Bloodtooth was perched on the top of his pod, his talons digging into the thick papery material. He watched with satisfaction as the forest shadows grew longer and longer. It would be dark soon, the summer sun was almost gone. It would be midnight in a few scant hours.
He watched down below as some scroulies started to build up wood for a couple fires to see by and hopefully intimidate those the king of Oz sent. And if no one came, the fires would serve as light for a bit of fun.
Satisfied that everything was prepared he clawed back towards the entrance of his pad and jumped inside. "Remember this night." He said to his waiting lieutenants that lounged around his fire. "It will be night where we send a message to the Scarecrow King that we are not weak, and that we mean business."
A cheer went up. However, one stayed silent. Riptongue did not see any reason to celebrate.
Dorothy heard the noises, it sounded like ragged nails on a slate board. It made her imagine sharp piercing things in the darkness.
Was it midnight then? Were they going to come for her? No, apparently not. It must been soon though. She was left alone as she had been all day after that incident with Deadeye. She felt tired and weak. She had not eaten since the night before, a whole lifetime ago it seemed, and her stomach was pained with hunger.
She wished she knew what she could do. But Bloodtooth had already established that her situation was helpless. She was not sure what to expect, what to hope for. This will either be her last night ever or just a bad memory to put behind her.
Terryck walked through what had been unofficially dubbed "The Gauntlet" and inspected the work being done. Traps, such as nets or tied up stones, were being laid amongst the trees. Others were securing extra quivers of arrows and long spears. Everyone else was seeing to their own armor and weapons. There was not much talking through. Everyone was just too busy. It was getting dark and what was going to happen in a few short hours was much too important to mess up.
With a nod he left his underlings to their work and backtracked through some brush. He found Lily and Scarecrow with the two horses. Lily was already dressed and just making some finally adjustments. In the waning light of day, it was not convincing at all. But hopefully under the cover of darkness it would be just enough.
She did not seem very convinced yet though and stood there with Woodenhead picking at some thread. He motioned to the horse to give them some privacy and the war horse walked off a few feet away.
"Lily." The fox wanted to talk to her for a minute.
"Hey." She said dryly. She was still clearly upset at him, but her own insecurities softened the edge of her word.
"Look. I'm sorry for what I said back there on the boat. I-I didn't really mean to say stupid stuff like that. I was just under a lot of pressure and didn't want anyone else to get hurt. I over reacted. I know Dorothy is your friend so you want to help her. And I don't want to be , what did you say, a controlling jerk. I can't make any decision for you."
Lily did not look at him while he apologized, she just kept picking at the thread. But she was nodding. "I know." She finally said. "We've all been on edge. Even me." She finally looked at him. Her green eyes showed that she had forgiven him. "You had a fight with the king though didn't you."
Terryck looked over to where Scarecrow was adjusting some saddlebags on Star Chaser. "Was it so obvious?"
"Especially after our little spat. Yours is much worse though." She looked over at the king too and missed how Terryck was rubbing his throat at the memory. "Look, just try to make sure everything is alright before this starts okay?"
Terryck's ears drooped. "I don't think it will be until this is all over actually. I umm...I might not have a job anymore if this does not go how the king plans."
"Oh." Lily's eyes widened at the sudden admission, but she did not feel shocked by it. It was the logical thing to do, other king's would do even worse if they were in Scarecrow's position. "Well..." She was not actually planning on telling him right now, but she guessed that there really was no other time. "I don't have a job either."
Now it was Terryck's turn to look at her.
"I saw my father before we left." She felt a surprising lump in her throat, this was harder than she thought it would be. "The end result was that I rejected him. Rejected him and my position. I'm not a princess anymore." Her eyes pricked and she felt tears drip through her fur.
"Shhhh..." Terryck tried to soothe her, rubbing a gloved have over her cheek to wipe the tears away. "It will be better this way, you'll see." He smiled. "And I guess that means when you said you'd go back to Foxville you were just using an empty threat."
That got a slight chuckle out of her. "Yea, it was. I'm sorry about that." While she had been to angry at the time to care, she realized those words must have really hurt him.
"It's alright. We all did things today we regret." He pulled her in for an embrace. He thought back to the conversation days ago about placing more of the King's Guard at the palace. 'Really regret.'
Scarecrow checked Star Chaser's bridle for what must have been the hundredth time. "Do you know what is expected of you?"
Even though she had answered to the positive all day when asked, she still stood at attention, straight and tall, and answered with a firm. "Yes sir!"
The king circled around her, triple checking that everything was as it should be. He noticed that the mare was putting on a brave face, but she was actually terrified. She was not trained for battle, had never had to fight like Woodenhead. However, she was trained for speed, which was exactly what King Scarecrow wanted from her. The fastest horse with the most endurance, that's what was needed from her. With no small amount of luck she would not even have to fight.
"We will circle the scroulie copse." She continued. "And wait for the signal. With the bird men distracted we will make our move and get out of there as quickly as possible. We will circle around to meet back up at the river."
Scarecrow nodded. She seemed to understand well enough. His mind raced through contingency plans in case something did not go right. He hoped that Star Chasers was able to think on her hoofs or at least receptive to changes on the fly. But the most dangerous part was getting out of there. There would be a lot of chaos and their path could be cut off in the confusion. But such a problem had been discussed. Terryck was ordered not to linger, the king could make his own way back if need be. All he needed to do was follow the river, or the Yellow Brick Road. That's why it was important for Star Chaser to be ladened with the supplies. If they got back to the boat, Dorothy would have need them. If they didn't make, she would need them even more.
The darkness was settling fast, but it was not time for them to get into position. That would be the hardest part. Moving to where they needed to be through the brush without alerting the enemy would be difficult. And the proper position was only conjecture. He could not be certain where the scroulie leader would have Dorothy at midnight. But Terryck had not fought these things for years without knowing how they operated and how they thought. Their whole plan had an air of arrogance around it which would make them act in a predicable way. Scarecrow saw it too, their Aleksei heritage still showed strongly despite what their former country men insisted. Pride was a weakness.
