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Prologue (Pt. 1): Fire and Brimstone

by Stonewall

Captain Grall frowned as yet another seemingly expensive goblet first cracked in his grip, and then further crumbled into shards. Wiping the ashy remnants from his paws, the weasel shook his head at his companion. "Nope."

Divot grumbled, prying open a singed chest, discovering a mass of scorched linen within. "Can't say I'm surprised. Don't s'pose there's a blessed thing in this place that's not burnt or turned to dust."

Shrugging, Grall sorted through the discovered linen, failing to discover anything salvageable. "Pitts says he found some extra silverware in what he guesses was the dining room, and he reckons he's found the kitchens, so we'll have to see what he comes up with."

The rat was not impressed. "And what'd we find, the place where they dumped the dust after sweeping?"

Grall shook his head, pointing at the burnt-out frame of a bed. "Some beast's room, likely as not. Don't suppose we'll find anything of much worth here."

"Some beast's room, ye say?" laughed Divot, producing a small amount of weaponry from the closet. "Funny sort of thing to keep at bedside."

"Depends on who you expect to show up." Finding nothing in the room resembling the description of "valuable" as posed by the Chief, Grall and Divot exited back into the hall.

The weasel captain was glad to see that his similarly red-armoured underlings were not being idle while he wasn't looking. Vermin of various species were scouring the fire swept floor, ducking in and out of rooms, and, more often than not, coming back empty pawed.

Divot sneered, watching a pair of stoats trying to decide if the blackened canvas of a painting still bore enough original art to be considered worth anything. "This is a fool's errand, make no mistake."

Grall shook his claw warningly at the rat. "Careful there, Divot. That's our Chief's judgement you're coming close to questioning."

Remembering that he was in the presence of a Captain, Divot tempered his language. "Course, isn't my place to judge, but sending us off to find treasure in a burnt-out castle? This place is older than the hills, and has probably been an ash-house just as long."

Rubbing his chin, Captain Grall scratched first at the stone wall, and then through the blackened wood of an oddly placed nightstand. "Difficult to say. The castle's old, and that's for certain. But the furniture isn't rotted underneath the burnt bits, and not a great deal of cobwebs or such hanging about. I'd place it at about six or nine seasons, give or take, since the fire." Not to mention, the weasel noticed as an afterthought, that the floors were very clean. The furniture was in disarray, the walls could use a scrub, but the floors were quite tidy.

Grall took a silver whistle from around his neck and gave it a sharp blow. In an instant, a small crowd of red-armoured soldiers assembled, most of them with grey smudges on their faces and clothes. Placing his paws behind him in a bid to look officious, the weasel put on his best commanding face. "All right, report, you lot."

The embarrassed glances a few of the vermin were trading told Grall a great deal of what he already knew. "Er, well, Cap'n," a stoat finally piped up, "not a whole lot on this floor. A few skeletons here and there. Anything of value's long since burnt, though."

With no small amount of excitement, a fox raised his paw. He had been waiting for some beast to give bad news so that his report would be all the more impressive. "It looks like the fire didn't carry all the way up the stairs, and the second floor is in good shape." The beaming soldier was the proud recipient of a unanimous glare from his comrades.

That was a pleasant development. "Right, then. We'll check up there next." Noticing more than a few unhappy glances, the weasel added, "Unless you'd all like to go back to the Chief without anything valuable."

There was an immediate and distinct absence of discontent grumbling.

"Good. Now hop to it."

Divot watched as the soldiers shuffled over to the staircases. "Seek out the treasures of the world," he scowled, recalling one of the main doctrines of the Red Fire Army. "I sometimes can't wonder if we're following a warlord or an absolute..."

"An absolutely fantastic leader whom we are lucky to have," Grall quickly interrupted, looking over his shoulder. You never knew when some beast was just waiting to listen in on mutinous talk.

Divot was less concerned than his comrade. "Say what you will, but Francis is a flaming..."

"A flaming beacon in a world of darkness, boy, aren't we lucky?" said Grall, glaring at Divot. Honestly, was the rat trying to see how much trouble he could get them into? "And it's Chief Francis Moonshot, thank you." The weasel couldn't help but grimace in spite of himself. It really was a silly name, the Chief... well, the Chief could be a little silly at times.

