Trelayne wanted only to make things of beauty.

The reclusive pine marten was the third generation of his family who had mastered the secrets of the glass. He lived alone in a cottage in the midst of the deep woods, far enough from other creatures so that he could practice his craft without interruption, but not so far that those who sought his talents did not know where to reach him. Many coveted his creations, such was his skill, and he was able to parlay his vocation into a very comfortable living indeed, trading his pieces for whatever it was he needed. Homes and settlements from the Gawtrybe court to the halls of Noonvale boasted his designs, and his name was known far and wide throughout the Northlands, even if he himself was not.

Trelayne was a fairly modest beast, given his ability. He certainly never considered himself a figure of any import. But that all changed the day the two vixens stumbled upon his abode.

Sathara and her young sister Mona came running through the woods at a breathless pace, their worn and patched skirts flapping about their legs as they strove to elude the merciless trackers who pursued them. The pair of gypsy swindlers had crossed the wrong creatures this time, and their chances of escape seemed slim ... until they spotted the secluded cottage nestled amongst the elms and beeches. In spite of their panicked haste, they could not help but stop and stare at the sight that met their eyes.

This was no ordinary cottage. Certainly, its walls were of unremarkable gray stone and its roof of standard clay tile, but the windows were portals into other lands and lives and times. Each pane was no mere sheet of glass, but a finely etched work of art depicting beasts of various species and stations playing out defining moments of their lives in line renderings of such detail that the creatures and their surroundings seemed vibrant and alive, as if they might step out of the windows at any moment to introduce themselves to the two foxes. Each window was a life and a story in its own right, wrought by some magician who could coax fantasies out of the glass and make them almost real. It was breathtaking.

But not so breathtaking that Sathara forgot their immediate peril altogether. After a few moments of staring in awestruck wonder at the fairy cottage, the older vixen pushed Mona before her toward the structure. It was a slim hope, but just perhaps they could find sanctuary within, either from the occupant or on their own. There was no sign of anybeast else about, but surely such a magnificent house would not have been abandoned by its owner. Sathara hoped they would find it empty at the moment. It would take a lot of convincing to persuade anybeast to hide them from the enemy who sought them now.

Sathara found the front door unlocked, and did not hesitate to usher her sister inside before her. Closing the door tightly behind them, she called out, "Hullo, is anybeast at home?" There was no sense in keeping their presence a secret, since they would need the cooperation of whomever might be here if they wanted to elude capture and certain death ... or worse. And if the cottage turned out to be unoccupied at the moment, then they would just have to help themselves to hiding places on their own ... and hope they were the best hiding places anybeast had ever discovered.

As their eyes adjusted to the muted indoor light, the two vixens gasped anew at the sights arrayed before them. The same esoteric craft which had produced the cottage windows was clearly on display here as well, but in a wild riot of shape and size and texture that transformed the main room of the hovel into a fragile wonderland. The shady forest sunlight penetrated the windowpanes from without, making them even more magnificent when viewed from here inside the cottage, and provided enough light to softly suffuse the interior. By that subtle illumination Sathara and Mona could see dozens of glass sculptures, each more magnificent than the last, some sitting on shelves or pedestals and others so large they stood right on the floor and nearly touched the low ceiling. Here the art was not confined to the two-dimensional prison of flat windowpanes, and the imagination behind their creation had been free to soar without limit. Creatures and faces, leaves and flowers, snowflakes and crystals, mystical shapes without any counterpart in the real world ... all cast in the same silvery-white glass, all competing for attention, until the senses were overwhelmed. Surely riches and craft such as this belonged in a royal court somewhere, not hidden in this secluded place where nobeast would be able to gaze upon them.

Sathara began to wonder just what kind of place they'd stumbled upon ... and what manner of beast lived here.

That mystery was answered by the sudden appearance of the hovel's owner. The two fugitives heard the creak of a door opening around a corner at the back of the cottage, and then a marten stood in the kitchen doorway regarding them. He was a most unremarkable-looking creature in his middle seasons, retiring and not in the least threatening. A pair of fine spectacles balanced on the tip of his snout, and his only garment seemed to be a heavy smock that covered his front down to his knees.

He questioned them first with his eyes, wordlessly, then spoke in a nondescript tenor. "Who are you? What are you doing here?"

Rather than answer, Sathara grabbed Mona by the paw and pulled her toward the marten. The older vixen had determined with a moment's scrutiny that this beast was of no danger, and might just be the kind of creature who would indeed shelter them.

The marten threw up both paws, an expression of alarmed anguish distorting his face. "No, no! Not through there! You'll break - "

But by the time he'd voiced even this incomplete concern for his creations, Sathara and Mona were at his side in the small kitchen at the back of the hovel. Being vixens, they were possessed of both expert stealth and superb balance, and slipped through the crowd of delicate sculptures without so much as brushing a single one. The marten swallowed, then exhaled a huge sigh of relief. Regarding the pair sternly, he said, "Those are all one of a kind, and I could never exactly duplicate any of them again. That was very foolhardy."

"We need you to hide us," Sathara said without preamble. She was already looking past the marten toward the half-open door through which he'd apparently emerged. It appeared to open onto a flight of steps leading down to a cellar ... but best of all, the door was designed in such a way that when it was closed it would look like part of the kitchen wall. Nobeast who wasn't familiar with this cottage would realize that it even had a basement, if they passed through the kitchen while that door was closed. Sathara smiled; this was the first good turn of their luck they'd had since this whole awful affair had begun. Even if the searats did manage to track them this far, the two sisters might yet escape the wrath of the seavermin.

"You can't stay - " the marten began, but got no further before Sathara and Mona were past him and pounding down the stone staircase. Muttering futile protests, the hut's owner chased after them.

Sathara and her young sibling stopped at the bottom of the stairs, taking in the dimly lamplit cellar around them. The space was taken up by wide and cluttered workshelves along two walls, with a gray metal tub large enough to soak a badger set against a third. Tucked away beside the stairs sat a device that was clearly an oven, although it did not look like anything upon which anybeast would prepare food. The center of the room was open, so that a creature working down here could rush from shelves to oven to vat and back again, as needed.

"Be careful, be careful!" the marten huffed as he descended the steps behind them. "There are very dangerous things down here! Don't touch anything!"

The two foxes shuffled farther into the center of the chamber to make room for the marten to join them, but were mindful to keep their paws very much to themselves. "Dangerous things?" Sathara asked. "Dangerous in what way?"

"Well, normally I would have the oven fired up, but I'm not doing any blowing today. I'm distilling a new batch of vitriol, and that is far more hazardous."

"Vitriol?"

"Yes - glass vitriol." The marten pointed at the open tub; Sathara saw now that it had a heavy steel lid supported by chains, which was currently raised at a steep angle so that it was almost flush with the wall the tub abutted, leaving the vat itself completely uncovered. "Don't go near that ... "

Without a moment's hesitation, Sathara crossed the floor to the edge of the tub and gazed down into it. "It looks like water to me ... "

The marten was at her side in a trice, paws on both her shoulders to gently but insistently urge her away from the voluminous vessel. "Well, it's NOT," he said almost petulently. "Please forgive me, but I am unaccustomed to receiving unexpected visitors. I am in the middle of a very precise and exacting process which requires my undivided attention and fullest concentration. I must ask you to leave ... "

Sathara resisted his efforts to dislodge her from her spot. "Is it poisonous?"

"No. Not technically. Far worse than that, actually, in its present undiluted form ... "

"We can't leave," Sathara said, practically cutting him off. "Somebeasts are after us. They want to hurt us. We need you to hide us."

"Impossible! As I have just explained, I am in the middle of a very precise and exacting - and potentially dangerous - procedure here, and I cannot - "

"Mona, get the door." Sathara flashed her sister a paw signal, and immediately Mona shot up the stairs once more, closing the door that would disguise this subterranean lair from anybeast who happened to enter the cottage unbidden. This done, the younger sister rejoined the others down in the cellar proper.

Sathara pointed at the tub. "Tell me more about this dangerous fluid of yours."

"I'm a glassmaker," the marten explained, seeing that it would be useless to avoid answering the persistent vixen's questions. "I create artworks of glass. The glass vitriol is used for etching patterns and designs on glass - like the pictures you undoubtedly noticed on the windows upstairs. It is the only substance known which can do so ... but it will also destroy almost any material with which it comes into contact."

Sathara eyed the tub. "Not metal, apparently."

