Two young boys come across the body of a murdered noble in the forest surrounding their kingdom.
Amender sat beneath the willow, his nose in a book while the sweet summer air danced around him. His brown eyes scrolled the page thoroughly, utterly transfixed by what they were drinking in; so transfixed, in fact, that they did not notice the shadow creeping up behind him until it was too late.
A pair of hands clamped themselves over his eyes, sending his world reeling into darkness.
"By the Sun, Challis, get off!"
The young fox playfully shoved his friend's paws away, trying his best to look grumpy and, indeed, failing miserably. Challis' laughter was a refreshing sound to hear after a day spent cooped up inside learning the land's history, and his good humor was infectious. Amender closed his book and stretched.
"Are you done with your training already, Chal?"
The black wolf nodded and flexed his arms proudly.
"Lathander says I'm coming along nicely- I should be able to begin practicing with the moving dummies soon if I keep working at this pace. During my down time I went for a walk in the forest, and I found something. You have to come see this, Amender!"
He took his friend by the hand and began to pull him towards the garden's exit, determined to bring him to this strange discovery.
"Hey, come on, I don't think we should be leaving; my family doesn't know where I am, and if Master Lathander catches you missing-"
Challis cut him off with a wave of his free hand.
"You worry too much, my friend. Just this once, throw caution to the wind and have an adventure with me!"
'If I had a silver token for every time he said the words "just this once" to me,' the red-furred fox thought to himself, 'I could buy an entire island.'
Golden shafts of sunlight filtered through the fresh leaves of the trees, sending dancing emerald shadows cascading along the soft soil floor of the woods. Hidden among the crisp scents of spring was a strange odor; the odor of 'wrong'. The entire area was eerily quiet; not a single bird sang out in joyful song, no insects chirped merrily in the tall brush, no squirrels crept along the branches of overhanging trees. Something was not right in Adavere Forest.
"Amen, stop- she's over here."
Challis crept through a particularly thick grove of young trees, holding them out of his close friend's path as he led them to his find. Nestled beneath the blanket of leaves that survived the frozen winter was the corpse of a young tiger maiden. Her dark red locks were tussled and tangled, spread wildly around her expressionless face. A thin trickle of blood peeked from the corner of her muzzle and a jagged bone protruded from her leg. There were bruises showing beneath bare patches of skin, as though whatever struck her had also pulled her fur out in clumps. She was dressed in very fine clothes; there was no doubt she was nobility.
Amender reeled at the sight, falling to his knees as he fought back the urge to retch. The stench of death here was awful. His vision swimming, the young fox glanced toward the crouched form of his wolfen companion. Challis' black fur blew in the gentle breeze, his mop of matching hair falling in his face as he stared at the dead, milky-white eyes of the feline woman.
"Amen... do you know what a Fenari would be doing down near our kingdom?"
The fox shook his head, partially in response and partially to clear his mind.
"They would have to be fleeing something. I know our treaty is respected but the other race is not- our people are wary of the Fenari, and they are wary of us. For a wealthy Fenari woman to come this far to the east... Something had to have been wrong."
Challis nodded and tossed a small scrap of paper to his companion.
"Take a look at this... I found it clutched in her paw."
Amender ran his eyes over the parchment, drinking in its simple message:
They will tear us apart.
The yellowed paper was stained with blood.
Challis' multicolored eyes stared intently at his young fox friend, his jaw set in grim determination. Even in the tingling air, in the presence of the poor woman whose life had been stolen from her, he could not feel the powerful claws of fear that tried to dig themselves into him from the corner of his subconscious. They would be heroes if they could avenge the tigress, and there may even be a reward. Yes, it was disgusting to think that this brutal murder had happened less than a mile from their quiet town, but the young wolf longed to test his skills with the blade he wore 'round his waist. Every muscle in his body was tensed to run, run until he found a villain worthy to taste the cruel sting of his-
"It was the Corvelli."
Challis was brought out of his battle fantasy abruptly, shock quickly replacing the resolution his face had held not moments before.
"You can't know that, Amender! You have no proof!"
The fox shook his head and pointed near the woman's legs.
