The Shading

A story created by Ozfurry members

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Cast of Characters
Eavin female cat pickpocket 
Prua female mouse performer
Madam Meerkatze crazy old meercat  brothel owner
Veliz  male stoat pickpocket
Cannium male tiger performer
Haiyashi male cheetah pickpocket
Nes  female fox  pickpocket
Warren male rabbit performer
Kezly female lion performer
Balaan ab Dajil male dolphin bandit
Zineej male dolphin bandit
Gryce female orca bandit
Keera female stoat whore 
Sylkin female water rat whore 
Mayor Kwembo male boar mayor (duh!)
Doalia female boar mayor's wife 
Kimrold male weasel bastard
Saysinall male pangolin alchemist

There was a hole in the wooden shutters. Cannium had promised for weeks to fix it, but, as usual, he hadn't. Typical.
       The mid-morning sun found this hole and crept through it, over a bare, but clean stone floor. It glided over a simple wooden table, noting the sewing that had been forgotten there the night before. Crossing to the far side of the room, its journey ended on a jumble of sleeping bodies huddled together under many-patched thin blankets for extra warmth.
       The body on the very edge of the bed stirred in slumber, smiling at something she alone could see in her mind's vision. Her slight movement was enough to place her eyes in the direct path of the sunbeam; it penetrated the thin skin of her eyelids and roused her into wakefulness.
       Eavin opened one eye a slit. No-one had risen before her and the fire was cold. So went back to sleep - or least she tried to. Try as she could, the virile young dolphin male of her dreams had wandered off to someone else.
       Sighing, she crept out of bed, careful not to wake the others and stood up.
       Eavin yowled quietly. "Argh!"
       "Whatisit?" The muffled complaint came from Prua, a teenaged mouse female as she moved over to the spot Eavin just vacated.
       "The floor's cold!"
       "It's almost winter, sweetings...'posed to be cold, like."
Eavin poked her pink tongue at the mouse, then stretched and yawned, exposing her feline teeth. She shivered as something unseen passed down her spine. "Come on, Prua. I know you're awake. Come help get some water."
      While she waited, Eavin slipped a drab blue shapeless dress over her white-furred body, tugging her tail through the hole at the back. Soon the mouse-girl was dressed as well, and they padded towards the well in the backyard of the brothel next door...


Outside the morning dew twinkled on myriad emerald leaves as the sun climbed her way up the sky, as clean as a freshly washed milk jug. Eavin tiptoed, not wanting to wake up the whores as they slept, their perfumed stench wafting out from the rough-hewn bluestone that served as their place of business.
       Prua slipped in a puddle left between cobbles by last night's downpour.
       "Watch it honey! Don't wanna disturb that Madam Meerkatze," Eavin stated the obvious. The madam was as crazy as a fox as any meercat could be without actually being a fox. She believed that the well was residence to someone, or something, she referred to as "The Shading", an entity of some kind that only the madam could see or communicate with.
       Not that anything spooky had ever happened regarding the well, but the madam was definitely mad, and her rantings about it were enough to keep most people away, although she rarely left the brothel these days except to go down the backyard and converse with The Shading.
       "Eavy, my butt's all wet now! Not to mention my tail!" Prua whispered in annoyance. The chill of the morning started to penetrate her rear end.
       Eavin didn't respond: she wasn't that keen on using that well to collect water from, but since the river had been taken by those bandits, those, those...well, her mind wasn't always on her friend's misfortunes. Right now she was mainly concerned with staying silent while they got their daily water ration from the mad meercat's well, and remembering now what lay waiting down at the bridge did not help at all.


Prua pushed open the brothel's back gate gently, wincing at the slight *creeaak!* A few mornings before, she and the light-fingered stoat-youth Veliz had come to fetch water and the creaking gate had brought out Madam Meerkatze, a-ranting and a-raving about The Shading. The crazy old madam had almost scared the fur off both of them and they had fled back to their house without any water.
       Eavin and Prua padded across the backyard, the soft laugh of women lilting down from the bathhouse. "Must be the early morning shift." the cat-girl murmured to her companion.
       On their way back from the well, the two encountered one of the older 'working gels' coming to the bathhouse. Dark circles under her eyes indicated a sleepless night and out of politeness, Eavin commented on how tired the old vixen appeared.
       "Yesh," the vixen replied with a lisp, "Madam hash been going on how the Shading ish going to rishe and shhow ush all... you know how shhe getsh shhometimesh."
       "Iya..." Eavin said, shaking her head and biding the whore farewell.
       To their disgust, the others had not risen by the time they returned to their plain, but roomy one-room abode. Eavin and Prua stood over them, neither of them very amused. The fire should've been lit by now, and breakfast at least begun. The day was wasting...

       Gently Prua pulled off the quilts that covered the sleepers. Not a soul stirred. Grinning evilly, Eavin scooped a cup into the bucket of cold water and tossed the contents of the cup over the bodies on the bed.
       Stoat, vixen, cheetah, rabbit, lioness and tiger howled, roared or yelped as they tumbled over each other and out of the bed, each dripping from their liquid wake-up call. Eavin shrugged and went on with the morning chores. "It was time for you lazytails to get up anyway. We have work to do."

Prua, Cannium, Kezly and Warren, dressed in old, but still bright costumes, had found a corner of the Square that was not currently being used for much. 
        They cleared away their fellow street urchins and began performing. Before long, their tumbles and somersaults had caught the eyes of the passing shoppers; and a short time after that a respectable-sized crowd had gathered round to watch.
        The others were at work as well. Moving in pairs, they melted into the watching crowd, moving here, moving there. Moving close enough to reach into bags or pockets, then move on again. It was always a male-female working pair; no-one but they knew of the very deep pockets the female had in their skirts...
        Today Eavin worked with the cheetah Haiyashi. As usual, Haiyashi stood near an overfed dog-man distracted by their friends' performance, then tugged gently on the purse hanging from the man's belt. It came off easily enough. Eavin was a few feet away, redistributing some oranges from a fruit stall to down the front of her blouse, the corset she wore stopping them travelling any further than her breasts.
        Haiyashi, purse in paw, edged away backwards and was slipping the purse into one of Eavin's pockets when the man reached to his hip and found nothing. "Hey! Thief!" the dog-man yelled.
        "Ah crap." Haiyashi swore.
        Eavin and Haiyashi looked at each other and ran in opposite directions. Eavin scrambled up the nearest drainpipe and sprinted over the rooftops of the city, towards the general direction of the river. She was in such a rush, she failed to see the rooftops stop abruptly and she sailed over the edge. Eavin, being a cat, landed on all four paws.
       "Hey, Dajil, look what just fell out of the sky!"
       Eavin looked up from where she crouched into the face of a dolphin bandit...


