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  1. Thirteen: The Weight of the World


        (I was directed to the grand temple, where I marvelled the most out of all buildings in this one massive estate. Where I was brought was before the High Priestess of the sanctuary. I felt no fear, seeing this cat stand in front of me. She knelt to me. She was so beautiful, looking like a snow leopard, but having emerald eyes.
    (She asked me, “What is your name?”
    (I hesitated. I didn’t trust her. She was someone who meant no harm, but she was still a stranger. I lied, “I… I have no name…”)
    (Her eyes did not waver. However, her subordinate, a golden leopard, showed concern, which this cat dismissed. The cat asked, “Did your name die with your family?”
    (I did have a given name, but I had no knowledge of my surname, and I refused to adopt my step-father’s family name. I looked away. She might have been right to think that who I was, died with my mother and step-father. I changed the subject, stammering, “M-my s-step-father… t-told me t-come here… As if h-he was here, t-too. H-his name was… C-Clement…”
    (There was silence again, which I welcomed. I tensed when the cat placed a hand upon me. She said, “His death was not your fault.” I swiftly turned around. I could not let her see me cry as I’d done numerous times over that one day. This had all happened so fast. What I wished was that I did not attempt for so long to drive him away. The cat said, “I know it is hard, but dare are others who share your suffering, who can help you through.” I then heard her tell the leopard, “Show her to de cubs’ quarters.”
    (The leopardess objected, “But High Priestess”-
    (The cat interrupted, “Please. I wish to not turn away a cub, regardless of genus.” No wolves in this orphanage? Only felines?
    (I was led by that leopardess, who was clad in an earth-green dress with golden bands and a crest that I couldn’t make out, along a sandy field, to a mosaic stone path that we took, and I found patches of grass along with small plants. I saw a few felines playing, but quickly turned my gaze ahead, not wanting to make eye contact with them. I could hear them following, aware of a newcomer being brought to one of their long wooden constructs.
    (The inside was filled with cots in simple metal frames. Many other felines rushed inside, and I suddenly became nervous from being around about as many cubs in the entire school where I attended. The leopardess waited until possibly every cub gathered in, which was half of an hour later. My feet were sore now from all that walking and standing. The leopardess announced, “We have a new resident. Please, make her feel welcome. Let her feel like she belongs.”
    (The leopardess ruffled my crown of fur before heading out of the construct. I still stood at the doorway, hesitant. All these felines from the large to the small. I had never felt so out of place. After the long hesitation, one of the felines spoke, “We still have empty beds. Pick any of them.” So, I did. I went along the space separating the two rows of cots until I found one with a nightstand that had no personal decorations. Fair place to start my life at this new place.)
    ----- 

        “I’ve done it”, I say on the telephone of the house where I have rented a bedroom. I have not slept since the execution of the sadist, and I am eager to get the news out.
    “Done whot?” Jack asks, irritable that I have clearly woken him.
    “Diefenbach will not bother you or your men again”, I specify. “I believe that Giffard and Lieven have found him as literally half the dog he used t-be.”
    Jack barks, “Diefenbach? Dead? And both Giffard and Lieven were at the asylum?” He continues, “You continue to impress me, Death.” He chuckles. “Ta think yeh’d be mad yerself.”
    I respond, “I just wanted to tell you before anyone else does. I knew you would be jovial.”
    “Aye”, Jack says. “I am also joyous that we got ter ‘elp each other. Don’ tell me mercenaries, but yeh’ve done a better job than they ‘ave.” He continues on a different subject. “Whilst I am still on, take a note.” I hastily take a quill, ink, and a sheet. Jack explains, “When you are in Subroot, go to a brick flat. It has two metal chimneys. There, you will find a medical doctor named Cecilia Lagorio. She will give you more detail about your target lingering there. Whether you earn the full rewards from police for the bounty hunts on ‘is men is not me business.”
    “Cheers, Jack”, I say. I could ask how he knows I’ve been fulfilling bounty hunts, but I see no time. “Yeh’re a good man fer a gangster.”
    “So I’ve bin told”, he jests. He continues seriously, “I need t-sleep. Happy ‘untin’.”
    We bid goodbye before I hang up. He is right. It is late. And I also need my sleep.
    ----- 

        “Frances Derrickson. Mink. Brothel owner. One woman to whose purse Giffard has appealed. She bought from Jade Crown in her first few years working with Giffard before she started buying directly from another dealer in Manusdale where her brothel is. Though less potent than that distributed by the Lowell House, it can still make her slaves tame. My informants have told me that she has begun breeding her slaves, using prostitutes that become worthless to be made little workers for other gangs. If not, those young potential slaves will be made game for the poor. If you intend to burn her brothel down, I recommend wine, if not oil.”
    That is what Jack has written about my next target. I have a promise to fulfil. I will not go back on it. Early in the day, I sit on the roof of the house where I have rented the bedroom, wearing my blue suit, but not my mask or my eyepatch. My friend perches next to me, looking intently at me, as I take in the look of this borough. This house is one of the few to have two floors. Many townhouses here are flats.  I see a factory in the distance, the chimneys already creating a cloud of smoke. The sky is still cloudy, but the rising sun shines. The atmosphere smells of coals and the factory smoke, just overpowering the stench of rotting waste.
    Keeping my eyes on the sunrise, I say, “I try… I try so hard to ‘elp others… I can protect only myself, but I wish t-protect others from whot could have been my life.” My friend, understanding that, caws once. I look to him in response. Michi has been as close to me as I have been to the High Priestess, her daughter, and Themba. I continue, “You ‘ave led me to oll places I had to go to. You know me so well. You must think something about me.” Michi only cocks his head like a clock’s hand, left and right. I sigh, looking to the sunrise again. A new day is upon me. Another day to fulfil bounty hunts. I need that money.

    By lunchtime, I have the information on two wanted criminals staying in the borough. The first one that I see to, is a drug-dealing ferret. In apprehending him, I enable a courtesan to rip him off as I bring him to the station house starkers. The second that I apprehend is a cat, telling me to not let prejudice interfere. This cat has been wanted for a long list of assaults, and victims as well as witnesses willing to testify at his trial. This cat does not go down easily. I have to draw my Khopeshes for him.
    He does not only rely on his nature, but makes him seem to improve, for he has fashioned himself a glove with hooks on the fingers. He pounces me the second time, having donned his glove. This time, I parry with my Khopesh. The number of blades matters not in a fight. However, I have no time to finish my counter, for he pounces backwards, and then springs back to me. The cat swipes at me again, but I repeat the cycle of the parry, only to not finish it. I cannot end this fight holding back.
    I have a chance. Remember your training. I let him leap at me, and make him miss, awaiting an opening. Upon the next pounce, I seize that moment. I swing both Khopeshes, but not with the inner arcs. The other side of each is blunt enough to knock the wind out of him. I kick him before I loom over him with my right Khopesh to his throat, and growl, “Yield.” Without waiting for an answer, I take the glove off of him, and then use the hilt of my left Khopesh to bludgeon his head, knocking him out.

    There is a problem that has been with me for the day. I have been feeling warmer than I should have been, especially on this spring day. It seems to not leave me even at the start of the evening. Peculiarly, I feel no inner chills. That rules out the fever from heat or coldness taking its toll. There is only one other thing that could be.
    Whilst I am in Manusdale, I know one place that I go to, and I can find it without Michi’s guidance. I have let him have the evening off. The Bartlett Marketplace is an open place, but thanks to the industrial workplaces, the booths have metal roofs and podia. The lustre and the rust on the metal of the booths seem to be how they are told apart for those who cannot read.
    The people shopping or socialising make no big crowd, and I need not look at them, to be aware of their surprise of the vigilante shopping. I look carefully at each podium of the booths, and I find the meat and fish merchants just closing for the night, having earned their wages and having their own dinner to think about. I also seek someone that could be the dealer to see. The dealers that I have already passed are rabbits, squirrels, and foxes.
    After scanning the two pairs of rows, I realise who I need to see. I turn a heel on the stone ground and stride to a fruit stand watched by an otter, dressed like an aristo, wearing a green suit, white shirt, red tie, and a top hat with a metal band. I comment, “Dressed like that, you attract too much attention.”
    “Says the lady wearing a mask”, the otter retorts. I’ll give her that. I have to smirk, for it is her voice that has informed me that the otter is female.
    I clarify, “I address your ability to afford such an attire, for a merchant.” I lean in closer, to better align my gaze with hers.
    “I am not one to sell myself”, she growls.
    “I would not question such”, I assure. “I only came ‘ere fer merchandise o’ yers.”
    The otter comments, “Go ahead.”
    I get as close I can, kneeling to the counter, and I specify in a low tone, “I seek something in particular: spiced pears, the MacNiadh brand.”
    The otter grins before she says, “Yeh cannot be the kind to utilise such a tool… But I am glad t-sell.” She then gets down, only her head visible, and then shuffles for something. With a cranking device, she brings up a tray of pear-like devices, and then hops back up to her stand. She asks, “How many would y-like?”
    As lowly, I answer, “I hope to buy six of them. I ‘ave six hundred fifty pounds fresh off of bounty hunts.”
    The otter raises a finger, chuckling, and says, “Now I know: Jack ‘as told me of ‘is friend the vigilante.” She continues in an informative tone, “Normally I would charge an ‘undred five pounds each, for they are not so cheap t-make.”
    I present the thick wad on the counter, and tell her, “You drive an ‘ard bargain.”
    She gives me six of the bombs, one of which I examine as the otter comments, “Thanks t-you an’ the bounty ‘unts, I kin eat meat tonight. And Jack will be thrilled that you like ‘is pears.” For the shape, the bomb seems large for a pear. I can confirm that they are like the incendiaries that I have utilised, for I remember the components that can be seen.
    I add, “An’ that I put them to good use.”
    ----- 

        (My first few nights of sleeping in the dormitory of this orphanage were hard. The cot was much more comfortable than the bed that I had to lay in back in Tolden, but the fact remained that I would never see my mother or step-father again. Even though I could sleep well when giving in to it, I dwelt on my regret of never giving Clement the respect that a father deserved. I had known all along that he was not my real father, but he wanted to be the father that this cub deserved. He wanted to be close to me, for a family is all that we have that can stay with us. And I had taken him for granted all these years. I could only wish that I never ignored him or insulted him.
    (Whatever school this orphanage had, it was nothing like the school that I went to. The similarity was that I could not connect to these cubs. I stood out among felines. In addition to the rectangular muzzle, I was much taller than the kittens. All these cubs had long stares toward me, but had no malicious intent. There were no lies built upon assumptions about my parents. They had no ill will toward me. Unfortunately, it felt too good to be true; a dream that taunted me about what I wished my life was like.
    (Every teacher was understanding, but they were worried about me, just like all the other cubs were. Over those first few days, attending classes, the teachers would ask to talk to me after dismissal. They would want to know what was wrong, but I wanted to not say. The other orphans knew the truth, and expressed their worry to the teachers. They would hear me cry at night, and they would see me at the front gate after classes, but I never had any intention to escape. Where would I go now that I lost the only family I knew?)

    (After a week of living in the orphanage, I began reading my mother’s book, the first page having a warning that everything written was true. Of course, I ignored that and went on. I read all about my mother’s family history, who my grandparents were, and how my grandmother, and then my mother being enslaved to a clan. The heart of that clan was a she-wolf: Lady Rodica Campana.
    (Just the first few pages of reading and I was filled with so much rage that I screamed and threw the book. It was so disturbing to the other cubs that many of them looked at me with that seemingly perpetual worry. I realised what I did, and I felt like crying, feeling bad about lashing for no reason. I walked up to the opposite side, to pick up the book, and I told the golden leopard at that bed, “Sorry.”
    (It was to avoid making such a scene again, I chose not to read on. Even still, I wanted to believe that my mother’s story was just that. I had trouble sleeping yet again, and I could only hope to have no nightmare about what my mother went through. I was thankful to have no nightmare already, but I was afraid that the same wolf would see me again.)
    ----- 

        Oh, how I hate doing this. I am already at the brothel owned by Frances Derrickson. I have located it thanks to my raven friend, who I told to seek the crest with which I have familiarised. A day has gone by since I have obtained Jack’s spiced pears. Because I could only stay awake, I hunted and killed lurking criminals, looting them, as well. Sleep was hard to come by. The first sign was being warmer than normal. Then, there came the tightness in the sensitive area. I cannot deny it: I am in heat.
    So, I am at the brothel with the crest from the Lowell House: The Ark’s Remains. The name is painted on a gold-tinted plaque accented by the wood, painted red, making up the outer walls. I enter it, seeing it bustling with clientele for drinks, meals, and flirting with scantily-clad females that wanted to be anywhere else. No enemy of mine should know by now who the vigilante is, seeing a black she-wolf in a grey pinstripe suit and having an eyepatch over the right eye.
    I sit at the bar, which has a polished counter and is tended by three rabbits that look the same for their grey pelts, but I look at each of them, seeing flecks of black on their faces. Only their patterns can tell them apart. In looking around further, I see a litter of rats backed into a corner, having been bound by a single ankle to a pole. No doubt they beg for food. Any of us can eat anything. Those rats could only be four or five years old.
    One of the grey rabbits comes to me, asking, “Whot service can I provide you?” She sounds both bored and weary.
    I ask back, “Are any courtesans ‘ere cats?” The rabbit points and I look right. There are three cats, also bound by one leg to a pole. A stoat in a business dress stands by idly. I then ask, “Which one is the youngest?”
    The rabbit answers, “June. The calico. She’s nineteen.” The calico, wearing a very revealing dress, seems primarily white, with splotches of black and brown on one shoulder, her midsection, her legs, and on the left side of her face.
    I ask, “How much d-you charge fer a session?”
    “A hundred quid each.”
    I head to the first man that I see, a light-grey cat with a white chin, in the middle the of tables, and he has his eyes on the cats as well. I ask him, “How would y-like t-share a session with one o’ them?”
    He comments, “You love cats.” I do not answer, but he smiles. “Y-might need t-pay me, too.” I scowl, making him laugh.
    Before he speaks again, I say, “I will cover your fee along with mine.”
    The light-grey cat raises a hand and objects, “Nay, I couldn’ make you do that.” He stands up and he follows me to the trio.
    I tell the calico, “I will ‘ave you.”
    The stoat unlocks the cuff on her ankle, and the cat escorts me and the male after we pay the fee to the stoat.

    The block of apartments seems to have twice the area of the dining chamber. Where the calico named June leads me and the light-grey stranger is in one hall and to the end of it, apparently favouring a corner apartment. The door of it is not locked. She leads us inside, the walls being covered with checker-pattern wallpaper, the space being occupied by four dressers of the same size and same pattern as each other, and a wide four-poster covered by a golden-orange spread and several sweat-stained pillows.
    The cat asks, “Who will lead this session?”
    “Me”, I answer.
    The light-grey cat comments wryly, “Someone knows whot she wants.”
    I look to him with a scowl, to say, “You already paid. No turning back. For this, I want both a woman and a man.”
    The light-grey cat infers, “Of course, your lust.” I assume that he knows why I have approached a stranger and hired a courtesan.

    We are all quick to undress, the light-grey cat being the most eager. He is naked before I have my slacks off. The calico is slow to join. I can see that she is not up to this, but I hope that she can see it through. The light-grey cat has already been idle on the bed for a few minutes before I am naked. He expresses his eagerness further by aggressively signing for the calico to approach.
    With all three of us on the bed, the light-grey cat asks, “Know you whot you want?”
    I tell both cats, “To be sandwiched between you two.”
    I get June behind me, and I guide her hands to my midsection, but I keep the light-grey cat nudged away, for I want June to enjoy the feel of a wolf’s fur. I feel her shudder, probably from my lifting tail tickling her sensitive area. She massages my midsection with her arms wrapped around me. The light-grey cat realises how much seeing two women engage arouses him, and I see him cup his own bollocks, the barbed head of his bobber slipping out of its sheath. Dark-grey like his nose. The calico moans contently as she begins caressing my hips, and I can see the light-grey cat salivating.
    The teasing is to end quickly; I sign him to approach, which he gladly does, but I stop him. I nuzzle into his neck, and the surge of warmth drives him to purr. I have my arms around him as I lick his fur, and he slowly lowers his hands from my shoulders to my breasts, which he cups and teases, down to the hardened nipples, which he finds on the first try. Meanwhile, June, pressing against my back, caresses my buttocks and legs, to my joy. She begins licking as far as she can reach to my neck, while the light-grey cat begins grinding against my vulva.
    The light-grey cat nudges me to lay down, much to the calico’s disappointment. I let him lick my cunt as the calico aligns with me, so she can kiss me. For someone not feeling up to it, something must have driven her. I return the kiss, and she moans from it. I moan as well from my cunt moistening from the stranger’s rough tongue. I can feel the arousal growing, and I can feel myself explode. Even from that, the stranger keeps on licking, moaning from the smell and taste of my juice.
    There is a short break as I give back. I suck on the stranger’s bobber, making him moan in ecstasy, and I keep going until I can feel his juice in my mouth, which I swallow and lap up until only my saliva is on him. I then have my turn massaging the calico. She is in pure bliss from my warm hands over her shoulders and then on her breasts. I can just tell that the stranger wants to be aroused again, for he watches with expectations.
    He will be thankful for it. I massage his maleness again, getting it aroused, and then I lap on it, letting it engorge more and more. I grind upon him, making the bed creak. Before long, I can feel him harden. I feel before I get his bobber inside me, and then push with all my might. The bedframe creaks with each thrust to get the stranger inside me. While making that happen, I signal the calico over, to squat over the light-grey cat’s muzzle. Relying on no hands to thrust him inside me, I cup her breasts and kiss her. We exchange kisses again as I grind the meat inside me, getting it in as far as it can. Meanwhile, the light-grey cat laps his tongue on the calico’s cunt.
    I begin rushing it, for I remind myself to not hold back. I let my juices go. In only seconds, the stranger stops his lapping and shouts, “I’m about to”- I pull away from him right away, getting him right out of me. Then, he shoots streams of his seed.
    We all pant from the ordeal having taken its toll, and I state, “I had t-do that… I could not take chances…” I at least spent the hormones. I lay down, taking the cats in my arms, letting them rest their heads on my shoulders. All three of us nod off.

    When I wake up, it is the calico that I look to. I examine her body, which is rather skinny, but her pelt is soft and neat, telling me that she at least can be clean. I look at her arms, which tell me nothing. I roll her over slightly, and there is what I seek: the house crest, burnt into her shoulder. She probably knows that fleeing will get her in trouble. However, that did not stop me from enabling the sex slaves in Sputure to escape their place of oppression.
    She moans and slowly opens her eyes, stretching. I wish that I could tell her how I intend to enable a coup, but where will that get me? Holly could have died for keeping the extra money that I gave her. These young courtesans could die or be transported to another oppressor before I could ignite the place.
    “Something bothers yeh”, a voice from my left speaks. I look, to see that the light-grey cat is still there, and that I am not fooled by the weight.
    I tell him lowly, “You would not understand.”
    The stranger sits up, telling me, “You empathise with whores. I kin see that.” Why would I not? He continues, “Everything is better than living in a whorehouse, but poverty leads to desperation.” He knows nothing. “I know the meaning of that mark. Be careful who you ‘elp, Lass.” The light-grey cat then stands up from the bed, to retrieve his crumpled work clothes and don them.
    I focus on the calico again, who has listened to the stranger. She takes in my gaze of worry. She asks, “Whot’s wrong, Ma’am?”
    I sigh. “I just feel sad fer those forced into servitude.”
    Knowing that I’ve seen the crest on her, her jade eyes get glassy. She knows more than she leads on, but she could find it too painful to speak of or could be forbidden to say why she’s here. Both cases being the reason is another probability.
    I lick her nose and slowly sit up, realising how painful it is to end the embrace. I locate the bathhouse myself, wandering the halls naked, and then retrieve my clothes from the apartment. However, when exiting, I flirt with the weasels having the keys to the cuffs binding the cats, rabbits, and rats to the poles. I nick the keys from their pockets, and put each in a different pocket. In exiting the brothel and going for my things, I memorise which position uses which keys.
    ----- 

        (More days followed of everyone trying to get through to me. The cubs, teachers, and the guards would see me have an outburst. I never laid a hand upon another cub, but I still scared them, and being around me became like walking on glass shards. I tried reading more pages of my mother’s book, but I could not do that without howling in rage and throwing the book. All that I wanted was for those words to be bloody lies.
    (In a month of living at the orphanage, I was asked to see the High Priestess in the Grand Temple. It was the first time I took in the mosaic stone floor, the pews, the black walls with stained-glass windows, the golden throne at the altar with bush patterns, and the lioness idol statue. The golden throne was occupied by a cat in a white robe with blue sashes. She looked so radiant despite the dim torchlight. I knew to show respect right there and then. My heart sank as I dropped to my knees and faced the floor.
    (I heard the calm voice speak, “Look up, my child.” I did so tenderly, and I saw the beauty of the cat in the emerald eyes and the silver fur. She stood up and added, “You may stand.” With reluctance caused by fear, I did so slowly. I approached her at the altar, and I saw that she was about as tall as I was at the time. She spoke, “You are troubled by more than the death of your parents.” That fear became sadness. I cried instantly. She quickly put her hand on my shoulder, adding, “You can tell me anything, my child.”
    (I inhaled lowly before I said lowly, “M-my mother… my mother left me… a book… telling me horrible things…”
    (“What tings?” she asked.
    (I hesitated, and spoke, trying to not cry again, “Sh-she… she was… a slave… t-to… to a house… And she was treated horribly!”
    (She just listened to me cry again, and then waited for the right moment between sobs to say, “Dat is what my… organisation fights against.” I give her a puzzled look. She continues, “I know of de crime in Highcond, in dese times. And you are a victim. You told me your step-father’s name, Clement.”
    (“You couldn’t have known him.”
    (She spoke with assurance, “But I did. I remember the names of everyone who has served the organisation, and I was barely of age den. He had worked for my predecessor before I took de mantle. A great agent, never captured.” I could not believe it. The High Priestess added, “I know disbelief when I see it. However, I speak truth. He worked for me for six years before he resigned, saying dat he met someone more important to him.” My mother. “You are not de first orphan to be distraught by such losses. Dat is why de Sanctuary was erected here, over a century ago. Wit time and patience, I assure you, de truth will be believed and you will be strong yourself.” Without a question, I wrapped my arms around the cat, and I could feel at ease from her soft fur.)
    ----- 

        Upon my return to the brothel, now armed with the incendiaries as well as my blades, I think about my plan for the tenth time. I intend to visit the Madame first, and raid the office of the money that the slaves deserve. I find the office at the back of the building. I find that the mink in the ugly bright-pink business suit is not alone, and the face of her company is all too familiar.
    I listen carefully as much as the mask muffles sound. The mink speaks, “…a very important meeting.”
    The badger retorts, “You are in no poseetion to demand such.”
    The mink growls, “You must understand that I need ‘im to answer me.”
    Lieven objects, “Claude steel mourns ‘is brother. ‘Ow tink you, he vould like eef you ignored ‘im over grieving your brother?”
    “He and I have not spoken even when Giffard recruited us both; Joshua means nothing to me.” Cold thing to say. Does Giffard hate his sister? If so, why does he have an incestuous relationship? Frances continues, “Do not change the subject. And whot good have mercenaries done lately? That is why I ‘ave loyal girls. No weasel would betray another weasel.” And yet she hates her brother?
    Lieven growls back, “You need to tink before you vaste my time, Frances. Do vat you vish vit your slaves, but ze next time you call me ‘ad better be on some-ting less petty.” I can hear footsteps, followed by a wooden door opening and closing. I time the badger, estimating how long he would take to get from Frances’s office to the front door.
    After that, I back up. I built momentum by sprinting to the window. I managed to shatter the glass and get through. I quickly leap up, to find the mink still there. She picks up a pistol, but I duck and pick up the largest shards in sight. She fires a bullet—Great. Now everyone has been alerted. I still toss the two shards as the distraction. I grab her right arm. With just a yank, I break it, making her squeal.
    I rely on my stiletto for the death blow. I turn her to face me, so she can see the face of the one to plunge the blade in her throat. I watch the life leave her eyes as she chokes on her own blood.

