A Scythe in Time: Part 6
We do not remember days; we remember moments.
- Casare Pavese
Iiwi caught up with Ferdia and Squeaks a full fifteen miles outside of the valley quite a distance, considering the treacherous array of peaks, slopes, hidden peat bogs, and rodent holes that peppered the escape route they'd taken. Ferdie was with them, having burned out most of his horse's strength in the hasty retreat that had, in defiance to all known physics, reached the sort of speeds previously thought to be the sole property of a panicked Ferdie.
The others were nowhere to be found. Where Lita and the Sign Holder had wound up was anyone's guess - the dust bunny had been jackrabbit-ing back and forth in a complicated zigzag as she fled into the woods along the valley, the Sign Holder still piggybacked on her shoulders. And no one had seen which direction Bob, Beak, and Ivan had gone in. But with Bob's leadership abilities and Beak's navigational skill, there was no telling where the kiwis would wind up.
Oh, this is just great, Ferdia scowled as Iiwi circled in for a landing, We've lost half the crew in a place where technology is nonexistent and compasses are useless.
I'm sure we'll be able to meet up with them again, Squeaks reassured her, Beak can home in on Ferdie, and Lita's proven enough times this trip that she can track her way back to us.
It's not as if they can't take care of themselves, Iiwi added, carefully setting Newton on the ground before fluttering to a landing herself. Beak's used to forest life, and Ivan's wards are practically street punks. They'll be fine. Besides, she shrugged, it's not as if I don't plan on looking for them.
True, Ferdia frowned, nodding. And I suppose the lack of any real destination really makes it impossible to get sidetracked.
But I was so looking forward to sleeping in a bed again! Ferdie wailed, Even the ones at the tavern were better than camping out on the ground every night!
Ferdia ignored her brother. You all right? she asked Newton, How'd it go?
Quite satisfactorily, milady, the wizard bowed, smiling, I don't think we left anyone capable of giving chase for a while. Excellent suggestion with the wind, he nodded to Squeaks, who shrugged.
So, Ferdie queried, Where to from here? 'Cause I'm not stayin' around to see if anyone comes after us. And, y'know, being able to sleep on a bed would be nice
Newton made a brief survey of the land, keeping the mountains at his back. I think
yes, he said, nodding and pointing to the right, The capital city lies several days' journey from here. We should be able to rest up there without being concerned about the army.
But we don't have any money, Ferdia pointed out.
The lizard sighed. Milady, you will not need any money. As I've said, it is the capital city the seat of the Royal Family. You and your brother will not only be welcomed at the castle, but cared for free of charge. It is your home, after all.
Ferdia groaned, massaging her temples in tired frustration. Look, we've been through this. We're not the-
You look just like them, Newton insisted, shocked at his own brazenness at interrupting. You've seen the portrait yourselves. Please, just try going there? If it doesn't work, then on my honor I swear never to mention it again. Ferdia looked doubtful. You won't even need to talk with the King, Newton tried, desperation creeping into his voice, We'll tell the servants you're exhausted, then come up with a convenient excuse to leave before-
The King? Ferdia queried.
Hmm? Newton blinked. Was this a hint of memory surfacing through their odd enchantment? Yes, milady. The King. Your father. He-
My father, Ferdia repeated quietly, What about our mother?
The lizard winced. He'd heard how badly the Princess had taken this news before, and would in all truth much rather not have been the one to break it to her this time around. The Queen died when you were quite young, milady. And your father-
Wait, it was Ferdie who interrupted the wizard this time, frowning in confusion. Ma's dead, but our father's alive?
He's alive!!! Ferdia cheered, hopping excitedly and clapping her hands with glee, Why didn't you say so in the first place? Come on, let's go! Squeaks! she whirled around, Get the horses!
She took that well, Newton mused as the bluebird jubilantly embraced her brother, who currently wore a look of profound confusion.
She's quite fond of her father, Squeaks shrugged, handing the wizard the reigns to his horse. From what I understand of it, she idolized him as a kid.
Newton frowned. Then she may be remembering him as he was then, and not as he is now.
He's different, then? Iiwi questioned taking a minute to preen a few burrs from her feathers.
In a sense. He never was the same after the Queen's murder. Went real quiet, got very protective wouldn't let the children outside without a full contingent of guards, refused to set foot outside castle grounds, stopped seeing foreign envoys
Newton shook his head. It's one of the reasons the war's gotten so bad. He refuses to seek help from our allies, and they refuse to meet with the Crown Prince on the grounds that, having never been formally presented to the King's heir, they have no proof he is not an imposter. Prince Ferdinand is doing the best he can to lead the King's army, but with no formal training and so many seasoned warlords entrenched throughout the countryside
.things are a bloody mess.
Not the way to win a war, Squeaks frowned as Iiwi took flight again.
Precisely so, Sir Knight, Newton nodded, mounting up.
I'm not a knight.
You're a skilled warrior that guards the Princess and protects her honor, the lizard retorted. Enchantment or not, your deeds belie your station.
Squeaks rolled his eyes, vaulting into his battlefield-acquired horse's saddle and moving to catch up with the merrily skipping Ferdia. We're not under any spell, wizard, he called over his shoulder, The sooner you realize that, the better.
'Not under enchantment', Newton snorted, I've met quite a few people spewing slugs, attracting lightning, and wandering around absolutely convinced they're wild deer that have insisted the exact same thing. I know magic when I see it.
So, Bob said, glancing around at the array of green fields and rolling hills before them, Any idea where we are?
Not where we're supposed to be, Beak frowned. And I was so certain this was the right way to go, too.
To go to what? Ivan grumbled from his seat on the horse behind the other two, We were just sort of wandering around with that wizard, not actually going anywhere.
We were headed to the northern part of the valley, said Beak. The farthest we could travel it before nightfall forced us out. That's where we are now, I think, but I don't sense anyone else nearby.
Why don't you just home in on Ferdie? Bob asked.
Because while friend Ferdie is several miles west of here, he is also still in the valley. I can't quite figure out why. How can he be in two places at once?
He could be in two pieces, Ivan suggested, as Bob paled to a sickly shade of yellow-green. Then again, perhaps there is something to the wizard's story about the royals. If Ferdie's double was nearby, he'd look the same to your
Ivan paused, waving vaguely as he fumbled for the right term, your
well, whatever sense, right?
Beak frowned. I suppose so, he hazarded, though I've never run into this before. I mean, siblings and blood relatives usually have some similarities, but even twins have their own distinct presence.
What about the Hooties? Bob asked, Weren't they, you know, tiny versions of us from another dimension? Wouldn't that be like this?
Beak shook his head. Not quite. Just being so tiny altered their biosignatures. And their world was rather different from ours my double was native to their planet, but I am not to yours, and your double was allergic to caffeine.
Ah, Bob nodded sagely at the memory. Poor Hootie. Forever denied the pleasures of coffee. I don't think I'd survive.
I know you wouldn't, Ivan growled. Bob was doing okay now, but the yellow kiwi's first few days on this world had nearly been his last, as the group had debated how to best deal with him as the coffee-addicted kiwi went into withdrawal. Still, it shouldn't be all that hard to figure out which reading is our Ferdie. Pick one to follow, and if it doesn't turn out to be him, we'll go after the other. Shouldn't take too long.
What about Miss Lita and your sign holder? Beak asked, Shouldn't we look for them as well?
Can you sense them?
Beak shook his head. I'm not familiar enough with them.
Did you see what direction they ran off in?
Do you have any means of tracking them down whatsoever?
But, nothing, Ivan growled, There's no point in looking for them if we don't know where to start. They'll either find the group themselves, or find a way to signal Iiwi.
But what if they're captured? Beak worried.
Ivan bristled, Hey, these aren't helpless kids, got it? They can fend for themselves, and they're smart enough not to get caught. Usually, he reminded himself. Besides, I don't doubt for a minute that Redbird's not airborne and scouring the hills for them as well. They'll either be fine, or they'll learn some valuable survival lessons the hard way.
You're cold, villain, Bob glared at him.
I'm evil, featherbrain, Ivan snapped back, And so are they! If they don't pick up on this stuff now, they'll never make it in the real world.
Hey, Lita? the sign holder ventured, gazing around at the forest before them in befuddlement as the rabbit still carrying him on her shoulders continued marching down a game trail, Where are we?
Lita tried to shrug, a gesture that turned out more like a 'funky chicken' wing flap due to her passenger and the grip she had on his ankles. Dunno. I took the first trail I saw after bookin' it outta the valley. We could go back, I guess, and look for the others, but I don't fancy running into a search party of soldiers. I'm getting tired of running. Getting' tired of walking, too, for that matter.
.Would you like me to get down?
Nah, kid. Don't worry about it. You're not the problem. Heck, your sign weighs more than you do-
And we kinda lost that.
-Right, we did. Still, that's one bandit that'll have nightmares about trees for the rest of his life, she snickered.
The sign holder winced, remembering the groundhog's pained whimpers upon discovering, on top of the gross bodily damages, several jagged splinters where splinters really had no business being. Weren't you a bit harsh?
Hell, no! No one tries to see if this fluffy bunny tail feels like wool and lives to tell about it!
He'll live, the small kiwi pointed out.
But he sure as heck won't talk about it.
They walked along in silence for a few minutes, pretending to admire the view as the path wandered here and there. After a while they reached a point at which their path split into three different directions. A signpost stood off to one side of the intersection, but the whitewash used to paint it had long since washed away, and moss, fungus, and damp had so warped and disturbed any carved letters so as to render them illegible.
. the sign holder ventured, gazing up at the rotting planks pointing every which way, We're lost, then?
Eh, Lita shrugged (or tried to) once again, One of these paths has gotta eventually lead to a village. Any favorites?