Back at the square corner, Eavin and Haiyashi's companions had not failed not to notice the commotion. Veliz and Nes swiftly pocketed their latest 'acquirements' and melted into the shadows around the corner, waiting.
       As Cannium and Kezly tumbled acrobatically, paws over ears with each other, the tiger whispered to her harshly "Keep dancing, don't look suspicious!"
       The lioness jumped up onto his shoulders with unnecessary force, deliberately yanking his luxurious fur.
       "I knew that you fool!" she spat back as she sailed through the air over his head gracefully. 
       When the dance finished and they had graciously accepted the meager contribution the wealthy shopper's had given them for their performance, they joined the stoat and vixen around the corner.
       "Eavin and Haiyashi haven't come back yet" Warren stated once he got his breath back.
       "Well that's obvious," responded Kezly sarkily, watching Cannium's whiskers move angrily out of the corner of her eye. Prua was about ready to intervene before a fight broke out when the cheetah thief came careering from the shadows at full speed to join them.
       "Made it!" he grinned demurely.
       "Eavin hasn't come back yet," Warren said yet again for the cheetah's benefit.
       "She probably just found a rich Bag to steal from. She'll be back." Nes said confidently, and the others nodded their agreement. Eavin wouldn't get caught; she was too smart and quick.
       After a long while though, the companions began to grow restless.
       "Where is she?" Veliz yawned rhetorically.
       "I think we should look for her," Kezly said. "It's not like Eavin to disappear for ages like that" she started to rise but Cannium pushed her back down.
       "We wait!" he growled.
       "I say we should go find her," the lioness frowned, her hands firmly planted on her slim hips.
       "And I say we wait!" replied Cannium fiercely, the back of his paw swinging around to fall heavily on the side of Kezly's muzzle.


The dolphin snickered, a strange sound, sounding more like a gurgling squeal. He toyed with the rusted dagger that hung at his hip. "So missy, got something for me...its the toll y'know." He licked his lips.
       Eavin crouched, fur bristling and considered hissing at the dolphin. He looked far too young and fresh to be even half menacing. Eavin glanced behind him, that Dajil chap stood a little way off to the left. She glanced right. A sheer brick wall loomed high there.


The other dolphin laughed. "Leave her alone Zineej - you're terrible at being 'dangerous' anyway." 
       He strolled over, lent his spear against a bale of trading goods, and grinned down at the cat. Her expression froze in surprise. "Hello, pretty kitty. Are you going to stay down there all day or are you going to stand up and say hello?"
       Eavin scowled - eyes and pupils narrow - and after another wait stood slowly, brushing her dress of rooftop dust and dockside grit. She trembled with the effort of maintaining her dignity in front of her former lover. Most *definitely* former.
       Balaan ab Dajil grinned again, eyes blatantly sweeping, admiringly, up and down her body. "Didn't expect to see you again, kitty." His fingertips brushed a bruise above his left eye, purple and swollen against his blue-grey skin. "You were a bit cross with me when I left. If I recall correctly."
       The cat bristled anew, and bared her teeth ready to spit a spray of new invective. It choked in her throat as a much larger shadow smothered the three of them. 
       She looked up. And up. An orca, at least twice as tall as her, gazed down at her, eyes utterly impassive. Against the sun, she could make out the shape of armour, and a spear tipped with four savage prongs. 
       The shape rumbled. Eavin knew enough of the Undine language to catch, "*You know the rules, Dajil*. *No fraternising with the city people*. *Not during negotiations*" She edged along the wall... orcas had an old reputation. A reputation that involved more than a few missing persons and the orcan diet.
       Dajil's grin gleamed. Eavin glowered. At least she knew his full name now. Should have some value in libel and slander, anyway.
       "Don't worry about it, Gryce. She's just a local girl. Fun, but not very important."
       Eavin's eyes bulged. Gryce? This was the woman her Balaan had abandoned her for? She stared up at the orca, who still studied her with its dark, dark eyes. It *was* female. Then she realised the rest of what the dolphin had said, and exploded.


"I'LL... KILL... YOU!" Eavin screeched as she pounced at Dajil, her razor-sharp claws extended, hissing insults in the ancient cat language her grandmother had taught her in her kittenhood. She only managed to leave a deep claw mark across his face before the orca grabbed Eavin by her long frizzy red hair and yanked her backwards.
       Gryce lifted Eavin up by her hair and held her at arm's length, watching with a mixture of amusement and disdain as the cat-girl tried to kick and scratch in mid-air. "Shall I hurt her now?" the orca-female asked, slipping into the Common Language.
       "No." replied Dajil. "Let's bring her back to the base."
       He grinned at Eavin wickedly. "I can think of better ways to play with her."

The soup pot bubbled as the night grew deeper. Everyone in the room turned to look at the door as it opened and Nes and Warren staggered in with a laden water bucket. Both were visibly shaken; both were the toughest in their small gang.

       "What happened?" asked Prua meekly.
       "Crazy ol' Meerkatze's at it agin." Nes said, eyes wide. "She rekins she cin tell us where Eavy's iz."
       A few of them let out a small gasp. They hadn't told anyone about Eavin not returning.
       "How?" Haiyaishi asked sorrowfully. He still blamed himself for not sticking with his working partner.
       "She rekins the Shiding cin tell us."


In a dark dank room nearby, that seemed a world away from the cosy cottage where Eavin's friends worried and waited for her return, the sun trickled from a small barred window high up near the ceiling. Cockroaches scurried; a dark figure muttering and mumbling as the smell of simmering soup wafted in from next door.
        Knock, knock. Timid, yet forceful, a small buxom water rat pushed the heavy wooden door that kept the room so dank open slightly. The light behind her outlined her hourglass figure, the corset pushing her breasts up and her waist in.
       "M..m..madam," she ventured. Huge muscular bears and tigers were no match for her in the boudoir, but the tiny whore hated working in the mad meercat's house. Still, in this town it really was the safest way.
        Especially with the town's latest arrivals.....she shuddered and pushed the door open far enough to allow herself and the tray she carried through.
       "Keera prepared dinner early since she has an um...appointment...with the mayor at 7pm. His wife back tonight, you know." She stopped; if she continued rambling like this she knew the madam would turn and begin ranting at her. Taking a step forward, careful to avoid the rancid puddles tracing the cellar's cobbled floor, she put the tray down on the sparse room's only small table and stepped back as she had come in. As she was about to turn and exit the room, the madam loomed out of the darkness. The madam's hands came towards the water rat and grabbed at her shoulders, her breath enveloping her as she raved.
       "Mmoida!! Mmoida!! If it be duk it be loit, if loit it be duk...but ze chat can zee in eeder!! Shhwem!! Shwem! Ze varter be cauld, ze oil be haht, but vere be ze foir?"
       The whore, ready to wretch at the madam's foul stench, tore herself from the wiry grip and scrambled back up the stairs. At the top she met Keera's astounded look.
       "That bad was it Sylkin? Didn't know she was a gourmet," Keera demanded. While she earned her daily bread in the sack, the ocelot's ambition was to actually make bread - well, to be a blue ribbon chef, and therefore had to know if there was a reason anyone, even the madam, didn't like her food. But she knew it wasn't the food, as the madam's ravings could still be heard behind the hastily shut door, as they could almost every day and night now. The whores tolerated her purely for the fact that they needed a house to work in, and truthfully they had been able to get away with paying the old meercat less and less these days.
       "Bloody light, dark, oil, water - do you have a clue what the old bag means? Something about a cat, too..." Sylkin shook her head and took a few deep breaths to clear herself of the awful stench. "Honestly you'd think she'd wash her underskirt occasionally," she outwardly wished.
       "Mmm...I heard her raving about something regarding a cat to one of those acrobats from next door," Keera offered. "She went out to the well to visit her shadow..."
       "Shading," Sylkin corrected her, with a smirk on her face.
       "...of course, Shading, and found the girl-fox out there with the boy-rabbit...she gave them a good rave and sent them on their way."
       "You know I've often wondered how I would go as a travelling performer," Sylkin wondered. Her stature was small, true, but she was flexible and had always been good at tumbling and flipping. It was one of the reasons she was so popular with the younger clients. The older ones had trouble keeping up with her, usually.
       "You'd be great honey, but you'd have to give up your shopping habit," Keera encouraged. Herself, she'd love to travel, but her only two talents were food, and of course, sex.
       "Damnit," Sylkin smiled at her friend, "Hey, isn't Mayor Kwembo due here soo...."