"It will eat through the strongest steel in the blink of an eye. That basin and all of my containers and tools I use when working with the vitriol are coated with beeswax. It's the one material I've found which is not consumed by it."

"And if a beast were to be put in there?"

The marten visibly shuddered. "Do not even say such a thing! The results would be too horrible to contemplate!" He looked thoroughly unsettled now, as if revisiting a particularly terrible memory - which in fact he was. "I once had a young rat for an assistant. One day he was bringing a small basin of the undiluted vitriol from the main tank to the workbench to be tempered for use. He stumbled, spilling the fluid across his footpaw." The marten shuddered anew. "The flesh and sinew was washed right off the bone as if it was made of sea foam. By the time I could get him to stop screaming, most of the bone had dissolved too. His foot was just ... gone."

Sathara's eyes went wide at this account. "What happened to him?"

"He died. Not for any reason that I could ever fathom. I think it was the shock. A beast might lose a paw or a limb in battle or through accident, but I think losing it in that particular manner traumatized him so much that he never recovered. He went into a delirium of fever almost immediately, and died the next day."

"I'm ... sorry. Were you fond of him?" Something in the marten's voice made Sathara suspect that he was.

"He was my assistant," the marten stated flatly. "He died while helping me make my art. That is not a thing that will ever leave me, if I should live a hundred seasons."

Sathara's gaze returned to the tub. "Why so much of it?"

"The formula for distilling the vitriol is very tricky. I've found through trial and error that it's easiest to produce large batches of its most concentrated form once every season or two, and then dilute it in the quantities I require as I need it. Now, I'm sure you can see why I don't want you down here. You're interrupting me. I just finished formulating this batch, and I really need to get the lid closed again. The fumes can be harmful to breathe, you know ... "

He started to cross to the spindle crank against the far wall which would lower the cover of the vat back into place, but was stopped dead in his tracks by the sound of the front door of his cottage being forcefully slammed open; the shuddering noise easily found its way through the floor to their clandestine chamber below.

The marten's brown eyes widened in alarm. "Who is it now?"

"I told you, there were beasts after us!" Sathara reminded him.

"What kind of beasts? Why are they after you?"

Sathara hesitated a moment before answering. "Searats. They think we've cheated them ... "

The marten's eyes widened further at this revelation, and then his whole form shuddered at the sound of a shattering, tinkling crash from the floorboards above.

"What have you done? Leading brutes like that here? They'll smash everything to pieces!" He ran for the stairs, but Sathara caught him by the arm and tried to hold him back.

"You can't go up there! In their present mood, they'll slay anybeast who crosses them! They won't know we're here. Let's just wait until they're gone ... "

Another smash sounded from the inside of the cottage above. The marten, now possessed of a protective mania toward his endangered creations that defied all logic or reason, violently shook free of her grip. "I've got to go up there and stop them!"

"But then they'll find out we're here!" Sathara protested, but her plea fell on deaf ears; the marten was already on his way up the stairs, determined to confront the intruders come what may. As she'd feared he might, he slammed open the door at the top of the stairway without making the slightest effort at stealth. Even worse, he left it standing wide open as he rushed into the kitchen ...

The vixen was ripped by indecision. Now that their hiding place had been revealed, it would probably do no good for her to run up and close the cellar door again; those rats would tear this place apart, once they'd had their sadistic fun with the artist who lived here. In his present state that marten might even let slip to the searats the presence of the two vixens. His expression as he'd ascended the stairs was not that of a fully rational beast.

Her gaze went to Mona, then to the wicker-door cabinets that were under one of the workbenches. Wasting not a moment nor a movement, Sathara raced to the storage space and threw the doors open. There was some equipment stored within, but not so much that it couldn't be shoved aside to make room for her younger sister. This Sathara did, then took her smaller sibling by the arms and guided her over to the cabinet. "Get under there, Mona. And don't make a sound."

"I'm scared ... " Mona whimpered in a very small voice. Even for her youth and inexperience (Sathara usually protected Mona from the less wholesome aspects of their gypsy's existence), Mona could sense that they were in greater danger now than they'd ever been in before ... and they'd been in more than one tight situation over the seasons.

"It'll be okay, if you just listen to me," Sathara urged. "Now climb in under there, and be as quiet as I know you can be."

Mona gave a reluctant nod and folded herself into a fraction of her usual size as she squeezed into the confined space. Sathara closed the door, then moved into the center of the cellar away from the cabinets.

From upstairs she could hear the sounds of shouting, a struggle, then a cry and a body hitting the floor. Those rats had wasted little time with that unfortunate marten ... which meant they would discover her any moment. And here she was, trapped with her concealed sister, and nowhere to run ...

But she did have a weapon.

Sathara glanced at the immense tub of the lethal fluid, then at the cluttered workbenches. The marten had said anything that was coated with wax would withstand the vitriol. Keeping this fact in mind, she raced to the nearest bench, where she spied a large metal basin. Picking it up and running her paw across it, she discovered that sure enough the entire object was glazed with a thin sheen of the beeswax inside and out. She immediately ran over to the vat and, with exceeding care, scooped up half a basin full of the vitriol. Walking slowly so as not to slosh the reactive fluid too much, Sathara made her way to the foot of the stairs. The story the marten had told about his ill-fated rat assistant was very much in her mind, and she did not wish to meet a similar fate.

The first rat was already at the top of the stairs as she approached the stone flight. Sathara was counting on only one of the vermin coming down to investigate this basement, or if more than one came, that they would stagger their arrival so that she'd have time to refill the basin. If what the marten had told her about this fluid was even remotely true, one basin should be enough for each of her enemies.

The rat saw her before he was even halfway down the steps, and had his cutlass drawn, a cruel grin revealing his yellow fangs. "So there you are, you wench! Nice o' ye t' put yerself in such an accommodatin' spot, with nowhere t' run! Now I'll have no trouble slittin' yer gizzard wide open ... an' I'll enjoy ev'ry moment of doin' it!"

Sathara waited until the rat was on the bottom step, then flung the basin's contents into the rodent's face. It splashed right where she wanted it to, thoroughly dowsing the front of his head as well as his throat and shoulders. The vixen quickly sidestepped the searat's lunge, since his momentum carried his sword-raised body forward even as he was blinded by the vitriol. The rat pitched headlong onto the stone floor, dropping his blade and clutching at his face, screaming in an agony unlike any Sathara had ever seen or heard before.

Even before he hit the floor, the rat's face was smoking and smoldering like a burning pile of wet leaves.

Sathara knew she should be running to the vitriol tub to refill her basin for the next rat down the stairs, that he might be there any moment, but she was unable to move, morbidly spellbound by the sight of the stricken creature before her. Never would she have imagined there was a fluid which could flamelessly ignite a beast's flesh and make it burn without fire. She had to see what she'd done to her enemy; even though she knew that he deserved this fate no matter how horrible the injury might be, she was filled with a revulsed fascination that would not allow her to take her eyes away from the writhing form.

But the rat remained face-down, convulsing now as his claws raked across the stone floor in the final throes of his agony. In his last moments he would not cooperate with her desire to turn over and expose the extent of his injury for all to see.

The next thing Sathara knew, two more rats were launching themselves down the stairs at her. She'd waited too long to rearm herself, she knew that at once, but still she spun and ran for the vat. If she didn't have time to properly refill the basin, perhaps she could still use it to skim some of the caustic liquid from the surface of the tub to splash it toward her pursuers. It would be more dangerous that way, but this was the only weapon she had against their cold steel.

She never made it. Even as she came within a step of the tub, the flat of a cutlass caught her on the side of the head and knocked her to the floor, momentarily stunned. The metal basin fell from her paws and gave a subdued clatter as its wax-coated surface skittered across the stone away from her.

When she fully regained her awareness mere moments later, she found herself on her feet, paws pinned behind her back by a burly and foul-smelling searat. His partner stood over the first rat into the cellar, prodding at the now-still figure with his swordtip.

"Hey, Karten, wotsa matter? What'd that vixen do t' ya?" Receiving no response at all, he knelt and turned the fallen rat over onto his back ... then recoiled in horror, almost stumbling in his desire to escape the nightmarish sight. "Archik, look! His face! It's ... it's ... "

The rat Archik, who held Sathara in his iron grip, could see well enough from where he stood the condition of his shipmate Karten's face ... or lack thereof. "How'd ye do that, fox?" he snarled into her ear. "How'd y' burn off his whole face in just th' moment he was down 'ere?"