    So much for surprise. Her loyal weasels, three stoats and three ferrets, all in business dresses, draw their pistols. Instinctively, I toss the body of their late boss as a distraction. So much for waiting to loot the vault as well. I leap toward them head-on, drawing my Khopeshes as I do so. I thrust both blades to the centre pair, one stoat and one ferret.
    With little effort needed, I utilise the blade to force the four arms down, so that their bullets miss. I have to focus on one side first. I pick the left side first. I leap and flip over them, using their bodies as support. Upon landing I thrust my Khopeshes into the stoats, and then kneel, using the bodies as shields from the bullets. I am fortunate this time, their ammunition being made for maximum wound effect. When the ferrets have to reload, I get the blades out and leap toward the last two weasels. I slash across their midsections, resulting in a deep cut in each of them, and they fall aside, coughing blood. I slash their throats, to make sure that they do not get up.
    I rummage through the papers kept in the metal drawers of Frances’s desk, and I obtain the combination to her safe. I get all Frances’s money in an improvised sack from her jacket. I strip her body and toss out the window, saying plainly, “Tameni.”
    Striding, I head out, and find myself at the bar. I tell the first rabbit, which is surprised by my entrance, “If y-want t-leave ‘ere forever, recommend me a potent wine.” She hesitates, of course. So, I repeat, “What potent wines d-you sell?”
    The rabbit answers, “We keep an ‘undred bo’-uls of the same brand, most of it alcohol.”
    “Tell yer partners there to gather oll bottles.” The rabbit does so, telling them that I requested all their wine. Meanwhile, I approach the poles where the young rats are cuffed by the ankle. I take out a tiny key that I can barely hold with a thumb and a single finger. I am right that it opens the cuff on one rat. I move the key to my palm, presenting it. I tell the young rat, “Use this t-free yer siblings. Find yer mother right after and get out of ‘ere.” The young rat complies without hesitation. I rush to the rest of the poles where other young rats and rabbit kittens are cuffed by the ankle. For each of them, I test the keys to free one and give it to that one to free the rest. How Frances intended to sell these youngsters, I want to not know.
    When I am finished, I find the rabbits there, the bar counter occupied by bottles of red wine of the same brand. I dash up. Checking the label is the first instinct, but I force the cork off the bottle that I pick up, and a quick whiff is enough to assure me. Perfect. I tell the rabbits, “I will need yer ‘elp. This wine will not be used fer a banquet.” I throw the same bottle on the floor, catching the attention of the patrons. I speak up, “I will say this only once: if y-want to live, leave. This place will burn. Do not be expendable in the process.”
    One dog in the crowd approaches me. I grab his arms before he can reach for a pistol, and then butt his head. I yank his pistol out from behind his blazer, and then kick him away. Unloading the pistol, I add, “Does anybody else challenge?” Other patrons. I count nine of them standing up, pointing their guns at me. I can use one of Jack’s bombs right now, but that would ruin my plan.
    However, just my luck, the rat pups and rabbit kittens tackle the patrons—dogs and weasels—to the floor, venting their anger and using their energy from being pent-up for so long. The ones not carrying guns run for the front door. Turning back to the barwomen, I speak, “I will need yer ‘elp fer this part. Oll wine—pour it oll over the floor. Leave no floorboard untouched with this wine.”
    “Even the bathhouse?” the same rabbit I have ordered asks.
    “Yes”, I answer bluntly. “No part of this place deserves to be undamaged.”
    The first part of the brothel where I pour the wine is in Frances’s office. I open every door to the apartments where the courtesans lived, ordering their patrons to leave the place naked. More bastards to be humiliated in the process of my quest to destroy Giffard’s clan. The ladies quickly dress and take their patrons’ clothes, money, and weapons with them. It still takes at least an hour, coating the entire wide single-floor construct in wine. The bathhouse is the first place I toss an incendiary, and it causes a roaring fire the second it impacts. I expect its wooden walls to give way. I toss another incendiary in the hall, igniting the trails of wine. I get the rabbits to leave, to give the courtesans waiting, the money that I have taken from Frances’s vault. I toss a third incendiary and the entire dining room is set ablaze. That is not all; I have gathered pages from the office, and I toss them into the dining room, in hopes of helping the process along. Even when the entire brothel has been evacuated, I watch the blaze claim the entire building. The fire safety crew will be too bloody late to do anything about the damage. I see the fire and smoke get through all the windows and doorway, building up to a cloud. As I make sure of the damage, I listen for the wood giving way. In a minute, the first fragile support budges and I hear wood fall. The fire that has engulfed the entire construct is doing its job; it causes more support to break, making more panels fall to the floor. That fire spreads to the fallen planks.
    I look to the side, sensing that someone is waiting for me. I hear a voice that I recognise call to me, “Look out!” I swiftly turn around, to find the familiar scarred badger lunging toward me. I lunge aside—
    Only to be scratched at that side, a slit having opened in my coat. I quickly draw my Khopeshes, but I have not enough time to prepare a stance, for he swings his claws at me. I just barely parry the attack, hearing metal hit metal from that… No time to think about that, either. I kick him away, only for him to grab my leg, and he pulls me down. Upon stamping my midsection, he stands over my chest. Only at that moment, I can see that his claws are not natural! He plunges his left hand toward my neck, but I manage to scratch his side with my right Khopesh, slowing his blow. I utilise the blade’s other side to push his arm aside, to swipe at him again. Now, I can get up. I thrust my left Khopesh to his leg, only for him to back up. With the same blade, I swipe upwards as a feint, which he falls for. I then lunge aside, to kick him against the wall of the burning construct, which breaks. I have no time now; I have overstayed my welcome in Manusdale. So, I sheathe my Khopeshes as I run from the sight of the fire. I need not look back, to have an image of the badger taking off his jacket and hurrying after me.
     

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    Fade in:

    EXT. STONEHENGE - DAWN

    LUPA, 27 years old, normal height, slim, and green-eyed. She attends a memorial service for her mother Luna. with other family members including SURI in her 40s, tall. They are at the Wadi AlMujib Stonehenge

    Lupa frowns gripping hold of her arm. Her eyes, half-closed.

    god

    (O.S.)

    Abaddon has slain another member of the Luna's family with his black mist, a poison of sorts.

    Lupa looks at the other family members.

    god

    (O.S. CONT'D)

    Luna was a loving mother always taking care of her children.

    dissolve to:

    int. Lupa's house - dusk

    Lupa views an old family photo on the wall at her place.

    Lupa slowly takes the photo off the wall and moves it in the corner of the room.

    cut to:

    ext. Yatir Forest - Night

    Lupa travels into the Yatir Forest showing remorse for her mother's loss with teary eyes.

    Lupa lies down on the ground. Suri comes along to remind her about her mission.

    Suri

    (stern voice)

    Get up!

    Lupa gets up from the grass.

    Suri

    (CONT'D)

    You have a mission to complete. More family members will die the longer time passes.

    Suri places her hand over Lupa's shoulder, looking into Lupa's eyes.

    dissolve to:

    ext. dead forest - night (flashback)

    Abaddon wears black leather armor surrounded by black fog with his sword out.

    Abaddon kills innocent people during battle.

    Suri

    (v.o)

    He will not stop until he kills each of us. Your parents prophesied you will be the one to defeat him.

    dissolve to:

    ext. dead SEA SHORE - NIGHT

    Lupa and Suri stand on the sandy shore, covered in dark fog, and the water pitched black.

    Suri

    Help me get the raft sailing.

    LUPA

    Sure.

    Lupa helps Suri flip the wooden raft over and sets it in the water, so they can sail.

    cut to:

    ext. dead sea waters - night

    Lupa and Suri travel into the Dead Sea on the wooden raft. The raft SLAPS the water, the wind ROARS, and the raft CREAKS.

    Suri looks into Lupa's eyes.

    SURI

    Anything living this water touches will dissolve.

    Lupa shakes and grabs hold of the raft.

    LUPA

    I do not want to be a warrior anymore. Violence does not bring peace.

    Suri

    There is no peace when Abaddon is out there murdering innocent lives.

    The raft travels deeper into the thick black mist.

    dissolve to:

    INT. dungeon - NIGHT

    Lupa hallucinates, causing her to remember she is inside a dungeon chained up. ELIZA,average height, is on the stone sacrificial table, unclothed and bruised.

    Abaddon stabs Eliza repetitively in the stomach causing her to scream.

    ABADDON

    Another life shall end tonight. Someone you truly love shall die in agony.

    Lupa wiggles and tries to break free.

    Abaddon

    (cont'd)

    Unless if you are willing to become an escort and sell your body for sex.

    LUPA

    (Yelling)

    I will do as you say, just leave her be!

    Dissolve to:

    Int. BROTHEL dining room - night

    Lupa, wearing a corset, in a dimly lit room.

    Lupa serves a man some wine.

    MAN

    Hey beautiful, wanna get dirty?

    Lupa dizzily collapses.

    cut to:

    int. brothel stage - night

    Lupa passed out on the stage of the brothel. The word slut is written on her stomach. Everyone else appearing dead.

    Lupa wakes up. Looking straight ahead at the dead bodies. she looks down at the writing on her stomach. SIRENS and YELLING from the outside can be heard.

    Police

    (O.S.)

    This is the police! Open Up!

    Lupa runs out of the place through the backdoor.

    cut to:

    ext. brothel - night

    Lupa outside of the brothel investigate what has been going on.

    Lupa sprints around the building sneakily looking at the sign that was changed to Lupa's Slut House and the police trying to break in.

    Police

    (O.S.)

    Find Lupa and detain her.

    cut to:

    ext. forest - night

    Twila, the owner of the brothel wearing makeup such as mascara and lipstick in a carriage with her crew.

    Twila drives the horse carriage along a small rocky road into the Gilo Forest.

    Twila laughs

    twila

    We made Lupa appear to be the owner of the brothel, so she will be sent to prison when she wakes up.

    Lupa runs out back into the Gilo Forest to escape persecution.

    dissolve to:

    EXT. Dead Forest - dusk

    Lupa in a hallucination sees her father, Deligares, at the dead Hoia Baciu Forest. Deligares is a tall muscular man with a scar across his right eyelid.

    Deligares

    (yelling)

    How dare you take away our home and kill people for your own devise, Abaddon!

    Deligares throws a rock into the distance.

    Lupa comes forward slowly.

    LUPA

    Father Deligares, what are you doing here?

    Deligares pulls out his purple staff with a crescent top. He slashes Lupa.

    deligares

    You are too damn weak to even pick up your sword. Abaddon will just kill you in an instant.

    dissolve to:

    ext. dead sea - night

    Lupa wakes up from the hallucinations. She is the only one on the raft.

    Lupa crawls around the raft.

    Lupa

    Suri? Where are you? Suri! Please! For the love of God, don't leave me here all by myself.

    cut to:

    ext. dead sea island - night

    The raft travels to an island in the dead sea, having a tree with a skeleton chained up, a tan shed, and the sand with an orange tint.

    Lupa walks over to the door. She tries turning the doorknob, only to find its been locked.

    Lupa then walks over to the skeleton chained to the tree, holding in its hand a scroll.

    Lupa suddenly picks up the scroll.

    LUPA

    I traveled far into the sea by myself, wondering if I would ever find peace. Mist surrounds as I travel deeper into the waters, feeling deceased. I woke up only to find chained to the tree; fear has taken me. Questioning if I will ever find my answer while stranded in the dead sea.

    To be continued...

    Fade out:

    Abaddon's Black Mist (revision (c) Lupaspirit.pdf

  2. Shagoli
    Latest Entry

    “Lights on,” the archivist mumbles, and without a second thought, Yangsto obeys and drearily flashes a light in the speaker’s direction. The archivist’s thanks -- if it can even be called that -- are but a mere grunt of acknowledgement. Timidly and discreetly, Yangsto attempts to return to his book, but the archivist grunts again, grabbing Yangsto’s face and turning his head back to attention. Yangsto can only manage a sigh.

    It isn’t long before the archivist demands the lights again, but this time, there is no answer. Flicking the lights off, Yangsto disappears into the woods. Lost physically but not emotionally, his lights are next seen far, far away, a gentle glow to illuminate a park ranger’s restoration work on a snow-lion statue. Yangsto can only manage a sigh.

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    Emily Aurelius let out a long breath as she set foot on Dromia VI for the first time.  

    She was a golden jackal of fairly average height, with a slender build, dark hazel eyes, golden-brown fur ticked with darker brown along her back and brushy tail, and large, mobile ears that swiveled about, taking everything around her in.  Shoulder-length dark brown hair fell in loose waves around her narrow-muzzled face, pinned back on one side with a hand-decorated barrette, and a simple, practical coverall in plain dark blue was her only article of clothing, belted at her waist, which nicely emphasized broad hips and modestly-sized breasts.

    Holding her breath as she stepped over the threshold had been completely absurd, but Emily hadn’t been able to help feeling as though somehow something would stop her, somebody would turn up and tell her that she couldn’t be here, she had to go back to Mars, back to the Terran Federation, back to her real home.  Surely there was no way she could be allowed to actually escape.  Yet here she was, just outside the long tunnel of the disembarking tube from the shuttle that had brought her here, and a tension she hadn’t fully realized she’d been carrying went out of her.

    She stepped aside from the flow of people of assorted species, towing her massive suitcase behind her, and paused to just soak in the sudden sense of relief that washed over her.  What was beneath her bare paws—bare because bare feet were acceptable among morphs, and every penny not spent on shoes could go towards her escape—was only worn shuttleport carpet in a rather unattractive pattern, but it still felt amazing.  She could feel the way the gravity was a little bit stronger than back home, and the smell of the air was different too, even here inside where everything was no doubt filtered and air-conditioned.  She really was on an alien world, an Alliance world, a world where humanity didn’t rule.

    The shuttle had smelled different too, of course, and the big interstellar liner that had carried her from the Sol system to the Dromia system, yet this air still seemed amazing, the scent of somewhere truly *other*. Suddenly eager to get outside, Emily grabbed her suitcase and hurried down the shuttleport hall.

    Other passengers moved around her, mostly morphs, the sentient and largely humanoid animal people that made up much of the Alliance of Sentients.  There were humans too, though, and she even saw one Threoa, a vaguely feline alien from far outside of the sphere of human influence.  It was strolling beside a feral wolf morph, the two quadrupeds in easy companionship, but a human walked on the alien’s other side, and was obviously part of their conversation as well, which made Emily blink in surprise.  Back on Mars humans, morphs and aliens tended to keep to themselves.  Seeing that trio felt strange, almost uncomfortable.

    Emily frowned at that feeling.  She’d come here in part to escape the oppressive sense of propriety that suffused Federation culture, especially Solarian culture.  Why should seeing exactly what she’d hoped to find here feel wrong?  She found herself glancing around, to see if anybody else was staring, and it was even stranger to find nobody was.  Nobody was going to jump in and tell the three to keep to themselves.  Of course probably nobody back home would have either, people would have just stared, and gossiped later.  

    Realizing that she herself was staring, Emily looked away from the trio and walked a little faster.  Ahead a pair of doors stood open, the passengers from the shuttle streaming through them, into the alien day beyond.

    Outside she paused again, looking around at her new world.  It was very green, that was the first thing she noticed.  The plants here used chlorophyll just like on Earth, and like the largely Earth-native plants of Mars, so they were green in the same way, though there were reds and purples mixed in too that were less common back home.

    No, that was no longer home.  Time to stop thinking of it that way.  This was home now.

    But though the green itself wasn’t really different, the amount of it was.  The shuttleport she’d left from had been a thing of concrete and metal, all spare practicality, humming with ground cars and aircars and paved almost everywhere.  A paved road swooped in front of the shuttleport here, swarmed with vehicles, both ground and air, picking up and dropping off, but it threaded through a sea of green.  The whole front of the shuttleport seemed to be a garden, crammed with plants.  Where was the parking lot?  Surely there must be one!  Yet there was no sign of the broad expanses of pavement and vehicles she’d expected, there was just green and green and green.  That was at least half of the alien scent that filled her nostrils as she inhaled again, the scent of green and growing things.

    "Emily?"

    Emily turned and saw a familiar person striding towards her, and she broke into a grin.  "Yin!"

    Yin was a wolf morph, a good head taller than Emily and at least half again as broad.  She was built like a weight lifter, dressed in nothing more than a tank top and torn jean shorts, with heavy black boots covering her feet.  Her fur was gray, streaked with darker markings and touched with white at her muzzle and along her belly, while her hair was jet black, with a few threads of silver through it.

    As she approached she opened her arms, and Emily couldn’t keep from flinging herself into that embrace.  They’d only met in person once, but they talked for hours and hours whenever Yin was in the Sol system, so Yin seemed familiar all the same, especially in a place where Emily didn’t know a single other soul.

    Yin gave her a tight hug, nearly lifting her off her feet, then stepped back.  "It’s good to see you again, finally.  Got any more luggage?"

    Emily shook her head.  "Just this."

    "I’ve got an aircar.  The place I found for you is out in the country, so I thought we’d make a quick hop of it.  I can take you around by ground car or on foot to play tourist once you’ve settled in and gotten some rest."

    "That sounds good."  Emily had been several weeks on the ship over, living in a cramped shared bunkroom, so rest in an actual groundside apartment was definitely appealing.

    "Come on, then."  Yin set off along the sidewalk and Emily trotted after, feeling the warm pavement under her paws.  They walked along a path that wound amid trees and shrubs and flowers until it came to a tiny little building.  Emily recognized it and smiled, realizing where the vehicles must be.  It was an elevator.  Sure enough, once they’d descended they came out into a parking garage, smelling faintly of machine oil and ozone, and crowded with groundcars and aircars alike.

        Yin took Emily’s suitcase and loaded it into the back of a bright red aircar with absurdly tiny little wings.  It "flew" with countergrav, of course, the wings were actually for steering, not lift.

    Emily climbed into the passenger seat, looking around for the seatbelt.  Yin, climbing into the driver’s seat beside her, said, "It’s got a safe field.  No belt."

    "Oh.  But what if that fails?"

    "It’s triple redundant and independently powered.  It won’t!  Also I’m a licensed military pilot, I know what I’m doing in the air.  I could fly the shuttle you came in on, I can certainly fly this little thing.  We won’t crash."

    "Oh."  Not entirely sure she felt reassured, Emily sat back in the seat as Yin expertly maneuvered the little vehicle through the parking garage and out into the air beyond.  It sailed along sedately, gradually rising above the sea of green.  As Emily got a better view, she saw the shuttleport itself, with its big, paved landing pads covered in obscure markings, the whole thing surrounded by greenery.  It seemed to go on forever, as if the shuttleport were in the middle of a forest, but slowly Emily started to notice the buildings peeking up amid the green.  As the aircar curved around she saw that in one direction the buildings grew thicker and thicker until there was actually a city and not a forest.  In every other direction, though, everything was green.

    "Is the whole planet a garden?" she said, taking in the view.

    Yin laughed.  "No!  But it’s something of a tradition here to plant trees whenever anything new gets built, and to build underground as much as is practical.  In fact I’m pretty sure it’s a zoning law that outside of urban areas there are strict limits on how much you can put above ground.  So everything just ends up looking like gardens.  We’re headed away from the city, so we’ll go over some agricultural land, and some of the native forest shortly, once I get out of restricted airspace and can open this little thing up."  Yin patted the steering yoke fondly.

    That sounded ominous to Emily.  She gripped the door’s handle just a bit harder, then yelped as Yin suddenly sent the aircar rocketing forward at what felt like a ridiculous speed.  "There we go!" said Yin, grinning, her ears pricked forward, hands confidently gripping the steering yoke.  The green was now a blur whipping by beneath them, though they were still climbing, and as they got higher and higher it became both less alarming, and easier to see the countryside below.

    It *was* countryside now, with broad green fields intermixed with patches of wilder green, and very occasionally dotted with buildings.  This all had been settled for hundreds of years, of course, but it was newly settled still compared to anywhere on Earth or even on Mars, where humanity had been living since the days when humanity had thought themselves alone in the universe.

    "So I’ve ironed out my schedule since we last spoke," said Yin, glancing over at Emily, "And I’ve got just over six months to hang around and help you get settled in before TEA and I jet off again."  Emily nodded.  Yin wasn’t a native of Dromia VI, she was from one of the other Alliance planets, and did a lot of traveling.  Which was how they’d become friends, since Emily had never left Mars before this trip.  They’d chatted in real time frequently whenever Yin had been in the Sol system, and they’d also sent letters in between.  They were close friends, though Emily sometimes had a hard time imagining why.  Yin was older, more outgoing, braver, and seemed utterly comfortable in her own skin, something Emily had never managed.

    Yin had been in the military in her youth, which Emily couldn’t even imagine doing, and she seemed to travel around space as she pleased now, with her parter, an AI housed in a spaceship called The Easily Amused, or TEA.  Emily had talked to TEA a lot too, but hadn’t clicked with the AI the way she had with her fellow morph.  Exactly what Yin did was a little nebulous to Emily.  She knew Yin sometimes hauled small cargo or did courier work, but Emily was half afraid to ask the details, she had a feeling that some of what Yin did was very illegal, at least by the Federation’s laws.  She was less familiar with the Alliance, something that probably should change soon, since she lived here now.

    "Thank you," she said as the little aircraft began to slow and descend again.  "I’m not sure I’d have been brave enough to move here without knowing there’d be somebody I know waiting."

    "I’m always happy to help a friend," said Yin.  "Part of why I like the traveling life.  I can hop around wherever I’m needed.  I’m also always happy to help somebody escape that cesspit over in the Federation."  There was a low growl in Yin’s voice as she began to circle their destination, a small town that spread out along a riverbank amid a native forest.

    Emily shifted slightly, feeling uncomfortable at both what Yin had said and the tone she’d said it in.  "It’s not all bad there.  Things are improving.  There are five non-human senators on Mars now, you know."

    Yin snorted.  "Oh boy, five whole morphs.  Out of how many?"

    Emily felt her ears flush, and she laid them back in embarrassment.  Yin touched the aircar down on a small landing pad beside a modest three-story building.  Then she reached out and patted Emily’s shoulder.  "Hey, it’s not your fault that the Federation is backwards.  Though now that you’re here in the Alliance, you’ll need to watch that kind of language."

    Emily blinked at Yin.  "Language?"

    "’Non-human.’  It’s considered a bit of a slur here, especially when applied to morphs.  You and I, my friend, are human.  Every bit as much as any furless ape you’ve ever met."

    Emily’s ears flicked in confusion.  "But... You’re a wolf Yadi morph.  I’m a jackal morph.  We’re *not* human."

    "Why not?" Yin grinned cheerfully at Emily.  "Human isn’t the kind of skin you have or even the shape of your body.  Human is a way of thinking.  You have a human mind, so you’re human.  Both legally and culturally speaking, here.  Even and AIs are mostly human here.  Everyone but actual aliens like the Dansk or Threoa are human in the Alliance.  And there’s some talk of expanding the legal definition to include aliens who have demonstrably human ways of thinking like them too."

    Emily found herself blinking again at the thought of declaring a Dansk, a half-ton amphibious arthropod like some bizarre cross between a lobster and a centaur, to be a human being.  "That’s weird."

    "Is it?"  Yin tilted her head, looking over at Emily intently.  "Is it really?  Most morphs were made with human DNA, you know.  Animal bodies with human brains.  For a basic humanoid type like yourself the differences are nearly entirely cosmetic.  A few of us can even interbreed with humans.  That’s part of the definition of a species, is ability to interbreed.  Hell, Yadis are a lot further off from baseline humanity, so it’s very likely that you’re more closely related to what the Federation calls humans than you are to me.  So why should the fur—or the chitin for that matter—make any difference?"

    "I... I don’t know."  Emily looked over at Yin, suddenly aware of how strange Yin really was.  Yadis were a very unique species.  They were fully hermaphroditic, for one thing.  They tended to read as—and live as—females, since the hips needed to bear children and the breasts needed to nurse them were both more immediately obvious than the masculine elements of their anatomy.  But that actually quite drastic difference meant they weren’t genetically compatible with any other morph species.  If Emily wanted to have children, she could find any number of morphs from similar design backgrounds who might be compatible with her.  Yin could—and had, Emily knew—interbreed only with another Yadi.  Emily had to admit that this probably made her a different species than Emily was, and yet of course Emily thought of them both as morphs, as essentially the same.

    "Think about it," said Yin, and then she opened the aircar door and stepped out.  Emily opened her own door, feeling her mind spinning as she did.  She’d known things would be different here, but she hadn’t known they’d be *this* different.  Admitting she and Yin were different things might make sense.  But calling herself human?  That seemed utterly impossible.

    Somehow, as she got her things into her apartment, said her goodbyes to Yin, and began to do a little unpacking, that thought drove home more than anything else had—even the alien scent of the air—that she was no longer in the Federation, that she really was on an alien world, where things were different.

    What else might be different here?  She’d known that her economic circumstances would be different, that was the ostensible reason why she’d saved up the funds to move.  Morphs had a hard time getting anything but the most menial of jobs on Mars, and she knew it was the same elsewhere in the Federation.  Here morphs were a majority of the population, and as she’d already seen, species prejudice was much less common.  And while both star nations had social safety nets that meant she wouldn’t be homeless, the Federation’s welfare program was considerably less generous; if she lost her job and had to fall back on it she’d probably be reduced to living in a group home of some kind, with only the barest of amenities.  Here, well...  She looked around the little apartment and smiled.  This was a basic living home, a place provided for free to anybody—even a non-citizen like her—who registered as being in danger of homelessness.

    She wanted to find a good job and get a place that was truly her own eventually, but for now this was at least as nice as anywhere she’d ever paid to live on Mars.  It had two rooms, a living-dining room with an attached kitchenette, and a single modest bedroom with a small but nicely appointed bathroom.  It even had a built-in computer terminal that looked fairly decent.

    Seeing that yanked Emily’s thoughts to a different track entirely, and she went to her suitcase, digging through it until she found a small box that she’d carefully wrapped up in several of her shirts.  Most of her luggage was clothing, she’d sold all her larger possessions to add to her moving fund, but a few other things had come along as well.  This was the one thing she’d have brought even if she had to leave everything else behind.

    Inside the box, further wrapped in foam padding, was an induction headset and a tiny data card.  Emily extracted the card, then turned on the computer terminal and examined its input ports.  The ports were familiar, much to her relief.  These things were standardized in the Federation, and it seemed the same standard was used here.  One point in common between the two nations, at least.  

    The computer could apparently handle the same file types as well, for when Emily slotted the card into place her files popped up on the screen.

    There they were: years and years worth of work designing and sculpting and building; all the places and people she’d made in her private virtual world, starting from crude things, mostly modified from free templates, that she’d built as a little girl and ending with some recent work she was very proud of.

    Emily picked up the headset and settled it over her ears, carefully positioning the temple pieces that would send signals directly into her brain.  A brain jack would give better fidelity, but she’d never been able to afford the surgery to get one.  The headset was cheaper.  Before plugging in the cord that ran from it, though, she rummaged in the suitcase and found something else.  A vest of heavy, stretchy fabric, with a fastener running up the side.  She unfastened her coverall and pulled it down to her waist, then wiggled into the tight vest and fastened it up.  A little more wiggling got everything properly in place, and now her chest was flat.