"Your majesty?" Terryck's voice came from behind him. It was not the harsh clipped voice of someone just wanting to get more orders or confirm some part of the plan. It was quieter and apologetic.
Scarecrow was in little mood for idle chatter, especially from the fox. But they had a job to do. He waved Star Chaser away, best not to have their disagreement known, it would hurt the mission. "Yes?" He responded icily once she left.
Terryck winced. He knew this would not be easy, but Lily was right. They had to get this put behind them before they started, they might not get another chance. "I'm sorry." He said simply.
Scarecrow did not turn to face him, but inclined his head a little. He was listening.
Terryck was glad he did not have to look his king in the face, those blue eyes would have shut him up where he stood. But it was bad also, he could not judge his progress if he could not see the king. "I'm sorry I did not listen to your worries. You were right, I should have placed more agents to guard the ball. You are my king and it was not my place to disregard your suggestion." He knew part of the reason was that he had gotten too comfortable in his position. He was so used to giving security advice that he had waved off advice that was aimed at him. It was arrogant and he would try to be more subordinate in the future. "And I'm sorry about this morning." His mouth felt dry when he spoke. "I said a lot of things, I was angry, but I was mostly angry at myself. I had failed my duty." That he had projected that anger onto another subject was something better left unsaid.
Scarecrow was quiet a moment. "Understood." His voice had lost that icy edge, and while he might have still been unhappy, he sounded at least as if he accepted the apology.
Terryck breathed a sigh of relief. A weight had been lifted off his shoulder and now could concentrate better on the task at hand. "My people are nearly ready, they can be in position at a moment's notice."
"Very good." The king then let out a tired sigh and turned to face his guard. He rubbed the bridge of his nose as if he had a headache. "Tell me truthfully, do you think this will work?"
The fox clicked his tongue before speaking. "It could go many ways." He finally said.
"And yet you still follow me, have your Shadow Runners follow me?" He had been holding onto this insecurity all day. He tried to push it back, to concentrate on what had to be done. But he needed an answer and Terryck was the only one he could talk to now. He had to rescue Dorothy. That was certain. But how many good fighters would pay the price and never know the reason? It was a thought he dwelled on before battles and war, but somehow seemed more important now, when the stakes were more personal. Was he being selfish?
"Your people sire," The fox lowered his head in respect. "Will follow you to whatever end."
"To whatever end..." He repeated quietly to himself and nodded, confidence renewed. Yes, that was the right answer. "Have them finished the preparations, the time for action is nearly upon us."
Terryck couldn't help but smile. Now the king was sounding like his normal self again. "Yes sir!"
The lights glittered across the Emerald Palace like carefully placed jewels. Upstairs a group was watching the clock, wondering what was happening to their friends now. But in the lower levels others were wondering their own thoughts.
"Rosette?" Margot called out nervously. No one would stop and question her if she was caught snooping the halls, but it was best of no one caught her in the first place.
"Over here." Rosette responded by a window. The marchioness sounded more sure of herself than the princess. There was only a single candle to illuminate between them.
Margot joined her quickly. "What was it you wished to speak about?"
"We have to do something about Dorothy."
Margot nodded, what else could it be? "Such as?"
Rosette leaned on the window frame, part of her now obscured in shadow. "You noticed that her and the king were suddenly absent last night?"
"I prefer not to dwell on it."
"Neither do I. But it does mean that we now have to force our hand."
Margot tilted her head a little, a small venomous smile on her lips. "Our hand? Are you suggesting, perhaps, a truce?"
"For the time being. The enemy of my enemy is my friend after all. We take care of Dorothy and then we can get back to the way things used to be around here."
That was an intriguing proposition. "Take care of in a permanent sense I am assuming."
Rosette nodded. "It's the only way."
"But what about that count you've been seeing? What will he do?"
Rosette waved off the question. "Crombec is no longer useful to me. You won't have to worry about him."
"I better not." Margot did not what to have to keep looking over her should for some count who was too involved for his own good. "So, when? Is tomorrow too soon?"
"I would say so!" Rosette hissed. "People would be looking for her at the Opera. It would have to be the next day, when everyone is preoccupied."
"I'm sure this will go smoothly with out combined...talents."
In another part of the palace, another conversation was taking place, though in one of the old libraries rather than a drafty hall.
"You wished to see me your honor?" Howitzer said once he closed the door behind him.
The old dragon was laying before a desk covered in old books. From the wolf's standpoint they looked like old court records.
"Yes, thank you for seeing me so late." He motioned for the general to sit at one of the cushioned stools. "Do you recall what we spoke of last night?"
Howitzer took the seat and placed his forpaws at the edge of the desk. "I do. Have you discovered anything?"
"I may have." The judge said. "And it is something I do not like at all. Something very dangerous. I need more information before I am positive though. But to get that I would need a warrant and I can not give one towards a foreign dignitary without proof. You can imagine my predicament."
"I do. This is a delicate situation. Perhaps this proof could be found by someone who is not in the legal profession?"
"I am open to suggestions friend."
"Maids, while useful, are prone to gossip and a guard would be too noticeable. But maybe if one of the hunting dogs smelled something..."
The dragon nodded. "Of course I can not condone any illegal activity. But I daresay that if I am correct, then everyone in the palace is in danger. That is the only reason I would even suggest this course of action."
Howitzer nodded. "I understand. This will be handled with the discretion it deserves. And if you are wrong then no one will be the wiser. But if you're right..."
"Then we will know exactly what we are dealing with."
Iceclaw did not bother to be quiet when she was sent to fetch the prisoner. Her claws cut and scrapped the paper pod, causing Dorothy to look up expectantly.
The scroulie thought that Dorothy looked terrible. The lack of sleep and the venom under her skin made her look like death. Even if she was rescued she might not be truly saved. But the female did not feel any pity over her observation.
