A terrible caw ripped through the air, followed by the heavy beating of wings as the dark fiend reared back, its head waving shakily through the air as it bellowed out, pelting its assailants with gust after gust of wind. Shadows filled the night sky, blotting out even the stars, and the creature attempted to take off, only to receive another arrow through its shoulder in return. It cried out in pain, and it clacked its beak a couple times as it stared down the trio of heroes in front of it, the Rotten stripes on its feathers beginning to glow.
"Behind me!" One of the warriors, a thickly-built wolf clad in scalemail, dug her footpaws into the dirt, hunching low behind her massive tower shield and beckoning at her companions to follow along. Her eyes were narrowed to slits in concentration, but a note of fear danced audibly in her voice as she yelled. "Behind me, now!"
The other two wolves hastily dove for cover, their ears flattening against their skulls when the Bane let loose with a blast of hellish fire, plumes of smoke billowing forth from the monster's maw and spreading through the meadow. Thane scooted backwards when the horrid breath nearly grazed his tail, bumping into River's back along the way; he turned to look at the brown-furred wolf, who let out a short, frustrated grunt as she twisted around to try and look at their foe.
"Damn it... Rot take it!" She uncharacteristically swore, drawing an arrow and notching it with a white-knuckle grip. Thane reached a paw out to try and comfort the ranger, but relented when she stood up, picking himself up as well and dusting his blue battle armor off. "We're so close to the palace... if we can't kill this monster, we'll never make it to the meeting place in time."
"It's almost dead, though," The young swordswolf replied hopefully, stabbing his rune-covered longsword into the dirt to clean the blood from its blade. His rucksack shook against his shoulders, and he shrugged a couple times to adjust its fit, tensing up when he saw the Bane's breath finally dissipate. "The sun might be rising soon, but I know we can do it! We have to!"
"Thane, River!" The pair glanced at their protector, who briefly peeked over the top of her shield at the black raven. The warrior and the ranger both hunkered down and peeked out from the sides, readying themselves for anything. "It's exhausted itself with that attack. If we can deal it one last good blow to its neck, we can bring it down!"
"Thanks, Magna." Thane smiled confidently, throwing his friends a thumbs-up. River and Magna both nodded in reply, the former drawing her bowstring tight. "Let's go!"
The trio dashed forward, Magna taking point while the others kept to her flanks, charging towards the weakened Bane with a determined battlecry. River picked up speed, then leapt into the air, closing one eye as she took aim... and then fired, quickly swiping another shaft from her quiver and launching it as well.
The missiles struck true, slamming into the creature's neck at full force, one of them even managing to pierce straight through its bony, ragged skin. The momentum firmly pinned the raven to the ground, its head slamming into the grass with a hard thud, and it let out a muted squawk of surprise. Magna went next, bounding forward with heavy footsteps and slamming the butt of her shield into its head, and she smiled grimly when she heard a resounding crunch, spotting cracks in the Bane's beak.
"All yours, Thane!" She yelled, her bushy tail wagging back and forth as adrenaline pulsed through her nerves.
Thane gripped his sword tighter and kicked off into a run, loping towards their foe as fast as he could, and once he was only a few strides away, he pounced, curling his knees and thrusting his sword downwards for a finishing blow. The blade seemed to shine for a fleeting moment, casting a light that pierced through the monster's dark aura – and then it pierced through the monster itself, cleaving right through its bones with a sickening snap. The silver-furred wolf booted the creature in its eyes before jumping off of its head, taking a couple hops away and breathing hard. The black, Rot-lined raven lay limp amidst the trees...
...and then stirred.
The three wolves' eyes went as wide as saucers, and they brandished their weapons, slowly inching backwards as the bleeding fiend slowly propped itself up with its wings. It pushed up to its full height and raised its head, vibrant, violet blood dripping from its numerous wounds, and it gazed dazedly down at the ground, malice and hatred festering in its eyes. It reared back and roared, a shrill, desperate cry escaping from its throat and echoing through the trees and beyond.
Then the monster crumpled, its body turning into smoke as it hit the ground. Soon enough, there was nothing left but dust, swirling away in the summer breeze.
A tense silence reigned through the Redhorn Meadow, but it was broken before long by the dawn chorus chirping and fluttering through the air, and the heroes quickly relaxed, slumping their shoulders and sighing in relief.
"We did it..." Thane murmured under his breath, walking over to the others as he panted, and with a tired heave he raised his blade into the air, excitement welling up within him. "We did it!"
Magna chuckled to herself at the swordswolf's enthusiasm, leaning her shield against her side and stretching her arms out afterward. River gently padded up behind the protector, peering up at the sky as the stars began to wink back into view, a faint, faint glow starting to appear on the horizon.
"Just barely," The leather-armored canine hummed to herself, her ears and tail twitching as she glanced eastward, her amber eyes set on the grand stone gate of the palace sitting not too far away. "We're almost there. Come on, follow m-"
Before she could finish, a familiar, thunderous screech sounded out in the distance, echoing across the land fast and loud, and the trio spun on their heels, their expressions morphing into shock as they searched for the source of the noise. Thane stepped back into a defensive stance, tucking his elbows close to his armor, while River crouched down, leaned forward and narrowed her eyes. After a second, she gasped, tension jolting through everyone as her jaw dropped open in shock.
Far away, silhouetted against the dawn's early light, another dark figure seethed out and up above the forests, followed by another a short ways away, then another, all of them shrieking out a cacophony of noise in reply to the dead Bane's call. Magna bared her fangs, frowning fiercely as she watched the trio of newly-awoken monsters swoop high into the night sky, no doubt heading straight for them. "So the blasted thing had the last laugh after all, eh?"
"No!" Thane growled, reflexively sheathing his sword and swinging his rucksack around, opening the flap and staring at the four shining stones that lay within. A pleasant shiver ran down his spine at the soothing sight, but he quickly peeked back up at his companions, who were standing side by side. "No, come on! We have to get to the palace and purify the king before they get here!"
"Thane, quit talking and move your tail!" Magna replied without missing a beat, the firmness of her words prompting the young prince to flinch. The rising sun shined against her fur, and she glanced over her shoulder, nodding curtly. River did the same, gesturing towards the palace with a flick of her arrow; Thane stared into the ranger's eyes, her expression staying unreadable even as Magna continued to speak. "You're the one who agreed to meet with Sana at the palace. Go! We can hold the other Banes off so they don't wreck the place while you're in there!"
The swordswolf knelt in place for a few moments, looking from his friends to the palace and back again, torn between the two. Then, he nodded in turn, closing his bag and slipping it back over his shoulders, a confident smile returning to his muzzle. "I... alright. River, Magna-"
"Go!" River yelled, jabbing the end of her bow towards the great castle standing behind them.
Thane jumped up to his footpaws, giving the pair a salute before turning tail and making a mad dash for the palace gates, kicking up clumps of dirt in his wake.
Magna's smiled small as she watched the warrior depart, turning her head back towards the dawn, drumming her fingers on the handle of her tower shield. She trained her eyes on the black birds, their shapes getting bigger and bigger as they drew nearer and nearer. "Banes at the capital and bounties on our heads. Did you ever think things would turn out like this?"
The ghost of a smile appeared on River's face. "If we survive, I owe you a bubble tea."
"Hah!" Magna barked out a laugh. "Now there's something really worth fighting for!"
A slow gale blustered over the castle walls, rustling the dew-coated grass and softly shaking the numerous lion-emblazoned flags, a tranquil peace falling over the west gardens. Pine trees rose up between the smooth stone pathways and massive, flowering shrubs dotted the grass patches in-between, wafting pleasant scents all around the palace grounds. Water burbled up from the aqueduct, spurting high before cascading back down, the droplets pitter-pattering back into the fountain again. And in front of it all, the grand Armellian Royal Palace stood tall and unwavering.
