Victrix's Eye!

Chapter twelve is up!


Sometimes legends have a way of resurfacing, wending their way back into the waking world. So it was with the Nex-Cantus, the mighty vermin horde that conquered the land and crushed the woodlanders into slavery. But there was one weakness to the strength of the horde: the famed gemstone, Victrix's Eye; the lust for it was carried through the ages, and the deaths of many an unfortunate twined about it. Still the power-hungry leaders of the Nex-Cantus searched, until their blind search pulled into it the fates of two creatures from different corners of the land and sea. Driven cruelly together, they must fight to survive, and to fulfill their destinies, linked together by the power of the Victrix's Eye...

First Chapter by Stormfyre.

The deck swayed gently from side to side on the moonlit windless night. Playful waves rocked the ketch as one would rock an infant, while the still, cold air hung heavily and oppressively like an icy blanket. Stars winked above, occluded here and there by stray clouds scudding across the sable sky.

A grizzled old sea otter stood on the forecastle, swaying with the deck, one with the timbers of his small ship. Behind him, six crewbeasts on watch duty warmed their paws over a contained fire, humming catches of familiar sea shanteys through chattering teeth as they watched the sky uneasily. The sea otter stumped over to them and dropped his considerable bulk in the midst of the circle. He nudged a young shrew. "Doin' all right there, Parva?"

"Y-y-yeah, cap'n," Parva shivered.

A mouse stared ahead sullenly. "If we don't catch a wind soon, we'll run out o' provisions."

The otter roared with laughter. "Oh, Nik, you better not get your hopes too high! Don't get too cheerful on us, mate!" The captain's mirth was contagious. The crew enjoyed a good laugh at the stoic mouse's expense. Niklas just glanced at his crewmates impassively.

The laughter fell into silence, and the good cheer died with it.

"He's right, you know," a shrew named Hosko said. "This dead weather ain't gonna 'elp us none."

"We're at the mercy o' the wind," a river otter deadpanned. "Can't do anythin' 'till the air starts puffin'. We can't blow the sails ourselves."

The captain flashed another big grin. "Aye, matey, ye're right there, 'tis a fact. All we can do is wait, an' while we wait, there's not much t'do 'xept..." He leaned toward the fire, its golden light playing on his features. "Swap stories."

Parva's face lit up with expectation. "You got one for us cap'n, don't you?"

The sea otter's grin grew wider, if that were possible. "I wouldn't let me own crew down, now would I?" He shifted his position and let out a sigh of contentment. "Ye'll 'ave ta set up an extra watch, tho'... It's a long yarn."

"Is it true?" Parva prodded.

"True? Course it's true! On me affydavit! Swear by m'beard, blade, an' barque, it's true! Now, it begins with an ol' sea legend... Thought t'be myth by most. An ancient rhyme, passed down from father t'son, mother t'daughter. My father taught it to me, an' it goes like this...
In the days of the old, before abbeys and castles,
Before vermin lords held reign o'er their vassals,
Before woodlanders united to build strongholds of stone
To welcome the downtrodden, sick, and alone;
When Mossflower Wood still ranged far to the South,
Far to the West, past great River Moss's mouth,
And to the East as far as the ocean-swept shore,
And the North, to the mountains, to the wind-shapen moor;
While the mount Salamandastron still spat forth its fire,
While the Great Inland Lake was nought but a mire,
Were the Nex-Cantus! A great vermin horde,
And all who were living feared the wrath of their sword.
In great ships of wood and iron they pillaged,
Enslaving their captives, setting alight every village!
Filling their holds with invaluable treasure,
Gold, gems, silver, their worth without measure.
One blood-red ruby, the crown of them all--
Victrix's Eye, by which Nex-Cantus would fall.
Brother against brother, father against son,
As all sought to grasp the beautiful One
Which was said to bring power and wealth to its master.
Nobeast could see the cloud of disaster
Created by unbridled hunger for gold
And their greatest ship sank, Victrix's eye in the hold.
The ruby sleeps underwater, hidden to this day
Lest any foolhardy beast should take it away
And begin the war anew, all for selfish desire,
And all of the land would be ruined with fire."

The sea otter leaned back and stretched his muscular arms. "Th'legend was lost for a long time, forgotten. But these things 'ave a way of resurfacin' sooner or later..."

"And did it?" Parva questioned.

The captain smiled. "Wouldn't be much of a story if it didn't,mate!"

* * *

Chapter 2 by Raitha Galestarr

Far over the Northern seas, away in the endless stretches of the ocean, waves tossed and heaved, victims of a vicious gale that raged over them. The screaming winds raced over the tortured main, reaching up sometimes to tear long claws of black cloud from the low sky, so that they raked at the wildly heaving sea. Somewhere in that broiling melee, a small shape leaped about like a minnow on a line. A small barque, well made but badly stormbattered, bucked from side to side, sometimes heeling out of the water, sometimes listing far over so that the wrenched spars almost touched the ocean's surface, shoved and tossed by the pitiless waves it rode. Torn sails flapping, ropes and timbers creaking, the little craft resembled a floating wreck, dredged up from the bottom by the gale. And so it might have been taken for, if the small shapes rushing frantically about on the deck had not been seen.

A hissing chain of lightning lashed the air, lighting the barque up for a split second. Greynorth was her name, and her crew, mostly motley woodlanders, beavers, shrews and dormice, with oddly enough, only a single otter in view, dashed about on the bucking deck, desperately trying to salvage their floundering ship.

On the afterdeck, a sturdy mouse slid and slipped on the seawater slicked deck until he cannoned into the mainmast. Losing his balance, he was thrown upon his face. The Greynorth bucked over a wave, listing crazily to port, and the endangered mouse slid easily over towards the rail. Helpless, he watched the railgaps looming up... Strong paws clamped on the mouse's leg, heaving him back to safety. Spluttering seawater, he scrambled back upright to face the strong looking sea otter vixen who had pulled him back. Raitha Galestarr the sea otter was the captain of her small craft, and she was evidently not about to give it up without afight.

"Cap'n! This gale's more'n even the Greynorth could take! We're gonna sink!" The mouse wailed.

Raitha glared back at him, wiping seawater from her eyes as she snapped. "Belay that kind o' talk, matey! Moanin' never got us anywhere, now shift back ter the helm an' lend a paw! I ain't givin' this up yet!" She ordered.

Under his captain's wild hazel gaze, the mouse hurried back to the tiller, where three shrews and a hedgehog were already battling to keep the Greynorth on some kind of course.

Raitha grabbed the bowing ratlines at the rail and heaved herself into the rigging. Sinking her extended claws into the saltrimed hemp, she climbed to the mainsail, where several solid crewbeasts were wrestling with the ragged, flapping sails. The sea otter captain soon lent her own strength to the task. The muscles stood out on her sleek back as she heaved on the wildly twisted ropes.

"Any glim o' land, mates?" She roared out against the wind. It took the most of Raitha's voice to reach the creatures working alongside her.

A tense-looking shrew lifted his head and yelled back; "None, Cap'n! I sure could stand a sight o' some too."

Raitha chuckled grimly, clenching a running line in her paws to steady herself. "Haharr, me 'earties, what kind o' lan'beast's talk is that?"

"Well, yer the one that asked!" A stocky squirrel yelled back impudently. That really did make Raitha laugh.

"Harhaharhaharr!" The sea otter slapped the mast with merriment. "All I ever could wish for's a game beast like that in me crew! Belay, yew coves, get below to the decks, I'll cut these sails loose meself. Shift yerselves!"

The crewbeasts obeyed her orders, climbing carefully down from the swaying ratlines. Raitha pulled herself higher, drawing her dagger from her belt and clenching it in her teeth as she fought to reach the top moorings of the tugging mainsail.

The squirrel who had spoken jumped to the deck, as a dark shape hurrying up through the blackness soon melded into a puffing female beaver. "Where's the cap'n?" She yelled urgently. "There's a hole in the for'ard locker! Musta bashed a rock an' weakened the plankin', the water's making it bigger!" The beaver's words caused consternation among the crew.

"We're sinkin'!" A panicked cry went up from a gaunt raccoon dashing aft. "We're all gonna die!"

Up in the rigging, Raitha did not hear the ruckus rising from her crew as, one by one, creatures heard of the deadly hole and panicked. She bent her head into the battering elements, her ears pinned flat to her skull with the whipping wind. Shutting her eyes, grasping the ratlines as she pulled herself ever higher above her ship and the chaos forming below. The sea otter was worried, despite her confident air. This was a killer gale she was attempting to fend off, and her paws shook as she pulled the dagger from between her teeth and slashed at the ropes holding the heaving sail to the mainmast spar below her. The keen blade sheared easily through the tough fibres. The sail freed itself with a wrench and whipped off into the night. Briefly, Raitha stopped and rested by leaning into the rigging, and staring off into the starboard waters. A small spar of driftwood, whipping through the air, struck the sea otter a hefty blow to the back. She winced, despair flooding in as if the wood had ruptured some hidden dam, driving away the mask she had worn before her crew.

Crrraaaaack! Flash! a huge fork of lightning rent the sky to starboard, lighting up the Greynorth with its eerie brilliance. Raitha flinched, shutting her eyes tight, then they opened almost immediately, this time bright with hope, staring in the direction the lightning had lit up, just where the radiant flash had lit up the lumpy shapes of a coastline, just away the starboard bow. Raitha freed a paw and rubbed her eyes, then, galvanized into action, she began scrambling downwards to the deck, roaring at the top of her voice. "Put about, mateys! Land ho! Haharr, the sea ain't gettin' the ole Greynorth this night! Hard over, me buckoes! Laaaaand hooooo!"

Nobeast heard the sea otter above the sickening crunch of ship's timbers on rock that rent even through the gusting air. The Greynorth ground to a halt with a shuddering screech and slowly began listing over.

Creatures rushed about, panicked without a captain to guide them, as the deck listed steeply. Run fast aground on a shoal, the barque was easy prey to the huge, ravening wave that crashed heavily against her hull. She was thrown over on her side, smashed against the ruthless stone. Crewbeasts fell from the shattered hulk, caught up in the rushing sea. Their screams were lost in the night.

Still up on the mainmast, Raitha barely managed to hold on when her craft ran aground, she was wrenched to one side, paws twisting painfully in the ratlines. Even as the sea otter was snarling out her favorite sea oaths, the mast gave a stomach churning lurch against the shoals, and snapped clean off! Caught in the ratlines, the captain was helpless as she was tossed easily away from her ship into the stormlashed night. Dark, icy water pounded the sea otter vixen, flooding over her eyes, tugging at her whiskers. Somehow, Raitha fought her way clear of the mast and struck out strongly, heading to where she judged the reef her ship had fallen prey to lay; but the storm raged too fierce for even a sea otter to fight against. Though she used every shred of her own redoubtable strength and skill, she soon found she had been swimming in blind circles when the mast rushed suddenly at her out of the heaving waves. Shredded ratlines whipped about her body, twining about her paws, pinning her helplessly. Then she was wrenched back towards the mast. Even as she tore at the ropes pinning her, her head cracked against the heavy wood, and she lost consciousness instantly.

Hours later, far and away, the storm ran on, roaring and raging its life away over the foaming, whitecapped sea. Left in its wake, thrown upon a beach amid the tangled chaos of broken seaweed and shattered logs, lay a still, dark shape, motionless in the clearing moonlight.

* * *

Chapter 3 by Stormfyre

"Mulkey, look here. Th’creature stirs, does she nae?"

"Aye, Sivla, that she does. Wot wud we diew wid ‘er?"

"Diew, mate? Ahar, hahaharr, wot indeed…"

The reedy voices echoed through Raitha’s throbbing skull as she rose out of a dark pit toward a distant, flickering light. Her mind groped blindly, trying to find her paws… There. As soon as the blurry shape of a weasel appeared before her eyes, her footpaws punched the ground, launching herself forward into the apparition. A satisfying howl of terrified surprise greeted her ears. She stood quickly and almost fell down again, stumbling dizzily. She became abruptly aware of a screaming pain on the back of her head. She forced herself from reflexively reaching back to feel her wound. She had an enemy to concentrate on. She had droves of untamed anger to vent. She grabbed the weasel’s lapel and spun on one paw, lining him up with his cohort, a stoat who was uncoiling a vicious whip. The weasel, having regained his senses and convinced himself that Raitha was most likely not an unspeakable demon of the seas, backpawed her across her jawbone, sending waves of pain through her already-injured skull.

"Galestaaaarrrrr!" Her battlecry singing through the salt air, she hurled the vermin like a discus. The weasel found himself lying on the ground with his tail in the campfire, and he suddenly believed that his earlier assessment of Raitha must be true. He disappeared into the surrounding woodland.

The sea otter’s back suddenly arched in pain. She wheeled to find the stoat menacing her with his whip. A sneering grin split his lips, and an unrepressed snigger broke the air. Raitha stepped forward and was met with the lashing whip once again. She raised her paw to guard against it, but the hissing thong opened a stinging cut across her chest. Permitting her rage to gain control of her paws, she leaped forward and grabbed the whip before it could be swung again. The stoat released it and pulled a long dagger from his cloak, but Raitha’s paw was on his wrist, squeezing with crushing force. She struck his chin none too lightly with her free paw, and the stoat hung limp. She jostled the vermin and almost clouted him again when the cloying, fiery mists of rage fell from her senses. She dropped the unconscious form, seized by a wave of fatigue. Her body slumped against an pine, and she gazed out over the churning waters that had claimed her crew. Her crew… Flavel… Minsey… Arne… Each name echoed through her mind. Glenn… Megal… Lotor… Diggs… Darvey… Silver teardrops brimmed the sea otter’s eyes as she growled, "Not fair, y’hear me, ‘s not fair! Most of ‘em was on their first sailin'…" Her paw smacked the ground beside her in frustration, squelching against the dewy moss.

Raitha sat listlessly against the rough bark and stared forward over the ocean, gathering her faculties and contemplating what actions to take. The sun was rising at her back, so she had her bearings and time of day. "Leastaways I wasn’t out too long," she mused. She gave vent to a deep sigh.

The sea otter bolted upright as a sound reached her ears. Somebeast was nearby. Stepping forward cautiously, she scanned the periphery of her view. Her searching eyes found nothing but the ocean on one side and the forest on three more, bowing slightly at a gentle sea breeze. She continued forward and slid silently into the cold, foamy seawater. Pumping with sure, steady strokes, she glided through the blue-green soup, ignoring bits of seaweed that stuck to her fur. A quivering, convulsing mass of fur and torn clothing lay in the shallows, coughing frequently. A familiar flash of red caught her attention. "Darvey!"

The squirrel spun himself around, shivering from the chill of the water. "C-c-cap’n!" he cried. He choked on the word, coughing up a mouthful of saltwater. "Cap’n!" he repeated. "Wh-wha… What hap…" The young crewbeast retched again at the foul-tasting water.

Her face washing over with concern, the otter captain asked, "Yew aright, matey?" The irrepressible squirrel nodded and threw a sharp salute.

"D-D-Darvenfield T-Treesail, p-petty officer, third c-c-class-s-s… R-reportin’ for d-d-duty, ma’am." His cheerful round face twisted in pain, and Raitha stared at his left leg, which was bending in an extra place. Glancing back at his broken limb sheepishly, Darvey rendered, "Me hull’s intact, but I got a busted rudder, cap’n. An’ an empty hold," he added, rubbing his stomach ruefully.

The sea otter smiled sympathetically at the squirrel. "’ere, mate, let’s see if we can’t get yore lead-bottomed boat to port, eh?" She pulled the squirrel up on his good leg and supported his weight as they set off into the woods.

"Sithee, Drahkool, the beasts is headin’ wrongways, de ye think?"

"Wrongways for thim, if’n they wonts t’keep livin’, Makraus."

"Dos we tell th’ Primus?"

"Cahn’t go ull th’way back there, they’d reach th’ marshes afore we got back, an’ we’d lose ‘em."

"’N they’d ron inter d’toads, eh, Drahkool?"

"Or inter d’slime, if dey’re locky. Eith’way, a waste o’ goodslavepower."

"So we take ‘em now?"

"Not yet, Makraus. Patience. Won of d’Nex-Cantus most ‘ahve patience."

Chapter 4 by Raitha Galestarr

"Ah still says d'Primus'd needter kniew this. Guid slavebeast t'otter."

"Stay yer patience Makraus, like Ah said, we lose'em rightquick if bothleave."