       Her reminder was abruptly interrupted as she was bowled over by a rush of grey rags, yellow, stained teeth and flailing, withered hands. In the depth of their conversation they hadn't heard Madam Meerkatze come up the stairs in a renewed flight of madness, but were now fully aware as the madam flew out the door, eyes bulging and ears flapping as she rambled down the street. Sylkin picked herself up and followed Keera out to the front porch and watched mothers pull their children into their skirts.
       Keera put her hands to her cheeks. "Oh my god, she's headed for the bridge."


I can feel them. So many. So very many. Up there, far from the darkness and the fire. Each so alone and distant. So ... compartmentalised. Inside and out. I get inside them. Between the cells. Between the nerves.

It has been too long. Too long since the scaled ones were burnt and buried. Since I was lost…Scattered? Is there more of me, lost down here in the darkness and the fire?

Let them drink of me.

Deep life.

Liquid life.

Make them part of me.


"The Shiding? Ohh...The Shading." Veliz frowned. "What is it anyway?"
       The companions murmured and shrugged.
       "No idea," Warren said slowly and carefully, thoughtfulness apparent on his face even though his facial expressions were generally idea.
       Kezly raised an eyebrow then winced as it pulled the skin on her muzzle taut. A large scratch ran down the side from her argument with Cannium, and more than half her face was bruised and swollen under her fair tawny fur.
       "I still think we should have gone and looked for her," the lioness said sulkily. That ugly old meercat slut wouldn't have a clue."
       Nes looked up at the small gang, her eyes serious.
       "I dun know abit that Kez..."


It was dark when a grey cloud swept over the sky, blanketing the small town in climatic gloom. A willow swayed gently to and fro'; Eavin knew it was a willow by the sound of its branches rushing the water in time with the wind. The sound also told her she was somewhere very near the exact place she had been dreading — the bridge.
       She tried to sit up, but quickly realized her hands and feet were bound to what appeared to be a stretcher bed roughly made from branches of ash. The strain made her back and legs ache; her head began pounding. Moving her head as little as possible, she opened an eye and made out what she could in the darkness.
       Remnants of a fire. Smell of smoke. Tipi-style frame inside stretched skin. A large cauldron — no, a wash basin. A big wash basin. Shells, crusted with old fish. The smell made her taste buds tingle, realizing how hungry she was.
       And then it came back to her: the dance, the take, the run, the fall, and finally...

What was Balaan doing over this way? She had first met him in the West Isles, on "holiday" after what had been a crazy idea to begin with had gone totally, totally sour. A heist that sounded so easy she should have known straight away; but no, her eyes had gleamed with the stories of adventure and glory and she had ignored those feelings inside that told her the weasel Kimrold was just that: a weasel. She had ended up on a clipper heading west, nursing her bruised ears and broken tail in a hold designed to keep fish, cold, wet and very sorry for herself. The crew had found her when they had docked into Jamakan, capital of the Isles, tossed her out onto the wharf with a few dubloons. She had staggered, pulled herself to the nearest bar, drank those dubloons until her ears hurt no more and then gone home with the biggest man she could find. That had been Balaan.
       And now here he was, on the outskirts of Brindall, with that...creature...Gryce...and the other one, and god knows how many more. She knew Balaan was not stupid enough to leave his camp unattended, so she guessed there were at least five of them. Great, Eavin sighed inwardly. Where was Haiyashi and why hadn't he followed her?


"Ah, my dear, that feels *wonderful* Simply wonderful" the mayor sank back further into Keera's embrace, as she kneaded the muscles of his broad shoulders, and forgot the platters of food arranged on the low table next to them. His closed his eyes and sighed deeply, snuffling a little in his pleasure. 
       Keera pressed close, stroking her fingers down the boar's chest, and playing with his fur. "What's the matter, Master Kwembo?" she breathed softly against his ear. "You're so very tense tonight..." 
       He sighed, this time less contentedly, and turned to face her, patting her paw. "Keera, my dear, it's nothing for you to worry about. Just business..." He sighed, his eyes red with sleeplessness, and his face sagging, "that's all it ever seems to be, these days... business." 
       The boar attempted to change the subject. "Anyway, my dear, how is your mistress these days? It occurs to me that I haven't seen her in weeks." 

The meerkat clung to the curved and split boulders marching out into the river. Beneath her, the river fled invisibly between the stones (flowing). Above, the beams of the bridge eclipsed the low and sullen clouds, silent and damp with the river air (liquid). 
       She panted, feeling the pressure behind her eyes as her claws scrabbled for a hold on the next stone. Across the water  (...flowing...) she could see the shape of the island against the far shore. It would take time...crossing the bridge underneath (down in the darkness) would bring her to Eavin (coming together) and then... well, then the Shading would tell her what to do.


"Hey! Cat! Wake up!"
      Eavin woke with a start as dolphin hands grabbed her and dragged her out of the tent. She looked up with a mixture of grogginess and hunger into the grinning face of Zineej and another dolphin male. "Dajil wants to see you." Zineej smirked.
      Before Eavin had the chance to react, her arms and legs were bound behind her and a hessian sack tugged roughly over her face. Bound like pig for roasting, she was slung over the shoulder of one of the bandits - most likely the other male... Zineej looked like such a weakling that he probably couldn't even pick up a small sack of potatoes.
      Before too long, Eavin heard the creak of a heavy door and she was suddenly cast onto the floor. Two sets of footfalls left the room and the door opened and closed once more.
      The sack was ripped off her head. "So, you like your room? We've 'borrowed' it from the bridge keeper. You better, because you're going to be here for some time."
      Eavin blinked at the sudden brightness assaulting her eyes. The voice was unmistakable. She threw another string of cat-curses at Dajil, which roughly translated as 'may you and your family become pigfood, you bastard fish'.
      The dolphin tittered, shaking his head. "You forget you taught me many of the cat insults when we were together, Eavin. I know exactly what you're saying."
      Dajil crouched down, running the tips of his blue-grey fingers over her jaw line and over her bust. "If I remember correctly, I've seen you like this before... you were quite enjoying yourself, weren't you?"
      Eavin's reply was to try and bite his arm. Dajil drew back his hand, then slapped her. Hard. "Bad Kitty!"