The brown kiwi peered down each of the dirt paths in turn. The one on the left looks flatter.
Then it's used the most, the rabbit nodded, Which means it's probably along a merchant route. Let's see where it goes.
As long as these aren't any temples along the way, the sign holder sighed.
Aaarg, Ferdie groaned, wincing as a jolt of pain shot up his tailbone as he attempted to shift into a more comfortable position in the saddle, How much farther is this place?
Problems, your Highness? Newton asked, catching sight of the bluebird as Ferdie fidgeted again, further annoying the warhorse.
I can't take much more of this, Ferdie grumbled, rubbing a sore spot in the small of his back, I've lost all feeling in my spine.
You have a spine? came Ferdia's half-hearted jab at her brother.
Ha, ha, he scowled. I mean it. I can't feel my tail anymore. Can't we stop?
I apologize for your discomfort, your Majesty, Newton bowed from his horse, But we really must press on. The capital city is only a few leagues from here. We'll be safe within its walls, and you'll have all the comforts of the castle at your disposal.
It's not as if you have to walk, Ferdia called over, Think of how tired the horses must be.
Well excuse me, Miss Don't-Mind-Me-While-I-Use-My-Partner-As-A-Pillow, but some of us here have had it up to here with this adventure! Ferdie yelled, I'm sick of the cold, and the bugs, and the exhaustion, and the-
Whining, Iiwi finished, shouting above the bluebird's rant as she glided in for a landing on Ferdie's horse's rump. Give it a rest, Fonz, the castle's just over the next ridge. Stop being such a baby.
Look, do you want me to carry you there? she cut in.
Ferdie blinked, half-turning in the saddle. Would you?
Absolutely, Iiwi nodded, Not. I'm so tired my wings are cramping, and if I don't eat soon I'm gonna pass out. You try scouting for stragglers for a while.
Squeaks glanced over at the half-collapsed Flier glaring at a chastised-looking Ferdie. No sign of them?
Iiwi shook her head. None whatsoever. I'd put Lita in the woods and the kiwis in one of the mountain passes, but they're out of sight and there's no clear tracks to follow. Ground's too torn up from battle, and the routed army scattered pretty much like we did. I might have caught sight of the ducks at one point, but I was too tired to circle back and check.
But there are no troops besieging the castle walls? Newton asked, No hordes laying waste to the city?
Nuh-uh. But they are flying the colors these horses wear, Iiwi shrugged.
The golden griffin and the King's red? Newton verified.
Is that what they are? Iiwi yawned, Then yeah.
Good, the wizard nodded.
Good? Squeaks blinked, confused, How is that good? We just attacked a unit flying such colors! Even if word hasn't reached the city, we can't hope to impersonate-
Oh, no, you won't have to, Sir Knight, Newton assured him, Red and gold are the Crown's colors.
So why'd we attack them?!? Ferdie yelled.
Because, your Highness, they meant to kill us. I'm sure our arrival in the midst of battle had them thinking us bandits and spies, being as we had no uniforms. Cavalrymen are generally expected to wear their colors, after all, and most of our number are clad in blue, Newton explained, indicating his robes and the cops' uniforms. Moreover, they were going to press me into service as a war mage. I may be loyal to the Crown, but that is a line I will not cross. Such atrocities as I would be compelled to perform would consume my soul. The Devil's own work, those spells are, he shuddered.
So we attack them in the morning, and ask them for protective lodgings in the evening, Ferdia frowned. That your idea of loyalty? Serving a side only when it benefits you?
No, milady. Newton looked hurt. I serve you. I am loyal to you. This country is my home, and I love both it and the Crown. But this war
I cannot get involved with the war, he shook his head. Mages are not allowed not supposed to take part in the armed struggles of man. It's in all the books. Magic is meant to help, not harm. Spells were never meant to kill well, some of the stronger ones are for killing demons, but-
It's a power that's supposed to be used responsibly, Ferdie ventured.
Yes, precisely, your Highness, Newton nodded. Were mages to start waging wars, the devastation would be so great as to bring about the end of the world. Look in the grimoires if you don't believe me, see how destructive some of the higher level spells are. I can't imagine how anyone that's ever seen a battle between mages using these spells could allow such a war to continue, and yet this one has raged for nearly a decade.
Yes, but, Ferdia frowned, if nobody does anything to stop it, what's to keep it from raging another ten years? You can't just hide and wait for it to just go away, you have to actually do something.
What would you have me do, milady? Newton asked, shrugging sadly, I will try whatever you propose. The warlords that keep the invasion going surround themselves with mages. To move against them along is suicide. To attack without your own force of mages is also suicide. And to attack with mages
Magically-assisted suicide? Ferdie supplied.
More like Armageddon, Iiwi sighed, You guys should've seen that battlefield I found when we first got here. Earthquakes and nuclear bombs combined do less damage. If those were lower-level spells, I don't wanna know what a dozen mages chanting higher-level ones can do.
That's why I cannot become part of this war, the lizard nodded.
It's still not just gonna go away, Newton, Ferdia sighed.
I know, milady. But I don't see what I can do to make things better - only how to keep them from getting worse.
Life as a tower guard is not the most interesting of vocations. Your days are spent opening and closing the city gates to travelers mostly soldiers and peasants journeying to and from their fields, and occasionally a merchant or two. When not fiddling with the gate, it falls to you to stand in the wind and look out over the parapets into the distance, so as to spot even more soldiers and peasants as they trudge their way over the hills and towards the gate.
Of course, war being what it is, occasionally you'd get a spot of merchants or peasants or wounded soldiers in a tizzy, rushing for the gates as fast as they could while shouting warnings to all those milling about within hearing range. You'd also get the odd messenger bird, or spot a castle falcon winging its way back to the palace with one of the enemy's messenger birds clutched tightly in its talons. And sometimes you'd be privy to the quiet comings-and-goings of castle staff and army commanders, here to report something of great importance.
You got used to it, got used to the routines of the peasants, the patterns of the castle gentry (army commanders often arrived a day or so behind flights of five or six messenger birds; important courtiers often sent a bird mere moments before arriving at the gates), and generally what one could expect on any given day.
Mills had been a tower guard for quite some time now. Months, even. You could hardly see the scars where the arrows had ripped through his shoulders now, though his arm still hung limp and useless at his side. Tower guards were lookouts and low-level sentries; nobody cared if they could swing a sword or shoot an arrow so long as they could raise the gates and sound the alarm. It gave the army's crippled soldiers something to do to earn their pay, keeping them from begging on the streets while freeing more able-bodied men to fight and die on the front.
Not that Mills cared. He and Blacktooth a fellow guard, with bad oral hygiene and a tongue cut out by some mage-spell or other spent their days congratulating themselves on having lived so long, watching the fairer peasant girls stroll about the city, and placing bets on the day's travelers. Mills was up by two milkmaids and a messenger bird when Blacktooth motioned him over, pointing excitedly down to a group of mounted travelers slowly making their way to the gates. Blacktooth had wagered that a group of generals would arrive today not a wise bet, in Mills' opinion, as another group had set out barely a fortnight ago, and there hadn't been nearly enough messenger birds from the direction said group had headed off in and now sought to rub Mills' nose in his victory.
What Mills saw, however, nearly sent him running for the alarm bell. As it was, he stood rooted to the spot, unable to decide whether to run and ring the alarm or sound the gentry trumpets to clear the streets leading up to the castle. Three horsemen approached the gates among them both Royals, dressed in outrageous costumes, a knight clad in similarly bizarre attire, with neither sword nor shield in sight, the absolute largest messenger bird Mills had ever seen, and as if that weren't enough a mage.
It probably should've struck Mills as odd that it was the mage and not the knight that announced the Prince and Princess and declared their intentions. But then again, Mills' mind wasn't quite functioning properly at the time, being stuck in a state of shock and all. In the end it was Blacktooth, who could hardly utter a gutteral yell, that bid them welcome, sounded the horn, and opened the city gates.
Afterwards, with the gates closed and the royal entourage disappearing behind a swarm of curious peasants as they made their way to the castle, it was Blacktooth who strode up to Mills, backhanded him soundly, and said, with great difficulty through a serious of gestures, I'm the one that's supposed to be mute, stupid.
It took nearly every ounce of courage Newton had not to bolt for the hills the instant the tower guards came into view. It took even more to bring himself to follow the Royals inside the gates. This was it. He'd let himself into a large, walled cage, full of soldiers with weapons who would doubtlessly try to pull him into a battle group. Worse yet, they were headed for the castle a place of great luxury, yes, but also the seat of the Crown. What if the King were to order him to the front lines? Avoiding the armies was one thing, but defying a direct order from the Crown? He doubted he could bring himself to do it. Or would he be blamed for the mysterious enchantment that currently bespelled the royal heirs? Was that the sort of thing punishable by service as a war mage, or simply life imprisoned in the dark, dank castle dungeons?
Suddenly, leading the Royals to their father's castle in the heart of the capital city didn't seem like such a great idea. In fact, as a host of arrows nocked themselves snugly against the horsehair of their bows, he was beginning to wonder if the Royals, much less himself, would even make it through the castle gates. Recognizable or not, in their current enchanted state, he found himself wondering how believable his companions really were.
Halt! bellowed the captain of the guards from atop the parapet over the gates, his hand on the pommel of his sword as he peered down at the group, ready to give the order to fire in an instant.
Newton froze. This was suicide. Even if it worked; even if they recognized the Royals, surely the guards would see something was wrong. He'd never see freedom again.
Ferdia heard Newton gasp as the guardsmen took aim and demanded identification. The wizard's courage failed him in that instant, leaving him staring up in horror at a company of mean-looking archers with the look of a deer caught in headlights.
Ferdie! she hissed, catching her brother's attention, Announce us!
