I really am just trying to help. All I know is that Kodan is the closest city that I know is safe.”

Chris: The crowd’s spike of conversation and discontent returns to a hush as the collective ruminates on what was said. Though it is obvious Holst’s words have turned their suspicion of Soq.

Catamount: Standing near Zander, Jozra has a good view over the heads of the mob and what she sees towards the city proper, she does not like. To Zander she says, “We need to leave.”

To the crowd, “Look, if you’re going to stay, stay. If you’re going to go, we need to go NOW.”

And with that, she hops off the rock and starts walking towards the city gate.

Arrin: With one last look at the group the otter hops off as well, falling in beside the ferret. “Quick and straight to the point, I like it.”

Chris: Holst hops off the rock as well, trotting up to the duo. “I hope we can keep this up, we need all the help we can get.”

Catamount: Jozra nods. “I saw tall ears massing in the city. We need to get away before they can start a fight.”

Arrin: Soquan hefts his pack. “I wonder how long they’ll chase us for.”

Chris: Holst reflects a moment on Soq’s comment. “Not too long, order in the city is paramount. We’re scum to them, not worth too much a chase.”

Catamount: Zander nods in agreement. “They’re not organized enough to do both at once.” His words are punctuated by a sudden flare shooting up over the crowds and back towards the city.

Jozra and the woodrat freeze for a moment, the image bringing back unpleasant memories. And just like her nightmares, there’s Azrun, nocking another flaming arrow.

Arrin: Soquan follows the arch of the arrow as it lands on the tinder-dry rooftop, causing it to go up into flames. “I suppose that means we need to move.”

Chapter 87: Freeing The Children

Chapter 87: Freeing The Children

In Which Freedom is a Very Good Thing.

———————————————————————————————

Chris: Holst takes the lead, figuring he knows the facility best of the three. He pads up to his cell block and down the corridor, stepping over the hulk of the hare he had fought earlier and opening the door at the end of the hall. “This way!”

Catamount: The ferret follows quickly behind the fox, hands idly checking the now dual hilts at her hips.

Arrin: The otter is right behind the ferret peering around the encampment as they move swiftly.

Chris: Holst winds them through more corridors, the destruction less and less evident as they move away from the cell blocks. They were now in the administrative section of the compound. He leads them down a hallway to a door, a small rectangular window letting light flood in. “It’s right through here.” He opens the door and walks through.

Outside, the massive sides of what could be called a cage shone dully in the morning sunlight. Inside, were ramshackle structures that appeared as if they would crumble in a strong breeze.

Holst plucks a key ring from the wall of the building they just exited, walking to a gate on the cage and unlocking a massive padlock. “They kept them away from the rest of us…” The rusty gate shrieks open, the sound reverberating in the heavy air. “…so that we couldn’t give them hope.”

Catamount: A shout goes up as the gate creaks open quickly followed by a muffled sound of scurrying. The ferret looks through just as the stragglers hide inside the shacks or stand in small groups, looking entirely too innocent. A moment later and the children realize that these were not the wardens they thought the three were.

Arrin: The otter peers around in the gloom, his heart wrenching painfully and his gut churning as he takes in the conditions these poor children were kept in. A soft, unrestrained sentiment escapes his lips. “Oh the poor dears…”

Chris: Holst takes a step inside and walks toward one of the scattered groups, they back away fearfully. His eyes soften slightly. “You’re all free… Although, I know some of you don’t know what that means, trust me, it’s a very good thing.”

He pauses to settle the quiver that had begun in his voice. “We would just like to know if there’s an Azrun present.”

Catamount: Jozra steps through after Holst, looking at the small groups of children watching the three distrustfully. Another moment and a movement catches her eye.  A small, wide-eyed sand colored fox with overlarge ears and loosely fitting clothes moves a little away from his group. He squints at the ferret and looks taken aback. And then in a voice not at all like a child’s he says, “Jozra?!”

Catamount: The ferret grins a little. “Figured we’d find you here, Azrun.”

The grin fades though as she looks around the enclosure again. “We need to get out of here, fast. Zander’s getting everyone organized outside.”

She hesitates. “We know of a safe place…” She sort of gestures at the groups of children.

Arrin:  Soquan takes this as a cue of sorts and turns a soft smile towards the children. “Alright kiddoes, you lot want to head off with us then? Once we’re safe we can track down your mums and da’s. That sounds like a good idea?”