"It's still burnin', Archik! Th' whole front o' his skull's cavin' in!"

"Pull yerself t'gether, Brozzie!"

"Let her go, Arch! She's a magic vixen! She can slay us with invisible fire!"

"Shaddup!" Archik's gaze went from Karten to the dropped basin to the vat beside which he and Sathara stood. "T'weren't no magic, otherwise she woulda slew us too. Think I know what it was, tho'. Get over 'ere, Brozola."

"I ain't comin' near that foxwitch!"

"Get over here, or I'll have Cap'n Lutar keelhaul ya when we get back t' th' Whiteclaw!"

Reluctantly, fear plain on his face, the rat Brozola picked his way across to where Archik held Sathara prisoner. "Wotcha want me t' do, Arch?"

Archik twisted Sathara toward the big tub. "Is this wotcha used on our matey, wench? How'd ya like a taste o' yer own medicine?"

"Nooo!" Sathara wailed, more fear in her voice than she wanted to betray to these rats.

"Sounds like a 'yes' ter me. Bozzie, grab her ankles, an' I'll get her wrists! We're givin' this bitch a beauty bath, t' make her as pretty as she made Karten!"

Sathara struggled, but was helpless as the two stronger searats got their grip on her and hoisted her off the floor between them. Slinging her by wrists and ankles like a sack of drygoods, they swung her several times to build up momentum. "On three!" Archik ordered. "One ... two ... three!"

And on three, Sathara found herself flung loose and airborn, but only for a moment that seemed to stretch an eternity as her body arced up over the lip of the tub and then down again, to splash fully into the vitriol and become totally immersed in the deadly fluid.

Even as she disappeared beneath the surface, the vitriol roiled and foamed about her, noxious vapors rising up toward the ceiling. Her desperate thrashings added to the violence within the vat, but only for a few moments; after that her subsiding form went still, the only motion coming from the unforgiving chemical reaction.

Mona watched the whole thing through the gaps in the wicker cabinet doors. When she saw her sister and protector go into the vitriol, and didn't see Sathara immediately rising back out of it, Mona squeezed her eyes tightly shut and began counting her heartbeats silently to herself. This was something she'd learned to do as a child, when they'd found themselves in precarious situations where it was vital that the younger vixen not betray her presence. It was a way for her to transport herself into her own mind and take her fears away from the peril of her position. Now it was quite literally the only way she could keep herself from crying out.

But she could not block out the sounds of the bubbling and hissing from the vat, not even through the closed cabinet doors. As the mental count of her rapid heartbeats reached one hundred, the noises inexplicably tapered off into a silence that could not be. Then she heard words that made her feel dead inside.

"Will ya look at that? She's all gone ... "

"You'd think there'd be bones or sumpthin' left, but ... nuthin'."

"Yeah. Just ... gone. Like she never was ... "

Mona pressed her ears down with her paws and tried to make herself smaller inside her secret hiding place.

The two rats started to choke and cough. By some miracle they'd managed to avoid getting any vitriol splashed onto them when they'd cast the struggling vixen to her doom, but their eagerness to see what would become of her had sealed their own fate. The vapors raised by dissolving a full-grown beast in the solution were nearly as lethal as the vitriol itself, and they had unwittingly breathed in enough of them to scar their lungs into uselessness.

"That's," cough, "some pretty," cough cough, "nasty stuff," Archik wheezed.

"Yeah," Brozola forced out between hacks, "think we shoulda stood a ways further back ... "

"My eyes 'n' nose ain't burned like this since that time I spilled some o' Chef's cookin' sherry in 'em!"

A fourth rat, dressed in a fine officer's tunic, appeared on the steps, wrinkling his snout as he waved a paw in front of his face. "What th' grog's happenin' down here? And what's that 'orrid stench?" His gaze went to Karten's gruesome corpse. "And what th' FANG happened to him?"

Archik began to explain, broke down hacking and wheezing, then started over again. "It's this stuff, sir," he forced out, nodding toward the vat of still-fizzing vitriol. "Eats away at a beast. One o' them foxes we was chasin' did that to Karten, so we picked her up an' put her in here. She boiled away t' nuthin' right 'fore our eyes!"

The officer, a Lieutenant Shreyesh by name, eyed the two subordinate rats. "One o' them vixens, y' say? Where's the other one?"

Archik and Brozola looked at each other, then around the cellar, and finally back at Shreyesh, shrugging. "Don't look like she's 'ere, sir."

Shreyesh pointed to the tub of rippling fluid. "What is that stuff? Where'd it come from? Does that marten upstairs know how t' make it?"

"Um ... er ... uh ... "

"You just went and killed that vixen without findin' out any o' that? I oughta chuck you both in there after her, you chumheads!" Shreyesh narrowed his eyes. "You say that potion ate her up entirely?"

"Like ice meltin' in scaldin' water, sir!"

"An' Karten?"

Archik picked up the basin Sathara had used in her assault on the first rat. "Guess she filled this with it, and splashed Karten when he weren't expectin' it ... "

Already the gears were turning in the Lieutenant's mind. A substance so destructive bordered on the magical. But if it wasn't magic - if more could be produced on demand ... The new Searat King might be able to find some very interesting uses for it. Perhaps even weapons applications. Certainly their traditional woodland foes possessed nothing like it.

King Tratton must be told about this. And if that marten upstairs held the secret to the manufacture of this substance, he must be kept alive at all costs, and delivered before the searat ruler.

Ignoring the two choking rats, Shreyesh turned and started up the stairs. He was gone before Archik and Brozola realized it, leaving the two of them standing alone in the cellar once more.

"Hey, what're we s'posed t' do now?" Brozola wondered aloud.

"Get away from this stuff," Archik coughed, nodding toward the big tub. He walked toward the stairs, but sank to his tail before he made it to the bottom step. "I don't feel too good," he coughed, leaning back against the cabinet in a sitting position. "Mebbe if I just set fer awhile ... "

"Think I'll join ye." Brozola clumsily sat down on the stone floor beside Archik, across the room from the vitriol vat. The two rats were completely unaware that they were propped against the hiding place of the second fugitive vixen they'd been pursuing.

The sounds of voices and heavy rat pawsteps were clearly audible through the floor. After several moments, Archik said, "Sounds like some o' our mateys have gone off somewheres ... "

"Should we go up an' see what it's about?"

"Naw. Let's just sit 'ere an' try t' get our breaths back ... "

"What if the 'tenant has orders fer us?"

"Then he c'n come down 'ere an' give 'em to us!" It was getting harder and harder for the two rats to speak; their sinuses burned, their throats were as raw as if they'd been shouting nonstop since daybreak, and their eyes felt like they'd been scrubbed with iron filings. "I'm just gonna set 'ere 'til 'e wants us ... "

Time passed, as their consciousness began to waver in and out of awareness. There were more noises from upstairs, but nobeast else appeared, leaving the two stricken rats to themselves. It was only after some indeterminate period that Brozola detected a slight scrabbling noise behind him. He twisted around and eyed the wicker cabinet door on which he'd been leaning. "Hey, Arch, I think there's somebeast unner there ... "

Archik scoffed. "What'd a beast be doin' in there?"

"I dunno. But I ain't jus' hearin' things - it's my eyes an' nose that's all mucked up, not my ears." Brozola opened his half of the double cabinet doors, and was met by the sight of Mona huddled up in the space under the counter, knees drawn up to her chest and paws wrapped around them, trying to make herself look as small as possible.

"Hey, lookee 'ere, Arch! It's that other vixen we been chasin'! An' here she was, nestled right b'hind us this entire time! Never woulda thought t' look fer her down there! What should we do with her?"

Archik glanced at the big vitriol tub through his bleary, irritated eyes. "What was good 'nuff fer her sister oughta suit her too, whaddya say?"

Brozola lit up in spite of his discomfort. "Yeah, great idea, Arch! But let's stand a bit further back this time, so's we don't get another snoutful o' them fumes ... "

The two rats reached back into the cabinet space for Mona, but were unprepared for the resistance they met. When the surviving fox sister realized what they were talking about doing to her, she went into a frenzy, clawing and biting viciously at any paw that came near her. At length, with many scratches and bitemarks to show for their efforts, the two searats succeeded in hauling the small foxmaid out from under the counter onto the floor. She continued to thrash and struggle in their grasp, adding screams of fear to her display. In their weakened state, she almost gave them more of a fight than they could handle.

The commotion of their activity masked to rats and vixen alike the sound of an equally raucous cacaphony coming suddenly from upstairs.