"Look, Chal. You can see the way the grass is bent; the way it winds off toward the north- this was the work of the Naga."
Both children had heard the stories as they lay swathed in bed clothes, the tales of the blood-thirsty savages preying on the naughty cubs of the town. Not a single young one from Adavere closed their eyes without seeing images of the war-painted snake people and their dark shamans, hissing in the Forbidden Tongue as they began to weave their spell of entrapment on the unsuspecting babe who knocked over his milk or wet his bed. The two boys shared a glance of terror as they remembered their self-crafted images of the strange heathens, twisted and warped within their mind's eye.
"I can't do this, Challis. I don't want to get involved with this. The whole situation reeks of something... larger. Something beyond our reach. Maybe if we reported it to the elders, or Lathander..."
"No. Amender, I need you to stay with me. I know you choose to spend your quiet time sitting beneath the willow because of its proximity to Lady Arna's. I've seen the look of hunger in your eyes when her name is mentioned; you've always wanted to speak with her, to learn from her as only an apprentice can. We both know she might be able to help you control your powers... This might be just what we need- If you can build up the courage to approach her, we could ask-"
It was the fox's turn to interject, holding up a hand and looking grim.
"Challis, you know me. You know I can't talk to her. I'd love to learn of her culture, to browse her ancient tomes and learn how to mix remedies... She's old, my friend. She's practically a fossil. I know she would see right through any lie I told- besides, my mom always said that the Corvelli's eyes can pierce through any illusion, whether verbal or sensory. What if she strung us up and cooked us? Huh-uh, no way. I'm not risking it."
Challis watched his best friend's tirade with a quiet smile, letting his terror burn itself out before chancing to speak again. As the fox huffed and crossed his arms, the young wolf thanked the Maker they had been born in the same village. Without Amender's antics, life wouldn't be nearly as much fun.
"I'm telling you, my friend, we have nothing to worry about. As long as you're able to concentrate and choke down your shyness, nothing could go wrong. Let's go back to the village and talk to the old snake; what if they come for our women next? We have to stop them, or at least get some piece of unmistakable evidence that they're behind it. You know, there might be a reward for her... I'm sure it would cushion the cost of those books you're always buried in. What do you say, Amender? Will you do it for me?"
Amender's bright brown eyes turned to his friend, worry radiating from the young fox cub. He heaved a reluctant sigh.
"Alright. I'll guess I can try..."
He turned his eyes to the still figure of the orange-furred victim and took to his knees. With a gentle hand he rolled her on to her back. Pinned to her traveler's cloak was an ornate adornment shaped like a lilac, crossed with a blade and a willow branch. Recognition dawned in Amender's eyes as he began to crawl away from the corpse- he had seen this before, in his history books. This was the seal of the royal house of the Fenari, the rulers of their kingdom; this was more trouble than their people could handle.
"Challis... I..." he trailed off, gnawing at his lip in fear. "I think they're trying to frame the Adavereans for her murder!"
Challis' eyes widened in surprise. Of all the stories he had heard of the vile Corvelli, they centered on the race's low intellect and brutish impulse. Nothing had led anyone to believe the creatures could be so sly, so politically clever. If the corpse of the royal was found within Adaverean borders, naturally the Fenari would find the treaty broken and declare open war. If the two boys could still find enough evidence to expose the traitors, though, all hope might not yet be lost. The real trick lay in entering the encampment, however; the pair might be small enough to sneak and hide, but poor Amender was terrible at both combat and espionage- Chal couldn't compensate for both of them if the naga decided to flay their hides.
"We have no choice, Amen. We have to. You can see how much more pressing this is, can't you? I bet no one from the town could have recognized that insignia but you. We'll need your brains to assess any information we CAN find, and I can give us a fighting chance if we're caught. I can't do this without you, my clever friend. Please?"
"Yes," the fox answered, "but you owe me big time. Let's head back; I need to be home before sundown."
