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This is the second installment in the 600 Strong series by Some random redwall fan. It picks up immediately where the first off, so be sure to read 600 Strong|that first, or this will not make sense!
NOTICE: No editing is permitted. Tell me if there is a problem, then I will fix it. Also, what you see here is actually an edited version of the story. The real manuscript is far bloodier and has coarser language. Hey, it's war. Most of these areas have been removed, re-worded, or censored. But I may have missed something. If you as the reader find something offensive or vulgar, please tell me so I can deal with it.
Thanks. And above all, Enjoy!
Part Six: The Chant
--"Who have the vermin learned to fear?"
Three squirrels, two hedgehogs, and three mice stood on the lip of a slope, surveying the scene spread below them. A gentle slope curved downward to meet a flat, open plain. Tall, dry grass swayed in the night breeze, and the the freshly minted coin of the moon cast everything upon the Earth in a serene, white light. A few crickets serenaded loudly from within the hidden recesses of the grass.
But the beauty is not what captivated them.
Dots of bright orange light, as numerous as the stars twinkling above, literally covered the plain. These lights blinked and shone eerily, dancing and swaying. They blanketed the plain floor in an overwhelming canvas. Each one was a fire, and each fire supported at least five vermin.
The creatures stared in a stunned, terrified silence. Each one was trapped in a prison of their own fears, worries of death, pain, and suffering. Blood was coming. By the fates, there were so many....
Private Allen broke the silence by voicing everyone’s thoughts. “Holy-” Sergeant Fragnet nodded in agreement and kicked nervously at the turf. “That’s a lot of vermin...”
Garnett gulped loudly and said nothing. A wave of nausea swept over him. His heart was beating so fast that his ribs hurt. Cold sweat ran from his tousled head and down the sides of his face.
Hip wasn’t faring much better. He was shivering uncontrollably and sweating profusely. The countless dots of light reflected in his eyes, which were wide open with fright. Panic was slowly preying on the poor squirrel.
Garnett’s ears perked as a strange noise creeped into them. He turned and saw Mark, the hedgehog he had met earlier that day, holding his paws chest-level in front of him. His palms were touching, and his eyes were peacefully closed. The hedgehog’s lips were moving slightly, and Garnett could hear suppressed muttering coming from them.
Garnett uncertainly raised his paw to tap Mark’s shoulder, but Hip’s arm stopped him. It grabbed his wrist and lowered it slowly. Garnett shook the paw off and turned to face Hip. The squirrel was shaking his head. “Don’t.”
“Can’t you see? He’s praying.”
No one felt the urge to eat that night. Spoons and forks toyed with the unappetizing slop moodily. Drinking tins of water lay untouched near drumming paws. The thick stench of fear hung in the air in an encompassing blanket. Everybeast felt it. Yet there was only one unanimous thought in all of their minds. There’s so darn many of them...
Even Private Allen was silent. His face was a mask of silent panic, and his gaze was locked solidly on the ground. His tail thumped nervously on the ground, fanning dust into the air. Like many, his food lay untouched at his side.
Garnett and Hip were sitting at the edge of the drop-off, staring at the vast sea of lights. Harp stood behind directly behind them. All three remained silent in awe. Their food lay near their sides, completely untouched. Their water tins were held in shaking, pale paws. Hip’s cup rattled slightly as he raised it to his lips. His throat was parched and raw, so it should have tasted other-worldly.
But it didn’t. It tasted like his own blood.
Garnett tapped Hip’s shoulder. “Winner’s coming. Up and at ‘em.”
Hip grumbled and stood at attention. The rest of the squad crawled to their feet and threw salutes towards the incoming, grizzled otter. “Sir.”
The captain nodded at them. “At ease.”
Hip and several others flopped back onto the ground, sighing wearily. The old otter sat beside them and gazed over the spread of fires. A low whistle escaped his lips and he held his paw over his eyes, squinting tightly. “Anybody tried to count them yet, Hip?”
THe squirrel was surprised that his ranking leader knew his name, but he hid it under a careless nod. “I tried to count them, sir.”
“I don’t know, I lost count after sixty-seven.”
The otter shook his head wearily. “Well, we’re going to be busy for awhile, aren’t we?”
“Afraid so sir.”
Captain Winners clambered to his feet and stretched wearily. “Well, I gotta hand it to them, they know how to welcome a guest.”
Garnett nodded. “Yeah, that is one hell of a reception.”
