Cover art by ForrestFighter
Part Three: The Quest
Southward over the barren, rocky clifftops the army of a thousand serpents slithered, heading parallel to the coastline down a gradually decreasing slope as the cliffs grew shorter and shorter. They were still suffering from hangovers and indigestion, and had not stopped to rest since leaving the Shadelair; yet, onward they went, driven remorselessly by the Black Shade, whom they still feared as a magic and powerful beast. The sable-furred wolf marched at the rear of the column, barking out alternating threats and encouragements to the somewhat sluggishly moving reptiles.
"All right, let's see some action out of those scaly hides, before I blast them from your bones! There'll be rewards aplenty before this trip is done, let me assure you; just let me catch any of you dawdling, though, and you'll become a cloak for one of my followers, that's a promise. Come on, you sons of slayers, to the fight!"
The Black Shade's satellite, the young marten Zalbu, had run ahead to do some scouting; now, he was waiting, crouched atop a rock, for his leader to catch up. He watched the serpents go by in their massed ranks impassively, looking for the wolf; spotting him at the very rear of the group, Zalbu waved a paw at him.
The Black Shade jogged over to the rock and scaled it, facing his young subordinate. "Well?"
The marten saluted and made his report. "I found Gatlak's crew's tracks an' follered 'em like yer said, Cap'n. Met up wid me bruther inna big valley jus' offshore a liddle ways south o'here. 'E sez no sign o' t'enemy yet, which seems t'be a bit odd ter him. So, e'z waitin' on yer orders, Cap'n."
The wolf was greatly suprised, though he did not show it. "Your brother certainly made good time. I, too, expected the battle to have begun by now; perhaps that ship has blown off-course?"
Zalbu was a seabeast by blood; the snort and correction were out of his mouth before he could stop himself. "Blowed off in what? They can't've bin blowed off, that's shoopid!"
It took merely one glance from the Black Shade to tell Zalbu he was in serious danger; bowing hastily, the young marten added, "Beggin' yore pardon, Cap'n, but there's bin 'ardly so much 's a breeze, let alone a gale...UNNnnnh!"
The wolf slapped his companion upside the head with savage force, knocking him flat. Nursing a bleeding mouth, the young marten looked up from his sprawled position into the merciless features of the Black Shade, who waved a paw in his face. "Let me tell you something, Zalbu. Son of Dankfur and one of my head captains you may be, but if you ever talk to me like that again you'll lose a lot more than just a couple teeth. Up on your paws; go back to Gatlak and tell him to sit tight and stay out of sight until we get there!"
Having thoroughly learned his lesson, Zalbu leapt off the boulder and ran for his life, pushing heedlessly through the mass of serpents as he sped to find his brother. Enzi Grexx and his snakes followed, the wolf no longer barking commands as he mentally went over the problem at hand.
After the death of the searat Dedribb, whom he had commanded his two new captains to execute, the black wolf's spy serpents had detected a secret gathering between old friends of the rat; all of these were former members of the crew of the ship Bowbolt, who had been forced against their will into the service of the Ranks. The main gist of the secret meeting had been attempted desertion; upon hearing this reported, the wolf had immediately set aside his master plan of conquest to focus on the secret uprising. He had laid his plans during the long party following Gatlak and Zalbu's promotion; letting the crew think they were undetected by allowing them to party on without his interference, the wolf had personally stolen down to the Bowbolt and removed all her provisions, tossing them overboard into the ocean. As even his serpents could not tell him the name of every beast who were in on the conspiracy, Enzi Grexx had planned to allow them to sail off, thus revealing their identity as traitiors. His cruel treatment of the weasel Vaccar, who he had known for sure was a crew member, had brought things to a head; Grexx had seen the ship sail off with his own two eyes, swarming with dark figures.