Ferdie's eyes widened in horror. Me? he squeaked.
Yes, you, idiot. You're supposed to be this big hero, according to Newton. Tell them you've rescued me and have returned home. And sound convincing!
Ferdie blinked at her in absolute terror for all of a minute. Then he looked up at the archers, and it occurred to him how this scene might play out if they didn't get a convincing answer. He took a deep breath. He could do this. He'd seen dozens of medieval movies, after all. The script wasn't all that hard to follow.
No, wait, yes it was. That was an awful lot of arrows pointed at them right now, sharp pointy death, and here he was trying to impersonate someone he'd never met in front of a squad of guards that probably saw the prince on a daily basis. Ferdia's Death Glares weren't helping him all that much either, and oof!
Open in the name of the King, Iiwi muttered under her breath, just audible to Ferdie as she kidney-kicked him beneath the mask of a half-spread wing. You're the Prince Regent, for crying out loud, so act like one. Newton always has that shield spell if things go sour, so it's not like you're gonna die.
Ferdie might've felt more grateful to the Flier for her advice if it hadn't been preceded with a kick that might very well have him pissing blood later; but rather than getting kicked again, he cleared his throat and looked defiantly (at least, that was what he was shooting for) up at the guards. I am the Crown Prince Ferdinand, back from a mission to save my sister. How dare you bar my way!
P-Prince? The guard captain looked taken aback. But but your Majesty, you left the castle mere days ago! In full armor, and with a full contingent of men! We received word just yesterday that you had discovered Morgath's forces in the mountains and intended to engage them in battle! W-what-
The battle was a diversion to keep the enemy spies occupied, Ferdie sniffed, wearing his best how-dare-you-question-me-peasant look of disdain, a look he'd picked up from Bobetta, who often wore a similar expression whenever someone besides herself or Bob was speaking. I left it in the hands of a trusted general and ventured off with a small accompaniment to find my sister.
Hi, Ferdia chirped in her best shy-young-maiden voice, waving merrily.
But your armor, the captain protested, And your horse! You-you look- he fumbled, not wanting to call the heroic Prince Ferdinand anything even remotely along the lines of scrawny or puny.
I had to leave my horse and armor with the battlegroup, Ferdie explained, trying to remember the name the captain had given the warlord he'd mentioned, lest
discover the ruse. As for our present attire- he hesitated. How exactly does one explain away a t-shirt and khakis to a bunch of Renaissance Faire rejects? It was also necessary. A glamour spell from this wizard and these rags were as monks' hoods and bishops' robes.
The poor captain looked uncertain. Granted, the story was a convincing one, but the Prince hardly looked his usual self, and he'd never seen the lizard mage before. He found himself wondering if mages had taken to riding with bandits, swindling their way through castles under the guise of sons returning from the front.
Oh, please let us in, good captain! Ferdia pleaded, wearing the tearful look of wide-eyed innocence she used to employ as a child when begging her father to let her stay up and wait for Santa on Christmas Eve. It was, to say the least, a radically different tactic than the others were used to her using even Ferdie, who'd seen the holiday act and even joined in a Christmas or two, blinked in surprise; Squeaks went so far as to turn in the saddle and stare at her incredulously as she batted her eyes in a hapless-damsel imitation that would've made Bobetta proud. We've been riding for days, with nary a stop for food or water or even sleep! Just look how the strain of our journey has sapped my brother's strength! she flung an arm in Ferdie's direction, her brother staring at her as if she'd suddenly sprouted another head. Why, I myself am so consumed with hunger and exhaustion that I feel I might
that I might
she brought her wrist to her forehead, swaying as she'd seen countless movie damsels do, might
With an airy sigh, she collapsed limply into the arms of Squeaks, who looked about as dumbfounded as everyone else.
Milady! Newton yelled, urging his horse over to the warhorse, voice filled with worry and concern.
Princess! one of the archers yelled, dropping his bow as he and his fellows turned to their captain in concern, Sir, she's fainted!
Poor thing must be famished! chimed another. Such an ordeal!
Open the gates! Sir, please!
Yes, urged another, Let them in!
Give the girl an Oscar, Iiwi murmured to Ferdie as the iron-barred gates slowly creaked up and the heavy wood doors swung open, I mean, really, who knew?
You think that was good? Ferdie asked as worried guards scurried to lead them in, You should've seen the performance she gave explaining to our father just exactly how a home-made hot air balloon blowing out the kitchen wall and catching the entire top of the tree on fire was a freakish natural phenomenon. I saw that happen, and I still believed her version.
Ferdia lounged lazily on a plush ladies' couch plumped up with more pillows than she cared to count. No wonder proper ladies were always fainting, she mused, reaching over to snatch another tiny pastry that she couldn't identify but found quite tasty nonetheless off a silver tray. It's the only way things get done!
You should've seen yourself, Iiwi laughed, splashing around in the curtained bath across from the couch, ' Oh, I feel faint', she warbled, bringing a wing to her head and pitching backwards into the tub in a dramatic imitation of the bluebird. Newton nearly panicked, and your partner- ha! Poor mouse was looking at you like you'd grown a second head! For a minute I didn't think he'd catch you, he looked so stunned! Where'd you learn to act?
Countless TV movies and the occasional undercover job, Ferdia shrugged, sampling what turned out to be wine from a gilded goblet on the snack tray, But really, how hard is it to faint?
Faint, nothing! I was talking about that vacant look-at-me-I'm-Princess-Bobetta look you pulled off back there! You had the guards practically vaulting off the parapets with that damsel-in-distress routine!
Ferdia quirked an eyebrow in amusement. Yeah, well, Ma was scared to death of 'Night of the Living Dead', and I'd never seen such bad acting outside of grade-school plays. Considering probably none of those archers've ever seen a wandering actor's troupe, their gullibility doesn't surprise me.
Iiwi climbed out onto the edge of the tub, giving her feathers a shake before hopping down to the marble floor as Ferdia helped herself to another pastry. Hey, save some for me, 'Your Highness', she objected, talons clicking on the tiles as she made her way to the platters of food. Ferdia shrugged, relinquishing the lounge in favor of the now-free bath as the dripping Flier helped herself to a handful of goodies and a towel. I'm the one who convinced the servants to leave us alone, after all, Iiwi reminded the bluebird, As if it really takes a dozen maids to draw a bath. She rolled her eyes. Selling them on leaving your uniform here was a tough one too. Had to convince them it was special wizard's material before they'd leave it be.
Which makes you every bit the accomplished actress I am, Ferdia laughed, shedding her bathrobe behind the screen in front of the tub and stepping into the warm water. Ah, this is nice. Feels good to finally get all the dirt off my feathers. Preening only does so much.
Bah, Iiwi snorted, I'm more of a liar than you'll ever be, copper. Got everyone here thinking I'm this mild-mannered immortal, while in reality, if I have to tell the staff I'm not about to spontaneously combust one more time
A knock sounded timidly on their door. Pardon me, a tan mouse of maybe fourteen said, quietly ducking into the room with an armload of warm, dry towels and a frilly lace gown that would have made Bobetta proud. Iiwi nearly choked as she caught sight of the thing though more in response to trying to eat truffles and laugh at Ferdia's expression at the same time than in reaction to the fairy-tale princess getup the maid carried.
You wouldn't happen to have anything less pink? Ferdia asked, nares wrinkling in disgust as the girl went to hang the gown on the screen.
Begging your pardon, milady? the girl blinked, All your dresses are pink.
Dear Lord, I'm a cross between Princess Barfie and Bobetta, Ferdia groaned, sinking beneath her bath's soap bubbles.
Milady? the girl repeated.
Don't mind her, Iiwi stifled a laugh, She's had a rough couple of days. And those monks were kinda weird about pink and frills. Unnecessary adornments, I think they called them. Isn't there anything else she could wear?
The mouse blinked, noticing Iiwi for the first time. Y-you, she stammered, Y-you're the Ph-Phoenix of the m-mountains
Iiwi resisted the urge to shriek with frustration and shred the nearest couch pillows to pieces. I'm not the burning kind, she assured the young maid, smiling through a clenched beak.
Oh o-okay, the girl smiled nervously, thinking. W-well, there are a few of the Queen's gowns still in good shape, she supplied, They're rather plain, though
Plain? Ferdia's head reappeared beneath a mound of soap bubbles, Plain is good. Bring me plain.
The maid frowned in confusion. The princess loved pretty things. The more bows and bustles, the better. She even had a gown with ten thousand tiny pink pearls sewn onto the bodice. To decline her usual ornamentations and snub her trademark hue was dumbfounding to the young mouse. Still, she dutifully took the pink silk dress down from the screen and began backing out of the room, As you wish, Princess.
As soon as the girl was out of the room, Ferdia scowled. My opinion of this double of mine just took one heck of a nosedive. I say we visit the King, get a good night's sleep, and get out of here as soon as possible, before I set fire to her wardrobe in self-defense.
I never want to leave, Ferdie sighed, helping himself to a variety of tasty fruit, cheese, and cake creations heaped upon the platters around the tub he currently lounged in, We can just stay here until Newt finds us.
That ought to go over real well when the actual prince gets back, Squeaks replied from somewhere beyond the curtains surrounding the Royal tub.
A couple of days, then, Ferdie amended, I can play the recovering hero that long.
I doubt it.
Ferdie scowled. You're just mad because the staff's only paying attention to me.
No, I'm mad because they keep trying to drag me back to the servants' quarters. There something we ought to know, wizard?