The two boys began the trek back, the silence weighing heavy on the cooling evening air. They had been gone for a few hours, planning the next few crucial days in the solitude of the leaf-strewn grove. Both canines were racked with worry as they mulled over their own private thoughts, the scale of their responsibility seeming to crush them beneath its mighty heel. One mistake and their kingdom would be doomed. One slip-up and everything their people had fought to achieve would be erased from history. Of course, there was no pressure, no pressure upon them at all.
As the dawn waxed burnished gold upon the horizon, Challis woke. After a quick bath and with a warm meal beneath his belt, he was ready to begin the new day. With a quick glance in the mirror the brash young wolf bolted out the door of his woodland cottage and raced towards the city to meet Amender. He found his young compatriot leaning against the old willow once more, his brown eyes focused on the run-down shack that belonged to the only Corvelli in town. There were no windows; just a slightly rotted wooden door that hung loose on its frame. Disheveled vines wound themselves up the decomposing structure like some sort of wild, jagged fur. The healer's hut was a dismal sight indeed.
"Have you been waiting long?"
The fox shook his head.
"Not particularly. I've only been here for ten minutes at the most, trying to work up the nerve to approach. I'm so scared I can't even remember if the Corvelli are nocturnal."
Challis grinned, his white fangs shining in the sun.
"As much as I hate it, I'll be back here on the bench for moral support. Go get 'em, tiger." He gave his friend a playful punch in the arm and took a seat.
Amender approached the house slowly, fighting with his apprehension as the small structure grew closer. His hackles were raised against his will as the first few goose bumps began to sprout beneath his fur while the foreboding sat ominously still. When he finally reached the dilapidated door the fox raised a tiny fist to knock. Much to his surprise the door swung open without as much as a touch, allowing a single shaft of sunlight to creep along the dry soil floor. A pair of glowing white eyes glimmered inside the cool room, watching him intently.
"Well, are you going to come in or just stand there shaking, boy?"
The young fox hurried inside and closed the door behind him, never letting his eyes leave the shadowy shape lurking in front of him. As his eyes began to adjust to the dimness he was able to make out the creature before him; Lady Arna, he assumed. Being a Corvelli she had no legs to speak of; from the waist down she had a long, coiled tail their race used for moving about. It was covered in a layer of shimmering silver scales that went on to adorn the rest of her unusual form from her humanoid torso to her angular, reptilian head. White hair wrapped in a strict bun crowned her curved head and made her seem almost matronly. Amender nearly let his guard fall around the snake-woman, but as she smiled at the young cub he noticed the white arc of her fangs.
"Pardon me, Lady Arna, I do not wish to intrude... My name is Amender, and I was wondering if you could help me."
The Corvelli slid over to a wooden chair resting by a worn oak table and sat, motioning for the fox to follow suit. He did so slowly.
"Amender... Yes, I have heard your name spoken before. You're the resident bookworm." Her voice was like a summer breeze through the high grass during the draught-seasons, a cracked rustling that set her visitor's nerves on edge. "What exactly is it you need from me, little cub?"
"Well... I... I want to know more about your people, ma'am. I've heard the children's stories, but I would love to know the truth. What can you tell me about them?"
Lady Arna stared at him, her slanted eyes unblinking as she mulled over his request. Beneath her scrutinizing gaze the young fox fidgeted, determined not to look directly into her eyes lest she see through his lie. He didn't wish to mislead her, but Challis' warnings still rang clear in his mind.
"Well, my child, I come from the village to the west of the forest, which lies on the outskirts of the Adaverean Wastes. Our Sha'lor is a man by the name of Kallak. I left there many years ago, when he grew too... ambitious, for my taste. We did not agree, and with the blessings of our shaman I separated from the clan. I have resided here ever since. Why are you suddenly so curious about us, though? In all my years here while you've lived here as well, never once have you approached me. Why now, little fox? What has you so terrified?"
Amender was beginning to sweat. He could tell that the naga was on to him, that she knew he had some ulterior motive for his visit.
'Should I tell her,' he thought, 'about the body we found? Does she already know? Will it really hurt my cause?'