Haiyashi sat curled between two massive roots of an oak tree in Yuellia City Park, one of the areas of Yuellia that had been protected against the ever-growing city of Brindall. And Haiyashi was miserable.

      You see, ever since Eavin had gone missing, he felt it had been his fault that it had happened.
      "I shouldn't have split up with her like that!" he had moaned to the others.
      "How could you have know what would happen?" Prua had said gently; and the others had agreed.
      But he still thought it was his fault.
      If /anything/ happened to Eavin...lovely Eavin...beautiful Eavin...he'd never forgive himself. If she died, well life just wouldn't be worth living, would it?


     "You look so sad."
     A voice startled him from the other side of the huge old oak. Haiyashi turned and saw a very short, but very pretty water rat shyly poke her head around the tree.
     "I saw you crying and had to see if I could help...can I?" The sweet-natured Sylkin had to know if there was any way she could get to know this handsome young cheetah. She hadn't seen him in the brothel before, only hanging around the urchins in the cottage next door.
     "Well..." Haiyashi hesitated. Wasn't this one of Meerkatze's whores? He thought he had recognised the face, and as she came out from behind the oak he also recognised the brocade corset, edged with velvet, the style that the younger whores preferred. Cannium wouldn't like him talking to her, would accuse him of lechery and all the rest but hadn't Kezly or Nes said the meercat said something about Eavin?
     "...actually maybe you cat-friend is missing,. Haiyashi began to explain.

(Drhoz! And Desiree)

Zaneej moved away from the fires. Even for one as painfully skinny as he, it was too hot, here above the water. He looked out at the water, away from the city on the far bank. He really didn't like it here — as loyal as he was to the pod, and as much as he understood the opportunity they were here to seize, he would much rather be in the cleaner waters around home.
       He fumbled for his knife as somebody loomed out of the darkness, and didn't relax when it was Gryce. She was far more serious about things than most dolphins — probably why she was here in the first place. Even the most 'civilized' of dolphins would find it difficult to resist adding a touch of mayhem to the situation. Even one as important as this. Especially when they were bored.
       "Watch the bridge" she rumbled.
       The youth stood to attention, and peered out along it's length. He couldn't see anything. He was pretty sure their wouldn't be anything. The city people wouldn't try anything, would they? He hoped they wouldn't... he didn't want to hurt anybody.... despite his efforts to seem as dangerous as the pod needed to be.
       He fidgeted, and tried to bite back his questions.
       She answered them anyway. "Something is happening. I can taste it in the water." She rested a hand on the carved post beside the bridge, and clenched it hard. She didn't like this situation. She seriously disliked the feeling of toying with the city people for the wrong reasons.... and Dajil's woman was an added complication. She frowned. The cat's jealousy could endanger the hunt.

Below, the meerkat crept onto the island, with something ancient looking out from inside her head. 

Eavin was in a fix.
       She and Dajil had parted on very bad terms, but even until the very end the passion had been there... oh the passion. Dajil had been her best and her body remembered that *very* well. The dolphin bandit now ran his fingers lightly over the rest of her body, knowing exactly what spots on her would tease a stifled moan of pleasure from her clenched teeth.
       Her body was on the verge of mutiny against her brain and it scared her nine lives out of her that he could still make her desire him, even though she loathed him.
       "Yes, you /do/ like that. don't you?" Dajil said dryly as he watched her trying not to writhe.
       From their time together before, he knew he had worked her into a state where she would gladly sell her souls to be satisfied.
       He chuckled to himself as he picked her up by still-bound paws; carried her back to the tent they were keeping her in and threw the cat-girl in. Yes, playing with Eavin was /most/ satisifying.

"Catch ze chat wit zalt, zays I. Zalt and oil and varter and ze chat plays all free in ze city, oh yes she does."
       Eavin started, and clipped her head hard against the floor. When her vision cleared she saw a madly grinning meercat, sodden and stained with grass and earth, and gripping a boning knife in a fist that trembled with the strength of her hold on it.
       The meercat's grin split her muzzle in half - she could barely see in the darkness but she could hear where Eavin lay. She crept forward, joints protesting at the exertion - urged on by the voice inside her mind. "Shading tells me vere ze chat be. Bring out of ze darkness, yes?"
       Eavin nodded, neck creaking. She couldn't say anything. Just struggled to roll over and offer her wrists to the knife...she felt ill with fear and relief. What if the dolphins heard her? Had seen her neighbour's arrival and were just toying with them? She didn't even want to think she was a game to them.
       She risked a whisper "Did...did you come here with anybody?"
       Meerkatze shook her long muzzle violently as she sawed at the bindings. "Ve two are ze important ones. Mama Meerkatze feex you up good now, liddle chat," patting her on the shoulder, endlessly, as the last bindings parted and she pushed the cat towards the hole in the floor.
        Eavin struggled to squeeze through it - the old woman was much skinnier than she, and her arms and legs stilled ached with pins and needles.
        Meerkatze pushed at her from behind, her voice a loud conspiratorial whisper. "Ve haf lotz to zay, yes? Of ze dukness an important ones."
        Eavin emerged into the night and shook sand from her ears...and froze at laughter somewhere nearby. Despair rose in her throat... were they toying with her after all?
        "<And what did they do then?>" she heard. She didn't recognise the voice, but it was the dolphin language.
        "<Drowned of course. City people can't swim worth a jellyfish's testes.>"
        The cat came close to collapsing with relief.. Every limb shook...and tears welled in her eyes. It wasn't anything to do with them. Just bandits laughing at someone else's expense. She jumped as the meercat prodded her rump, and whispered something about important ones moving their big behinds, yes?
        She clung to the shadow of Dajil's tent. She dreaded looking around the corner, but she couldn't even tell which way the bridge was. The whore-mistress emerged grumbling beside her, and poked a skinny finger into her side "Ze chat can zee in the duk, yes? Zo move it, missy!"
        Eavin swallowed her fear…and her tail bristled...she might be free of the tent, but there were still at least four dolphins around. And probably that orca bitch too. She turned around to snarl at her rescuer.
        She was gone.
        Eavin clawed at the corner, uncertainty burning her heart. Fear and the feeling of being helpless and alone renewed.
        "Hey! Fishies! Wanna kiz ze meerkat,.hey?"
         The other woman was capering in plain sight. Dancing from foot to foot any flashing her bare fur at the group of utterly startled bandits.
        "Zen kiz zis!" and she turned, raised her skirts, and leapt laughing away into the willows. The dolphins swore and peeled off in pursuit.
         Eavin fled... ears flattened. It wasn't far to the bridge. She had to make it. She had to.