    The chest binder was sold for transgender men who hadn’t had surgery for whatever reason.  Emily wasn’t transgender, of course.  But for most of her life her virtual character had been male, and something about bringing her real body slightly in line with that felt good, comfortable, and certainly better than having the occasional jarring bit of inaccurate feedback when she touched herself and real nerves overrode the headset’s signals.

    She did her coverall up again, then plugged into the computer, and opened the virtual reality world she’d spent so much time constructing.  With a long sigh she sat down on the bed and closed her eyes, letting go of the real world and stepping into her fantasy creation.

    Emily was still a jackal morph in this world, but she’d created a black-backed jackal, with bolder, more dramatic markings than her natural form.  Something close enough to her to feel like there was a connection, but different enough to be fun and interesting.  The real difference, though, was that the body she wore here, in the fantasy castle where she now opened her eyes, was male.

    She’d invented this character as a child, and called him Eli.  By now she’d designed and redesigned him dozens of times.  She’d written stories about him, acted out VR "plays" as him, and put together an elaborate supporting cast of other characters he had relationships with, but mostly she’d just done what she was doing now; spent time being Eli instead of Emily, being the slightly dashing, confident, interesting young man rather than her shy, anxious, boring real self.

    "Eli" even went out and hung around with other people in public virtual spaces sometimes.  Eventually Emily would have to get hooked up to the planetary net and find out where such spaces were here, see if she could meet more people and make relatively local friends that way.  Socializing as Eli was always easier, more comfortable, than doing so as Emily.  Everything about being Eli felt comfortable, and so now she relaxed into her private world, her private self, and let all the stress of her long journey and all her fears about this new phase of her life slip away.

    -----

    A soft chime in Eli’s ear was a reminder that it was time to log out and become Emily again.  He—she rather—had arranged to meet Yin at a coffee shop and spend the afternoon playing tourist around the city.  He’d been on Dromia VI for just over two months now, and felt he’d settled in quite well.  He had a group of friends in a virtual chat room, a part time job with opportunities for further advancement, and even a few friends he met in person now and again, though of course those friends knew him as Emily, not Eli.  Speaking of which...

    He said his goodbyes and logged out, then removed the headset, blinking himself back into his little apartment and back into the real world, into Emily’s world.  He—she again—shook herself, shaking off the always slightly bizarre feeling of switching from the headset’s transmissions to her own actual neurons.  Almost as bizarre was settling back into her own feminine body.  It wasn’t all that different, but it was still strange, and she sometimes wondered how people with more wildly divergent virtual selves managed.

    He—no she, for heaven’s sake, why was it so hard to settle back into being Emily today?—glanced at the time display on her computer.  She didn’t have much time to get herself together.  Well, the coverall she was wearing now would do for going out, it wasn’t as though she owned any fancy outfits, or as if Yin cared about that kind of thing.

    She was nearly out the door when she realized she was still wearing the binder instead of her bra.  It didn’t really make her look male so much as it made her look like a very flat girl, but still, maybe that was strange?  She paused in the doorway, then shrugged.  Stopping to change back into a bra would make her late, and it wasn’t like it really mattered.

    So with a little shrug and an odd feeling of mixed nervousness and pleasure—why should going out "as" Eli seem nice?—Emily darted out the door and down the stairs to the sidewalk outside.

    The coffee shop where she’d agreed to meet Yin was in the city, so Emily made her way to a public tube station and down into the underground transit system.  It felt strange, to have the faint constriction of the chest binder constantly with her, here in the real world.  She kept looking at her fellow passengers, wondering if any of them noticed anything different, if any of them would care if they did.  The thought came to her that probably they wouldn’t.  In a place where "human" had to do with what was in your mind, and not your body, why would male or female be any different?  If she decided she was Eli here, that would certainly be allowed, probably even encouraged.  

    That was a nice thought.  No more strict societal roles, no more judgment, no more oppressive expectations.  There was a lightness, a sense of possibility to it.  She could be anything at all, here!  Maybe she could even be transgender, if she decided she wanted to be.

    Emily frowned faintly as she sat in her seat, and tried to work her way through why she’d suddenly used that particular word.  Why should she think she was allowed to be transgender here, specifically?  Changing one’s legal gender was possible on Mars, after all.  Trans rights were protected by law, as were morph rights and all sorts of other minority rights.

    She sighed and tipped her head back against the wall, closing her eyes.  The law allowed it, yes, but there were more subtle things than laws at work in the Federation.  Humans were humans, morphs were morphs, men were men, women were women.  You stayed in your lane, did your part, played your role, and that was the way the universe worked.  Everyone was in theory equal, everyone was in theory free.  The slavery-by-another name that was morph ownership and the genetic engineering of new morphs had both ended more than a hundred years ago.  That was a part of the past, not the present.

    Morphs *were* treated differently, though.  They were other than human, and sometimes that meant sub-human.  People could be gay, or transgender, or anything else they wanted to be if they were human, especially if they were wealthy, and powerful.  The poor though, and morphs were very often poor, lived more tightly constrained, more harshly judged lives.  Not by any law, laws that treated morphs differently had mostly been removed from the books, but just by the ways in which other people acted around them.

    Hell, the virtual spaces where she’d been Eli for so many years growing up had all been morph-only spaces, because they *had* to be, because the Martian net was de-facto segregated, and places that allowed humans tended to become taken over by humans, with morphs driven out and banned in practice even if not on paper.

    She hadn’t even really thought about that while she’d lived there.  Morphs had morph things and humans had human things, and being transgender was *mostly* a human thing.  But then here in Alliance space, Emily was considered human...

    *Why am I thinking about being transgender just because I’m finding it a bit hard to shake off being Eli today?  I’m not transgender.  I don’t feel awful about being female.*  Emily flicked her ears, shifting, tipping her head down and looking down into her lap. Eli wasn’t her real self.  Eli was just...comfortable, that was all.  But Eli belonged to virtual reality, not here in the world.

    *But I’m out in his binder today, here in the real world.  I could be him, if I really wanted to,* she answered herself.

    Emily laid her ears back.  That thought was absolute nonsense and she had no business thinking it.  She was content enough with the way things were, with Eli and his comfortable virtual space, with herself as Emily and her satisfactory life.  There was no point in changing any of that.  Eli could never be *fully* real, so why even think about trying some half-baked attempt to be him?

    The tube car arrived and she rose, following the the crowd of humans and morphs—humans all, she mentally corrected herself—out into the station and up to the street above.  A few blocks’ worth of brisk walking brought her to the coffee shop.  She looked around, but didn’t see Yin yet, so she went to the counter to get something to drink while she waited.

    "What name shall I shout?" asked the fox behind the counter with a toothy grin, and acting on a sudden, strange impulse, Emily said "Eli."  She felt absurd almost before she’d finished speaking the two short syllables.  The card she handed over to pay for the drink didn’t say Eli on it, it said Emily.  And despite her flat chest, her wide hips, short stature and high voice meant there was no way anyone could think a male name like Eli belonged to her.  But the fox just nodded, still smiling, and took her card.

    Emily sat down to wait for her drink, and for Yin.  The latter arrived before the former.  With a cheerful wave, Yin dropped down to sit next to Emily.  "Hey there!"

    It seemed oddly nice that Yin hadn’t greeted him—her?  Things were being so strangely confusing today—by name, since that meant that there was no reason for him to stop feeling like Eli for a moment, at least.  Though despite the lack of the wrong—right?—name things really wouldn’t settle in her—or his?—mind at all now.  Eli belonged in a virtual space with his virtual friends, not here, talking to Yin.  Yin was part of the real world.  Maybe Eli should make more of an effort to find a way back into Emily’s mindset.  She was the one who was real, after all, and the one who was friends with Yin.  

    He didn’t want to stop being himself just now, though.  He remembered the feeling he’d felt earlier as he walked to the tube among the crowd of *humans* of all sorts; the free, almost weightless feeling that anything might be possible.

    Maybe a little space for Eli in the real world could be possible too?

    "Large mocha for Eli!"

    Eli’s ears swiveled towards the sound, and he felt a weird thrill at hearing the name.  He was very used to answering to it, of course, given the amount of role-playing he did with it, but he wasn’t sure he’d ever heard it with his real-world ears before.  It felt nice.  It felt beyond nice, really, and that was so *strange*.  Everything seemed strange today.  Everything was off-balance, and it should have been uncomfortable, yet somehow it didn’t feel like he was falling off his feet.  More like he was in free-fall, tumbling, yet with all the world, all of the galaxy itself spread out before him.

    Eli got up, giving up on fighting the odd mood for now, and picked up the cup of rich, steaming beverage.  He sat down across from Yin at the little table again.  Yin gave him a curious look.  "Eli, huh?"

    He felt his ears flick back against his head and he took a sip of the mocha, buying himself time to decide how to explain.  "Have I mentioned Eli to you before?"

    "He’s a character you play on the net, right?"

    Eli nodded.  "He’s...  I can get very into the mindset of being him.  When I’m in the virtual world I feel very much that I *am* him, that I’m this other person entirely.  I mean.  Not entirely, I guess."  Eli flicked his ears again, feeling awkward.  "He’s still me.  I’m him.  He’s a male version of me, mostly?  He’s maybe a little more...confident, I guess than Emily is.  Maybe I’m not being him very well right now."  He felt his ears flushing hotly.

    Yin chuckled.  "I think I understand."

    "I just felt like him today.  So I gave them that name.  I guess that’s who I am right now?  I never really thought being Eli in the real world was possible.  But...maybe it is, a little bit?"

    "Of course it is," said Yin, smiling.  "Hell, if you wanted to be Eli full time, complete with fully male body, you could.  Sex reassignment procedures these days are very good, it’s pretty much indistinguishable from having been born with an XY set of chromosomes.  I have a friend who was considering it a few years back, I helped him do some research."

    Eli put a fake-feeling smile on, tried to laugh.  "That’s silly.  I don’t have the money for that kind of thing.  I doubt I ever will unless something pretty wild happens.  And anyway, I’m not transgender.  Eli is just...comfortable."

    Yin tilted her head, looking at him for a while.  "Comfortable, huh?  Does that mean Emily is uncomfortable?"

    "I..." Eli blinked.  "I...  I don’t... I mean... Of course not."

    "No?"

    "Well, maybe a little, sometimes.  People treat women differently.  But that’s just...  I don’t know, sexism, or whatever.  If I don’t like getting hit on by random men, it doesn’t make me male.  I’d say that makes me stereotypically female, if anything!  And nobody is telling me that I can’t like camping or have to paint my claws just because I’m female anymore."  He made a face at the memories of old stupidity.

    "That’s true enough."  Yin’s calmly curious expression turned to a sudden grin.  "But is avoiding cat calls really the only reason why you’re currently as flat as a twelve year old boy?"

    "Uh..."  Eli’s ears went flat.

    "Is that comfortable too, whatever it is you’re wearing?"

    "Heh."  Eli’s ears flicked, and he managed a smile.  "It itches like hell, actually.  But yes.  Very much so."

    "What if you could afford the whole package, physical change and all?  What if it was free?"

    "I... I don’t know."  Eli felt his ears flattening back down.  Why would Yin dangle something like that in front of him?

    "Because it is, you know."  Yin’s smile was almost smug, and her tail was waving back and forth only *slightly* too slowly to be called a wag.

    Eli blinked at her.  "What?"

    "Sex reassignment procedures are covered by the state."

    Eli blinked some more.  "But... I’m an immigrant.  I know I have a basic healthcare plan as a resident..."

    "Yep.  Which includes this sort of thing."

    "Really?  But a sex change is so involved.  I looked into costs a little back in the Federation.  It costs more than I could ever save up.  How can that just be free?  Wouldn’t it bankrupt the government?  I mean, I’m not even a citizen!"

    Yin chuckled.  "Citizenship is a bit more casual a thing here.  There’s no such thing as an Alliance of Sentients native, you know.  We all came here from somewhere else at some point.  The alliance has barely existed for a hundred years, and none of the planets in it have native sentients, they’re all colonies from Earth.  So you have as much inherent right to citizenship here as anybody does.  If you want to apply, I’m sure you could be accepted, in fact.  As for the cost, transgender people are less than one percent of the population.  It’s not as big of an expense as you might think, compared to life-saving medicine.  And..."  Yin reached out and touched Eli’s hand gently, "I know it can be life-saving for some people."

    Eli shook his head instantly.  "I’m not going to hurt myself because I can’t be male."

    "Maybe not physically, but what about mentally?"

    "I...  It’s not like that.  Emily is fine, really.  Being her isn’t hurting me."

    "Would Eli be more fine, though?"

    "I...don’t know."  He thought about how good it had felt just now, to hear some random fox call his name out here in the real world.  Maybe Eli would be more fine.  His ears splayed out flat, then pricked up again, then went down.  Being Eli was comfortable in one sense, but terrifying in another.  Could he really live life as a male?  What might he be giving up?  But what might he be gaining?  He remembered, suddenly, the thought he’d once had, that he envied how comfortable Yin was in her own skin.  If he really could be Eli all the time, maybe he  could someday feel comfortable in his own skin like that.  It still seemed ridiculous, though.  Eli was a fictional character, Emily was who he really was.  How could he be Eli?  He might as well be Bilbo Baggins or Leto Atreides if he wanted to be male.  It was absurd.

    "It looks like you’re having some thoughts on the subject," said Yin, her tail still wagging in amusement.

    "You could say that," said Eli, his ears finally coming back up again, a small smile quirking the corner of his mouth.

    "Think about it, then.  Look into all your options, maybe.  Gender and sex aren’t binary, I know that pretty well myself."  Yin grinned even more broadly, and Eli laughed and smiled back.  "There are things you could do besides just ’be male’ or ’be female.’  But if Eli is comfortable, I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t be Eli."

    "Maybe I’ll try it out for a while," said Eli.

    "Well, I’m going to try out ordering a cup of coffee.  Be back in a moment."

    As Eli sat and watched Yin head to the counter, he felt another rush of that strange, light, free feeling.  It felt good.  He could be Eli if he wanted to be, there was literally nothing at all stopping him.

    -----
        
    "Wait, so you’ve been spending all this time in here, looking like that, and you didn’t think of yourself as a guy?"  The person asking the question appeared to be a baseline human woman, who sat sprawled on a picnic blanket in the virtual park.  She was wearing an elaborate Elizabethan gown, complete with ridiculous neck ruff.  Eli sat next to her, dressed in an eighteenth century suit coat in chocolate brown, trimmed heavily with gold embroidery and topped with a matching tricorn hat.  He’d "sculpted" it himself, based on several historical suits, and he was quite proud of the way the fabric draped and the sheen of the gold thread.  The play-picnicking group was a historical writer’s society, but though he mostly wrote fantasy, and had only just begun to dabble in modeling historical clothing, they’d been delighted to welcome Eli when he’d joined two months ago.

    "Now, now, now, that’s not all that absurd, Susanna," chimed in a second speaker.  He was a dragon, which as far as Eli knew was something that didn’t exist in reality, though some people called Ssifith "star dragons".  But Telixith didn’t look at all like a Ssifith, he looked like something out of an illustration for a particularly odd children’s book, for he was wearing a late Victorian dress, complete with bonnet and parasol.  He was also sitting on a cloud that he’d floated just above the picnic blanket.  

    Many of the inhabitants of virtual reality chose to abide by the usual laws of physics, but Telixith seemed to like flouting them as much as he liked flouting the usual laws of fashion.  "We all know I’m male out in the real world, and here too as far as that goes. I only do the dresses because men’s fashion in my favorite writing era is comparatively boring.  Well, that and I have fun with the absurdity of a dragon in a dress, whatever the gender."  He grinned.  "Also, we all know that you’re not actually a baseline, Susana."

    Susanna rolled her eyes.  "I assume you’ve heard of a little thing called historical accuracy?  There weren’t any morphs in the fifteen hundreds.  It just seems odd to me, that somebody could spend as much time as possible being a man and never even consider the possibility that they might be transgender."

    "It probably is odd," said Eli with a little shrug and a smile.  "But I thought of Eli as fictional, as just a character I could play.  He was somebody I wrote that I connected with, sure, but he couldn’t possibly be *real*."  Eli sighed.  "To be honest, when I lived back on Mars the idea of being Eli was almost literally unthinkable.  So I didn’t think it.  Morphs weren’t trans, surgery was a fairy tale dream I’d never be able to afford, nothing about being Eli was realistic or possible, so it was just...safer, I guess, to regard him as fictional, as not really me.  The really funny thing is that I read a lot about trans things, I did research into what was possible and everything.  I just kept it all at a safe mental distance.  It was all hypothetical, just satisfying my curiosity."  He paused then laughed as he realized.  "Just satisfying my curiosity, but I hardly looked into male-to-female surgery when I was doing it, just female-to-male!"

    There was a cascade of laughter from the others, and Telixith reached out and patted Eli’s shoulder.  "It’s safe to be whoever you really are here, though."

    "Indeed!"  Eli’s smiled broadened.  "It was being here, and seeing that it’s really true that people in the Alliance are defined by how they think, not how they look, that eventually opened me up to the truth.  It didn’t take very long, really.  I’ve only been here two months!  I guess it was a pretty obvious truth."

    "So, sorry if we’re all asking personal questions here, but you’re going to get surgery and all that, then?"  That question came from Roberto, a tiger sitting with his tail neatly wrapped around him.  He was the other person present in male dress, but "male dress" in his case meant a Scottish kilt, complete with sporran.

    Eli shrugged.  "I still haven’t decided for certain.  There are things about being Emily I kinda like, even if they seem few and far between now.  I don’t know if I want to give her up entirely.  But I certainly want to at least take some steps in that direction.  I’m going by Eli when I go out a lot of the time, at least.  Nobody has bothered me about it so far."

    "That’s just great," said Susana, and there was a murmur of agreement from everyone else.

    "It is pretty great, yeah," said Eli, and he found that somewhat to his astonishment, there were tears gathering in his eyes.  They were good tears, though, welling up from the immense sense of lightness, freedom, even relief at the realization that he could be himself, he could exist, he had a place out in the real world and not just here in the virtual.  That he was Eli, and maybe Emily too, but that Eli wasn’t any less a person, and maybe was even more of one, that maybe it was Emily who had never been real.  It was still all a jumble in his mind, and he wasn’t sure how things would fall out in the end, but he said,  "I never thought anything like this could be possible.  It’s beyond great, it’s amazing that I have the choice to actually be myself, whoever that self may turn out to be."

     

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     Kenny slept until roughly a little before daybreak. He began to wake up, eyes blinking groggily. He felt exhausted like he had gotten no sleep the night before. Why was he so tired? He then remembered the night before, and his heart sank. 'Oh, right,' he thought to himself. To his surprise, Dusty was sitting and looking out the window besides him. "Dusty?" he mumbled. The badger looked down at him and smiled. He looked awful and exhausted. "Oh, Morning Ken... You hungry?" he asked. Kenny wasn't very hungry, but he knew Dusty wanted to eat. "Uh, sure..." He said, stretching. That answer seemed to satisfy Dusty since he stood up, eyes glowing despite the exhaustion that otherwise showed in them. "Awesome! Let's go then!" He shoved the trunk door open practically and hopped out, waiting for the tom to follow. As soon as he caught up, they made their way to the car with the food. "What sounds good?" he poked his head into the car. "Nothing, honestly." Kenny responded. Dusty didn't respond for a moment. "Kenny, you can't just stop eating forever because you're stressed out about everything. You know that as well as I do." He said in an annoyed tone. Kenny's ears flattened slightly. "It's not just about being stressed, Dusty." Dusty responded by chittering. He dragged out a crow and sat down at a spot, dropping the bird. "Then what is it, Ken? The only thing you told me was what went down last night. You've been acting off for days, so something else is bothering you." Dusty said. "I can't help if you don't say anything, and you know that." Kenny sat down besides him and didn't respond, taking a bite from the bird. He wasn't sure if he wanted to tell him about the dream that had been recurring occasionally, and had happened again about two nights ago. The last thing that he wanted was to have Dusty get more stressed than he already was over him. He would have to get Eclipse, the faction healer and plant specialist, to potentially intervene if he either continued to have these dreams, or Dusty got more stressed, and even then, Kenny didn't want to talk to Eclipse- "Kenny!" Dusty's eyes were dark as Kenny snapped his attention back to him. "Did you even hear anything I just told you?" He sounded annoyed. "Not a damn thing." Kenny responded, pausing to look at him. Dusty sighed, clearly annoyed and growing increasingly frustrated, but he kept his temper under control. "Look, you're going to have to tell someone whatever the fuck the issue is. You aren't eating as much as you should, you're always stressed, and don't tell me your sleep schedule is under control because that's a lie, too. I'm surprised at myself for not going to Eclipse for this issue yet. Only reason I didn't was because I know you'd play it off and ignore whatever he would try to tell you." When he was finished speaking, Dusty bit hard into one of the bird's wings with a loud crunch. Kenny wanted to speak, but he couldn't since he knew he was right. The two continued to eat in silence before Kenny stood up. "I'm going with the morning patrol." He said, walking away with Dusty staying behind and not saying anything.

        The patrol had already been set up by Jethro, and he was now in front of the group, giving instructions on where to go. The group consisted of Tonks, Stella, and Fern. "Jethro!" Kenny approached the group and they turned to look at him. "Would it be fine if I joined the patrol?" He asked. Jethro flicked his tail towards Tonks. "That's up to Tonks. He's leading the patrol today." He responded. Tonks nodded. "No trouble bringing another one along," He responded. He fell in with the group and listened. Before long, they left the junkyard. Their goal was to patrol from the Junkyard to the small stream that divided them from their neighboring faction. As they traveled along the stream, they heard talking from nearby. Tonks motioned for the group to stop and wait. "Someone is here."

        The sounds grew stronger and so did their scent. They were obviously scents of other animals, but the scent was mixed of a tree native to their territory as well. This was the Maple faction. The Maple faction was mainly an ally to those in Biohazard, though they occasionally had their spats. The group was a slightly larger group consisting of a deer, a wolf, a dog, a cat and a crow with a broken wing. One animal in the group stood out, however. It was a skinny raccoon with a nasty limp. Kenny stared at her. Why was she over there? "Come on." The deer bent down and nudged her along rather strongly. She grunted slightly and kept in front of the group. The group stopped just at the border, and the leader of the patrol picked his head up enough to make eye contact with Tonks, who stood on his side of the river. "Hello, Tonks. We were going to send one of ours to make contact with your group. We found this... Trespasser... and wondering if she belonged to your group." the deer flicked his ear. Kenny flashed a look at the raccoon. She saw his look and thrashed her tail, terrified. "She is not one of ours, but she does smell familiar..." Tonks narrowed his eyes. "She is not ours, however. Let's go." He waved off the group to follow. Kenny made a split-second decision. "We'll take her back with us!" he said quickly. The rest of the group turned to face him. The deer eyed him suspiciously. "And Jethro will be fine with this sudden choice, small one? The original plan was to be rid of her ourselves so she will neither be a problem to our faction, yours, or any other faction." He glanced briefly at the raccoon. The raccoon cowered slightly. From behind him, he saw Tonks with a look of disbelief in his eyes. Stella whispered, "What the hell are you doing?", and Fern just watched in anxiousness. There was a look in her eyes that told Kenny he should at least try to save the raccoon. "He'll be fine with it." He replied. "Very well. Be on your way, and just know she is your responsibility now." The deer and his patrol walked back towards their territory. Lavender, the dog, whispered something disapprovingly to the deer. Kenny just watched them walk away, not immediately realizing Tonks was now towering in front of him. "I'm taking you and that raccoon back to camp. Let's go." He snarled. It caused the tom to shrink down slightly.

        He and the raccoon were herded by Tonks into the junkyard. "Stay here." Tonks growled and he went over, talking to Jethro. While they spoke, the raccoon looked over at Kenny. "I thought you said you were going to stop stealing until you decided." He whispered to her. She looked back at him. "no, I said I would stop bothering and stealing from your territory until I decided. I said nothing about the other camp." Kenny scoffed. "And that almost got you killed." he mumbled. They sat in silence for several minutes before the raccoon spoke. "...Thanks for saving me, Kenny" She mumbled quietly. Kenny acknowledged her with a flick of his tail. Tonks returned with Jethro with Tonks still angry and Jethro with a more stoic appearance, though Kenny sensed the angry aura around the leader. "What is your name, raccoon?" Jethro asked in a cool tone. "Dutch..." She responded, fur beginning to prickle in fear. "Well, Dutch, We've had a bit of a raccoon problem lately. For our security, We're locking you up here until the faction decides what to do with you. And you-" He turned to Kenny. "Since you were so keen on bringing her into the camp without mine and Tonks' permission, you can stand guard with her until we decide. The only times you will be allowed relief of your duty is when it is something that you need to do, like get sleep. Someone will bring food and water to both of you. Got it?" Jethro's tail swished across the ground. Kenny only nodded slightly. "Good. Let me show you to where you'll both be for the moment." The wolf led them both into a corner of the yard where the top half of a car remained. it was large and contained on all sides save for a partially busted side window. A large and heavy rock blocked the entrance. Jethro moved the rock aside and picked Dutch up, setting her inside. He then pushed the rock back. He turned to Kenny. "You are to guard this raccoon until I say otherwise. We will decide what to do next." With that, he left the two of them with nobody but the company of one another.

