Pallys treated the Rat medically. The old Rabbit knew a lot about injury treatment, of course, and the stock of medicine and bandages aboard was well-kept - the 'Silver Ansicc', after all, was equipped for travels far off any city where the crew didn't see any doctor for weeks.
Khiray knew a little about medicine, but not nearly enough; he could stop a bleeding or put a splint on somebody's leg, in short, he could help with injuries that frequently occurred on the river. But an acid-burned hand like Kaslin-Ray's was beyond his knowledge.
He could not even say whether the Rat would ever be able to use his hand again: the fur was burned away completely, skin and flesh corroded and turned brownish black as if from extreme heat. The fingers were bent to claws, and the last joints seemed to miss from the last two fingers.
Fortunately, Kaslin-Ray was still unconscious. Pallys smeared foul-smelling ointment on the acid burn and eyed the injury sorrowfully. "We'll have to amputate those two fingers", he explained to Saljin who was assisting him.
Khiray cleared his throat. "May I help with something?"
Pallys shook his head. "You sail the ship, I look for the patient. Unless you can work a miracle."
"In the last time I just work catastrophes", the Fox stated soberly.
"Nonsense!" the Rabbit said sharply. "You give your best. We all give our best. Kaslin-Ray is tough, he won't die that easily. If we arrive in Drun'kaal before the Demons do, all those problems will end. Then there'll be time enough to pity ourselves, sing our own praises, scream at each other or damn ourselves to hell. Heat the boilers!"
Khiray left the cabin and looked out for the Otters. Most of them sat around on the afterdeck. Some had already recovered from the terror and ran playfully around or explored the ship, but most Otters still had the shock written all over their faces. Even the easy-going, merry Otters didn't take the loss of their home lightly.
Shooshun and Pakkaht looked after them. Sarmeen talked to Fryyk in a mixture of sign-language and painfully uttered sounds - both seemed all but happy.
"Ten of them jumped overboard already", the Deer reported. "They didn't like to be crammed in here." Crammed in? That was obviously a typical Otter exaggeration. No one kept them, they could move freely all over the ship. Although the 'Silver Ansicc' wasn't designed for so many passengers it had enough room for all of them; they hadn't any freight aboard, after all.
Khiray frowned. Going overboard didn't worry him, they were Otters, born to the water. But the Demons still lurked somewhere. "We're still too near by the village!"
"Do you believe the Demons are still waiting for them there?"
The Fox thought about it for a moment. "No, probably not. They are not interested in the Otters, and they don't have time to hunt them. They know Galbren's plans, but even if the governor wants to eliminate them all for their knowledge, he can never be sure that he's gotten them all. He doesn't know how many they are or whom they told their story already. The only thing he can do is to deny everything and to hope that the rumors will peter out. Demons belong to the realm of fiction."
"Right", Fryyk said behind him. "But maybe he'll set the Demons on every Otter on the river."
Khiray turned around and shook his head. "He cannot do that. The more often he uses his Demons, the more witnesses will be there, the more tracks an Archangel may follow." He had to ask Pallys what an Archangel could truly do. "If he was able to depopulate the Otterpath with a single blow, he'd probably do it without wasting a second thought - but as it is, he can only hope that the whole story will be dismissed as the tale of some hysterical Otters whose village burned down during an outlaw attack."
"We will spread the truth", Fryyk announced with determination. "Everywhere. Galbren won't find a calm moment anymore. Everyone on the Otterpath will know. And our ships will carry that 'tale' over all of the Armygan."
"Is that wise?" the tall Deer asked. "It will draw Galbren's attention for sure. And it will make him angry. Never turn the eye of the mighty upon yourself."
Fryyk gave him a black look. "We are Otters! We don't give a shit on your mighty! We do whatever pleases us. And we won't let Galbren get anywhere with his pissy plans!"
Khiray wondered whether the Otter's support would make a difference. They hadn't been involved with this from the beginning. Possibly they weren't even of one mind about the events in their own village. Their stories would contradict each other. And even if not, how believable would they be?
Had he believed a tale like this?
The reports of the Otters would peter out. Maybe they were told in the whole Armygan, but as a kind of legend, blown up and made more interesting - but unfortunately farther and farther apart from the truth - by frequent re-telling. One story among many others which were passed on to the Drunlord day after day. Without Sarmeen as proof, without himself and Pallys and Saljin as witnesses, Kooradah would do nothing at all.
"The journey continues", Khiray explained resolutely. "Fryyk, could you persuade some Otters to help us?"
"With what?" the Otter demanded to know.