As the night sky gradually brightened, a lone figure peeked out from behind one of the short stone walls, her tiny footpaws barely making a sound in the grass as she slunk her way across the path, stopping next to the fountain. She rocked back and forth a couple times, her long white ears swinging along with, before hopping up, seating herself on the edge of the bowl. The rabbit brought an arm up afterward to stifle an oncoming yawn, exhaling into her curled fist instead.
"My my... sneaking into the royal palace in the dead of night!" She whispered to herself, her heart pounding in her chest, and she lightly ran her paw down to her chest, her chain hauberk clinking underneath her ornate yellow dress. The noble's round cottontail wiggled as she tried to calm herself down, and she leaned to her side, drawing a parasol from her side and opening it up, giving it a few twirls in excitement. "Imagine the looks on Barnaby and Elyssia's faces if they saw me, haha! Oh..."
She sat there for a couple moments longer, contentedly enjoying the ambiance of the gardens, before getting up and turning around, gazing at the palace's rounded domes and tall towers with curious eyes. Carefully ambling around the fountain's bowl, she swayed her way towards the castle with a spring in her step, her adventurer's pack bumping and jostling against her waist with each stride. The wind blew through the grounds, stronger this time, her parasol's tassel fluttering in the breeze.
However, she slowed to a stop when her floppy ears picking up a faint sound coming up from behind her. The noble cocked her head in confusion – one paw sliding down to the very end of her parasol – but a jolt ran through her when a series of horrid shrieks rang out, destroying the serene atmosphere effortlessly. She whirled around, trying to see where the monstrous noises had come from.
"By the Wyld, what was-!?" The lagomorph exclaimed, hunching over and flicking her thumb down, her hidden blade sliding just an inch out from its scabbard. She bit her lip, nose twitching anxiously, but when she spotted someone rapidly running up towards the palace gates, her expression went from confusion to anger in an instant. "You!"
With an elegant flourish, she drew her sword, stepping back and holding the rest of her parasol out in front of her as she watched the armored warrior jog into the gardens. Thane skidded to a stop when he heard her yell, his eyes widening when he saw her, and he jumped back, holding his own runed longsword out at the ready. "A-Amber!"
"Stay back, traitor!" She declared, and the swordswolf furrowed his brow, panting hard to try and catch his breath; she glared daggers at the canine, ducking her head ever-so-slightly when beams of sunlight started to pour over the ramparts. "What kind of fool are you, Thane? Showing your mug here, of all places?"
"What? What are you talking about?" Thane replied, visibly confused. He briefly let his guard down, easing forward with an arm outstretched, and she took her chance, dashing forward and going for a lunging strike; the warrior hastily jumped sideways, her blade narrowly grazing his armor. With a swing, he brandished his blade, a newfound focus dawning on him as he looked across the fountain at the lagomorph. "Amber, what are you doing!? I have to get to the king!"
"Come to deliver your head to him himself, have you? And to think I thought you pleasant when we met some days ago!" She shot back, tracing a circle in front of her with her cane-sword before standing tall, holding the weapon straight forward and striking a fencing posture. The current of the water fountain sprayed away all the while, its calm bubbling drowned out by the arguing pair. "I suppose it wouldn't be the first time an outlaw felt remorseful, would it? Hmph!"
"Outlaw? This is about that bounty that was put out on me!?" Thane said, staring incredulously at Amber as she stepped forward and swiped at him. He easily deflected the blow, but soon found himself on the defensive as the rabbit picked up speed, finding himself parrying strike after strike and struggling to keep up. He hissed reflexively when he felt her sword clatter against the side of his cuirass, gritting his teeth as he blocked a diagonal slash that came a split-second later, sparks flying from the clashing metal. "Those guards were ordered to kill us! Mercurio barely made it out alive, and he had to put bounties on our heads to save his own!"
"Wh-What?" Amber's cultured tone gained an unbecoming stutter, and she paused, if only for a second, to turn and look at the palace. However, she hastily spun back around afterward, taking another swing at the warrior, this time much more awkwardly. "But why... would they attack Mercurio? Hasn't he been playing advisor to the king himself?"
The swordswolf blocked her blow easily, then pressed forward with a shove, pushing the white rabbit off-balance and staying a few paces away, ready for anything else she might throw at him. A serious expression crossed his features. "He knows too much. He was helping us to try and summon the Whiteshadow, trying to help us get the last Spirit Stone."
"Whiteshadow!?" The noble parroted, her cottontail twitching, her mouth agape and her arms dropping to her sides, the dawn's light shining against her white fur and yellow dress. "But it... it only shows itself to those who've been-"
"Infected." Thane finished. Amber gasped at the sorrow filling the wolf's eyes. "I know."
"Mercurio... what have you done...?" She said softly, her head falling as the full weight of Thane's words hit her, and she closed her parasol up, slipping her cane-sword back into its scabbard. She covered her mouth with her free paw, her jaws quivering. "Thane, I'm sorry for my words earlier."
The gardens fell silent again as the two heroes stood together, the fountain flowing and the wind breezing through the pines; the sky was gradually getting brighter and brighter, the darkness and stars giving way to a brilliant, cloudless blue. Amber glanced down at her footpaws for a few long, winding minutes, mulling over her friend's words... but looked up suddenly when she heard the clinking of his armor, realization hitting as he began to walk past her.
"But then... wait a moment!" She yelled, eliciting a surprised yelp from the canine, and she reached out and grabbed his wrist, giving it a quick tug to hold him back. He turned around and glanced back at her, his tail wagging a couple times. "But if you asking Whiteshadow for a Spirit Stone, then... what are you doing here, really, Thane?"
"I'm here to see the king." He glanced up at the towers, then back down to the rabbit, tilting sideways and letting his rucksack slide down his arm. The rabbit's heart fluttered when she saw the telltale blueish, greenish light shining from within the leather bag, and she gazed up into his face, watching as his mouth curled into a confident smile. "It's time to put an end to all this."
"Then you really mean to..." Amber started to say, but she stopped when her ears twitched again, another thudding sound drifting past. She narrowed her eyes slightly – Thane cocked his head in confusion at her reaction – and then pushed past the silver-furred wolf, staring down the path leading to the palace proper. The thudding noises got stronger and stronger, and both heroes peered right down when they felt a rumbling shaking the very ground beneath them. "What in Wyld's name...?"
The palace doors abruptly swung open, the heavy slabs of wood scraping against the floorstones as they were pulled apart. A veritable ocean of goodbeasts began to flood out from within the building, some of them wearing royal armor or carrying their halberds, yelling, howling, screaming as they ran. Thane and Amber both took a step back, their armor clinking quietly against the edge of the fountain as they gawked at the countless knights exiting the castle. Their combined footsteps – not to mention their screams of terror – drowned out all other sounds.
"Run! Run! C'mon, this way, the gates are this way!"
"Horace was right! Horace was right, I tell you! Rot take the king!"
"Oh Wyld... oh, by the Wyld, what have I done!? What have we all done!?"
Amber flinched when the first of the fleeing guards closed in, but then the sea seemed to part ways, going around of the fountain before joining together just in time to scatter through the west gate. The rabbit stared in utter disbelief, trying to make sense of the chaos playing out in front of her.