"My friend and I... We found... Out in the forest we found the body of a Fenari royal. My friend, Challis, he's training to be a warrior. He's really good at hunting, you see, and he found Corvelli trails leading off to the west. He thinks they killed her, and I think they did to. We don't know anything about them, or about their politics, or anything- but we think they might be trying to start a war between the Adavereans and the Fenari."
Lady Arna rose with startling speed, her face aghast.
"Shintara mek agor! I told him this plan would never work!" She gnawed at her lip, anger flooding her eyes as she moved around the small room, fuming.
"He's been planning this for years, but I never thought- we have no business meddling in the affairs of your kingdoms, but he's convinced that this will weaken the two civilizations so that he can slither up and take over the thrones. This is why I left, young Amender! I thought that if I came here I could protect them both from this... I was wrong."
She placed her head in her slender hands and sighed as her rage began to subside.
"Little fox, you and your friend... I know you're young, and this is dangerous, but I can give you the assistance you need to stop Kallak and his ambitions. I cannot physically pass through the barrier, Amender, but there are ways around the shaman's charms."
Her muscular tail propelled her to a small side room partitioned by a gray curtain. Amender craned his neck to get a look to no avail; he could not see through the cloth. The sound of glass tingling and rocks tapping reached the cub's ears. Arna returned shortly, three small vials held in her large, thin fingers and to bracelets resting on her arm.
"Amender, how old are you?" she asked, her eyes resting on the door behind the fox.
"Ten," he replied cautiously.
Arna placed the vials before him. Each was filled with a different liquid, varying in color and consistency. One contained a light pink mixture that was thick and slow like molasses, a second held a dark brown compound that seemed to be made of tiny bubbles that did not break or burst, and the final vial was filled with a shining silver substance that seemed to boil of its own accord. Amender could not take his eyes off that particular item, staring with rapt attention as a river of the gleaming liquid began to wrap its way toward the top of the container.
"What's that?" he asked.
"My blood," she replied, "and that is what's going to bring down Kallak. The other two vials will protect you from the poisons my people are so fond of using. These bracelets," she said, handing them to him, "will allow you to see through the illusory veil covering our town. We Corvelli are very fond of secrets."
She smiled at him, but her eyes revealed the sorrow lurking behind her mask.
"The veil will block your fledgling magic, little kit. Both you and the wolf will need to be careful, and you'll need to know how to mix the antidote before you depart- let me show you how."
Amender emerged from the hut, the bag at his side chiming as the bottles bounced off of one another inside. Challis was sitting on the grass, tossing his hand axe into the dirt and pulling it out again with discomfort evident on his face. At the sight of his friend he forced the awkwardness away by grinning and leapt to his feet.
"Amender, my friend! How did it go?" The young wolf clapped his companion on the back enthusiastically and began leading him off toward the forestry once more.
"Well... She gave me some items that she said would help, and told me how to kill Kallak- that's their chieftain, I guess."
He turned to the black furred wolf and grabbed his wrist, stopping him in his tracks.
"Challis, I'm afraid." His amber eyes were wide and filled with insecurity and uncertainty. Amender was not known for his courage, and he was struggling to stay focused on the task at hand. So many things could go wrong; this could be lethal if the duo made even the tiniest of mistakes. The vulpine scholar did not wish to risk so much, but he knew they must. There was no choice, and that made it worse.
The black wolf took hold of his partner-in-crime and met his gaze, his exotic eyes- one green, one blue- staring at the fox's brown ones and filling him with hope.
"Amender, look at me. I'm with you on this; we're in this together and I will not let anything happen to you. Or me. I promise."
Amender felt his fear begin to subside at the strong words of young Challis, the wolf's bravery seeming to flow into him. The fox nodded and stood up straight, patting his satchel and clearing his throat.
"Right then! Let's go kick some tail!"
The two young cubs trekked through the forest for the greater part of the day, taking advantage of the sunny weather to play and race as they made their way toward the hidden city of the Corvelli. Races and hiding games helped take their mind off the task at hand, though it always remained perched on the very edge of their consciousness. It wasn't until the sun began to set that they noticed the change in scenery; the green grass was becoming sparser beneath their feet, the temperature was rising, and the flora began to lose its color as they plant life slowly dried out. The Adaverean Waste was approaching.