"Gaaaaaayuaaaaaaagh!" Drahkool stopped at the hideous cry that rang out. The two vermin, Makraus the pine marten, and Drahkool, his superior, a large, tough rat, stopped and laid their paws on their weapons. Searchingly, they scanned the surrounding trees and beach, it was not long before they spotted the source of the noise.

Mulkey, the stoat Raitha had knocked out scant time before, had wakened and struggled to his paws. Still disoriented by the blow that had laid him senseless, he staggered from side to side as he approached Drahkool and Makraus, nearly colliding with trees and tripping over tidewashed logs, crying out at the pain. At first, he did not recognize his two fellow vermin, and recoiled from the them, as if they were nightmares come to life. At that moment, he tripped over a rock and collapsed to the ground in front of them.

Drahkool covered his face in exasperation and remarked to Makraus as he listened to the wailing grovelings of the half-mad stoat. "Muste' be d'otter did'iss, huh, mighty warr'er, dat 'un, good'n'strong. Goodslave."

"Whooaaaagh! Nokill, nokill poorbeast. Dissbeast a-b'seechin'! Whoaaayaaaagh!" Mulkey's groveling came to an end when Drahkool kicked him abruptly into the shallows of the water. The rat snapped harshly at the hapless stoat, a plan forming in his seasoned mind.

"Wak'nin' up, lazyfool, water wakeup good, thentell what happened. Drahkool got plan."

Mulkey came up coherent. Under Drahkool's orders, he spluttered what he had seen, recounting the desertion of his panicked comrade and the encounter with the desperate warrior. Makraus stayed in the background, letting his superior recount his plan.

"Goodthink. Makraus! Yiew takebeast, follow seavixen an' squirrelbrat an' catchem. Take to Nex, I goback now, tell d'Primus what happen." Drahkool sniggered cruelly. "Corvochar wanna muchword with d'vixen, fer sure! Hukahyukha!"

"Why taketime, find one mor'a slave? Many slave in city." Makraus piped up as soon as he had absorbed his orders. "Onehurt anyway, on'y seavixen make goodslave, other soon die."

"Got many slave," Drahkool responded somewhat condescendingly. "But noneswim. No otterbeast slave in city. Seavixen swim, like nobeast. Eye underwater, maybe seavixen fetch for d'Master Mountain."

Makraus stared, as did Mukley, at the mention of the Victrix's Eye. The legendary ruby, so beautiful it could cause wars that tore the land apart. Lost long ago in a shipwreck, it was nonetheless lusted after by every Montrex, the High King over all the Nex-Cantus, since for the destruction it could bring. When they pointed out that it was half legend, and probably all myth, Drahkool simply waved this aside.

"Eye true, Drahkool know."

Sent on their way, the young pine marten officer and the stoat saluted and marched off. Drahkool turned in the opposite direction, heading north and slightly east to where the ferry reached back to the mainland, and the Primus's real territory.

Raitha, despite her size and strong build, could not go far from where she had found Darvey before she almost collapsed in sheer exhaustion. The young squirrel groaned with every movement, and almost fainted when Raitha stopped and almost dropped him. Painfully, the two shipwrecked creatures dragged themselves further, until they found a suitable campsite. The small hollow under the giant, stormgnarled firtree they found was damp and filled with rotting needles, but it offered protection from the wind and detection, and they crawled thankfully in. Ignoring her own fatigue and the pain of her wounds, the sea otter forced herself to gather enough wood for a small fire and light it with a stone from the beach, and the steel of her dagger, which had miraculously not fallen from her belt throughout her ordeal. The small blaze she managed to light threw very little heat, and smoked a lot, but Darvey crouched gratefully before it, watching as his captain gleaned from the surrounding forest snakeroot, willowbark and even, by luck, a pawful of comfrey from a sad and bedraggled patch crowding in a damp hollow by a brackish creek. Torn by necessity and sympathy for Darvey's gasps of agony, Raitha straightened his leg and held it with a splinted shaft of cedar, placing in a rough poultice over the swollen limb the herbs, crushed together and damped with seawater. The sea otter shook her head as she wiped her paws on her ragged jerkin and handed Darvey a shallow clamshell of willowbark tea, brewed laborously over the feeble fire for a painkiller.

"Nothin' else the best healin' beast could do in the world for ye in the circs, Darvey. At best ye'll limp fer the rest o' yore days, mate." She said sadly.

To Raitha's extreme surprise, Darvey leaned forward as far as his leg permitted, and hugged her about the waist. The young squirrel looked up at his captain with trusting eyes filling with tears. "Limp or not, I'm still better off than the rest of the buckoes, cap'n. Ye saved me, an' I won't ferget it. Wherever you go, I will too, an' do what I can to help ye!" He said firmly.

Belying her tough, scarred appearance, Raitha was a young warrior, and she kept mostly to herself, even among her own crew. Unused to such affection, she sat back slowly, complete exhaustion suddenly washing over her like a comber, drowning her in its embrace. Her eyes were closing inexorably, leaden weights fixed to the lids by the horrible wound on the back of her skull, that she had yet neglected to tend. Briefly, the sea otter tried to excercise her usual cynical wit.

"Well, I'm true glad I got a warrior like yerself on my side, matey. But don't wake me 'til... morn… if ya wanna... stay that way..." Her body slumped back, and she fell abruptly into a deep well, somewhere between sleep and the realm of the unconscious.

Darvey stayed awake long afterwards, bothered by the pain in his leg. The squirrel counted himself lucky that he had survived, and been found by his own captain no less, but he found himself feeling horribly ashamed that his own injury had caused Raitha so much trouble. Darvey's sharp eyes had not missed the deep, crusted scar on Raitha's head, nor the new whipcuts across her back and on her chest, and he was filled with remorse that she had not been able to tend them.

"My pore cap'n. Sure she's a survivor," he said to himself aloud, staring into the darkness beyond the feeble light the dying fire cast. "But I'll show I am too."

Raitha stirred slightly, and Darvey silenced himself instantly, horrified let she wake because of him.

"We'll find the rest of the crew, whatever of 'em's alive, cap'n, don't you worry, an' the Greynorth too." He thought grimly. "And there won't be a beast more loyal to you than Darvenfield Treesail."

Raitha had not heard Darvey's brief spoken vow, but somebeast else did. Slitted eyes watched the sea otter and the squirrel, barely blinking for fear of discovery, until Darvey nodded, still flinching from time to time as his leg shifted, but deep asleep. Two dark shapes bellied down in the soft carpet of dead needles and crept forward inch by inch as the flames fell low, and the light they had once harboured died slowly into the night.

Drahkool had reached the main ferry by sundown. The rat snapped his orders to the shifty-eyed mink who ran the ramshackled raft, and was soon ferried across the broad seastrait that separated the island from the rest of the Nex-Cantus territory on the mainland. He did not even stop for the night when he reached the small outpost village bordering the cover where the ferry docked. Travelling instead tirelessly along the muddy, rocky road, hacked crudely through the thick, deep coastal forest. It took him 'til well past moonrise until he finally breasted a low rock mountain and saw stretching before him the city of the Nex, the furthest northern city of the vermin. Tall stone buildings rose, and squat, pillared temples to Victrix, and the Montrex, clustered, clustered with them. Jostling together, the marketplace and dwellings of the lower class vermin and their families marked the lower regions. Even at that late hour, deep in the night, the magnificent city still resounded to the crack of whips and the groans of tortured woodland slaves, captured and forced to work for the vermin overlords who occupied their land long conquered.

* * *

Chapter 5 by Stormfyre

Drahkool strode through the moonlit colonnade, the cobblestone floor shadowed by gargoyles and ornate statuettes depicting scenes of conquest and battle. He had always admired the Primus’s grand house—it was a symbol of power. The large rat knew that Corvochar wouldn’t be sleeping at this hour. The aristocratic ferret had acquired certain odd eccentricities that nobeast could understand, such as patrolling his prisoners late at night. Drahkool ran his claws along a carved mural dedicated to the glory of the Primus, feeling its contours until his paw contacted an obscure bump. He pressed it inward, and a panel of stone swung open. He stepped through, and it closed inaudibly behind him. Marvelous handiwork.

The rat paced quickly down the dimly-lit corridor toward Corvochar’s private dungeon—the ferret’s place for his personal prisoners. Nobeast but Drahkool and Corvochar knew of its existence. The mason who had built it had been executed on some rather sudden charges of libel and sedition. Drahkool passed several empty cells, then one occupied by an old hedgehog. The rat had never learned the beast’s name. The prisoner’s bagged eyes glared with astounding intensity. Drahkool quickened his pawsteps, leaving the hedgehog behind. He rounded a bend in the passageway and squinted at a burning torchlight. A squat figure eclipsed the light. Corvochar.

Drahkool approached the Primus. The ferret was conversing with a prisoner. Very odd…

"I do not know what you’re talking about," a voice echoed wearily.

Corvochar’s snarl resounded through the dank chamber. "Y’must! Ye’re Sparveri Clahn, y’frum the line o’Skyfyre! Ye’re keepers of the Eye!"

"Kiiiieeeerrr!" something shrieked. Corvochar jumped backwards as talons scythed the air where his face had just been a moment ago. "I know nothing of what you speak! My name is Windfeather! I come from the East! You have no right to imprison a free creature!"

An incredulous cackle emanated from the Primus’s throat. "Rights? Rights? Ye cahn’tspeak rights! I the Primus!" The ferret suddenly glanced to his left, seeing Drahkool standing dumbfoundedly. "Whothat… Drahkool? Whatyou dewin’ here?"

The rat bowed his head and threw a paw across his chest in respect before replying, "Eminence, me an’ Makraus find ottervixen for slave."

"Slave?" Corvochar roared. "We ‘ahve muchslave, stupitfool!"

"Otterbeast c’n swim, dive mochdeep undersea," Drahkool explained smoothly.

Realization dawned on the Primus’s pudgy features. "Divedeep… fetch…" He leaned closer and whispered, "Victrix’s Eye?"

"Yerss, Eminence."

The ferret slapped the rat heartily on the shoulder. "Hyarhahayyaa! Guidwork, Drahkool! Muchgold f’you!"

Drahkool stepped forward and peered into the cell whose prisoner seemed to hold Corvochar’s interest so much. He saw a small bird of prey staring fiercely back at him, downy chest heaving, eyes raging with a golden fire. "Whothis?" he muttered.

"Kiiiyaaaar!" The bird launched himself at the iron bars, talons flashing, beak clacking, and wings beating at the air.

Amused, Drahkool flicked his paw at the bird, almost casually, striking his chin and knocking him head over tailfeathers into the damp recesses of his cell.

"Sparr’Awk, frum greatland farwest ‘cross Great Sea." Corvochar lowered his voice again. "Sameplace where coms Victrix’s Eye."

Drahkool nodded. "’ow dos ‘e know ‘bout d’Eye, den?"

"’e’s frum d’Sparveri Clahn. Dey d’Guardians o’ d’Eye." He regarded the sparrow hawk, who was rising to his feet. "Donno’why. De’re radder… unremark’ble."

The bird gave a spiteful hiss and folded his wings, crouching in a dark corner.

Drahkool raised his nose contemptuously. "D’weak are croshed, makeroom f’d’strong. We d’strongest!" The rat turned to Corvochar. "Whynot give to Manisk? Dat’n makeum talk rightquick!"

The Primus wheeled, eyes burning dangerously. "Nobeast knowthis but you’n’me. Makraus, mayhap, when ‘e proves loyalty t’me. D’monitor Manisk ‘s loyal t’Montrex, no’un else."

A vicious grin spread across Drahkool’s savage features. "Den we slitthroat lizard, when we get Eye?"

"When we get Eye, Drahkool, you c’n slitthroat anybeast y’want!"

The two conspirators strode down the hall away from the occupied cell. "I got plentybeast t’slitthroat," Drahkool nodded. "Manisk, Karchok, Gralt, Sakaath…"

Corvochar nodded without hearing. "When otterbeast come, put ‘er on slaveline on half rations for…" After some hasty mental calculations, the ferret rendered, "A week. Nomore. Den bringhere to house, and give muchfood, muchfood ‘ndeed. Aft’she eats, bring ‘er t’my chamber. I talk much wid otter. Den we see… She ‘elpus… or she die."

"Yerss, Eminence." Drahkool nodded and slipped silently away.

Stormfyre sat in his cell, staring dumbly out into the corridor. He hoped that the false name he had given Corvochar stirred up doubt in the ferret’s mind. He couldn’t allow the secrets of the Stone of Skyfyre fall into the paws of a vermin megalomaniac. Victrix’s Eye—what a perversion, the sparrow hawk thought darkly. He winced at a pang of hunger. He hadn’t eaten since… He squeezed his reddened eyes shut. He had to separate his mind from his stomach. The sparrow hawk regretted not being able to hear the conversation between Corvochar and Drahkool after they left his cell, but this otter vixen they spoke of… He hoped that she would somehow escape. He sighed. To be a captive of the Primus Corvochar was to live in Dark Forest.


"Rightnow, up on y’paws! Wakeup, sleepybeasts!"

Raitha and Darvey woke to the sound of Makraus’s rough voice. He and Mulkey prodded the two prostrate forms with heavy iron spears.

"Cap’n!" Darvey cried.

"I see ’em, mate," the sea otter muttered.

"Up! Upupup!" screeched Mulkey, jabbing Raitha cruelly. With a shout of anger, Darvey grabbed the spear haft and pulled, throwing the stoat off balance. Makraus backpawed the wounded squirrel, knocking him back against the solid trunk of the fir which had served as their shelter.

Darvey thrust his body forward to leap upon the pine marten, but Raitha jumped forward and restrained him.

"Woah, woah, Darvey! This ain’t gonna ‘elp us any!" She glanced back at Makraus, then back to the squirrel. "This will," she nodded. She thrust her elbow back, knocking the Nex-Cantus soldier squarely in the stomach. The sea otter wheeled and landed a solid blow on the back of Mulkey’s neck. Whirling around on her follow-through, she connected her fist with Makraus’s jaw, knocking the pine marten flat.

Darvey stared at his captain with a gleeful smile on his face. His smile fell as Raitha stumbled dizzily. She gritted her teeth and held a paw up against her head.

"Cap’n," Darvey said tentatively, "mebbe I could take a look at that wound… put some… whatever you put on head wounds on it."

Raitha shook her head. "Nah, don’t worry ‘bout me, Darvey. I’ve done worse to meself winnin’ a game o’ shells an’ acorns agins a bunch o’ searats." She grinned at the loyal squirrel. "Might as well git goin’, mate." She grabbed the spears from Makraus’s and Mulkey’s limp claws, tossing one to her companion. "This trail’s gotter lead somewhere."

Raitha supported Darvey’s weight as the two companions made their progress down the path. The sun had risen over the horizon earlier, but now it was obscured by heavy and darkening clouds. A dreary patter of light rain issued from the grey sheet above, turning the sod beneath the two travelers’ feet into soupy mud. As the trail passed, the trees appeared to grow greyer with the sky, and the brilliant colors of summer retreated into drab neutrals. Soon, the cheerful birdsong that had filled the air was replaced by the drone of cicadas and the occasional toad’s chirrup. Bracken and brambles occluded the path here and there, and the ground grew soupier with each pawstep.

"Cap’n," Darvey rasped. "Cap’n, I got a real bad feelin’ in me gut ‘bout this…"

"I know what y’mean, mate," Raitha breathed.

The sun finally winked out like a lamp, hidden by layering stormclouds. The rain continued to drizzle apathetically. Raitha almost took a tentative step forward when she noticed something—the ground ahead was rippling. She poked it with her spear. The point disappeared beneath the surface. "Swamp," she muttered.

"What d’we do now, Cap’n?"

The sea otter let out a frustrated sigh. "We ain’t goin’ that way, fer sure." She looked back over her shoulder. "Guess all we can do’s head back an’…" She didn’t have the chance to finish her sentence. A soggy vine net fell over both of them, weighted at the corners by heavy boulders. Raitha grabbed a length of the fiber, but a sharp trident poked at her paws.

A repulsive toad brandished his weapon, glaring silently. He wore various bone jewelry which succeeded only in making him more hideous. More toads leaped out of the swamp muck, even from places that Raitha had taken to be solid ground. Toads seemed to materialize from every possible position. Warted hides obscured the ground for as far as the sea otter could see.

"Now I got a really, really bad feelin’ ‘bout this," Darvey muttered.

"Out o’ the hurricane inter th’maelstrom. Figures," Raitha shrugged.