"Hang on... hang on!" She turned to look at Thane as he spoke up, raising his voice above the din, and he scanned over the crowd, eventually grabbing one fleeing dog by the shoulder, pulling him aside and holding him firm by his pauldrons. The doberman let out a shuddering breath, his eyes wide with fear and his legs trembling as he nervously peered this way and that. Amber stepped forward and took his paw in hers, giving it a comforting squeeze as the swordswolf beside her continued to speak. "Hey, hey, it's okay, don't worry. We're not going to hurt you, I promise."
"You... wait, you're-" The knight muttered, glancing from the wolf to the rabbit and back again. His face soon lit up when he recognized the two of them, and he slumped forward, all his muscles relaxing at once as he leaned against Thane. The warrior grunted from the added weight, reaching an arm across the dog's shoulders. "Oh, oh thank goodness... thank goodness...! I... I still can't believe it... I'm shaking...!"
"You're safe now, soldier," Amber said quietly, nodding at the guard as he caught his breath, and the white rabbit twisted around to reach into her adventurer's kit, drawing out a small, hollow gourd and offering it to the canines. Thane took the expertly-carved canteen and pressed it into the doberman's chest; said doberman looked down at it, then threw his head back, downing the entire bottle of water in a single gulp. Smacking his lips afterward, he sighed raggedly, passing the emptied drink back to its owner. "Now please, what's all this about? Why are you all deserting your posts?"
"It's... oh, by the Wyld, it was horrible..." The guard's relief evaporated just as soon as it had come, replaced once again by quivering anxiety. "The king... we, we were there overseeing his new advisor's counsel, and he just... he just..."
"What?" Thane said, his voice laden thick with worry. "What happened?"
"He just, just went insane! He condemned her to death! The other guard tried to protect her but the king cleaved him in two! I barely made it out alive to tell everyone else!" The doberman finished, the words blurting out as he resisted the overwhelming urge to panic. "Morale has been low for a while, what with the storms, the portals at the stone circles, and then that screech just earlier, but this was, this was the last straw. We, we can't stay here and protect the king any longer. Not like this!"
Amber stepped back, as did Thane, and she turned to look at the wolf, the two of them sharing a mutual, grim look at the news. The thought nearly made her retch, and her stomach twisted itself into knots as she stared mournfully up at the castle. The guard continued to blather on, his eyes glazing over as his nerves got the better of him.
"Wyld be damned, I can't stay here any longer... I can't, I can't stay here!" He stammered, and he suddenly snapped up to his full height, staring straight at the gates leading out to the meadow.
"Hold on!" Thane said sharply, making the dog jolt back to his jittery self. "Can you still fight?"
"Fight!?" The guard replied frantically, yelling right into the wolf's muzzle, his fur bristling underneath his suit of gilded armor. "Fight what!? The king?"
"No! Listen," The wolf said firmly, looking over his shoulder and gesturing towards the west gate with a wave of his arm, the sun finally starting to peek over the outer walls. Amber followed his gaze, then turned and hopped up onto the fountain's bowl again, watching as the rest of the palace's staff began to escape into the grounds, maids, chefs and others all fleeing after the guards. "My friends, they're out there in the meadow, fighting off Banes to keep them from reaching the capital! The rest of your friends might run into them, but you need to help them out, they can't handle all of them alone!"
"B-Banes!?" The doberman gasped, instinctively reaching for the haft of his halberd at the very word, and he glanced towards the meadow again. Thane gave him a confident clap on his shoulder, and he quickly stood at attention, saluting the wolf. "E-Er, y-yes! Yes sir! I'll... I'll go rally the rest of the guard and help your friends, then!"
"Go, go!" Thane smiled and nodded, gesturing towards the gates again, and the guard nodded back before sallying forth, his armor clanking loudly as he rushed through the archway and out into the wild. The wolf rested a palm on the pommel of his sword as he watched him go, and then turned to Amber; the rabbit blinked, then looked down at the silver-furred wolf, still balancing precariously on the fountain. "Amber, can you head to the capital and warn them about the Banes and the king?"
"Uh? Oh! Hahaha, of course!" The rabbit replied, idly twirling her closed parasol in her paws, and she jumped down to the path again, giving the warrior a stalwart fistpump before swinging her adventurer's kit around her hips, digging inside and drawing out a hooked rope. Thane's eyes widened for a split-second, and then he grinned as the other hero gave the grapple a couple short swings. "I'll just get out of here the same way I got in! Elyssia helped fortify the defenses just the other day, I'm sure she and Barnaby can get Lion's Pride ready in short order!"
"Thank you, Amber," Thane said, shooting the noble a grateful smile, and he turned resolutely towards the palace, taking a step, then another, moving into an easy jog as he pushed his way through the crowd. Before long, he was running, sprinting his way into the palace – and then he vanished into the darkness, his tail wagging back and forth all along the way.
Amber stood there for a little longer, smiling as she watched the swordswolf go, and then she glanced towards the opposite wall, inching back a bit before striding forward and bounding above the heads of the escaping innocents. Hopping over the greenery, the shrubs rustling as she brushed past, she ran up to the rampart, staring at the small, crumbling spot near the very top. With practiced ease, she launched her grappling hook over the wall, clambered her way over, and dropped out of sight.
"Criminals! Stop right there, in the name of the king!"
Two bears, one short and one tall, panted heavily, their legs aching as they dashed their way through the Mistgrove Woods, silvery moonbeams filtering through the higher boughs and dispelling the faint fog that lingered among the countless trees. The pair stomped their way through the grass – the smaller one occasionally glancing back, then having his head turned forward again by his companion – while a cadre of armored beasts kept hot on their heels. Small stones jutted up from the dirt, decorated with pebbles all around their bases, their old and weathered engravings pointing eastward, directing the fleeing travelers in the direction of the royal palace.
"Sana?" The young ursine whispered in a hushed, frightened tone, holding his club close to his chest, the wood sending wrinkles over his green shirt. His tiny, round ears wiggled as he looked up at the brown bear next to him, giving her paw a squeeze as she practically dragged him along, clutching her cloak and leather sash with a white-knuckle grip. "They really want to kill us, don't they?"
Sana looked back at the small, pale-furred bear, unable to keep the pity from welling up within her at the look of nervousness plastered on his snout. The druidess tucked her free arm in, holding her staff tightly under her elbow, and she took a deep, shaky breath in... and out... focusing her mind, leaning forward as she ran, feeling the Wyld all around her. Up ahead, she could finally spy the palace walls, the brick and mortar standing out against the shaded thicket.
"Not today, child," She replied steely, ducking underneath a few low-hanging branches, and soon enough, the bears stampeded out of the forest, wincing slightly as the early morning sunlight glared into their eyes. Sana slowed her pace somewhat, awkwardly reaching around and taking hold of her staff, and the carved dragon heads at its head began to glow. "Now, Ghor, hold on to me!"
Skidding to a stop, she felt Ghor's small paws cling tightly to her side, his claws digging into her fur. The armored guards behind them growled angrily, and with a sharp gasp, the brown bear pointed the druidic stick skyward. "Attimo!"
A sphere of green energy burst forth from the Wyldfire Staff, soaring rapidly through the air and spreading out into the shape of an ethereal eagle, and the spell swooped high above their heads. Soon enough, though, it reached the apex of its climb, slowing to a stop... and then turning downwards, arching over the parapet, the Wyld magic audibly starting to spark and fizz-
-and then, after a sudden flash of light, Sana and Ghor both found themselves hovering weightlessly a short distance above a sprawling hedge maze, the Armellian royal palace rising up immediately after it. Ghor gasped, then wiggled his footpaws when he realized he was floating, and Sana glanced back, her eyes narrowing when she spotted the forest, just barely visible over the walls.
