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  1. [The lights turn back on, Doe and Smith are sweaty and disheveled. Ink smears both of their palms from mishandled ink ribbons]
    Doe: Perhaps we could take a break?
    Smith: No.
    Doe: Please?
    Smith: We said we would work on something until we made something.
    Doe: Could we not write half of something down and call it a day?
    Smith: You would write ‘something’ and leave.
    Doe: Not true! We just need to put anything on this paper and we can leave, right?
    [Smith sighs.]
    Smith: Yes.
    [Doe puts a clean sheet into the typewriter and types “anything”; they then look at each other and laugh after a comedic pause]
    [Some time passes; this is marked by the clock in the room speeding up and the sound of a grandfather clock chiming]
    Doe: Why did we become authors in the first place?
    Smith: We had a good idea for a book.
    Doe: Ideas, you mean.
    Smith: Well, idea. Singular.
    Doe: We have a few good books, don’t lie to the audience.
    [Doe gestures to the right wall]
    Smith: Our first was the only good one.
    Doe: They all sold well! We even got that big newspaper to promote us several times!
    Smith: You know our publicist bought that endorsement, right? Besides, how can you trust the invisible hand to pick a decent apple?
    Doe: Why are you so cynical?
    Smith: That’s just how I was raised!
    Doe: That's a lazy reason, you know. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, but it doesn’t have to try and grow the same branches.
    Smith: Oh, fuck off.
    Doe: Just think about it!
    Smith: It’s because my life was shitty growing up.
    Doe: You can tell me about it. 
    Smith: Choke on your tongue.
    [They take turns typing some more, the lights turn off and on shortly afterwards to
    indicate the passage of time.]
    Doe: Is there any future in fictional writing?
    Smith: Probably not.
    Doe: Why do you say that?
    Smith: You tell me a good plot for a fictional story that’s worth reading. I mean realistic fiction, not some high fantasy shit like we watched in college while we were stoned out of our minds.
    Doe: Alright. 
    [Doe pauses]
    Doe: The internet is rather new, what if we wrote a book that takes place entirely over AOL instant messaging?
    Smith: AIM? Jesus Christ, you’re out of touch.
    [They both look at the typewriter, and give a comedic pauses as if to make a joke that
    would not land]
    Doe: You’re no help, give me a plot then.
    Smith: I don’t have one! That’s why I’m asking you.
    Doe: Fine, fine… What about: two people. And they do nothing but talk for the entire time.
    Smith: Isn’t that “Waiting for Godot”?
    Doe: Perhaps.
    Smith: We aren’t playwrights.  
    Doe: I know that! You asked for a plot and I gave you one.
    Smith: And it’s a shitty one at that.
    Doe: Hey! It’s not that bad!
    Smith: You call this good writing then?
    [Smith gestures to their dialogue.]
    [They give each other a look, as if they understand they are actors.]
    Doe: Anyway.
    Smith: Have we discussed philosophy yet?
    Doe: Probably not. We save that for last when we’re bored.
    Smith: Then what should we talk about
    Doe: The philosophy of language?
    Smith: Why?
    Doe: We’re authors.
    [Both of them glance at the back wall, where both of their diplomas hang in frames.]
    Smith: Oh. right.
    [Scene fades to black]

  2. Marthell
    Latest Entry

    The alarm forgot I'm out of a job.

    At least it's a good reminder for Adrian to call in again and maintain his off-work-for-medical-reasons status.

    In spite of the early alarm - and those few seconds after waking in which I made the mistake of thinking I was still employed - sleep has revived me. That and leftover pizza. You can't beat leftover pizza.

    Munching away at it I realize I have a surprisingly packed itinerary for my first day redundant: job hunting, meeting Eve, calling Ryan, generally supporting Adrian and I need to go grocery shopping at some point, preferably sometime before I starve to death, though that does leave a wide margin.

    Maybe I should feel drained, or overwhelmed, but for one reason or another I'm feeling determined more than anything else. I aim to hang on to that feeling as long as I can.

    Adrian made his call when we were in bed as I sat beside him, not having any immediate reason to get up. He did sleep naked after all. I found that out as he stood up and stretched after the call, saying he'd make us some coffee. He gave me a slightly guilty-looking apologetic glance when he caught my wide eyed stare transfixed on his bare body.

    “Sorry," he'd said. “I'm used to sleeping naked."

    I'd told him there was no reason to apologize for giving me a wonderful view in the morning. He beamed at me. He had a certain sway to his hips and tail as he left the room too, no doubt deliberately to show off his well-sculpted butt and, I have to admit, succeeding wonderfully. Good thing he didn't notice my morning wood.

    Then again, maybe that wasn't such a good thing. It took a real effort to quell my arousal without giving in to it and the thought of Adrian helping me out along the way did nothing to dissolve my horniness.

    With some effort I managed to soften before joining the fox for coffee and pizza. The perfect combination of morning sustenance. I wish every day could start like this.

    Adrian's still naked and it quickly reignites the heat and firmness a certain, disobedient part of me was experiencing. But, I don't mind that so much either, given that for now I can easily hide it under the table as we sit and eat.

    I talk through my plans for the day with him while he deals with the empty mugs and pizza boxes. I would help but he wouldn't let me; he said I was allowing him to stay here so it's the least he can do, plus I think he wanted another opportunity to strut around naked in front of me.

    “So yeah, that should keep me busy for the day."

    Finishing his set of chores he turns to me.

    “No doubt. I'm happy, and maybe slightly surprised, to see that you're in such high spirits about everything."

    I grin and shrug. “I needed that sleep."

    He nods, puts a finger to the end of his muzzle and makes a humming sound.

    “Did you even sleep at all the night before?"

    “Well, no." I admit, sheepishly.

    He finds a sullen look as he stares at me. I try and maintain eye contact despite half-wanting to drop my gaze to his dangling balls and sheath. There's something about casual nudity that really does it for me.

    “Oh, Kalie, I'm sor-" he cuts himself off and shakes his head, knowing I neither want or need an apology. “I'm glad you slept better last night at least."

    Done with food and wrapping up the conversation I get up and stretch my arms, letting out a colossal yawn. “Me too. Now, I should go shower and get on with the day."

    He doesn't respond immediately and when I follow his line of vision I see his gaze focused on my tented underwear. I'd been wearing this boner so long I half forgot I had it.

    “M-morning wood?" He asks, somewhat absurdly, through a momentary stammer. Surely he knew his nudity would have an effect on me.

    “That, and I was enjoying the show," I say with a laugh. Then, realizing how awkward this might be for him I add: “sorry."

    “Why are you apologizing?" He blurts out, incredulous. He makes a little squeak then turns away, muttering something about a wet patch. I look down and see what he means, there's a little dark patch on the front of my underwear where some pre must have soaked through. “Just get that thing away from me honey or I might just die of thirst."

    So that's how it is.

    Maybe I should do as he says. Maybe I shouldn't be so blasé about all this considering my complicated relationship non-status. Maybe I shouldn't do things that might offer false hope to him. Maybe the oral I gave the other night is normalizing something that I should be more cautious of and maybe I shouldn't make it a trend.

    But maybe this early in the morning I don't care. And maybe the two of us doing something we both enjoy with one another isn't a bad thing after all.

    “What kind of host would I be if I let my guest go thirsty?"

    Before I know quite what I'm doing my left paw is slowly, casually rubbing my hardness through the thin material of my underwear.

    Adrian turns his neck instantly upon hearing my words, wide-eyed. His shocked stare and crooked mouth asks the question for him: are you serious?

    I nod slowly, then with my free paw point toward the living room.

    When he turns I'm treated to the sight of his own eager member, stiff and excited, and a bestial desire rises within me.

    “You know," I begin, “I haven't cum in two days."

    “Two whole days?" He asks wryly and wholly rhetorically. “Impressive."

    I growl low and his sarcasm melts away in an instant.

    Soon enough I'm on the sofa and he's on his knees, muzzle buried between my legs, tongue treating me like royalty. I grunt and moan in unimpeded pleasure.

    “You're a damn good fox, aren't you?" I ask, ruffling his hair and letting out another growl.

    He responds only with noises muffled by the cock obstructing his throat, just as I'd expected.

    His tongue is like magic. It's as though it knows exactly where to go, how long to be there for and how gentle or forceful it should be at any given moment. His bobbing muzzle slurps greedily at my length, earning occasional spurts or dribbles of pre that are then near-instantaneously lapped up by his tongue-of-wonders.

    To say he's an expert would be an understatement.

    “Fuck, I'm not going to last long like if you carry on like this," I gasp out, floating in ecstasy. I'm not lying, even though I wish this could go on forever.

    He deep-throats me and let's me fuck his muzzle for a considerable and impressive amount of time before he has to pull away for comfort and air. He's so fucking good at this, it's mind-boggling.

    “Better than last time?" He asks with a lustful, confident grin.

    “No question," I confirm without need for hesitation. It hasn't actually been so long since I last had his muzzle and the memory of the foursome we enjoyed together only adds to my current pleasure. “Though you were amazing then, too."

    “I'm even better without distractions," he remarks, playfully referring, I assume, to Ryan and Marty.

    “I won't argue with a professional."

    He laughs then makes a low, lusty hum, staring at my glistening wet manhood.

    “God, I want that buried in my ass so bad. If it weren't for this damn arm..." He laughs again. “That's assuming you'd be up for it in the first place."

    In the midst of lust my answer is clearer than day.

    “Obviously."

    “I would say we should do it anyway but I'm scared I'd do something stupid or lose grip with only one arm to keep me steady, or that I'd somehow bash this useless thing," he says waving his bound left arm. “And I don't want that. I want it healed as soon as possible."

    “That makes perfect sense, though it is a shame. But don't you worry foxy, your muzzle is doing wonderful work already."

    He licks my length, sending a shiver through my body and only further proving my point.

    “Still, it's a shame to miss out on an opportunity like that for what might be the last time," he lets his tongue trace the tip of my dick as he thinks. “Can you just promise, if you settle in with one of those two and ever decide you want to be more sexually open, or have a threesome some time, or whatever... just promise you'll think of me."

    “Don't act dumb Adrian. You'd be at the top of my list," I say with all seriousness. His ears perk up and his tail wags. “Now be a good fag and work for that load."

    Then I'm deep in his throat again and the world melts away. His right paw takes turns groping various parts of me - my thighs, my balls, my belly – as his muzzle and tongue work away at my length. It's only a matter of seconds until I can feel orgasm threatening its approach once more. I was even more pent up than I realized.

    At some point my paws end up on the back of his head again and I'm thrusting up into his needy, slutty muzzle. The good fox takes the length of my cock over and over without resistance or discomfort, eagerly working for and awaiting his reward.

    “Fuck, foxy, your muzzle is... mmf."

    My words dissolve into sounds and moans and I can feel myself finishing.

    “I'm gonna- fff."

    I can't even finish the sentence, so enraptured in a cascade of feeling. He stays strong and steady and his tongue remains adventurous and flexible even as I relentlessly pound his throat, inching ever closer and closer to climax until-

    With a moaning sigh of pure fulfillment I loosen my grip on his head and shoot my load down the back of his throat. Unsurprisingly, the thirst foxy stays put until my extended, shuddering orgasm is over and he has swallowed every last drop of my seed. When he finally pulls way he bobs back down to lick and suck at me a last few times to ensure no errant molecule of cum could have possibly escaped him.

    “And just earlier I was thinking to myself: there's no better breakfast than pizza," he remarks casually, licking around his muzzle in further effort to capture every last possible atom of ejaculate.

    I narrow my eyes for a moment then burst into laughter.

    “I was thinking the exact same thing. I'd still choose pizza, myself."

    “Perfect, that means more cock for me then." He winks, then gets off his knees to sit beside me on the sofa. His own length is hard and hungry for pleasure.

    “So I'm not allowed any of this?" I ask, brushing his length with the back of my paw.

    Even that is enough to elicit a gasp and a twitch from him. He looks into my eyes needily like the good little bitch he is.

    He brings out my most dominant side so damn easily.

    “Do you want it?" He asks, sounding surprisingly meek and unsure considering what has just transpired.

    I don't answer with words.

    I think my tongue lapping at his cock means I don't need to.

     

    *

     

    Afterward I helped Adrian wash, which he graciously accepted. Unlike last time my proximity to his nakedness didn't devolve into further sex, the two of us were already well satisfied.

    Once that was done I finally took my own shower, utterly relieved; spent and full at the same time.

    As I cleaned myself, dried and dressed, my mind flipped back and forth in chaotic motions as I tried to reconcile with this morning's events. Doing all that with Adrian set off a chain reaction in my head.

    I shouldn't have done it. I was thinking with my dick, being a total moron. It'll give him false expectations. Or maybe he'll feel like I'm using him. Maybe he'll think I'm taking it as some kind of payment for him staying here. Things were finally settling between us, I felt like he was finally coming to terms with us staying just friends and now...

    Then again maybe I'm making a fuss over nothing. He was clear on the situation and this doesn't change anything. This was just us having some fun together, relieving some tension, as friends. For fuck's sake we've had enough hardship and horror recently, I shouldn't beat myself up for allowing the two of us to forget all about it for a while and give in to our base desires. It was just a bit of good-natured fun.

    Yet it still doesn't sit quite right with me.

    Finally fully clothed I make my way to the computer desk with the intention of sorting out my resume. I pass Adrian where he's sat in the living room, tapping at his phone slightly awkwardly with his one spare hand. A pang of guilt shoots through me when I see him, doubting my earlier actions and intentions. I find it difficult to maintain eye contact as he speaks.

    “Hey Kale, all freshened up?"

    “Uh, yeah." I notice my awkwardness as soon as I speak and do my best to quell it. “Hey, Adrian, when did you say you're getting the bandages off?"

    “My arm feels mostly okay already, a bit numb I guess, but apparently I have to wait until tomorrow before they'll bust me out."

    I nod thoughtfully.

    I don't know whether I should bring this up now, but I can't exactly hold it back forever.

    “Oh, by the way, Marty called last night and sort of invited me over later in the week. He said you should come to."

    Maybe reminding him about Marty, and Ryan by association, will cement that our little fun earlier was just that, fun, and nothing else.

    “He wanted me there? Are you sure?"

    “Yeah, he told me to invite you."

    “But, I mean, why?"

    “He said he enjoyed meeting you and that he'd like the chance to see you again." I hesitate. “But, in case you're worried you'll get in the way, he told me we weren't going to treat it like a date. I told him about my job, and that there have been other important things coming up in my life. He said he understands if I don't want to make a decision on the two of them, and that no matter what he'd like to remain friends."

    Adrian turns back to his phone.

    I start to wonder whether he'll even bother responding, but as I'm about to leave him to his thoughts he speaks.

    “He sounds like a great guy," his voice is kind, but cold.

    I let out a sigh.

    “You don't have to come if you don't want to."

    “That's not what I said."

    “Adrian..."

    “I'm all grown up now Kale, I can deal with my own drama." He lets out a sudden laugh. “Though these bandages might suggest otherwise."

    “Well..." I struggle to put my thoughts in order. “There's no rush on deciding, we were thinking of meeting Friday. Just let me know if you want to tag along by then."

    “Will do." He pauses, then turns to me once more. “Sorry."

    “For what?"

    “For making everything more difficult."

    “Adrian you're not-"

    “I get it, I get it. I know what you're going to say. Just let me apologize, please. If only for my own peace of mind."

    I grimace and flick my tail.

    “Fine, I accept your most gracious apology."

    He smiles. It's sunny, cute, infectious. I can't help but join in.

    “Thanks Kalie."

    “Nothing to thank me for, anyway what do you have planned for the day seeing as you're still lazing around here instead of going into work?"

    He acts out a look of distress, as though hideously offended at my teasing words.

    “How dare you make such an attack against my character?" He laughs. “To be entirely honest, I'm not sure. I could lend an ear and some thoughts for your new resume and any applications you're gonna make. I'll think about updating mine too, since I want to get out of that hellhole as soon as possible. Apart from that though? I dunno, I was considering lying on this sofa all day."

    He wears a cheeky grin that can't help but make me chuckle.

    “Really?"

    “Well, that and helping you out with any tasks you might need sorting. Maybe I could pick some groceries up for you."

    “Only if you'll let me pay."

    “I'm the one with the job remember."

    “Don't care. Plus how are you going to carry a load of groceries with that one faggy arm of yours?"

    “Good point. At least let me come with you if you go."

    “Deal."

    With that I finally find my way to my computer, feeling a little better about things between the two of us. It's only after an hour or so of struggling with refining and updating my resume that I realize I'd forgotten something.

    I was going to call Ryan.

    I grab my phone from where I'd left it charging in the bedroom, scowling at the cracked screen and the emotionally charged memories of listening to Adrian's voicemail that come with it.

    I think back to how Ryan was acting yesterday and a rush of anxiety flows over me. I hope he's okay. I should have called sooner. I should have-

    Calm down Kale.

    He picks up on the third ring.

    “Kale, hey!" His voice is enthusiastic but restrained.

    “Hey Ryan," I called without really knowing what to say. “How have you been?"

    He exhales.

    “I don't know. Weird. How about you?"

    I exhale.

    “I don't know. Weird."

    There's a silence, but not an awkward one.

    “Thanks for calling, Kale. I really appreciate it."

    “Don't mention it. I want you, well, I want everyone I care about to know I'm there for them when they need me."

    “That's a comforting thought. You're a wonderful, caring guy Kale, I'm glad I met you."

    I brush off the compliment. “I'm glad I met you too. Anyway, Ryan, you really didn't seem right when I last saw you. Something was bothering the hell out of you. Tell me what's up, I've got as much time as you need."

    He makes a noncommittal murmur before speaking up.

    “It's a lot of things, or, it's kind of nothing. Well, no, it's... it's..."

    “There's no rush Ryan," I say, doing my best to project a calm and clear image of myself. In reality my anxiety only builds at hearing the husky's clear discomfort, but I'm determined to make this work.

    “I just don't want you to think badly of me, or think that I'm trying to..." He trails off and lets out a frustrated growl “This is difficult."

    “If something's upset you, or if something's happened then you should tell me. I'm not going to judge you Ryan."

    His emotions seem to bubble up slowly, then they burst out in a single expressively spoken statement.

    “It's about Marty."

    A pit opens up in my stomach.

    “Marty?"

    “Fuck, I shouldn't have said that, not yet."

    “What do you mean?"

    “I thought I could do this over the phone, but I was wrong." His words are rushed, almost frantic. “Fuck, pretend I didn't say anything okay?"

    “Hey, slow down Ryan. Let's talk this through."

    What the hell is going on with those two?

    What has Marty done to make Ryan feel this way?

    Why the fuck do I keep getting caught in the middle of it?

    I run a paw down my face.

    I can hear him breathing heavily down the phone, as if panicked.

    “I don't know. I'm probably overreacting. I don't-" He cuts himself off. “Look, I think I'd feel more comfortable if we were talking in person. I don't want to keep you on the phone, talking your ear off about nothing. And I think I'd feel calmer if you were here with me. I just... I don't know. I'm wasting your time, sorry."

    I feel my whole body tense up.

    “No. Don't say that. You're not wasting my time Ryan. Something's clearly wrong and I'm here to help make it right, or at least to listen. Even if that has to be at a different time or a different place. Just don't hold it in too long, okay?"

    He lets out an extended, heavy breath and seems to calm a little.

    “Okay. Thank you. So much. Just promise you won't hate me for making a fuss about nothing okay?"

    “I promise Ryan. Even if you rant at me about something ludicrous for five hours, if it makes you feel better I'll see it as a productive use of my time."

    He lets out a timid laugh and our conversation thaws.

    We decide to meet tomorrow afternoon and, with him saying he'd rather it be somewhere private, I invite him to my place. I don't mention Adrian, it would only complicate things, but I don't reckon it will be difficult to get him out of the house for a few hours if necessary. He'll be getting his bandages removed and might want to move back to his place anyway.

    The thought leaves me with mixed emotions. I'll miss being so close to him when he's gone, but it will make life simpler. Maybe that's exactly what I need.

    Off the phone I shake off the conversation and do my best to stick my worries about Ryan into a corner of my mind. I return to making applications but it's not long until my stomach won't let me continue. I'm hungry and there's nothing in.

    I call out to Adrian and ask if he's up for getting some groceries. He's eager and willing and we head out within minutes. It's nice to simply hang out with him as we journey out, making small talk about games and music and movies and having a while to not worry about anything else.

    Being a smooth-talking fox, he somehow manages to talk me down to only paying for half the groceries, but I'm at least proud he didn't manage to talk me down to nothing.

    At the counter with a couple baskets full of food and supplies, and almost without realizing it, I end up buying a pack of cigarettes. Adrian doesn't blink an eye, of course he doesn't. I haven't told him I'm quitting. Really, I haven't even told myself I'm quitting.

    I guess I'm not.

    I light one up on the walk back, my paws struggling with the lighter as they shake and jitter. I can't tell if it's the anticipation, some kind of withdrawal symptom or something else entirely. Adrian rolls his eyes as I take my first drag. It's nothing out of the ordinary, he's never approved, always wanted me to quit, always looked out for me.

    Inhale. Exhale.

    Feels like heaven. Feels like coming home after a long day's work.

    I hate it.

    Fuck, what am I doing killing myself like this? Draining my health and my bank account for nothing more than a hit of chemicals that calm and satiate me for nothing more than a matter of minutes.

    I take another drag. And another.

    It would be so easy to lose myself in this again. So easy to continue the habit, to chase that feeling over and over again. It would be so easy.

    A trash can passes us by. I swear I was so fucking close to stopping and stubbing out my cigarette and throwing the whole damn pack away. Instead I kept walking.

    More drags, more chatter about lunch – Adrian decided he wants to cook for us – more drags, more walking.

    I finish the cigarette before we're back and while it satisfies my immediate cravings part of me is disgusted. Another part of me wants to immediately light up another one. Neither part seems to actually accomplish much.

    Minutes turn to hours in moments, we eat and I send out applications, confirm my meeting time with Eve, and do my best to avoid smoking again. But why? I'm not quitting, never was.

    Staring at my computer screen, relentlessly attempting to put my professional life back in order is starting to get to me. I've done a decent amount of work already today and I'll be meeting Eve soon and those two excuses seem just about reasonable enough to justify me doing something else. It's that or be driven insane by pure repetition and boredom and overthinking and...

    I stand up, run a paw through my hair, walk to the kitchen and down a glass of water.

    I pour another glass.

    Today started well, I was clear headed and determined and...

    Without really even noticing it until now I find my head full. There's a dozen quiet voices vying for my attention, telling me to worry and think and reason and take action and...

    I down a second glass. I didn't realize how thirsty I was.

    I pour another one.

    So there's my job or lack thereof, my fractured if fruitful romantic life, everything with Adrian, he loves me, he almost killed himself, I let him suck my dick, was that okay, I'm still smoking and I hate it, there's whatever's going on with Ryan, not to mention Marty... I wonder if I can still get a good reference from my ex-workplace after what I said to Dom, I wonder if my fox will hurt himself again, is Eve really okay, why didn't she answer those calls from Adrian when he was in trouble, Adrian made it clear she was hiding something from me, and why did I buy another pack of cigarettes, I need another job, Adrian wants a new job too and I should help him, and am I giving him false expectations with our continued sexual contact, with him sleeping naked in my bed, and I can't keep Marty and Ryan hanging like this, they need an answer so they can move forward, truth is I don't even fucking know if I want either of them anymore after all this fucking... No, I need a minute, and my stomach doesn't feel so good, and...

    I pull another cigarette from the pack and shove it between my teeth. I've been holding a lot inside myself haven't I?

    Or am I just a dumb, whiny bitch?

    I wasn't good enough to prevent Adrian's pseudo suicide attempt. He almost died and now I'm whining about my life?

    My paws are shaking, I'm pathetic.

    I head to my bedroom and crack open a window, leaning my head out, clutching my lighter.

    Are you okay Kale?

    How do you feel?

    ...

    How do I feel?

    ...

    How do I fucking feel?

    Are you kidding?

    I feel...

    I feel...

    ...

    I spit my cigarette out, head still leaning out the open window, then pull the almost-full pack out my pocket and throw it outside.

    For just a second I stare dumbfounded as they plummet to the sidewalk two stories below, then I pull my head inside, bury it in my paws and let out a loud, guttural growl full of anguish and frustration.

    A couple seconds later Adrian is in the doorway brandishing an expression somewhere between concern and shock.

    “Kale, are you okay?"

    Am I okay?

    I can't think.

    “To be honest Adrian, I have no idea."

    Where did this all come from?

    Why now?

    What does it...

    Deep breaths.

    He comes closer and slowly, gently embraces me in his one-armed hug.

    I nestle my head into his shoulder and pull him close, wrapping my arms around him.

    I guess maybe I'd been so wrapped up in everyone else's drama I wasn't paying enough attention to how I've been. Maybe.

    I don't know if I want to give myself that much credit just yet.

    I guess now I'm gonna have to explain all this to Adrian. He'll laugh at me I'm sure. Call me a drama queen, and I'll deserve it. No, I know he'll be supportive, he always is, but that's only because he loves me. I'm not worth it.

    “You surprised me Kale."

    “Yeah. I'm sorry for yelling out like that."

    “No, not that - well, it made me jump – but what surprises me so much is that it's taken all this time and you've been through all this drama and difficulty and it's only now that you're showing any wear and tear." He let's out a dry chuckle. “You're incredibly strong Kale. It's genuinely astounding to me. I want you to know that. I..." He stops, and grunts. “You're amazing Kale. Don't doubt that."

    I don't know what to say, so I say nothing.

    I think I'm crying. He pats my back and keeps me close.

    The voices in my head grow quiet and stop. I don't need to worry right now. I'm safe. I'm okay.

    Eventually I pull away and stare into the fox's golden eyes.

    “Thank you Adrian, really."

    He shakes his head.

    “Nonsense. There's nothing to thank me for, sometimes you just need a reminder of how things are. You care so much for the people around you I think you sometimes forget to care for yourself."

    “You say that, but I failed you when you needed me most..."

    His jaw clenches tight before he speaks.

    “You were busy, under a lot of stress... Sure, if you want to look at it that way I can't stop you. But you can't be perfect. Nobody can."

