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Cover art by ForrestFighter
Darker than the sky on a clouded, moonless night; darker than Raggle's fur, or Jettcoil's scales; darker than the smoke wreathing from an oily fire; darker than the bottom of the deepest crater on earth were the mind, the heart, the very being of Enzi Grexx, the sable-furred wolf known as the infamous Black Shade.
No wolf had ever before inhabited the area near Northern Shores; indeed, their kind lived even farther to the north, in the bitter, harsh uncharted territories where snow stayed on the ground the majority of the year. They were, as a rule, social creatures; living in large, barbaric, cooperative communities under the leadership of the strongest and wisest of the group. Some seasons back, when he was little more than a pup, Enzi Grexx had wished to be that leader, and had done all in his power to wrest the position from its current owner, up to the point of a direct physical attack. This had proved to be an awful, near-fatal mistake. The other wolf, though a female and long in years, had been an expert fighter with a mace and chain; even after disarming the younger wolf, she had cruelly beaten her opponent within an inch of his life before granting his frantic pleas for mercy. Shunned and ridiculed by his clan, and many others, Enzi Grexx had fled southward in disgrace.
Lone wolves, especially young and injured ones, often do not survive in strange territory; but hate, and the desire for power, often can drive a creature on in the most desperate of situations. Knowing he could not return to the frigid lands from whence he came, Enzi Grexx had made up his mind then and there to establish himself as ruler of the strange, new country he found himself in, gathering a huge army for himself and making his name one spoken only in total terror; no creature would dare to ridicule and humiliate him then. It might very well take scores of seasons, but he would do it; this he promised himself. Keeping himself going with this growing obsession, he wandered the Northern Shores and the mountains nearby, watching and waiting for his chance.
When he had stumbled into the coastal cavern teeming with adders and other snakes, his first reaction had been to flee for his life; but then, as he later watched them from a distance, the great idea struck the wolf; why not use them? Few creatures were as terrifying, as horrific as serpents, especially poisonous ones; furthermore, this group seemed to have learned to live and hunt as a community, much like his old clan. With time, and the right methods, he could knock them into a regular war machine! But, the problem still remained; how to take over a dangerous clan of snakes, many of which could kill him with a single bite?
The chance arrived one bitterly stormy morning, some weeks later. The obvious leader of the snakes, a huge, ancient adder, had exited the cave alone. Usually, he traveled with two smaller adders as sort of a bodyguard; the formidible creature really had no need of them, but he was not the sort to take chances. However, for reasons best known to himself, he had decided to hunt solo this particular morning.
The young wolf never hesitated; the opportunity was not one to be missed. Using the darkness of the storm as extra cover, he had run ahead of the monster up the path to the clifftops, the fertile area where the snakes usually did their hunting. He had then crouched by a large rock on an outcrop ledge, where he knew the adder would have to pass to get to the hunting grounds; gripping his long spear (the only weapon he had brought with him on his journey), he had waited for his opponent to arrive.
As soon as the huge head had passed the boulder, Enzi Grexx had struck, ramming his spear into the ugly neck with both paws. It was over in an instant; the snake gave one horrific whiplash of its body, then lay still. Howling his victory to the rainy skies, the wolf proceeded with his cunning plan.
Great had been the consternation in the snake community two days later, when a huge, black-furred creature had marched boldly into their den. None of the serpents had ever seen a wolf before; the tallest furred creatures they knew of were badgers, and this strange beast was half as tall again as the largest of these. To add to the shock, the dark behemoth was wearing the upper part of the skull of their chieftain as a mask, and a tunic and cloak made from his hide. The two largest fangs were still in the skull, and hung down the sides of the beast's muzzle like a grisly decoration; the pin of the cloak, and the belt of the tunic, were fashioned from the remaining, smaller teeth. All of the serpents knew of their chieftain's reputation as a battler; any beast who could totally defeat him must have been invincible, and possibly even magic! Without even a whisper of dissent, they had capitulated to the conqueror. Thus it was that Enzi Grexx, a discraced young wolf banished from his home, became the Black Shade, feared ruler of the Northern Shores.
