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Short Story
The Wererat

Illumination flares shot into the night, as Hovvenin pushed forward for an assault on the fort. Despite the brightness, the elite Scouts were using sparse tree covering to move up the hillside. Days of his team's preparation came down to the next few moments, as the Scouts reached a more shadowed position near the outer wall of the stone tower. Hovvenin’s nose wrinkled from the effects of the fire spell splattered against the stone wall. The rank and file had been withdrawn, tucked away in the tree line, away from the Confessor’s fiery destruction, until needed. It was another short siege in a string of conquests that Hovvenin’s guild had been helping in.

Flittering out of existence the amber flares created a dark silhouette of the tower. Hovvenin remembered the first time his father had shown him a large fort. Jostling his memory to connect to that lost moment, he thought of the magic it held over him. Sighing; he darted away from the wall for a tree, leaves still crackling under the heat. After fighting over half a dozen forts he knew that every fort, whether they were built from stone, wood or brick, was a pawn in campaign warfare. Hovvenin couldn’t remember a time when these forts weren’t being attacked in some fashion.

Hov’s dad had tried to instill each of his 3 sons in their responsibility for the people and the land. It fell upon him and his 2 brothers to protect the guild holdings. It was an ancient system, one that started with a forgotten King almost 2 millennia ago; the King and his seven Maidens had created art, places of worship, structure and political machinations. Families joined Guilds which in turn grew into Major Guilds which in turn could become the ruling house of their Provincial Kingdom. There were also wild kingdoms that used the solitary forts to control local resources. Currently a Barbarian tribe had crossed the land and thought they could strip away a Medium Fort from Guild Anglika; Anglika being the Guild that his family had pledged themselves to.

Three Ancestral kingdoms (great houses) had risen to power, and each knew that their power was nothing without the other two kingdoms (great houses). Each was only 1 leg of the tripod, and without all legs the tripod would fall. But this new horde of barbarians could disrupt the balance, and bring everything crashing down.

Hovvenin had only recently chosen his profession, being recruited as a scout for his keen eye and swift movement. Rising through the ranks over the last few months, he was in charge of this final assault on the fessor’s tower. If this went well, the siege would be over and victory would be assured for Guild Anglika. This particular fort controlled a nearby forest, and an added bonus of a small lake; timber and fish were staples of the trade industry and controlling this fort would increase power and revenue for the guild; part of which would secure prosperity for his family clan Ravenstodd.

Taking a defensive position upon reaching a corner tower of the fort Hov gave orders for the ascent to begin. Unpacking their gear, each of the 3 Scouts began the climb above the base of the tower.

Once inside the tower window the three split up into different levels. Hov took the high ground, closest to where the Confessor would be located; His first partner stayed on the same floor they came onto while his second descended to the lower levels ready to open the gate for the remaining Scout force. Ascending the rough wooden staircase, Hov made sure his padded feet were quiet, less the fessor and his entourage ambush him before his task was complete. Before he even reached the top of the stairs, the smell of smoke met him like a wave crashing on a beach; his nostrils burned from the heavy sulfur associated with tornado fire.

Peeking into the circular room, Hov was surprised to see dead bodies of guards lying around the room. A standard chamber, the room was filled with a mahogany desk, some chairs and an overturned table. Tattered tapestries darkened the room, while the window to the right of the stairs let in the starry sky. Looking closer Hov could see pools of blood under each corpse. Standing near the window was the Confessor, placing well aimed shots of explosive fire on the now incoming swarm of troops. Hov thought through his actions and sprung from the staircase in the direction of the Confessor. While his weight was leaving the wooden stairs, a creak echoed through the room. Turning the Confessor peppered the walls where Hov had just been. Nocking mid stride, Hov released an arrow just before diving behind the table. Flashes appeared in front of him, the first bore through the table while a second hit him mid-center.

Splinters then agony filled his chest while his throat was closing from the smoke. First it was just for escape, then a need for oxygen that drove him toward the door. He glanced left towards the window and noticed the Confessor was not there. Hov reached the stairs, falling to his knees. He made it to the lower landing before he passed out from the burns, which had seared through his leather armor onto his flesh. The last thing he saw was the Druid, the unit’s healer, looking down into his eyes with a floating orb nearby.

…..

Awakened by the smell of beef stew, Hov thought he was in a dream. He was still sore and rose slowly, meeting the stare of his older brother at the other end of the bed.

“Nice to see you could join us for dinner. I was just questioning Marissa why she had made too much food for just the two of us. I was about to throw the rest of it away;” looking sharply at Hovvenin “you wouldn’t want any would you?”

“Oh come on Gavin, give your brother a break, he’s had a tough night.”

Gavin and Marissa had taken on the role of looking after him when he came to live in the Hamlet of Kiksburg. Kiksburg was the largest holding of Anglika and a trading partner with Deopolis’ main city of Innagroud.

Her good food was always a reminder of the horrible chow at the barracks. “Thanks, I could use some grub, what am I doing here anyways?” Looking over at his brother questions filled his mind. “Last thing I remember is old lady Blue holding her candle over me.” Hovvenin painfully stood up and hobbled to the table, where three bowls were set. Sliding into his seat and getting ready to pick up his spoon, he felt the sting of a wooden spoon slap the back of his hand.