"Aw, stop fussin', ya liddle thief!" Archik growled at Mona. "It'll be over so fast ye'll hardly feel nuthin'! Prob'ly a kinder end than you deserve, too!"

"Yeah, jus' think," Brozola added, "in a few eyeblinks alla yer troubles'll be over ferever!"

The duo was so busy dragging their intended victim across the cellar to her doom that they didn't notice another beast come bounding down the steps behind them until it was too late. An expert slash took Brozola across the back of the neck, severing his spine and sending him to the floor, never to rise again.

Archik, suddenly left to manage Mona on his own, fell backward onto the stone himself, inadvertantly pulling the foxmaid down on top of him as he refused to relinquish his grip on her. It was an unwitting move that saved his life - for the moment.

"Release that vixen, rat, if you don't want this breath to be your last!"

Archik gazed up into the narrowed eyes of a regal-looking dogfox dressed in a black uniform jacket. The fox pointed a splendid broadsword at him, its tip red with Brozola's blood. He could only think that this was some relation of the two vixens - their father, or brother, or a warrior of their clan who'd come chasing after them, not that fox clans generally had warriors. But, as Mona extricated herself from the rat's grasp and fled to the safety of the stranger's side, Archik's gaze went to the stairs, and he knew things were worse than that. Much, much worse.

The next creature down the steps was neither rat nor fox, but was as big as the other three beasts put together. Burnished crimson armor encased the upper half of the massive body, which was supported by gray-furred legs like treetrunks. The penetrating stare that pierced out from the dark eyes beneath the black-and-gray striped forehead was cold and assessing, and seemed to dismantle Archik with just a glance.

"What is going on down here, Machus?"

The fox looked to the hulking badger. "Those two seascum looked like they were about to drown this poor vixen, so I stepped in on her behalf, My Lord." Mona had stopped screaming by this time, and snuggled close to the swordfox for protection.

"Is that so?" The badger stepped down and across to the hapless rat, grabbing Archik by the collar and the tail and hoisting him off the floor as if he weighed nothing. "Then let this one have a taste of his own cruelty!"

Before he even knew what was happening, Archik found himself being carried across the chamber and flung into the vat. His eyes went wide with horror at the very last moment before he splashed face-down into the corrosive fluid ... and then he saw no more.

The badger had intended to cast the unfortunate rat into the water and then hold him under just long enough to make him more cooperative for interrogation purposes. But when the fluid began to furiously steam and roil the moment Archik went under, the larger beast knew something was not right here, and retreated several steps. The stinging, acrid odor permeating the cellar grew more intense as the vapors produced by the vitriol's second victim of the day billowed up out of the steel tub.

"Machus, get yourself and that vixen out of here!"

The swordfox retreated halfway up the stairs, pulling Mona after him, but was reluctant to leave his badger master to possible harm. From his vantage at the midpoint of the steps, Machus had a clear view into the tub across the cellar, and could plainly see that the rat was being furiously consumed by the liquid within. "Great seasons! What the fang is that?"

The badger too retreated, but only to the bottom step. "I suspect it is some concoction used by the beast who owns this cottage, but as to its purpose ... "

"It's for etching glass," Mona said in a small voice.

The other two beasts looked to her. "How do you know that?" the badger inquired softly.

"The marten who lives here said so. He told us he makes up big batches every season or so. He just finished making this one ... "

"Us?" the badger prompted.

"My sister and me. Then those rats put her ... in there ... " Mona pointed toward the vat, where Archik was now almost completely dissolved; even as they watched, the sizzling framework of his skeleton seemed to give one last sigh of surrender as it dissipated into nothingness.

The badger laid a massive but gentle paw on Mona's shoulder. "I am sorry. That is a thing nobeast should have to see ... "

Machus had his mind on more immediate matters. "My Lord, there was no marten upstairs, just searats. I'm certain of it."

The badger looked back to Mona. "Did those rats put the marten in the vat as well?"

The young vixen shook her head. "No. He went upstairs to fight with the rats, but he never came back down again ... "

"We only found four rats in this cottage, including the two down here," said Machus. "We know the group we've been tracking is probably much larger than that. The main group must have left before we got here."

"And my guess," the badger nodded, "is that once they saw what this fluid could do, and realized the marten could manufacture it, they took him along with them as a tribute to Tratton. This is just the kind of thing the new Searat King would covet as a weapon."

"What shall we do now, My Lord?"

"Conduct a thorough search of the area around the cottage, to make sure the marten is not lying somewhere slain or unconscious nearby, or that there are no more stores of this fluid in which he might have been disposed. Once that is done, we will continue tracking those rats, all the way to the coastland if that is what it takes. Tratton must not be allowed to get his claws on this substance, or the formula for making it."

"I'll see to it at once, Lord." Machus turned and darted up the steps to carry out his master's orders.

The badger returned his attention to Mona. Even though she stood on the stairs several steps above him, they were almost eye-to-eye owing to the larger creature's height. "What is your name, child?"

"Mona. And my sister ... was ... Sathara."

"Two pretty names," the badger soothed. "I regret that I arrived too late to save Sathara, but you will come to no harm while I am around. I am Lord Urthblood, and I will protect you."

00000000000

An otter lay wounded on the ground.

This was the first thing that drew Mona's attention when she emerged from Trelayne's cottage, the first thing that had penetrated through her dazed malaise of shocked disbelief since the impossible loss of Sathara. Without a moment's thought or hesitation, she broke from Urthblood's side and made for the injured waterbeast.

Another fox - wearing the same style of black uniform jacket and armed with the same manner of sword as Machus - knelt alongside the otter, clearly striving to treat the injured fighter as best he could. Mona squatted across the patient from the healer, staring at the dire wounds with rapt concentration. The fox spared her only a puzzled glance before returning to his desperate work.

Urthblood came up behind her, placing a gentle, oversized paw on her shoulder. "Mona, come away. You have already beheld more death today than anybeast of your seasons ought to see."

But the young vixen shook her head. "I know healing. My sister taught me. I can help here."

And then, before the healer fox could stop her, Mona grabbed a clean bandage out of his grasp and reached for the moaning otter's wounds, probing deep into the lacerations with both paws. The shocked swordfox looked to Urthblood. "My Lord! This is ... she ... "

"What is the prognosis, Tolar?" the badger inquired, saying no word against Mona.

"That rat rapier did a nasty job on him, sir. His guts're sliced up in a score of places. I don't think even you or Machus can save him now."

"Machus is busy with a more important assignment right now, and cannot be spared. But Belka is a valued member of my otter brigade, and I will not lose him so easily. This vixen says she knows healing, and seems set on assisting you. So let her assist, and I will oversee the procedure to offer what guidance I can."

Tolar swallowed both his pride and his misgivings as he resumed his labors, now joined by a vixen barely past childhood. In the moments that followed, however, his pride was forgotten as Mona performed a medical miracle right before his eyes. Her pawtips played across the injured areas with a life of their own, seeking out the optimum way to approach every gash and slash to seal the wound and staunch the bleeding. She barely seemed to even watch what she was doing; it was almost as if her healing paws could sniff out what needed to be done, and then do it without the slightest pause or hesitation. Tolar had never seen anything like it.

And during it all, Lord Urthblood - the very creature who had personally imparted to Machus and the other swordfoxes the full depth of their medical abilities - spoke not a word of advice or guidance to Mona. He didn't have to.

Mona settled back on her haunches, holding her bloodied paws out before her. "He'll live," she declared, her drained tone no less decisive for being that of a small youngbeast. To those looking on, it was if she'd emerged from a trance. "But stitch him up quickly, though," she added.

Machus, long since returned from his own assignment, stood alongside Urthblood, where he'd witnessed the second half of this improvised outdoor surgery. "By all the seasons," he whispered, "no healer should be able to do what she just did."

Urthblood helped Mona to her feet while Tolar got busy with his stitching work on his patient. "You say your sister taught you your healing skills?" the badger inquired.

"Well ... sort of ... "

"Sort of? Was there anybeast else?"

"Well ... " Mona appeared lost for words. "It's more like ... I've always just known what beasts should be like, inside and out. I can almost sense when a creature is sick, or know exactly what must be done to heal it ... as if I can look into it through the skin and fur to see what's going on inside. It's like I was born knowing the healing lore."

