Marley walked around the group, watching their training with a critical eye. She was pleased that Leticia was holding her ground against Janice and his axe. Montrose was showing an equal level of skill against Hamish’s heavy claymore. With the danger approaching, she was determined to make certain that everyone was prepared for the battles to come. Without warning, she lunged into the fray, raining blows at all four. She tripped Janice, batted Hamish’s blade out of her way, and spun to level a kick at Letitia.
Montrose was momentarily surprised, but recovered in time to counterattack. Marley swung The Queen as though it was a light twig. She matched Montrose’s thrusts and parries. He was driven back under her patient assault, her strokes becoming faster and difficult to keep the pace.
As suddenly as it began, Marley stepped back and looked around at the confusion she had caused.
“You all need more practice, she said, “unfortunately you will get plenty of experience soon.”
Montrose looked at her with suspicion.
“You seem to be certain about events.”
The bear looked at him, her features drawn tight.
“I have sensed the anguish of many bears that I have known for years. We are losing a great many to this assault.”
“Why aren’t you going to them”, Letitia asked.
Marley sighed. “I cannot abandon all of you. We are safer together than apart and I would be derelict to leave you here alone. We have duties to observe.”
Everyone froze as she went rigid, her covered ears obviously shifting around. After a tense moment, they could hear a clicking sound. It grew in volume and seemed to come from everywhere. Marley spun around and gestured at the others to form a circle. Several long minutes pass before shapes begin to emerge from the sunflowers. Wave after wave of the creatures lurched into sight, showing difficulties controlling their limbs.
Marley made no sound, standing still facing the approaching horrors. She was staring intently in one direction from which came a creaking voice that was barely audible. With a speed belied by it’s jerky movements, one of the marionettes whipped out with its strings, snaring Marley’s sword arm. It tried to tug her forward, but she jerked the creature off its feet, hauling closer. It looked up with a leering face that splintered under Marley’s clenched paw.
The voice was becoming clear now, taunting the bear.
“Poor little bear, who will swoop in to rescue you this time? Certainly not that savage, I made certain of this.” The marionette that emerged was slightly larger than the rest and was somewhat more steady on its feet. The wooden face was a caricature of a grin, twisted and dark, painted garish colors. It looked old, almost like an antique. Unlike the others, there were no tattered strings hanging from the spindley, splintering limbs. A wave of malevolence swept over the bears, causing them to feel nauseous. The rasping voice went on, filled with glee.
“You escaped me once, but had to have help, little bear. Too bad that your hero has gone, gone away.”
There was a grunt from Marley and the others cast sideways glances at her. Teeth sprouted from her muzzle, glistening and sharp. Her eyes remained fixed on the marionette as she snapped her jaws, severing the cords around her wrist. The puppet took a step back, caught unawares. There seemed to be smoke or steam emerging from those now smoldering violet eyes.
A gutteral snarl seeped through those teeth.
“There are no heroes,” she growled, “only the duty that is my birthright.” Without another sound, she leapt forward, swinging The Queen with both paws, crushing marionettes in her jaws. There was something decidedly more ursine in her than a being made of felt and fluff. Her comrades leapt when she did, unable to match the speed and ferocity she wielded against the puppets. Rather than charging headlong through their numbers at her nemesis, she focused on eradicating its minions. Whenever one of her friends was snared in strings, she was there, biting through the cords as easily as those that had bound her own arm. The air was filled with the sound of splintering wood.
In spite of the odds, the bears began to push the hoard back, mostly due to Marley’s unearthly skill and ferocity. The air was dark and acrid with the anxious fumes of vanquished nightmares. However, the marionette’s army began to rally, closing in on the small group. Marley paid no heed to this, spinning like a dervish, crushing one foe after another, but even she was nearly overrun. A marionette exploded into splinters behind her and The Rook swung into her view to smash several more. She began to laugh with wild abandonment as she and Barnabus began turning, backs to one another, in a dance of destruction. Combined, the pair easily began to whittle down their attackers. At the sight of the two bears attacking in unison, the other bears stepped back, both in awe and to remain out of the way.
Eventually the hoard began to drift back from the furious bears, shuffling backwards as quickly as they could, keeping their eyes on Barnabus and Marley. Barnabus squared his shoulders and bellowed into the distance.
“Shankill! You should have sent more than one corrupt bear for me!” With his words echoing through the dream, Barnabus hurled broken swords at the retreating creatures. Marley gasped, in spite of her rage.
“Yes,” the other bear hissed, “and Sonny has been destroyed or lashed to one of their cabinets. He looked down briefly, a guilty expression spread across his face.
“I’m sorry, Marley, but Ambrose was no longer one of us.
Hot tears streamed down her face and Marley gripped the hilt of The Queen even tighter.
“The war has begun.”