        For the rest of the day, he sat guard and occasionally made small talk with Dutch, the two learning quite a bit about one another. Dutch was from another part of the forest, but had been chased out of her old home by humans tearing through. When she returned to her old home, she had been captured. Dutch managed to escape and wandered these territories trying to find a permanent place to live. Jethro soon approached them. "Ive decided that tomorrow you two can make your case. You can thank Fern and Dusty for that. They talked me down from placing a harsher punishment without listening. Kenny, you are relieved of duty for now. Gray will take your place." He left just as soon as he had appeared. He could understand Fern wanting to help talk Jethro and his rage down, but Dusty? After he was doing nothing but just arguing with him this entire time? He wasn't totally sure why he was helping him now. "Dusty and Fern sound lovely. What's there to know about them?" Dutch asked. His attention was brought back to Dutch. "Oh, uh, Fern is the possum that was part of the patrol earlier. She's young and has a lot to learn about, but she's nice. She'll bug you about things she's interested, and she likes collecting rocks and all that. Dusty is a badger. He's my carmate and he and I have been friends ever since before I joined the faction. He and I get into arguments, but honestly it's whatever. We usually work our shit out. He worries about me too damn much, I think." Dutch raised an eyebrow. "How do you think so?" He looked at her curiously. "Well, he's always getting on me for not eating when I should. He gets on me about having a better sleep schedule and just better self-care, I guess. I know he's right about it, but sometimes I wish he wasn't." He sighed and flicked his tail. "He's always there when things go to shit, though, which is great. I don't ever feel like i'm there when he needs it. He always seems fine until I'm not." For several moments, both sat in silence. "Interesting..." He heard her mumble to herself. "What?" He turned to look at her with a confused look. Dutch just shook her head. "Nothing. It's best you go do whatever you need to do. It was nice to talk to you, Kenny." She smiled slightly. "Yeah, it was nice to talk to you, too." He smiled and trotted off with Gray taking his spot shortly after. As he walked off, though, he couldn't help but think about what Dutch had said. Interesting? Has she never had a friend before? Or was there something he had been missing with his friend's interactions with him this entire time? He didn't really consider the second option, though. He knew Dusty pretty well and he thought if there was anything he was possibly missing, he would've picked up on it by now. Plus, Dutch was a wanderer from other lands. It was possible that, besides him, she was lonely. It was entirely possible that she could've been just an outcast her whole life with no friends.

        As he walked, something caught his eye- it was a canadian goose feather. 'Dusty likes these feathers...' he thought as he gently picked the feather up. He then wandered over to the food pile, since he hadn't seen Dusty there all day, and grabbed a squirrel for him. Carrying the food and the feather, he made his way to his car. He nudged his way in and found Dusty laying down in his spot, back to him. He acknowledged he was there with a flick of an ear. "Still mad at me?" Kenny asked, setting his food down. Dusty huffed slightly before speaking. "Yeah, I am..." He sighed. "I figured you would be. I brought you stuff." Dusty turned to look at what he brought him. Dusty only smiled a little bit. He still seemed very much out of it. "Thanks, Ken... I appreciate it." Kenny nudged the food to Dusty and the badger began eating. "I'm sorry for getting crabby with you earlier. I've just been worried about you lately." Dusty said, pausing from his meal. Kenny shook his head. "Don't worry about me. I'm sorry for being a thorny ass with you lately." Dusty looked at him. "Well, someone has to worry about you." Kenny sat down and began to wash his face which had become messy. "And someone has to worry about you as well. Can't always be worrying about other people and not expect someone here to do the same." He stopped when he noticed Dusty had been caught a little off guard by the response. "Well, don't worry about me. I'm not important enough-" Dusty was abruptly cut off as Kenny whacked him hard in the back of the head with his paw. "Ow! What was that for?!" Dusty rubbed his head. "Tell me you aren't important again, I dare you. Ill knock some sense into you." Kenny growled softly. Dusty opened his mouth but no words came out. He was a little rattled from what he could tell. Maybe he hit him too hard... "Uh, I'll try not to do that." Dusty responded. "Better..." Kenny responded and laid besides him. "Why do you feel like you aren't important, anyway?" he asked. Dusty shook his head slightly. "I dunno. I guess since others of the faction just usually ignore me and leave me out of things. Sometimes it feels like it's on purpose." He made a sour expression as he said that. Kenny sighed and rested his head against his shoulder in comfort. "They don't mean to, Dusty. I promise." Kenny wasn't sure how else to help him and how to do it without upsetting him further somehow. Dusty finished eating and rested his head on his paws."I know." Dusty yawned slightly. "Hey Dusty, did you even sleep at all last night?" Kenny asked. "Nope." "Why not?" Dusty seemed a little embarrassed. "I was worried- you kept crying in your sleep and I wanted to make sure you were fine." Kenny felt his face heat up slightly. "You're a hypocrite." "I know I am." Dusty closed his eyes. It didn't take long before the badger fell asleep. Kenny fell asleep shortly after he did.

        Here he was again. This was the forest he had become familiar with, though he wished he hadn't. He followed the same path he always did, and as he looked down, he noticed something strange. Not only were his pawprints there from all the previous nights he had visited, but his own paws were faintly illuminated in a light glow. He stopped for a moment, wondering if he could somehow harness that glow into a light for him to see his surroundings. He focused his attention onto his paws, and they began to glow brighter and brighter until he was surrounded by a small aura of light. Well, he decided, it was better than nothing. He continued along the path into the clearing. Immediately, the scent of death once again began to surround and choke him. This time, though, he decided to stand his ground. As the two figures once again slunk forward, fear crept into his body. What was he getting himself into by doing this? The two approached him, but stood just outside of the small aura of light. "Kennedy... you and your faction are in grave danger..." The she-cat whispered hoarsely to him. "The plague and nature is all against us. Of course we're in danger." He responded, but the she-cat slowly swished her tail against the ground. "There is more than just a plague and a force of nature against you and your faction." Her voice echoed slightly as she spoke. "There is a force of mistrust, treason, and a hunger for power that threatens you all. While you are all fighting among and trying to protect yourselves, the treasonist plots for a takeover, using a horrid weapon against the place they call home, and the ones they call their family..." Kenny felt a fear creep into his heart. "You think there's a traitor within our faction?" The tom had a scratchy and drawn out laugh. "We don't think, Kenny. We know. Heed our warnings, or face the consequences..." The two vanished back into the shadows where they came from, and Kenny was left alone in the center of the clearing. He closed his eyes briefly, and upon opening them, he found he was in a new location. This location was like paradise in comparison to where he was previously, and no longer smelled of death.

        He observed this new location. The area smelled strongly of flowers, and the water, a lake, reflected the sunset, which was painted in all reds, oranges, yellows, purples and pinks. surrounding him was the trees of the forests and a mountain range he easily recognized from his waking life. He heard faint voices and decided to walk in that direction. As Kenny got closer, he stopped as he saw several figures talking in two groups. The only one he could make out from either of the crowds was him. Someone in his group had moved to the other side, but despite trying his best, he could neither make out the voices nor the figures of those he had seen. As he watched everything going on, something had nudged him.

        "Ken, wake up..." Dusty nudged him awake but this time with his nose instead of his paw. He blinked awake, yawning and stretching. "Is it already morning?" Dusty nodded. "Yeah... Jethro is going to want us there soon". Honestly, Kenny didn't want to move from where he laid. He was comfortable and had slept very well, plus Dusty has kept him warm. "You're going to have to move so I can." Dusty rolled his eyes and stood up. "Whatever, drama queen." Kenny stood up as well and followed Dusty out of the car. He thought about the dreams- the fact a traitor lingering in the camp was unsettling to him, but the two left no hints as to who it could be. As for the lake, he wasn't all sure about why he dreamed about that location. Maybe it was just one of those weird dreams, he decided. There was no point in thinking about it now, though, as he approached the place where Dutch was being held. Those who were on the patrol and Jethro were there.

        "Kenny, welcome. You may sit besides Dutch." Jethro motioned to the space besides the raccoon. Dusty and Kenny sat besides Dutch. "Now, you were on patrol with the others when you decided to bring back Dutch, yes?" Jethro asked Kenny. "I was. We were patrolling along the stream that separates us from the Maple faction. We heard them talking, and pretty soon they approached us with Dutch. They asked if she was ours and if we wanted to do anything with her, and Tonks said she wasn't our problem." Tonks looked slightly annoyed at Kenny, but he continued to talk. "I said it would possibly be fine if we took her with us and brought her here since they said they might've killed her otherwise... I know this raccoon, and yes she may have caused problems, but she's like the rest of us, Jethro. She's trying to survive just like the rest of us. She's more at a disadvantage since she can't hunt or fight and defend herself like other raccoons. She needs help." Kenny finished speaking. Tonks stood up. "We're all struggling as it is, Kenny! By bringing a wanderer into our camp, you've done nothing but expose us to danger. She could be a spy for a hostile faction or group for all we know! She could be carrying the disease!" Tonks and Kenny stared one another down. "One less life is one less danger to us and one less mouth to feed. You should've let them keep her." Dusty stood up. "Kenny thought he did what was best! He didn't feel the need to let another creature die!" He looked to Kenny for a response, and he nodded. "He's right, Tonks. I wouldn't have done it if I didn't think it to be the right thing to do. We all have to stick together to survive all of this, not kill one another. She hasn't shown signs of disease, and she could be useful, anyway." Tonks scoffed. "How? it's not like she'd be able to do much." Kenny narrowed his eyes. "She could be like Rudy and help repair dens and patrol the territory for danger, like a scout." Jethro, who had been listening to the arguing, held his tail up to stop them. "She has shown no symptoms of disease, and repairs to dens and inner junkyard patrolling is always work that needs to be done. Kenny, however, did risk danger by bringing in an outsider without my knowledge." He thought for several moments. "I will allow her to stay... for now. She must be monitored closely, however, until she has our trust. If Dutch is to stay here for now, she is to follow our rules and help our faction in whatever way she can." Kenny smiled and Dutch's face glowed with excitement. Tonks, however, growled and stalked off. Even if Tonks hated him for this, it gave him a sense of satisfaction knowing what he did was right and it saved a life.

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    Dust settled on the arena sands. Sken’s claws dug deep into the ground as e sized up eir opponent across the ring. The other dragon was older, taller, broader in the shoulders, but at least Sken knew how to fight bigger dragons. E had to, being small.

    This is it, Sken thought, tensing as the other dragon readied to charge. You win this, and you can get out of here.

    ~

    The nestlings crowded together in a heap of tails and wings and legs as Mors loomed over them. Normally they’d be play-fighting—it was all they knew to do, really—but Mors scared them. Mors scared everyone. So they let her talk, and they listened.

    Mors was telling them about the colosseum again. It was all she ever really told them about—the games, the rules. The fact that, if you wanted to ever be anyone, you needed to win, and to win, you needed to kill.

    “What about outside?” one nestling asked, leaning forward toward Mors. They all knew what was meant by “outside”, even without clarification. Outside the colosseum, beyond those great stone walls that defined their lives.

    Mors stretched her neck out and bared her teeth in the nestling’s face. “There is nothing beyond the colosseum,” she spat. “All there is out there is death.”

    There’s death in here, too, Sken thought, but dared not say.

    ~

    “You. Dragonet.”

    It was an older dragon, an aging adult, red-gray scales marred with the scars of many arena battles. Dark red eyes. Torn wings.

    Sken didn’t want to talk to this stranger, but it was wiser to acknowledge an adult than to ignore them. “Yes?” e asked, turning to the elder.

    The older dragon beckoned, and Sken became suddenly aware that they were alone in the room. If this dragon wanted to kill Sken, to prevent possible future competition, there was no one around to see.

    Sken stepped closer anyway. Now that the dragonets were old enough to fend for themselves, most of the adults ignored them, except maybe to hiss threats at them. This was unusual, and despite being nervous Sken was also growing curious.

    “You want to escape, don’t you?” the older dragon asked. “I can see it in your eyes.”

    Sken was silent. Who didn’t want to escape? Why did this dragon decide to single em out?

    The older dragon chuckled, low. “Look, child, it’s too late for me. Let me help you get out.”

    ~

    Sken’s first opponent was Hazac. They’d been in the same batch of nestlings, but Hazac was quicker and fiercer. He’d grown sleek and sharp while Sken still had scruffy, dull-colored nestling scales.

    None of Sken’s training had prepared em for this fight. Eir mentor was large and bulky, and, most importantly, slower than Sken was.

    Sken was afraid.

    Hazac prowled around em in the arena, scuffing up sand with his claws. He looked almost bored, like he knew he was going to kill Sken in seconds. Like he knew he was getting an easy step on his path to the top.

    Sken bared eir teeth at him, and Hazac laughed. “I’m sorry I have to do this,” he said, sounding not sorry in the slightest, “but you understand. This is how it is here.”

    He sprang.

    ~

    Some of the nestlings got it into their heads one day that they were going to find a way out of the colosseum. When all the adults had gone to yet another arena fight, Sken and a clawful of others crept out of the nestlings’ room and down the dark, narrow hallway that wound through the bowels of the colosseum.

    It was near completely black; the adults hardly bothered to light the deepest corners of the tunnels, especially on fight days. Sken didn’t know where they were going, but an older nestling named Ferren seemed to have some idea of the tunnels’ direction.

    They found their way to a corridor that only had archways leading inward; the outer hall of the colosseum, Sken figured. There was still no sign of any way out of the colosseum. Sken was beginning to feel a creeping sensation, like the small band of nestlings was being watched, but e knew e wouldn’t be able to find eir way back alone, and kept following Ferren.

    “Here!” said Ferren suddenly, and the rest of the nestlings crowded around where she stood. In the wall was a slight gap, the opening to a tunnel just big enough for a nestling to squeeze through.

    One of the smaller nestlings crawled into the tunnel and quickly disappeared into the darkness. Ferren was about to follow him when a shadow fell over them and a low growl rumbled through the air.

    “What do you think you’re doing?”

    It was Mors.

    “We were just exploring,” said Ferren, with a surprising amount of bravery. Usually no one dared talk back to Mors.

    “Not anymore you’re not,” Mors spat at her. “Come along, all of you.” She swept them together with her tail and herded them all back to the nestlings’ room.

    As they passed through the doorway, Mors asked, “Wait—where’s Ainse?”

    “I haven’t seen him. He wasn’t with us,” Sken lied, and Ferren looked at em in surprise.

    Mors huffed and said, “Oh well, then.”

    None of them ever saw Ainse again.

    ~

    Sken’s new mentor’s name was Raisal. He claimed he’d been around since before the colosseum. He spoke of a world above, a world full of light, a world nothing at all like the one Sken knew. He said he knew the way out of the colosseum, but he wouldn’t tell Sken where it was.

    “I’ll tell you when you’re ready,” he said, each time e asked. “It’s dangerous out there.”

    “It’s dangerous in here, too,” Sken argued.

    “So it is. But can you fight yet?” Raisal asked, and when Sken looked away in defeat he said, “See? You need to be able to defend yourself. Don’t charge headlong into something you know nothing about.”

    Sken wanted to argue. Nothing out there could possibly be more dangerous than what was in here. At least out there, there was supposedly space to hide from other dragons—in the colosseum, the others would inevitably find you. Unless you were Ainse, and you ran off into a tunnel the adults couldn’t fit into. But, in the end, Raisal knew the way out. And if Raisal felt Sken was ready to face the outside world, he would tell em where the exit was.

    Sken was determined to earn that way out, so e spent every second e could get away with training with Raisal. At eir age, this was easy; e was old enough that the adults left em to eir own devices, but not yet old enough that e was expected to fight in the colosseum battles.

    At first Sken did poorly. E’d play-fought with eir fellow nestlings plenty of times, but none of them had known what they were doing either. Raisal was an adult who’d known how to fight since before Sken was alive, and he’d had plenty of battles in the colosseum to keep his skills sharp. For a time, their training bouts consisted of nothing more than Raisal yelling at Sken to be faster while tossing em across the chamber.

    The first time e managed to dodge an attack aimed eir way, it surprised the both of them. Raisal barked a startled laugh and said, “Good start, nestling. Let’s see if you can do that again.”

    Sken could, it turned out. Raisal taught em how to move under and around eir opponents, and strike quickly and effectively.  He shared his meals with em after successful training bouts, and told em that soon, soon, e would be ready to leave.

    And then Sken was called into the arena for eir first match.

    ~

    Raisal was not there to meet Sken when e came out of the ring. Instead, e was greeted by Ensaij, one of the colosseum elders. Ensaij loomed over em, a wall of dark scales nearly filling the tunnel. E looked displeased.

    “Where’s Raisal?” Sken asked, and only after e’d spoken did e consider that that might not have been the wisest thing to say.

    Ensaij curled eir lip. “It has come to our attention that Raisal has been planting… ideas… in the heads of some of the dragonets. Yourself included, perhaps.” E leaned in close to Sken and hissed, breath hot, “You must forget anything he told you. There is no way out.”

    ~

    Winning several matches meant that Sken was generally ignored by the colosseum elders, and they let em wander wherever e pleased. Sken used this newfound privilege to spy on the elders. After all, if Ensaij felt the need to deny any exit, there must be one… right? And if there was one—there had to be—the elders had to know where it was.

    Sken just had to wait for them to slip up and mention it.

    E never heard them mention the way out.

    But e did hear them mention Raisal.

    Raisal, who was still alive.

    ~

    Sken twisted, and Hazac’s teeth scraped over eir shoulder instead of eir throat. It stung, but e’d live. Hazac hissed with frustration as he landed on the ground, already turning to attack again. He leaped and collided with em, and they went rolling onto the sand, claws scraping at each other. Sken landed a blow on Hazac’s ribs; Hazac tore at eir wings in return.

    Hazac came out on top, and Sken kicked savagely at his belly until he leaped off of em. Sken rolled to eir feet; e stung fiercely all over, and hot blood pooled in the gaps between eir scales. Hazac didn’t look any better than Sken felt, which was heartening, but he did look furious. Clearly he’d been expecting this match to go much differently.

    “You and I both know that I’m the stronger one,” Hazac panted, shaking blood from his scales. “Hold still for a moment. I’ll make it quick.”

    Sken laughed. “Right.”

    Hazac readied to charge again, and this time Sken met him, teeth bared. They tumbled over each other, and this time Sken came out on top, with the perfect angle to get at Hazac’s throat.

    Sken hesitated. E didn’t want to kill Hazac, but then again, it was his life or eirs.

    Sken wanted to live. E wanted to escape, to be free in the world Raisal had told em about.

    E bit down.

    ~

    Raisal was chained up in a dark back corridor. He didn’t look like he’d been fed in a while; his scales were dull and he’d lost weight, but he brightened somewhat when he saw Sken approaching.

    “So you lived, did you?” he asked, and Sken nodded. Raisal lifted a claw to beckon em closer, like he had the first time they’d met. It felt like forever ago. “You deserve to escape,” he croaked as Sken approached. “I should have told you before. I didn’t think they’d find out.”

    Sken left Raisal’s corner with every intention of leaving right then and there, but as e turned a corner into one of the more populated areas, Mors stepped out in front of em.

    “There you are,” she hissed, displeased. “Your next match is starting right now. Did you intend to forfeit?”

    “No,” Sken blurted quickly. A forfeit meant immediate termination. How had e forgotten about the match?

    Mors flicked her tongue and said, frostily, “Well, come with me then.”

    Sken followed her to the arena, glancing back over eir shoulder at the passageway Raisal had said would lead em to freedom.

    Soon, e thought. Soon I can be free.

    ~

    As Sken stepped out onto the sands and walked to the center of the arena to meet eir opponent, e felt a sudden cold certainty well up in eir chest. E would not be making it out alive. This dragon was no ordinary dragon of the colosseum; this was Arval, one of the colosseum elders. Arval had been an elder for far longer than Sken was alive.

    The elders wanted em dead.

    It must be because of Raisal. They must know that Sken knew how to escape, and they wanted to make sure that that knowledge did not spread.

    Sken didn’t intend to cause an uprising. E just wanted to be free of this place. And now e never would be.

    I’m sorry, Raisal, Sken thought.

    E and Arval paced slowly around each other, scuffing up the bloodstained sand. Sken couldn’t help thinking of everything except eir oncoming death—the fact that the arena reeked of blood and death, the crowd of other colosseum dragons crowded in the stands with bated breath… the slight opening in the doors Arval had come through.

    Sken made as if e intended to leap onto Arval’s back, and the older dragon stepped neatly aside, leaving Sken with a clear path across the arena. E bolted towards the door, hoping no one noticed and closed it before e could escape.

    Arval snarled and took chase, and Sken pushed emself to run harder, faster. E had to get away.

    And then e was through the gap. It was just barely big enough for em to squeeze through, and Arval had to pause behind them to pull the door open, roaring in frustration. Sken didn’t wait. E had to find the hidden exit Raisal had told em about.

    As Sken dashed headlong down poorly-lit corridors, e could hear more and more dragons chasing after em. One did not simply run from a match in the colosseum. You fought, and you either lived or you died. You did not escape.

    The exit into the outside world was at the end of a corridor that felt infinitely long as Sken ran along it. The pounding of eir pursuers’ feet echoed in the empty space, and e couldn’t tell how close they were getting.

    Sken collided with a boulder at the end of the tunnel and scrabbled at it frantically, trying to push it out of the way. Breathing felt like swallowing a mouthful of claws.

    Just as Sken was able to roll the boulder away, opening up a dim tunnel that seemed to curve upwards, someone’s talons landed on eir tail.

    “Stop,” snarled Mors, her breath hot on Sken’s face. “You have no idea what you’re doing.”

    “Let me go!” screamed Sken, ripping eir tail free from Mors’s grasp. Before she could react, e whirled and darted up the tunnel. This dirt was soft, far softer than the hard-packed pathways in the colosseum tunnels. It clearly hadn’t been used in a while, not since the original elders had come down into the colosseum.

    Sken scrabbled up the last stretch of tunnel and into… the dark? From Raisal’s stories, e’d been expecting the outside world to be brilliant and blazing with light, but instead it was dim. Several glowing orbs like massive eyes hung in the sky, illuminating a world that stretched on forever. Soft dirt gave beneath eir talons.

    Sken almost didn’t hear the sound of another dragon emerging from the tunnel behind em, but the cold voice that rang out definitely caught eir attention.

    “Any last words?”

    It was Mors. She padded towards em, wings flaring, lips peeled back to expose glistening teeth. “If you’d forgotten about this,” she snarled, “if you’d just quit, you could have been an elder. You had potential, child. And instead you decided to stamp it into dust.”

    “I didn’t want to be an elder,” Sken said. “I never wanted to be one of you. No one does. Let me go. I won’t come back.”

    “You fool,” hissed Mors. “You poor, poor fool.”

    Mors could never let a traitor go free. The elders wouldn’t risk their location being shared with anyone in the outside world.

    That was okay. Sken had no strength left to run. All Mors had ever wanted em to do was fight. And now fighting was the only option left to em.

    Sken bared eir teeth, spread eir wings, curled eir claws.

    “You shouldn’t have followed me.”

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    Spark the Furry
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    Spark dragged her suitcase into her new home. It was small, neon, and cosy. She left her suitcase her her room after washing her paws. She had already unpacked. I cannot wait to meet other furries! This will be fun! She put on her best clothes and skipped outside. Her blue and black fur shone in the sun as a black panther passed by. "There you are!" The feline gasped. "I'll send you to your office. I'm Shadow, by the way." he introduced himself. He pointed to a seat behin him. Spark nodded, sitting on it.

    They did everything together. Reports, news, cake baking, ETC. They met a new friend, Yami. The panda was usual; except her fluffy tail, ears and iris. Yami was indeed a foodie, and they planned parties together.

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> TO BE ADDED! <<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

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            Jinx snapped awake, opening his eyes to a sea of shaded crimson. He shook his black head to clear the strange effect to no avail. The rain had long since ceased to dampen his fur, though the chill wind left his moist body cold to the touch. As the young fox struggled to his feet he could feel a blossoming burn in his chest.  Jinx took one step, and then another, and then he screamed. Every inch of his body suddenly burst into white-hot agony, steam rising from his dark fur. He felt as though his veins were full of molten lava.

    Struggling against the pain Jinx moved toward the eastern edge of the forest, heading for the small lake nestled among the trees. It only took him a matter of minutes but time seemed to stretch and warp into hours as he crawled along the wet grass of the forest floor.

           Finally the still waters fell into view and Jinx pulled himself into a shambling lope. The cold lake HAD to end his suffering. He launched himself head-first into the water, taking a deep breath before his face was submerged. The fire seemed to dim inside him, but he could still feel it attempting to sear his tender flesh. After a few moments of blessed release he came back up, gasping and panting for air.

           The air was blanketed with what appeared to be a thick pinkish fog; his world was still bathed in red. A small popping sound from behind him caused the fox to turn wildly, fearful of what he might find. There was nothing there but the water, beginning to pop and churn. Bubbles surfaced as he watched, slowly growing more numerous as the moments rolled past. Finally the surface of the lake was coated in them- the water was boiling. Jinx gasped and bolted, fighting to run back toward the inviting shore.

            The fox collapsed on the rough soil, his heart racing within his chest. He leaned over the lip of the water, staring in wonder as the lake grew calm once more. It was then he caught sight of himself for the first time since his meeting with the beautiful purple-skinned woman. Jinx cried in horror as the beast staring back at him followed suit.

           His once beautiful brown eyes had warped into hideous red orbs that pulsed with an unnatural light; small sharp horns of rounded bone had torn their way through his snout, tiny pools of his blood coagulated around their bases; every breath he took was accentuated by a small plume of smoke with every exhale. Whatever he had become, it was not from this world. A haunting laugh echoed through the trees behind him, turning his burning blood nearly to ice. It seemed so familiar to him, but he could not place it.

             'They yet live, Jinx. Why have you not gone after them? They killed her, they molested her, and they tortured your poor, weak mother. I need you to make them pay, my son. I need you to find them. Only their blood can put me to rest, Jinx. They deserve whatever they get. Can't you see? Don't you want to save me?'

           Jinx closed his eyes against the scorching tears welling up in the corners of his eyes.

