Thane didn’t remember smelling any of this, but he kept running. Surely the tunnel was close by.
“Thane?” said Rusty. “The cubs need a rest.”
He nodded, swerving to gather them under the crown of a large tree. Fox, raccoon, and hoglet bent over, bracing themselves on their knees, sucking in air.
Thane sheathed his sword and leapt up into the tree. He climbed to the top, stuck his head above the branches.
The smoke of Houndsmouth had turned the sky ashy and brown, but the body of the bane was darker still. It glided slowly now, like a thunderhead whose shadow killed. The bird’s head swiveled side to side.
So it doesn’t have our exact trail. Good.
“Rusty, what happened to your friend? The tall one?”
“Yeah! Thane, where’s Simon?”
Thane nearly yelped. Stilts! Hadn’t he been following them? Did the bane get him? And what about the bear—the hoglet—and Zeke!
After a glance at the bane, Thane stood up taller in the branches, trying to see down into the forest where they had come from. Could they be hiding down there?
No! It couldn’t be!
“Stilts?” he said.
The pathetic howl sounded again. A call to gather. Garbled and awful as it was, Thane never thought he’d be so glad to hear it.
“Rusty, do you hear that?” he shouted down the tree. “It’s Stilts! He’s calling to us!”
“Can’t hear it down here. You sure it’s him?”
“Yes!” Now came two roar-barks, a sound that really carried. “He wants us to join up with him!”
“Call him back! Tell him to come to us!”
“No—let’s—we’ll join him.”
“But the tunnel—”
“I don’t think it’s near here.”
Thane threw back his head and howled. His voice carried over the forest, an unmistakeable reply.
And a sound the monster couldn’t ignore.
The bane’s eyes flared white and its head jerked up, beak pointed right at Thane. The wolf tried to duck back under the cover of the canopy, but it was too late. The bird screamed. A hunting cry—Thane knew it well, from past battles with smaller birds.
He dropped out of the tree, staggered a moment.
“Bees and fleas, Thane, be careful! You wanna break an ankle?” said Rusty.
“Run! This way—we’re heading back to Stilts!” he dashed away.
Rusty grabbed the cubs’ hands and took off after him.
“Doesn’t he ever look back?” said the raccoon cub.
Rusty glanced at her.
“If you want to run with the wolves, you have to keep up,” she said. But privately, she thought the cub had a point. She glanced over at the hoglet. He hadn’t said much this whole time, but a longer break would have done him some good. She wished there had been a stream for them to drink at back there.
Rusty knew it was pointless to ask Thane to slow down, so she kept her gaze up, looking for the blue of his jerkin. His grey tail tended to blend in with the undergrowth. Soon, the vixen had him picked out again. “C’mon, kiddos.”
The forest was awash with noise: their footsteps, the rustle of the undergrowth as they broke through it. And once, Rusty could have sworn she heard the mix of blowing wind and plant-death-crackle of the bane’s wing passing by. But she could not hear the maned wolf’s cries.
The hoglet stumbled. She pulled him forward and glanced again at his face. He wasn’t really looking at anything now, just running, glassy-eyed.
It’s like a bad dream, isn’t it, kid? And no folks to go back to when it was over.
Thane’d better be taking us to the tunnel. I don’t know how much more the cubs can take.
Thane stopped and Rusty nearly ran into him. She watched his ears turn.
“You lost him?!”
“No no, I’ve got it,” said the wolf before he threw his head back again for another howl. The cubs clapped their free paws over their ears. The bane screamed, sounding closer than ever. Rusty almost smacked the wolf.
“You’re calling it right to us, dummy!”
Hrraw-wuff! RRRA-OO-WOO-UFF! YIP YIP!
She’d recognize that ear-grating racket anywhere! Without waiting, she bolted towards Simon’s call, leaving the wolf prince in the dust.
Let Thane be the rear guard for once!
Rusty and the cubs burst into the clearing.
Brun stood at the tunnel entrance. Simon was atop a nearby rock, trying another howl. She ran up to the bear.
“Take him,” said the bear, bending down on all fours. The youngest hoglet, now wide awake, trembled and clutched the bear’s fur.
“Only one of us will fit into the entrance at a time,” said Brun. “I want him down first, but he won’t let go.”
Darby released Rusty’s paw and went to his brother. He held out his arms. “C’mon, Ramsey. Time to go.”
The little hoglet shook his head.
“We’ll go get you a sweetie, but first you have to come down.”
“Uh-uh!” Ramsey shook his head. “Want mama!”
Darby’s face crumpled like he’d been struck. “Please, Ramsey!”
A shadow darkened the deep forest. The leaves crackled like autumn, then turned black before dropping to the ground with a sound like a sudden rainshower. Trees groaned and fell around them.
Naomi clutched Rusty’s arm to her. “It’s here!”
The bane’s head burst through the canopy.
The littlest hoglet shrieked. His brother grabbed him by the shirt and yanked, but the hoglet dug his claws into Brun’s back. The bear snarled in pain.
The bane turned its head at the sound. Seeing Brun and the cubs, it jabbed its head forward, beak gaping.
Brun shook himself with a roar. Ramsey flew off his back and crashed into his brother.
They sat up in time to see the bear spread his arms wide, then get struck by the bane’s beak. The impact sent the bear flying into the underbrush. There was a horrible heavy thud.
The bane tilted his head, then hopped forward towards the brush. The leaves didn’t so much as tremble.
Naomi grabbed Darby and shoved him towards the tunnel. “Get in, get in!” she hissed and followed him underground.
The motion of her ringed tail caught the bird’s eye. It barked an angry caw as its prey disappeared.
Then it saw Ramsey, lying stunned on the grass. It croaked, and something like glee made its eyes burn again. It pumped its wings and dove.
Rusty jumped out in front of it, snarling. But she could tell already that it was moving too fast. No way she could grab the hoglet up and get out of the way in time.
Shoot. And this trip would’ve made a great song, too.
The bane screeched. The hoglet squalled. Rusty peeped one eye open. Thane was there, slashing at the bane’s face with his sword. That awful purple muck was falling from the bane’s wounds. The smell assured her it wasn’t a dream.
A tall red blur whirled to Thane’s side. “Get in the tunnel!” said Simon.
Rusty took Ramsey the hoglet and scrambled to the tunnel. Once he’d been shoved underground (screaming all the way—right there with ya, kiddo!) she wriggled her way in behind him.
The bane tried to knock Thane aside with its wing, but Thane sliced it, forcing the bird to retreat. It stuck its head beneath its wing, preening the injury.
The wolf prince shoved him towards the hole.
“NOW, Stilts, it’ll be back on us any second!”
Thane snarled and leapt over his squire and into the tunnel. Simon almost couldn’t believe it—but then a grey paw reached out and grabbed his leg.
Simon saw the bane lift its head, then let himself be dragged backwards into the hole.
He and Thane were crammed together near the front of the tunnel like newborn pups in a den. Already Thane was turning to crawl away deeper into the tunnel.
“We’re not going to kill this one, Stilts—”
“Zeke’s still up there!”
Thane stopped scrabbling in the dirt.
“I hid him so I could help the cubs down.”
And without another word, Simon shot back out the tunnel.
Next chapter appears tomorrow at noon, PST. The game Armello and its characters are property League of Geeks. Buy it today!
For previous chapters, click the tag “Heroes of Houndsmouth“; older chapters are towards the bottom.
You might also like to read my free short story The Stone Seekers because it is the first of my Armello stories.