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start of week seven.

Chapter 96. Blood Will Have Blood

by Dànaidh

"He came at us, hard and quiet. You wouldn't know how close he was 'til he slid right past you, those slimy scales and hard muscle. You couldn't see him work—he was the color of the sky and the water, and bobbin' for a week with your fur burnin' off in clumps, shiverin' from sun fever and blind from the shimmerin' reflection, with your lips all blistered and broken open, dyin' for a drink while you're surrounded by water."

Garrison lit his pipe and brought it to his wrinkled mouth before continuing.

"He'd circle you for hours—days, it seemed—'til he was ready, and he'd move in and break the line, and somebeast would go under and bob back up a crimson corpse, or worse yet: they'd come back up frothin' and coughin' black blood while they screamed and bawled and cried out for their mothers.

"You'd watch that thin red ribbon zig-zag off a ways and disappear into the current, and you'd feel guilty to your heart bones because you were glad it wasn't you missin' a leg, or an arm, or maybe half your face…but you knew, you knew he was comin' back for you. You'd swear your life and honor and wife and children and sweetheart away, if he wouldn't get you, but you knew in your gut that you'd feel that slick slice as he tore into you with those jagged teeth of his, and you'd watch that pale eye go red in blood fury as he tasted the liquid of your life. You'd be scared to death and he'd bite harder, just to spite you, 'cause he could, and he liked you scared. That's how he got us.

"Forty-six of us went into the water, when that damned ship went down. There were five of us standin' on the shore the night that we caught and burned him. Nobeast said anythin' when we killed that pike. I got weak and careless in my excitement, and thought the worst was over. Just before dawn the thrashing woke us—all of us—and I stood there and cried like a whelp. The waters were filled with pike, all sizes and colors, leapin' and bitin' and devourin' every other fish and seabird unlucky enough to get caught in their crooked jaws. The smell…blood and bones washed up on that sand until after noon."

Garrison snorted and licked his lips, lowering the paring knife he held in his aged paws. He held up a carved figurine of a whipping pike and gave it to the trembling paws of a young rat, which shrieked in excitement and scampered off with her new toy to show her friends, her gigantic bow bobbing atop her head. Garrison chuckled in small clouds and folded his paws in his lap.

"Don't stop now, Robert!" came a cry from the gathered crowd. "How'd you get away from those fish?"

"Tell us!" another encouraged. Garrison nodded in reply, holding the rounded end of his pipe as tendrils of smoke escaped between his teeth.

The door to the tavern burst open and slammed against the wall with a tremendous crash. A gust of warm air blew through the room, killing a few candle flames and shooing a cloud of smoke escaping from Garrison's pipe backwards into his eyes. A few newborns burst into frightened sobs at the sudden interruption, and their mothers turned their angry gazes to the doorway, ready to cut down whatever beast dared upset their children.

Dànaidh a'Sginnearach stood in the tavern's doorway, a dark, sinewy outline accented with dozens of points in stark contrast to the eerie, green moonlight bleeding across the horizon. One paw held the walking stick parallel to the ground, which he'd used to punch the tavern door open; the other paw held the strap of the knapsack slung diagonal across his chest. He stepped inside the tavern, greeted by blank stares and silence.

"Evenin'," he said. He smiled and cast a cordial wave to the assorted creatures gathered around Garrison's rocking chair. Garrison bit on his pipe and frowned.

"Odd evenin' for a hedge'og to be travelin'," the old weasel spat.

"Aye," Dànaidh said, walking towards the bar. "I've nae far tae go; I'm headed fer th' abbey, but I'm frightful thirsty."

"Something for the traveler, then," the stoat behind the bar nodded, gesturing to an empty stool. "What will you have tonight, my spine-backed friend?"

"Have a glass o' stout?" Dànaidh removed the knapsack from his shoulder and laid it on the empty stool next to him, leaning the walking stick against the lower front of the bar, by his footpaws.

"Naturally," the stoat said. "In Walkin's Tavern, you get what you ask for." He flashed a goofy grin as he slid a filled glass to Dànaidh. "Cross my heart."

"Mmm?" Dànaidh hummed, swallowing a third of the glass's contents.

"It's what I say," the stoat explained. "My business motto…catch of phrase…and hopefully it's memorable enough for these drunken miscreants"—Walkin winked at the dispersing group that laughed at his description of them—"that they'll remember what tavern has class."

Dànaidh lowered his glass. "Jus' as lang as th' liquor flows, I'm happy."

Walkin bowed slightly to the hedgehog. "Down the hatch, then." He held out a paw. "Five copper."

Dànaidh drained the contents of the glass and dropped it heavily against the bar. He reached down into his pocket and pulled out a silver coin, tossing it into Walkin's paw. The stoat twirled the coin, pulling it close to his eye as he squinted and inspected it, then promptly stuck it in his jaw and bit on it. He moved his tongue about, considering the taste, and smiled.

"I'm afraid I can't make change with this…yet…" Walkin said, reaching below the bar for a small notebook. "But I can offer you a voucher—"

"Is that blackroot?" Dànaidh asked, pointing to a large hurricane jar full of gnarled black stalks.