"We made it..." She breathed, wrapping an arm around her friend when she felt the slow-fall magic begin to wane, and her ears quivered when she heard a yelp of dismay, as well as the clashing of steel and a low snarl. She looked away, brow knit in thought, but she quickly shook herself out of her pondering when she felt the air starting to whistle faster, her cloak fluttering as she and Ghor both tumbled down into the middle of the hedge maze. The pair rolled on their backs for a few moments, and then picked themselves up, brushing dust from their clothes and checking themselves over. "We made it."
"We really made it...?" Ghor murmured, tugging on his rope belt a couple times before glancing around the well-trimmed shrubbery. His eyes sparkled faintly with curiosity, and he turned towards Sana, dragging his club behind him as he lumbered over to his guardian. "Sana, are you okay? It seemed like you used up a lot of your magic. Is this really the palace?"
Sana peered up at the walls still, listening to the sounds of battle raging back out at the edges of the forest, unsure of what was happening beyond the castle – but the rest of Ghor's words made her start in realization, and she quickly turned towards the young ursine, speaking urgently. "We're almost there. This must be part of the gardens, so... there might still be guards about. Stay close to me. We will be okay, I promise."
Ghor nodded in response, tugging on the end of his hood, and Sana peered around the part of the hedge maze they had ended up in, trying her hardest to make things out despite the dwindling darkness. They were in the middle of a straight path, the trail leading both backward and forward, with nary a flower nor a pawprint to help her figure out which way was the right way to go. Reaching out, she tucked the holy staff under her arm again and gently brushed her palm against the side of the bushes, and after taking one last look at the parapets, she began to move, cautiously beckoning the younger bear to follow along.
The pair slowly made their way through the winding maze, turning at each gap they found in the wall, the sky getting brighter and brighter as they went along. A loud yell rang out as they rounded a corner, prompting both bears to huddle down, the sounds of battle still clamoring all the while; Sana closed her eyes and mouthed a silent prayer to the Wyld, reaching her other arm around Ghor's shoulders and leading him along. He hunched forward, then scooted out of her grasp, walking side-by-side with her instead.
Soon enough, even more screams – these ones undeniably screams of fear and terror – joined in from the direction of the palace, gentle tremors rumbling through the dirt.
"By the Wyld..." Sana whispered under her breath, swallowing dryly. "Have the guards finally realized the king has been taken by the Rot?"
As if to answer her question, the bushes suddenly rustled – and clanked, and the two bears stopped right in their tracks, a wave of tension coursing through them. The quiet sound of clanking armor drifted in on the wind, rising above the sound of the shaking branches and distant screams. Sana took a few steps, slowly and cautiously, stealing a glimpse of the palace towers as she traced their way through the maze.
Then, a halberd moving in the other direction poked its way over the top of the shrubbery.
Ghor gasped, and Sana whirled around, hastily scuttling over to the young ursine and covering his mouth; the halberd abruptly stopped, then vanished from sight, heavy steps ringing out from the opposite side of the bushes. "Found them!"
"No...!" The brown bear whispered, staring wide-eyed at Ghor as she spoke, her voice barely audible. "Run!"
They broke into a mad scramble, sprinting hard through the maze as they fled from the pursuing knight, Ghor clutching his club to his chest as he followed after Sana. The older bear's cloak billowed out behind her as she led the way, swinging her arms and kicking up bits of grass and loam along the way, breathing hard as blood began to pump in her ears. They rounded a corner, then another corner, pelting their way through the twisting paths, rounding another corner, another straightaway, another corne-
"Gotcha!" Sana stumbled when a glint of gold played in her vision, and she froze in place, digging her heels in when she saw another guard standing right in front of them; behind him, she could see the hedge maze's exit, and the palace beyond. Ghor bumped right into her a split-second later, flopping backwards and landing on his tail. The guard breathed hard, looking rather roughed up and tired, and he lowered his head slightly, letting out a huff of triumph. "Hmph, I have them! Cut them off from the other side!"
"Understood!" Sana twisted around, her heart sinking in a panic when she heard another knight shout out in response, and then she glanced back at the guard blocking their way, letting her staff roll into her paw and gripping it tightly. The golden-armored dog took a step back, ready to jab his halberd forward at a moment's notice.
"You..." The druidess began, hardening her expression. With a wave of her cloak, she raised her staff towards the guard, taking a defensive stance similar to his own. Ghor's eyes widened at the sight, his jaw dropping open, and he slowly pushed himself onto his footpaws again, bringing his free paw up to his mouth in trepidation. "You may arrest me, but only if you promise to leave this child unharmed."
"You have conspired with the wolf outlaws with intent to murder the king," The guard spoke slowly, and flatly. "The penalty for even thinking of attempting such is death. No exceptions."
"Then I will not go peacefully," Sana replied, and Ghor watched as the brown bear knit her brow in concentration, his eyes going from his guardian to the dragon heads at the end of her staff, which faintly glowed as she channeled her magic.
The knight exhaled in frustration... then thrust forward with the end of his halberd, growling and swinging it upwards afterward. Sana quickly sidled out of the way, hissing as the blade whooshed through the air, then swung her staff wide, motes of energy trailing from the end of the stick. The armored dog easily dodged the simple attack, then struck again, slipping his paws higher up his halberd and moving faster.
Ghor watched in horror as the two traded blows, glancing back and forth, his nerves frazzling more and more when he spotted another halberd briefly peek out a short distance away. The bear took a deep gulp of air and licked his lips, his throat suddenly feeling quite dry. He shuddered when Sana narrowly avoided a piercing jab from the royal knight – and then he shook his head, feeling himself glare with newfound energy as he reached out, thinking back to the lessons that he had learned.
Almost instantly, he felt a familiar energy pump through his veins, and a soothing, guiding instinct quickly pulsed took over, washing over his light coat of fur and sending a chill down his spine. His footpaws felt like roots, his arms like branches, and he could feel the grass, the bushes, the leaves... all living, all healthy, all happy. Despite being so different from the forest, the surrounding greenery was so similar... so strong... determination welled up in the young bear, and he curled his paws up when his body turned to bark, no longer afraid of the eerie sensation.
Sana grunted as she blocked a heavy vertical slash with her staff, gasping for breath as her muscles ached, various bruises dotting her body; the knight pushed strongly against her, scooting her further and further back, her heels digging deeply into the dirt. She gave a weak shove in return, trying her hardest to force the guard off-balance, but all he did was lash at her side with the butt of his halberd – she gasped in pain as she tried to jump away, but lost her footing and toppled onto her backside.
"Gh-aah-!" She groaned in pain, reaching around to rub at the fast-forming bruise, but her breath caught in her throat when light glinted in the corner of her vision. The guard stomped forward, raising his weapon for a killing blow. "Y-You...!"
"You are under arrest, traitor." The guard swung downwards, and Sana scrunched her eyes shut, bracing herself.
The druidess' ears twitched as she heard a mighty thunk sound out... and then she realized she felt no pain. Slowly, slowly, she opened her eyes... and let out an exhale, her breath coming back to her, when she saw the small, tree-like being standing over her, blocking the guard's attack with his club.
"Sana-!" A bark-skinned Ghor creaked out, turning ever-so-slightly and staring at her with a pair of green, glowing eyes, and the brown bear scooted away a little, dusting herself off and starting to pick herself up. Giving her leather sash a tug, she opened one of her medicinal satchels up, breathing shakily when a pang ached through her bruised ribs. "Get out of here! Go meet mister Thane at the palace! I can hold them off for you!"
"B-But Ghor...!" The older ursine replied, looking at the bear-turned-tree with wide, shocked eyes. "I can't... these are royal knights, you might..."