             'I do, mother. I want you to be at peace, but the price you ask is too much for me to pay. I cannot take another's life. These men are sworn to heal, and I cannot do this.'

              The voice seemed as though it were right next to his ear. He could almost smell his mother's perfume, although the scent was tainted- Jinx could not put his finger on the underlying smell.

             'But I love you, Jinx, and you love me. You owe me this favor, child. You are the only soul in the world that I can turn to. Please, my son, you have talents far beyond any other creature that walks this earth. Without you, I will be trapped in this hell for eternity.'

           Jinx turned to look. There was no one sitting by his side. The scent was still strong, however. As he passed his red gaze over the lake, he thought back to the visions that Ylluurieth had shown him. A skeletal fox graced with the barest of flesh reaching toward him, trapped in the tiniest of spaces as maggots wormed their way across her mostly-liquefied eyes...

           Rot. The smell was rotting flesh. He could smell his mother's putrefying body near him. Jinx's eyes began to roll as he screamed and began to claw his way back to his feet.

             'No, no, you're not here! I buried you! I saw them bury you! You aren't my mother! Whatever you are, leave me alone!'

           He tried to run, but a tall figure stepped out to block his path. It lifted its face to his, smiling as its flesh slowly dripped down to ground beneath it. Scant hair covered the little bit of scalp left, showing the slightest hint of curls. A silver locket hung around the corpse's neck.

             'I'm afraid you have no choice in this, Jinx.'

           The fox fainted.

           A strong metallic smell roused the black-furred fox. He opened his eyes slowly, aware of the warmth of his body. He found that he was no longer in the familiar forest he had fainted in, but what appeared to be an alleyway in the neighboring city of Deshan. Jinx's breath was labored and his muscles ached, his panting eerie in the darkness. He felt as though he had strained himself to his physical limits, but he could not fathom how. He had reeled into blackness in the forest, losing consciousness at the awful sight of the rotting creature. Why, then, did he hurt so badly? How had he gotten to the city?

           And why was he wet?

           A yellow-bulbed security lamp flickered above him, occasionally lighting up the brick street. It was on one such flash that Jinx had to fight the urge to vomit. Even with his tinted vision he could see that there was blood everywhere- it seemed to pulse with an orange aura beneath his demonic vision. Glancing at down at himself, he could see that he was drenched in it. His eyes traced their way down to the ground, afraid of what they might see.

           Lying at his feet was what appeared to once be a living creature, its body ripped to literal shreds. Scraps of fur and flesh littered the alley, organs flung haphazardly here and there along the road. The stench of the corpse's voided bowels was overpowered only by the stench of its fresh blood, spilled along the ground and walls of this quiet place. As grisly as it was to see this body, the worst of all could be found a little way above the mess. Painted in the blood of this poor victim was a message, a message to Jinx himself-

           HELLO J.

           Jinx fled, his mind struggling to pierce the blackness shrouding his memories. He could remember nothing after blacking out except for the sound of fevered whispers. What had they been saying? It was impossible for him to pick apart single voices from the throng. As he ran he searched for a place to hide, somewhere to rest for the night, any form of shelter. Sirens rang out from the streets- he needed to pick fast. As though on queue his ears picked up the sound of the buzzing neon sign of a nearby mission. Glancing behind him Jinx could see the flashing blue-and-red lights of a nearby police cruiser. They had found the corpse. He grabbed the handle of the Mission's door and pulled. It was unlocked. With little other choice, Jinx ducked inside.

           The sounds of sleeping people calmed his raging heart. He would be safe here; he would leave before the sun rose. He made his way around the cots and sleeping bags, searching for their restroom. He found it tucked behind the eastern wall, complete with a shower and a small rack of cheap toiletries. Locking the door behind him the fox stepped into the shower, turning on the hot water as high as it would go. He scrubbed his fur, massaging the soap in as the water at his feet grew darker and darker with the blood of the creature from the alley. As he leaned back to wash it from his black hair, the water fell against the holes in his snout. He cried in shock at the pain, unable to stay silent. His muzzle flared up in pain, dropping him to his knees. The skin around his horns was amazingly sensitive, almost cripplingly so.

           Jinx turned off the water and closed his eyes, concentrating. He could hear no sounds from the sleeping area save for the snores of the unfortunates. This was good. He shook himself dry and exited the restroom, heading to look for a free cot where he could spend the night. As he rounded the corner, he found a small group of people huddled in the corner. He had woken a few people, at least. The eldest among them, a gray-furred mink, muttered prayers beneath her breath. Though she spoke with amazing speed Jinx could feel every word.

           'Our father, who art in heaven, protect us from this awful creature. We are your faithful flock, the downtrodden, those who hold you in our hearts. Save us. Deliver us from his evil. Guide us through the night. In God's name we pray, amen.'

           Jinx tried to approach them, to tell him he did not mean them any harm, but he found he could not move toward him. As he tried to address them, his voice failed. Their prayers had been answered, apparently. Jinx looked at his hands, graced with wicked claws. What was he that God would protect against him? Was he even the same species he had been born into the world as? Shaking these existential thoughts away he picked a clear spot on the floor and laid down, falling into an uneasy slumber pierced by thoughts of the alluring demon woman who had gotten him into this mess.

            As golden light began to fill the small building, Jinx's eyes snapped open. He had been lying curled on his side, dreaming of a river a blood when the warm glow of the sun reached his face. With a groan the twisted-looking fox stretched and yawned, relishing the feel of his straining muscles. As he brought his arms down he glanced around the sleeping quarters. He was alone- sometime before he roused, all the people had left. Everyone. There was not a single living creature in the mission besides himself. Jinx sighed and got to his feet, heading for the exit.

     As he stepped out into the bright sunlight, he contemplated his options. After the previous night's blackout, he knew he needed information- what if he was sick? He knew of a library a few blocks to the south, where he might be able to learn about his condition. And if he stumbled across information on his physical changes, well, all the better. With his decision made he set off, keeping to the shadowed alleys and backstreets. He met no people on his path.

            Jinx walked through the glass doors into the warmth of the library, his ruby vision drinking in the sight of the towering shelves brimming with books. Reading the signs, he was able to find his way to the Reference section. As he stood pouring over the medical tomes his eyes caught a glimpse of a black leather-bound book inscribed with gold leaf. He walked toward it slowly, his heart beating inexplicably fast within his chest. He could tell the spine was written in Latin, though he could not understand the words. Jinx withdrew the book with a trembling hand, flipping its weathered pages open to the middle. There was a picture of his Ylluurieth, sitting on a gilded onyx throne and surrounded by rotting, engorged corpses. Her silver eyes seemed to dance just as they did in the real world, flames of hunger burning in her skull. The naked creature appeared to be smiling at him knowingly. He read the inscription beneath the image, wondering what it meant.

     'Ylluurieth, Cruciatum et Inexplebilis Libido Reginae'.

    As he watched the page, lost in the sight of the beautiful creature, he was unaware of the approach of a fellow library patron. A young badger woman drew closer to him, peeking over his shoulder at the Latin tome grasped in his slender hands. His ears caught the sound of her exhalation and he whirled around, claws raised in defense. The young woman held up her hands and took a step back.

      "Whoa, there. I'm here to help. You looked troubled. I really don't mean you any harm."

    Jinx lowered his claws and blushed.

      "I'm sorry, miss, it's just an instinctive reaction. DO you happen to know if there are any more books about this woman?"

    He held open the book to the image of Ylluurieth. He could have sworn she had changed positions...

       "Ylluurieth? There's some in the New Age section, some in fiction, a few more in the Catholic section of religion... Why do you ask? Are you writing a report?"

             He stole a quick glance down at the book in his hand. Ylluurieth had moved. She was moving toward the frame, her naked breasts gleaming with sweat. He saw her tail move, her mouth curl in a smile. She was coming closer. She was coming out of the book. Jinx could not suppress a scream of horror. As her claws began to emerge from the yellowed page Jinx's eyes rolled in his skull. His entire body felt as though it were melting from the force of the fire inside of him. He hit the floor, reeling, as his red world drained to black.

            His left side was gummy. Jinx opened his eyes, finding himself lying in crusted pool of blood. With difficulty he was able to extract himself and sit up, fear gnawing at his insides. It was pitch black, but he knew what he would find. He stood and moved toward the wall, feeling for a switch of any sort. After a few moments of nothing his fingers found the hard plastic. He flicked it up.

           He was in the Religion section of the library, the body of the badger woman torn in half at the waist. Her blood had turned the soft gray carpet a rigid, deep maroon. Her face had been torn off. Her torso cavity was completely empty save for her ribs, her intestines draped over the Christian texts and shelves like some sort of twisted tinsel. Blood sullied the holy pages. A crown of gore rested above the badger's bare face. A few feet above the body, the rest of her organs rested against the drying ground.

    They were a message.

    SEE YOU.

    Velvety laughter echoed through the abandoned shelves as Jinx turned to run.

           Jinx's feet seemed to move of their own accord, propelling the blood-stained fox down the streets of Deshan. People moved out of his way in horror, revolted by the gore-streaked fur of the warped fox. His black hair fell in his eyes as he hunched his back, trying to hide from their volatile stares. His mind raced. Every time his world faded out, brutal violence happened in his vicinity. He had no memory of doing it, but neither could he find a reason why it was not him. What had happened to him after his meeting with the sensual creature in the forest? Had she caused his transformation? Was she to blame for the deaths? Was he?

            Caught up in his private turmoil, he did not see where he was headed. Inside his body something else directed his path, something else tugged subtly at his strings. He was not his own, not until he did what he had been called to do.

            When he finally glanced up Jinx found himself in an alley, standing in front of a dark blue door. The red garbage bin to his left was plastered in biohazard warnings. Everything about this place seemed familiar to him, but he could not place it. There was a ghost of a memory writhing around in his mind, something about a gurney and a pristine white sheet... He shook his head and turned back to the door, approaching it cautiously. His hands shook as he reached out for the silver handle. He drew a deep breath as his fingers closed around it.

            The door flung itself open, cracking him hard in the skull. The fox collapsed, his vision hazy. He recognized the sound of shouting and something creaking, but his concussed mind could not place where they belonged. Arms reached down and lifted his neck, placing a Styrofoam brace against his spine. Very gently he was lifted and placed on something hard and cold. Shapes swam before his eyes, dark against the red. His last thought was of his mother as he sank under the waves of unconsciousness.

            There was a sharp stinging in his arm. He could hear something beeping near the right side of his head. Bright white light burned his eyes even through his closed lids. Where was he? Was he dead? He opened his eyes and hissed against the piercing bulbs above him. He was in a glass cage, quarantined alone with various medical equipment.  The sensation in his arm was from a saline drip hooked from a stand to his right. Surrounding his clear prison were many masked figures in white coats, scribbling furiously on clipboards and watching his every moment.

     He was being observed.

       'They're holding you here like a tragic specimen, Jinx. They want to see your insides.'

     Jinx shook his head.

       'They're going to cut you open and fill you with formaldehyde. In the basement there is a dank laboratory where they plan to boil the flesh off of your bones. You're going to die if you stay here, Jinx. You need to break free. You need to make them pay.'

            Jinx screamed. The doctors surrounding him were lecherous corpses, soulless and rotting, gaping at him with dripping eyes. Their mouths were fanged and covered in blood, much like their red-spattered lab coats. They cackled wickedly and brandished hooked tools toward him. Some of the males were engorged. The women's tattered remnants of breasts were graced with hardened nipples. These demons got off on the torture they inflicted upon the innocent.

     He would not be their next victim.

     With a howl of rage the black-furred fox tore the IV from his vein, dripping smoking black blood onto the pristine white-tiled floor. He leaped toward the glass, smoke pouring from his nostril as his temperature rose.

     Once. The glass cracked.

     Twice. The cracks deepened.

     Thrice. He was free.

          The glass shattered outward as the fox dove through, snarling, burning saliva flying from his parted jowls. He pounced on the closest doctor, a young ermine man who had turned to flee. His jaws closed on the soft flesh of the man's throat, crunching down on brittle bones and tissue and tearing them out with a jerk of his head. Hot blood splashed onto his face as the doctor tried to scream with the last of his energy, unable to do more than send a bubbling froth flowing from his gaping wound.

     Jinx leaped again, raking his impossibly sharp claws down the back of an older lynx woman. She fell with a pained cry and he was upon her, tearing her clothes off and grabbing her womanhood with his black talons. He tore her most private of regions to ribbons, slashing and stabbing as her loud screams of agony echoed through the tiny room. He shoved his claws deeper, gouging a path through her womb until he was able to tear his paw out through her stomach cavity, a fistful of organ tissue clutched in his hand triumphantly.

     The doctors gathered at the front of the room, screaming, pounding their fists against the study security door in hopes someone would come by to save them. Jinx would not give them the chance.

     He tore through the throng of terrified people like a dervish, his claws lacerating every inch of flesh he could find. Blood flowed like a river as he worked, carving faces and veins and limbs. One lucky cut completely eviscerated a rat who had nearly managed to break one of the hinges in his panic. His steaming organs fell in a pile at his feet as he tried to shout. Jinx slashed his throat before he could muster the strength.

             Finally the fox stopped, his mouth and claws littered with ruined scraps of flesh and muscle. He panted, smoke furling around his muzzle, and he grinned a bloody grin. His glowing red eyes were wild with glee. He strode toward the security glass and stared through the criss-crossed sliver of glass. A nurse vixen strode past, glancing at the door.

     She mustn't be allowed to tell.

     Yes.

     Jinx took a fiery breath and threw himself against the door. The study metal caved outward. He crashed against it again and it gave, spilling him out into the anaesthetized hallway. He bounded on all fours toward the now-fleeing nurse, he powerful jaws snapped shut on her ankle. He dragged her to the ground and dug his claws into her ribcage. With a twist he pulled, sending the bones flying from her chest. She howled an unearthly noise as Jinx crushed her windpipe with the heel of his hand. Something began to pull him toward the eastern part of the building. He could feel it, a siren's call beckoning him from his slaughter. Leaving the silver vixen's crumpled body on the ground he turned to the east and began to run, following the beacon burning in his chest.

            Red alarm lights flashed in his eyes, accompanying blaring sirens issuing forth from loudspeakers on the walls. Jinx ran, oblivious, determined to reach the place that eagerly pulled him forward. Finally he stopped in front of a brown door. A sign beside the frame marked it as the STAFF ROOM, in no-nonsense capitals. The thing that he longed for was in here.

     Jinx kicked in the door with powerful legs, his paws colliding with the plastic and splintering the durable material. Two men were inside, on cell phones, screaming at what sounded like the police.

       "You don't understand- So much blood- Please! Help us! We- Oh my god. He's here."

     Jinx recognized the men- these were the doctors who worked on his mother. He thought back to the vision Ylluurieth had shown him.

     'My mother was not an old bag,' he growled, his voice seeming flowing from two throats at once.

     The human man turned to his stoat companion.

       "The vixen with cancer. Whatever that thing is now, it used to be her son."

    He turned to address Jinx.

       "Look, we did all we could. Her cancer had progressed to a stage where removing it would do nothing except straining her already weakened body. Surgery would have killed her. We made her comfortable in her last days, son, which is all we could do. You have to understand, doctors can't fix everything, no matter how hard we try. For what it's worth, we're sorry for your loss. We-"

     Jinx cut him off with an outraged snarl.

       'Save your pitiful attempts to curb my wrath, Doctor. I am not here to demand you apologize for her murder. I am here for revenge.'

     Jinx ran towards them, his claws bared, screaming in glee as blood began to fly.

            The black fox stood towering above the desiccated corpses of the two doctors, admiring his work.  There was not one inch of the small staff lounge that was not coated in their vile blood. Their heads had been severed and skinned, their blood-streaked skulls staring blankly at their murderer. Their skin had been flayed from their bones and hung over their chairs like twisted floor rugs. Jinx had carved away their muscles and had devoured chunks of them raw, his jagged fangs leaving marks in the tough meat. Their organs and faces had been hung on the walls, run through with shards of their bones. He looked down at his hand to find their eyes crushed within his palm.

     The gory mess was missing something, though. Jinx tilted he head at the blank, blood-soaked wall above their disembodied faces. He scooped a bit of their mingled excrement and approached his canvas. He could hear a voice in his mind, translating the phrase he wished to write.

     Medice Cura Teipsum.

     Physician Heal Thyself.

     Pleased with his work, he walked over to the sink and rinsed the disgusting filth from his paws. Once he was sure he had gotten every inch of his fur cleansed, he turned to survey the scene once more. He felt amazing. Their murders seemed to free something inside of him, something dark that he had buried until this point. This thing was equally glad to be free. Jinx howled in exultation. His voice carried a strange echo, as though sounded from two sets of vocal chords. He didn't seem to notice his unnatural voice.

            Gunshots rang out loud from the hall, cutting Jinx's celebration short. The door slammed open and six armored police officers entered, their massive pistols trained on the fox. The largest of them, a mastiff, shouted toward the blood-soaked Jinx to surrender or they would fire. Jinx took a step forward.

     Before he could pounce, a searing pain shot through his back, dropping him to his knees. He collapsed in a pile guts and twisted his arm back to scratch at the source of his new agony. He dug his talons into his black fur, tearing at his skin to get to the burning spot. Beneath his coat his flesh began to ripple. In their shock the officers lowered their weapons, watching in horror as Jinx's scrambling grew more frantic. The fox began ripping chunks of his flesh and muscle away, sending his boiling black blood spattering the ground beneath him.

             As his flayed his own back, two black bones began to jut out of his freshly-opened wounds. They grew larger as they extended. They were oddly jointed, bent double as they sprouted from the fox's back. Once they were free of his flesh they opened, allowing a dark black membrane to being knitting itself between the onyx osseous shards. Jinx screamed as the gouges on his back began to mend themselves around the new growths. The police screamed in horror as these new black wings began to beat madly. Pulling himself together and gritting his teeth through the pain, Jinx saw that his chance for escape was now or never. He turned away from the terrified police officers and dove through the window, his new appendages carrying him safely to the street below.

         As the black-furred fox's feet touched the ground, he caught the faint smell of sulfur drifting by. A woman's voice chuckled near his ear- he could feel her exhale.

       'You're so much more than I could have hoped for, Jinx,' the voice cooed. 'No other mortal has been so... indulgent. The trail of horror you left behind is something to be admired, my pet. My kind will feed well of their fear.'

     In his mind he could almost envision the sensual demoness whispering in his ear, her naked body pressed close to his...

     Jinx shook the thought from his head.

       'I will do better,' he thought. 'I will do better.'

     The wings gracing the fox's back flapped twice before he took off at a run, laying them flat against as he headed back towards the forest. Inside him the fire was raging, no longer searing but bolstering the warped creature. He relished the memory of the way their weak flesh parted at his command, their blood spurting forth to cover his body in its warmth. The sensation was so foreign to him, so unthinkable, but he could not hide how fantastic he felt. Every sense he possessed was heightened, the lava flowing through his body burning eagerly for the next blow. There could be no doubt. Killing felt amazing to him.

             Jordyn nudged her car door closed, juggling her groceries precariously in her arms as she made her way to the front door. Her keys jangled as she searched through them, balancing her harvest between her body and the outlying wall. She managed to find the correct once when she heard a bloodcurdling cry from somewhere behind her. She whirled, her food and keys falling to the pavement as her arms relaxed in shock.

     There was a blonde-haired human woman on her knees, screaming as a hulking black creature ground a talon against her temple. A small trickle of blood began to bead around the wound, finally gaining the weight to trail down her soft flesh. Jordyn found herself paralyzed with fear, unable to help the poor woman as the monster dug its way into her brain. Finally it roared triumphantly hooked its finger, tearing the phalange out of her weakened skull. Her body slumped to the side, a mask of agony etched upon her face. The monster turned to Jordyn, its red eyes blazing in triumph.

       The vixen stared back at him, her mouth moving soundlessly as her mind tried to process what she was seeing.

    She knew that face.

     It was her brother.

    The creature snarled and bounded away, lashing out at any person who happened to be in his way. Bodies began to litter the ground; his claws never seemed to miss their mark.

           Jordyn snatched her keys off of the ground and nearly dove into her car, determined to follow the murderous monster that looked so much like Jinx. She had not spoken to him since their grandmother's funeral; as far as she knew, no one had. He had left the burial in a rage, refusing to speak to anyone, and had simply vanished. It had been months. The young fox woman knew that the death of their mother so many years ago had hit poor Jinx the hardest, but she could not understand just how much impact it had on him.

           After the loss of their father, they and their younger sister had been taken in by their kind grandparents. They were loved and cared for, but the tormented Jinx had withdrawn further and further from them. Finally, when he came of age, he had left to make it on his own. Until the funeral of their Nan he had remained silent, out of contact with his siblings and the rest of his blood relatives.

           It had hurt Jordyn deeply. She loved her brother, and as children they had been nearly inseparable. Jinx had often commented that she was the only person in the world he could confide in, and there were many nights spent between them sneaking into the woods to play Swords or Robbers. What could have twisted her brother's handsome visage so awfully in the few years since they had seen each other?

           She pushed the pedal to the floor and drove after the creature, able to follow the trail of gore right to him.

           She checked the glove box at the first stop light. It was good.

           Her pistol was still inside.

           The steel door shattered inward, sending shrapnel flying into the patrons of the small dive far. A woman screamed. Jinx didn't care. He glanced around, his red gaze falling on the startled faces of every patron. His beer forgotten, a young man turned to rush the towering newcomer. He lowered his head and charged towards Jinx, bellowing in a way he seemed to find menacing. Jinx smirked. He rushed forward as well, meeting the fool head on and jamming his snout-horns into the man's face. Crumpling to the floor and clutching his face, the patron cried in pain. Jinx licked the blood from his muzzle and started toward the next closest person, a balding gentleman dressed in dark leather.

           This human stared in abject horror as Jinx grabbed him by the throat and hoisted him into the air. The man scratched and gnashed his teeth, struggling against the iron grip of the murderous fox. His fingernail drew black blood, but Jinx didn't seem to notice. He squeezed tighter, watching the man's flesh slowly turning red as he suffocated. When his eyes began to bulge from their sockets Jinx dug his talons through the meat of his neck, severing his artery and gouging the bone of his spine. Blood splashed against Jinx's bare torso as he flung the corpse away, leaving a warm trail as it sailed to the western corner of the building.

           The people were panicking now.

           A woman, presumably the one who loosed the shriek earlier, was crawling amidst the chaos of stampeding patrons fleeing the bar. She was a white-furred mouse, her pristine coat stained with the blood of the biker. She would be an easy kill.

           Jinx leaped on her from behind, catching a knot of her hair and tearing her head backwards. He could smell the wet stench of her fear, feel the gooseflesh crawling along her skin, hear the frantic beating of her heart. He lowered his muzzle and ran a burning tongue along the nape of her neck. The mouse woman shuddered and sobbed, begging for her life as Jinx contemplated how to end her life. He began to apply pressure against the middle of her spine, where he sat kneeling against her fragile frame. As the weight increased she began to scream. Jinx could feel every knob of her vertebrae, her spine beginning to creak beneath his power. Finally he drove down with all his might, snapping the bone and severing the fragile cord of nerves. Her body went limp beneath him as her pathetic whimpers ceased.

           The people had stopped screaming. They were staring at Jinx, hardly daring to breathe as he stood up and began moving towards them. He neared the cowering group, huddled together in fear as they tracked his approach with their wild eyes. The burning in his chest grew. He was close enough to see their perspiration beading against their flesh and fur. He had an idea.

           Jinx drew in a deep breath and bellowed, able to feel the burn of the heat he released as a wave of burning air reached the waiting customers. Their flesh began to blister and ripple, melting and bubbling as it began to drip to the floor. Internal organs were set aflame within rapidly-appearing skeletons as the blast destroyed their bodies. The wood behind them began to crack and blacken, but he refused to stop until all of the energy inside him had been released.

           The pooling mess of flesh smoked and sputtered as he ceased his roar, the intense heat hanging oppressively in the air as the sounds of weeping reached Jinx's finely-tuned ears. He turned and his pulsing eyes sought the source of the disturbance. It did not take him long to find a vixen woman cowering beneath the bar, her curled brown locks tussled and matted from her attempt to escape. Jinx stared down at her, his joy ebbing away.

            He knew that face.

            It was his mother's.

            Jordyn followed Jinx's not-so-subtle trail to a run-down looking dive bar not too far from the forest where they and their sister had spent most of their youth. She recognized it as the bar their father sometimes frequented on the rare occasions he went out to celebrate with his friends.

           She blinked an unbidden tear away.

           The door was missing. She left her car idling on the gravel and crept toward the portal leading to the darkness inside.

           As she drew near the smell or burning hair and skin met her sensitive nostrils. She covered her face with her hand and stepped inside, terrified of what she might find lurking in the blackness. As her eyes adjusted to darkness, she felt her gorge force its way to her throat. She fell to her knees and vomited, from the stench but also from the gore. There was not much blood, save for a trail leading to a throatless corpse, but there was a mound of black, red, and pink material that smoldered and bubbled ominously near the back exit. She could tell what it was from the foul odor emanating from the disgusting pile- it was flesh, marred here and there by splintered bones and skulls.

     Something had melted a large amount of people down to a disgusting sludge.

      Across the pile, paw-shaped indents led out of the door and through the damp soil behind the small building. They were accompanied by a deep, even grove, as though something had been drug beside him.

       He had a hostage.

           As she turned to run back to her car, Jordyn momentarily forgot about the pile of former people behind her. He foot caught on a skull and sent her flying face-first into the warm liquid, filling her mouth with filth and covering her fur in sickly-smelling muck. She screamed and fought to stand, spitting and retching as she struggled to clean her mouth. Shaking, she headed for door, pausing only to grab a glass of wine from an empty table and rinse the bits of charred pelts from the inside of her muzzle.