"There are straw bales in the front cargo hold. We'll have to fix them at certain points outboards, so they'll dampen the impact if we hit a rock. Normally we just use them in harbor on the mole side... I fear we haven't got enough of them to secure all sensitive spots on the ship's hull, and I don't even know if they are of much use when the 'Ansicc' runs against a cliff at full speed. But we'll have to try."
Fryyk noddod and barked some words at the Otters. The idle Furrys looked at each other, then some decided that all the waiting bored them and that they could use some work as well. Led by Khiray, they rose and began working.
The 'Silver Ansicc' now moved at maximum speed, furthered by the swift torrent of the river. Viewed from the ship, the speed didn't impress much, except if one was an experienced riverfurry and felt the pressure of the water against the hull when the vessel rose and dove in a narrow passage or fought against the rudder in a powerful current. But Khiray knew that a good runner could manage hardly more than twelve kilometers per hour - a Deer, at least - and couldn't keep up that speed for more than an hour. The slower runners - like Foxes or Wolves - had more stamina, but a fast sprint did cost them more energy. A rider on a horse made faster progress, but even horses tired. On short distances they could outrun the ship with thrice its speed, but only in adventure stories the heroes could gallop from city to city in such a neckbreaking rush.
Machines didn't tire. The 'Ansicc' could go on all day at this speed, and if Delley cared for the engines, they might cover all the way to Drun'kaal likewise. Apart, of course, from the rapids and the necessity to fill up their provisions. The Otters had to eat; they couldn't catch a fish as long as the noisy ship drove all fish away to the banks, and a hundred hungry mouths made the scarce stock food - that should have been sufficient for nine Furrys for all the way to Drun'kaal - disappear within a single day.
But the Demons traveled faster still...
The physical work drove some of the brooding thoughts from Khiray's mind, but when the ship was fully equipped with straw bales as well as possible, they returned again. He stood at the bow and let his head drop. Doing nothing was the worst part of the journey.
Saljin accompanied him after a while. "Shouldn't you take the wheel now? The river looks quite fast to me."
Khiray shook his head. "Kinnih will manage it. Pakkaht looks out for problems. Delley tries to keep the engines running. Shooshun entertains the Otters. How's Kaslin-Ray doing?"
"Not too well, but he lives. Pallys prepares more of his herbs for him. Probably he'll get a fever. - You should sleep a while."
"I can't close my eyes."
Silently they watched the river. Meanwhile, the forest rose at their right in a steep slope, and the first mountains were visible far away. They would stay far away, of course, the river didn't flow upwards, even if it certainly looked that way. But the surrounding terrain would become more rocky still until they reached Dorn's Rapids, flowing through gorges and in narrow winding paths, and the torrent would not end until well behind Bear Mountain.
Persistent bushes clung to the rock. The hillsides were covered by spruces and firs. There were no animals visible or audible - as far as they hadn't been driven away by the pounding engines or the view of the rotating paddle-wheels, nofurry could hear them anyway over the ship's sounds. The river roared, boiled, hissed.
A rock merlon towering over the river - a well-known and popular point of orientation for the Otters - roused astonishment among the involuntary passengers. Fryyk showed Khiray his respect in passing. "I didn't know mere steamers could be that fast."
The Fox just nodded. They might be as fast as they wanted - nothing could outrace Gate. The Demon could create an ambush for them, anywhere, anytime.
"I wonder if there are many Trolls here", Saljin mused.
Khiray shrugged. "I've never seen a Troll. Do they live here, anyway?"
"They don't reveal themselves readily." Saljin looked over the landscape. "They rather stay among themselves. I don't know whether they are really solitary or whether there are some secret Troll cities under the ground, anyway, they mostly live in groups of three and four. After I learnt their language, they became a little more approachable. We were surprised when we finally recognized all the spots where Trolls lived, in our territory. Probably there are many of them here as well, they just don't come out of hiding."
The thought was rather creepy for Khiray. But fortunately Trolls lived only on rocky terrain - as far as Saljin knew -, and the Armygan was mostly swamp and forests.
Did the Bears of Bear Mountain know something about Trolls? It was possible. He had to learn firsthand that Foxtaurs were not uncommon in Drun'kaal, while he himself had never seen them. Why shouldn't the reclusive Bears possess similar knowledge of the Trolls, knowledge that never (or only in form of stories) found its way out to the Armygan?
Maybe there was a powerful magician among the Trolls who could destroy the Demons. Or could call an Archangel, at least, to clean up the whole mess. Khiray was surely not a violent Fox, but at the current moment he had no dearer wish than to own a big magical hammer to crush the Demons with, one after another.