    I nod slowly. His words not fully sinking in but their calming effect starting to at least take some action.

    “Adrian."

    “Yeah?"

    “I threw my pack of cigarettes out the window."

    He tilts his head and half-opens his mouth, then walks over to the open window and peeks out. He laughs, loudly. I look to the side and sigh before laughing quietly to myself.

    “Do you want me to go get them?"

    As if I'd make him do it!

    “No, of course not."

    “I'll come with you anyway."

    “No, I mean..." Part of me wants to run down and outside and pick them up and chain smoke the whole pack, but, no. “I'm done with that."

    He takes a second, and looks at me oddly, his tail swishes a single time.

    “Done with smoking?"

    I talk before I think it through.

    “I think so, yeah."

    He smiles wide. As usual, it's infectious.

    “I- That's amazing. Why now?"

    There's no point in lying.

    “The idea of doing that to myself, killing myself slowly with that addiction... I can't face that anymore." Adrian stares at me, unflinching, quiet. “I don't know, maybe it's a strange reason, but after what happened with you I just- I can't do it."

    He's still for a while, then nods slowly a few times.

    “I get it." His visage is overcome by a dark sneer. “At least one good thing came from all that then."

    Yet again, I don't know what to say. Thinking too much about that day, about finding Adrian like that, sets a blinding shroud off in my mind. The events of that day are like a thick, abrasive fog, muddying everything around them and pulling down my mood alongside.

    It's too much for me.

    Maybe Adrian's right. If that alone is more than I can happily handle then it's pretty damn impressive that I was able to keep that, and a whole host of other concerns and problems kicking around my head simultaneously without breaking down earlier. Not that I hadn't encountered any problems. Panic, lack of sleep, lack of focus... but I'm okay now. I'm okay, at least for the moment.

    He's probably right that I should care for myself more, but the idea seems backwards in my head. How can I put myself first when there are so many others who need me to stay strong for them? I don't know that I can.

    But for now, I'm okay. I had a chance to let it all out and talk to Adrian. He calmed me down and set me straight.

    I'll make it through.

    “Thanks for being you," I say eventually.

    He smiles a weary smile and we embrace again. I wrap my tail around him and he flinches. After a pause he wraps his around me too.

     

    *

     

    I end up jogging most of the way to Eve's, my little outburst and the time spent with Adrian caused me to leave later than I'd have liked. I make it there in decent time but I'm so out of breath I wait for a minute outside her house, panting, before I knock.

    One exhausted voice in my mind yells at me, asking for a cigarette, another yells saying if I hadn't been a smoker then I wouldn't be so exhausted in the first place.

    “Eve, hey!" I exclaim as the door swings open, having for the most part recovered my breath. She's dressed in a slightly less random assortment of clothes today, she seems to have put more thought into what she's wearing and gone for a sort of casually elegant look with simple, well tailored pieces. I wonder whether she'll get changed again for her date tonight or not. Either way her anticipation of it has doubtless encouraged her to dress more deliberately.

    Before she even says a word she's wrapping her arms around me and squeezing hard. Her grip is surprisingly tight considering her relatively petite stature, but I give as good as I get. Soon she pushes me away and laughs, tilting her head to indicate me to come inside and make myself at home.

    She offers drinks and we start with small talk, but it runs out quickly, both of us having more on our minds. We sit on the plush sofas in her living room and get down to business.

    We talk about my job searching briefly and in return I ask her about her date tonight.

    “How excited are you?"

    “Excited, or nervous?"

    “Well, Which is it?"

    She throws her paws up and rolls her eyes. “Both is probably the most accurate answer. But really I'm sure it will go just fine. We've been keeping up with each other and we even had a quick call earlier today. I kinda feel like I know him already. I'm looking forward to it."

    “That's awesome, really. It sounds like the two of you can't get enough of each other."

    She makes a dismissive noise and turns her face away, smiling. Gotcha.

    It really is great to see her so happy and enamored. I'm used to her being energetic and supportive and upbeat, but this is different. It's more personal, more, I dunno, authentic.

    She's so damn cute with that smile. For a single fleeting moment a sense of jealousy overcomes me. She has another wolf in her life now.

    It fades as suddenly as it arrives. I love her, but I don't want her like that. It's a purely selfish reaction to seeing somebody I care about finding an ultimate form of happiness in someone else. Someone I don't even know.

    My stomach sinks. How dare I feel jealously, even for a single moment? Imaging how she feels about me when I get a boyfriend or have a fling. She was in love with me. And Adrian? It can only be worse for him. There's no way in hell I can feel sorry for myself about any of this. The truth is, I'm the lucky one.

    “Well," Eve's voice is a welcome light that cuts through the fog of my shrouded mind. “I haven't had much of a sex life recently, surely you can't blame a me for being a little voracious."

    “Gonna give it all up on the first date, huh?"

    She leers at me.

    “Of all people in the world to ask me that question..."

    I burst into laughter.

    “I didn't say I'd judge you for it."

    “I know you wouldn't wolf boy, but seriously, I didn't say I'd do that. We'll see. I'm just demonstrating another reason for my excitement slash anxiety."

    “Scared to admit how much you like him? And hey, where has your timidity gone? Yesterday you were getting all hot and bothered when we made jokes about you two banging."

    She shoots me a sarcastic smile.

    “I guess I realized there's no escaping that kind of conversation between the three of us so I may as well join in. And I'm happy to admit I'm into him, I just don't want you getting too worried about there being another wolf in my life."

    “Nonsense," I say, waving away her words, not bringing up my moment of jealousy. “But I would like to meet him. I know, I know, it's only your first date. But if things go well, don't be shy about him!"

    “I won't be."

    “And no matter what happens tonight you have to tell me everything."

    She bathes me in a warm, knowing smile and her tail repositions to curl a little ways around her legs.

    “Oh come on, you already know that's happening."

    We laugh and then joke around for a while longer before the conversation thins.

    Honestly, I have a lot on my mind - as if that wasn't clear from earlier – but it's not just that. There's a lot I need to talk to Eve about and most of it isn't easy. It's only been a matter of days since we had some real, extended one-on-one time but things have been happening so fast that we haven't had a chance to keep up.

    “How have you been anyway, Kale? Any plans for tonight?"

    “Not really. And as for how I've been, well... I'm holding up okay, just about. But I did throw some things out a window earlier and growl at the top of my lungs for no material reason." I admit, almost casually, not knowing how else to bring it up. She freezes and eyes me intently. I explain about how overwhelmed I realized I had been, about my outburst and Adrian consoling me, about smoking, about still feeling overwhelmed even now as I speak as I think as I-

    She tells me she understands. That it's okay to feel how I feel. That I shouldn't be so harsh on myself. It helps, not a lot, but it helps. It makes me feel that tiny bit less like a total fuck up.

    It's clear that there's more on my mind and she asks. I bring up the train dream. The train that kept traveling but had no stops. The one from last week that I mentioned to Adrian. She listens to the whole trippy story in silence, seemingly enraptured by the nonsensical tale of my subconscious mind.

    “At the end all I could think was: I'm too late." I pause and shake my head. “I don't know why, but it keeps coming back to me. I know it's just a dream, it can't mean much, but still I... Don't worry I'm not about to start believing in omens or visions or any of that shit, I just thought - I don't know – I thought I'd ask you if you have any thoughts on it, I guess."

    She takes a little while to respond. She unfolds her arms, takes a sip of her drink, tilts her head.

    “Like you say, it's a dream. Sometimes dreams are truly random and pointless - I'm sure a lot of it was meaningless - but dreams do contain elements of our subconscious thought. Maybe it was all shit, but since it stuck with you maybe there's something to it. If we're to suppose it had any meaning, my guess is it's your subconscious telling you not to waste the time you have. You're telling yourself that you need to make good use of the opportunities you have right now. Maybe the train having no stops represents some kind of fear. Perhaps a fear that you have no good options, or that whatever you do you're going to hurt somebody you care about or even yourself, but at the same time you have to make a choice or that dream, or nightmare, will come true. It will be too late."

    I'm quiet as I take it all in. What if she's right? Is that what I've been telling myself this whole time? Actually it's more than that, even if that dream meant nothing she's right.

    “Ryan and Marty..."

    “You've kept on stringing them along through all the drama surrounding you, but that string will wear out eventually."

    Something about the conversation triggers an intense anxiety reaction inside of me.

    “I just don't know what to do. I like so much about both of them, but they keep arguing and I can't really trust them and I..." What was I going to say? Something niggling that I can't put into words, or that I haven't, or. I can quite grasp it no matter how hard I try. “I... I don't know."

    She shrugs.

    “Well, you need to figure it out for yourself. Do you have plans to see them again?" She asks. I nod. “Maybe that will help you find a clear answer. Or maybe the truth is neither of them are right for you. You can stay single if you want to wolf boy, that is an option."

    I rest my head in my paws.

    “Fuck, Eve, the genuine, honest truth is that I don't know what I want," I lament.

    “I know that feeling."

    “I had sex with Adrian again earlier."

    Her eyes widen.

    “Okay, I don't know that feeling."

    “It was only oral. He sucked me off and I returned the favor."

    “Go on, lay down the details. You know I feed off of this stuff. It's what sustains me."

    “I don't know if I should have done it Eve. I feel like maybe I'm leading him on, that I'm giving him false expectations or something."

    She pauses and taps her fingers against her chin rhythmically. Her eyes shoot wide open for a moment and she makes a little hum as though in questioning thought, or perhaps realizing something.

    Finally she speaks. “I have a couple questions. I'm just not sure in which order I should ask them."

    “Eve. Come on." I'm exasperated.

    “Alright, alright. Have you made it very clear to Adrian that you aren't after him?"

    “Yes. At least, I think so. I mean, yes."

    “Then those fears you're having are foolish. He's a smart fox. He understands what's happening. Maybe part of him will hope you'll have a change of heart, but that's only natural, and as long as we're there for him when he needs us he'll be fine."

    I nod slowly.

    “Okay, yeah. I guess you're right. Do you still have another question?"

    Her paws mingle and fiddle nervously.

    “I guess what I wanted to ask is this: have you made it very clear to yourself that you aren't after him?"

    A ball of moths flutter around my stomach, I feel queasy.

    “Eve, he and you are my best friends in the world, I wouldn't trade anything for that." She stares icicles into me. “Of course Eve. It's crystal clear. It wouldn't work."

    She stares a little longer, then suddenly finds a lopsided smile and exhales.

    “Good. It's good to know where you stand. Sorry if it felt like I was being invasive."

    “No, it's nothing. You're just being a good friend, as always." A thought hits me suddenly. “Oh, fuck, wait."

    “What is it?"

    “I never really told you about the date I had with Marty, did I?"

    Her face lifts.

    “No, not in any real detail. The next time we talked we were busy with Adrian. I was wondering if you'd ever get around to telling me about it."

    Without further ado I fill her in about the whole thing. The cocaine, the revelation about Marty's money, Konroy family ties and lifestyle, how that fits in with Ryan, his accusations about the husky and the lack of trust between them as their relationship has seemed to wear thin. I mentioned the end of the date, as Ryan burst in and the two got to arguing and I got the hell out of there, and I mention the run in I had with each of them yesterday, as well as the call with Ryan today. It's enough already to have her on the edge of her seat, intently listening and offering snippets of her raw reactions, but I save the best for last. As I tell her about the fact that Marty rimmed and fucked me on our date the effect is fast and fierce.

    “No!"

    “Yes," I scratch the back of my head. “I would like to remind you I was under the influence of drugs."

    “Oh my fucking god, you bottomed for him?"

    “I did. And how are you finding this more shocking than the fact he's Konroy blood?"

    “That's crazy too, but damn wolf boy, you letting him do all that to you... That's a hell of a mental image! That's enough to keep me going for quite a while. If I don't end up getting any tonight, that'll be my go-to fap material for sure." She licks her muzzle exaggeratedly and then giggles almost manically.

    I must be wearing some kind of ridiculous, bewildered expression because she bursts into laughter just looking at me.

    “I'm joking, my dear friend." She says, immediately undermining her words by winking at me. “For the most part."

    “Eve!"

    “What? Imagining your ass getting ravaged is pretty hot!"

    I grumble under my breath but she just ignores me.

    Soon enough she manages to calm down, and after offering her take on the events of the date - warning me to be cautious around the two of them seeing as their relationship is struggling, and reaffirming my stance that neither of them can be entirely trusted quite yet as they've both accused the other of untruths - she fetches us each another drink, this time offering beer. I tease her that she'll be driving soon enough and it's back to her staring icicles into my skull as she reminds me it's only one drink and she has quite a while before she has to leave. We start them off with a clink of our bottles and soon she offers me sustenance in the form of a cookie.

    “You're always trying to fatten me up for some reason aren't you Eve?"

    “No matter how many sugary treats I give you, you never seem to gain weight. I'm just testing the limits of your magical powers."

    “You should know by now I'm omnipotent."

    We laugh and drink and eat and the conversation subsides once again.

    I realize it's time for me to ask the question I'd been dreading to ask. I can't hold it back forever. Oh hell, here goes nothing.

    “Eve," It's a struggle even to get the first word out.

    “Yeah, what's up?"

    “When Adrian was calling us, before he... he..." I can't even bring myself to say it plainly. I euphemize. “Before he ended up in hospital. I wanted to know something. Why didn't you answer?"

    She stares, her muzzle cracks open and she lets out half a syllable, stops, shakes her head and starts again.

    “I talked to Adrian about it."

    “Yeah?"

    “Yeah."

    Dead silence.

    “How about me?"

    “Remember what I said about there being a lot I haven't told you.

    “I remember." I think about Adrian, alone, scared, depressed, reaching out to us. Not getting any answer. My fists ball up. Just remembering what happened to him, how we let him down, it sets off a rage inside me. I think about Adrian yesterday, hinting at things Eve was hiding, telling me to be patient. I want to be patient, but... “I'm realizing exactly how true that is more and more each day."

    I can't keep the edge of anger out of my voice.

    “Kale, let's talk about this."

    “If only you were there to talk to Adrian." It's not a fair thing to say, I know it's not as I'm speaking but I can't stop myself. “On Monday, when he did it, my phone was miles away from me. What's your excuse?"

    “I've talked with Adrian. He understands. He's okay with it."

    “Yeah? Well maybe I'm not." I grit my teeth and lash my tail. I know I'm taking out my frustration at both of our actions solely on her. I know Eve is a wonderful person. I know she doesn't deserve this. Somehow, I can't seem to care. “I have no idea what's going on with my best friends. One almost killed themselves because they didn't open up to me sooner, or because I wasn't there for them. Or both. And now the other one is being dark and mysterious and keeping things from me. Should I expect to run into your home and find you bleeding out in a few days, huh? Is that what this is? You're borderline suicidal and you've been keeping it from me all these years, is that it?" I laugh harshly, not actually believing my words but finding some kind of instinctual catharsis in expunging them. “Adrian left voicemails you know. Maybe he left some for you too. Did you listen? I did last night. They were awful. Awful. The worst thing I've ever heard." I take out my phone and show her the cracked screen and chipped edge. “I didn't handle them very well." I shove it back in my pocket and sigh forcefully. “I don't seem to know the people closest to me so maybe I shouldn't be so surprised. Hell if we're going to make it a trend maybe I should fucking try and kill myself too."

    She's silent, wearing a vacant expression. She looks me dead in the eyes, her muzzle is trembling, then her whole head, her whole body.

    Oh god.

    What the hell have I done?

    She explodes into tears.

    They're loud, painful and unrestrained.

    The kind that hurt just to hear.

    I fucked up again.

    She told me there were things she was holding back and she asked for patience - Adrian more or less said the same thing - then I came out here and started yelling at her, halfway blaming her for what happened to Adrian and accusing her of ending up the same way. What the hell is wrong with me?

    Stupid fucking wolf.

    You can't get anything fucking right can you?

    You thought you could help your friends? Make their lives better?

    You're only hurting them. It's all you've ever really done.

    My head spins. I get a feeling similar to the sensation of trying to jog while drunk. Things don't quite make sense, nothing I do is happening quite how it should or turning out how I think it will.

    You idiot.

    No, Kale, You shouldn't be too hard on yourself. Remember earlier?

    Remember what Adrian said.

    I need to give myself a damn break.

    Eve basically said as much.

    And now I've gone and hurt her.

    Fucking idiot.

    She's still crying. No sign of slowing. If anything she only sounds more pained.

    “Oh god, Eve." My voice is as shaky as my paw as I try and reach out to her. “I'm- fuck. I'm so sorry. I was angry, I was-" Should I touch her paw and console her? Or would that only make things worse? I withdraw my arm. “I'm an idiot. I'm a dumb wolf with no fucking clue about anything. I'm so sorry. Please Eve, please pretend I didn't say anything."

    “He could have died and it's my fault," she spits out her words amid sobs.

    Stupid fucking wolf.

    “No, Eve, no. That wasn't your fault. Adrian made mistakes. We made mistakes too. But that doesn't mean it was your fault. I was just lashing out like a dumb fucking child, I'm so sorry."

    “If I had answered his calls he would have been fine."

    “And if I answered the call I got when I was at Marty's he would have been fine too. If I weren't such a dismissive dick to him the past few days before that he would have been fine too. If I was really there for him when he needed me this never would have happened."

    I do everything in my power to retain my mental fortitude and concentration in attempt to defuse the situation. I fucked up and I have to fix it.

    Her sobs lose power and frequency and she sniffs. I begin to calm and hope that my words have had their desired effect.

    “Kale?"

    “Yeah?"

    “Are we terrible friends?"

    “I-" My mind bends and twists in ways that leave my head pounding. “I don't know." Kale. Get a hold of yourself. Kale. Get a hold of yourself. For Eve. “I mean, No. No, we're not. We let him down this time, both of us, but we're not gonna let that happen again, are we? And Eve, those things I said, they weren't fair. I'm sorry. I didn't mean them. I was lashing out. Whenever I think of what happened, Adrian lying there covered in blood, I just..."

    “Yeah."

    “That wasn't fair of me. I'm truly sorry. And some of the things I said were... I shouldn't have said them."

    Her sobs give way to quiet sniffs and her tears have mostly stopped falling. She wipes her damp face with both paws.

    “But you were right about almost all of it. I didn't answer his call when I could've. I've been hiding things from you about myself and I have for a long time." She speaks to the table, her head down, seemingly defeated and with no desire to face the wider world. I freeze in place.

    “Eve. No. Look, you don't have to tell me anything. I shouldn't have pushed. You told me yourself you needed time and then I went and said all that crap like the thoughtless idiot I am. I'm sorry and you shouldn't feel pressured to say a damn thing."

    “No, you were right to push. You're right, you should know how the people you care about feel. You should know who they are. I'm the one who should be sorry. I should have told you everything sooner."

    “I'm not having this, Eve. I know you. No matter what you haven't told me, I know you. I love the hell out of you. Whatever this is isn't going to change that and whether I learn it now or in a few months or years, however long it takes, that doesn't matter."

    “Okay. If you say so. Thank you, for feeling that way, but I think-" She almost chokes on her words, her voice distorting and almost cracking into another sob, but she manages to hold it back and correct herself. “I think now is the right time. It's never going to be easy and at least now we've had some, I don't know, build up."

    Part of me desperately wants to argue against it, but there's little reason to. Maybe I just want to avoid the pain that will inevitable come from knowledge. More and more every day I see the wisdom in that adage: ignorance is bliss. Instead I nod along silently. She draws a breath and steels herself, then looks into my eyes.

    “I suffer from depression Kale. And that's not a new thing, either. The truth is I've been depressed for a long, long time."

    ...

    “What?"

    Cheerful, upbeat, zany Eve.

    It doesn't make any sense.

    “I know. Not exactly the vibe I give off, is it? Well, that's very much on purpose. I hid it from just about everyone, but that only made me feel even more isolated than I already did, it just made things worse and worse."

    “You're depressed?"

    It's a stupid fucking question, but I have to say the words. This doesn't make any sense.

    She nods.

    “Yeah."

    “You- you never said anything. Did you reach out for help?"

    For some reason this triggers a strange sort of laugh from her.

    “Yeah. I went to a group discussion thing for a while with other people who are struggling. I still go sometimes."

    This is real isn't it? Not some twisted joke.

    I can feel tears welling up.

    “Did- did it help?"

    “I don't know, maybe, a little."

    “Did you have anything else? Any other resources?"

    That odd laugh again.

    “Sort of."

    “Sort of?"

    She stares at me, her head slightly tilted. Despite her earlier bawling and the trepidation with which she brought up this topic she seems calm, almost serenely so.

    “I guess you could say I had a kind of unofficial therapist." I frown in confusion and she finds a soft, tired smile. “That's you wolf boy. You've been there for me over and over again. Given me advice whenever I've asked for it and comforted me whenever I needed it. More than that, you just make me happy to be around," She pauses and wipes once more at the damp fur under her eyes. "Most of the time, at least. These feelings I have of isolation and my fears for my future and the future of the world, they melt away when I'm with you. There's always been something about you that somehow allows me to feel normal, when nothing else does. You've always seen me as cheery and fun, but that's because I made it that way. I wanted to give back to you what you've given to me. I wasn't about to start complaining about life and moping around in front of you, that wouldn't be fair. And on top of that it's much easier to act happy around you, you make it much less of an act in the first place."

    “Fuck off with that reasoning Eve. You don't have to hold yourself back or change who you are around me. If you're sad you can show me your sadness. If you're scared you can show me your fear. I'm here to help pick you up and push you forward, but I can't do that if you're already pretending to walk. You should have told me earlier. And how can you feel scared for your future when there's so much going for you. You have us, your job, your house, now you've even got Jay."

    She stops for a moment, drains the last of her beer and frowns.

    “Before Jay I was scared I'd never find love. I still am. I don't love my job, it pays, but I'm not passionate about it. I have no friends there. Aside from you and Adrian and one or two others, there's nobody in this world I can really talk to. You can say my fears are unfounded or that I'm exaggerating, but this isn't about logical consistency it's about what exists inside my mind. My mind has always worked against me." She stops to close her eyes and breathe deeply for a moment. “And I know, Kale. I should have told you far sooner. I always knew that."

    “Why didn't you?"

    “Sometimes when you're depressed it's harder than you can imagine to do the most simple things. Sometimes I'd stay in the house all day and live inside the recesses of my own thoughts. That's not a nice place to be, by the way. Sometimes I'd skip my group because I was feeling so lethargic, or scared, even though I knew that was exactly when I needed it most. Depression isn't remotely logical Kale. It's the opposite. When it's at its worst, depression is the act of digging your own grave, whether that means making your life worse through your own actions or inaction, or actually trying to end it."

    My throat is dry. Everything I thought I knew about my best friends was wrong, or at least not quite right. They hid things from me, and I did a damn poor job of finding them out.

    I only realize I'm crying when a tear drops off my face and onto the table.

    “Do you hurt yourself Eve? Have you ever?"

    “I did. Once. Only once. But, in total honesty, it might have been many more if I weren't so squeamish around blood."

    “Have you ever thought about suicide?"

    She flaps her muzzle soundlessly for a second, then sinks back into her chair.

    “Often, to be honest," her words are like a knife being shoved into my heart. “Though rarely seriously. And I'd never actually do it. I couldn't."

    “Eve..."

    “It fills my head at times but it doesn't take over. I won't let it. I know I have people that care about me, even if only a few, and every day I'm becoming more hopeful in my own future. You don't need to worry about me Kale, really. I'm doing better, and you helped me a hell of a lot, you've been helping for years, whether you know it or not. Even though you didn't even know what was going on with me, you saved my life. That's the truth. I'm not in danger of hurting myself again, I'm not in danger of doing something irreversible. In spite of everything going on with Adrian, I'm feeling okay. That holiday helped me reset and see things more clearly. And now I've met Jay. I know that our relationship might crash and burn, but just setting up the date in the first place is a good thing for me. I haven't been on a real date in a long while." I nod along, struggling to take it all in. “If you were wondering what I was talking privately with Adrian about at the hospital, and then when we met up after, it was all of this. After what happened to him I couldn't keep it inside. We talked through everything and I think we've helped one another. I've always been close to him, but after these last few days, even with all the trials and tribulations of our lives, we're closer than ever. At least that lets us find some light in the dark. Kale, I know you love to worry, but the two of us are doing okay. We're there for each other, and of course we know you're there for us too. Like you said, we've made mistakes, but you got there in time. You saved his life, Kale. And that means we have the opportunity to make things right in the future. When I feel awful, when I feel like I'm lost in the depths of the hell of my mind's own creation, I think on that and it gives me determination and purpose and drives me on and up and through. It keeps me going. I'm in no danger of stopping any time soon." She rubs the back of her head. “When Adrian called I was in a strange place, mentally. You know I already had this date with Jay lined up, so overall I was feeling hopeful, feeling good, but, well, maybe that was the problem. I knew if I talked to Adrian he'd drag me back down with him. It was a selfish reason, a terrible reason, that's clear now. I mean after what happened, how couldn't it be? But at the time I knew Adrian wasn't in a good place, that was obvious. It was already obvious when I talked to him on Saturday and I knew things hadn't improved. Saturday brought me down already, you know that from our call, I knew if I answered it would be more of the same, so I just... I ignored him. God, saying that makes me feel awful. I should have answered, I- but... Anyway, you two had been arguing and he was heartbroken about you and upset and I knew if I answered and listened to all that it would hurt. I knew it would totally knock me down from that place of happiness I had climbed to. It was selfish. I'm sorry. I let him down. I let all of us down. I didn't even realize what was happening until you called me and by then he was already in the damn hospital. I wasn't there to save him. If you weren't, he would be dead." She exhales a ragged breath and covers her eyes with a wipe of her paw. “He's doing better now, and so am I, but... but knowing that... knowing that if it were just me that he reached out to he would be dead, that fucking hurts. It hurts more than I can put into words."

    She finally runs out of breath. She grabs both our empty bottles and gets up to dispose of them in mute quiet. Her tail is as still and lifeless as the atmosphere.

    She's said so much I can't even begin to properly respond.

    “Eve, those things I said before. I didn't mean any of it. I shouldn't have said any of it."