As seasons ran on, the Black Shade gathered other beasts to his army; these he trained in the art of war, and the art of controlling serpents. Any beast he thought could serve his purpose was recruited into the Ranks of the Shadow - rats, stoats, weasels, foxes, ferrets, martens, even a raven. Though the Black Shade always sent messengers to try to peaceably convince the vermin to join him first, he had no qualms about using force on the obstinate and unwilling; hence, his attack on the wildcat colony, creatures who had dared to refuse being under his rule. Now, he had well over five hundred vermin, and untold thousands of serpents, in his command; he had also matured to his full growth, and attained superior skill with his spear, the two ends of which he had replaced with the fangs of another large adder. His pride, skill, and cruelty made him a beast not to be trifled with; several unfortunates had found that out, to their cost.
This thought was running through the mind of Scraggback, a ferret captain in the ranks, as he entered the inner sanctum of the Black Shade's dwelling. Though most of the serpents still dwelt in their seaside cavern, about a hundred of them, and just about all of the other beasts in the Ranks of the Shadow, lived with their leader in the Shadelair. In his travels, Grexx had found a mass of monolithic stone columns sticking out from the sea, some little distance offshore from the serpent's cave. Between two of these columns, suspended high in the air, the wreck of what had once been the biggest pirate ship to sail the seas was permanantly fixed, her huge iron prowspike driven into one of the monoliths. The ship, whose name was the Goreleech, had four decks counting the topmost, giving her plenty of room to house the Black Shade and his followers. As time went by, a massive rope and plank bridge had been constructed from the clifftops above the snakes' cave to the rock island the ship's stern rested against; many smaller ones ran between ledges on the rock islands, where several stone hut lookout posts had been built for extra housing. The Black Shade himself spent most of his time in what had been the captain's cabin of the ship; he had refurbished and decorated it with grisly snake-carcass trophies and special, green-flamed fire brasiers to give it an eerie air.
Scraggback gulped visibly as the great wolf's pale, flat eyes bored into him from behind the eye sockets of the adder skull. The Black Shade was not a creature of many words; he spat out a single, commanding question. "Well?"
The ferret tried to keep his paws from shaking as he made his report. "Master, please do not be angry with me. My patrol and I have continued to beat, starve, and torture those wildcats in exactly the manner you instructed. Two more of them have perished under the treatment, yet the rest still refuse to join our Ranks. The eldest male tried to do battle with us again; several of my patrol were badly injured." He gestured to a painful swelling over his right eye to confirm this statement.
The wolf's growl was low, but menacing. "What of the Voice of the Shadow, and his crew?"
Scraggback's voice quavered with fear. Dankfur had been the closest thing to a friend and kindred spirit the Black Shade had; the ferret knew his news was not going to be recieved well. "The fivescore scouts you sent out returned this morning, Master. They searched as far as a good fortnight's journey from here, scouring the land, but there were no tracks to be seen anywhere. However, Captain Yirta found these..."
The ferret yelped in alarm as the wolf ripped the proffered satchel from his paws. Upending it, the Black Shade dumped the contents unceremoniously on the floor; the tattered remains of an embroidered blue hooded cloak, a rusted saber, and the skull and a few other bones of a marten. Enzi Grexx glared first at the pitiful remains, then at his minion, his voice tight with fury as he demanded, "How did this happen?"
Scraggfur gulped again, edging towards the door. "Master, believe me, I do not know. Yirta says one of his soldiers found these about the twelfth day of their search."
The wolf was silent for a moment, breathing hard through his nostrils in an attempt to keep his temper in check. Scraggback stifled a moan as he watched his master's paw tighten on the double-headed spear. Then, the Black Shade spat out a command. "Send Yirta to me."
Realizing that he was not going to be slain, Scraggback knelt, sighing in relief. "Master, I thank you for sparing my...yeeek!"
He leapt to his paws and fled, nearly tripping over the spear that was embedded in the deck timbers where he had been kneeling a second earlier. The wolf's roaring shout rang through his ears. "Get out of my sight, you pathetic, useless worm! Get out! Out! OUT!!!"