Gryce turned, head swinging back towards the campsite.
         She'd been right. All five dolphin spearmen were running off into the trees. She clutched her trident and gritted her teeth. Fools. Couldn't they recognise a distraction when they saw one? She snapped an order to the other dolphin to stay where he was, and moved like a mountain towards the tents.
        She needn't have bothered - Dajil's catwoman almost ran into her - confused by her outline and colours, probably. Or possibly just panic. Easy prey.
        Eavin screamed.
        The whore stood suddenly from a bush behind the monsterous orca.
         "Ooooh, *noizy* chat, yes?" She laughed, tossing her knife into her other paw - and rammed it into the orca's back.
        "Run now, hey?" as the orca reared upright and turned clumsily, raising her spear.
         Meercat, grinning.
        Orca, eyes bright with bloodlust.
        The bridge running beneath her feet. Eavin could only run, and run, and run.
         And the meercat died.

         Her blood ran like water.


As soon as Haiyashi had related to Sylkin the events of the day before, she grabbed his wrists. “C’mon!” She urged him almost manically.
      "What the...?" Haiyashi hesitated; he wasn't sure he cared for the look in her eyes.
      "C'mon! I don't know, it may not mean anything but...we'd better find her!"
      "...?" Haiyashi's eyes boggled. He knew some of the whores got into the forest 'shrooms from time to time, and he didn't like to think what was on, or in for that matter, the water rat's mind.
      His staring face finally caught Sylkin's attention. "Look, Meerkatze disappeared yesterday too, and I may have a clue where to find her," she assured, gently tugging his hand.
      Haiyashi shook his head and began to follow her, slowly at first.
      "Well hey, what does that have to do with Eavin? And how does anyone understand that mad meercat?" he asked, still confused. Sylkin was trying to pull him along faster.
      "Keera said she said something about Eavin. Oh, yeah, and I saw her headed for the river. But noone understands her. Not really."
      "Well, that'll do me." Haiyashi broke into a sprint, and Sylkin found herself suddenly pulled off her feet as they made their way riverward.

Coming around the bend was when they first saw it. They had smelt it soon after leaving the outskirts of the town, but it was only when the clouds came billowing from somewhere below the cliff face that they realized the extent of the fire. But that didn't explain the sound, above the crackling of timbers and snapping of twigs being consumed by flickering tongues, above the rushing water echoing up the chasm, like some ancient kraken in the final stages of a maddening, disemboweled death. Haiyashi stopped with a jolt, grabbing Sylkin by the waist as she skidded past.
      "You hear that?" His voice sounded truly spooked. She trembled, nodding her head the minutest amount. They both sidled slowly behind a patch of brush; neither turned their heads away from the direction of the river and the fires.
      After a time Sylkin gasped; she had been holding her breath and hadn't noticed. Haiyashi turned to her and made signals with his paws. OK? She nodded. Let's go, that way. Slowly. Quietly. He cupped his paws over his ears in the sign for 'be quiet'. Together they inched down the side of the track, keeping to one side and as out of sight as possible.
      They darted into a crack between two boulders, backing in so as to keep an eye on the path. Haiyashi, behind Sylkin, nestled into the crevice, and froze. His back bristled; was that fur his tail brushed against? Not wanting to alarm Sylkin, he turned his head slowly. A rock had fallen over the two boulders, creating a natural roof which kept it fairly dark further between the rocks. Two eyes gleamed, reflecting what light did fall in.
      Haiyashi cracked. "Get out, get out!!" He hurriedly pushed Sylkin out of the opening, half hopping as he reached for the fishing knife he carried in his boots. Turned, alert and eyes gleaming. Waiting for the terrible enemy, knife held erect. A low growl came from within, deep and gutteral. Sylkin, short of breath from the commotion and constricted in her workday clothes, fainted.
      "Oh, jees, didn't want to scare her that much!"
      And out stepped the familiar face of Cannium, followed by Nes and Kezly. The tiger shook his head as he examined the water rat. "She's not your usual type, Hai," he remarked casually. Nes grinned, while Kezly looked seriously at Haiyashi.
      Haiyashi stepped up to Cannium, wobbly-kneed. "I would prefer it if you did not do that to me today, Cannium." Though visibly shaking, his voice was calm and even. Today was not a day he wished to be played with.
      Cannium, usually dismissive, bowed his head. "If Eavin were here she'd have thought it was funny. And then so would you." It was his way of apologizing; her absence was clearly getting to them all.
      Nes was kneeling now beside Sylkin.
      "Me ma always esked for the salts when she felt fent," she murmured, dark eyes now as serious as Kezly's.
      "Well do we have any, do we?" Haiyashi was hopeful; she wasn't his type, sure, but she was their best chance of finding Eavin so far.
      "Oh yeah, I'll just open up my portable chemist, shall I Hai?" Cannium's momentary lapse of disdain returned in fine sarcastic form. "Leave her, she’s only a bloody whore."
      Kezly frowned at Cannium. "Do you have any compassion at all?" He really made her angry sometimes, although she knew *most* of it was an act. Nes was fanning the water rat's face with one paw, fumbling for her water bottle with another.
      "We need her, Cannium. She knew Eavin was missing, the madam told her. She said she was headed for the river." Haiyashi turned his back to Cannium. The clouds were rising higher, the wind carrying them towards Brindall.


The cliffs trembled - pebbles shaken free and bounding down the slope like fleas off a dog.
      Such was not unusual along the river - but the fires amongst the brush at the base of the cliff most definitely were. Houses along the cliffline erupted into panic when their fireplaces erupted - tongues of flame suddenly running across floors and up the slope outside, to ignite the dry aphacia plants clinging to the stone.
       The householders, beating out the flames behind their homes, froze in the heat. The stones were talking - a sound like water rushing through the cisterns of the city, running through the bones of the earth and up the bones of their legs. Only for a minute - but some remembered the tales of their childhood. Maybe, in the morning, they should leave the city for a few days...and take their families with them. 


As the sun went down, a long brown face peered from a window on the upper floor of Madam Meerkatze's brothel. A paw drew the curtain closed, hiding from the sun as it fell lower, turning the clouds a peculiar shade of purply-green. Billowing clouds came in lower over the forest, but the stoat knew they were not the same clouds blanketing the sky above. She could smell it, and she frowned. Sylkin had gone for a walk after lunch and not yet returned. It was not like her; she was saving to get out this hellhole and had not missed a shift in months.
      She paused, perching on the edge of her bed and studying herself in the mirror. Her paws came up to her breast, pulling at the ribbon that tied her bodice. It came undone, loosening, and her chest heaved slightly as she drew in a deep breath. Her other paw came up, tugging at the cords methodically from breast to waist, then pulled the corset over her head. Next she loosened the laces of her boots, straightening her leg as she pulled them off in one smooth movement. Standing in front of the mirror, she put her hands behind her back and untied the sash that held her skirt; it dropped to the floor revealing long, toned legs that met at a velvet ribboned satin triangle, covered by the sheerest of silk stockings. Keera touched her thighs, nimbly thumbing the clasps that held the silk, automatically rolling them down in a motion so seductive men returned for that alone. Removing her suspender, she stood and regarded herself for a moment; she was pleased with what she saw.
      As her work gave her all the exercise she needed, she only ever bothered with her daily walk to the market. Yet she still had the same body as when she had left her parent's home as a teenage stoat. Pert breasts that stood out under the light cotton blouse she still wore, a well-toned but feminine belly and legs to die for. She smiled. Opening the cupboard, she tossed in her skirt and underclothes then grabbed a pair of leather pants, boots and a studded belt that held a small knife, given to her by her father on the night before she had left. It seemed so long ago, now. She shook her head.
      Dressed, she pulled out the knife from its sheath and ran it along her forepaw. Returning it, she glanced over her shoulder, then slammed the door as she left. She had to find Sylkin.


