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Cover art by ForrestFighter
Part 4: The Finale
Dragged unmercifully over the stony ground by his scaly captors, his paws and torso gripped tight by the coils of several serpents, a terrified Rugg Tornpaw struggled wildly to get free. Any common sense the old searat might have posessed was thrown to the winds; heedless of the fact that to stay calm and quiet in the presence of so many adders was the safest bet, he scrabbled, screamed and wailed unmercifully, spurred in his efforts by the all-consuming force of sheer panic. At first, his captors had not minded, laughing and jeering at him as they marched back to camp. However, as the hours crawled on, it was plain the constant stream of shreiks was grating on everybeast's nerves.
"Whooooooooaaaaaaaargh! Yaaaheeeeeeeee! Ayieeeeeeeeeeeeeee!"
A massive, blubbery ogre of a ferret began pawing at her spear haft. "If'n that fool don't shuddup, so help me..."
Twotail was leading the patrol; the vixen began passing around pads of moss and grass. "I know how ye feels, mate; don't let it get t'ye. E're, stuff summa 'dis lot in yore ears t'deaden the noise."
Onward, the patrol marched in high bad humor, some of them beginning to groan and moan aloud along with their prisoner. The earplugs proved to be useless against the shrill squeals of the rat, which seemed to purposefully cut through them. Finally, the big, ugly ferret had taken enough; she struck the offender over the head with her spearbutt, readying for a downward thrust with the point.
"Right, let's see how good ye screams wid no head attached!"
Twotail neatly tripped the ferret; she hit the ground with a dull, heavy THUD. As her victim hawked and spluttered up several clods of grass and dirt, the vixen berated her angrily. "Lay a paw on me pris'ner an' yore dead, d'ye hear me? Dead!" She used her cutlass to gesture to the rest of her angry and weary patrol. "An' that goes fer alla ye! The Black Shade put ME in charge, so I gives the orders! Clear?"
Any response was halted by a yell from the hilltop nearby; framed by the setting red sun behind him, a lone, tall figure had appeared. It was Gatlak, and he was hailing them, pink highlights dancing off his sabre as he waved it to get their attention. "Hallooooooooooooo the patrol! Any news?"
Twotail swallowed hard, hoping that her news would be construed as good news. "No tracks, but we gotta old rat who might have sum infermation!"
"Good! I'll tell.." A sudden cacophany of noise, mostly bubbling screams and growls, broke out from the other side of the hill; the marten looked startled, and disappeared from view. In the abrupt silence that followed, the patrol looked from one beast to another nervously. What had just happened, back in the camp?
After a few moments Gatlak reappeared. His former confidence was gone; he seemed to have been badly shaken. His voice was little more than a half-hearted quaver. "Cummon in, t'Black Shade wants a word with ye!"
Unsure whether to be alarmed or relieved, the patrol hastened to obey, hurriedly dragging their unconscious prisoner over the hilltop, down the rocky slope, and into the camp at the base of the falls.
Enzi Grexx sat alone and immobile on a small boulder, half-in and half-out of the shallows. His footpaws dangling idly in the stream, his chin against his gently rising and falling chest, the great beast appeared to be sleeping; however, the rust-stained adderfang spear gripped tight in his forepaws warned that to assume he was asleep would be a gamble of life and death.
As Gatlak escorted Twotail and her patrol to the wolf's side, the beasts stifled gasps of horror. Floating in the edge of the river, kept from washing downstream by various rocks and water weeds, were the remains of three very dead adders, slashed quite literally to pieces by their former commander.
Gatlak nervously addressed the slumped figure. "Here they are, Cap'n, just like ye asked."
Slowly, the wolf turned his head. His yellow eyes practically glowed with bloodshot pink viens; everybeast in the patrol moved back slightly from the piercing gaze. The wolf looked from his army to the captive, then back again. Noticing their appalled expressions, the wolf spoke, his voice a low, strained growl. It was plain he was keeping a rising fury in check, though how long that control would last was anybeast's guess. "This was Circi's patrol. Three days now, they've been wasting my time; the dolt had the effrontery to report a find of "nothing" to me five times in a row. Three days, we've been scouring the countryside. Three days, since those slaves of mine have made fools of you. THREE DAYS, the reports have been the same; nothing. Nothing! NOTHING!!!!"