    “No," she shoots back. “No. It's good you said something. Maybe you didn't word it perfectly but you got me talking. I've been struggling to open up about how I feel for years. As much as it hurt to speak about, and as much as it hurt to hear you say those things. It was worth it. From now on I'm going to be more open with you. Maybe now that I've talked to Adrian and you about all this it'll help me to open up more easily in the future. Maybe even to Jay, if he sticks around long enough."

    “I'm glad to hear that, all of it. But, Eve, I should have respected your wishes. You told me you were going to open up to me, but that you needed time. I shouldn't have pushed like that. It was disrespectful."

    She makes a face and shrugs.

    “I don't know Kale. We both make mistakes all the time, everybody does. This time it worked out," she finds a small smile. “Let's just leave it at that. Oh and, by the way, he didn't leave me any voicemails and only sent a couple texts. I ignored them too. They didn't seem too distressing at the time, but... well, you know what happened."

    “He only left voicemails for me?"

    “That's how it seems. He cares about you more than anyone."

    An icy cold grips me from the inside.

    “I don't deserve his trust, Eve. I don't deserve his love."

    “I don't know if anyone deserves anyone else's love, per se, but you've got his."

    I don't know how to respond.

    I'm extremely conscious of each second that passes in silence. Eve, checks her phone and frowns.

    “I'll need to get ready for the date pretty soon," she says apologetically, her ears flattened against her head.

    “I'm sorry about all this Eve. I hope I haven't ruined your night."

    “Kale, stop, of course you haven't."

    I don't fully believe her but I force a grin and nod along regardless, doing my best to reset my mind to neutral and make amends. I want to leave things in a good place between us.

    “I'm sure you'll have a wonderful night. Don't forget to keep track of every little detail so that you can relay it back to me perfectly."

    “Absolutely, you should count on it."

    “And you're feeling better, I mean in a general sense, recently right?"

    “Yeah, I have been."

    “And you're gonna be more open about all this stuff with me from now right."

    “Yes, I promise."

    “And you know I'm there for you if you ever need me, or if you just want a chat."

    “I know."

    “Adrian too."

    “Of course."

    “We both love you Eve."

    “Yeah. I love both of you too."

    “There's no reason I can see for you to be sad." I know it's the wrong thing to say as I soon as I say it.

    “That's not how depression works, Kale."

    “I- I know. I'm sorry. It just hurts to know that- to... you know what I'm trying to say."

    “I do. Yeah."

    “And that thing, about how much it hurts you to think that... about Adrian, if I wasn't there." I shake my head. “That's not on you."

    “Isn't it?"

    “It's at times like this I can see most clearly: when someone I care about is in pain. Eve, we could have handled things better, sure, and we're taking steps to improve – both of us are – but nobody can be expected to act perfectly. On top of that we both know neither of us made the biggest mistake on that day. Adrian did. He fucked up worse than either of us and in the end we saved him. And I do mean we, Eve, because I called you that day and what I learned from you, that his parents had come over to visit, that's what tipped me off that something was seriously wrong. That's how I got there in time. That's how I saved him. The truth is if it were only me out here to help him, he would be dead, same as if it were only you."

    “But he told me that on Saturday and I never told you until you asked. If I told you earlier it would have saved all of us so much grief."

    “You had no context for that information, of course you had no reason to bring it up. You didn't know what that meant to Adrian. That's not on you."

    “I guess."

    “Well you can guess all you like, but I know. So keep your head held high tonight and be proud of who you are and what you've done, because both of us saved Adrian's life. Both of us did. You're an amazing woman and Jay is gonna see that. And if he doesn't then he isn't worth your damn time in the first place."

    She moves over to me and I stand up. She can't find the right words so she hugs me tight, even tighter than when I first got here.

    Her face is damp against my cheek, but I can't tell if it's from fresh or old tears. I hug her too, every bit as tightly, and kiss her forehead when we finally come apart.

    We find some parting words under a comfortable facade of normality, but things have changed between us. I can only hope for the better.

    All the way home I try and figure out quite how I feel, to little avail.

    I'm still overwhelmed, just like earlier. In some ways there's even more to think about now, in some ways less.

    How didn't I see how Eve felt for literal years?

    I thought I was blind, but I'm less than. I must be deaf too, and just plain dumb.

    Fucking idiot.

    ...

    I don't know.

    I can't be bothered with that anger.

    I can't be bothered with much.

    Adrian asks how my visit went.

    I tell him it was good, that Eve is doing well.

    I want to smoke, but I don't.

    I want to talk out everything I learned about Eve with him, but I don't.

    I want to collapse into bed and sleep, but I don't.

    I want to stop thinking forever, but I can't.

    I'm too worn out to feel much of anything.

    There's only more to come.

    More complications.

    More worry.

    More problem solving.

    I'm not sure I'm in total control of my life anymore.

    Adrian cuddles against me as watch some schlock on the TV.

    His warmth melts the ice inside me.

    I stroke his hair and he giggles.

    I'm so glad he's still here.

    In my apartment.

    In my arms.

    Alive.

  3. Basic stats:

    Name: Lieutenant Torqueonus aka Torque
    Species: Cursed Vactyr
    Serial Number: K.24-c.236
    Gender/Pronouns: Cis Male
    Height: 10 ft 2 in
    Sexuality: Tired Gay
    Romance: Also Tired Gay
    Birthday: Aug. 25th
    Age: 57
    Occupation: A once decorated Lieutenant fighting in the off-world invasions and dispatching turncoats, traitors, and enemies with gruesome ease, he has since been put out to pasture as the leader of homeworld security on Hirud.  Compared to his life of violence for the specific purpose of expressing his utter devotion and loyalty to his masters -- sitting in a tiny desk surrounded by screens is a light, but dull, duty.  His assigned Elite, Argiope, grants him free time and little supervision under the guise of a reward for being a diligent servant.  However, he has begun to suspects that no one really cares about the goings-on of an old Vactyr.

    Weapons:  He was granted an ornate bardiche fitted with an extra-long blade.  His armour cuts a terrifying figure and he is wily when given the chance.  Oddly, Torque's helmet flips down to cover his eyes which enables him to fight more effectively.  At times, he turns into a Thrallbeast which is titanic.  With four legs, massive claws, and titanic horns-- he could devastate a city block with ease. Once he has settled into his new form, he is sapient but unable to speak due to musculature. The beast is an uninhibited version of Torque.  It cannot be killed but can be easily driven off due to Torque's deep-seated fear of death and lack of invulnerability. However, Torque is weakened by gold which is a shame since his teeth are gold. 
    Personality:  Torque... is not happy with his lot in life, but believes he is too old to do anything about it.  He tends to drink to numb his many confusing feelings.  He had been serving his master's motives his entire life, he was made to drive back the dark so the system could be bathed in light.  Then, the Hirudians started consorting with the Other and Torque cannot stand it.  Sober, Torque is stoic and passive - he has grown used to the vicious rumours his brother spread about him and the lack of respect is just not worth addressing. He keeps to himself mostly.  When he is drunk, he is an emotional mess that lashes out at anyone and everyone that comes near.  Waking up in a ditch with a black eye and sore horns is a common occurrence. He is rude, stubborn and aggressive once he has started drinking.  He is unable to gauge opponents which leads him into fights he had no chance of winning. 

     

    Torqueonus.png

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    The People's Phil Swift
    Latest Entry

    A few days passed, and as I gave my word, I flew back to town to be with my old buddy Kiersten. The Douglas DC-7C chugged to a stop by the stairway, which I pulled up by to connect to the plane. I deplaned, closed the door, and wheeled the stairway away to the hangar. I walked towards town.

    I reached the general store to see her sweeping. We hugged, and she said that she’ll be off in 10 minutes, anyways, to which I replied that I’ll be waiting at Hyde’s eatery until then. I did just that until she popped her head inside. We embraced, and struck up a bit of little talk.

    “So, anything new?” I said

    “Not much, no” she curtly replied

    “I’m going over to Lewis’s to inspect his car. That way I’ll know how to fix it” I said

    “Ok” she said

    “meet you soon at Hyde’s when I’m done” I said

    I trekked over to Lewis’s house, where he was standing at the front porch.

    “Hey there” I said

    “Hello” he replied back

    “Mind if I go and inspect your car?” I said

    “Go right ahead” he replied

    I went into his garage, and ducked underneath the car, I then got up after a thorough look, and opened the hood to inspect the inside. After finishing a good look in there, I turned to Lewis, and told him.

    “Well, the pretty much everything’s alright. It just needs an engine rebuild, and an overhaul of the differential. I thought it would need to be replaced entirely but we can just simply replace individual components of it” I said

    He grunted a “huh” in reply to say that he heard me.

    I went to the eatery, and joined Kiersten at the table she was waiting for me at. I joined her there.

    “So, how’s everything?” she asked

    “Usual” I said

    “I see” she said

    “Kept looking forward to seeing you again” I said frankly

    “Aw, I know” she replied

    “I suppose everything is usual for you too” I said

    “Yeah” she said simply

    We sat together in silence for a good while.

    “You know” I said wistfully, “it kind of sucks not talking much unless it is about something I like, then again, I like it, so it doesn’t”

    “Yeah, I wonder how I can relate to that so much” she said

    “Well, I guess we can relate to this, so why not we talk about that, I guess?” I said

    She chuckled. “Yeah” she said

    “What do people, not just around here, but in general treat you based on how your personality is?” I said

    “Well, differently, that’s for sure. I suppose that it’s same/similar for you” she said

    “Surprise surprise. I might as well be looking at a mirror, looking at a girl copy of myself” I said smartly

    She chuckled at that. Silence fell again, so I playfully repeatedly jabbed her glasses upwards. She reciprocated by doing the same.

    “It’s horn-rimmed like mine. I am very confident that you have metal ones too?” I said

    “Yup” she said

    “Also, retrofitted to non-prescription? It may not be what got us together, but we couldn’t see shit to save our lives if our said lives counted on it. I obviously got better, but you?” I said

    “Same. I figured if old habits die hard, might as well not harm my eyes” she replied

    “Exactly” I agreed curtly

    We sat there pointlessly for another few minutes. Then I said we should go around town for a bit, and she agreed. We got up, and headed out.

    “Still can’t believe my childhood love bestie could be in a remote town up here in the Northwest” I said. “I’m just glad to see you again”

    “You too. You too” she said

    We walked to a curb, and I sat down, closing my eyes and drawing a deep breath. It was a bit mundane of a town, but I think I can live it down here.

    “I think I’ll make it a habit to come here as much as I can, until I become a full-time townsfolk resident” I said

    “Nice” she said

    “And expect us to hang out a lot together. Like, a LOT” I said in a most unnecessarily emphatic tone

    “Yay!!” she said happily, knowing full well that I was mostly doing it not because I needed a guide, but just because I wanted to

    “Nuzzle?” I said. She nodded

    After nuzzling each other for a good few minutes, I said, “First thing that needs updating is the infrastructure. I mean, the streets need an overhaul! From worn asphalt to crumbled concrete, this place needs a refreshing”

    She simply giggled “heh” in response

    I decided to head to Town Hall. “George,” I said upon crossing the entrance threshold, “I’d like to help with infrastructure renovation”

    George faintly smiled back. “Yes, but I don’t have the means to secure construction of it. Even if we can pay for one, how will we get them out here into this town?” he said

    “I’ll help! I did roadwork part-time back during my high school days, and the memories haven’t been lost upon me. I’ll even buy pavement material, and asphalt, and transport it here myself. I can also teach them townsfolk how to lay each material” I said, prepared for that response

    George raised an eyebrow? “You did? Wow. Interesting job taking on road construction. And really? You’d help?”

    “Can’t operate this town with shoddy infrastructure, so I’ll do as much as I can to help” I said empathetically

    “Very well then” he nodded. “I’ll allow it. But tell me, what do you have in mind?”

    “Well, I plan on transporting construction material, and equipment here. Then I can pave the roads about here” I said

    “By yourself?” the mayor raised an eyebrow

    “Well, I’ll consider it my civic duty to my new home. Although, yes I will be hiring hep as well. Get professional assistance to get this job done faster while still done properly” I said

    The mayor casted eyes at me in shock over my words. “Really!? You’ve considered-” he said, unable to finish the sentence

    “- this town home sweet home, yeah” I finished the sentence

    “… Well, thank you for your civic duty, young man!” George exclaimed, still a bit taken back by the sincerity of my adamant declaration

    “No problem” I said. “See you again soon”

    “Yes, bye” the mayor said

    I headed back to the airfield, and said, “thanks. It was awesome hanging out with you again. Can’t wait to take you with me so you can see my shit living conditions there” I said

    “Can’t wait” said Kiersten cheerfully

    I looked at the ground like a child afraid of being caught, and scolded, and innocently, vulnerably, said “I love you”, all my emotional defences taken down, showing my heart into the open

    “I know. Me too” she replied, reaching out, and stroking behind my ears. I blushed furiously.

    “Tell me, you dated anyone after me?” I asked

    “Well, not really. Maybe a few others, but they never came close to you” she said

    Appreciating her honesty, I sheepishly pulled my ears back a god bit

    I boarded the DC-7, and off I flew, back to home.

    Pulling up to home, I went in, and smoked a pack sitting on the floor, impatient to go the fuck back.

    The next day, it was a visit to my company as boss. I quietly greeted everyone I passed, being standard to do so, and sat at my desk in the office.

    “Well, well, well, what lovebird do we have here?” teased Gregory Masterson, my trusty assistant executive, and second highest company member, after me

    “Shut the hell up, Greggy” I said

    “Hah, you’re always something, Levi” he said

    I flippantly shot daggers looking at that Golden Jackal for a brief moment.

    “Really?” he replied

    “And?” I said with a playful pretend smugness

    “Heh, alright” he replied

    “You seem pretty content about that girl of yours, yeah” he replied

    “Yeah” I replied simply

    “Heh, you’ve always had a heart full of sap, after all” he said

    “And what’s that got to do with you?” I reprised

    “Heh, well, nothing, honestly. But still” he said simply

    “Well, someday, I hope to take you bozos there, if you’re all up for that” I said

    He nodded. “Oh really?” he said

    “Sure. I thought you all might like it” I replied simply

    “Alright, might take you up on it” he replied

    I looked at my watch tepidly, before turning to my computer

    Work passed as usual, and the day ended like usual. I finished my computer work, and got ready to leave.

    “Hey, want to come over to the bar before we all part?” shouted Gregory from behind me

    I turned around, and replied “sure, if you want”

    We headed to a small bar, where I drank contentedly. After drinking a good bit (I never drank too much – despite having a high tolerance for alcohol, I still drank an amount considered even low for average drinkers), I relieved myself in the bathroom, and headed to my car to nurse loneliness. “Sorry dear, but I don’t feel like being with someone tonight. Maybe next time” I said dismissingly, hugging Gregory

    “Alright” he nodded, departing into the distance

    I got into my car, and just stared into the distance a good while. Then I got out my pack of Seven Stars, and puffed quietly, wondering to myself, just thinking.

    It was still amazing that I discovered someone I had lost a long while ago, I didn’t doubt that, but I’m grateful. It’s more than what I could ever ask for, honestly. After finishing the pack, I started it up, and went for a nice long, lone drive down the road, wanting nothing but the next time to meet again.

    End of Chapter 02

    Doucument 15.docx

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    Arco The Fox
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    Looking up from one of their many books, Black watched as Night entered the room in silence. “Well, how is she?”

                “Alive.”

                “That it?”

                Night let himself drop to his chair, his voice dejected. “The pain finally put her under. Don’t we have any more shots?”

                “Used the last on you a week ago.”

                “Damn. That amputation is worse than anything we’ve ever suffered.”

                “True. Did you find her clothes.”

                “She refused. Said she wont wear anything until she has clothes of her own.”

                “What about a privacy garment?”

                “I did talk her into that. She’ll make it from one of our rags when she can.”

                “At least she’ll be decent, unlike you were when you met her.”

                “Hey, she quickly came down to my level.” Night threw his arms behind his head as he laughed and thumped his feet onto the low table. Black let out an impressed whistle.

                “Fates! Night, why didn’t you tell me about that?”

                “What?” Taking the paw Black had indicated he inspected the pads. “I’ll be right back.” He collapsed in the chair, eyes closed.

                “Stop that, you.” Black threw the book he was holding into Night’s chest.

                “Oof! You know, I wouldn’t have gone out earlier had I known I’d step on some glass, use my arm as a pain stick and bet smacked in the chest with a damn heavy book. What is this one anyway?”

                “Hey, keep focussed. I’m going to have to treat that foot. Out to the pool with you.” Black pulled the stoat from his chair and dragged him out to the water’s edge. Collecting the first aid kit from the wall he stripped off his shorts before jumping into the pool.

                “You could have had a swim without me being here you know.”

                “If I don’t treat this foot right, you could end up like your feline friend.”

                “Rraji.”

                “Thanks for telling me. Now get that foot in the water, and don’t make any sudden moves.”

                Night obeyed the instruction as he pulled out the wooden stick from the kit placing it between his jaws, ready for the pain.

                Black submerged and made Night roll onto his belly. Examining the paw Black brushed off the surface dirt before surfacing to retrieve a pair of tweezers. He looked at them sceptically. “You think these’ll do the trick?”

                “Just do it.” Night managed to say around the stick. He was sure he new why Rraji had said just that, the anticipation was far worse than the act.

                Black went under once more, turning the paw to catch the light he saw the glass. Careful not to make it shift, he placed the tweezers around it. Grabbing hold as hard as he could he squeezed Nights ankle to warn him before yanking the glass from the wound.

                Night could help pulling his foot from the water, his yell muffled by the stick. Letting it drop from his mouth he turned around and looked at the now gaping wound. His head was swimming as he could hear heart pounding. Black surfaced with the palm-sized piece of glass in his hand. “That is some wound you managed to not notice. Umm, Night?” the stoat swayed for a moment before falling on his side. Black poked him experimentally. “Night?” He didn’t move at all. “Aww crap.”

                Pulling himself from the water, Black bandaged Night’s paw before dragging him to the comfort of a chair. Dropping back into his own he let out a sigh while watching the ceiling. “Why, after two months here, do we get burdened like this just two days from going home?” Reaching to the table he plucked the book he had thrown at Night from the top and began to decipher more of the information within.

                He was glad he had found this book intact. For it seemed to give instructions on how to use the folding machine. As he wrested meaning from each line a thought struck him. Putting the book aside he rummaged around for a while to find the ingredients he needed, some sheets of blank, yellowing paper, and a pencil. Sitting back down, he placed the book in his lap and began to translate what he could into Clawmark.

                A couple of hours had passed when Night stirred. Opening his eyes he saw Black hard at work, multiple sheets now covered in writing. An almost inaudible whistle reached his ears. “Dust storm?”

                “Yeah, started five pages ago.”

                “And how long is that in real time?”

                “No clue, been busy working.”

                “Working at what?”

                Laying down the much shorter pencil, Black rubbed his eyes and actually looked at Night. “I was tired of trying to remember what the more complicated words meant, so I’ve been translating this book. I’m not that far into it, but far enough to know how to turn that thing on.” He indicated the thin folding machine. “Find somewhere to connect it, if you can.” He added as he saw Night wince upon putting his foot on the floor.

                Night waved off the concern, “I can do it. There’s a free socket in the next room, I’ll bring a cable in here though, don’t want to risk that thing near water.”

                Hobbling out of the room, Night was soon back, with cable in hand. Black had already taken the devices own power cable and connected the two. Pushing the plug into the socket they waited for a moment.

                “So, what now?”

                “A symbol should appear in this little window,” Black indicated a small display just above the keys, “that tells us it is receiving power.” As he finished speaking the symbol appeared beneath his claw. “And this button here, should activate it.” Pushing the silver button they both waited. “This may take a while, as it’s so old.”

                A noise distracted them from the waking display. In the entrance stood the snow leopard, “I called, but got no response.”

                Night was up and under her arm before she could blink. “You shouldn’t be moving around right now,” he admonished her.

                “I needed a drink. That pool you have is quite refreshing. What happened to your foot, stoat?”

                “Trod on some glass up top.”

                “A sympathy wound?”

                “Not really, I suffered it before I found you, I thought it was only a scratch.”

                “Oh. What were you guys doing in here?”

                “Learning,” Black interrupted Night’s reply.

                “May I learn too? I’ve always wondered about these ruins. My clan actively discouraged such learning.” a note of bitterness showed as she indicated the furless scar running down her left side. “Please teach me.”

                Black scrutinized her face a moment before nodding. “Alright, both of you take a seat. I’ll use the floor.”

                “I’m fine on the floor Black.”

                “Night, take my seat, don’t try being gallant. You’re wounded, I’m not.” Once the two were seated Black faced the feline. “This artefact is what we were after when your clan ambushed us.”

                “What is it?”

                “That’s what we’re finding out.”

                Turning to the device, Black saw the screen was still, a pale blue covered the background while a small box sat in the middle of the screen. Examining the word for a moment he realized what it said. “This may be as far as we can get, it wants a passcode, so we must know that code before it will let us do anything.”

                “What’s a passcode?” Rraji asked.

                “A combination or words or numerals that gain you access to security areas,” Night responded.

                “Exactly,” Black confirmed. “We don’t know that code and the book tells us that we only have three tries to get it right or we can’t get in.”

                “I might be of help there.” Both rat and stoat looked stunned at the comment.

                “How?” Black asked.

                Rraji fidgeted under their scrutiny, wishing she had put on something more than a pair of trousers. “I used to go to that building a lot. It’s why I was given that scar. A couple of those devices had markings scratched into their surface, the same markings each time. I memorized them, I thought they might mean something. Do you have something I can mark with?”

                Night threw over the pencil Black had been using while the rat pulled a scrap of paper from a pile. Taking the items Rraji closed her eyes before drawing the markings. Black watched her, the markings were definitely the text of the ancients, but they didn’t form any word either he or Night knew.

                When Rraji passed the paper back, the two other scrutinized it. After a while Night sat back with a heavy sight. “It’s just gibberish, a random collection of lettering and numerals.”

                “Not helpful?” Rraji asked disappointed.

                “It may be,” Black said.

                “What? How?” Night sat bolt upright at his partner’s comment.

                “For one thing, Night, what would be the most secure passcode? One that was difficult to remember! Some of the Ancients in that building possibly had a hard time remembering the code and so scratched it into their machines in order that they would always be able to enter it correctly.”

                As he had been speaking Black had been searching for the matching buttons and pressing them. Once finished he sat back, absently scratching behind his ear. “Pass me my translation, I can’t remember how to make it accept the code.”

                Night placed the pages in his hand. Passing through them, Black found the section he wanted. With a quick action he tapped the large, L-shaped button. Instantly the screen changed, replaced with an image of the city before its decay. Symbols appeared on the picture, naming text underneath. All three through were more impressed with the image.

                “I know we can photograph such things, but that is impressive. How did they take the image from that location, there is and was no building that high in that region.” Black was astounded.

                “The guys back at ARF are going to love this. What are those Icons?”

                “I don’t know, ignore them for now, we got this to see if it could read those disks.”

                Night was up and collecting a pile of disks before Black could move. “Night, could you please keep off that foot of yours. You’ll damage it even more.”

                “Alright, I promise, that’s the last time I get up until we leave.”

                “This was your idea, you put it in.”

                Night carefully lifted the top disk from the pile and placed it in the drawer that Black opened. Sliding it shut, they were pleased to see a light blink in recognition of the draw being full. A hum began and the screen changed once again. Going black for a few moments before astounding them with video and a terrible racket.

                They ignored the noise. “Are those Ancients?” Rraji asked, astonished.

                “Yes they are, though we’ve never recovered video of them before.” Black responded. “I want to know what those marked words in that…” he broke of his sentence as another video began, speaking words they recognized.

                The three creatures exchanged glances before Night spoke up, “I always knew that legend was true. We speak the same language, we only write it differently. Anthros had to exist alongside Ancients at some point.”

                “I have to agree with you on that, Night. So many will have to change their views. Especially if all these disks can be understood.”

                “It looks to be waiting,” Rraji indicated the screen, now showing a still image with words surrounding it, one word highlighted with a red box.

                Black reluctantly pulled his hand from the controls, “I think we need to take this with us when we go back. I’ll continue translating that book so we can better know how to work this thing. I don’t want to break it. To be honest we, no I was reckless to have us even do this.”

                “I didn’t exactly try and stop you did I? We would both have been to blame.”

                “Alright, now if this device works sensibly then we should just have to remove the disk to make it stop.” Putting action to his words, Black opened the disk draw. The screen went blank save for some text in the centre.

                As Night put the disk back in its case and returned it to the pile, Black deciphered the text. “Return to previous… play list, I think. I don’t want to do that, I want to turn this off.”

                “What’s that red box with the cross?” Rraji asked.

                “I’m not sure. But I don’t want to touch it, red usually means danger.”

                “To us,” Night interjected. “What about this sign.” Digging around in the pile the stoat pulled out an octagonal red sign, a single word written in white across it. “This says stop, and is red. Maybe that’s what that cross means. There’s not enough space to actually write the word, so they had so show it somehow.”

                “You’ve got a point night. Thanks for pointing that out Rraji.” Slowly, Black rose a finger to the screen and touched the small box, jumping in surprise as it responded. “I didn’t think that would actually work.” Experimentally he touched one of the icons now visible again. A faint blue-filled box surrounded the icon. “You touch the screen to do things.”

                Night snatched the rat’s paw from the screen. “No more, right now. We don’t want to break it.”

                “Sorry, was getting carried away.”

                Night pushed the power button, the screen went blank almost immediately and he folded the device closed. “Right, let’s get working on that translation.”

                “Could I help with that?” Rraji asked uncertainly.

                “Do you have any knowledge of the Ancient’s marking?” Black asked in return.

                “No.”

                “Then I’m afraid you can’t.”

                “Though you could watch us, and see as we mark in Clawmark, what the words mean. That can be a start to you understanding the written language. If you’re certain about joining our team,” Night offered.

                “I’m certain.” The snow leopard had just crawled into a position where she could watch when a clanging, hooting alarm sounded in the main room.

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    SplatDragon
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    Civet threw himself down in his chair with a groan, wiping his hand down his long, long face.

    Don't get him wrong, he loved his job more than anything. Would live at the cafe if he could. But there were some days where he wished, more than anything, that it could be done without the customers.