Enzi Grexx listened to the ferret's receding footsteps until they were no longer audible. His jaw tightened grimly as he stared again at what had once been a pine marten. Dankfur had been his most loyal follower, his closest ally, and the beast he relied on to carry out his most difficult commands. His loss would be a terrible blow to the Ranks of the Shadow; especially now, with the time for carrying out the Black Shade's newest master plan fast approaching. Only Dankfur and his blacksnakes had known of the plot, as the Black Shade felt he could trust no other creature with the information at present.
Yirta was the only raven in the Ranks; as such, he wore a embroidered blue cowl instead of a cloak and mask. He poked his beak nervously around the door frame. "Yaaark! You wished to see me, sire?"
The Black Shade snapped tersely. "Stop dithering in the doorway and get in here."
Yirta complied, bowing low. "Kraaaak! As you say, sire. Might I ask the reason for this summons? We have completed your mission."
He squawked in terror as the wolf bulled him into the cabin wall, shouting into his startled face. "Two seasons ago my strong right paw left in search of three escaped prisoners, taking the two largest serpents of my army with him. He did not return, and none of you useless rabble could find any trace of him. Now you dare to return with this bundle of rags, and say the mission is completed?!!! Where did you find these, and why did you not trace the beast responsible?!"
The raven could hardly speak for being throttled; he managed to choke out his message. "Eeeaark...riverbank, near swamp, twelve days from here....gggaaak, lots of pikefishes...urk...these washed up on the bank!"
The Black Shade released his victim, who fell to the floor, gasping and coughing. His voice dropped to a more reasonable tone. "You'd better be telling me the truth."
"Haaaaark, nobeast would lie to you, sire." The raven feebly rasped. "There were other bones, ripped by the pikefishes' teeth. This one was eaten, sure enough. Rraaak!"
"Was there a gold hook in the remains?"
"Kraark, no. Why would there be, sire?"
The wolf's voice dropped dangerously low; his eyes narrowed. "You dare to ask me that question?"
The raven had regained his composure; he gestured with a wing at the body. "Rrraark, it is not Dankfur, if that is what you were thinking, sire. I would know the bones of a female beast anywhere; this is a she-marten."
He backed up to the wall again as the Black Shade advanced on him threateningly, hissing through clenched teeth. "Are you sure of this?"
Yirta's throat bobbed as he swallowed several times. "Kkkaaaak, sire, nobeast knows more about carrion and bones than a raven."
Grexx knew this was true; he concealed a sigh of relief, gesturing to the door. "That will be all, Yirta. Go, now. I need to think."
The raven obeyed with alacrity, fleeing at top speed as Scraggback had done. Prising his spear loose from the deck timbers, and seating himself in a carved wooden chair, the Black Shade thought furiously. So, these were not Dankfur's bones; they were the remains of Gribby, the only female pine marten in Dankfur's crew. Then where was Dankfur, and the rest of his band? Had they, too, perished in the pike-infested waters, or had they managed a crossing? The wolf smote the arm of his throne in frustration. He needed his Voice back; and soon, before his whole grand scheme came crashing down in failure.
Suddenly, an idea struck him; leaping to his paws, he marched out of the door. Throttling a rat sentry, who was unlucky enough to be within pawreach, the Black Shade rapped out an order. "Get Scaleflier."
He dropped the unfortunate, who scuttled off, pawing his throat. The black wolf allowed the ghost of a smile to cross his features. No creature under his rule would disobey him; his first obsession and goal had been, for all intents and purposes, acheived. Now, all that was needed to carry out his second, grander scheme was his second-in-command, whom he had no doubts of finding now. All of the snakes were excellent trackers, and could travel many times faster than a vermin at full-tilt run; but Scaleflier was the fastest and best hunter by far. If he were sent to the place where Gribby's remains were found, he would soon pick up the trail, and bring the marten crew back. Of course, this would mean leaving a wildcat and her two kittens unpunished, but what were a pawful of escaped prisoners to the Black Shade? They couldn't possibly do him any damage at this point, he reasoned; let them be forgotten as casualties of war.
And it was with this decision that Enzi Grexx, the Black Shade, made his second huge mistake.