"Come on. It's time." She snapped.
Dorothy blinked weakly at her. The image of the scroulie swam and distorted in her vision. She felt as if her strength had been sapped and Iceclaw had to pull her up to her feet.
"I don't have time for this." Iceclaw growled as she dragged Dorothy along.
The movement seemed to remind Dorothy's limbs on how to work and she staggered along to the pod entrance. There was another pair of scroulies there waiting. Both where holding spears and the light from the bonfires down below gave them an eerily flickering look.
Dorothy was instructed to climb onto Iceclaw's back, the two escorts making sure she didn't try anything funny.
It was a good thing she held on tight as the female scroulie didn't so much fly down as just jump. Dorothy felt panicked as her stomach dropped for those few hundred feet. But Iceclaw landed without so much as a stumble. "Off. Now." She hissed to her passenger. While Bloodtooth might have spoke of it as an honor, Iceclaw found that being relegated to essentially a packhorse degrading.
The two escorts pried Dorothy off with more force than was necessary as the woman did not want to spend time in those dry musty feathers longer than necessary.
Dorothy felt a little clearer headed now that she was out of that pod where the air had grown stale. She felt less faint and was able to get a better look at her surroundings. The bases of the trees were thick around her and the forest floor had been cleared of leaves and debris. Here and there were piles of burning logs. Rather than light up the area, they were instead spaced so far apart that that actually created more shadows. But they at least beat back the chill of the summer night. And just at the edges of those fires where more scroulies, hundreds of them it seemed. The light played off their dark feathers, making them look like dying coals.
"Ah, the lady of the hour approaches." Bloodtooth crooned from the top of a hastily constructed mound of dirt and wood. Surrounding the base where a few scroulies she had seen before, including that one with a missing eye who leered at her.
Dorothy glared at him and shrugged off the hold the two escorts had on her arms, they were only there to make sure she did not run off, not restrain her. "Forgive me if I'm less than honored." She responded.
"I see you have your energy back, for now." He crooked a finger towards the escorts, ordering them to bring her up to him.
Dorothy walked up the mound, her bare feet sinking a little in the soft earth. She glared at him while her mind was rapidly calculating her chances of survival if she made a break for the forest.
But that was a theory she never got to test as a sudden hush came over the copse. There was a faint sound heading towards them. The sound of hoof beats on soil.
Dorothy's eyes lit up when she saw a familiar white horse step into the light. It was a regal beast, enough to make the scroulies, who had edged closer to see, move back into the shadows.
Dorothy did not realize just how relieved she would be to see Woodenhead again. She was so happy that someone had come for her that it took her an extra second to see who was sitting on his back.
The rider was completely covered in chain mail and a gold trimmed green tabard with a familiar crowned black crow and a cowl covering their head. The rider sat up straight and exuded and air of power and royality. While the rider's features were completely obscured, Dorothy knew instantly who it was.
And it wasn't Scarecrow.
"What the-" She breathed before biting her tongue. Obviously there this was part of some plan and she would not blow it by revealing what she saw.
"Ahhh...the king himself. Honored we are." Bloodtooth said with false reverence. A snigger went up from the crowd.
Dorothy tried not to look at him in surprise. Of course this would fool the scroulies who had never seen the king up close and in person before. With the added shadows in the scene it was a good ruse. She just hoped that there was a signal or something to let her know what to do.
"I take it you are here for the girl." He gestured to Dorothy. "And you can have her, if you have given in to us."
The rider loosened the taunt on the reins and circled Woodenhead as if in thought. Dorothy noticed however that the carousal horse was moving closer to one of the bonfires, one that had been thrown together rather haphazardly. She had an idea of what was planned and started to edge backwards, feeling for the mound slope with her feet.
"Well?" Bloodtooth demanded, not noticing the stallion's placement nor that Dorothy was moving into his shadow.
Woodenhead responded by kicking out with his backhooves, sending burning logs into a crowd of scroulies. Their shrieks of pain echoed all the way to the far mountains as their dried feathers caught flame.
The chaos was instantaneous, the burning scroulies ran, catching more of their brethren. Woodenhead reared and lashed his hooves out, sending those that came to restrain him into another bonfire, starting the process over again. His rider seemed to think that was enough and wheeled him around to gallop off the way they came.
"Get them! Get them!" Bloodtooth screamed, trying to regain order. That's when he noticed someone was missing. "Where did she go?"
"I don't know sir." One of the escorts admitted.
"Well find her! The rest go after the king!" Bloodtooth shrieked and took to the air, flying after the horse and rider.
The air was filled with shrieks as his orders were followed. Those that weren't burned flew after the horse, and even those that managed to put out their fires went as well, but on foot as they could not fly without their feathers.
The handful that had been closest to the mound and noticed that Dorothy had slipped away went in the opposite direction, Deadeye tagging along hoping for some reward. However, one remained behind.
Riptongue's prediction had come true, Bloodtooth had brought ruin to this copse. His eyes narrowed as he followed his leader at a careful pace. He was going to make sure Bloodtooth did not ruin anything ever again.
It was no small amount of luck that the forest was as damp and green as it was otherwise the fire would have surely spread. But Woodenhead thought it was a good distraction despite the risk. Kicking the fire hadn't hurt him, the process was too fast for any damage to incur. He only had a slight discoloration his on fetlocks from the soot which would be easy to wash off.
He galloped through the designated path feeling more alive than he had in a long time despite the angry scroulies rapidly catching up to him.
His rider however was not sharing his feeling.
"Woodenhead! Can't you go any faster!" Lily yelled in his ear as she held tight on the reins. She was trusting the horse to stay on target and was doing more holding on for dear life than actual steering. A loud screech made her look behind which she instantly regretted.