Winners nodded in agreement. “Well, you guys get some rest while you can.” With those parting words, the grizzled, old otter walked away, back towards the main encampment.
No one slept at all that night. Sounds of restless creatures, twisting and turning in discomfort, pervaded in the night air. The bright coin of the moon shone hazily over the resting battalion, and the stars twinkled merrily overhead. It did not reflect the soldiers’ moods.
Every creature was caught in a terrible prison of their own thoughts. It was a certainty that not everyone would walk away from this ordeal alive. But who would go and who would stay? Who? It was the horrifying question that pervaded in everybeasts’ minds.
Even those who had mercifully fallen into the peaceful bliss of sleep could not escape the terror. Nightmares of death, flames, screams, and blood panned across their eyes. They watched in helpless terror as their friends, family, and finally themselves succumbed to the horde of Wolf the Hunter.
Garnett was one of these few. He was standing in the middle of a bare, ashen plain, covered in a blanket of darkness and above a sky of red. It was eerily silent. There was nary a sign of a single other creature. Only the charcoal-black dust, floating and dancing in an unfelt wind, was the only thing eye-catching.
And then he saw Anne.
She was even more beautiful than he remembered. Her gentle, soothing, hazel eyes were shining, and her arms were held wide. She was wearing a beautiful red dress, and her nut-brown fur was freshly-combed and soft.
Garnett stared at her in silent admiration for a few seconds, then rushed madly towards her. Upon seeing his reaction, tears of relief and joy poured down her face and she ran towards him. She was shouting something.
“Oh, thank the fates! You’re alive!”
Garnett didn’t reply, but started running faster. His heart beat rapidly and breath poured from his mouth in ragged gasps. Black dust poured from underneath his footpaws, spreading into thick clouds as they pumped into the ground like pistons. His eyes were brimming with tears of joy. He was alive!
Then something caught his eye.
It was dim at first, a fleeting image at the corner of his vision. It was a streak of gray, larger than a bird. He hesitated for a few moments, then dismissed it as a trick of the light or a mere shadow.
This provoking thought caused him to clamber to a stop and turn around. What was it that he had seen?
His question was answered almost instantaneously, as a rat, resembling a walking bush, with clumps of shrubbery tied to his torso, arms, legs, and back, rose unseen from the ground. The rat was carrying a crude iron dagger, which suddenly transformed into a even more crude bow. The rat grinned evilly and nocked an arrow, raised the weapon, and looked down the shaft.
But he wasn’t aiming at Garnett.
Hip yawned wearily and sat up. He shrugged off the encompassing sleeping blanket and stretched ruefully. He gazed around the rest of the camp, and was surprised to see that several other creatures were walking about, making ready for the day’s festivities.
Garnett was already up. Hip saw the mouse sitting with his back turned, staring over the stretching plain. The fires were gone, but they were replaced with countless grey dots. Sleeping vermin.
Hip folded his blanket and sat next to his friend. He took a swig from his canteen, poured the rest over his head to wake himself up, and clipped it neatly back onto his belt. Hip nodded towards his friend. “Morning.”
Garnett nodded silently in reply and took a sip from his own canteen. Dark, black rings encircled his eyes, suggesting a sleepless night. Despite the chilly morning air, he was sweating madly and his eyes had an exhausted, crazed look in them.
Hip was curious on his friend’s condition. “Hard night?”
“Yeah, I couldn’t sleep.”
“Nightmare.” Garnett replied levelly. “A really bad nightmare.”
.....Anne screamed as the arrow struck her in the chest. She fell heavily to her knees and grasped the arrow tightly, desperate to relieve herself of it. Dark red blood pooled out from the wound and stained her dress to an even darker red. Her screams were loud and piercing.
“How bad?” Hip inquired.
Garnett made a sound of helpless terror and closed his eyes.
Her screams faded dimly, and her once-vibrant eyes milked over in her death throes. She gurgled once, fell completely to the ashen ground, and lay still. Garnett heard himself yell and he tried to run towards her, but his limbs would not obey. Tears of helpless frustration cascaded from his eyes as she managed to turn herself over. She extended a paw towards him and managed to mouth, “Help me.” Then.....she stopped breathing and fell limp.
“Let’s leave it at...real, real bad.”
“Come on, try me.”
The rat laughed. It was a terrible, piercing, taunting laugh. His bow melted back into a crude dagger, and he held it aloft. Garnett’s eyes grew huge as all around him, more shrubbery-laden rats rose out of the ground. There were hundreds ....thousands....MILLIONS!! They surrounded him, sniggering evilly and getting closer...closer....closer....
