The Unspeakable Oath. When the living make a deal with the dead. All who commit such dealings are doomed to serve the Ghosts of Men for a thousand years. For the dead men can claim the bodies of the living, but never their souls… without permission. Such permission Leap granted the spirits when he spoke in the ancient tongue aboard the black ship. In exchange, he asked for safe passage into the Elephant Lands and for the life of his friend. All this Estruthia had seen in the young wolf’s eyes, but it was far too late for the priestess’ magic to save him. Now the dead had claimed their prize and left a wound in Pyg’s heart among so many others, each now scarred and hardened.
Back at the encampment, the tears of the grieving filled up the cracks of the parched earth. The elephant queen was dead, many of her fighters, too. And while the elephants fought and fled the dead men, an envoy had brought a message to the rhinoceros king. His city lay under siege, and all within would starve to death if its sovereign did not return to accept the Master’s terms. Perhaps it was true. Perhaps not. But the spirit of the great horned king was broken now.
“I thought you were prepared to die,” Pyg reminded him. “Your soldiers were. Many of them have. The elephant queen and her soldiers, too.”
“Careful, hoglet. You speak to a king,” the great rhinoceros warned her. But there was little threat in his voice now. “May the Shadow Bringer slay me with his own sword, and his buzzards feast upon my carcass if that will save beastkind. But I cannot subject my followers to such a cruel death when there is another way. When you wear a crown as heavy as mine, you will understand.”
Pyg did not understand, and she did not care to. She had but one purpose left, and that was to slay this vile Master, this tyrant who cloaked the world in the shadow of death.
“If you won’t march on the mountain, then at least free me so that I can try,” said Pyg. Determination blazed in her eyes with a ferocity that almost frightened the much larger beast she challenged.
“I free you,” said the king, “but you will die on this mission of yours. I urge you to travel with us back to my land where there is at least some chance you’ll be spared. Better chance than you’ll have out here.”
But he could see the piglet would not be swayed. And, after all, who was he to dash her hope for vengeance when only duty prevented him from seeking it, himself?
Yes, Pyg was released. And, with her, the ostrich priestess and a handful of soldiers who thirsted for the Master’s blood just as much. All would perish in vain, the king thought sadly, but at least they would die as free beasts.
As Pyg and her meager band of fighters journeyed, a smile grew upon her face.
This is what the scroll meant, she thought. We may be small, but we will bring the end to this blight.
Astonishingly, the road to the Mother’s Mountain lay free of obstacles. No one attacked Pyg and her soldiers. No ghosts arose to cut her throat. Nary a creature apart from themselves made any appearance at all.
“Perhaps the Goosemother has blessed us,” said a lemur named Babako, but no one really believed that.
“The wind has changed,” the priestess said ominously. “I feel it in my feathers.”
Pyg had not noticed any change in the wind’s direction, but then she noticed little that was not directly in her path to crushing the throat of the Profaner with her bare hooves.
Within three days, the humble host reached the foot of Mount Historious. Two bitterly cold days after, they neared the end of a smooth trail hewn into the mountainside. At the end of that trail they found the Master’s Fortress. And never once did they meet a soul to block their way. Not even until they passed through the unbarred gates did they meet a stranger.
The stranger was a wolf as white as the mountain snow, wearing the same gray cloak the abbey brothers were known to wear below. Pyg’s soldiers drew their swords and extended claws, those who had them, but the wolf merely shook his head and held up a paw.
“No need for that, friends,” he said. “You are welcome as the Master’s Guests. He has been waiting most anxiously for your arrival.”
“Maybe we don’t want to be his guests,” Pyg seethed.
“Either you are a guest or you are a trespasser,” said the wolf, still smiling, “and the latter are not welcomed so warmly, I assure you.”
Behind Pyg, the massive wooden gates closed with a groan, and thirty soldiers in the armor of the Legion formed a line around her lot.
“Come,” said the wolf monk. “The Master awaits, and–”
“And the Master has grown tired of waiting,” said a new voice. The Master himself, Pyg was sure of it, but she couldn’t see him! Then the wolf stepped aside and bowed quite low.
“A thousand pardons, your Majesty,” said the wolf, whose genuflection allowed Pyg to see, at last, the form of the beast she hated above all others.
But when she saw him, she was unable to speak. This Master, this Profaner, the Shadow Bringer of legend, was but a pig much like herself. He could have been the ghost of her brother Strongheart, or perhaps of Meekfoot, so much did he resemble them, only he was smaller. Much smaller. Undoubtedly the runt of his litter.