Chris: A lot of the children look to each other. A few of the children cheer and begin to come forth. Most of them just look confused.

Holst places a paw on Soq’s shoulder. “For those of you who don’t have them… there’s warm beds and lots of good food.”

By now the children were gathered around the three, expectant faces pointed upward.

Catamount: Azrun chuckles and shifts his posture a little, the childlike appearance melting away save for his own smallness and the oversized ears. “They’re smart kids, they know what’s good for them. “

He winks at a couple and they grin back. “Lets go, shorties. Auntie Joz says we need to move fast.” Jozra just gives Azrun a dirty look at the last bit.

Arrin:  The otter gives a short laugh at the ‘Auntie Joz’ comment before turning to the pair. “Why don’t you take the kiddies to Zander, Holst and I will do another sweep of the area to be on the safe side.”

Chris: Holst fights the uneasiness of parting from his companions and nods, looking to Joz for confirmation.

Catamount: Jozra pauses a moment, unsure, and then slowly nods. “We’ll meet up at the guard house. They have our stuff there.”

Arrin: Soquan sends an affectionate smile towards the ferret. “Stay safe.”

Chris: A child tugs on Holst’s shirt.  He bends down to listen as the child whispers in his ear and points to one of the huts in the cage.  Holst’s expression turns to bewilderment.  He nods and addresses Joz. “You remember the way back?”

Catamount: The ferret nods. She’s long since gotten back into the habit of crafting accurate mental maps. “Yeah. And the guard house, it’s hard to miss. It’s the first place they took us.”

Arrin: The otter nods. “We’ll see you there.”

He turns to Holst. “Where to first?”

Chris: Holst gives him a bit of a grin. “Give me a moment.”

He trots over to the hut the child pointed at and opens the makeshift door. Inside, huddled on a scattering of straw, was a foxmaid.  He pauses as her deep eyes set on him, the fear behind them all too evident. A pang hit his heart, his tattoo feeling as if it were tingling.

“I know you’re scared of us… I know this all you’ve known.  All I can tell you is that it’s better, much, much better, outside of these walls.” He reaches out a paw for her to take.  Painfully slowly, she grasps it. He leads her to Soq. “Just had a straggler.”

Arrin: Soquan offers the female and a friendly smile. “Hello there.”

Chris: She waves timidly, still clutching Holst’s paw. Holst addresses Soq. “We should probably get going.”

Arrin: He gives a wave of his paw. “Lead on then.”

~

Catamount: Azrun looks back out at the children, most of them looking at him expectantly and with more trust. “Alright shorties, lets go.”

He turns briefly to Jozra and under his breath, quiet so only she can hear, “Strike hard?” “Strike fast,” is her answer.

Chapter 86: Breakout

Chapter 86: Breakout

In Which Gates are Opened.

———————————————————————————————

Catamount: The ferret hurries down into the street and takes her pack from Soquan. “Hurry, we need to break the camps open.”

She looks at Zander. “These people need a leader,” and then stares at him pointedly. Zander grins somewhat sheepishly. “We’ll meet you all at the gates.”

Arrin: He grins slightly at Jozra’s comment and gently grasps her arm before she darts off again. He takes out her dagger from within his cloak and offers it to her. “I believe this is yours.”

~

Chris: Holst’s eyes harden as he slips the proper key into the lock and swings his cell door free. He steps to the middle of the hall facing a large-framed hare.

Holst speaks. “You sure you don’t want to call some of your buddies to save you this time?”

The hare merely growls.

~

Catamount: The ferret takes the small knife back with the slightest of smiles and in another motion has concealed it somewhere on her person. “Thanks. Hurry, they won’t stay distracted long.” She leads the way against the press of people towards the camps.

~

Chris: The hare lunges, a meaty fist tracking Holst’s jaw. Holst ducks and rushes in, landing a heavy punch to the hare’s gut. The hare stumbles and Holst takes advantage of the hare’s loss of balance to grab his arm and slam him viciously into the wall headfirst.

While the hare is still stunned, Holst lands a savage blow to the hare’s own jaw line.  Holst takes a step back and waits for the hare to rise. The hare glares as he unsteadily gets up on his foot paws. Holst can’t help but smirk.

~

Arrin:  Soquan grasps her arm again. “Wait I…” He pauses and pulls out the folded piece of parchment he had been working on earlier. “I want you to read this when things have calmed down and we’re safe.”