           She had a good idea of where her brother, if that creature could even still be called her brother, was headed.

           Their home.

           Perhaps he was still the boy she used to know after all.

                  Jinx ran, his wings flat against him as he drug the screaming vixen through the thick underbrush of the forestry. Branches cut and scraped against the pair, the black-furred demon oblivious to the tiny wounds while his smaller, red-furred captive shrieked at the sight of her blood. He did not know how long he ran, with her hair gripped tight in his paw, but it felt like a lifetime.

           The sun had begun to sink beneath the horizon, casting an ethereal purple glow around the heavily wooded area. The vixen had ceased screaming, resigned to whimpering after her voice gave out. Jinx's feet padded against the soil, carrying him back where it all began.

           The crumbling ruins of their former home appeared in a clearing before him, looking almost corpse-like beneath his blood-soaked vision. He slowed as he neared the closest wall, adorned with a large hole where the brick had crumbled. Jinx stepped inside and hoisted his victim through behind him.

           A rotting wooden rocking chair sat beside a blackened fireplace long since void of the warmth of burning logs. Nature had begun to reclaim the house they had been taken from so long ago. Vines crept along the walls, entering through the shattered remains of the glass windowpanes, and various weeds had begun to rise between the wooden slats of the floorboard. It was a wild place now, but Jinx could still feel the presence of the happiness he had felt as a child, when their family was thriving. He cast his red eyes towards the empty chair, sinking to his knees- he could almost see here there, singing as she rocked his youngest sister to sleep, Jinx and Jordyn sitting at her feet and following along the best they could.

           They had been such a happy family...

           Tears of scalding black blood dripped down his face as he began to sob, the photo of him and his mother clutched in his paw. He had not noticed himself retrieving it, but he didn't care- all that mattered was that it remained close to him. The vixen he had brought with him cowered behind him, confused by the monster's suddenly display of such powerful emotions. He seemed to suffer more truly than anyone she had ever known. Quietly she gathered her courage and crawled toward him, reaching out a manicured paw in comfort. When her fur came in contact with his she cried out as though seared with hot iron. Jinx turned, sniffling, the fur beneath his eyes matted from his unusual tears.

             She was no longer some nameless woman from a bar; she was his mother adorned in a beautiful, flowing robe. A golden light pierced his red haze, as radiant and dazzling as the woman it enveloped. She stood tall, smiling down at her only son, sparkling tears falling from her luminous eyes.

             "Jinx..."

           "Jinx..."

           Jordyn stood in the doorway, watching the warped creature staring mesmerized at the bleeding vixen standing above him. The poor girl was shaking with fear but a look of compassion on her face told the young woman that she would not flee. Jordyn reached into her pocket and gripped the handle of her pistol as she stepped across the threshold.

           True, this thing was still Jinx, but the murder... Jinx, no matter how much he brooded, would never do such a thing willingly. She longed to speak to him, to ask him what had happened- maybe she could save him, if she only tried...

           The light of the moon sent shafts gleaming through the holes in the roof, throwing Jinx's ghastly visage into relief. Jordyn could see the blood and flesh plastered to her brother's black fur. It was a grim sight indeed- she could not suppress a gasp of horror.

           The noise shattered the illusion. Jinx found himself staring at the harlot from the bar, gazing down at him with pity. He felt his anger swell. He did not need pity. He did not need compassion. He was a creature of darkness, not some poor, weak dunce. Outraged by her audacity to feel sorry for him the beast leaped toward her, snarling. He collided with her, knocking her against the wall with the force of his momentum.

           He lashed out with his wings, dragging the sharp edge of the membrane against the young woman's bared flesh. She tried to escape, her movements bringing the soft flesh of her chest against the dangerous appendage. IT sliced through the thin material of the dress, cutting through the muscle and tissue of her breasts. She propelled herself forward with the fore of her moment, shriek as it slid up along her torso. Blood and skin dropped to the ground in a heap as the vixen crumpled to the ground, sock setting in as her blood flowed freely.

             With her out of the way Jinx set his sights on the intruder in the doorway, trespassing on his most sacred of locations. It was a fox woman, with pixie-cut black hair and like green eyes.

             His father's eyes.

           'J... Jordyn... Why are you here? Have you been following me?'

           His dual voice echoed through the ruined home, chilling his sister to the bone.

               "You didn't exactly make it hard to find you. You ran through my street, slaughtering anything that moved. I thought it might have been you, but I wasn't sure until I found the bar. I knew where you were headed. You always used to run away and end up here, remember? You'd sleep in mother's chair. Nan had to carry you to the car..."

                  She trailed off, unable to speak of the past any longer.

              'In case you cannot tell, my beloved sister, I am not exactly the man you used to know. I was, for a time, but I have found my true calling since then. Did you know that living creatures void their bowels when they die? It's a disgusting occurrence, but one that never ceases to be hilarious.'

           "But what did this to you? What has changed you so drastically?"

           He smirked at her, his bloodstained fangs shining brightly in the moonlight.

             'What always changes men, dear sister. A woman. You can meet her, if you like. She's not picky about her lovers. She might find you... interesting. Ylluurieth has a beautiful home. It's very warm. Shall I send you to her? It only hurts for a minute, unless I want it to hurt longer.'

             "Where does she hail from, this woman of yours? The festering bowels of hell?"

             'As a matter of fact, Jordyn, she does. I will dash your corpse upon the brick and devour your heart. When you make it to her realm, she will rape you and cut you a thousand times over. Would you like that, Joey, an eternity of suffering? I am her chosen, you know. Her favorite. She could reunite you with Nan and Pops and our father. You could be one big, happy family, rotting and writhing in her thrall until the end of time. And I will deliver you to her myself!"

           Jordyn drew forth the gun, shaking in fear, aiming at the monster who was once her closest companion.

             "I swear on our mother's grave, Jinx, if you come near me I will end whatever life you still have. I loved you! We were best friends! You abandoned us, left us to rot and you dare threaten me? You're vile, Jinx! You've done terrible things to us and to the people you've slain. You're a twisted, horrible monster now. You may have been my brother, but now you are nothing but a blight. I'm so sorry."

           She tensed her finger.

           Jinx howled and steeled himself to pounce.

             'I WILL KILL YOU. I WILL TEAR YOUR LIMBS FROM YOUR BODY AND GRIND YOUR INTESTINE INTO THE STONE. I WILL SPEAR YOUR WOMB WITH A JAGGED SHARD OF BONE TORN CLEAN FROM YOUR CALF. YOU WILL SCREAM FOR RELEASE, BUT THE END WILL NOT COME. I WILL NOT PERMIT YOU THAT. YOU WILL NOT LEAVE HERE WITH YOUR LIFE.'

           As he scream the echo in his voice grew to a cacophony of sounds spoken from a myriad of throats, in dead languages and the common English. His words carried power, power older than the earth itself, power that was aching to devour.

           He leaped toward the small woman, his face twisted into a cruel caricature of the brother she once loved.

           Sobbing, screaming, the vixen pulled the trigger.

           The gunshot rang out like thunder, dropping the hulking black beast to the floor. Black blood gushed from the fist-sized hole in his skull. As the vital fluid pooled beneath his body, he turned his dimming eyes to the form of his sister, weeping on her knees as the pain of her actions gripped her heart.

             'T... thank... you... J... Joe...'

           He fell limp.

           A dark purple smoke began to pour from the entry wound, filling the front room quickly. It was noxious, and the deep breaths poor Jordyn took were beginning to take their toll. She began to cough and sputter, the scent of burning lavender thick in her nostrils and she began crawling toward her brother's still form.

           She heard a sultry laugh, seeming to fill every square inch of the room at once. Jordyn stared at the smoke, mesmerized as the laughter grew louder and louder. A pair of slanted eyes, filled with flickering silver flames, began to appear in the poison mist.

           Suppressing the urge to scream the vixen bolted for the fresh air, gasping for breath as soon as she was clear of the horrible miasma. She ran to her car and threw herself in, Sending dirt and grass flying as she raced away from the strange scene. She felt empty.

           The mist coalesced into a feminine form. This strange, evanescent being crouched down over the unmoving body of the demonic fox, running her incorporeal hands over every inch of his gore-streaked corpse. A forked tongue darted out and licked the bullet wound clean. She was smiling.

           In the fox's hand he clutched a weathered photograph.

           A baby smiled up at the night sky.

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  3. WRITERSBLOCK

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    filthygod
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    He always meant to do good. Always. Even at the expense of others, he'd make the world better. But for who? Himself? He'd never thought about that before. Silas Wilson stood in front of the plate sized mirror on the back of his door, checking his hair one final time before leaving his room and heading out to the congregate in their church pews. The church wasn't far from the compact home he lived in. The community Silas put together out here was isolated but healthy as they got visitors sometimes and were always open to new members. The nearest town had all but forgotten them though still. They'd been written off as a religious cult and nothing more than a bunch of odd believers. And Father Silas was their priest. He wore a red robe that reached midway down his calves so he could walk in black dress shoes down the church aisle to the podium without tripping. A silver cross hung from a leather cord around his neck. He kept his fur trimmed and his hair cut, wanting to be the perfect vessel for God's love. He was making a church full of god food.
    The community hushed as Silas came inside and shook the man who was holding the door's hand graciously. Church was beginning. The session was normal perhaps, nothing special to an outsider besides the fact this man was reading out of a revised Bible, till the end. "And as a sign of our undying love, our pure spirits! We will bleed for you, Lord~ As you did for us. May this precious blood guide you to this Church and even deeper into our hearts. Amen," Silas ended the final prayer and reached behind the podium on the singular shelf to grab what looked like a collection plate except a serrated steak knife was balanced on top the open silver bowl holding just enough holy water to cover the bottom.

    The congregate started to line up as if they'd all done this hundreds of times before, making a line that curved through the pews and started in front of the carpeted step that led to the podium. Silas held his hand out for all to see, the knife in a firm grip in his remaining hand. He put the knife to the barely healed up wound on his left palm, closing his fingers around the blade before pulling the knife tightly against his skin and back again in a sawing motion. His breath caught a little at the pain, it always did. As often as he repented for his sins through blood, he never had gotten used to sharp pain. He opened his hand, tentatively wiggling his fingers as he flipped his hand over top the collection plate. A few hearty drops of his bright red blood fell into the water and dissipated in murky swirls. Silas straightened, turning to sit the collection plate on the step in front of him and in front of the first person in line. The woman eagerly held her scarred hands out as if she awaited food or money instead of a cut. Silas put the knife blade across both her palms, not aligning it with her current wounds as they seemed to be scabbed over. She closed her fingers around the blade without question, keeping her grip tight as the priest sawed a nasty cut into her hands. She cried out, head falling as she whimpered but she didn't pull away. An obedient pet like all the rest of the women, men and children here. Innocent lambs for Silas to completely and utterly corrupt without ever realizing it. As the blood sacrifice continued, the God it was for kept watch. A fake Saint, the fallen God fed off the pain and suffering of mortal beings and had been whispering new religious bullshit into Silas' ear for years now. Without this creature's help, Silas wouldn't have anything. He knew that. He worshiped a monster believing it to be his miracle worker. And yet? Time was running out for the community on the Hill. The false Saint grew hungrier and hungrier for more by the day. As the people of Silas' little home cried and bled in the monster's name- it was already wondering just how sweet they'd taste.

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    TheCuddleFishV
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    Cel had heard so many different prayers, ones from blessings for their families to even blessings for a murder. Of course, Celcius never answered those. But this one was different, one much more wholesome.

     

    “My friend has cancer and I wish for it to be me instead. She doesn’t deserve it and I want her to have a full life. While I, well, I have nothing to offer for this world. No one will miss me. But she has so much to give. Please, Celcius, goddess of our great forest. Please hear my prayer and save her.” 

     

    Celcius was taken aback when she had heard this prayer. Never before had she heard such pleading and even desperation. She wondered if this is what true love looked like, and even felt like. She sat near her shrine, tails feathers rustling with the wind as she ran a talon along the concrete that was the foundation. She was thinking, thinking of what to do with this prayer. She wanted to answer it, to fulfill this duty. But a part of her told her that what if this person did not deserve to die? After another brief moment of collecting her plan, she decided that she would pay this mortal a visit. Her great wings spread wide as she walked into the middle of her clearing. They swooped down with great force, the sound like a sonic boom. Now in the air, Celcius let her wings stay spread as she flew towards the village of her followers. It won’t be hard to find them. She just hoped that they hadn’t done anything to themselves yet.

    Help me.txt

  4. Notes:
    In this story i use the Term MetaMales to refer to a mono sexed people that appear male but has a vaginal equivalent as well as a penis. They consider themselves distinct from Hermaphrodites so i do not use that term. They are Basically an MPreg Species.
    I use masculine pronouns when referring to MetaMales ( Term Barrowed from someone else ) as they are mostly Masculine in identity, and have not given them a pronoun other than He.
    Also this story has 2 characters named Dave. : /

     

     

    The woods were darkening and they couple had come a long way. They would have been an odd sight had anyone seen them. Both were fat gentlemen, both appeared to be canids of mixed or wolf like origin, not quiet wolves, not malamutes, not huskies. Just Vaguely wolf/dog like. One was very different from the other though. One had 4 legs and an extra body. The other man, with the standard 2 legs rode on his back as he would a horse. The were in mild conversation mostly rehashing what had been said before.

                    “ So you are obligated to breed and be Bred because of low, population, you have to do this in a designated spot, and it is so secretive that ‘non living but us’ can know about it, but since I know I about it I have to come willingly to be killed for knowing, but if I don’t come, I will be killed.” The fat man riding the taur asked.

                    “Yup.” The taur said and reached back to pat his thigh with a strong meaty hand.

                    “You do realize how dumb that sounds right?” the other asked as he held the love handle of the man he was riding.

                    “oh yeah it is stupid as hell, but since we aren’t naturally evolved we have some of that Fate war era contract shit to deal with, so even the ones that think it is stupid got to follow it.” The Taur said.

                    “Ok but, like we have determined a work around here, you are gonna vore me, go have your forest frenzy, then reform me after, wouldn’t I still need to be eliminated?” The man on the Taur’s back asked as he cuddled into his mate’s back.

                    “Only during ‘the gathering’ which happens every 20 years. So if I put you in my belly for tonight, you will be fine until it happens 20 years later. So by saying ‘I do’ and being told all this shit you will have to be vored, at least once every 20 years. As a way around the contract.” His mate explained.

                    “Oh nooo, I am being threatened by a good time.” The 2 legged man said sarcastically.
                    “Also if I understand it, I just have to ‘not be among the living’ on that date in some form, like it doesn’t have to be you who has me as a meal, any vore will work right?”

                    “Yup, if you outlive me I know some others like me who will oblige or you can have one of our other vore friends do it, it is just you have to come to this first one, be ‘sentenced’ and then after I eat you there, it is all good.” The taur said.

                    “is it totally going to invalidate anything that I will certainly be alive inside you for hours during the thing?” The 2 leggeg man asked.

                    “No, it won’t. You are ‘contractually dead’, even if you are happily living in my tank. Some of the the, uhh breeders will likely know you are there and might play with or prod you so don’t think you can just doze off.” The taur said.

                    “So it will be like our honey moon pretty much.” The 2 legged man said.

                    “Yeah, but less karaoke.” The taur answered.

    They walked in silence for a bit before entering a clearing. In it were various taurs, mostly of bear or canid form gathered solemnly. Most were naked or wore ceremonial paint. Others, like a polar bear Taur guy was wearing a rather nice shirt and suit jacket and he looked impatient and reagle. Despite being nude from the waist down. The pair approached him from behind and his small nub of a tail didn’t hid anything. On display was his balls, his ass, and in the space between them a small slit that was being held together with internal muscles. He was, a meta-male, like all that were gathered here.

                    “Oh great, an outsider, we are going to have to listen to the Condemnation speech.” Said the polarbear adjusting his tie as he caught sight of the new arrivals.

                    “ Hey now, then we get to watch our boy Poswall vore his 2 legged hubby, don’t tell me you aren’t looking forward to that now Bergrym,” said a meaty individual on the other side of the pair. He was very darkly pigmented save for his white underbelly. He walked over and patted Poswall on the shoulder. Then he turned to the 2 leegged man on Poswall’s back.

                    “Hi, my name is Dave, it is ok to forget it, there are a billion Daves.” He introduced himself.

                    “Well isn’t that Awkward, I am also Dave. Forgetting your name would be difficult indeed” Dave the 2 legged said and shook the other taur’s hand.

                    “Davet, don’t be so flippant about it, the prospect might frighten him.”

                    “Oh, no, we do vore all the time, not something to be frightened of.” Dave the 2 legged responded cheerfully. He wasn’t wearing any clothing so his middling sized gut was on display. He rubbed hit when he said he did vore all the time. He heard a grunt and the Polar bear adjusted his tie again. But he had a hint on excitement on his face.

                    “You Brought an outsider, non living can witness this Yadda yadda yadda you know the deal…” Came a voice that started off stern and grandiose then fell into dismissive tones. The speaker seemed to be a Foxtaur, covered in muscle but with abs covered by a fine layer of fat. He was painted and held an official looking scepter.

                    “All know the Condemnation?” He Asked

                    “Aye” everyone said, most bored, some voices angry.

                    “Do you know the Penalty?” The Ritual leader said point at legged Dave.

                    “Um yes.”

                    “Good, lets get on with it instead of the 2 hour speech the old ritual master would recite. Proceed Poswall.” The ritual leader instructed.

                    “I love, you, have fun in there hun.” Poswall said leaning down to kiss Dave then opening his mouth. Dave Looked upward and let his love’s mouth descend over his face. With a squishing sound Poswall’s maw descended over dave and he repositioned a few time to get him in deep. After he was far enough in, Poswall lifted him so his plump bottom and erect Member were fully highlight by the moon light.  Poswall held his head back and gulped, his jaw stretching to surround his mate’s girth. Poswall gulped and swallowed and would have forgeten everyone around and enjoyed it slowly but he heard Bergrym, grunt a little and heard his breath speed up. Poswall oppend one eye and notice that the large member underneath the polarbear Taur was fully exposed. For all his Stoic Refinment Bergrym really got excited by vore but no one would do anything until this part was done. So he grabbes daves legs and gulped till his toes disappeared down his throat. He also felt the wonderful stretch from his first stomach and the belly he had that was the equivalent of a 2 legger’s abdomen was distended and sagging with the not inconsiderable weight of his 2 legged lover. It was squirming slightly as Poswall rubbed it.

                    “The Sentence has been carried out.” The New ritual leader spoke.

                    “You may now begin to mate with whom you will.” Came the order and people began to group up in 2s,3s, or 4s. Dave, or Davet as his real name was walked to the front of Poswall and gave his squirming gut a  good rub. Poswall was about to ask why he would instead of mating when Bergrym Hastily clamboured up on Davet’s back and rested his forelegs over Davet and gripped his shoulders, and learned in to desperately Nuzzle and Davet’s fat neck, but keeping one eye open to watch Poswall’s belly as it wriggled. Davet Grinned at Poswall then his grin tightened and brightened as Bergrym pushed himself inside. Poswall actually sat his hindquarters down and laughed as Davet pushed on the squirming form of Dave.

                    “oooo yeah you sneaky fuck,…. You know I like that and you knew it would get Bergrym going.” Davet Just Nodded with a big grin as he occasionally let out grunts. Bergrym was big and pretty strong and looked like he was going all in, so despite Davet’s large size he was being bumped and moved.  To Get Bergrym to thrust harder Davet began yanking on his tie. He Pulled on it hard when Bergrym Grunted and tried to bite into Davet’s shoulder as the PoalrBear Taur Climaxed. The tie Yanked stopped him form doing so.

                    “No Biting yet.” Davet said after Byrgrym had finished an pulled out. Bergrym responded by hastily undoing his shirt and tie and standing fully nude looking Davet up and down. He Had a grin that was  competitive and respectfully lustfull at the same time.

                    “Maybe during round 2.” Bergrym said and walked a little way off to rest for a while.

                    “So what arrangement did you make with Dinner Dave, you gotta stay celebate or…?”

                    “Naw, he wants kids, or more like wants me to have kids since I want kids. I am just being a bit picky, even though that isn’t supposed to be how we do it… you wanna give me a mount or 3? I actually like you.”

                    “Would love to, but wouldn’t Dinner throw you off balance a little like that. Maybe you should let him….” In the middle of Davet’s sentence Poswall lay down on his side and looked up.         

                    “Shut up and fuck me dave.” Poswall said and Davet crawled over him and got his dick in position. He squatted down on his haunches a little and thrust awkwardly till he found a hole and entered. Poswall lay on the ground laughing at the awkward angle but both were having fun and 2 Legged dave was rocking back and forth in Poswall’s gut to make him laugh all the harder.

     

                    Inside the dark soft Warmth Dave of the 2 legs was enjoying the shocks and jiggles going through his mate’s body and tried to imagine what was going on out there. It feelt like Poswall was on his side and the rhythmic thumps were a dead give away that someone was copulating with him. Occiasially for fun dave pushed on sections of Poswall’s belly to make an indent. After a while he felt meat hand pushing those buldges back down playfully. Because of Dave’s innate talents he didn’t need to breath, and the tingle of acid was more a thrill than a painful sensation. He ran his hands and face across the slimmy inside of Poswall’s first stomach and wondered what fun was going on outside. He couldn’t tap into Poswall’s senses like some of his prey friends talked about, at least not without more practice he couldn’t. One of his friends, a 3 foot tall mouse who used to be in the Army had told Dave what movie he had been watching, what socks he had bee wearing and how many times Dave had jacked off after he put the little mouse in his belly on a whim one weekend. Dave loved the feeling of his little mouse buddy compressed into a tight ball in dave’s distended stomach he loved being that for someone. He just need to develop the Talents further. He tried to focus on the advice his little mouse had given him after stewin away in his gut that weekend. He concentrated on Poswall’s mind, his body, his nervous system. For a moment he felt the hands massaging his stomach as if it was his own, and felt the stretch of a large, very large in fact, mass sliding in and out of a part Dave was sure he didn’t have. It was there for a moment then he lost it. Maybe he would have to get more advice from his little mouse friend.

     

                    Outside Poswall thought he felt Dave touch his mind briefly but the sensation faded when Davet began Climaxing in his special Metamale Vaginal equivalent. There was no medical name for it as it had some differences in structure and Metamale individuals,  never wanted to call it a Vagina because to them it wasn’t a female organ, but a metamale one. A 2 legged Metamale he knew called it his Dude womb but that name could never be take seriously. Poswall realized he was doing that thing in which he started considering the universe biologty and everything after a good orgasm and brought his mind back to thee present.

                    “Damn dude Davet, you fuck like a dumptruck.” Poswall said. Davet was pulling out after loosing his load and was panting happily.

                    “Is that good? I have never been fucked by a dumptruck.” He said as he stretch and moved his body cooling down from the awkward angle. Davet was looking down.

                    “ I would offer you a handy but this is the one night we ain’t suppost to waste it. Wanna…? Nope looks like someone else is claiming me.” Davet said as a skinny Coyote guy took his chance and hopped on. Shrugging Poswall awkwardly got up and went to search for people to mate with that caught his fancy. He Liked the way Dinner Dave as Davet put it felt swaying from his waist as he walked.

                    “Dinner Dave” Dave thought to himself as he sat in Poswall’s juices. He had heard that thought and if made him chuckle. He was getting brief flashes of what Poswall was seeing and thinking, but they were so intermittent. He just enjoyed the sloshing as his mate walked around. He closed his eyes and concentrated again. He imdeailty saw something that gave him a surge of pleasure in his boner. The polaybear taur from earlier had another guy on his back and was mounting him by just standing over him. He had his hand on his front hips and was lazily twitching his back hips and driving himself in a little deeper each time. The Bottom looked to be getting acclimated to it and he was some sort of bear cougar mix. Then it went dark again and all he could feel was Poswall’s belly working on him.

     

                    “Hello, I am the New ritual master, the old one Retired, My name is Refoln and thanks for the show earlier. That was something to behold.” The Muscular but round bellied foxtaur said introducing himself. There were 3 people resting on the ground and it looked like he had taken turns mating with them. He was using his refractory period to make connections.

                    “Oh, welcome I guess, that’s my husband, I warned him about some of this weird stuff before we married, didn’t scare him off.” Poswal said

                    “What made you marry? We usually don’t do that.”

                    “We were made not to do monogamy, by wizards thousands of years ago, first I don’t like to let some dead cook define me, and Marriage is not strictly monogamous like it was when it was defined when we were made. I am married to Dave, but Dave has special friends who he sleeps with, and he lets me do the same. We are also both married to another man, so we aren’t married by the definition of the forbiddance, but we are married by the Definition accepted in the nation of Terracia.” Poswall said all this wondering if he was about to cause tension, he could never be fully cast out, there were contracts built into them against that. But he had just Told the ritual master what little he thought of the Binds that had existed since their creation.

                    “Understandable. When we were made we were denied monogamy, but we were not denied love.” He leaned in and whispered “Besides, The mages in the Grand tower of Terracia have figured out how to un bind us from our making contracts. We can become completely free like natural born beings.” The foxtaur finished in his hushed tones.

                    “And besides, I have mounted so many tonight I wouldn’t mind a change.” He said outloud as if they had been discussing copulation the whole time. Reflon turned and lifted his tail present to Poswall. With effort Poswall reared up, managing to lift dave and then plopped onto the ritual master. He lined up and thrusted and entered the Foxtaur’s anus instead of the Vaginal Equivaling. It happened sometimes and it could make some annoyed but this guy seemed to enjoy it. He squished digesting Dave against the Ritual master’s back.