He lept to his footpaws in a swirl of cloak and tunic, his spearpoint aimed for a thrust at Twotail's head. The wolf screamed so forcefully at her spittle flew from his muzzle. "You'd better pray this rat knows something, fox! If you've hurt him too badly for him to tell me anything, or if this is another dead end, you'll end up just like this last lot of useless scum, all of you! Now get out of my sight, and put this dolt where he can sleep off whatever injury you've given them!"
Terrified beyond words, the whole patrol, including Gatlak, fled the scene. To a beast, their thoughts were identical; the Black Shade was insane, and to be near him in a mood like this was sure death!
Late that evening, Rugg Tornpaw awoke to a world of pain. His head pounded and throbbed horrendously from the two knock-out blows he had earlier recieved, and the countless other bangs and bumps to the skull he had suffered during the long, stony journey. His ribs were cramped and sore from where the serpents had constricted them, as were his limbs. And, to cap it all off, his tail was on fire!
Apparently, as he was rolling about in his sleep, the searat had gotten his rear end too close to one of the campfires. With a yelp, Rugg leapt up, beating and blowing at his blazing appendage; spotting the Great North Stream, he flung himself into the frigid water with a loud splash. His performance caught the attention of the Ranks gathered around; two foxes promptly dove in after him, rescuing him from the depths and flinging him upon the bank. Three more Ranks soldiers seized the half-drowned rat, dragged him away from their main camp, and dumped him uncerimoniously in front of a rocky outcrop in the nearby woods, fleeing the scene to leave him to his fate. Spitting water and bits of riverbed mud, the peg-legged searat found himself looking up into the flat, yellow eyes of the Black Shade.
Enzi Grexx, for now his normal imperious self, was giving the rat the full display of his might and majesty. Framed against the star-studded velvet blue of the night sky, the deep, glossy blackness of his recently groomed fur was even more pronounced. A very nervous Gatlak and Zalbu stood to rigid attention either side of him; each marten bore a torch atop a long pole, which had been treated with chemicals to make the flames glow green. The light flickered patterns across the lighter scales in the wolf's tunic, his bared white fangs, and the sickly grey adderskull masks he and his followers wore. A live adder - the big female Sisserah - completed the barbaric picture; she lounged gracefully abount the wolf's shoulders like a scarf, her ugly head reaching foward and down towards the rat.
Rugg began shivering, not just from the cold. "What d'ye want with me? I ain't harmed nobeast...."
"SSSSSSSILENCE!" Sisserah's nose was suddenly touching his, her venom-dripping fangs an inch from his face. "On your kneessssss, ssssssscum; bow beffffffffore the Great Black Sssssssssshade!"
The terrified rat dropped face-down to the earth with a wail; he had taken all his jangled nerves could stand for one day. His tears flowed down his braided beard as he wept unashamedly. "Mercy, mercy, spare me! I'll do anything, anythin' a'tall, I swear it! Whatever it is, I'll do it, ye've got me solemn oath, highness! Just call off t'snakes, I beg ye!"
"Enough, Sisserah." The Black Shade's voice was soothing, almost friendly. "Leave the poor creature alone."
Obediently, the adder left of terrorizing Rugg. Enzi Grexx shook his head and sighed as the rat groveled thankfully at his footpaws. Reaction to the prospect of death, especially by serpent, separated the fools and cowards from the useful beasts. It never failed to disgust him when creatures were reduced to blubbering wrecks so easily; this rat was an unimpressive specimen, to be sure.
He took on a slightly more commanding tone. "Up on your paws, rat; I need your assistance."
"Anythin', name it!" Rugg's tears flowed even more freely in his relief.
"Oh, it's not much." The wolf smiled thinly. "First, a question. Have you seen any large, black ships about with Wildcats and Woodlanders aboard?"
Rugg nodded furiously; the wolf's smile broadened to reveal every fang in his huge mouth. "Good! Now, you are going to sit here and tell me everything that's happened to you within the last four or five days. And I do mean EVERYTHING, every last detail, down to when you ate and slept. Oh, and don't bother to lie; the serpent knows when a beast lies. She's not too fussy on liars."