It looked as if a whole swarm of scroulies had just appeared out of the shadows. They were in their element and were nearly upon Lily and Woodenhead. One pulled ahead and lashed out with its talons, raking across Lily's back. But the armor she wore held true, the claws that tore through the tabard just caught on the chainmail underneath. This unbalanced the scroulie, sending it tumbling, it's claws futilely trying get a grip on Woodenhead as it fell to the forest floor and was left behind.
The carousel horse would be left with some gouges that would need to be filled in, nothing he hadn't had before, but the near miss had done nothing to bolster Lily's confidence. It was all she could do not to scream, instead just hugging herself closer to the horse.
Then the air was filled with a different sound. The whizzing of projectiles and the faint twang of bowstrings. A few hit true, causing louder screeches from their pursuers.
Lily breathed a sigh of relief and pulled the cowl further down over her head. They had reached the Gauntlet and they would be safe as long as they kept their head start.
"Look, there's the boss." One of the Guard's whispered to another, pulling back on his bowstring. "Let's get this show on the road."
Little did they know that just a few branches away was Terryck, wearing so much black that he looked like any other member of the King's Guard rather than it's leader.
It was a necessary diversion. Let them think it was him down there on a mere look alike horse. There was a lot less explanation needed this way, and as long as Woodenhead and Lily got the river, far past the edges of the Gauntlet, then new explanation would not have to made.
But his mind was not on that right now. He had a job to do. He grabbed one of the spears near him and threw it down into the fight, catching a scroulie in the chest, the first of many. It would not be long however before the fight turned into close quarters combat. So either way this would be a red night.
Dorothy took the distraction for the opportunity that it was. With everyone's focus on Lily's disguise and Dorothy making sure to make no sudden moves, she was soon off the mound and in the sudden dark shadows of the forest. It amazed her for a moment that Bloodtooth had not posted any rear guards, but she took it for a blessing.
She didn't make an immediate break for it, not wanting to snap a twig. But when Woodenhead caused the fire to break out, there was enough noise and distraction that any sound Dorothy made in the underbrush would be unheard. She turned and ran as hard as she could. She picked up her feet lest she trip over the roots. She concentrated on getting as much distance between her and the copse but knew that it was only a matter of seconds before they noticed she as gone and kept her eyes open for a place to hide or a sturdy fallen branch that could buy her a few extra moments. It didn't help that the shadows seemed to twist in her eyes, but her adrenaline was doing wonders at keeping the worst of the venom at bay.
As expected, she was missed almost immediately. She could still see the glow of the now spread bonfires over her shoulder and easily heard Bloodtooth's order to get her.
A line of curses that would make Auntie Em faint ran through her head as she tried to pick up speed. Stealth didn't matter any more, they would find her if she hide and would catch up to her soon and she had no weapons to fight with, what she needed was another option.
And just like that, one came to her. She felt the temperature suddenly plummet to below freezing and the ground beneath her feet frosted over. Behind her she heard the scroulies exclaim in surprise and she risked looking back. The ground they were at had froze, sticking their feet to the floor. That could only mean one thing.
"Dorothy!" Scarecrow stepped out of the underbrush, Anundriel in his hand. "You're-"
"Less talking, more escaping!" She said as she ran by him. As glad as she was to see him the affections could wait, there was more important matters at hand.
Scarecrow found no argument, especially since the ice trick would not hold for long, he only had time for something fast to slow them down. "Right, get on Starchaser and we can get out of here."
The mare had only been a few feet away and was trying her best to look brave. A look of relief washed over her when she saw Dorothy, both for the fact that she was safe and that this meant they could leave.
Dorothy mounted up behind Scarecrow not a second too soon, as it sounded like the scroulies had broken out of their trap and were now tracking them by scent.
Starchaser did not need a kick before launching into gallop.
"Get them! Get them!" Was the hunting cry and it sounded like it came from next to their ears.
The scroulies had more options during the chase. The mare was limited as to her path, only that which was wide and clear enough since at this speed a root or depression could cause a broken leg. The scroulies on the other hand had both the trees and the more dangerous paths and no arrows or spears raining down on them. So soon they seemed to be right along side them.
Poor Starchaser was no warhorse. She was not trained nor tempered for battle. While Woodenhead found the chase exhilarating, the mare was close to panic. "They're everywhere!"
"Keep it together." Scarecrow held the reins firmly, tugging Starchaser deftly out of the way of lashing talons. If he had the luxury of thinking beyond the moment, he might have questioned his decision to put Starchaser in this situation. She was fast but lacked discipline. While Lily could trust that Woodenhead didn't need her to control the reins, Scarecrow had to put considerable effort keeping her on track.
Unfortunately it was not enough. One of the scroulies, a guard that had escorted Dorothy, pulled ahead of the group and swerved around to face Starchaser head on, blue eyes glowing menacingly in the dark and screeching like a dying animal.
Starchaser had reached her limit. She half reared, hooves hitting the scroulie in the head, and pivoted bolted off in a new direction.
Scarecrow could do little control the now fully panicked horse. Starchaser was now crashing through a much thicker part of the forest, barely responding the reins that tried to keep her from the dangerous roots.
Dorothy could only hold on, burying her face into Scarecrow's back in order to keep it from being cut from the low branches.
The scroulies tried to keep up, but with Starchasers new burst of speed, they were starting to fall behind. But they were not giving up. They knew where this direction led too, namely a more open area where the chase would be much easier for them.
Starchaser was blind to the fact that she had been veered way off the set course. She barely noticed the cuts and scrapes she was getting from thorns or cutting too close to tree trunks. She just had to get away from those shrieks that were still behind her. She barely noticed when she had broken out of the tree line and open ground and a starry sky were around her.
Scarecrow, now with some more room to maneuver, tightened his grip on the reins and tried to slow her down. He gave a few sharp whistles and spoke what sounded like a strange fluid foreign language to Dorothy's ears.
Whatever he said seemed to bring her back down to earth, or at least someplace close by.
Starchaser came to stand still, breathing heavily and eyes darting wildly. "They're still out there." She voice shook.
