Cover art by ForrestFighter
Far to the north, across the world's longest plank and rope bridge, the The Shadelair sat in its evil glory. The wreck of the Goreleech had undergone a bit of a change since Zalbu and Gatlak had been promoted to the positions of Right and Left Paws of the Black Shade; Enzi Grexx, in one of his more magnanimous moods, had allowed his new advisors to celebrate their ascencion to captaincy however they saw fit. The two pine martens, being inexperienced youngbeasts, had marked the occasion with a huge party aboard the wrecked ship, allowing every member of the Ranks of the Shadow to attend. Sentries were called in from outposts; prison guards came up from the belly of the lair to join the fun; Gatlak and Zalbu had even felt generous enough to allow the multitude of serpents to cross the bridge and party with the rest of the Ranks (this served a double purpose; nobeast would be foolish enough to attack a stronghold full of snakes). It was definitely a party for the vermin to remember; the ship had been filled to bursting point, the sounds of feasting, jigging, shouting, singing, and drunken merriment shaking it for nearly two days straight. Now, the majority of vermin lay slumped about the decks, some still mumbling happily in an intoxicated state, others snoring uproarously in the sleep of total exhaustion and indigestion.
The fact that the prison decks were empty of guards had not escaped the mass of creatures penned there; now that the ship lay quiet, Roan, Flipp, and a few others had quietly ascended to the deck above to investigate. The powerful tomcat shook his head in disbelief at the sight; he hissed through his teeth. "Look at all of them. You could walk from this side of the deck to the other without stepping on the floor."
Behind him, the other members of the reconnaissance party craned over each other's shoulders to see what he was talking about. The refuse of the feast and celebration filled the deck above the prison from end to end; seabird bones, rotting fish, half-eaten and unidentifiable food scraps, empty ale barrels, spilled tankards, sprawled vermin and monstrous coiling snakes covered every inch of available floor space. Snoring, mumbling creatures also decorated all the benches, tables, and chairs; some were even hanging halfway out of open portholes! All of them, both conscious and unconscious ones, seemed to be so drunk or ill to their stomachs as to be completely out to the world.
Flipp, his fear of serpents somewhat abated by the disgraceful spectacle, waved his paw in front of the filmed-over eyes of a nearby adder. When it didn't respond, he proddded its head with a footpaw; gingerly at first, then rather roughly. The dangerous serpent merely snorted and rolled over to a more comfortable position; the shrew whipered to his wildcat comerade. "Stupid sots. I think we could jump on their heads and they wouldn't bother us!"
Donnabel, the heftily-built volewife, hugged her baby close to her. "Maybe you could with that fellow, but they may not all be as drunk as he is. One might be just sober enough to shout an alarm, and then where would we be?"
Several others muttered in agreement. Urthswimmer, a young mole with one eye, raised a digging claw. "Burr, we'm cud cloimb down through yon gurt hole in 'ee floor, naow. B'ain't nobeast to spot'n uz."
Flipp agreed. "Now would be our chance to put the escape plan into action. The sea's have gone down, so that's an extra help."
Roan beckoned to a slender otter with unusualy silvery fur. "Starburst, have you and the others finished the raft?"
The ottermaid nodded her head. "Aye, we've finished it, though the wood's so waterlogged I can't be sure it'll float."
Roan began herding the reconnaissance party back down to the prison deck. "Well, it only needs to carry those who can't swim a short distance. With you and all the other otters pushing, it should be no trouble."
They disappeared back down the stairwell. From about the middle of the deck, a big weasel who was only slightly less intoxicated than the others staggered to his paws, murmuring drowsily as he lurched his way out of the galley deck. "Mush tell 'der Shack Blade...prish'ner's 'shapin....big reward f'me, heheheee!"
Inside Enzi Grexx's personal chambers, the Black Shade sat with his two new captains. They had been discussing serious plans for the future at first; now that this task was over, the three were relaxed, chatting like old friends. The sable-furred wolf had to admit he was impressed; Gatlak and Zalbu had partied nearly as hard as the other creatures, yet, apart from slight headaches, the pair were wide-eyed and sobered up from the ordeal, ready for orders. He remarked upon this to Gatlak, the elder brother, who laughed.
"We wuz brought up suppin' strong wine since we wuz liddle un's; dad used ter trade creatures summa 'is loot fer it. Best stock ever 'board a ship, we 'ad; Damson n' Blackberry, Musselshell Brew, Apple n' Rhubarb, Aged Dunegrass...you name it, we 'ad it. Ain't that right, bruther?"
Zalbu was content to let Gatlak do most of the talking, as he figured he would be less likely to say something that might cost him his position if he kept quiet; he merely nodded in agreement.
Enzi Grexx brought out a flagon and some dainty bone chalices from the recesses of his adderskin cloak. "I'm a fancier of wine, myself; always keep some of this with me. It's just simple Kelp n' Sea Ice brew. Go on, try a glass, it's not poisoned."
The two young martens eagerly poured the clear, sparkling liquid into their respective chalices; the black wolf did the same, raising his in a toast. "To the Ranks of the Shadow, who are never defeated or outsmarted!"
