Cover art by ForrestFighter
Late that night, Jettcoil came to his senses, hissing feebly as he slowly regained conciousness. The outsized blacksnake's body, from snout to tailtip, had been badly bruised by the cudgels of the Krozfoxx; his head, which had taken the worst beating, ached abominably and was swollen out of all recognition. The serpent had no recollection of how he had lost consciousness; the last thing he recalled before blacking out had been seeing a strange beast step out onto the woodland path in front of him. Now, as he looked about, Jettcoil found himself at the outskirts of a bowl-like depression in the woodland floor, which, though surrounded by trees, had no foliage actually in it save grass and low scrub plants. A large amount of hastily-constructed huts and lean-tos were dotted about the glen in various places, as were two or three small campfires. Nearly twoscore hairy beasts, indistinguishable in the failing light, milled about, calling to each other in shrill voices. They appeared to be arguing about something, but the big blacksnake could not tell what.
Still a bit woozy from his painful ordeal, Jettcoil gave up trying to figure out where he was, sighing heavily. Feebly, and unsucessfully, he tried to stretch himself, for his spine felt unusually cramped and uncomfortable. He attempted to move his head, but also failed. Wondering why he was unable to move, and appeared to be suspended off the ground, Jettcoil took a glance about.
The realization that his body had been knotted about a tree caused the giant reptile to come fully awake with a jolt. He tried again to move, and made a muffled sound of alarm; not only was his great length knotted about the tree, but many lengths of vine rope had been tied about the tree with him, to hold him in place. Furthermore, his neck was in a thick vine noose, which was tied about a tree branch above his head to keep him from lowering it and biting through his bonds. A dirty, ragged scarf was tied about his snout as double insurance, should the tree branch happen to break. Another quick glance served to show him that Whiptail had been trussed up in a similar manner to the tree next to him, and was also awake, fighting to get free.
Hearing Jettcoil's cry of alarm, one of the hairy beasts, which the serpent could now distinguish as foxes, broke out into fresh shrieks, "Lookee, lookee, dat bigbeast wakeeuppee now. Ya sure dey won'ee getee 'way, Uxee?"
Another fox, taller and heftier than the rest, walloped the speaker so hard she went head over brush backwards into one of the poorly-built lean-tos, collapsing it entirely. Unsympathetic sniggers broke out from the group of patched foxes as the bigger one barked gruffly, "Don'ee be daft, dey nono getee 'way. I ropee 'im up good! An' nono callee me Uxee, dat not my name; I bee Ux Boulderpaw, strongee Krozfoxx dat ever bee!"
The speaker, a grossly flabby vixen, emerged from the rubble of the lean-to. She pointed a crude flint-topped spear at Ux Boulderpaw, snarling angrily. "'Oo gavee ya da right t'doee dat t'me? I killee ya if ya doee dat again, Uxee Bigmouth!"
The powerfully built dogfox, who far outdid all the other Krozfoxx in height and bulk, sneered contemptuously, turning his back and walking away. "Yeeee, ya not scaree me. Ya killee me? Hah! You an' whatee armee, I likee t'know?"
With a roar of rage, the fat vixen hurled her spear at the unprotected back. Not even bothering to turn around, Ux dropped to all fours, allowing the spear to sail over his head and embed itself in the ground. Undeterred by her failure, the vixen leapt upon her foe's back, thinking her tremendous weight would flatten him to the ground. Suddenly, to her great suprise, the vixen found herself the one flattened, as Ux neatly rolled over, leapt upright, and placed a footpaw on her neck, pressing down threatentingly. He brought his eyes close to those of the gasping vixen, grating through clenched teeth at her. "Nono tryee dat again, Lumpa, or I fixee ya f'good." He backed off, giving her a hefty kick to drive his point home. "Goee 'way now, I tiree of ya."
"What's going on over here?" A tough-looking vixen carrying a torch joined the group that had congregated to watch the fight betweeen Ux and Lumpa. Jettcoil made a mental note of the fact that, though her coat was patched, this fox did not speak with a Krozfoxx accent. He also made a note of the fact that this was the beast who had accosted him and his mate on the path earlier.
As none of the Krozfoxx seemed disposed to asnwer her, the vixen, who sported over a doxen knives and a long rapier, repeated the question. "I said, what's going on over here? Who started this fight?"
"Dat'n startee it, Akalle. I jus' finish it." Ux Boulderpaw stepped foward into the torch's glow, becoming more visible. Jettcoil gasped sharply; the big dogfox was wearing a Ranks of the Shadow adderskull mask! Had these savage beasts defeated his master and crew, too? The serpent fervently hoped not.