"They're still after us."
"We have to go. We have to run. Otherwise they're going to catch us and and and-"
"Just breath for a second." Scarecrow said. Starchaser was not wrong of course but the king needed his horse not to hyperventilate and he also needed to get his bearings as to where they were.
Dorothy was already looking around. It was still the middle of the night so most of the details were lost. But it seemed to be farmland, she could see the silhouette of the farm house in the moonlight and a spread of dark mass that could only be from acres of crops. There was also a faint sense of familiarity about this place.
"Scarecrow..." She said uncertainly.
Unlike Dorothy he knew exactly where they were and it was not a comforting thought. But he did not have time to dwell on that since his ears picked up a sound from the forest. Scroulies were not always as stealthy as they wished they were. He did not waste any time in wheeling Starchaser around and urging her into a gallop. He had a choice to make in a split second. If they stayed on the paths that went around the fields, they would be open to the scroulies from any direction on the longer route but at least there would be no obstacles in the way. Going through the fields was a shorter, straighter shot where they could potentially lose the scroulies for just long enough, but they would not know from where the scroulies were coming from and there was not enough open space for Starchaser to maneuver.
It took him less than a second to compare the choices and while neither were ideal, he made his decision and tugged the reins into the corn field.
And not a moment too soon as the scroulies burst out of the forest. They milled around for a moment, the various scents of the farm throwing them off.
"The horse went this way." Deadeye said.
"A lot of horses went this way." Was the response from one of the guards. "How stupid are you?"
The one eyed scroulie hissed at the insult but they did not have the time to argue, the longer time they took here, the further their quarry got away. "Fine, let's split up and fly overhead, they couldn't have gotten far."
The other scroulies gave each other a look before following Deadeye. They all shared the same thought, that this was starting to become more trouble that it was worth.
Trouble was exactly what the other scroulies were having. Spears and arrows were flying through the air creating veritable net between the trees and traps were set off without warning. Lily and Woodenhead were still galloping but their pursuers were thinned to nearly nonexistent.
Both scroulies and Guards were falling the darkness and the forest floor was gaining the new scent of blood.
Terryck had been one of the first to jump into the fray and had already gotten his shoulder grazed by a stray arrow and a claw aimed at his chest. Right now he had a sword in each hand and was proving why he was indeed the leader of the King's Guard.
But scroulies were fearsome opponents and some had learned to fight back in their homeland before they were changed. Iceclaw, while not having any formal training, was more than capable of holding her own. She was currently wrestling a spear away from a satyr. Finally pulling it out of his grip she quickly spun it around and stabbed him through the stomach.
Lenamé saw that and tried to rush Iceclaw. Her sword was blocked by the spear shaft and she got the butt of the spear in the jaw. But despite the flash of colors behind her eyes, the jaguar got a low swipe at the scroulie's leg, cutting a ligament behind the knee.
Iceclaw screeched in pain and was forced to back away now that she had lost the ability to use her one leg. She could feel the wound starting to knit together, but it would not be fast enough. Still holding the spear, she hobbled towards the forest to recover. Her crashing through the underbrush and leaving the sounds of battle behind had not gone unnoticed however.
Riptongue emerged from behind a tree right in her path. "Going somewhere?"
Iceclaw was momentarily surprised to see him. "Riptongue? I thought you went with the others."
The male scroulie just shook his head. "I think it's time for going our own way, don't you think?"
Iceclaw narrowed her eyes cautiously but was still listening.
"Bloodtooth has brought down an awful lot of trouble down on our heads hasn't he?"
Iceclaw examined her leg, it still had an ugly cut, and the sound of a particularly loud shriek reached her ears. And she thought back to how she had to carry the human girl on her back, causing her beak to grind. "He has been foolhardy." She admitted bitterly.
"Someone not so foolhardy, as you said, would do a better job not leading us into a Shadow Runner trap." He sneered in the direction over her shoulder. "Or put us in the situation that would necessitate it."
Iceclaw clicked her beak. "That would be true."
Riptongue walked up to her and examined the weapon she was half leaning on. "Give me that spear."
Iceclaw hesitated only for a second before passing the spear to him. That action spoke volumes, it was not a mere lending, it was a show of support. If he succeeded she would reap the benefits. But if he failed, she would share in his punishment.
The noise outside had not gone unnoticed by those in the farm house.
"Oh just come back to bed dear." The farmwife said with a yawn.
The farmer just put on his vest and adjusted the light of his lantern. "It's probably those Tannamen kids from down the street. If they think they can use my fields for drinkin, they got another thing coming." He grabbed his shotgun and noticed his wife's look. "I'm not going to shoot anybody, just going to scare 'em a little." He reassured her.
His wife just sighed and rolled over to go back to sleep.
The farmer left the house and was glad for the lantern, even with the moon it was still dark. He held it up high as he wandered into the corn field. "Andrean,! Jesse! Tom! You best be gettin home before I call your parents!"
Curious. There was no hushed whispers or rustling of plants that usually accompanied teenagers that were just found out. "Think you can just hide?" He used the shotgun to clear the corn leaves out of his way. "I know you're out there! I got my gun with me!"
While the farmer's threats weren't heard by any teenagers, they did get someone's attention. Above the field, one of the scroulies turned with interest. Now this could be a lot more fun than chasing after some girl.
The scroulie landed some feet away behind the farmer, causing the corn to rustle.
"Ah ha!" The farmer turned with the lantern held high, certain he had found what he was looking for.
But instead of three boys, a shrieking scroulie leapt from the corn. It lashed out at the lantern, sending it flying from the farmer's hand, dropping the area into pitch blackness.
The farmer screamed in fear and surprise and pulled the trigger of his shotgun. He hadn't actually been aiming so the shot went wide. The farmer did not stick around to notice though as he turned on his heels and ran straight for the farm house.
The scroulie threw his head back in laughter. Oh that was fun. Much more fun that he had in a very long time. Who needed Bloodtooth's plan and Oz to have fun like that?
