Through his cage’s chipped, wooden bars, Fox observed the menacing clouds hung across the sky. The elegant thunderheads positioned over the nearby village of Worm as bursts of lightning split the sky and thunder’s brutal cackle bounded across the ether.
The chill air assaulted him and he shook. An old, armor-clad elephant named Luft crouched and peered into the cage. His face was gray and leathery with two long ivory spears jutted from his mouth. “What’s the matter? Are you cold, sorcerer?”
“Yes,” said Fox. His white-tipped tail twitched. “Perhaps you could warm me up?”
Luft bellowed. Each laugh expelled a noxious cough that reeked of rot and scotch. He knocked his tusks along its bars. “No, thank you. But don’t worry. The fire should suit your needs nicely.”
He turned away. “There’s work to be done and prayers to be prayed. Break’s over!”
Two younger, shorter elephant guards took hold of a set of rods run under Fox’s cage. They heaved it into the air. Luft led them through the mud as he swigged alcohol from a bullhorn stained murky mustard yellow.
Fox whispered through the bars into one of the younger guard’s ear. He was ignored. He tried again.
“I need my medicine.”
The guard peeked at Fox.
“Nothing treacherous, I promise. I need my medicine, but that drunkard up there took it when he captured me.”
Fox pointed to a tiny vial of green liquid tied to Luft’s belt. The guard curled his trunk in contemplation. He put the tip of his trunk close to the cage and gestured Fox closer.
“You won’t need it much longer,” said the guard.
The guard trumpeted into his ears, knocking Fox to his ass. As if to contain the ringing pain, Fox covered his ears. Neither said anything more.
They arrived in the gated village of Worm as dusk settled. Thin pikes decorated either side of the single road and blood trickled down their slender stalks. Atop each pike rested the severed head of a pig or shrew with an apricot necklace hung from every mouth.
The heads loomed above the pathway, each face twisted in anguish. A collage of final painful moments captured and hoisted into the air. Maggots crawled over their eye sockets and flies swarmed each pike. They consumed the rotted flesh and brazenly mated atop it.
“Enjoying the view, sorcerer?” Luft called back.
“I feel it’d be rude to say no. It’s an interesting work of art, I’ll leave it at that.”
A moment passed.
“I’m sorry,” said Fox, “but the inner artiste within me can not lie. Your execution was just dreadful.”
Luft heaved with laughter. “Then we’ll take care to get it right with you.”
The path was mostly dry but around it water and feces pooled and, mixing with the soft dirt, crept like molasses through tiny cracks in the clay walkway. The stench was horrible, but that was the point. The great Eagle’s love could not be appreciated without first feeling His anger.
“Luft. Who exactly were these animals?” asked Fox.
“Sinners,” Luft said. “Each and every one of them was a no-good, dirty, rotten sinner.”
“What sort of sinners?” Fox caught view of the vial on Luft’s waist.
“Thieves, murderers, liars. All of them were heathens. Just like you.”
They passed shoddy wooden huts whose shutters creaked in the wind. Through one window a family of shrews sat at an unsteady table. Their ceramic teacups shook in their small, rattling hands. The mother shrew was giving small breadcrumbs to her children. She noticed Fox, scurried to the window, and closed its shutters.
“You’re bad news, sorcerer. You’re a heathenish corrupter. Even the damned shrews can see it.”
“I’m no sorcerer,” said Fox. “Just proficient in fooling the simpler folk.”
Luft growled and stomped, and in his fury splashed mud at his guards and into their eyes. They howled and dropped the cage. Its wooden bars snapped inward and the roof partially collapsed. The splintered bars reached forward longingly. Had Fox not scooted backward moments sooner, they would have kissed his brain.
“Are you calling me simple?” raged Luft.
Fox clambered over the bent bars, carefully avoiding the rogue splinters prickled along them. The wet mud squished between his fingers and he pulled himself from the cage.
Luft was there to meet him. His muscular trunk wrapped around Fox’s waist and lifted him effortlessly.
Holding Fox at eye level, Luft glowered. “Well? Are you?”
A sickening whiff of alcohol stung Fox’s nostrils. Lightning streaked across the sky, detailing the elephant’s tusks. Black cracks and blemishes littered their surfaces.
“Are you calling me simple?” shouted Luft.
Fox struggled for breath. “Are you calling me a liar?”
Luft’s grip tightened. In a shrill yelp, Fox’s only breath of air escaped him. Luft wound back his trunk, swinging Fox past the bullhorn on his waist. Perfect. In one brutal motion he heaved Fox through the air.
The thick mud did little to soften Fox’s fall. He skidded across its soppy surface. The impact almost forced the bullhorn from his clutches. Bruised and battered, he struggled to stand, but strung to the bullhorn flask cradled in his arms, his medicine vial. He uncapped it.
Laughter boomed behind him. “The first I’ve seen of a flying fox, how about you boys?” Feigning laughter, the guards continued to wipe mud from their eyes and faces.
“All thanks to you,” Fox said. “Cheers.”
Luft reared his trunk. Fox poured the vial of green liquid into his mouth and pretended to swallow it. With a wink, he popped the bullhorn’s cap off and brought it to his lips. The green liquid splashed from his mouth into the bullhorn.
“You give me back my scotch! Screw the fire,” Luft bellowed, “I’ll kill you myself.”
Fox capped the bullhorn and braced himself. The elephant ran him down, grabbed the flask from him and kicked him aside. With his head angled back, Luft splashed the liquor down his throat.
