The Pit and Where It Leads
World of Many Sorrows
Drangar the fox was in a foul temper. His slaver band had been cut down from thirty to barely over twenty sometime in the night. And nobeast knew exactly why. The sentry's account was no good--it was obvious that the idiot was lying, having slept through his watch.
It wasn't so much that he knew his beasts were dead, it was that they were just gone. Vanished. The last time he'd seen them was last night, sharing warm ale over the fire in celebration of getting a new batch of five mouse slaves in a raid. Now eight of his foxes were missing.
The huge fox let out a sigh and drained another flagon of ale, gone cold now. He could see two of his number bumbling up from the woods below the hill they were camped on, and they were white as sheets. Drangar curled his lip back in a snarl.
"Don't tell me ya can't find 'em, ya stupid muckears!" he hurled the insult at them. The two stopped and shuffled, afraid to meet their master's eyes, "Well?! What'd ya find?"
"We...we found 'em, Chief..."
"Or what kinda looks like 'em."
Drangar raised an eyebrow questioningly.
"Dead, eh?" he growled and took another pull of ale, "From what? Or did somebeast knock 'em off?"
"You'd... you'd better just come an' look, Chief," the foxes cowered as Drangar stood to his full enormous height.
"Lead me to 'em then, scurvy pups," he stepped on one's tailbrush as he turned around. "When I say, stupid worm. Did ya hear me say go, eh?" He snatched the much smaller fox up by his scruff and shook him, "Eh?! Ya hear me say go?"
Drangar dropped his victim, then kicked him to the side as the other slaver hustled off to lead his master to the discovery.
A short trek through the woodlands brought them into a boulder field, a place where many pieces of peach and rose-hued bedrock came jutting through the surface of the earth. Drangar looked around impatiently, then kicked the fox slaver in the footpaw.
"Well?!" he said, and the other fox cowered behind a stone, "Where are they then? I ain't pickin' through all this rock mess!"
"Ya don't 'ave to, sire." The fox's voice shook, pointing a claw just beyond a large sycamore tree betwixt two smaller stones, "They're just beyond there..."
Drangar eyed his subordinate suspiciously, wondering why he seemed so reluctant to return to the scene. His slavers weren't bothered by blood or bodies of slain beasts, they'd made so many. Huffing, the big fox stomped off, rounding the bend and coming around the tree.
What he saw made even a hardened monster as himself gasp and draw back.
There were the eight foxes, strewn about the stones and forest debris as if a windstorm had thrown them about. One was even halfway in the lower branches of a blackthorn. All of the creature's faces and limbs were swollen to nearly twice their normal size, and made even more grotesque by the waxy purple and blue sheen covering them. Drangar was at a loss for an explanation for nearly two minutes as he stared at the carnage. He felt the shivering fox come up beside him before he saw him.
"What coulda done this?!" the large fox turned to his crony, "This some kinda magic ya know about?"
"N-nay, not magic, sire..." the little fox padded up gingerly beside one of the nearest bodies and lifted a pike from beside him. The weapon was splintered and snapped like green wood, ruined in three different places. There was a faint tinge of blood crimsoning the blade. "This looks l-like a great poisontooth got to 'em..."
"Poisontooth?" Drangar recoiled, wheeling about and drawing his dagger, "Close by?! Why didn't nobeast tell me there was poisontooth adders in these woods?!"
"Eh... We thought you already knowed, sire--gack!" The slaver master snatched the unfortunate fox up by the throat and shook him.
"Stupid idgit!" He flung him down, "Never think you can know nothin' about Drangar! If I'da know about th' poisonteeth around here, I'dve never come! Addlebrain!" The fox kicked out again, scoring a hit to the bewildered lackey's shoulder, "Next time we come into an area, don't ya dare withhold information from me! Or you'll be as dead as them, just in more pieces!"
Crawling away from his master's wrath on all fours, the fox fled the boulder field whimpering. Drangar sighed as he left, his colossal temper sated, for now. He glared down at the body of the dogfox nearest him, curling his lip up.