    There were times, only rarely, that he'd see a customer's face light up with surprise, a grin quirk their lips, as they tasted something new and found it more than to their liking, and it would all be worth it.

    More often than not, though, he wanted to shove a macaron down their throat until they shut up with their 'extra-large, sugar-free, vanilla latte with soy milk' or 'large latte, two decaf shots of espresso on the bottom, two regular on the top, do not forget I want no foam,' and argued with him when he told them that that wasn't possible as they'd all mix together, only to threaten the cops when his boss threatened to kick them out.

    Their faces when he actually did, though, almost made it worth it.

     

    A golden-furred hand set a tea down on the table in front of him, and his nose twitched as his own shot out to wrap around it. Oh, Earl Grey, god he loved her. “They're not that bad," Miss Henrietta cooed, though the lioness's golden muzzle was twisted up as if she were trying not to laugh, yellowing teeth flashing in the barest of grins.

    Civet respected (feared) her too much to answer that, and settled for eyeing her and tilting his head back, gulping down a generous mouthful of the tea, oh that hit the spot, flicking his ears and his tail at the sound of her rasping chuckle as she walked away to start her shift.

    He shook his head and pulled out his phone, opening Instagram and beginning to scroll the baking photos that popped up on his feed.

    How she could deal with the customers all day, he'd never know.

  4. Sacrament

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    As Mass finished, Philomena turned to Lucy. She had begrudgingly agreed to join Philomena for Mass, and had, in fact, fallen asleep several times throughout. Philomena knew about Lucy’s complicated relationship with the Church; it was a subject they had talked about in depth several times. But she came anyway. Philomena deeply appreciated that Lucy came with her to Mass, especially since she had failed to make any friends. 
    “Stay here for a moment, yes?”
    “Sure, sure,” Lucy replied. 
    Most of the other parishioners were still sitting in their pews, talking, so Philomena walked to the ornate wooden confessional and entered and knelt down. She then closed her eyes and made the Sign of the Cross; when she opened her eyes she made sure to look down, out of humility. 
    Mi perdoni, padre, perché ho peccato,” she muttered instinctively. Being in church reminded her of Italy.
    “In English, my child,” the priest replied. 
    “Yes, I’m sorry, Padre-Father,” she corrected herself. “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned against Him. It was two weeks since my last confession. I had sex before marriage…” She paused. She did not want to mention it was with Lucy, a woman. But she must, it was the truth. 
    “With a woman. I ask you for absolution, Father.” she added.
    “Mm. I see.”
    She felt like the priest was biting his tongue, holding back his talk of fire and brimstone. 
    “Why?” the priest asked.
    “Because I love her.” She answered without hesitation. 
    “Genesis says that He created Adam, and for Adam, a wife. We are meant to be with the other gender.” He paused, perhaps he expected some retaliation. “Are you aware of the Saint Thomas Aquinas’s basic goods?”
    “No,” she replied. Her catechism never went that far.
    “The second good. Coniunctio maris et feminae et educatio liberorum.”
    The Latin rang in her ears like a loud church bell. “Marriage between man and woman and childrearing.” 
    “Yes. I understand.” She choked up and felt like she could cry at any minute. “I understand, Father.”
    “Good.”
    “But I love her. With the heart He gave me.” She felt the tears rolling down her cheeks. She did not want to ruin her Mass clothes but she loosened her blouse and wiped her face anyway. The priest sighed, perhaps out of frustration, or he was running out of patience. 
    “I am not able to comprehend Him or His ways. Nor am I able to condone the life you are leading.” He paused. “ Say seven Hail Mary’s for your penance.”
    “Yes. Thank you, Father.” She wiped her eyes. “O God, I am sorry deeply for the sins I have performed and I pray for Your forgiveness for You are full of mercy. I promise to not sin against You or Your word.”
    As the priest spoke in Latin to absolve her, she thought about the promise she made to God. It was the first time she questioned if her promise was sincere to Him. Was what she did even truly sinful? The sex, perhaps yes; but loving Lucy? How could loving someone as deeply as she did be a sin? She thought about the second basic good the priest mentioned: children. She wanted to have children, yes. Would being with Lucy deter that? Certainly not, there were many children whose parents abandoned them; she could adopt them and care for them. Her mind then returned to Lucy. Would she have to continuously confess and repent for her love every time she attended Mass? If He created her and He was beyond fault, then how could she sin for following the heart that He made her? These were questions she could not answer, especially inside a confessional and in the eyes of a priest. She could, however, answer one question: did she love Lucy? With no doubt in her heart, she answered “yes” to herself. She then directed her attention back to the priest.
    “…augmentum gratiae et praemium vitae aeternae.” He was finished.
    She made the Sign of the Cross. She then looked up at the priest through the grille for the first time. He was an older man, with greying hair and a clean face. She had never been this close to him to notice, but he reminded her of her father. Perhaps he would have looked like the priest if he had lived longer. 
    “Go with peace, my child,” the priest said.
    “Thank you, Father,” she replied. She would have cried more, but she was tired of crying now. She stood up and exited the confessional to a short line of parishioners waiting to confess their own sins. She then saw Lucy standing by the front door, eating a powdered donut. She fixed her clothes then walked to her.
    “Ready to leave?” Philomena asked.
    Lucy nodded yes, while her mouth was full of donut. She swallowed her mouthful and touched Philomena’s left cheek.
    “Were you crying?”
    Philomena softly removed Lucy’s hand from her face, then took her hand in hers. 
    “Yes, yes. I get, ah, full of emotion in Mass.” She did not want to mention what exactly happened in the confessional, not now anyway. She then noticed Lucy got powdered sugar on her skirt, and wiped it off like how her mother doted and cleaned her clothes when she was younger. 
    “You don’t have to do that,” she said before finishing her donut.
    “I know.” Philomena smiled at her. She was happy with Lucy, nothing more needed to be said. “Let’s go, yes?”
    Lucy nodded and they both walked out of the cathedral and onto the busy streets of New York. 
     

  5. KrisKrossed - Chapter 4

     

    Kris walked up the front steps, shaking with nerves as she pushed open the set of double doors.  She looked down at the schedule in her hands:

    Wilson Hall, Room 312:  Professor Zimmermann: Psych 1010 , was firmly placed in the 8 a.m. slot on Monday morning.  Zimmermann...that sounds SO familiar.  Kris thought, trying to place the name, but came up with nothing.  She shrugged the thought off, coming up with nothing and moved on to finding her classroom.

    It took a while for Kris to figure out where she needed to go. Typically, you would think the 3 in 312 meant the third floor, but in this older style building, 312 apparently meant the basement.  A cold breeze rolled across her as she stood at the top of the stairs, causing her to shiver.  Why’s it have to be in the basement? She thought, walking down. 

    Kris came face to face with the room 313 at the bottom of the steps.  Good it must be close.  She took a left, taking in the smell of a burning radiator.  The next room she found was 303.  Great.  The hallway led her to the right and she continued to follow it around.  302, 301… She thought as she rounded another corner, “312, finally.”  

    “Yes, dis is freetwelfe, hurry up and take your seat.”  The Shepherd called out, waving her in.  She rushed to take the first seat she saw, almost center of the front row. 

    “Alvright.” The large Shepherd walked up from behind his desk, “Let’s get shtarted.” 

    As he began to walk around the room, Kris realized why she recognized his name.  His accent should’ve given it away.  She envisioned her freshman year and her “Schools, Society, and Cultural Diversity” class.  The teacher seemed a lot younger, but the accent was just as strong.  He liked to make cheesy jokes and always made it a point to say hello to his favorite students, Kris being one of the many.  She was incredibly surprised she hadn’t recognized him sooner.  

    “Kriztine Thomzen?”  

    “Here.”  Her voice was quiet and plain against his.

    “Do zou happen to be related to Kristover Thomzen?” The man furrowed his brow, finding a resemblance he couldn’t quite place.  

    “N-no sir.”  She blushed heavily.

    “Okay, my mistake.”  He shrugged, and continued with roll call.

    “Alvright,alvright, settle down.”  He began, waiting for everyone to quiet down once again, “Now I understand zat my accent might be fery voreign and might be hard to comvrehend for some of zou, but, howefer, I am going to shtate vright from zee shtart zat I vill not slow down for zou, so just use zis opportunity to make sure zou pay extra attention during my lectures.  If zou do not pay close attention, zou vill miss sings- fery important sings. And if zou miss sings, zou vill not pass zee course.  And I am sure nobody vants zat to happen, so like I said, pay attention and zou vill all do fine in my course. I assure zou, I vant nothing but for all of zou to succeed, even zough, shtatistically, I know zat vill not be zee case.”

    Kris could already tell that over half the class had checked out.  Whether is was because  they can’t deal with accents and needed to drop the class, or because they didn’t even want to take Psychology, who knew.  

    “As zou can zee, zis class has been overbooked,” everyone shuffled in their seats, glancing around, “And I am sure many of zou vill drop it, but for now, let’s mofe on.”  Zimmerman looked to Kris, and suddenly a lightbulb seemed to go off in his head.  His face flushed lightly, before he shook it off and carried on talking.   Dr.  Zimmerman carried on for a while, going over the basics of psychology.  Something, something Frued, something something Maslow, Kris couldn’t focus.  

    What a great way to start the semester.  I can’t even keep my head on straight for one class.  How am I going to pass and graduate if I can’t focus.  Why did I even sign up for this class?  Psychology?  Am I really going to need that to teach music?  Really?  I’m not a therapist, and I’ll barely come into contact with children, so why did I bother.  There’s no way I’m going to pass this class.  It’s going to be too tough, and I’m a senior.  I can’t afford to miss one of my credits.  I want to graduate with the rest of my class.  And I don’t want to look stupid in front of all the freshman in this class.  Why did I….

    A tap on her shoulder shook her from her thoughts, “Are you going to pass back the papers or just keep staring at our teacher?”

    Kris blushed, completely unaware she’d been staring, and passed the class syllabus’ back, “Sorry.”  

    He didn’t get into anything too specific for the rest of the lecture, mostly focusing on what the plan was for the rest of the semester.  When tests will be, exam schedule, study groups, office hours, etc.  

    “Alvright, class, that’s zit for today, I vill see you all in two days.”  

    Everyone began to pack up, ready to move on with their days, and Kris was right along with them.  

    “Uhm...Kris?  Can I zpeak vith zoo?”

    “Uhh… sure…”  Kris spun around, flinging her bag over her shoulder, and walked towards Dr.  Zimmerman’s desk, “What is it?”

    He looked around, making sure no one was within ear shot, “I realized my mistake, and I vant you to know zat I von’t be saying anysing to anyvone. I’m terribly sorry.”

    “Oh, uhm...thanks.”  Kris looked down at her feet, completely uncomfortable with the conversation.  

    “I look forvard to having zoo in my class again.”  

    Kris nodded, not sure what to say in response, and turned back towards the door.  She wasn’t two steps outside when she was greeted by another student, “Hello,”  the boy smiled, “My name is Xander”  

    Kris was taken aback by his abruptness and struggled to respond, “Uhhh, hi…”

    “You’re Kris...right?”  

    She nodded.

    “Soo, I was wondering if you’d like to go see a movie with me sometime?”

    “Uhhm…”  Kris blushed, unsure of what to think, or feel, or say.  

    Xander smiled arrogantly, “How about you just give me your number, and I’ll text you, and you can take all the time you need to think about it?”  He bent down, meeting Kris’ lowered gaze, “Does that sound alright to you?”

    Kris nodded again.

    “Can you tell me what it is then?” He laughed, throwing a glance back towards his friends standing down the hall, but Kris didn’t notice.

    It took a few moments, but Kris did speak, barely managing to get her own phone number out of her mouth.  

    “Thanks, I’ll text you.”  He walked away, back towards his friends that were still waiting on him, and threw his arms up in the air in triumph.    Kris took a few moments to recover, and then pulled out her class schedule.  Her next class wasn’t until the afternoon, which meant she had some time.  She pulled out her phone and quickly typed up a message:

     

    TO: Lumina

    I was just asked out.

     

    Kris began to walk down the hall, not expecting a fast response.  She is at work after all. She wandered for a while familiarizing herself with the building.  She took the stairs back up to the main level as her phone vibrated, 

     

    From: Lumina

    Are they cute?

     

    Kris rolled her eyes.

     

    TO: Lumina

    It’s not all about looks, you know.  

     

    She made her way outside and breathed in the fresh air.  The campus was simplistically beautiful.  Not over done and modern like a lot of the bigger schools, but took pride in it’s rustic, slightly run down appearance.  There weren’t a ton of buildings, maybe six for classes, four for dorms, and then other miscellaneous ones for food, libraries, computer halls, etc.  

     

    She was halfway to the library when her phone vibrated again.

     

    FROM: Lumina

    That’s a yes, you should go!

     

    Kris shook her head.

     

    TO: Lumina

    You’re no help

     

    She continued walking the last few yards to the tall building, noticing how much it towered over everything around it.  It was the only thing you could even remotely consider modern on campus.  Lot’s of windows, made of steel, next to no brick- it almost looked futuristic (At least compared to everything around it.)  

     

    FROM: Lumina

    Everyone agrees with me! You should go! 

     

    Who all was she telling?!?  Kris thought, her eyes going wide.

     

    FROM: Lumina

    P.S.  Only a few co-workers. I’m not telling everyone.   What’s it going to hurt if you go?

     

    What would it hurt?  Her pride, her confidence, her grades, give the wrong impression… the list goes on.

    It’s decided.  I’m not going.  She thought as her phone went off once more.  Lumina, I swear.  She glanced back to her phone to be met with an unknown number.  

    FROM: Unknown

    Please consider my offer.  I’d really like to take you out.  Please just give me a chance.

    Kris’ heart melted and began to race at the same time.  In a brief moment of bravery she responded.

     

    TO:  Xander

    Okay.

    ***

    Kris paced in her room, her dress flaring out around her as she spun, “I should cancel.  It’s not too late to cancel.” She glanced up at the clock hanging on the wall, confirming that it was still 5 whole minutes before Xander was supposed to pick her up. 

    A knock at the door startled Kris from her thoughts, causing her phone to clatter to the floor.  She moved to the door and pulled it open to be met with a face full of flowers.  

    “Hi Kris, I got you these.”  Xander was dressed in snug jeans and striped v-neck.  

    “Thank...you.”  Kris blushed, taking the flowers and setting them down inside.  

    “Are you ready to go?”  

    Kris glanced down, checking for her keys, and nodded.  “Let’s go.”  She pulled the door behind her, giving it a twist to make sure it locked.  The two of them walked downstairs and outside, the cold, night air refreshing against their fur.  

    “That’s me over there”  Xander motioned to a 2 year old Ponyac Grand Am sitting parked a few spots away.  They both got into the car, neither one sure of what to say next.  

    The car ride was mostly silent, other than a few comments here and there, ‘Look at that weird car,”  “Does that person have any pants on?,” “Could you imagine if no-one had fur?”

     Once the two got closer to the theatre, Xander spoke up, “I hope you like scary movies.”

    “Huh?”  Kris perked up, being shaken from her daze, “Oh I don’t mind them.”

    “Sweet.  I was hoping we could see Kit: Chapter 2, you know where that angry kitten comes back to kill those kids?  Except now they’re adults.”  

    “That sounds fun.”  Kris tried to sound excited, but truth be told she hated scary movies, and had no idea what he was talking about.  

    “I know a couple of my buddies are going tonight too, but we don’t need to sit anywhere near them.  Make sure we have a little privacy.”  

    “Yeah, sounds good.”  Kris’ nerves were beginning to get the best of her.  She didn’t know what she needed to be doing or saying.

    “Hey.”  Xander turned towards Kris after parking in a spot, “Are you alright?”

    Kris bit her lip, not wanting to make him feel like it was his fault, “I.. just.. Don’t do this very often.”  she chuckled awkwardly, “If you couldn’t tell.”

    Xander breathed out, “It’s okay to be nervous, just don’t shut me completely out, okay?”

    Kris smiled warily, “Okay.”

    They walked inside together, both feeling only slightly better, both still riddled with nerves.  Xander bought the tickets, some popcorn, and drinks for each of them, and they went to sit down inside the theatre.  

    “Do you have a preferred seat?”  Xander asked.

    “Somewhere in the back?”  Kris laughed, “For quick escape?”

    Xander’s eyes grew the slightest bit wider, “Okay.” 

    They took their seats, and munched on the popcorn while they waited for the movie to start.  When the lights finally dimmed and the music grew louder, Kris finally began to relax.  Don’t need to talk, no one can see me, just got to not pee my pants from the jump scares and we’ll be good to go.  

    It wasn’t too long into the movie when Kris began to feel pressure on her leg.  As it crept up her thigh, she realized it was Xander’s hand and squirmed under the touch.  

    “Please stop,” came out in a whisper, but Xander didn’t hear, “St-stop it.”  

    Xander heard her this time, but ignored her demand.

    “Xander.  Stop.”  She grabbed his hand, pushing it off of her.

    “What?”  He whispered, “Isn’t this what you wanted?  That’s why you chose to sit back here. You want…”  he put his hand to her crotch, “What the fuck!?  Is that a dick?  Are you a dude?”  Xander was shouting. 

    “Please, be quiet…” 

    “Be quiet?!  That’s all you have to say?  YOU HAVE A FUCKING DICK” people began to turn around in their seats.

    “I..I can explain…”  Kris’ eyes filled with tears as she stood.

    “You’re fucking disgusting!!”  Xander pushed Kris’ shoulder, creating distance between them.

    “I’m...I’m sorry.”  Kris ran out of the theatre, and back into the cold night.  She reached into her purse for her phone, but soon realized she had never picked it up off of the floor.  She felt defeated, and sank to the ground.  What am I going to do?  

     

  6. Sixteen: Insurance and Woe

     

     

                (I remember my first official spar. To make me feel not so alone, I met the wolf that would be a dear friend. As fortune would have it, he was my first sparring partner. I was thirteen then, and he was only maybe a year older than me. “This is the High Priestess’s gift to you”, the drill instructor, a leopardess, told me when in the small arena held for fighting.

    (I stared at her, managing to hide how gobsmacked I was by that there was a wolf in front of me, apparently from the southern tropics. He looked unique to remind me that there were other wolves than I born with curious patterns. This wolf in particular had a white triangle closing down his torso, but it seems to start from a short stripe on each shoulder.

    (I approached him cautiously. He looked stern as I did so. I held out a hand, saying, “The cubs here call me Sister.”

    (He accepted the handshake, replying, “My friends call me Themba.”

    (The leopardess spoke, “Take your positions.”

    (We did so. I drew my weapon. From the start, I had favoured the sickle-sword that they call a Khopesh. Themba drew his weapon, a spear. These were genuine, only kept blunt, to avoid fatal blows. No one was responsible for our injuries but ourselves. The leopardess announced, “Begin.”)

    -----

     

                I already had trouble when fighting this wolf, for I have fought no one more aggressive than grizzly bears. And I have seen what he can do to a bear. He speaks, “You came ‘ere to kill. Yeh’ll ‘ave to kill me first.” Making this fight short is impossible, knowing his skills. He could have drawn a gun and fired. So, why is he just standing there? As if able to read my mind, he continues, “Worry not about the guards. No one gets to kill you but me.”

    I remark sourly, “In it for the money? Did you dispose of them, so only you gain the monetary reward?”

    He does not answer. Instead, he just pulls the dragon-like hilt of his cane, revealing the sabre. So, he wants a real fight without guns? How different of a mercenary. He then says, “If you wonder who I am, my name is Vadimir. Just Vadimir.”

    I draw my Khopeshes, replying, “Call me Lady Death.” How should I approach someone as good with dual-wielding as I am? What should my first strike be on someone as skilled with combat as I am?

     

    He dashes up to me, practically stamping the brick-covered ground as he does so. I leap backwards before he can hit me, for even parrying is a risk. I then make my counter by swiping both Khopeshes upwards. He blocks both of them with his cane and brings it down, but my grip on both hilts of my weapons remains tight, yet at the risk of hurting my own hands. I leap aside, to avoid his next move. I need a strategy. Brute strength cannot be enough.

    My speed has to count for something. I test that by swinging my Khopeshes as a feint, him catching them both. I am quick to back up again. I need to get rid of the mercenary fast. I strike with my Khopeshes in a scissor motion at the same time as him thrusting his sabre. I could have cut his hand again, not that he cared, but he seems to realise the danger of continuing his attack, for he backs up as I perform a reverse-scissor motion, which is stopped by both his sabre and his cane. He relies on the claw of his cane, for he brings the cane up in an arc, cutting into the sleeve of both my jacket and shirt. I can feel how much the claw has cut into, which has me groaning.

    I could have slashed his throat if he did not pull the claw out and back up. He ducks then makes a low thrust, followed by a swing of his cane. He gets the claw and the hook of my left Khopesh in a lock and makes sure to keep it that way as he thrusts. I block his sabre, but I have to use my strength to keep it away. He seems to need no effort in shifting the sabre toward my throat, and I can barely move it away.

    I end up using a leg to sweep him, and he tumbles to the ground. I narrowly avoid both his sabre and cane’s claw. When the mercenary gets back up, I swipe my left Khopesh, then my right, then bring my left upwards on an angle with my right, swiping sideways. He expects my next move. Even though his expectation is incorrect, the mercenary cuts my shoulder with the claw of his cane, only tearing the leather pad, but he still thrusts his sabre to me, just breaking the skin on my right midsection. With a kick, he has to pull out before getting to a vital organ. I strike back with two quick slashes, followed by an anti-clockwise flip with each blade. The latter pair of strikes barely contact his chest. Before Vadimir makes his counter, I dash to the wall, and then perform a feint, which he parries brilliantly. The mercenary proceeds with a barrage of swings and stabs, and I make him miss.

    Vadimir, you will have to wait for next time. I leap aside, and then past him. I then kick him squarely in the back, forcing his face to meet the wall, and he falls to the ground. He might not be unconscious for too long, but I believe not in killing an enemy while they are unconscious. That is the penalty for being an obstruction, Mercenary.

     

    I believe no words from Vadimir even though he has not told me, but the truth is there, upon entering through a balcony. The vast chamber of this storage space is eerily quiet, and I can smell both blood and ash, both fresh. The first guard near me, I see laying on the ground, eyes wide open and a bullet in his skull. I then look from the railing, making out another motionless body near a large stack of crates, his throat slashed. Another corpse is not far from there, a bullet in his chest. Was it really Vadimir to do this to the guards?

    I vault over the railing, to look around the floor of this vast chamber, filled with boxes, both of wood and metal. The only sound that I hear is the furnace running. There has to be someone working that if it relies on coals. Over my scour to the next corner, there are two other bodies, their chests slashed. Through the grate walkway above, I see another motionless body. None of them have been dead long. I head where the two hidden bodies lay lifeless. On the top of the stack of crates, I break the top of one of them, to know that they carry automatic rifles. I spitefully toss the one that I examined aside.

    On this side is where the furnaces are. I pass the furnace, which has a low fire running. I climb the next stack of crates, and force one open with my stiletto. Upon lifting the lid that I loosen, I see more of the same automatic rifle. I look ahead, wondering about the metal boxes on the other side of the chamber as my hunch tells me of this space being for the firearms.

    I remain vigilant despite the eerie silence in the chamber. I raise my hood upon reaching the ground again. I slowly draw both of my Khopeshes as I tread the cement floor. I remember to sniff the air and to listen for anything. In the middle, I stop and close my eyes. There is someone I should watch for, if not Joshua. If someone waits for me, there is someone here. I approach one stack of tin cases, which I carefully open with my blades. Under that lid, I see that my hunch is correct. These boxes are filled with bricks of opiates. I care not what this is sold as; what damage it does is intolerable. I look back to the crates, wondering how potent the drug is. However, that is for later.

    As chance has it again, I sense someone right behind me, a gun pressed against my back. I have to take my time here. Before the enemy tells me to, I drop my Khopeshes and put my hands up. I let him search me before I sweep his leg with mine. I quickly duck, to retrieve my Khopeshes. Just as quickly, I turn around to a dog, just picking up his gun, and I stab him in the midsection. At that same time, I see a shadow of another dog, very close, and leap aside before he shoots at me.

    Now, the rest of the enemies know that I am here. I see another shadow of a dog on the walkway above, aiming a gun, and I leap aside before he shoots at me. I hear a voice bark irritably, “Hold yer fire, berk! You could blow us up!” That is it. Keep moving near the crates. If there are explosives, they are cautious about setting them off. Keep close. Make them avoid the risk of wasting their boss’ profits. The same dog that saw me and alerted the rest is the next to catch up with me, and I slash his throat. I climb a different stack of tin cases, and then leap up to the dog on the walkway, plunging both my Khopeshes between his upper ribs. I am quick to duck, awaiting the next gunshot meant for me. I hear the bang, and I am still alive. I throw the body off the walkway, prompting two other thugs to approach with their guns trained. I await them patiently. They are close. I leap over the railing—only to not land on the two guards. However, I stab them each in their midsections. With that out of the way, it is time I further cripple Giffard’s clan.

    I gather the cases of explosives and drugs, which I take to the other side. I am thorough with lining the bricks of explosives up against the crates of guns. I make a trail with the explosives. However, I am not setting them off yet. There is a wide door opposite the furnace of this side. This has to be it. I open it—

    And it leads to a staircase. This is where they have the slaves.

     

    Upon heading down the stairs, it gets noticeably colder, not just because I am below ground. This is worse than what I expect slaves to go through. I see two cats working the furnaces, feeding them what coals they have. With the steam that builds up, it has, apparently, as quickly frozen the moisture that it creates. I stride down the stone stairs, taking in the two wide cages scattered with cots of which there too few for what could be a hundred individuals, all of them cats, dogs, foxes, and weasels. How long has been Joshua been relied upon for keeping slaves locked up?

    That is better left unanswered as I intend to enable their escape. The five weasels keeping watch of the prison just notice me, when I am near the first, but that makes them no more difficult to dispose of. I slice them up, one by one, all of them being fatally slashed and the last one being cut in half. I sheathe my Khopeshes, so I can pick the two locks, one on each cage. After opening the doors, I pick up one of the weasels’ guns, to slam against the bars. That sound is enough to wake the few that managed to sleep, namely the cubs.

