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Clouds of Ash

By Sanita The Squirrel All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure

A short story

The apple sailed through the air in the spring evening sky. It's high arcing path was intercepted by the bolt of flame the size of a large coin. The fruit split asunder with a crack causing the birds in the trees that had been singing their various melodies in the clearing to cease with the report. A female voice cheerfully remarked, "Very nice shot, Fay."
The white furred squirrel had a burlap bag of apples next to the stump she sat on. The black leather armor she wore was smelling of oil and moved like a second skin against the snow squirrel's motions, "How did you get the fireball so small that time? And that was -really- accurate for a fire spell."
A fox in green robes with golden trim grinned, seeing her weeks of experimentation had finally paid off. Her light blue eyes looked over her handy work, a dozen destroyed apples scattered about on the ground, "I focused my mana into the point of my finger instead of my paw." She held up her paw, flexing her fingers, "It's the same principle as using a wand but it takes a lot of mana to do that." Though one couldn't tell at a mere glance the mage felt as if she had just run three miles.
Sanita smirked, taking an apple out of the bag she took a bite from it. After two moments she made a face, spitting out the chunk of fruit, "Gah! Worm." She looked at where she bit. Sure enough, there was part of a green worm wiggling in the sea of white apple flesh. Angrily the rodent tossed the apple over her shoulder, "Hmph, if we had some coin I'd say lets go down to the Prancing Dragon and wash away the taste of that worm. Or at least get something that isn't apples."
Chuckling the mage tapped her chin in thought for a moment, "You know, the Gray Monks of the Shadow Valley see fruit worms as a delicacy."
Sanita laughed, "That so? Don't they also greet others by rubbing there asses against you? I hear all sorts of weird tales about them." She looked through the bag, attempting to find an apple that wasn't infested or bruised, finally plucking one from the rest. "This one looks sa-" She was cut off as a bolt of fire struck the apple in her paw, sending apple chucks all over her face and armor. She 'eeped' in surprise before furrowing her brow at Fay, "Oh come on! I was about to eat that!"
The corsac half breed blew on the tip of her finger as if it were the barrel of a freshly fired pistol, "Payback."
Huffing, the squirrel retrieved a rag from one of her pockets, "Really? You're -still- mad about that? I said I was sorry."
"You tried to sell me into slavery." Fay had a slightly amused look on her face as she saw Sanita's face and muzzle covered in apple splatter.
"Oh come on! I wasn't even serious and that was weeks ago," Sanita tried to explain, "Hey, how else were we going to get that key from Trexas? That black dragon wouldn't listen to reason. Or begging." "And you couldn't just steal it from him?" Fay folded her arms, glaring at her companion. "You're a thief after all. Or, I dunno, seduce him?"
"I prefer the term 'asset relocation'. Hey, I did get the key to the vault, didn't I?" The squirrel brushed away a piece of apple from the tip of her nose, "And no, he liked males. He wanted you as a different sort of entertainment." Fay was about to ask but Sanita shook her head before she asked, "You don't want to know."
Fay frowned but couldn't argue, "True. His claim couldn't be upheld legally so he couldn't keep me. I'd like a little more warning before you run a scam like that again. Besides, that vault was empty save for a skeleton and a few rusted spear tips. Total waste of time."
Sanita shrugged, "Fine. I promise on my oath as a Black Rose that I will let you know if I try to pull a scam involving you again." The fox knew her squirrel companion couldn't violate that. A Black Rose Guild member had to keep their word when promised upon the guild's name. "There, happy? So, what are we going to do about money?"
"The town of Greenthorne Pass has an otyugh infestation in their cess pools."
The squirrel shook her head, still cleaning off her chest piece of her leather armor, "Nope. Not fighting a shit feasting poop monster for pocket change. What are they offering? 15? 20 silver?"
Fay answered with a rueful grin, "12 silver."
"Fuck that!"
"Well, we could hire ourselves to one of the local town watches."
Sighed, "You remember the last time we did that?" She looked at her friend, "You want another "Captain Grabby-paws" incident? I bet they still haven't gotten the smell of fried bear hair out of that guard house. You shocked him good."
The mage glared and stated flatly, "He grabbed my boobs. Served him right!"
"I'm not disagreing with you." Sanita's stomach growled. She reached her paw into the bag, looking for another apple. "I heard that there is a Darthrine payroll -"
"Illegal," Fay vetoed. Sanita frowned.
"Okay, I know of this place in Grome's Hold that has an opuim den we could-"
"Not sactioned by the local lord of the town thus illegal."
The squirrel folded her ears back, "You didn't let me finish."
"You were going to suggest robbing it?"
Grinned as she got an edilbe looking apple, "It's like you know me!" She took a bite. No worm this time.
"We've been working together for almost three years now," Fay remarked, "Of course I know you. You're not that complicated of a person, Sanita."
Nodding, she swallowed the bite of apple, "And you are like an onion. On top a layer of killjoy. Under that layer more by-the-book law abiding anti-fun mage."
"Someone has to keep you out of trouble. If it weren't for me you'd have been dangling from a noose by now."
"It's not my fault that there is a low limit to my impulse control and shiny things tend to test it's limits rather harshly," Sanita munched on the apple, finishing it in quick order. Fay sighed, "I think that's enough practice for the day. Let's go to the Prancing Dragon. Your treat this time."
"I can't. I'm broke, remember?"
"I know about the silver piece in your right boot," Fay smirked, her robes catching a bit of the breeze as the wind picked up in the evening breeze. "Ugh. Fine! You are really lucky I like you." She finished the apple, tossing the core into the surrounding woods. Leaving the sack of apples the snow squirrel stood up, smoothing back her red head hair. Her fur was a contrast to the fox's russet colorings save for the white neck fur that could be seen before disappearing beneath the dark green mage robes. The black diamond marking on her forehead was partially obscured by the hood of her robes. Gesturing with a gloved paw she playfully remarked, "After you." Fay shook her head as they both made their way down the road to the sea side town of Blackport as dusk approached.
The Prancing Dragon was half full with the regular dock workers, fisherman, and sailors as they spent their wages on drink, cards, or dice. Sanita held the door open for the corsac half breed as she walked though, following a step behind her. The air smelled of stale ale and pipe weed, a light haze of blue hovering it just about eye level to the duo. The walls almost seemed to swallow the sounds of the low conversations due to the dark wood used to build the place. It was by design. As they walked a few eyes watched them. Sanita felt a paw touch her rear. Spinning on a heel she drew a throwing dagger, ready to hit whomever groped her in the chest with it. A rather scurvy looking coyote held his paws up, "Sorry miss! Just havin' a bit o' fun is all." Sanita, a glare on her face was very tempted to pretend the canid hadn't apologized.
A gruff voice sounded from the bar, "Best keep your hands off the ladies that come in here, Sam. Especially them two. I'd hate to have to explain to the town watch why you are dead in my tavern," The voice belonged to a rather stout looking Tazmanian devil wearing a white-ish shirt with black leather vest. A cigar made of Golden Mountain tobacco leaf was firmly jutting from her muzzle as she glared. Behind her hung a rather impressive double bladed battle axe, the two blades forged of a black metal shaped like two cresent moons. Sanita nodded to the bartender, sheathing her blade.
"Thank you, Deo," Fay smiled as she greeted their old friend with a nod.
Both of the adventurers sat on vacant stools by the bar. They didn't have that much company as a raccoon who looked less that sixteen winters old but had a rather sea-wise appearance picked up his mug of rum and moved to the next stool over away from the squirrel. Reluctantly the squirrel removed the silver piece from her boot, a hidden pocket tucked just in the seam at the top. "Can I get a cup of mead? Oh, and whatever Fay wants."
The mage nodded, "I'll take a glass of elderberry wine please." Sanita gave the fox a look that screamed 'Really?'. "You said whatever I want, Sanita," Fay smirked a bit. The thief huffed.
"Sanita's treating? What's the occasion," Deo asked, pouring the wine from a bottle into a wooden mug.
"No occasion. In fact we're looking for work," the squirrel explained.
"The cesspools in-"
Sanita shook her head, "Fay suggested that already. I'm not wading hip deep in shit to get yanked under by something that feeds on poop with the occasional side of foolish adventurer."