Mayor Kwembo sighed.
      By the stir of activity around him; and the pinkish streak on the horizon, he assumed dawn was not far away. He settled down on a level rock, his rock - he had been coming to this spot for as long as his memory stretched. The boar had been, what, eight? Nine? When he first discovered this rock and the view of the city and river and it beckoned him back like one with an addiction. He sat under the trees high above Brindall, the cliffs the result of the titanic earthquake scores of years before his grand-sire's time. These bushlands he loved more than the perfectly manicured and tortured gardens down in the city, where every blade of grass had a specific place to go. Here the flora was wild and everywhere. Here there were no restrictions - you could grow as you pleased.
      As he watched, birdsong grew louder, each feathered creature competing with the next for the world's attention. The pink streak grew brighter, redder, as it washed over the land, up the cliffs and over the boar. Bliss.
      Again he sighed. He really couldn't stay here much longer: he hadn't gone home since the previous morning and Doalia would be fretting about his whereabouts. He smiled, remembering when they were courting. They had come to his rock many, many times. It had been this rock that witnessed his entry into manhood, and Doalia's loss of virginity...Her father, bless his soul, would have had a stroke if he had known his pure, darling little girl hadn't been so pure the day they married. Doalia would understand. This business with the dolphins was getting quite out of hand...he had to stop it. Somehow. But that he would worry about once he arrived home.
      He stood, and followed the path he had trampled into the ground in the years he had been visiting his rock. His track joined a wider, more defined path that would lead him to the gentle sloping way down the side of the cliff and away from the copse.

*High ground... safe...*

      A figure, blue dress torn, dirty and dishevelled, stumbled through the undergrowth. She followed the path up, up seeming the only safe place to go. 

      *away from the dolphins... water... too far...*

      The bushland was further than the dolphins would go, her mind told her. Too far from clean water. The only water here was a small pool under the rocks, brackish and undrinkable.

      *safe here...*

Mayor Kwembo strolled down the trail, the early morning sun pushing its way through the treetops. He felt somewhat less tense than when he had come up here a few hours before, perhaps today would see some change in his problem. He stopped, closing his eyes, taking a deep breath of the sweet smelling eucalyptus tree scent.
      OOMPH! When Kwembo opened his eyes, he was on his back, looking up at the sky. A frenzied cat-female tried to claw her way over him.
      "Let me go!" she cried in terror.
      Kwembo held her by the arms, helping her to her feet as he stood up.
      "What's the matter, child? I won't hurt you!"
      The feline stared at him out of her shock of wild-red hair. She managed to squeak one word before going limp in his arms. "Dolphins..."
      Mayor Kwembo looked at the girl with a sinking heart. The bandits were playing up. Again. But the more pressing question was - what was he going to do with the girl? He couldn't well take her home, Doalia wouldn't understand. She didn't even approve, entirely, of his visits to Meerkatze's establishment - of course! The brothel!


*I* bring myself together. Pooled, *I* can feel myself stronger,
thoughts collected, warmed and added to by the chemistry of my hosts.

A tremor through the darkness.

*I* feel my host die - no longer does my substance rush through it's
body, permeating the organs and the flesh.

*I* fear diminishment.

Gryce slapped the broken body of the brothel mistress against the table. "See, fool?" she snarled, muscles corded in her fury. "Your cityfolk BITCH has caused this." She rounded on Zineej, nervously trying to stem the bloodflow from the deep stab wound in the orca's back. "RUNT!"
      The youth fled - the orca was beside herself with rage, and dolphins knew full well the history of the two races.
      Dajil chose his words carefully. "Gryce... she's not a soldier," picking gingerly through the bloodsoaked rags and checking to see if he recognised her face. "She probably wasn't even in her own mind - nobody sane would have come down here - not with the stories the city has been saying about us. *Especially* not with you here."
      The huntress slammed both fists against the tabletop. Dajil winced - the orca was covered in blood almost to the elbows - orcan hunting weapons did horrific damage to their victims. He supposed it was a small mercy she hadn't used her teeth.
      "EUNUCH! LIMP, USELESS *FISH*!" she roared. The dolphin coloured. He considered himself to be a particularly good lover. "And when your furred *slut* tells the city why we're REALLY here? What will you, little fish, DO?"
      "She doesn't know. She doesn't *know*" Dajil gazed up at his latest partner, eyes utterly calm, expression carefully blank "Calm down, huntress. Your duties here are clear, and your loyalties respected."
      The orca trembled... but she smothered her rage. She snapped a final insult at her lover, and turned into the night. Outside, she squeezed the shaft of her spear in her hands until the metal squeaked. Didn't the fool realise how important the plan was? Didn't he realise how *valuable* the artifact could be? She glowered out at the city, dark against the cliffs, and licked at the blood on her fingers.
      It tasted of metal. 

The potter grumbled as he swept the floor of his stall - the tremor the night before had been a particular strong one, an entire rack of freshly made bowls and serving trays (already glazed, at that!) destroyed. He grumbled at his son, and the young badger hurriedly left to prepare the clay for the day's batch.

      The elder badger rested a moment on his broom - a boar was carrying somebody up the street. A cat, by the look of it. He raised an eyebrow. Kwembo? Unlike him to be visiting the Meerkatze place this early, and he didn't recognise the girl... The potter shrugged - Kwembo was the most honest and popular city leader in living memory - the best ever, as he continually impressed on his son. He certainly didn't begrudge the boar
his relaxation - and it did their generation proud if his stamina had outlasted the cat's.
      He returned to his sweeping - that was the important thing. Clay and glazes, kilns and clay.


