The next part happened so fast, Thane hardly believed he’d seen it with his own eyes.
Simon charged for a thick clump of bushes not far from the tunnel entrance.
Before he reached it though, Zeke’s bleary face popped out from the bush.
The bane saw the possum and shrieked. Prey spotted. It jutted his head for the possum, like a hawk going to snatch a gob of meat. The possum froze on the spot, but while he trembled, Stilts grabbed him up, curling his body over the possum.
The bird’s beak knocked into the shield the maned wolf had been carrying on his back, and sent them both careening into a stand of trees—one further away from the tunnel.
The bird pecked at the shield. The cloth covering it turned mothworn. The bane’s beak snipped at it and pecked again. Its beak hit the shield and rust exploded over the surface like frost over a windowpane.
It pecked a third time. The shield cracked.
The bane clacked its beak around Simon, snipping clothes and fur when it wasn’t breaking the shield apart.
Long arms shoved something white and grey. Zeke tumbled and tumbled over the ground, away from the attack, towards the tunnel. He didn’t wait for his momentum to run out, but came out of the roll on all fours and fled right into the tunnel.
He knocked into Thane before he squeezed into the darkness.
It woke the wolf up; his squire was still out there getting savaged! But the bane could easily kill them both.
I’m prince of the wolf clan. If I die, I cannot lead.
Fur flew. A flash of crimson glinted in the air.
But if I abandon my packmate, I’m not fit to lead.
Stilts—Simon—had refused to abandon Zeke. Thane couldn’t do less.
Toying with its prey had excited the bane. It flapped its wings without lift, exposing the side of its breast.
Thane exploded out of the tunnel. His claws tore up yellowed grass. He ran as fast as he knew how, the fastest he’d ever run before. In the blink of an eye, he was next to the bane’s breast. He stabbed his sword in, intending to plunge it into the creature’s heart. But though it pierced the razor-sharp feathers, it hit something inside, a rib perhaps, and glanced off at a strange angle, jarring his arm. The sword slid out of his paws, flew into the air, and landed feet away in a bush. Not a killing blow.
The bane squawked, though, and jumped back.
Thane didn’t wait to see what the bane would do next. Instead, he ran to Simon and swept him up. The maned wolf was cut open everywhere, but his eyes were bright with fear, alive with it. So when he saw Thane and felt the prince’s arms supporting him, he stumbled to and ran with Thane into the tunnel, shedding rust and torn clothes up until the moment they crammed inside again. Simon yelped in pain, but Thane kept shoving him ahead, deeper into the tunnel.
CRACK. The bane shoved its beak into the hole, brushing Thane’s tail. It shot under his belly, curling tight.
“Keep moving, Simon!” The bird was twisting its beak, wrenching the whole bigger. Thane glanced back at it. Rocks and soil fell around the beak. Its head would be in with them shortly.
“You’ve got to keep going! It’s getting in!” Thane shoved Simon again and again.
Pain made the maned wolf yelp every time, but he scrabbled and scrabbled until his legs and arms were underneath him. Muscles burning, he pushed himself forward.
Thane was right up on him. Simon couldn’t see ahead. Only darkness.
Sudden exhaustion dropped upon the maned wolf. His tongue lolled upon the bitter dirt. He’d never get out. It was too far to go. He just wanted to lie down.
At least the cubs are safe. His head grew heavy, began to sink.
Then, something glittered ahead of him in the dark. Simon stared at it, befuddled, then excited. Daylight! The exit out must be nearby!
The burst of hope made him lunge forward. But when he got closer, he realized it wasn’t the exit at all, but a shining object. He grabbed the twinkling thing up in his paw just as Zeke’s white face pop into view. The broken chain of the necklace flopped over his paw.
Zeke! It’s your shiny! he started to say, but the possum clamped his fingers around the maned wolf’s wrists and yelled, “HEAVE!”
* * *
Thane trembled. He could feel the maned wolf’s body surrendering in the tunnel ahead of him. Behind him, the bane caught a glimpse of grey fur and began chewing the tunnel entrance frantically. Thane pressed into Simon’s warm, furry body, but the exhausted wolf didn’t go any further. Thane was caught between the two. There was no escape.
So this is it. My end. Funny, I thought I’d be more of a participant—at least take my enemy with me! But it looks like I’ll die like a cork in a bottle.
Thane thought of his home in the north, his pack.
Feathers scraped the tunnel walls.
River will lead. Stupid River! But she’ll do a good job. Better than I ever did.
Thane turned. Even if he had to die like a snail in its shell, he intended to look his death in the eye, like a wolf.
Violet eyes gleamed at him, vicious, victorious. The bane’s beak gaped.
Then, Simon’s body disappeared.
Thane fell into the open space, flipped over, then thrust himself forward just in time. The bane’s sharp beak snapped down on air.
“Keep going!” shouted Thane, over the roar of the bird. He wasn’t sure anyone could hear him, but it seemed the right thing to do.
The grey wolf threw himself forward again, once, twice—then the tunnel dipped, into the U-bend. Thane glanced behind him. The violet eye seemed to burn with hate.
Thane slithered into the heart of the tunnel, disappearing from sight.
The bane screamed in frustration.
They had escaped.
Final chapter posts tomorrow.