((Well, here it is. Another ending and the longest chapter I have ever written. I hate endings. But this one was…eh…fun. I do have a feeling some people aren't going to like how much I left hanging…I'll admit it is pretty much like I just cut the story off whether it was appropriate or not. But at least I'm writing a sequel. If I was feeling particularly evil, I wouldn't even do that. So thanks for reading.
The third part of this trilogy is still untitled and will be up…eventually. The good news is that, originally, this whole soon-to-be trilogy thing started out with what's going to end up as the third part. I pretty much started writing that, got all confused on who was supposed to have done what, and went back to write down some notes on each character's past and how they all related to each other. That's how Vengeance Born came about, and then it got split into two and, finally, here am I where I started. So I pretty much know how I'm going to write everything (having written half of it a few years ago) I just have to work out a few details…like the title.))
Something whispered in the back of her mind. A quiet urging, a gentle suggestion. Her conscience, she realized. What little tatters of it she had left, lifting itself up to protest one last time. It told her to go, to just walk away. To leave.
But it was smothered.
Sade was dead. Dead. Or, at least, dying. She could see it in the shallow, weak way he was breathing. His eyes were narrowed slightly; his body was limp. Slowly, he looked at her.
And smiled. It was the first real smile she had ever seen. His smile grew, and he relaxed against the rocks.
Slowly, his smile faded.
His eyes blinked closed…and did not open.
She shuddered, felt a scream crawling up her throat, felt the bloodwrath bursting into her veins, felt a murderous rampage swirling around in her heart…and then…then she stopped.
"What is she doing?"
"She…she's changing it."
"I thought you said that was impossible."
Everything she had dreamed, so far, had been true. So…so in the dream she killed Darkclaw, and then Root, then…then Sade. Sade who she had thought was dead. But he wasn't…
Slowly, almost fearfully, she felt for a pulse. She knew what would happen if there wasn't one…but what would she do if there was one?
And there it was…his heartbeat, slow but stable. He's alive…
She stared at Sade's face and wondered if this changed anything. The bloodwrath still boiled painfully in her belly, screaming for murder. What she had seen in her dream was her destiny, she knew it was. It was who she was supposed to be. Who the world had made her, had needed her to be. It was all she ever could be…
It became painfully clear to her in that tiny moment of thought that there was absolutely no freedom in life. Something was running this world, ruling her fate, and it wasn't her. She was not in control. There was nothing she could do but go along with her destiny like a good little slave.
No. A hiss, dark and angry and powerful. No.
Redsplash frowned, startled by this rebellion in her mind. She'd already decided. She knew what she had to do, what she was meant to do.
NO! I was a slave once, I won't be again. She snarled involuntarily, feeling the cool of defiance drown out the heat of wrath. She would not be a toy, not be a slave.
It occurred to her that by changing fate she might destroy the world, but, at the moment, it felt to her that it was her world to destroy. She'd been fate's plaything long enough…let it be hers now.
She stood slowly and looked around the battlefield. There was very little battle left. Off in the distance, silhouettes of hares retreated. It seemed the great army of Salamandastron was fleeing, having seen their leader die. She wondered where they were going.
Her eyes fell on Sade. She noticed, for the first time, that he was looking at her again. His eyes were barely open, and his gaze was slightly dulled, but he was looking directly at her.
"C'mon, Sade," she breathed, "what d'you say we pay our friend the sober squirrel a visit?
Root had just finished an emergency amputation on a thankfully unconscious rat when Redsplash entered the tent. She was carrying Sade and dripping blood. It was not immediately apparent if the blood was hers or someone else's. The only truly visible thing was the axe sticking out of Sade's chest.
Redsplash seemed to take an eternity looking around, and then lurched her way over to one of the empty cots. And, standing over it, she collapsed, going completely limp.
Sade fell and hit the cot hard, his eyes rolling and his mouth clamping shut.
Root bounded over the groaning wounded and the silent corpses, nearly ramming straight into Redsplash who, despite her collapse, was still awake. She stared blearily up at the tent canopy and then held a paw up, considering it. It was drenched in blood.
"Red," Root snapped, slapping at her face in an effort to catch her attention. "Red, what's wrong with you?"
She looked at him as if trying to remember who he was. Her eyes narrowed. "Redsplash." She argued crossly.
"Right, yes, Redsplash." Root agreed, viciously annoyed. But if she can still be an idiot, it means she's not dead, at least. "What's wrong?"
"Damn bunny had a mace." Redsplash told him. "Got my ribs. Can see the bone."
Root glanced down at her ribs and found her armor ripped and her skin torn. But the wound wasn't deep enough to show bone. "There's no bone, Redsplash."
She looked at him, her eyes focusing slowly, an expression of shocked confusion on her face. "Why…why's that changing?" She murmured and then, promptly, lost consciousness.
Root snarled in frustration and grabbed the first blood-free creature he saw. "Watch her." He snapped, and the fox glanced uneasily at the otter. "I don't know how bad the wound is, but you'd better fix it."
The fox seemed about to refuse when he caught a glimpse of something over Root's shoulder. He yelped and promptly went to work lifting Redsplash off the floor.
Root turned to see Sade relaxing back against the cot, his eyes closed and lips tight. Whatever he'd just done, it was now costing him severely.
Root moved to crouch beside the otter's cot, staring at the axe. From the look of it, it had missed his heart. Well, it would have had to. Otherwise Sade would be dead.
Root's eyes flicked up to Sade's, and the squirrel saw a tiny stream of blood leaking from the otter's mouth. "What's that?" He demanded harshly. "Did you take a bite out of a sword?"
Sade's jaw unclenched and Root found himself gaping at the ruins of what had once been the otter's lip. Apparently, the otter had been biting it, and had nearly bitten straight through it.
Root winced and called two other healers over. They insisted quite heartily that, if they left their posts, vermin would die. Root insisted just as energetically that he didn't give a damn. They came.
