Chapter Ten

The metalpedes fell into a crumpled pile. Grendel made great haste to destroy whatever that tried to harm him. The metal tore apart from their bonding, screws and wires fell out of place. The fate of the men inside was best left unexplained, left to the imagination. Gory images and shudders all around. The few that escaped, were now too frightened to fight. For good measure, Grendel slammed his fists down causing another tremor. Whatever remained of the metalpedes was no more after that. And whoever survived now had a full excuse to flee and hide.

"Is everyone okay?" Hilda asked, especially to Red.

The young boy nodded at her. This much was a change for the princess, this chaos. She hadn't expected Herius to call his familiar. From what she was told, he was of the non violent category. Well whichever retcon of character, the trio was glad to have found a savior from their ordeal.

"Just so no one is confused," Herius hopped towards the direction of his familiar, "Grendel is a non violent sort, yet he becomes temperamental if I am in danger."

That much was obvious from the moment he emerged.

"Splendid job Grendel!" Herius congratulated his familiar. Grendel grunted in appreciation, lowering his head so Herius could scratch it, a sweet, tender moment to be sure, yet there were more serious matters at hand.

"Hilda!" Hilda perked up at the sound of that voice.

"Gareth!" She called back. Slowly limping far away was the remnants of the rebels. Hilda had feared that they had all perished. This attack had crippled them right at the heart, no pun intended. Nevertheless, Hilda was glad that some members of her forces had survived. As she grew closer, her heart sank. The number of men and women were now fewer in number. From the fallen expressions upon everyone's faces, half of the Rebellion remained. At least this base, several others were out there, smaller groups who still were out scouting for any information that could be provided of use. But who knew how long that would last? Since Briar had intruded his way into the private connection between the wizard and the beast, he had gained everything they knew, more importantly, the location of every rebel chapter, which Hilda had spoken the Herius about, and a great mistake to her regret. If only she could have taken back what she did, turn back time to prevent her from sharing important information that could cripple group. It was far too late now, what mattered was making up for it and correcting the mistake. How? By finishing what they had started. They were in this road for the long run, and they wouldn't just let all their efforts fail.

"Everyone we have to regroup, we can lay low in the forest, and there is plenty of space to hide. We should be able to elude Briar's forces until then."

"But Hilda." Red interrupted, but it went ignored.

"Sir Herius, how long do you think the enchantments Briar placed on your familiar connection will remain in effect?"

Herius pondered that thought for a moment, "Well I think I can work around it," Herius scratched his froggy chin, "I just have to work out the kinks and it should be fine. Or it could have weakened now." So many considerations, therefore Herius would leave no stone unturned in his mind.

"Hilda." Red spoke again, and just as before, he went ignored.

"Okay everyone, we've come too far to let this end, lets regroup and-"

"Hilda!" Red called out urgently. This time he grabbed her attention.

"What is it Red?" She asked.

Red had one concern on his mind, "What about Kala?" His question brought on a look of confusion from her and anyone within the rebels who had heard it. "You heard Briar, he said he'll kill her if I don't show up."

"Exactly," Hilda reminded, "we can't risk your life for that wolf's."

Red didn't like what he was hearing. "The wolf has a name you know."

Hilda didn't have time for this; they had more important matters to take care of. "Red I understand how you feel."

"No you don't!" Red interrupted, "To you she is jut some vicious animal but I actually spent time with her. I know deep down she isn't like that."

"Red you haven't known the wolf as long as we have. Whatever good trait she may have shown she is still a dangerous animal." Hilda argued that reason. Despite what had happened, what Kala had done in the past couldn't be erased.

"You're just saying that because you're living in the past! I'm not going to let someone else get harmed for protecting me!" Red had it at this point. He couldn't take it anymore, so he ran.

"Red!" Hilda called after the disappearing boy. Briar's forces could still be around, he wouldn't loose him.

Red ran through the forests without any aim. Everything had just become a stress factor. It only made him wish he hadn't eaten that stupid fruit even more.

"Red!" He heard Hilda voice behind him, her footsteps crunching against the leaves and foliage.

This only provoked the boy to run faster, as he did, Hilda's running pace increased. Just as the sound became the loudest it had ever been, Red felt a sharp tug upon his collar. He didn't fall, but his feet skidded against the ground. Hilda turned Red to face her, her face bright red with anger.