But while he was laughing, did not think of the lantern. That he had wacked it rather far over the field, that no doubt the blow he gave it cracked the reservoir and spilt kerosene over the corn plants, and that right now the flame was certainly spreading.
The blast from the shotgun echoed over the fields. There was no way it was not noticed by the other scroulies.
"Were are you going!" Deadeye demanded as about half of those with him veered off to investigate. "Come back here!" He growled but was ignored. "Fine, we don't need you. Come on." He said to those that remained with him.
"We don't take orders from you." One said. A guard of course, one more willing to go the extra mile to obey Bloodtooth.
"I was a part of the plan, I helped kidnap her, so that means I am in charge here! Now let's go." He pulled his wings in for a dive.
The remaining did not follow right away. It was tempting to leave the one eyed scroulie who did not know his true place behind. But they had a job to do even if half had deserted them, not that they could blame them though, this was getting tedious. They finally went into a dive, deciding that while they were not following Deadeye, they did have the same goal after all.
The fire from the lantern did what fire did best, it started to spread and spread fast. Where the forest was damp with half rotten vegetation and moisture trapped by the thick canopy, the corn fields were carefully tilled and open, any water had either been drunk up by the corn or evaporated. It did not take long for smoke to billow overhead.
This was trouble Scarecrow knew. The fire and smoke limited their path in one direction and the scroulies in another.
"What do we do?" Starchaser asked, pawing her hooves in uncertainty.
"We need to get to the outer edge." Dorothy said. "That way we can get out of the field." Though were that edge was she wasn't sure.
"Right." Scarecrow knew that it would not be that simple though. He unsheathed Anundriel with a quiet hiss. Now with only one hand with the reins he turned Starchaser to the mare looked like a random direction.
"Are you sure sir?" She trembled. She just wanted to be done with this and go back to her stall.
"How do you know?"
"Starchaser!" Dorothy admonished. "He just does, trust him a little."
"I-I apologies your majesty." The mare said softly before cantering in the direction she was told.
"There they are!" One of the guard scroulie said in the corn. "Herd them towards the fire."
Deadeye let out a screech. "No! I'm in charge. Chase after them, and bring the girl to me!"
The guard seethed and gave a subtle hand signal to those with him. It was a simple message, understood by all but one. Whatever Deadeye wanted to do from now on, he was alone in it.
The others with him nodded in agreement then raced off into the corn.
Riptongue held the spear before him as he moved cautiously through the underbrush. Iceclaw had gone in the direction of the copse, having had enough of the battle.
Things were not looking good from the shadows. While scroulies were strong and difficult to kill, they did not have the organization nor planning of the Guard. Bloodtooth himself was surrounded by a clearly coordinated attack, but he did not try to rally his own fighters. It was every scroulie for his or herself.
Riptongue scowled. The pale scroulie was showing his true colors, that he was not in charge because he was the smartest or the clearest thinking, but because he was the biggest and the strongest. Riptongue could easily see at least four different options for fighting back just at this moment, none of which had anything to do with overpowering the enemy.
The scroulie used the spear to part some of the underbrush as he slowly made his way further down the side of the Gauntlet, careful to remain unseen. Bloodtooth was being driven this way, though with the taste of blood on his beak he seemed to not realize it, and Riptongue would be waiting for him. Oh yes, he certainly would.
The flames had grown high now, having crawled up the corn and was reaching for the night sky. It was an angry inferno now, leaving nothing behind but black ash and burnt soil.
Starchaser's hooves dug up the dirt as she galloped through the burning field, scroulies right at her heels. She was trying to keep it together, she had been ashamed at her panic earlier, but she was threatening to fall right back into that old mode.
Scarecrow could only have one hand on the reins, he needed Anundriel out more desperately than ever. It's mere presence froze any flying sparks that got too close and dropped the ambient temperature to something tolerable. With a swing in the air it put out the blaze directly before them, allowing them through, but it was not a permanent solution. They had to get out of here.
Dorothy pulled her nightgown up over her mouth and squinted her eyes against the smoke. She found it easier to keep her eyes off of what was going on around her. The venom still in her system created demons that where not there and things were bad enough already.
A scroulie pounced up from the whirling smoke, the edges of it's feathers smoldering. It's claws dug into Starchaser's flank, intending to climb onto the racing horse. To Dorothy's eyes it looked like the inferno itself had gained limbs. Starchaser started stumbling and made a sound of pain and fear.
Scarecrow had to risk a glance back. With a icy blue blur he swung Anundriel around and the scroulie's head went flying.
But it wasn't enough. There are very specific ways to kill scroulies and beheading is not one of them. The force of the blow had only destablized the body, which was now gripping the saddlebag leather with one hand and was being half dragged, half trampled behind them. But it still seemed determined to climb.
Dorothy kicked out with her foot, hitting it in the chest. But it wasn't enough. Again and again she kicked. The third time was enough to cause the now headless body to lose it's grip and be left rolling behind them to be engulfed in flames. But it wouldn't be enough, it would merely try to find it's head before attempting another attack.
"You okay?" Scarecrow was forced to yell over the sound of scroulies and fire.
"It-it's not deep." Starchaser said though her gait was not as steady as it was before.
"There is a clearing not far from here." He said while swinging his sword again to keep the encroaching fire at bay. It was already starting to close in around them and he had to swallow his instinctual fear of fire, keeping calm was the key here. But they needed to find the way out.
The Gauntlet was still contested grounds with Guards and scroulies fighting to the death. However, one side was clearly shown to be winning. The native Ozians were gaining ground and were determined to fight while the scroulies were quickly losing their will and many were starting to desert the battle.
"Let them go." Lenamé said from behind her black face mask. "We can not afford to be separated."
Terryck nodded as if he was one of the rank and file Guards. It was a good call, they had enough to worry about here. But now that they were outnumbering the scroulies this would not last much longer.
