Cover art by ForrestFighter
Dankfur Clawhook was a born leader. The tall, fearsome pine marten with the gold hook replacing his left paw had an unmistakable air of command, a deadly skill with his saber, and a ruthless determination to succeed unrivaled by any other. In the unlikely event that, after all this, he still had trouble enforcing his will, he had his two enormous blacksnakes, Jettcoil and Whiptail; these he had raised from hatchlings, bullying and torturing them until they were completely under his sway and would obey his orders without question.
Many long seasons ago, Dankfur had been the Captain of the Redclaw, a ship crewed entirely by pine martens like himself. Roaming the seas, they pillaged many unsuspecting merchant ships and coast dwellings. However, Dankfur had begun to tire of the sea, as the life of a marauding corsair did not present to him many challenging opponents to vanquish. One day, messengers had come to the ship, offering the marten, who had already made quite a name for himself, a position as a Captain in the feared Ranks of the Shadow. His whole crew could join if they so wished, as could the two snakes; for, as the messenger explained, there were many serpents in the ranks already and a couple more would be more than welcome. Dankfur had leapt at the chance; within the space of a week he and his creatures were part of the cloaked and masked horde.
As time went by, the former sea raider acquired quite a reputation for his brutal, relentless drive to succeed; almost inevitably, he found himself rising in rank, until he had gained a new title - The Voice of the Shadow, second in command only to the mysterious and tyrannical Black Shade himself, Ruler of the Northern Isles. His two snakes, who far outdid all the others in size, equally inevitably became the rulers of the reptile section of the Ranks and gathered quite a reputation of their own. Soon, nobeast on the northern shores would speak the name of Dankfur without a shudder of terror; even the closest creatures to him looked upon him with horrified awe.
There was not a single vermin in the Ranks suprised when Dankfur was selected for the special mission, nearly three seasons back; it was a well-known fact that when he led a raid, it did not fail. Thus it was, on that fateful day, the marten had led a special, hand-picked band mostly consisting of his own crewbeasts away from the Black Shade's lair. They had set sail in his old ship for an offshore clump of tiny islands, where a tribe of wildcats had lived for countless generations. The basic instructions were simple; destroy the villiage, allowing none to escape. Dankfur knew there would be little resistance; the cats were mostly fisherbeasts, not fighters. However, the Black Shade had specifically ordered that those few cats who were strong warriors not to be slain, but to be captured and delivered to him alive. This was a highly unusual command, and a difficult one to carry out; but nobeast dared to argue with the Black Shade.
Dankfur came up with a fiendishly ingenious plan of campaign. First, he and his crewbeasts had hid themselves for nearly half a season, while the two blacksnakes scouted the villiage to determine which cats were fighters and which were not. Then, one night, he had ordered his crew to set fire to the entire villiage, casting buckets of special herbs on the conflagration. The sick, bewildered wildcats stood no chance against the vermin, who had plugged their nostrils with rancid-smelling plants to avoid the poisoned fumes; it was all over in a matter of minutes. Yet, for all this cunning, something still managed to go awry.
It was just as the horde were celebrating their evil victory that Dankfur spotted the Redclaw, sailing away from the islands towards the mainland. For an instant, the marten thought the three creatures he had left to guard the ship were inexplicably deserting him; the truth dawned on him, however, when the same trio staggered from the island foliage, all of them in a sorry state. Two of them, both weasels, had claw slashes across their bodies; the other, a rat, had his adderskull facemask shattered, and a horrendously ugly purple swelling on the side of his face. The rat explained that a huge female wildcat, accompanied by two kittens, had jumped aboard the ship. The guards had done their best to stop her - he, the rat, had even slashed her face with his cutlass. However, the cat struck him such a blow to the head that it had sent him hurtling overboard; she then proceeded to slam the two weasels into the deckrailing, snapping the timbers and sending them crashing back-first into the sea.
Dankfur had been beside himself with fury; not only had this creature escaped, but she had stolen his ship and stranded him to boot! Then and there he had sworn revenge, promising he would not return to the lair until he had finished the mission and paid back the wildcat for her deeds. Lashing together rafts, the group returned to the mainland; but they were too late to catch the wildcat, who had run the ship aground and abandoned it some time ago. Sending the majority of his group back to the lair with the prisoners, the Voice of the Shadow had taken an only an elite force (ten of his martens and the two blacksnakes) with him; this, he reasoned, would be a logical course of action, as he knew he could keep better control of a smaller group, and that the brunt of the Black Shade's wrath would fall upon the other creatures and not himself.
Now, it was nearly two seasons later, and the group was still tracking, though not with any great relish. None of the crew had forseen the hunt lasting this long, or taking them so deep into strange territory, or being such tough and hungry going. The force had now dwindled from thirteen beasts to seven; yet, they continued the search, for their relentless leader would allow no margin for surrender or failure.
Some distance away from the site of the attack on the shrews, Dankfur and his first mate, Gronk, huddled miserably under a willow tree, watching the other martens' failed attempts to get a fire going in the drizzle. They, like the Guosim, had found the storm-swollen River Moss too dangerous to sail at the moment, so they had pulled the logboat into a concealed sidestream until the weather cleared. Drawing patterns in the dirt with his hook, Dankfur muttered darkly. "Well, that's another good crewbeast lost."
Gronk, not as well-spoken as his captain, flung his mask and saber into the mud, venting his frustration. "First it was Burmin an' Dunpaw, inna swamp. Then Gribby got 'erself et up by pikefishes, an' Ridgeback an' Kordun both got th' fever, an' now pore ol' Greyfleck gits hisself drownded inna rapids! How long we gotta keep this up, cap'n? We ain't never gonna find 'em; even if we did, we'd still haveta take 'em all the way back to..."
He stopped, his head forced back by the saber at his neck. Dankfur growled through clenched teeth, "We don't surrender until the mission is finished. How many times do I have to pound that into your thick skull before it sinks in?!"
Gronk babbled hastily, "Aye, Cap'n, sorry, Cap'n, I'll keep me gob shut, Cap'n!"
He yelped in pain as a deft flick of the saber sliced the tip of his ear. Dankfur sat back down. "You'd better; I'd hate for us to be six in number instead of seven. Get your mask back on, and help the others."
Gronk scurried off; Dankfur signalled his two serpents to attend him. "Jettcoil, find the cats' trail again. Figure out which direction they're headed in and report back to me. Whiptail, bring us something to eat; and don't you dare come back with just roots and berries this time."
Neither blacksnake was much of a talker; nodding their heads in salute, they slithered silently off to do their master's bidding. Dankfur sat back against the willow trunk to wait, the whole of his mind occupied with nothing but the desire to exact vengeance on the one creature who had dared to make him look foolish.