Divot growled. "Will you stop that?"

"Will you stop that?" Grall returned. "You're not supposed to talk about the Chief behind the Chief's back."

The rat was unimpressed. "Why are you so concerned about backing a weasel who brought us this far north, in the middle of winter, so we could rummage through old castles to find baubles to tickle his fancy?"

"Because this place isn't the goal, stupid," said Grall, sticking his tongue out. "The Chief says there's a better deeper inside the woods. It's got all kinds of valuable things, and comfortable to boot." The weasel omitted the Chief's mentioning that the red walls would really bring out their matching uniforms superbly.

"We oughtn't be fiddling about with nick-nacks anyways. If there were a real beast leading this horde..."

"As opposed to a fake beast, hm?"

Had Grall not been as surprised as Divot at the unexpected appearance of Chief-of-Staff Cromley, he would have said, "Nyah, nyah, told you so!" As it was, the best he could spit out was "Lord Cromley, sir! Um, how are you today?"

"Comfortably passable," the wildcat clicked in precise annunciation. His yellow eyes shone brightly out of his pudgy features, boring a hole through Divot's mind as he regarded the rat. "And how are you today, Mister Divot? Cynically dubious?"

Staring down though he was at a fat, elderly cat, wrapped up in his heavy coat so that he looked like a massive dust ball, Divot could not fight the knowledge that he was the only intimidated individual in this conversation. "Er," he said, trying to remember what the self righteousness he had been experiencing just a minute before had felt like. "Not, er, not really in those words..."

"Of course," nodded Cromley, fatherly understanding in his voice. "Cynicism conjures up such negative imagery. Perhaps you would prefer 'sceptically malcontent?'"

It didn't seem to Divot that this sounded any better than the first, but correctly assumed that was the point. "It's not a matter of malcontent," he corrected, going on the defence. "It's just recognizing a few realities..."

"What if there were a real beast leading this horde, Divot?"


Cromley prodded the rat in the stomach with his cane. "Your lack of focus is disappointing, Divot. You were discussing the subject of command not thirty seconds ago." Taking a small book and stick of charcoal from the lining of the immense coat, Cromley spoke aloud as he wrote. "Divot shows difficulty in maintaining a sound mind. Likely due to an excess of hard drink."

The rat held his paws before him in helpless frustration. "I haven't touched..."

"Still not answering the question, Mister Divot."

Flustered, Divot spoke slowly to ensure he didn't say anything else to get in more trouble than he already was. "Captain Grall and I were discussing..."

"I wasn't discussing anything!" Grall interrupted hastily, paying no heed to the glare he was receiving from the rat. There was no way he going down with this sinking ship.

Effectively on his own, Divot continued. "I was... wondering about the good of hanging about in this castle, or these woods, in the winter. Doesn't seem the best choice." The stone faced cat said nothing, indicating the rat was to continue. Hardly comforted by this extra podium time, he said, "I don't think... that is, the Red Fire horde might be better off finding a place to hunker down in this weather, rather than searching for treasure." Cromley still did not cut him off. Personally, the rat had hoped the cat would incite argument, at least to stoke the fires of militancy. As it was, Divot felt like a pupil perpetually failing to answer the arithmetic problem posed by his tutor. "And that's it," he lamely ended, feeling more stupid than rebellious.

Mercifully, the Chief of Staff took up the conversation. "I see. So you do not wish to pursue the further searching of this castle in compliance with Chief Moonshot's wishes?"

Captain Grall had already decided that the next words spoken would be, "Then you'll never search for anything again!" followed by a quick stabbing noise. For his part, recognizing that things were bound to go downhill anyways, Divot truthfully said, "Aye, sir."

Clawing at his cane ominously, Cromley defied Grall's expectations by nodding. "Very well." The soldier duo waited another five seconds of deathless interlude before their hearts resumed beating. Obviously somewhat pleased with the anxiety he was causing his underlings, the cat fought back a wrinkly smile of mischief. "I see no reason to have you continue a duty to which you have no investment in. If seeking for treasure is not to your liking, than I shall post you as lookout by the gates."

Divot bit his lip ponderously. There was the hint of logic in Cromley's words, indicating it wasn't necessarily a feint of false security. "Aye, I could do that, sir."