Urthblood nodded. "What you have described is not entirely unlike the prophetic vision of the Badger Lords of Salamandastron - a vision with which I am both blessed and cursed. As I can sometimes see the future, the past, and what is happening in distant lands, so you can see and sense the state of a creature's health, and surmise the best treatment for its ills. That is a powerful gift. My foxes and I are highly skilled in the healing arts, but we possess no such talent as yours. It is fortunate indeed that I came upon you in your moment of need - not only for your own sake, but for that of the many others you might yet save in the seasons to come."

A mouse stepped forward with a damp cloth for Mona to clean her paws. For the first time, the vixen took full stock of the forest around her. The glade around the glassmaker marten's cottage - so peaceful and sedate upon her approach with Sathara - now resembled a bustling armed camp. Machus and Tolar were hardly the only swordfoxes here, and there were other otters besides the wounded Belka, and other mice besides the one who'd given her the wet towel, along with squirrels and hedgehogs and shrews ... but also, incongruously, weasels and ferrets. And rats.

Every creature was armed, and every one bore itself with a military dignity utterly lacking in the searats and other vermin Mona had known during her young seasons. The sight confused her, but she said nothing as she wiped her paws clean.

Urthblood turned to Machus. "What of the marten?"

"Not a sign, My Lord. If he was slain, those rats wouldn't have had time to bury him before we got here, and there'd be no reason to take him with them unless he was alive. That can only mean the searats took him as their captive."

"Yes ... yes, they would have," Mona said meekly, and when questioning eyes turned her way, she explained how she'd overheard the two rats who'd killed Sathara telling their superior about the vitriol's destructive capabilities.

"They're taking him to Tratton." Machus ground his teeth. "They want this vitriol for a weapon."

"There can be no doubt of it," Urthblood agreed. "And if Tratton succeeds in capturing the secret of this flesh-destroying fluid for himself, he will be able to terrorize the lands as no Searat King before him. We must rescue that marten - at all costs."

"Then we must be after them at once!" Machus said. "Before their lead grows too great."

"Agreed. But we will need to track carefully, to make sure we are following their true path. Their landing party was not that big to begin with, and we have thinned their ranks by four. We will have only one chance to overtake them, and there must be no mistake."

"I'll get right on it, My Lord." Machus bowed and rushed off to organize the tracking teams.

Urthblood's gaze went to Mona, looking small and somewhat lost in the larger activity of the badger's military forces. "Do you have any family or friends you can go to?"

She shook her head. "Sathara was my only family ... my only friend."

"I will have to leave one of my fox healers behind to look after Belka, and a few others as guards. I would encourage you to remain here with them - both for your own safety, and to help with Belka in case he takes a turn for the worse."

Mona cast a long look at the cottage, half its miraculous crystal windows smashed by the searats vandals, and shook her head. "I can't stay here, after what they did to Sathara. I just can't."

"If you come with us, you will need to keep your pace swift, for we cannot tarry. And there will be fighting."

"I can run. And I'm not afraid of fighting. It can't be worse than what I've already seen."

"Very well. You have my assurance that when we overtake the searats, I will do my best to keep you safe."

"Thank you, sir." Mona regarded the red-armored badger towering over her. She'd just joined a military expedition on a vital and pressing quest, when she knew nothing of military matters and lacked any fighting skills. But where else was she to go?

00000000000

Trelayne felt like he was stuck in a nightmare.

The memories of all that had happened tumbled through his mind in a fractured collage of mostly disjointed images. He'd arrived upstairs in his cottage to find the searats blundering through his glass menagerie, carelessly knocking over sculptures and seeming to delight in their destruction as they littered the floor with sharp, shattered crystal tears. The sight of this malicious, cavalier wreckage visited upon his beloved works had sent him over the edge of any reason ... and he'd begun screaming at the intruders, raining curses and epithets upon them in a shouting rage. He may even have struck them, or tried to - he couldn't remember clearly - which would have been behavior most shocking to him, as he was generally the most nonviolent of creatures.

Whether he had thrown any punches, or whether any of his blows had connected if he had, was lost to him. He had probably been totally ineffectual in the defense of his home, his pathetic efforts laughable in the eyes of the militaristic barbarians. Trelayne had heard about such beasts, although it had been his supreme good fortune not to have crossed paths with their ilk often in the course of his life. He knew that they would kill him without hesitation, and take great delight in any suffering they could inflict upon him. When he'd seen what they were doing to his private gallery, he almost wished they would kill him. Perhaps that's what he was trying to goad them into doing with his weak threats and feeble insults.

But it hadn't worked. Somehow he'd managed to get himself knocked unconscious during the confrontation (how, he couldn't remember) and the bloodthirsty savages had refrained from killing him. Unfortunately, rather then leaving him amidst the ruin of his life's work, they'd seen fit to drag him along with them.

Awareness came and went in waves. He was being dragged through the forest - not carried, but dragged in a stumbling half-run, so that his own legs were unwilling helpers in bearing him to someplace he was sure he would not want to be. Through the dull pain in his head he was vaguely amused at this betrayal by his own limbs, and the idea that while his mind was elsewhere - or nowhere at all - his body could be collaborating in its own abduction. Well, at least he still had legs, and feet, unlike that poor rat he'd once had as an assistant. What was his name? Trelayne couldn't remember at the moment. Burned his footpaw clean off, then died from the shock of it. He'd just been telling somebeast about that incident ... but who?

These disoriented trains of thought didn't occur all at once, but crystalized in fragments as scattered as the shards left back upon his cottage floor, bits and pieces popping up then vanishing only to reassert themselves a short time later. Occasionally they would link together into something vaguely resembling coherent thinking, but these spells were mercifully brief. It was during one such episode of clarity that he did indeed remember the beast to whom he'd been describing the tragedy of his rat helper ... and that recollection made him fall back into welcome delirium once more. He'd left those two vixens down in the cellar ... with the vitriol vat open ... and a cottage full of rats who'd been chasing the foxes and apparently wanted them dead.

Trelayne wondered whether either of those vixens still existed.

He could not tolerate the idea of being responsible for another creature's death. He had never taken another assistant after the rat, for that very reason. He worked with some dangerous tools and materials in the pursuit of his artistry, and after that terrible incident he'd decided he would work alone henceforth, accepting all the danger himself and sharing it with no other. If there were to be another chemical accident, it would befall him, as it should. He might perish alone and unnoticed in his secluded hovel in the middle of the forest, but it was a possible fate he would risk for the sake of his creativity.

It wouldn't matter that the searats were the ones who would have cast those two vixens into the vitriol, if indeed such a horrific thing had come to pass. It didn't matter that vixens and searats alike had forced themselves upon him unbidden, trespassing where they had no business being. He was still responsible for anybeast who met harm from the vitriol. Trelayne had created the solution, it was part of his inseparable work and life, and it was his duty to keep it from the world at large. If he were to learn that more beasts had lost their lives in this manner, a little bit of him would die inside.

And if he had known what the rats' plans for him were, he would have tried to kill himself by any means possible.

As evening approached, casting the woods around them in deepening shadow, a few of the rats started complaining and asking when they'd be stopping and setting up camp for the night. These inquiries brought only a snarl from Lieutenant Shreyesh.

"We ain't stoppin', and I'll thrash anyrat who slows us down! This marten's more important than all you brinebrains put t'gether - yeah, an' me too! - an' we'll rest when he's safe an' sound aboard th' Whiteclaw! This is Urthblood's territory, an' if he catches us it'll be up fer alla us!"

These words penetrated Trelayne's muddled mind in some oblique fashion, so that perhaps it was moments or perhaps minutes before he croaked out a reply to the searat lieutenant marching alongside him. "Important? Me? Why?"

Shreyesh flashed the marten a wicked grin. "'Cos you got a skill that King Tratton would give his front fangs fer!"

"Skill?" Trelayne was thoroughly confused, even more than his present physical state could account for. His only skill was crafting works of beauty from glass ... and what would a tyrant of the sea want with that? "He wants ... my art?"

"Hawharr! Yeah, y' could say that, matey! It's yer art he wants - the art o' whippin' up potions that make beasts disappear!"

At first these words made no sense to Trelayne whatsoever. He was a glassmaker and sculptor, not any kind of alchemist or herbalist. He'd never concocted a potion in his life, nor pretended to be any kind of magician who could make beasts ...

Then everything clicked into place with horrifying clarity. These rats must have seen somebeast immersed into the vitriol ... which would result, at least to their tiny minds, in that beast "disappearing." Which meant that at least one more blameless creature had met its end because of his labors, in spite of all he'd done to isolate himself and his dangerous work from the world of ordinary, happy beasts living ordinary, happy lives. Waves of self-revulsion washed over him, making him wish he could slip into his walking-comatose state once again. But this time, unfortunately, his body refused to cooperate.

