Cover art by ForrestFighter
That same evening, Enzi Grexx and his two shiploads of Ranks beasts caught up with the adders and other serpents, who were gathered in a bewildered huddle on the banks of the shallow pool beneath the waterfall. An intense search of the surrounding area had followed, but it proved utterly fruitless; aside from a few broken wood splinters and a shred or two of ripped black canvas, there was no sign of the Bowbolt's crew ever having passed by. The Black Shade, too enraged and confused to address his crew, stared angrily into the cascading silver ribbons, illuminated by the moonlight, trying to get his thoughts together. As the search parties filed in behind him, settling down around hastily constructed campfires, the frightened vermin and reptiles whispered and speculated amongst themselves, hoping their leader would not overhear.
Twotail the vixen scratched the bald spot on her tail worriedly. "Sombeast's goin' t'get the chop for this, take my word fer it, mates."
A tall ferret kicked moodily at a log. "T'ain't fair; we didn't do anything wrong!"
Twotail shuddered. "T'ain't natural, either, mate; it's like they vanished of th' face of the earth!"
A runty searat agreed with her. "Must've been magic, for sure."
The tall ferret snorted. "Oh, don't be daft..."
"Well, what else could it've been?" The rat demanded. "Nuthin' else makes sense, does it?"
The ferret blustered. "Well....they could've...maybe..." he slumped moodily. "No, I guess not."
This seemed to satisfy the rat. "Then take my word for it, mate; there's some sort of strong enchantment on this place; I can feel it in me bones. Somehow they was spirited off, and if'n we ain't careful, we'll be next!"
Sisserah, one of the two adders deputed to lead in Jettcoil and Whiptail's absence, reared her hideous head from behind the fire. "You know they ssssssay the air is ffffilled with sssssspiritsssss of thosssse lossssst over the fallsssss?"
Several sniggers came from the less imaginative vermin, until a gaunt dogfox voiced his opionion. "Aye, she's right, mates; they comes out on the darkest of moonless nights an' spirits beasts away t'the Shadow realm."
Sisserah was glad that at least somebeast believed her. "You have heard the sssssstory before, yessssss?"
Taking a big swig of nettle grog from a flask on his belt, the fox nodded. "Oh, I ain't only heard it, mate; I've seen it come true!"
Gasps of suprise, cries of fear, sniggers of derision, and snorts of disbelief rang out simultaneously; despite the diverity of reactions, it was obvious the the fox had gotten his audience's attention. Taking another swig, he belched loudly and continued his tale. "Liddle shaver I was, then; got inna fight wid a stoat, right here on this very bank. Would've won, too; had 'im bloodied up pretty good an' flounderin' in the shallows when the air turned black."
The tall ferret gave a roar of disbelieving laughter. "It did what?"
The fox treated him to a glare before continuing. "I gives ye me solemn oath, that's what it did. Starry night it was, but no moon. Then there was no stars; the sky an the air around me was full o' solid black spirits, an' I c'd no more see me paw in front o' me face than go to the moon. An' there was a horrible whistlin' noise all around, like thousands o' shriekin' souls; an' the wind was swirlin' round like a whirlpool, too. They wasn't after me, though; t'was the otherbeast who'd tresspassed in the pool they went for. I c'n still hear 'is screams as the blackness got 'im; it was horrible, mates, horrible!"
The look of real terror in his eyes when he told the story convinced the vermin the fox was speaking the truth. An uneasy quiet had fallen now; everybeast looked a bit worried, some of them actually fidgeting as if they would like to run away. The tall ferret alone tried to keep up a show of bravado, though his voice sounded hollow. "Huh, dreams brought on by too much grog, no doubt."
Another voice rang out from amidst the crowd. "And I suppose you fled from the scene like a lilly-livered coward, hmmm?"
The fox nodded, his bleary eyes scanning the crowd for the speaker. "Aye, I ran for me life, as would you, mate..."
He stopped speaking suddenly, a look of suprise permanantly stamped upon his features. The powerful throw had been dead on target, the adderfang spear passing clean through him.
The Black Shade deliberately trod on the dead fox as he retrieved his weapon. Total silence enveloped the riverbank as the black wolf marched to a large rock and mounted it. For several minutes, his flat yellow eyes scanned the cowering vermin about him; when he spoke, his voice was shrill with pent-up fury.
"Look at you - my mighty warriors, the famed Ranks of the Shadow, scared by a drunk fox's ramblings. Do you see any spirits about? Of course you don't; there's nothing to see. And do you know why?"
Suddenly, he was screaming, fairly dancing with rage. "Because you stupid beasts let a bunch of ragtag runaways make idiots of you! Because you just sat there rowing half-heartedly and let them get away! Because you let them get far enough ahead of us to pull a fast one on us! Oh yes, this is a trick of the woodlanders, all right; and when I get to the bottom of it there's going to be pusishment for the half-wits who failed to see it and let them have time to get further away and hide their traces. You are scum, dolts, pathetic; you're not fit to serve the Ranks! You are a rabble of morons, idiots, and ninnys! I swear to you, there will be nowhere you can hide from my wrath if anything else goes wrong; is that clear?!"