The plan of attack was quite simple. The Black Shade had known that, upon seeing that the ship had no provisions, the deserters would be forced to sail to the Ranks' slave-kept garden and foraging grounds, and get new provisions for their journey; this was the only spot they could gather any substantial amount of food for many miles. There, at the foraging grounds, some distance south of the Shadelair, the entirety of the Black Shade's force would intercept them. Nobeast would ever think of desertion again after this example was made!...if, that is, it were made at all. For, as Zalbu had reported, Gatlak had reached the foraging grounds and had seen no sign of the ship having put in, or the crew being anywhere nearby; this was strange, indeed, and, for some reason unknown, it gave the Black Shade a rather uncomfortable feeling of worry. It was as if some sixth sense was trying to tell him something important; but, for the life of him, the sable-furred wolf could not figure out what it was.
Little did he know that he had just made a blunder to end all blunders, one that would go down in history as the biggest goof a vermin leader had ever committed!
A big, stupid white ferret by the name of Sweatnose was on sentry duty at the foraging grounds; he spotted the approaching column of serpents and ran to Gatlak, shouting, "Hey, Cap'n, the Boss is here!"
The young marten's saber was between his lips before he could say another word, the tip prodding the roof of his mouth. Gatlak snarled at the suddenly terrified ferret. "Quiet, yer fool, the Black Shade said lay low!"
Allowing Sweatnose to run off, back into the Ranks, Gatlak waved his blade at the army advancing upon him. He was answered by a waving adderfang spearpoint; at a gruff command from the wolf, the serpents halted and parted, allowing Enzi Grexx to walk into the valley unhindered. Gatlak and Zalbu both strode foward to meet him, bowing low. The wolf waved them aside with a sweep of his jet-furred paw. "Stand up, there's work to be done. I need scouts to look out for that ship; it hasn't reached here yet, for some reason unknown."
Gatlak raised a paw; he had not been appraised of the situation fully by the wolf yet. "Might I ask, Cap'n, what ship we's supposed ter be lookin' fer, an' why? All me an' my lot know is that we're supposed to meet one o' our own ships here an' slay ev'rybeast aboard."
There were murmurs of assent; the wolf was about to reprimand his subordinates, then thought better of it; his crew would be more likely to obey him if they better knew what was going on in this instance. He raised his voice so everybeast could hear. "Very well. A crew of deserters sailed off in the Bowbolt last night; I saw the ship set off, myself. I have personally seen to it, however, that the ship is devoid of anything edible, so she will have to put in here, eventually, if her crew is to survive. Why they haven't been here yet, I don't know, but when they do arrive, we'll show them just what happens to deserters to my Ranks!" He raised his double-headed spear high. "Death to all who disobey!"
A ragged cheer arose from many of the evil vermin, who loved a good slaughter. Suddenly, Sweatnose the white ferret spoke up. "But, boss, you've got it all wrong. See, I'm one of Bowbolt's crew!"
There was a very long pause as the Black Shade's flat yellow eyes turned to face the one who had spoken; his voice was many octaves deeper than was his wont. "Say that again."
Sweatnose gulped. "I said, I'm one of Bowbolt's crew. So is Flitcher here, an' Twotail, an' Grimskull... We're all here, Cap'n, save Vaccar. It's true, one or two of us did talk about leaving, but we decided it would be bad an' disloyal an' called the whole thing off!"
There were cries of agreement from several other vermin in the army, who had once been on the crew of Bowbolt.
"Aye, we wuz mad that night, boss; we'd never really leave!"
"It was Vaccar's idea, mainly, any'ow!"
"We're still loyal to ye, always will be!"
"SILENCE!!!!!!!" The wolf bounded into the Ranks, grabbing Sweatnose and lifting him bodily. The black Shade roared into the ferret's face, shaking him like a ragdoll. "If you're all here, you snow-hided buffon, then who is sailing off in your ship?!!"
Sweatnose did not answer; it took the Black Shade a moment to realize that he had completely throttled the ferret and slain him. Casting Sweatnose aside, the wolf fairly screamed at his army. "WELL?!!!!! Answer my question; who is it?"
