Slate wasn’t able to search for Pilotte that first night on the island, as he was swept up into a drinking game. He awoke early the next morning with a splitting headache, to stumble down the crumbling footpath from the camp to the beach as the dark purple clouds began to spray light morning mist on the island.
Hungover, Slate was turned around and around the darkened beach until he found a muddy path through the bush into the inner island. The path led him to what could only mockingly be called an arena, a filthy scrap of land surrounded with rotting seating where the pirates held their sick games. Just behind this space were the rusty iron and wooden cages that held the poor contestants.
Slate found poor Pilotte wheezing in the dirt in one of the cages. The wulf recognized him and leapt at the fence, whimpering.
“Shhh!” Slate whispered, to little effect. He found the latch to Pilotte’s cage unlocked, and opened it. The wulf limped on shaky legs to nuzzle his cold nose into Slate’s chest.
“What’d they do to you? Come on friend, we’re getting out of here,” Slate said, petting Pilotte’s matted fur softly.
As the two began to leave, Slate noticed a matterwall in the cage next to Pilotte’s. The creature looked barely alive. Its left eye was missing, the socket scarred over, and its fur was clumped with dried blood and mud. Slate whistled softly and then reached a hand into the cage to try to get the matterwall’s attention, but the animal could barely lift its head from the rain puddle it sat in. Slate did manage to attract the attention of a woodbear on the other side of the path that ran between the two rows of cages. The woodbear roared something terrible at Slate, not so much in anger but as a statement of indignation. It charged the front of its cage, slamming against the bars violently and shaking the walls, over and again. The cage looked ready to fall apart.
“These poor things,” Slate said, looking around at all the miserable animals. We can’t leave them here, Pilotte.”
Most of the cages had locks. After an unsuccessful search for keys in a hut at the end of the path, Slate went to inspect one of the locks further and realized that it was simply hanging on the cages from the inside. It wasn’t activated. Nor, did it seem, were any of the locks.
Slate was removing one of the locks when the cage’s occupant, a horny clovoxen, appeared as if from nowhere to crash into the almost-open door. The door flew open with Slate in front of it, throwing him back into the mud. The latch slammed back down, and the clovoxen charged again.
Slate sat up in the mud and thought. He couldn’t just set the delirious animals free, as they might trample or kill him unintentionally. Or, maybe, intentionally. He didn’t see why they should have anything but contempt for human beings. Searching around for some idea of what to do, knowing that Hatty was supposed to be waiting for him on the beach, Slate saw that the tops of the cages had slats he could probably walk on. From there, he reasoned, he would be able to open the cages without endangering himself.
“You’ll protect me, right, Pilotte?” he asked the wulf watching on.
Pilotte stood up a bit taller in a show of solidarity.
Slate scaled a tree growing next to one of the cages, jumped on top, and then laid down on his stomach and undid the door latch. The cage swung open, and a sickly-looking raelwulf with his tail between his legs slipped out and disappeared silently into the jungle.
The next cage contained a dalcrag, a hairy creature with a great hard plate for a forehead that was circling its cage in a rut it had worn into the mud. The dalcrag ran at the door of its cage once Slate opened it, knocking it clear off its hinges. The animal then began a wild charge, all about the arena and the holding area. It smacked its head into the other cages and tore down the hut at the end of the pathway as it rampaged, before hurtling into the jungle brush after the raelwulf.
Slate released a jix next, which raced after the dalcrag. Then there was the poor matterwall that couldn’t even bring itself to stand when offered freedom. Slate swung down to the ground from atop its cage and tried to urge the animal out, but soon realized that it was too late. He wished he had some way of putting the creature out of its misery, or that one of the hungry other creatures would make a noble end of its life and eat it.
As Slate backed out of the matterwall’s cage, the dalcrag he had freed reappeared in a charge straight toward him, pursued by the jix. The dalcrag came so quickly that Slate wasn’t able to move out of the way, and the creature collided with him, hard. The blow was so intense that Slate was lifted clear up off the ground and thrown back down into the mud. The dalcrag then disappeared into the jungle once more, honking wildly, as the jix who had been after it now sank down and coiled its massive back legs to leap at Slate. It growled and flashed its fangs, and Slate’s heart began to beat so hard that he could hear it. The jix sprang forward. In those few milliseconds that felt like an eternity Slate sat petrified, watching the creature three times the size of Pilotte soar through the air toward him with its huge jaws wide open and its teeth glistening in the dawn.
Before Slate had time to think of how he might save himself, Slate was overtaken by the Pilotte’s shadow, as the wulf leapt up over his back to meet the jix in mid-air. Pilotte sank his sink teeth down into the jix’s neck before the two had alighted back to the ground. The jix howled and wailed as Pilotte fell upon it. Slate scrambled up, his back burning with pain from the dalcrag blow. There couldn’t have been much time left now.
“Pilotte, come on!” he said, watching as his battered friend growled and gnashed its teeth to keep the jix at bay.
Slate swallowed hard and ran the entire length of the holding area, throwing open the latches on all the cages as he went. The whole menagerie of animals, in all states of health and anger, sprang from their captivity now, some to briefly quarrel with one another, most to disappear out through the jungle onto the beach.
When the area was clear, Slate and Pilotte headed down the path toward the beach themselves. There, a few pirates had already been surprised by the wild creatures running rampant in the morning sun. Some of the animals were washing their wounds in the salt water, others were just running, without direction, stretching their sore legs on the sand. And others still were setting on their captors. Slate watched a walecat overtake one of the pirates, pushing him down to the ground with its massive paws and then making ground meat out of his back. A dalcrag was following behind another of the men, looking like it was enjoying knocking its toy back down every time he got up to run away.
Slate watched as more and more of the pirates flooded the beach and the scene grew increasingly gruesome, while the crews on the decks of the arriving trading ships looked on in confusion. Amidst the carnage, Slate espied what could only have been Hatty, charging right through the melee on the beach and diving into the water. He was headed for the sloop, it seemed. Surprisingly, it looked as if he was actually going to uphold his end of the plan.
Some of the quicker-thinking pirates took to the salty water of the bay after Hatty, and a few had even thought to head for the sloop that he soon reached and began to ready. Slate watched a well-placed kick from Hatty dislocate one of the pirates as she was trying to scale the side of the craft. When Slate next saw the main sail fall, after she did, he knew it was now or never.
He and Pilotte ran full speed across the beach, dodging a charging ginkoiz and diving outstretched into the water when they came to it. They swam furiously, and managed to reach the sloop before many others. Hatty helped pull Slate aboard, and then Slate Pilotte, and then it was left to Slate to throw off any others that should try to board their sloop as Hatty finished preparations. Slate grabbed a loose plank and swatted at the hands of the men and women attempting to board while Pilotte roared and snapped at them.
The steady stream of island refugees looked poised to become unmanageable when Hatty finally announced the sloop was ready. He loosed the mizzen sail and the craft spun slowly around in the wind, to point toward the end of the bay and the open ocean sparkling beyond. Slate had racked up quite a score of thwarted pirates and was a little disappointed when the boat began to move and leave the rest behind. The freed animals were still wreaking havoc on shore, the pirates still running for their lives and losing the race. Slate laughed at the scene, bid it good riddance, and waved at the bewildered passengers on one of the arriving trading ships as the sloop passed out of the bay and into the rougher swells of the open ocean.