Cromley pointed down the burnt hallway with his cane. "I shall lead you to your guard, then." Grall shuddered as the yellow lasers found their mark on him. "Do you desire to air grievances of your own, Captain Grall?"

Doing everything in his power to avoid scrambling away on all fours, the weasel smacked his helmet in a hasty salute. "Not me, sir!" he said, shaking his head so fast that his armour rattled. "No, no, not a complaint in the world. Happy as a clam. And busy! Very, very busy. No time to talk, have to check on Pitts' crew. Toodle-oo. I mean, good bye. Um, really have to go." Not liking the clucks of disapproval the cat was making as he began to jot into his book, Grall decided to cut his losses and disappeared into the once dining room.

Leaning on the impenetrably safe walls, Captain Grall sighed in relief, the open sores caused by Cromley's drilling glare beginning to heal. The soldiers trying to life the great oak dining table (surprisingly in good condition) paused to stare in surprise at their breathless captain. Regaining some of his composure, the weasel silently mouthed the word "Cromley." This was explanation enough, and after one or two paranoid peeks at the ajar door, the salvage gangs went back to their work.

Pitts didn't seem to share Grall's consternation. Smiling as he emerged from the flight of stairs in the corner, brushing aside the blackened remnants of the curtain cover, the fox greeted the weasel. "Ahoy there, Captain Grall. You look a fright."

Feeling slightly better, Grall stood up straight, checking his paws to ensure they were no longer shaking. "I've been better," he conceded.

Pitts produced a small box, flipping open the cover to display a grainy, chestnut brown powder. "You might try some of this, then. Found it laying about near the kitchens. It'll give you a bit of a kick."

Accepting a small portion of the powder, Grall swallowed it in a hurry, providing Pitts with great amusement as the weasel's eyes bugged out and he began to cough harshly. "Pyah! That'll do something to you, all right. Eyugh!"

"Woke you up though, didn't it?" consoled the fox, placing the powder box onto the top of the dining table (the crew had given up trying to lift the thing, and were now challenging the chairs).

Now trying to settle an energetic twitch in his right paw, Captain Grall turned the topic back to business. "So you found the kitchens, then?"

The fox nodded. "The kitchens and a whole lot else. The basement is in decent condition. Suppose the dampness must've helped stopping anything catching fire."

"Anything valuable?"

"Nothing in the kitchens. We wrapped up..." A shrill yell, cut off almost as it began, tore through the mortuary-like silence, causing the soldiers to drop everything in a panic. "What in the blue blazes was that?"

Recognizing that the scream had emanated down the main hall, probably near the gatehouse area, Grall had a fairly good idea. "Likely, it's old Cromley killing Divot."

Pitts shuddered. "I can't stand that cat. He gives me the heebie-jeebies."

"Stow that talk, what do you think got Divot offed?"

"I'm just saying he frightens me, and I should think that would make him happy more than anything. As I was saying, we finished searching the kitchens. Nothing there that would please the Chief overmuch. I've sent the rest of the lads to take a more thorough look around."

Grall was thankful for the news that the basement had survived as well. It was good to know that not everything was reduced to a crisp. "Right then, you'd best carry on."

The fox laughed in Grall's face. "Not a chance, my good weasel. I've spent the better part of the morning inhaling dust and lifting furniture. I'm going for a breath of fresh air."

Annoyed that everyone today seemed to forget he was a captain, Grall placed his fists on his hips. "No one's on break until I say so. I want this job done as quick as possible so we can get out of this creepy place."

"Well nuts to that, because I'm beat." Pitts grinned in defiance as the weasel began to wag a claw with authority. Both creatures' thoughts were interrupted by the unmistakeable sound of a cane on stone, steadily approaching the dining room. Quickly opening the powder box, Pitts gulped down a pawful of the grains, allowing the shudder to run the full length of his body. "Well, that's cured that. Best get back to work!"

"And I'll join you," added Grall, actually beating the fox to the stairwell. Both beasts heard the dining room door creak open behind them, but dared not look back as they descended into the castle's basement.