He ordered one over to check on Redsplash and told the other to go get one of the mixes that would knock Sade out. After all, that axe was going to have to come out, and that kind of pain added to what he was already experiencing…well, Root wasn't at all sure Sade could even survive it.
But, when the healer returned, Sade refused to drink it. Not just refused to drink it, he managed to knock the drink out of the stoat's paws and didn't seem at all to care as it the ground soaked it up.
"What are you doing?" Root roared at him. "That would've sent you to sleep."
Sade paused and then looked up at the squirrel. His usually dulled voice was sharp and quiet. "I sleep," he said, "I die."
"You do not!" Root growled. "Look, I know what I'm doing."
"So do I." Sade replied.
"Look, mate, even if it does kill you, death'll be easier than this will." The stoat shared his opinion, glancing nervously at the axe.
"Don't give him ideas!" Root snarled.
Sade's eyes closed and his jaw tensed for a moment. Finally, he spoke. "I cannot die. I was ordered not to."
Root cast a look in the direction of Redsplash, who was currently hidden behind the fox and the weasel he'd sent to help her. "Well, at least one of you is growing some brains." He snapped before turning back to Sade. "Look, sleep won't kill you, and if you're not asleep when we pull that out…well, it won't be any fun for you, you know."
Sade stared at him and then, slowly, started to grin. With his maimed and still-bleeding lip, it looked, at best, demonic. "Just pull it out, squirrel." He commanded in that sharp and soft voice of his.
"It could kill you." Root snarled.
"I won't let it." Sade replied. "And if you do not do it now, I will have to pull it out myself."
Root stared at him. Why does this whole thing just scream of masochism?
Sade's eyes shut slowly, peacefully, and his mouth closed now on his upper lip. There wasn't enough skin left whole on his upper lip to get a grip on with his teeth.
Root, who had been cutting off a limb fifteen minutes ago, found himself shuddering at the thought of pulling out this axe. He paused, took a breath, and consoled himself. At least it's not you with the axe in your chest... These idiots ask too much of you.
"I'm gonna pull it out on the count of three, a'right, Sade?" No answer, not even a twitch.
"One…" Root counted, gripping the axe where it would be easiest to yank out. He took a deep, steadying breath. Knowing that Sade would unintentionally tense up right before three was called, he had to pull it out before that. So…two it was, then.
"Two!" He tugged. There was a moment of resistance, as he knew there would be, and then the weapon slithered out easily. The squirrel dropped it on the sand and turned his gaze on Sade.
The otter wasn't moving.
Redsplash was hanging between two very different worlds. Dreams and reality, she supposed. She knew only that she'd been kicked out of dreams rather quickly. The mouse had been standing there, staring at her as if he couldn't quite decide if she were real or not.
"Get her out of here, mouse." Fatefiend's voice echoed from far away, but the anger in it was still clearly evident.
The mouse looked up, confused, and Redsplash felt something like a kick to her stomach. She went flying backwards and had ended up here.
Waiting to wake up. She knew she should be awake. She wasn't, after all, still really asleep. But something was holding her here. Making her stay. Idly, she wondered if it was that drink Sade had given her, but what sense would that make?
She could hear someone talking.
"How long have they been asleep?"
"Six days now."
"You say they both fainted at the same time?"
"Yes. Pretty much. I think Redsplash was out before Sade, but within the same minute."
"Any idea what happened?"
"None. But whatever it is, it's healing them."
"Oh, like I have any idea how that works. It just is."
"Put the claws away, cat. And, for my sake, wash them. I'm sure you're awfully proud of yourself for killing all those hares with them, but it's just sick."
Redsplash woke up laughing.
"Sade! Sade, you'll be fine. It's just a little scratch! I promise!"
"Oy. Otter. Me and you need to have ourselves a talk."
"I'm guarding that otter of yours. Let me go."
"Oh, I know very well what you're doing! And if you were just guarding Redsplash, I'd have no problem with it! But you've got some strange concept of justice those psychotic Elders of yours forced down your throat and you've convinced yourself you've got to-"
"Silence. You cannot speak of them that way."
"Oh, I can't? And why not? Because if I say it aloud you'll realize you've been thinking it all this time?"
"Most your age fear death."
"Death has never worried me. Life is far more dangerous."
"What did they tell you?"
"That I am a demon and that I will destroy the world."
"I do not think we should trust him. His father-"
"Was his father. They are completely different creatures. We kept this one under strict watch. He is completely loyal to us."
"You know what she says about it."
"What? That you can never completely break someone to a system when they are as young as he is? She is insane and senile. It will work."
"But what if it fails?"
"Hopefully Havoak will be back by then. He will authorize his execution."
"Are you sure? They were very close."
"If we fail, Havoak will have him killed for his own good. Minds break..."
"What do you know of your father?"
"That he was a disgrace and a runaway."
"Have you threatened her?"
"Yes. Does that anger you?"
"Why would it? She is just my mother."
"Some would be angered."
"Some would thank their mothers for being born."
"You would not?"
"I would not."
"Does it not anger you that they killed your father?"
"No. He had to die. He was a betrayer."
"Do you know how they killed him?"
"There is only one way to execute a traitor. I know it."
"And do you know how long he lasted?"
"Seventeen days. The longest anyone ever has."
"Do you know that, if he had not left you behind, the Stone would belong to you?"
A ferret sat on stone steps, leaning against a gate. In his paws, he held the necklace from which hung the Stone of Khalidian, and he looked at it in a curious, detached sort of way. Slowly, he looked up, and his gaze met Sade's.
"This should've been yours, shouldn't it?" The ferret asked, holding up the Stone. "Not Red's."
"It belonged to Havoak." Sade replied, standing several paces away in very tall, very thick grass.
The ferret sighed, and he stood up, walking slowly towards him, the necklace still dangling from his paw. "I know very well who it belonged to. But that's not what I asked. It was meant for you at birth."
"I lost all claim to it when my father betrayed us."
