They followed the bear for six days deeper and deeper into the woods, to where the boughs of ancient trees grew interlaced with one another, turning the light of day into a hazy green overcast beneath the canopy. The morning dew never seemed to completely dry from their fur, though fortunately the ground wasn’t so marshy that they couldn’t keep up with the bear.
And water was plentiful, coming from little rivulets that crisscrossed the floor of the forest. Food was a little harder to come by, although Zeke came in handy whenever they came across questionable mushrooms, and his bright eyes and little hands made for quick foraging on the move.
The rain had been gone for two days, but Rusty kept her hat pulled down. Though she fully expected to come out of the expedition with another hit song, tracking meant she couldn’t play her lute, which put her out of sorts. She didn’t smile much, or speak unless spoken to.
Simon didn’t like the woods, feeling far too ungainly for maneuvering over roots and under lower branches. Most of all, he didn’t like the limited visibility. The Tallgrass family was used to seeing for miles off. Having trees cut off his view every few feet made him reconsider the venture more—more so than the equipment bending his back every day.
Only Thane seemed unaffected by the journey; in fact it seemed every trace left by the bear energized him. It was well known in Armello that the wolf prince was always spoiling for a fight, but few knew about his delight in tracking, taught to him as a pup. Though of course his enthusiasm sharpened considerably when there was a possibility of a fight at the end of the trail.
The bear’s scent led into a dark tunnel. Thane halted them and they pressed together on one side of the entrance so they wouldn’t be silhouetted against the brighter light aboveground.
Crouching low, Thane sniffed the rocks. The bear had gone through the tunnel, that was for certain. What’s more, given the size of the bear against the tunnel mouth, he would have had to have gone in on all fours and with his war staff on his back.
Maybe not the worst place to encounter the brute, thought Thane, though I’d like it better if I knew how wide this tunnel got!
Thane turned and tapped the possum on the shoulder. He motioned Zeke inside. The possum jumped.
“Why me?” he whispered.
“Better night vision.”
Thane gave him a little push. Stifling a groan, Zeke went to all fours and scuttled inside. Rusty went next, but only after Thane motioned chop-chop! She slinked inside, her flame-red tail disappearing into the tunnel dark without a sound.
Simon looked at Thane, wondering who would be last.
“Go on,” whispered Thane. “I’ll be the rear guard.”
Even on all fours, Simon had to scrunch tight to fit in, and even then, he had to mince forward in idiotic little steps to get anywhere. He followed the leather scent of Rusty’s lute case in the dark, trusting that the vixen was following Zeke’s trail. Only the feeling of a little warm breath on his tail told Simon that Thane was behind him.
The pack scooted through the dark. The ground beneath them descended, and for a while Simon feared they would wind up in one of the underground stone caves of Armello, home to plenty of venomous creatures he didn’t want to meet in the dark. He could have sworn he smelled the distant smell of Rot and wet stone, but the bottom of the tunnel began to rise again as though the tunnel had been dug in a U-shape.
Simon blinked. He could make out the dark shape of Rusty’s lute case against the clothes on her back, which he hadn’t been able to do before. As he caterpillared forward, the light grew brighter and the air fresher—
Screaming broke out ahead. Rusty’s tail bristled, filling Simon’s entire view.
“What was that?” hissed Thane, but Simon couldn’t answer; Rusty was already darting ahead and he struggled to keep up.
He burst out into the green light, Thane at his heels. Their eyes adjusted, showing Zeke dangling from the paw of the massive warcaster bear.
“Wheek! Wheek!” cried the possum. The acorns in his pockets from this morning’s collecting had fallen out and were scattered about the ground beneath them. His tail whipped around, swatting the bear, but he may as well have been a gnat, for all the notice the bear took.
“Unhand my praegustator!” said Thane. He drew himself to his full height. “Unhand him at once or I shall best you at single combat!”
Rusty and Simon looked on, eyes wide. The bear stood two heads taller than Thane, and was three times as broad.