"Hunh!" He kicked the body, sending a chipped dagger from its stiffened paws. "Idgit. Imagine gettin' killed by a stinkin' serpent with seven mates t' back ya up. If it were me, I'da had a new snakeskin tunic afore sundown!" He turned, trying not to show how hard he was trembling, as he bragged on, "Aye, I'd send that scaly bastard straight t' Hellgates where 'e belongs. An' I'll kill 'is brood too, fer messin' with me crew! I'll rip their hearts out an' make th' cold-eyed blighters watch me foxes eat 'em!"
"For the last time, Jobin, you are not coming with me!"
The otter leaning on a javelin merely chuckled and shook his head.
"Oh, right, I get ya." He winked, "I'm not comin' witcha, okay."
"I mean it, soggyrudder," Dria fought hard to keep a stern face as she turned to him again, "You are not coming out of these walls with me. I am the only one needed and I am the only one who will go."
Jobin scratched an ear and grinned. He slung the javelin over his back and knotted it there with a thin cord so it would stay there until he needed it.
"Actually, Abbess Benewyn says I'm supposed t' go with you in case there's trouble." He rushed forward and gave the mousemaid a dramatic hug, dipping her and ignoring her squeaking protest, "Whatever would we all do, beautiful Sister Dria, is you were t' slip and sprain yore lovely paws whilst trekking in those fateful dark woodlands? Nay, my dear, I'll save ye."
"Great," Dria grumbled as she found her way upright and shoved the otter playfully, "You know, I liked you when you were a Dibbun."
Jobin ignored her and reached into his pocket, pulling out a candied chestnut. Dria eyed him meaningfully, and Jobin hid it behind his back.
"I didn't steal it! Friar said I could 'ave it."
"Did he now?" Dria muttered, striding along at a pace she hoped would be a bit too much for the otter escort, "Wasn't it last week he said if you ever come near his kitchens again he'd, what was it? 'Strip th' fur off of yore flappy tail until it turns blue'?"
Jobin laughed joyfully at the memory, popping the chestnut in his mouth. "Yah, it was somethin' like that. I forget."
"That's yore problem," Dria muttered under her breath.
"Didn't say anythin'."
The pair made a great deal of progress heading north along the broad path that ran beside the Abbey, leaving the side of the expansive flatlands before noontide and entering the shady woodland portion of the path as it wound relentlessly northward. Dria stopped and sat upon a stone, unstopping a canteen and sipping at cool mint tea that she had packed for herself. Jobin scurried about, full of endless energy. He scoffed pilfered candies by the pawful between somersaults and tree-climbings.
"Where's this ole owl duffer supposed t' be, anyway?" Jobin hung from an oak branch by his legs. Watching him intensely and imagining him falling painfully, Dria winced and returned her canteen to her shoulder satchel.
"Just north of Skeleton Rocks, I told you that when we left." she snipped. Jobin released his hold from the tree and flipped in the air, landing perfectly with hardly a stumble.
"Oh, okay. I forgot th' first time." The otter grinned.
"Let's get going," the mousemaid shook her head at the foolish beast's easy attitude. "I need to find some sanicle and yarrow before we press on. Shout if you see any, but for all mercy don't touch it. I'll do all the herb gathering, thank you."
"Okay," the otter picked at his claws, "Hmm, it's almost like you don't trust me!"
"Almost!" Dria forced a smile.
They broke the pattern of following the broad dusty path, maneuvering much more slowly through the foliage of Mossflower in its prime season. The two could hear, but not see, myriad species of birds conversing in their strange, melodious tongues above them, with the occasional distant cry of a rook or jay. The verdant leaves seemed to glow light green, and toadflax flowers lined their way as they began climbing a shallow hill towards the reddish forms of the edge of Skeleton Rocks.