“Drop it, Hip.”
There was a series of metallic sliding noises as over two hundred swords were unsheathed and held straight out. Their blue-tinged steel blades sparkled in the early morning sunlight. Bright glares of white squinted eyes and averted gazes, but for only a moment. The blades were unmovable, held straight forward in respect for a superior officer. The soldier’s weapon salute.
Captain Winners strode back and forth in front of C-company. The unit was grouped in a huge rectangle, standing on the lip of the hill leading down into the valley. Those in the back squinted and stood on tiptoe, desperate to see what was happening.
“Gentleman-” Winners began.
“And ladies!.....sir.” The voice of an unknown female soldier rang from somewhere in the formation.
“Right, gentle AND ladies. no doubt you have seen the enemy before us. I will not lie to you, they outnumber us at least three to one. But it is not the quantity of the army, it is the quality of the soldiers! I have been trekking alongside you for the past five days, and never once found a reason to complain!”
“You have been trained!” Winners continued. “You are equipped! You are marching on well-nourished stomachs-”
“Bull.” Harp whispered to Garnett softly.
“-and wet throats! You are the best the patrol has to offer! This is what we trained for! This is the real deal! No quarter shall be given and surrender is not an option!”
“We’re screwed.” Garnett whispered.
Winners was in full swing by now. “You are the elite! You are the strongest, the fastest, the best we have! It has fallen to us to rid the world of a few more spineless vermin!”
The grizzled otter fell silent for a moment, then continued softly. “This is our job, our duty, our will to serve. People back home are counting on us. Now let’s get out there, and do what we do best. And what is that?”
The reply was unanimous. “Kick butt and take names, sir!”
Winners saluted and nodded. “Good luck.”
With those parting words, the old otter stepped away, back to the command tent. Lieutenant Webster took his place. The mouse motioned off to the left. “A-Company will be charging from the left flank, through the woods.”
Garnett had not noticed the woodlands surrounding the open plain. His attention had been focused solely on the vast sea of fires the previous night, and he not taken the chance to survey the surrounding area.
Woodlands surrounding the plain, huh? That would be useful...
Webster continued, sweeping his paw across the valley to the right. “Meanwhile, B-Company will charge through the woods to the right and try to flank from that direction.”
The mouse lieutenant sighed and dropped his paw. “And we, C-Company, are going straight up the middle.”
Into the eye of the storm. It was one of the most risky and dangerous military maneuvers. A straight, direct charge was never a good idea. Casualties in the charging force were usually catastrophic. But, it would be impossible to move two companies, well over four hundred soldiers, unseen through the woods. There was no other option.
Fear. Everyone felt it. Knees started shaking and palms grew sweaty. Butterflies danced in everybeasts’ stomachs, and their vision became cloudy and distant. Sweat cascaded from heads, palms, and necks alike. Furthermore, every creature felt a sudden urge to empty themselves.
Lieutenant Webster was silent for a moment then held up a paw. “On a brighter subject though, those idiots down there still haven’t noticed us, and a few lookouts have reported little activity in their camp. We have the element of surprise.”
Silence greeted his words. The good news did little to shake off their feelings of terror and nervousness. Webster sighed and fell silent. Then, he said something unexpected.
“Who have the vermin learned to fear?”
It was the beginning of one of the most well-known military chants. Several of the soldiers looked at one another in question, shrugged, and quietly replied. “C-Company!”
“Who does the captain most revere?” Web continued.
“C-Company.” More soldiers replied.
Webster’s voice grew a little louder. “Who fights to the last and final breath?”
“C-Company!” The soldiers’ reply was louder and stronger.
Web’s voice got a bit louder. “Who do the vermin know as the bringers of death?”
“C-Company!” Everyone was shouting now.
Off to the left and right, A and B Companies started heading down the slope towards the woods. Any second a whistle would blare, and C-Company would charge down the hill, straight towards the horde. But their attention was elsewhere.
“Who are the strongest of the strong and toughest of the tough?”
Web was shouting now. “Who can stand the worst of worst and roughest of rough?”
The lieutenant’s voice was loud and blaring. Even louder. “Who doesn’t know the meaning of fear?!”
“Who hunts in the dark and disappears?!”