Hearing the noise, Akalle turned to face the big snake, smiling mockingly at him. "Well, well, you woke up after all. I was sort of hoping you wouldn't; save me the trouble of having to execute you again. What have you to say for yourself, eh?"
Jettcoil's dirty yellow eyes blazed hatred at the vixen as he hissed viciously, unable to speak. The vixen drew her rapier, still grinning mockingly, obviously enjoying herself. "Dearie me, I forgot. I suppose I should cut your gag so you can answer me, shouldn't I?"
She made as if to do so, when several shrieks of fear broke out from the other Krozfoxx.
"Nononono, don'ee let'm go, 'ee killee us!"
"We shouldee never catchee dose monsters, itee baaaaaad idee!"
"Why we doee it anyway Akalle? If dey gettee 'way, dey eatee all us up!"
Sighing with exasperation, the vixen turned to face her more primitive comerades. Akalle Bladewhip was not an official member of the Krozfoxx; a hired assassin by trade, she came and went as she pleased, sometimes traveling with other vermin bands, sometimes alone, depending on where the gain seemed highest. When she did join with the Krozfoxx, she was treated almost as a cheiftain, for every fox knew that she was a pitiless beast, having hundreds of victims to her name; furthermore, every one of her blades was coated with a deadly poision, which Akalle had spent several seasons working up an immunity to, so that she could not be harmed by it. Though the naturally impudent beasts might argue and grumble a bit against her authority, there was not a single member of the cowardly Krozfoxx who would dare to openly challenge it. They had, perforce, gone along with her scheme of capturing the two blacksnakes, but had then spent the remainder of the day begging Akalle to hurry up and slay the duo, fearing what the giant serpents might do if they managed to get loose. The fact that Kaiah and his group had returned, bound and minus their weapons, some time back, had not helped the morale of the band.
Akalle pointed her rapier in a wide arc at the gathering of Krozfoxx. "If you're so scared, back off. But I know what I'm doing; he won't get away. We captured 'em for information, like I've said a dozen times. Now stay out of my way and leave this to me."
Ignoring her cringing fellow foxes, she turned back to Jettcoil, slicing the bonds from his mouth with a single swipe. The vixen then leveled her rapier blade at Jettcoil's eye, dropping her voice menacingly. "I can tell you ain't poisonous, big fella, but this sword is. Can you two understand me? Don't speak, just nod."
Having nothing else for it, the blacksnakes did so. Akalle smiled briefly, slicing the bonds from Whiptail's mouth as well. "Good. Now, I'm gonna ask you two oversized worms some questions, and I wouldn't like to be in your skin if you don't answer to my liking. Who are you, and where do you come from?"
The two serpents looked at one another, unsure of what to do. Akalle nodded. "All right, have it your way. That silence just signed your death warrent, big fella. Maybe your mate'll talk after you've gone."
She drew back her rapier, preparing to cut Jettcoil's head off.
PING! A finely-aimed arrow struck the rapier blade, causing it to vibrate hard. With a yelp, Akalle released her weapon, sucking on her completely numbed sword paw. A heavily-tattooed pine marten with an adderskull mask and blue cape stepped into the firelight, another barbed arrow drawn back on his bow. His ususually large mouth showed a row of dangerously sharp teeth as he shouted at the gathering. "I ain't alone, an' I'm only gunna tell yer once; release them snakes. Now!"
Like lightning, Akalle dropped her torch and reached for her favorite throwing dagger; but Ringgob was faster. His second arrow thudded into her paw, fixing it to the knife's carved wooden hilt. Gritting her teeth in pain, the patched fox assasin glared angrily at the intruder. "You idjit, you've ruined my paw for life!"
Ringgob had already notched a third arrow to his bow, and aimed it directly at the vixen. "Next wun goes 'tween yer eyes, fox. I never miss!"
Akalle glared at her fellow patched foxes, some of whom were edging away from the scene of conflict. "Are you lot just gonna stand there? He's only one beast, kill him!"
Several bolder Krozfoxx sprang foward; Ringgob stopped them with a snarl, drawing the arrow back further. "First wun t'move closer dies! I tell yer, I ain't alone, an' the others have slings!"
Ux Boulderpaw, one of the more foolish members of the group, snarled back at the marten. "Prove it!"
An instant later, he wished he had not spoken; a veritable rain of rocks sailed without warning into the camp. Dankfur and Gronk had spent the majority of the day amassing a rather substantial stack of stones, and were slinging them from their capes in large amounts from the cover of the night-darkened woods. Panicked into believing a huge army was after them, the Krozfoxx fled, but were met by rocks thrown by Uja and Scruffgutt from the other end of the camp. During the confusion, Gronk and Dankfur leapt into the glen, drawing their sabres and freeing the two blacksnakes. In an instant, all became total chaos in the Krozfoxx camp; seeking revenge for their loss of dignity, the two serpents flung themselves upon the foxes, attacking without mercy. Scruffgutt halted Uja, who was about to sling another cape-full of stones. "Ye'll hit our crew if'n yer do that, shoopid! We jus' need ter stay here an' slay any who try t'escape, now."
