12. The Essence of Life and Mana

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Regina swallowed hard, looked up at Astral for any hope – any sort of response. But he was a statue of rigid terror.

Doane snapped his digits. "Taylor, go and see what treasures have come our way."

"Gladly, yeah." The muskrat drew a long and greasy tongue over chapped and blackened lips. "An old pig and a little skunk named Regina. Regina. That's a pretty name. Pretty name for a pretty skunk. Easiest pickings we've ever head, eh, Doane?" He drew a wide dagger free from a scabbard hanging above his tailbone, and started towards the cart on slow steps. "Pig, she sprays me face, I'll gut her wide open, get me?"

"Don't do this," Astral begged them. "Please. We've got nothing to—"


Astral cringed against a sudden force that threw him against the cart's bench seat. A pained groan left his lips as he fruitlessly tried to grip around the black bear's arrow, now buried deep into his chest. He sagged forward in his seat, tried to reach for Phalanx's reins, but fell side-long out of the cart and collapsed motionless in the dirt.

"Mister Ages, no!" Regina dove across the bench to go after him, when suddenly someone grabbed her by the tail. She swung around with a sharp yelp, and fell hard onto her back, nearly knocking the wind from her lungs. Taylor the muskrat towered over her, grinning down with wild, feral, eyes.

"C'mere, pretty Regina." Drool rolled down his lips in thin strands that pattered against the wooden bench. He drew Regina closer with another hard yank on her tail. Pain raked across her backside as he dragged her towards the edge of the bench seat. The serrations of his dagger glinted hungry in the sunlight.  "Let's see what treasures you lot have offered to us!"

"Let me go!" Regina kicked and thrashed at him. He found great amusement in this, and only started laughing even more. He wrangled Regina by the front of the poncho and dragged her completely off the bench seat, despite the rich scent of skunk fear on the wind. With a strong grip on the wood frame, he leaned out the side of the cart in a sweeping arc, with Regina squirming in mid-air and screaming for help at the top of her lungs.

"Lookie here, fellas! She's a feisty one!" Taylor cried out. "How old, ya think? Wonder if the underground will take her?"

"They won't take her so long as she reeks like that," Doane said, clamping a paw over his muzzle. "It's a gland, I think, that's how it happens. That's what I've heard, anyway."

Taylor pulled Regina in close and grinned deep into her terrified gaze. "Well then ... we'll just have to cut it out of you, won't we?"

"Please, no!" Regina sobbed. "Please—"

"Oh, Goddess, just kill her already," sighed Jonas as he thoroughly inspected a terrified Phalanx Andromedon head to toe. "Can't stand screamers. So unsightly."

"Lyla will love to hear those words outta your mouth. Those're words that get you killed on yer wedding night," said Doane.

"Lyla knows how I feel about children. Disgusting little beasts."

"And lose out on a bloodline? Risky talk, there, old boy."

"I'm sure it'll be a happy marriage." Jonas tilted Phalanx's chin, studying the visible veins in the mule's neck that pressed out against his grey tufts. "I dunno 'bout this one, boys. He's a bit old. What'd'ya say? Work? Trade? Or eat?"

"Been a while since breakfast. I could go for some stew," Doane said.

Phalanx let out a sharp bray of horror, and bit the air centimetres away from the black bear's groping claw.

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