The ferret stopped directly in front of him, looking at him thoughtfully, regretfully. "But that other one, Havoak, he was going to give it to you, wasn't he? It was supposed to go to you if he died, not to Red."
Sade nodded slowly. "That was the original plan."
"Strange thing about Red." The ferret grinned, though his eyes weren't at all happy. "She always manages to ruin everyone elses' lives without making hers any better."
Sade stared at him, refusing to let his gaze drop to the Stone that had passed him by twice.
"My name is Fatefiend." The ferret told him suddenly. "We've met before."
Sade's eyes narrowed and then, slowly, he nodded. "You're the one that started this whole thing."
"'fraid I did." Fatefiend agreed. "And I won't apologize. Better to live a day feeling pain than a thousand feeling nothing."
Sade's eyes narrowed as he felt something tugging at him. The ferret turned, as if hearing someone calling, and his gaze settled on the gate. A grimace of distaste twisted the ferret's mouth.
Sade brushed past him, following the insistent tug, and came to a stop on the grass right before the stone steps. The ferret had somehow managed to move without moving and was now sitting where he had been before, on the steps, still holding the necklace, still looking dejected and almost nostalgic.
"How did you…" Sade looked over his shoulder in confusion, but the ferret had really managed to disappear and reappear. There were no twins or tricks.
"Benefit o' bein' dead, mate." Fatefiend told him quietly, eyes glued on the necklace.
Sade felt the tug again, though this time it was much more like a voice calling his name. A face seemed to shimmer on the wood. Havoak, he thought.
His paw reached out-
"You go in there, mate, and there's no comin' back." The ferret warned softly. "Not that you haven't earned the rest. But I won't have you goin' in without knowin' what you're gettin' yourself into."
Sade froze. "If I go…I will be dead?"
"You're dead enough now as it is." Fatefiend retorted. "But you go in there, an' there's no hope of recovery."
Sade stared at the gate, listened to Havoak and death calling him, and then, slowly, let his paw drop. He let out the breath he'd been holding and sat carefully on the ancient steps.
"How long will I have to wait here?" He asked, knowing he couldn't wake himself up. He had already tried.
"Dunno, mate. 's not up to me." The ferret looked up, staring at him. "An' time doesn't move like it should out here. Could be a few minutes down there and seem like a few seasons up here. Could be the opposite."
"Where am I?" Sade asked, not recognizing this place from any of the stories he'd heard about near-death experiences. "I do not know this place."
"Ah, well, it's a newly constructed gate. So you shouldn't know it. There's only been three here before you. One of which you know, one of which you will know, and one of which…" The ferret frowned lightly, as if unsure if he should reveal any more. He shrugged lightly. "One of which is your brother."
Sade stared at him. "How can it be newly constructed if my brother was here? One of your time's lapses?"
Fatefiend looked momentarily confused and then shook his head. "Nah, mate, wrong brother."
Sade's eyes widened. "I have another brother?"
Fatefiend hesitated and then nodded slowly. "Yes. He's-"
Sade's paw shot out and grabbed hold of the creature leaning over him, Root. "Put me to sleep." He ordered. "Now."
"From one extreme to the next with you, I swear." Root snapped, carefully disengaging himself from Sade's grip. "And I can't put you to sleep. We're out of the potion to do so."
"Then hit me over the head." Sade demanded, ignoring the look of shock on the squirrel's face. "I have to go back."
"Back where?" A voice asked.
Sade twisted his head to see Redsplash propped up on several pillows, on a cot right next to his. She seemed pale and weak, but still very much the arrogant creature she was. "Back to that ferret." Sade answered.
"What ferret?" Redsplash's eyes flickered with too many emotions to count. The most prominent seemed to be pain.
Redsplash hissed and pointedly settled back against the pillows. "If he won't talk to me, he doesn't get the chance to talk to you. Stay awake with me, Sade."
Sade's upper lip drew back in a snarl. "As nice as it would be to revel in your company, Carrier, I have just been informed of something rather important and would like to get back to it."
"Did ya hear that, Root?" Redsplash inquired, her voice strained but pointed. "Sarcasm. From the emotionless wonder."
"Oh, I heard." Root replied, though he seemed much less amused. "And I think that, since he did take an axe to the chest for you, you ought to be a bit more polite to him."
Redsplash frowned at Root in disgust. "Fine," she grumped, "take his side. Not like I'm seriously wounded, too, or anything. Not like I was attacked by a mace or anything."
"That," Root retorted, "was entirely the fault of your own stupidity."
"Oh, an' him jumpin' in front of an axe isn't stupid?"
"There's a difference between noble stupidity and just plain idiotic stupidity." Root informed her. "And Sade, we have nothing to put you to sleep with. There's nothing I can do."
"Hit me," Sade snapped, "over the head."
"And risk you going into another coma?" Root demanded briskly. "No, thank you, I don't think I will. I have other idiots to look after." And he bounded off, bushy tail waving.
"I hate it when he thinks he has a purpose in life." Redsplash told Sade darkly. "Y'know," she added thoughtfully, "I think he's been drinking again."
Sade ignored her.
"So…" Redsplash started. "What did my old buddy Fatefiend have to say?"
"He said I had a brother."
Redsplash paused for a long time, apparently thinking this over. "I'm guessing you weren't aware of this?"
"Not that I had two." Sade's eyes closed. "I wonder if he's alive."
"I never had any siblings." Redsplash told him. He glanced at her, but she had suddenly discovered the ceiling and seemed entranced by it. "Never."
He wondered why she was lying.
"They're awake, then?" Darkclaw demanded as soon as Root walked in. "Both of them?"
Root scowled at him, a bit upset by the fact that the wildcat already knew the news he'd come all the way across camp to tell him. "Yes."
Darkclaw nodded and frowned lightly, looking thoughtful. "And how is Sade?"
Root shot him a suspicious look, wondering if the wildcat already knew this little tidbit as well. Finally, deciding he didn't, the squirrel shrugged. "I honestly don't know."