As children, both boys were taught never to approach the edge of the lush forest for the Wastes had a way of drawing wanderers in to their doom. It was rumored that the desert was home to a clan of canines known as the Ne'Khar- a race of tribal jackals that were said to practice dark magics. Their warriors were very fierce, but it was their wizards and necromancers one had to watch carefully. Neither boy knew if the stories of their black magics were true, but the mere idea terrified them. They traded glances as the grass finally faded to sand, leery of passing through the Ne'khar lands.
"Amender," Challis said shakily, "we have to do this." He took the fox's hand and squeezed, tugging him across the threshold into the wasteland turning even more golden as the sun sank beneath the horizon.
It was not long before the bracelets around their wrists began to hum with power.
"It's near," whispered Amender breathlessly.
The temperature had dropped radically since the sun had disappeared. The young boys' eyes scanned the horizon, searching for the veiled city they knew to be near. It was Challis who finally saw it.
"THERE!" he cried, pointing excitedly. "I found it, Amender, I found it!"
The village seemed to be nestled beneath a shimmering, soapy bubble that blended in with the surrounding sands. A large bonfire roared in the center, surrounded by a few Corvelli laughing and eating. Dry grass huts spiraled outward, beginning a good thirty feet from the flames. It was a relatively simple setup; the only thing giving away its humble appearance, apart from the veil, was the towering stone tower to the south of the town. It didn't fit with the barbaric appearance of the other buildings. A green light pulsed from its topmost window.
Amender put his finger to his lips in a silencing gesture, his brow furrowed in frustration.
"Shh! We don't want them to hear us! Look, if we circle around to the west, we can hide in that smaller hut-" he pointed at the building he had in mind- "and we can wait there until they go to sleep. Then we can sneak into the tower and look for some sort of evidence."
Challis looked at his friend, his mouth agape in astonishment.
"Wow, you've... You've really put some thought into this, haven't you? I assumed we'd just charge in head first."
Amender shook his head.
"That's stupid." He took one last glance over the hill before tightening his satchel and stepping over the crest.
"You coming, Chal?"
The wolf, not used to being the one left behind worrying, scrambled to follow the young fox down to the settlement.
Laughter and voices floated over from the fire as the boys crept behind a stack of boxes, their eyes constantly scanning the ground as they watched the passage of shadows along the ground. The two boys held their breath as they waited, too afraid to move as the naga villagers slithered back and forth, talking in their alien hissing dialect. Time passed slowly for the hidden pair. Amender began to shake, his previous conviction beginning to ebb away as the moon inched its way across the night sky. Finally the crowds began to leave the fire, heading back to their own homes at long last. Amender let loose a sigh of relief.
"Come on- we can make it to the hut now." He motioned Challis over as he began crawling toward the hut in the back, mindful of the passing Naga as they moved. As they reached the building they noticed it was not a home like they had first assumed, but was in fact a storage shed. They entered the bare doorway to find a large collection of dried meats hung from the thatched ceiling. As they hunkered down to begin the wait once more, the shadows where thick enough to hide their small bodies.
Challis' nerves were on end. Usually the ever-boastful wolf was the first to foray into danger, but his cowardly friend's sudden shift in demeanor troubled him. Somehow between Adavere and the Wastes he had lost all fear- perhaps it was just his way of dealing with the stress, but it didn't make the cub feel any better. The sooner they completed their mission, the better they'd both feel. At least, Challis hoped so.
A few hours later Amender poked his head out of the frame.
"They're all gone; let's go."
He left the shed and headed for the stone tower. It was strangely devoid of guards, even at this time of night- it struck the pair as odd, though neither of them spoke up. Nearing the massive structure they could make out strange runes etched upon the solid rock. They were nonsensical to the young boys, though Amender took a mental note to ask Lady Arna about their meaning. A large set of stairs was carved into the stone, leading to an ornate obsidian door that towered monstrously over the pair. Their eyes met as they shared a glance. Amender, who had been so full of bravado, felt his knees turn to jelly. He fell to the ground, shaking. Something about the door drained whatever willpower he had. He wanted to run home, crawl under his sheets with a good book and hide until he drew his final breath. Challis, on the other hand, received an almost opposite effect. He wanted to charge into the black door with all his might and bust it down. Taking a deep breath he reached for Amender- holding his hand, the young wolf bellowed as ferociously as he could- it wasn't very frightening at all- and charged forward. He was determined.