None of the vermin dared to speak; their heads bobbed up and down furiously. Panting with the exertion of his outburst, the Black Shade dropped his voice to a more reasonable level. "Circi, Sisserah, get all of the serpents who can smell out a trail. Scour the countryside far and wide; find where those prisoners went!"
The adders bowed their heads in respect, and slid off to gather their squadrons. The wolf addressed his army again. "We camp here tonight. If I or my snakes discover anybeast missing in the morning, I will not only hunt down and slay the deserter but any mateys of his who might have known about his plan to run. Tomorrow we go hunting; remember, no mistakes!"
Still terrified beyond speech, the Ranks soldiers settled down to go to sleep, or rather attempt to go to sleep; the frightening events of the day made it unlikely anybeast would be able to relax any time soon.
Deep in the slightly phosphorescent caves, far out of earshot of the falls and the vermin gathered around it, the fugitives from the Bowbolt had salvaged what they could from the wreck, laying out thir frugal supplies on the rocky shore. Ribjee, the squirrel who had been slain, had been wrapped in sailcloth and left in a crevice in the cave wall; as the ground was solid rock, and the vast lake far to shallow to sink anything in, there was no way the body could be properly interned. After the small funeral, there had then followed a mass midday snooze, as the weary beasts had practically collapsed with fatigue after their long ordeal.
Flipp, being a light sleeper, was the first awake. He nudged Roan with a footpaw; the wildcat stirred and groaned. "Mmmmhmm, what is it?"
The shrew gestured towards the silver light pouring in through the small hole far above them, a mere pinpoint dot in the vastly high cave roof. "Full moon tonight matey; we've let it get kind of late on us. The Whisperers should be here any minute, if I know them; we'd do best to be awake and wating for them."
At the sound of their voices, several other nearby beasts began to stir. Vaccar rubbed a slightly cramped neck. "Wot's a Whisperer? Ye said ye'd tell us later."
As Roan set about waking the otherbeasts, Flipp assisted his new weasel friend upright, grinning impudently. "Behold, the conquering hero awakens!"
The weasel blushed. "T'weren't nothin'; t'was you who knew the cave was here. Though I thought the River Moss ran straight t'the sea widout a waterfall?"
Lilybud the otter piped up. "The lookout made a mistake; we took the Great North Stream by accident. The inlets look almost identical, right Flipp?"
"Right, mate." The shrew nodded. "Most common mistake inexperienced sailors make around these parts. Cummon, Vac, let's get these otherbeasts awake."
In a short time, all the fugitives were on their feet, most of them still yawning and stretching. Roan mounted an upturned water barrel and held his paws up to gain attention. "Everybeast, please listen to Flipp; he has an important message for all of us."
The shrew clambered up onto his friend's shoulders so he could see over the assembly. "We are currently intruders in the Whisperers' domain; I'm sure they already know we're here and we should be meeting them shortly. Now everybeast must understand this; the Whisperers are bats, a great tribe o' the beasts, who outnumber us by more than three hundred t' one. They are goodbeasts - I would like that to be made quite clear - but they are very strict about who is actually allowed inside their home, an' can be dangerous. Since we have a rat held prisoner, and several wildcats and a weasel in our midst, they will probably regard us with suspicion until I've had a chance to speak with their Empress - she knows me. Until then, everybeast must follow us shrews' example, because we know the customs of the tribe and I'm pretty sure you lot don't. Yes, Urthswimmer?"
The mole lowered the digging claw he had just raised. "Burr, if'n ee batbeastens kno' we'm hurr, whoi ain't they'm a'ready coom t'get uz?"
The former slaves couldn't help but smile as the shrew explained, "Like I said, they have their customs. Any unusual matter not requiring urgent and immediate action is discussed t'death in a council before any action is taken. That's probably where they've been for the past few hours; they might still be there, in fact."
"Hush, what's that?" Donnabel the volewife waved her paws for silence.
Everybeast stopped giggling and listened; a great whirring noise filled the air, growing steadily louder. This was accompanied by a cacophony of whistles, shreiks, and squeaky cries; Flipp shouted to be heard over the din. "Here they come; stay still and don't move! If we run, they'll take it as an admission of guilt!"