"I know I might die!" He finished for her, and he swung his club upwards, practically heaving the guard into the air. The armored dog hit the wall of bushes and fell down to the ground with a clunk. Ghor turned around and gazed right into his companion's eyes, and Sana couldn't help but stare back, seeing the overwhelming willpower emanating from the simple bear's expressionless face. "But if you don't save the king, then lots more goodbeasts will die! I left with you to get stronger, but you've been protecting me no matter where we go... this time, I wanna protect you!"
Sana leaned against the Wyldfire Staff, one paw still rooting around for a poultice, and then she smiled gently, pride swelling in her heart as she reached out and gave the tree-bear a pat on his shoulder. "I... thank you, Ghor. Please... stay safe."
The young ursine watched as his guardian hurried her way out of the hedge maze, nudging her cloak behind her back as she pulled out a small wyld weed and chewing on its flowers. As soon as her footpaws had touched down on the smooth, stone-brick path, he flicked a paw upward, thorny vines erupting from the soil, locking him – and the guards – inside of the gardens. Mere moments later, there was a sharp gasp, and Ghor stomped around, gulping inwardly when he saw another guard running up from behind. He raised his club and gave it few a warning swings to stave the armored dog off.
"Brun..." He thought to himself, shivering as magic pulsed through his bark-coated fur, bouncing sideways to dodge the knight as he charged forward, halberd held at the ready. "Do you think that I did the right thing?"
Somewhere, far off in the distant forests, a meditating, scar-covered bear flashed a rare smile.
Thane dashed into the palace, carefully slipping his way through the thinning crowd of castle workers, heavy breathing and screams of fright echoing across the great hall. The silver-furred canine slowed to a stop in the middle of the foyer, scanning from side to side in search of his friend, his tail wagging all the while. A massive, forked staircase rose up from the left and right walls, small lamps hanging from the walls and a grand brazier set in the middle of the room, spilling firelight all across the floor. The swordswolf breathed in at the majestic sight... but Sana was nowhere to be seen.
"Sana...?" He muttered, then took a deep breath, drawing his longsword and raising it high above his head to try and get his friend's attention. A few seconds passed, but still nothing happened, and he raised his voice, dread starting to pool in the pit of his stomach. Had she not made it? Had all their efforts...? "Sana! Where are you!?"
"Thane!" The warrior swiveled on his heels, the last of the beasts filtering out through the palace's east entrance, and he sighed in relief when he saw the druidess ambling towards him from the other door, her green cloak billowing out behind her. A few flower petals, colored a radiant blue, were visible in her mouth, and he quickly loped towards the brown bear, lowering his blade and reaching around with his free arm to give his close friend a hug. "You're okay... thank goodness."
"I could say the same thing about you! I was worried you hadn't made it, hahaha!" Thane laughed, inhaling sharply when he felt the bear embrace him with both paws, then chuckling, just a little bit quieter. His tail swished back and forth with renewed energy, and after a little while he stepped back, eyes drifting towards the different stick that she was leaning against. Three dragon heads had been whittled from the top of the wood, and they shined softly with an enchantment all their own. "So that's... the staff that we needed to perform the ritual?"
"I wish I could have gotten here sooner, but I was, ah... delayed. And, yes," She replied tiredly, grinding the flower between her teeth a few times – its restorative juices helping soothe her wounds – before briefly glancing at the west end of the foyer, sunlight streaming in from outside. The swordswolf blinked when he saw her slowly stand up a little straighter, and she let out a refreshed exhale soon afterward, wiping the lingering petals from her lips. "It took much longer to find it than I would have expected, but this is the Wyldfire Staff. Do you have the Spirit Stones?"
"Of course," The canine nodded, swinging his rucksack around and holding it out towards Sana. She daintily opened the bag up. Its contents glowed a fierce, ethereal blue, even managing to out-shine the lanterns hanging nearby, and the druidess quickly closed the bag shut again, taking a deep breath in... and out... to calm herself. Thane slipped his pack back on afterward, twisting around and peering at the ceiling with a furrowed brow. "I met a guard on the way here. He said the king's gone completely mad, nearly killed him and his advisor. Everyone else that was here has deserted their post."
"Truly...?" Sana replied, an uneasy look crossing her features, and she followed her companion's gaze upward, tightening her grip on the staff. "I hope we are not too late to-"
Before she even finished speaking, the lanterns abruptly flickered, an unnatural shade falling over the great hall; even the blazing brazier seemed to falter, its bright flames visibly shrinking. The wolf and the bear both tensed up, their fur bristling as the room darkened.
A strange glob dripped from above, and they looked up again. A pair of purple eyes stared back.
"The king," Sana's voice was barely audible. "We have to get to the king. Now!"
The two dashed forward, Thane cutting one of the lanterns from the wall and snatching it up as he passed, and Sana twisted around, swinging the Wyldfire Staff to keep the shadow of the Bane at bay. Pounding up one of the staircases, the room darkened more and more, shadows creeping up from the ground like choking vines. The sound of spells echoed through the hall as they ran up to the second floor, swirling portals and demonic grumbles, and they glanced around at the pawful of doors. One was marked with a stylized lion's head, and Thane ran over and booted it open, gesturing at Sana to keep up.
Corridor after corridor went by like a blur, paintings and bricks shaken ajar from the walls, doors left hanging open by everyone who had evacuated, sunlight slowly getting blotted out by the hellish magic at work in the castle. Blood pumping and hearts pounding, both heroes sprinted through the passages, their lantern shaking and jostling in the wolf's paw. The brown bear glanced behind her for nary a moment, yelping when she saw a half-formed Bane try to lash out at her, but Thane swung around, smashing the lamp into the raven's beak and sending it back into the wall with a clatter.
"These things-" She thought aloud, focusing as best she could and firing off a blast of energy from her free paw, the verdant green magic cutting through the encroaching evil like a hot knife through butter. Pulling her cloak taut, she picked up her pace, staying close to her friend's side. "I think they're still in the middle of being summoned! If we can reach the king before he finishes whatever dark rite he's performing, we can still stop him!"
"We still need to find him first!" Thane barked in reply, a determined expression on his muzzle. He slowed to a stop when they reached another large room, full of long tables decorated with vases of flowers and rolled up tablecloths, shelves of fine dishes standing high in the corners. Three other doors, going in each direction, lay before them, and the swordswolf turned around hurriedly, staring past Sana at the inky blackness coating the castle interior. "Do you think you could try casting a spell to figure out which way to go?"
"I can try!" Sana said with a nod, lumbering a few more steps into the room and closing her eyes, raising her staff and her other paw into the air and concentrating hard. She hummed, chanting arcane words under her breath. Brandishing his blade, Thane furrowed his brow as she worked, stepping past the bear when another few half-formed monsters poked their heads out, two from a wall and another from the ceiling. The sight made the canine shudder, and he lashed out with sword and lamp both, metal clattering against the monsters – and then his ears twitched when he heard his friend call out, yelling a final, strange word. "Chiaro!"
He twisted to look over his shoulder, then turned around fully, watching as a small bubble of magic formed atop the Wyldfire Staff, then floating up into the air. The warrior ran over when he saw Sana slump, but she shook her head towards the spell, which shook, then morphed into an eagle. The magical bird flapped its wings a couple times, then swooped through the northern door, leaving a trail of light on the floor below it. The druidess gently smiled, then grabbed Thane's paw – his tail wagging once – and started to run again, leading the way.
