Ander - Part 5: Subchapter 80

Story by Contrast on SoFurry

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Dorin knew something was wrong the moment he saw that column of smoke rising up from beyond the village walls. It was too thick and black to be a cooking fire, the scent too acrid. He recognised that smell. It was a smell he had breathed into his lungs not an hour ago.

"What's going -" Aisa began, but Dorin didn't give her a chance to finish. He sprinted for the gates, nearly crashing into them head-on in his haste. He pushed against the heavy slabs of wood, his feet digging trenches in the snow until he forced it just wide enough to slip through.

There were many Wolves gathered around a roaring fire, but not enough to have formed a crowd yet. Whatever it was, it must have happened only recently.

Don't be a pyre, he prayed in his head. Don't be a pyre, please not another one, there have been too many, far too many, please not another one...

"Dorin-Sai!" Denko came running up to him, or at least, he tried to. Seeing such a young Wolf moving with a cane was just... wrong. His face told the story of how much pain every step was causing him.

"Denko, what's happening? What's with the fire?"

"Sai! It's... I don't even know what to say..."

"Just say it!"

"It's Hyker!" he blurted out. "He didn't make it. They're saying he..."

Denko was still speaking, but Dorin couldn't hear him anymore. All sounds had taken on a distant quality, like he was hearing them through a thick wad of cotton. He walked, moving past many Wolves, whispering to each other in voices that didn't sound like voices at all, but the groaning of an icy lake. The plume of smoke came closer, the heat more noticeable. He pushed his way to the front and a wall of flames rose up to meet him, roaring like a monster, not willing to let its feast be interrupted.

Hyker was lying on a stack of wood, almost completely engulfed. There was a bloody cloth over his face, singed black around the edges. There was even more blood down his neck and splattered over the branches, slowly dripping into the flames, each drop hissing like a serpent upon its death.

This is too soon. This is much too soon. We didn't even know he was dead, and already they're burning him?

Shekka was standing at the head of the pyre, her hands in the air, her bloodshot eyes sweeping across the crowd. "How cruel!" she wailed. "How cruel that this fine young Wolf be taken from us in such a way! I know Hyker made mistakes in the past, but he was trying his very best to make up for them! He risked his life to bring a group of traitorous heathens to justice, and he paid for it with his life! How cruel!"

Dorin watched, horrified, as the flames crawled all over Hyker's body like a swarm of insects. "This can't be happening..."

"Shame, isn't it?" Dorin didn't realize Wardo was standing right beside him until that very moment, so close that his breath actually brushed past his ear as he spoke. "He still had so much to live for, and now look. It all got snatched away."

"What happened?" Dorin asked. He tried to keep his voice even and calm, but he didn't think he succeeded.

"You know what happened," Wardo replied. "You were there, after all."

The sound of Hyker's face smashing into the tree over and over and over again, that wet, dripping crunch of bones breaking inside his face. Bloody bits of bark flying through the air, broken teeth embedded in the snow. Dorin remembered all of it, and he remembered how he had said nothing as Danado crept up to do the deed. But he never thought...

"But he was fine..." Dorin said, his voice trembling. "I mean, no, he clearly wasn't fine, he was unconscious for hours, his face was all... it was beaten to a pulp, but he was breathing! He was alive, Chieftain! This couldn't -"

"It's not your fault, Dorin," Wardo said. "Never think that."

If he puts his arm around my shoulders again I just might scream, he thought, but thankfully Wardo didn't. He stared at the growing flames and the body inside, crackling and peeling, dripping fat onto the coals, sizzling in the heat, and so did Dorin.

The cloth over Hyker's face was ablaze, as was every part of him. He'd never seen any Wolf's face covered like this for a pyre, but in this case he understood why it had to be done. The way it had been mashed up, the way his lips had been all cut and shredded, flapping loosely over gums that were mostly empty... It was kinder this way. More respectful. But still, he never would have thought that such wounds, horrific though they were, could have been fatal. He had thought they were just superficial, all on the surface.

"I didn't know it was that bad..." he whispered, not even knowing who he was talking to, Wardo or himself. It was Wardo that answered, anyway.