Catamount: The ferret looks at the otter quizzically, and then nods. She takes the piece of parchment and tucks it into her pack. “Ready?”

Arrin: He gives her a smile and nods, hefting his staff. “Let’s go get our friend back, and kick some tail end while doing it!”

~

Chris: Holst rushes this time. Too early, he winces as the hare’s meaty fist digs deep into his side. His body crashes against a cell door, the hares other fist finding Holst’s temple.  Through the starbursts, Holst sees his opportunity.

He ducks through the hare’s arms and out of his reach. As the hare turns to face him, Holst manages to land a kick square to the hare’s jaw. The hare falls back reeling from the blow.

Holst waits a moment as he lets a part of his soul go. “Forgive me…” He lands a powerful strike to the hare’s throat, collapsing the cartilage and sealing off his airway.  T

The hare chokes and gurgles as his eyes betray astonishment, confusion, but above all: fear.  Holst turns his back, walking out into the flood of sunshine in the yard.

~

Catamount: The ferret leads the way through the quickly filling streets, Zander’s shouts to organize the people receding behind her. Along the way she shouts to the confused populace. “Take only what you need! Food! Water! We’re all leaving and we’re leaving NOW.”

Arrin: Weaving through the streets of absolute chaos with the ferret at his side, he turns to speak to her while dodging around a burly looking squirrel. “Hey, you’ve been scouring around this place more than I have, where’s out first stop?”

Catamount: Jozra points up ahead, narrowly avoiding poking a nervous young otter that happens to be rushing by in the eye. “We’re getting our friends out of that place.”

Just clearing the remaining roofs in the slums are the first of the walls and fences surrounding the ‘work camp’ compound.

Arrin:  Rushing towards the gate of the compound, he can spot the massive swarm of beasts inside. Inspecting the chained and padlocked doors, he calls back to his companion as he wedges his staff into the loop of the padlock. “I’ll need your help getting this open Joz!”

~

Chris: Holst looks out over the sea of beasts, their gradient increasing towards the gate.  Hares were left behind bloodied and bruised, some were dead. The stronger ones were still holding their ground …somehow.

~

Catamount: The ferret nods at Soquan, looking back towards the gate and away from the fence. The entire structure did seem practically impassible, with the gate as the only portal in or out. “What do you need me to do, Soq?”

She has to shout this, as the noise from the crowd behind them and the noise from the crowd in front of them was nearly deafening.

Arrin: Soquan grasps the end of his staff tightly and shouts back at her. “Grab on and on three, we’re gonna push, okay?”

He braces himself. “One, two, three!”

~

Chris: Holst trots down into the crowd, former adversaries merely giving him a glance as they focus on the gate. Holst stops at the body of a dead hare, stooping to pluck something from the front of his uniform.

~

Catamount: The ferret grabs and pushes on Soquan’s count. For a fraction of a second, nothing happens, but as the two put more pressure on the lock it suddenly snaps open.

Arrin: Soquan untangles his staff from the mess of lock and chain quickly, before unweaving the chain from the door and swinging it open for the prisoners.

~

Chris: Holst watches as the crowd begins to flow forward revealing bodies of guards, and here or there a prisoner that had had it coming to them. He pushed along with all of the other beasts, anxious to be on the other side of the gate.

~

Catamount: Jozra tries to start forward but realizes that will be impossible with the amount of beasts trying to get out. Instead she stands aside and tries to get a glimpse of two very different foxes.

Arrin: He tries to gaze above the crowd for Holst for a few moments and turns up about as much as his companion. Finally he cups his paws and does his best to shout over the din. “Holstadt!”

Chris: Holst perks his ears for a moment, but dismisses it. He had already told himself that they would not be waiting for him.

Suddenly he glimpses a ferret looking out of place. He swivels his head and sees Soq. His heart jumps as he yells out their names. “Soq, Joz!”

Catamount: The ferret’s ears perk up as she hears her name through the din. She scans in that general direction for a moment and then spots an only vaguely familiar fox. …is that Holst?

Arrin: Soquan’s ears perk up and he scans over the crowd again. Spotting the fox, he grins broadly and waves an arm over his head. “Holst!”

Chris: Holst trots over, stopping a pace away from the two. Without thinking, he reaches out both arms and hugs Joz.

Catamount: The ferret, relieved to see their traveling companion again, hugs back, though she almost instantly realizes how weird that is. Before the three parted ways in the prison cell she never would have expected a hug from Holst.