I'm not certain I know what you mean, Sir Knight. Newton sounded rather uncomfortable at being put on the spot. It's true the King sees no one but trusted nobility since the Queen's death, and the country's nobility has always been avicentric, but all races are welcome as guests of the Court. However, he paused, considering, You are unfamiliar. The Prince and Princess are well-known and recognized; the Phoenix and I are feared because of our association with magic I as a mage, she as a creature of magic. You, however, are a mystery to the castle and without a coat of mail, soldier's uniform, or Royal Certificate of Merit, it's only natural they assume you're a servant of ours. Most of the staff here are mammals, after all.
The mouse grumbled a response in what was most likely not polite Arellian.
Of course, Ferdie added, as the sound of scrubbing again filled the room, The fact that you insist on washing your own clothes can't be helping you too much.
Ferdia paced the length of the lavishly-furnished lounge impatiently, paying little heed to the paintings and richly-decorated tapestries and rugs covering every available inch of space. I just don't get it, she huffed, stumbling as her stride caught the hem of the plum-colored velvet gown the young mouseling maid had eventually brought her, What is with the hold-up here? I just want to see my father; how hard is that?
Iiwi tore her attention away from the rows of gilded figures and painstakingly hand-spun glass baubles to watch the bluebird's recovery as Ferdia pitched forward onto her face, nearly toppling a small table full of jeweled eggs on her way down. Don't you know anything about Medieval standards of conduct? she sighed.
-Says the bird perched on the back of a courting couch, Ferdia fired back, pushing herself to her feet with as much dignity as she could muster.
Iiwi looked down at the piece of furniture she'd alighted on. It looked a bit like the end result of someone fusing four plush chairs back-to-back. Is that what this thing is? she mused, How'd you know?
Made the mistake of sitting on one in Bobetta's presence, the cop shrugged, pausing to study what appeared to be an oil portrait of the Royal family when the prince and princess were still small children.
Huh, Iiwi cocked her head, looking thoughtful, Who'd've thought the puffball'd know anything that'd ever be useful? Anyways, she shook her head, You can't just go in and see the king. No one can. You have to be announced or you've gotta know where to find him when he's not in his throne room and anyway, he'll probably want to see you and brother at the same time. Or maybe just Ferdie at first. He is supposed to have rescued you, after all.
Then he'd better hurry his tail up and get down here, Ferdia grumbled, This dress is starting to itch.
It's lined with silk; it's not supposed to itch.
I don't care, it's still-
At least you convinced them to let you go without the shoes, Iiwi pointed out, And the perfume, and the wig, and the make-up about the only thing you didn't fight them on was the jewelry.
Gotta choose your battles, Ferdie shrugged, toying with a tiered diamond-and-pink-ruby necklace, Besides, I couldn't help it. Do you know how much this stuff's gotta be worth? You could buy a house with this, and still have enough left over for a Learjet or two.
Iiwi quirked an eyebrow in amusement. You've been hangin' around me too long, detective. That thing's not yours.
Yes it is.
It belongs to the princess.
Who has a chest full of bigger and gaudier stuff than this in a dressing room bigger than my entire apartment, Ferdia retorted, Besides, I'm the princess right now. Ask anyone in the castle.
How 'bout I ask your partner? the Flier quirked. We definitely need to get you out of this castle, she muttered. Swiping rare antiquities from a castle was no fun if a cop was making off with the Crown Jewels right alongside you.
Look, in all seriousness, we need money. Newton's spent every last coin he had, and no one'll let me out of their sight long enough to find my way into the treasury. We could section this thing up, pay with its bits.
Trust me, detective, no peasant merchant's gonna be able to give you change for a diamond. If anything, you'll only raise their suspicions with it.
Ferdia sighed. I know; it's just -
If it makes you feel better, Iiwi offered, I'll try to raid the coffers tonight, so we've got coinage of more appropriate denominations to spread about once we leave. Failing that, Ferdie could probably ask for money to pay Newton with. Private mage's salary, or whatnot.
A knock sounded on the door, interrupting their interestingly role-reversed discussion. Come in, the ladies chorused Ferdia thinking it the sort of thing a princess would be expected to authorize; Iiwi figuring the bluebird wouldn't realize the role of granting entry fell to the royal rank. A servant let the men of their group in, leaving them gawking about the room as those unaccustomed to seeing great wealth are wont to do. Eventually, all eyes fell to their friends in the center of the room.
Ferdia scowled at the looks of astonishment being directed at her. First one to say it, dies, she growled as Ferdie opened his mouth with a question in his eyes. Her brother immediately shut his beak, developing a fascination with a nearby wall tapestry.
Squeaks raised an eyebrow, a wry smile playing across his face. Can I at least ask?
The bluebird huffed, flinging herself into a nearby chair with enough momentum that its wooden joints creaked. Because, instead of a wizard with quick-dry spells, I had a uniform drip-drying by the fire and a flock of near-hysterical handmaidens gushing about over 'my ordeal' and trying to 'pretty me up'.
Apparently the princess rivals Bobetta in her love of bows, bustles, and frilly pink stuff, Iiwi smirked. Ferdia made a face.
If I didn't want to see Dad again so much, I'd say to heck with this and go to bed. As it is, I still don't want to spend any more time here than necessary.
But Sis, Ferdie protested, This is the best we've ever had it! The food! The beds! The maids!
What? I like being waited on. Besides, we haven't had a true vacation in years. Why not stick around, relax a bit, send out search parties to look for Bob, etc.?
Because our doubles could get back any day now Newton, I don't want to hear it and when they do, we'll be in for one helluva lot of trouble. We're better off on the road.
We're better off here!
It's safer on the road!
I'd say we're pretty safe here, Ferdie retorted, We're behind two twenty-foot high solid stone walls, in a stone fortress with walls ten feet thick, surrounded by guards willing to lay down their lives for us. We can have Iiwi keep an eye out for the Prince-
Don't go dragging me into this, the Flier squawked, I'm all for lounging about a bit, but I'm sick of being everyone's eye in the sky!
-And staying in one place will give Beak more time to find us, and lead Bob to us, Ferdie finished.
What about your other companions, milady? Newton inquired, working up the courage to interrupt the royal argument, You mentioned they were all skilled trackers; tarrying here might give them all a chance to catch up.
Ferdia shot Squeaks a pleading look. Sorry, the mouse shrugged helplessly, I've got to agree with them on this. Staying put a day or two might do us good. We've been running from bandits and armies practically since we got here. Why not take a day or two to study the kingdom's maps and plan our next move?
Ferdia grumbled a few choice words about logic and kingdoms and dresses in general. The servant that knocked on the door a moment later did nothing to improve her move.
Your Highness, he bowed to Ferdie, Princess, another bow, this one to Ferdia, I regret to inform you that His Majesty has retired for the evening, as is his custom, and will see no one until the suns' return tomorrow morn. He bade me bid you good night.
Having said this, the man bowed once more and left the room. This was probably for the best. The Princess was a model of etiquette and good breeding, after all; to hear Ferdia's snarled response to his news would have greatly shaken his opinion of the royal young lady.
The sparrow in a leather jerkin and the brilliant red and gold of the Crown's army scanned the forest clearing before him, eyes searching for even the slightest clue to where his quarry had gone. The ground here was rife with hoof-prints, many of them overlapped and confused, as if the rider has been unsure of where to go. Indeed, it seemed almost as if, in the end, horse and rider had simply vanished.
This puzzled the sparrow. He had grown up in woods much like these, and had mastered the technique of all the woodland creatures' flights, including those of even the craftiest of foxes. No simple horse and rider could shake a tracker of his caliber. Not without magic or wings; neither of which his quarry had displayed before abruptly vanishing into this clearing. He frowned, nudging his reluctant horse into the clearing at a cautious pace.
The strange tracks continued further into the clearing, their pace changing from tired canter to a dead run, skidding into a tight turn here, leaping for distance there, zigzagging across broken bits of underbrush like a frightened rabbit. Every now and then the tracks drew near the forest edge, only to leap away from singed patches of earth before quite reaching safety. The sparrow frowned. His quarry had met pursuit here most likely bandits. He reined in his horse, scanning the treetops for the telltale smoke of bandit fires. There it was just on the other side of that bare mountain ridge. He spurred his horse into a gallop, determined to find these bandits and learn what had become of the quarry he tracked.
By the time he realized his error, it was too late. With a whoosh! and a whisper of wings, the clearing was empty once more.
D'you think he's gone? Bob whispered, peering down through the branches to the path below.
Of course he's gone, fool, Ivan growled, struggling for a better grip as he attempted to haul himself back onto the branch he kept slipping off of. The question is, how long do we have before he gets back?
I don't sense him anymore, Beak ventured, stroking their horse's nose to calm it as it whinnied nervously.
The three kiwis and an incredibly confused horse were clustered high atop a large forest oak tree, hidden from view below by layer upon layer of twining branches and broad leaves. It had been Ivan's idea to double back down the path and hide, and Beak's to do so in the tree. The gray kiwi had quickly learned that sarcasm, like the laws of physics, had absolutely no effect on the Magi. Though it was anyone's guess how they were going to get the horse back down.
Well, I for one have had it with this branch, Ivan fumed, as he lost his grip on the bark and toppled sideways again, I'm going back down.
I'm going with you, Bob agreed, scrambling to catch up with his descending nemesis, No telling what sort of trouble you'll cause if you're left unsupervised.
The horse whinnied with fright at the sight and sounds of the kiwis' departure, scrambling back on its haunches as it attempted to flatten itself against the trunk of the tree. Unfortunately, hooves are made for running, not gripping, and the equine's flailing back hooves kept sliding along the tree's bark, jostling the branches beneath and shaking the tree inadvertent kicks. This commotion in turn distracted Bob, and as he glared up at Beak and the frantic horse to rebuke the Magi, his footing slipped on the branch he'd been lowering himself onto, sending the yellow kiwi tumbling through the boughs. Ivan had just enough time to register Bob's shout and the sound of snapping branches before the falling kiwi slammed into him as well, sending both of them crashing to the forest floor.