Once again the morning light streamed into the rough but clean room where the urchins lived, but it was weaker than it had been the morning before, as clouds of smoke still hung over the town and filtered some of the harshness from the light.
      Kezly wouldn't have cared if the noon sun was shining into the room, she hadn't slept at all. Even after Sylkin had woken up, she was exhausted, and they had decided to wait until morning before continuing the search for Eavin. 
      The lioness was worried about Eavin, and the current situation that didn't give her the leeway to do anything frustrated her. She wanted to do something...anything, rather than this sitting around waiting for everyone to get their act together. She didn't blame the whore for needing a rest, but it was morning, and as far as she was concerned, time to go.
      As probably the strongest of the female urchins, Kezly looked out for the other girls, especially the beautiful Eavin, who never went far without a small following of male and female furs who wanted to bed her. The lioness had an image in her mind that she couldn't shake: Eavin was lying face down in a pool of turbulent water, her dress torn and body ravaged.
      Swallowing a lump in her throat, Kezly tried to push the image from her mind and looked around the room. The whore, Sylkin, lay with her back to the wall, her head resting on Haiyashi's shoulder. To her mind, they looked almost comical; the little, curvy water rat and tall, lean Haiyashi's. Ever since the whore had come out of the faint she had stayed with the cheetah, but so far he had seemed oblivious to her advances. Prua, Veliz, Warren and Nes all shared a ragged blanket, their small bodies intertwined together for warmth. Cannium slept at their feet, a blanket barely covering his larger torso. Kezly walked over to near where he lay, and watched him sleep, a wistful sigh involuntarily escaping. Though she would never admit it, she knew that she actually liked the tall, arrogant and sarcastic tiger. He acted thoughtlessly and bossed everyone around, especially the girls, but for reasons she couldn't explain she wanted him more than anything else she had ever wanted in her life. But she also knew that the type of females Cannium normally bedded were petite and flirty, the type of girls who giggled and wore pretty dresses. Kezly was pretty enough, lithe and strong, with amber fur, red-gold locks and eyes the colour of good ale, but she was as far from the furs Cannium liked as well — day from night. Sighing again, she stood and stretched, then went down by herself to get the water.
      Acrid smoke still hung in the air from the day before, and Kezly shuffled her way barefoot though a light covering of ash on the path to the well. When they had felt the earth shake, Cannium had dragged them away from the hovel to see what was happening. She hadn't been surprised when they found Hai in the park, that's where he always went to be by himself, but the whore who new about Eavin's disappearance had been a surprise.
      There was little activity around at the moment, but through the haze to the southwest she made out a figure hurrying towards her. 


Crawling out of the tunnel she had last seen the tiger and his two companions exit through, Keera saw that the sun had already begun another day. She found herself on a path that led down to the river, quickly deciding if Sylkin hadn't made it home while she had, apparently, been knocked out, then Keera would have to raise some help.
      Trotting as fast as she could on an empty stomach, Keera went over the afternoon before in her mind. On reaching the edge of the forest, she'd seen a large male tiger up ahead of her, hurrying along a fox and a slightly smaller lion. Recognising them from the cottage next door — an old servant's dwelling she had always assumed, from when the brothel had been an estate manor, now no more than a hovel — she had been intrigued when the tiger suddenly ducked between two rocks, followed by the other two, and disappeared. Figuring it as good a place as any to start looking for Sylkin, and anyway unable to ignore what looked like a good adventure, she had followed.

At first it had been so dark she had had to stop and let her eyes adjust. The tiger and lion, eyes adapted, led the fox down what seemed at first to be an ancient rabbit warren, from when animals still lived in the ground. Her mother had told her of these as bedtime stories, and now an image of giant naked rabbits digging with their paws popped into her mind. Opening out into a larger area, Keera padded along quietly, making out rough-hewn rocky walls, areas covered in green slimy moss, others in what seemed to be very old spider webs. Careful not to make a noise, she followed the trio as the area narrowed again and went down, down and down. Keera had never had much sense of direction but as the air grew more humid she knew they were either coming close to the river or at least the water table.
      The tiger had stopped first, putting out his paw to stop the other two from passing him. Keera had noticed arrogance, no it was more than that — superciliousness, really — in the tiger's attitude towards the two females, as she now saw they were. Keera sidled in behind a jutting corner of igneous, watching and listening. All thoughts of finding Sylkin now vanished, as she peered around the rock to get a better glimpse of what was happening.
      "OK, Nes, Kezly, I need you both to go back there and watch out for me..."
      "What the hell is it that we're doing here Cannium?" The lioness, who seemed to be losing her patience, threw her chin and breasts towards the tiger in what looked to Keera like a fighting stance.
      "Yeah, Cann, how is Sylkin going to be down here?" The fox piped up now, having taken the lion's lead. Keera could see her point: they were at the end of this tunnel, which stopped strangely in a sheer wall of rock different to that she now hid behind. There was a small impression near the top left of the wall; she didn’t think the fox or lion had seen it, attentive as they were now to the tiger.
      "Look, there could easily be dolphins following you want to be caught?" He stood over them both now, in an intimidating manner. Keera saw the lion bristle. Cannium, the tiger, saw too, and backed off a little. "I heard Eavin showing this tunnel to Haiyashi one day," he lied, "so just go around the corner and watch out won't you, like a good little vixen and lioness?"
      The lioness backed down, turning and trudging towards Keera, the fox once again taking her lead. Keera tiptoed backwards, turning and saw a small niche a little further back. She figured she could see the tiger from there, and possibly still hear if the other two were returning.
      "There's more to this than looking for Eavin, I'm sure of it Kez," the vixen whispered as they passed Keera.
      "You go a bit further Nes, I'll stay and watch him." The lion was definitely the leader of the two. Keera stayed in the shadow until she was sure she could peek out safely again. In the meantime, she listened. Fins. History my arse. Cover the basket? Had she heard right? None of three had been carrying anything. The tiger was whispering quietly to himself, examining the impression that Keera had first noticed on the endwall. He pulled something out of a waistcoat pocket and held it up to the hollow. A barely audible, but low grinding sound could be heard for an instant; Keera looked back to see if the fox or lioness had heard it. All was quiet: they must've gone further back down the tunnel.
      But then Keera heard a pattering, and a then rush of amber and honey fur blurred past. In a skid, the two females were at Cannium's side. They had just been hiding a little past where Keera was herself. Keera wiped her forebrow, glad she hadn't been detected.
      "What was that Cannium?" The lion was again between the tiger and fox, in fighting stance.
      "Must've been the start of another earthquake"
      "Well I didn't feel anything. Only heard." Nes, the vixen, sounded very unsure of herself.
      "It was a small one. Come on. She's not here." The tiger turned and fumed down the tunnel. The vixen and lioness looked at each other, then followed. Keera had dutifully come next, not wanting to get lost in this underground maze. They were almost out, she now remembered, when she had become unconscious. She had seen the three duck into another tunnel, narrower again, that seemed to have some light seeping down it, when there really had been another earthquake, and, she now assumed, had been hit on the head.