"I didn't think so, either," he said. "Shekka tried her very best, but he just stopped breathing. It happens like that, sometimes. Wolves just slip away, and there's nothing can be done. That beating he took must have done something on the inside, where we can't see. Maybe it dislodged his brain, or burst a vessel, or cracked his skull, or punctured his brain. It could have been anything. I guess it doesn't even matter, really. It's done, and all we can do is look to the future. Isn't that right, Dorin?"

"The future?" Dorin was barely paying attention. He couldn't stop staring at the shadow inside the flames. It used to be a tall, slightly gangly Wolf in there, a Wolf terribly self-conscious about his missing ear, a Wolf who had been alive and well just a few hours ago. What were his last words? Dorin tried to think back, but he couldn't remember. It was that cloth... that blazing cloth over his face. The rising air currents were lifting the corners, but it was stuck to Hyker's face by spots of red.

"Yes, Dorin. We need to think ahead, you and I, to a world without tragedy like this. A world where the decent, hard-working Wolves won't be struck down by the hands of evil. And if that world doesn't yet exist, we need to think of a way to make it ourselves, a way to force it into existence."

"Force the world...?" Dorin could see the pyre reflected in those eyes, the flames rising up to engulf the dead. He saw the way they stared, looking beyond the fire, perhaps into the future he was talking about, a world forced into existence by his own hand.

"We are going to reach out and take everything we ever wanted, everything we deserve. We are going to get our revenge."

Shekka's voice reached a fever-pitch. "Where is the justice in this world!?" she shrieked. "I lost my ensa, my darling Banno! He was taken from us by my own dosa! He paid the price in the end, but he took the life of one of our greatest warriors as a parting curse! He took Garten, one of our most gifted sons! If only that had been the end, but our suffering did not end there! Our Chieftain, my mate, the love of my life, was stolen from us! And now... now this!? My drisa, my last son, the only family I had left, seduced by the wiles of a group of cutthroat heathens, assassins, murderers, blasphemers, traitors to their own people! They killed poor Hyker and they would not hesitate to kill each and every last one of you!"

The crowd was constantly growing, the noise steadily increasing as more and more voices joined in, shouting their displeasure, hurling their curses at the sky.

"Why is this happening!?" Shekka yelled, shaking her fists above her head, making the bonecharms rattle against her skinny wrists. "What have we done to deserve this!? I'll tell you all, I know where it started! I know exactly why this curse has befallen us!" She pointed a gnarled finger at the mountain as if in accusation. "It started the moment that Fox stepped foot into our territory! It's because our homes, our lives, our very souls were defiled by her presence! We should have killed her right away, but what happened instead? My second son, Ander, he was always so weak. He was gifted with a strong body, but his mind was never that of a true Wolf. She was able to take advantage of that! She led him astray and Banno, my poor, poor Banno... He was a true Wolf in every sense of the word, and he was so mercilessly cut down! Murdered for trying to uphold our ways! Ander may have done the deed, but his hand was guided by that Fox bitch!"

"Yaaaaahh!" someone cried from deep inside the gathering crowd, his face hidden by hundreds of others. "It was that vixen that started it all!"

Shekka walked up and down past the blazing inferno, so close it was a wonder she didn't burst into flames herself. "Yes! It was the Foxes that started it, and it was the Foxes that kept it going! It was the Foxes that sent Ander back here, and it was the Foxes that guided his hand yet again! He told us himself! It was for the Foxes he fought, and it was for the Foxes he murdered Garten!"


"Damn them!"

"And now look, the curse has only gotten worse. Nilia, Sorrin, Mellah, Renna, Danado, even my stupid, impressionable Hezzi, it has infected them all, turning them from the way of the Wolf and the way of the Cora! They have betrayed us all! They might be lying with those Foxes this very moment, as I speak, as we burn our fallen comrade! Where is the justice in that!?"

"Sin! It's a terrible sin!" a stocky she-wolf yelled, jumping up and down. The entire tribe was gathered now, and even the newcomers, who couldn't possibly know what was going on, were shaking their fists in the air, stomping the ground, screaming for blood and justice.

Wardo nudged Dorin with his elbow and tipped him a depraved wink. "She has quite a way with words, don't you think?"

Dorin didn't have a response to that. Shekka was screaming so loud that ropes of drool were flying from her gnashing jaws and her bloodshot eyes were bugging out of their sockets.

"What must we do to set things right!? What must we do to appease our God!? What must we do to satisfy this burning hunger!? There is only one thing, brothers and sisters, one thing that can balance the scales! We must make them pay!"