                    “Oh he is still squirming, that feels really great actually.” Refon said as he was bent forward by dave’s squirming form. Poswal took it slow so the lump of Dave could entertain Refon.

                    Pressed up against someone’s back Dave concentrated again and a lovely image snapped into place. He felt as if his cock was up to the hilt into an ass and his gut was weighing down a bottom. He could see Poswal’s hands massaging some muscular shoulders. It faded in an out but he was getting the sensations. The mix of the tingles from his love’s stomach juices and the sensation lazily humping a backside were too much and Dave came, adding extra protein to Poswall’s stomach and he fell asleep.

     

                    After a few hours everyone was getting tired. Poswal had shifted Dave from his top abdominal belly to his lower one between his four legs. Dave made such a round lump that Poswal couldn’t really mount anyone anymore. So he mostly stood there while those still with stamina in them took turns on him. It was Bergrm and 4 legged dave who where switching out to keep poswal entertained. Bergrym was up now and he was pumpin away valiantly.

                    “Is it my imagination or do I feel your 2 legged guy still squirming? Bergrym asked.

                    “He is still alive and well, and I think he wants in on the action after his little nap.” Poswal answered. Poswal felt Bergrym Begin cumming into him again. As he was finishing up the polarbear taur said something strange.

                    “Poswal, I want to get married like you did how do I get around the old creration contracts?” He asked as he flopped down in the dirt. Instead of taking his turn 4 legged dave kneeled down and listened too. Poswal explained what he had to the Ritual master and both men listened.

                    “Dave you crass fat fuck, will you marry me and bring your perverted room mate so we can circumvent this anti monogamy thing?” Bergrym asked.

                    “Yes, you pompus overdressed rich cotton ball, I will marry you.” Dave answered and they embraced they locked their muzzles together in a deep kiss and the only thing that from looking lascivious were joyful tears in both their eyes.

    TaurVorestory - Copy.docx

  5. Ralen-Lykos
    Latest Entry

    It is a long and solemn walk back to the castle. The rattling of the heavily laden cart and the steady foot falls of the horses are the only sound. Not one word is spoken; none can find it in their hearts to do more than march in sombre silence alongside the sad fare. The soldiers and guards carry their helmets close to their hearts and as the procession passes the first of the houses, they are joined by a steady flow of villagers. No words are needed to explain to the newcomers the contents of the cart. Mourners fall quietly in step – silent and with heads bowed. As word is taken to the castle, a crowd begins to gather outside the gate. Lord Tewdrig stands at the head of the assembly, his kindly face heavy with grief and guilt.

    The cart draws to a stop before the crowd and Ralen walks silently across to stand before the elderly Lord. They nod wordlessly to each other and Lord Tewdrig motions for the people to make way. The cart rattles past while the crowd remains outside, their attention fixed upon Ralen and their master.

    ‘You have done us a great service, My Lord,’ Lord Tewdrig says, after a time, ‘it only grieves me that I was such a fool as to delay seeking your aid. Much might have been different otherwise…’

    His voice trails off, the shame of his error weighing heavily on his shoulders.

    ‘What’s past is past, My Lord,’ Ralen replies, ‘the killer is no more. I only hope that the closure of granting your loved ones the dignity of a proper funeral will bring some peace to you all.’

    ‘We are grateful to you, My Lord. More than we can express,’ Lord Tewdrig replies, to the muted agreement of those gathered, ‘there is no gift I can give that would truly fulfil my debt to you.’

    Ralen shakes his head, ‘I do not come for payment my friend. If you desire to thank me, then grant me just one wish.’

    ‘Anything my Lord.’ The old man replies without hesitation.

    ‘I would speak with your son before I take my leave.’

    ‘My son?’ Lord Tewdrig says, blinking in surprise, ‘Well…if that is what you wish My Lord.’

    ‘It is.’ Ralen confirms.

    ‘When would you desire to speak with him? I must warn you, he has not spoken a word since his return.’

    ‘That is good.’ Ralen replies.

    This statement shocks the crowd.

    ‘Good, my Lord?’ Lord Tewdrig repeats.

    ‘Yes. It means that there is a chance for some future benefit to come out of this nightmare. If you have no objection my Lord, I would speak with him now.’ Ralen replies calmly.

    Amidst a susurrus of confusion, he is lead away into the castle. Lord Tewdrig walks slowly, clearly filled with curiosity as to what he has in mind. Their path leads up two flights of stairs to a large oak door, watched over by a single guard. He lacks the armour typical of his class, but both his burliness and the heavy blade resting against his shoulder make a clear statement as to his purpose. When he recognizes his master, however, he unlocks the door, then stands aside and bows to them both. Before entering, Ralen turns to Lord Tewdrig.

    ‘I shall need privacy. I must ask both you and your servants to leave us be for some time.’ He says.

    Lord Tewdrig bows reluctantly and motions for the guard to come away, leaving Ralen to enter his son’s room alone; shutting the door behind him.

    Ralen surveys the room’s lavish furnishings. Gold gilding and gaudy engravings give the furniture a chaotic appearance; almost offensive to his eyes. The window shutters are thrown wide open to let in the fresh air of the early evening. The gentle breezes ruffle the tassels of the linen curtains drawn aside on the oversized four-poster bed. Shoved against the centre of the far right wall, its vastness leaves the bruised and battered young lord looking all the more weak and fragile. He lies propped up on a mound of pillows, his legs covered over with blankets and his chest bare and glistening with salves and ointments to ease the multitude of bruises. His straw coloured hair is slick with moisture and sticks to his forehead in short curls. His swollen eyes appear closed, but Ralen does not sense any rest in him. As he steps forward, the boy reveals his wakefulness – turning his bruised face slightly to towards him. Ralen stands beside the bed, looking impassively at the young man. A weak smile forms on the young lord’s scarred lips.

    ‘I thought you might come.’ he croaks.

    ‘And now I have.’ Ralen replies.

    ‘Come to reproach me for being an impulsive fool?’ he asks.

    ‘If you still need that of me, then there is no hope.’

    The boy chuckles.

    ‘What of my stupidity; falling for the bitch’s trap as I did?’

    ‘To my mind, your punishment at her hands seems to have been quite sufficient,’ Ralen says, his face serious, ‘I am glad you do not attempt to deny the fact that you acted impulsively and foolishly.’

    The young lord looks down, his smile fading somewhat.

    ‘I suppose even the most stubborn men reach a point where they can no longer deny that they are wrong.’ He says.

    Ralen nods slightly, waiting for the boy to continue. In due course, he does.

    ‘Forgive me for not recognizing you my Lord,’ He says, ‘I should have known it was you from the start, except that I was convinced that another werewolf could only mean me harm.’

    ‘I understand,’ Ralen assures him, ‘you were, after all, only a small boy when last I visited your father’s land.’

    The young lord nods.

    ‘Aye.’                                            

    An uncomfortable pause follows as Ralen stands waiting for him to continue.

    ‘What...’ he begins, faltering out of nervousness before he continues determinedly, ‘why have you come to see me then?’

    Ralen holds his gaze.

    ‘It will soon enough be your responsibility to manage your father’s land and care for the people under his charge.’ he states.

    ‘What of it?’ the boy asks, his face falling in anticipation of what is to come.

    ‘Thus far, your life has revolved around your own desires, to the detriment of those around you. You are impulsive; acting without thought or care of the consequences of your actions. Such qualities are intolerable in a leader.’

    Ralen pauses to allow the young man time to digest his reproach.

    ‘You have suffered the absence of your mother. Your father has failed in his responsibility to discipline you and I understand that such a privileged lifestyle makes it difficult for a young child to develop empathy for those less empowered than he. I do not seek to blame or beat you for your shortcomings, but your birth-right will one day make you the master of many and can you honestly say that you have in any way shown yourself fit to be entrusted with such power?’

    The boy does not respond, continuing to stare at the sheets of his bed.

    ‘Whether you like it or not, you will have to choose: either to uphold your responsibility or renounce your claim to the privileged lifestyle which goes with it. If you should choose the latter, know that grave consequences are certain to follow for the people of this land. However, should you choose the former, know also that it is your responsibility to grow into a strong, wise and just man, so that you will be able to serve your people well when the time comes.’

    ‘But I do not want that responsibility.’ The young Lord protests.

    ‘Then are you willing to accept the consequences of rejecting it?’ Ralen asks.

    ‘No, but everywhere I turn there are consequences! A life as a peasant or a life spent serving peasants! What choice is that?!’

    ‘The freedom of choice is inextricable of the freedom to either accept or complain about the consequences.’ Ralen replies calmly.

    ‘What kind of advice is that?’ the boy asks, frustrated.

    ‘Make the right choices.’ Ralen says simply.

    ‘And suffer for it?’

    ‘If you so wish.’ Ralen says, shrugging.

    ‘…what?’

    Ralen shrugs again,

    ‘Consequences are inevitable. Whether you suffer them or rise above them is up to you.’

    The young Lord stares, momentarily dumbfounded. It seems for an instant that he understands Ralen’s meaning, but a spark of rebellion makes him sneer.

    ‘Why should I trouble myself with this; how could you understand? You had everything a man could wish for handed to you from birth: strength, stature, a fighter’s instincts and even magic. You are the mighty Ulraek – immortal hero and undefeated warrior. Look at me! The son of a minor country lord, shorter than most women and scarcely strong enough to wield a sword or throw a spear more than ten paces. You know nothing about what it is like!’

    After a moment’s pause, he swallows. Ralen’s eyes are fixed upon his own, not glaring or threateningly, but steady enough to make him regret his words. After a time though, Ralen smiles slightly and holds out his hand.

    ‘Take it.’ He says.

    The young lord looks from the proffered hand back to him, wariness plainly evident behind his bruises.

    ‘Take it,’ Ralen repeats, ‘let me show you my answer.’

    Licking his bloodied lips, he tentatively reaches out and grasps Ralen’s hand. His brow creases in nervous anticipation, before his eyes suddenly go wide and stare sightlessly ahead.

     

     

    Lord Tewdrig reaches the door just before Ralen opens it. The old man stumbles slightly as his hand fails to find the handle and he tries to compose himself, somewhat out of breath from his short run.

    ‘What happened?!’ he asks sharply, ‘I heard the cry. Where is my son?!’

    He pushes his way past Ralen and hurries into the room. He pauses when he sees his son, sitting upright in his bed, his face pale and his eyes staring vacantly at the far wall.

    ‘Judoc!’ Lord Tewdrig cries, rushing over to his side, ‘My son! Speak to me Judoc!’

    Judoc blinks, but does not answer immediately. His lips move silently, as if he were muttering to himself.

    ‘Good God…’ Lord Tewdrig moans, then turns to Ralen with fire in his eyes, ‘what have you done to my child?!’

    Ralen does not answer, his face remaining placid.

    ‘It’s alright father.’ 

    The old man turns to find his son looking at him, the glassiness leaving his eyes.

    ‘Judoc?’ he says nervously, ‘Are you alright? Why did you scream?’

    ‘It was only shock that made me cry out father,’ Judoc replies, glancing briefly at Ralen, ‘the Lord Ulraek…surprised me is all.’

    There is a trace of nervousness in his expression, which is not lost on Lord Tewdrig.

    ‘You sounded as if you were in pain.’ his father persists.

    ‘It was shock father, nothing more.’ Judoc insists.

    ‘My Lord,’ Ralen says, ‘I must take my leave of you now. Farewell Judoc.’

    ‘Goodbye My Lord,’ Judoc replies quietly, then turns to his father, ‘don’t worry about me father, I will be fine. You must see his Lordship on his way.’

    Still suspicious, Lord Tewdrig reluctantly gets up from beside his son and silently follows after Ralen. As they leave, a healer enters the room to tend to Judoc and shuts the door behind him. Lord Tewdrig waits until they are out of earshot of the guard before pressing Ralen once again,

    ‘Come now my Lord, what did you do to leave my son so?’

    ‘No my Lord, that must remain secret,’ Ralen replies, shaking his head, ‘but suffice it to say that I firmly believe he will be better off for what he has seen.’

    ‘But why did he scream?’ the old man persists.

    ‘The truth can hurt, but it heals those who truly embrace it.’ Ralen replies cryptically.

    ‘My Lord this will not do, I wish to know…’

    ‘No.’ Ralen interrupts firmly.

    He turns to face Lord Tewdrig, his face set in a kind, but determined expression.

    ‘If you trust me my friend, then be content in the knowledge that I have done nothing to harm your son in any way. Judoc will tell you of our conversation, but I beg you not to press him for more than that. No good will come of it.’

    The elderly lord looks at him hopelessly. Although obviously dissatisfied and disappointed, he daren’t profess not to trust the Lone Wolf’s word. After a long and uncomfortable pause, he at last nods reluctantly.

    ‘So be it, My Lord.’ He says.

    Taking pity on him, Ralen clasps his shoulder reassuringly.

    ‘Not all knowledge is beneficial my friend. There are times when ignorance should be treasured; like a strong house protecting one from the tempests and storms which rage unseen in the outside world. All will be revealed, as the time becomes right for it.’

    Lord Tewdrig smiles weakly and shakes his head.

    ‘As always my Lord, you speak in riddles beyond my comprehension.’

    ‘Less so than you might think.’ Ralen replies.

    They continue on their way. In moments they reach the courtyard, where the cart still stands bearing its heavy load. Five guards are stationed around it to prevent the sea of onlookers from getting too near the corpses. Already Ralen can hear the sounds of hammers and saws as workers begin to assemble a large pyre outside the castle walls. There are very few voices to be heard, as those not working continue their solemn vigil of the dead. Ralen’s face falls as he passes the grim pile and he pauses to pay his final respects.

    ‘Will you not stay for the funeral?’ Lord Tewdrig asks.

    ‘No my Lord. I am neither family nor friend to those who have passed away. I think it best if I leave your people to mourn in privacy. I have in any event another matter to attend to.’

    The old man nods in understanding.

    ‘Then once again, I thank you my Lord, and I wish you well in your future.’ He says.

    ‘And I you.’ Ralen replies, bowing his head.

    ‘Go well my Lord.’ Lord Tewdrig says, raising his hand.

    Ralen nods once again, then turns to leave. He walks silently past the assembled mourners. Few notice his departure and those that do have not the heart either to speak or to cheer. As he exits the castle gate, he looks for a brief moment towards the massive pyre. The men have worked fast and sweat glistens on their brows in the light of the late afternoon sun. Among their ranks, he recognises some of those who accompanied him into the cave. A few notice him and almost as one man they turn and bow in solemn gratitude. Ralen raises his fist to his chest and bows his head in return, before continuing down the path.

    The sun shines in his eyes, causing him to look down at his feet as he makes his way towards the forest path. There are no workers in the fields now, leaving his passage uninterrupted. His steps are slow and unhurried. What reason is there for eagerness? The grim work of this day has not yet drawn to a close.

    Passing between the trees, he can already sense the change, however. Birdsong has returned to grace the once silent woods with its bright melodies. Now and again a hare sprints across the path, in a sudden dash of grey and brown fur. With his mind deep in thought, it is only a matter of time before the shadowy ruins of the abandoned quarry come once more into view.

    As he nears the entrance to the pit, he begins to transform. Slowly this time, his body grows and his limbs change. His muzzle creeps out from his face and his tunic gradually expands to fit him. His fur emerges slowly, along with his luxurious tail. The claws steadily return to his hands and feet and at long last his lupine body reaches wholeness. Sweeping aside the veil of ivy, he descends along the steep tunnel into the caves. His hands and paws crunch heavily against the gravel, but there is no need for stealth now. Turning the corner of the short passageway, he re-emerges into Auola’s chamber. The fire now merely glows as the embers begin to die. To his eyes, however, the corpse of the defeated vae is still perfectly clear.

    Silently, he crosses the chamber. He crouches down beside the body and rolls it over, before scooping her up in his arms as if she weighed nothing at all. Standing to his feet, he advances towards another tunnel beside the entrance to the pit. This tunnel extends down into blackness and as its darkness envelops him, he wordlessly summons a small sphere of light to guide him. It illuminates a narrow passageway, continuing some way into the distance. The floor is uneven and the ceiling rises steadily until it finally escapes his light. He walks solemnly on, carrying the limp body as gently as if it were a sleeping babe. His eyes never stray from the floor ahead and his expression is vacant and sad.

    By and by, the passage leads him to a dead end. Here the ground gives way to a natural crevasse. The sides are rough and far apart and the floor is beyond the reach of his light. Just within hearing, however, the quiet whisper of rushing water echoes up from the depths. A bucket sits close to the edge, tied by its handle to a very long rope.

    Standing on the edge of the precipice, Ralen looks down at the body in his arms. Her eyes are closed and her head is nestled against his chest, with only the wound between her breasts to show that she is not merely asleep. As he closes his eyes, he can see it once again…

    The bones break under his blow with a sickening crack. Auola gasps as her heart is pierced and he feels the warmth of her blood against his skin. Steeling himself against the sickness wrenching at his heart, he opens his eyes to share a final, mournful glance with his defeated opponent. The arrogance and fiery rage have left her eyes and in their place there is genuine fear. She gasps softly, gargling as blood trickles into her lungs. He can feel her heart stuttering and her body begin to shudder and convulse as the life rapidly drains from it.

    ‘But…Khrail…’ she whispers to him, her voice desperate, ‘…you would not ki…’

    The crack of her neck and the sigh of the final breath escaping from Auola’s lungs, seem to him to echo throughout the cavern as he opens his glistening eyes and stares down into the pit.

    With Solemn slowness, he raises the body out over the chasm and, without further ceremony, releases it. She seems almost to float for a moment, before rapidly being drawn down into the darkness of the chasm. As her coal black fur ruffles in the rushing air, Ralen’s eyes look one last time upon her fair face. Just as she is about to disappear, he briefly shuts his eyes and breathes deeply.

    ‘No, Auola,’ he says quietly, clenching his fists as he watches her vanish, ‘Khrail would have done it without hesitation.’

    A faint splash echoes from below as her body is claimed by its watery grave. Ralen lingers for a moment, before turning slowly away and beginning the long walk back to the surface.

     

     

    The ground shakes and a deep rumbling sounds from within the limestone cavern. Ralen stands a short distance from the entrance of the abandoned quarry, with his right hand raised towards the stony hillock. Cracks spread across the stone walls and several of the gnarled trees fall from their perches amongst the rocks. At last a deafening, hollow rumble sounds from within the earth and the quarry caves in on itself. The ground shudders beneath his paws as the massive boulders bounce against one another and slam into the stone beneath. Clouds of pale dust erupt from the broil; the billowing shadows looking dark and ominous against the pale evening sky. Gradually the noise dies down as the last of the boulders settle and the smaller stones trickle down in between them. The clouds of dust spread out and dissipate amongst the trees.

    Ralen lowers his arm. The dark secrets which Auola hid here are now lost to the world; none shall lay their hands upon her belongings or her spells.

    In his left hand though, he clasps the white robe and golden necklace which had been the vae’s disguise when she left her lair. Turning away from the ruins of the quarry, he sets off between the trees, carefully folding the robe into a tight bundle with the necklace at its heart.

    The haunting call of a Tawny owl sounds to his left and he halts. Turning, he spies the mottled brown bird nestled in the fork of a hollow oak tree. Its hooded eyes stare down at him drowsily. It slowly turns its head to the side and calls once again. A faint smile returns to Ralen’s lips. Cupping his free hand around his muzzle, he returns the owl’s call with an excellent impersonation. Its head perks up with interest and it calls out again. He returns the call with the longer trill that the birds sometimes make. The owl twists its head to the opposite side, before ruffling its feathers and hopping to a lower branch. It calls out once again, then opens its wings and leaps from the perch; soaring off in silence down the path ahead.

    Ralen watches it go, smiling softly. Soon though, he must continue.

    It is a little while before he emerges from the trees. By now, night has fallen completely and the fields and houses of the village are shrouded in darkness. The castle, however, is lit up by the eerie red flames of the funeral pyre. The crackling can be heard even from here – carried on the wind, along with the smell of smoke and burning flesh. Ralen raises his hand to his heart and lowers his head in a final gesture of respect and farewell. After a moment’s silent prayer, he steps out onto the main road and turns his back on this grieving land.

    The moonless sky, awash with stars, stretches above him. His keen eyes can see even by their weak light. Auola’s memories of her night-time raids obscure the beauty for a moment though, but he sets his will against them and shuts them from his mind. Far in the distance, the dark silhouettes of the Fayern Valley Mountains rise just above the trees. Eyes set upon his home, the Lone Wolf walks swiftly onwards; a grey silhouette, soon vanishing into the darkness of the night.

     

    ***
    One Story Ends. Another Has Begun

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    It was a busy night in the club. The DJ’s head bobbed up and down like a nodding dog in the back window of a car, while his hands moved the shiny new records back and forth to an unfathomable rhythm. The dull grey haze created by the smoke machines was set on fire by the disco lights; all tuned to various shades of red and pink for the special evening. Through this veil of colour, dozens of enthusiastic partygoers twisted, twirled and gyrated across the temporary black dance floor that had been laid out before the DJ’s stage. Girls and boys mixed it up, moving together or on their own, some passing from one side of the dance floor to the other in an endless chain of short-lived double acts. The singles moved to their own pace much like the rest, whereas the more serious couples stood out as tightly paired points of co-ordination in the sea of exuberant chaos.

    At the moment, the music had drawn most everyone to the dance floor, leaving the bar and the few remaining tables at the opposite end of the room quite empty. Tonight’s DJ was a special treat: White Sox Fox, a legend from the backstreet nightclubs of the city. He could rip up a tune like no other – so they said. The barman didn’t seem overly impressed, thought that was hardly surprising given the number of artists he had seen perform here, but he still bobbed his head in perfect time as he leaned back against the rather empty upright fridge behind the bar. With the current lull in orders, his partner for the night had nipped out for a smoke, leaving him to keep an eye on things.

    The other person relaxing at the bar did not move in time with the music. He was seated on the stool at the far corner, out of the way of any of the other partygoers that might come by for drinks.

    He was a wolf, with dark ashen grey fur. The collar of fur around his neck and the simple patterns around his eyes were slate grey and contrasted nicely with the rest of his coat. His eyes were a rich brown. He sat alone, sipping lightly from a glass of something dark and cold and casually deleting old messages from his hand-me-down flip open phone. Given the sharpness in his eyes, he obviously hadn’t drunk very much or for very long. 

    Although he was clearly filling the role of the inevitable wallflower, he didn’t much look the part. Standing up straight, he would clearly be quite tall and he had an admirable build compared to many of the others young males in the club: broad shouldered, lean and appreciably strong without being bulky. He was neatly dressed in a black pair of slim jeans, a black belt and a black short sleeve shirt, but the well-worn brown leather flip-flops on his feet gave him a slightly more casual air.

    In addition, he didn’t so much seem disappointed at being left out of the dancing, but rather appeared contentedly disinterested in the whole thing.

    The simple truth was that he was. Watching the other partiers throwing themselves about on the dancefloor stirred no desire in him to join them. He was quite content to remain where he was; he only wished that this place would hire actual musicians. A beat was all well and good, but real music had a beat and quite a lot more besides.

    He’d come here with a handful of his classmate friends to celebrate having written the final exam of their third year. Passing was still uncertain, but he very much doubted the others had anything to worry about. They were all extremely clever and hard workers to a boy and girl. Three of the girls were straight A students and looked set to cum laude their BSc. He was a hard worker too, but not in the same league as them and definitely not as much of an academic. He felt uneasy about two of the papers, but he wasn’t going to worry over it. He took life as and when it came.

    ‘You going to be finishing that one anytime soon?’

    The barman leant on the counter, his long and floppy ears not quite touching the wood.

    ‘I will, I will.’ The wolf replied to the brown and white spaniel with a friendly little laugh, picking up the glass and taking another sip.

    The barman grinned with mild amusement.

    ‘You’ve been taking it pretty steady,’ he said and then stuck out his hand, ‘Neil.’

    ‘Michael,’ the wolf replied, shaking hands with him, ‘pleased to meet you Neil. You might have to remind me once or thrice – I’m really bad with peoples’ names.’

    ‘No problem.’ The spaniel replied dismissively.

    There was a short pause as he waited for the wolf to say something. When he didn’t, the barman asked,

    ‘Aren’t you going to join in?’

    He motioned to the sea of people on the dance floor. The wolf looked over briefly and shook his head.

    ‘No thanks. I don’t know how to dance properly and I can’t improvise like them.’

    ‘So what? No one’s judging.’ The barman remarked

    The wolf gave a knowing laugh and cracked a half smile.

    ‘That’s what they always say. The last time I went with that theory and tried “breaking it down”, as they say, someone told me to stop.’

    ‘Well just tell them to f*ck off.’ The barman remarked.

    ‘I prefer the Sherlock Holmes phrase “Please disappear” myself, but he was right in that case.’ The wolf replied.

    ‘Come on,’ the barman encouraged him, ‘there’s nothing to it. Just go out there and be yourself.’

    The wolf smiled.

    ‘That’s exactly what I’m doing.’ He replied.

    The barman leant on one elbow and gave him a disapproving look.

    ‘Well, guess I know why you’re sitting here alone.’ He remarked.

    The wolf laughed quietly. He had a feeling that the remark had been an attempt to persuade him to try dancing. It was a silly, and not a little cruel thing to say, but he decided to humour the spaniel.

    ‘Because I’m too dull to pull a girl?’ he asked rhetorically, ‘If I applied the same reasoning used by less dull people to explain why they don’t fit in with the crowd, I could say that I’m sitting alone because I’m a unique individual and not just some other bloke at a party looking to get sozzled and get lucky.’

    ‘Well what are you here for then? If this isn’t your scene, then why come at all?’ the barman asked.

    ‘I’m here with my friends to celebrate finishing our exams.’ The wolf replied, motioning towards the dancers.