Heeding the ominous warning, Rugg started talking as fast as he could. It was as if another beast was in control of his tounge; he spoke longer and with more eloquence than he ever had in his life, unwinding his fascinating tale as if he'd been a storyteller from birth. The wolf waited until he had finished to ask questions, his only reactions during the tale being the occasional nod or "What's that?" to clarify a confusing point.
When Rugg had wound up, it was nearing midnight; the Black Shade went over one or two points again. "You say this cave has thousands of bats in it?"
"Tens o'thousands, accordin' t'that sherrew."
"And it has how many entrances?"
"On'y three I know of; the Waterfall, the one I used, anna big hole in the ceilin' in that main cave. But ye couldn't get in through the waterfall or the ceilin' hole without fallin' t'death."
"That's as may be. And the getaway ship is no longer sailworthy?"
"Firewood's all she's good fer now."
The wolf nodded, the slow smile reappearing. An fiendish plan was beginning to form in his mind. Sensing the interview was over, and feeling a bit more confidence now, Rugg ventured a tentative question. "Er, I wandered about in that cave for nigh on three days, Highness, wid no food an' all. Am I free t'go? I'd like t'find sum grub."
The wolf stared at him very hard before replying. "Every vermin for leagues about belongs in my army. Would you serve?"
Rugg shook his head emphatically. "Never, Yore Highness, not wid so many snakes!"
"Then you're of no more use to me." The Black Shade clapped his paws.
The last thing Rugg saw was the open mouth of Sisserah flying straight at his face at unimaginable speed; he had no time to scream.
Leaving the adder to her grisly meal, the wolf addressed his two subordinates. "Gather all the Ranks. I need to make an announcement immediately!"
Three days had also passed since the escape of Dippertail; the desperate hunt to find him was still in full swing. However, the martens and Krozfoxx were fast beginning to lose patience with Scaleflier, who had been running them ragged by forcing them to attempt to keep up with his speed. Even moving at what to him was average pace, the small green serpent easily outdistanced them. Jettcoil, Dankfur, and Ux were able to plow on in stoic silence fairly close to him; however, the majority of the group lagged farther and farther back, gasping and crying out as their paws and lungs began to ache. Two Krozfoxx had already been left behind; one dead from the strain, another unable to carry on due to a broken footpaw.
When an unfortunate Kaiah blundered into a ravine because he was too tired and running too quickly to see it, the big marten Uja finally decided enough was enough. "Hoi! Slow down, wouldja!"
Others soon took up the cry.
"Disee runnee alla time killee me!"
"Slow down afore some otherbeast gits hurt!"
"My paws hurtee likee blazes!"
Scaleflier treated his followers to a glare, impressing them by slithering backwards while he berated them. "SSSsssss, you lot are weaklingssssss! Don't ye know to catch a fffffalcon one must move quicky? We'll never catch him at thisssssss rate!"
Danfur realized, however, the justice in Uja's train of thought; plus, though he would not admit it, he too was exhausted. "It's late, Scaleflier; we need to rest. Company HALT!"
Gratefully, every beast sank to the ground; some of them flopped onto their backs, gasping for air and wiping slavering mouths. As Jettcoil backtracked a few paces to rescue Kaiah from the ditch, Scaleflier addressed Dankfur. "Ifffff we did not sssssstop or sssssslow so often, we would not have had to run ssssssssso much; we'd have caught him long beffffffore now."
Dankfur's chest was also heaving; it took him a moment to reply. "Are you sure he went this way? Three days we've been charging, and I've seen no signs so far, not even a feather!"
The decietful serpent knew he was on dangerous ground; he realized a rude counterattack was the best method for instilling confidence, knowing that to appear calm and pleasant would arouse Dankfur's suspicions. He huffed angrily. "Iffffff you would like to attempt tracking a ffffffalcon in ffffffull ffffflight, fffffffeel ffffree. It issssssss a tassssssk mossssssst diffffficult. However, I am asssss ssssssure he went thisssss way asssss ifff I sssssaw him with my own eyesssssss!"
It had the desired effect; Dankfur's mood was not improved, but he believed the serpent's words. He stabbed his sabre moodily into the earth. "Well, if we haven't caught up with him by tomorrow night, the hunt is off, as far as myself and my beasts are concerned. For all we know, he may be leading us a merry dance just to watch us all drop dead from exhaustion."