A whistle blared in the distance. A and B companies were already out of sight, deep in the woods surrounding the plain. Diligently, C-Company started moving forward, towards the slope. The tall, dry grass brushed against tramping legs and dragging tails. Their texture itched and stung, but hardly anybeast acknowledged it.
Web’s voice was somehow louder as he marched in front of the assembled company. “Who is always on the attack?!”
“Who can march to hell and back?”
The slope was getting closer, and fringes of the plain could be seen. C-Company started to march faster, while their voices became even louder. Their throats started to grow sore from shouting so much.
“Who can count their kills only by graphing?!”
“Who can sever vermins’ heads and throw them aside, laughing?”
Webster was in his element now. “WHO DO OUR ALLIES LIKE TO KEEP CLOSE?!”
“WHO DO THE LADIES LOVE THE MOST?!”
“WHO ALWAYS WINS AND NEVER COMES LAST?!”
By this time, the soldiers were standing on the lip of the slope. Below them was the horde of Wolf the Hunter. Smoke was rising from the previous night’s fires, and specks of gray could be seen moving about the camp. Nobeast appeared to have noticed them.
Every soldier halted suddenly, and held their breath, waiting for their lieutenant to give the final line.
“WHO IS ABOUT TO KICK SOME-?!”
Thunder reigned down the hill. Fearsome warriors, shouting wildly and running at insane speeds, charged down the slope. The grass bent and wilted underneath the might of their thumping paws, and sunlight glinted off their razor-sharp blades. Sweat poured down their enraged, yelling faces. Below them, the earth itself seemed to tremble.
Vermin stared in shock and terror at the avalanche heading towards them, and their eyes grew huge in awe.
So began the war of the Burning Plains.
Part Seven: First Blood
Sweat was clouding Pvt. Samuel “Harp” Harper’s eyes. Despite the intensity of the morning sun’s rays, everything in his vision was misted and distorted through beads of his own sweat. His steps were rushed and clumsy as he stumbled down the slope. All around him, fellow soldier’s were yelling intensely and waving their weapons aloft.
But Harp was too scared to shout.
He was almost entirely certain that he was about to die, in a way that was both painful and frightening. Every pawstep he took felt like his last, and every breath he drew in had an empty feel to it. His ribs ached with the intensity of his beating heart, and his stomach swam in a sea of terror.
Through the gaps between the bodies of fellow infantrymen ahead of him, he could see the rapidly-galvanizing vermin, and noticed with terror that they were already reaching for their weapons. He swore that he could see an ugly and intimidating scowl on every face, and their weapons were jagged and bloodstained.
And yet the 13th Infantry Battalion charged ever closer.
Then, all at once in a blazing storm, the two armies connected.
Screams, shouts, cries, metallic clangs, the hissing of arrows, and blood. Lots of blood. Harp could already feel all sense drifting out of him as the icy claws of panic started to dig in. All around him were charging beasts, vermin and ally alike. There were screams of pain as clouds of arrows, hissing like an angry swarm of hornets, thudded into the heads and chests of creatures around him. The ground he stood on seemed wet with the incredible amount of blood that spread along it.
He was too shocked....too scared to move. His bow felt foreboding in his paws, and the quiver on his back seemed heavier. They were tools of death, and Harp wasn’t sure he liked death very much.
A rat and mouse were locked toe-to-toe, with their teeth gritted and their blades clanging together in a dance of life and death. In a swift cut, the mouse thrust his enemy’s blade aside and slashed his ankle. The rat screamed and stumbled clumsily, falling heavily to the ground. Beads of sweat formed on the vermin’s face as he tried to crawl to his weapon, lying inches away from his paw. The mouse, however, placed his footpaw on the rat’s back and ended his life with a heavy, downward thrust.
Harp could hear himself breathing heavily, and he felt all of his body weight drop to his feet. His balance felt all out of proportion. He could feel his own paws shivering violently and making the ground feel unsteady. Panic was slowly possessing the poor mouse.
A squirrel was crouched low, dragging his wounded friend behind him. The squirrel was bleeding from a deep cut that stretched all along the side of his face, from the base of his ear to his jaw. His friend was a mouse, screaming in pain and clutching a dark, red splotch on his uniform. His legs were kicking violently, trying to propel himself away from the action. Suddenly, a single arrow fell from the sky and skewered the wounded creature’s chest. The creature’s screams intensified, and he grabbed the arrow in a vise-like grip. He desperately tried to pull it out of his body, but stopped. He coughed, sending a fan of blood on the ground. The mouse flinched violently, and fell limp. The arrow had snuffed out his life. The squirrel who had dragged screamed and sobbed ravingly. He knelt beside his dead friend, cradling the mouse’s head and screaming his name over and over.