"You could just burn it," Deo offered.
Fay took a sip of her wine after Deo had set it down, "The village needs the dung for their crops. Night soil is rich as a fertilizer. If we burnt it not only would we endanger their growing season but likely would get run out of town to boot."
"If you're getting bored of running this tavern you could get your axe and join us in finding a bandit camp to raid," Sanita suggested. She took the mug of mead from Deo, nodding in thanks. The sweetness of the honeymead helped to improve the squirrel's mood. "Ahh, I really needed that."
Taking the cigar from her mouth Deo sighed, "I'd like to help you both but I'm retired. After we took out that necromancer coven that was it for me. Five hundred gold bought me this place and enough booze to keep the taps flowing for a few years. I'm doing what I've always wanted to, Sanita. I really am sorry."
Both adventurers heard someone behind them clear his throat, "If it's a job you need I may be of some help." Both Fay and Sanita turned to look at the individual. Before them was a rather well dressed rabbit with rich, chocolate colored fur. He had a harp tucked under his arm, a finely crafted rapier hanging off his belt, and a rather nice looking bard's slouch hat. He was a stark contrast to the rest of those inside the tavern. "Lord Brenner Covely at your service." He made an exaggerated bow.
Sanita took a sip of her mead, her silent cue to Fay that the mage should do the talking. The mage took the cowl of her robe and pulled it back to reveal her face to put on a more friendly apperance. "And what is this job you need done, my lord?" She perked her ears forward.
"My uncle recently passed away," the rabbit began with a crisp yet friendly tone, "In his last will and testiment he referred to a long abandoned keep that is the property of my family. It was left to me. I wish for it to be cleared of any unsavory types. I have letters of intent from the baron of the provence to hire adventurers so the legalities will be of no concern. I also have a charter drawn up with what I hope is agreeable terms. Any loot found -on- any creatures or vagerants is yours to keep. Any treasure you discover you will receive a twenty percent cut of."
Fay cut her eyes to Sanita who raised her pinky as she drank from her mead. It was a secret code between them. Flashing a quick grin Fay counted, "Twenty-five percent."
"Twenty is more than reasonable."
The fox took a slightly exaggerated sip of wine, "How many people have you offered this job to? The Order of the Red Shield would charge you thirty-five. The clerics of the Temple of Wergnos would demand half as tithe and another ten percent as a 'donation'. As we see it you're getting a bargin at twenty-five percent."
The bard gritted his teeth for a moment, folding his ears back. After a pause he sighed, "Very well. Twenty-five percent. But nothing up front. You will be paid when the job is done. I do not wish any advances of coin to be spent on swill." Deo gave a glare and low growl to the noble as he said that. Sanita was hiding a grin behind her drink calculating how many of Lord Covely's bones the former mercenary would break before her and Fay could pull the Tasmanian devil off of him. The rabbit extended his paw to 'shake on it'. Fay took his paw, shook it, then let go. Sanita did the same. "Now that business is finished I would like to offer you a place to stay tonight. I'm sure you will find my manor rather cozy compared to whatever other arrangements you might have at the moment."
Sanita smirked, "A warm bed sounds good to me." Looking to Deo she asked, "Mind if we leave our packs here one more night?"
Shaking her head as she tapped an ash from her cigar to the floor she shook her broad head, "Nope. Not at all."
Fay nodded in agreement, "Let us finish our drinks and we will follow you, my lord. I am Fay Vandermer and my lovely companion is Sanita Quickpaw." Sanita gave a dip of her head when introduced.
It took but a minute for the two ladies to do so. After collecting the few coppers in change Sanita would get back from the silver piece they followed the bard to his manor on the outskirts of town. An amber hue half moon had risen low in the sky as fireflies danced over a field of barley while it swayed with the evening wind. Small talk and the occasional strum of the harp accompanied them as they walked. Within half an hour they arrived at the front gate of the manor. The place was a lovely two story affair with a servants quarters ajacent to the main house. A low stone wall indicated the border of the lord's lands which seemed to encompass at least ten acres as far as the two adventurers could tell. To the left was a modest apple orchard standing like a shadowy, silent platoon on a parade ground waiting for drill orders. They walked to the door which seemed to open of it's own accord. When they stepped through the threshhold of the doorway they noticed a rather elderly looking beaver had opened the door. "Thank you, Byron," the lord stated as he nodded to Fay and Sanita, "These two will be our guest tonight. Could you please tell Thane and Sorra to prepare something light for supper?" He paused, "I do not eat meat as I assume you don't, squirrel."
Sanita's tail bristled as she was referred to by her species, which could be considered rather rude, "Sanita. My name is Sanita. Not squirrel. Not 'hey, you!'" She let her anger ebb as she thought about the offer of food, "Either is fine. I can eat meat."
Fay had heard the story of how Sanita learned she could eat meat but kept her expression neutral, "I'm fine with whatever you choose, lord."
Lord Covely smirked, "My apologies, Sanita." Turning to his servant he stated who held a candlestick in his other paw as to provide light though the ambiance of the half moon outside did a fair job of adding illumination though the windows, "I think a nice, warm vegetable stew would be adiquate. Have it brought to the drawing room." He added almost as an after thought, "Oh, and tea would be lovely. The black leaf."
"Very good my lord," the beaver said as he bowed, closing the door, then departed for what was likely the kitchens. The foyer was of sparse decoration, only a couple tables on either side with an intricate vase with simple wildflowers, fairly fresh, on display within them. There was a stairway snaking up the side of one wall to a landing on the second floor with an open archwall going deeper into the manor. There were what looked like a couple family portraits hanging in ascending order up the staircase wall. An open passage way was before them, Lord Covely immediately striding through it after his servant left.
Fay looked to Sanita and almost growled in a low voice, "Keep your paws to yourself. We are here for a job, not to feed your kleptomania."
Sanita pouted a little, "But..."
The fox and squirrel followed their potential employer to his 'drawing room'. It had apparently been either a dining hall or a ballroom with the wall opposite of them being almost nothing but windows. It gave a beautiful view of the manor's gardens in the looming soft darkness of the night. The place had become an art studio. It was littered with paintings, three current 'works in progress' rested on easels. There were several finished paintings not yet in frames in standing stacks here and there about the place. It smelled sharply of paint. "Please excuse the mess."
Fay looked over one of the partially finished paintings, contemplating the quality of work. It was, in short, horrid. The colors clashed, what attempts at shading were either way too exaggerated or were basically non-existant. She wisely kept her criticisms to herself, "Hmm...I see that someone here likes to paint. Are these yours, Lord Covely?"
Smiling, the rabbit nodded, "Oh yes! My mother taught me how when I was still a cub. That is a new style that I have been working on. What do you think?"
"I could do about the same dripping my tail tip in paint and then flicking it at the canvas," Sanita remarked. "I used to steal art. This? I have no idea what it is supposed to be."
"Sanita!" The mage had a look of shock at the squirrel's lack of manners but her embarrassment melted away to surprise as Lord Covely erupted into laughter.
"Ah! Well, at least you are honest but I think you mistake my artistic style for lack of ability." It was about this time that the beaver returned with a tray with three cups of tea, candlestick still in his paw. "The stew will be ready in a few moments, my lord."
Nodding, Lord Covely took a cup as did Sanita and then Fay, "Did you see the portraits in the foyer? Those are my work. Unfortunately most of the kingdom's artists are boring and stuffy individuals. They lack imagination to truly express themselves. They paint dull portraits, unamusing landscapes, and boring historical battle scenes. Yes, their technique is flawless. Their paint strokes practiced to perfection. Alas, they lack that spark of newness. That boldness that makes something art!" He took a sip of the dark tea, "My father and, well sadly most of the males in my line were humorless men who thought the arts were a waste of time. Since taking over my father's estate I have been able to follow my passions." Bryon began to walk around the room, lighting candles in a few of the candelabras arranged around the studio. "Well," Fay took a sip of tea, "Shall we get down to business?"
The noble gestured to a couple of well stuffed chairs, "Of course!" He sat down in one taking another sip. He got out a scroll tube made with polished bone and brass end caps. Opening it the lapine slid a piece of parchment into his paw. "Bryon? My ink and quill please?" As they waited he handed the contract to Fay, who read over it.