Ringgob, who was nearby, nodded in agreement. "Aye, an' 'e'll succeed if'n we keep this up!"
He recoiled as his captain's sabre flashed by, shearing off one side of his whiskers. "Who said you could speak, bigmouth? Take Jettcoil and get us some food, and keep your trap shut!"
Chastened, the older marten gathered his bow and arrows; he and the blacksnake headed off, with Dankfur's cold eyes watching them. Slithering away from the scene, Scaleflier let out a small sigh of relief. Though he didn't know it, Dankfur had come dangerously close to stumbling upon the truth; that is, the truth of a small part of the serpent's full revenge.
Later that evening, the two hunters returned to camp, burdened with a huge supply of cooked goods, cordials, and a dead family of plump voles, all looted from the same treehouse. For the first time in a long time, Dankfur congratulated his crew. "Well done; we should eat well tonight. Put some to the side for supplies, don't wolf it all down at once!"
The food was being distributed when Akalle Bladewhip strolled nonchalantly into camp. Her arrival caused little comment; she was always the last to arrive, refusing to run and simply following the tracks of the rest of the band to wherever they decided to camp for the night. Dankfur glowered at her. "Half rations for you, fox; maybe that will teach you to keep up next time!"
The killer vixen seemed to be unusally quiet and obedient of late; without a word of complaint, she accepted her meagre share of the food and went off to a boulder some distance away to eat. Scaleflier lay coiled on the opposite side, out of view of the others. Akalle murmured a single word out of the side of her mouth. "Well?"
The serpent flexed his coils. "T'issss going ssssslowly, but sssssuccessssfully. Murmursssss of mutiny are beginning amongssssst the foxesssss; the martensssss still need work, though. Sssssstay awake and watch me work tonight, and ssssssseee my methodssssss, ifffff you like."
The vixen pawed at one of her poisoned knives, glaring at Ringgob. "Ye just let me know when I can kill that skullbeast that ruined my paw, an' that big oaf Ux; their dead bodies are all I need to see!"
The serpent shook his head in mock pity. "You may have need to ssssssoil your blade; have you not realissssed the sssssheme yet? It issss fffar better they ssssshould appear to kill each other offff, than one of ussss should be blamed for it; t'will help ussssss to undermine the main Ranksssssss later!"
"Help you." Akalle corrected. "After Ux an' Ringgob die, I go my own way."
Scaleflier did not seem unduly put out. "Sssssssuit yourssssself. But ssssssstay out of trouble until thissssss isssss over, undersssssstand? One ffffalssssse move and we're both dead!"
As the serpent had planned when he ran them ragged, Dankfur and his crew were far too tired to even post sentries; to a beast, they lay flat out, in the deep sleep of total exhaustion. None of them noticed the small serpent slithering among them, whispering into ears soothingly, disrupting their dreams and planting subconsious thoughts of mutiny. Akalle stayed awake and watched, tail twitching with impatience. This sort of thing seemed to her impatient mind to be foolish; had she her way, she would have stabbed everybeast then and there with her poisoned blade. This reckless plan, of course, involved the gamble that none of them would cry out and alert the big snake before she got a chance to get him; however, to Akalle's mind, this was certainly worth the chance.
Scaleflier was at Uja's ear now; Akalle noticed the serpent was taking a particularly long time with him. When the small racer finally returned to her and curled up at her footpaws for a snooze, the vixen questioned him. "Why'd ye stay so long at the big skullbeast's ear? He's a dunce, he can't help ye."
The serpent allowed his eyes to film over. "He isssss to be my prime mover in the little drama I am creating. Hisssssss brother wasssss slain by the Redwallersssss in the battle; he hasssss more reasssssson to turn on Dankfur than anybeasssssst."
Akalle did not agree with this reasoning, having no familial ties herself; however, it was too late and she was too sleepy to argue the point. Both would-be assassins settled down for the night, each with their own thoughts of vengeance.
Unaware that a third beast had joined them in these thoughts - one whom Scaleflier's suggestions had affected more strongly than the small serpent could have ever imagined!