But he suspected that there couldn't be a solution as easy as that. They would have to fight for their lives, day after day, and who knew what would happen in this time?
Pallys tapped him on the shoulder. "Kaslin-Ray's asleep. I told the Otters to care for him a little, and informed Delley."
Khiray nodded. He felt tired and weary as if he had to treat the Rat all by himself. "You can sleep a wink. The journey will get bumpy some hours from now."
The Rabbit nodded but did not go away.
"Khiray?" he finally said.
"The staff. There's almost no energy left within it. I used it all to kill the Demon."
Staff? Khiray winked. The magical staff? Their only weapon that had proved effective against the Demons! "Then we can't afford to meet any Demon again."
"Maybe even the empty staff scares them away", Saljin advised. "They could be bluffed."
Pallys pulled the staff out and weighed it in his hand. "Demons are not bluffed that easily. They feel magic. I told you, they have a certain relationship with it. And they do not really fear death; if they did, they wouldn't have come into this Sphere."
"They can wait for us anywhere", Khiray reminded him. "We may not be able to avoid them."
"One or two barriers should be possible with the staff." Pallys started to explain long-windedly how to activate that function. The point was that anyone could command the staff through mere thought. The Rabbit gave the staff to Khiray.
"What am I supposed to do with it?" The Fox waved the magical gadget. "You know better how to wield it."
"Maybe. But you have to carry it when you set out from Bear Mountain."
Khiray sighed. He was tired of all this secrecy. "Set out to where? Why don't you come with me? Do you want to leave the ship?"
"On the contrary. You will leave the ship." Pallys frowned, and suddenly he looked as vigorous as years ago when Khiray met him for the first time. "We need a weapon that works reliably against the Demons. Without a tool like that we are lost. I'm no magician, I can't fill up the energy of the staff. But there is a magician in Bear Mountain, or rather, some kilometers inland. His name is Ghanzekk; he's a Leopard. I got this staff from him. He knows how to fill it up, maybe he has got more of them even."
The Fox clenched his fist. "And I learn of him only now?" As much as he wanted to understand the Rabbit, he simply couldn't. "Our lives depend on information like this! And you tell me now, after we almost reached Bear Mountain? Someone has got a useful weapon against Demons, a weapon that can be wielded by everyone, and you didn't even want to travel the Otterpath?"
"Look at the river", Pallys complained. "It's foaming already, and we haven't even reached Dorn's Rapids. It was madness to sail on the Otterpath."
"And you knew I'd come here in any case if I knew that there's a magician at Bear Mountain with those abilities! So you kept quiet."
"No... no! That wasn't my intention! But... you must understand, I knew Ghanzekk forty years ago. Maybe he doesn't live there anymore, or he has even died. It is just a slim chance... I wouldn't wager my life on it if I had any choice. It would have been better never to travel the Otterpath at all but to take the easy route. Then we never had to moor at the village, never had to fight the Demon, Kaslin-Ray would not have been hurt, and the staff would still be fully powered."
Khiray slowly nodded. "You didn't think a single time of leaving the choice to me. You made the decision in my place by simply not telling us about Ghanzekk at all. You manipulate us by only trusting us with information that'll lead us on a path you like."
"We ain't on a path I like", the Rabbit pointed out. "And we'd have been safer on the other river. I was right all the time."
"You cannot know that!" Khiray exploded. "Maybe the Demons waited for us there, and we'd be dead all along! Why do you keep all those things for yourself? What else do you know? How do you expect me to be your captain if you don't trust me with the vital details? By the Gods, Pallys, I have to make decisions that mean life or death for all of us, and you..."
"I am very old, and I have seen a lot", Pallys quietly said. "Maybe you are simply too young as captain."
"I understand", Khiray stated bitterly. "You think I'm incompetent, so you make the decisions in your own estimation."
"There are things you can't know..."
"Then explain them to me! Stop talking your way out of things! You lied: you know the Demons, you already fought them! Pallys, I thought you were a friend! How am I supposed to believe you anymore?"
The Rabbit stiffened. "Those are personal things. They can't be of use to us in this battle. I told you everything I know, everything that may help us."
The Fox looked in his eyes. "You're still lying."
"You want to hear the whole truth?"
Pallys smiled hopelessly. "The Armygan is lost. None of the magicians in Drun'kaal has the necessary knowledge to defeat the Demons. Even all of them together could only achieve a draw against the Demons. Azzhuzzim Beladanar can always conjure a giant army from Hell to level Drun'kaal. If we manage to get to the capital, Galbren's plans are thwarted, but not those of the Demons. Beladanar fears the Archangels, but that fear is not as big as his pride, his fury or his lust for revenge. And maybe he has found a means to defeat an Archangel in all those years in Hell. You may get to Drun'kaal, but the Drunlord won't stop the invasion."