Someone had dragged out the wardrums and was banging out a fast rhythm, matching it to Shekka's frenzied words. It quickly synched up with clapping hands and stomping feet, making a dull melody that was felt by the body just as much as it was heard by the ears. It travelled through the ground and up your legs in shuddering vibrations.

"We must make those traitors pay for every life they have taken from us! Every Wolf they have crippled! They took Banno, they took Garten, they took Hyker! And it was the very same curse that took Kadai! They mangled Irro so badly he nearly lost his arm! They crippled Denko! He'll have to use a cane for the rest of his life! They pierced Ivio through his hands and feet and he considers himself lucky that was all! Even Dorin nearly lost his life fighting against the thrall my only son has become! I say, no more! I've had enough! I refuse to stand idle and watch disaster after disaster befall my people! The ones who did this, the ones who have trampled over everything we hold dear, where are they now?"

Hundreds of voices joined into one. "With the Foxes!"

"They're right there! Just beyond our sacred mountain!" Shekka pointed her gnarled finger at the pointed peaks. "They murder our sons and then they flee into the night! The cowards! They're right there, less than a day away! Mocking us! Laughing at us! This is not right!"


"What are we going to do about it!? How will we make them pay!?"

Wardo clapped Dorin on the shoulder as the Wolves went crazy all around them, their bodies jerking with paroxysms of ecstatic fury. "This is my cue," he whispered, stepping forward to join Shekka by the pyre.

The breeze picked up just then, making the fire sigh and moan. Embers swirled into the air and the blazing cloth lifted from Hyker's face. It was only for a fraction of a second, but the face beneath that cloth made Dorin step back in horror, unsure if what he was seeing was even real, or just another hallucination brought on by guilt.

Hyker's face was shrouded in flame, but beyond the dancing tongues of fire there was a grinning skull, its toothless jaws barely held together by half-burnt strips of meat and sinew, and it was filled with thin slits in the bone, black lines of shadow that seemed to reach all the way to the inside, as if he had been stabbed over and over by a furious hand.

The breeze died and the flaming cloth dropped back down, covering Hyker's face once again.

Dorin stood frozen. Was it just his imagination? Was he mistaking blood and shadow for holes that weren't really there? Hyker was half-burnt, after all, just a pile of blackened meat and bones by now, he couldn't possibly know for sure. Maybe those were cracks caused by Danado? Maybe that tree really did do a lot of damage beneath the surface, and he simply wasn't aware of it. Or maybe...

Maybe their new Chieftain was even crazier than he thought.

Wardo spoke up, raising his voice for all to hear. "My people! Our esteemed witchdoctor has asked a simple question: 'How will we make them pay?' I know the answer!"

Dorin could hear two versions of that voice. The one in the real world, egging his people on, and the one in his head, whispering quietly, so that only he could hear.

Very soon, I will have Wolves and Foxes alike bowing at my feet. And those that do not... well, we know where they'll end up, don't we?

"Let my words echo across this land and never be forgotten! Let my deeds stand as testimony to the greatest Chieftain to ever grace this tribe! I say we march upon the home of the Foxes and we take back what is ours! We will seize the traitors and drag them back, kicking and screaming, to stand trial for what they've done! And if the Foxes try to stop us, we will burn their homes to the ground! We will kill them! Men, women and children all! We will take their lands for ourselves, so that we can reign over both sides of the mountain, so the Cora can look down in any direction and smile upon his people! We are Wolves! We were born to fight, to kill, to dominate all who stand in our way! Today, my people, today..."

The noise was overwhelming. Wolves were shouting and cheering so loudly that Dorin could barely hear himself think.

This is impossible. This cannot be happening...

That smile. That hideous, monstrous smile. Let me worry about what's impossible and what's not. I'll take care of everything...

Wardo raised his arms to either side in a startling imitation of the Cora statue, his faced turned up to the sky and his mouth opened wide. "Today... WE GO TO WAR!!"

All the strength ran out of Dorin's legs. He would have keeled right over if there weren't so many bodies pressing against his, jostling him this way and that, jumping up and down with joy, screaming at the top of their lungs. There was so much noise he feared he might go deaf.

"Don't you people realize what you're cheering for!?" he shouted, cupping his hands around his mouth, but his voice was a merely a drop of water in the ocean, quickly drowned out. "Listen to me! This is madness! Madness!"

