It was hard lugging the equipment in the dark through the village streets. Harder still when the maned wolf was in a hurry, and extraordinarily difficult when he had to shorten his stride to accommodate the blind rat.
But without him, Simon supposed the raccoon kit would have been in no shape to travel, so he refused to complain.
Moonlight had shown Simon the moment when Zeke and Rusty had turned off the main thoroughfare—heading for the edge of the village and hopefully getting the cubs to the hillside more quickly. He’d seen the moonlight flash silvery on Rusty’s great tail as she made the turn, and then it was just him and the rat, stumbling along forward.
Perhaps by the time we arrive, Thane and Brun will be finished with her, thought Simon. Then the village doesn’t have to burn. Though it was dark, he could imagine the different designs carved on all the wooden doors they were passing by, like his own hometown. What would it do to the cubs if they lost their friends, family, and home?
The maned wolf stepped on something. He almost tripped, but recovered his footing in time. The armor thumped on his back.
Was that a cork I stepped on?
The leaves of the pea-patch rustled.
“Almost…there…” he said between panting.
As they were squeezing through the narrow alleyway leading into the square, there was a flash of acid yellow, and the bear’s roar shook dust off the bricks next to them.
“Sounds like someone’s gone feral. Or, feral-er,” said the rat, suddenly pulling back on Simon’s arm.
Simon pulled the rat forward again, but the rat resisted. Simon gave up, deciding to catch his breath instead.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, he’s used the Wyld to make himself stronger, but at the cost of his good sense. He’ll be beastly now, and may not recognize us as friends.”
“That’s not what I meant,” said Simon. “What did you mean, ‘feral-er’?”
“Oh, well…I may’ve had a spell up my sleeve back there.” He lifted his chin to indicate the direction they’d come from.
“You helped a bear go feral around cubs?”
“Yes, but he didn’t notice the broken glass stuck in him as much, see?”
The yellow light shone around the corner. Another roar went up.
“STOP! You’ve got the wrong fellow!” Thane shouted.
Simon tried to shake him off. “I’ve got to go or he might hurt Thane!”
The rat’s fingers dug into his arm again.
“Take me with you. I must be in the square, too.”
They pelted down the alleyway.
The square was before them. Brun roared, swiping at Thane, who ducked behind one of the abandoned stands. The wood shattered beneath the bear’s paw. Thane was a grey blur, hopping into the next stand, keeping his shield between him and the bear, but his sword low at his side. The bear threw aside a stand, which went crashing into the middle of the square.
The ferret stood half-collapsed against the lip of the well. Her dress was shredded. Moonlight glinted on the bottle she had tipped to her lips. She drank in hurried gulps.
“Here’s where I get off. Thank you, sunny-pup!” The rat patted Simon’s arm and approached one of two poles that had been erected in the square to hold the festival banner.
He scurried up the pole. Simon goggled. He climbed that like he rehearsed it!
Then he shook himself. He had to help Thane.
* * *
From up on his high perch, Sargon called, “Whose mustelid musk is that I smell? It’s not one I recognize.”
The ferret yanked the bottle from her lips with a pop. Her gaze darted around the square.
“It is I, Sargon of rat clan.”
The ferret puffed. “Then you are an ignorant dustwhisker if you don’t know who I am!”
Sargon grinned. “Why, I’d know those dulcet screeches anywhere! Baroness Nubine, it’s been…ages!” He managed a sort of bow from his perch, then he was half-wrapped around it.
“That’s because I was at the king’s palace, receiving the recognition I deserve!” she said. “He made me his steward!”
“He made you steward? In that tired old rag?”
“RRRGH!” The baroness raised the wine bottle. For a moment, she thought she might hurl it at the old rat and knock him off his place. Would serve him right!
But then she took a considering look at the bottle. So many possibilities…
She cradled it to her, wrapping her tail around it for good measure.
“I was his guest for a year—the galas, the feasts—it was everything rat clan never gave me!”
“A whole year? Odd—no one said anything about missing you.”
“And you know what, plebe? I don’t care! The rat clan won’t honor me, the Wyld doesn’t bless me—so now it’s the Rot’s turn!” With a nasty smile, she put the wine bottle to her mouth and chugged it.
“No!” said the rat. “Not yet!”
* * *
The bear’s claw-swipe rang off metal shield. The blow knocked Thane back a few steps, right into a dark corner. The light from the bear’s scars gleamed off his shield, dazzling him for a moment. When his vision recovered, Brun had closed in. The feral bear reached overhead for a crushing blow, but as Thane reached for his sword, a staff jabbed into the bear’s ear.