    I speak, “I came to ‘elp. You ‘ave a chance to stand up t-yer kidnappers and other criminals. I would not waste it.”

    The first mother to leave the cage that I face, takes the pistol from my hand. I am not surprised that the dropped pistols from the weasels are picked up as well.

    I stop them when at the top of the stairs, to speak, “I plan to destroy guns that your keeper’s boss safeguards. If you think y-can handle a rifle, now is the time.” I stay at the wall where the front gate is. Only three dogs and four cats each take a rifle from the other side of the chamber and exit that way. Suddenly, the front door opens—

     

    And there the mink is. Joshua Derrickson. He is not alone. He speaks up, his voice somewhat high, especially for his age, “I know you are here, Vigilante. No one else ‘as the bo-ul or the foolishness ta cross me or Lord Lowell.” What about Jack? The escaping prisoners have suddenly stopped where they are, blatantly filled with fear of him and his men. I count five subordinates of his. The escaping prisoners lowly question each other what to do. This is one source of sadness when given this dilemma: wanting only to have their own home, but are afraid to die escaping. Joshua orders, “Take them down.” His men open fire, only to realise what the cases contain. So, they all approach where the ones hiding are. Those that have guns, open fire themselves, startling them enough for me to move.

    I draw my Khopeshes yet again, and stab the nearest of Joshua’s men from behind. The next, I stab in his sides. The third just turns his gun to me when I run my Khopesh up his torso, opening his rib cage. The fourth is still off-guard from the inaccurate bullets when I slash his throat. The last of Joshua’s men, I behead easily. I turn around, to find Joshua right there, about to shoot me—when three bullets from different angles and close range fire at him. The same three slaves kick at him repeatedly, venting their anger at their kill. I just stand there, watching the example of how kidnapping affects the poor. They are as quick to tire before they move on. I grab one more explosive from one of the crates—

    And I hear the howling of one word. “DE-E-E-E-E-EATH!” There Vadimir is at the back doorway, his voice having carried to where I am. I pull the clip from the grenade and hurl it, the second he starts running. By the time the grenade lands, he is past the crates of the firearms. I have no time for him. This is one fight that I have to run from.

    I turn and run, the multiple explosions thundering and the instant fire roaring the second I am out the front door. I have no time to look back. Joshua and his men are dead. The slaves that he kept locked up are on the street now. Those should be the only things that matter.

     

    I have moved so fast that I am in the middle of where tall storage houses are. Even from there, I can hear the fires’ rhythmic crackling. Though faintly, I can see the orange glow of it. I pant as I realise what I have done. I would not be surprised if the metal sheets of that roof would melt together or misshape. I remember my worry that Vadimir somehow survived that. Even injured, he would not be far from me right now. Furthermore, there is something that I must address.

    -----

     

                (“That was impressive of you”, Themba remarked when we finally got to sit down together after the spar. It was lunchtime, and that fight must have left me famished. “I mean it”, he continued. “You fight as if you were destined to.” Is that it? Did destiny kill my mother and step-father? Or did they plan to show me this place eventually?

    (I replied stiffly, “Thank you.” I didn’t even look at him. I was cold for a reason.

    (Themba commented, “The High Priestess never lies. I know that. She brought me here from my father’s branch for a reason.”

    (I looked at him sternly, seething, “Whatever she told you, I am not what you expected.” I continued eating quietly.

    (Noting my expressions, he pleaded, “We are all friends here. You can tell me anything.”

    (When looking at him again, I was just chewing up the mouthful of meat and rice. When downing that and a big gulp of water, I told him, “If you question about my bother, it is what I did in the arena. If it were a real fight, I could ‘ave killed you.”

    (Themba sighed at that. He looked as if he pitied me. “I am aware that orphans ‘ave so much anger. I did not expect so much to be shown to me.”

    (“I am sorry, Themba. I am sorry for hurting you.”

    (He objected, “Don’t be sorry. Try remembering that in the arena, everyone is your enemy.” He was right. When practising on the puppets, I had pretended that they were the killer from that day. In the arena, I expressed favouritism. On this day, I had snapped and the Savannah Wolf had already forgiven me. It still felt wrong, but I knew that I would face him again.

    (I had just finished my lunch and he had barely eaten half of his when I began explaining to him why I had been here. I told him of my last day of living in a slum and that my mother and step-father had been keeping secrets, which they waited to reveal to me.

    (Themba remarked, as if ignoring my descriptions, “My parents are spies for Mau-Re. They both taught me that one could learn patience with age.” Wise beyond his years already, I suppose. I didn’t understand those words right away, but they would sink in. He added, “I am perfectly willing to spar with you again. In fact, I insist.”

    (I looked away, still ashamed of how I beat upon him, especially treating my blunt blade like a real one. Enemies do not shoot wax bullets or fight with blunt-edged knives. However, it did not change that I would fulfil the Savannah Wolf’s request.)

    -----

     

                It is in the morning, after I have eaten breakfast, I return to the brick flat. I am clad in my blue suit, which has taken enough beatings now. I also wear my mask. It is how the cat to answer the door recognises me. Holly remarks, “You’ve got a bloody cheek.” She steps aside, opening the door all the way, and I enter the display chamber of the cache.

    There the spectacled black cat is, observing the utility of an orb held by a red fox in a white jacket. Lagorio speaks up, “Good. You’re here.” To the fox, she adds, “Pardon me.” She approaches me, to add, “I hear you wrought-a major havoc upon the Lowell clan’s assets last-a night.”

    I inquire, “How do the both of you even know whot I did last night?” I quickly add, “Not important.”

    Lagorio adjusts her glasses, muttering, “Since you say so.” She speaks, “I ‘ave news about the cat mother.” She pauses, waiting for a reply, but I say nothing. So, Lagorio continues, “She did indeed die of cholera. Enough of the bacteria survived fer me to confirm it. In addition, she did have signs of dehydration. I am keeping her body preserved whilst I await a reply from her lawyer. Through repeated questioning, the kitten gave me her name and address.”

    I ask, “What about the kitten?” Neither Lagorio nor Holly answer, but awkwardly shift. I seethe, “She’s not been told?”

    Holly asks back, “How can you tell a child that a parent of theirs is dead?”

    I remain focused on Lagorio, giving a different subject. “Was she carrying anything? Something with her scent?”

    Lagorio answers awkwardly, adjusting her glasses again, “She had an ‘andkerchief in her ‘and-a-bag”-

    I bark, “Get it.” She gives me an awkward look before striding to the stairs. While waiting, I ask Holly, “What did y-do with the thugs?”

    “Y-need not ask”, she answers plainly. I understand that right away.

    Rather quickly, Lagorio returns with a handkerchief, which looks like gold, but is made of silk and has a pinstripe pattern. I take it gently. I take a whiff of it, but then ask, “Were there signs of decay?”

    She answers, “When you brought ‘er here, yes. However, the kitten is-a right healthy. No signs of disease, either.” Holly is the one to lead me to the door to the laboratory, where various weapons are shelved. Through a door on the adjacent wall, there is a small room with two cots. The white kitten sits on the left cot. The calico named June lays on the right cot, and how thrilled she is to see me. However, that will have to wait, for I walk toward the kitten and then get down on one knee, making sure to look into her eyes.

    I ask, “Whot’s yer name, Love?”

    She pauses before she answers, “B-Blythe…”

    I speak lowly, “Blythe, I come bearing bad news.” I pause, expecting an objection, but the kitten is quiet. “Your mother cannot be with you anymore.”

    She asks, “Wh-why not?”

    I sigh before explaining, “She is dead… When one dies, there is no way of coming back. Your mother will never move, speak, or think again.” Her eyes well up and she looks down, sobbing. I lean toward her, wrapping an arm around her, letting her weep in my shoulder. I continue, “I am sorry that it is like this, but you are not the only one to lose somebody important.” She keeps crying. “I know that you cannot talk about it, but you can think about whot happens t-yer mother’s belongings later. In the meantime, others can ‘elp you through this.”

    Holly weighs in, “Let me be the one t-do it. I may be a bad shot, but I can protect her from whoever threatens us.”

    I gently back up before standing up again. Looking at Holly, I retort, “It does not change that I will return to the Sanctuary as well.”

    “Sanctuary?” the kitten asks.

    I look down at Blythe again, explaining, “A place for cubs such as yourself. Cubs who ‘ave lost their parents.” I kneel again, presenting the handkerchief, and state, “I believe this belonged t-yer mother.” Blythe slowly takes the golden silk, which she sniffs. That assures me that she will be eased of the pain.

    I stand up and face Holly, to tell her, “We should board the same train. I see no time to wait.”

    “Can I come with you?” June asks. “Surely, I can be of additional company.”

    I do not question it. “You may.”

     

    Lagorio seems to have overheard our conversation, for she is right there, and tells me, “Before you go, I wish to show you equipment that you might like.”

    Only out of politeness, I reply plainly, “You may.” So, she pulls out a device and with the tap of the buttons, the laboratory lights up, revealing metal shelves of weapons and machines. Where she guides me first is to what I assume are explosives.

    Lagorio speaks, “These are reminders of prototypes. We ‘ave-a tested… pears in this place.”

    That has my interest. “Whot d-you test other than spiced pears?”

    The spectacled cat chuckles before she answers, “My technicians ‘ave tested smoke bombs—which we like to coll cloudy pears—and we ‘ave been improving shock bombs—a name for which has eluded us.”

    I state, “I could use these fer my personal missions.”

    In that instant, I am presented two boxes. She replies, “Being my boss’s friend, he might let you.” It is out of awkwardness, I am reluctant, but I take two of each. She then presents two boards, speaking, “They ‘elp your shoes insulate the electricity, so y-don’t electrocute yerself by mistake.” I follow the spectacled cat to the other side of the long counter, where she presents something to make me want to leave.

    Lagorio speaks, “This is whot I’ve bin trying t-protect. The designer died getting the plans ‘ere.”

    “A firearm that carries no bullets?”

    Lagorio explains nonchalantly, “It fires plasma ras as substance. It can char wood and singe metal.”

    I shake my head. “It does not change that I hate guns.”

    Lagorio mutters, probably about what I did to that storage house. She then leads me to the opposite counter, speaking, “Well, I believe that I have something that can still be of use t-you.” She shows me what should be armour plating, made of bronze, like from the dawn of empiric wars. The larger plates each have two leather straps with buckles. The smaller ones are curved like hooks, though not quite are hooks, have holes for what should be small rivets. Lagorio speaks, “I designed-a these to make crippling difficult-a for opponents, but also to make attacks more effective.”

    I comment, “What a pity that some of us forget that our own bodies are weapons.” I examine the plates, and then lift one leg of my pants, to compare my boot to the plates. I am reminded of the combat that I had learned abroad. I ask, “Will Jack miss these accessories?”

    “Messer MacNiadh does not care what my technicians build if they are not guns or grenades.” I have to chuckle at that, but that she addresses him as “Messer”. He might be flattered if he knew that. Lagorio adds, “Let me properly pack these fer you.”

    I pass her, to the doorway—

     

    But there is something wrong. I hear the persistent cawing from my friend. I draw my Khopeshes. At the same second I am next to the front door, it is broken down with a battering ram. Two thugs, each carrying a rifle and explosives dash in. The third thug, now having a shotgun trained, enters, muttering, “My patience is at an end.” I press my left Khopesh against his throat, and then slash it, making him stumble, choking. I lunge toward the two thugs, who let a few bullets fly. Two of the bullets graze me, making skin breaks and ripping small holes in my tailcoat. I slash across their midsections, and then upwards. They both fall to the floor, but still alive. So, I stab them each between their upper ribs.

    The spectacled cat, having observed, speaks, “I know these men.” She points past me, adding, “He is—or was—one of Giffard’s favoured mercs. He must ‘ave led the thugs storming here.”

    I inquire, “But how knew he?”

    Lagorio sighs, “I wish I knew. There are many to sell information.” I narrow my eyes at that, but I have to wait to investigate. I want to get the kitten out of here before her death is on my conscience.

    -----

     

                (I still heeded Themba’s advice for the second spar with him. I treated him as my enemy, but not the one behind the murder of my mother and Clement. There was a book that I’d been reading at the time about a captain of a brigade, which started with his warning that his story was anything but happy. It appealed to me for that he was driven by revenge on the deaths of his best friends.

    (Themba and I both put up a fight. I remembered to hold nothing back. I still used the moves that I knew, with which he’d become familiar with. It was out of his anticipation that the spar ended with him winning this time. I had no problem with that.

    (Mere seconds after the spar, Themba told me, “They say that mistakes are lessons.” I had no point to give as an argument. “There are those that you might spare when you truly fight for your life.”

    (That, I was willing to argue about. I ask, “Will I need to spare those I fight?”

    (“I know not”, he answers as we tread the sand. “However, my father told me of a few opponents of his surviving his strikes and returning to challenge him again. You also might need to run if you cannot win a fight.” I was willing to ask that of the High Priestess. I had already come to her with questions, which she would answer without hesitation. The conversation then shifted to what my friend’s father was like as we headed to the dining chamber and ate lunch together.)

    -----

     

                In only minutes, I have changed into my grey pinstripe suit and donned my eyepatch, and we make it to the west station of the borough. All four of us are there together. I have my luggage. Holly and Blythe each have a small case with them, June holding no bags. We are near the train—

    When I realise that we are followed. I can tell by the odours of decay and filth that they are not paid by someone working for Giffard. I whisper, “Holly.”

    The grey cat whispers back, “I know.” We increase our pace.

    Eventually, the kitten calls, “Dames!” That is when I turn around.

    Right behind her are the thugs following us. Three dogs, all of them wearing ragged work clothes. They quickly pull out their pistols when both Holly and I dash toward them. I am the first one to reach the kitten, shoving her to get out of the thugs’ reach. On the first dog, I grab his arm, twisting it. I can hear the bones crunching followed by the dog’s yell in pain. At the very second the pistols fire, I turn around, using him as a shield. Holly pounces on one. With that chance, I pull out my stiletto, tackling the other dog remaining. I have to force his arm away—

    And the sound of another bullet firing threatens to deafen me. I slash at his arm before I shove my stiletto in his chin and run it down the side of his neck. Panting, I see the train just approaching. I look to Holly, who has done a good job scratching her opponent up, before getting a hold of his gun, to shoot him. I comment wryly, “I assume, that is why you chose a dress size slightly above yours.”

    That chin wag has to be cut short, for I am met with a terrible sight. I can hear Blythe murmur, “Not another one.” I see what she means, for up close, there the calico is, with a bullet in her chest and her eyes closed. I look to Holly, who I consider lucky again. Oh, how I think more and more that her prevalence has been a fluke.

    We have no time to dwell on this. I have to drag Blythe inside the carriage before the train is to leave, and we remember our bags.

    The whole ride, I am distant from the cats. This is one of two things that happen when I help others. They live to fight another day, like Jack, or they die when near me. It is all too much… I have always killed criminals without hesitation. However, I am no stranger to the feeling of seeing someone innocent die. If I am to be known, it should not be as the one person in whom David confided. Everyone regrets what happened the last time of seeing their loved ones when knowing such. But what about June? Someone else could have died because of me, if not her. Furthermore, there are witnesses on who killed her. Oh, how I wish I could have saved her. I wish that she got to enjoy life more when at the Sanctuary.

    -----

     

                Here we are again: the Sanctuary of Mau-Re. I am cold toward the serval as I enter. I am just as cold to Holly and Blythe when heading to the guards’ quarters. There is always a free bed there, and I take the one that I favour, placing my luggage at its end. I sigh, removing the eyepatch. I look around, expecting someone, but at the moment, there is only one that I wish to speak to.

     

    As if she is cognizant of my return, she is there, at the altar of the Grand Temple. I leave my blazer hung up on the end of one bench, before kneeling in front of her. She speaks, “Rise, my child.”

    I lift my head, speaking, “High Priestess. I regret our unscheduled meeting to be like this.”

    “Do not regret it, my child, for my door is always open to those in need”, she assures me.

    I see the pendant on the grey cat. I speak, “I have failed again… I hoped that another slave could be remoulded like Holly, but she was killed before she could board the train that we took… And I left her there…”

    The grey cat’s big emerald eyes close in on mine, and her hands nudge me to rise. I stay on one knee, just to keep my gaze level with her. She tells me, “We all fail at something, my child. Even I have met failure. You must never let it define you. Never let it keep you down.”

    I sigh, “You are right, High Priestess. I am aware of past failures, but the two recent ones have wounded me far more than the rest.”

    Pasht explains, “Wounds do not heal on their own. They need your will to mend. Scars are mere mistakes to learn from.” She is right again. Vadimir: I have never faced a wolf such as him, and I need to be more prepared. I have a way to make sure of that. Furthermore, I have a promise for the cubs to hold out. I stare at the High Priestess in awe. Her mask of the wise mentor has never cracked or been smudged. As if reading my mind, she continues, “You came to me with your golden mask, telling me that you are to be death incarnate. You spent years moulding yourself into a warrior, to become death to those who deserve no mercy or kindness. Pasht is more than a fighter: she is a protector. She knows that to fight means to protect others.”

    I admit, “It is only out of sympathy, I helped Holly escape her captor.”

    “It is more than that”, she objects. Even still, she wears her mask of the wise mentor. “You began wearing your mask, to kill those who deserve it. Now, you save those forced into prostitution.” She makes no further statement, and she makes the right choice, for she has made her point. “Everyone has a limit, even both of us.” That does not stop me from revering her like a goddess, as the cubs, her loyal soldiers and her spies do. I stand up and bow before I take my blazer and exit the temple.

     

    “Big Sister!” It is late in the evening when I enter the cubs’ quarters, and they clamour to me, even the High Priestess’s daughter. They all want me to give them a big hug, and I do not deny that simple request. This time, doing so takes longer, probably because they miss me more and more each time I am gone.

    Ghaliya asks, “Ma aldhy ‘akhraka?”

    I answer, “Eamali yakhudhuni waqtaan tawilana.” She chuckles at that as if it is a joke. I add, “There is a lot about that I cannot tell you.”

    Ghaliya remarks, “And yet you would not omit the gruesome detail of a story?”

    How I like that she gets to the point. “A story is why I am here at this time of evening.”

    The cubs whisper to each other, wondering what it could be about this time, but they should already know, based on what stories I have told them the previous two times. They huddle close to me, taking up two beds. Ghaliya takes the bed opposite me, but other kittens nestle close to me, along with the few fox kits. The leopard, cheetah, and lion cubs are on the opposite bed. When assured that everyone is comfortable, I begin.

    “Sepril, the former god of the sky, was made the god of the realm of the dead after Kumhep embalmed him and made sure that the soul was intact. Kumhep has long since pledged loyalty in the events of this story. His sister, Konjal, was tasked with the dark secret of the realm of the dead. She not only made sure that the sinners would be punished, but she also had to guard the opposite side of the realm. As Sepril and Hura ruled over the side for pure souls, Konjal kept the sinners from escaping the side for the fractured souls.

    “Over the centuries, Kumhep has judged the souls of those deemed pure. There were those to sin. However, those executed over petty theft or for doing the right thing were forgiven. Kumhep has also judged those whose souls had turned black with bloodlust, if not rage or insanity. Only on occasion, Kumhep has needed to raise his Khopesh or utilise his sorcery on a sinner.

    “There came a day when the entire realm of the dead shook fiercely. Nobody, not even the rulers, knew the cause of the disturbance, until Konjal saw it. The barrier dividing the realm breaks, and Konjal is the first to detect the monster that emerges. The black-hearted god, Sepril’s treacherous brother Slij, escapes. Kumhep is the first to reach the subdued Konjal—nobody can die in the realm of the dead—and she tells him what she saw in a giant black lizard. Slij has absorbed the fractured souls of the murderers and the deranged, their hate fuelling his own and giving him strength.

    “The sky god Kanu, who has long since slain his uncle Slij, comes to them, telling Kumhep that neither of them can take Slij’s monstrous form alone. Kumhep agrees, and Kanu lets him ride his falcon form. The two of them fly to where Slij is headed: the largest gateway between the mortal realm and the realm of the dead. As powerful as Sepril is in death, he only barely can keep the gateway sealed.

    “As if she has been alerted of it, the war goddess Samav provides the diversion needed, pushing him down with all her might. Then, Kumhep and Kanu catch up with Slij. They already have a plan. As souls can unite, they can be separated. So, Kumhep begins chanting his spell whilst holding off Slij’s attacks. Kumhep builds up energy with his spell in the process, which he channels to Kanu.

    “The first strike to the lizard does nothing, or so it seems. It significantly wounds him, and the fractured souls begin pouring out. To speed along the process, Kumhep repeats his spell, while striking the lizard’s neck repeatedly. Kumhep hesitates when seeing Kanu enter the lizard’s mouth, but sees what he is doing a second later. He builds up the most energy he ever has built, all the while Kanu has the lizard’s tongue in a grip.

    “With enough energy built, Kumhep slashes with his Khopesh, beheading the black lizard. Instantly, the lizard breaks apart as the fractured souls having aided Slij separate. The chaos that they beget does not last long. With the help of all the pure souls, the fractured souls are driven back to where they belong. True to the promise of finishing it together, both Kumhep and Kanu sends what remains of Slij’s black soul back to where it belongs. Konjal rebuilds the prison, which has been enchanted to keep all other fractured souls out and only one black soul in.

    “However, that is not the last time Kumhep encounters evil. He remains loyal to the true rulers of the gods, but he will only cross to the mortal realm if it is business requiring his attention.”

     

    I look around, and everyone is silent. All the cubs, kittens, and kits look at each other. I can hear a few whispers among them. I sigh at that. I can expect that they will have bad dreams. “I’m sorry.” That is all I can say as I stand up.

    Ghaliya is the one to speak, “It is okay. It is a great story.” A few of the cubs nod in agreement.

    Sensing my hesitation to leave them alone, a leopard cub, who I assume is fourteen, says, “You can go, Big Sister. They may be scared, but not for too long.” I quickly turn away, to hide my expression, and then I head out the door.

    I call, “Good night. All of you. Sleep well.” I sigh when I am outside again, the door closed.

    -----

     

                (Over the years of living in the Sanctuary of Mau-Re, I still had not read through my mother’s book or Clement’s notes. Instead, what I had been reading over those years were stories about war and about life of vigilantism. There were books from Symphon and its neighbours as well as those from Dahalo, where the High Priestess had apparently hailed. All that I knew about her, even by the time I turned sixteen, was that she was wise beyond her years, being a mentor, a school’s headmistress, and a spymaster.

    (The High Priestess, calling herself Pasht, was a member of a cult that had been built, wanting no one of their nation to forget their old beliefs. To me, that lore made for inspiration, namely the stories of Pasht and Kumhep. I had realised that I had been holding on to anger toward the killer of my mother and step-father, and Pasht and her followers had been teaching me to balance my anger toward those deserving no mercy and love for those that deserve it.

    (The first one that I hugged upon seeing that the orphanage was celebrating my sixteenth birthday was Themba. He had been closest to me though I had not known him the longest out of everyone I talked to. Dinner was the same as normal and everyone else had their casual conversations. I talked to Themba about my future ambitions. There was a tradition for those to become of age. Everyone to reach the age of sixteen had to plan for their future. They could find themselves out in the world or they could be an employee for the orphanage. I had chosen the former.

    (I told not just him, but also the rest of the cubs where I planned to go, before they could start on the cake that was made for this day. I announced, “I have thought much about which path from the crossroads to take from here. I have read more than the stories of Ancient Dahalan lore and more than stories of war. I came across something neither Dahalan nor Symphonian, about which I inquired the High Priestess. These stories about warriors, but also displaying a sense of honour, which reminded me of my non-sentient ancestors. Orphans to leave here and come back as warriors of elegance were there before. So, I will follow suit. Within a week, I will cast off the piers from the Symphonian Strait, and take ships sailing below the Grand Continent. My first independent test will be how long I can take the sailing of around a week. That will prove whether I belong at my destination: Seikat.”

    (That made the cubs murmur amongst each other. Themba seemed to grin as if he had already known. How long he had possibly known was unimportant to me at the moment. He had no words. He only had a hand on my lap when I sat down. If Pasht had not brought him to the Sanctuary, he would have been only half of the support that I was given. Friendship truly is what keeps you going. He was a good sparring partner and someone I enjoyed talking to about stories.)

    -----

     

                I get up from my bed upon the sunrise casting upon me through the window in the long cabin. I see that I am the last one in the guards’ quarters. At least there were no men near to gawk at my breasts. I do a series of stretches, followed by callisthenics. Then, I get dressed. My choice is nothing special. I see no point in wearing my blazer if I am not leaving the Sanctuary today. In the dining cabin, I eat my breakfast: figs, yoghurt, and a slice of bread. I join Themba and his friends, who have already almost finished their breakfasts.

    “Good to see you, Sister”, he states. “And I see you brought company again.”

    I scowl at him. “Know you the pain of telling someone, you cannot help everyone?”

    Themba suddenly becomes tender, objecting, “Not I. But I believe that our spies and assassins do.”

    I tell him of my activities in Subroot. I tell him of killing a black bear and his amateur thugs, to liberate child slaves kept by Joshua in a prison. That is followed by how I delayed his demise to find the white kitten with a dead mother. I do not omit that I gave Joshua’s captives a choice to take what guns are kept in his cache. After I am finished the short version of my long story, he tells me, “I did warn you what would happen if you tried to help everyone.” I am almost done my breakfast at that time. His friends are still there, listening. “You always had a good heart, Sister. I would be devastated if I was to learn that you died saving drug-addled children from slave traders. I know how hard hearing it is, failing to save someone. However, you cannot always save a brother-in-arms from bleeding out.” How the realisation of mortality hurts. He finishes, “You are not the only one here with wounds.” He gets up, his friends following suit. They take their empty plates with them. I do the same, seconds later.

     

    There is a memory to bring back, in my storage space. I do not open my trunk, for it does not contain what I seek. Resting at the wall is a staff with a length slightly greater than my height. As an adult wolf is normally a hundred ninety centimetres tall, this staff is two metres long. I pick it up and hold it horizontally in both hands, remembering the vows that I made the day of departing where I have obtained this weapon, and the sword mounted on the wall, above the trunk.