"Follow me!" She cried. Thane opted not to point out that she was practically dragging him along, moving so fast that it was almost hard to keep up with her. The pair burst through a doorway, running past a nearby kitchen and down a much shorter hallway, then rounding a corner, cutting their way through beaks and wings all the while. A screech rang out from somewhere deep inside the castle, and suddenly, the darkness swelled again, even stronger than before, accompanied by small patches of Rot here and there, somehow forming on the-
"There!" Thane suddenly jabbed a paw forward, wiggling out of Sana's grip and speeding up. Sana jogged after him, her eyes widening when she saw what he was pointing at: another room, dead ahead of them, the trail of light aiming right for it. They ran inside, narrowly avoiding crashing into the small benches set up for waiting beasts, and the wolf turned towards a frame built into the central wall. A grand tapestry, displaying the four great clans paying tribute to the king, hung above the heavy doors. The eagle hit said doors, then dissipated into light; there was no doubt about it. "This must be-"
"The throne room, yes," Sana murmured, pausing for a moment and grasping her friend's shoulder. He hastily scuttled to a stop, forming wrinkles in the soft carpet underneath them, and looked back at the druidess in confusion. She took a deep breath before continuing, though it did little to help calm her nerves. "Thane. Are you ready?"
A brief silence hung heavy in the air, a raven's caw echoing from far below. Then, the silver-furred canine nodded, a fresh wave of determination coursing through him. Running a paw over his longsword, he gazed at the runes etched into its blade, a fire burning in his golden eyes. Out of the corner of his vision, he saw the shadows start to creep in. "Let's end this."
Both wolf and bear turned towards the entrance to the throne room, standing side by side as they marched forward and threw their weight against the massive wooden planks, splinters scattering all across the floor as they forced the doors open. Their hinges creaked loud enough to make Thane's ears flop down against his skull to dull the noise, and Sana ducked her head, pulling her cloak tight and pushing as hard as she could.
Finally, they broke their way through, nearly collapsing as they staggered inside, the claws on their footpaws scraping against the checkered tile flooring. A light, unnatural buzz rippled down Thane and Sana's spines, like some kind of spell, and they both glanced back into the waiting room, the hellish corruption engulfing the room... but it seemed to avoid the door to the throne room like the plague.
A short sigh of relief escaped the two heroes' throats, and they peered forward, gazing all around the massive, ruined, empty chamber. Scuffs and cracks riddled the tile floor, and numerous holes had been smashed in the stained-glass windows that dotted the high walls, gusts of wind blowing into the room alongside the colorfully-tinted early morning sunlight. At the opposite end of the room hung two simple red banners, each emblazoned with a lion's head, and in-between them sat... Thane sucked in a breath, and Sana gripped the Wyldfire Staff tight in her paw.
There, in-between the banners, sat a large lion, resting his arms lazily atop his throne, an enormous sword clutched in one of his paws. His royal breastplate gleamed in the sun, his underrobe and fur-lined cape ruffled in the breeze, and a once-resplendent crown poked up from atop his messy, unkempt mane. His eyes were closed, but his jaws were moving ever-so-slightly and an unearthly violet glow surrounded his free paw, lines of Rot visibly snaking their way up and around his limbs.
There sat the Mad King of Armello.
"Sana," Thane spoke seriously, prompting the ursine to glance over, and he hastily slipped his rucksack off, thrusting it out to her. The four Spirit Stones within bumped against each other, their magical light helping to soothe her nerves, and she gladly took the bag, looping the leather straps close around her arm. The wolf turned to her and nodded firmly, brandishing his weapon with a flick of his paw. "Do whatever you need to prepare the ritual. I'll keep him busy for as long as I can. We can do it!"
"I may be able to cast a few spells to aid you, but it might be difficult," Sana replied, nodding at the wolf in return, and she looked away, her mouth twitching downwards as a pained expression slowly drooped onto her snout. "I can feel the Rot radiating... may the Wyld preserve us both, Thane."
He bowed his head and repeated her prayer, shooting her a half-smile and a thumbs-up afterward. Then he glared at the king, throwing his sword's scabbard aside before kicking off against the ground. The warrior couldn't help but growl as he rushed towards the center of the throne room, blade held firmly in one paw, eyes set on the lion ahead.
"Your Majesty!" The shout echoed around the room, bouncing off the walls and ringing in the heroes' ears.
The feline stirred, slowly but surely raising his head, a dazed, clouded look in his face as he peered at the armored wolf bolting towards him, a cloaked bear holding a staff following after him. Thane watched the king blink once, then twice, curling a paw tighter around his greatsword, its tip grinding against the ground. Hopping down from his chair, he scowled, baring his fangs as he stomped forward, his minky cape spilling over the throne and spreading out behind him.
"Hrm... hrf...!" The king grumbled and groaned, and then he rose up to his full height, looking stately despite his disheveled appearance. "So the clan pets have come to play hero, have they?"
"Your Majesty," Thane said again, slowly coming to a stop at the base of the steps leading up to the throne; a few steps away, just to the side of the chair, the swordswolf noticed a red puddle, gleaming dangerously in the sunlight. His stomach turned when his eyes trailed over the two halves of the guard that rested in the middle of the blood, and he grit his teeth, biting back a wave of nausea at the horrific sight. Scrunching his eyes shut for a brief moment, he looked back at the king, defiantly jabbing his longsword towards him. "We're here to stop you!"
"Hrrhehehehahah... you're already too late. The Underworm shall come this night!" He sneered in reply. The lion cocked his head slightly, mane spilling over his shoulders as he narrowed his eyes to slits, glowering at the young wolf standing in front of him, sword drawn and mind set. He gripped his own greatsword tight, raising it up and then slamming it into the ground, a discordant crash ringing through the room. "You are nothing more than an insolent child, mutt! Armello will always be MINE!"
Before Thane could even react, the king lunged for him, leaping from the top of the steps and swinging a trunk-like arm around to try and land a heavy punch. The warrior's instincts kicked in, and he dodged backwards, then gasped and jumped even further away when the lion moved into a whirling strike, greatsword just narrowly grazing against the canine's cuirass. Its blade still left a noticeable gash in the middle of the metal plating.
Thane quickly regained his footing, gripping his longsword with both paws and pouncing towards the king, swinging upwards. A clang sounded out as the blade hit the feline's breastplate, and the warrior flinched, shrinking back a bit; the king snarled and moved to counter, bending an elbow and swinging sideways. Thane hastily parried the blow, the greatsword glancing off of his own weapon... and then he sucked in a breath, eyes widening, when his foe followed up with a much wider slash.
The hit collided with the swordswolf's armor again, the sheer force behind the blow sending him skidding across the tile. He grit his teeth, a sudden ache pulsing through his back from the impact, and his ears flattening from the deafening noise. After a second, he narrowly opened his eyes, staring at the lion slowly walking towards him, barely even fazed. Out of the corner of his vision, the wolf saw Sana sidling up against the wall, holding a Spirit Stone to her staff and chanting urgently.
"Sire," Thane muttered, picking himself up and readying his blade, bouncing gently on the tips of his footpaws. The king stopped when he saw the wolf rise, bending his knees and staring, his eyes glowing a vibrant violet color. Stripes of Rot curled and weaved their way through his foe's fur, and Thane couldn't help but grimace, rubbing at the gash in his armor. "How could you let this happen?"
The feline didn't offer an answer, instead waiting for a couple more moments. Then, he pushed off the ground, gripping one end of his blade's crossguard and launching forward into a heavy stab. The wolf hastily sidestepped out of the way, however, taking a quick jab at his foe's ankles in return. The king stumbled, letting out a growl of pain as he hunched over, and Thane smiled grimly, slipping behind the king and landing a couple slashes on his back, cutting through his fur-lined coat with ease. Bringing his arms up, he tightened his grip, putting his weight into a downward slash that was aimed right for the lion's head.