"Are you crazy!" Hilda raged at him, the first time she had ever shown such emotion toward Red.

Red, being a child, started to quaver.

"Damn it! You are too important! I've lost a lot in my life and I won't loose you!" Hilda shouted.

Red's lips quavered again, this time he hid his pain and transferred it into another emotion. "Why!" Hilda stood her ground at the outburst, "Is it because I'm going to get back your kingdom! Kill Briar! Well I don't care! I don't wanna!" Red had let his entire repressed child out; he braced himself for whatever the hand that would most assuredly smack against his face. Hilda didn't even swing her fist, the smack never came. Hilda looked into the boy's eyes; inside he could see something light within, a blue light. Several blue lights sparked at his fingertips. Then they subsided, and the glow vanished.

"Red, Briar just wants you don't you see? If he gets his hands on you, then all that power you hold will be his. He'll know how to use it, and he won't be afraid to use it on anyone, he won't hold any restraint. His mind went long ago, so if he was to have ultimate power, it would spell certain doom for this kingdom."

From all he had heard about Briar and his usurpation of his throne. These sounded like logical ideas and scenarios about the future of Heartland.

"I'm sorry." Red apologized immediately.

Hilda gave him a warm smile. "It's okay; we all let our emotions get the better of us."

"I wasn't apologizing about that." Red bluntly admitted.

This took Hilda by surprise. From first impression, Red seemed to be an obedient boy who listened to his peers. But it could have attributed to more of his abusive back story. Any disobedience and physical force would be used as a punishment.

"Red I'm sorry," Hilda apologized this time, "I just don't see anything in rescuing Kala. I-I just can't." The grown woman sighed, remembering everything the wolf had done in the past. Hilda tried to grasp the boy's reasoning, but every time she did, the past events would play back in her head. Some said to leave the past behind, but she just couldn't, not with the way she had been brought up, or with what she had experienced.

Red wouldn't give up that easily. "Hilda you have to believe me, she's a good wolf once you get to know her."

"Red I don't-" Hilda continued to protest, but sighed as she attempted to.

"Please Hilda! She's my friend! I'm not going to leave her behind!" Red declared that with the utmost truth in his speech. "I'm going whether you like it or not. Even if it means risking Briar capturing me." Red kept a steady foot down as he made that bold proclamation.

Hilda was left speechless for the moment. Red just wouldn't deny Kala's faults.

"I won't deny she's done bad things." Red admitted, apparently he didn't deny. "But people can change, I know she has."

Hilda again was further reminded of Herius's earlier words. Something about Red did indeed change the wolf, maybe. Red certainly saw something in the wolf that she didn't. Thinking about it, she did realize she had only interacted with the wolf in hostile situations. Red experienced both hostile and peaceful interactions with the wolf. She may have not known what exactly went underneath the earth during their escape from her insane step-brother's castle, but whatever it was; it had forged a bond between the two. Kala herself probably didn't understand it as well. I guess she and the wolf shared two things in common, the other being Red's protectors. It hadn't been a job they initially signed up for, though in time they established themselves into those roles. They were roles they would be certain to keep and fulfill.

"We need to plan this carefully." Hilda cautioned, "One wrong move and it could be costly." Hilda spoke in a commanding but friendly tone.

Red smiled as did she. Apparently he had reached her; he just hoped they would not be too late for Kala.

XXX

The voices couldn't bother him now. He wouldn't let them. The ceremony table had long been set up; he had prepared everything down to the finest detail. Oh it would be splendiferous.

"Your game is going to fail." The voice spoke again, "You're ruining yourself."

Briar didn't even acknowledge the voice. He wouldn't give them the satisfaction. No longer could they harm him so, not with everything so utterly perfect. The wolf had been put in place, bait for the boy. Oh how sweet it was, a boy and his dog, or close relative to a dog in this case. But there was still the Rebellion; certainly they would try to rebound their losses. But it wouldn't matter. They were always insignificant gnats. Even if he did find their efforts commendable in some areas, they certainly had done their best efforts to disrupt his perfect chain of a kingdom. He would grant them this one moment of comeback. He could picture it now. They would gather together, banded with one goal: to overthrow him and establish that adopted witch on the throne. It made him scoff that he considered his step-sister a more capable ruler than he. Considering she wasn't even of royal blood.