The door parted as the duo drew near, allowing them access to the inner chamber. The wall was lined with a tall spiral staircase that wound its way to the top of the tower; it was carved of stone like the one outside. Against the far wall was a shelf filled with books on the history and lore of the world. Everything, it seems, was covered- The Fenari, the Adavereans, the Corvelli, the Ne'khar, even the aquatic races such as the Udarr and Loquis were covered in the expansive list of texts. Amender stared wide-eyed at the glorious collection, practically salivating in his excitement.
"Look, Challis! Look at all these books! Gah, over there- a book on the lineage of Durgwar kings! And a scroll of Imptu gods! I could stay here for years just reading!"
He cast his wide-eyed smile in the direction of his friend, who had sunk to his knees gaping.
"Amender... all those axes..."
The young wolf cast his eyes over the shelf Amender was watching, but he did not see a rare collection of knowledge- instead he saw a rack lined with axes of varying size and shape; Large war axes, small hand axes, axes made of gold and iron and obsidian and bone...
"You can have the books, if I can have the weapons!" He rushed forward, hands outstretched as he reached for an axe made of a shimmering pearl material.
Weapons? There are no weap- OH NO.
Amender came to his senses and grabbed his companion by the back of his tunic, struggling to restrain him.
"No, Chal, you mustn't! They aren't really there! They might exist in this tower somewhere, but there's nothing there!"
His words echoed off the chamber walls as the image faded, showing instead a hole in the floor that dropped down into inky blackness.
"That... was entirely too stupid of me."
Chal hung his head in shame. He felt like a fool for being so blind. Amender placed an arm around his shoulder.
"I thought the bracelets she gave you would dispel illusions, Amen." The wolf sounded almost desperate.
Amender shook his head.
"She said it'd dispel the veil, specifically. She probably didn't see this coming; She said she hadn't been here in a few generations. Things change; she may have never even stepped inside this tower."
He glanced around cautiously.
"Come on, Challis. Let's head to the top. Keep your eyes on the floor, and I'll do the same- we can't take any chances."
Young Challis looked hurt, but he knew he was not being admonished- it was a helpful suggestion, and he knew it was for the best. All the same, he felt awful as they began their trudge up the stairs.
Winded from the long climb the pair collapsed outside another obsidian door, this one sized to fit a normal-sized creature. The boys eyed it warily as the sound of slithering echoed from behind the jamb. Someone was awake in there, and they had an idea who it might be- Kallak. A baritone voice sang in a language they could not understand, dulled through the barrier but still loud enough to pass through. He must have been pleased.
"Should we just go in?" Amender asked, unsure of how to proceed. He looked to Challis expectantly, hoping the younger boy could provide some sort of insight. The wolf saw his friend watching him and began to think, trying to figure out what to do.
All we need to do it by ourselves time to find something, anything that can pin this on them... If I charge in, then maybe... Yes! That has to work!
Challis turned to Amender, his face somber.
"Amen... I'm going to go in first. Keep the vial of blood handy, and when you find something holler and we'll get it on him. You need to focus on finding the proof, though, alright? No matter what happens. I mean this."
Amender nodded, his dark eyes heavy with worry.
"Alright, on three- one, two...THREE."
A black Corvelli slithered around his room, bouncing and humming as he thumbed through a moldy old tome. The sound of the door slamming open caused him to turn, the book falling forgotten to the floor. Red eyes blazed within his skull as he glared at the two miniscule intruders.
"Adaverean whelps?! In my lair?! This could work in my favor... I'll leave your broken carcasses to rot on the Fenari borders!"
The Corvelli sprang forward, his claws outstretched as he reached for the closest of the pair- Challis. The young wolf quickly drew his tomahawk and countered, barely able to restrain the powerful adult in time. As such, two of the naga's claws slashed their way across the cub's snout, eliciting a cry of pain from the wolf as blood began to trickle down from the wound.