"Hmm...This does seem in order save for the percentage." Fay looked to the white furred squirrel who looked over at the contract as the fox held it. "I assume our verbal agreement to the terms at the tavern will be honored?"
Lord Covely simply nodded. The servant returned with a quill and ink bottle that replaced the candle he had before. Fay looked at the line to sign her name. Sanita took the quill next, marking with an 'X'. "Good!" He took back the contract and walked over to a desk nearby. Using a bit of melted wax from one of the candles he sealed the contract with a small sigil stamp. He let the wax cool before slipping the contract back into the scroll case.
Sanita, sitting as well just drunk her tea down, wincing a little at the tart, tannic taste. Fay knew better. She let a dainty trickle wash over her tongue so it didn't over whelm her taste buds. Black leaf tea had a tendancy to do just that. Lord Covely began, "As I said before, my uncle passed recently. He was quite old. The property is west of Fein Dale, over the Twilight River.."
Sanita interrupted, "Whoa, that is Gru'lurk territory. You know, the tribe that likes to skin people alive and has rape for dinner?"
"Technically yes. My family has a claim in their tribal lands. When the Gru'lurk lands were conquered three hundred and seventy years ago three claims to the land arose. My family, the Rockpaw Clan, and the Bramblehearts all had competing claims to the region. Before the other two could react my forefathers built an outpost at the bend of the river." He got up and retrieved a map, spreading it out on the floor before them. He pointed to the area he spoke of, "As you can see the keep is just on the other side of the Twilight River. You will likely have no trouble reaching it."
Fay frowned, "But it's a mile deep into Gru'lurk territory," She looked to Sanita.
"She's right. And the Gru'lurks are about as conquered as fleas conquering a bear. As in not at all." She set her tea cup beside the chair, getting up to kneel down in front of the map. Fay soon joined her, sitting cross legged. "The good news is the Twilight River is really shallow even if it's wide so crossing won't be a problem. And if this map is accurate there are likely to be Gru'lurk scouts in these hills here and at this treeline at the forest's edge so we will know where to aviod if careful. If we don't run into a warparty on the way in then the scouts will have run back to their camp and inform their friends and neighbors that we are tresspassing into their lands if they see us. Then we will likely be dodging them on the way out. Finally there is whatever the fuck calls this abandoned keep home now." Fay nodded in agreement, "What can you tell us about this place?" The fox finished her tea, setting off to the side.
"From what I've been told it is just an outpost to secure our claim to the land. It was built twice. The first time was three hundred and seventy years or so ago. A fire from a lightning strike caused it to burn down. My great, great uncle Silas Covely had it rebuilt about a hundred and ninty years ago. He moved there after his wife died in childbirth. He started a sawmill across the river where the town of Fein Dale is. It's grown into a rather respectable little hamlet. Though, as to be expected there is talk among the peasants and workers that the keep is haunted."
"By what," Sanita asked.
"I don't know," Lord Covely answered with a shrug, "I am not an expert on the undead. I only know what has been reported by the watch. They say Silas' ghost haunts the keep. Others claim a vampire has taken up residence within the keep."
"Any reports of missing villagers," Fay looked worriedly to Sanita.
The rabbit shook his head. Before he could answer Byron had returned with three bowls of stew. As the scent of the food hit her nose Sanita's stomach loudly growled, "Sorry about that." A light blush colored the white fur of her cheeks briefly before accepting the bowl and spoon. They ate in silence for the most part. After they had finished Sanita thought, "If the villagers aren't getting munched by the vampire then either it is drinking from the Gru'lurk or there is no vampire. And if it were drinking from the tribals than the keep will be burnt to the ground."
"Regardless I want you to see what is there, clear it out, and report or bring back any treasure you may find. If you turn up empty handed I'll..." Lord Covely sighed, "I'll compensate you for your time, alright? I will agree to ten gold Renalds."
"Each?" There was a slightly hopeful look in the squirrel's eyes.
"Do not mistake our questions and concerns as a refusal to do this job," Fay explained, "We just need as much information as we can get." Smiling, she continued "We've dealt with worse than this, Lord Covely. We already shook paws on it and signed the contract. We are obligated to do this job. When was the last time anyone lived there or visited the keep?"
Tapping his chin as he sat on the floor with them he thought as he stood up, pacing in a small circle, "Hmm...I believe, if memory serves, that my grand father made a trip up to the keep about fifty years ago. The place was in disrepair. He only explored the outer walls. He and his party did not venture inside. They were on a hunting trip."
"Why not," Sanita asked.
The noble simply shrugged, "I do not know. My father never said. My uncle, being the eldest of grand father's sons inhareted the keep and surrounding land. Since he never married and I am the eldest of my living cousins it fell to me. I believe that he did so not because of that but because we shared a cerain trait. I will not burden you with that detail."
"Fair enough," Fay said, "We will be able to depart in the morning. Our adventuring gear is being held by a friend, the Tazmanian devil that owns the Prancing Dragon."
"Though it would be nice if you could give us fare for a wagon ride to Fein Dale," Sanita suggested, "It would speed things along."
"Very well. I will leave the coin for fare there and back with Byron to give to you in the morning. The faster you report back the better I suppose," Lord Covely nodded. "The hour grows late and I am tired as I assume you both are. Byron will show you both to your quarters. Sleep well."
The wagon creaked along the deep rutted dirt road, past rains having made it a bit muddy. Fay swung her legs off the back of the wagon while Sanita was laying down, attempting to catch some sleep. The bed of the waon was empty aside from the two and their adventuring gear. Occasionally the words 'dammit' or 'fucking hell' escaped the squirrel's lips when a rather hearty jolt from the road jostled her. A murder of crows flew lazily over head, cawing to each other in the overcast morning sky. The sun was playing peek-a-boo between grim, dark bottomed clouds. Fay could smell a hint of rain. They had been on the road for several hours save for a break as the drive needed to releave himself. The large equine driving the two feral oxen occasionally nickered in encouragement as the team pulled on.
The mage was reading a book on indiginous fauna and flora that could be used in alchemical components. She happened to glance up to see a rather rare cluster of black veil mushrooms under a sign post reading 'Fein Dale 3 miles'. Putting the book down on the wagon bed she hopped off the back of the wagon, running to pick the mushrooms. The midnight blue fungi literally sparkled as they were disturbed. The wagon driver stopped the wagon, one of the oxen bellowing in annoyance, "Everything alright, ma'am?" The large muscular tan colored horse asked in a naturally deep baritone.
"Sorry!" She hurried picking the cluster of seven mushrooms, quickly putting them into a leather pouch. She ran back to the wagon, hopping up on the back of it rear first. "I saw some alchemical mushrooms that are kinda hard to find."
"Oh, so we can stop for you to pick mushrooms but we couldn't have one 'wake up' ale at the Prancing Dragon," Sanita said as she still had her eyes closed.
"I thought you were sleeping," The fox resumed her reading, flipping through to the page with the mushrooms to verify that they were indeed black veil mushrooms.
"No, unfortunately not. Just as I drift off I get awaked from a rock or hole or whatever we keep hitting." Still with her eyes closed she asked, "How much farther?"
"Three miles," the driver answered, "So 'bout an hour 'for we get there."
The squirrel huffed, tail tip flicking in annoyance. The wagon resumed down the road slowly making the occasional creak and russle when it discovered a hole in the muddy road. The gloom of the day felt nice to Fay while she read about the properties of the mushroom which could be used in a few different potions and poisons. The road wound to go parallel with the Twilight River, it's ebony waters causing glimmers from the occasional peek of midday sunlight to reflect off of it's lazy, gently swirling surface. The tiny whirlpools caused by the current were short lived. Rounding a bend in the road they came to the gates of a wooden palicade, the doors opened. Two rather bored looking guards in peasant garb waved the wagon into the town. The only thing really denoting their position were duel red sashes. Most towns were too poor for full uniforms for the guard, having to resort to what they could throw together.
The largest and most obvious structure was the sawmill. The smell of fresh cut timber filled the nostrils in a sharp, pine scented way which was what welcomed them right off to Fein Dale. The wagon stopped at the stables. The town consisted of about two dozen one or two storyrough timber buildings. With a yawn Sanita sat up stretching. Fay simply hopped off the wagon, picked up her adventuring pack, and waited for the squirrel. She didn't take long, picking up her pack and crossbow. A quiver of crossbow bolts were strapped to her thigh, sorting her adventuring gear. "So, should we cross the river or ask around about the keep?"