    I am brought out of my thoughts by a familiar voice speaking, “What brings you here today?”

    I turn around, lowering the staff, and ask back, “Mean you, my store or the Sanctuary itself?”

    “The Sanctuary”, Ghaliya clarifies.

    Eyeing the staff, I answer, “I came here not only to ensure the safety of an orphan. Regardless of age, there comes a time you realise weakness or a time you realise how much you’ve forgotten.”

    She, too, has her focus on the staff, for she asks, “Can you show me how to use those?” She nudges her head, indicating the mounted sword.

    “I could”, I answer. “But mastering them takes more than one lesson.” Maybe I could learn something myself from teaching my idol’s daughter about such elegant weapons.

     

    So, we are at the training grounds with dummies set up. We still had to wait on a carver, to make wooden replicas of the weapons. With Ghaliya ready, I speak, “First lesson about using the weapon: the hilt.” I see how well the weapon has been copied. “It is made to be held with both hands.” She places her other hand below her dominant hand. She is left-handed like I am. I see that she does not struggle so much. “Good”, I murmur. I speak up, “Now, try the high stance.” She raises her arms. Almost immediately, I add, “Stop.” She lowers her arms. “You are shaking too much.” I change the subject. “Try a thrust.” She does so, but by flexing her arms. I say, “Now, try thrusting with your back.” She manages to do so like I saw my classmates would do.  “Good. Now, aim higher.” She thrusts higher, hitting the target, though barely. We go through a series of slashes to practice on the dummy, showing me where Ghaliya could improve.

    It is over the evening, I show Ghaliya the basics of using the staff. I show the blade end, making it come off as a spear. I tell her, “As the Katana is the symbolic weapon of the men, the Naginata is the symbolic weapon of the women.” I present the one I own, and have it aligned with the wooden duplicate that she has. I continue in my explanation, “I am not the first woman to practice the Seikatan ways of the warrior. Nor will I be the last. Naginata became part of a woman’s practice in the spear’s obsolescence for war and became a dowry for nobles. The wives would teach themselves to utilise such a weapon to protect their homes.” I stand up straight and lower my arms, the staff in one hand. “’Twas the first weapon they taught me to use. Then, I was taught to fight utilising the Katana.”

    Ghaliya comments, “The spear is easier to handle with both hands.” I circle her, examining her stance. Like I expect, she has her dominant foot forward, aligned with her dominant hand.

    I order, “Switch stance.” She reluctantly does so. Understandable. Ghaliya shows that she can still handle the weapon with the hands swapped levels. However, her right foot is not pointing as straight as her left. I touch there, to correct it. I order again, “Switch back.” She does so, to her contentment. I then run a series of drills. I have her show me how she thrusts and how she slashes with the spear. She seems to perform with the weapon with much fewer problems.

    When it is dark out, I explain to her, “When you cannot reach the vital organs of someone much taller than you, more can be done with injuries when you hit the legs.” I reach down, pointing to the side of my leg, where the upper leg meets the hips. “At this level, you can attack an artery.” Straightening myself and moving the staff back to my left hand, I continue, “I know not how long it takes anyone, but I once stabbed that artery, giving me the chance to slash his neck, and he bled out.” Giving this fact seems not to disturb Ghaliya even a little. “Just bear that in mind. It might save your life.”

     

    For the next six days, while teaching Ghaliya what I know of utilising a Naginata, I also brush up on what I remember from abroad. The plates that can be fitted to my boots have given me that idea. If anything good has come out of my encounters with Vadimir, it is that I need be more unpredictable. I will be sure to thank him for that along with the tear that he made in the stitch in my tailcoat.

    To boot, I weigh my options. I consider not just who to go after next, but also where I should go next and what I should await. The repeated ambushes on Lagorio are only the start of it. Somebody knows…

    In the evening, having worn myself performing the same manoeuvres for maybe the hundredth time on the same day, I end my practice.

     

    It is in the hot spring, I find company. The low, occasional boiling from the furnace below is to be not the only sound near me. There the grey cat is, giving me a familiar scenario. She sits in the spring, to my left. I ask, “All right, Holly?”

    “Never be-ur, Death.” She squeezes my hand.

    I say, “What you and I had wos not meant to start a relationship.”

    “I know”, she responds. “It wos only business.” She nestles to me.

    I speak, “You’ve seen others die.”

    She sighs. “I have…” I am about to question her, when she continues, “At the Dented Shield, I tried making friends with other prostitutes. Only slaves can be there fer slaves. There wos one friend I had, who was a year older than me. She got me through my first heat… I wos so attached to ‘er that I wondered if she and I could escape together… Then, she killed a lushington of a patron who punched her. She broke a wine bo-ul on ‘is head, splitting ‘is skull. Crown ‘erself shot my friend…”

    I respond, “I know the dangers of making connections. Jack is ‘ard t-kill, but there might be something about me t-lead Giffard’s people to ‘im.”

    “Death”, Holly whispers, turning me to look into her green eye and blue eye. “What happened to David and what happened to June are not yer fault. You were not the one to kill them. You did whot you could.” That is it: if not the High Priestess, I need to turn to someone who might understand.

    I whisper back, “Holly, when you find a lover, your feelings will threaten to control you, or your mind will play tricks. When you feel love, you will just know that you feel it.” She kisses me. We stay in an embrace for a while, enjoying each other’s comfort.

    -----

     

                After breakfast, I have my clothes packed up along with my notes and weapons. My raven friend accompanies me outside the guards’ quarters as I consider my options for a few more minutes. As if reading my mind, Ghaliya is there the second I reach my conclusion.

    She asks, “So, where will you go next?”

    I reply coldly, “To the place that rumours claim no one returns from.”

    That widens the pupils of her big eyes. “But that is suicide, Big Sister! Please reconsider!”

    “I may need to disprove the city myth in the process. Furthermore, it is a place I might find answers on Giffard.”

    She stands in front of me, to align her gaze with mine. She still has her pupils wide. She begs, “It does not change how dangerous only the residents are! The criminals are merciless! The poor are so far beyond ‘elp that the borough’s council”-

    I interrupt, “Do not worry so much about me, Ghaliya. I can take care of myself.”

    She wraps her arms tightly around me, crying. I know how hard it can be to part with someone, even when you know not when the time you see them is the last. She then hastily pulls away, to, equally hastily, search her pockets for something. She then pulls out a bronze disc with two flame-like emeralds. “Take it”, she says plainly.

    I take it in my good hand and examine it. I examine the carving of the small creature in the disc, to which I give a wry smile. I kneel down, to tell Ghaliya, “I assure you, I will give this back to you.” I wrap my arms around her, making the embrace last long.

    I then stand up, making my raven friend instinctively leap from the ground and flap his wings, cawing. I let her see my face without my eyepatch before I turn around and head to the front gate. I have already told Themba and the High Priestess what choice I have made, which had them pray for me. I have already been in the piss-poor boroughs. My destination is a place that sounds like nothing new.

  7. It was a nice day in the Hoenn region as a nice warm sunny day with the sun shining. Pokemon were out running in the fields or drinking from the rivers scattered throughout Hoenn. This included the 16-year-old trainer Sven and his pokemon partner Gallade. The two had known each other for many years ever since Sven was 8 but even after he turned 10 he continued to stay home so he could better educate himself. This changed when at the age of 13 he finally set out to become a trainer after the family had moved back to Hoenn after moving to Kanto when Sven was 9.

    The two were eating at a restaurant in Lilycove city. The two were waiting for a ferry to travel as they lacked a water type pokemon or any pokemon for that matter. Sven was awful at catching pokemon, the only reason he had his partner was because he had found and befriended him when he was a Ralts. However, just because he was bad at catching, he was an excellent trainer in leading his partner during battles. The two were unstoppable, the only thing holding them back was the lack of other pokemon.

    The two had just finished a tournament a week ago in Mauville and were going to go to the one in Sootopolis. The ferry to take Sven there wouldn’t be arriving for another 6 hours at 7:00 pm. Because of the amount of time they had on their hands, they both decided to head back to the route they had travelled from yesterday and do some training. And so they headed out into the tall grass and forest, not realising it would all be different after their trip.

    The two had been training for about an hour, battling others and defeating them. They were growing tired, so they found a pleasant spot by a stream and relaxed a little. The spot was nice and peaceful as it was back behind the trees a bit farther from the other trainers and Gallade’s strength gave off a warning to the nearby wild pokemon in the area keeping them at bay. Before he knew it Sven had fallen asleep under the cool shade of the tree and the calming noise of the nearby stream.

    With his master asleep, Gallade carefully got up and began to walk deeper into the forest. After a few minutes, Gallade came to a clearing with many berry bushes strewn around. Gallade immediately noticed some rarer berries that stood out among the more common ones like orans or peechas. What was the real oddity were the bushes that held a round berry that had a green, red and white swirl going throughout it? Interested, he took a bite into one after deducing that it wasn't poisonous. In the instant it touched his taste buds he was in heaven with how good it tasted, it was like Arceus made it just for him, it checked off all the boxes for his favorite tastes. Excited, he grabbed nearly the whole bush and began to make his way to Sven and show off the amazing berries he scored.

    By the time he had made it back to Sven, who was still sleeping, Gallade had eaten a few more berries. He set the pile neatly down on a towel he grabbed from Sven’s backpack. Gallade moved over to Sven and gently nudged him awake. He hated to do so as Sven always looked cute when he was asleep, but it was such a pain to wake him up judging by his response of more snoring. After a few more tries with no success, Gallade was ready to dip him into the stream when Sven finally awoke from his slumber. Initially confused at what was going on when he awoke, he saw Gallade offering one of the berries he found with plenty more on the towel.

    “Aw man for me, thanks.” Said Sven as he inspected the berry. Gallade gave him a nod while eating his own. Sven took a bite out of the berry and slowly chewed it as he was curious to see how it tasted. Tasting it he was confused it didn’t taste bad, and it felt like it tasted good but something seemed off like it wasn’t made for him. 

    Gallade hadn’t noticed his concerned look as he was biting into another berry. Sven looked at the berry, confused on what to do with it. Looking over at Gallade not wanting to upset him, he took another bite into the berry. The feeling was still there, but now it tasted better to him. Taking a few more bites of the berry he finished it and by the time he did it didn’t taste so bad. However, when he went to walk over to the stream to wash his hands, he tripped over and saw that his feet had changed.

    Sven looked shocked as his feet had turned to what looked like white poles with maybe a small toe for support. Gallade hearing the commotion to see Sven on the ground with a panicked expression on his face and changed feet. Rushing over, he crouched down to Svens side to observe the change. The white slowly spread its way up its leg, slimming it and erasing any hair on it. It had slowly made its way up right until it reached his waist, at which it suddenly stopped. Weirded out, he touched it to see that it felt soft. Gallade was bewildered on what was and caused this to happen to Sven.

    However, both of their thoughts were interrupted when suddenly a red piece erupted out from his chest on both sides with the back being rounded and the front having a slight curve and point. At this point, Gallade had realized what Sven was becoming and tried to explain it to him. However, Gallade’s signalling wasn’t all that great and just left Sven confused. Frustrated Gallade with his failure to communicate, Gallade blurted out.

    “You’re becoming a Gardevoir dipstick!” Gallade yelled angrily and looked away for a second. Upon turning back, he saw Sven had a look of bewilderment on his face. Gallade wondered if it was because of his anger, but Sven began to talk.

    “Gallade, did you just talk to me?” Sven asked slowly and nervously.

    “Yeah, I guess so, I’m guessing it’s because of your transformation going on,” Gallade explained.

    “Yeah that makes sense but why a Gardevoir, nevermind I could’ve become a Trubbish or something,” Sven muttered.

    “I for one think not only a Gardevoir is an outstanding thing for you to become, I also think you’ll make an amazing Gardevoir.” Gallade proudly boasted.

    “Thanks for the reassurance, I guess, but I think it’s continuing now. Sven said as his chest slimmed down with some green stripes in the center pointing to his crest.

    Next, his arms changed with once again the hair being erased and the limb slimmed. When it reached his hands, his ring middle and pointer fused into one green finger surrounded by his two other slightly expanded green fingers. Sven’s neck began to slim down a lot he also began to shrink down to 5’3 from his former 5’11. At the head was where a lot of the changes occurred first his face and the back of his head turned white. After that his ears recessed and out grew three little head frills. After that, his hair turned green and grew out a few inches longer and curled behind him. Sven’s eyes also turned red from his former blue. After that, another curl came from his hair and covered his left eye.

    “Wow, I look amazing, don’t I?” Sven asked excitedly.

    “You look wonderful but your not done yet.” Gallade added

    As his face finished rounding out, suddenly Sven’s gown poofed out of nowhere and floated back down. However, before he had anymore to celebrate the growth of his gown with Gallade his manhood regressed and was replaced with woman hood including a more feminine voice.

    “Well, it looks like we can’t call me Sven, huh?” She said while laughing.

    “How about Serene then, doesn’t that sound like a good name for you?” Gallade asked.

    “Yeah it sounds wonderful but I think you need a name now too. How about the name... Arthur.” Serene decided.

    “First of all why Arthur and second why did you want to give me a name to?” Arthur asked.

    “ The first answer is that it sounds heroic because you’re my hero and second of all...” Before she finished, she stood up and so did Arthur.

    “It wouldn’t be fair if I had a name and not my lover,” Serene said and before he knew it Serene embraced and kissed Arthur and he joined back with her.

    And with that, the two lovers began their lives thanks to the effects of some rare berries.

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    Theophane cursed under her breath. That stupid pebble had been in her boot for the past half mile or so, but the rest of her little adventuring band wasn’t slowing up. She could let them know she needed a break, of course. The big human, Nils, would probably make some paladinly speech about how good and righteous it would be to allow the weak to rest their heels, and his long blond hair would probably billow in the breeze when he said it. Alvie the thief didn’t even wear shoes, owing to the cloven hooves she bore at the end of her wicked-looking legs - “They’re quieter than you’d think”, the tiefling had assured them. And Marceline? Well, Theophane was surprised that the pointy-eared wizard hadn’t been complaining the whole way, given how slight and frail she looked. But still, Theophane kept her problems to herself. Other bards may be given to emotional outbursts once in a while but dwarves… Dwarves like her were supposed to be stoic and strong. So she simply waited until she could slip behind the taller folk and deal with the problem on her own time.

     

    The opportunity didn’t take long to present itself. Marceline had jogged forward to strike up a conversation with Nils about something or other and Alvie, ever the snoop, was eavesdropping intently. They surely wouldn’t notice if she stopped by the side of the road and dislodged that damned pebble once and for all. With all the grace of a cat… a rather drunken one… Theophane stood all her weight on her left foot as she raised her right to remove the troublesome boot. She wobbled and swayed as best as she could but to no avail. Between the pack on her back and the mandolin strapped under it, she was simply too unbalanced and gravity’s cruel pull sent her falling on her rump. The thump of wood on stone resounded, and it made the dwarf’s heart sink into her chest. Oh no. When she pulled herself up, she almost couldn’t bear to look at what might have just happened, but she still pulled her mandolin around to her front to check it for damage. 

     

    The body of her instrument was fine, still in one piece. The gold filigree that ran around its soundhole and up its neck would likely need some work and the bottom of it was scratched to hell and back. No new holes though. It could still play. Her ego may have been bruised, but at least it could have been a lot worse. While she was on the ground though, she yanked off that damned boot and shook it until that stubborn little rock fell onto the leaf litter below. “Little bastard. That was all your fault.” She re-shoed herself and stood clumsily to her feet, then finally noticed the others looming over her. Nils barked that big loud laugh of his. “Never known a dwarf to have such trouble with a rock before.” Alvie giggled, and Marceline seemed almost as embarrassed as Theophane was. Almost. 

     

    “Can it, holy man.” The bard could tell her cheeks were reddening as she pushed her way through the other three and gestured down the wooded highway. “Let’s just get back on the road, eh? The sooner we get to Harborough the sooner we can find a pub.”

     

    “And maybe a sweet lass or a handsome lad to spend the night with? Oh, what am I saying, you bards can’t resist a pretty face, can you?” Alvie certainly loved teasing Theophane about her choice of profession. Over the course of this adventure, the thief had been through twenty-nine different lusty bard jokes ranging from the tame to the absolutely lurid, and every time the dwarf’s answer was the same. “Maybe for other bards, but not me.”

     

    Alvie had seemed to give up on that topic of discussion long enough for the party to continue along their merry way, but not two minutes down the road and she was right back at it, needling Theophane in that high-pitched cajoling voice of hers. “So you’re saying you’ve never bedded with anyone else? No beardly dwarven hunks, no fair tavern maidens, no eager classmates at your barding school?”

     

    “Alvie… other people’s romantic history is none of your concern.” Nils’s tone was soft and paternal. He was good at that, and Theophane had to admit he was also good at reining the thief in when her more manic tendencies were getting too grating to bear. She wouldn’t thank him aloud for it of course, but the knight probably wouldn’t need her thanks anyhow.

     

    Suddenly Marceline’s ears twitched, and the elf held up a hand to signal the others to stop. “We’re being followed. I can hear it.” Her voice was quiet, even more than usual, and her other hand was tightly grasped around the spine of her spellbook. The mood shifted as quickly as an autumn wind, and like an autumn wind, it brought a chill over the entire party. 

    Nils had his armored hand wrapped around the grip of his claymore, readying himself for battle. Theophane had seen it before, this look of steely determination. “Wait for them to make the first move. But be ready for a fight.” 

     

    From out of the forest behind them a stout figure emerged, concealed by a hooded cloak. Alvie was the first to notice, and with catlike reflexes and practiced ease she quickly brought her crossbow to bear on the stranger. “Who are you?” She demanded. “And why are you tailing us?”

     

    “Please, put down your weapons.” The figure’s hands were raised, and their voice calm and nonthreatening. It sounded female, too, but with a rough and baritone edge to it. Theophane could see a hint of a scaled reptilian muzzle, and she assumed their stalker to be a dragonborn, one of the lizardlike children of Bahamut. But when the figure lowered her hood and showed her face to them, that theory was quickly dispelled.

     

    Theophane spoke up. “You’re a…”

     

    “Half-dragon, yes.” And she wasn’t lying about that. Her large, finned ears and the short scaly crest that ran from her forehead to the back of her neck made that clear. Two large protrusions covered by the back of her cloak must have been leathery wings, maybe not big enough for sustained flight but certainly enough to make a hell of a display when fully outstretched. There wasn’t much indication what this stranger’s other half may have been, be it elf or human or something else entirely. Her icy blue eyes seemed to linger over Theophane, and the bard felt a chill run down her spine. “And as for why I was following you, I’ve been sent to protect you, though I can’t say by whom.”

     

    “Well, that sounds like an interesting story, but we don’t really have need of your protection, thank you.” Nils’s wording may have been polite, but his tone was anything but. “In case you haven’t noticed we’re rather well traveled and well equipped ourselves and don’t need some mysterious stranger guarding us from afar.” Alvie nodded in agreement, then added, “Though, if you wanted to guard us up close I’m sure we could make an allowance for that.”

     

    “Alvie.”

     

    “What? She’s half dragon, Nils! Half. Dragon. Are you saying you DON’T want a big beefy scaly lady on your side when things go bad? Strange predilections for stalking aside, I think we should let her come with us! Though we gotta do something about that dusty old personality of hers.”

     

    The half-dragon raised one side of her brow in an oddly undraconic expression of confusion. “I fear I don’t understand your meaning, tiefling. Are you saying my manner of speech is unpleasant?”

     

    Alvie had to try hard to stifle a laugh at such clipped stiffness. “No, no, it’s fine, Scales. I was merely, uh…” The tiefling affected a voice uncannily similar to the half-dragon’s own. “I was merely making an observation about the unnecessary formality and forwardness of thine speech, milady. Forsooth and such.”

     

    Theophane smirked. Impressions were never their thief’s strong suit. “Well, for what it’s worth,” she added, “I agree with Alvie, though maybe for different reasons. There’s something about this woman that’s nagging at me and I intend to find out what it is.” The dwarf then turned to their other companion to see her looking completely lost in thought. Marceline may have been rather shy much of the time but Theophane had never known the elf to be this quiet when dealing with a new acquaintance. “Marceline?”

     

    The elf wizard seemed to be suddenly pulled from her stupor by Theophane’s question. “What? Oh, yes, I agree.” The blasé nature of her response made the bard think that maybe Marceline hadn’t been paying any attention whatsoever, but it didn’t matter too much. They had their majority decision.

     

    “Well then Nils, there we have it. If this woman was sent to guard us like she says, I don’t see any reason to turn her down. Welcome to the party, miss…”

     

    “Branwyn. My name is Branwyn.”

  8.  

    Apropos of nothing. I'm releasing this on the very minute of my birth, twenty seven years ago. This story comes with a marvellous reading perfomed by the amazing Khaki of the Voice of Dog podcast, and several other marvellous things. 
    Here's a link to the audio for this story. 
    https://anchor.fm/the-voice-of-dog/episodes/Nonna-by-Spottystuff-egfmnm
    Please check it out. Read along, if you please. 
    I hope you'll enjoy

    _________________________________________________________________

    Nonna 

     

           My Nonna, our family’s de facto matriarch, spends most of her days in her little kitchen. She’s just old school like that. I’ve tried to get her to sit down more, and take it slower, but she blankly refuses. She’ll let me help sometimes, but she’ll never ask for it. That’s just part of who she is, I guess. An old, stubborn, traditional dalmatian and I am very fond of her.

           “Lavatti le mani, Nicky,” She calls over her shoulder as I enter the kitchen. “Your uncle Dario wanted some chicken spears and bits for the barbecue.” She sighs and shakes her head. “Sometimes, I wonder what happened to my little boy. Barbecue, by god, whatever was the matter with real food?”

           As I take in the rich scents of her cooking, I’m inclined to agree. A large, cast iron pot, filled with her famous ragù alla Dalmatia, is taking up most of the space on her ancient stove. Several different types of bread lie on the kitchen counter, waiting for their turn in the oven. The heady mix of smells takes me back to all the times we’ve spent in the kitchen together in the past. She’s taught me everything I know about cooking, and I’ve used that skill for all it’s worth on my dates. Uncle Daz is far easier to please than any of them, however, so I wash my paws and start chopping up chicken fillets.

           “Nonna, did I ever introduce you to my friend Reece?” I ask, “He’s coming today. His family is from Dalmatia too, so I figured perhaps you’d heard about him before?”

           “Reece… Reece?” she ponders out loud. “Does this Reece have a last name?”

           “Oh, I don’t recall, come to think of it. It’s either Thomason or Thomson or perhaps it was just Thomas? I can’t recall off the top of my head.”

           Nonna smiles to herself. “I believe it stems from the Tomasi family, a prominent name back in the day.”

           “Anyways, I figured I’d make sure to introduce you to him if I hadn’t. He’s a good friend of mine.”

           “Wonderful,” She says, her tail wagging slowly like a pendulum, in that way old dogs’ tails tend to do over the slightest joy. “I’ve never had contact with that branch. They all moved out of the old country before my time, and I’ve been curious what became of them.”

           “He’s just moved here from America, so I guess he would know,” I reply, as I try to sneak one of the sizzling morsels from the pan, but quick as lightning, she smacks my wrist.

           “I hope he can tell me about his family, I’m ever so curious.”

           She continues stirring the pot as if nothing happened. “Did he bring company over? Oh, maybe he came with one of the Illiaretti girls? I heard from their father that they’re both studying overseas.”

           “No, not quite,” I say, rubbing the back of my paw. “I…  don’t think he’s bringing someone you know.”

           “Oh,” She says, her smile stiffening a bit. She knows all the dalmatians on the east coast, and probably further west too. I don’t want to reveal too much, it’s best if Reece explain that part.

           “Well, I can’t wait to meet this Reece,” She concludes. “I’m sure he can tell me a lot about the other emigrant families in America.”

           I’m this close to reiterate the old comment. The one that goes “Nonna, I’m sure it’s only you and your baccarat club left on the planet who still care about that heritage and bloodline stuff. It’s Australia in the twenty first century. We don’t do arranged marriages any more. We’re cool about a lot of things, from mixing to same sex stuff, to cross species stuff. It’s all good.”

             Suddenly, my uncle cries out from the back yard, and I’m given a deus ex barbecue conversation before I can stick my foot in it. He’s usually clumsy when it comes to flammables, but when I reach the veranda door, I see no carnage. But I can hear the snarl of a car engine coming up the street, a sharper note than my cousin Gabe’s old muscle car, and very much out of place in this suburb. It’s an expensive sounding car.

           “Four point eight.” Daz calls out in an excited tone, tail batting as he turns to me with a grin. “Electronic injection with a flat-plane-crank, quad cam, and a sports exhaust. Dalmatia at her finest. Listen to that purr, that’s the sound of real class. It’s more than just an engine, mate, I’m tellin’ ya, it’s a fuckin’ masterpiece. I’d give a left nut to own a car like that.”

           “You’ve watched too much Top Gear, Daz.” I roll my eyes at him. He already knows who I’ve invited, who his boyfriend is, and what kind of fancy car they own, and of course he’s going to want to talk about it. Better leave that talk to the experts I guess. I swing by the esky to grab a beer for him, and a few for our guests, too, to dampen the blow of my uncle’s company.

           “In the backyard, just through the gate,” I bark across the fence as soon as I hear the car doors close. “Just give it a kick, she’ll be right.”

           “Paulo might be a wolf on the outside,” Daz suddenly says, leaning over with a big smirk shaping up on his muzzle, “But he’s more patriotic than some of us. Not only does he drive a car from Dalmatia, but he rides a dalmatian too. Now, that’s dedication, mate.”

           “Strewth, Daz, do you have to?” I groan. “Try to act decent, at least.”

           “Relax, Nicky,” He grins and flips a burger absently. “They’re guys. Guys talk shit all the time.”

           Just then, a white wolf comes through the gate. Behind him, a short dalmatian with a wide smile. His spots are more densely clustered around his ears than mine, and they’re black where all ours are brown. He stands out against the crowd, almost as much as his husband. He perks up when he sees me, and I wave them both over. Paul, the wolf, stops to accept my beer, and gives me a quick hug. Without thinking, though, I touch muzzles Reece. He responds immediately, bringing his muzzle to my left side, right, then left again.

