Defenders Series 3: Siren of the Snows: Part Three
Fortunately nothing went wrong while the two heroes were sleeping, and the following morning they emerged from the tunnel into the bright morning sunlight none the worse for their stop. Steel contacted the Defenders headquarters to reassure them that he was alright- and had found Tech Tonic- before both of them set off into the snow once more.
At first, they travelled mostly in silence, following the Snowager’s trail of decimation as the robot doglefox scouted the area around them for any signs of trouble. At length, however, the hissi tentatively brooked, “Soooo… is it true that you once battled the great Turmaculus single-pawed and won?”
Steel gave a somewhat exasperated chuckle. “Always with that question.”
“W-well it’s one of your most famous feats of heroism,” Tech Tonic said defensively.
“Old Turmy just had a belly ache from eating a sack of rotten tomatoes,” Steel said, glancing back over his shoulder at the hissi with a nostalgic grin. “He was rampaging about from the pain and had gobbled up a few of Skarl’s knights which only made things worse because metal does not agree with petpet stomachs. I mostly just fought him into submission so he’d hold still long enough that one of the Meridellan apothecaries could give him a potion to make him spit up everything he’d eaten.”
“Oh,” the hissi shuddered. “That sounds um. Pleasant.”
“The knights he’d swallowed were badly in need of a shower after that,” Steel agreed. “All covered in gooey tomatoes and-”
“I really don’t need to know, it’s okay,” Tech Tonic said hurriedly, holding up his wings in front of him as if to stem the flow of Steel’s words.
“You asked,” the lupe admonished, his grin widening. “Nobody ever seems interested in that part, how strange.” He winked. “If you haven’t learned it already, you’ll pick up on this very soon, kiddo- more often than not our jobs are weird, gross, or just plain embarrassing. Stories tend to get skewed over time to sound way better than what actually happened.”
“Because the civilians want better gossip, yeah Judge Hog’s told me,” the young hero said, rubbing the back of his neck. “Still, sometimes the stories are just as awesome as-”
He broke off, stiffening. “D’you hear that?”
Steel glanced around sharply, his ears flicking. After a moment he frowned, shaking his head. “All I hear is the wild creatures. Birds. Snowbunnies.”
“It’s gone now,” Tech Tonic said, frowning. “That’s weird, I could’ve sworn I heard something.”
“We’ll keep our voices low in case it comes back,” Steel said softly. “What did it sound like?”
“Like… like…” he shrugged, rubbing his head. “I’m not sure, it’s hard to describe. Like hissing maybe?”
“Hm.” Steel looked around, ears straining, but still he didn’t hear anything. The robot emerged from the trees, its eyes flickering.
“Life signs: negative,” it chirped. “Defenders only organics present in range.”
“But noises can carry pretty far in these mountains,” Steel retorted. “Something might be there, out of your range. Keep your guards up and your beaks buttoned.”
“R-right,” Tech Tonic nodded. The two of them began to move forwards again, silent and on edge. To Steel’s consternation, the trail abruptly came to an end just ahead of them, the trees ranged in all directions undisturbed by the path of a giant ice wyrm.
“There another ice tunnel under the snow, you think?” He asked Tech Tonic. “Like the one you were hiding in. Would be a good way for Snowy to get back to his den.”
“Could be,” the hissi said. “Only one way to find out, I suppose.”
Before Steel could set to digging, as he’d done the previous evening to unearth Tech Tonic, the hissi bent down and placed both of his wings flat on the snow. After a moment, he lurched upright, and three huge rocks burst forth from the snow beneath him, hovering in midair. With a grunt of effort, Tech Tonic sent them rocketing forwards into the spot where the trail ended, and they plowed through the powder to tumble into a void of blackness hidden beneath.
“Well,” Steel said, eyebrow raised. “That’s quicker than digging, I guess. I just hope all that rumbling didn’t-”
“Shh!” the hissi said sharply, going stock stiff. Steel blinked, startled, but then he realized why Tech Tonic had stopped him talking- there was a noise coming from deep within the cavern. High, echoic, and melodious…
“Is that music?” he whispered incredulously.
“Awful music,” Tech Tonic muttered back, flinching. “It’s hurting my ears.”
Steel tilted his head. The sound wasn’t his idea of a great bedtime lilt, but he wouldn’t have classed it as painfully bad either. After a moment he shrugged, shaking his head. “Still- last I checked the Snowager isn’t a musician, so that means somebody is down there who shouldn’t be. We need to investigate. Should the robot stay behind, you think? Keep watch on the tunnel entrance in case this is a trap.”