"Your little princess is going to grovel at my feet before she dies mother." Briar teased towards the wrapped object he always kept so close. "Who shall be the favorite now?" He asked with a mocking tone. "You're perfect little princess is going to die!" He breathed in and out as he felt his anger rise. Yes she had been the favorite one, the lovely one, the pretty one. The one who got everything she wanted just for being a female. That damned royal rule, it had barred him in the past from completely taking the throne. Had he not made sure to procure his birthright, he would have become a complete and utter nobody. There was no longer any fear for that, he held all the power, he was the grand ruler of this kingdom, and once he got his fruit, it would remain that way for an eternity.

The rebels would come, they would band, and they would attack. And in the end, once they come to achieve their goals, their hopes and dreams resting on this final battle, they would be in for a rather depressing surprise. Their little rebellion would come to a swift halt as their heads would line his castle. That fool of a wizard would be the next to fall, right underneath his boot. The boy would then be all alone. The ritual would begin and the power would be his. His small body coming to a complete stop, as his veins disconnected from his heart. Briar would sink his teeth into the life organ, and then, eternity could begin.

"Yes, so very perfect." He mused to himself. "At least I will show you mother."

The wrapped head remained lifeless, not a sound or voice spoke into Briar's brain.

Everything was perfect, finally at last.

XXX

The rebel base, a home, a headquarters, it lay completely in ruins. The fire had damaged most of it, on the inside that is, outside they could see the faint trail of smoke and burnt wood, a depressing sight for any who had grown an attachment to the furnished tree. The guards had fled the scene when the fire had grown too large. In fact, the rebels had counted on that happening. They had taken out a few of them, but the rest fled the moment their armor started to heat up, causing much blistering and discomfort. The fires had been quelled as soon as they had left. Not much on the inside remained as they could tell. This indeed had been a sore point. Something else Briar had taken away from them. It wouldn't be long until Briar found the other rebel chapters hidden throughout Heartland. They would meet the same fate, not unless they did something about it. That could very well be hard, seeing as Briar now knew of their location via Herius's connection with Grendel, peering into the wizard's brain without regard for privacy. No. If they wanted to make a stand, it would have to be now.

Several plans went through their head as they tried to decide what the best course of action would be. Several ideas bounced around the crew, some dismissed as too stupid or far fetched, while others were given considerate thought. They did know they couldn't just waltz into the capital and expect a warm welcome. Briar wanted to play a game and it would be boring to him if they didn't make it exciting. If they charged in without so much as a great plan in store, they would more than likely, quickly be captured and either imprisoned, or executed, a quick and easy way to deal with one's enemies, but all in all very unexciting. Whether they liked it or not, they would have to play the game if they wanted to get this right.

"Why don't we go underground?" Red spontaneously suggested.

The question threw everyone off. Some just plain dismissed it right away, while others seemed to find some form of merit from it. Sneaking underground could avoid detection, and would make the game interesting for the psychopath, but the method would be a benefit to them if they wanted to sneak inside possibly undetected. Yet the real question was how would one go about doing it? That's when Red reminded Hilda of the hole Grendel had left. The monster had dug his way through the ground, leaving a path from whence he came. It was a long shot as Briar could have anticipated that movement, but they decided it was their best choice. The last person to share this with would be Herius, the wizard had secluded himself from the rest of them. He had been working hard to work out the corruption Briar had wrought on his connection with Grendel. By the time they had returned, the frog had been happy to inform them that he had successfully restored his connection to its former level of security. Good news for everyone as they could now lay out the grand works of the plan without worry of being spied upon by Briar.

The party divulged the details of the plan top Herius. After some consideration, Herius declared it a marvelous plan, with some risks of course. As previously worried, there were downsides to this plan, and the possibility of Briar expecting it. Nevertheless, they decided it was better than nothing, especially blinding rushing in. That would be foolish. The more headstrong rebels could now see that. The hole indeed still remained open; Grendel had yet to fill it. There would be no questions, they would enter it and dig their way into Briar's castle. Their intent, his life, of course Red only wanted to safely procure Kala. But overthrowing Briar would most assuredly be for the good of Heartland. So it was decided; before they went however, they decided to venture inside the remains of their base to scrounge for anything useful. If anything remained. Luckily for them, something did remain. Various equipment still remained intact in the lower parts of the tree base. They took whatever they could, trying their best to ignore the fallen bodies for their friends they had yet to bury. Silently they made promises to return for them once their tasks had been completed.

