Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Chapter Twenty-Eight

The army of the Wildlands is surrounded, a tiny island amidst a sea of rotting, hungry death.

“Steady on, old boy,” mutters Owl, though his words are drowned out by the steady shuffling of the invaders.

They draw ever closer, patiently, patiently. And with them comes the fear.

Owl tells himself he should be used to this feeling by now, yet it still buzzes and ripples through his body. Worse, he can see it spread throughout his army. Unused to combat, they tremble and hop from foot to foot. One little spark could ignite a fatal panic.

“Steady on!” he calls. His voice, low and sonorous, carries across the plain. Perhaps that is why he was chosen to lead.

The dead approach. Now the soldiers can recognize the familiar, half-eaten faces, and the fear grows stronger. Some begin to cry as they see their friends and family. Only Owl is spared this pain - they’re strangers to him, after all. Perhaps that is why he was chosen by the King of Lions.

It’s difficult to breathe. They stink. Hundreds of them, perhaps thousands, fermenting in the sun. It takes every bit of willpower to simply endure the smell. And the dust, they’ve kicked up a dust cloud that seems to span forever.

Blinking the specks from his eyes, Owl keeps his gaze steady. Keen eyesight, he thinks. Another feather in his cap.

They stumble closer. The soldiers look to Owl desperately, but he shakes his head. The time is not right. “Use your judgment,” the King of Lions had said, and Owl had smugly smiled, for he considers his judgment very accurate, indeed.

Surely the soldiers – volunteers all - would flee if they could, but there is nowhere to go. Instead, they are pressed back, step by step, against the edge of the cliff. Mowgli’s Cliff, as it is already being called. And it is no coincidence that Owl had been the witness to the boy’s death.

That’s why he decided to volunteer. He’d seen another child die in the Great Wood. And yes, though he has an orphan of his own to protect, the tiny kangaroo is much safer with that gray sloth bear. And after having been given refuge in these lands, as a scholar and a gentleman he simply could not have stood back and refused to help the king.

A movement from the dust cloud shakes Owl from his reverie. A ragged panther rears back on its twisted legs. It’s ready to attack.

But so is the army.

“Now!” bellows Owl, and he spreads his wings.

And the army of the Wildlands takes to the air.

The young king, in his wisdom, realized that the enemy could never be defeated by strength. And so he’d asked for volunteers, but only amongst the birds.

The sky darkens, dust whipped into a storm by the many beating wings. They shriek and caw and fly over the edge of the cliff, and the invaders blindly follow.

The dead do not hesitate, they leap and pounce, calmly trying to catch a mouthful of feathers and flesh. Two or three are successful (and those poor birds will be remembered, promises Owl), but the rest fall empty-handed.

Like a waterfall, the broken bodies of the invaders flood over the cliff. They fall hundreds and hundreds of feet to the sharp, unforgiving rocks below. The flock watches them die.

For hours, the slaughter continues. Soaring on the updraft, the army flies over the cliff, agonizingly close, and the enemy is content to follow and fall.

Their silence, though, is most disturbing, and Owl joins in the celebratory caws and shrieks of his troops, if only to drown out the lack of noise caused by the invaders as they die for a final time.


Part II will begin on Wednesday, July 15, 2009.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Pinocchio swings his legs over the edge of his footstool. "Are you done yet?" he asks for the seventh time. His reedy voice echoes about the great chamber.

"No," says the Little Pig. He isn't taking any chances.

They stand within the Castle of the Door, right in front of the Doorway leading to the Lands Beyond.

And this little pig is in the process of walling it up.

Not entirely, of course, but just so that the barrier reaches a little higher than his head. It will be a tight squeeze for most people bigger than a pig or a puppet, but it should be enough to deter any but the cleverest of the walking dead.

And from the Little Pig’s experience, the dead aren’t very clever.

“What do you think happened here?” asks Pinocchio.

“I don’t know,” says the Pig, but upon seeing the carnage, he’d decided it would be best to secure the Doorway.

They’d found the castle’s drawbridge closed. Someone had tied a long rope ladder from one of the turrets to a nearby oak tree. Whoever had done so remained a mystery, but the Pig had to admire their wisdom – the dead weren’t able to climb in.