Zalbu decided to speak up. "Aye, an' to the Black Shade, bes' cap'n t'ever wuz!"
It was at the exact moment the three conspirators had raised their glasses to their lips that the door was bashed open by a big, young weasel, giggling and exhaling a strong odour of nettle ale. Slamming his chalice down, Enzi Grexx vaulted over the table, pointing one end of his double-headed adderfang spear at the weasel's paunchy gut. "How dare you come to my chambers without a summons! Get out, you drunken fool, before you lose your head!"
The weasel raised a paw as if calling a halt, leaning heavily against the doorframe to steady himself. "I wudden do tha, Bosh, no' jush yet. Got shumpin' t'tell ye, veddyveddyveddy 'portant."
The wolf prodded him with the spear. "Make it quick, then."
The weasel, however, had spotted the flagon of Kelp and Sea Ice brew. He pointed a grimy claw at it. "Er, shupposin' I tells yer, get a nish bit o' grog fer tellin, eh?"
The wolf prodded him so hard with the spear he drew blood. "If you don't tell me within the next two seconds, all you'll get is a spear through your mangy hide."
The big weasel nodded sagely. "Veddyveddy shmart, good thinking, Bosh. Er, lemmeshee if I c'n 'member....ho yesh, the Prish'ners 'shaping, dat's what 't'was. Shaw em' with me own eyesh, walking on the dally geksh...er, galley deksh. Sh'ewsh, h'otterdogsh, whole lot of'm."
The spear haft crashed into the drunkard's face; the wolf's voice raised to a panicked screech as he berated the stunned weasel. "Why didn't you wake the others and stop them, idiot? Gatlak, Zalbu, come with me! Rouse the Ranks!"
He grabbed the unfortunate weasel in a headlock, dragging him along as he charged to the galley deck. The two martens ran after him, bawling at the top of their lungs. "Wake up, yer swabs, git up! Hurry, to the Prison deck!"
Roan heard the shouting and the pounding of paws heading towards the prison; he groaned. "We must have been spotted!"
Cries of alarm broke out amognst the goodbeasts; Flip called them to order with a sharp whistle. "Just sit tight, and act like we never left. They'll think the one who saw us was drunk."
"What about the raft?" Starburst ventured to ask, gesturing to the mass of deckwood lashed together with washed-up kelp.
For an answer, Roan and another wildcat slung the lot out of the now enlarged hole in the floor. "We can make another one; plenty of wood and trailing kelp left stuck to the shipside."
There was time for no more words; dragging an asphyxiating weasel with him, Enzi Grexx thundered into the prison deck. Behind him were two young martens with sabers, at the head of a rather surly-looking, hungover crew of Ranks vermin and snakes. Seeing the confused, apparently intact band of prisoners staring back at him, the Black Shade pointed to Scraggback, the cheif prison guard. "Ferret, are there any prisoners missing?"
Scraggback, who kept a careful count of the beasts in his charge, saluted. "None, lord."
Enzi Grexx flung the big young weasel to the floor, allowing him to regain his breath. "Well, scum, what have you to say for yourself?"
The weasel had considerably sobered up by now, due to the beatings he had recieved; he pointed at Roan, gasping, "That one, he was there, I'm sure of it!"
He wailed in pain as the wolf kicked him repeatedly with his heavy, clawed footpaw. "Scum, you saw nothing of the kind! Drunken oaf, you reported a dream to me!"
"Waaaghhheee, I swear, I saw them! They were there, I really did see them! Whooaaaarrrgg!"
The Black Shade continued his onslaught, adding a few whacks with the spear haft to drive his point home. "It was a dream brought on by ale. Say it. SAY IT!"
"Owwwowwwarrrrghhh, it was a dream, it was a dream! Mercy, spare me, spare me! Aiiggeeee!"
The wolf grabbed the weasel bodily, flinging him through the air to crash into the far wall of the prison chamber. He then addressed the weeping unfortunate. "I spare your miserable life. You can stay the night with these beasts for your stupidity." He raised his voice to address the prisoners. "As for you lot, you have my permission to torture that weasel how you see fit. Oh, and here's something for you to think about; if I treat my own soldiers this way for a stupid mistake, how do you think you'll be treated if you do decide to try to escape?"
Leaving the question unanswered, he marched out, followed by his army. "Scraggback, get two soldiers and an adder and post a guard on the stairs. The rest of you come with me."
The door to the prison deck slammed shut. Bruised, bleeding, and sobbing, the unlucky weasel cowered in his corner. Staring hopelessly at the crowd of beasts closing in on him, he gave a pitiful whimper. "Mercy!"
Passing her infant to Urthswimmer, Donnabel the volewife marched up to the weasel, paw raised. He cringed, sobbing fitfully; however, Donnabel did not strike him, but instead pulled a tiny fragment of wolfclaw from where it had embedded in the weasel's ear. The vermin watched in astonishment as several otherbeasts came foward; some with water from their meager stores, others with rags, all of them washing and healing his bleeding wounds.
Roan unsheathed his claws, pointing one at the vermin. "You, there, what's your name?"