Long ago, some Abbeybeasts had named them, but by now the reason was long forgotten. They did know, however, that it was something to do with Abbess Tansy, first and so far only hedgehog abbess. Dria swept sweat-clinged headfur out of her eyes and was forced to seat herself upon a small sandstone rock as the incline took its toll on her not-quite-young bones.
"Let's just wait here a bit, Jobin," she panted roughly, seeking her canteen again, "I'm really not used to all this..."
"What? What for?" the otter turned and leaned against a hawthorne, "I'm not tired. You tired, Dria? My, getting old must be a harsh thing... Yow!"
The karmic cycle of insult completed itself as the otter leaned a bit too hard on the hawthorne tree, one of the species's notoriously nasty thorns piercing his pawpad. Dria smirked slightly as he hopped about, clutching the minor injury and cursing like a sailor.
"My, my," she took a sip of water at her leisure, "How well we've raised you."
Light had come, and Sempera had yet to find cover. Her wound was not grievous; the power of serpents to resist infection was legendary. But it was painful, dogging her every movement, slowing her to an agonizing crawl. The gash in her side was as if the aggressor, that fox, had never left and was continuing in his quest to make her last hours living hell.
The adder had no choice but to move away from the redstone field and its inviting warmth; the foxes were there, creeping among the rocks with steel weapons that could pierce her armored scales. And they weren't just foxes. Sempera was considered a good judge of character by her peers, other serpents. She sensed great evil in them, a willingness to do harm.
Or, even worse in her mind, a lack of willingness to resist doing harm. Such apathy was the seed of all wickedness.
Tremors lit up her senses. In her mind's eye an image formed. Two beasts, one great in size, the other diminutive, were approaching, but not directly. They were moving more parallel to her, lying in her quivering agony on the forest floor with a slit opened in her back almost dead center of her great length. Her beautiful patterns would be forever marred by the action of that single pikeblade.
"Thhssss..." she let out a heavy breath, the air hissing through her wide reptilian lips. A twinge of fear poked at her heart like a sword; would the foxes return in greater numbers? She had barely fended off the eight of them when they ambushed her in her nightly hunt. Now injured, she would not fare well against even more enemies.
She forced her protesting muscles forward, curling herself into a spiral on the lee side of some stones and setting her great wedge-shaped head atop one. Her moon-like eyes scanned the forest floor down the slight slope. Her vision was not so keen in the daytime. She could make out some movement in the distance, amongst the alder and oak, but not much else. Her tongue flipped out for reassurance.
Well, these weren't the foxes, or even foxes at all. One was an otter, still a rather dangerous and unpredictable beast to be around for any adder. They were aggressive to any snake who found themselves in a riverdog's shadow, and woe to any hunting snake who by the raw deal of chance had targeted the friend of an otter. No, Sempera thought darkly, it doesn't matter if the otter is a friend. They attack whether it is stranger or comrade under threat. And there was little chance of mercy from an otter either--more than once she'd seen siblings, friends, mates even, dispatched by snarling otters who called them at last "rotten reptiles" or "cold-hearted slimers".
The scent of the other, smaller creature would have been calming by itself. A mouse, alone, was no danger to a wounded snake. But with the otter... That gave Sempera cause to worry. Would this otter copy the formula of all other otters she had seen, and pit himself against the adder on sight, out of a will to "protect" the small one? Sempera twitched her tail uneasily, forgetting for a moment that the motion would send fires of pain all through her body.
The mouse scent seemed familiar. Sempera never forgot a face (or a scent), and this one she felt she had encountered before.
"Bold little mousssse..." she mused, the faint vestige of a nostalgic smile hovered on Sempera's broad mouth. It had been over eight seasons, but she remembered vividly the time a small mousemaid broke into her den and stood up to her inquisitive stares. That pine branch! It was no kind of weapon to have a hope against an adder with. The very thought tickled the snake's fancy.
Distracted, she hardly noticed the pricking claws lighting on her back, just above her wound.