Yet the castle was empty except for a few abandoned weapons, tattered clothing and a ghastly stain on the staircase. Whatever had been killed in here - and done the killing - had since moved on.

A worrying idea, because how did they breach the castle’s walls? And how did they get out?

There was only one answer: the Doorway.

And that is very bad, indeed.

After scrounging about the ramparts for usable stone, the Little Pig has spent the better part of the afternoon blocking off the Doorway.

Pinocchio stops swinging his legs. “Do you think my father is on the other side?”

“I think so,” says the Little Pig. “I hope so.” He doesn’t have the heart to tell the truth. Dead things might dwell in the Lands Beyond, but there’s no need to worry the child just yet.

“Will you be finished soon?” the puppet asks again.

“Patience is a virtue,” says the Pig. He steps back and surveys his handiwork. It isn’t bad – not perfectly straight and level, but once the wall dries, it’ll be as sturdy a wall as any.

"I'm done," he says, and starts packing up his tools.

"Yippy!" cheers Pinocchio. He jumps to his feet. "I'll go first."

"Wait, wait, wait," says the Little Pig. "I should go first."

"But what if there’s danger?” The boy’s feigned concern is no match for the enthusiasm coursing through his body. “The monsters won't hurt me. If I go first and there's trouble, I can warn you."

The Pig nods. It's a good point. “But you come right back, you understand?”

He places the footstool in front of the wall and helps Pinocchio climb over. “Careful, now,” says the Pig. “It’s still wet.” It doesn’t matter if the top layer topples over, he knows, but it’s the principle of the thing, and he can’t help but take pride in his work.

In a moment, Pinocchio is through the Doorway and into the Lands Beyond. The Pig takes a moment to enjoy the silence and reflect on a job well done. This wall will be a fitting farewell to his homeland, he decides. Then, with a contented sigh, he closes his toolbox and steps onto the footstool.

The heavy chamber door swings open.

"Knock-knock, Piggy." The lanky form of the Big Bad Wolf sidles into the room. One of his cheeks is swollen and blackened.

"What are you doing here?" says the Little Pig. Even standing on the stool, he is still much shorter than the Wolf.

The Wolf winces with each step. One paw goes unconsciously to his broken rib – a result of his last encounter with Pinocchio.

"Not bad," says the Wolf, examining the makeshift barrier. "Not bad at all."

"What are you doing here?" the Pig repeats. He calmly removes the hammer from his belt loop.

"Same thing as you," says the Wolf. "I'm leavin’. There's gotta be something good out there in the great wide somewhere for a lordly nobleman like myself."

The Pig can't help but scoff – in his ragged, filthy trousers, the Big Bad Wolf is anything but noble. "What are you talking about?"

"You didn't look around the castle, Piggy?” The Wolf wipes some saliva from his lips. “There's a huge treasure trove in here. Unlocked, unguarded, and now it’s mine. It’s all mine.”

"It’s not yours,” says the Pig. His heart races, he knows he should just leave, escape, but he’s always stood up to the Wolf before.

"Prove it," says the Wolf, and he produces some pieces of parchment from under his hat. “Here’s some titles of property and nobility. Mine now.”

"You're stealing!"

The Wolf starts to laugh, but he winces as his chest flares in pain. He won't be huffing and puffing any time soon. "Yeah,” he admits. “Maybe I am, but it doesn't matter. You're not gonna tell anyone."

"Oh, yes, I will!" sputters the Little Pig. "You've always been nothing but a no-good scoundrel, and when I get to..."

"No, you won't," says the Wolf, and his smug tone silences the Pig. "You're not going anywhere. You're not so tough without your little rock-throwing friend.”

Leaning in closer – yet still more than an arm’s length away from the Pig’s hammer – the Wolf snickers. “You've got nowhere to run, Piggy. And you know what happens when you let the Wolf inside your home, don't you?"

He grins widely, revealing yellow, rotting fangs, and he enjoys his first meal in oh, so very long.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Chapter Twenty-Six

“We witnessed their fall,” concludes the foreigner in his sorrowful, lofty tone, “and we alone were left to tell the tale.”

The air around Council Rock titters with the busy translation of the Mynas, then rumbles as the other animals consider the speech they just heard.