Anyone ever tell you you've all the climbing skill and grace of a declawed kitten? Ivan snarled, shoving Bob off his back as the yellow kiwi bemoaned his new set of bruises. The kiwis slowly got to their feet and dusted themselves off, groaning and grumbling all the while.
There was a sudden snap! overhead, followed by screams and a frightfully loud amount of snapping and crashing of boughs as Beak and the terrified horse plummeted to the ground. Fortunately for all involved, Beak broke the equine's fall, thus preventing a possible animal rights suit.
You call this fortunate?!? Beak growled at no one in particular as the horse rolled to its feet and bolted for safety.
Anything broken? Ivan enquired as Bob ran after the horse.
Beak paused, wiggling his toes and probing his belly, I don't think so.
Then yeah, I consider that fortunate, Ivan replied, If nothing else, it should teach you that the last place for a horse is up a tree.
It *bit* me! Bob screeched, the horse disappearing down the path at top speed as the kiwi flailed about, howling in agony.
Then good riddance to it, Ivan grumbled. More trouble than it was worth, anyway. We'll just cover the rest of the distance on foot.
The rest of what distance? Beak blinked.
The distance to Ferdie, Bob growled, rubbing the bite mark out of his feathers.
But friend Ferdie was the one who sent those soldiers after us in the first place, Beak protested.
Ivan groaned, feeling the beginnings of a migraine start to take hold. Obviously that was the wrong Ferdie, idiot. You said there were two of them; that one simply wasn't ours.
The armor and muscles should've given that away, Bob growled. I can't believe you actually walked right up to him. So much for our anonymity.
Beak frowned, confused.
Just take us to the other Ferdie, Bob sighed.
What if the other Ferdie isn't our Ferdie either? the Magi asked worriedly.
It had better be the right Ferdie, Mr. I-Can-Sense-People's-Auras, Ivan fumed.
I don't sense auras. I identify individuals by their own unique biodata and brainwaves.
Presence and thought patterns, Ivan growled.
I don't care! Bob yelled, Just find the other one! And if it's not Ferdie, than prepare yourself for a fate worse than sheep!
Ivan quirked an eyebrow. Sure you didn't hit your head in that fall, hero?
It's probably just coffee withdrawal, Beak supplied.
Quiet, you, Bob fumed.
Are you sure they came this way? Drake asked as they picked their way through a peat bog, leading their horses behind them.
Yes, I'm sure they came this way.
That they came this way?
Yes, D'Gal sighed, trudging through a particularly sodden part of the spongy ground.
This exact way? Dumas persisted.
Something like it, yes.
Yes, growled the Vycerian, rapidly losing patience.
Look, there's no call to get upset, Drake snapped back, I'm just trying to get an idea of our situation. I mean, exactly how sure is 'quite sure'? It's not exactly easily quantifiab-aaaaAAAAAAAA!!!! *splut*
Sorry, D'Gal shrugged, reeling his horse back in close, lest the creature tried to knock anyone else into an open bog, Reins slipped.
Oh, I'm sure they did! Drake fumed, flailing about in the muck as his pony watched impassively from the sidelines, chewing a mouthful of fragrant peat grass.
Really? D'Gal grinned wickedly, How sure?
Shut up. Just shut up, Drakr growled, reaching for his pony's reins as the black-feathered villain chuckled. Gallant, come here.
The pony made no move to help its sinking master, reaching instead for another mouthful of grass.
Get get over get- Drake swiped at the reins again and again, grumbling as the leather straps dangled just beyond his reach. A little help here? he growled to D'Gal.
The ebony duck arched an euebrow. I don't recall promising to do that, he stated, leaning against his evil-looking steed. Drake could've sworn the beast was smirking at his plight.
He blinked as the bog's ceaseless pull sucked him down even further. Come on, he pleaded, You don't want me to die like this. You want me to suffer, right?
More than you know, D'Gal purred, eyes glittering dangerously. Still, I'm reconsidering that stance at the moment. This is rather convenient.
Please? Drake whimpered, chest-deep in sucking mud and sinking fast, I'm begging you here.
I know. And I'm enjoying it immensely.
A low bleating sound echoed across the bog. After a moment, several more answered it.
Oh, gods, the sheep! Drake yelped, flailing about wildly with renewed fervor, The sheep! It's the sheep! Get me out! Get me out! Getmeoutgemmeoutgemmeou- urk! he choked, as something grabbed him roughly by the back of his neck, jerked him out of the bog, and tossed him to the spongy ground. He blinked up at his rescuer in astonishment as D'Gal took up his horse's reins again.
You're pathetic, you know that? the Vycerian scowled, beak curled in distaste. And now, you owe me.
I've had it with this place! Iiwi screeched, barging into the sunlit breakfast room with a well-placed kick to its gilded doors.
'Morning, Iiwi, Ferdie greeted the Flier, waving her over to an empty chair as he worked his way through a veritable feast of sausage, eggs, ham, toast, fruit, and some unidentifiable roundish patties.
They won't let me leave the grounds, Iiwi huffed, scowling as she fluffed up her feathers. How am I supposed to go out looking for the others if they're gonna sling arrows my way every time I get anywhere near the gates?
The guards are simply trying to keep you safe, Newton said around a mouthful of toast, I talked extensively with some of the visiting courtiers and recovering soldiers last night. Word about the castle is that there's been a rash of strange incidents along the roads of late. Soldiers, merchants, falcons and messenger birds they all keep disappearing.
Yeah, well, Ferdie grumbled, If they really wanted to keep me safe, they'd change the lock on my door. I tell you, I couldn't so much as start to drift off to sleep without being mobbed by a flock of giggling maids armed with sheets and feather-dusters and platters of food and who knows what else. I had to wedge the door shut with a chair, it was so bad!
Ferdia rolled her eyes as Newton blinked with confusion. Only you, bro, she laughed, slapping her brother's shoulder.
What? All I wanted was a full night's sleep in a decent bed, without being constantly assailed by countless packs of scanti- waitaminute.
There's hope for you yet, bro, Ferdia smirked as her brother's face flushed a brilliant scarlet, then pale white.
I think I liked this rant better when I didn't understand what all that stuff was for, he squeaked. Maybe we can just see the King and leave.
Fine with me, Ferdia nodded, mopping a spot of syrupy goo off the cuff of one of the dress' flowing, bell-shaped sleeves that had brushed a bit too close to her plate. She made a face as the velvet soaked up just enough water to clean up but remain sticky. I'm getting tired of the whole wearing-of-dresses thing.
It does look quite becoming on you, Milady, Newton said, trying to be helpful.
They were more upset about it being out of fashion than the fact that I'd worn it the night before, the bluebird grumbled, But all the Princess' dresses are just so
poofy, she shuddered, spitting the word out like a curse. The Princess' ladies in waiting were starting to get to her. They'd nearly gone into conniptions when she'd tried to don her police utility belt over the dress, and had objected loudly when Squeaks, slinging the offending belt over his shoulder, convinced his partner to wear a heavy gold chain belt instead something about it being for curtains.
Yeah, well, I say the sooner we leave, the better, Iiwi stated, I'm sick if people treating me like an open flame, you like glass, Ferdie like the Fonz gone Medieval-
Hey, Ferdie objected.
They treat Newton like he's a half-tamed lion, the Flier continued angrily, And they keep acting like they expect Squeaks to steal the silverware! We should just get some money and leave!
Aaack! Marseilles the maid cried, staring at the empty chest in the closet before her, The silver! 'Tis gone!
Oy, now, Sadie, the heavyset housekeeper, boomed, 'ow can it be gone? We've not had but one visitor come since the start o' the war.
What about last night?
Wha, those two scrawny lads? They's too young an' clean t'be thieves.
They's clean coz we let them use th' master's bath, Marseilles pointed out, whiskers quivering as the willowy mouse pictured their lord's reaction to that infringement should he ever return from the war.
Hmmm, Sadie grunted, squirrel's tail bobbing in thought behind her, Roight. Well, the Master gets 'ome, you tell 'im what 'appened.
Me?!? What about you?! You're head mum!
Oy! Don't you be takin' tha tune wit' me, Missy-
Or what? You git me? Come on an' try it, puff tail!
'At's it! You asked for it!
As the sounds of a fight echoed up from the servant's quarters and along the path connecting the nobleman's house to the forest trade roads beyond, a pair of figures halted for one last look at the manor.
You really think they won't miss anything? the smaller of the two asked.
Nah, his fellow replied, lengthy ears twitching at the muted sounds of yelling filtering through the trees. Rich people never miss stuff like that. An' the servants probably won't even notice 'til the Count or whatever returns.
Yes, but all the silver-
I'd've gladly left the silver, had there been any gold, the rabbit shrugged, shifting the sack hung across her shoulders, Besides, kid, we need bribe money, in case we run into soldiers. This should do the trick or at least work as a cudgel if it doesn't.
The rabbit swung the sack around, slamming it hard against a tree. It rattled loudly, but also broke loose quite a bit of bark and brought a rain of leaves and acorns down around them.
The small bird blinked. You scare me sometimes, Lita.
Thievery never changes, kid, the rabbit shrugged, It just dresses better.
The castle was miles away, but it was the nearest shelter of any kind. There were no caves on this side of the mountain, no huts or stone cabins in the surrounding woods. His tent offered no real protection; neither did the sparsely packed forest that stretched from the foot of the hills to the meadow that ran a full league before meeting the carefully fortified hills upon which the castle sat. The peahen didn't kid himself his chances of reaching the safety of those walls were slim, at best. But they were far better than his chances of survival if he remained where he was.