Grall couldn't see a great deal as he padded down the stairs, the only luminescence available being provided by whatever torches Pitts' crew had provided and scattered amongst the halls. Shadows seemed to be the predominant attraction, which would begrudgingly permit other sights to appear only when the odd spasmodic flicker of flame disrupted the status quo. What the weasel Captain could make out, as his eyes adjusted to the dim light, was that the walls were devoid of ornamentation, and the dampness has produced moss within the cracks. And yet, though the floor was also similarly stone, there was a distinct absence of any growth whatsoever: no mould, no pools of water, no cobwebs.

"Can I ask you something?" said Grall, the echoes reverberating off the cave-like walls.


"Do the floors seem... clean to you? More than they ought, I mean."

Pitts blinked in confusion at the question, staring at the ground as if he'd never seen it before. "Huh," he finally said, followed by a disinterested shrug. "C'mon, now. If it makes you happy, I'll throw some dirt around." True to his word, the fox took the box of brown powder and dumped it on the floor, shifting it with his foot for extra mess. "Satisfied?"

"Not really." The conversation went no further, for Pitts was walking away whether Grall was satisfied or not, forcing the weasel to follow regardless.

With no small amount of tripping and stumbling thought the corridors, Pitts lead his Captain to what he indicated as a "Storage room, I do believe." The mass of crates and boxes clustered about seconded this conclusion. Waving a paw over at a glowing orange spot deep in the room's corner, the fox called, "Hoy, there, Hunter! Found anything yet?"

The orange glow approached the pair, and with it another fox appeared out of the dark. "What haven't I found?" he replied, gesturing with his torch at the expanse of packing. "Take a look in that!"

Pitts obliged, lifting the lid of an ajar box. "Oy!" he mumbled in awe, unable to find more suitable words to express finding a velvet robe, diamonds imbedded in the neck. "Now what's a thing like this doing down here?"

Grall was finding difficulty in controlling his gaping jaw. "Now if that doesn't make the Chief happy... wonder what's in the rest?" Eagerly, the weasel pried open another crate, his hopes of finding more treasure coldly dashed with the discovery of a mouse's skeleton, crammed uncomfortably inside. "Bloody rabbit eared snargles!" the weasel screamed, tipping backwards in a clattering heap.

"Told ye I found a bit of everything," said Hunter, obediently helping his fallen Captain back to his feet. "And it gets stranger than that."

Pitts couldn't help but smile, donning his much preferable prize. "Not your day, is it, Captain? Never mind, you can keep the next nice coat we find."

"You manage to get that past Cromley and it's all yours," reminded Grall. This place was dangerously close to breaking his nerve altogether, and found himself almost wishing he had seconded Divot's discontent earlier. "Now, what do you mean, it gets stranger than that?"

The fox eyed Grall with concern. "Ye certain yer up for more surprises, sir?"

"No, but I'd best hear it anyways."

Trying to find the best way to explain this, Hunter started, "Well, it's like this: I've done some looking around, and it looks like we've got a mix in here of old treasures and dead bodies."

Grall scratched his ears. "Doesn't look like much of a tomb."

"I don't reckon it's meant to be, sir. It's storage, unless some beast wanted to be buried with boxes of extra forks and some mops."

Gulping, the weasel shook his head. "Then why stick dead bodies in here?"

"Keep things neat and tidy?" Pitts offered.

"Now that's cold, sticking ones' mates with the mops."

"Well, maybe the undertaker was out on holiday and they were being saved for a better time."

"Long sort of holiday. They're all bones now."

Hunter coughed into his paw, which did nothing for Grall's confidence. "Well, this one is, anyways. Er, if ye'll just come this way..." With no small feeling of dread, the weasel allowed himself to be led to another box. As expected, there was another dead body inside. However, this one still had traces of skin, fur and muscles clinging onto the bones, the entrails laid bare.

"Oh, heck," grimaced Pitts. "What are you trying to do, Hunter, other than kill my appetite?"

Equally disgusted, Grall caught on to the point of the display. "This one hasn't been dead as long as the other."

"Right," agreed Hunter. And if ye'll pardon me one more time..."

"Bet you it's another dead body," Pitts mumbled.

It proved to be a correct assumption, but the pre-empting did nothing to quell the shock. For this time, there was not bleeched skeleton, but an otter, more or less a young adult, fur and face intact, and the proud owner of three dark red gashes going the length of his chest to the navel. Whatever other faults he had, Grall had keen observational skills, and he couldn't help but notice a slight glisten inside the wounds, indicating the blood and bodily fluids had not had time dry out. Also, the blood stains within the box were still a relatively bright shade of red, not yet dulled to a brown crust. "This bloke's not been dead for more than a day."