"V...v...v...Vaccar." The weasel stammered.
Roan leaned foward, until the claw was underneath Vaccar's chin. "We are not evil beasts; however, if you play us false, you're a dead weasel, understand? We're escaping tonight, all of us, and we'll give you the chance to do the same. Now tell me, before we go any further, are you with us, or against us?"
Vaccar nodded. "I'm with ye, mate. My gang never wanted to join the Ranks anyway. Whaddaya need me t'do?"
Roan sheathed his claws again. "First off, don't shout for help when we sail off tonight. Once we reach the mainland, you are free to go where you wish."
Vaccar was confused. "Sail? You ain't got no ship, mate."
Roan smiled dangerously. "That's the second thing; we'll need your help to steal a ship. Which one is the best of the corsair rigs the Black Shade confiscated?"
Vaccar was none too happy about the prospect of stealing a ship; but, he reasoned, he was probably a deadbeast no matter what he did at this point, so he might as well go along with the scheme. He counted off the ships in the Black Shade's fleet on his claws. "Well, Redclaw is a good ship, but she's a bit on the liddle side. Crestgrub, she's big enough, but she's full o' leaks. Bowbolt, me old ship, has holes in 'er aft sail. Wormrigg now, she looked pretty sharp and shiny last I saw 'er, an' so did Stormdog..."
Flipp raised a paw. "Which is the fastest?"
Vaccar answered without hesitation. "Oh, that'll be Bowbolt, for sure."
Roan nodded addressing the company. "That's the one we'll take, then. Somebeast get the raft; we'll come down when you do."
It was a long way down to the now-calm ocean; only the otters were brave (or foolhardy) enough to dive the distance. After a short search, they found the raft, washed up against the kelp-covered base of one of the Tall Rocks. Pushing it back until it was situated directly under the Shadelair, Starburst made a sharp whistling noise, not unlike that of a gull's cry.
Roan nodded. "That's the signal; lower the cables!"
Several long strands of kelp had been braided together to make two rather long ropes. Roan manned one rope, while a pair of otters who had stayed behind handled the other; two by two, they lowered creatures into the sea or onto the raft until the entire ship had been emptied. Vaccar was the last to be lowered; he slipped his hold about halfway down, falling headfirst into the ocean with a wail. The two otters who had lowered him dropped their cable and dove in after him, pulling him onto the raft. "Silly feller, you're lucky you didn't hit the raft an' knock yore brains in. Ahoy up there Roan, that's the last of them!"
The wildcat, not having anything to fasten his cable to so he could climb down, dropped it into the sea, leaping in after it. Cries of alarm broke out from the other beasts; however, Roan surfaced a short distance away, completely unharmed. He grinned. "Must have some otter in me somewhere. Come on, you lot, let's go!"
It was a very short distance to the cove where the ships were moored; even the wildcats, who were a bit afraid of water, could swim there. Vaccar sat with the weakest members of the party on the raft, hissing directions to the otters who were steering it through the anchored ships. "Starboard a bit, there's a liddle rock there. No, not that far, ye'll hit the Redclaw. Watch that anchor cable, mate! Phew, ye'll capsize us if'n ye keep that up. There, that's the one ye want!"
Starburst looked over the sleek, black-sailed Bowbolt approvingly. "Good choice, mates. Well, all aboard!"
Roan, who, like the other swimmers, was holding on to the side of the ship while treading water, signalled to Vaccar. "You first, mate. See if they put any sentries on the ship."
In company with two otters who came along to ensure there was no funny business, the weasel climbed the anchor cable to the bow rails. He took a quick look about. "Don't see nobeast, not on Bowbolt or any other ship here."
Lilybud, one of the otters, confirmed this. "Aye, not a sight, smell, nor sound of vermin or snake."
The announcement was greeted with cries of relief; eagerly, the prisoners swarmed up the sides of the ship, some via the anchor cable, others via various pawholds and portholes. Donnabel led a party of beasts below to search for provisions; several big wildcats wound the anchor up, while Starburst took the ship's wheel. "Next stop, freedom!"
Though everybeast knew that quiet was essential, quite a few raised a hastily stifled cheer anyway. Piloted skillfully away from the Tall Rocks, the Bowbolt dissapeared into the black, trackless nightime seas; soon, she was lost to view, a tiny slip of a thing compared to the giant Shadelair half-ship wreck, which stayed immovably between the two rocks like some beacon of ill omen.
Watching from a nearby sentry hut, Enzi Grexx smiled his evil smile. "Well, there they go; I figured they would try something like that. There aren't any provisions on the ship so they'll have to sail for land." He turned to Zalbu. "You have everything ready, I trust?"
The young marten saluted. "Aye, me bruther took a force across the bridge like yer said, Cap'n."
"Good, now you and I will take the snakes and follow him. Remember, I want no mistakes!"
Though the wolf sounded nonchalant, the marten knew only too well the penalty if he failed. He forced a smile. "Don't worry, we'll gettem, Cap'n."
Together, the pair headed across the various small rope bridges to the long one; this led to the mainland, where the thousands of deadly serpents were awaiting their orders.