Shere Khan’s soft purr compels them all into silence. “So you are telling us,” prods the great tiger, “that the Man and the Man-cub are dead.”

“I’m afraid so,” says the speaker, very small and alone in the center of Council Rock. In the shadows beyond, Baloo weeps.

Everyone watches, but does not speak, as Shere Khan circles the perimeter of the wide, flat stone. It is forbidden to shed blood on Council Rock. That is the Law, and it is upheld by all animals. But there is more than one form of combat in the Wildlands.

“They failed,” says the tiger. His voice has dropped to a whisper, and the animals must cringe forward to hear his words. They know he is ready to attack.

“They failed,” he repeats, louder. “And now the Wildlands are burning. And you,” he bares his fangs toward the King of Lions, “were the one who allowed those pathetic Men to gather red fire and bring doom upon us all.”

With a triumphant snarl, the tiger finishes, “The Wildlands are burning because of you... your highness.”

The King of Lions remains poised throughout these accusations, regally ignoring the murmurs and grunts from the shadows. He will uphold the Law. But in his heart he knows Shere Khan will only be silenced in death.

“The Wildlands have burned before and will burn again,” says the King. He draws himself up to his full, majestic height. “It is the Circle.”

“Oh, stop spouting philosophy, boy,” sneers the tiger. “We’re surrounded by a circle of red fire. And beyond that, a circle of death.”

The King’s eyes flash at the insult, but he refuses to be provoked. Nor is he foolish enough to step into whatever trap the striped killer has prepared. “What would you have us do, then?” he asks.

An unexpected move, and Shere Khan considers for a moment before answering. “What would you have us do?” he asks back, but then answers for the King. “Flee to the Lands Beyond?”

The tiger shifts his head toward the visitor, and Owl realizes he’s been given a cue.

“That wouldn’t be wise, ah, your highness,” he says, and the Mynas immediately begin to translate his odd, formal language. “We - that is, my young ward and myself - come from the Lands Beyond. Far beyond, in fact. We’ve been through many Doorways, and... the dead are already there.”

“Where?” says Shere Khan.

“Everywhere,” says Owl.

As this piece of news is translated, the tiger controls his cruel smile. It was quite a bit of luck to come across this foreign bird and his young rat-like companion, and very wise to not eat them outright. Their tale has proven ever so useful.

“So if we have nowhere to run,” says the tiger, loftily, regally, in the voice of the true leader of the Wildlands, “we must fight!”

“Is that truly what you want, Khan?” says the King amidst the roars, for and against, the tiger’s proposal. “You cannot kill them. This is madness.”

“Oh, quit being such a coward,” retorts Shere Khan. He no longer plays the game of diplomacy. “You may stay and hide, if you wish, whelp, but no corpse will ever defeat me. I will bring us all to victory.”

The King of Lions reminds himself of the Law, and he will not shed blood. Not here. Not now.

Instead, he looks toward the visitor. “You’ve seen them in the Lands Beyond? You swear it?” he asks.

“I do,” says Owl. He begins to wish he’d never come to this savage land, or at least never crossed paths with that foul tiger.

“And the Man and young Mowgli? You swear that you witnessed their death at the hands of the invaders?”

Shere Khan looks bemused at this repeated questioning, though it concerns him that he cannot tell what the young King is thinking.

“No, your majesty. They died in the fall,” says Owl. He cannot help but elaborate. “They were surrounded. They tried to descend, to escape, but... they fell from the cliff. I’m proud to say they took many with them, though. It was a... most noble end.” The great apes grunt in somber agreement.

The King presses forward before the Mynas can finish translating. “There was an army of them,” he says, “all hunting the Man and the Man-cub. How did you survive?”

“Your majesty?”

“How were you able to escape?”

Confused at the obvious answer, Owl spreads his wings and says, “Why, I flew, your majesty.”

Satisfied, the King nods. “Thank you,” he says, and Owl bows humbly.

To the assembled animals, the King of Lions announces, “We will attack at dawn.” Without another word, ignoring the outraged cries, he leads his procession from the stone and disappears into the night’s darkness.

Still debating, the other animals disperse, leaving Shere Khan alone on the great stone, his moment of triumph somehow stolen.