Except for that one.
Terryck had heard rumors of a pale smokey scroulie but had never believed it before. It was a huge beast, easily taking on the five Guards that surrounded it. More were joining in the fight but it was not going to be easy.
The human Lawson was bleeding heavily from a cut near his eye, causing him to be partially blinded. But he was not about to step out of the fight. "To me!" He shouted, splattering the blood that had trickled into his mouth, rallying the Guards to aid him.
Bloodtooth was being pelted with arrows that did little more than aggravate him, his feathers were becoming weighted down with blood, not all his own, preventing him from flying. "You dare to take me on?" He shrieked angrily as he swept his claws and sent three Guards stumbling back. "You will all die here!" He leapt straight at another cluster of Guards shrieking like a mad animal.
The fox had not fought against such ferocity in a very long time. But he could see that it wasn't thinking clearly and left most of its back exposed. The wounds it was sustaining was certainly slowing it down. But could they do any more than that?
Bloodtooth would never admit to being overwhelmed, not even to himself, but this was more than he had bargained for. He was swarmed at all sides, the steel blades cutting him deep and he was losing room to maneuver. This did create the advantage that he always landed a hit due to the Guards being so tightly packed.
Terryck received a blow across the face that made him see stars and knocked him off his feet. The fox coughed and sputtered in the mud as he tried to blink back the black spots in his vision. His weapons were gone, having fallen from his grip. He groaned sluggishly as he forced himself up on his elbows. His instincts told him that he needed to move, now. Being prone on the battlefield would only get one trampled. He also needed a new sword. He shook his head to clear his vision and saw a slight glimmer of steel a few feet away. He got to his feet and ran to it.
It was a broken sword, it's blade having snapped off and then discarded. But it was still sharp and would still hurt. It would have to do.
And it would have to do now. The circle around Bloodtooth had been pushed back towards Terryck, knocking the fox back down onto his back.
He felt a weight suddenly press onto his chest, cutting off his breath. The big pale scroulie, now more red than not, filled his vision, its electric blue eyes peering down at him with arrogant contempt.
"Well well well, what do we have here?" Bloodtooth sneered at the fox Guard under his foot. "A broken Guard with a broken sword. What do you expect do to with that?"
Terryck didn't take the time to think.
"This." He said as he used both hands to stab upwards into Bloodtooth's torso, cutting through his stomach and lungs until, more fatally, nicking his heart.
Bloodtooth shriek temporarily deafened the fox, the scroulie clutched at the blade and stumbled back, allowing Terryck to get to his feet. This was enough, this was when even the prideful Bloodtooth gave up. He backed away, falling to his knees and panted heavily against the pain. If he did not get back to the copse that slight tear on his heart would kill him.
Lawson and Lenamé surveyed what remained of their Guards. "Round up the wounded and move back to camp," The jaguar ordered. "We will return for the dead in the morning light."
While the others were quick to obey orders, Terryck hesitated. "He's not dead yet." He said, observing the bristling feathers and the hate filled eyes of Bloodtooth.
"He's as good as solider." Lawson barked. "Now get moving."
Terryck's eye twitched, not so much at the words, as he wouldn't know who he really was, but that they would dare to leave a job unfinished. That would be something he would fix once out of his disguise. But he couldn't do anything now without blowing his cover, plus he had to get back to Lily and Woodenhead before any of the Guards did and started asking questions. He gave one last glance at Bloodtooth, who just hissed at him, before sliding off into the shadows with the rest of the King's Guard and soon leaving even them behind.
The forest was now deadly silent for the first time in what seemed like an eternity. Nothing but darkness and the stars overhead.
Bloodtooth was livid. Did they think him not enough of a threat to not even kill him properly? It was insulting! He was still clutching at the hilt of the sword, if the blade had not been broken it surely would have gone through his heart and done him in. He couldn't remove it yet, not until that tear was healed, nor could he move much lest the blade sink in deeper. All he could do was wait and hope he was well enough to leave before the Guards came back, a thought that made his blood boil. How he hated feeling so...weak.
His ears perked at a slight sound coming from the bushes. Maybe it was that fox ready to finish what he started and be done with it properly. But no, the sound was coming from behind him, the opposite way the Guards had gone.
"That was real close there Bloodtooth."
"Ah, Riptongue." Bloodtooth smiled. "My friend. I was wondering where you had gotten off too. Kill many Ozians?" He nodded towards the spear.
Riptongue did not return the smile. "You got us into a fine mess here boss." He looked around at the battle remains, bodies of both scroulies and guards littered the forest floor. "Lost so many of our brothers and sisters and revealed the location of the copse to the enemy. And for what?"
"For glory! For scroulies everywhere. To prove that we were the force that ruled the wilderness, like it was before the Scarecrow King gained the sword of Anun." Bloodtooth didn't want to have this conversation, he wanted to conserve his strength for healing, but if he had to convince Riptongue that this was all worth it, then so be it. "And we would have gotten it all back and more. So much more." His eyes glittered with greed as he imagined, like he had so many time before, Oz fully under his taloned fist.
Riptongue was not interested in Bloodtooth's answer, he had already decided that there was no justification strong enough for what his former leader had done. He pushed against Bloodtooth's shoulder with his foot, forcing the pale scroulie prone on his back.
Bloodtooth's eyes dilated with pain as he felt the broken blade shift a little and the arrows in his back press in deeper. "What are you doing?" He demanded angrily.
Riptongue stood over Bloodtooth, stepping on his chest like what had happened to Terryck earlier. "You," He spat the word like it was poison. "You saw only the reward but none of the risks. You let your greed and pride blind you to this outcome. Oz is a lot stronger than it used to be, if only you took notice."
Bloodtooth growled and tried to push Riptongue off of him, but he was at a disadvantage and could not even budge his ankle. "That isn't true! We are strong! We had the advantage! We had the girl."