Arrin: Soquan takes a few steps over towards the two and reaches out, clapping the fox heartily on the back. “Good to see you around, Holst.”

Chris: Holst pulls out of the hug and reaches out a paw to offer a handshake to the otter, his bare forearm displaying a winged-cross tattoo.

Arrin: The otter notes the tattoo before grasping the fox’s paw and giving it a shake. “Nice tattoo.”

Catamount: The ferret eyes the tattoo a moment but returns her attention to trying to find another fox. Again she scans the crowd.

Chris: Holst’s eyes dart to Joz and Soq. He instinctively hides his forearm against his stomach though he couldn’t hide his nervousness. He merely nods.

Arrin: Soquan scans the area as well. “How are we gonna do this from here?”

Catamount: Jozra notices Holst’s nervousness and is puzzled. It’s almost like he thinks she should know something about the tattoo. But she has more pressing concerns. “I’m not sure…”

Chris: Holst, still keeping his forearm to his belly, tries to see what they’re looking at. “Who are we looking for?”

Catamount: Jozra bites her lip. “We met an old friend of mine outside, he said another was in here. His name is Azrun. He…” How much to tell? “…he’s a short fox. He might’ve looked like a child to you if you saw him.”

Chris: Holst thinks a moment, shrugging with finality. “No clue, children were kept separate from… us.”

Catamount: Jozra’s brow furrows. This might present a problem, or it could make finding the archer fox easier. “Do you know where?”

Chris: Holst nods. “Northeast corner.”

Arrin: Soquan looks in that direction,  squaring his shoulders a bit. “I’ll go.”

Catamount: Jozra eyes Soquan, a little puzzled. Even if the otter knows Azrun’s name, Azrun doesn’t know Soquan. Scanning the seething mob once again and hearing Zander’s voice off in the distance, Jozra turns back to their reunited group. “I think we should all go. If we get separated again it might be hard to find each other.”

Chris: Holst grins. “After all that time in there I’m not letting you two out of my sight.”

Arrin: The otter nods. “Alright then.” He pauses as he looks at the other buildings in the compound. “We should do a good sweep of the place, make sure there’s no beasts stuck inside.”

Catamount: The ferret nods. “Azrun first, though. He’ll help us.”

Arrin: He nods yet again. “Let’s go then, this chaos won’t last forever, we need to be quick.”

Chapter 85: Bells

Chapter 85: Bells

In Which the Alarm Is Sounded.

———————————————————————————————

Back at the Hovel, Soquan begins to stir. The previous night flashes though his minds eye, and the otter’s eyes snap open as he looks over to check on Jozra.

Noticing the ferret’s absence, and the presence of the necklace-wrapped dagger, he rises from his bed. After taking the objects into his hand, he moves to shake Zander awake. Once the woodrat is conscious, he presents the dagger to him. “Something tells me you know something about this.”

~

Jozra chooses to leave the way she came in and returns to the broom closet. As she opens the door, however, light from the main room’s narrow windows penetrates the small closet and reveals a map with a detail that shouldn’t be there.

The map shows a large part of the continent including the desert, most of which is marked with the words “Unexplored” except for a prominent river, the Ravine, and a small valley.

Jozra freezes. Then quickly fetches a candle, lights it, and ducks back into the secret office to investigate further.

~

Zander makes a show of blinking his eyes blearily and gazing at the dagger with incomprehension. Then he catches the look in Soquan’s eyes and drops the act.

He sighs. “I don’t think I have the answers to all of the questions you’re asking.” He glances out the window, noticing the daylight.

“Hurry. We need to pack everything we’re taking with us. I’m not sure when we’re leaving but we need to be ready for it.”

~

With the day advancing swiftly, Jozra knows she only has a short time to find out why this hare had a map that included Oparanth. And it’s soon apparent why the room was secret. Classified dispatches from a ‘Lord Brind’, detailed maps, reports, preliminary plans.

There’s too much to take but it’s too important to just leave behind. Praying she has enough time, Jozra begins breathing deeply, finding a sort of a trance state. Another useful tool all Scorpions learned was memorizing precisely detailed information.

Too precisely in some cases, with unnecessary borders and embellishments thrown in. Information memorized in such a way isn’t readily accessible, locked away as it is. To have more than one chance to relate all of it, exactly as seen, is incredibly rare.

Jozra begins the memorization process.