Fay thought for a moment, "The locals might know something about the keep. I think we should ask around."
Sanita cleared her throat at a rather pleasant looking bovine with blonde head hair, blue eyes, and cream colored fur with a few light brown splotches that could be seen from the peasant's shirt and skirt she was wearing. While she was shapely she was by no means fat, "Excuse me, but could you tell us where the nearest tavern is?"
The cow thought for a moment, "It's still a bit early for ale, don't you think? And we only got the one over in that there direction." She pointed to a fairly new if small building. The wood had not even faded to a dark gray like the rest of the buildings save one or two others.
Fay interjected, "We are looking for information about a ruined keep about a mile west of here."
Frowning, the cow shook her head, "No one goes up there. Gru'lurks are crawling all around that spot. And to top it all off there's a ghost or something up there. Ain't no one been up there for a few years. Last one I know of was Jypsum Bluefang."
"Can you tell us where-" the fox was cut off as the cow shook her blonde head.
"Can't. He's dead. Fever took him two winters ago." She tilted her head, "Why are you wanting to go up there anyway, huh?"
"One of the local lords want us to investigate it," the squirrel thought, "That's a pity. So no one else knows anything about this place?"
"Not a lot to tell. Just some ruined fort or something. The Gru'lurks camp near there so no reason to go unless you want to get skinned alive or made a slave of theirs. Frankly, I'd rather go with skinned alive." The bovine swished her tail, the tip flicking back and forth.
Sanita looked to Fay, "I'm starting to regret taking this job."
"It's this or the otyugh," the mage reminded her companion.
Groaning, the squirrel said, "Retirement sounds so good right now. I never should have 'invested' that money from the necromancer job." "Hindsight is always the clearest point of view unfortunately," the fox stated, "But we agreed to this job. We are bound by that agreement. If we don't go through with it then we not only don't get paid but we also get to pay a civil fine or wind up having to be indentured servants. I don't know about you but I doubt you'd make a very good maid, Sanita."
Ears drooping the squirrel folded her arms, "Fine. We still have some daylight left. Let's see if we can find out anything else. Thank you, miss." She nodded to the cow who went on her way." The rest of the day was comprised of fruitless investigation. Only wild rumor or warnings were given by the town's people but nothing even remotely helpful. They finished the day at the tavern for lodging, Sanita spending her last coppers for the room.
"Ugh, we should have camped outside the town," the squirrel complained as she lay down on her side of the single bed.
"It's rather late and there are Gru'lurk just across the river. I would rather sleep within the safety of the palisade than with one eye open in the woods." Fay slipped off her robes, folding them neatly on her pack. Sanita was already in her 'sleeping clothes', claiming her side of the bed under the thick woolen blanket. The room was a small affair with a wash basin, a bed, and a small set of shelves with a small casndle burning low as it rested on top of the short shelves.
"I wish Deo and Shar were here," Sanita said, "Adventuring just doesn't seem the same without them."
"Yeah. I miss them too." Fay slipped under the covers, getting into bed, "But they went their way and we went ours. Shar and her new husband seem happy the last time I saw them."
"She was always attracted to the strong types. Makes sense that she married a blacksmith. Oh well." The squirrel rolled over, facing the fox, "I hope this job gets us at least something. To be honest I'm growing weary of adventuring."
"Really?" Fay raised an eyebrow at this.
"Yeah. Anyway, lets get some sleep." The squirrel blew out the candle.


Fay yawned, russet muzzle opening widely. She looked to see that Sanita was already out of bed. Shrugging, the fox stopped trying to figure out how the squirrel could do that without waking her years ago. With a stretch she got up, splashed her face with water from the basin, and dressed herself. A light grumble sounded from her stomach. Opening the rough wooden door of the rented room she heard the voice of her partner in the main area of the tavern spinning tales.
"...right before the leader of the coven could point his staff of lightning at Deo, 'thump'! I put a bolt from my crossbow right in his throat!" Sanita took a sip from a wooden mug before continuing, "Needless to say he wasn't casting shit after that. It was about that time that...Oh, hi Fay! I was just getting to the good part." The white furred squirrel with red head hair was munching on a honey nut treat; a cluster of oats, acorns, and other peeled nuts that were held in a ball by honey that was then dried. There were three others gathered around her as she spoke. One was the tavern keeper, a rotund skunk of what she guessed was about fifty years in age. The others were mirror images of each other, twin wolf cubs. The boys wore different colored tunics apparently to tell them apart Fay guessed.
"Did you get to the part where you triggered almost every trap on the way in so the necromancers were warned and had plenty of time to set up defenses or did you neglect that part," Fay looked around, seeing a plate of food and tankard of cider on a table. Pointing, she silently asked if that was hers to which Sanita nodded. With a sleepy smile the mage sat down to eat her breakfast.
"Did you really trigger every trap on the way in," one of the cubs asked, smirking.
"Hey, everyone has an off day, okay? And it wasn't -every- trap. I disarmed a few." Sanita looked a little pouty but bounced right back. She was definitely a morning person. "Oh, would you like to see some slight of paw?"
Fay half listened, eating the baked potato and egg. The tuber had been hollowed out to crack two eggs into it like a bowl, then had been baked in an oven for roughly half an hour. The first bite really hit the spot. Taking a sip from the apple cider, which added a contrasting sweetness to the starchy heaviness of the egg and potato tasted like a few moments of heaven. Turning her head to Sanita she inquired, "Umm...How did you pay for the meal?"
The fat skunk smiled, "She was kind enough to help with a few chores. Saved me a heap of time." He looked back to the squirrel, who blushed a little at the compliment. Fay had seen Sanita do this before and it was one of the few things that the mage did abmire the rodent for. When she needed to work she worked hard. As the squirrel performed her entertainment the rest of the potato and egg disappeared from the plate to fill an emptiness that now no longer bothered the fox.
A trio of 'oohs' competed with the crackle of the hearth fire. Sanita had just finished her straw weaving trick as she took a playful bow. The performance was quite good for an amatuer. "Thank you! You have been a kind and lovely audience!" Finishing her honey nut treat she sucked a little of the sticky honey reminants from her fingertips. "You ready?"
Nodding, Fay stood up to retrieve their packs.
A wide ribbon of lazy black water rolled along the early morning as the two figurs waded in at about knee depth. Using a couple of walking sticks they had modified from tree branches they crossed the Twilight River. The sandy bottom gave no resistance as the inky black water drifted past them. They both had their boots inside their packs to prevent them from getting soaked. The luke warm water did feel kind of nice in the warming morning.
"Ugh, if we weren't in a hurry I'd say why not go for a swim? It's warm today," Sanita shook her head.
Shrugging, the fox suggested, "We might do that after this job is finished."
"Sounds good to...That can't be fucking snow," Sanita saw a large white flake drift down from the sky. It caught a light updraft of air, making it hover in place for a moment in front of the Black Rose thief. She took her paw, palm up to grasp it. The flake disintegrated into a powder. She took a careful sniff, "It's ash." She looked back up to the sky as did Fay. "This is bad. Very bad." Sanita's voice had a very worried tone to it.
"Yeah. I know. I don't smell any burning so lets hope that the wind carried it in this direction." They both knew that it was Gru'lurk practice to burn the dead of slaves and captives. Often times they didn't bother with the dead part, throwing crippled slaves or captives onto a pyre to burn. "The sooner we get out of here the better."
The bank of the river was clear of trees for about fifty yard until the tree line of the forest began. Hundreds of old tree stumps and wagon ruts were almost like bad memories of when the logging camp had been in operation in that area. The duo sat down once they had crossed, putting on their boots. The ash continued to drift about like a light snow. The wind changed and not for the better. The stench of burnt hair and flesh, while light still teased both women's nosed like an infernal perfume. Fay shuddered.
"I really could have done without that," Sanita grumbled.
"Me too. I just hope they were already dead." Fay drew out a soft sigh before she began to chant. A soft pale glow emitted from her paw when she held it up. A slight shimmer surrounded her as the mana within the mage formed, bending to her will. A translucent shield surrounded her form: mage's armor.