The silence and shadow of the basement only served to increase the volume of the vermin's imaginations, the thought of bogeymen lurking in the corners having become a very real possibility. "Oh, heck," Pitts managed to choke out. "You mean to say this otter has only just kicked it?"

Remembering that he was a Captain, and therefore obliged to set a good example in times of danger, was the only thing stopping Grall from dashing back up the stairs. "Not only..." he squeaked, coughing gruffly before continuing. "Not only that, but these wounds aren't made by any regular weapon. Not clean enough. I'd have to hazard that these are claw marks."

"And what kind of beast has claws that can carve up an otter like that?"

"Badger! Help!"

The unwanted identification reverberated off the cold basement walls, causing all three beasts to jump in shock. Being the first to identify that the cry had not originated within the storage room, Hunter was also able to announce, "Sounds like Grubby! Hellgates, a badger?"

Pitts had a solution. "Quick, while he's distracting it! Let's run!"

"We can't just leave him!"

"No, I really think we can!"

Wishing he had just stayed in bed, Grall made what he was certain was the wrong decision. "There's three of us and one of him. If we jump it, we might take it by surprise."

"We're talking about a beast who can carve things up with its claws! What exactly can we do?"

"We can't just leave it, or it'll come after us!"

"It won't come after us if we run really fast!"

"But then... wait, no, you're right, let's run."

Unfortunately for democracy, Hunter was the one holding the torch, and being less weak willed than his comrades, ran off to find the beleaguered Grubby. Faced with the unpleasant prospect of being left in the dark, Pitts and Grall were obliged to follow.

Back in the dingy halls, the agonized wailing grew louder. "It's coming from over this way!" said Hunter, running in the direction of the sound. Dashing in pursuit as he was, Grall had only the faintest of moments to notice, as they passed the stairs, that the brown powder Pitts had dumped on the floor was no longer there.

A quick sprint through the maze-like corridors led the trio to a door, significant only because beyond it came sounds of running water and terrified yells. "I'm still up for running," whispered Pitts.

Hushing the fox with a glare, Grall took command. "Right," he said, quietly as he could, "on the count of three, we kick the door in, and dash for the badger. Weapons ready?" Two brief nods. "One, two, three!"

The door vanished as Grall's boots connected with it, revealing a massive indoor lake, a waterfall running from the cracks in the natural rock wall. Laying on the granite rim surrounding the water was a stoat, writhing furiously in uncontrollable laughter. The rumoured badger was a frightening sight: very large, very fearsome, and very dead, if the skeleton's bones were any indication.

Grubby laughed even harder as the angrily thrown helmet missed him an caromed into the lake. "You great, fat, beetle-brained idiot!" hollered Grall. "You had us scared to death!"

Wiping a mirthful tear from his eye, the stoat was completely unapologetic. "Wot? I said I found a badger, didn't I? Didn't say what condition it were in. Hee hee!"

Frowning, Hunter prodded Grubby with the butt of his spear. "You oughtn't be laughing, mate. We've got a bunch of dead beasts on our paws and we're trying to find who killed them."

"Actually, I'm content with not finding out at all," said Pitts. Grall agreed with a nod.

"Well, it wasn't him, anyway," said Grubby, managing to get back to his feet. "He's not in much condition to do anything."

Grall shuddered. Even dead, it was hard to take a badger lightly. "Big brute, too. I'd hate to see what it was capable of alive." The skeleton was abnormally large, and Grall thought the claws to be exaggerated as well.

Pitts shuffled his paws awkwardly. Finding their feared phantom to be a pile of bones had made him second guess. "Maybe we just got a case of the spooks. Dingy basement and all that."

Grall scratched his chin thoughtfully, his brow furrowed in nervous perplexity. "Maybe... but I'd bet my tail that one otter's not been more than a day at most. Something must've killed him..."

"I'm not keen on finding out. Look, let's just take that coat we found and tell Cromley it's all that's down here, and then head back to the main group." Not brooking any argument, Pitts headed out the door.