After the battle had gone on for some time, Dankfur leapt upon one of the more sturdy lean-tos. He raised his saber to the sky, shouting at the top of his lungs to his two pets. "HAAAAAAAALLLTTTT!!!!!!!"
Obediently, the two serpents ceased attacking, herding the remainder of the foxes into a small group. Aside from the moans of the wounded, total silence fell upon the woodlands. Having put his cape back on, and looking every inch the regal Voice of the Shadow, the pine marten glared imperiously at the miserable group of about two dozen Krozfoxx, all that was left after the serpents' revenge.
"In normal circumstances, you would all have been slain for daring to attack the leaders of the reptilian Ranks of the Shadow; however, I am prepared to offer you a choice. My crew and I are seeking escaped prisoners of ours, a wildcat and two kittens. My two serpents have tracked them to Redwall Abbey, where, to the best of our belief, they still reside. These are your options. You may join the Ranks of the Shadow, help us to regain our prisoners, and return with us to the Shadelair to become properly introduced to our band. If you agree, I shall personally see that, upon our arrival back home, you are well rewarded. If you do not agree, your lives are forfeit. What is it to be?"
There was a pause; then, painfully, Kaiah stepped foward. "I goee widee ya, skulleebeast. I gottee score t'fixee wid dat Abbee."
More Krozfoxx joined their eldest member.
"Aye, we widee ya, allee way."
"As long as snakeebeasts keepee 'way, I doee whatever ya say!"
"We fightee foree Skulleebeasts!"
Dankfur stifled a snort of derision, muttering to Gronk. "Skulleebeasts? Huh, primitive little savages, they probably won't be much help, but at least some reinforcements will make us look more impressive when we get to the Abbey." He turned to his newest crewmembers. "Everybeast who is with the Ranks of the Shadow, shout our warcry." He raised his sabre again, screeching to the skies. "Black Shade! Black Shade! Fight! Fight! Yaaaahaaaaaaarrrrrrrrr!!!!"
The concerted reply came back at such a piercing register and loud volume the pine marten nearly fell from his perch. "Blackee Shade! Fightee fightee Yeeeeeeehaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!'
Dankfur uncovered his ears with a grimace. "That's close enough. Now pack up camp; we move out as soon as we can."
The new Ranks of the Shadow obeyed with alacrity, gathering up weapons and possessions, dousing fires, and taking down lean-tos. Only Akalle remained behind, nursing her maimed throwing paw with the still-tingling sword paw, the light of cold fury in her pale blue eyes. Dankfur pointed his saber at her. "I said pack up camp, vixen; that's an order!"
Through teeth still clenched in pain, she hissed up at him. "Akalle Bladewhip follows nobeast, marten. I'll help you fight those Redwallers; never liked the scum, anyhow. But I don't have to obey you, understand? You try to stop me doin' what I want to do, and you'll pay for it. I've traveled about, an' I know all about you Ranks beasts. I ain't afeared of you, or your pet snakes; remember that!"
She limped off to join the others. Gronk assisted his captain down from his perch, casting a worried glance at the vixen. "Yer want 'er executed, Cap'n? She could be dangerous!"
Dankfur shook his head. "No, not now. Later, yes, but not now. She's about the only proper fighter in this lot; that may come in useful when we get to the Abbey. We'd better keep her away from Ringgob, though; I didn't like the way she looked at him when she said not to stop her doing what she wanted to do, and I can't afford to lose our only archer."Gronk saluted. "Don't worry, cap'n, Ringgob's me matey. I'll keep an eye on that Kally Bladewhip for yer, see she don't 'urt 'im."
He winced as Dankfur's hook prodded his stomach. "You'd better, or you just might get hurt yourself."
Within a very short space of time, the two dozen Krozfoxx had packed and prepared for a march. Dankfur nodded approvingly. "Well done. Follow me, but keep it quiet. We'd much rather take the Abbey by suprise, so not one word!"
Nodding to show they had understood, the augmented band set off at a slow march towards the path leading to the Abbey.
From the cover of a tall alder tree, a pair of dark eyes had seen it all. Scrambling almost as quickly as a squirrel from branch to branch, a golden-furred creature made its way to the Abbey as fast as it could, hoping to reach Redwall before the vermin, and warn his friends there of the danger.