Harp felt sick. His own flesh felt clammy, cold, and wet with the incredible amount of sweat dripping off of his body. Everything seemed to go in slow motion, as if his mind was having trouble just taking it all in. Every scream, shout, and metallic clangs sounded distant. Every sense seemed to be malfunctioning. Even his own thoughts seemed unfamiliar. The little mouse was slowly falling into the dark realm of thoughtless terror.
A lone archer stood tall and unmoving, letting shafts fly into the ranks of vermin. The squirrel’s arms were a blur as she sent arrow after arrow into the eyes, chests, and heads of those around her. A weasel gurgled as an arrow thudded into his throat. A spray of blood emanated from the wound, and clouded the vermin’s last sight. A squirrel, grinning in grim satisfaction and already sending a shaft towards her next target.
A single rat, desperate to prove himself in the first battle, broke away from the ranks and ran headlong at the archer, holding his blade above his head and shouting a desperate warcry. Without breaking a step, the squirrel drew an arrow from her quiver, ducked the vermin’s clumsy swipe, and drove the arrow deep into his gut. Blood dripped down the shaft and stained the squirrel’s paw, but the result was gratifying. The rat’s final sight was similar to the weasel’s, the grim look of satisfaction on the squirrel’s face, a wave of red, then nothing.
Someone barged into Harp, and thrust him aside roughly. The little mouse’s balance failed him, and he fell heavily to the ground. He could only stare in dumb shock at the creature who had shoved him. It was a hedgehog, waving a bloodied axe aloft and charging recklessly into a group of weasels. He was unstoppable, slicing, chopping, dicing the vermin into bloody ribbons. To another soldier, it wold have been a victorious sight.
To Harp, it was something out of a nightmare.
The hedgehog’s weapon was dripping, and his uniform was stained with the blood of the slain. His eyes had a crazed look in them, glowing in a heated rage. Blood gathered at their corners, causing them to turn bloodshot and demonic. There was a thin line of red dribbling from the corner of the soldier’s mouth, mixed with a hint of foam.
Harp felt a yell bubbling in his chest. It was a slow, painful process as the scream traveled closer to his mouth. His ribs felt fit to burst with pain, and he was certain his heart would explode any second. His legs were weak and trembling, struggling to bear the weight of the beast they supported. Sweat poured down his face in thick streams.
Finally, it was too much for the little mouse. His knees buckled sharply, and he fell onto the ground. The small creature sniffled once, clasped his paws over his ears, and screamed. And screamed...and screamed....and screamed...
Garnett was lost in a storm. He recognized nothing and nobody. Where was Hip? Where was his squad? What happened, where is everybody?!
Over the chaos, Garnett craned his head, searching something, anything familiar. He only saw death. Soldiers, enemy and ally alike, lay dead or dying. Those still standing were either locked in a struggle of life and death, or standing still, confused and frightened.
Then Garnett heard a scream.
There were many screams, but this one sounded louder and more piercing. And somewhat familiar....
“EVERYBODY GET DOWN!!!”
His thoughts were interrupted by a cry from a soldier near him. A hedgehog stood wide-eyed, and pointing upwards. “HIT THE DECK, EVERYBODY!!”
Garnett heard the arrows before he saw them. They hissed angrily, like a swarm of wasps. The mouse looked up, right into the incoming eyes of hundreds of arrows.
“And that was the first time in the entire battle I got the feeling I was about to die.” the old mouse murmured.
Sorrel looked up curiously. “What makes you say that, sir?”
“It was the first time I felt truly helpless. I swear, even to this day, every single, darned arrow was aiming right at me. But I guess everybody felt like that...”
Garnett yelled out loud in terror and threw himself flat on the ground. All around him, his fellow soldiers did the same. Everyone’s eyes grew huge as they stared at the incoming arrows. It was like staring death in the face.
Then the arrows fell.
Garnett’s ears grew sore from all of the screams. Creatures wailed in agony and suffering as arrows stabbed deep into their bodies. One soldier, a mouse, grabbed his face and tried to scream as an arrow buried deep into the side of his cheek, but all that came out was blood. Garnett saw none of it.
His face was buried into the plain’s dry grass. And, although not a heavily religious creature, praying to himself in his head. “Oh please, Fates, make it stop! MAKE IT STOP!"