The bear’s voice rumbled forth, smooth as black honey, deep as boulders rolling. “Who are you and why have you been following me?”
“Tell me your name first!”
The bear sighed. “No.”
“Then I shall not yield my name! You hold in your paw a member of my pack!”
The bear scoffed. “A possum, a fox, and a false-fox on stilts. You pick odd packmates, little pup.”
“Nevertheless, I am in charge of them and they mean no harm to you. Unhand him so we may talk.”
“Of your mission to the druids.”
The bear glowered. “Is that what you think I’m doing.” He lowered Zeke as an afterthought. The possum fled behind Rusty’s tail, still puffed up to twice its normal size.
“Yes,” said Thane. His itchy paw dropped from his sword’s hilt to his side. It still itched. “That’s what the red berries and the new flint and the amulet are for—to curry favor, I’d wager?”
“You have keen eyes, little pup. But you’d lose your wager.”
“So what are you doing?”
“Nothing that concerns you, little pup. Go back to your towns and battle where everyone can see you. You’ll win no acclaim interfering in my business.”
At this remark, the wolf’s ears flexed back. “I need no acclaim from you!”
The bear looked at him. “Then why do you fight?”
Thane couldn’t answer.
“Humph. You conquer banes for the song and drink and praise of Armello. My people fight the horrors in the woods, where no one sees but the finches and the ancient oaks. Go home, little pup. Tell them you fought something in the woods, and lick up their adoration. Let the real warriors heal the Wyld.”
Thane’s temper had been building—until that last word. He frowned, puzzled. “What’s the Wyld got to do with the banes?”
“Nothing,” said a new voice.
Thane’s itchy paw drew his sword while the whole pack jumped. All the bear did was turn his head.
An old, hairless rat in red robes and a mask stepped out from the deep shadows beneath the trees. His eyes were blank white, but he did not move as if he were blind, though the frequent wriggling of his whiskers may have had something to do with that.
“Hello…friends.” He gave them a yellow-toothed smile.
“How long have you been there?” asked Rusty. She turned to her companions. “Could any of you smell him?”
Simon shook his head.
“Can’t smell him now,” said the possum, peeping over her tail.
At the sound of the vixen’s voice, the rat beamed with delight. “Is that the famous bard Rusty I hear?”
“Y…yes,” said Rusty, slowly reaching for her lute case. In a pinch, it could do as a weapon.
The rat squeaked. “If I had known you were coming—but, ah, fate is fickle. Do you take requests? It’s been ages since I heard ‘My Silken-Whiskered Sunshine of Armello.’”
Rusty’s tail dropped. “That’s a one-hit wonder from about a century ago. Even by standard standards, that’s…ancient.”
The rat blinked. He scratched his ear. “You think? It was popular when I was young. Well, let’s call it a classic.” He winked one unseeing eye. Rusty shuddered.
Thane jumped between them, sword raised. “Enough! Leave my promoter alone, or I’ll cut you down where you stand!”
The bear put his massive paw over Thane’s and squeezed.
“He is here to meet me. Now go.”
“Yes,” said the rat, “our business is priv—” He broke off, staring into the air. His whole body began to shiver and his eyelids fluttered.
“Is he all right?” the possum asked.
Paws still trapped in the bear’s grip, Thane bared his teeth at the warcaster. “What’s this tomfoolery?”
The bear snorted. “How should I know?”
“He’s your rat!”
“I just met him! He sent word to the council that he needed a bear. They sent me.”
Simon pushed aside his fear and crept towards the rat. He poked his cheek with a brown paw. The rat didn’t respond.
“He’s not cold,” said the maned wolf.
“Is he under a spell?” asked Thane.
“No,” said the bear. “There’s no Wyld power upon him. Or Rot, for that matter.” He released Thane and pulled out a pouch. He rolled a couple of red berries into his paw, careful not to gouge them with his long claws.
“Are those all red berries?” said Thane.
The bear gave him a look. “So Wolf Clan’s spies are better at tracking than their royal family. Huh.”