He'd been out herding sheep when he'd first heard it - panicked screams amongst heavy wing beats and had set off with his bow in hand, determined to seek out the source of the ruckus. Something had been preying upon his sheep for nearly a fortnight now; something big and mean enough to make short work of the razor-toothed puffs of wool and drive away the half-tamed wolves that served as his sheepdogs.
He'd seen gryphons before, of course. It was impossible to grow up in these mountains without seeing at least one of the winged fiends. Larger than even the largest draft horses, they had the hindquarters of lions and the beaks and talons of eagles, and if they couldn't get their fill of deer, they'd dine on sheep. Maxwell had seen entire herds decimated by gryphons that developed a taste for mutton. He'd nearly lost an eye to one as well, charging to the rescue of a lamb a mother gryphon had been using to teach her brood to hunt.
That was why he'd paid a passing mage for an enchanted bow. Gryphons' hide is tough, and difficult to hit as they bear down on their prey at several hundred meters per second. The enchantment strengthened both the user's aim and the force it imparted on the arrow. Now, no gryphon ever terrorized Maxwell's sheep for long. It was a lesson he'd been looking forward to teaching this sheep-killing terror, striding confidently towards the sound of bones crunching.
Only the creature he'd found wasn't a gryphon.
The creature he'd found was eating a gryphon. A whole pride of them, by the looks of the carnage strewn across the landscape.
Maxwell had frozen, horrified, and in that instant of terror, two glowing eyes the size of carriage wheels swung around to meet his. The creature roared.
And Maxwell ran.
It had been a slow day, and the guards in their tower were bored. The castle was under a full lockdown; had been since the Prince and Princess returned, the King finally bowing under the pressure of worried courtiers as rumors of strange attacks began filtering in from travelers. Search parties had left, determined to hunt down the source of these rumors, but not so much as a messenger bird had returned. Worried, the peasants followed the castle's example, all but locking themselves within the city walls. The lack of traffic was frustrating to Mills. One could only play cards and dice for so long with a bloke like Blacktooth. He needed conversation.
He'd settled for returning to the tower parapets, leaning out over the stones in hopes of spotting something of interest.
Oy, he nudged Blacktooth, pointing to one of the distant hills, where the tiny burnt orange speck of a peahen could be seen running for all he was worth, Lookit that fella go, eh? Outpacin' the sheep, he is!
The rat followed Mills' finger, watching as the orange speck fairly flowed down the rocky slope, white specks of hardy mountain sheep moving swiftly out of its way mere instants before starting after it. This was highly unusual; mountain sheep rarely ran from anything, secure in an instinctual knowledge than razor-edged teeth and flint-sharpened hooves tended to discourage all but the most tenacious of predators. Wa' 'oo 'ink 'ey're 'unni'g 'om? he wondered.
Mills frowned. I'm not sure what they're running from. Gryphons, maybe. Or wolves. I hear there's packs o' both up in those mountains.
A great, piercing roar, its pitch somewhere between crashing thunder and screaming metal gears, echoed across the countryside, scaring the already-spooked sheep into stampeding. The peahen redoubled his speed, tripping on one of the slope's many half-buried rocky outcroppings as he did so. He tumbled topsy-turvy down the rough slope, flailing about for a handhold that would stop his fall long enough for him to regain his footing. Another roar sounded, sending flocks of forest and moor birds streaming up into the sky as they frantically winged their way out of the area, shrieking with terror. Above the clatter of thousands of wings flapping, a sound not unlike heavy rain pounding a tin roof, a deep, rhythmic beating began. Streams of low-flying ground birds and panicked forest creatures began pouring out into the moor.
The hell? Mills frowned, squinting into the distance in hopes of catching sight of what had so terrified the creatures. As a raven, his eyesight was naturally keen but the flocks of panicked birds were so numerous they blocked all view of the mountains; indeed, a dark shadow seemed to sweep across the moor as the fleeing creatures blocked the light of the suns from reaching the ground below. Then, suddenly, the flocks turned as one bird, streaking over the tower as fast as their wings could take them, sending Mills and Blacktooth scrambling for cover amidst a deafening cacophony of shrieks and wingbeats.
Mills threw his good arm in front of his face, shielding his eyes as he strode resolutely back to the tower's edge, determined to pinpoint the source of this panic. There was another thundering roar, closer this time. All of a sudden, the air was uncomfortably warm and smelled of brimstone, and around him now birds were falling out of the sky, singed black and still smoking.
Mills heard Blacktooth behind him scramble to sound the alarm horn, and forced himself to open his eyes and gaze across the moor one last time. What he saw would've terrified him, if he'd but had the time.
He would have been satisfied with the cat-birds. There were quite a few of them, lazy and complacent after many a meal of fat mountain sheep. Many of them had been small, scattering like frightened mountain cubs as the larger cat-birds had rallied to their defense. Dinner and a show. It had been most entertaining. And it had gone a long way to satisfying the hunger that wrenched his gut like a twisted fist.
But another hunger, one of loneliness, still burned within his breast. He had been free for some time now, and had yet to catch sight or scent any others of his kind. Where they now gone, creatures of the past? Their numbers were dwindling when he had last roamed the land; he knew not how long he had slept. How much time had passed since the days when they had dotted the sky like great birds of prey?
And then the bird-man had come, armed with a bow like so many of its murdering kind, and the sight of it had stoked long-dormant fires of righteous anger in his scaly heart. Every fiber of his being had cried out for vengeance, and the dragon had readily agreed, lunging after his frightened prey like a great, leather-winged cat. The bird-man was faster than it looked, sprinting nimbly down the mountain like a feathered version of the vicious sheep that followed its flight, but the dragon was not about to give up the chase.
At least, not until he crested the mountain, and followed the line of frantically fleeing forest creatures to meet the stone-and-mortar lines of the bird-man's lair on the false hills at the far end of the moor. He remembered this castle. Great, metal bird-men had poured out of it once, riding out on horseback to lay siege to the lair of another dragon he had known; one with a nest. The bird-men had murdered her, and her young, and countless others that had come afterwards. They had wanted their treasure, wanted their pelts, wanted everything but the great winged creatures living off the livestock and forest creatures crowding the valleys.
He saw the castle, saw the lairs of the bird-men clustered around their alpha's den, and knew nothing but white-hot fury. The tiny orange bird-man was forgotten. The temple dragon now had a far larger target in mind for its vengeance. He roared once, in rage and challenge, folded his sail-like wings, and dove, like a great ship hurtling out of the sky, towards the city and its castle.
Look, Ferdie tried, doing his best to appear both authoritative and annoyed instead of intimidated and scared, We demand to see our father. We've been here two days now, and absolutely must speak with him!
The King will see no one, the stone-faced guard before him stared.
But you don't understand! Ferdia put in, We can't stay! There are urgent matters that require our attention!
No one is permitted to leave the castle, the guard repeated, in the same impassive tone.
I'm not about to stay in this stone prison any longer! Iiwi screeched. I'm not even allowed outside anymore!
Ferdia opened her beak to add to the argument, but closed it again as she noticed Squeaks' ears prick up in alarm. She followed him over to the nearest window, leaving Iiwi to rant. What is it?
Something's happening in the town, the mouse ventured, undoing the latch and pushing open the window in an attempt to better hear the faint sounds of alarm echoing outside the castle walls. A fight of some sort. I hear yelling, and a lot of screaming. He paused. Explosions, too.
Newton joined them, looking worried. Explosions? As if an enemy were at the gates?
Squeaks shook his head. It's too widespread for that. Whatever it is, it's happening all across town.
The wizard blinked. But that's impossible! This is the capital city, the best-defended stronghold in the land! To suggest that it's been overrun-
Now see here! Iiwi screeched, ramming a taloned fist back into a guard that had attempted to pick her up from behind, I'm a mighty Phoenix, and if you don't let me go this instant, I'll burn this entire castle to the ground!
No sooner were the words out of her mouth than the room took on a fiery glow and a great, reverberating crash shook the castle. Flaming chunks of wood and stone tumbled down outside the open window, and alarmed shouts of Fire! echoed along the corridors.
The shaken guard practically threw Iiwi away from himself
That was so not me, the Flier gulped as the castle shook once more.
Attack! A voice echoed urgently down the corridor as the sound of footsteps pounded towards them. A young sparrow appeared, sword drawn and shield at the ready. He skid to a halt before the group, blinking dumbly a moment before bowing to Ferdie as he gasped for breath. Brave Prince, the castle is under attack!
By whom? Ferdie found himself asking.
A dragon, sir!
A what?!? Newton gaped, barely managing to dodge back out of Ferdie's way as the bluebird bolted to the window. But they all died out years ago! The only ones left are sealed, and no man in their right mind would free them!
That a fact? Ferdie laughed nervously, as a familiar crimson shape arced into view, spewing a stream of fire onto a cluster of thatched-roof huts by the stables. The bluebird slowly backed away from the window. If you'll, uh, excuse me for a minute, he stated, turning to run down the hallway full tilt.
Hey! Iiwi yelled, leaping into the air as an errant plume of flame shot through the window, Wait for us!
Drake stood as close to the piled stone fence as he dared, keeping a wary eye on D'Gal and the flock of sheep while shooting nervous glances at the fiend's evil horse, which kept glaring menacingly at him as Gallant munched on the worn sleeve of Platyrian's uniform. He wasn't certain what worried him more the fact that his sworn enemy was striding through a herd of bloodthirsty sheep that were docile enough now, but could easily fly into a rage were they to be thrown his way, or that D'Gal's murderous horse seemed intent on staring him down with looks that promised painful trampling to the first that blinked. So? he called up to the Vycerian examining a battered sheaf of parchment embedded in a tree in the midst of the field.
'So,' what? the black-feathered fiend shot back, ignoring the sheep at his feet as one pounced upon a hapless butterfly with a ferocity generally reserved for feral kittens.