"I just hope we don't join them." The fox nodded in agreement. They pressed on through an overgrown wagon road that according to the map they had prepared while still at Lord Covely's manor they were to follow a ways until it led right to the keep. The trees grew thicker as they walked with weeds pressing up to cover the long unused road. The tall, scrawny pine trees were thick in number, obscuring a lot of the skyline as they towered almost mockingly over the adventurers. The grayness of the now oppressive looking clouds above them did not help the feelings of dread that welled up in the fox and squirrel's stomachs. Sanita slipped out her crossbow, loading a bolt after cocking the string back. It was the feeling of a thousand eyes watching them but not seeing who was observing that made them uneasy.
Rounding a shadowed bend in the road they saw the ground slope gently before them to a collection of crumbling, ivy-choked walls. The hum of crickets and other insects gave an eire ambience to the ruined keep in the false twilight cast by the trees and clouds as ash continued to fall. What was once an iron porticulus lay rusted on the ground of the gateway, nothing more than debrii. Wooden spikes about four and a half foot longlining the bottom of the stone walls jutted out like teeth of some old dragon's maw. What drew their attention and captured it was what looked like a few rotted banners hanging from the walls of the front gate. The shapes and colors were wrong. It's was evident that the 'banners' were skins as patches of still attached fur clung to them. The rotted paws of one swayed in the unseen breeze. The gateway, aside from the ruined irongate, was open before them. The pair stepped forward cautiously, Sanita in front to scout. With her crossbow level she scanned with her eyes, coned for sound with her ears, and silently inhaled the air looking for any odd smells. The gateway was bare of vegatation as one mouse-like footpaw followed the other. Sea green eyes scanned, taking in the scene as the squirrel entered the modent courtyard. There were two buildings of stone construction, the smaller of which looked to have collapsed upon itself. The ruined wooden walls beside the smaller structure looked like what was left of a stable next to it. Tall weeds choked the perimiter of the open space though the center was completely bare as if the place had seen use at least in the last few years. This was confirmed as Sanita looked to what was likely the main house. The larger of the structures had more skins draped upon the walls, two on each side of a gaping hole of an entrance way. Whatever served as a door had long since rotted away to the elementsds. Bones, some with decayed flesh still upon them were host to a few buzzing flies that were making the most out of the dried, mummified meat. These littered the ground around the entrance of the larger building. Sanita held up a paw, signalling Fay to stop. Turning her head she used a form of sign language to inform the other that she would take a peek inside the larger structure. The fox nodded, preparing another spell. Her paws gave off a low crackle, the scent of ozone perfuming the air. Tiny arcs of electrical energy played about her arms, a snarl of adrinalin-fueled anticipation welling up within Fay. She could feel the mana almost writhing deep in her spirit like a serpent ready to strike. The thief heard as an ear coned back towards Fay. She pressed close to the right side of the doorway. Using slow, deliberate movements, she eased her head around the corner just enough to peer inside.
What looked like a large hall at one time was now a foul smelling lair. More bones of furries mixed with those of feral animals were scattered about. The hall was gloomy with a very musty oder. Dust motes floated in the meager light allowed from the slats in the building's roof.The walls were draped with more skins. At the back of the hall was a crude statue made of wood. Rust red in color was a totem of the Gru'lurk, Vul Rushia, Goddess of crows, death, and blood. The sight of the six winged avian turned Sanita's stomach, a very cold chill running down her spine like ice water. She was barely able to register a grunt and sniff as a large, hulking shape dwelling within the shadows near the altar moved. She managed to get a brief glimpse of mottled, dark green skin stretched over thick, sinuous muscle. The creature's large head with greasy hair like unkemp sheep's wool turned towards the entrance. Ducking her head back around the edge of the doorway the squirrel swallowed hard, her crossbow moving up to the ready. Fay gave a questioning look until Sanita mouthed the word 'troll'. Upon hearing this Fay quickly rechanneled her mana, focusing on a hot, radiant energy. Flames replaced the electrical crackle with a low hiss and pop. She slowly moved to the side, out of direct line of sight from the doorway. Sanita nodded when the mage was in position. Leaning in with her body just enough to aim her crossbow the squirrel lined up her shot. The silver trigger was cool to her finger pads as they pressed down, the small bit of steel holding the crossbow string taunt retreating into the weapon. The thump of the bolt hitting the creature right in the left eye.
The beast's roar was unearthly. Sanita quickly moved to the right of the building, drawing the string of the crossbow as she moved. She found a stone to duck behind in the tall weeds as cover. Heavy stomping heralded the enraged troll as it charged through the opening of the building. Dark green wart covered skin, yellowed teeth from a diseased looking maw, and filth encrusted claws emerged into the daylight. It had removed Sanita's crossbow bolt, the wound already starting to regenerate from the injury. As soon as Fay had a clear shot she unleashed a bolt of flame at the creature.
If the troll was angry from the crossbow bolt he was furious now as flame splashed like a snowball made of lava onto his chest. Warty green skin blistered and popped releasing a scent like burning hair. Franticly he swatted at his chest to put out the flame. Another crossbow bolt thunked into the troll's forearm from the squirrel. The rodent ducked behind the stone again, readying another bolt.
Fay glared at the monster with her sky blue eyes, the mage's mind focusing on drawing more mana from the wellspring of magical energy deep inside her. The troll looked in her direction, charging in rage. Claws cut through the air as he quickly closed the thirty or so yards between them. The last thing the creature saw was the fox's paws clasp togeter, a jet of flame rushing to meet him head on. With an audible crack like a musket shot the fire spell removed the troll's head from it's body. The headless thing's body stumbled for several steps, swinging wildly with it's claws. It would have been comical has the beast not been so dangerous. Sanita got up from her hiding spot, walking to the creature as she put one more bolt into the thing's back. It finally collapsed to the ground in a quivering mass.
"Well, that was surprisingly easy," Sanita walked over to retrieve her crossbow bolts from the corpse of the troll. Unfortunately she discovered one had a cracked shaft. Huffing in mild annoyance the squirrel stepped away. "Okay, you can light him up."
Fay did just that, fire from her paws washing over the troll. The crackling fire created a stink but would prevent the troll from regenrating. Trolls were notorious for healing even the most grievious of injuries except those caused by acid and fire. The mage covered her nose to protect herself from the strench. They watched the troll burn for the span of about half an hour just to make sure. Sanita had recovered what was left of the head, tossing it onto the fire. When they were satisfied that it wouldn't come back both females walked to the larger building, crossbow and flame spells at the ready.
The room smelled of old blood as shadows played and retreated from the fox's flame encompassed paws. Sanita's crossbow was leveled at the ready, following her gaze as she scanned the place. Without seeing much in the way of immediate danger Fay changed the essence of her spell to one of light, the flames replaced with a dazzling ball of white luminescense.
What had been a dinning hall was a long rectangle, the statue at the rear of it, dominating the room. The high thatched roof had been decently constructed with the slats for ventilation allowing a weak fade of sunlight in and modest air flow. Around the nine foot tall totem looked to be a circular fire trench carved into the stone foundation save for a path to the statue. Old offerings of blood and meat were around the base of the idol. In the bright illumination of the orb they could see the statue was made of dark oak. The rust coloring was old, dried blood used to 'bathe' the statue as an offering to the evil goddess. The eyes of the statue seemed to gleam with a candy apple red glow. Sanita immediately set down her crossbow to pull out a dagger. Fay tilted her head, "What are you doing?"
Sanita walked up to the statue, climbing it effortlessly like a chimpanzee up a tree. "Rubies! This statue's eyes are rubies," she answered with a grin. It took her no time to scale up to the head of the goddess' representation. She dug the blade in carefully around each stone which were the size of a small apple, "Don't worry, I'll be able to fence these off with ease."
Fay looked around the room some more as the squirrel dessicrated the statue, "I wonder what happened to this place?" She wandered around carefully. Her foot nudged against a red robe clad body. She rolled it over carefully with her foot. Most of the being had rotted but she could tell by what was there that it had been female and a raccoon. The muzzle was open in an eternal scream of anguish. The cause if death as she could see was a large section of the raccoon's throat missing. The strange robes made of primitively dyed wool. There was a similair corpse not too far from the on she was close to. With a look of disgust the mage investigated the second body, that of a male opossum. The front of his robes were in shreds along with the remains of his chest cavity. The ribs lay open like the petals of some grotesque flower. The male's head was turned to the side. Both bodies looked to be about a month old. When Fay felt a paw touch her shoulder she screamed in fright.