Struggling to stomach his drink, he tightly shut his eyes and furiously swung his head. He gripped the bullhorn so tightly it shattered. The pieces maimed his trunk and forelegs. Teeth gritted and wild-eyed, he fell over. Unconscious.
Pieces of the broken bullhorn dotted the ground. Fox helped himself. On either side of him, the guards arrived. One flicked the end of his pointed tusk. “Sorry,” said Fox. “It’s just, I figured a brute his size would’ve been able to hold his liquor.”
The makeshift blade swung through the air. Their hides were thick. It glided roughly across one guard’s stomach. Hardly scratched the surface. A strong kick to his stomach and Fox fell. He was grappled by the scruff of his neck and slapped across his face. It stung his cheek and an unbearable, nauseating dizziness washed over him.
A softly sung chorus massaged Fox’s ears. Dry, crusted blood trailed from his nose to upper lip. Its odor was strong. Drearily, he opened his eyes.
Around him, a brightly lit dining hall packed with villagers. Members of every social class appeared to be there. There were pigs and shrews wearing worn rags, elephants in elegant armor, and donkeys with rolling, red robes.
The singing came from a group of piglets. We vow alliance, oh great Eagle, and stand defiant of all that’s evil. They were dressed to impress with collared flannels. A slightly older shrew with a pink bowtie conducted them. Their families watched from nearby tables. Sometimes a mother would wipe her eyes with a napkin and then wave it at her child. On a stool in the corner sat Luft. Head in hands, he dry heaved. Good.
The realization of Fox’s predicament abruptly dawned on him. Thick ropes held him against a tall pillar cemented into the ground. At his feet laid a mat of wet straw.
“Hello, good citizens of Worm!” Fox searched for the voice’s source. “Before we begin the evening’s ceremony, let us pray.”
The villagers closed their eyes and bowed. Together, they prayed.
We vow alliance, oh great Eagle, and stand defiant of all that’s evil. We vow alliance to you, divine. Under your wing, we build our shrine. We seek your guidance from the sky, and give our thanks with fires high.
Immediately, Fox started to cut at the rope with his nails. It was thick. He’d have to work fast.
“Thank you,” the voice said. It was unfittingly kind. It was mistrustfully kind. “The great Eagle undoubtedly prides in your commitment to the church. Your proven love for Him will return ten hundredfold in His love for you.”
“That’s a lot of love,” muttered Fox. Louder, “Not sure I’m ready for that sort of commitment.”
Gasps emerged amongst the crowd. Luft, still rubbing his head with one hand, stood. He crossed to Fox and raised a fist.
“Don’t,” said the stranger’s voice. “There’s no need. The great Eagle will have his justice soon enough.”
“Thank you, Mr. …” Fox craned his neck left and right. “Mysterious, disembodied voice?”
A frail, bearded donkey stepped into sight from behind. “Call me Abe. There’s nothing mysterious about me. You, a sorcerer, on the other hand are very mysterious.”
A blast of thunder sounded outside. The heavy patter of rain soon followed.
“Good citizens, do you know who this animal is? He is a sinner. A sorcerer! A heretic who’s defamed the great Eagle and each one of us who worship Him.”
He cursed not only Fox but also sorcery in general for upsetting the great Eagle and alluded to the brewing storm above as a sure sign of it. He told stories of sorcerers massacring families, of magic casters that danced in the moonlight while brewing potions, and of insidious affairs with creatures of the night. Abe spoke fast and passionately, and though his speech was somewhat lacking in facts, it moved the crowd in a way that truth never could.
The crowd cursed and flung food at Fox. All the while he scratched away at the rope.
Pale in the face, nearly white as his own tusks, Luft stumbled. “I don’t feel normal,” he said. “Nothing feels right.”
Luft rested against the pillar and wiped sweat from his face.
“Luft,” Abe said. “Stop fooling around. Bring the fire.” Luft did as he was told.
“Don’t you find all this talk of sacrifice and a great Eagle a little…” Fox paused. “Well, asinine?”
“Not at all. Your sacrifice will please the great Eagle and in turn He will spare us from His wrath.”
With great caution, Luft returned with the lit torch. The sweat on his face had doubled. His eyes were wide and his lips trembled. He looked terrified. “Nothing looks right,” he said. “None of you do.”
“What are you talking about?” Abe asked. “Enough nonsense.”
“You don’t look good at all,” Fox said. “Perhaps it’s something you drank?”
One look at Fox’s toothy smile and Luft shrieked and reared backward. At that moment another clap of thunder struck the air. In his state of confusion, Luft dropped the torch he carried.
The dry wooden floorboards caught fire. It spread quickly and the villagers shrieked. The flames worked their way toward Fox. He cut at the ropes with such haste that his nails bent back under the strain and specks of blood inked out from under them.
“Look at what you’ve done,” said Abe. “You blundering elephant!”
Fox broke free. He searched for an exit as the flames climbed the walls. A veil of smoke spread through the room. The mass of villagers crowded around the main doors. On the far side of the room was an open window. Through the smoke came a hoof.
“It was you,” Abe said. “You cursed Luft with your sorcery.” Coughing in the smoke, he towered over Fox. The donkey was much stronger. But also much taller. Fox scrambled away from him. He kept low to the ground, avoiding the smoke, while Abe pursued, wheezing and gagging.
The window was right ahead. Fox leaped onto the sill, his whiskers propped up by his smile. “Farewell, Abe. Goodbye, fine citizens of Worm! I’m sorry I’m leaving in the heat of the ceremony, but I’m sure you understand.”
A portion of the roof crashed to the floor, scattering embers into the air. Abe recoiled, then peered through the smoke. The window was empty.