The cat's eyes narrowed warningly. Root noticed that the longer Darkclaw sat in a position of power, the crankier he got. "What do you mean you don't know? Were you not just in there speaking with him?"
"Ya caught me, cat. I was." Root, in response to Darkclaw's growing irritability, had found himself becoming more and more sarcastic and, sometimes, blatantly defiant. He supposed, to his infinite horror, it was Redsplash's charm rubbing off on him.
Darkclaw growled. Not with very much anger, or even real annoyance, but just enough to remind Root who, out of the both of them, was the flesh-eating maniac.
Root sighed and sat down on the chair facing Darkclaw's. "I'm not quite sure the otter was in a coma." He admitted finally.
"Well, I mean, he was unresponsive and everything, but I'm not sure why." Root paused, trying to arrange his tired thoughts.
"Perhaps it has something to do with a rather large axe suddenly splitting him open." Darkclaw suggested darkly.
"Doesn't explain the healing."
"Seems to me that all the energy Sade would've used if he'd been runnin' around bein' his stupid self went to work on that gaping hole in his chest." Root informed him dryly. "But bodies don't just distribute their energy like that. There's no way you can consciously decide to sleep for seven days and use all your strength to recuperate. It's not possible."
"Tell me, squirrel, is it possible for an otter to escape the Nameless One twice?" Darkclaw inquired idly, examining his freshly sharpened claws.
"No." Root frowned. "Yes." He corrected himself. "But what does that-"
"What does th-"
"Blindly follow a little rock like it's a god?"
"Just because some have no sense of-"
"Kill a badger?"
Root glared at him. "Whatever witty point you're trying to make, get to it. I have lives to look after, you know."
Darkclaw grinned with no real humor. "Stop assuming anything about otters, squirrel. It seems their entire species has descended into madness."
Sade was standing in a mist-covered graveyard, waiting. He didn't know who he was waiting for, only that he would continue waiting until the world died, if he had to. Finally, a patch of mist seemed to solidify into the basic outline of a ferret and then brush away, leaving behind Fatefiend lounging against a tall, winged statue.
"'ello." The ferret greeted.
Sade nodded to him, approaching slowly. "My brother-"
"Can't talk about him, mate." Fatefiend broke in, his tone warning. "Not allowed to. Turns out, you might meet him someday. Can't tamper with the future."
Sade stared at him. "Tell me." He commanded.
"Don't have to, mate." The ferret replied and hopped nimbly up onto a headstone, balancing perfectly. "An' don't start threatenin' me or anythin', cuz you'll just be wasting your time and my patience. Besides, we have more important things to talk about than your brother."
"What if I refuse to believe there is anything more important?"
"Then you'll have to trust in my believing there is." The ferret snorted and jumped to the next headstone, followed by the next. He moved around Sade in a large, meandering circle, his paws never seeming to miss a step. His balance was far too perfect for a living creature. "Though, I know you won't. You don't know how to trust. They'd never've thought to teach you that."
Sade's eyes narrowed slightly, and he refused to turn to keep up with the ferret. Let his back be exposed. What could a phantom do to him in this world of nightmares and dreams? "What are you talking about?"
The ferret froze, one footpaw lifted, prepared to jump. Slowly, he brought the foot back and stood on the headstone. "Y'know, I've never been much of a fan of merciless slaughter. Too, I dunno, artless for me. Not to mention I get all weak and fainty when blood's split." The shadowy glimmer in the ferret's eyes made Sade doubt very much the sight of blood disturbed him. "But I don't think I'd mind slaughterin' your tribe."
Sade's paws clenched into fists and his lip drew back in a snarl.
The ferret looked at him in disgust. "Look at you, mate. You know you hate them, and still you'd fight me to keep them safe. Their hooks go deep, don't they? I'm not sure you'll ever be free."
"I am free."
Fatefiend laughed. "None who would die for someone or something simply because they are told to will ever be free. Doesn't matter what they tell you, mate. A piece of land or a leader's life isn't worth your freedom. Protect 'em, die for 'em, sacrifice for 'em, but don't ever let them tell you that you have to." He looked like he had a very bad taste in the back of his throat and was trying not to gag. "Blind loyalty is just slavery with a pretty name."
"And a creature with no loyalties has no soul."
"Oh, is that what they told you?" Fatefiend murmured, dropping off the headstone and stalking closer, his posture screaming of repulsion and wrath. "That we have no souls? Does that make it easier to kill us, Sade? Look at me. I'm dead. This is not my body. Bodies bleed." The ferret held out a paw and a dagger materialized in it. Without pausing to blink, the ferret slashed his arm from wrist to elbow. The skin stitched closed immediately. Fatefiend's eyes closed and the dagger disappeared. "I had no loyalties to realm or authority while I was alive, Sade. If this is not my soul you see before you, then what is it?"
"You were loyal to the Carrier."
Fatefiend snorted, laughed. "Yes." He answered. "Yes, but she was my friend. It is a different kind of loyalty, when it is shared. Do you honestly think any of those bastard Elders of yours would give their lives for you?"
"Why would they?" Sade inquired. "They are superior. Their value is different."
The ferret laughed again. "Oh, yes," he agreed, somewhat out of breath. "Old, disgusting, tyrannical bastards are so much your superior."
Sade frowned. "Well, if they're not, then who is?"
"Who could be?" The ferret retorted. "You live, you die. Who doesn't?" The ferret paused and then, lunging lightly back up on the headstone, stared down at the mist-covered ground. "You know, you can't stay where you are."
"What do you mean?"
"Caught between what the Elders wanted you to be, and what you were actually supposed to be." The ferret sighed, as if the world on his shoulders was crushing his lungs. "If things weren't happening so damn fast, I'd just leave it as it is. Red's an idiot, but she's a decent idiot. You'd've turned out alright in the end. But my bastard father has too many troops and too many brilliant plans. We have no time for you to go gallivanting around for a few seasons and come to emotional health naturally."
"You are not making any sense."