The look on his face must have told a wordless story. Shreyesh actually laughed. "Yah, we seen what you c'n do, marten! That liddle mixture o' yers might make a mighty int'restin' weapon. An' ye're gonna make it ... for King Tratton!"

This was a mistake on the rat lieutenant's part. Being a sadistic corsair, he could not have guessed how resistant a decent creature like Trelayne might be to the idea of anything that entailed causing death or suffering to other beasts. The glassmaker violently (as violently as he was able, at any rate) shrugged off his escorts and flung himself down onto the ground.

"No! No, I won't do it! And you can't make me!"

"Oh, I can't, huh? We'll see if ye're still singin' that same tune after we get you ta Terramort! Now get on yer footpaws, marten, or I'll make yer regret it!"

"Kill me! I'll die before I'd help you or anybeast with what you're suggesting!"

Shreyesh narrowed his eyes at Trelayne. In spite of the prisoner's rather bookish manner, he was considerably larger than even the burliest rat among this crew, and would not be easily carried against his will if he put up a struggle. It had been one thing to half-drag him through the woods while he was delirious, but it would be quite another to carry on if he put up any amount of resistance. With a sense of urgency upon him, Shreyesh was in no mood to cajole and coax cooperation out of his captive, and jumped to a more direct approach.

The searat officer drew his cutlass and, with a single savage swipe, severed the tip of Trelayne's tail. The marten gave a stifled cry of pain, grinding his teeth together.

"Oh, we ain't gonna kill ya, friend - we need yer precious mind too badly. But that's a taste o' what you can expect if you don't cooperate. I'll chop off liddle bits o' ya one piece at a time - not enuff t' keep ya from walkin' or imperil yer life, but enuff t' cause ya more pain than you ever woulda guessed there was in all th' world. Now, on yer feet, or I'll take an ear next!"

Trelayne glared at the rat. He was no hero, no bravebeast ... and he was as averse to the idea of suffering himself as he was to the notion of causing suffering to others. A simple and quick death he could have accepted, but he knew he would not be able to stand up to these villains under the threat of torture or abuse ... and that made him even angrier than he'd been before. For the first time in his life, the peace-loving marten found himself wishing harm upon other creatures. If he had had magical powers at his clawtips and could have struck these vermin dead, he believed he would have done so. It was hate, pure and unadulterated, as he'd never felt it before in his life. He was at these creatures' mercy, and he knew they would give him no choice but to help them cause death and destruction to others. He might detest what he was being forced to do, and detest himself for doing it, but he knew he would be helpless to do otherwise.

Trelayne slowly climbed to his footpaws, hooded eyes fixed on Shreyesh. As the marten regained his full height, he hawked and spat right into the rat lieutenant's face.

The expected reprisal never came. Trelayne had hoped that this worst thing he could think of to do would goad Shreyesh into slaying him quickly in anger, but the rat officer was better trained than the average pirate or corsair, and calmly wiped the phlegm and spittle from his eyes and snout.

"Heh, is that the best ya can do? The most that'll get ya is a few extra lashes when we reach th' Whiteclaw! Now move!"

And so, with the burden of his new occupation as an architect of death weighing upon his soul, Trelayne put his aching legs in motion once more, allowing his guards to guide him inexorably closer to the western shore, and past any hope of salvation.

00000000000

Urthblood and his soldiers, having picked up the trail of the fleeing seavermin, were counting on the rats stopping for the night, and overtaking them by morning.

The night was a moonless one, and after the daylight failed, it became impossible to track the searats' trail through the wilds of the Northlands. The Badger Lord ordered camp established with no cookfires to betray their position, in case their quarry were closer than suspected.

Machus sat with several subordinate foxes of his brigade. All wore the same black uniforms, and carried fine broadswords. Mona sought out the beast who'd saved her from annihilation that day and squeezed in next to him on his log bench, in spite of the fact that he and his swordbeasts were engaged in a strategy meeting. The young vixen had never strayed far from his side during the day's pursuit of the searats and their prisoner, and showed no sign of wanting to abandon him for the night either.

The swordfox chieftain was content to indulge her. She'd seen her sister - the only family she had - die in a particularly horrible way, and had very nearly met the same fate herself. Mona had spoken barely a word since joining their march, most likely traumatized. Machus knew he could only babysit her like this for so long - Urthblood's campaigns were ongoing, and no place for any nonfighting beast, much less one of Mona's tender seasons.

The vixen silently listened in on the fox warriors' discussion about how they would pursue, surround and defeat the seavermin. Machus wondered whether it was good for Mona to be part of such bloodless tactical planning, but the sparkle in her eye showed either that she was taking in every word, or that her proximity to Machus outweighed any distress she might be caused by hearing such war talk. It scarcely occurred to any of them that the mere prospect of death being carried to the searats filled her with a delight that she dared not show.

As the strategy session ended, Urthblood himself ambled over to hear Machus's report. Still Mona stuck by him, and eventually the badger's attention shifted from his fox chief to the young vixen.

"How are you doing, Mona?" Urthblood inquired.

"I'm tired," she replied. "But I don't know if I can sleep. I'm very nervous."

"You have done well in keeping up with us today. I would have slowed our pace for your benefit, but it was not necessary."

She nodded. "I know how important it is to catch those rats. If you don't, they'll do to many more creatures what they did to my sister."

"That is my fear, yes. I am glad you understand." Urthblood studied her for long moments, then said, "Try to get some sleep. We will be moving with dawn's first light. Machus, a word with you in private, if you please ... "

When the badger and swordfox were several paces away from Mona, Urthblood said, "Keep this one close to you, Machus. I sense a potential in her that I have seldom perceived in a beast. I believe she has the capability to do tremendous good or to unleash great evil upon the lands. Her future is clouded, but I clearly feel the paw of fate upon her. Right now she is balanced on the edge, and may tip either way. We must guide her if we may, so that she chooses the correct path. Watch her, and stay by her side whenever you can so that she might benefit from your example. She has bonded with you, and you may be her salvation."

"Uh ... yes, My Lord." Machus had not expected this, but was not about to question his badger master. Lord Urthblood's powers of vision and prophecy had proven accurate on any number of occasions, and that was one reason his Northland campaigns had proven so successful ... and why so many creatures, vermin and woodlander alike, followed him with an almost fanatical loyalty.

"But what of the searats, My Lord? We really should have overtaken them by now. As diplomatic as you were with Mona just now, she IS slowing us down, in spite of her best efforts to match our pace. If only we'd moved faster ... "

Urthblood shook his head. "It will do us no good to overtake the enemy if we are too tired from running to fight them. And we cannot risk losing their trail if we push on in the darkness. But this forest is unfamiliar to them, and they must almost assuredly stop for the night just as we have. They cannot move as fast as we can, slowed down by their prisoner. In the morning, we will close the distance and settle this matter once and for all."

Machus chewed a worried lip. "But what if they don't stop for the night? It doesn't matter if they're slowed to a half-march by the darkness and terrain - a half-march might still give them a lead we can't overcome, and allow them to reach the coast before we can catch up with them."

"Would you prefer to send ahead some advanced scouts under cover of night?"

"Yes. Yes, I would."

Urthblood gave a decisive nod. "Then do so."

00000000000

The scouts returned well before dawn ... and their news was not encouraging.

"We went as far as we dared through the treetops," the squirrel reported to Machus and Urthblood on the fringe of their encampment, "and then we went a little farther, all the way until the forest gave out into a wide meadow. When we still didn't see any sign of them, we thought we might have deviated from their path, so we backtracked through the trees and ranged out to the sides, but still ... nothing."

Machus didn't want to face the obvious conclusion until he absolutely had to. "Well, we know they're probably a fairly small contingent - likely fewer than a score. Is it possible they were camped under the trees with no cookfires, and you simply missed them?"

The squirrel shook his head. "Possible. But not likely."

"Might they have been camped out in the meadow you say you saw, beyond the trees?"

"It's possible, but I'm a squirrel, not a bat. My nocturnal vision's not keen enough to see slumbering creatures lying prone in tall meadow grasses on a moonless night like this."

"They have moved on," Urthblood said, invoking the certainty Machus had avoided. "They did not stop for the night."

"Shall we resume our pursuit at once?" the fox asked.