They had returned with the appropriate tools, weapons, armor, rope and some food for a light breakfast. Rations were limited so they had to make due with what they had and share amongst themselves. Once they were finished, they decided it was time to go. Grendel went underneath first, his large size would assuredly protect them from anything that may want to harm them, or bar their bath. With their ropes, they descended one by one, down into the depths of the underground. Gareth was familiar with the murky caverns as were several of the rebels who accompanied. However some of the surviving group hadn't even stepped one foot, even on a mission.

"It's not so bad." Red announced as he took a first step into the underground since he had been trapped there.

The Rebellion members felt a sense of dread in this new place, for the greenhorn members that is. Yet seeing a child find no fear in this place, they suddenly felt embarrassed and therefore swallowed their fear. After all, what adult would want to be out braved by a child? They didn't for certain. Grendel looked absolutely excited to be back in his homeland. The trash mountains were still a while away, but the mere being in this land seemed to bring whatever home, sickness the monster felt come to a close.

"Now then Grendel." Herius hopped into his familiar's open palm, and took his seat atop his head. "If you could be so kind as to lead us back under the castle."

The familiar grunted and moved in response to the order. Hilda motioned to her fellow rebels.

"This is the day we've all been waiting for!" The princess cheered on her comrade, spurring their spirits. "A long and arduous road it has been, but I believe today shall be our day of triumph! The day all our struggles will be rewarded and Heartland shall be restored to its rightful rule!"

The rebels each gave a cheer as their princess words did indeed spur them into a fire filled frenzy of resolve. Justice filled their hearts as their cheers chorused high. "All hail the princess! For the glory of Heartland!" Their cheers were earnest and full of zest. The feelings within their hearts spoke to Red. Through the power of the Heart Fruit, he could feel the very feelings they possessed coursing through his veins. His emotions at most were very neutral in all honesty. He agreed to their goals, as Hilda sounded out the charge. This was a battle they would win; they would have to win, if they wanted the war to come to an end. Today would be that day! They would see to it. So their travel commenced once more, Red kept close at Hilda's side, at the front. The princess kept her axe bared at her side as always. That made Red feel safe, even more so as the supportive army of rebels also stood by to protect him and their princess. This loyalty bound them together. To Red, it almost felt like a family. A tight knit family bonded with the finest forms of love and comradeship. So the family journeyed onward, deep into the unknown.

XXX

They were here, right on schedule. Briar chuckled with giddy excitement, so much that he clapped his hands at his correct use of clairvoyance, actually he just guessed and it happened. The fools, he had divulged them the details of his corruption of the wizard's bond with his familiar. By now it had been worked out and they would be spy free, at least they would think so. He was always a step ahead of them, even in their most triumphant of moment, he held all the cards. So far he had planned it out accordingly, predicting, they had traveled in the tunnel that lumbering brute of a familiar had left. The path led straight to his castle, they knew it, and he knew it.

"Absolutely perfect." He spoke to himself. Even now, he could sense the Heart Fruit moving about underground. The very thought of the boy made his mouth water, and tingled every hair on his body. Such a little gem all for him, no one else could have or be suited for the power. Oh it would be a glorious day. He had often thought and said that many times in the past, but it was just a glorious word for repetition Sometime he loved repetition. Every game needed an interesting turn, and this turn would be very interesting. He felt it unfair that his little pets would be left out of the game; his pets hadn't had much fun in such a long time. He felt it be about time for them to stretch their feet, or rather roots. They had already dug into the ground, and would sense the fresh meat and flesh and had wandered into their midst, although his sources had brought him bad fruit before. What with the failure of Rumple, but this one proved an excellent crop.

"Man eating is my favorite variety." Briar added with a grim chuckle.

XXX

Dig, dig, dig dig. Soil, soil, soil, soil. Those thoughts accompanied their path. Their master had not let them out of a long time.