No one paid him any heed. Even the Wolves standing right next to him didn't show any indication that they had heard a word he said. They were too busy punching the air, roaring their approval, singing praises to the Cora and their Chieftain. He was caught in a maelstrom of voices, buried inside the crowd, slowly being crushed by the weight of it all.

He saw her pushing through the crowd, standing out like the first autumn leaf simply because her face was the only one not twisted by a perverted pleasure.

It was Aisa, struggling to make it to the front, screaming something. Screaming...

"Leave my daughter alone! She's suffered enough already! Leave her alone! Leave her alooone!!"


Dorin lowered his head and ploughed through the crowd shoulder-first, shoving Wolves out of his way, knocking some of them to the ground in his haste, not caring when they shouted curses or tried to make a grab for his ankles, only focussing on not losing track of her tearful face.

She was just ahead, trying desperately to squeeze through the front row, reaching for the empty space around the pyre like a drowning woman.

Dorin seized her by the hand and pulled her back, but it wasn't easy. She twisted around and gave him a good punch right in the gut, doubling him over.

"Let go of me!" she screamed, punching every bit of him she could reach. "They're going to kill my daughter! I have to stop them! Let me go! Let me -"

Dorin didn't plan for it to happen, it just did. He reached back and slapped her across the face. The sound was nicely covered up by the clapping of hundreds of pairs of hands all around them, not that anyone would have particularly cared even if they had noticed. "You're going to get yourself killed!" he shouted into her stunned face. "Don't you see? You're doing the exact same thing for your daughter what she did for Hezzi! Do you understand now!?"

She looked at him, her eyes wide and unblinking. Her mouth opened and closed, opened and closed, but Dorin couldn't tell if she was actually saying anything.

She shut her eyes and an explosive sob ripped through her body. Dorin couldn't hear it above the noise, but he could feel the force of her convulsions. Tears streamed from her eyes and ran down her cheeks, somehow all the more painful for their silence.

He grabbed her by the shoulders. "I'll talk to him!" His throat was getting hoarse from all the shouting. "He'll listen to me, so you just stay here! Don't do anything!"

She nodded, her lips trembling, snot leaking from her nose.

What the hell am I going to say? he thought as he pushed his way to the front. What can I possibly say to put a stop to this?

Wardo's smile grew even wider as he saw his 'right-hand Wolf' approach. "Dorin!" he beamed. "Come up here! Do you have something to say?"

Dorin nodded and Wardo motioned for the crowd to quiet down. It was eerie, the speed with which such a tumult died away to excited whispers. He might as well have calmed a storm with a single wave of his hand.

"People! My right-hand wants to speak! He's the head of our mighty warriors, the Wolf who will lead the charge! Dorin!"

Cheers and applause as Dorin stepped up to Wardo's side. He looked out at the sea of faces, staring back at him in utmost anticipation. Aisa was among them, clasping her hands together just like Renna used to, her eyes pleading with him to do something.

The pyre was beginning to crumble, the blackened branches cracking and buckling under their own weight. Chunks of burning coals dropped down and rolled over the ground. Hyker's body had already been reduced to a charred heap of bones, lightly balanced atop the failing construction. If he really did see what he thought he saw, it was already too late. The evidence was going up in smoke.

I should have seen this coming. I should have known...

Wardo slapped his hand down on Dorin's shoulder and regarded him with that kindly smile, that smile that was all teeth and gums. "What have you got to say to your people, Dorin?"

I should have let Lana kill you.

"Going to war is a mistake." There. It's out. It can't be taken back.

Wardo frowned, but his smile did not fade. The crowd was still for a moment, then started to rile up, throwing curses and insults, but Wardo simply raised his hand and it all quieted down again. "Why do you say that, Dorin?" His voice was perfectly calm. It was the same way he had spoken to Shekka after Lana had nearly run him through, and Dorin was once again reminded of an arm wrestling contest, except this wasn't a one-on-one challenge. Wardo had the strength of the entire tribe pushing for him, and he knew it.

There was one thing Dorin could do to put a definite stop to this, but he didn't know if he could pull it off. He was still injured from the last time, and he hadn't gotten any sleep last night.

"Well, Dorin? Please explain to us why you want those traitors to go free. Explain why you want their sins to go unpunished. Explain why you want the souls of our fallen comrades to suffer, unable to find peace."