"Grokk! Rrrreeeeeb! Shuttamouth, furribeasts! Walya hoogg!" The first toad, apparently the chieftain, prodded Raitha with his trident again. He motioned with a webbed claw to two subordinates. They grabbed their captives’ spears. The corners of the net were gathered and pulled tightly.

Raitha and Darvey were dragged across the ground like a catch of fish, poked arbitrarily by the toads’ tridents for good measure. Knocked jostled by the ride, the two companions could do nothing but wait.

Finally, they came to rest at a muddy clearing. The toads left their prisoners and congregated around a platform. The chieftan toad hopped atop the podium and addressed his tribe in guttural tones, pointing at the captives every now and then.

Darvey glanced at his captain. "Y’okay,Cap’n?"

Raitha shook her head. "I’m fine, matey, but yore th’one with a busted limb."

"Th’splint’s still holdin’, an’ so’m I," the squirrel said bravely. He stared at the toads fearfully. "What’re they gonna do to us, Cap’n?"

The sea otter leaned closer to him and whispered, "Abs’lutely nothin’, mate, cos’ we’re gettin’ out o’ here." She rested a paw on his shoulder. "Okay?"

Darvey grinned. "Right, cap’n!" He looked back toward the toads and his grin fell. "’ere comes the uglies now."

Three toads were hopping toward them. Taking up the corners of the net again, they hauled the prisoners toward the masses of toads. They came to rest just below the podium. The odious toad chieftain peered down at them in a manner he thought imperious, but at best, it looked ridiculous. He raised a web, and the chattering of the toads ceased. "Hoolya groooik! You, furribeasts! Whereyou d’others?"

Darvey looked up at Raitha. She rolled her eyes. "Bilgewater, I was hopin’ you knew wot ‘e was sayin’, mate."

A gurgle of impatience rose in the chieftain’s throat. "Where d’others youtribe?"

Darvey blinked. "I think ‘e’s askin’ where our mateys is."

Raitha cleared her throat. "Me ship was wrecked and me crew’s dead!" She replied defiantly.

"Ship? Whereyou ship?" the repulsive toad prodded.

"I told ye, it was wrecked! It’s matchwood!" Raitha hoped fervently that what she was saying was not true.

"Whereyou ship and others?"

Raitha ground her teeth and fought to keep control of her voice. "I don't know!"

"Mugla foip huya luggafump grok reb!" The toad screamed.

Two toads jabbed Raitha and Darvey indiscriminately with their tridents. One thrust knocked Darvey’s splint loose, upsetting the bone’s fragile hold on its natural position. The squirrel cried out in agony.

"Galestaaaaaarrr!" Enraged, Raitha grabbed a hold of a trident haft just above the blade. She thrust forward, knocking the butt of the rod into a toad’s chest. She was unable to pull the spear through the strands of the net, but she swung the rod like a quarterstaff.

"Glugg mogg hoog mulg luggamop yurgg!" The toad chieftain did a dance of rage on the platform.

"Y’wanna fight one-on-one, y’big slime-eatin’ marshspawn?" the sea otter snarled.

"Muglamuk higyorm hulgawoop nalyap!"

Raitha belabored the warty hides around her with the trident she had captured, daring any toad to come near. "Cummon, ye great fat slimebucket, 'ere's the Galestarr, fightin' fit an' ready fer death! Wanna see the other side o' the dark gates, eh? No askin' required! Galestaaaaaaaarrr!"

"Gullimub bimyuk nareb hulya galyub rrreeeb!"

"Fisheyed, mudbellied, wartfaced troll!" Darvey yelled.

All the toads fell silent and still with horror, eyes growing wide, throats pulsating. The toad chieftain quivered, his blubbery skin shaking freely. Raitha glanced at Darvey.

"Somethin’ tells me y’shouldn’t ‘ave insulted ‘is looks."

"Groooiiik! Muflagugg! Youdie! Nobeast handsome more than Jumgajubb! Dienow! Nownownownownownow!"

The two companions were overwhelmed by the sheer weight of numbers. The net was dragged toward the edge of the muddied clearing.

Raitha caught sight of a still, muddy grey expanse ahead. An occasional bubble exploded to the surface, betraying its treacherous nature.

Tears sprung to Darvey’s eyes. "I’m sorry, cap’n, I went an’ got us both killed!"

Raitha shook her head grimly. "Nah, matey you just took th’good insults afore I got t’say ‘em." She looked around. "An’ I’m not about t’go down without a fight!" Her claws sprung into action, slashing into the nearest toadflesh they could find. Darvey joined her, punching, biting, scratching, and using whatever means they could find to punish the toads unfortunate enough to be within range.

Suddenly, a terrified croak sounded from the far end of the horde. It was soon joined by many others, and the sea of grey-brown bodies parted. The toads fled into the darkness of the swamp.

Darvey pointed at the trees surrounding the clearing. "Look, cap’n!" The foliage was alight with yellow flame, burning brightly against the backdrop of dark clouds. The fire began to spread across the bracken and brambles. Painfully bright light danced luridly over Raitha's face.

"’Ow’s it all burnin’ in th’rain?" she muttered.

"Upbeasts, notricks this time!"

Both companions jumped at the familiar voice. Makraus and Mulkey suddenly stood behind them, empty lamp oil kegs strapped over their shoulders. They were joined by a score of Nex-Cantus warriors who materialized from the gloom. Rough paws grabbed Raitha, and a package of herbs was pressed to her muzzle. Her vehement struggling ceased. Darvey watched in helpless fury as all four of her paws were tied to a long pole which was shouldered by two hefty weasels. The valiant sea otter was carried off like fresh game.

The squirrel glared defiantly at the vermin around him. Makraus stepped closer to him and grinned. Darvey spat in the pine marten’s face. Sharp claws opened parallel gashes across his cheek.

"Impudent!" the vermin officer-in-training snarled. "Youno cheeky under Nex-Cantus whip!" A balled paw cracked against Darvey’s jaw, and blackness consumed his vision.

* * *

Chapter 6 by Raitha Galestarr

Makraus and his companions were, to say the least, surprised to be greeted by the Primus himself, and his personal guard as they entered the city of the Nex. It had been a hard night's journey, but still, they all came quickly to attention at the sight of the imposing ferret, lounging in a decked litter, borne by eight huge weasels.

Makraus bowed his head, not daring to look up as he clapped a paw to his heart. "Mighty Primus, new slavebeast, ottervixen, squirrelbeast, at yer command."

Corvochar cast a cold glance over the still unconscious captives. The ferret remarked to Drahkool, standing at his side. "Ye 'ave donewell, Drahkool. Vixenbeast strongbeast, you best hope." Drahkool ducked his head, his heart freezing in place for a moment.

The Primus's icy stare left the subordinate rat, he turned his gimlet gaze on the guards and returning vermin. "Comenow, nowait nomore. Bring ottervixen, squirrel. To mah castle!"

Corvochar's word caused a flurry of activity. It was mere minutes before the entire company stood, chests heaving, before the gates. The ferret signalled to the bearers. The litter was lowered, and he grunted and coughed as he gracelessly disembarked from the gilded structure. "Leavenow. Mahguards, takebeast vixen to slaveyards, lockup good." Corvochar ordered. His eyes flicked to Darvey's unconscious form. "Squirrelbeast, lockin mah dunge'in, otterbeast warrior, may need convincin', hehehehehehyack!"

The guards of the Primus hurried to obey the orders, as the ferret turned back to Makraus, and Drahkool.

"Nobeast say oneword, harken? Ah killbeast 'o sayword o' this." They nodded dumbly, and Corvochar sniffed his approval. "Coom, Drahkool, I must talkwith ye, makeplan for ottervixen, hyackhahahah!"

Rasee the lynx raised his ragged head tiredly from where he was sprawled on the damp stone floor of the huge dungeon where the many slaves who served the Primus languished. His ears pricked slightly. "Guards comin'," he said quietly. "Must be somethin' new, they never comes in this time o' day."

A burly fox with a cruel sneer on his face swung his heavily manacled paws at the lynx, sending him rolling, winded with the heavy blow to his side. "Shut yer whinin' mouth, pussycat! Who says we care? It's never anythin' good anyway." He snarled.

About the pair, other slaves nodded and murmured in agreement. Sunken, dulled eyes stared resentfully at Rasee, and the lynx shrugged noncomittally in agreement.

Clang! The heavy barred door of the dungeon smashed open, to reveal two burly rats. Raitha's limp, unconscious body was slung in. The sea otter sprawled onto the floor, eyes still closed, under the influence of the herbs. Creatures who had never seen a sea otter before drew back as one of the guards yelled down.

"Kayahahackahaya! Likenew friend, slavebeasts! Don't get too close ah, goodlongfangs, vixengot. Hehehe! Keep 'er company fer while, than she got business wid d'Primus! Yackahahayaha!" The ugly chuckling of the two guards died as the door shut.

The fox who had spoken before scuttled up and prodded nervously at the unconscious sea otter with his footpaw. Whenshe did not move, he grew bolder, and gave her a light kick. "Huh, this 'un's gone, mateys." He remarked. "Why them vermin slung in a deadbeast's beyond me."

"Don't talk stupid." Rasee sauntered up behind him, a dipper of water in one paw. The lynx looked past the fox to Raitha. "She's out cold, musta been some sleepin' herbs. Primus's scum don't like dealin' with warriors when they're caught."

The fox whirled about in a rage, raising his paw to deal the wildcat a blow. Rasee's free paw moved quickly. He caught his assailant's arm, his claws going out just enough to keep it still. "Lemme try, mate." He said quietly, and splashed the water dipper into Raitha's face.

The cold liquid sloshing over her face brought the sea otter around. She stirred and half sat up, groaning hoarsely. "Ooh, me pore 'ead! Scurvy scum, when I get ahold of 'em I'm gonna..." The sea otter's large hazel eyes snapped open, the last traces of drug clearing from their depths. She stared about in complete consternation. "Wha? How'd I get 'ere?"

Rasee released the fox. "You were brought here, same as the rest of us, slung in this pit to work or die for that stinkin' Primus." He remarked. The lynx thought for a moment, then added. "Or maybe not, the guards said ye had an appointment with Corvochar, the Primus fer this region."

The burly fox had stood still a moment, dumbstruck by this rebellion on the laconic wildcat's part. Suddenly, he gave Rasee a sharp shove that nearly sent him sprawling. "Shuttup, cat. Can't yer see the beast's a sea otter? The only beasts who ever got away from the Nex Cantus. She don't deserve to know what the Primus 'as in store for her. Let her wonder! Hah, probably some arrangement to join up..." He got no further. While he had been talking, the fox had been pointing one paw at Raitha, the sea otter's paws were free, and she was a formidable fighter. Gathering her balance expertly, she lunged forward, low and fast. In a split second, the fox was pinned up against the wall, Raitha's bared fangs glinting at him, her warlike temper sharp in her eyes.

"Let the cove alone an' let 'im speak 'is piece, bucko. I don't got nothin' to do with the Nex Cantus, in fact, I ain't never seen anythin' to do with 'em either, see? I ain't never betrayed a creature in me life, an' I ain't about to start now." She narrowed her eyes at the fox for an instant and let him go. "Though in yore case I might make an exception."

A whimper of fear escaped the fox's throat. He scrambled off on all fours, as a hush fell over the ragged creatures crowded in the dungeon.

Slaves kept clear of the sea otter as she backed off, swaying slightly, and slumped down against a wall. Her head ached viciously, blurring her vision, and she rested her muzzle on her arms, crossed over her drawn up knees. Everything was a blur, from the moment Makraus had approached her with the packet of sleep herbs, through 'til her awakening. The only details the captured seafarer could recall clearly was the wreck of her ship and their capture by the toads. Where was Darvey now? She wondered. Was he still alive? Had he even survived the toads? She couldn't remember. Raitha looked up as somebeast sat down beside her.

Rasee crouched against the wall, his golden eyes surveying the tough sea otter carefully. "I'm Rasee Fellkan. So, I gather ye were just captured?" He asked.

"Aye, I was." Raitha replied. She stopped for a moment, then held out a tattooed paw. "Sorry, mate. Name's Raitha Galestarr, cap'n o' the goodship Greynorth... Or I was 'til she wrecked in that last storm. All me crew gone 'cept fer one, young squirrel cove name o' Darvey, ye seen 'im?" The lynx shook his head, and Raitha sighed.

"Shoulda knowed. I don't even know if the pore liddle bucko's still alive, I don't recall anythin' after bein' drugged. An' now, with this Corvochar cove an' 'is scum wantin' ter se me, fer what I dunno..." She groaned and bent her head, to rest it on her paws.

"Well, by the looks of things, you won't find out soon." Rasee advised. "Better settle down an' keep out of trouble. 'Specially with that fox, his name's Kadar. He's a nasty one, always tryin' to charge everybeast around an' suckin' up to the guards. I wouldn't trust him with a raven's heart."

A cynical grin appeared on Raitha's scarred face. "Haharr, just one o' many, eh, mate? I see this's gonna be fun."

Outside, the dim wintry sun had risen to herald another day of backbreaking labour. The slaves of the Primus milled about, tense and listening for the heavy thud of the guards' paws as they came to collect the pitiful prisoners.


Seven days passed painfully. Corvochar rose early. The huge ferret wrapped his bulging bulk in an elaborate brocade robe. He felt confident on this day, and wanted to see what sort of resistence awaited him in the strong spirit of the sea otter captive. Bringing creatures about to his wishes challenged the Primus, and he took cruel pride in breaking his prisoners to his will. Corvochar strode down to his private dungeon, peering happily into the cramped, damp cells, until he reached the cell of the sparrowhawk called Windfeather.

Stormfyre's golden eyes glared unabatedly at his captor. His short beak clacked angrily, challenging the ferret. "You do yourself no good keeping me here, why do you even bother to ask these questions, day after day?"

"Keep yeh patience, mah friend Sparveri." Corvochar hissed gleefully. "Ye talk t'me, tell where map is, where Eye lies! Now d'Primus gotbeast who get d'Eye fer me."

"Kiiiiarr!" Stormfyre screamed angrily. "You will never possess the Eye! None of Sparveri would ever allow..." He clacked his beak shut in horror, but it was too late to bring back the betraying words that had burst free. The hawk shut his eyes and bowed his head to avoid the sight of the hideous expression of triumph that creased into Corvochar's flabby face. He slumped back against the wall, cursing the reckless rage that had risen within him.

"So, lying bird! Ah knew! Corvochar knew!" Corvochar crowed. "Ye're Sparveri! An' ye will tell Corvochar where lies d'Victrix Eye! I see to it!" Before Stormfyre could protest, the ferret turned away from him and looked into the cell next to his. A huddled, forlorn bundle lay on the floor, fur matted with blood, head hidden under the ragged tip of a formerly bushy tail. The only sign of life was the occasional small whimper of pain. It shifted as Corvochar opened the heavy barred door and walked in.

Darvenfield Treesail was in a pitiful state. The young squirrel's leg was painfully swollen, crooked, the splint long broken. Even a small shard of bone had thrust through the skin as the leg was roughly handled. Fur dulled with illnourishment, bruised and battered, the most he could do was moan as Corvochar prodded him cruelly with one footpaw.

"Youbeast come wid ottervixen. You herfriend, yehyeh?" He asked. "Shecare fer you, do anythin' t'keep pain from liddle friend?"

Darvey's eyes fluttered open for a moment. "Cap'n don't look after anybeast but 'erself, vermin!" He coughed. "I'd say she get away from you an' ferget me! She'll do it too!" He shuddered briefly, hoping the lie he was telling wasn't entirely true.

Corvochar kicked the squirrel again, harder this time, and Darvey whimpered and tried to burrow into the damp hay away from the ferret. "Liddle foolbeast!" The Primus raged. "Ottervixen here, she mine, like youmine, like city mine! If I say she do what tell, she do it! If I say you die; youdie! Stay 'ere while I talkto yerfrien', she do what Corvochar say, shedo that, or she die!" Abruptly, Corvochar spun, roaring down the hall. "Drahkool! Drahkool 'ere!" The rat came running, and his master snarled at him.

"Send message! I want ottervixen seabeast sent 'ere! Send fer Maktraun, d'Torturer, an' bring bird, Sparveri! Dey soontalk, talkmoch likestreamwater! Maktraun soonmakebeast talk! Kyahhayackahyak!"

Drahkool saluted and rushed off while Corvochar returned to his chamber. The rat went as quickly as he could, trying to ignore the sick fear in his belly. Nobeast liked to have anything to do with the sinister Torturer, who, it was said, could make the strongest scream for mercy in seconds. As for the sea otter vixen, Drahkool knew better than his master did the famed recklessness and bravery of the seawarriors. It was likely she would die without agreeing to anything, but that was yet to be seen.