So now it was daylight again and Keera was almost home. Just another corner, and...bump!
      "My dear Keera you really should watch where you are going!" Keera blinked in the sunlight. A pink round frill outlined the face of her dreaded Aunt Drosophilia like a tatted and daisied halo. "And I don't suppose you have yourself a job yet?"
       Keera grimaced. All she wanted to do was get home and see if Sylkin was there. Her Most Honoured Ladyship (as Keera called her privately) had no idea Keera was one of the town's most popular working girls, and tempted as she was, she wasn't going to tell her now. Her parents may not live here but they would hear. Drosophilia would make sure of that.
      "Why Aunt, did not you hear? I am now apprentice to the baker in Yuellia!" Keera replied, putting on her best enunciated voice. She knew Her Ladyship would never even try to ascertain the truth of that, her hatred of Yuellia and its people as illogical as the original War had been, in Keera's opinion.
      As she turned down the lane to the brothel's rear, she could hear Her Ladyship calling after her; Keera ignored her, although she knew it would cost her a visit from her parents. Well, she'd love to see them, she thought, and anyway where was Sylkin? Traipsing up the whorehouse stairs, she pushed open the French double doors that divided the large sunroom from the back porch. Bathe, sleep...but first check Sylkin's room.


Kwembo's back was creaking with the effort — the girl was light (so terribly thin!) —but he wasn't as strong as he used to be, and the effort of carrying her down the Aphacia Stairs and Swivel-gun Lane was starting to tell. His breath wheezed and little spots were starting to dance in front of his eyes by the time he reached the Meerkatze establishment. The boar leant her up against the rails and stood, half crouched, as he tried to regain his breath. He was glad he'd tucked his walking stick into his sash — at this rate he would be needing it to walk as far as the markets.
      "Miss..." he croaked. He wiped his brow on his forehead. He hoped that there was some of that delicious wine left...he really wasn't up to this sort of physical exertion anymore. Careless of him — he should have asked for assistance. Lots of people around here. Plenty of help. He waited till his vision cleared and he was breathing a little easier.
      "Mistress Meerkatze! Open up! It's very important!"
      "EAVIN!" A shriek enough to make his ears ring.
      "Eavin! Warren! Cannium! Eavin...Eavin!" Another cat — no, a lion this time, was trying to shake the girl awake. He patted her on the shoulder, murmured, "Careful girl, she's not well...treat her gently."
      Kez stared — the *mayor* had Eavin? At least she hadn't drowned like in her dreams — or worse. She couldn't even remember how to curtsey — everything depended on Eavin being well — she was her friend!
      Cannium snarled, stripes bristling. "What did you do to her, old man?"
      He had his claws out...Kez's heart flew to her mouth...if he clawed the MAYOR...
      The old boar was visibly shaken. "Me? Young man, I just carried your friend from the Aphacia Stai.."
      "Mayor?" Now the door was open — Keera was standing, eyes wide. Kwembo was starting to feel dizzy — a gaggle of children, an unconscious cat-girl, two ladies of the night. He sat down, hard.


Can you feel me, Eavin? *I* am here, inside you.

*I* will preserve you.

You are precious to me, my host.

Kwembo was late. The business with cats and rabbits and mice left him no time at all. Not a chance for a nap, he thought, as he trotted up the stairs before the Chamber of Commerce. He groaned inside as he recognised the stoat waiting for him. He truly did his best for the city, but women like the Lady Crocus made it difficult to concentrate on the wider picture.

      "Well met, Lady," he ventured, "I hope that you haven't come to see me, especially, as I have pressing engagement –"
      "What, sir, do you intend to do about the Yuellians?" she snapped.
      "Lady? I was unaware of any situation regarding my other constituents?"
      She didn't take the hint — she never did. "This very morning, the *tradesmen* refused to complete my garden. The refused! Said that they wouldn't stay in the city if the stones were speaking, and..." she was shaking and white with indignant fury, "...especially not for a woman of Brindall. My family have lived in the city since the time of Dricus the Hero, and he must be rolling in his grave now to hear his descendants insulted by rabble from that...that cesspool –"
      Kwembo clashed his tushes together. "Lady Crocus — as a member of an old family, I would have thought you would know better then to resurrect memories of The War." Still, he would have to look into this, if the old prejudices were coming to the surface again. "I would appreciate, Lady, if in future you would not provoke the same sort of situation with comments of that type!"
      The stoat was taken aback, and clutched her parasol like a two handed sword. "Well! And I suppose you will do nothing when dolphin bandits murder us in our beds?"
      A voice behind her piped in cheerily "We wouldn't do that! Not without ravishing you a few times first, anyway."
      Lady Crocus went a rather remarkable shade of purple, Kwembo noticed, as he tried to keep a suitably severe face. The stoat, clearly not trusting herself to speak, straightened her back and stomped, rather heavily, down the slate stairway.
      "Well, only the more attractive ones, anyway," continued Dajil, glancing after the stoat. "Who was that old prune?"
      "Drosophilia Crocus, Mr Dajil. A member of one of the oldest families in the city."
      "She certainly looks it. Running late I see? Your friend from the Council of Historians is already here – I think my orcan associate is scaring him."

Gryce was toying with one of her knives. The rabbit from the Historian's Council was hovering over near the furthest door, with a goblet of chilled rainwater from the Chamber's supply.
      "Gentleman? Ma'am? If you'd like to be seated?" The boar murmured his orders to the Day Officer — with the doors sealed and the Day Officer standing guard outside, no-one would overhear the negotiations.
      "Your friend here confirm our claim, has he?" asked the dolphin, gesturing towards the rabbit. Kwembo noted that the bruise on his forehead still hadn't faded — uncharitably, he found himself wishing whoever had made the blow had made a better job of it, and saved him the decision he feared he would have to make.
      The historian was looking rather ill. "Ah, I consulted the surviving texts, sir, ah, and it would seem that the artifact, ah, is indeed part of the, ah, Covenant Casket, sir."
      The bandit grinned. "Just as well...wouldn't want to think we'd come all this way for nothing."
      Kwembo pinched the bridge of his nose, and peeled the wax off his sealed document case. "And your demands?"
      "Pretty reasonable, I should think. Complete freedom of the West Isles from Brindallian influence. No embassy, no taxation, no tariffs. *Very* cheap considering what it would cost your city if we, say, showed off the casket in Chapel Square?"
      "And who knows you have it?" demanded the Historian. It must be galling indeed, thought the boar, to learn that not only might his entire profession be rendered obsolete, but also the means to do so was in the hands of barbarians.
      Dajil grinned even more broadly. "See Gryce, I told you they’d ask that. Before you think about some sort of naval attack on the Isles, the answer is – most of the Pod Matriarchs, everybody who helped us dig it up, a good number of our friends here," gesturing to the sullen huntress, "and anybody else we happened to tell about it.
      "But don't worry, we'll all be much happier to see the city out of our hair," he smirked, "rather than put Brindall and Yuellia in another civil war and have to deal with whoever survives. Assuming the gods don't wreck the cities with an earthquake like they did last time."
      Kwembo clutched at a final straw. "And if you did try to bring the casket into the city…?"
      "You couldn't spot us — you'd have to search every ship, every coracle and raft, without explaining why. And we could always bring it in underwater anyway. Who knows, we might even have it here already..."
      Gryce glared at him. "But if we didn't, and you stormed the island to try to, ah, talk it out of us...welllllll, the pods back home wouldn't be very happy with the city, would they?"


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Last updated 08/01/01. Original Site and title graphics created by Sillycat / Phoo Graphics.