Nobeast dared to move a muscle; you could have heard a leaf drop, the silence was so profound. From behind the carved Adderskull mask, the Black Shade's yellow eyes fairly blazed with wrath as he glared at his army. "You lot of fools, I'll find out the true meaning of this! If anybeast here is sheilding a deserter, he'll consider this slain ferret here a lucky one! And you..." He turned to his serpents. "You scaley, slithering, doddering idiots, giving me the wrong report! Don't you realize the position this puts us in? There will be some spare masks made if you make another mistake, mark my words!"
His tirade was interrupted by a faint shout from somewhere back along the clifftops; somebeast was calling his name. "My Lord, Black Shade! Something terrible has happened!"
Turning, Enzi Grexx saw Scraggback the ferret running towards him, followed by the adder and two rats who were supposed to be guarding the prisoners. Before they had reached him, the terrible truth had dawned on the wolf; slaying the adder sentry with a well-aimed throw of his spear, and grabbing Scraggback and his two rat cronies up in a single swipe, he raised his voice to an enraged shriek. "Get loaded up with provisions as fast as you can, and make for the Shadelair's fleet! Serpents, you go along the coast and follow us. The slaves have escaped; we must get going! NOW!!!"
With amazing rapidity, the army grabbed every edible thing in sight and ran pell-mell back along the clifftops; none of them wanted to be around to see what inevitably would happen next. Scraggback whimpered in fear as the wolf dragged him and the two rats by their necks to the edge of the cliff; the Black Shade gritted into his face. "You've failed me one time too many, ferret; you're relieved of your duties!"
With a mighty shove, the three former guards were sent plummeting downwards, to meet their ends on the sharp rocks below.
Far past the foraging grounds, which she had passed during the night, the Bowbolt lived up to her name, speeding like an arrow through the waves just off the shoreline. Starburst, the pretty ottermaid, had relenquished the tiller to the weasel Vaccar, who had at one time been first mate of the ship and could handle it better than any otherbeast on board; she still sat nearby, however, to keep an eye on the captive vermin lest he try any funny business. The big young weasel was rather a pathetic sight now, having been divested of his sword, his cloak, and adderskull mask, and dripping wet from all the seawater swilled over him to help him recover from his hangover.
Licking salty lips, Vaccar addressed the ottermaid. "Ain't there a drop o' grog or some fresh water on this boat?"
Fiddling with the curved sword she had taken from him, Starburst leaned back against the rails almost lazily, closing her eyes. "Ain't ye got it through yore thick skull yet we're out o' provisions? Just keep steering the boat like we tell ye, an' ye'll taste freshwater soon enough, mate. Careful round these reefs, now!"
The weasel sighed, and focused on the task at hand. "Fair enough, I suppose. Anythin' else, lady?"
The ottermaid opened one eye. "My name's Starburst, an' I'll thank ye to remember that. Just keep steering 'til somebeast relieves ye. Ahoy there, Flipp, what's the good word?"
The shrew, who had just descended the nearby rigging, was smiling for the first time since he had been captured; he plonked down beside Starburst. "Whew, those are some tall masts; makes one quite giddy up there. We're not bein' followed; either they haven't noticed we're gone, or they think we went north or inland."
Vaccar gave an audible sigh of relief, smiling over his shoulder at the pair. "Huh, I might come out of this alive after all."
Starburst addressed him. "Aye, maybe ye will, if ye keep yore eye on what yore doin'! Watch out!"
Vaccar gave the wheel a hard jerk; the ship nearly heeled over as it turned sharply to avoid a large rock column sticking out of the sea. The weasel sighed in relief again, wiping his brow. "Phew! Sorry, mates, ol' Vaccar's a bit out of practice at this!"
Leaving Flipp the sword, and the charge of the captive weasel, Starburst headed across the deck to the bowsprit, smiling as she observed her fellow prisoners. The lack of food did not worry anybeast too terribly; Roan knew the way to his home islands, where there would be enough forage for them to get by until they could sail to the River Moss, which Flipp knew was some distance south down the coastline. The whole ship had about it a sort of carnival atmosphere; beasts sang, danced, told funny stories, and generally enjoyed themselves.