Seven days of no food and little water under a hard lash had taken their toll on Raitha Galestarr. Her fur was dull and lashed with whipmarks, her manacled paws gaunt. But the sea otter still fought as best she could as she was marched in chains up to where Corvochar waited in his chambers. The Primus turned about, smiling expansively, as the sea otter and the two hefty guards it took to control her entered the room.

"Now, whatmanners that? Chainin' guestbeast up! Remmooff chains, scum! D'orders o' d'Primus!"

Raitha was no less surprised than the two vermin guards at the order. She stood completely still as the manacles were unlocked from her paws. When she finally regained her voice she snapped. "Belay, ferret. What game're ye playin' 'ere? Why am I free?"

"Not polite to chain guestbeast!" Corvochar smiled in a syrupy manner. "You d'guest o' d'Primus. Wetalk later. Butcoom, sit, eat..." He waved his paw at a large, elaborately carved table standing near the window, laden with every type of delicious food and drink. "Can't let guestbeast starve, eat!"

Raitha didn't touch the food. She glared instead at Corvochar, fervently wishing she hadn't lost her sword. "You gotta be nuts if ye think I'm fallin' fer that, vermin. What's yore game, eh? What d'yew want from me, I got no ship, no crew, nothin'. What?"

"Fine den." Corvochar said smoothly, refusing to answer Raitha's question. "Wetalk now, though ottervixen might like to eat first, but ah well. Sit at least!" He gestured to two large, cushy pawchairs, padded with silk and velvet pillows. Raitha sat reluctantly, her eyes still flicking restlessly around the room. Corvochar kept his masked gaze unceasingly on his captive as he began to speak.

"It not what you have dat wewant. 'Tis what you can get fer us."

"An' what would that be?" Raitha asked, deciding to hide her feelings as well as Corvochar seemed to. The ferret leaned forward, an hint of maniac power in his eyes, clenching one paw on air.

"Victrix's Eye." He breathed. "I want d'Eye."

At that, Raitha threw back her head and laughed. "Hahaharhaharr! Victrix's Eye! I'm surprised the Nex Cantus ain't bin overrun yet, if ye all believe in ole mousewives' tales! The Eye o' Victrix, what sort o' scuttlebutt is that? Lost long ago, it was, an' nobeast save the sea monsters're gonna keep it now!" Her laughter suddenly ceased, to be replaced by an iron expression of hatred. "I forgot to tell ye, didn't I? I'd die rather'n work for yore sort o' plunderin' scum anyways. Do yore worst, even if the Eye ain't lost, it'll never fall inter Nex paws agin."

Corvochar's elegant mask fell abruptly. He seized a goblet of wine and hurled it at Raitha. It missed and clattered to the floor as the Primus snarled. "Ye won't saythat soon, vixenbeast! Seize 'er!"

Before Raitha could fight back, the two large guards fell on her. The sea otter was overpowered and chained again in a flash. She lay pinned on the floor, a chain across her throat, watching Corvochar. The ferret smirked and waved a paw. The door clattered open, and Drahkool strode in, dragging Stormfyre in chains.

Raitha fought her head up enough to stare into the hawk's wide golden eyes. Both lay caught and helpless, the Primus's next cruel commands ringing in their ears.

"Takevixen an' bird downto torture chamber. Summon Maktraun, thesebeast soondo what Corvochar command when d'Torturer t'rough wid 'em."

* * *

Chapter Seven by Stormfyre

Drahkool padded quietly into the spacious torture chamber. All the prisoners inside had been relocated to solitary cells elsewhere in the basement of the Primus’s palace. A lone creature sat motionless at a large desk sitting in the middle of the dimly-lit room. Drahkool opened his mouth to speak, but was cut off by a sibilant hiss.

"Drahkool, why prizonerzzz taken from Manizzzk?"

The rat growled through clenched teeth. "Y’relieved, Torturer Manisk!"

The monitor lizard turned fluidly to face the rat. "Improper prozzzedure. Torturer’zzz Guild report thizzz to Montrex!"

The rat beat his spear haft against the cobbled granite floor, the crashing sound resounding through the chamber. "Y’relieved by order o’d’Primus!"

"On what groundzzz? Thizz my chamberzzz, my jurizzdiction, my—"

"D’Primus’s wishes are ‘is own!" Drahkool snarled, stepping forward angrily. Manisk stared blankly at him. The rat rethought his approach.

"D’Montrex carn’t dowrong, yerss?"

The monitor lizard nodded slowly.

"D’Montrex made Corvochar d’Primus! D’yew defy d’Montrex?"

Manisk’s flat, grey eyes gazed impassively. The large monitor turned and slid out the exit smoothly and silently, robbing Drahkool of any sense of victory. The big rat bared his teeth and spat in contempt. He caught sight of Maktraun suddenly standing behind him. Shuddering slightly, Drahkool signaled to the desk. "D’prisoner’s commin’ now."

Raitha Galestarr was driven cruelly down the winding staircase which led to the interrogation chamber. She and her fellow prisoner had been separated soon after meeting, and they had not had the chance to say anything to one another. The sea otter wondered what his part in this was. She glanced constantly at her footpaws to ensure that they did not stumble as the guards pushed her forward quickly through the ill-lit corkscrew corridor. They obviously were anxious to be finished with their part in this affair.

Soon, her bare footpaws hit the uneven surface of the torture chamber’s cobblestone floor. Light danced on the oddly-angled walls, ceiling, and floor, playing aggravating tricks on the mind and the eye. The sea otter blinked as her eyes grew accustomed to the increased light level. Through blurred vision, she saw a large cedar desk resting in front of her, seeming drastically out of place. The lone chair was occupied, by—to Raitha’s great surprise—a small shrew.

He scribbled onto a sheet of parchment with a crow feather pen. He wore a simple tunic and leggings, and a pair of crystal spectacles lay on his snout. Without even bothering to look up, the shrew recited, "Subject one-one-seven-two; name: Raitha Galestarr; occupation: slave; species…" The shrew readjusted his eyeglasses. "Very interesting… species: sea otter." He finished a line of writing on his parchment and laid the quill aside.

"Yore Maktraun?" Raitha muttered skeptically.

The shrew dismounted from his seat and stood, his head rising barely above Raitha’s waist. "Indeed. I am his Excellency the Primus’s private torturer." He rubbed his spectacles on his tunic. "I am not a member of the Torturer’s Guild. They condemn my methods. They believe them to be too unorthodox." Maktraun replaced his spectacles and blinked at the sea otter.

"I am a creature of action, Ms. Galestarr. I will not beat around the bush, as they say. You may save both of us a great deal of trouble by agreeing to assist the Primus in retrieving Victrix’s Eye. You can be assured that, once this task is fulfilled, you will enjoy a long and comfortable life as a citizen of the Nex-Cantus, or even as an officer in the Primus’s military."

Raitha bared her fangs contemptuously. "Yew can take yer long an’ comfortable life an’ toss it down th’ Green Maelstrom fer all I care. I ain’t ‘elpin yew, yer Primus, or any o’ yew vermin bilgesloppin’s!"

Maktraun nodded curtly. "Very well. I have given you a fair and honest chance, and you have refused it. You may wish that you had taken my offer today. We will begin the treatment." He signaled to the guards, and they affixed Raitha’s manacles to a hook suspended from the ceiling. Raitha dangled there, her footpaws inches from the floor. The shrew handed a small knife to a guard.

"We will begin by introducing herbal compound twenty-two into the subject’s bloodstream to determine the subject’s pain threshold." The guard opened a thin scratch in the sea otter’s arm with the herb-treated blade. She snarled malignantly and kicked him to the floor.

A subtle burning sensation flared beneath the scratch. Raitha winced as the burning grew more intense and extended to her shoulder, and from there, to her entire body. Suddenly, the pain increased. She felt as though her body was on fire. Biting her tongue to prevent herself from yelling aloud, the sea otter writhed helplessly under Maktraun’s impassive gaze.

The burning subsided after a seeming eternity. Raitha fervently hoped she wasn’t trembling as the pain receded. Maktraun returned to his desk and jotted down another line on his parchment.

"Remarkable. Your resilience is exceedingly high. Most subjects pass out during this test. This will present an most intriguing challenge"

Raitha glared murderously at the shrew. "Good, I’s hopin’ this wouldn’t be borin’," she growled.

"Really, sarcasm ill-becomes an enterprising young seafarer like yourself," Maktraun replied, fighting to hide the enjoyment in his voice. Raitha’s caustic glare had no effect on the shrew’s demeanor. "Take her down," Maktraun nodded to the guards. They complied, exchanging a nervous glance. The sea otter began struggling. Maktraun clicked his tongue disapprovingly. "Surely you see that any effort to escape forcibly would be useless." With a baleful look, Raitha stood still.

The shrew returned to his desk. "I have a request to make of you," he stated. Settling in his chair, he said politely, "Please, if you would, pick up that quill pen on the edge of my desk and put it within my reach. I’m somewhat absent-minded, I’m afraid; I always forget to gather my tools before sitting down. It’s a curse."

Raitha spared no contempt in her facial expression. She stepped forward, grabbed the quill, and snapped it spitefully.

Maktraun sighed. He clapped his paws together twice and leaned back into his chair. Two stoats wheeled a small wooden cart into the chamber. Raitha stretched her neck to see what it carried. Red fur… torn green jerkin… Her chest constricted as recognition dawned on her. "Darvey…" she whispered under her breath.

The sorely wounded squirrel gave a pitiful moan. Maktraun had taken pains to ensure that no decay or infection had invaded Darvey’s broken limb. The torturer stood and walked measured paces toward the injured prisoner. Raitha thrust forward but was grabbed roughly by the guards.

"Subject one-one-seven-three; name: Darvenfield Treesail; occupation: prisoner of the Primus; species: red squirrel." Maktraun cast a dry glance at Raitha. "I believe you know him."

The sadistic shrew approached the cart and its miserable burden. He turned to face Raitha once again. "The subject has suffered a fractured leg, compounded by additional trauma and mistreatment. He must be suffering immensely. Wouldn’t you agree, Ms. Galestarr?"

"Cap’n!" Darvey cried. "Cap’n, are you there?"

A sinking pain weighed heavily in Raitha’s chest. If she answered, Maktraun would undoubtedly use Darvey to persuade her. But if she didn’t…

"Cap’n, whatever they do t’me, don’t ‘elp ‘em!" A guard cuffed the squirrel roughly across the jaw.

Maktraun held a small flask in his paw. "This is a sample of herbal compound twenty-two. As you experienced yourself, it is extremely painful, especially on open wounds." He gestured toward Darvey’s crumpled leg, then nodded at his desk. "There is a bin of quill pens on the corner of my desk. If you would be so kind… please take one out and place it next to my scroll."

"Can’t yore bucket-‘ead mateys dew it themselves?" the sea otter growled, nodding at the guards.

"Please take a quill pen from the bin and place it next to my scroll," Maktraun repeated slowly, punctuating his words with movements of the vial.

Raitha hesitated, glancing from Darvey to the desk and back. Maktraun uncorked the vial and tipped it precariously. A small, glistening drop of umber liquid fell from the flask, landing on the squirrel’s wound.

Darvey clenched his teeth as the burning pain seared through his wound. Mercifully, the compound dissipated quickly for the small quantity. Maktraun looked to Raitha, who stood motionless in indecision. The shrew inclined the flask more, and a short stream of the herbal extract spilled out.

Darvey gave a yelp of pain and gnawed on his lip furiously, a small trickle of blood emerging. "C-c-cap’n!" he screamed.

Raitha lunged forward again, and the guards restrained her. Maktraun dismissed their efforts with a wave of his paw. The two guards allowed her to move freely, and she reluctantly grabbed a quill pen from the bin on the desk. She fixed Maktraun with a murderous glare as she slowly set the quill on the parchment.

"Right, now end this!" she demanded.

Maktraun eyed the pen she had selected. "Not that one, I’m afraid. It has a chip out of the point. I wouldn’t want the ink to blot while I’m writing. Please get another one."

The sea otter glanced at the pen and threw it to the floor. "There ain’t nothin’ wrong wid it, bucko, an’ you knows it!"

Maktraun turned and splashed more of the fiery herbal liquid onto Darvey’s leg. The searing pangs increased, and the loyal squirrel passed out from the pain. The shrew slapped his face and brought him back into agonizing wakefulness.

An inexorable rage seized Raitha’s limbs. She sprang forward, dragging her two guards with her, and she rushed at the shrew with deadly intent. One of the stoats who had brought Darvey into the room jumped forward and cracked his spear haft against her head. The sea otter fell to the floor, unconscious.

Maktraun wheeled on the hapless stoat. "You imbecile! You ruined the treatment! Lumbering oaf!" The shrew swiped his paw at the stoat, and a shallow laceration appeared on the soldier’s arm. Maktraun turned from the luckless stoat as the concentrated herbal compound began spreading through the soldier’s limb. His anger was replaced with satisfaction at the sounds of the stoat’s torment.

Ignoring the soldier’s cries, he turned to the guards. "Take the sea otter to solitary confinement. Then bring me the sparrow hawk."

Maktraun sat at his desk to wait.


Maktraun waited patiently as the two guards struggled to pull Stormfyre into the chamber.

The young sparrow hawk was fighting what he knew to be a futile fight because his honor demanded it. The stoat and the weasel had been issued strict orders to ensure the bird’s good health—as good health as they had found him in, the dangerous shrew had insisted. The two Nex-Cantus soldiers stumbled into the oddly-lit room and pinned their prisoner spread-eagled face down to the floor. Maktraun rose from his chair and approached the sparrow hawk.

Stormfyre’s chest expanded and contracted with exertion. He lay still to rest himself. Then, upon seeing the shrew standing above him, he pushed from the stony floor in a burst of energy to leap at his captor’s throat. The guards leaned heavily on the bird, restraining him from movement.

Maktraun paced back to his desk. "That won’t be necessary. Simply hold his chains."

Exchanging exasperated looks, the soldiers grabbed the length of cable which wrapped around Stormfyre’s midsection and wings.

Maktraun opened a scroll and glanced at the lettering written boldly on the parchment. "Subject one-one-seven-four; name: Windfeather, presumed to be false; occupation: prisoner of the Primus; species: sparrow hawk; member of the Sparveri Clan." The shrew stepped forward and adjusted his spectacles in a business-like manner. "You will tell me all you know of the gemstone Victrix’s Eye."

Stormfyre hissed contemptuously and stood silently, his anger burning through his eyes.

Maktraun uncoiled a long whip and snapped it skillfully toward Stormfyre faster than the eye could follow. A small cut opened on the bird’s cheek. Some kind of toxic residue burned beneath the wound.

"Impertinence will not be tolerated. Please answer the following questions immediately as I ask them."

The shrew returned to his desk under the sparrow hawk’s furious gaze. The torturer opened another scroll. "What is your name?"

"Windfeather, I told you befo--"

The whip flashed again, this time slicing across his folded wing. The burning intensified slightly. "What is your real name?"

Stormfyre resisted the burst of anger rising in him. He couldn’t afford to say anything he might regret later. Not again.

"Would it help if I told you that I already know your real name?" Maktraun offered almost amicably.

A mirthless grin pulled at the prisoner’s face. "Then why don’t you tell me?"

Another whipcut appeared across Stormfyre’s chest. He winced at the smoldering pangs beneath his skin.

The shrew torturer replied, "We would like to have confirmation. What is your real name?"

"Windfeather!" Stormfyre shouted. He ducked and felt the whip through his back. "Windfeather!" he screeched again.

Maktraun sighed wearily and said, "Very well. Your name is Stormfyre, the son of Rocfyre and Marlea." The sparrow hawk’s jaw dropped slightly. He immediately snapped it shut. Maktraun tilted his head stoically.

"As you see, there is no reason to lie to me. I already know your appellation. I only wish to confirm it. What is your name?"

Stormfyre clenched his beak defiantly. The burning under his whipcuts flared painfully, but he shoved the pain from his mind. The thin lash hissed through the air again, this time landing dangerously close to the bird’s eye. In the low light, it was difficult to see the whip until it made contact.

"What is your name?"

The sparrow hawk stood firm. He resolved not to give Maktraun an inch. The whip flicked back and forth again and again. The burning raged on. Finally, Stormfyre began burying his face in his chest to protect it from the raining methodical blows, not deep enough to do great bodily damage, but enough to deposit the fiery toxin that the thong had been coated with. The sparrow hawk’s back felt as though it were afire.