Sempera felt a sharp conical beak dig into her flesh like a nail through wood. Her mouth gasping open in the shock of pain, she rounded like a whiplash, the sparrow fighter's dumbstruck face rushing towards her in a blur as she struck out in her own defense.
A quick jab of the fangs, venom or no venom, was all it took to dissuade the bird for the moment. Sempera had chosen to keep her strike light, careful not to stimulate the venom glands if she did not yet need to. There was very little chance the sparrow would know of this ability. It would very likely believe itself soon to die, and fly off in a panic.
The bird staggered backwards over a log, falling on its back and flailing wings with harsh cheeping cries. There were suddenly more sparrows, clouds of them, swarming like bees. All of them chanted the same brutish syllables:
Sempera recoiled her powerful neck back in fear, but the illusion of menace around this movement was ingrained in the minds of the equally terror-fueled birds. They perched upon the ground then fluttered up, flying all around Sempera but not coming within her striking distance. Their incensed war cries filled the air, and Sempera's hidden ears throbbed. She waited patiently, helped along by the numb shock of being attacked a second time to stay quiet and still.
Two sparrows, younger than the others and full of reckless bravery, puffed out their breast feathers and stalked a Sparra war dance on the ground in front of her. Then, one after the other, they charged, flitting into her face and pecking maliciously with short, dagger-like beaks. Sempera thrashed her head from side to side to dislodge them. One flew off under one mighty heave and crashed into a alder bough. The other clung doggedly to her chin, trying to tear the serpent's eye out but being hindered by the hard, shiny fixed eyelid that protected it like the beaver of a steel helm.
Growling out a mixture of scream, hiss, and rasping whine, Sempera lashed out with heavy coils, feeling the pinch and tear that such movement caused her open back and the merciless stings of two dozen sparrows as they descended on her.
"Did you hear somethin'?" Dria looked up suddenly, cocking an ear to the wind. She had paused mid-trudge up the hill. Jobin waved a paw carelessly and continued on.
"Probably just some starlings fighting over a worm..."
"So it sounded like birds to you too?" Dria glanced over to him sharply, bracing her footpaws against the sliding scree and facing the eastern woodlands. The otter shrugged.
"I dunno. Been hearin' birds all mornin'," he said, "Why should a few more be anythin' but normal?"
"I don't know!" Dria snapped, pursing her lips and staring at the ground with her ears swiveling slightly, "I still hear it! It sounds like fighting and... something awful, like a wounded... something."
A blood-chilling noise, like roar and scraping steel combined with an anguished scream, rent the air. Dria and Jobin both went stock-still with fright. Their eyes both shot straight to the same patch of woodland, slightly downslope and east of them.
"What in fur an' webs was... Dria! Where d'you think yore goin'?" Jobin cried out. The mousemaid was not listening. She pelted down the hill, skidding and sliding on banks of leaf litter, toward the sounds of the intense struggle.
She realized with an inward curse that she had not brought the Abbey Sister's signature weapon, a simple ash staff, with her. Tripping, she fell paws-first into another deep drift of oak leaves and pine needles. He paw sunk in, and connected with a hard, bone-smooth object. She drew it out.
A pine branch, worn by sun and seasons and harder that the wood of a spear haft.
Something about the scene felt very familiar.
Standing, she hitched up her troublesome habit and sprinted to the short drop-off. All the terrible din was coming from behind there. Stepping off, she leaped, landing on three paws in deep needle piles, the branch held clear. She stood again, her eyes widening at the surreal sight.
Thicker than the oak or the alder, the armored coils of olive green, shiny black, and a few patches of purest white thrashed about, churning like the waves of the sea. A glimpse of red sickened the mousemaid--she had thought she would never have to take in the sight of blood being spilled again. More and more little stars of red began decorating the scaly hide of the distressed serpent, caused by the razor beaks of a flock of determined sparrows buzzing around the adder. Dria was frozen for a moment. Neither side of the bloody forest war had noticed her yet. The pine branch hung loose in her paw.
CLIFFHANGER TIME! WAHAHAHAHA! Please remember to review!