“Just because you are injured doesn’t mean you don’t have to give thanks” Marissa said with no resentment. Hovvenin never understood the faith of his brother and sister-in-law, but he observed their custom to the All Father just the same.

“Have you heard anything from Jern lately?” Hov asked around a mouthful of steaming beef.

“No, the last letter we got was the one from a week ago. He’s probably having too much fun to even think about us. Speaking of fun, how did you end up at our place tonight?”

“Honestly I’m not sure, last thing I remember was the Druid holding an orb near me; kind of creepy if you ask me. I guess my relation to you is known and they brought me here instead of the barracks.”

“I was the one that had you brought here from the clinic. What I want to know is how you got your injuries?”

“Oh that, well…….” Hovvenin wasn’t really ready to explain what happened, but he knew that Gavin would only push harder if he didn’t explain. “I was with the squad during another siege. We were out near Wicker’s Forest, attacking the fort of that deranged Confessor. Five days to get setup and move into position and five minutes to get stung with sulfur. I was in charge of a team, and we were able to breach the walls of the tower. I moved up to the floor the Confessor was on. Everything was a blur, it was too smoky, and the dead bodies, it didn’t feel real. When I was diving for cover I shot at him. I think I hit his shoulder, and the momentum of the shot must have pushed him out the window, because when I peeked over the table he was gone.”

“It happened that fast?” Marissa inquired.

“Like I said, I shot once and dove for cover. Not much else happened. The injuries came from the fireball exploding on the table, smoke inside the room and that nasty sulfur.” Looking past Gavin to Marissa, “the stew is great, but it would be better if my nose wasn’t seared to a crisp. Anyways I stumbled down stairs just after my partner let the main force inside the Tower. You know the rest.”

Gavin grumbled as he heard the story. He never liked that they used general troops for such dangerous missions like laying siege to a Fort. It was different with him, he was trained for it; he knew what a Confessor was like, and had been trained to hunker down through their fire spray. Gavin was a Crusader trained for combat and given special equipment to help his cause. Disciplines in magic gave each combat profession more versatility; the Crusader came from the school of Knights. Unlike the Legionnaires that riddled his division, Gavin used a sword for his offensive capabilities, and used magic and shield to avoid his enemies’ attacks from reaching him.

As dinner was finished, Gavin helped Marissa with the dishes, and gave her a kiss on the cheek. Coming out of the kitchen he pulls Hovvenin to the side and says “Come on, we’re going to see Deopolis’ House Captain.” Dragging Hovvenin by the ear, the two leave the small cottage and head towards the inner part of the city.

It wasn’t a very large city in world Standards, but it was large enough to have a few Inns, entertainment for the weekends, and a steady flow of work for the seasonal laborers; all which was run by Anglika. The streets here were pounded dirt, unlike the paved streets of a large city. Gavin and Hov turned onto the main street headed to the barracks, receiving hellos from people passing by. It was later in the evening, so the gas lamps were being lit, and most shops were in the process of closing down.

As they neared the main barracks and the military headquarters, they could hear shouts of insults, like rotten eggs being thrown and stinking up whatever they were attached too. Tonight it was Mazon that had some anger issues with the city management. When Mazon caught site of Gavin in his Crusader uniform, he sucked in and spit at Gavin. Gavin, a gentle person by nature, stood his ground and didn’t advance until he was sure that his emotions were in check.

“Are you going to just stand here and take that Gavin?” Hov asked with a hint of disgust meant for his brother.

Ignoring his brother he walked towards the guinecean who had just insulted him. “I don’t understand your kind,” Gavin said, trying to draw on the peace that the All Father provided. “We offer jobs, food and protection and yet you treat us like this.” Gavin reached out wanting to pull the man’s downcast eyes to his level.

Before Gavin could touch the man’s chin another guard was on the man pushing his forearm into his throat. The force from the guard pushed the angry man’s head into the stone of the barracks. “Release him,” Gavin said. A small trail of blood was left on the rocks marking where the man had received his first reprimand. “Take this beast out of my site and have him pay a visit to the Master-at-arms to help with stall duty.”

It was a quiet next few minutes as Gavin lead Hov to the Captain’s door. Hov was still trying to take in why his older brother would let a common citizen disgrace their name. Gavin had already put the recent incident out of his mind, and was trying to figure out how to approach the Captain. A heavy hand and a heavy heart knocked on the Captain's door, waiting until they heard the command to enter.

Gavin entered first, and presented himself in front of the simple desk in the middle of the room. Hov filed into the right of Gavin and stood heels together. The Captain spoke smoothly. “Before we get to why you are here, I want to congratulate you on a job well done today. That fort we just took, will supply us with much needed timber. The local merchants and craftsman will be working those forests as early as tomorrow morning.”

…..

As the door closed behind the two brothers, the Captain turned to the corner.

“Do you think he has what it takes to be a shapeshifter?” Appearing from the corner a cloaked figure shimmered into existence, stopping that which provided his cover.

“A tough journey lies ahead for him. Breaking a scout, and building a wererat Scout heralds many dangers. But his eyes show spirit; I think he will last.” With those simple words, the Captain penned the orders for Hovvenin to be given discipline training as a wererat.

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