Where he very nearly bumped into a squirrel which had appeared in the hall.

An uncontrolled shriek of surprise tore out of Pitts' throat as he jumped backwards. For the squirrel's part, he continued on as if nothing had happened, dragging a broom across the hallway. Pitts managed to spit out a few incomprehensible sounds before passing out from shock, leaving his wide-eyed companions to deal with this new apparition.

Hunter was the first to coax words back into his mouth. "What... the 'gates... was that?"

"T'was a squirrel," Grubby offered.

"Ye don't say!" snarled the fox, cuffing Grubby on the ear. "I mean, what's it doing down here?"

"...Sweeping?" The stoat dodged another irate swipe.

Grall peeked out of the doorway. "He's right, actually." The squirrel was sweeping the stone floor, and, regardless of the practically non-existent light, did it with the bearings of one who had done this his whole life.

Transfixed with horrid fascination, the trio watched the methodically industrious woodlander as they filed out of the water cavern. The added illumination from Hunter's torch in the hallway had no effect on the squirrel, proceeding as efficiently as before. "How's he get down here?" whispered the fox. Somehow, speaking in regular volume seemed inappropriate.

"S'pose he's a ghost?" gulped Grubby, his previous sense of play having deserted him.

Grall shook his head. "Can't be. Look, his back's bleeding. Ghosts don't bleed."

"Oh, because that's much less frightening," the stoat grumbled. The weasel was right, however: there were wounds akin to that of the dead otter on the squirrel's back, allowing blood to drip in his wake, cruelly spiting his attempts to clean the floor.

"We ought to find out what he's up to," suggested Hunter. "I don't fancy running into more woodlanders, cleaning or otherwise. Get his attention, Captain."

Grall looked in disbelief at his underling. All he wanted was to get out as quickly as possible. But then, Hunter had a point: if there were more squirrels running around, better to know sooner than later. The weasel tried to call out, but his lungs refused to provide air for the task. Coughing, Grall tried again. "Hey!" The increase in volume almost hurt, but the squirrel didn't flinch. "Hey!" he tried again.

Grall couldn't suppress a whimper as the squirrel stopped, craned its neck back to look at the vermin with dull, lifeless eyes. He was around the same age group as the dead otter, its fur greasy and matted, wan from loss of blood. Slowly, it raised a claw to its lips, whispered, "Ssh," and went back to sweeping.

Without waiting for approval, Grall turned around and headed back for the stairwell. Unfortunately, Hunter gripped the back of his collar and hauled him back. Glaring, Grall inched closer to the squirrel. "Excuse me, but... who are you and what are you doing here?"

The squirrel glanced up from his work, the slightest hint of annoyance in his features. "I can't stop to talk," he said. "I must have the floors cleaned, and Jeremy will be cross if I'm found slacking off."

Grubby smiled. "There's no one watching you, mate. No one's even here!"

Shaking his head, the squirrel replied, "They're always watching." Then, with a paw guarding the side of his mouth, he whispered, "They're looking in from inside the walls, you know."

Grall looked over to Hunter, who shrugged. It was likely they had found a solitary mad squirrel who was probably living out some past time. He wouldn't have been left like this if there had been other woodlanders present, with their silly sense of helping out those in need and all that nonsense. Building up his courage, the weasel hazarded another question. "I, er, don't suppose that in your cleaning up, you found anything really shiny or expensive looking?"

"All items without function have been put into storage. Categorization is the duty of Paul."

"And where is this Paul?" Grubby asked.

"Paul is dead."

The complete lack of concern with which this was announced made the stoat uncomfortable. "Are you sure Paul's dead?"


"...Oh." Turning their backs to the squirrel, the group exchanged confused stares. "Well, I don't know what to do," said Grubby, not bothering to whisper, as the squirrel didn't appear to care about what was said anyway. "But I don't think we should hang around here much longer."

Even Hunter had to agree, his iron nerve starting to falter. "We found that coat, and that should make the Chief happy."

Pleased that there was finally a unanimous vote to leave, Captain Grall tried to add a moral spin. "Besides, the Chief will have conquered that Abbey place by the time we meet up with the horde, and there'll be more than enough treasure there. From what I've heard, they've got an oven that makes cakes out of dirt, great wall art, and a magical sword of some Martin fellow..."