Drake muttered something unrepeatable about fiends of a feather. So, what's the sign say?
D'Gal leaned nonchalantly against the tree. Do I look like I care what the sign says?
I don't care if you care or not! Drake fumed. What does it say!?!
If you want to know what it says so badly, you come over and read it.
You know damned well those wooly monsters will eat me alive the moment I breach the fence.
They seem content enough with my presence, the Vycerian mused, Perhaps they're not hungry.
And perhaps they simply sense the evil oozing from your pores and mistake you for one of their own, Drake growled. Look, would you just read the damn thing?
D'Gal smirked. Tormenting you, of course.
With a snarl of what probably passed for obscenities on Mallard's ship, Drake stormed up and down the fence, stopping only when the monstrous black horse tore free of its tether and started trotting along side him much as one does to someone one is thinking of knocking off the cliff or onto the train tracks. D'Gal chuckled.
Look, Drake sighed, slowly trying to inch away from the horse by sidestepping along with his back to the wall, Just read the sign.
'Please?' D'Gal repeated, raising an eyebrow in amusement, Ooh, this is interesting now. Can I get you to beg again?
Not bloody likely, Drake fumed, ashamed of his cowardly behavior back at the bog.
Amusement turned into predatory grin. Care to find out?
Drake had had enough. Look, if you can't read the sign
*Can't* read? Can't??? D'Gal snarled, stepping away from the tree with enough anger in his voice to send several of the sheep skittering for safer ground, Step into firing range and say that again, Duck!
Now it was Drake's turn to smirk. No, I don't think I will.
D'Gal shot him a look of unparalleled murderous rage.
Of course, Drake continued, oblivious to the recoiling sheep and the murderous horse currently backing away, If you'd just read out the sign, I'd know you could read, and would stand corrected.
And if you'd come just a bit closer, D'Gal spat, you'll never stand again.
Dammit, fiend, just read the sign!
'The floggings will continue until morale improves', D'Gal quoted, balling the parchment around a stone and lobbing it at the Platyrian's head.
The blow caught Drake at the side of his face.
That's it?!? he blinked, gazing at the crumpled notice.
D'Gal scowled, striding to the wall and vaulting over it to reclaim his horse. You were expecting
Well, it's just
I thought it might be something useful!
I'm sure someone feels it's useful, D'Gal intoned, snatching a hold of the suddenly skittish equine's reins, Parchment is rather expensive here.
but what kind of a policy is that?!
Oh, I don't know
. D'Gal growled, swinging up into the saddle to glare down at the duck, It has a rather familiar feel to it
.Worsening an already bad situation until it somehow spontaneously reverses itself
Drake felt his hands ball into fists of their own accord, cheeks flushing with anger. Is it at all possible for you to go for even five minutes without insulting me or my race?
Probably. But then, where's the fun in that?
Where's the fun in insulting me? What good does it do?
It keeps me from killing you. The dead are no fun to taunt.
Drake blinked. Oh.
Now, then, D'Gal continued, scanning the landscape before them, There's a fair amount of smoke rising from just beyond the next range of hills. Considering the path of destruction that seems to have followed them to this point, I'd say it's a safe bet we'll find Arcadia there.
I thought you said there was no 'we', Drake said wryly.
There isn't, Duck. But, if you'd rather stay here with the sheep
Drake glanced over at the paddock, where the sheep were systematically ramming a weak spot in the piled stone wall, Well, when you put it that way
It took quite a bit of running to catch up to Ferdie, as he had become disoriented during his flight and was now randomly fleeing down the castle corridors, screaming as he went. If most of the staff hadn't been doing the same thing, they would have been quite surprised. But as the walls shook and stones dislodged from walls and ceilings, even the most stout-hearted guard was running for the nearest exit.
Ferdie! Ferdia shouted, lost among a sea of screaming servants, We've got to get out of here! The whole place is coming down!
Squeaks caught sight of the cowardly bluebird as Ferdie tore down the corridor to their left, and snagged him by the collar as he ran by.
Finally! Ferdia yelled, dragging her brother to the castle exit as he choked from being suddenly jerked to a stop, What's gotten into you?
Ferdie gagged ineffectively for a moment before his throat regained the ability to form words. It's the dragon!! he shrieked, From that shrine in the forest!
What forest? Newton queried, ducking as a burning timber tumbled through a gaping hole in the ceiling above them, Not the enchanted woods where our paths first crossed, I hope?
It was enchanted? Iiwi mused. Well, I guess that would explain the weird electrical fields and malfunctioning compasses...
Newton winced. Then by ‘shrine’, do you mean the Temple of Light?
Dunno, Ferdie paused, frowning. White stone structure inside a creepy gravel circle animals won't cross?
The sacred circle is a warding spell, meant to keep away the curious.
A sign would've been nice, Iiwi grumbled as the group hurtled around a corner, looking for an exit, Or a wall. Walls are good.
The spell on the circle should have acted like a wall. Unless a war mage weakened it to make a trap for enemy troops... the lizard blinked. My word. You didn't actually go inside the temple, did you?
Ferdie looked uneasy. I kind of wanted to take a look around, see the inscriptions
Newton winced. You didn't read the, I hope?
You mean out loud?
My lord, you didn't!
What? Sounding things out helps me remember them better!
You went to the Temple of Light at the center of the Mystic Forest and read the summoning incantations out loud?!?
Well, yes, but-
You woke the dragon?!? Newton shouted.
Hey, it was an accident! Ferdie stopped panicking long enough to look indignant. All I did was read some inscriptions! How was I supposed to know?!?
I take it this is bad? Squeaks interjected, helping Ferdia free her skirt from fallen rubble as the group clambered over a mound of stones piled high from a collapsed wall and half-caved ceiling.
It is extremely bad! the wizard replied, dodging out of the path of a terrified maid, The dragon sealed in that temple was one of the worst on record. It scourged the land for centuries until a group of mages finally succeeded in sealing it away!
Why not just kill it? Ferdia queried.
Milady, do you have any idea how difficult it is to kill a dragon? They live for centuries, heal impossibly fast, wield some of the strongest magic of any wild creature, and have hide so thick even enchanted arrows have trouble piercing it!
And you freed one. Way to go, Fonz.
Not helping, Iiwi
They finally reached a hole along the semi-collapsed eastern wall, cautiously peering out into the castle courtyard. Flames were everywhere, steadily licking their way up the towers and outer defensive walls, many of which were crumbling even as castle residents scrambled to escape down their stairs. The stables were burning brightly, the panicked sounds of the horses trapped inside just audible over the deafening roar of the flames.
Newton stepped out into the courtyard, sprinting for the stables. When the rest of them started to follow, he halted, waving them back.
Milady, my lord, please, stay here. You too, Phoenix. Keep them safe. He looked over at Squeaks. If you'll come with me, Sir Knight I need your help freeing the horses.
Wait, Ferdia blinked, incredulous, We're gonna run?
Sounds good to me! Ferdie yelped, ducking behind some rubble as the dragon glided into view at the far end of the castle grounds.
What about all these people? Ferdia demanded, What about the town? We have to help-
They're doomed, milady, Newton shook his head, trying to explain as Squeaks ran ahead and unlatched the stable doors, There's nothing we can do.
What about a spell? she insisted, You've got all those books you carry; one of them has to have something we could use!
Newton's horse ran by with the others, eyes white with terror. The lizard made an ineffective lunge for it, but the panicked animal shied away, stampeding for the relative safety of the fields beyond the crumbling castle walls as its master bellyflopped onto the cobblestones. The wizard was on his feet again in an instant just in time for Squeaks to tackle him to the ground again as the dragon swooped low overhead, fiery breath roasting some of the slower equines as they fled. It scooped up its fallen prey as it passed, swallowing them in bone-crunching gulps before circling around to face the group below.
Not to bother anyone, Iiwi quavered, But I think it's spotted us.
Be still, Newton advised from the cobbles, It won't come after us unless we run.
With an ear-splitting roar, the dragon folded its wings, diving at them like a hawk.
Forget what I said, the wizard yelped, scrambling to his feet, Run!
The group scattered, everyone taking off for the shelter nearest them as the dragon swooped so low overhead its belly scraped the cobblestones, but its teeth closed on naught but thin air. As it circled around for another pass, each resumed his or her flight. Ferdie took off at Mach One in the direction the horses had fled, a thin trail of smoke rising steadily behind him. Iiwi, her low-altitude escape buoyed up and given speed by the winds of the dragon's own lift, banked sharply and dove for cover amongst the snaking lines of burning houses crowding the city's alleys, making for the woods at the far end of town. The other three took off in the general direction of the fallen wall, sticking as close to the stone buildings as possible.
Doesn't it strike you as odd how easily your companions abandon you? Newton yelled, paging through a Grimoire while frantically racing to catch up with Ferdia.
They're not abandoning us, she yelled back, You said to run away, and that's what they're doing. Our attacks are organized. When we retreat, it's every man for himse- her foot caught on the hem of her borrowed dress, sending her tumbling down a mound of rubble. The dragon saw her fall, and dove.
Milady! Newton yelped, rushing to the struggling bird as she tried to untangle her foot and free the dress from the mini-rockslide that now pinned the hem.
The dragon! Ferdia screeched, leaping from a crouch only to have the pinned dress hold her fast.
Newton whirled, bringing up a hand and casting the first spell that came to mind: Fireball!
The dragon rumbled in surprise at the sudden burst of flame streaking its way, dodging to one side with a flick of its tail. Its aim ruined by the dodge, it curved its wings, arcing around its intended prey as its glide buoyed it up a story before diving at them again at close range, more an aerial pounce now than a true dive. Ferdia heaved at the velvet skirt holding her in place, trying to bolt once again and once again being held fast in place. Newton cringed back, the iridescent shimmer of a mage-shield flickering before them as the closing dragon's fire singed the shield, the beast's own magic pushing the spell back as the lizard fought to reinforce it. It was nearly upon them when it recoiled at a blast of thunder, roaring in pain as blood spurt from its left eye.