Brun wrenched away, covering his head. Just as Thane lifted his sword, a paw grabbed his shield arm and yanked him out of the corner.
“C’mon,” said Simon, wooden staff in paw. “If we can fend him off long enough, the feral spells might wear off.”
Thane ran over the debris from a quilting stand. “So that’s why the brute is after me!”
They loped to a dark corner of the square, behind a snack-grass cart.
“Where are the cubs?” Thane whispered.
“With Rusty and Zeke, getting out of town. You haven’t smelled a fire yet, have you?”
Thane frowned. “No! Why?”
Simon lifted his snout towards Sargon.
“Oh, you bumpkin, you don’t really think—”
The cart they were hiding behind lifted off the ground. Brun roared, then tossed it aside with a crash. Thane lifted his sword, but before he could get it upright, the bear had them both engulfed in his arms. Their feet dangled in the air. The bear crushed them together, the pressure forcing Thane’s paw open. His sword fell to the ground even as his shield began cutting off his breathing.
Simon desperately began roar-barking into the bear’s face, but the warmage’s scars blasted bright, and he wrenched the two fighters still closer.
Thane’s vision narrowed, began to black around the edges.
So this is it…squeezed to death like a python’s lunch…
“No!” came Sargon’s voice. “Not yet!”
This turned Thane’s head. In the whole time he’d been traveling with the rat, he’d never seen him lose his head. But to hear that crack of panic in the blind rat’s voice…it couldn’t be good.
Brun seemed to hear it, too. He groaned, seemed to fight a battle within himself for a moment, then the light faded out of his scars. His hold on the two wolves loosed. He looked into both faces, recognition rising to the surface. “Little pup?” he said. “Squire?”
“Greetings!” said Thane, smiling and forcing his tail out from between his legs.
“You had too many feral spells on you, sir; you forgot who you were supposed to be attacking!” said Simon.
“That rat,” said the bear, letting them down. He reached behind his back and took out his stone-headed staff. His scars still glowed. “Did I hurt the cubs?”
“No,” said Simon.
“They’re safe,” said Thane.
“Good,” rumbled the bear. He turned towards the baroness. “Now help me with this furréd snake.”
He stampeded towards her. Thane and Simon raced to catch up.
She spotted them coming. But instead of running, she chugged the last of the wine and let the bottle drop at her feet. Black corruption crawled up her fur, making jagged patterns across her arms. She stuck her head down the well.
“Up! All of you, out of there! Your mistress speaks! Kill the bear!”’
Thane continued on, but Simon pulled up short. “Why is she yelling down an empty well?”
Sargon, fleeing past on all fours, said, “Because it’s not empty! Can’t you hear them?”
Simon couldn’t, not over the battle cries. Instead, he lunged for the rat, already past him. His long arms let him grab the tip of Sargon’s tail. He squeezed hard.
Sargon squealed. “Release me! I’ve done my part, now you will do yours!”
Simon looked behind him. No—can’t be! He’d thought he’d seen a paw reaching over the edge of the well, like someone climbing out.
“Fate! Just remember, you can’t save Houndsmouth—and Brun has a second flint, around his neck in the pouch. Now let me go!”
“Wyld!” came Thane’s cry from behind him. Simon looked.
It was Houndsmouth’s villagers—it had to be, there were too many of them. Climbing out the well, blank-eyed as the rat before him, mold growing in their fur, parts of them not furred, not even covered in skin, but with flesh decaying and rotting off the bone.
How long have they been down there?
Seeing them climbing over one another like ants errupting from a broken anthill did something to the golden dog’s mind, and no other thought was able to follow it. He could only think of them standing down there in the dark well, silent and blank-eyed while they had marched about above, in the empty town.
The Rot-infected animals began swarming the bear, gurgling and hissing. For every one Thane beat off the warcaster, two more horrors glommed on. Two raccoons pulled and bit the bear, who roared and swung his heavy staff.
The baroness was fleeing up the main road, towards the hill, towards the cubs, and the rest of his pack, and yet Simon still could not move. He was still lost underground.
The maned wolf yowled in pain and grabbed his paw. His paw bled where the rat had bitten him across the knuckles, but it was a shallow wound. Simon made a fist, found he could wince through the pain, then grabbed his staff. He ran to Thane’s side.
We’re halfway through the chapters! See you tomorrow at noon (Pacific Standard Time) for chapter 11! The game Armello and its characters are property League of Geeks. Buy it today!
You might also like to visit Chris’ Survival Horror Quest because it is a great place to look up scary video game reviews.