Thane’s tail puffed.
“Calm yourself, pup. Yes, they are all red. Maybe they will revive him.”
Zeke sniffed the air. “But those are just currants!”
The bear lumbered over to the rat. “I will try it.” He pushed Simon aside. But before he could wave the berries under the rodent’s nose, the rat blinked hard, sneezed, then shook himself. Simon loped away in a hurry.
The rat’s head swiveled until he scented the berries.
“Ah! Thank you, Brun.” He felt around in the bear’s palm and, finding the currants, popped them into his mouth. “Did you bring the rest?” he asked through a full mouth.
“…Yes,” answered the bear. He handed it over. The pack watched as the rat gobbled them down.
“Refreshing! Just as was foretold!” The rat finished the last of the currants and offered the pouch back to the empty air. The bear stared at him a moment before he took it back.
“I was mistaken,” said the rat, wiping his mouth. “Thane and his company may stay.”
“What?” said the bear. “Your message to the council said to come alone!”
“It did. And you continue to be a highly valued member of the team. But, well…it’s always good to have backup, isn’t it?”
“How did you know my name?” asked Thane.
The rat startled. Then grinned. “Who doesn’t know of Thane Greymane, slayer of banes and prince of the wolves?”
“Some arrogant rabbit, I suppose, down in one of their gilded holes,” muttered the wolf.
“Precisely. As for the rest of the civilized world, well—your songs precede you.” He turned to Rusty. “And they are catchy!”
Simon slunk to Thane’s side.
“Shh! Let’s hear him out!”
“My fine ursine, marsupial, canine, vulpine, and golden dog, I—you—we have been gathered together today to save lives in the village of Houndsmouth. For lo, soon a terror will be upon us, the likes of which has never been—”
“A terror?” said Rusty. “Likely to be one you’ve conjured!”
“You heard the bear. There’s no scent of Wyld or Rot on me.”
“You don’t got no scent at all!” said the possum.
“Indeed. Rot scent would show up on me like skunk stink, wouldn’t it, my fine sir?”
“…Yeah,” said the possum.
“All this is why you can trust me when I say a terror is coming to Houndsmouth and all of you must be there if you are to stop it.”
“What about you?” said Rusty, crossing her arms.
“What about me, my dear?”
“Aren’t you going to be there?”
“Well, yes, I’ll have to be! But the point is, we have to get going.”
The rat turned as if to march straight off to town alone.
The bear stalked to his side. “Here.” He placed one of the rat’s paws onto his enormous scarred arm as a guide.
“Thank you kindly.”
The rat turned his head, not quite looking at Thane. His hairless profile stood out against the greenery in front of him, pink and liver-spotted.
Thane growled softly. Nattie wanted him to follow the bear, and the bear was clearly going off with the old codger. But he didn’t trust that rat as far as he could scent him. Or not scent him, in this case.
But return to town and tell Nattie he’d given up? Never.
“Fine,” he said.
The rat grinned. “Wonderful,” he said. “Before we leave, there’s just one thing.” He raised his head to the bear. “Do you have the amulet, friend?”
Brun pulled it out of a pouch at his waist and put it in the rat’s awaiting hand.
“Does it glow?”
“Good. Sir Possum? If you would just come here…”
After an uncomfortable glance, Zeke stepped to the rat’s side.
“Here, cousin.” The rat held out the amulet. “A gift!”
Despite himself, Zeke’s face lit up. “Shiny!” He snatched it up and put it around his neck.
“Keep it with you!” chirped the rat.
“I will!” said Zeke, admiring it.
The rat looked up again at the bear. “Now we can go.”
They all trudged deeper into the forest.
OH BOY MY FAVORITE CHARACTER’S HERE! Chapter 5 lands tomorrow at noon! The game Armello and its characters are property League of Geeks. Buy it today!
You might also like to feast your eyes upon this WONDERFUL picture I drew of Sargon because Armello developer Darcy called it “the best worst thing you’ll ever see.”