           “Nonna will go crazy for ya, mate,” I tell him with a smile. “Welcome, and happy Kings’ Day.”

           I guide them into the large back yard, and begin introducing them to the crowd. “That’s uncle Daz and his pups, Colin and Catlyn, over by the barbecue. Over there, that’s Nonna’s cousin, Dio, and his wife Irina, and that’s my cousin Gabriel along with… Cindy, I think… or perhaps she was the last one. In which case this is Rose… actually, never mind. Everybody, say hello to Reece and Paul.” I wave at the group of dalmatians, who quickly gather around the tall wolf.

           Paul is a genuine racing car driver. An actual, V8 supercar series starter, a local hero. His racing car has a little pride flag on it and everything. To top it all off, he also happens to be a really nice guy, too. He’s got this wide, amiable smile which is awfully contagious, and I can tell from the deep blue eyes behind his designer sunglasses, that he’s genuine.

            I was initially worried throwing this rich boy headfirst into an outer suburb party, but he doesn’t stand out so much as I’d first anticipated, even physically. Sure, he’s a head taller than all of us, but he’s taken extra special care of his fur, and cropped it very close. He’s not wearing any striped clothes, in recognition of his company, and the black polo t-shirt with his team logo on it is a nice compliment to his black and white boyfriend. Among all of us, he almost looks like another dalmatian, but without the spots, considerably overgrown and pointy eared.

           Reece seems to be struggling out here, however. He’s not grown accustomed to the sun and heat yet. I want to help him out, but I have to stick around for a short while, just to make sure Paul can withstand my family.

           “Welcome back to ‘Straya, mate,” Gabe calls out, and slaps Paul on the shoulder. “I’m Gabe, nice to meet you.”

           “Cheers, Gabe,” Paul responds, and shakes his paw. “I don’t suppose it’s your Statesman parked next to Nicky’s car?”

           “Yeah, she’s mine, alright.” Gabe says, slapping his chest proudly. “Four-fifty kilowatts through the rears, kicks like a beast. Almost as quick as your company car, eh?”

           “My company car doesn’t leak like yours.” Paul punches Gabe’s shoulder, as if they’ve been friends for years already. “Well, not on most occasions at least. We don’t talk about the Adelaide incident in our household.”

           “Nah, that was just some horsepower escaping onto the track.” Gabe snorts and winks at him, slapping Paul’s shoulder again. “Along with some rods and pistons. Shame about that, better luck next year.”

           “You should down a piece of cardboard or something, Gabe.” I intervene, exhasperated. “It’s Nonna’s driveway, you’re going to get spots on it.”

           “Eeh, you and your spots.” Gabe laughs, nudging Paul with his elbow. “What’s another spot on this property, eh?”

           I can’t be bothered to argue with him, I’ll let him face the music when Nonna finds out.

           I’m relieved to see that Paul can hold his own, even with the sycophantic attention of my cousin. I have to remind myself that, despite his soft, city accent and nice clothes, he does belong here, out in the suburbs. For a minor celebrity, who spent most of his adult life in America, he’s very down to earth and friendly, and deals well with the embarrassing fanboying my otherwise cynical cousin displays. The slightly ragged property, the smoking barbecue, and the loud company doesn’t bother him either.

           “Paul, I’m gonna borrow Reece for a bit, okay?” I say, when there’s a lull in the conversation. Reece has been pushed slightly to the back of the crowd, with Paul absorbing all the attention. I guess he’s used to it, but I still feel I should help out somehow.

           “Sure thing,” He says offhandedly, squeezing his husband close, right there in front of all the guys, before handing him over to me. Nobody mentions anything, or even exchange looks. It’s not what I’d have expected, but I try not to think too much about it for now.

            “Let’s get out of the sun for a bit, okay?” I tell Reece, as I pull him towards the house. I show him around inside the little house I share with Nonna, but I can tell that the scents from the kitchen are distracting him.

           “Nonna, I brought you some company!” I call through the house, after I’ve shown Reece what little there is to see.

           “Is it Reece?” comes the response from the kitchen. Nonna emerges, wearing the old, tomato-spattered, white apron with the red and green stitching that I made her in arts and crafts class when I was little.

           “Ah, yes!” She exclaims. “Look at that! Black spots, and everything, you are the real deal, as they say.”

           “I, eh, Hi. My name is Reece Thomson, pleased to…”

           “I know, I know who you are, Nicky told me,” Nonna interrupts, brushing his outstretched paw aside as she pulls him down for a traditional Dalmatian greeting. Reece seems slightly stunned, but credit where it’s due, he adjusts quickly.

           Nonna smiles, clutching his upper arm possessively, and pulls him into the kitchen. She guides him to a kitchen chair, and is halfway through pouring him a glass of the good table wine before I can intervene.

           “Nonna, it’s early for wine, isn’t it? Maybe we should wait.”

           “I’m old enough to make my own rules, Nicky, sit down and join us.” She gestures at a chair, which I take wordlessly. “Reece, dear, have a glass. You look like you need it.”

           “Thank you… eh, apologies, I didn’t get your name.”

           “Oh, pardon, dear, It’s Donna Francesca di Laverda.”

           Reece’s eyebrows inclines for half a second, but he nods and sips his wine politely. “It’s a wonderful home you’ve got here, Francesca. I like the back yard especially. Lots of room!”

           She laughs and swirls her glass with a shaky, old paw, both frail and confident at the same time. “You’re kind, but this humble cottage is nothing to write home about. I used to live in a palazzo, you know. Ours were among the last of the noble families to leave before the revolution.”

           “You don’t say!” Reece exclaims. “I remember hearing about the emigration in family gatherings. You were actually there? When the… uh… history was made.” His ears flick quickly as he stops himself.

           “That’s one way to put it,” She says, maintaining her smile, “We came to Australia after that, and we found a good life here, where Nicky’s grandfather and I could raise our pups in peace. That’s the history I am most proud of.”

           “I seem to recall my grandfather talking about the revolution,” Reece says with a more apologetic tone. “I think his uncle remained behind to fight.”

           “Such a bloody business that.” Nonna said, “but it seems to be going well for Dalmatia these days. Perhaps one day we might be able to visit.”

           As Reece delves into his family tree, or what little he claims to know of it, she smiles with delight, and her eyes take on a dreamlike quality. Every now and then, she points out personal details which she remembers about the various names Reece mentions.

           I get up and stir the pots and pans on the stove, as Nonna seems to have forgotten about them. My friend and my grandmother talk for a long time about their heritage. Reece is surprisingly knowledgeable, which I wasn’t expecting, because he’s never mentioned squat to me. As I listen to their talk, I drift away into my own little world, stirring the pot and focusing on the scents of rosemary, bay leaves while their talk fill the blank spaces around it.

           “So, are you married, then?”

           The question snaps me out of my daydream, and I choke on the spoonful I’d snuck from the pot while Nonna wasn’t looking. I can feel my tail stop swaying, and my ears perk, as I focus intently on the conversation behind me.

           “Yes, actually, my husband is Paul Courage, you know. The…”

           “The racing driver?”

           “Yes. He’s…”

           “The white wolf, isn’t that right, Nicky?” She asks me. “The one from the television, a few days back, remember. With the pretty little rainbow on his car?”

           “T-that sounds about right,” I say, stumbling out of the gate. “He drives for Sinclair, black and blue, car number 8 with the… rainbow, yes.”

            “Nicky’s uncle Dario usually comes over for sunday dinner, and they watch the races whenever he’s on,” She explains to Reece, as she sips her wine with a knowing smile. “I sometimes look in every now and then. I’m not so old and blind that I don’t recognize a handsome gentleman when I see one.” She continues in the same pleasant tone, and I manage to choke out a sigh of relief. “You know, back in the old country, I once attended a party with the world champion Grand Prix driver at the time. He was only known as Il Dalmata Volante. He was ever so charming. I was just a young girl, don’t you know? I didn’t know what to do with myself when he came over. He was so handsome and clever. He even danced with me that night. Oh, I must have been the happiest girl in the kingdom.”

           “Speaking of, Paul put on a documentary about him last week,” Reece recounts with a smirk. “He thought it’d inspire me to get more into the history stuff, but when I pointed out how charming and handsome the other dalmatian was, then suddenly he decided I didn’t need that kind of inspiration. I had to cook him his favourite dish before he’d even talk to me, can you imagine? Racing drivers, am I right?”

           “Very true.” She says, and laughs heartily. “They are a strange breed, indeed. Very passionate.”

           Reece glances over to me, just subtly enough that it goes unnoticed by Nonna. He smiles. Things are going well, better than I could have hoped for. As the conversation ambles on, I tune out again. I wonder what it’s like to just come out with something like that, as if Paul and Reece’s relationship is just completely normal. Perhaps I’m the only one who thinks it’s a big deal, after all?

           “I hear you boys are allowed to raise pups these days,” She says suddenly. The comment thankfully isn’t meant to include me, but my heart hasn’t caught onto that fact yet, and is rattling away like a metronome.

           “Wasn’t that what the news man said, Nicky?” She asks me. “You must pardon me, Reece. Nobody tells me these things, you know.”

           “I, eh, yeah, I think so.” I stammer, caught off guard by the sudden turn in the conversation. “It’s just paperwork these days. It’s probably very bueraucratic, but it’s definitely possible.”

           “More straight forward than you’d think, Nicky dear,” Reece says, with a knowing wink directed at me, which I feel is just bordering on the edge of teasing. “With the right paperwork, Paul and I could be parents, yes.”

           “That’s wonderful,” Nonna says. “You know, Reece. Nicky’s uncle John had a pup last year, but they fell on hard times and had to offer him up for adoption. It was very sad for him, but I believed it was for the best of the little one. I travelled out to meet his new parents. A very charming couple of wolves who wanted a cub, but couldn’t have one. I made them promise to teach their new ‘cub’ about his heritage.” Nonna looks out into the middle distance. A sting of pride layers her voice. “I’ve always had the highest regard for our brothers and sisters, the wolves, Reece. They will treat you right. Strong pack instinct, even these days, if that’s okay to say. Oh, dearie me.”

           “No, no, it’s okay,” Reece says. “He’d love you just for noticing, He takes that stuff very seriously, and he’s not shy about it, either. Thank you, Franchesca.”

           “Call me Nonna, dearie.”

           “You never told me this!” I exclaim. “I thought Jonno was just… you know… unable to have pups…”

           “Oh, did he not tell you?” Nonna asked. “I was going to tell you when you got pups for yourself.”

           “Ah, yeah. When I get pups,” I hesitate, but the words escape my muzzle anyways. I don’t think she hears them.

           “Paul and I are planning to get cubs, or pups, of our own one day.” Reece says, diverging the conversation before it can go somewhere I don’t want it to go. “But I don’t think, with Paul’s career and everything, that that’s going to happen soon. He’s such a busy bee, and pups take a lot of time.”

           “Very true,” She says, nodding sagely. “My father never had time for me. I sometimes wished I had another one, like yours will have. Lucky little devils, they’ll be,”

           She giggles, as if she was eighty years younger. “If you want a Nonna, you know where I live, but be quick about it. Not many Nonnas live as long as I do.”

           “That’s very kind, Francesca,” Reece smiles. “I might just take you up on that.”

           “Nonna?” I ask when there is an opening in the conversation. “I think the food is just about ready. We should join the others, don’t you think? It sounds like there’s quite a few out there.”

           “Oh, go on you two, I’ll come out in a bit.” She said, still swirling her nearly empty wine glass absently, still staring out into the middle distance with shimmering eyes.

           In the garden, I notice several familiar patterns as we carry out the pots and trays. My uncle Jonno and his wife Natalia, Ivana and Claude from the baccarat club and cousin Gabe’s father, Uncle Enzo. A smattering of spotted and mixed pups playing around on the dry, brown grass. Most of them, I couldn’t have named, but the noise and laughter, and the background hum of good conversation, is making the entire setting feel safe and familiar. But I’m still thankful that Reece is here with me.

           We set the table with all the food Nonna made, as well as the various barbecue items, stacking them begrudgingly next to the ragù, loaves of bread, and pot of homemade tortellini, The guests soon turn their attention to the food. I’ve got some things I need to talk about, so I take Reece with me, and we sit down in one corner of the garden, in the shade of a parasol on two old plastic chairs.

           “Well, that went better than expected,” Reece says and takes a swig from his bottle of beer. “From what you told me, I thought I had to worry about some old conservative lady. But you saw how she reacted.”

           “It was a nice surprise.” I say, “Honestly, I’ve not seen her so genuinely happy. I think it helped that you had the old family name, to cushion the blow.”

           “I don’t think that mattered so much really. I think if you’d have told her before this, she’d taken just as nice. Sounds like she’s fond of you, Nicky. Perhaps you should just talk about this with her?”

           “I guess, but I wanted to make extra sure, you know.” I say, twiddling my thumbs uncertainly.

           “I don’t see why you needed me there. That’s not to say I don’t mind coming along all the same, I mean damn… a chance of some traditional food? Try to keep me away. I only dread the workout routine Paul’s going to drag me into after this.” Reece gives me a guilty smile and scratches the back of his head. “Speaking of, he should be just about done by now. Paul, dear. Over here!”

           Paul turns to us and breaks free from the little fanbase around him, laughing and slapping shoulders as if it was going out of fashion. He’s carrying a paper plate filled with ragù, as well as wearing some it around his muzzle.

           “How did it go with the other guys?” Reece asks him, peerring at the crowd behind Paul’s shoulder. “Gave them the full media treatment, did we?”

           “Nah, that wasn’t even necessary,” He reports. “Not a bad word said of either of us, or him, or anyone else we know to be out. I managed to get them to talk about some gay guys on the TV. Your family is not half as bad as you lead me to expect, Nicky. If it wasn’t for this food…”

           “Yes, I’ve already pointed that out,” Reece interrupts him, sticking his tongue out. “I think the food makes up for it, don’t you?”

           Paul nods and pulls up a chair next to Reece, putting a paw across his husband’s shoulder. Reece wipes his mouth clean like a fussing mother, and earns himself a lick on his muzzle for his trouble. I can’t help but feeling a sting of longing when I see what they share together. I know I could have it. I feel sure of it. I regret not having any done this before.

           “Some of them joke around a bit, but that’s normal,” Paul mumbles from behind a mouthful, and takes a swig from his beer. “None of it’s hateful, really. It’s kind of childish, sure, but that kind of joking usually stops pretty easily if you just talk to them. And they like you, Nicky, so I don’t think that’ll be a problem. We talked about you a bit, none of them had anything bad to say. I don’t think they’ll give you a hard time. They were practically falling over themselves to explain how understanding and open they were towards my situation, and I believe that’ll extend to you, too.”

           “I still think this was a round-about way of doing it.” Reece says. “I know we’re all different, and work at our own pace. But, I mean, you could have just brought it up whenever you saw some gay dude on the TV, right? Your Nonna watches those gardening shows on Nine, doesn’t she? He’s gay, you know, and that news reader on daytime, too?”

           “I know, I know,” I say, scratching my head embarrassedly. “I always thought she worried too much about all that bloodline stuff. I thought she worried too much about me finding some girl to have pups with. I didn’t know what she cared more about. But now I know. It might seem convoluted having you guys test the water for me. But I’m glad we did it this way. You helped me see things I probably wouldn’t have seen if I was on my own.”

           “Hey, anything for a friend, right?” Reece says, patting my shoulder. “I’m sure you can cook us dinner one day, to make it up. So, when do you think you’ll be coming out then?”

           “I have to think about that for a second,” I deflect. I’d not made any contingency plans for a situation that didn’t end with a shouting argument or a fight. But there’s no getting around it, my family are not exactly who I thought they were. I can’t give him an answer right there, so I don’t. I get up, gesture for them to wait for me, and then head into the kitchen to find Nonna.

     

  9. Note: these are their official canon appearances, when the events of their story takes place during March of 2020, as their appearances don’t change in different seasons. 

     

    -Artemis Onyx Moonstone- The Leader of the pack

    He has brown chocolate fur that’s on the darker side, with a beige colored chest/stomach, with the same colored brown eyes with diamond shaped pupils. He has long black hair that’s shoulder length and is on the shaggy side, he is 6’3 stocky wolf (with a tail resembling a husky) but has a good amount of muscle. He Wears a Dark Green hair band that’s tied like rabbit ears to the left, in his hair to hold it back, with a dark green tank top, black sweatpants and dark green sandals. 

     

    -Victor Gerald Shield- The Hyper one

    He has ash brown colored fur, with a white chest/stomach, he has green eyes with long black hair that goes down his back with a single curl of hair above his eyes with a small beard. He is 6’5 and has a bara body type, huge chest, huge abs, very defined muscles, his tail is also very floofy. He wears a black crop top (that shows his arms and stomach), brown cargo shorts and brown tennis shoes with white socks,he also wears a simple golden necklace around his neck.

     

    -Akira Taro Mist- The Shy one

    He has light grey fur with a white chest/stomach, he has hazel eyes with semi-circle pupils, his hair is the same color as his head fur, and has a small ahoge. He has a very skinny body type and is 5’10 being the shortest (tied with Justin) of the wolves. He wears an oversized Red  sweater with a white turtleneck under it, he wears black pants with red colored slip on shoes, he also wears white socks. He also wears a sliver moon shaped necklace around his neck, he wears clothes with layers because he gets cold rather easily. 

     

    -Kage Leopold Darkhart- The Calm one

    He has black fur that appears a shade lighter on his chest/stomach he has silver hair that’s often covering one of his Dark brown eyes that have club shaped pupils (it goes down to his hips). He is 6ft and has a buff body type, he has a tattoo that’s white and in the shape of a club on the left side of his chest, his tail is reminiscent of a coyote. He wears three white stud ear piercings, a basic white t-shirt, black ripped pants with white boots. He also wears a silver necklace that’s in the shape of a club. 

     

    -Magma Blaze Igneous- The Daredevil one 

    He has normal red fur that appears a shade lighter on his chest/stomach he has black messy hair that’s neck length long with yellow eyes. He is 6'1 and has a skinny but toned body type with some muscles, he wears a black zipped up hoodie with blue jeans and black boots.He also wears a black bracelet on his left hand. 

     

    -Bodhi Christian Frost- The Quiet one

    He has snow white fur with a very chubby body type, he has brown eyes and shoulder length brown hair with some of it sticking up like an ahoge on the top of his head. He is also 5'12, he wears a dark purple hoodie with black pants and white boots, his clothes often hide his chubby body. 

     

    -Colton Stone Steelspike- The True Neutral 

    He has dark grey fur, with his hair being the same color as his fur that’s greased back. He has a very buff body type, very defined muscles, he has blue eyes with triangle shaped pupils, he is 6'1. He wears a pair of blue overalls with a black shirt under it with black boots. 

     

    -Storm River Hurricane- The Comic Relief 

    He has dark blue fur with a lighter shade of blue on his chest/stomach he has blue eyes, with his hair being the same color as his fur. He keeps his hair in dreadlocks that’s almost touching his shoulders with one stand above his eyes, and is 6'1 with a very buff body type with pretty noticeable muscles. He has a small beard, he wears black shorts, with gold sandals.  

     

    -Zephyr Winston Albatross- The Cocky one 

    He has light gold fur with a white chest/stomach , hazel eyes with a very skinny but toned body type, he is 5’11 making him the second shortest of the wolves he also has black hair that he keeps greased back in a fashion similar to colton. He wears a black jacket with no hood with it, a pair of flight goggles with blue jeans and black boots with blue fingerless gloves. 

     

    -Solaris Onyx Moonstone- The Charismatic one

    He Ivory white fur with a beige colored chest/stomach, has normal blue eyes, with crescent shaped pupils in them. He has shaggy blonde hair that’s the normal color he is 6’3 skinny but toned wolf (with his tail resembling a husky) with loose fitting hair that does not cover his eyes. Unlike his brother at this point he has a small beard. He wears a purple long sleeve shirt with a music note necklace around his neck with black pants and purple shoes, he also has purple bracelets. 

    -Dakota Justice Eardwulf- The Humble one 

    He has a color palette similar to a normal colored fox, his hands and feet are black, he has blue eyes with neck length long brown hair with a small strand above his eyes. He is 6ft with a buff body type very noticeable muscles his hair is reminiscent of lycanrock’s midnight form. He wears a black t-shirt with blue jeans and brown boots with an ember shaped necklace around his neck.

    -Justin Tommy Opal- The privileged one 

    He has grey fur, with black normal length hair and cobalt blue eyes, he stands at 5’11, and also wears blue anime glasses (as his eyesight is pretty bad for a Gaian wolf). He is also very skinny. He wears a blue long sleeve dress shirt, with a tie, with black slacks and brown dress shoes with black gloves. 

    -Personalities,birthdays etc.-

    -Artemis is extroverted, helpful, caring and very optimistic, He is the eldest of the wolves at 19 as he and Solaris his twin brother were born on December 12th of 2000, he weighs 225 pounds. He has a muscle gut but does not eat a whole lot. 

    -Victor is energetic, and very hyper but is a gentle giant, he is 18 years old as he was born on July 16th 2001, he weighs 260 pounds but has a lot of muscle weight.  

    -Akira is shy, very smart and optimistic, he is 120 pounds making him the lightest, He was born on April 4th 2001 making him 19 years old. He is fairly soft spoken but can be chatty at times, he is very blunt. 

    -Kage appears intimidating but is fairly laid back, calm and very extroverted and humble, he weighs 189 pounds (most of it being muscle that’s not noticeable with him wearing clothes).  He was born on January 2nd 2001 making him 19 years old, despite his laid back vibe he has a small anger problem, his rage is not loud more or so like a silent rage. 

    -Magma is hot headed and a daredevil, he is also fairly optimistic and playful at times. He does have an anger problem (at times) and tends to get lazy sometimes. His Bday is June 30th 2001 as he weighs 160 pounds. 

    -Bohdi at first comes off stoic not showing much emotion, but after one breakdown later he is actually a pretty timid quiet person and having an insecurity with his body image. Despite this he is confident in himself and is pretty observant with a healthy amount of optimism. His birthday is February 16th 2002 making him 18 years old he also weighs 195 pounds. 

    -Colton he is the stoic person of the group having a straight face, he is also rather blunt and honest with others and the people around him. He weighs 190 pounds and was born on July 1st 2001 making him 18 years old. 

    -Storm he is the clumsy, not so bright person of the group who tends to be laid back but rather goofy and tends to be optimistic to keep the mood high. He was born on November 16th 2001 making him 18 years old he weighs 180 pounds. 

    -Zephyr he is the cocky, loud competitive person of the group who tends to be a motivator and rival at times, he also can be hyper. His birthday is March 4th 2001 making him 18, he also tends to eat a lot rivaling Victor he weighs 150 pounds. 

    -Solaris is extroverted, humble and friendly while also being charismatic and laid back, he shares the same birthday as Artemis his younger twin brother December 12th of 2000 making him 19 as well. He weighs 175 pounds, and tends to act like his brother at times. 

    -Dakota is very kind Loyal and very gentleman-like, he refers to anyone by their last names (it’s a Quirk he has. He has a hidden competitive side to him that rarely is shown. He was born on January 6th 2002 making him 18 years old, he weighs 180 pounds.  

    -Justin is shy and reserved, being rather timid at times, however he is rather level headed and quiet, but is secretly loyal to his friends and family. He weighs 140 pounds and was born on March 7th 2002 making him 18 years old. 

     

    -Powers of the wolves- 

    -Artemis has the moonstone wildcard power having the same abilities (besides Justin) as the other wolves, he prefers to fight with his strength, and his own grass powers to fight with. He has a magic howl attack and a dark green shield as that’s his aura’s color. 

    -Victor uses his strength to both lift heavy things and also be very fast, while also being able to jump very high. He did not have a magic aura at first, but was soon gained when he was training with artemis, and his aura is Orange. He also uses special gauntlets he now summons to grapple with. 

    -Akira has the ability to lift things with his mind, while also being able to be pretty creative with his powers. He enchants a traditional fan to fight with he can also interact with dreams and see into the future. However he tends to act like a Navigator and rarely puts himself out with the others in a fight. His future vision power only works for the probability of something happening and when he closes his eyes and focuses on something he has a white aura. 

    -Kage his powers are nearly identical to Akira except that he has more darker magic and control over shadows, he can’t see in the future but can go into a shadow ghost form. He also can phase through walls in his shadow form and also can bring others into shadows or through things. He has a dark powered whip for his weapon with a black magic aura. 

    -Magma has a red magic aura and can control fire, and has the heatproof power, having the ability to withstand extreme heat. He can shoot fire blasts from his hands and feet with a special fire howl attack he uses a lava lance to fight with.

    - Bodhi has an ice white aura, and can control ice (and some degree of water) he is immune to the cold, he can only create ice from the air around him not break it or melt it into water. He uses an ice sword to fight and he can walk on water by freezing the top of it for a quick moment. 

    -Colton has a silver aura tied to him, as he has the special fur hardening power and the ability to see in the dark. He uses a similar fighting style to Victor, he uses his fists and makes them become hard as steel to fight with. He can use his hands if he punches fast enough to dig; he is very strong though.

    -Storm he has a dark blue aura tied to him, as he can control water, breathe and swim very fast underwater as well. He uses a water lance to fight with and he also can summon water wings to fly with.

    -Zephyr he has a thunder yellow aura tied to him, as he can control electricity, and walk on clouds. He can summon electric wings to fly with and is the fastest flyer on the team he uses an electric bow and arrow to fight with as he can act like a sniper from the air.

    -Solaris has a yellow aura attached to him, like his brother he shares the moonstone wildcard power, but prefers to fight with psychic powers and uses a battle axe to fight with.

    -Dakota has a red aura and has the same powers as magma but lacks the heatproof power, however the only difference between the two is that he is not immune to immense heat. He uses duo fire swords to fight with. 

    -Justin he does not have magic, but fights with a small armory of magic weapons with blasters, grappling hooks ect. He prefers to use a short rage single pawed blaster.

     

    All the wolves beside Justin have a unique magic howl attack that they learned from Artemis, all of the wolves have paw pads on their hands and feet (with Artemis and Solaris having identical ones). They also all have claws that aren’t as sharp as they seem and are always visible while they are sheathed but they can un-sheath them as more defensive than offensive.  