Fatefiend stared down at him from the headstone. "Am I not? Well…I suppose you wouldn't understand." He frowned, looking down at the otter very intently, as if searching for something in particular. "Sade, you're too damn confused. You've managed to unlock that deep, dark place you stashed your emotions, and you can't put 'em back in. You think you're a failure because the Elders were too damn stupid to make a monster out of you."
"So, I've come to fix your mind." The ferret stepped down cautiously off the headstone.
"You can do that? You can make me how I was?"
Fatefiend sighed. "No. Even if I could, I would not. But I can turn you into what you should be…instead of this hybrid, middle-ground, torn-in-half disaster that you are now."
"So instead of making these emotions go away…you would do the opposite?"
"No help for it, mate. They're out now. Won't fit back in their tiny box. But I can give you control over them. If you can understand what you're feeling, it's much easier to ignore." The ferret winced. "Though it will take awhile to adjust. Perhaps hours, perhaps days."
Sade frowned. "Is there nothing else to do?"
"Well, it's gonna happen one way or the other. Mousie wants to let time do its job, but he still owes me from that last bet he lost." Fatefiend shrugged. "So you can either feel like you do, and much, much worse, for a few seasons, or you can get it over quick."
Sade waved a paw dismissively. "I don't have seasons for this nonsense."
Fatefiend nodded solemnly. He lifted his paws, and they began to glow white. "I'm not gonna lie to you like everyone else, mate. This is really gonna hurt."
A jolt like a lightening bolt slammed into him and Sade felt himself spiraling inwards, surrounded by white light that burned his eyes. It took him several long seconds to realize he was somehow in his own mind, yet getting vague hints of someone else's thoughts. From the blatant disgust at the orderliness of his mind, Sade knew it was Fatefiend. And the long pause over his recent memories, most notably the ones involving the Carrier, only reinforced his belief.
Finally, strangely, he found himself facing a heavy metal cage. A creature lay curled up in the corner of the cage, shivering violently and leaking blood. Sade blinked and the creature lunged forward, screaming. The entire cage gleamed with blood. He blinked again and there was laughter, and a strange bluish glow lighting the place.
"What is it?" Sade heard himself asking.
"It's you." Fatefiend retorted, suddenly appearing beside him. "Or part of you, anyway."
"It can't be." Sade denied as he blinked once more and the creature began shrieking and tearing its own flesh off.
"Well, it's rather insane at the moment." Fatefiend told him. "I'll do what I can. Stay there."
The ferret approached the cage quickly, effortlessly, though his paws touched no ground. "Oy, you." The ferret snapped, and the creature looked up, laughing rather maniacally. "I need you to calm yourself. Now."
The creature broke off mid-cackle and yawned, sprawling out on the cold metal and blinking tiredly.
Fatefiend stared at in, disturbed. "You're a rather suggestible character, aren't you?" He inquired. "Jump like a monkey."
The creature immediately began hopping around rather excitedly. Fatefiend started laughing and turned to point out the hilarity of it all to Sade, only to find Sade staring at him stonily. Immediately, Fatefiend cleared his throat and turned back to the creature, looking rather guilty.
"Calm." He ordered and the creature slowed, stopped jumping, and then just sat, staring. "Good." Fatefiend muttered and turned back to Sade. "Now, look, Sade, it's only so completely insane cuz you've left it locked in there for so long."
"I have not."
Fatefiend stared at him, an eyebrow raised. "Yes. You have." He argued. "Now, you need to let him go."
Sade began to get the most curiously queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. He wondered what it was. The creature in the cage began shrieking as if its guts were being pulled out by a pitchfork made of acid.
Fatefiend waved a paw, and both the queasy feeling and the creature quieted. "Well, at least you can feel something." He murmured. "Now, Sade, let him out."
"How do I-"
"I can't help you with that. I don't know how you locked it in. It's up to you to let him out."
Sade frowned and looked at the creature. Did he really want that thing free? The creature looked back at him. It was revolting, disgusting, pathetic.
But it was him.
Sade froze at the thought, wondering where it had come from. Wherever it came from, it brought fire.
It's mine. It's ME. No one should have the authority to cage it, not even myself.
The cage burst open, and the creature sprang out, lunged, and slammed straight into Sade's mind.
Sade decided, when he woke, that he despised cages. Not just despised them. He hated them. Loathed them. A raging, burning storm of fire was turning his guts to ashes, all because of his overwhelming hatred of cages.
Sade had never felt hatred before.
He found that he liked it very much.
He was up and off the cot before anyone even noticed. The first weapon he found, he took. Dim objections echoed in the back of his mind, but he didn't pause to figure out who was calling him. He had cages to destroy.
The prisoners who he hadn't tortured to death were still alive, still caged. They stared at him in abject horror and bitter hatred. But they didn't hate him half as much as he hated the cages that held them.
He tore the cages apart with the axe he'd grabbed and the mice and squirrels gaped in confusion. Finally, one leapt out and latched onto him, digging its teeth into his neck, seeking vengeance.
The squirrel went flying when Redsplash delivered a rather spectacular kick to its furry stomach. "Ingrate!" She accused.
"Run, my squirrely friends!" Root bellowed, weaving about drunkenly. "The mad one has set you free! Take advantage of it, while the insanity lasts!"
Most of the creatures took off at run. A few stayed where they were, eyeing Sade in a way that hinted they wanted their revenge for his cub killing spree.
Sade ignored those that stayed where they were, too caught up in watching the others run away. Escape. His mind hissed. No more cages. Never. Not for you, not for me. Never again.
Then the first of Darkclaw's dedicated minions tackled the slowest of Sade's liberated mob.
Something, a different kind of fire, exploded in Sade's throat, and he was off again. His axe broke the skull of the six or so minions that dared try to halt freedom.