"Easy! It's just me," Sanita smiled, "You okay?"
"Damnit, do not sneak up on me like that," the fox chided.
Chuckling, Sanita placed one of the two rubies into Fay's paw, "Here. Take a look at that." She did. The red gem was faceted crudely but the flaws could be over looked due to the sheer size of the ruby. "I'm guessing just one of these is worth a sack of gold. Maybe what, two-hundred and fifty?"
Fay nodded, "So that will be roughly sixty-five gold apiece. Not bad." Sanita gave a knowing smirk but the fox immediately rained upon that parade, "No! If Lord Covely thinks we cheated him he will have a temple priest use a truth spell on us. I am not going to prison for defrauding an adventuring contract." Sanita's ears flattened as the rodent frowned.
"Fine. Sixty-five is better than five years in a rat hole of a cell wondering -if- the guards are going to feed me or not. My dad had to endure that." She put one of the rubies in her pocket. "But you can't blame a girl for trying."
"What was your father in prison for?"
Sanita shook her head, "He wasn't my father. I never knew that guy. He left when my mother discovered she was pregnant with me. My dad was a woodman and married my mom after I was born. He got caught poaching in Arch Duke Mentova's' woods. So they sent him to the prison in Fal Spire. I became a pick pocket to help feed me and my mom." She looked over the bodies, "I wonder who the hell these two were? Did you search them yet?"
Fay shook her head. With a shrug the squirrel began searching the raccoon first. She found a necklace made of teeth, a crude obsidion dagger, a small pouch with some weird paste, and a black leather bound book. There was a sigil of Vul Rushia on the front. She handed the book to Fay as she went to loot the opossum. The mage looked over the book, which was a small, loose leafed tome bound with leather thread. The pages appeared to be leather. Opening the book she saw strange runes and crude drawings, some of which were spine chilling. She had no idea what the script was trying to say but the hand-drawn images send a cold chill down her spine. Some of them seemed to detail the proper manner in which to collect blood from a sacrifice. Another was how to ritually remove the skin from a sacrifice. While crude the drawings did a remarkable job of convaying what they were meant to. Fay felt sick to her stomach as she closed the tome.
"Ugh, these two didn't have much on them," Sanita reported. She had found pretty much the same, pocketing the book. Her fingers found something in a hidden pocket of the corpse's robe, "Well, what have we got here?" She withdrew a brown leather bag tied with a black leather string. Opening it up the squirrel smiled as she spied what was inside, "Looks like this one wasn't exactly poor." The small paw sized bag was emptied to reveal several highly polished thumb sized pieces of amber. Fay grinned when she saw that.
"Now that we can keep," she nodded. Sanita put the amber back into the bag, tucking it into her leather armor. The squirrel looked around where the troll had been lurking. She found her crossbow bolt, the skwered eye of the dead troll covering the tip of the bolt. Sanita made a sound of disgust and abandoning the bolt. The area was coated in a five foot radius of dung and stale piss. This was obviously where the beast was relieving itself. The rodent coughed at the smell as it invaded her nose but blinked when she saw something glinting in the light.
"Hey Fay, bring that light over here." The mage walked over, the glowing ball floating a few inches above her paw. The glinting got a bit brighter. Taking out her dagger, Sanita fished out the object from the dung pile. She scraped some of the foul mess away to reveal a gold ring with an emerald in the center of the band. The rest of the object was a partially digested furred finger that the ring was resting on. Withdrawing her cleaning rag the squirrel removed the ring. "Ugh...At least it'll sell if we can get the stink off of it."
With her other paw the fox concentrated. She felt a strange tug on her aura, "It's enchanted."
Chuckling, the squirrel remarked, "I guess it wasn't a 'don't eat me' spell, huh?"
This did cause the other to crack a smile, brief as it was. Sanita dropped the ring into the bag holding the amber, a light metallic noise confirming the item's new resting place. She returned the bag to it's resting place in her leather armor. Behind the statue was a doorway leading deeper into the building. When the looked in they saw a rough stone staircase spiraling down and to the left. There was a layer of dust though foot prints in the layers told that it had been in use.
Carefully, Fay and Sanita stepped where the footprints were just on the unlikely and off chance there was a trap. They eased down the stairs which seemed to be hewn from the rock itself. There was no evidence of brick work or masonry of that nature. The spiral led down to a fairly small hallway, rubish cluttering the from among the dust. Four doors, two on either side were evenly spaced along the hall which ended in another open doorway. Two of the door ways, both on the left hand side had the tattered remains of red curtians on old, tarnished brass curtain rods set into the stonework. Sanita continued to slip further down as a musty smell crept up her nose. She did a quick peek in one of the open doors. It looked to be at one time a guard's bunk. The middle of the mattress was sagged through to the floor. The heavy wooden frame was still fairly stable-looking. The rest had a ruined chair and table. There was a mold covered book and the remains of a candle, more a puddle of wax than anything else. She crouched low, seeing if there was anything under the bed. Sure enough there was a foot locker of wood and rust coated iron. Sanita grabbed one of the handles to retrieve it from it's hiding space. A metallica pop reverberated through out the room as the handle tore free from the box. Cursing, she got on her belly to get the box, setting her crossbow on the bed. A grating sound caused Fay to wince with her ears folding back.
The box was about two and a half foot by one foot by one foot with a rusted lock hanging like a long forgotten piece of fruit on the clasp. The squirrel gave it a strong tug making yet another loud pop, "If anything is down here they know were are here already." Fay couldn't help but look around, just in case. The light from the spell gave Sanita more than enough light to look inside the long abandoned box. She noticed a hole in one side, on the backthat she couldn't see. It was evident that a rat had chewed it's way in at some point. What was inside were very old clothing that have been converted into a rat's nest. There was a rusted dagger, a tarnished silver locket, a bottle of ink that had dried up, and several papers. As the squirrel rummaged around she heard the jingle of coinsfrom the bundle of cloth. Using a dagger she picked through it, finding a half dozen silver coins. Sanita was just about to pocket them when they both heard a noise, a quick, shuffling sound followed by a loud creak. A few heartbeats of silence proceeded a loud, metallic pop then a crashing sound.
The fox already had a flame spell charging in her paw though she was feeling the effects of using so much mana in such a short amount of time. Sanita had grabbed up her crossbow, wheeled into a kneeling stance while aiming a the open doorway at the end of the hall as she used the doorway of the small room as partial cover. A cloud of dust and two foot high rolled out of the room, the echoing from the noise rolling along with it. After a full minute the squirrel nodded to her companion, stalking forward as she kept the blackwood crossbow level and ready to fire.
With a ghost like tread Sanita moved forward down the hall. She cut her eyes quickly to the side as she came up to the second doorway. It was more like the first room they had encountered down in here. She got to the doorway, keeping out of the front of it. Fay, having followed on the opposide side was ready with another light orb. As the thief nodded she sent the orb into the room like one would throw a ball. As it did Sanita swung in, quickly scanning her eyes inside, the room fully illuminated. She kept the crossbow shouldered while aiming down the sights. Where ever her gaze landed the weapon was pointed at. The room was in disarray. A chain from the ten foot high stone ceiling creaked and swayed, having been freed of it's weight. The center of the room had a smashed table with a chandilier made of deer antlers now in three pieces. The rest of the room had a couple of chairs, both knocked over, a bed along the right wall and a chest with a shelf next to it on the left. This room was larger than the other two. Fay peeked her head in when it was apparently safe. She covered her muzzle to prevent inhaling the dust. Sanita was holding her breath.
Standing, the squirrel let go of the breath she had been holding. "Well, that was a mild disappointment." She turned to Fay, "Wonder what caused the chandilier to fall?"
The mage stepped over to the fragmented object, giving it a quick examination. She smiled as she saw the rusted through chain, "Guess it was just ready to fall. See here? Rusted right through a this link." She held up the broken link in the chain.
