2. The Secret of the Scythe and Stone

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Inside the tavern, Regina found only disarray. Candle sconces mounted to load-bearing pillars and oak archways provided only darkness beneath chairs that had been pushed away from their tables. Half-drained goblets were left to ripen the air with stale odours. Plates of foodstuffs lay abandoned to decay for a feast of flies. Dartboards hung in each corner of the main hall, each with clusters of forgotten feathered knives forever stuck to their numbered faces. Large wall posters that announced events of celebration for the coming Harvest Festival hung cast in shadow.

"Hullo?" Regina's voice filled the empty tavern hall. "Mama, are you here?"

Only the hiss of the rain outside answered.

Regina shivered, cold and damp. Clutching her tail close to her chest, she weaved between tables and overturned chairs, led by flexing nostrils – but even her mama's aroma had become lost to the stuffiness of soured drink, spoiled edibles, and faint remnants of fear.

Another scent filled Regina's nostrils. Blood.

The coppery odour was fresher than anything else in the tavern. Regina sniffed her way over to an impressive curved serving bar that spanned the majority of the tavern hall's right-hand side. Tall, velvet-seated stools stood pushed together around the serving bar like patches of metal trees. Some lay felled on their sides.

Regina hedged careful steps along the very edge of the bar with paw digits raking through bristled tail fur. The little skunk envisioned her mama cowering in the corner, licking at wounds. She imagined wild eyes, filled with pain and bemusement – widened, softening, at the realization that her daughter was not only safe and alive, but there with her. She heard her mama's voice call out to Regina and throw her arms wide open to embrace her.

"Mama!" Regina bounded around the edge of the bar with excitement in her heart. On the other side she found only darkened shelves and cabinets. A light breeze brushed against her shins. It was stagnant and rich with the scent of blood and ... food.

Regina's eyes fell upon dark ruby droplets between her footpads that trailed along the hardwood floor and vanished into shadows beyond the reach of the edge of the serving bar, where the breeze seemed to emanate from. She looked over-shoulder and saw that she had unwittingly followed a path of spilt blood this whole time.

It was then when she noticed planks of false hardwood leaned against the edge of the bar and an adjacent cupboard. Within the deep darkness, a secret hole appeared in the floor.

Regina carefully stepped around the hole and fell to her paws and knees to peer over the edge. Her nose twitched against the grip of damp earth from within. Just below the lip, an unsteady staircase made with rope railings and slabs of wood led down to dark soil exposed only by the dim light around Regina. Her shadow stretched across the cellar's distant dirt floor.

"Hullooo?" she called. "Mama, are you down there? ... Mama, it's me!"

Upon closer inspection, the rope staircase looked as though someone had gone at it with swift axe strokes, but had given up or had been pulled away in mid-process. A section of the upper part of the stairs was unfastened from the wall, causing the frame to sway unbalanced to one side where large nails kept the opposite end intact. The frame and railing sported deep gashes of unwinding manila and jute; splintered ends curled skyward like paw digits of a mammal reaching out in anguish.

Is Mama down there...?

The first step wobbled on uneasy threads beneath Regina's bare footpad. She clung to what secure rope remained, descending into the hidden cellar as twine further peeled and snapped all around her. Regina dared not to look down as she groped along. It was a long drop – at least, a long drop for a small skunk. Gravity pushed her body into the unbalanced frame, caused the ropes to burn into flesh beneath fur and tear into her grasping palms.

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