The vermin reacted quickly and fled for safety. Sade caught the slowest one and punched him in the face until brains and blood splattered all the way up to his shoulder. He could feel himself screaming out gibberish, words that didn't go together, sentences that did not make sense. His mind reeled drunkenly, feasting on this choking fire that burned in his stomach and throat. Whatever it was that he had done, it…it was killing him.
"What are you doing?" A voice…curious, concerned…"There's no point in beating a corpse."
Sade dropped the dead body and turned his gaze on Redsplash. She stared at him, eyebrows raised and doubtful grimace on her face. For a moment, she was there, standing, staring, and then, with a flicker, she was gone.
Everything was dark. The sun had burned itself to ash, and there was no moon. Blindness hit like the axe had, and his knees collapsed, made not of muscle but of water. Then, slowly, something flared. A light, a fire, a pale shadow.
He look to it, found it writhing where Redsplash had been standing. Then, all over the landscape, more of these bizarre lights. Some were red, some yellow, some a queasy yellow-green, some flared briefly before fading out…the dying in the healer's tent.
He was flung upwards as if the earth had rejected him and he found himself staring down at all the creatures of the world, represented by these frail lights. They danced, they writhed, they faded, and they burned. The entire world was darkness that tried to worm its way into the lights that warred, weakly, against it.
It seemed so hopeless, so stupid. The darkness always won in the end. The lights only existed so that the darkness could play with them. Black fire devouring white flesh…
And then, with a deep impact that was felt rather than heard, a beacon flared up. Tinted blue with tiny veins of black and white, it lit up like a star. And, slowly, in answer, a dozen or so more flared. The darkness boiled and hissed, drawing away. The space between the darkness and the beacons filled with blood…and…more.
One space was filled with tears, one with betrayal, one with hope, one with redemption…and, one, with laughter. Laughter and defiance and hopelessness. Sade recognized the feel of it all, and realized who this was. It was him. But him if he had never been ruined by the Elders, him if he had been given freedom instead of shame.
His brother, then.
"This is the world, Sade. Some say your destiny is to destroy it."
Sade pushed the voice away, concentrated on the images, and then felt himself falling. He hit something that wasn't quite there, and felt sand in his mouth. A red-tinged blackness was crouched over him, and, if he squinted, he could see a blue-veined blackness where the heart should be.
He realized he had seen that color blue before…
"Sade!" A voice…irritated, irrational…"Wake up!"
Sade groaned weakly, marveling at such average reactions, and opened his eyes. He spat out sand. "I was not asleep."
"Then what were you doing?" Redsplash demanded.
Sade looked up at her and felt a darkness bubbling in his throat. Half a second later, it burst out of him, and he realized that he was laughing. Laughing…I'm…laughing. Strange…
He decided, quite abruptly, that he really didn't like it. This laughter made his ribs hurt and made him feel hollow, addicted, as if the only thing that mattered was this laughter. As if, somehow, it was going to make everything better. He stopped laughing and shoved the feeling away.
"I was hallucinating." He answered, his voice blank, emotionless. Normalcy…I think I might have missed you…
"Right." She looked at him suspiciously. "Well…I need you to help me with something…"
It Sade about an hour to recruit two hundred or so of the vermin, have them tie together four of the wagons in a square, and load the badger upon it. He then tied four long ropes to the first two wagons and divided the vermin up until there was an equal number on each rope. When Redsplash arrived, they had already tested to see if they could pull it, and found that they could.
Redsplash leapt up until the platform the wagon made and began pulling the arrows out of the badger. Sade disappeared, dismissed, and Redsplash ordered the vermin in a sickeningly familiar direction.
Root found her at sunset. She was sticking the arrows that were still stained red from the badger's blood in the dirt that covered his body. The squirrel found himself completely confused by this turn of events.
"You bury your victim by your best friend?" He asked.
She looked up at him, dirty and solemn. "I've decided, Root." She spoke these words as if they were important, as if they would change the world's spin.
"Decided what?" He asked warily.
"Decided what I want." She told him, crossing the last two arrows over what he supposed would be the badger's face.
"And what do you want, Red? Another massacre?" Because I don't think I have another one in me.
She could at him curiously and moved to lean against a large rock that had been placed over Fatefiend's grave. Her back was to Root, facing away from the grave, towards the sunset and the sea. "No, Root. That's not what I want."
She didn't yell at me for calling her Red. What does that mean? "What is it, then? What do you want?"
She sighed heavily, and scowled. It looked like she was afraid of being called stupid if she answered. "Peace…" She paused. "I've decided I want peace."
Strange to wish for peace while leaning against your friend's headstone and covered in the dirt of his killer's grave.
Peace…it was what he had wanted all along. But Redsplash seemed to have a special sort of magnetism to violence. He wondered if she really thought she would ever find peace after slaughtering the badger lord. "And where, Redsplash, d'you think we could find this peace?"
She sighed again, though wistfully instead of resentfully. "Redwall, Root. Where else?"
Root shivered suddenly, and he did not know why. "Redwall, Red? Do you think they would let us in?"
Redsplash glanced at him, and smiled an impish, defiant little smile. "Well, Root, if they don't, we could always start our own abbey. Y'know, make our own peace. Might be better that way, anyway, except I really wanna try their food."
Root snorted. "We could always break in and kidnap their cook."
Redsplash grinned. "Y'know…that's not a bad idea."
"No, Red. I was joking! It is a very bad idea!"
Redsplash smiled that same wicked grin and leapt to her feet. "Let's go, Root. The dead aren't as good as company as they used to be. I much prefer the living now."
They found Sade standing in the shadow of a tent. His fur was somehow darker, as if he had re-dyed it blacker than it had been before, and the blue designs were completely different. They seemed sharper now, more challenging and destructive. He informed them proudly that the one over his heart meant defiance and the one around his left eye meant resurrection. It seemed to both Root and Redsplash that he was completely different now, if only in small, strange ways.
He had stolen a long, black, hooded robe from the stores Aysini had left behind and more of the blue symbols slithered across the fabric. His eyes were bloodshot, and his shirt, pants, and boots were bloodstained. He looked, altogether, wonderfully demonic.