"Where!" Grall was sharply interrupted, a broom shaft being held to his neck like a blade. The squirrel's stoic expression was replaced by a frightened fury. "Where is she?"

The fact that the broom could not harm him did nothing to ease Grall's concern. "...Pardon?"

"The marten! The one who ruined everything! The one that burns things and drags you into rooms and cuts you open! She..." The sudden surge of blood pressure drained what little energy the squirrel had, causing him to collapse to the floor. "Jeremy will not like this at all..." he mumbled.

Grubby gestured to the squirrel's maimed back. "Listen, do you want somebeast to look at that for ye? We've got some healers upstairs."

Switching mannerisms without a hitch, the squirrel shook his head in calm non-concern. "No. It is deserved penance for having failed my duty." Then, breaking down again, he sobbed, "The Master gives me a simple task, and I fail him!"

Hunter raised an inquisitive brow. "So it's yer Master that's carving beasts up like that?"

The squirrel glared angrily at the fox. "Of course not! The Professor is... no longer with us, thanks to the marten that ruined everything." Sighing wistfully, he looked sadly into space. "That's what made him so angry."

Grall waited for exposition, which was not forthcoming. "...Made who angry?"

"The Project."

"...I'm sorry?"

"The Project! The Master's Project! We were to mind to it until the Master chose to resume his work on it."

"It got... angry? Grubby slowly put together. It was a bit strange: projects were supposed to be things involving a lot of coloured liquids and big words, not emotions. "What kind of project are we talking about, here?"

"It was his greatest creation," the squirrel announced with some pride. "He created the greatest war machine ever: a living weapon. One which could substitute entire armies on its own and easily destroy any foes. He enlarged the body and adrenaline output, so as to increase its violence potential, and placed armour grafts directly onto the fur, making it unstoppable. The Professor was very proud of it."

Grall was all for better weapons, but this did not sound appealing. "But you say he meant to resume it? So it wasn't completed?"

"No. The Master had other matters to attend to, and then the marten..."

"Who ruined things, right," interrupted Grubby, getting into the hang of things. "And how long ago was all this?"

The squirrel had to think before answering, "Eight seasons."

Hunter blinked. "Ye mean to say you've been down here alone for eight seasons?"

"Not alone. There were several of us who avoided being slaughtered by the marten who ruined everything and the laughing one."

"The laughing..."

Grall cautioned Hunter. "Let's not go there. So what happened to the others?" he asked, though if the storage room had been any hint, the answer was obvious.

"The Project had exhibited side effects to the Professor's improving of it. The altering of it's chemical balance caused its emotions to become unwieldy, making it erratic in its mood, as well as an inability to controlling impulses. Naturally, we kept it sedated, but as the serum ran out, it became more difficult to placate it, and as such, began to assault my fellow servants."

The image of the freshly dead otter reminded Grall that this fairy-story of a creature was, in fact, very real. "I, um, trust you have it sedated now?"

The squirrel buried his face in his paws. "It's gone! It escaped! Theodore and I tried to stop it, but it was too far gone. Sedation had worn off, and it demanded that the Professor complete it. We had managed to keep the news from it for so long, and when we finally told it the Professor was dead, it went out of control, killed Theodore, and stormed out of the castle. Oh, I've failed!"

The vermin were not inclined to share the servant's misery. "So it's not still here, then," sighed Hunter, wiping sweat from his brow. "That's good, then."

"There's nothing good about it!" yelled the squirrel, jumping to its feet. "It's gotten loose, don't you understand? It's the ultimate weapon, and its gone berserk, and nothing can stop it! Somewhere out there is a fully function weaponized badger on permanent Bloodwrath!"

Grall blinked. "Badger..." Dread melted into something of relief, the bones in the water cavern coming to mind. Of course: the squirrel was stuck in a past world, and was living out events long since over. "Listen, mate," he smiled assuredly. "You don't have to worry about that. It's dead, you see? Your badger is dead. We can take you to its bones if you like."

"Not him, you idiot!" the squirrel shrieked, grabbing Grall by the shoulders and shaking him angrily. The bloodshot eyes had become manic with intensity. "Not him! The other one! Project Brimstone!"

And then, its muscles seized, the burning eyes glazed over, and the squirrel died.