"GO!" he shouted as he struggled, trying with all his might to fend off the Corvelli chief. He drew back his weapon and swung with all his might, colliding with the snake's shoulder. Kallak hissed and withdrew a step, sizing up the tiny warrior snarling in his direction. His red eyes were so focused on his opponent that he did not notice the small fox crawling along the wall, passing the fight altogether. With a hiss Kallak struck forward again, darting dexterously toward the axe-wielding tot with his wide mouth open- his fangs gleamed wickedly in the eerie light. Challis ducked and turned, digging the wooden handle of his weapon into the enemy's ribs. Kallak gasped and whipped his tail wildly, knocking the wolf cub's legs out from beneath him.
Challis hit the floor with a dull thump as the wind rushed out of his lungs. For a moment he saw blackness edging in on his vision, but he fought it off as he strained to regain his footing. Kallak lashed out again, wrapping his prehensile appendage around the young wolf's waist and drawing him close; when their faces were only a few inches apart, Kallak grinned dangerously.
"You look delicious..."
Amender reached the desk near the back of the chamber and began to rifle through its contents, shutting out the sounds of the fight. Every fiber of his being screamed at him to stop, to help his friend, but this was the only chance the two boys would have to save their kingdom. Somewhere among the mess of books and quills had to be some form document or item that would tie the tigress' death to the Corvelli, but as the fox rummaged around he found nothing more incriminating than a book of nude naga and a bottle filled with what appeared to be Scarabur, the potent wine of the Ne'khar. There was nothing here... Feeling his hope drain away, Amender began beating his fists against the lectern and barking angry curses under his breath. Time was running out for the pair, but then-
His finger found purchase within one of the drawers he had pulled free in his terror, a small button hidden from unknowing eyes. Amender had pressed in without thinking, triggering a small rectangular patch to open in the side of the unit. The young fox reached in carefully. Something soft was inside, something that felt good against the fur of his fingers. He grasped it and brought it into the sick green candlelight; a patch of the tigress' blood-stained fur, wrapped in a black ribbon that was held clasped by the wax seal of the Corvelli. Tucked into the back of the ribbon was a scrap of parchment, containing one shakily-scrawled word: IALOR. The word was nonsense, even to one as well-read as the tiny kit, but he knew of one person who might be able to make sense of it. Arna.
Amender stuffed the wrapped fur into his bag and fumbled around until he found the swirling silver vial. As he turned toward the fight he withdrew the stopper and prepared to pour it on the distracted naga locked in combat with his companion. He stopped dead in his tracks.
Challis had a good hold on the snake's massive jaws, obviously straining to keep them from snapping shut on his neck. Kallak shook his neck back and forth, fighting to free himself so that he could end the tiny pest who had broken into his private room, but the wolf would not back down. Every second that passed, though, Amender could see that Kallak was drawing nearer every time, could see the muscles running along his tail tighten as he squeezed Chal's torso that much tighter. He could not keep this up much longer.
With a terrified squeak of a howl Amender charged into the fray, brandishing the vial of shimmering blood as though it were a broadsword. Kallak chanced a glance his way, but so did Challis. Feeling the cub's muscles relax ever so slightly the Corvelli struck, sinking his fangs into the wolf pup's shoulder. Challis screamed.
Amender saw his friend go limp from the corner of his eye, but he could not stop. Lady Arna had told him what to do to end the nightmare, and he must see it through. He dumped the vial of blood onto Kallak's cackling form, watching transfixed as smoke began to rise from his onyx scales.
With a strangled hiss the naga released his grip on the wolf boy, shrieking as he tried in vain to wipe the boiling material from his withering body. The miasma rising from his form began to coalesce into a similar shape, a shape that seemed almost familiar to Amender.
'Arna?' he thought to himself as he crawled toward Chal's unmoving form.
Indeed, the Corvelli woman was appearing from within the cloud, hissing in a strange tongue as she descended upon the weakened chieftain. Before she sunk her fangs into his throat she looked toward the boys, her eyes almost completely black. With a wave of her hand a swirling portal appeared beside them.