Roan sat on the bowsprit, gazing out to sea intently. Starburst noted the look of seriousness on his face, and clapped a flipper to his shoulder. "Come on, mate, don't sit there with a face like that! We did it, we're as good as free!"
The wildcat turned to face her. "For now, that is. You know as well as I do that the Black Shade isn't going to take this lying down. Mark my words, no matter where we go, he'll hunt us down."
The ottermaid climbed onto the bowsprit and sat next to him. "Then we'll just have t'go somewhere the vermin can't follow! Besides, when we scatter to go back to our respective homes, he won't be able to follow all o' us at once."
Roan nodded. "Aye, I suppose you're right. But I can't shake the feeling that there's trouble ahead, no matter what we do, and that we're going to have to fight for our freedom before this is done."
Starburst gave an elegant shrug. "Well, if'n we do, we do, but don't bring on t'rain dwellin' on it. We're all in this to help each other right now, so we'll face what comes as free beasts together. Right?"
Roan took her proffered flipper and shook it solemnly. "Right!"
Starburst grinned broadly. "Well, now, that that's settled, let's join the party, eh?"
The ottermaid and the wildcat entered a ring of beasts just in time to witness a song performed by the young one-eyed mole Urthswimmer, accompanied by the volewife Donnabel, who played on a small stringed intstrument she had found below decks.
"O Burr Aye an' Lackeeday,
Whatever shall uz doo?
Ee rain 'as stole ee sun away,
Oi tell ee, this be troo!
An' Dearie Grayshuss goodness Oi,
Lukk at ee bumbleebees;
They'm takin' flowers' insoids owt,
Without a-sayin' please!
Ho, moi goodness, lukky here,
Shame on ee burds, sez oi,
Lootin' trees furr froot n' nuts
That Oi'd use fur moi poies!
Seems all ee nature bees ee theif,
Tho' not so bad as you'm;
You'm taken out moi vurry 'eart;
Whatever will Oi doo?"
Before he could continue with his comical romantic ballad, a shout rang out from the lookout in the crows nest. "Land Ho!"
Donnabel the volewife took a look at the shoreline to the east, a faint line which had been visible all day, then shouted up at the one who had spoken. "We knew that already, Fuzztail!"
Fuzztail, the stocky ginger tom wildcat on lookout duty, shouted back down. "Not the shore, the islands, dead ahead!"
The entirety of the group on deck, with the exception of the weasel Vaccar, ran to the bow rails and peered out. Sure enough, the outline of the hilly Gingiverian Tribe islands was just visible on the horizon, not actually dead ahead but slightly to the west of that point. Cheers broke out among the beasts on the Bowbolt; Roan took the tiller from Vaccar, steering towards his former home. "Stand ready to go ashore, friends; we'll need to move fast if we're going to put a good distance between us and the enemy!"
Realizing the justice in his words, the creatures gathered up everything they would need before heading ashore; empty barrels and satchels soon lined the deck, along with the multitude of eager beasts leaning over the side railing, hoping to catch a glimpse of the temporary haven from their foes. None of them thought to look back now; had they done so, they would have realized they were being followed.
Rugg Tornpaw was a searat; big, ugly, and nasty-tempered. He had lost his ship in a storm some days past, and had been forced, along with his last half-a-dozen crewmembers, to sail to shore in the ship's jollyboat, the only intact piece left from the wreck. They had seen, from their camp onshore, the Bowbolt sail for the islands; coveting the sleek black ship, the small gang of searats had put to sea in their longboat, following stealthily in the big ship's wake, and catching up on her, as she was slowing down in order to not run aground in the treacherous reefs.
Rugg waved his cutlass at his six rats. "Row, yer swabs, cummon! Most of'm will go ashore for vittles; that's when we'll slay the sentries, take over the ship an' maroon the rest!"
The six rats rowed obediently onward, most of them grinning happily at the thought of owning a ship again. Rugg smiled as they closed in on Bowbolt, coming to rest underneath her stern, out of sight of the sentries. Patting the sleek black sides, Rugg grinned, settling down to wait for the inevitable. "Yer mine, me beauty, all mine!"