~

Soquan gives Zander a hard stare for a few moments, then a nod. “Alright.”

He shakes his head while moving across the room.“That ferret and I need to have a nice, long talk when this is all done with.”

Blankets, food, and other useful things in the Hovel that can be taken are scooped into packs and deposited by the door.

On edge, the otter watches Zander as he keeps watch while idly fiddling with Jozra’s dagger. Suddenly, he makes a small, frustrated noise and takes a piece of parchment from the packs, and writes.

Zander watches Soquan curiously for a moment, and then goes over his small apartment once more, making sure everything necessary is taken, hoping that Jozra shows up to carry the third pack.

No, just that she shows up.

The woodrat finally settles himself on the window ledge, watching.

~

A knock on the main doors starts to break Jozra’s concentration. She’s read through and memorized most of what is in the secret office, much of which is vital information though she can’t make that distinction in such a state.

She begins the deliberate process of locking the memories of what she’s looked at into her head as a guard finally opens the main door and calls to the other room. She’ll need a key.

Usually it’s a mental key, but with this much information in this short amount of time, she’ll need a physical one. The document with orders involving Oparanth and bearing the seal of Lord Brind will do very well indeed.

By the time the hares have discovered the murder and are calling the alarm, Jozra has finished her memorization trance and has lit various piles of paper, and particularly the large map, on fire.

Document safely tucked behind a sheath against her leg, Jozra vaults out the ventilation hole. The hall is a mess; the news has spread fast. Servants and guards rush about urgently but without purpose.

Someone has the presence of mind to ring the bell at the top of the building and, surprisingly, other bells take up the call. She hadn’t thought to look for a city wide alarm system.

~

Holst’s stay in the prison camps has not been good to his physique. As his stay lengthened things had gone from bad to worse and, along with his body, his will began to deteriorate as well.

Until he heard the bells.

Normally, their wake up calls were sharp raps on their cage like cells. Bells meant something had gone wrong. He was up from the dusty ditch he called a bed in an instant.

He peered out through his cell bars and noticed the camp in utter chaos. The night crew hadn’t been locked down when the bells began and were giving the guards some trouble.  Any guards not in the fray were frantic.

Now was his chance.

~

Zander jerked upright as he heard the bells. Out the window he saw a detail of hares race up the road, towards the city proper. He turns to Soquan. “Now. We need to alert everyone.”

~

In the palace, Jozra is pursued. In the confusion she’s able to often lose her pursuers, but the ferret in the black cloak is a dead give away, anyone stupid or brave enough gives chase.

The open window is a convenient escape.

~

Soquan glances up at the woodrat and nods, scribbling something quickly on the parchment before tucking it away with the dagger. He picks up two of the packs and double packs them.

“That leg of yours up for some running?”

~

Holst leans his frail weight against the bars of his cell to no avail. If he were in the yard perhaps he would have a more tangible chance.

Suddenly, the door at the end of his cell block bursts open. The hare feebly attempting to hold back a mob is trampled and beaten savagely. As Holst pleas to the passing beasts he merely receives dirty looks and curses.

They knew what he had done.

Soon the hall is empty except for the hare in his death throes. Too far for Holst to reach the keys.

He sinks to the ground, head in paws, how much longer would he have to pay for it?

~

Jozra isn’t surprised when the two hares pursuing her hesitate to jump out the window onto the roof as well. They seem very secure in their ground dwelling ways. She’s able to get ahead and, with a few tugs on strings, the ‘robe’ is now free to use as a decoy.

She drops it on an unsuspecting hare as he races around the building. The other hares, since they don’t look up, catch glimpses of their quarry through the crowd, and are disappointed when it turns out to be one of their own.

Jozra skulks away, moving through back alleys as fast as she can without revealing herself for further chase.

~

The woodrat raises an eyebrow as he shoulders his own pack. He grasps his cane tightly. “It’d better be.”

He leads the way down the stairs and out into the street where already slum-dwellers are beginning to mill in confusion.

Soquan gazes around the area and shouts just enough to be heard to those close by. “The hares are in a panic, if you all know what’s good for you, you better get out of here now.”

He sets down the road and motions for Zander to follow. “C’mon let’s go get Holst and whoever else wants to be busted out.”

~

Holst pulls himself together, his mind clicking with its familiar logic. His puts his emotion an arm’s distance away. There had to be a way to get out, there always was.