He's pushing me. He's pushing me down. He's going to win at this rate...

Just speak the truth. His silver words cannot twist that.

Dorin started to talk, and the longer he went, the easier it became. "It's the middle of winter. The forests are thick with snow. You expect me to send my men over the mountain, into the Foxes' territory, with no knowledge of the terrain or our enemy save for the scant bit you yourself brought back before becoming Chieftain? We know nothing of their armaments or their fighting abilities. None of us have ever seen a Fox up close except for that one girl you caught, and that tells us nothing. All we know is that they outnumber us two to one. If we try to march through the mountain in this weather we'll only show up dead tired and freezing. I don't care if they're half our size, an arrow to the neck is fatal no matter who shoots it. Our previous Chieftain had the same concerns, and he was right to have them."

The crowd was still murmuring, but no one was trying to challenge his words. That's because all of them were true, and you can't fight the truth.

Dorin pressed the attack, driving his point home. "I'm not saying we should forget about our fallen friends or the justice still owed to them. I just believe that we cannot give them true peace with a vainglorious rush for revenge that will only cost even more lives in the end, the lives of our friends and brothers!" He turned to the crowd. "Or is that what you want? For our wives and sisters and daughters to burn a grid of empty pyres for those that never come back? Even if we do defeat the Foxes, the price will be unnecessarily high. I _know_this. That is why I believe we should wait until spring and only gather information until then. Once the days become warm again, we can have our revenge."

That should buy us a month or two, at the very least, Dorin thought. Maybe it'll be enough to think of something more lasting. Or, if everything else fails, it should be enough time for my arm to heal. I only hope it won't come to that. Wolves who oppose Wardo directly have an unfortunate tendency to end up burning. Hell, even those who don't can end up with an early pyre.

Wolves grumbled and sneered, but none of them made any arguments. They couldn't. Good old logic. It was the one thing that could never be argued against, no matter how hard you tried.

Unless you were insane.

Wardo crossed his arms over his gaudy necklace and said, "No."

Dorin couldn't have heard him right. "Excuse me, Chieftain?"

"I said NO!" He wasn't smiling anymore. "I am sick of waiting, Dorin! I have waited my entire life, and I refuse to wait an hour longer! I am finally getting everything I deserve out of life, and not you, not your pretty arguments, not even the Cora himself will stand in my way! My people want war, and war is what they'll get!"

The crowd roared its approval. Aisa looked from face to face, wracked with worry. He'd have to do something right now or else everything he had built on would fall apart.

"We're not ready, Chieftain!" he yelled above the rising tumult. "You sent eight warriors out on a mission and only seven survived! Half of those that came back are barely able to stand! My men are strong, but most of them have never been in a life or death fight! Give me time to train them up, or else the same thing will happen again, only on a much larger scale!"

"I kept you by my side to temper ambition with caution, but this is going way beyond caution, Dorin! This is cowardice!"

"Cowardice? Really, Sai? Let me show you something. Let me show all of you!" He scanned the crowd, searching until he found the right face. "Denko! Get over here!"

"What? Why me?"

"Just get over here! Right now!"

Denko did his very best, and Dorin was once again struck by the wrongness of such a young Wolf walking around with a cane. He hoped the others would feel the same thing, watching his slow, painful progress to the front.

"Do you see!?" Dorin thundered. "One arrow did this! One arrow! How many of you are ready to face a thousand of those flying through the air? Look!" He reached down and ripped the leaves off Denko's leg, exposing the wound beneath, the malformed knee all slathered up with animal grease and coagulated blood.

There was a sharp intake of breath from those at the front, but Shekka was evidently not impressed. She walked right up to Dorin and poked him in the chest with a bony finger, her veiny, blood red eyes staring right through him. "That is pure speculation!" she screamed, showering his face with spit. "We don't know if the Foxes have bows and arrows, or any weapons at all!"

"The fact that we don't know makes it worse, not better!" Dorin screamed right back.

"I don't care! I want my son back!"

Wardo would have had your son assassinated last night if it weren't for me. Dorin came within a hair's breadth of saying that out loud. Even after he managed to stop himself, he considered going ahead and saying it anyway, exposing Wardo for the backstabbing coward he really was, but there were too many problems with that.