"What do you want?" Stormfyre yelled in rage.

"What is your name?" Maktraun repeated forcefully. The stinging whip and burning poison flared through the small bird’s body.

"You know it; why do you need me to tell you?" the sparrow hawk retorted furiously.

The onslaught of lashes stopped abruptly. Stormfyre gaped in shock as a satisfied grin spread across Maktraun’s face.

"I know it? Ah, so we do have confirmation. Thank you for your cooperation; this makes matters so much easier. We will move on." The shrew rolled the scroll further and rested his pen on the parchment to hold his place.

"Do you have any surviving brothers or sisters?"

The burning had begun to dissipate as the steady rain of lashes ceased. The whip flashed once more, coaxing the fiery pain back to life.

Maktraun recited the question once more. "Do you have any surviving brothers or sisters?"

"I do not know if any still live," Stormfyre protested.

"To the best of your knowledge, then," the shrew replied smoothly.

The sparrow hawk hesitated, unsure of how to answer. The flying whip cut his train of thought painfully short.

"Answer the question. Do you have any surviving brothers or sisters?"

"I do not remember!" The bird of prey winced as the whip fell across the red cuts already littering his back.

"The Sparveri clan is known for its family loyalty," Maktraun stated dryly. "I find it highly unlikely that you have no recollection."

"How do you think you know all this?" Stormfyre screeched. "Why ask me anything? Do you somehow ‘know’ the answer to this question as well?"

Two more lashes fell upon the sparrow hawk’s back. "I ask the questions and you answer," Maktraun warned. "However, I do, in fact, know the answer to this question. I merely need confirmation of the fact. Do you have any surviving brothers or sisters?"

A dry, raspy chuckle issued from Stormfyre’s beak. "If you knew, you would have told me by now to impress me with your resources."

The whip cut the sparrow hawk three more times until Maktraun appearingly relented. "Very well. You have two brothers and one sister, Greyfyre, Windfyre, and Rosefyre, respectively. Another brother, Treefyre, died a hatchling, and the status of your other siblings is, as of yet, unknown."

Stormfyre felt another surge of anger overtake his surprise as the image of a ravaged nest and the bodies of his older sister, Rosefyre, and her family, slaughtered by Nex-Cantus scouts, flashed into his mind. This time he suppressed the swell. He resolved to give the shrew nothing.

If Maktraun was disappointed at the lack of reaction, he did not let it show. "Now we need only confirmation from you. Do you have any surviving brothers or sisters?"

The whip cut across the sparrow hawk’s flesh again. The burning of the toxin was mounting. Another lash crossed the prisoner’s wing. He began writhing in agony, but he chewed his beak together to keep himself from screaming out.

"There is no harm in telling me what I already know," the shrew prodded. "I have no qualms about telling you that the sky is blue, or that stone is hard. Would I be betraying some oath of secrecy by informing you that the sun rises in the East, or that the ocean is filled with salt water?"

The scorching pain shattered Stormfyre’s concentration every time he tried to gather his thoughts. If Maktraun already did know… The sparrow hawk shut the nagging voice from his mind. He would not yield. Even so, the poison still seared through his body with a new intensity. The anger within him broke loose. He cried out between torturous, ragged breaths.

"You… will… never… hold… the Stone!" With those adamant words, the sparrow hawk shuddered and fell limp, weakened from the poison and exhaustion.

Maktraun cursed and beat his fist on his desk. He immediately relegated the blame to the two guards. "You fools! I said to bring him in perfect health! He never would have passed out if you hadn’t been so careless!" The two vermin soldiers glanced at each other, unsure of how to take the vehement outburst. The shrew snarled dangerously. "Why are you just standing there? Take him to solitary confinement!" Maktraun slumped in his chair, seething. Suddenly, his dark scowl was replaced with a cruel grin as an idea formed in his agile mind. A chuckle broke the air, which gave way to a chilling laugh. The two soldiers, hearing it from the corridor, began running in terror, abruptly convinced that the sadistic torturer was, in fact, completely insane.

* * *

Chapter 8 by Raitha Galestarr

When Raitha came to, she found herself locked once again behind stone walls, only this time the cell was tiny, barely six paces from one wall to the other. Her paws were locked against the wall with iron manacles, forcing her to sit with her back against the cold stone, unable to move. How long she stayed there, she had no way of knowing. All she was aware of was the oppressive darkness, and her own torturous thoughts, interspersed now and then with a high, horrible cry or two that echoed down the hall outside, making her flinch. The voice was undoubtedly Darvey's and the sea otter had no illusions over why Maktraun was torturing him so. The thought made Raitha shut her eyes and bow her head in shame.

The torches had burnt down and been replenished twice, before a sudden shadow blocking the meagre light that came in through the small barred peephole caused her to look up. Corvochar's puffy eyes glared at the helpless prisoner.

"Open d'cell!" He ordered. "Corvochar see'd prisoner, Maktraun see'er too. Open d' door!" A raspy scraping of bolts answered this sharp order. Slowly, the door creaked open to reveal the huge, bulgy shape of the Primus, and the small, sinister shape of his private torturer. Raitha ducked her head back and half shut her eyes against the seemingly blinding light that poured in through the open doorway.

Maktraun stepped in his dignified way forward and strolled back and forth before the sea otter. Corvochar stood back a bit. The Primus had not forgotten the danger of this particular captive.

"Y'see, mah Maktraun? Ottervixen nogivein. Ah won't wait longer! Use potions! Use yerworst, make'er know d'meanin' of pain! Nobeast'd defyin' me, d'Primus ferlong!" Corvochar snapped, shaking a flabby paw at Raitha.

Maktraun showed no trace of alarm at his leader's dangerous show of ill temper. "Quite so, my Lord, quite so." He said, walking up to Raitha. Sitting down, the sea otter's nose was on a level with the sadistic shrew's, and he looked her right in the eye as he spoke, slowly and clearly, emphasizing every word.

"Well, Ms. Galestarr, you can see quite clearly that you are at a severe disadvantage here. I hope you will see things our way soon. Your compatriot, the squirrel Darvenfield, cannot, I am afraid, withstand much more of the pain your obstinacy provides him with. One more day, maybe two, and he will die. Such a pity too..." He smiled thinly, his eyes gleaming evilly behind his glasses. "But, you cannot be held wholly at fault. It has been quite a while since you experienced what he has, and not to any great length either. Thus, to aid your decision, I have deemed to provide you with yet another sample of your comrade's position..."

Raitha had been glaring back all the while, but now, she couldn't stop herself from drawing back a little at the sight of the small blade that appeared in the shrew's paw. Maktraun toyed with the blade as he explained in his scholarly voice.

"Herbal compound fourty-eight. The sensations it produces are like those of twenty two, which you have already experienced, however, they are much more intense and seem to last longer than twenty-two." To the two guards who now stood behind the Primus, Maktraun said patiently. "Please hold the subject still, if you please, oh, and bare her throat as well. This particular compound tends to work better if given in the right place."

Raitha's eyes widened. "Getcher filthy claws off me or I'll flay yer a live!" She snarled, struggling fiercely as the two guards stepped forward and gripped her shoulders. It was a completely futile struggle, it took no more than a few moments for the brave sea otter to be pinned firmly against the wall, her head wrenched back to expose her throatfur.

Adjusting his glasses and squinting studiously in the low light, Maktraun leaned close, his dagger hovering close to the fur of Raitha's throat. The shrew pursed his lips and brought the point to bear on a pressure point between the collarbone and the jugular artery. "There, I should think that will do the trick!" The instant the keen blade broke the skin, the first burning shard spread like molten glass through Raitha's throat. Barely able to breathe, she arched back, fangs bared and gritted together in agony, the burning lances spreading through her body.

Callously, Maktraun turned away, signalling to the guards to release the prisoner, who twisted and struggled, clamping her jaws together to prevent the cry of agony welling up in her throat from escaping. "I do hope that will aid your decision, Ms. Galestarr." He said. "By your leave, my Lord, my session with this prisoner is over." The Torturer bowed to Corvochar, holding the pose until the ferret had left the cell before following him. The door clanged shut, leaving the sea otter slumped helpless against the wall, the burning pangs only barely starting to relent.

Raitha leaned her head back against the wall, she gasped for air, chest heaving with something between a snarl and a sob.

Moments later, that same eerie, pained scream seared the air again, as it had many times in the last two days. The terrible sound struck clear to Raitha's heart, and she went limp in her chains, knowing what her decision would have to be.

* * *
"Guard, guard! Avast there, yew sleepy-eyed, landlubbin' barnacle. Are ya sleepin' off las' night, or are yer just too lazy ter answer a porebeast shoutin' 'er throat sore?"

The weasel outside Raitha's cell was rudely awakened from his slumber by the sea otter's commanding snarl. Stumbling upright, he grabbed his spear and clanged it against the bars.

"Shaddup in there, or I'll 'ave yer gagged! Whaddaya want anyway?"

"I wanna talk to that o'ergrown gobbet o' blubberbrained flotsam yew idiots likes ta call 'Primus'. Now are yer gonna get 'im for me 'r not?" Came the insolent reply.

The guard shook his head and scuttled away, they sure did crack quicker nowadays, he thought.

Corvochar was pleasantly surprised to see the change in Raitha. The bloated ferret stepped into her cell with a bounce in his step that was mostly a waddle. "So, seadog. Ah 'ears yer ready t'talksense, eh?"

Now that the Primus was here, the insolent tone to Raitha's voice died, leaving her sounding tired, and determined. She glared at Corvochar unwaveringly. "Let Darvey go an' I'll do as ye ask." She said.

"Ohoo!" The ferret crowed. "Ah'd thoughtnot Maktraun fail me! He nev'r did! Tell d'Primus, vixen, why'you changethought so fast?"

"Yew oughta know, barrelbelly! 'Cause ye were torturin' the only beast left outta me crew, tha's why! Or do ye needs everythin' explained to yew, yer stupi-" Raitha's outburst was swiftly curtailed by one of the guards clipping her roughly along the jaw with his spearhaft.

A powerful gleam shone in Corvochar's squinty eyes, piercing the sea otter to the core. The small struggle taking place ended, the participants looked up, staring as the ferret spoke again. "So, you do's I ask? Youdive, bringback, Victrix's Eye fer Corvochar?"

Raitha's gaze dropped to the floor in defeat. "Aye, I will."

"One more'd t'ing." The sea otter looked up. "Nex-Cantus 'ave ships, but nobeast skilled enough for sail d'em where yougo. I findship, bringbeast. You sail it. You know 'ow, can't deny dat. Seabeast know h'ev'ryt'ing 'bout sea."

"Aright, deal done, release Darvey, an' I'll sail yer fateforsaken vessel, aye an' bring back yer stupid rock." Raitha snapped. If she had expected Corvochar to say something in return, she was disappointed. The ferret Primus smirked in triumph, spun on his paw, and walked out.

"Ah 'ave moch t'arrange; sleeptight, mah Captain. We sailin' d' mornin', chayayackahackyacha!"

* * *

If Stormfyre had expected the next morning to bring another agonizing torture session with Maktraun, he was mistaken. No sooner had the sparrowhawk awakened, than he was chained securely and marched off down the long corridors of the Primus's huge castle.

Down in his velvet-draped sitting room, Corvochar lolled on a large throne. Beside him sat Maktraun in a small straight-backed chair.

The shrew torturer looked over his glasses at Stormfyre. "Good day, Stormfyre, I presume you are feeling well?" He said politely.

The sparrowhawk's only answer was a hiss, and Maktraun continued smoothly, as if he had not made a sound. "Today is a great day in the history of the Nex-Cantus, especially of this province, which is quite far North, and often forgotten. We have half the pieces of the puzzle needed to locat the gemstone Victrix's Eye, those being a ship, and somebeast to navigate it, and fetch the stone back, no, do not hiss and scowl, I do believe you will be quite surprised at our new Captain. As it happens, the only piece we need at present is somebeast to show us where the gem resides, and to tell us of its secrets. That creature is you, son of Rocfyre and Marlea."

"I have told you already, I will betray nothing!" Stormfyre protested.

Maktraun raised his paw to halt the hawk's words. "That remains to be seen. In a few moments, the guards will come to escort My Lord the Primus, and his chosen captives down to the docks where you will board the ship that will take us all to the far north and west, where legends say the eye of Victrix resides."

An enraged hiss built up in the sparrowhawk's throat. Suddenly he lunged forward, his beak snapping shut on the air where Maktraun's paw was a moment before.

"No! You cannot do this! You have no idea what the power of the Eye would do!" He yelled in despair.

"Enough o' diss!" Corvochar cut in. "Mah guardscoom, dey takeyou to ship. Ah will 'ave d'Eye o' Victrix, nobeast stand in d' way o' Corvochar! Coom!" The ferret heaved his pondersome bulk up out of the throne and rang a small bell sitting on a table nearby. The chilly, tinkling sound brought three vermin in Corvochar's own colours dashing up the hall post-haste. And before Stormfyre could utter another protest, he was bound with strong cable instead of chains, and dragged out.

Through the tapestried halls of Corvochar's castle the hawk was hauled, down to the courtyard where he was drawn up sharply beside a low cart, on which lay a horribly injured squirrel, completely unconcious, almost in a coma, and a fantastically overdecorated litter, draped in bloodred velvet and shimmering satin.

Out came Corvochar, surrounded by liveried vermin soldiers. The huge ferret clambered gracelessly into the litter, which was then raised to the shoulders of eight brawny weasels. He waved his paw as soon as he was secure, and the entire company moved out at a steady march, heading down through the city of the Nex, towards the harbour and Corvochar's private galley.

* * *

On board the galley, named the Mountain Lord in honour of the Montrex, Raitha Galestarr leaned on the rail near the gangplank, head bowed in mental exhaustion. In other times, the prospect of setting sail again filled the sea otter with joy, but now, not surprisingly, she felt only a leaden weight of betrayal in her heart. The sea otter was clad in the crimson and silver silks of the Nex-Cantus navy, forced to wear them in honour of her "mission". She felt like a soldier and hated it fully. Every so often she caught her paw heading instinctively to her shoulder where her sword should have been, only to remember that she had been completely divested of any weapons. As an extra precaution against rebellion, several heavily armed vermin hung about near her at all times, each carrying a whip tipped with some of Maktraun's poisons.

To top all this off, she felt a growing disrespect for the vermin seabeasts, as for their ship. Nobeast aboard seemed to know the first thing about sailing, and the galley, driven by scores of wretched oarslaves below decks, was not anywhere near her idea of seaworthy.

"Stand by t'boarders." A harsh vermin voice yelled, shattering Raitha's brooding rudely. "'Is Majesty d'Primus. An' 'is guard an' pris'ners!" This announcement tipped off a mad scramble to gain positions and straighten uniforms before all the sailors, Raitha forced out to the foremost with her guards behind her, were lined up in smart ranks, awaiting their ruler.

Eyes starting to glitter with hatred, the sea otter stood by as the gangplank was lowered, and the creatures on the dock climbed aboard. The last thing aboard was the cart bearing its burden, and the two rats hauling it, accompanied by Makraus and Drahkool.

Astonishment, mixed with dismay and rage crept across Raitha's face at the sight of this. Barely holding back her temper, she rounded on Corvochar. "What's the meanin' o' this, vermin? Yew said ye'd free 'im if I agreed!"

"Ah lied, mah gel." Corvochar smiled in a oily fashion. "Ye think I'd trust sea otterbeast, in d'sea? Ye'd h'escape any time ye wanted w'tout anybeast keepin' aboard."

"Scum! Yew filthy, treacherous, double-dealin' slime! I'll give yer summat to think about.." Raitha started towards the Primus, only to be stopped by several ranks of armed vermin menacing her with whip and blade.

"Care yerself, ottervixen. Ye h'mine now, ye do h'as Corvochar say, an' I say ye sail, captain my ship, bring me back h'Eye. Now do it!" Corvochar snapped, swirling his long velvet cloak about him.

Stormfyre's golden eyes stared wide in shock and growing anger. He had not spotted the sea otter right away, dressed as she was like the vermin. But now, hearing her voice, he recognized her as the creature he had seen briefly in the chamber of the Primus, another prisoner like himself. But now, what was she doing here, dressed like one of them, obviously now in Corvochar's service? One single word echoed through his mind: Traitor.