He scans the floor for anything that might help. He grabs for something. His paw grasps it.  He frowns, a twig can’t do much.

~

Zander shouts over the commotion that breaks out after Soquan’s statement. “Take only what you need! Stay together! There’s strength in numbers!”

He thinks a little. “And we could use some help, breaking our imprisoned friends out!”

~

Jozra’s made it back to the roof tops. By now nearly everyone in the entire city has spilled out in confusion on to the streets. She can move faster that way, though she’s more exposed.

An arrow whistles by and punctuates that point, fortunately into a chimney and not into herself. She’s able to out distance the archers quickly, though, and is soon back in the slums. The ferret casts about, looking for her companions.

On the ground, Soquan manages to spot movement on a nearby roof. He squints a moment then gives a shout, waving a paw. “Joz!”

~

As Holst is grasping for something to help him out of his cell, a shadow blocks the light flooding into the hallway. The figure steps over the dead hare, looting the keys and tossing them within Holst’s reach.

 

“Let’s finish this, killer.”

Chapter 84: Shadows and Blood

Chapter 84: Shadows and Blood

In Which The End Begins.

———————————————————————————————

Yazeth: Four hours before dawn Jozra wakes. It was definitely now or never. Before even moving out of her bed she double checks her remaining throwing knives. She slips out from under her cloak-blanket and silently starts towards the window when she pauses a moment, catching Soquan’s sleeping form in what little starlight comes through the window.

After a moment, she removes a single knife and the necklace he gave her in what seems like ages ago. Careful to keep them from jingling, she wraps the necklace around the little black knife and leaves it in a conspicuous spot on her bed.  …just in case.

A moment later and she’s nearly out the window, she pauses on the ledge checking the street below and then looking back to make sure she hasn’t disturbed the other two in the room.  Zander opens his eyes a moment, almost trying to communicate through a look, and then deliberately closes them again.

She knows. He’s officially asleep, never saw anything.  She swiftly climbs up to the rooftop.

Tucked into a corner of the rooftop, weighted by a loose stone scrounged from the street, is the ‘robe’ she fashioned from the cloth Zander had found for her and the scabbard she had been carrying around in the bottom of her pack since the winter.

The scabbard is promptly strapped to her left thigh, where it belonged until the thing it held was lost. The ‘robe’ with its dark coloration and uncertain edges blends her in with the night and shadows. And without letting herself gather her thoughts, she’d be there all night otherwise, she’s off, over the rooftops towards the compound that seems to serve as the hare’s headquarters, at least in this district of the city.

Zander was right. The hares never looked up.  And in the darkest hours of the nearly moonless night most of them were drowsy, if not asleep. Fortune was with Jozra. The building that houses confiscated items is guarded by an elderly and rather portly hare that was likely due for retirement. An easy post, to guard something that’s heavily guarded by proximity to other buildings.

She drops softly to the ground and eases open the door. The efficiency of the hares works to her favor, not a peep from the hinges. Low torchlight glints of rows and rows of weapons, picture frames and nick-knacks. She hesitates near a hook hung with a chain before moving on. These other weapons could be ‘liberated’ when their owners were.

Due to her previous scouting, Jozra is able to easily find the rack with her knife on it. And behind it, is another. Perfectly identical though perhaps slightly blackened.  Zander was right again.

She takes both and the sheath that they had confiscated when they took her knife. Nearby are the small throwing knives they took as well. She makes quick work of the burglary and is soon back on the roof, concealing daggers and de-modifying the other sheath so that it can be strapped to her thigh as well instead of attached to her hip like it had been for so long.

One two. No… Though she trained in switching the two knives up, the now blackened one simply belonged in her right paw.

One two. The knives now at home in their scabbards, she is ready.

She should have started sooner, it’s nearly an hour later than she planned when she finally reaches the palace in the center of the city. The journey isn’t long, but treading silently takes time and she needed that sleep.

In the main city, rooftops aren’t as closely spaces as in the slums so she often takes to the ground. Infiltration of the palace comes from scaling a fence to a nearby roof and then jumping — the thump is audible though muffled, but the hares don’t respond to a sound they can’t place in context — to the palace’s first floor roof. Balconies and architectural embellishments make the ascent to the fourth floor too easy.

The palace is equipped with actual glass windows unlike most of the rest of the city, especially the slums. The mayor’s bedroom is even adorned with intricate stained glass windows. The hallway ones are simple, though, and open upwards smoothly.