At first Tech Tonic didn’t reply, his gaze still fixed on the tunnel entrance. When Steel coughed pointedly, he flinched and gave a distracted nod. “Sure. S-sure, that works. With his wiring exposed after you slashed him he’d be an electrical hazard in the tunnel anyway.”
He turned a wing up, typing something onto the back of one of his mechanical gloves- presumably an order for the robot. Once the doglefox had been stationed as sentinel at the entrance of the cave, Steel and Tech Tonic proceeded down into the darkness. The music was louder here, reverberating off the walls of the cave so that it seemed to be coming from all directions at once. Tech Tonic ground his teeth, putting both wings over his head to block his ear holes. Steel wanted to tell him not to be so dramatic, but he didn’t dare speak when his words might be carried by the echoes in the cave to whoever was playing an instrument in the Snowager’s tunnel.
“Ssssstop,” Tech Tonic suddenly hissed, making Steel flinch.
“Shh!” he shushed, but the hissi was ignoring him.
“Make it sssstop, it’sss killing me, it hurtssss-”
“Kid, shut up, whoever is in the tunnel will hear you!”
The hissi moaned softly, but obediently fell silent, swallowing hard. He continued forwards, Steel trailing behind him. The lupe’s hackles were up, and his tail stock stiff behind him. Something was weird here, and he didn’t like it one bit.
Tech Tonic continued to flinch with every beat of the music, as if in legitimate physical pain, but didn’t speak or react otherwise. His movements were getting sluggish, however, and before long Steel had overtaken him and was in his turn leading the way down the tunnel. As the tunnel widened into a proper cave, Tech Tonic whimpered and Steel sighed.
“Maybe you should turn back,” he murmured, turning to the hissi. He was still twitching to the beat of the music, his long slender body rocking back and forth like a pendulum-
Wait, he’s not twitching he’s… dancing?!
Before Steel had time to wonder at this realization, his train of thought was cut off by a sudden, searing pain on his paws. He yowled, leaping backwards, and realized that the ground under where he’d been standing was glowing red hot. The lupe looked back up sharply towards Tech Tonic, and realized that the hissi was holding up his wings and making a sharp gesture with them. The red glow shot forwards, melting the icy floor of the cavern as it went, and Steel was forced to flee on his badly scalded paws from the encroaching heat.
“What in Fyora’s name are you doing you idiot?” he demanded of the hissi, who was even still swaying sinuously to the music from deeper in the cavern. Tech Tonic clenched a fist, and a spire of rock shot up under the lupe’s feet, gashing Steel’s shoulder as he just barely jumped aside in time to avoid being gored.
“Ssssserpent ssssssong compellsssss,” he hissed, his voice too rising and falling with the music. “Sssserpent musssst dancssssse.”
The music! It’s controlling him!
Steel snarled, bolting towards the enchanted superhero. Somehow he had to snap Tech Tonic out of this- or knock him out entirely so he wasn’t a threat. However, before he got anywhere close he yelped in pain as his paws once again came in contact with superheated, rapidly evaporating ice. He tried to back up, to go around, but his rear paws seared with pain and he realized the heat was all around him- ice misting away to reveal rock that was veined with molden red. Magma. Only a tiny portion of unaltered rock still remained at Steel’s feet, a sliver of ground barely big enough for him to stand all four paws on. He was trapped.
The music suddenly slowed, and Tech Tonic’s entire body slumped. Steel tensed, aware suddenly of a rumbling noise from somewhere else in the cavern. He looked around, and every hair on his pelt bristled as he saw a huge shape moving in the shadows at the edge of the room. Moments later, the massive head of the Snowager emerged into the light, eyes that were an endless spiralling pool of yellow and red fixed upon Steel. However, the creature made no move to attack, instead lowering it’s head to the cavern floor and closing those great eyes. Then, the music died.
“Y’know, for a hero with as much experience as you, this was a phenomenally stupid move.”
Steel looked up sharply towards the sound of the voice. Sitting on the head of the Snowager, a pipe gripped in his toes, was a blue jubjub with a thick black mustache.
“...Jub Zambra?” the lupe asked incredulously. “You’re behind this?”
“Don’t be absurd,” the jubjub scoffed. “I’m not that idiot content to waste his abilities busking the street for whatever paltry tips people toss into a hat. No, I’m not Jub Zambra- I’m his evil twin: Jub Arbmaz!”
To be continued…