"Yes - but not in the way that you mean. We cannot hope to track them by night, for we would surely lose their trail in the dark. But if they have moved beyond this forest, that affords us an opportunity as well. Rouse the troops, Machus, and make them ready for an immediate march. Our goal now is to reach that meadow by dawn's first light, if we may. And then we will examine the situation from a new perspective."

00000000000

Mona had never seen a bird so huge.

Urthblood's new strategy had brought his campaigners out onto the open meadow well before sunrise, where the badger had immediately ordered that a large signal fire be lit at the forest's edge where the smoke could rise high into the morning sky without becoming trapped or dissipated by overhanging branches. Once the flames blazed in earnest, Urthblood cast a pawful of powdered crystals into the fire, causing the smoke column to take on an odd green huge, with other colors mixed in as well. Mona sat upon the grass a few dozen paces away, marveling at the wondrous sight.

Before the sun had even breeched the horizon, an enormous winged form spiraled down out of the sky and alighted upon the meadow grass directly before Urthblood, greeting the armored badger with a subservient bow of its great feathered head.

The two imposing creatures went into a lengthy conversation. Everybeast else - even Machus - maintained their distance, allowing badger and bird to confer in private.

"What IS that?" Mona asked Machus.

"That's Halpryn - one of Lord Urthblood's winged captains. That kite is a scout, a fighter, a messenger ... and on this morning, I suspect she may have to fulfill all three of those duties if we are to win the day."

"Lord Urthblood has beasts AND birds serving him?" Mona seemed clearly amazed at the very prospect, even moreso than the revelation of vermin and woodlanders serving together under arms in the badger's army.

Machus nodded. "Change is coming to the Northlands. And its name is Urthblood."

Their conference finally concluded, Halpryn lifted into the sky once more with mighty wingflaps whose wind Mona could feel from where she sat. Urthblood strode over to rejoin his troops.

"Fortune favors us. Lady Mina's patrol is just a day to the north. Halpryn will alert the Gawtrybe to the situation so that they may position themselves for an ambush."

"The Gawtrybe?" Mona asked.

"Allies of mine. The two squirrels you see among my present force are representatives of their tribe. Better trackers - and better archers - you will not find in all the lands. They will tip the balance of this conflict - if we can get those searats to turn north."

"North?" Machus asked. "Why wouldn't they just keep running due west, straight to the seacoast?"

"Halpryn bore information about more than just Lady Mina. My eyes in the sky see far and wide - and I now know something those searats do not. And I suspect an unwelcome surprise lies in store for them."

00000000000

Trelayne was weary beyond words. The rats had kept him on the run all night, keeping the pace as quick as they could in the dark, unfamiliar forest. Around midnight they'd emerged from the thick woods into a rolling meadow. Shreyesh ordered his searats to increase their speed while the terrain would allow it, pushing relentlessly on beneath the moonless sky. A few crumbs were spared for their captive, and Trelayne forced them down even though his appetite was as sour as his stomach.

The marten desperately wanted to rest, but he knew from experience that if he tried to do so, his guards would beat him with the flats of their blades until his skin smarted and burned beneath the fur. And with every strike, every insult and threat to compel his cooperation, Trelayne's hatred grew. He ignored his physical torment by retreating into a mental reverie in which he envisioned every searat alive given over to his vitriol, so that they would simply cease to be and never trouble or torment decent beasts ever again.

Daybreak found the searats back under the Northland forest canopy, this one sparser than before. Their quickened pace, along with the lack of sleep, had taken its toll not only on Trelayne but on the rats as well. Not even their fear of the badger who was known to roam these lands with his formidable army was enough to spur them on endlessly without cease.

"'tenant, we gotta have a rest!" one of the rats complained. "I'm about t' drop!"

"Yeah," another quickly agreed, "I'm dead on me footpaws!"

"No stoppin'!" Shreyesh roared, reasserting his authority over these scattered grumbles. "That badger's got eyes all over this region, so we gotta get back to th' Whiteclaw quick as we can. There'll be plenty o' time fer rest once we're back onboard!"

The others muttered and groused a bit, but their commander's urgent entreaty could not be debated, so they pushed on.

Trelayne noticed a distinct brightening to the forest ahead of them. He assumed it was another meadow or plain, but it turned out to be something quite different when they finally broke out of the trees.

"Blood 'n' fur 'n' thunder! A cliff! An' no fur-sodden way down!" Shreyesh glanced north and south along the cliff edge, seeking any trail or descending ledge that might provide a shortcut, but could spy none. Straight ahead he and his rats could see the glint of the Western Sea, and they knew the sanctuary of the Whiteclaw lay somewhere behind the hills below that hid the coastline.

Trelayne saw that glint as well - but for him it meant that his permanent imprisonment and a life of hardship lay that much closer. The cliff could not have been sheer enough, nor the seacoast distant enough, for his liking.

Shreyesh's second-in-command, Crasko, joined his superior at the cliff's edge. "Hey, where'd this come from? It wasn't 'ere before ... "

"That's 'cos we didn't come this way when we was headin' inland, you idjit."

"Oh. So, where d'we go now, 'tenant?"

Shreyesh threw his gaze left and right, silently debating. Which way would deliver them down to the coastlands quicker? They'd travelled inland north of here, thus there must be a way down to the coast in that direction. But might going south be even faster? They hadn't been that way before, but there was no way to know for certain, and no way to tell from their present vantage.

"Well," the rat officer drawled, a sour smile twisting his lips, "the b'ys have been cryin' fer a rest. So let's rest here fer a spell while I mull it over. But, uh, post some sentries in those woods b'hind us. Don't want no angry badger takin' us unawares, do we?"

00000000000

Even as the searats and their unwilling marten guest settled down for their morning's rest, Urthblood's forces were tearing across the meadow and into the forest beyond, pursuing a southwest tangent meant to bring them out at the cliff face somewhere south of the enemy.

Mona sat astride Urthblood's shoulders, with Machus jogging at his master's side. The shifting situation now called for speed, and the badger's previous caution about sapping their fighting strength no longer applied. If they could position themselves properly and in good time, they might not have to fight at all.

Or so they hoped.

00000000000

"Lieutenant! Lieutenant, they're a-comin'!"

Shreyesh was on his feet and at the lookout's side in a flash. Sure enough, a large group of armed beasts - with one unmistakable red-armored brute at the forefront - had broken out of the forest along the cliff edge to their distant south.

"Everyrat, up an' on th' move, now!" he barked. "Get that marten up too! We got trouble, an' I don't mean to let it catch us!"

Many of the searats had dozed off in the dappled shade of the clifftop forest, and were now rudely roused from their slumbers by this alarm. However, they needed only to hear that the feared warlord of this region was close at paw, and this was enough to inspire their resumed flight.

Trelayne was roughly hauled to his feet and taken between his two guardrats, who put him on the run once more. He hadn't wanted to sleep, only rest, but this respite had done more harm than good; now that his relentless pace had been interrupted, his muscles ached horribly, and his legs were so stiff he could hardly stir them. Several times he fell as the rats drove north along the clifftop trail, and each time he was smacked with the flats of their swords for this delay, in spite of the fact that the searats themselves were stiff and slowed by the long run so far.

"Slow us up, marten, an' I'll give ye tenscore lashes m'self when we get to th' Whiteclaw!" Shreyesh threatened. "Now find yer feet an' stop fallin' over 'em, or ye'll get my swordtip in yer back fer incentive!"

Trelayne glowered, nursing his secret inner hatred, but did his best to comply. With the rats around him slackening their own pace, he was able to avoid collapsing anymore, in spite of his physical torment.

Never did it occur to him that he was fleeing from the very creature who sought to deliver him from this living nightmare.

00000000000

The cliff had almost melded into the flat land around it when the searats were wiped out.

After a chase lasting hours - during which Shreyesh somehow succeeded in maintaining a comfortable lead over the pursuing badger - the ambush came without warning. From the trees around them, scores of Gawtrybe squirrel archers suddenly appeared, arrows flying from their bowstrings with deadly accuracy. The rats on either side of Trelayne were both hit, one of them falling backward onto Crasko, who'd been marching behind the marten, keeping an eye on him for Shreyesh. His master didn't fare as well, taking a feathered shaft through the skull in the opening moments of the one-sided engagement. Those who tried to backtrack the way they came ran into Urthblood's charging patrol, swords swinging and spears thrusting. In no time at all, not a rat remained alive ... except for Crasko, lying very still beneath the fallen guardsrat, playing as dead as he could.