The king lashed an arm out, grabbing the runed longsword by its blade, holding it back with a single paw.
Thane winced, barely stopping himself from knocking his head, and he looked up at his monarch with a nervous glare, gritting his teeth nervously as he struggled to free his weapon from the lion's grasp. Said lion chuckled, blood beginning to trickle down from his palm as the sword dug deep, and he looked over his shoulder, a sneering, devilish smile on his muzzle.
"Nhhehah... you really think something like that is enough to kill ME!?" Thane's jaw dropped when he suddenly felt his footpaws leave the floor, and he futilely kicked out at the king, earning a roar in the face for his trouble. The wolf scrunched his face up, narrowly holding on as the feline stood up, reared back, and flung him away like a stick, sending him flying through the air.
Bracing himself instinctively, the warrior's heart pounded in his chest as he hurtled across the throne room; pain still stabbed through his nerves when he slammed headfirst into the ground, his limbs briefly going limp as he tossed and tumbled about. Abruptly, Thane bumped to a stop against something much softer than tile flooring, and he groaned, dizziness clouding his mind as he weakly looked up at a fuzzy brown figure. She crouched down and gingerly rubbed at his head in the meantime, and soon enough, his vision cleared, looking up at Sana, and the Spirit Stone floating just above her. "Agh... d-dammit-"
"Shh, Thane, hang on...!" Sana whispered almost-inaudibly, anxiously rooting through her medical satchels, a few bandages spilling out as she yanked a small vial of red liquid out. Uncorking the bottle, she jammed it in front of the wolf's lips, propping his head up with the end of the Wyldfire Staff as she looked up at the king, who was jogging towards them. "Quickly, he's coming...!"
"You really thought you could usurp my throne, fools!?" The lion snapped, holding his wounded paw against his midriff, dragging his greatsword on the floor, and he stomped up the steps, swiveling on his heels to cleave the pair of heroes in two. "The penalty for high treason is death!"
"No... no!" Sana cried, her mind racing as Thane gulped down the bottle of wyldsap, and she scooted to the side, thrusting her paws towards the king with all her might, a desperate scream escaping from her throat as colorful sunlight glared off of her foe's blade. "Scudo!"
The Wyldfire Staff shined fiercely, as if to combat the corruption standing mere inches away from it, and magic suddenly erupted from the three dragon heads, a green-glowing bubble shimmering to life around the wolf and bear. The king's sword smashed against the magical shield – and stopped.
The king bellowed incoherently, furrowing his brow as he grappled with his own weapon, gripping its handle with all his strength as he tried in vain to cut through the barrier. Sana stared, completely dumbfounded, for a second or two, arcane energy flowing from her paws and into the shield, but she quickly peered down at her friend when she heard him grumble and shift on her lap.
"Ugh... S-Sana?" Thane mumbled, blinking a few times, and then his senses seemed to jolt back to life all at once; he hastily sat up, scrambling for his sword and glancing around... then flinching when he saw the king standing so close to them. "Wh-what the-!?"
"Thane, I can't hold much longer-!" The druidess inhaled heavily when the king stepped back and slashed again, this time directly down onto them; without the shield, it would have split her skull outright, and the thought sent a shudder down the wolf's spine. Thane scooted off of his friend's lap, squatting low and holding his sword at his side. "Please-!"
"You..." Thane said, a surge of adrenaline pumping through his veins, and he gripped his longsword tight, digging his footpaws into the floor and summoning all of his strength as he stabbed right for the lion emblem in the center of the feline's breastplate. The warrior let out a battlecry when the tip of his blade stuck through the barrier, some of its magic lingering on the runes, and smashed right into the center of the king's armor. "Don't you dare hurt my friend!"
Not a split-second later, the longsword pierced through the breastplate with a sharp crunch, the sheer momentum of the thrust making Thane stand up as it jabbed through the golden metal, and the lion's eyes widened, his mindless malice morphing into abject shock and pain. The king staggered backwards, his tangled mane shaking over his shoulders and down his chest, and Thane took a deep gulp of air, ignoring his aching bruises and sharp pains as he raised his sword again.
"Sana, go!" He barked, tail wagging as he stood tall in front of her, and the brown bear picked herself up, looking inside her friend's rucksack, one final Spirit Stone glowing faintly within. "You can do it! We can do it!"
Thane kicked off, not even hearing his friend reply as he dashed towards the king; the lion shook himself back to reality just in time to spot the silver-furred canine, and he brought his bleeding paw up to the hole in his armor. Dragging his greatsword up off of the floor, he awkwardly swiped sideways, taking a shaky step to try and keep his balance.
Raising his elbows, Thane held his sword ahead to deflect the blow, and he took a defensive stance when their weapons met, sparks flying off the clashing metal. Both the warrior and the king stared each other down, corrupted violet eyes meeting earnest golden ones... and then Thane lashed out with a footpaw, landing a swift boot to the lion's unstable leg.
"Gyarrgh-!" The king howled in surprise, nearly falling over as he yanked his arm away from the wolf, and Thane followed up his kick with a hefty swing, the flat of his blade smacking loudly against his foe's throat. The lion wobbled backwards into the center of the throne room, stabbing his greatsword into the floor to keep himself upright. His chest heaved in pain, his breathing going ragged, blood smearing down his breastplate as he let his gouged paw drop back to his side. "Rrgh... ghuheh..."
Thane gripped his sword tight, ready for anything, but he gasped when he saw a few more lines of red down from the king's underrobe, his chest wound leaking within his golden armor. Unearthly sounds echoed in from the rest of the castle, screeches, caws and screams setting the wolf on edge, and he briefly rubbed at his own chest, his fur stinging behind the gash in his armor.
"Sacro, Wyld, Pietre-" The wolf's ears twitched, and he glanced over at his companion, the brown bear standing near the wall again, chanting loudly – the four Spirit Stones rose higher and higher into the air, glowing brighter and brighter. The king finally seemed to notice the lights, twisting this way and that when he saw the stones, a feral, gurgling growl escaping his maw as bursts of magic erupted from the Wyldfire Staff, flying up and shattering the ceiling. "Purifi, Anima, Spirito!"
Bolts of lightning struck forth from the heavens, landing on the Spirit Stones; the four points on the floor shined brightly, and with a glittering flourish, a swirling, elegant pattern began to draw itself atop the checkered tiles. The symbol of a great tree started to take form, with the king standing right in the middle. More lightning came down, striking here and there as the ritual continued, and Thane stumbled a couple steps away, eventually ducking his head and flattening his ears when a gargantuan bolt struck the king dead-on. Crashes echoed throughout the chamber, and only the king's howl of agony managed to rise above the noise.
For a while, there was nothing. Seconds turned to minutes. The final thunderclap lingered, bouncing off the walls and ringing through the gaps in the windows.
Then, after what seemed like ages, Thane squinted his eyes open, bringing his arms down and looking out into the throne room again.
The ritual had utterly demolished the ceiling, chunks of rock having shattered across the floor, and the Spirit Stones lay amidst the rubble. They no longer glowed with power, now looking just as dull and gray as any other common stone. Sana sat near the wall, covering herself with her green cloak, and the king knelt low in the middle of the room, his breathing getting more and more uneven. "I..."
Thane opened his mouth to speak, but paused when the lion turned and looked right at him. The wolf's heart skipped a beat when he noticed the king's eyes: blue, cloudy, and free of the Rot.
"I'm..." The lion murmured with the last of his strength, crumpling over and passing away.
Everything was ruined.