This was a pointless conversation Riptongue decided. "Then you are an idiot, and I don't take orders from idiots. The copse is mine." And with that, before Bloodtooth could finish declaring him a traitor, Riptongue took the spear and slammed it straight down through one of Bloodtooth's eyes and into the brain, causing the back of the skull to crack.
Riptongue just shook his head at Bloodtooth's dead body. What a waste this all was. He left the spear but knelt down and tore some of the feathers off of the body as the proof he needed. If he was going to get the survivors to follow him, he had to prove that Bloodtooth was dead.
He did not bother looking back as he flew off back towards the copse. Let the King's Guard deal with the past.
Deadeye hissed as he watched from the air as the other scroulies fell back from their positions. How dare they give up! They had a duty to Bloodtooth and by damn someone was going to complete it.
There was the clearing just up ahead, just as Scarecrow had said. It was a spacing between the fields and had a small tool shed for the convenience of the farmer since the fields were so large. It was the perfect place for their to get their bearings and get out of the smoke and heat.
"We're almost there!" Scarecrow said as Starchaser jumped over fallen smoldering stalks. "A hard right will take us to a fence."
Starchaser started to respond but then something, something solid from the sky, slammed into her from the side. The horse was knocked off her hooves and her riders fell.
Scarecrow rolled back to his feet, sword at the ready. Dorothy wasn't as experienced and ended up sprawled and a little dazed in the mud. But she had fallen off of horses before and worked through the initial disorientation to get back to her feet. That's when she saw what had crashed into them.
"You again." She glared at the one eyed scroulie that stood between her and Scarecrow and Starchaser, who seemed dazed but was getting to her hooves.
They were at least in the clearing, with the fields blazing around them. The force of the collision had spread them about, creating a triangle with Deadeye in the center and Dorothy at the point closest to the shed.
"You thought you could get away." He hissed. "But I will hunt you do where ever you go. Bloodtooth will reward me handsomely for bringing you back." His leer made it clear how he expected to be rewarded.
"But you won't." Dorothy responded, taking small steps backwards. If she could get to the shed maybe there could be something she could use as a weapon. She also saw that Scarecrow was on the move and if she kept Deadeye's attention he could surprise attack him. "I'm not going anywhere with you."
"You don't really have-" He never got to finish his threat as he had neglected to notice the one sneaking up behind him.
Scarecrow swung Anundriel at Deadeye's shoulder, catching his collar bone. It was a blow that would have cleaved him in two except that at the first instance of pain the scroulie swung around and grabbed the hilt, preventing anymore damage.
Scarecrow as in a deadlock, the scroulie was strong and could overpower him. But the king was no pushover and dug his feet into the ground.
Dorothy took this opportunity to run to the shed and found a rake and pitchfork leaning on it. She grabbed the pitchfork, it was an item she was comfortable with but had little idea on how to use it as a real weapon.
Deadeye and Scarecrow wrestled with the sword between them for a little, but Scarecrow was the only one who could actually use it. The slightest bit of concentration caused a blast of cold and ice to crawl up Deadeye's arm. The scroulie lost his grip and had to fall back.
But not for long. He hissed and lunged again. His claws where always intercepted by the blade, causing cuts on his palm. But he had two hands as opposed to one sword.
Scarecrow block a high slash but was left wide open for Deadeye's other hand to catch him in the sword arm. He felt pain as the claws tore through cloth and straw, all the way to wooden bones. His hand suddenly felt limp and unresponsive, causing him to switch to his off hand. The wound, having ripped open almost his entire forearm, was too much of a distraction and he started faltering.
"Your majesty!" Starchaser cried out but it was Dorothy who was faster.
Rather than rush directly into the middle of the fight, she kept herself behind Deadeye. She swung the handle of the pitchfork at the back of his knees.
Deadeye fell immediately, having been knocked off balance. He only had the chance to look up before the tines of the pitchfork were plunged into his chest, right through the heart.
Dorothy panted as she saw that Deadeye was in fact killed. She had not realized that the pitchfork was actually made of steel, it had been too dark to notice. She blinked her eyes when it looked like the body decomposed before her eyes, full of bones and wriggling maggots. But another blink brought it back to the still warm body. Just a trick of the venom.
"Your majesty, you're hurt." Starchaser came up to her king, worried.
"I'll be okay." He assured her as he hugged his arm to his body. He looked over at Dorothy. He had not noticed that she had been infected with the scroulie venom. He had assumed of course, but to actually see it in the firelight was a little startling. "Is he dead?"
"Yea." She finally breathed. She didn't feel sorrow of it. She was glad he was dead, he was nothing but a monster. "We have to get out of here." She noticed that the flames were sending off sparks that were already starting to ignite the next field over. She saw Scarcrow's wound. "Are you-"
"Fine, yes I am. We don't have time right now." He resheathed Anundriel and used his good arm to vault onto Starchaser, Dorothy climbed up behind him.
Starchaser didn't need any prompting to fall into a gallop. She took the right, running down the open path between the field despite the fire. No other scroulies seemed to be following though she couldn't say for sure.
With a leap over the fence, her hooves hit brick. But she did not stop to consider it. Instead, the mare and her riders plunged into a new set of woods, leaving the danger far behind.
Danger! Intrigue! Betrayal! Action! Conspiracy! Violence! Lord of the Rings references (Scarecrow being inspired by Aragorn and Theoden? I don't know what you're talking about)! This chapter had it all and was by far the hardest I had to write so far. None of the characters wanted to cooperate, the apologies took me weeks to wring out, and I'm not that good at action or fight scenes. But it's done and I can breath a sigh of relief for that. And yes, this is where I am taking a break. Don't worry, as much as you was dying to know what happens, I twice as much want to get this out of my head. I don't have a timeline nor promises since that never works out so well. So please, asking, begging, pleading, whining, or demanding an update won't make me work any faster. Writing is easy but writing well is hard. There is still a lot of story left to get through and I want to make sure it's up to my high standards. I thank you for your patience and readership.