Redsplash told him that she was very proud of him. Root told him to stay away from cubs or risk scaring their hearts into stopping. Sade only stared, smirking so lightly it was almost impossible to notice.
They stole from the kitchens and pillaged the abandoned tents. By the time they were satisfied, they were all rich in resources, carrying enough food to feed them all the way to Redwall and back. Naturally, Sade carried the heaviest pack, Root carried the second heaviest, and Redsplash carried no pack at all. She was, she informed them, their leader and, as such, needed to be free to run away and abandon them at the slightest hint of danger.
Root was not amused, and it was impossible to tell if Sade was.
The three of them stopped outside of Darkclaw's tent for a moment to set it on fire and then took off running in the direction Redsplash had guessed would take them to Redwall.
The roaring of an enraged wildcat provided the perfect soundtrack to their getaway.
Fatefiend stared down at the image the birdbath projected. He didn't know what to make of it, couldn't understand the underlying meaning of it all.
"Perhaps you should just be glad the world isn't completely without hope." The mouse pointed out tiredly as he materialized beside him.
Fatefiend glanced up at him, noting the bloodshot eyes and the fatigued smile. "Maybe it is." The ferret argued. "How can you be so sure? Maybe this is just a delay. Just an interruption."
"Have faith, Fatefiend. After all, you were the one arguing all along that she wasn't as bad as we all thought she was. Why aren't you out telling us you told us so?"
Fatefiend scowled, turning away. He didn't know why he was acting the way he was. He wasn't at all sure if he even had a reason.
"Maybe you feel guilty."
Fatefiend snorted. "Guilty? Guilty for what?"
"For losing faith in her." The mouse sighed. "In the end, you knew she'd destroy the world. In the end, you were just as damning as the rest of us. But it was different for the rest of us. We never claimed to be her friend."
"I am still her friend, mouse." Fatefiend snarled.
The mouse looked away, staring off at the sun and wondering if it was rising or setting. "That's the thing about death, Fatefiend. The only friendships that survive it at the ones that are never questioned, never challenged. You abandoned her, or she drove you away. Can't you feel the link dying?"
Fatefiend turned on him, snarling. The mouse glanced up at him, unconcerned. "It's not true." Fatefiend accused. "I will always be her friend."
"Then why won't you talk to her anymore?"
"Because friends fight. We spent more of our time fighting than getting along. You know that."
"Aye, I know that. But I also know to fight someone, you have to acknowledge their existence." The mouse pointed out.
Fatefiend stared at him angrily and then disappeared, reappearing sitting on the stone steps. He held his head in his paws and then looked up. "So maybe our friendship is dying, mouse. Does that make you happy? You never liked her. You barely tolerate me. I was the only chance she had of getting in here. Does it make you happy to know I failed?"
"You know it doesn't, ferret. And if it helps, she had no chance of getting in here. The usual rules don't apply to hellions like her."
Fatefiend looked away. "I'm not sure the world is worth this, mouse. I'm not sure I give a damn anymore."
The mouse stared at him and then looked around. "Cheer up, Fatefiend. All is not lost, after all. Look around. Last time you were here, this place showed you a graveyard. Look at it now."
The ferret looked around reluctantly.
The long, wild grass was shorter now, tamer. The stone and gate were less cracked, still ancient but taken care of instead of abandoned. The bowl had turned into a birdbath, and the graves had disappeared entirely. A sun was half over the horizon, but it was impossible to tell if it was rising or setting. The entire place seemed sleepy, disconnected. He assumed it meant that there was nothing going on in the world of the living that significantly affected the world of the dead.
No apocalypse, then. But no resurrection, either.
The mouse was looking down at the birdbath. "This is an interesting picture." He observed.
Fatefiend moved to stare down at the image. It was frozen, the only time he has seen it do so without him ordering it to, and the reflection it was showing was…was damnably mystifying.
It showed Root, Redsplash, and Sade moving forward, away from the vermin camps. Smoke filled the air behind them from their recent fire, and moonlight blazed down on them as if specifically targeting these three.
Root was on the left, beside Redsplash, a doubtful sideways glance pointed at Redsplash. He had a flask out and was drinking from it so that it obscured half his face. His free paw was up in a strange kind of dismissive gesture, as if Redsplash had just done or said something he didn't think was funny at all.
Sade was on Redsplash's other side, and he looked especially demonic. Blue symbols blazed out oddly, glowing with the moon's light, and he carried a throwing dagger in his paw. His gaze was over Redsplash's shoulder, centered on a shadow behind them. His swords were strapped to his back, along with a heavy pack, and he did not seem to be having any trouble moving freely. To Fatefiend and the mouse, who could sense the emotions Sade hid, the madness within him disgusted the both of them.
And, behind them all, was the wildcat. All broadswords and bared fangs, he was stalking them. He was what Sade had been looking at, and he was clearly going to be the target of Sade's knife. But, just as clearly, the wildcat did not really intend to attack, at least not dangerously. At worst, he would maim. His interests did not involve death. The three of them were valued too highly for slaughter.
And, in the center of it all, was Redsplash. The catalyst. The badger-killer. She was grinning impishly at Root, and something in her posture suggested she was about to go for Root's flask.
Fatefiend stared at her and felt lost. This was the creature who was capable of being both monster and champion and, instead, was neither. This was the otter who could save the world or damn it but was only interested in using it. How could he ever have called her friend?
And why couldn't he still?
"Don't worry, Fatefiend. She doesn't even feel it."
Fatefiend bared his teeth and growled, splashing the water to destroy the image. "How would you know?"
"Because she's not the only one who's been abandoned."
Fatefiend concentrated carefully, choking these useless feelings until they faded to nothing. Slowly, he looked up at the mouse and smiled. "She's going to your territory next, mousie."
The mouse winced. "I know."
"Poor pitiful Redwall beasts. They won't know what to do."