Screams of terror filled the air as flames rose up towards the clouds, licking over houses and spreading across the small village, fleeing figures hazily silhouetted against the blaze as they scrambled to escape. Golden-armored knights chased after the various goodbeasts, halberds drawn and heads bowed, and a flock of ravens swooped across the overcast sky, crowing and cawing as they went. Those who hadn't managed to escape simply cried out, for the guards, for a hero, to the Wyld itself for help, unable to do anything but sit and pray as the fire ate away at the houses, bit by bit.
Mercurio stared in quiet disbelief at the chaos ravaging the town, watching everything move in slow-motion, every scream, every flash of light and crackling pop sending a searing ache through his forehead. His small red mantle fluttered in the wind as a gale blew in, and he tugged on his rose-shaped brooch around his dressy clothes, inhaling hrashly when a stabbing pain tore through his arm.
"What...?" Drawing his paw out, he hastily yanked his glove off, staring at the dark purple stripes that wove their way through his fur. Something twisted in the pit of his stomach – but when he looked back up at the blazing town, it was gone, having been replaced by complete and utter darkness. The rogue narrowed his eyes, reflexively reaching for his hip as he peered into the abyss... and then a pair of hellish pupils opened up in front of him. "Wh-What in the world-!?"
"It was you..." A cacophony of voices spoke, some young, some old, some so distorted that it was difficult to tell. Mercurio hobbled backwards in fright, letting out an uncharacteristic squeak, and he drew a hidden dagger from his belt, holding the knife out towards the strange creature. "You did this... you did this!"
"What!? No!" The rat yelled back, breath hitching as confusion started to well up within him; he frowned deeply when the creature's eyes began to move, slowly circling around him, more and more eyes opening and staring him down all the while. "All I wanted was to help Thane investigate the king's illness! The soldiers were... searching... for..."
"You...!" Came another hiss, and he spun around to face the voice that spoke up behind him, only to be met by more eyes, their violet glow not even able to illuminate the empty void. "You!"
The shadowy Banes all cried out at once, repeating themselves over and over as they stared at the rat, unblinking and unfettered. Mercurio trembled, whipping his head – and his dagger – this way and that, baring his fangs at the unsettling monsters, even as they did nothing but crow at him.
"No!" He yelled, yanking his Rot-infested paw back under his mantle, pouncing forward and taking a swipe. All he managed to cut was thin air, as the Banes seemed to move along with him. The rat's footpaws shook, and a crushing weight slowly began to beat down on him, forcing him to his knees in panic. "No! It wasn't me... no-!"
Mercurio's eyes shot open, and he lay still, gasping for breath as he stared up at the ceiling. Gentle candlelight flickered on the blurry, wooden planks, and the faint scents of fresh bread and hot rot wine wafted into the room from elsewhere. Taking gulp after gulp of air, he then sighed in relief, hysteria quickly evaporating as realization hit him. Lightly grasping at the worn bedsheets – he wasn't wearing his gloves, he noticed – the rat groaned, groggily blinking a few times to try and clear his vision. "It... it was just a dream..."
"So the scoundrel wakes after all," An old, gravelly voice replied, rising above the muffled sounds of the rest of the tavern. "All the signs told me that you were done for. I'm surprised you made it... hehehe."
The short, raspy chuckle set the rogue right back on edge, and he slowly glanced around the room, narrowing his eyes when he saw an older, sore-riddled rat standing at a desk a few paces away. He was clad in a red mask and dark robe, holding a long torchstaff in one paw and jingling a couple bony baubles with his other paw. As Mercurio slowly sat up, the mangy rat turned to look at him, flashing him an unsettling smile; the rogue bit the inside of his cheek as he stared into the mask's eyes, unable to tell whether his savior was friendly or faking.
"Who are you? And where am I?" The red-cloaked rogue carefully, subtly reached for his the sabre on his hip – only to grasp at nothing instead. His nose twitched for a split-second, and the masked rat laughed at the sight, looping his bangles back around his neck.
"Just an old priest passing through Blueberry, that's all..." The seer answered cryptically, glancing away for a moment and bringing a paw up to his snout, clearing his throat before calling out. "Er-hem, whirlwind, come. Your friend is awake!"
"Eh...?" Mercurio quirked a brow at the odd nickname... and then his mouth curled into a lopsided smile when a third, hooded rat stepped out of the shadows, pulling her assassin's garb tighter as she ambled over to him, the frown on her face deepening with every step. The rogue licked his dry lips and put on his most honeyed voice, hoping inwardly that it would hide his awkwardness. "Zosha. I never took you for the type to watch over me while I slept."
"I was the one making sure nobody came hunting for a former traitor to the crown," She snapped back without missing a beat, her tail snaking from side to side as she stared him down, and she knit her brows, drawing one of her blades and giving it a few idle twirls. "Thank Sargon for his bedside manner if you really wish to. Without him, you wouldn't have survived through the past few nights."
"Truly? Hrm..." The rogue cocked his head thoughtfully, looking down at the veins of Rot that lined his palm, gently tracing a claw down his arm. The wound from the King's blood pact had long since healed, but a scar still remained. "Wait, a former traitor? The Mad King actually pardoned me?"
"The Mad King? The Mad King is dead, hahahaa!" The aging rodent suddenly exclaimed, prompting Mercurio to recoil in shock, his eyes going as wide as saucers. Sargon cackled to himself for a few seconds, then calmed himself down, slamming the bottom of his torch against the floorboards a couple times. "He has passed on to the Great Forest, to beyond the Veil. No longer shall Armello wither under his tyranny."
"Whaaat?" The rogue hastily hopped out of his bed, thumping down onto the tavern floor, gritting his teeth when an ache rippled up his legs. He teetered for a brief moment, then dug his heels in, looking back and forth between the other two rats as he spoke up. The king was dead...? He no longer had to deal with his insane proclamations? "Then... Thane did it!?"
"A great battle took place at the royal palace just last morning. Apparently, a couple of well-meaning heroes cleansed His Majesty of the Rot, so he could die in peace. Others mounted a great battle against a number of Banes," Zosha explained, glancing out the room's single, solitary window. Mercurio followed her gaze, slowly walking over to the glass pane and peering outside. A heavy mist was rolling into the quaint village, the moon slowly rising above the thatch-roof house, its soft, tranquil light doing little to lift the fog. Far, far away, the palace was out there, somewhere. "Already, a great power vacuum begins to form... the Night Mother will certainly keep me busy."
"Always with your Night Mother business..." Mercurio couldn't help but chuckle, turning back around to face the assassin, but he hastily shied away when she pretended to flick her knife at him, a sharp smirk plastered on her snout. Shrugging, the rogue tugged on his rose-shaped brooch, shooting Zosha a disarming wink and a wiggle of his whiskers. "I suppose that means I'm no longer the royal advisor now, am I?"
She snorted indignantly in response. "For someone who nearly shook himself to death in the forest a few nights ago, you're acting chipper."
"Yes, well, the lion's share of my problems are behind me now," The rogue replied – Zosha wrinkled her nose when the joke sank in – and he peered down at his infected hand for a second or two, watching as the dark stripes wriggled their way across his wrist, as if they had a mind of their own. He nodded firmly, then glanced over at the desk, striding over and snatching his equipment up, hooking his sabre to his belt and pulling on his gloves. "Besides, now I have a new job to start working on."
"You want to cure yourself, then?" The female rodent correctly guessed, and she put her paws on her hips, one of her eyebrows quirking upward. "Mercurio, the king up and died after he was purified. What makes you think you can survive it?"
"Hehe... I have something he didn't." The red-cloaked rat curled his fists tight. Turning around, he nodded at both Zosha and Sargon, feeling a determined warmth spread through his chest. "Spirit."