Spirit Animals: Book 5: Against the Tide
THE PEOPLE OF STETRIOL CALLED IT MUTTERING ROCK.
They knew vaguely where it was, deep in the scorched, arid interior of the continent. They knew of the muttering sound that made the earth tremble for miles in all directions around it.
And they knew the name of the dark, sinister creature imprisoned there.
Most of all, they knew never to go anywhere near it if they wanted to survive.
So no one had visited Kovo the Apeâ€™s prison in hundreds of years. Not that it would be easy, if anyone had even wanted to try. Muttering Rock was far out in the Stetriol desert, many days from the nearest source of water. Each side of the rock was a sheer cliff face with no handholds, as if someone had sliced away the edges with one swipe of a powerful blade.
The top of the rock was baked by the sun to a blistering two hundred degrees or so â€” no one had ever measured the exact temperature, of course, but it was enough to instantly and badly burn any foot, or boot, or paw that tried to step onto it.
The cage itself seemed to be growing out of the top of the rock, a vast network of impenetrable branches as hard as diamonds. It glowed a pure, blinding white, particularly at its sharpest points, where it still had the vague shape of the giant antlers planted centuries ago by the Great Beast Tellun.
And of course, there was the eagle overhead: Halawir, the sharp-eyed guard who watched Kovo every day and all night too.
So: no visitors. Not in a very, very long time.
Hence the muttering.
â€œFirst I will peel off their skin,â€ growled a voice like thunder in the distant mountains. â€œI will crush their skulls between my fists. I will wrap their bones in their green cloaks and set fire to their homes. Their fortresses will be dust beneath my feet.â€
The malevolent eyes of an enormous silverback gorilla glowered through the gaps in the cage. His thick black fur was heavy in the heat. There was no room in his cage for pacing, so he sat, brooding and waiting, as he had for generations. Kings and empires had risen and fallen since his imprisonment, but still, he waited.
And while he waited, he dreamed of vengeance.
â€œI have killed four Great Beasts,â€ he murmured. â€œWhen I am free, I will punish those presumptuous Greencloaks who follow them. I will tear their spirit animals apart and then I will kill all the feeble humans myself. Some of them I will strangle slowly, and others I will drown, and some I will crush beneath my feet.â€ He brushed one leathery palm against the antlers that hemmed him in.
In the distance, a bird of prey shrieked, piercing and desperate in the broiling air.
â€œNot much longer. Worthless humans. If I were free, weâ€™d have all the talismans already. Weâ€™d be the kings of this world and everyone would bow to us.â€
His colossal muscles rippled as he pushed against the cage walls. â€œSoon. My time is coming. Theyâ€™ll come for me soon,â€ he muttered, squinting out at the small square of empty desert he could see. â€œGerathon has been free for weeks. Slow, despicable humans. Perhaps I will rip off their toes.â€
He lifted his head, his giant nostrils flaring as he sniffed the air. A slow, cunning smile spread across his face.
â€œGerathon,â€ he rumbled. â€œAt last.â€
â€œI understand your eagerness to spill the blood of your enemies,â€ said a voice from behind him. â€œBut after the centuries youâ€™ve already waited, what does another month or two matter?â€
â€œI will wait as long as I have to for my plans to come to bear,â€ said Kovo. â€œStand where I can see you.â€
A brown-haired boy inched into view and stopped a few steps away from the cage, not far from the sheer edge of the cliff behind him. He was thin and small, barely old enough to drink the Bile, and terribly sunburned. Long, bleeding scratches marked his shoulders, and he didnâ€™t seem to notice the smoke rising from the burning soles of his shoes. But perhaps that had something to do with who was really inside him, looking out through snakelike yellow eyes, pupils huge and dilated.
â€œAn unusually small creature for you,â€ Kovo growled. â€œLooks more like one of your snacks than a messenger.â€ He glanced at the sky, but there was no sign of Halawir. Useful timing, that: his ever-watchful guard missing right on time for his visitor.
â€œOh, I am sure I shall eat him later,â€ the boy said, and although it was not Gerathonâ€™s voice, not exactly, there was still an eerie hiss to it that echoed the serpentine Great Beast. â€œSssso . . . itâ€™s been a long time. What have you been up to?â€
â€œTerribly amusing,â€ Kovo snarled. His dark eyes gleamed from deep beneath his forbidding brow. â€œDid you come here to flaunt your freedom?â€
â€œNo,â€ Gerathon said, almost sympathetically, for her. â€œI came to tell you how well weâ€™re doing. The Conquerors just stole the Crystal Polar Bear from those scruffy Greencloak midgets. Plus I was able to do some entertaining mental torture on one of them, since his mother is one of my creatures. Oh, his face when she tried to kill him. It was delightful.â€
â€œMarvelous,â€ said Kovo. â€œLeave me here for eons if you like, just as long as youâ€™re having fun.â€
â€œYour time for fun is coming too,â€ Gerathon said, covering the boyâ€™s mouth as she made him yawn deliberately. â€œWe have almost enough talismans to free you.â€
â€œThat is . . . almost what I want to hear,â€ Kovo said with glittering menace.
â€œTrust me,â€ Gerathon said languidly. â€œWe have our ways of knowing everything the Greencloaks do, and we know exactly where the Four Fallen are going next. As always. Weâ€™ll get the next talisman, and then weâ€™ll destroy them.â€
â€œI notice you havenâ€™t destroyed them yet,â€ Kovo pointed out. â€œCare to explain why theyâ€™re still alive?â€
Gerathon waved the boyâ€™s hand dismissively. â€œTheyâ€™re still useful to me. To us. To our Reptile King. Donâ€™t worry, theyâ€™ll all be dead soon.â€
The boy suddenly let out a cry of pain and fell forward onto his hands and knees. Scorching burns immediately blistered along his skin.
â€œOh, curses,â€ Gerathon hissed, a weirdly calm voice coming out of a face contorted with agony. â€œThis pathetic little costume isnâ€™t going to be much use to me for much longer. Perhaps I should call back his buzzard to carry him away.â€………………….
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