The mouse's eyes darkened and, for a moment, he wore the exact expression Fatefiend did. "There is a darkness to the world these days, Fatefiend. Redwall hasn't escaped its taint. The problem is not that they won't know what to do, but that they will, and they will react too harshly, too viciously. We want to win this war, Fatefiend, but we can't become our enemy."
"Then maybe we won't win."
"It's not a war of creatures, Fatefiend. It is a war of ideas. If we covert to their ideas to beat them, then we have not won."
"Oh, and if they track down and murder each and every one of us, we have?" Fatefiend demanded.
The mouse sighed and turned away. "Sometimes, ferret, you really need to take your victories where you can."
"What victory? What victory could you possibly see here?"
The mouse looked down thoughtfully at the birdbath. It shimmered, rippled, and changed scenes.
"What is it, then? What do you want?"
"Peace…I've decided I want peace."
Fatefiend froze at the words and looked away. "So? So she says that she wants peace. She knows how to lie."
The mouse nodded slowly. "And I know how to sense lies. So would you, if you weren't so blinded by your own guilt."
"Ah, right. My guilt…"
"A feeling you will have to get past, if you are to continue betraying her."
"I'm not betraying her, I just know her!" Fatefiend stalked over to the birdbath, looked down at Redsplash sitting near his grave, and spat down at it. The image rippled, turned blood red, and disappeared. "She is not what you want her to be, mouse! She is what she is, and she cannot change that!"
"Ah," the mouse murmured, "so that's it. You fear this attempt at morality from your friend will destroy her."
Fatefiend turned away. "Don't read between every line, mouse. Sometimes there isn't anything there."
"But there is. Here, at least, there is an epic. You know she will not come here when she dies. You know where her soul belongs, and yet you hate her for this attempt at redemption."
"I do not hate her!" Fatefiend whirled around. "I hate that she's not good enough for you, and I hate that I am. I hate how you can decide not to include Adthe because he's not a squirrel, and how you're going to let that self-destructive squirrel friend of Redsplash's in knowing who he used to be! I hate you, and I absolutely despise that no matter who she tries to be she will NEVER be able to be the one everyone thinks she should be."
"Then you hate everything you cannot change. I've said before, ferret, you need to grow past your old connections and-"
Fatefiend punched the mouse in the face. The mouse was so unprepared his head snapped sideways on his neck and his body followed. The mouse was saved from a fall only by his still-superior reflexes.
"Don't you tell me what to do, mouse!" Fatefiend raged. "You have no idea what it's like to feel like this!"
The mouse stared at him, one paw lightly massaging his jaw. "You're an idiot, ferret, if you think I don't know what it's like to feel grief. I have watched this world for ten times the seasons you have been alive. If I know anything…I know grief."
"This isn't grief, mouse. I do not grieve for Redsplash, I hate for her. I would tear this world apart, would tear you apart, for her. But there is nothing I can do. And as I sit back with you and watch, you're going to use her like you use your warrior-puppet, and they're both going to die for it. Only, when your precious Luke arrives at the Gates, you'll welcome him. When Redsplash dies, you're going to look her in the eyes and tell her that she is too sullied, too broken to come in. You're going to send her to hell for a life you planned for her! You made her like this, mouse! How dare you blame her for it?"
"I did not make her this way!" The mouse retorted sharply. "I did not plan out her life! If I didn't intervene, if I didn't go to her as I went to Luke and to Laflen and to you, then that is all I did! I would never put someone in a situation like that just to watch them break! I am not your father."
Fatefiend's upper lip curled in disgust and contempt, while his eyes blazed with fury. "You truly believe you had nothing to do with her destruction? You truly believe you are blameless in her ruin?"
"I am, and I do."
"Then you are insane. I've looked in their pasts, mouse. I know whose was worse. Yes, fine, none of them were happy. But you watched what happened to Red, and you did nothing. You coddled Laflen like a crippled cub, but you just watched as Red cried in a dungeon because she was all alone. You didn't tell her that it was going to get better. You never warned her what could happen if she just gave in. You could've saved us all, mouse, and you just turned your back and let her soul die. And now you stand there and pretend like this could never be your fault. Like, if you had influenced her like you influenced Luke, she wouldn't be everything we need her to be. She wouldn't be so dead if you'd offered her a chance to live!"
The mouse stared at him, listening quietly, and then he shook his head. "Ferret, you of all creatures should know that no amount influence can save a damned soul."
Fatefiend looked very much like he'd like to punch the mouse again. But, instead, he just took a slow step backwards, towards the arch and the doorway. "You delusional idiot…her soul was never damned! You did what you did because you felt like gambling. You thought that if you let the world teach her pain, she would learn perseverance. If she was taught true hatred, she would learn the value of love. But you're a mouse. Mice know nothing about gambling!"
The mouse sighed. "What do you want, Fatefiend? Would you like me to admit to this? Would you like me to say that I made a mistake I can never apologize for? I tried to make a perfect hero, and…and it didn't work. I corrupted an innocent soul by looking the other way when it needed me most. I made a mistake, Fatefiend. But it wasn't just my mistake that made her the way she is. It was your father's cruelty, and her own blood's betrayal. It was her friendship with a ferret, and her vendetta with a badger. There are far too many forces at work here to blame me for what she is. Even if I had influenced her, can you honestly tell me you think it would have changed anything?"
"It might've changed something." Fatefiend remarked stubbornly and then, slowly, his anger seemed to drain away. He moved to lean heavily against the birdbath, and stared in at the image of Sade leaping in front of Fallen's axe. "It's not fair, mouse. Not fair that I got in here by one stupid act of heroism, and that she won't get in here no matter how many heroic acts she manages. It's all based on chance. If I had obeyed my father…if I hadn't been merciful…I would be where Redsplash is going. And maybe…" Fatefiend sighed, "maybe that would have been better…"
The mouse glanced at him sharply, surprised. "What makes you think that?"
Fatefiend smiled, but there was no happiness behind it. "Because then I'd be far too busy to think about things like this."