His voice was drowned out as the noise reached a crescendo and a torrent of black shapes burst forth from a hole in the wall far on the other end of the vast cave. Well over a thousand bats were there, wheeling and swirling about the vaulted heights of the lake cavern, crying out to each other to keep the squadron in formation. When the last of the party had joined his companions, the bats stopped their noise and spiraled downward, coming to rest in a rough circle around the band of fugitives. In the sudden, eerie silence, the fugitives looked about in considerable suprise. Even in the pale phosphorescent light of the cavern, the spectacle was awesome; as far as the eye could see, the circle of bats strectched back into the gloom, huge and unending. Some hung upside down by crannies in the cave wall, and the wreckage of the Bowbolt; others stood upright on the ground, wings outstretched to keep them balanced. One male, bigger and stronger than the rest, appointed himself spokesbeast, addressing the company at large rather than anybeast directly. His comically imperious and echoing mode of speech caused some hastily stifled giggles among the younger beasts.
"Know thee all that thou art tresspassing on Whisperer Domain; all the lands ye see before thee art ours, art ours. Some of thee art shrewbeasts, but the rest of you knoweth not, knoweth not. Art thou enemies, enemies?"
Flipp stepped foward until he was confronting the huge bat; the shrew's head barely reached the creature's chest. He bowed low. "I, Flipp of the Guosim, can testify as to the goodness of heart all these beasts possess, with the sole exception of our prisoner there, whom we are holding captive for trying to harm our babes." He guestured toward Rugg; the rope-bound searat, who had tried to fight his way free earlier, was muttering curses around the gag that had been thrust in his mouth, glaring hatred at the beasts around him.
The bat signalled to several of his subordinates; wordlessly, they seized the struggling rat and took off, bearing him back down the tunnel they had just left. The speaker turned back to Flipp. "As is part of our alliance contract with thee, we shall hold thy prisoner in our dungeons until ye should deem it fit to release him, release him. I wouldst accept thy word alone about thy comerades, were it up to me, up to me. However, these beasts art of species unfamiliar to us; the council has requested I follow standard procedure, shouldst thee be willing, be willing."
Flipp bowed again, becoming less formal. "Thank ye, kind sir, for yore faith in th' Guosim. Certainly, we will obey the wishes of the council, but please allow me to confer with my friends first."
The bat waved a gracious wing. "Take all the time thee requirest, my friend, my friend."
Flipp turned back to the group, lowering his voice. "This is going well; I had a feeling it would once they saw some of us were shrews. Still, we should tread carefully until we are certain they've accepted us as a non-threat. That's why I agreed to the terms."
Starburst tapped her rudder on the stone pensively. "So wot do we do, mate? None of us know what 'standard procedure' is."
The shrew explained. "We'll pick one of each type of creature present to represent that group; we'll then go before the council and tell our story, swearing that we mean no harm."
Roan nodded. "Sounds easy enough, but let's hurry and pick who's going and get it over with; I hate suspense."
As they were the only ones of their species present, Urthswimmer and Vaccar were automatically included. The rest of the groups held hasty conferences, picking those they deemed the best speakers the ones to go before the council. Flipp announced the final group to the leader of the bats. "These are the ones chosen, kind sir; Fuzztail for the Cats, Lilybud for the Otters, Vaccar for the Weasels, Urthswimmer for the Moles, Gareth for the Squirrels, Donnabel for the Voles, Primrose for the Hedgehogs, Haylon for the Mice, and myself for the Shrews."
The bat surveyed the group. "Hmmmmm, quite a few species represented here, I see; we shall leave now, leave now!"
He gave a piercing squeak. Instantly, the bats descended en masse upon the chosen group; before they had time to react, each creature found themselves lifted up by the claws of several bats, who bore them across the cavern and into the pitch-dark tunnel, which opened into a veritable maze of caves. The passengers felt as if they were being borne by an out-of-control whirlwind; the bats dodged columns and stalagmites, dipped sharply down steep inclines and cliffs, flew through thin underground waterfalls, and performed various other acrobatics on their journey to the depths in an effort to keep from crashing with their precious burdens.
Urthswimmer covered his eyes; moles are no lovers of heights, or flight. "Burr hoo, oi'm gurtly afeared ee batbeastens be droppin' oi!"
Gareth, the representative for the squirrels, laughed aloud; he was thoroughly enjoying himself. "Don't worry; if they wanted to drop you, they'd have done it before now! Hahaha, this is fun, eh, Vac?"
Vaccar had been terrified at first when the bats mobbed him, but now he, too, was enjoying the exhilarating ride through the Whisperer's Domain. "Aye, this is the way to travel, matey; we don't even have to do any work!"
As they rounded the next corner, a bright orange light, as if from a thousand blazing campfires, came into sight. The big bat in the lead called back to his followers. "We are nearly there, nearly there; watch thy passengers, t'is a narrow opening, opening!"
The representatives realized, as they neared the light, that it was coming from a small hole in the base of the sheer cave wall before them, through which flowed one of the many underground rivers. Swooping low, their wingtips and their passengers' feet brushing the water, the bats made their way through the hole in single file. As they emerged into the lit cavern, Vaccar's jaw dropped open. "Great sun an' moon an' stars; I've never seen ought like this in me life!"