Once inside she flattens against the corners and walls. Here and there hares are guarding or patrolling, but they’ve become bored with their posting. Nothing ever happens.  The front door to the mayor’s rooms are too heavily guarded, though.  She’ll have to find another way in.

Ferrets, or at least ones trained as Scorpions, DO look up. And Jozra discovers that the architect of the building was against grates.  The ventilation system is wide open. And though tapestries are hard to climb, it’s doable.

Jozra wiggles through the opening and looks before she leaps. She’s puzzled for a moment, the layout doesn’t make obvious sense to her. It’s like a broom closet arranged as an office.

She climbs down and peeks out the door into something like a living room. There are three doors besides the one she’s looking out of. The first across the way gives her pause, she’s sure it’s a room for children but after a moment she realizes it’s neatly made up and empty. A room for visiting children. The next is the office. All heavy wood furniture and officiousness. The third is her prize.

The sky beyond the colorfully tinted window is growing lighter and she’s able to make out portraits on the walls. One of the hares in the portraits matches the one in the bed in the center of the room. In one he’s standing with a stern looking squirrel. Another looks to be a family portrait, with grandchildren. That explains the other room.

For a moment, sympathy creeps in but Jozra steels herself. This man’s policies have destroyed far more families than his death will. In a few smooth movements, Jozra draws her blade, crosses the room and catches the hare under the jaw as he starts to wake and rise reflexively.

He gurgles, eyes flashing in surprise and anger. The hare starts to reach for the ferret but she sidesteps away, drawing her knife with her, leaving a gaping wound in its wake.  Froth bubbles around the hare’s lips as he dies, bleeding far too quickly for any medicine to save. Jozra cleans her blade on the bed sheets and slips back out the door.

Chapter 83: Reconnaissance

Chapter 83: Reconnaissance

In Which Jozra Begins To Make Up For Lost Time.

———————————————————————————————

Yazeth: The rest of the day passes slowly. Soon after breakfast, Zander leaves the hovel to begin the daily search for food while Jozra and Soquan begin their bid to keep from going stir-crazy. Finally the day drags to a close and the three finish eating their meager dinner in near full darkness. Jozra stretches and helps clean up a little before voicing her proposal. “I think I’ll go for a walk.”

Arrin Woodgreen: Soquan’s head snaps towards the ferret. “They’ll see you! What if you’re captured?”

Yazeth: The ferret shakes her head. “I’ll be careful, Soq. It’s dark and late. I’ll hear them coming long before they know I’m there.”

Arrin Woodgreen: The otter frets a moment. “You stay safe then. Nothing stupid.”

Yazeth: Jozra nods in a serious manner. “I promise, Soq. Besides, maybe I’ll find something for breakfast tomorrow.”

Zander wants to insert some reassuring words to the conversation but hesitates. Saying something might make him have to explain how he knows that Jozra is very good at sneaking around in the dark.

Arrin Woodgreen: Soquan manages a grin though his worry. “See you later tonight then.”

Yazeth: The ferret bobs her head again. “Don’t wait up.” Without any light, the three tended to go to sleep as soon as it became too difficult to see to do things. She suspects Soquan will wait up until she does come in, though.

Yazeth: Jozra’s outing is successful, for several reasons. The first being that she finally has a chance at some fresh air.
After leaving through the door she’s able to find another route to the roofs of the slums and from there she skulks over to the city proper. Here and there she finds better food than what they had been scavenging for the past week in the slums, mostly thrown out by the more affluent beasts.

And for the first time she’s able to get close to the mayor’s house. The ease with which she’s able to approach it without detection helps to reassure her that she isn’t as inept as she feared she might be. And in a way it confirms to her what she already decided after she suffered a beating at the paws of the guard hares.

She returns to the hovel long after midnight and begins to make her nightly ‘walks’ a habit.

Soquan keeps most of his concerns to himself after she returns from that first night but he continues to worry, often waiting up for the ferret. As predicted, the commander never knocks on the door to the hovel and soon even the otter is taking a few short strolls outside at dusk just to keep the cabin fever away.

Jozra’s supplements to their ‘groceries’ gives Zander time to look for other things too, and one morning during their stretches, the woodrat shows Jozra where he’s hidden what might be mistaken as a thin sheet. The length of cloth is thin and mended, sometimes pieced together and above all dyed in dark colors.