Nodding, Sanita put her crossbow away. The tension from the sudden noise melted away as the investigated the room. The chest was the most interesting thing in the room, the lock quickly kicked off by Sanita's boot. Each stepping off to the side of the chest, the thief opened it in case there was a trap. As the light from Fay's illumination spell flooded into the chest. There was an organized collection of personal effects; a neatly folded tunic, peasant's trousers, belt, and dagger in it's sheath along with a collection of papers, a pair of what was once new leather boots, and a small book. Sanita took the smooth, black handled dagger, removing it from it's sheath, "Hmm...This is pretty well made."
Fay took the book and opened it. The fox realized it was a journal, "Huh, seems that this belonged to a 'Johan Sinclaire' and is dated to midsummer, 238. That's about one hundred and forty-two years ago." She continued to read, scanning until she found something of interest.

"Second week, fifth day of Spring, 237
The Lord of the keep is acting rather strangely. Heather and the new guard, Dannis said they saw him outside the walls with a strange visitor. Heather claimed that the individual looked male in body shape but she couldn't see past their robes. When I asked further about them both guards could only tell me that they wore a gray robe and that is all. They couldn't remember the person's face but Dannis swears that the person looked at them both. It is as if the memory of the person's face had been erased from their minds. I will inquire to the Lord tomorrow regarding the visitor."
"Fourth Week, third day of Spring, 237
The other guards are whispering about foul dealings in the Lord's house. Geovanni spoke of seeing the 'Visitor'inside the grounds of the keep. He challenged him but when the thing, and that is the best way to discribe them, hissed in response. Everything became foggy after that. The poor rabbit can't recall what the 'Visitor' looked like. This is frustrating. I approached the Lord about it who dismised Geovanni's tale as 'late night guard duty jitters'. I have yet to see this thing but if the others are seeing in about once a week then I am sure that I will before too long. I will switch guard duty with Geovanni. The poor boy is a bundle of nerves after last night."
"Fourth Week, fourth day of Spring, 237
I finally saw them! Or, I think 'it' would be more appropriate. The foul thing was in the courtyard when I saw them. It happened less than an hour ago but...I can not recall seeing their face. It's as if the image has been swallowed up and replace with a grayness. I remember challenging them, hearing this strange 'fuzzy' sound and finally the thing departing into the shadows. I will address the Lord of the keep at once!"

"Fifth Week, first day of Spring
I regret to say that we have had to slay our employer. The Lord had become corrupted by the thing that had been visiting him. When I was finally able to confront him he had the eyes of a feral beast. His fangs had grown longer, sharper. It was now clear that whatever this was before me was no longer the Lord I served. He lunged at me and likely would have had me if Geovoanni hadn't been there to put his sword though the monster's neck. My Lord continued to claw at me even when his head was removed from his shoulders. The four of us burned his foul body. The thing had turned our Lord into a ghoul. May his soul rest in peace. The others are fleeing this cursed place. I will depart in the morning when the wagon from town finally arrives. Everything is packed. Soon, this will just be a memory."

Fay closed the book, "Well, that's unsettling." Sanita was still looting the room of whatever looked valuable.
"Yup. Better them than us though. I mean, not trying to sound callous.."
"But you're going to anyway?" Fay smirked.
"Well just a little, Fay." She had carefully looked around the room, finding something under the pillow of the dust covered bed, "Ah! Lookie here." She held up a golden chain with a pendant of House Sinclaire, three clovers in the palm of an open cat's paw. "So, is this in the loot or treasure catagory?"
"Hmm..." Fay thought for a moment until Sanita put it in her pocket.
"I heard you say loot," Sanita announced.
"I didn't say anything. You're hearing what you want to hear." She folded her arms, giving the squirrel a mock glare.
Sanita gave one of her shrugs, "Eh, you got me there. But it was left behind and didn't belong to the Lord of the keep so it's not technically treasure. More like someone lost it and we found it."
"Sanita, you don't find it odd that all this person's possessions are here when the last entry in their journal said they were leaving this place?" Fay had a worried frown on her face.
"In the Black Roses we have a saying: 'If a question sounds dangerous without any reward the obvious answer to that question is -fuck that-!' Yes, it's strange, spooky, and forboding, and also none of our concern. We are here to find out about this shitty pile of rocks, take anything of value not nailed down or on fire, and collect our reward when we are finished. Not only that but we have the Gru'lurk likely on their way here. That nasty ass statue out there? Yeah, that is part of their little blood bathing and skinning people alive cult. In their eyes we are robbing their church." Sanita walked up to Fay, looked her in the eyes, and gently placed her paws on the fox's shoulders, "So, lets take what we have so far, and go." Sanita nodded. Fay huffed, "Fine! You're right. We don't have time to investigate what happened. Lets go." The white squirrel sighed in relief. They checked the last two rooms but quickly abandoned investigating further when they saw that it had been the rooms of the two blood shamans upstairs. Some of the images the two saw would be part of their nightmares for a few years to come. Quickly, they ascended the stairway, moving as fast as they safely could. The sky was still overcast as the occasional flake of ash drifted down. The pair hustled down the road. They had over a mile to go to get to the Twilight River and back to safety. They were halfway to the stump field when what Sanita thought was a bug flew right past her cheek. A second later she realized it was an arrow as it hit a tree in front of them with a thunk. The arrow wiggled with it's tip buried in wood instead of squirrel flesh.
"Oh fuck, warparty! Fay, run!"
"Gods damn it I am running!" She took a look behind her and saw a female wolf in warpaint and black crow feathers pop up from some underbrush with her bow at the ready. The released arrow cut through the arrow in a fast sailing arc right into the mage's upper left thigh. Fay turned her gaze away at the last second before impact. The pain was dull as her leg stopped working as it was supposed to. She tumbled hard on the ground, rolling in a heap of robes. She cried out in a vupine scream of pain. Sanita skidded to a stop, immediately turning back to aid her friend.
"It's okay, I got you," she had a worried tone in her voice. Sanita tried to scoop Fay onto her shoulders to carry her. She felt something get tangled in her tail fur and strike the armor on her lower back. An arrow been deflected by her bushy tail, slowing the projectile's path into her lower back. The arrowhead had imbedded in the black leather armor she wore but had not punched through. She stood up, getting ready to run when a large boar exited the forest in their path about twenty-five yards ahead. Fay shuddered as she felt the arrow in her leg get jostled, groaning in pain. The porcine face of the large, well built boar sneered as he had a wicked looking warclub with two dozen notches in it. He bounced the head of it in his palm, the handle in the other. A wicked looking boot knife was strapped to his right lower leg.
Sanita looked around as more figures emerged from the surrounding woods. A couple had their weapons drawn, apparently awaiting word to attack. She counted about six that she could see. The female wolf with the bow and crow feathers grabbed the squirrel by the shoulder, spinning her so that both Fay and Sanita faced her but due to the awkward weight it send both the adventures to the ground. This brought laughter from the group as Fay was comically sprawled on top of Sanita. The Gur'lurk quickly searched and relieved them of weapons. Grinning, the wolfess said, "You I will make slave." She pointed at Fay first. "You, I will have skinned. You will tan your companion's hide when we finish." She pointed at Sanita and then to Fay again. Her Common was accented and a bit broken. Both the fox and squirrel had gotten themselves seated upright after a brief struggle. Sanita's sea-green eyes glared up at the pianted wolf.
"Fuck you."
Chuckling, the barbarian nodded, "Hmm...That does sound like an idea. My tribesmen are tired from coming to catch intruders. Vilo?"
The large boar stepped forward, "Yes, Huntress Alue?"
"This softpaw is yours for now. Break her in. She will be a pleasure slave for the rest of the tribe." Fay's eyes went wide, a worried look on her face as the male stepped to Sanita and grabbed her by the hair. The rodent screamed as he began to drag her into the woods off the trail. Alue looked at the fox, "Now, slave. What are you and your little friend doing in our lands?" She took the pack from the mage, dumping it out into the dirt road. Sanita's screams echoed in the trees like terror-filled background music. When her eyes landed on the two books they took off the blood shamans Alue nudged Fay's uninjured leg with her foot, "Where did you get those?"
Fay was about to speak when Sanita's screams suddenly stopped.
And then Vilo screamed.