Rage, like nothing he had ever felt before surged through the small hawk. For his honour he had been willing to die, but this creature had sold out with seemingly little struggle, to guess by the smug look on Maktraun's face as he eyed Raitha. Before his guards could stop him, Stormfyre wrenched himself free of them and threw himself bodily at the treacherous warrior, talons forward, his high warcry screeching forth from his gaping beak.

"Kiiiiiiieeeeerrr! Die, traitor, there is fire on the wiiiiiiiiind!"

* * *

Chapter 9 by Stormfyre

The sea otter vixen wheeled as she heard the cry and flung her paw at the source of the noise. The sparrow hawk was batted from his course which would have ended in a death-strike across the jugular, but he dug his talons and beak deep into her side. Raitha grimaced and slammed a balled paw down on her assailant’s head. Stormfyre fell from his grip, dazed slightly, but he leapt upon the collaborator once again.

Raitha was taken aback by the ferocity of the sparrow hawk’s attack. The bird’s beak grasped for her jugular artery. Maddened by pain and mounting frustration, the sea otter grabbed for her opponent’s neck, raking with her formidable claws.

"Stop diss!" Corvochar shrieked. "Stop diss now! Primus’s orders, Stop diss now!"

The livid ferret’s cries were drowned by the excited hoots and shouts of the surrounding soldiers. Raitha’s guard detail exchanged confused glances, unaware as to how to react.

Buffeting her opponent across the beak, Raitha lunged forward toward the galley’s mainmast. Seeing the looming mast, Stormfyre released his grasp and thrust his body to the side, narrowly avoiding being crushed between the heavy pine shaft and the sea otter’s sturdy frame. Raitha fell to the deck and grasped for the sparrow hawk’s throat. The two warriors grappled furiously with fang and beak, claw and talon, and blood stained the flat wooden surface beneath them.

Drahkool needed nobeast to tell him what to do. He grabbed a heavy spear from a cheering stoat and impassively slew him with it. The excitement died as quickly as the unfortunate vermin. Makraus and three other soldiers rushed forward and pried the struggling combatants apart.

Corvochar leaned uneasily on the galley’s rail. His ashen face was quickly replaced with spitting rage. "Foolbeasts! All o’ you!" The ferret quivered slightly. "Take d’Sparveri below, wid squirrelbeast. Diss never ‘appen again, or moredie!"

Drahkool stepped forward as several crewbeasts rushed to do the Primus’s bidding. Calling out in a rough monotone, he shouted, "All hear d’words o’ d’Primus an’ obey!"

Raising spears in the air, the crew replied, "We obey d’ words o’ d’Primus and o’ d’Montrex!"

Drahkool glanced nervously towards Corvochar at the inclusion of the Montrex in the crew’s pledge. The ponderous ferret nodded slowly. "Ah didn’t ‘ear yeh, ottervixen," the Primus wheedled to Raitha. He narrowed his eyes pointedly. "Obey d’words o’ d’Primus."

"Huzzah," Raitha grumbled caustically, grimacing at the stinging cuts the sparrow hawk’s talons had inflicted.

"Now, mah cap’n," Corvochar drawled, "give d’order t’ set sail."

With one last venomous glare, the sea otter turned to her crew. "Moors away, get th’ oars movin’ ‘till we leave the harbor." She stepped onto the galley’s fo’c’sle to feel the salted wind across her face. "Wind’s comin’ outta north by northeast…" she muttered before shouting, "Wind’s comin’ abeam t’ starboard; grab the boom line an’ haul th’ mains’l t’ port!"

As the vermin crewbeasts wrestled with the heavy mains’l, Raitha strode aft toward the tiller, followed closely by her detachment of guards. Issuing a dangerous glare to the steersbeast standing there, she pawed the clumsy shaft, wordlessly assuming command of the rudder. Her eyes strayed to a reef of jagged rocks over which the frothy sea spumed and breathed repeatedly—a deathtrap to any careless sailor. For a moment, she considered running the galley straight into the rocks.

Quite suddenly, Drahkool cut in front of her line of vision, glowering openly. "Wot d’you want, bucko?" Raitha growled.

The large rat narrowed his eyes. "Don’try anythin’, otter."

The sea otter smirked mirthlessly. "What, ye think I’ll slip yer line an’ swim off inter th’ broad briny?"

"No," the rat replied sharply, "bott yew do." Drahkool pulled a serrated dagger from his leather belt and held it against Raitha’s throat. "I donnowot Corvochar t’inks, but I know youtype. Don’try t’hescape, otterbeast. Jus’ watch yerself. Ah’m watchinyer ver’ closely." Without a further word, the Nex-Cantus officer sheathed his dagger and turned abruptly.

As the rat moved toward mid-deck, Raitha spat contemptuously over the rail. A harsh cry rang out from the boatswain, "Moorin’s cleared, jetty’s cleared, cap’n!"

"Keep those sails reefed in!" Raitha hollered at the crewbeasts ascending the ratlines on the galley’s three masts. She gritted her teeth as she imagined the oarslaves below propelling the galley, but she couldn’t trust the sails until the ship was in open water. The tiller was cumbersome and sluggish, a clumsy and ugly feeling compared to Greynorth’s smooth maneuvering. She sniffed inaudibly at the thought of her barque. Once again, she glanced at the monolithic pillars of rock standing from the water’s surface. Another moment of indecision flooded her mind, but she leaned heavily against the tiller and steered the galley toward the wide, blue ocean.

"Unfurl th’ sails!" The vast expanses of yellowed canvas rolled free from their fastenings and waved momentarily like the sea in a storm before swelling with the force of wind behind them. In another time and place, such a sight would have been beautiful.

Raitha ambled toward mid-deck and shoved a rat toward the tiller. "Mind th’ helm," she snapped. She gazed upward at the graceful curve of the galley’s broad sails, the foresail, mainsail, and mizzensail all filling with a brisk sea breeze. They seemed dark and oppressive. She turned with a melancholy droop and descended the stairs to the captain’scabin.

Stormfyre sat motionless in his wooden-walled cell, brooding darkly. The iron bars cast parallel shadows over the sparrow hawk’s ruddy orange backfeathers. He couldn’t see the light’s source, but it was distant and dim. Quite suddenly, a small body carrying an ample haversack silhouetted the meager light. His feathers prickled.

"Good morning, Stormfyre. I trust you slept well?"

The young sparrow hawk made no reaction to Maktraun’s despicably cheery voice save a nearly involuntary flex of his razor-edged talons.

The shrew set a small stool on the deck outside the cell and dropped his small body onto it. He produced a small, burlap sack from his bag. He pulled a scone from the sack and began munching contentedly on it.

Stormfyre’s stomach gurgled hungrily at the sight of the pastry. Honey glistened on its flaky crust, and dark berry preserves oozed from the bread as Maktraun nibbled daintily. The shrew’s eyes met the sparrow hawk’s, and Stormfyre quickly turned away, realizing that he had been staring.

Maktraun chuckled and shook his head. "I am so dreadfully sorry, I’m forgetting my manners. Of course, you haven’t eaten in quite some time now." The shrew broke a fragment from the scone and held it through the bars. "Please, go ahead. If it were poison, I’d be feeling ill by now.Take it."

The small bird of prey glanced at it wistfully for a second before turning his back. The shrew set the pastry fragment gently on the cell floor. Suddenly, Stormfyre’s head turned slightly at the sound of trickling liquid. Maktraun was pouring the contents of a dark flask into a small earthenware cup. "It’s an herbal tea. I find that it soothes the mind… I brew it myself." He filled another cup and set it inside the cell.

The sparrow hawk remained silent, unwilling to yield an inch. The intoxicating fragrance of the fresh scone wafted through the stale air. Maktruan rummaged for another item—a small piece of cooked mackerel. The shrew inhaled the aroma deeply before biting into the filet with a satisfied sigh. "Go ahead and eat. Does the Sparveri code of honor include self-starvation?" Stormfyre’s stomach twisted painfully. Give him nothing…

"Very well, if you insist." Maktraun gathered the food and placed it back into the sack. "We will get straight to business." The shrew cast a cold, steely eye at his captive. "You know what we want. Sooner or later, we will get it. Why don’t you save us all a great deal of trouble and simply give it to us now?"

Stormfyre spoke sullenly. "If you know anything of the Sparveri, you know how that is impossible."

The corners of the torturer’s mouth rose slightly. "Is it?" The shrew stood and approached the bars, his voice shrill with barely contained mirth. "Is it really?"

Stormfyre shrunk back slightly, unnerved by this change in Maktraun’s demeanor. "What is that supposed to mean?"

Maktraun ignored the question. "We are closer to finding the Eye than you might believe. We possess all the scrolls and legends that tell of the Eye. We have separated historical fact from myth. All we need now…" the shrew grasped the cell bars. "All we need now is the Song of the Skystone."

The words hit Stormfyre’s heart like a knife. "How could you know of its existence?" he gasped. "Only a Sparveri would—" The sparrow hawk leapt at the bars and flapped against the iron barrier, talons flailing. Maktraun sprung back just as deadly claws nipped the air where his head had been. "No!" Stormfyre shouted. "You could not have broken aSparveri!"

"Unfortunately, he died before he could complete the song. I wasn’t able to confirm it. So, that task falls to you, my friend."

"You lie!" Stormfyre spat. "You lie!"

"You cannot deny the fact that I do indeed know of its existence," Maktraun retorted. "Simple logic demands that, if the only way to obtain this information is from a Sparveri, I must have obtained it from a Sparveri."

"No!" Stormfyre cried. "The honor cannot be broken!"

"You are being irrational. Surely you see that."

"Then I will be irrational!" Stormfyre bellowed. Nobeast could refute irrationality.

The torturer was taken completely by surprise, but years of self-discipline hid the surprise under a stoic mask. "As you wish, Sparveri." He gathered the stool and his haversack and left, not quickly, not slowly, but casually.

Stormfyre shuddered and leaned against the wooden walls of his cell. When he heard the brig door close, a throaty sob escaped from his beak.

Raitha lounged on the small sofa inside the captain’s cabin, her footpaws propped on the table in the center of the room. The door opened, and she glanced up as the Primus’s considerable bulk stepped across the threshold. "Guidday, mah cap’n," Corvochar lilted cheerily.

The sea otter’s only response was a deadpan stare. She opened her mouth to say something impudent, but simply shrugged in acknowledgment to the ferret’s presence.

Corvochar ignored her lack of reaction and fiddled with a knickknack sitting on the table. "’owlong afore we reach d’Eye?"

"Yer course’s a liddle vague, iddn’t it?" Raitha huffed. "’Sail t’ th’ far northwest.’ ‘Ow far’s far?"

The Primus glanced at her smugly. "’Course, I’m gettin’ ahead o’ meself, eh? Don’worry, Maktraun gonner give you y’ better course." The ponderous ferret turned to leave.

"One thing, Primus," Raitha called after him. "Who was th’ bird?"

"Wott?" Corvochar spun to face the sea otter.

"That bird that jumped me on th’ deck yesterday. Who was ‘e?"

The ferret stood silent momentarily, toying with the idea of explaining it to her. Finally, he said, "Don’ matter."

"If I’m cap’n, I gotter know what prisoners I’m haulin’ in me brig," she growled.

"Ah said it don’ matter," Corvochar rumbled. "Dat means yew fergetit, eh?"

Raitha waited until the Primus had turned to leave again before saying, "Another thing." Corvochar turned again, visually annoyed. "Wott?"

Raitha paused and said, "I wanna see Darvey."

"Mayhap tomorror," Corvochar drawled sourly.

The two creatures stared at each other for a few moments, both agile minds trying to read the other’s thoughts and discover the other’s full agendas. If either learned anything, they didn’t let it show. With a parting grumble, Corvochar stumped out of the cabin onto the deck.

Chapter 10 by Raitha Galestarr

Around evening, dark, lowering clouds reared over the Mountain Lord, bringing with them a strong following wind and rough, choppy seas. The galley's deck bobbed up and down fitfully, causing much distress for the normally landbound vermin sailors. Corvochar and Maktraun were among the worst hit, and although she said nothing, Raitha took obvious pleasure in her captors' discomfort.

Corvochar slumped groaning against the rail. The huge ferret raised his head and glowered at Raitha, standing calmly at the tiller and ignoring her guard detail completely. "Sea h'otter, wott you sailinto? Storm likediss soon send us t'sink. You tryin' d'sink us, yore liddle friend h'die too."

"Calm that flabby 'eart o' yourn, Primus, or ye'll give yerself an' 'eart attack." Raitha raised her chin and stared out over the leaping slatey waves. "This ain't no storm, on'y a good breeze ter 'elp us along. Nothin's gonna sink 'ceptin' yore stummick, but may'aps ye could use that."

Corvochar's face darkened angrily. "Keep y'tongue latched, vixen, or I tell Maktraun t'see t'yore liddle squirrelfriend." At that, Raitha fell silent, shooting a hard stare at the Primus. After a moment she said:

"Lissen, ferret, why don't yer go find yore liddle shrew matey an' tell 'im ter give me the course we're supposed ter be followin'? Not much good a cap'n can do when she don't know where she's sailin' for."

"I assure you, I know exactly where we are going." The sea otter almost jumped with surprise. Maktraun was standing directly behind her. The shrew looked faintly green around the gills, but he was in much better condition than his master. Ignoring Raitha's laid back ears and angry stare, he staggered up to the small lookout ledge nestled into the high galley stern. He gestured to the captain with his paw. "Come up here and stand with me, Ms. Galestarr, I will show you what we are sailing for."

Reluctantly, Raitha left command of the tiller to Drahkool, standing with her guards, and climbed agiley up to the ledge. Maktraun nodded at her, and pulled a scrap of much-folded parchment from his tunic. He studied it for a moment, then held up a paw and squinted along its length past the mast. "Ah, yes. Now, the location of the reefs that took the Eye has been given to me, by a well-persuaded volunteer," Raitha shuddered. "Who unfortunately did not live long enough to give me much else. Apparently, three day's sailing to the Northwest will bring us into view of a most peculiar and noticable landmark, or should I say, seamark? Well, rising out of the waters is a large comb of rocks, so huge as to almost be a cliff range. This is where it is said the ship carrying Victrix's Eye was wrecked and sunk. After that, I am afraid I do not know fully what lies in store for anybeast seeking the Eye, but I am sure I will find out more before we reach the range." Maktraun's eyes narrowed to slits, but the cold light in them sent chills down Raitha's back.

"So I will bid you good eve, Ms Galestarr..." The shrew turned to go.

"Not so fast, shrew!" Raitha reached out and grabbed Maktraun's arm firmly, preventing him from climbing down. "So ye'll find out more, eh? It's that bird, ain't it? 'E's the one knows about this cursed stone, an' yer torturin' 'im fer the info, aren't yew?"

Maktraun's paw moved like lightning, whipping out a tiny knife and nipping open a small cut in the sea otter's paw. She winced and yanked back, but kept her gaze locked on him. The Torturer's face was as bland as usual. "Very clever, Ms Galestarr. Yes, the Sparveri is the one holding the answers to my questions. I am a scholar, you see, I cannot rush into such ventures as this with only a few half-hearted scribbles on a piece of parchment to guide me."

Anger radiated from Raitha's large eyes, she clamped a paw on the stern rail, digging extended claws into the wood. "Let 'im go, Maktraun. Ye don't need 'im, all ye need's me goin' down there, findin' the ship an' bringin' up the stone. There can't be anythin' more that's vital ter this." She gritted.

"Now this I did not expect." Maktraun raised his eyebrows. "You already have your squirrel friend Darvenfield to worry about. Surely you would not want the wellbeing of another on your mind, especially one who attacked you in such a way as the Sparveri did."

Raitha shifted and rubbed at one of the roughly-bandaged gashes along her arm. Then she looked back at the sadistic little shrew. "I don't care what 'e did ter me, let 'im go."

"I am afraid what you ask is impossible. Now, bed beckons, and I will bid you good night, Captain. Tommorrow should bring us all closer to our destinies." Maktraun waved carelessly and turned his back on Raitha, descending from the ledge and tottering off down the quarterdeck steps to his cabin. Left behind, the sea otter ground her teeth in frustration and bounded down to the tiller, barely restraining herself from punching Drahkool as she reassumed command.

Darkness fell late out on the ocean. It was not long before midnight that the last rays of reflected light were discarded from the ruffling waves, and total night fell. The lanterns were lit, and cast eerie shadows across the decks, bringing the darkness of piled ropes and lowered sails to life. It was exactly what Raitha had been waiting for. After some consideration, she posted a tall, brawny stoat at the tiller, a creature who, at a glance, could pass for a sea otter in the darkness. Quietly, she slid past her guards, most of whom were leaning against the rail or sitting back on the decks, either dozing or completely asleep, and stole off towards the for'ard cabin, where Darvey had been imprisoned.