It’s very similar to an object all Scorpions in the desert use for a multitude of purposes.

After fitting, stitching and modifying the ‘sheet,’ Jozra takes it on a test run a few nights later. The dark colors and lack of a defined shape let her get closer to the palace than before, allowing her to check out guard positions and once to even check a duty roster.

One evening is spent specifically checking out the building where the hares keep everything they confiscate. Just by looking through the window — by hanging upside down from the ledge of the roof — Jozra’s able to spot stacks of paintings, shelves of fine crockery and racks full of weapons, including a hook that holds Holstadt’s chain.

By the time Jozra finally feels prepared to do what she has to do, it has been just over a month since she, Soquan and Holst arrived in Afrin. Every night she sees what this horrible city has done to innocent beasts and curses herself for delaying in the first place. And yet she delays some more.

Somewhere there must be a stream as she’s noticed several nights with ground fog and soon the moon will be little more than a sliver. She’s chosen her date, but now her fears and self-doubt rise up again.

The evening of the night she’s chosen finds her sitting quietly apart from Zander and Soquan, thinking through things and trying to quash her doubts.

Arrin Woodgreen: Soquan looks up from an old and tattered book he had ‘liberated’ from the trash a while back. He spots the ferret sitting off to the side and after a quick glance out the window at the increasing darkness he closes the book. “No walk tonight Joz?”

Yazeth: The otter’s voice rouses Jozra from her mood. She smiles a little and shakes her head. “We have food for nearly three days now. And I was back late last night.”

Arrin Woodgreen: He nods. “You’ve been looking awful all day. Get enough sleep last night?”

Yazeth: Jozra tries to think up some excuse to make it seem like she’s alright but she can’t bring herself to lie even more to the otter. Zander shoots her a brief, knowing look as he starts preparing the room for sleeping in.

Arrin Woodgreen: He grins at her at he rises to aid Zander. “Just have a nice lie-in tomorrow if you can, catch up on some sleep.”

Yazeth: The ferret smiles at Soquan, trying to keep the bitterness out of it. It’s not that this was her first ‘job’. It was more memories of Ostoria hanging over her head and the lack of clear orders. And Soquan.

Arrin Woodgreen:  He grins right back at her and takes down the sleep-mats, tossing one towards Jozra while settles down his own.

Yazeth: Jozra folds her own mattress out of Zander’s hanging wall and sets it in her usual place.

Arrin Woodgreen: The three move through the setup quickly, and soon, Soquan yawns slightly as he prepares to bed down for the night.

Yazeth: Jozra settles back in her own bed and tries to get some sleep, knowing she’ll need to be rested. She’s too tense, though, and the moment she dozes off she jerks awake again.

Arrin Woodgreen: While Jozra has trouble sleeping, it’s apparent that the other two beasts don’t and slow, even breathing can be heard from two corners of the room.

Yazeth: Jozra’s sleep, when she does get to sleep, is fitful. Edges of nightmares haze in her mind but never come through fully to torment her.

Arrin Woodgreen: Soquan happens to be awake during one of these nightmarish dreams and notices the ferret’s tossing. Quietly, as to not disturb the woodrat, Soquan rises from his bed and pads over to her. He crouches beside her and places a paw on her shoulder, shaking her gently. “Joz…”

Yazeth: Jozra stirs and awakens fully, ready to leave but the night is still too early. “Hrm?”

Arrin Woodgreen: The otter looks concerned. “You were tossing around. Everything alright?”

Yazeth: Jozra looks into Soquan’s eyes for a moment and then looks away. “Just having trouble sleeping.”

Arrin Woodgreen: He rubs her shoulder gently. “Do you want me to stay here? Or will you be okay?”

Yazeth: The ferret smiles, though hesitantly. “I’ll be okay in a moment.”

Arrin Woodgreen: He sighs and shifts slightly to wrap an arm around her shoulder. “You sure? I don’t mind, really.”

Yazeth: Jozra rests for a moment with Soquan’s arm around her and after a bit she does feel better. She nods. “I’ll be fine. Thank you, Soq.”

Arrin Woodgreen: Soquan nods at her statement. “Alright then.” He motions towards his pallet. “You know where I am if you need me.” He pecks her cheek lightly and rises, making his way back to bed. “Sweet dreams Joz.”

Yazeth: She smiles a little and settles back down to sleep. Somehow Soquan’s ministrations allow her to get several hours of restful sleep.

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