"GO!" she shrieked, turning back to her prey.
Amender didn't need to be told twice.
The young fox pulled his unconscious friend though, struggling with weight- he was not a strong boy. Once they were free the portal snapped shut leaving no trace of its existence. Amender rummaged in his sack for the remaining vials Lady Arna had given him, cursing as he fumbled to keep them clutched in his trembling hands. Once he had torn the stoppers free he poured the vials into each other, swirling them clockwise as the boiling brown and sludgy pink coalesced into a strange gray-green mixture. Amender splashed the newly-fixed anti-venom into the blood-crusted wounds of his wolfen friend, praying to the gods that the herbal concoction would bring him back from the brink of darkness.
It took four hours, but Amender was able to drag Challis back to Adavere. The sun was cresting over the horizon when they arrived, giving the whole city an ethereal glow and silhouetting the pair against the edge of the forest.
"Help!" Amender cried; his strength was fading. He fell to his knees.
"Please... help us..."
Challis awoke with a throbbing pain in his shoulder. He was lying in a wooden building, wrapped in a linen sling while a matronly Saint Bernard bussed around administering medication to a few other people resting on cots. The medical lodge in Adavere? How had he gotten here?
He tried to sit up and take a look around but a swift stabbing pain laid him out once more.
"Excuse me? Ma'am?"
The woman turned and smiled at the wolf.
"Ah, it's good to see you up and about young Challis; you had Master Lathander worried sick. Your friend is off at his home, I'm sure he'll be by later this evening. You just rest until then, everything's fine."
She turned back to her duties, leaving Challis alone with his thoughts.
Around Midday Amender came bounding in, a smile stretched across his vulpine face.
"Challis! You're alive!"
He tackled his friend, forgetting his wound momentarily in his relief. Challis inhaled sharply, wincing, accepting the hug with embarrassment.
"Lay off, Amen, and spill it- what did you find?"
Amender opened his bag and pulled out the ribbon-tied fur.
"It has the seal of their kingdom, look! This seals it! Have you shown this to Lord Adaro yet?"
The fox shook his head.
"I was waiting for you to come back to us, Chal. We should do it together, y'know, because I couldn't have done it without you..."
Challis smiled and managed to push himself into an upright position. It took some groaning, but he even got to his feet.
"Let's do it now. Together."
The young duo was flanked on either side by armed hyena guards bearing the ceremonial armor of the Adavereans. Challis was nervous; sweat dampened his white-marked brow as they were led up the ornate hall to the dwelling place of Lord Adaro. Amender saw his unease and took his hand, a comforting smile stretching across his face as he gazed into the frightened eyes of his friend.
"I know you don't want to be here, but this was your idea. We've done a great thing! Shelter your fears for the moment and bask in the knowledge that despite all your hardship, today you are a hero!"
"Thank you, Amender." Chal replied. As they drew toward the final entrance into the throne room, Amender gave his hand final squeeze and let go.
"And you say you have proof of this?"
Lord Adaro was a round man, a raccoon dog with luxurious fur, a member of the Adaverean royal family and the current king. He sat upon his throne; a look of skepticism souring his generally good-natured looks. Amender pulled the lock of fur from his bag and presented it to the king, bowing as he did so.
"Yes, M'lord. We never would have been able to procure this if not for the aid of Lady Arna and Challis. I know this seems sudden, but you must send for the Fenari. If word of this reaches them before we can present our evidence... We'll be done for."
The king mulled this over, studying the seal.
"Little ones, I will send for the Fenari tonight. Put your minds at rest; your hard work has not been in vain. You have my word."
He dismissed them with a nod. As the pair left they could hear him speaking in a low growl to his advisors, no doubt demanding to know how this could have slipped below the radar.
As they left the palace, Challis took his fox friend by the hand.
"Thank you for doing this for me, Amender... I put us in danger, and I'm so sorry."
"I'm glad you did; who knows how many more years of peace we've bought for our nations? I think we deserve a rest, though... Want to go play hide and seek, Chal?"