The young squirrel looked up in despair, expecting to see Maktraun or Corvochar stepping through the cabin door. His jaw dropped in shock to see his captain appear next to the bunk he lay on. "Ca-ca-Cap'n! What're you doin' 'ere? How'd ye get past the guards? What if ye gets caught?"

"Shhsh!" Raitha held a paw to her lips. "They won't know I ain't at the tiller fer a while yet, not 'til the next watch anyway. I was just wantin' to see how ye were doin'."

Tears welled in Darvey's eyes. Crying openly, he reached out and grasped Raitha's paws. "Oh, Cap'n, why did you do it? Ye should never 'ave let them filthy scum 'ave their way! Now what's gonna become of us?"

"Now Darvey, belay that whingein'." Raitha took Darvey's tearstained face in one paw and held his gaze sternly. "I'll tell ye what's gonna happen. I'm gonna get that cursed stone fer that blubbergutted ferret, an' then we're weighin' anchor outta 'ere. Whatever happens, even if we just end up on the bottom o' the briny talkin' to the fishes, we're leavin'. You an' me, Darvey, ya got that? Now dry yore eyes an' give us a smile!"

Darvey rubbed his eyes dry, but he didn't smile. "But what about my leg?" He nodded at his twisted, mangled limb with a grimace of pain.

"I'll fix yer leg when I can, bucko, but fer now the most we'll worry about's gettin' free of this, 'kay?" Raitha's eyes darted towards the door hurriedly. "I gotta go. Chin up, matey, I'll be back when I can, an' don't worry!"

Darvey slumped back on the hard mattress as his captain slipped silently out the door. Raitha had meant to simply go straight back to the quarterdeck before she could be missed, but somehow her footpaws carried her towards the aft hatch. Looking about her carefully, she lifted the hatch and climbed down to the hold, balancing easily over the deep keelpit.

Stormfyre hunched forward in his prison at the sound of footpaws padding towards him. "I am warning you, Maktraun. I will never give you the remains of the Song!" He rasped hoarsely, scraping his talons along the floor.

The faint light filtering in was blocked off by Raitha's sleek head as she peered into the wooden cell. "I ain't Maktraun, bird, so don't go gettin' yore ratlines in a twist. I see the shrew's been workin' on you too."

"You!" Stormfyre's eyes widened angrily. "You traitor! I should have killed you when I had the chance! Then that evil Maktraun and his vermin master would not be able to make this forsaken voyage!"

"I've no doubt ye woulda killed me if I'd let ye, bird, too bad I didn't, eh?" Raitha lounged against the cell door, listening to the restless movements of the kestrel within.

"No, you are too cowardly to accept an honourable death! You would rather slink about in the shadow of the Primus, doing his bidding to save your pitiful life!" Stormfyre spat back.

Angrily, Raitha thrust her muzzle through the bars. "Yew can take that back, bird. I'm a prisoner, same as yew, only I got somebeast else to look after. Ya think I'd be doin' this fer that stinkin' Primus only to save me own 'ide an' ye'd be wrong. Darvey's the only beast in my 'ole crew left alive, an' I promised I'd look after 'im, see?"

Stormfyre fell silent a moment, subdued by this outburst, but he quickly rallied and retorted: "But still you do his bidding! I doubt you fought at all!"

"Rrrgh! Shaddup aready! Why I'm doin' this ain't none o' yore business!" Raitha growled. "Corvochar coulda killed me fer all I care, but I can't let 'im hurt Darvey, okay? Get it through yore 'ead!"

"So, why are you here anyway? Why bother to come see a prisoner in the brig? If you really are a prisoner of Corvochar, you will be beaten or killed if you are caught. Why risk it?"

"Let's just say curiosity got the better o' me." Raitha said drily. "I wanna know what it's gonna take ter find this stone, or at least to get Darvey away from this. All's I know so far's that it's hid aways somewhere in a wreck about a big reef risin' outta the waters. It could take ten seasons t'search every wreck around one big reef!"

Stormfyre narrowed his eyes at the sea otter. "I won't tell you. Even if you do hate Corvochar, there is always the risk that you would see fit to tell him, to get your friend out of his clutches. No seabeast can be trusted properly with a question of honour."

"An' what would yew know about a seabeast's terms o' honour, messmate?" Raitha suddenly shifted away from the door and looked around, ears cocked. Above her, heavy footpaws thudded the deck in a stride that could only belong to Corvochar. "Lissen, Sparveri, I gotta go afore they finds out I'm gone, but just remember, ye can trust me!" Hurriedly, she pulled a dockleaf package containing her ration of seabiscuit from her jerkin and tossed it into the brig. Before Stormfyre could utter another word, the sea otter was gone, rushing back up the ladder to the deck.

The kestrel stood still a moment, then he flung himself on the biscuit and devoured it hungrily. The bread was hard and dry, but it gave him a new sense of purpose, a new surge of strength to resist Corvochar and those who would possess the Victrix's Eye, the terrible Stone of Skyfyre.

From behind the mainmast, somebeast watched with great interest as Raitha slipped out of the hatch and hurried to reach the tiller and her command before Corvochar should realize that she had been gone. Makraus touched his dagger hilt at the thought of the bloated Primus, but then a thin, mirthless smile spread over his lips. This was surely a creature who could find and retrieve the famed Victrix's Eye if any could, but Corvochar, much as he hoped, would not be the one to hold it, and take command over the entire Nex-Cantus.


"Land rise on th' orizon!" The harsh cry of the lookout broke the morning winds and swept back to Raitha's ears. She threw back her head and roared back: "Where away? An' gimme the lie o' it!"

"Dead on for'ard, Ah'm seein' cliffs a risin' from d'waters!" "I knew it, we're there!" Raitha hung her head. The time was almost come.

Vermin crowded the decks of the Mountain Lord. Forgetting their duties they stood about like cormorant chicks with their heads back; staring in awe up at the huge cliffrange that rose straight out of the sea. The high sides were riddled with holes and ledges, many occupied by guillemots, murres, puffins, auks and gulls, who set up and instant clamour on the slightest pretext. A single huge pinetree hung to the rock, clinging like a weed, but still retaining its huge, ancient majesty, all alone in the middle of the ocean.

Corvochar waddled cheerily out of his lush cabin and up to Raitha, who stared at him for a moment, then turned her face away. The ferret clapped her on the shoulder. "Coom, mah cap'n, we are 'ere. Now'd Eye must be found! When d'Eye 'ere, in mahpaws, then you go, you an' yer liddle squirrel." He waved a paw at Raitha's guards, who dragged her over to the rail. Maktraun ambled up, followed by two hefty rats leading Stormfyre. The Torturer smiled cheerfully at the sea otter.

"I suppose you are wondering where to begin your search, Ms Galestarr. While I have not been able to obtain any further information from our Sparveri friend, I am able to tell you approximately where the wreck lies." His paw pointed out along the cliffs to where a series of jagged rock pinnacles thrust up from the pounding surf about a gaping crevice in the rocksides. "That is the jag of reef that legend says the olden Montrex ship carrying the Eye was wrecked. It is where you will begin your search. Guards!"

Spears, swords and whips at her back forced Raitha to the rail. Maktraun gazed at her for a long moment. For the first time, he looked just as sinister as he really was. "Do not fail our Lord the Primus, or Darvenfield will pay the price."

Her heart frozen, emotionless with despair and horror, Raitha dove lithely over the side and plunged into the churning waters. Dipping below the pounding surface, she glided sleekly towards to stone jags, eyes wide in the deep emerald light of the sea. Briefly, she broke the surface for breath and was immediately on her way down again, diving deep enough to spot the traces of a wreck.

Stormfyre clenched his beak in despair as his eyes caught the faint ripple from time to time of the sea otter breaking the surface, ever searching. It took a long time, nearly an hour, before Raitha spotted a shattered crow's nest above a mainmast in the gloom. Breaking the waves for an instant, she filled her lungs to their utmost, and dove straight down. The icy water tugged at the sea otter's thick fur, drawing a silver stream of insulating airbubbles from it. The deep light reflected from her eyes as she fought the currents, gracefully undulating her sleek body through them, ever heading downwards.

Deep, deep in the icy dimness, the entire ship came into view. Yes! This was it! An ancient Nex-Cantus galley, once splendid, now shrouded with kelp and algea, its painted hull mouldering in the biting salt water. Raitha's head was already beginning to ache at the extreme depth, but she twisted and dove further, putting all her speed into her movements, straight past an underwater rock peak, and into the gaping fissure torn in the galley's hull. Ignoring the pounding of her blood in her veins, she disappeared into the darkness, searching for the Stone.

Corvochar pounded a flabby paw on the rail. "Where d'sea otter? She been down too long! Where is she? Maktraun, 'as she 'scaped?"

"I doubt that very much, my Lord." Maktraun bowed with a syrupy smile.

"Ah, yer right, mah Maktraun. Sea otter no 'scape widdout liddle Darvey, eh? She be back." Corvochar chortled. Then he turned about and snapped to Drahkool. "Take yer watch, Drahkool. Tell me when d'sea otter coom up! D'Eye soon be mine!"

The big rat leaned over the rail obediantly, squinting for sight of the sea otter. No sooner had he looked, when he bolted upright again, pointing exitedly. "Look! Look, Corvochar! D'ere she iss! She surfaced!"

Raitha bobbed to the surface barely conscious from the extreme dive. Sea otters rarely dive deeper than one hundred and sixty feet, and do not often stay under longer than three minutes, and thus she was severely strained. For a few moments she bobbed on her back, trying to breathe and clear her vision. Finally, she rolled over and swam weakly back to the galley. A rope ladder was thrown overboard, and Raitha hauled up to the deck, where she slumped to the decktimbers, breathing heavily. Corvochar rushed up and grabbed her jerkin front, hauling her up on her paws.

"D'Eye! Where is it? Give it to Corvochar now, vixen!"

Raitha struggled free and leaned back against the rail, shaking with exertion and wiping seawater from her eyes. "I couldn't find it. Ye'll never believe me, but it wasn't there!" She gasped.

"Liar!" Corvochar roared. Creatures cringed away from the ferret, frightened by his dangerous temper. "Youknow where d'Eye is, now give it to me! Maktraun! She tell truth now!"

The shrew drew his deadly little dagger and pressed it across Raitha's throat. He spoke calmly, in a voice so smooth it scared everybeast present worse that Corvochar's rage had done. "Now, Ms Galestarr, do be reasonable and tell the truth, or you will live, in extreme pain, mind, long enough to see Darvenfield scream his last and die."

Raitha gritted her teeth and leaned back, trying to get away from the deadly blade. "I'm tellin' yew it wasn't there! I searched the 'ole ship an' near killed meself doin' it, but the Eye wasn't there!" The dagger pressed closer through the thick fur to the skin.

"She speaks truth." Maktraun drew away, many eyes turned to Stormfyre. The kestrel sneered openly. He knew he was taking a reckless chance that would probably backfire later, but for the moment, he didn't care. "Did you truly think that in the hundreds of seasons since the Stone of Skyfyre was lost, the Clan of Sparveri was idle? No, your Eye of Victrix lies no longer in the ship, but in its own vault in the key of plain sight. And only the Song of the Skystone can retrieve it. A sore pity you know not enough of it to reach your goal."

The wild salt winds howling over the seas caught and tangled themselves in the branches of the tall, lone pine. They shrieked and whispered as they tore themselves apart on the gnarled branches. Sitting hunched on a huge bough close to the trunk, an old kestrel lowered his head and glared through still-keen golden eyes down to the invading galley and the vermin in search of the Victrix's Eye. Wide wings flapped once, loosening stiff joints, and the lone bird of prey launched himself from his perch, circling once before flying out of view behind the cliffs.

Chapter 11 by Stormfyre

Corvochar’s throat pulsated madly as the ferret’s bulging eyes knifed at the defiant sparrow hawk. "Give us d’Song, Sparveri!" He tore a curved dagger from a leather belt around his voluminous waist and rushed forward at Stormfyre. "Give, or I killyer now, carve yer apart an’ feed th’ fish!"

Stormfyre raised his chin contemptuously. "I welcome death if it keeps the stone from your evil claws… vermin!"

A collective gasp rose from the crew, and a buzz of trepidation filled the chilled salty air. Nobeast had dared to call the Primus Corvochar "vermin."

The ferret narrowed his eyes and curled his lips back in a spitting snarl. "Maktraun!"

"Yes, Excellency?" The shrew padded to the Primus’s side.

"Take d’ Sparveri below! Make ‘im talk! Make ‘im talkmuch! Make ‘im tell everyt’ing ‘bout d’ Eye!"

Maktraun gazed into the sparrow hawk’s angry golden eyes. "Yes, excellency." The shrew motioned to two nearby soldiers who grabbed Stormfyre’s bonds and hauled him toward the brig. The malevolent shrew followed silently.

Raitha watched as the sparrow hawk disappeared into the aft hatch with his guard detail and torturer. There was something about this bird that intrigued her…

"Cap’n," Corvochar grated, "any storms comin’ t’rough?"

The sea otter turned abruptly. "I ain’t a sorceress, Primus," she growled. "Could be an ‘urricane tomorror, an’ I cuddn’t tell ye today. These northern waters is treacherous."

"Keep us sailin’ ‘round d’ ridge op dere," the ferret ordered. "Don’ let us stray. I wonner get guidlook at this place." Raitha shrugged impudently. "Aye-aye, Primus."


Maktraun sifted through several scrolls on a cluttered desk in his private study in the stern of the ship. Finding the correct scroll, he placed the others in a large drawer and unrolled the parchment, glossing over his writings to find the notes he was looking for.

The study door creaked open, and Corvochar’s rotund bulk strode across the threshold. "Wot’re ye doin’, Maktraun?" the Primus grumbled. "I t’ought y’ were workin’ on d’ Sparveri."

The shrew stood and bowed hastily. "Indeed, I am, Excellency. These are all the notes I have acquired regarding the Sparveri Clan. You will have the final verse of the Song of the Skystone soon enough."

"Don’ fail me, Maktraun," Corvochar warned.

"Excellency," the torturer wheedled, "have I ever failed you?"

The ferret’s pudgy features wrinkled as the Primus broke into a throaty laugh. "Hyahakahahayak! Yo’re right, Maktraun, ye’ve nivver failed me." Corvochar’s eyes strayed to a particular passage on the scroll. "Wot’s diss?"

"That," Maktraun nodded, "is what I have of the Song of the Skystone, provided by… another source." He gazed at the verses, a slithery chuckle escaping from his mouth. "It’s very odd… for a group so committed to keeping a secret to compose a song giving clues about the secret. From what I can tell, there are a few expository verses telling how the stone fell to the earth from the sky, and how great death and destruction would be unleashed if the stone fell into the wrong paws…" He paused and shook his head. "Of course, the only death and destruction inflicted would be on the enemies of the one who holds the stone, hmm?"

"Yeh yeh, whatmore is dere?" Corvochar prompted impatiently.

"Well, the song goes on to give a list of clues for every place that the stone has been hidden… Apparently, a new verse is added every time the Spaveris move the stone. There are twenty-six in all. The twenty-sixth tells of the ancient Nex-Cantus warship which sank with the stone in its hold. I never got the full text for that verse, but I was able to extrapolate the final clues from our own historical records."

"So d’ Sparveri knows d’ twenny-sevent verse, yeh?" the Primus grinned hopefully.

"If he does, you will have it," Maktraun nodded. "If he does not, he will die."

Corvochar gave the torturer a hearty slap on the back. "Guidwork, Maktraun! Guidwork! Hehyackahayak!"

"I aim to please," the shrew smiled thinly. He watched as the Primus stumped out of the small study.

"Now, where was I?" the torturer sighed as he adjusted his spectacles and sat in front of his scroll again. "Ah yes… here is just what I was looking for." He turned and opened a spacious cedar cabinet. Six shelves were covered with labeled vials of all sizes, shapes, and makes. He selected one from the top shelf. "Herbal compound thirty-seven," he announced. "My masterpiece."


Stormfyre lifted his fiery golden eyes at the sound of pawsteps nearing his cell. The familiar small figure appeared on the other side of the bars. "Good day, Stormfyre. Another restful night, I hope?"

The sparrow hawk glared silently, his chin held high with contempt. As usual, Maktraun took the lack of reaction in stride and set his haversack and stool on the ground. The shrew sat slowly, his paws folded, his eyes fixed on Stormfyre’s. "You cannot resist forever."