Come on! Squeaks yelled, darting into view with his gun in hand, grabbing hold of Ferdia's outstretched hand and snagging the wizard's arm. The mouse's momentum gave the bluebird's next lunge enough force to pull her torn hem free from the rocks as the trio bolted for cover.
What did you do to it? Newton shouted, struggling to keep up with the pair while periodically glancing back as the bellowing dragon hovered in mid-air, clawing at its injury.
I shot it.
In its eye?
Everything else is armored, right?
Well, yes, but-
Newton! Ferdia interjected, the trio pausing for breath in a narrow alley between two smoldering buildings, Never mind that, okay? We're not going to do any real damage to it that way.
Not with the caliber bullets we're carrying, anyway, Squeaks nodded.
So we've poked its eye out, Ferdia shrugged, So what? You said yourself they're fast healers.
Indeed, back in the courtyard, the dragon had ceased its pained writhing, shaking its head and blinking as its newly-reformed eye focused for the first time. It hovered uncertainly for a moment, adjusting to its new eye and scanning the courtyard for its prey.
Newton frowned as the dragon roared defiantly, beating its wings to gain the altitude necessary to find and fricassee them. Yes, but-
We need a spell! Ferdia repeated, as the group took off again, away from the escape route through the crumbled wall the dragon now guarded fiercely, And not just some Fireball, either. Something like a Leviathon, or a spontaneous rainstorm, or-
I don't know any of those! They're all high-level spells!
There's got to be something in that book of yours that would work!
Absolutely not! Newton gasped, clutching the tome protectively, The Grimoire contains some very powerful spells-
So use one!
What, just pick one at random and read it aloud?
With all due respect, milady, do you have any idea just how dangerous mucking about with unfamiliar spells can b-
We're about to be eaten by a dragon, for goodness sake!
Newton considered this as they dove behind the smoking remnants of a fountain to avoid the latest plume of flames. Point, he conceded, flipping through the book.
Another burst of flames arced over the ruined fountain, sending them scrambling for shelter once again as walls of scalding hot water evaporated into searing patches of steam behind them.
Head for the chapel! the lizard advised, ducking yet another arc of fiery doom, It's the strongest magical field around! There may be an enchanted relic inside, or a protection spell! It should hold off the dragon's fire for a time!
We need a spell! Ferdia screeched.
I'm working on it!
D'Gal peered through the flames and smoke at the towering silhouette marauding in the distance. Isn't that the same creature from before?
What? Drake smirked, The dragon? Hmm
well, it certainly looks like a dragon oh, yes, definitely a dragon
Drop the superiority act, Duck. While you and your schoolmates were reading books on fantasy creatures, I was busy memorizing fighting techniques and weapons manuals.
You promised Ferdia you wouldn't hurt me, Drake gulped.
I promised not to maim you, the Vycerian corrected. And I won't. I know more non-fatal blade attacks than-
Drake backed away, waving his hands nervously. Now, now
shouldn't we be more concerned with the dragon back there?
Just making sure you know your place, Duck.
I hate you.
Wouldn't have it any other way, Dumas.
It. Is. Du-MAAS!!
The castle chapel was small and unassuming, a quiet construct of wood and plaster and an expensive collection of lead-framed stained glass windows. Its pews were uncushioned, its altar cold marble, its ornamentation sparse but gilded. Its ceiling was stained with the smoke of a century's prayer candles, and it had but one shrine, tucked away in a far-off corner. Years ago, a great holy man had blessed this shrine in a gesture of thanks to the king at the time and his courageous knights, and it was this blessing that now acted as a protection spell, fending off the dragon and its fire as the beast raged furiously outside its walls.
But the blessing-come-protection-spell was old and poorly maintained, and the dragon was newly-rejuvenated after decades of sleep and a week of feasting on the unsuspecting creatures of the valley. As the dragon continued to assail the chapel, the besieged spell began to waver, allowing plumes of dragon-fire to dash themselves against the slate of the chapel roof.
Newton stood nervously in the center of the burning chapel, balancing the Grimoire in one hand, the other one raised as he began to recite a spell of rain, desperately trying to keep his place on the page as he worked his way through the incantation. And I call upon the powers of the Lord of the, uh, the
Ankara- he fumbled on an inkblot, “-no, the Ankari-
Above him, the building spell broke free of the distracted wizard's control, exploding in a burst of electric blue and purple intensity that expanded to fill the rafters as the spell swelled with unchecked power. At first, the scrambling lizard was able to maintain some degree of influence over the building magic, but eventually the strength of the spell overwhelmed him, and the magic swirling overhead like a maelstrom of pulsing blue fire hiccupped, wavering as it continued to gain strength. It spun like a drunken top, colors shifting and changing angrily as the spell continued spiraling out of control. Electricity built in the air, sparks flying as everyone's fur or feathers stood on end, thunder rumbling ominously in the distance. Finally, to the startled dismay of those watching from the pews, the spell broke in an explosion of brilliant light and white noise.
I really think you ought to go investigate, Duck, D'Gal stated, nodding towards the burning city.
I really think I shouldn't, Drake retorted. You just want me to get fried.
I'll admit, the thought had crossed my mind, the Vycerian deadpanned, Still, you're the logical choice for this one. Being an expert on dragons and all, you're probably far more- he broke off as a blinding light shot up from within the castle walls, knocking the dragon backwards and blowing chunks of the stone fortress sky high as a deafening boom echoed across the moor. That was a spell.
Drake glared defiantly. How do you know?
It's either that or an ion cannon, Dumas, and I don't think Arcadia had one of those with him.
Drake was too caught up watching the stunned creature backwing away from the blast to pick up on the lack of bastardization in the pronunciation of his name. With a growl of defiance, the dragon struggled to recover from the brain-jarring blast, trying its best to dodge the fiery debris raining down around it. It wasn't quite quick enough, as several jagged bits of rock and mortar hit it, tearing chunks of skin from its membranous wings. Roaring in pain and anger, the creature wheeled, retreating back to a range of high mountains several leagues from the castle.
So, uh, Newton, Ferdia grunted, clambering out from beneath a pile of rubble in the ruined chapel, Was that spell supposed to blow a gaping crater in the chapel?
Newton looked sheepish. To tell the truth, milady, I was aiming for the dragon. But I lost control of the spell, and it misfired.
And blew the chapel in five different directions, Squeaks stated, quirking an eyebrow.
You both advocated I try a high-level spell, despite my protests, the lizard scowled, brushing the soot off the now-battered Grimoire and inspecting an array of newly-singed patches on his robes. And now you berate me for it. Who's side are you on, Sir Knight?
The side that would like to point out that there's still a rather large, angry dragon attacking the castle, Ferdia cut in.
Actually, Squeaks peered cautiously about the smoldering ruins, It's heading for the mountains. Looks like it took some hits from the debris, too.
Oh. Okay, then. Good job, Newton, Ferdia smiled, clapping the wizard on the shoulder.
Er, Newton managed, again taking on a look of shock and bewilderment, Thank you, milady.
The dragon might not be a problem anymore, Squeaks said, tone worried, However, he coughed, There is a rather large assortment of angry soldiers headed this way.
Ferdia blinked. Right. Back to running, then, she yelled, leaping after the others as the trio took off running for the shelter of the woods outside the castle. I'd say we've officially worn out our welcome!
We're getting closer, Beak assured the others, I can sense Friend Ferdie's presence growing nearer with every step.
An assortment of grumbles met this remark, as Bob lamented - and Ivan lambasted - Beak's loss of their horse.
Come on, now, the magi entreated, You're not still mad we weren't able to catch the horse after it ran away, are you?
A general grumbled reply met this question with the answer that yes, they were still mad at the brown kiwi. As the grumbling subsided, however, Ivan raised his head, listening as the sound of crashing underbrush grew steadily closer. Rather than warn the others, however, the gray-feathered villain simply took one step to the side.
Seconds later, Bob and Beak paused to listen to a loud screaming coming from the underbrush. Unfortunately, they stopped right in its path.
AAAAAAAAAaaaa oof! Ferdie yelped, colliding with Bob and Beak at top speed and sending the three crashing backwards to the ground.
Friend Ferdie! Beak cheered, We've found you!
'He grows nearer with every step', Bob mimicked, snarling. You think you could maybe be a bit little less literal?!
Ferdie, for his part, was still trying to get to his feet in run, which was enough to convince the kiwis that they did have the right bird this time. Bob! Beak! You've gotta run! There's a dragon-
Where? Ivan asked, indicating the empty clearing around them.
Behind me! It's attacking the city!
What city? Ivan smirked.
Ferdie blinked. The capital city. It's right behind me. And there's this dragon fro-
I think we can safely say you're out of the danger zone, Detective, Ivan stated, peering off the way the bluebird had come. There isn't a city for miles, and no dragons, either.
I outdistanced it? Ferdie blinked, recovering. Cool. No, wait what about my sister? I have to go back!
I somehow doubt she needs your help, Ivan deadpanned.
Besides, Bob added, Unless you brought a horse, we're stuck walking.
Ferdie frowned. There was a whole herd of them behind me earlier. They might still be back there.
Great! Beak was eager for the cessation of death threats against his person, and figured a free horse or two would go a long way in improving the other kiwis' moods.
This assumption was disproved a few moments later, when a herd of thundering horses stampeded through the group. Villain and professional coward were, unsurprisingly, able to get out of the way. Hero and BaNAna-brained sidekick, however, did not.
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