It wasn’t the most unfair fight Thane had ever been in, but it was in the top five. The worst three, of course, were always instigated by his sister River. But she was a dirty cheat who always surprised you with an arrow across your nose. At least they’d been clan-regulated bouts, so she hadn’t wound up killing him. Or vice-versa.
Thane slammed his elbow into someone coming up on his right shoulder; knowing the battle space was a sixth sense he had developed. Of course, one of the better things about fighting his sister was that he could use his teeth when needed.
Thane lunged forward, felt resistance as he ran some poor Rothead through.
Fighting the Rot-infected, though, you had to be careful. A good gouge or bite from one of them could spread the Rot to you. And if you bit one of them, well—
Thane dodged a spinning pika freshly backhanded by the warcaster.
—forget it. You’d be infected, too. And gather enough deep wounds from one of them, and you’d go corrupt yourself, madness slowly eating away your mind, poisoning your deeds and your body…
A turtle bit down on his jerkin. He yipped, then kicked her aside. Her jaw, already badly decayed, turned in the wrong direction from the rest of her beak. She fell away.
You couldn’t pay a mercenary to fight a bane, or any corrupted creature, for that matter. The danger was just too great that you’d get infected yourself. From there, the road to total corruption was just a few more wounds or dark spells away…
Thane’s ears twitched at the sound of loud crackling. Wood creaked, then cracked, then a spray of glowing embers rained upon his fur. The town was beginning to crumble.
The roof Stilts had gotten to first had collapsed.
The Rot-infected villagers cried out, swatting at the embers on the remnants of their clothes and fur.
Thane ducked as the bear hurled his attackers towards the flames. Thane swung his sword, forcing the creatures back towards the burning ivy.
Brun put his war staff back onto his back.
“What are you doing that for?” said Thane.
Brun’s spell light flashed. FOOMF. His paws were now covered in green flames. He swiped at his attackers. Fear overrode the orders the thralls had been following and they began fleeing the bear’s wrath.
Whatever the bear touched went up like a torch. Stands, cottage walls, dying plants. Green fire mixed with orange.
“Ouch! Watch the whiskers!” said Thane as the bear swatted down a fleeing thrall.
Simon ran up to them. He pointed towards the main thoroughfare. “I saw her head that way. She’s stopped near the wagons; I think she’s trying to find more wine.”
“Lead the way,” said Brun.
The wolves ran and the bear followed, tossing flames towards the town as they exited. The barns and fields they had passed by on the way in were burning bright on their way out.
They came upon the wine crates and wagons at the town’s entrance.
“By Remus, Stilts, I think you’re right,” said Thane, glancing into a crate that had been scratched open. He want back to running. “She’s looking for more wine!”
“Pray she doesn’t find any,” said Brun. “Those villagers were just infected with Rot, the end stages. But if she gets too much Rot in her, she’ll go corrupt.”
“And that’s worse?” said Simon.
The Wyld firelight jumped across Brun’s features. “Worse for us.”
He set fire to another wagon. They kept running.
“What’s that?” Thane asked as they came over a rise.
A dark, twisted shape stretched as far as the eye could see.
“It’s thorns!” said Simon. “Like something out of a cubs’ tale!”
“A spell,” said the bear.
“It can’t be that bad!” said Thane.
They reached the wall of thorns. The vines were thick around as the bear’s leg, and besides the giant thorns, the vines themselves had painful-looking little spikes, no good for climbing.
Even as Thane slashed away a tendril, you could see more slithering and growing off in the distance. He glanced behind him at the burning wagons. “I don’t suppose you’ve got a spell to get us out of this, Master Brun? I don’t fancy being roasted in our own fire.”
A smile finally appeared on the bear’s face. “As a matter of fact, I do.”
He flicked his paws once at his sides and the spellfire extinguished. He draped both arms around the wolves’ shoulders. Simon looked over and gasped. The warcaster’s paws were blistered and raw-looking.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“I will be. Now quiet.” The bear closed his eyes.
After a few moments, nothing happened. The roar of the fire behind them grew. Thane’s tail thumped against the bear’s legs. It was getting hot, wasn’t it?
“Tails STILL.” The bear hadn’t opened his eyes. Thane wrapped his tail round his leg.
“Sorry. Nervous habit.”
Thane was certain the fire had reached them. The roar was louder than the sound of an avalanche.
Then, just as he was sure he smelled his tail singeing, the air around them began to dissipate. Smokey air was replaced with a cooler breeze, and the dark mass of thorns was replaced with the view of the hill outside down. The scene wavered around the edges, like they were viewing it through water.
Thane exchanged a pop-eyed glance with his squire before green light and the smell of cool pine surrounded the three of them.
Brun let them go. “Teleportation for three and some weapons besides. Ought to be a new council record,” said the bear.
Behind them lay the wall of thorns, blocking off the burning village. Around them, the distant mountains were bright against the smoke. In front of them, the hill from which they’d first glimpsed the doomed town.
A shriek came from over the hill, and a rock shot over, whistling through the air. It landed with a thud at Thane’s feet.
They heard Rusty shout: “Get away from us, witch!”
Thane drew his sword. “Rusty! Zeke!”
“The cubs!” said the bear.
They barrelled up the hill.
Chapter 13. Tomorrow. Noon. (PST.) For previous chapters, click the tag “Heroes of Houndsmouth“; older chapters are towards the bottom.
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