A mirthless grin tickled at the corner of Stormfyre’s beak. "Then I will be dead. And with luck, I will take you with me."

"You cannot even begin to imagine what you are denying yourself," Maktraun crooned. "You could be a very powerful creature once the Primus has obtained the Eye."

"Surely you know by now that I cannot be tempted by material offers," the bird of prey spat. "It is futile to try to make a Sparveri betray the secrets of the clan."

A malicious sparkle appeared in the shrew’s dark eyes. "But it has already been done, and it has succeeded." He blinked and added, "Would you like to know the name of the Sparveri who gave me the song?"

Stormfyre curved his claws into the gap between two wooden floorboards. "That is beneath my interest."

"Surely you are the least bit curious," Maktraun coaxed.

"I have no interest in traitors to the clan."

"His name was Rocfyre. Rocfyre, the oldest son of Sunfyre andAstralis."

A moment of shock seized the Stormfyre, followed by a sudden jolt of anger that coursed through his veins. "No! My father would never yield!" He flew at the bars, clawing at them, gnawing with his beak, filled with an urge to rip through the metal and silence the lying shrew before him.

"Oh, he did, and quite wisely. Still, given the number of verses to the song, it was quite a while before he finally related most of twenty-six, but he did. Pity he died so soon…"

"Coward! You hide behind filthy lies! There is no truth in yourwords!"

Maktraun’s voice cut in sharply. "On the contrary, everything I have said has been true. I said that your name is Stormfyre while you gave a false name. I listed the names of your brothers and sisters, and you denied that you recalled their existence! Who has been the more truthful, I ask you?"

"But you lie about this! I know it!" The sparrow hawk screeched. "My father died fighting the Nex-Cantus!"

Quite suddenly, Maktraun’s paw flashed forward. A small blade deftly punctured Stormfyre’s skin at the base of the neck and was quickly retracted. Eyes wide, the heaving bird glanced at the wound. "Wh—What is this?" he demanded.

The torturer ignored the question as he sat back on his stool. "Your father did not die in the battle," he said softly, an evil grin playing on his hard features.

"No…" Stormfyre shook his head, suddenly overcome by a cloying dizziness. "He never gave the Song to you… vermin… My father… Father…" The sparrow hawk’s knees buckled, and he fell in an unconscious heap.


Stormfyre was surrounded by dark, cloudy mists, unsure whether he was standing, flying, or floating. He could almost make out recognizable shapes through the reeling haze, but nothing materialized.


He whirled at the sound, but it seemed to eminate from everywhere. "Wh—Who is it?" he demanded. "Who’s there?"

"Stormfyre, it’s me." Suddenly, a dim shape appeared in the gloom, moving steadily towards him.

"Who?" Stormfyre repeated, his voice trembling. The voice sounded familiar, but it couldn’t be…

"It’s me." A bird of prey stepped into Stormfyre’s field of vision. The other bird was also a sparrow hawk, but slightly larger, strong-chested and majestic.

"No… it cannot be…"

"Hello, son," Rocfyre smiled.

"Father… I thought you were dead," Stormfyre breathed.

The elder Sparveri bobbed his head slightly. "I’m here now, aren’t I?" he tilted his head whimsically. "It has been too long, my son."

Stormfyre glanced uneasily at his surroundings. "Where are we?"

"Stormfyre, Stormfyre…" Rocfyre chuckled. "You always question everything, don’t you?"

"It was a trait you taught me," the young sparrow hawk blinked, momentarily confused.

"Indeed. I am glad you have not forgotten my teachings. You still remember the Sparveri Creed?"

"’First and foremost, to defend the honor of the Sparveri Clan, to guard its secrets from those who would use them for evil. Secondly, to bring justice to the guilty and protection to the innocent. Thirdly,to—‘"

His father cut him off with a sweep of his wing. "Of course you remember it," he chuckled again.

"I have never forgotten," Stormfyre stated softly. "Father, there were vermin who tried to take the secrets from me. Where are they now?"

"Far from here," Rocfyre reassured. "You have done well. You have brought honor to the clan."

"Father… the vermin said that he made you betray the secrets. He said that you… gave him the Song of the Skystone."

"Vermin lie, Stormfyre. But you need not worry about that." The sparrow hawk filled his muscular chest with a breath of air. "The Song is protected, as is the Stone of Skyfyre. You remember the song, don’t you? All the verses?"

"Yes, all twenty-seven," Stormfyre nodded proudly.

Rocfyre closed his eyes, and intoned:

"On a sable night long, long ago, A streak of fire pierced the sky, A shining stone from Aquilla’s eye. It bled the river Sparves dry Before it came to fiery rest."

"It burned with sunlike blood-red glow
While, far above, stars danced through space
Until the sun rose to take its place,
And a ray glanced off the ruby’s face
And shone on noble Skyfyre’s nest."

An inexplicable uneasiness turned Stormfyre’s stomach as he completed the stanza. "Strange… It seems only moments ago that I was fighting to keep those words secret."

"There is no need for secrets here," his father glanced around illustratively.

"But surely we must uphold the creed," Stormfyre insisted.

Rocfyre shook his head. "We are the only two present, and we are Sparveri. Nobeast is listening to us. Ah… my son… I remember that nothing brought me quite as much pleasure as listening to the words of the ancients…"

"The words of the ancients are pleasing to hear, but when they speak of something so terrible as the Stone…"

The older sparrow hawk shook his head. "Terrible can have many meanings, my son. Terribly wonderful. Terribly glorious. Now, truly, the stone can be a thing of great terror, but that does not necessarily make it terrible."

"What does that mean?" Stormfyre pleaded, his brow crumpling in confusion.

"Nothing… or everything… it depends on how you look at it."

The young kestrel shifted uncomfortably. "You know how much it annoys me when you speak in riddles."

"I suppose it is not right that I should be annoying you now… when we may have little time together." Rocfyre scratched at an invisible floor. "Stormfyre, I think that… I think that I would very much like to hear the twenty-seventh verse of the Song. A younger verse spoken by ayounger voice."

"The twenty-seventh?" Stormfyre repeated incredulously. "Why that? Is that not our highest secret to be kept?"

His father spread his wings. "Who will hear us in this place?"

"I do not know!"

"Stormfyre, I ask you to trust me. There is no need for secretshere."

"But we would never recite the final verse except within the deepest chambers of…"

A pained look crossed Rocfyre’s face. "You do not trust your own father?"

"Of course I do! But why must you ask this of me?"

Rocfyre’s eyes gazed piercingly, almost hypnotically, into Stormfyre’s. "It is perfectly safe here, my son, and this would make me very, very happy."

A strange sensation overcame the young sparrow hawk. He could not identify it, but he suddenly felt as though he could indeed recite it without fear or shame. Quite suddenly, and without remembering beginning the verse, he found himself speaking the words for which he so very recently would have died to keep silent.

"Near four hundred seasons passed
‘Till the stone was borne up high,
Up a land-tooth which pierced the sky
And through the bird-skull’s single eye.
Now learn the color of your fates.

"The stone at rest again, at last
Above a sea of liquid flame. Look back upon the way you came
Lest beginning and end appear the same
And you find Dark Forest’s gates.

"First look toward the setting sun.
The boar and lion guard the door.
Beyond them, heed the mumbled roar
And do not dare trod on the floor Or set paw upon the path.

"When you hear the rivulet run,
Watch closely for the sentry’s glare.
Rejoice if you are welcome there,
But if you’ve come to steal, beware! And feel the guardian’s wrath.

"Past that chamber, past a trickling rill,
Through a corridor’s narrow wind,
Four branching pathways you will find.
All easier routes than the one behind. But take none, and climb higher.

"If you have strength in you still,
Press on until the rocks turn gold Do not falter; be ever bold!
And, if successful, you will hold The dread Stone of Skyfyre."

The last syllables hung on the hazy air, and Stormfyre found himself wondering nervously why he had spoken them. He looked to his father’s face for reassurance.

A laugh broke the air. At first, Stormfyre felt relieved that his father was pleased. With a knifing surge of panic, he realized that the laugh was not Rocfyre’s. The vision of his father, strong and proud, shattered as if a rock had been thrown through a stained-glass window.

Coming to wakefulness in a flash, Stormfyre pushed himself to his feet from the musty wood planks that served as the floor of his cell. Before him was a sight which froze his heart within him.



His beak hung open in horror as realization of what had happened struck him like a thunderbolt.


Maktraun laughed winningly, laughing at the Sparveri’s self-affirmed honor and adamance that no force on earth could bring the secrets of his clan to light.

Stormfyre fell against the back of his squalid cell like a dog who had been beaten. The shrew had tricked him. Used a potion. Somehow taken the form of his father in a drug-induced dream. And the mighty Sparveri had given the torturer everything he wanted.


Defector. Collaborator. Traitor. Traitor.

He had handed the Stone of Skyfyre on a silver platter to the vermin.


Chapter 12 by Raitha Galestarr

Corvochar saw instantly by the smug smile on his torturer's narrow face as he climbed out of the hatch and strolled towards him, holding a small scroll, that he had found something. "Ah, mah Maktraun, ye 'ave foun' somptin', no?"

"I said I would not fail you, my Lord. The Sparveri gave me everything I needed. Granted the final verses are extremely well-written; very much a riddle indeed, but I have no doubt that if followed correctly, they will lead us straight to the Victrix's Eye."

Laughing in triumph, Corvochar clapped Maktraun on the back, nearly knocking him over. "Goot work, mah Maktraun. We go a'once! I must 'ave d'Eye!" He gestured with his paw to the crew, who instantly broke into a scramble of activity to be among the first to line up in smart ranks before their Sovereign. "Wetake force o' beast. Leave d'rest 'ere, an' go find my Eye o' Victrix."

Maktraun actually looked slightly alarmed. He shook his head cautiously and shook the scroll. "My Lord, that would not be wise. I wish as much as any to see you holding the great Stone of Victrix, but this rhyme gives at least clue of a long, perilous journey. It will be dark soon, and we will likely be caught in the night if we attempt to retrieve the Eye now-"

"Stop diss." Corvochar interrupted him scornfully. "Meh t'inks you becomin' ol' mousewife, Maktraun. Wha' yew 'spect from d'Sparveri? Eye sittin' easyfind on cliff? An' dark? What dark to us? Ferret, rat, weasel, all night-hunters, shrew... See goot in d'dark. Coom, le'see diss rhyme. We soonfind where Eye lies."

Reluctantly, the shrew unrolled the scroll he had written Stormfyre's words on, cleared his throat, and slowly, carefully read out the verses. When he finished, Corvochar suddenly cackled aloud The ferret's heavy stomach jiggled with mirth.

"Kayahackayackhayah! Eye in d'cliff som'where's? Den it make no diff'rence night or day! Dark in 'derr's any'ow!" He suddenly stopped laughing and drew himself up authoratively. "We go, now. Drahkool, pickbeast t'coom. Strongbeast, good fighters. Smart. Rest stay 'ere unner Makraus. D'Eye most be mine! An' it be mine soon! Drahkool!"

The big rat bowed immediately, and climbed down to the crew. Corvochar watched him keenly as he threaded his way through the ranked vermin, picking out certain creatures and sending them forward. Raitha, standing to the side, with her guard detail, counted ten beasts who stood finally before the others. Big, strong creatures they looked too; competent and able to survive the peril lying ahead.

Surveying them approvingly, Corvochar turned to Maktraun smilingly. "See, mah Maktraun? Wefind Eye notrouble wit' dese beast be'ind us.!"

"It appears I was wrong." Maktraun smiled evilly. "My Lord was correct. Perhaps he would also like to bring the Sparveri prisoner?" Raitha's ears perked up instantly.

A cruel smirk spread over Corvochar's bagged face. "Aye, bring d'Sparveri. Ah wan' t'im to see me when I 'ave d'Eye at last! 'E soon know d'meanin' o' power! 'E cower b'fore me, d'en, I kill'im. Kayahackyakahyack!"

What! An overwhelming sense of urgency filled Raitha. Struggling to keep a straight face, she strode up to Corvochar and lounged against the rail beside him. "I'm comin' too, Primus."

The ferret's head snapped around towards her, genuinely surprised. "You j'okin', vixen. Why'you wanna coom, risk life again fer mah Eye?"

"Yew 'ave no idea 'ow strange that sounded." Raitha fixed her customary sneer on her face. "I wanna see the thing I went an' risked me life fer, an' I wanna see what yer so mad about that ye'd put up with me an' keep me matey imprisonned for."

"An' what about yer liddle squirrelfriend. What 'appen to 'im when you gone, me gone, crew bored?"

A chill ran down the sea otter's back, but her gaze hardened, though her face remained scornful. "Oh, I ain't worried about Darvey, 'cause yew know that if anythin' 'appened to 'im, I'd either kill yew, or get rid of a tidy few o' yore scummy crew tryin'."

For a long moment, the two locked eyes, holding the tension mercilessly, until Corvochar smiled mirthlessly and looked away. "We see 'bout dat. Fine den! You coom. We may b'needin' otterswim t'rough search. Makraus! Fetch d'Sparveri. Drahkool, 'ave boats low'rd. We go, now!"

Stormfyre slumped dejected on the floor of his prison, he didn't even bother to look up when Makraus' shadow darkened the cell. His voice carried none of the former stubborn spirit he'd showed, he spoke in a flat, dead monotone. "I assume you've come to kill me now that you have what you want."

"Quite the contrary, I assure you." Makraus opened the door and ambled in, his small, poison-treated dagger out, but nonetheless relaxed. Smiling happily, the sadistic shrew tapped the kestrel under the chin with the blade, forcing him to look up. "You've been granted the honour of travelling with the Primus to the end of his journey, so that you may see the Eye of Victrix returned to Nex-Cantus paws. Cheer up! I'm sure you will find the trip memorable." He walked around behind Stormfyre and jabbed him lightly with the daggerpoint. "Come along, now, the Primus awaits us."

Tiredly, the kestrel rose, and walked obeidiantly out beside Makraus. He didn't care anymore what befell him. All he knew, and welcomed the knowledge; was that as soon as he had proven to his prisoner that he truly had the Stone of Skyfyre, Corvochar would have him killed.

"My Lord, we are all here. May you soon have the Victrix's Eye in your possession." Makraus saluted Corvochar as soon as he regained the deck. Under Raitha's eye, with Drahkool inevitably issuing the orders, the ten soldiers, followed by Maktraun and Stormfyre, climbed into a longboat. Corvochar clambered gracelessly into the stern, causing the boat to swing in its moorings, and soon had to make room for the last two, Drahkool and Raitha, the latter who took the tiller. With plentiful grunting, swearing and gasps of horror from several of the soldiers, the boat was lowered to the water, and the oars thrust into their locks.

Briefly, the longboat wavered and rocked as Corvochar settled himself, then settled in the water. The ferret Primus pointed a flabby paw at the reef. "D'ere! Row for d'reef! Move!"

The ten soldiers heaved on the oars, slowly propelling the small craft towards the reef, then around its perimeter, searching somehow for the way in. Nothing remotely resembling a tunnel entrance was visible, save for one or two gouges in the rock used as nesting tunnels for gulls and murres. Corvochar began to lose patience quickly.

"Well, Maktraun? Where'd 'entrance? I see not'in, on'y blasted birds! Where is it?" He demanded of his torturer.

Settling back on his seat for a little more stability against the boat's motion, Maktraun tried to study Stormfyre's written words as he attempted to placate his Sovereign. "Ah, here, my Lord. In the first verse, it speaks of a great land-tooth, this reef, apparently, and the jewel being borne into it through a bird-skull's single eye. But how would a brid's skull have only one eye?"

Raitha turned the longboat to navigate a large rock spur jutting up and inward to the cliff. She snorted at the shrew. "Yore dumber'n yew look, shrew. What kinda skull 'as only one eye? 'Alf o' one, o' course. Like that there side-viewed bird-skull rock o'er yonder, see."

In the same instant, the heads of Stormfyre, Makraus and Corvochar shot up, staring at the rock formation the spur seemed to point to. Indeed, the stoneface seemed to jut out in the slightly rounded shape of a bird's skull. In the very center of it, not far above where the rockspur almost met the cliff, a large hole gaped blindly like some empty eye socket; by far the largest hole they had seen.

Makraus lifted his scroll, continuously glancing down at it, then back at the rock, then down at the scroll again. "That must be it! The birdskull's single eye! Hahaha! We have found the entrance, my lord!"

~ Hang on for the rest, coming soon!