Walkin's countenance fell. "It is," he said, tossing the pad onto the bar next to Dànaidh's paw. "You inclined?"

Dànaidh gestured for the jar with both paws. "Refill th' gless 'n' bring me that."

Walkin shook his head as he lifted the jar and placed it in front of Dànaidh. "They're one for six, or two for ten."

"I'll take it," Dànaidh said, wrapping his paws around the jar. His eyes glistened as he bobbed to and fro, inspecting the rich collection of the addictive plant.

Walkin gawked. "What—the whole jar?" His lower jaw dropped more than he intended.

"Name yer price," Dànaidh said, giving Walkin a dark glare.

Walkin rubbed at his square chin, then snapped a paw. "Six—no, seven gold."

Dànaidh whistled through his teeth. "Seven gold?" He stared at the jar and its ebony contents, turning it slowly with both paws. "Four gold."

"What, is this a debate? Six gold—my initial price. Not a coin less." Walkin folded his arms.

Dànaidh stooped down to the knapsack and fished around for the drawstrings of the purse. As he did, he raised his head and saw some of the assorted tavern dwellers approaching him at an easy pace. Their frowns and snarls told him he wasn't a welcomed visitor. He found the familiar fabric of the purse, withdrew a pawful of coins and counted out six gold, laying them on the bar.

"Sold," Dànaidh said. "Noo, where's mah draft?"

Walkin's left paw descended on the pile of gold coins like a hawk on a salmon, and it disappeared into the dark recesses of his pocket before Dànaidh could blink. His right paw snatched Dànaidh's empty glass and refilled it with the caramel-colored liquid. "Anything else? Something to eat, maybe?"

"I'll sit aboot it," Dànaidh said, wrapping an arm around the jar as he stood from the stool. He took his glass with the other and walked over to a series of tables to the left of the bar. At the nearest table, a squirrel, mouse and badger sat huddled around a crudely drawn map of an unfamiliar terrain. Miniature metallic versions of themselves bearing heavy weaponry stood opposite strange statuettes of demons, vile creatures and reptiles. The squirrel twitched his whiskers and followed Dànaidh with his eyes.

"Do I notice anything special about the stranger?" he asked the mouse.

"What's your perception?" the mouse asked, rolling an odd-shaped die with more than six sides.

The squirrel glanced at the parchment in front of him. "Fourteen," he answered.

The mouse pondered over the result of the die roll and the squirrel's response before stating: "You notice he's hefting a jar of blackroot and carrying his second tankard with him."

"Is he a threat?" the badger asked in a surprisingly high-pitched voice.

The mouse rolled the die again. "No," he said quickly.

Dànaidh snorted and fell into a chair at an unoccupied table. He pried the lid off the jar and removed a solitary twist of blackroot. He smacked his lips before biting into the gnarled root and nesting it at the side of his mouth.

Fortuosity…

Dànaidh's irises shrank to pin heads as the bitter juice ran through his veins. Grains of dust exploded into multi-colored mountains and twirls of candy clouds, while his horizon pitched and yawed like an angry ocean. It rose higher and higher in front of him, a flat two-dimensional tsunami of perception that teetered at its staggering, grotesque height and suddenly crashed down on top of him with the tremendous thunder of silence. Splashes of optical illusions dripped and bubbled across the stark blackness, and suddenly a familiar chorus, greasy and moist, with sharp tendrils scooping for his naked mind.

'Sweetheart…we're home.'

The yellowed clouds soaked his vision, and Dànaidh fell beyond The Edge and disappeared into The Haze. His body sat unmoving in the tavern, cracking a stupid grin and leaking black drool down the side of his chin. The sharp sound of something breaking tugged him back to his chair, and he jolted and banged his knees against the bottom of the table.

"Goodness!" came a cry behind him. Dànaidh turned and saw an attractive young weaselmaid in a flattering gown smiling at him.

"Hello," Dànaidh said, smiling as he rapidly rubbed the pain out of his throbbing legs.

The weaselmaid made a face. "Are you going to ask me to join you?" she said.

Dànaidh balked, leaping to his footpaws and banging his knees again. "Aye!" he winced, giving his best combination of a smile and a grimace.

The weaselmaid winked. "Are you sure?"

"Aye," Dànaidh repeated, stepping away from the table and pulling out the chair adjacent to his own. "Please."

"Thank you," she said, smiling. She sat down and Dànaidh pushed her into the table with one shove, knocking the wind out of her body.

"Oh!" Dànaidh chuckled, scooting her chair back as she wheezed and turned blue, her eyes bulging in her sockets. "Are ye okay?"

The weaselmaid shook her head, pounding on her chest bone as she gasped for air.

"Nae tae worry," Dànaidh said, laughing. "You'll be all right." He chewed on his blackroot and pointed to himself. "Mah name's Dànaidh."

The weaselmaid coughed and rasped, grabbed Dànaidh's glass and drank two-thirds in a single swallow. She lowered the glass and sighed in contentment, foam decorating the top of her lip.