"What?" Khiray asked, losing his composure.
"Why did you help us, then?" Saljin demanded to know. "If everything is lost and the Armygan will come to an end, why do you of all people accompany us on the journey?"
Pallys looked down. "You may not believe it, but... Khiray, you are more than just a friend to me. You have been almost like a son. You have talents you never really used. I'd be happy to see you attending a university. You could become a magician. You... How could I allow the Bears to kill you? I tried honestly to talk you out of this crazy plan. And after I faced the Demons, I didn't really have a choice, do I?"
"But your flight doesn't make sense! If the Demons conquer the whole Armygan, Drun'kaal will be defeated as well!" Khiray suppressed the urge to seize Pallys and shake him.
"You still don't understand. There are ships in Drun'kaal, and beyond Drun'kaal there's a whole world. I do not intend to stay in the capital. We could visit the Homelands, travel the Empire Dharwil, cross countries you didn't even hear about."
"You want to flee? Leave the Armygan to its fate? Hand over all our friends and relatives to the Demons?"
"Beladanar and the Drunlord's magicians will fight a monstrous battle, and the Armygan will suffer from a plague of Demons", Pallys confirmed. "I do not want to attend that battle. But sooner or later the Archangels will defeat the Demons. The Gods cannot allow the Hell creatures to roam the world freely. As soon as Beladanar is thrown down and the gates to Hell closed, the surviving Furryfolk will rebuild the Armygan. Even the Demons, even the most horrifying battle can't kill all and everyone. Some day there'll be a new Armygan, and the Demon war will be a thing of legend. Maybe I'll return then, in a thousand years or two."
"You are speaking of treason." The blood rushed in Khiray's temples almost louder than the river.
"I speak with the voice of reason. Aren't we doing everything already that we are able to do? Tell me what's the point in staying in Drun'kaal, sacrificing our lives? What for? To increase Kooradah's army by a few fighters who count nothing in the face of the Demons? We can warn the Drunlord, if he believes us. We can thwart Galbren's plans. Maybe I'm wrong, and Beladanar doesn't try to attack. Maybe he'll be content to drag Galbren to Hell. But the Demons have waited for a long time, and they are not well known for their patience. Beladanar can only be stopped by an Archangel, and to call one of those needs powers and knowledge that isn't found in the Armygan."
"Can you call an Archangel?"
"I'm not a magician", Pallys reminded him. "I'm just a Rabbit with some magical toys."
"Then everything is lost... everything..." Khiray felt the blood leaving his ears.
"Everything you ever knew. Everything you hoped for the future. When Beladanar attacks, death will sweep over the land, and even if you give everything you have, including your life, you won't stop that fate." Pallys turned brusquely and left.
"Gods..." Khiray murmured. He wished he hadn't forced Pallys to tell him the truth. But is was true. They had always hoped just to stop Galbren's conquest. They knew somehow that Beladanar might have an agenda of his own - but what form that might take, they had never wasted a thought upon.
A part of him wanted to accuse Pallys of cowardice, of treason, of desertion. But the Rabbit was right: they couldn't do more than warn Kooradah. That venture alone needed all their energy. What would come of it later wasn't in their hands anymore.
He wished he could warn all Furryfolk. But it was impossible: until the message - if it would be believed - had crossed the Armygan, the Demon war would have begun. And where to should they go?
And how could he stay in the Armygan when Pallys left? He didn't want to face the Demons again in a fight. They'd have no chance. It was a lost war, a war in which the magicians alone had any hope of survival.
He could just see himself and Saljin going aboard a ship - maybe to Foxtaur Territory, maybe to a land beyond. They would depart and the Armygan would stay behind...
...and he'd have betrayed his country, left his friends to the Demons, abandoned his acquaintances to their death. Because any alternative would include his death and nothing else. Because he had no choice.
And even if the war would not happen then, if Beladanar shied away from a confrontation, if the magicians called an Archangel nevertheless, if the Archangel appeared by himself, if the Gods themselves came down from the Heavens and crushed the Demon army - he would have to live forever with the knowledge of what he had done.
There was no choice but to take Delley and Kinnih and the others along, telling them what'd happen - to save the few he could save.
But he couldn't even tell them. It would mean to shatter their hopes in the face of an overpowering enemy. They hadn't got much more but hope. He had to remain silent. Saljin had to remain silent.
They looked at each other. And suddenly they knew what preoccupied Pallys. But it was too late to take back words once spoken.