In all of this lightning-fast melee, not a shaft or blade touched Trelayne. The confused marten found himself standing amongst piles of slain searats just heartbeats after they'd been bustling him along on the way to his abhorrent and loathesome future - the only upright creature in a wide circle of carnage.

Urthblood strode over to the stunned marten and extend his massive paw in greeting. "I am Lord Urthblood of Salamandastron. And you are?"

Trelayne blinked up at his hulking savior. This was the very first time in this entire affair, going back to the arrival of the two vixens at his cottage, that anybeast had bothered to ask his name.

"Tre-Trelayne, sir," he sputtered. "I am called Trelayne."

The two shook paws, the marten's fairly lost in the badger's much larger one.

"I have come a long way for you, Trelayne."

"Those searats ... they were going to take me ... "

"Yes, I know."

"Because I know ... how to make ... "

"Yes, I was in your basement. I saw."

Trelayne's eyes widened. "You did?"

"I did. And I can understand why Tratton's officer thought he would covet what you might have to offer the Searat King. That is why I chased so hard after you. They must never gain a weapon of such power."

"No," Trelayne muttered, still trying to catch up with events that, up until now, had been entirely beyond his control. "If I may ask, there were two vixens at my cottage. Were they ... did you ... "

"One was slain. The other is safe with me." Urthblood gestured toward the trail behind him, where Mona lingered beyond the fringes of the battle zone.

"Slain? How?"

"In your creation, according to her sister."

The marten blanched. "No ... not again. You ... you saw it?"

"Not the vixen. I put one of the rats who killed her in the fluid myself, thinking it was only water, so I have seen what it can do. It is most impressive."

"One of the rats met its end that way as well?" Trelayne set his jaw defiantly. "Good!"

That one word conveyed so much, Urthblood didn't need to question further. What these rats must have done to him, and what he must have believed lay in store for him, had kindled a hatred in him that would smolder for the remainder of his seasons. The badger could see that Trelayne was not by his nature a violent or vengeful beast, but Urthblood suspected that the marten would forever be willing to make an exception for searats after this day.

The patrol of Gawtrybe archers came bounding over to Urthblood, a sightly and gallant female at their forefront. "I trust we came in time, My Lord?"

"Just, Lady Mina. If these rats had made it all the way down from this clifftop where the trees are more sparse, you would not have been able to ambush them so easily, and the battle would have been bloody for us as well as them. It was imperative that they be stopped, and I would have had to risk high casualties, if it had come to that."

"Well, we got here as fast as we could when Captain Halpryn delivered your summons to us. Good thing we were patrolling just north of here, huh? Although these days, one never has to go too far in the Northlands to find fighters or allies of yours."

Machus cleared his throat for Urthblood's attention. "What about these rats, My Lord? Should we bury them, burn them ... ?"

The Badger Lord shook his great striped head. "We have already lavished more attention on them than they deserve. Leave them where they are, for the insects and the carrion-eaters to take care of them. We have comrades waiting for us to the south. And I am sure good Trelayne here is anxious to be home ... "

A look of consternation crossed the marten's face. "I'm not sure I can go back there, Lord. Not after what happened there yesterday. A blameless creature met a horrible end in the place I call home, not through accident but with malice and intent. I swore I would never allow such a thing to happen again, not after I lost my assistant in a tragic mishap, but now it has. I cannot help but feel the life I had before today is over ... "

"Then let me give you a new one," Urthblood said, placing a paw on Trelayne's shoulder. "You have seen today what kind of threats these lands may face. Enter my service, and you can help me defend them."

"But ... I am no soldier, no fighterbeast ... "

"That does not matter. I have room in my forces for beasts of all skills and talents. Young Mona, the vixen I rescued from the searats at your cottage, has already agreed to enter my service as a healer, and I am sure I can find a place for you as well which would not require you to lift blade or spear. Come with us - we can discuss this on the way back to my troops who are waiting for me to the south ... "

00000000000

Once the Northlanders were all gone, one of the dead rats began to shift. The slain guard slid off to one side as Crasko, the sole survivor from the ambush, pulled himself up to his feet. Looking around to make sure none of his shipmates displayed any signs of life, Crasko grabbed some extra food and drink off one of his deceased comrades and broke into a run, north down the clifftop in the opposite direction from that taken by his would-be killers.

00000000000

EPILOGUE

Kaydion wanted only to make entertainments that would amuse his tribesfolk.

The mouse conjurer lived with his friends and family along the same stretch of coastland that had, many generations earlier, served as home to Luke the Warrior and his son Martin, founding warrior of Redwall Abbey. That those legendary mice had ever dwelt in these caves was a detail long ago lost to the dim recesses of history, but the caves themselves were still there, and still made wonderful abodes for anybeasts willing to brave the searat threats of these days.

On festive occasions - and at other times just for fun - Kaydion liked to whip up a special powder he'd learned to make as a child. A mix of sulpher, saltpeter and carbon, it burned fast and brightly when set alight, and with a variety of brilliant colors depending upon what other trace minerals were mixed in with it. It could also be packed into enclosed packets, which would cause it to burst with great force for its size when lit, producing loud bangs and bright flashes. Although dangerous if handled carelessly, Kaydion held a special respect for his personal invention, and made sure that nobeast ever came to harm when he assembled his displays.

This was such a day. Kaydion had prepared a show of blue and gold flashes interspersed with upward showers of red and green sparks that would fly halfway into the night sky. As always, the display was timed to take place just after twilight, and all that day lookouts stationed on the high clifftops backing the beach had scanned the waves to make sure there were no searat vessels in sight. Kaydion's colorful spectacle would be held down on the beach sand, where his clan could see it unfold against the dark of the ocean; even with the lookouts as a precaution, it would still have been foolhardy to have lit off his creations up on the clifftop, where ships might spot it half a day out. These mice liked their fun, but they were not entirely incautious.

Which is why they were taken totally by surprise when the score of heavily-armed searats stepped out of the night's darkness. Under the entrancing spell and distracting glare of Kaydion's shimmers and sparkles and flashes, none of the mice had noticed the small steel underwater vessel nose itself up close to the tideline, or the vermin fighters splashing their way ashore just to the south of their caves. The mouse tribe outnumbered the searats three to one, but many were babes, wives and oldsters, and not even the most hale and hearty adult male among them possessed the slightest military training. All of their clan's defenses had hinged upon not allowing themselves to be discovered in the first place, and that had always worked well enough, even with Kaydion's fireworks. But now their luck had run out. If this searat patrol meant to exterminate them all, there was little they would be able to do to stop it.

Lieutenant Crasko - older and craftier and more savage than on that long-ago day when he'd survived the ambush that had claimed every other rat of his landing group - looked over the mice cowering before him. King Tratton had been on the lookout for a new weapon to add to his growing arsenal, and when a corsair galleon sailing this way earlier in the season had spotted the flashes coming from this area of the shore, the searat ruler had dispatched one of his prototype submarines to track down the source. And now that that had been done ...

Crasko drew his cutlass. "Okay, mice, lissen up! Ye're gonna give us what we want ... or else we're gonna carve you up one at a time, startin' with yer squallin' brats! Got it?"

The older mouse who served as the unofficial clan chief spoke up timorously. "Wh ... what is it you want?"

"Those thunder 'n' lightnin' flashes we saw comin' from here - who's behind that?"

At first no mouse answered; none wanted to be to blame for bringing misfortune down on their beloved Kaydion. But it quickly became clear to Kaydion himself that he would be the one to bring disaster upon them all if he concealed his identity. Swallowing, he stepped forward. "I am."

Crasko grinned cruelly at the mouse. "See, that weren't so hard now, was it? Come with us, an' we'll leave alla yer friends alone. Unnerstand?"

"And if I don't?"

"Then ... we won't leave yer friends alone - if'n y' get my drift." Crasko ran one claw menacingly along his blade's edge to underline his meaning.

Resigned to this sudden reversal of fate, Kaydion slowly stepped toward the seavermin and let the searats lead him away, over the protests and sobs from his clanmates. The searats waded and then swam him out to their waiting craft, never letting him stray beyond paw's reach. When the mouse was securely ensconced within, the hatch was closed, the submarine was backed out of the shallows and turned about, and Kaydion was borne away to the nightmare world of Terramort and the depraved court of King Tratton, never to be seen on these shores again.

The balance of power had shifted yet again in the eternal struggle between searats and land beasts - and only time would tell where it would all lead.