"Cor!" Dànaidh chided, grabbing his glass back. He frowned at the miniscule amount of liquid swishing at the bottom of the glass.

"Thanks, cutie," the weaselmaid said with a smile, wiping her mouth with the back of a paw. "Put it on my tab."

"On yer…?" Dànaidh shook his head and smiled. "Yer bonny brave, ye know?"

The weaselmaid looked him up and down. "You don't look so tough," she said.

Dànaidh smirked. "I can be."

"Sure." She rolled her eyes. "So, you said your name was…?"

"Dànaidh." He offered a paw.

She took his paw and squeezed hard. "Pleased to meet you! I'm Willowtai—'ellgates!"

Dànaidh tugged her close, aiming his lips for her own. She ducked her head off to the side, allowing Dànaidh's intended kiss to dawdle unanswered. She grit her teeth and ground her paw into the side of his jaw. He saw the punch coming—The Haze told him to deflect, twist and snap—but this was different. She wasn't touching him to bestow some feminine wisdom, or make him feel 'appreciated'; she was attacking him, inviting combat! He heard his laugh echo through The Haze and allowed the weaselmaid's punch to land true. He scowled as it scored, allowing the momentum of the punch to carry his head toward the edge of the table. He was impressed with how hard she hit, and he tasted a fresh spat of blood from inside his cheek along with a fresh rush of blackroot juice as he bit down and swallowed a large piece of the twig. When she swung for a follow-up hit, he spun his own head about and caught her paw mid-throw.

'Snap it,' The Haze jeered.

"There, noo," Dànaidh said, holding her fast while she spat and struggled like a pet tornado. "Ye'v git a strong swing."

"And you've got no manners!" she cried, biting at his nose. She growled quietly to herself and ceased her struggling, realizing she wouldn't be able to release herself. "I should've known…you males are all the same."

"What, roguishly handsome 'n' patient wi' mindless females 'n' thair nonsense?" He flashed a friendly smile and laughed as Willowtail erupted in a fresh bout of hissing, growling and cursing.

"Let me go!" she said at last, heaving a deep sigh. "You've had your fun…I'm not worth any extra effort."

"Pshaw!" Dànaidh scoffed, releasing Willowtail's paw. "I'm only pokin', lass. Dinna take it tae heart."

Willowtail rubbed at her wrist as she stared into Dànaidh's eyes. "At least you're being honest," she said.

Dànaidh nodded and looked over his shoulder, wondering what she saw in his Haze-encrusted reflection. He whistled through his teeth. "Ay! A refill over 'ere."

CRACK! Something hard snapped in the tavern. Walkin grabbed a pitcher and strolled over to the table, refilling the glass and asking pages of questions of Willowtail with his eyes. Dànaidh chewed on the remaining stub of blackroot as Willowtail helped herself to another swallow from Dànaidh's drink.

"Hungry?" Dànaidh asked.

"Not yet," Willowtail said, brushing a stray strand out of her eyes. Her tail swished lazily through the back of the chair. She lowered her voice. "Lonely?"

Dànaidh drew the glass back to himself. Their eyes locked.

"Always," he said.

Willowtail rose slowly, bending one of her legs at the knee, revealing a long slit up the side of the gown's skirt.

"Tell me how much you have, and I'll tell you how long you have me." A stray paw traced the bare fur at her thigh.

SNAP! Another thin crack echoed in the tavern.

Dànaidh's eyes darted left.

Tack. Tack. Tack. Tack.

Dànaidh's eyes scanned to the right.

CRISH!

His jaw tightened and his eyes narrowed.

Tack. Tack. Tack. Tack.

He rose slowly to his footpaws, staring at the other tavern patrons. Willowtail smiled at the hedgehog's ascension.

"Well, you are handsome," she said, "even if you're a brute." She took his paw in hers.

CRACK! SNAP!

Dànaidh squeezed her paw and dared a brief smile to Willowtail before looking back into the heart of the tavern, his face losing every hint of friendliness. He dropped her paw and stepped around the table towards the bar.

"Stay 'ere," he warned. She nodded in confusion to his back.

As he approached the bar, Dànaidh noticed many of the patrons had grabbed stalks of celery, carrots and thin, cheaply-fried bread and were snapping them and knocking them against table tops and arm rests, cruel lines of anger and hatred wrapped around their faces as more joined their breaking chorus. Five young males of assorted species were approaching the bar, flexing their paws, unbuttoning their shirts or grabbing brooms and chairs. Dànaidh folded his arms on the bar and leaned forward on them, nodding to Walkin.

"Scum-bate!" one of the approachers called out. "I'm gonna hit you so hard, you'll forget how ugly you really are. Me'n the boys here enjoy whoopin' on little guys like you, an' when you feel this here hit, you're—"

Dànaidh lashed out twice, striking the ferret between the eyes and slamming his forehead against the bar. He dropped the body and stared darkly at the four others surrounding him.

"If ye'r goan tae hit me, hit me!" he said, beckoning them forward. "Dinna gab aboot it!"

"I thought you said he wasn't a threat!" the young badger squealed to the mouse as their quartet ducked beneath a table.