The boar warrior's porcine cry was cut short as the ears of the other five Gru'lurk perked up. There was a moment of stunned silence as the barbarians tried to figure out what happened. "Rylint, Jubi, go find out what happened." A rat and bobcat, both male, nodded and drew their weapons. She took a knife from her boot then grabbed Fay by her muzzle. She lifted the mage's head up, slipping the iron blade against her throat. She did not cut. Not just yet. The other two Gru'lurk went cautiously into the underbrush.
"We no hurt you, softpaw. Come out and we treat you peacefully," the bobcat, Jubi, called out quietly. They came across the now very dead boar. His boot knife was missing. He had half of his clothing off and his stomach slit vertically. A death stare with glassing over eyes was frozen in mid-scream. A puncture from the knife where it had been jammed under his chin, silencing him forever. Jubi knelt down as the rat huffed. "This no regular softpaw, Rylint." The rat did not answer.
Jubi turned to see his fellow warrior with a white, blood covered paw holding his muzzle shut. His gray furred body shivered from the iron blade buried in his kidney, unable to stop his approaching death as his eyes were wide with shock. The bobcat barely had enough time to register what was happening before Sanita withdrew the blade from Rylint's back and threw it right into Jubi's right eye, sinking with a sick 'thunk' about six inches deep. The bobcat's remaining eye stared stupidly into Sanita's face as he slumped over the body of the boar. The squirrel, her fur and leather armor marred with blood, mud, and leaves quickly took the knives from her two newest victims. She heard the slightly worried voice of the barbarian warparty leader call out for her companions. With a grin Sanita answered back, "Three down, you to go!"
Alue growled as she heard that, ears flattening against her skull, "You...Rhah! If you do not come out I will cut your friend's throat! You hear me, softpaw?" The other two remaining barbarians had their bows drawn, arrows notched, and ready to fire at the first sign of white fluff. One of them spotted what looked like a tuft of white, firing at it. About five seconds later a knife came out of the trees from above them, sinking into the archer's stomach. He gripped at it as he fell onto his back, dropping his bow. The canid, a mix of wolf and dog cried out in yelps as blood welled up around the blade's hilt.
The other archer fired, then looked at Alue, "Slit softpaw's throat and let's get out of here!" The badger notched another arrow, ready to fire into the trees. The squirrel could have been anywhere in the forest. She was a master of stealth, being a Black Rose Guild member. Fay knew this. The Gru'lurk did not but their leader was getting the idea.
She released Fay's muzzle and hissed in her ear, "Tell your squirrel friend to stand down. We will leave. No more blood today, understand?" The mage nodded and looked out into the forest.
"Sanita? They will let us go if you agree to stop killing them."
The thief answered from the trees, "Fay? Are your paws free?"
"Yeah, why?"
"Fry that bitch!" Fay grinned as she reached back and grabbed Alue by the face, sending an electrical jolt into the huntress. The badger aimed his bow at the green robed mage. A blur of white, black, and red collided with the barbarian, barreling him over. He managed to release the arrow though it went wide of it's mark. Sanita rolled on top, driving her knife into the pinned badger's chest over and over again until he no longer struggled. She had an arrow sticking out of her right arm at the bicep, the limb now a bit on the useless side. Another arrow jutted from her left side. She swore again and again with each stab. Her final stab drove the blade into the barbarian's throat.
Fay was dealing with the huntress, her other paw now on Alue's chest, sending blue and white arcs into the lupine's body. Soon the fox was kneeling over the downed body of the warparty leader, burned fur and blistered skin perfuming the air. Fay stopped. She saw that the wolf was still alive but not by much, "You want more?" Alue shook her head weakly. Panting in exhaustion, the mage got off of the barbarian, rolling onto her back. The canid with the knife in his gut screamed in pain and terror as Sanita crawled over to him.
"No please! Please!"
Sanita saw the wound, panting as well. She closed her mouth, shaking her head, "Fuck it. You're already dead." She crawled back to Fay, flopping down next to her. "You okay?"
Fay shook her head, "No. You?"
Sanita cracked a pained smile, gingerly holding up her injured arm, "Fuck no. Gods, this job went to shit in a hurry. What are we going to do with her?" Sanita pointed at the wolf who was a heap of charred hair and skin.
"Let her live. She is defenseless." Fay moved her robes to look at her injury. The wooden shaft jutted out of her leg, "We are going to have one hell of a healer's bill when we get back to the city."
The squirrel laughed at that,"Yeah. Can you walk?"
Nodding Fay slowly tried to stand. She was barely able to put any weight on it but gritted through the agony. Sanita began to put the pack back in hurried order, just cramming everything into it. She picked her pack up from the ground along with her crossbow, slinging it over her shoulder. She cursed as she accidently bumped the arrow in her side. She stood up finally, letting Fay put her paw on her uninjured shoulder. They helped each other out of the woods, making it to the Twilight River two hours later. As they emerged on the other side, bloody, dirty, and the worse for wear they were greeted by two members of the Fein Dale watch. A healer was summoned as Sanita passed out from her injuries.


"How long do you have to be on the crutch, Fay?" Deo asked as she was cleaning mugs. It was early morning in the Prancing Dragon as the mage sipped some mint tea, a tobacco pipe on her other paw, the gray lazy curl of sweet tobacco rising up from the bowl.
"The healers say another three days just to be safe," she took a draw from her pipe, enjoying the sweet flavor. She exhaled the smoke from her lungs.
"Too bad about Sanita. At least she didn't lose the arm." Fay nodded in response.
"Yeah. I think she will heal in time. The arrow in her side was almost fatal. If there hadn't been a decent healer in Fein Dale she would have died. How is she resting?"
Deo chuckled, "How well do you think? She's up there going stir crazy. I took her a bottle of ale to shut her up. On the house of course. You two, I swear it's a wonder you didn't die."
The mage nodded in agreement, "I'd rather this than Gru'lurk captivity. And we got decently paid for this one. Lord Covely was keenly interested in that journal we found. It seems that his family, or various members were visited by something called the Taveller in the Dark." She took another sip, the mint flavor of the tea and tobacco meangling wonderfully over her tongue, "He is sending a stronger party up to the keep to clear the ruined house we saw there. That was likely Silas' residence. The Gru'lurk will avoid a well armed group."
Deo looked back at her axe mounted on the wall, giving a light sigh, "I should have gone with you."
"Eh, you would have just gotten in my way," The voice was from a slightly inibriated Sanita. Her side was wrapped in bandages under her night shirt. She looked like she hand just rolled out of bed with her hair a mess. She flexed her injured arm, wincing slightly.
"Go back to bed," Deo ordered, giving the squirrel an annoyed look.
"Food then bed," She sat down on a stool next to Fay, "Ugh. How are you two?"
"I'm fine. Lord Covely said to give you this as a combat bonus," Fay took out a red stoppered vial of a red, lightly glittering liquid. Sanita's face lit up, eagerly taking the potion from the fox, popping the cork, and drinking it down.
"Oh thank the gods even if healing potion tastes like fresh baked cow ass." The throbbing of her injuries slowed down, almost completely subsiding. She churred as her arm gained strength, the damaged nerves and muscle fibers reknitting due to the magic. "Deo, I think I'm good now. You can have your bedroom back."
"If anything is missing from up there you'd better beg that noble for another potion," Deo grunted as she put a bowl of nuts in front of Sanita.
The squirrel giggled, "As if you had anything worth stealing." She plopped a silver piece on the bar top, "A round of mead for the three of us, please." Deo raised an eyebrow as did Fay. The Tasmainian devil poured up three wooden mugs, giving a mead to the fox and squirrel while keeping one for herself.
"A toast," Fay asked. Sanita nodded, holding up her mug.
"Of all the coin that I have had or ever will will never amount to enough to buy friends such as you both. Our friendship was formed and forged in good times and bad, through gold and blood. Whether we die to the blade tomorrow or in our beds at a ripe old age may our friendship last until the last one of us breathes our last!"
"Here, here!" Fay hoisted her mug, as did Deo, bumping them with Sanita's. They all three drank deeply as the few fisherman in the Prancing Dragon watched.

The End

Write a Review Did you enjoy my story? Please let me know what you think by leaving a review! Thanks, Sanita The Squirrel
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