Dig, dig, dig, dig. They could sense their prey. Meat, human meat! Fresh and tasty!

Soil, soil, soil, soil. Fresh and nourishing, but not as much as blood. Sweet, delicious blood. Oh it would water them well. Blood was the only thing that could nourish them, nothing else would sate. A very large group of meat, along with two not human. No matter, they were not a picky variety of weed. They would sort through the freshest ones first. Go for the good meat, then go for the lesser variety, or just leave it dead, no point in wasting good earth with wasted meat. They would drain them dry till nothing remained. Not even sinew.

Dig, dig, dig, dig. Soil, soil, soil, soil.

XXX

The party continued their trek, determination set in their eyes as they did, but they couldn't help but feel jovial. This was what they had waited for such a long time. Red sensed the mixture in their emotions.

"They're conflicted how to feel." Red suddenly murmured to Hilda.

The princess was surprised at the comment. "How do you know?" She asked, but dismissed the question upon seeing Red put a hand over his heart.

"The feelings just come to me." Red admitted. Behind he could see several of the rebels laughing amongst each other. One half amused themselves, while the other half held serious expression over their driven faces.

"They've been fighting so long, I think it's natural for some to not know when to relax or not." Hilda reasoned.

The boy sighed wearily. "I can understand." said Red, "Maybe they are trying to use humor to escape from reality. Think happy thoughts and stuff." Red could testify to that. Back at home, whenever he was thrown into his attic room, or forced to do a long grueling chore, he would relapse back into his happy thoughts; go to the good place in his mind.

"Do you have a happy place?" Red suddenly asked again.

Hilda again found herself taken aback. "What do you mean?" She asked.

"In your head." That was the best Red could explain, but the woman still held a look of confusion etched on her face. "You know, good memories? Happy thoughts? Things like that." Red's explanation sounded mangled at best, but in his limited grasp on communicating with an adult on such matters, he did the best he could. Even if he felt his best wasn't good enough.

"Oh I understand!" It would seem his best was good enough for a realization appeared upon Hilda's face. For the first time she really thought about what made her happy. She could say the dream of her kingdom's restoration would be a happy enough dream. In her mind's depth, she knew of one other, "Well my time with my mother, the queen."

That was a memory that made her smile.

"She was nice wasn't she?" Red asked. The concept of a good mother still seemed like an impossible notion, if you had asked Red in the past that is. The current Red held a more positive idea of the notion of mothers. So long as they were not his step-mother.

"Very nice." Hilda's story of her time with her adoptive mother, showed how much of those times were honestly good. "Sometimes when I get sad or scared."

"You get scared?" Red interrupted.

Hilda smiled and nodded, "Yes I do, a lot. Especially now." The fallen princess looked ahead into the dim caverns, "I don't know if this plan will work, we could be walking into a trap and not even know it." Briar's game had left her worried. "Whenever I get scared or doubtful, I always think of those times and reflect on them. They keep me going and give me strength when I need it most of all."

Red tried to follow her example and remain positive. Surely they would succeed. Red couldn't see any draw back to this plan. Then he felt it, a feeling washing over him. It felt wrong, dreadful, like something crept underneath their feet. Red looked around, trying to search out where the source came from.

"Is there something wrong Red?" Hilda asked, blissfully unaware of the feelings that coursed through Red's heart.

His heart! That would be the key! Red locked his eye with Hilda's. She looked back into his eyes. Then she felt a feeling in her own heart, that same feeling of dread that Red had and now felt souring all the more intensely. Hilda sensed the dread spreading over her entire body. It wrapped her in its chocking cloak, her breath suddenly stopped, if the air had gone cold, she would see it puffing out in little clouds. The laughter of her companions slowed. She looked around, searching for anything that seemed out of place. Red did as well. He felt the chill around his neck creeping around him without a warning. Gareth had broken into the cheering of his companion, as did the more serious members, at last giving away into the joviality. Grendel kept on his path towards his precious trash piles. Herius however could sense something was amiss in the air. Being a wizard, he had gained a rather large precognition toward things such as impending danger. The wizard joined in with their boy and princess as she too searched.