     

  10. Pokémon Story

    Brotherhood of The Bracken Sea - Chapter 1

              By J.C. Solis

     

    I am sorry, lads... I will have to break this promise...... Forgive me....... Forgive me......

     

    A salty sea breeze wafted from the washing tide, the waves splashing along the rocky shores and the thick masts anchored into the bedrock. The mighty masts, weathered by years of constant battering, held up the piers that made up an extensive and well sized port - the largest in the entire region. Boats of all types could be seen docked for port, ranging in size from small dingies and to massive ships such as galleons and frigates. Though the sun was not yet above the horizon, the port was alive with activity, enacting on the energy and vigor that was triggered by the start of a new day's catch. Crusty eyed sailors and fishermen were already on their boats, preparing to sail out and once more make their fortunes. Pokémon were darting in all directions, carrying with them items like trade cargo or packed nets for fishing. Every pokémon had a duty to fulfill, from the municipal dock workers to the ship captains. Every boat had a preparations checklist to complete before setting out. Fixing the problems caused by unchecked items will be a lot more difficult out to sea.

    Those who decided to do business out of water - the landlubber artisans and merchants alike - began to prepare for a catch that they too planned on making. The bakeries made sure to sell as much as they could to the hungry and still sleepy sailors. The smell of a hearty sea breakfast was descending into town, a sure sign that the days labors were about to begin. The seaport of Serenity Cove was now awake with the hubbub of a new day.

    "Hurry up, big brother!" shouted a little Azurill that hopping along the boardwalks. "The boats are leaving! Dad'll be gone any minute!"

    *Huff, huff* "Hold on, Jakey!" panted back a Marill, who was chasing after his energetic little bro. "Your going so *huff* fast!" The Marill's rotund form made it hard to keep up with his brother's skipping hops. Yet both brothers managed to arrive in front of a sleek and large ship.

    The S.S. Farstrider.

    This slender clipper was a renowned legend in these parts. Its oaken frame appeared as flawless as cut marble, yet the streamlined design made it move with the speed of a lightning bolt and with the grace of an aquatic creature. Its captain, too, was a great maverick among pokémon - one that fearlessly sailed the world's oceans and tackled any problem head-on without question. The ship, thankfully for the lads, was still in preparations. The crew was still visible on deck as they scurried in completing the checklist. The boarding plank was still on the pier, and the two brothers scurried over it to the ship's deck. They had been on the ship a few times already, yet the exhilaration of climbing on board made their little hearts beat with the spirit of adventure. The ship itself seemed to both embody and emanate that very feeling.

    "Jakey!" The little Marill finally caught up to his brother. "We shouldn't be here! Mom will be worried sick when she finds us miss-"

    "Oy! What do you two be doing here!?!" yelled a Krabby sailor wearing a cadet's hat. The burly crab pokémon was setting aside cargo before it stopped to turn his attention to the boys. "This be no place for young ones to be waddling about! Shove off here!"

    "Don't get yer crab shell britches in a knot, Seamus!" said a swarthy Poliwrath sailor, who towered over both his subordinate and the boys. "They be the captain's kiddies. You don't want to be harassing the captain's lads, now do you?" The Poliwrath warned. He then turned to face the two boys. "You boyos be looking for your dad? He's at the wheel helm up there," he pointed toward the back of the ship.

    Sure enough, a tall yet adamant figure stood behind the large, brass tipped wheel of the ship. The pokemon had on a captain's cap and was wearing a thick long coat.

    "Dad!" the boys yelled as they ran up to the wheel.

    A grizzled looking Floatzel with an eye patch over his left eye turned to face the two children, smiling gleefully as he received the two in his open arms.

    "Ahoy, lads!" greeted the captain, who hugged his kids with warm heart. Though he was glad to see his kids, he was even more caught off guard by their unexpected visit. "Why're you two coming all the way here this early? You two should be home. School will be starting in a wee bit. And Mother ought tah be worried sick for not finding you rascals in bed."

    "Oh Dad," replied the little Azurill. "You think we'd miss you leaving port this time? We never get to see you take off!"

    Little Jakey the Azurill was alluding to how the brothers normally give farewell to their father. Usually the two would say their goodbyes the night before hand, right before they would go to bed. When they'd wake up, their father had already left port and was out to sea. This time, however, little Jakey would not settle for a before night goodbye.

    "I tried to stop him, Dad," explained the Marill brother named Jim embarrassingly. "But he was just so stubborn in coming! And I couldn't talk him out of it." The Floatzel captain chuckled heartily. These young boys have been nothing but a blessing to him. They're his waking thoughts every time he sets sail. These poor kids worry so much for their father's well-being - along with their dear mother, who probably worries even more than they do.

    "No need for that, Jimmy," the Floatzel replied. "In truth, me thinks you're both a little more worried about this trip than the others, eh?"

    The two brothers then looked at each other in confirmation.

    "Do you really have to go out there?" questioned Jakey worriedly. "Why do you gotta got to that scary sea everyone is afraid of? Can't you just go around?"

    "I wish I could, Jake," sighed the captain. "But me employers need this cargo in a hurry. And I can't turn down a good contract when I see one. Then how would I be able to keep you little buggers fed?" He gave a hearty seaman's laugh. "Plus, you expect me? A great sea captain, to be afraid of some ghosts out in the Bracken Sea? There be no beast that will keep me reaching shore, you can be sure of that."

    "Oh, Dad!" Jakey sobbed as he teared up. "We just want you to be safe! We just... I..." He then tugged on his father long coat even harder. "I'll miss you!!!"

    The captain wrapped his arms around his son and cradled him upwards. He cooed at the little pokémon to try and put him at ease. Jakey stopped his cries and looked up at the captain, who has shed tears of his own.

    "Have I let ye down so far, lad?" replied the captain. "I promise you I'll be seeing you and your brother again, Jake. There be no sea large enough that keep me from shore. There be no beast that will stop me from protecting you lads when yer in your troubles. This be a captain's pledge, I assure you." The captain had stated his Oath. He lowered down little Jakey and reached for the Marill boy. He ruffled Jimmy's head playfully, noting that he hadn't forgotten his eldest child. "Take care of your little brother, Jim. While I'm gone, you be the caretaker of the house. Make sure nothing happens to him and your dear Mother. Sailor's promise?"

    Jimmy gave a salute. "Sailor's promise, Dad!"

    "Hah hah! That's my boy." The captain was pleased with his response. "How bout you two come on a trip with me when your summer vacation starts? That way you can see the life of a sailor first hand! I sure hope that will make up for all these times that-"

    "Captain Maxwell!" called one of the sailors, who happened to be the same Poliwrath from before. "We've got everything ready! We're set to take off."

    "Thank you, Commander Davey," responded the Captain, uttering a little curse under his tongue "Lads. I'm afraid it is time. I need you two to go home. Remember all I has told yah." The boys could only nod as they reluctantly turned away from their father. Once back onto the pier the plank was removed, preventing anyone from entering or exiting through it again. The grizzled captain looked at his crew down on the deck. All his men, including Commander Davey and Cadet Seamus, were in formation as they awaited his next orders.

    "Alright then, ya bilge rats!" bellowed the Captain. "What're you all standing around for!? Do I pay you to be dumb wooden planks!?! Hoist the sails! Man your stations! Let us shove off from here!"

    Aye aye!!!" trooped the sailors.

    And before long the ship was detached from the pier moorings and the main sails of the clipper were raised and tightened. The ship then began to lurch away from the pier's edge. The mighty ship, whose timbers were as grizzled as the captain who steered it, now headed toward the seas that awaited them. The captain looked back at the pier, and at the town that was slowly getting farther and farther away. His lads waved at him goodbye as they too began to appear smaller. Captain Maxwell lifted a hand to wave his last goodbyes as well. Now began his yearning for the gray shores of Serenity Cove and all that he was leaving behind. All that he cherished was still in his sight, so close yet still so far away.

    The life of a sailor, for both family and seaman alike, is always filled with this constant dread. The treachery of the seas is always a factor, and no one can ever be certain what the deceptively cunning waters are planning. Yet there is also this constant hope. A hope of one day returning to shore, to reunite with patiently awaiting loved ones after the voyage is through. And they too will partake in this wait. For now, Captain Maxwell faced an uncertainty out in the open waters. The stories he's heard of the Bracken Seas have only grown worse in the coming of last years. And not a single one had an end pleasing to the ear. Yet it was his sailor's pride to get his job done. He hasn't failed a contract so far, and he wouldn't let dead pokémon's tales dictate what he would do with his ship. There was no monster that would take him down without so much as a fight.

    There was no sea that'd keep him from seeing the bright faces of his young lads again.

     

    The somber waters seemed to splash in eternal repetition. The waves were never ceasing and never died, even on the laziest of days. The waves, now that Jakey remembered them, were exactly the same. They were just as tranquil as on that fateful day. The breeze was a little different, though. This one headed west while the ones that guided his father were blowing east. These would be the winds that'd be bringing his father back, thought the worried little pokémon. The day when he'd see the face of his bombastic as ever dad was drawing near. Jakey stood at the edge of the pier - his usual spot to look out to sea.

    The space that his father's ship occupied was now taken by another large wooden ship - a clipper as well. Though this one was noticeably different than that of his Dad's. The clipper, when pulling to port, had actually tricked the little lad at first glance. Though all celebrations Jakey was planning were soon up in smoke upon a closer inspection. The ship's color was much lighter than the S.S. Farstrider, which was darker and more sullen - a testament to the treacherous waters the ship battered. On this ship, everything from the hull to the steering wheel was a bright pine coloration, as though they had barely been constructed. The wheel itself was even missing the brass knobs that its grayish brown stained spokes were adorned with. A third detail was the absence of large bronze bell behind the ship's wheel. It was this bell that his father rang every time he pulled to port to announce the Farstrider's arrival. Jakey had been waiting patiently the past two months to hear that bell, and to see the S.S. Farstrider first hand pull up beside him. The sun had already set well below the rocky cliffs the town was built alongside. The dimming light shaded the town and everywhere around it.

    A new night was rising, and a full moon stared face forward to town and at little Jakey. The eerie light of the cove lighthouse was now lit as well. The yellow beams were constantly rotating, a siren's call to any sailors out to sea who were searching for the safe haven of port. Jakey sighed as it grew too dim for him to see out to sea. Yet he didn't want to return home empty handed again. He didn't want to give up searching. If his father was arriving, he wanted to be the first to greet him home. He wanted to jump right into his father's arms and be piggybacked all over the pier in celebration. He wanted to ask about his adventures, how exciting his travels were and so much more. The thought was just so tantalizing, so heart warming, so-

    "Jakey?" called Jimmy from behind. "It's getting late. Let's go home! Its getting too dark .to see anything anyways, so-"

    "I don't wanna go home!" Jakey defiantly rebuffed. "I know Dad is going to show up today! I know it!"

    "He'll be here soon, little brother," replied Jim. "But we gotta give him time. He'll be here before you know it!"

    "But I... I..." Jakey tried to rebuff. "I know he's coming! I don't want to miss him!"

    "Dad would want us to wait, Jake. You know that," Jim responded a little more sternly as he gave his little bro a hug from behind. "You gotta give him time. He promised he'd come back, and Dad never goes back on his promises!" Jimmy cheered up. "Let's go home."

    Jakey could only stare out into the dark in final hopes. But the water provided no answer and no comfort. His brother was right. His father would want him to be strong. He'd would want him to be patient. Dad would never break a promise he made, no matter how difficult it was to keep or complete. And he'd never let his family down. It was pointless in trying to wait out by the pier's edge any longer. It was time to wait patiently even more.

    "Okay," responded Jake as he turned around.

     

    Jakey looked off to the rising sun on the pier's edge once again. The ever calm waters of the cove have by no means been changed. Another morning had risen onto town - with the sun only now fully above the horizon. And as usual the port was in its usual daily hubbub. Yet this time the atmosphere was eerily different than normal. The dockworkers and sailors were even more frantic than usual, a sort of dread and anxiety cross on their faces, their movements more calculated and swift. The ships facing out were loaded with equipment in sheer haste, with the workers not pausing even for a moment from their tasks. Large torch beam lights were being loaded and installed onto the the ships, as were several smaller, more mobile search boats.

    "You promised..." murmured Jakey as he stared.

    This search parties had finished loading the essentials needed for their mission. They would need every bit of it in order to continuously search the waters.

    "You promised, Dad..."

    Already one of the ships took off - a blazing clipper that sped away in quick haste.

    "You said you'd come back..."

    A second one, a much slower Man o' War, was setting off from the pier decks. It's iron sides was dotted with port holes, each one with a single canon facing directly outward. If what was out there still remained, then this amount off muscle power was a sure necessity.

    "You promised you'd see me again..."

    A tear trickled down his cheek and dripped to the worn pier planking. After these first two ships left the rest of the armada followed suit. Ships of all sizes followed suit in a group that seemed like a war party. The group was more than a dozen strong, all of them armed to the teeth and equipped with the state of the art gear needed to rescue the S.S. Farstrider - or to find its grave. Jakey could only stare as the search party left port for the Bracken Sea. Their duty would not be an easy one. They were charged with not only finding the lost captain and his ship, but also with destroying the beast that reported to have attacked it. A few survivors had managed to escape from when the Bracken Sea Monster attacked. And every one of them was shell shocked from the horrors they had witnessed. One of them, Cadet Seamus the Krabby, had turned stark raving mad and was uttering nothing but nonsense since his rescue. The only one who had enough sense to give any good details was Commander Davey, the kindly Poliwrath. He gave a grim recollection of his last moments on the Farstrider.

    The group was attacked by a humongous Tentacruel, one of unbelievable size and power. The beast was way larger than the ship itself, and it swirled water around it that churned in a violent maelstrom. Canon fire from the ship's guns did little to impede its movements as it picked off sailors one after one with its massive flailing tentacles. Captain Maxwell, in a final act of desperation, ordered his remaining crew to abandon ship in an attempt to flee. But to give them precious moments for escape, he decided to stay behind and guide the ship in order to distract the monster. If possible, he was to land the ship somewhere in the nearby atolls that surrounded the sea. That is, if the monster let him survive in one peace. That was the last the crew saw of either ship, captain or monster as they swam away for dear life. The battering waves prevented anyone from ever seeing how the final battle finished, though everyone had a horrid notion of what resulted.

    "Hey Jakey," Jimmy said as he walked up beside his brother. "Are you alright?"

    "No..." the little guy could only whisper. He then turned to face his brother, eyes red shot and with tear streaks on his cheeks. "Dad isn't coming back, is he..."

    Jimmy froze solid, unable to come up with a proper response. Though as optimistic as he was, not even Jim could make light of this situation. He failed to bring comfort to himself, let alone to his younger brother.

    "I don't know," was all that Jim could choke out.

    The two brothers hugged each other in their shared angst. Whether older or younger, both shared the harrowing pain that gripped at their hearts. The Armada pushed onward to the cursed waters they seek. The waves gave no hint as to what a vile force of nature they faced. Nor did they offer comfort to the grief that the brothers, and the town, shared in that moment.

     

    The cloud cover completely blotted the overhead sky, making town a void space empty of comforting light. The wind was in full gusting force, a sure sign of a storm front on the way to the cove. The distant rumbling of the thunder roared from the now churning waters, waves splashing hard on the rocky shoreline and slapping against the pier masts. The chapel bell tolled the afternoon of this dark day. The gong like tolls reverberated to the very top of the cliff faces and further back toward land. It beamed beyond the lighthouse to the open seas and the splashing waves. The tolls echoed through the now empty streets and alleys of town. They bounced along the houses and shanty shops, around the boats moored in port, and into the hearts of those present at the funeral. The bell formed a symphony with the blowing wind and the thunder's roar. The chapel was in full service and not a single person, down to the last elder and child, was absent. A gilded bronze tipped wheel was set over a table in front of the preacher's pulpit, as well as a few other other artifacts that were recovered from the sea. All along the table were picture frames of the fallen - from both those who set out only for adventure to those who went searching for revenge.

    And at the very center of the table was a photo of the Maverick, standing proud and adamant while giving a salute. His stern face looked straight at the camera, his former discipline and courage emanate as he stared for this last of photos. He displayed this very prowess even on his last day on shore.

    Jimmy and Jakey were seated in the front row seats of the church along with their mother. Maryann was a dainty faced and kindly Azumarill, and she held her two children tightly to her as the funeral commenced. The boys each wore a bowtie while their mother wore a bonnet. They and the rest of the guests wore clothes of the same color - mournful black. Reverend Mathus, clothed in dark robes with a white ribbon over his shoulders, began his part without further delay. He stood over his pulpit and was about to address those seated and standing around the chapel, the Honchkrow first ruffling his feathers and steadying his composure. He started his eulogy with somber words of remembrance.

    "I thank you all for coming in this sad day of remembrance. I thank the townsfolk for showing their sympathies to the grieving families. I also thank as well the captains and sailors who have taken this time to give farewell... " The room then filled with muffled sobs and groans. "...to one of their own. Today we say our goodbyes to more than just a great pokémon. Today we give our goodbyes to a legend, a true adventurer and bombast of the sea. We give our hearts in remembrance of a truly courageous individual, whose final act in life was to spare others from the terrible fate he..."

    The following words were too hard for Jakey to bear. He turned his head away from the preacher and his painful monologue.

    "Today we give our mournful sorrow as well to the many sailors who we lost due to this travesty. Those who went along with the late captain in the name adventure, as well as those pursuing vengeance against the force that took these poor souls from us."

    The search party was crippled by the power of the beast. Of the fourteen ships that had went to fight the beast, only seven returned. All received extensive damage. Even the Man o' War, with its heavy armor and firepower was no match - though it was the most intact coming back. The Search Clipper, on the other hand, was not so fortunate. Everyone knew that nothing would ever be the same again. The seas were now all the more perilous, with no one being safe once they were to set sail.

    "With this, I conclude my sermon," said Reverend Mathus. "All are now welcome to come up and give their final farewells. May the Great Ones look over Captain Maxwell--and all these poor souls we mourn today--into the next world beyond our own. Amen."

    With this, the large crowd formed a line to take turn in paying their respects, and the two boys and their mother were allowed first. The family stood in front of the pulpit and looked at the eyes of the captain one last time. Maxwell seemed to look directly at the boys - with his prowess and aura still gleaming, despite him now just being a glossy picture.

    "Good bye, Dad," Jake whispered. Though he felt grief just like his fellow mourners, he could only stare coldly at his father's picture frame. His empty eyes looked at his father in contempt before he gave his brother a turn. Jim walked up to his father's gaze, not forgetting the oath he made to his old man.

    "I'll protect em, Dad!" stated Jim stoutly, giving a salute to his father. "I'll keep them safe. I promise." He then allowed his mother to approach the photo.

    "I'll take good care of them for you, Maxy Honey." The widow's voice was so tender and fragile. "I promise. They'll grow up to such fine young lads. Just like you want them to be." Maryann was always a soft spoken person, and her love for the captain was pure.

    "My condolences, Miss Maryann," Reverend Mathus lamented as he walked up to her. "Maxwell was and always will be a great pokémon. His spirit lives on in our memories, and his words will always have a place in our hearts," he assured.

    "Thank you, Mathus. I'm well aware Max would want us to move forward. He'd never wish for us to be in such dire moods. Thank you." The mother returned a sincere smile.

    "You're always welcome in these halls, Maryann. Whatever you need from this church or from town, it will be done. I'll personally see to that," the Reverend assured. He then turned his attention to the young boys. "Boys. I want you two to take care of your dear mother. It is now when you must summon the courage your father has left you two. I know that he'd want you two to be fetching and brave lads. The time has now come when you must be strong and hold the family together. Can I trust you two with that?"

    The two nodded.

    "That's what Dad told me the day he left," recalled Jim. "And... And I won't let him down!" he managed to troop.

    "Same here," replied Jake, though he kept from looking directly at the preacher. Mathus eyed Jakey with a scrutinized eye. Something didn't seem right with the boy - but at the same time, it was not his place to ask such probing questions.

    "Well then, take good care of yourselves."

    The family turned around to make an exit, passing alongside the line of gatherers walking to the pulpit. Everyone was in a form of grief. Not even the saltiest of sailors and the most strong willed of captains could hold back their tears. Whether ally or adversary of Maxwell, all grew a respect for the captain and his memory. And all of them gave the passing family their condolences. Even the family members of the lost rescue ships gave Maxwell's brood their respects. They all shared the pain of loss, and it was only fitting that the mourning would comfort each other.

    The storm front arrived to town as expected. Battering rains bombarded the town almost instantly, as did blasting winds that blew away anything in its path. Little of the sun's comforting light breached the darkened pitch clouds. And the storm spared no mercy on the town and on the mourners. The sea swayed furiously with violent fervor. The mighty masts of the pier groaned as perpetual walls of water slapped themselves onto the pier. And the air shattered as white arcs streaked across the dim lit sky.

    The sea, too, mourned her loss. And her haunting wails would continue without end.

     

    It has been three days since the storm hit town, and only on this somber morning did the storm take leave. But even with the torrents having passed, the sea still showed her grief; the rumble of distant thunder still resounded through the cove. With the seas looking more calm and promising, the sailors decided it was high time to leave port. For three wet, miserable days they remained cabined up, hoping for the weather to ease. Yet the storm lingered unusually longer, and the downpour was harder than anyone in the cove had ever witnessed. The leaky shanty houses could only hold back so much water. The damage done to both homes and boats was great - and in some cases distrurbing. Smaller boats were found having sunken or missing altogether. Some of the flimsy houses, too, have been damaged or torn apart by the gail winds - leaving behind either an unlivable home or a rubble pile of what used to be a home.

    The chapel and lighthouse were the only buildings completely unscathed; being of hard laid stone and mortar that made the structures indomitable. Yet despite the monsoon hurricane storm's power, there were no fatalities. Just a bunch of folks who were either injured or wounded, or those without a home. The pier was still majorly intact, though the boardwalk recieved tons of damage. Dangerous holes littered the place, some large enough to swallow whole pokémon if not careful. Yet despite this, the mighty masts of the pier held strong, having easily survived the storm.

    Jakey once again stood at his place on the pier's edge. Having not seen the water since the storm's coming, he came to view the now settling waves of the sea. He stared with empty eyes at the rolling waters. And only the distant rumble of thunder occasionally broke his silence.

    "Hey Jakey!" called his brother. "What're you doing here? Mom has been worried- Waaaahh!!!!" Jim shrieked. 

    Only when Jakey heard his brother splash did he break from his limbo... temporarily. Jim bobbed up to the water's surface. Though it was a harmless fall, he realized he'd better watch his step next time. He then swam toward the lower piers, where he lifted himself out of the water. He shook his drenched fur dry, water flying right off of his water repellent fur, and rushed over to see to his melancholic brother.

    *Huff* "These holes sure are everywhere!" Jim tried to catch his breath. "Why are you out here all alone, Jakey? Mom has been worried sick not after not finding you at home."

    "I just want to be left alone!" Jake replied harshly.

    "Come on, Jake. You've locked yourself in your room throughout all the storm! Can't we just talk this-"

    "I don't wanna talk!" Jake snapped, turning to glare at his brother. "Leave me alone!"

    "Jake, don't be like that!" Jim tried to calm. "There no reason for you to-"

    As Jim tried to get closer Jake squirted him with a small Water Gun. Jim was knocked back a bit after getting hit in the face, but he quickly gained his composure.

    "Hey! I'm only trying to help you, Jake!" he yelled back.

    "Go away!" screamed Jake, tears welling up in his eyes.

    He responded with more squirts of water, all of them which Jim dodged. Jim moved in quick succession to dodge the small jets, getting closer and closer to his brother.

    "Why are you angry, Jake!?!" Jim shouted. "Dad wouldn't like this! Dad wouldn't want us to be fighting!"

    "Yeah?! Well Dad is gone!!!"

    The dam of tears soon broke into sobs. He let loose all the sadness that had been welling up over time. His resentment toward his father for leaving him - for not keeping the promise he had vowed to complete. All Jim could do was give him a hug.

    "He promised me, Jim! He promised!" Jake blubbered. "He said he'd come back! He said he'd see me again!"

    "He said he'd see 'us' again, Jake," Jim stated. "He promised 'us' he'd be back."

    Jakey looked up to his brother's eyes, and was utterly stunned by his brother's face. Jake let go of his brother and looked over the pier at the waters reflection. Jim's face was an exact replica of his own. The creases around his face, the redness of his eyes, the tear streaks that ran down his cheeks. Jakey felt his cheeks burn red. Shame and embarrassment gripped him at realizing how selfish he had been.

    "Big brother. I... I'm sorry..." Jimmy grinned happily as he hugged Jake close to him.

    "I miss him too, Little Brother," he replied somberly. "I miss him too." Jim could not fault his brother for the way he acted. The pain was simply too great for one little Polka Dot Pokémon to handle.

    "You know, we made a promise to him too that day," Jimmy recalled. "I promised him that I'd take good care of you and Mom. And he wanted us to take good care of each other. Dad may be gone..." Jim choked a little at that. "But... But I don't think he's left us completely. I think Dad is still watching us, from somewhere far away. And he wants us to make him proud."

    Jake was eased with these sobering words. He knew well what his father would want of him, too. Yet all he had done was build hatred for his father - for a situation Jake knew that Maxwell just couldn't control.

    Maxwell had gone down with the S.S. Farstrider in a last ditch effort to save the lives of his crew. His father knew the situation was hopeless - and that everyone would meet their end by the Bracken Sea Monster. His final order was for his crew to abandon ship, to swim away for their lives while he'd stay behind and distract the beast. He gave his surviving crew the chance to see their families once more--even though he'd lose seeing his own. Maxwell knew that this may happen to him. To be of the unfortunate many to have sailed their last out to sea. This sad fact of sea life is the reason why he has been inspiring his children to grow strength of heart, so that they may become the fetching and daring young lads he had always wished them to be. So that when he can no longer accompany them, they will be ready to set sail and follow their own course.

    Wherever that may be.

    "I know, Big brother." A small grin grew on the little pokémon's face.

     

    James... Jacob... Forgive me... Do not cry, my lads... Your father is always with you...

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