First of all, Dorin didn't have any proof. Wardo could simply deny the whole thing. Even if he got Denko and the others to testify with him, they'd only be slitting their own throats, since they had agreed to the deed. To make matters worse, Danado was the brother of a she-wolf who was hated even before she had made an attempt on the Chieftain's life. Hezzi wasn't exactly popular either, not after Ander's trial. There was a very good chance both of them would have ended up being executed anyway. Most Wolves would only be angry that the double assassination had almost taken place in the middle of the night, while they were asleep, instead of in broad daylight where everyone could watch. But even if they were incensed, even if they strung Wardo and all his men up to be eaten alive by crows (Dorin included), it still wouldn't make a difference. This tribe wanted war, and war was what they would get, with or without a Chieftain. The fact that they were so riled up over Hyker's death was proof enough. Nobody really cared for Hyker. This was never about Hyker. They just want bloodshed, and any excuse, no matter how frail, would suffice.

Sacrificing himself and all his men wouldn't be enough. If Dorin stood any chance of diverting this flow, he'd need to stay alive to do it.

But how? He needed more time!

Shekka wasn't done yet. "It was the Foxes that killed Kadai! It was their curse that infected Ander and then spread it to my love! It's because of them I'm all alone in this world! But no more! I am going to get my son back! And I will tear out the throat of any Fox that gets in my way! I will make them pay for destroying my family! And Dorin, if you get in my way, I will do the same to you!"

The crowd erupted. Cheers filled the air, so loud they were even drowning out the steady beat of the drums.

They don't know what they cheer for. They don't know what it really feels like.

No. But what makes you think they'll feel the same way you did once they find out?

Wardo stepped up, his smile back on his face. "It seems the tribe has spoken, Dorin. Any further argument is pointless."

"But the men are not ready!" Dorin knew he was grasping at straws at this point, but it was the only thing he had left.

"How much time do you need to get them prepared?"

"I'll need at least... three weeks to -"

"I'll give you three days. That's all the time you need to get the rust off."

"Y-Yes, Chieftain. Thank you. I'm sure that will greatly improve our odds."

Wardo raised his arms in the air. "People! Listen to me! Three days from now, at the crack of dawn, we will go to war!"

The drums had lost all semblance of a beat. The drummers were just pounding them as hard and as fast as they could. Wolves were screaming, cheering, going crazy. They'd been craving this for months, maybe even years. Ander put a stop to it the first time, but Dorin didn't think that would happen again, not when the lives of children were at stake. Even if they did come back with their hands bound and set their necks upon the chopping block willingly, it wouldn't be enough. It would never be enough.

Why? Because Lana was right. She was right about everything.


Aisa had been pushed to the edge by the swelling crowd. She was clutching at her hair with claws that had been chewed down to stubs, frantically trying to look in every direction at once like a frightened mouse caught in a trap. She had tried so hard to keep her daughter outside the execution circle. Looking in from the outside was safe. Throwing rocks at the poor souls stuck on the inside was safe. Doing the biting, the scratching, the cursing, that was safe. Being part of the crowd was safe. Being an animal was safe. All of it was safe, as long as you could stay outside the circle. But now... now Renna was right in the middle and she didn't even know it.

All right. I have three days to stop a war, during which I must prepare an army to go to war. I must... by the Cora how am I going to do this?

Dorin clutched his wrist and curled his fingers into a fist. The pain was excruciating, almost bad enough to make him want to throw up.

If he couldn't think of a way to stop this madness before the three days were up, he'd have to do something drastic.

He only prayed he wouldn't end up getting lynched for it...

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Ander - Part 6: Subchapter 187

187 Kiana didn't think she had ever been in a formation quite as lopsided as this. She had Hezzi's arm slung over her shoulder, and she, in turn, had her arm slung over Valery's shoulder, whose knees were just about shaking under all the weight. Hezzi...

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Ander - Part 6: Subchapter 186

186 _Vallah! Get down from there before you break your neck!_ _But there's this huge bug up here, Father! You gotta see it! Its fangs are like, this big!_ She held her arms as far apart as they would go to indicate the sheer size of the mystery...

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Ander - Part 6: Subchapter 185

185 A deep, low-pitched creaking noise filled the mill. It was the kind of sound you'd hear right before a tree finally fell to the axe. It was the unnerving groan of wood under strain. Mateo had been pushing his shoulder up against what felt like a...

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