Red's eye then caught something, just by his feet, he felt something slither, followed by a bulge going against the ground. No, it was the dirt uplifting, something moved underneath, only surfacing for a bit, before disappearing. The feeling disappeared for a moment, then it came again, the feeling just kept coming, each time, Red thought he could feel something then see a bulge. That slither came again, it felt like a snake, or how he imagined a snake would feel like. The feeling then came with another sensation, a sharp prick against his leg.

"Ow!" He cried, he could feel the blood dripping down.

"Red!" Hilda cried, taking her axe she swung at the ground. The feeling ended as Red felt his leg no longer constricted. "Are you okay?" She asked." Red looked up at her and nodded, the wound hurt but it hadn't gone in deep, he could still walk. Down below, something writhed. At first glance in the darkness, it appeared to be a snake or a worm of sorts. But it wasn't either of things, around its body was spikes, not, closer inspection revealed they were thorns. A pool of green goop formed underneath it, until it stopped writhing entirely.

"A…vine?" Red noticed. Honest to goodness, it was a vine, like a rose.

Screams came from behind them, they were of the rebels. Hilda's eyes looked up to see a horrific sight. From the ground, they had sprung forth, rose vines came by the lot. They surrounded and trapped whoever they could. At the end of each vine, a flower petal opened up. Bright and red they were, a happy color associated with romance. Yet these roses were not of the garden picked variety; at least not a natural garden. The pods opened up, hisses accompanying their reveal. Within, they held rows upon rows of razor teeth, or thorns, it was hard to tell which they were; not that it would matter. All would end the same, down the throat and through the petal pod, taking the place of the gums. The attack had come with surprise for the rebel group. None of them had time to prepare, the vines slithered up from the ground, and like vipers they coiled and poisoned their prey. The men and woman who were bit screamed as their flesh was torn into. No mercy these creatures showed, like ravenous forces of hunger they were, no sense of right or wrong. Gareth tried to work his way out. Hilda's axe helped. The moment she noticed her leading commander trapped, she charged with her axe cutting at any vines that got in her way. The shrieks that emitted from the vines mixed in with the screams of her people. Several of the members had managed to break through, albeit with wounds and cuts that oozed. The vines quickly caught up with them and in no time, they were back to square one.

"No princess! Get away!" Gareth warned as a series of vines sprang up between them. They coiled around him, cutting off his air and blood circulation.

"Gareth!" Hilda cried out in horror.

Soon Gareth's screamed joined in with the rest of her rebels. A loud roar bellowed above. The vines had started to entrap Grendel. The great beast did his best to keep them off of him. His tough hide and large size made it harder for the plants to overtake him. Grendel had one goal on his mind, to get his master to safety. Each time he took a step however, the vines would coil around, biting into him with their thorns and teeth.

"Grendel! Keep at it!" Herius cheered on his familiar, in hopes of him breaking free of their bonds. Grendel had another idea. His hands were free, so he at least used those to his advantage. "Grendel!" Herius said in shock. Grendel grabbed Herius gently in his palms. Without warning, he tossed Herius into the air. Red saw the incoming wizard. For a moment he panicked but gathered his wits and removed his cap. The frog fell with a plop, but with no harm done due to the softness that the cap presented. Needless to say, Red's action wasn't thanked. The wizard's attention went right to his familiar who now held a large number of vines around him.

"Grendel!" He shouted. The creature roared in pain as he tried to fight off the leafy creatures.

Red stared at the grisly sight. Hilda continued to hack, hoping to free her companions. Yet it would be to no avail, for many of them were dead, or were close to it already.

"Hilda! Come on we have to run!" Red urged at the woman, "Hilda!" He urged again.

Hilda however, wouldn't listen; her attention remained on her comrades. She continued to hack and chop, but they continued to grow up and around. They wouldn't let up.

"This game has gotten boring." A familiar voice spoke out.

Hilda's expression shifted from desperation to anger. "Briar!" She turned around as did Red when they noticed the large metal sphere floating above them.

"You all must be tired, allow me to bring you some respite." The voice almost spoke sympathetically.

The orb began to glow as its caller transferred his magic through it. A bright flash overtook the room, and the trio of Red, Hilda, and Herius vanished, leaving the rest behind to die, or finally go in death.