    ‘But you’re just sitting here alone, I don’t call that celebrating with friends.’ The spaniel remarked.

    ‘Look,’ the wolf replied, with a tactfully suppressed hint of exasperation, ‘I enjoy hanging out with them as far a sitting together and chatting goes, I just don’t have any interest in doing any of the other stuff. They know that – that’s why they’re off dancing and I’m back here waiting until they finish. We’ll have fun together after they’ve got that bit of partying out of their system.’

    ‘So you’re just going to spend half the evening sitting here doing nothing then?’ the barman asked incredulously.

    ‘Oh, you mean like you?’ the wolf replied, before finishing his drink.

    The spaniel frowned, obviously a bit put out, but the wolf raised his hand in apology.

    ‘I’m sorry, but you see my point. Besides, I have no intention of spending an hour counting the beer stains on the floor.’

    He reached down beside his stool and lifted up a small shoulder carrier bag. From it he took out a square cardboard gift box with pink stripes, a pair of scissors and two pairs of pliers. The spaniel bartender watched in confusion, waiting to see where all this was going. Next the wolf took out a little knee board and set it down on the counter. He then began to unpack the contents of the pink box onto it. There were lots of little tins and zip-lock bags full of beads, shells, gemstones, balls of wire, string, chain and other bits and pieces.

    ‘What’s all this?’ the barman asked.

    ‘Jewellery is one of my hobbies. I often take some materials with me if I know I’m going to have to wait around a lot.

    ‘And the box?’ the spaniel asked.

    ‘It keeps everything together.’ The wolf replied matter-of-factly.

    ‘Yeah, but why’d you choose a pink one for that?’

    The wolf raised his eyebrows in private amusement.

    ‘It’s the right size and it’s nice and strong. The colour doesn’t matter…although mind you, if it had had a rainbow and said “LGBT rules” on the top, I would have thought twice.’

    The spaniel laughed briefly at this comment and continued to watch as the wolf began sifting through the materials with a thoughtful expression. He finally selected a spiral shell – which had been cut away on either side to expose the spiral centre, leaving a framework of multiple “chambers”. Setting it aside, he then picked through a small pile of little coils of copper and steel wire. He selected two: a roll of thin copper wire and a roll of equally thin galvanised steel wire.

    ‘Could I have another double brandy and coke please?’ he asked the barman, reaching into his pocket and taking out a leather wallet. It had the images of two elephants stamped into the cover and had been a present years ago from his uncle in Nepal.

    ‘Sure.’ The spaniel replied, still looking at the shell and wire with puzzled curiosity.

    After handing him the money the wolf immediately turned his attention back to his materials. He took the steel wire and pulled it between his thumb and forefinger several times to remove any bends and kinks. Then he held one end against the point of the shell and began threading it through the gaps. He pulled it tight, wrapping it along a groove running through the core of the shell. He hadn’t got far by the time the barman returned with his drink.

    ‘Thanks.’ He said gratefully, and then went back to what he was doing.

    The barman watched him for a while, but pretty soon he lost interest and went back to leaning against the fridge and watching the party.

    The wolf sat working on getting the wire wrapped along the entire length of the shell, then repeated the process with the copper wire. He took his time and tweaked the wire with his nails to try and get it just right. Lastly he bent the tips at one end and slipped them into the last tiny chamber at the narrow point of the shell. He tugged on the wire at the mouth of shell and found that it held fast.

    A male fox came off the dance floor and made his way to the bar. He was dressed in a loose fitting blue shirt and baggy grey shorts and his fur was snow white. He leant against the counter, slightly out of breath from dancing.

    ‘Two Ice Blue shots Neil.’ He said to the barman.

    ‘Sure.’ The spaniel replied and set about getting the glasses and the right bottle from the three long shelves behind him.

    The fox glanced sideways at the wolf; who noticed, but kept his eyes on his work. When the barman handed over the two blue glasses, the wolf heard the two of them talking briefly to one another. The fox sidled over, holding the two glasses with absentminded care.

    ‘Hm, looks pretty cool.’ He remarked.

    The wolf looked up and smiled.

    ‘Thanks,’ he said, ‘it’s still got bit to go.’

    The fox nodded offhandedly and then moved back towards the dance floor.

    The wolf went back to picking out a cord for the necklace. He settled for a thin leather one, undyed, and took a rough measure by wrapping it around his neck and sliding his fingers down until it reached a length slightly less than what he wanted. A quick snip from the scissors and he began working on attaching the shell pendant to the cord – being very careful to get the pendant as close to the middle as possible. He wrapped the loose ends of the wire around the cord and then twirled the ends into a little spiral, which he pressed flat against the leather.

    The last step was to add the clasp and the extender chain to the ends of the cord. This took him just a minute or two as he slipped the pieces in place and crimped them together with a practiced hand.

    He gave the final product a once over and then set it aside. His fingers closed around the ice cold glass and he quietly sipped the sweet yet strong drink. He turned his gaze to the dance floor once more and unseen, he lowered his gaze slightly and sagged back against the wall with a little sigh.

    “What a strange thing it must be…” he murmured to himself, “…to fit in. Anywhere…”

  6. sugarRED

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    Diesel stepped down towards the shoreline tentatively from the soft grassy verge. He hadn't realised how he'd gotten used to the long stalks stroking his rigid body as he crossed through the field until he'd made himself free of their grasp. That must be what anxiety does to you, he pondered. You only focus on what's to come. You don't concern yourself with the little things if they aren't the threat.
    So what is the threat? He knew it was there; he knew it as surely as his paws made large footprints in the sand beneath them. Those were the tell-tale signs of his presence, and it made him somewhat apprehensive knowing that the tide wouldn't ever creep in far enough to completely remove all traces of his time here. He wanted nothing to do with this place. Its swirling grey sky above him was foreboding and ominous. The breeze pinched at his delicate fur with its whispers of cold. The sea in front of him looked black as death, like it was infested with oil from a capsized cargo ship, and its waves were calm and collected, unlike the tidal calamities of anxiety crashing all around within him. All he could feel between his toes was the cool sludge of sand that stuck to his heels as he trod along precariously towards the dead and decrepid wavefront. Nothing in this place provided him comfort. There was no warmth, no sanctuary, no colour except for the dull tones of green and yellow of the expansive field behind him. It felt like whatever god existed in this realm had deliberately set this place up for what was to come. Diesel couldn't argue that he wasn't prepared. He had enough warning from the setting alone.
    He halted just before the overlap between land and sea, where only the claws on his feet were licked by the deathly waters. Shuddering from nerves and the vicious yet subtle chill in the air, he wrapped his arms around himself as the fur on the back of his neck stood on end. He looked all around him, but couldn't find anything, or anyone, that would indicate to him what he was so afraid of. After another glance around, he gulped to wet his barren throat and ran his tongue over his lips before calling out to the sea, "H-hello? Is anybody there?" The following silence felt painful in his ears, tormenting him with knots in his stomach and palpitations that seemed to pulsate throughout his entire naked body. He hugged himself tighter, suddenly aware of his exposed frame, and dug the claws on his hands into his ribs slightly in an effort to combat the numbing effect of the cold. Something in him willed him to sob out of fear, but he couldn't; his eyes were incapable of producing anything because of his weakening state. He squeezed them shut and gripped himself until he couldn't breathe, trying and trying desperately to wake himself out of whatever hellish nightmare his brain had thrown him into.
    Restricting one of his five senses was the worst thing he could do.
    He snapped out of it when he felt a massive force pushing him from behind so that his body collapsed into the sea. The little breath he had was knocked out of him instantaneously and he reflexively opened his jaws as far as possible to inhale as much as he could, but it was too late, and all that entered was what seemed like an ocean's worth of water. His eyes were the next to respond to the danger, flicking open as he choked and gagged and squirmed like a fish caught on a hook. It was no good; all he could see from every angle was an impenetrable black. He willed his body to swim upwards despite the increasing weight of water within him steadily pushing down into the depths of whatever hell awaited him at the bottom. Throughout his descent, he jerked and writhed and flailed in a pitiful attempt to save himself. It was pointless. The energy within him soon dissipated and he had no choice but to let his body go limp. Whatever fate awaited him, he couldn't fight it. It would just have to take him. He had nothing left to give.
    ***
    "Diesel? Diesel? Holy shit, man, come on. Wake up!"
    The dog bolted upright in a daze, gripping onto the bedsheets as he did so. His eyesight unfocused and his mind distorted, he blurted out, "Where the fuck am I? What's going on?!" He frantically shook his head left and right to clear his vision and psyche, and as he did so, he felt the dog tag around his neck bouncing across his chest, and the sensation of wet clothes and body odour clung to him like a feeling of illness that you just can't be rid of.
    Once ready to open his eyes again, he saw a rather anxious looking greyhound standing in front of him, his arms raised as if in a gesture of surrender. "Woah, chill out, it's just me," the dog muttered in a deep, bewildered voice, thick with a familiar Polish accent.
    Diesel gazed at the dog in front of him with wide eyes, like he'd just seen a ghost, then slowly looked all around him to see where he was. He wasn't at home in his own bed, that's for sure. Returning his stare back to the confused boy at the foot of the bed with a frown, he asked, "Antoni...where am I?"
    Antoni gasped, seemingly with relief as he lowered his hands to place them on his hips. His stance reminded Diesel of his mother when she was severely disappointed in him. "You're at one of my friend's - Abigail's - place. You were in no state to go home last night, dude. We had to make sure you were alright."
    Confusion paved its way through Diesel's mind. What happened last night? He couldn't recall, and it simultaneously baffled and frightened him. "What do you mean 'you were in no state'? Like, was I drunk or something? Cos I don't feel hungover in the slightest."
    "Well, that certainly makes shit more difficult to explain," Antoni replied gruffly. He dropped his gaze to the floor and sighed, before returning his eye contact with Diesel. His deep brown irises seemed like pits to Diesel, sucking him in. The sensation filled the Pinscher with dread like he hadn't felt in years.
    His dread was well-founded when Antoni began to explain the events of the night before. "You were found stumbling along a country lane...it was nine at night...soaking wet...muttering to yourself about that Alsatian coming to get you...Abi found you...called me...thought I'd given you LSD or some wild shit...I know your parents...they'd kick you out if they'd seen you..couldn't take you back to mine...so I brought you here..."
    Upon the mention of his parents, Diesel began to panic. Terribly. He had never stayed out all night before without them knowing and approving of it. Fuck, they must be going ballistic right now. He scrambled through his pockets frantically searching for his phone, but he found nothing. His pockets were bare. "Antoni, where the fuck is my phone? My parents are gonna be freaking the fuck out!"
    Instead of responding to his friend's question, the greyhound stepped forward and placed his hand firmly but calmly on Diesel's shoulder, preventing him from moving any further not only physically but by taking Diesel off guard with his sudden advancement towards the bed where Diesel sat. He crouched down so that he was level with the Pinscher's muzzle before quietly asking in a tender voice, "What's the last thing you remember from last night? You can be honest with me."
    Diesel froze. What *was* the last thing he could remember? There was absolutely nothing he could recall about walking down a country lane. He had no explanation for why he was out at night alone. He couldn't find a reason for why his clothes were soaking wet...wait, yes he could.
    "I remember being pushed into the sea by someone. But I don't remember anything else, just that."
    Antoni paused, a look of concern spreading across his short-furred face. "The sea...? You were in the middle of the countryside. How on earth...?"
    "You told me to be honest," Diesel retorted bluntly.
    "No, no, I know I did, but I don't understand. The sea is at least ten, maybe fifteen miles away from where Abi found you. You sure you don't remember anything else?"
    "Positive."
    Another pause. Then, "Alright. I'll quit bugging you. Your phone's here." Antoni picked up the phone from where it had been placed on the bedside table and carefully handed it to Diesel, before he rose to his feet and headed towards the door. "Do you want anything to eat?"
    "No, I'm good. Get me a Monster, though?"
    "Zero, right? Abi should have some lying about."
    "Yeah, cheers. Also...you got any spare clothes?"
    "If there were any clothes for you, wouldn't we have changed them while you were sleeping?"
    "Fair point. Shower, then?"
    "Just on your left as you come out. I'll see you downstairs."
    "See ya."
    Antoni left the room without a second glance at the Pinscher. Diesel sat in silence for a few moments, motionless, as a way of processing all that had happened. None of it added up. The remnants of what he could remember - the field, the black sea, his nakedness, and then what felt like his death - confused him the more he dwelled on them. Sitting here wouldn't change anything, though. As he carefully and painfully arose, he did something he wouldn't forget for a long time to come.
    He vowed to find out what had led him astray that fateful night.
     
     
  7.  

    It was only about a ten minute walk to the gate to Route 22, and the League Gates.  The girls chatted as they walked about movies, music, and books they liked. Anna was excited to learn they both listened to the same rock group, “The Metang Gang.”  They were discussing the most recent album when before they knew it the town exit stood before them. Outside the guard station there was an older gentleman speaking with a younger man with wild, bushy curls of hair.  The young man was wearing jeans and a dark patterned button up shirt hints of feathers poked through the wrist cuffs, and his eyebrows came to arrowlike points.

    “Now you gotta make sure to really aim the ball good.  If’n you don’t throw it right, you can’t catch nothing!”  The old man shook his cane, which was actually a giant leek at the younger man.  “I remember the first ‘mon I ever caught. It was a little orange dinosaur looking fella… named ‘im AGUMAN”  He waved the leek again, which the curly haired man dodged.

    “Sir please, I’m just trying to get through the gate.  I don’t know what you’re talking about!” He looked over at the two approaching women and waved, his dark lined eyes pleading for help behind a pair of glasses.  Anna and Emily approached, but before they could say anything the guard stepped around the gate.

    “I’m really sorry, Dad gets worked up and he took one to many Confusion attacks back in the day.  He rambles on about nonsense sometimes. C’mon Dad, back inside to sit down.” She escorted the older gentlemen to a sitting area.  After he was settled she came back and returned to her post. “Okay! Three to pass? May I see your ID?” Emily and Anna presented their information, as did the young man.  The guard was about to open the gate when the handheld radio behind her crackled and beeped. She picked it up and listened for a moment, then sighed heavily and turned back to the three travellers.  

    “Sorry kids, it sounds like a rain storm is coming, which means the Metang in the area get really irritable and start causing problems.  We’re going to have to shut down the gate for a while.” She handed them back their information, and turned to make plans on the radio with the other guards.  The young man huffed.

    “Oh well, I’ll have to see the Indigo Plateau later.”  He sent off a quick text and offered his hand “My name’s Edwin.  I’ve just started my travels with my friend, who’s going to meet me at Route 2.  Want to travel together for a while? It’s easier in larger numbers.” Anna shrugged, but Emily smiled.

    “Sure! You can use teams of up to six to take on Gym challenges.  Plus it’s always nice to make more friends.” They walked the short distance to the gate to Route 2, where a tall fit woman was standing by the gate looking at her phone.  She was wearing a simple pair of workout pants, and a sports top that showed how muscular she was. Small black slashes sat under her red eyes, and she smiled brightly. She turned to them and waved

    “Hey Edwin! You make some more friends! Cool!”  She put her phone in the duffel bag and tossed it over one shoulder.  “I’m Ricky! It’s nice to meet you! You guys got the injection also?”  Anna nodded.

    “Yeah, I’m Anna.  I want to go into rescue work, so I need to train for that!  This is Emily, I’m helping her run an errand for her Grandpa, Doctor Oak”  Edwin whistled.

    “You know Oak?  I’ve always wanted to meet him!  My mom used to work with him and said he was a great guy.”  He smiled, picking at a few of the feathers on his wrist absently.  Emily beamed

    “Well, if you want to join us we are headed to meet him!”  Ricky punched Edwin on the shoulder lightly.

    “There you go!  Let’s go with these ladies!  Oh hey, were you scared to get Dipped?”  Emily shook her head. With an indecisive noise Anna replied.

    “I mean yeah? Sort of?  What if you get something weaker, or it doesn’t take, or any number of things go wrong?”  She was interrupted by Emily

    “Oh, those happen so incredibly rarely, and thankfully we have ways to separate people from the Ditto cells for a few weeks after injection. What about you Ricky? Were you nervous about it?”  Ricky shrugged.

    “Not really, it wouldn’t be the first transformation I went through.  It was a heck of a lot easier this time though! I got Larvitar, so it’ll be great for my career as a fighter!”  they all laughed and chatting happily the four new friends headed back towards Pallet Town.

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    [Warning: this chapter contains mature themes. Reader discretion is advised]

    Wind howled through the trees. A driving rain battered against them, weighing down their branches and pouring off their leaves. The full moon, veiled as it was by the brooding storm clouds, did little to illuminate the darkness of the woods and valleys, whilst the lighting that danced across the sky only made the shadows more defined. It was a violent night: the kind that inspired evil deeds and instilled fear in the meek.

    Above the raging storm, a howl was carried on the winds. The bushes erupted as a black bear tore through the undergrowth, the madness of terror in its eyes. The great beast burst onto the dirt track which cut through the heart of the forest and startled a lone horse. Already terrified by the storm, the creature reared and threw its rider, before galloping off back the way it had come.

    The fallen rider leapt unsteadily to her feet. Her thick coat was plastered with mud and her hood had blown away and was now snagged on a branch high up in one of the trees.

    Her yellow eyes looked around wildly. Her face protruded in a slender, draconic snout with slightly raised nostrils. She had small triangular ears and a pair of little black horns which protruded upwards from the rear of her skull. Her features were sharp and covered in tight fitting iridescent scales of green and blue hues. The howling rang out once more and she fled into the forest after the bear.

    Water poured down upon her. It soaked through to her skin, chilling her to the bone. In the darkness, she struggled to avoid the tree trunks which stood around her like pillars. She didn’t know where she could find shelter, but there was no time to stop and think. She should have kept a watch on the moon! If she had only waited until the following day the roads would have been safe. Tonight was a night for hunters…

    ---

    The water pouring over the cliff face threatened to dislodge him as he clung desperately to the slippery stone. His chestnut fur was drenched and his ears and nose were numb with cold. His sodden clothes weighed him down terribly, but he dared not loosen his grip to take them off. How long ago did the first howl sound? The last had seemed distant. Would it be safe to climb back up to the ledge?

    He squinted through the veil of rain at the little overhang above him. It hid him from sight, but it also obscured his vision of the only level ground within reach. He knew he couldn’t remain here much longer. His fingers were already slackening and his claws would be useless on the smooth granite of the cliff face.

    He had thought his cave hideout would be safe. When last had werewolves been heard in these parts? Hadn’t they all been exterminated as far as the East woods? They were vicious creatures, nearly unstoppable at full moon. He had heard enough from the other brigands who had sometimes shared his lodgings to know what the monsters were capable off. If he met one tonight, it would probably be more a question of how long he could evade it, rather than whether or not he could actually escape it…

    Damn it! His feet were slipping!

    He gritted his teeth and reached up for a handhold to start climbing. He moved carefully. His arms were shaking terribly from the strain and his entire body shivered from being exposed to the wind and rain for so long. His teeth chattered slightly. He groaned as his foot slipped again, but he held on stubbornly.

    Damn paws!

    His floppy ears were stuck flat against his head thanks to the soaking the rain had given them, so he could hardly hear anything except his own heartbeat over the raging storm. He looked up at the ledge, now only three feet above him, and water poured into his nostrils. He sneezed loudly, again and again.

    Great. If there was anything looking for him nearby, it certainly knew where he was now.

    A final scramble brought him to the edge of the precipice. His snout peaked out over it. There didn’t seem to be anyone there. A lightning bolt lit up the stony mountain slopes and all he could see was rocks and the entrance to his shallow cave. He squinted. A second lightning bolt struck and he could see a little deeper. A third and a forth cut through the sky behind him in quick succession and a dark form was revealed, sitting crouched over the open chest where he kept his takings.

    The creature was looking straight at him. It wasn’t a werewolf. It was much, much worse than that. He froze and his dark fur went pale.

    ---

    Her feet slipped as she tried to stop too suddenly and she found herself sliding down the slippery clay bank of the river. Her eyes went wide as she saw the churning torrent which thundered beneath her, rapidly drawing closer. She scrambled desperately, her short claws digging into the soft earth, searching for something to stop her descent. Her feet hit a rock jutting out of the bank. The impact twisted her left ankle, but she latched onto the foothold in spite of the pain. Now that she was no longer falling, her hands at last found purchase on the slippery roots which hugged the steep bank.

    Heart racing, she pulled herself flat against the bank. She shut her eyes tightly and just hung there for a while. The water below her seemed to roar just like the very beast she had been fleeing from. The storm had filled it with debris: whole trees could be seen tossing in the rapids, smacking into the rocks with bone jarring force. The sound was terrifying.

    As the rain continued to pour down on her, even though she was already soaked to the bone, she opened her eyes and stared back up the way she had fallen. Her hands sought out the thickest roots and she tested their strength. The clay filled water pouring down the bank made them treacherously slippery, but she could just keep her grip if she was careful.

    She stepped off the rock and hooked her right foot in the roots. She did the same with her left foot, moving tentatively for fear of aggravating the injury. The ankle wasn’t sprained, but it was very tender. It could easily slip again. She used her arms as much as possible, hauling herself up the ladder of roots. It was painfully slow going. The waters below beckoned, but she kept her eyes up and her cautiousness paid off as never once did she slip during the climb. The final crawl over the edge of the bank was by far the most nerve wracking part. There were no roots or stones to grip; she had to dig her hands into the soft earth and ease her body gradually onto the level ground of the forest.

    She pushed herself away from the drop and lay panting on the bed of sodden pine needles. She had not lain there a minute, however, before the chilling howl drifted through the trees that surrounded her. Her head snapped up and she gazed about fearfully. She looked to her left and to her right, but couldn’t think where she should run. She didn’t even know where she was. All she did know was that the call had been much further off before.

    Upstream should lead into the mountains. The prospect of being trapped there with a werewolf on the loose was terrifying, but downstream meant running over flat ground and open fields, with no hope of shelter until she reached the village of Raven’s Hill. That was where she had been heading and so she knew it would have taken more than half a day by horse. On foot, there was no hope of reaching it before the night was over. She could not outrun the werewolf. She would have to find shelter somewhere and the only likely place would be in the mountains. The beasts were very agile and surefooted, but they were also very large. If she could find a crevasse small enough for her to just squeeze through, it wouldn’t be able to reach her. They were weak in daylight. She didn’t have to out run it, she just had to outlast it.

    With her mind made up, she took off through the woods, keeping the riverbank in sight. The lightning continued to provide regular bursts of violent illumination and under its harsh light, figures would appear between the trees. She knew they were only illusions created by the shadows, but…at the back of her mind, the thought kept coming back to her that at some point she would be wrong. At some point, one of the ghastly silhouettes would be something that she couldn’t simply shrug off.

    A startled pigeon burst out of its cover as she rushed past. She jumped in fright, tripped and fell. Her clothes felt like weights as she pushed herself back up and they clung to her restrictively. She decided to get rid of them – it was not as though they were keeping her warm anymore. The black coat came off with a wet slurping noise. Next she struggled out of her loose white vest, which stubbornly stuck to her scales as she dragged it over her head. Her trousers were the last to go.

    She didn’t waste any time before getting back on the move. She felt much lighter and managed to pick up the pace. The howl cut through the storm again. By the bursts of lightning, she saw the trees giving way to rocks up ahead as the steep foothills of the rugged mountains began. She paused as she emerged into the open and looked up at the scramble which lay ahead. There was no shelter here. She had to go up.

    The climb was easy enough for her. She wasn’t strong, but she was lithe and nimble and weighed very little for her height. However, there were no caves to be found in the foothills. The steep slopes offered only smooth stone and high crevasses quite out of reach. In the gullies there were several caverns, but all far too large to be of any protection. All the while she was conscious of the ever increasing volume of the werewolf’s calls. It couldn’t be far away by now. Time was running out…

    When she reached the summit of a smaller peak, she could see the forest below and all the land around by the light of the storm. She had to brace herself against the buffeting winds, from which she had been shielded by the forest trees. The mountain beside this peak was far taller and it had a sheer South face overlooking the mountainous river valley behind. She peered up at it. There was a cave up there, of some kind. There was also a series of ledges which seemed to form a rough pathway to that area of the cliff face.

    She looked back down at the edge of the forest and then over to the other side of the smaller mountain. Her blood froze. Something was moving down below her; a flash of white, which then disappeared. Then it was there again, moving between the rocks.

    She ran towards the cliff face.

    ---

    Just minutes later, she was hauling herself up onto the ledge outside the cave. She sighed in despair at the sight of its wide mouth, but then a lightning bolt struck and she saw a flash of white out of the corner of her eye. She turned suddenly. There was someone hanging on to the ledge across from the cave. She saw the muzzle and was about to duck back down, when she realized that it was a dog’s muzzle, not a wolf’s.

    ‘Hello!’ she called out over the din.

    The canid didn’t respond. He – she thought it was a male at least – was staring at the cave and looked frozen with fright. Immediately her eyes flashed back to it, expecting to see the werewolf inside. There was no one there. Then she noticed a sword lying near the entrance.

    She glanced at the dog, then back to the weapon. Werewolves’ couldn’t be killed without silver or fire, but they could be incapacitated just as easily as any creature. If it was inside the cave, she had a chance to ambush it. The only problem was…she had never used a sword before.

    Very slowly, she crept out onto the ledge. Immediately she drew herself up against the wall. She inched closer to the sword. When it was within reach, she bent down and very, very carefully picked it up, terrified that the blade might scrape against the stone and give her away. It was quite heavy, but not so much that she couldn’t wield it easily for a while at least. As she wrapped her fingers around the pommel, she was glad of that one night when she had glanced through a text on swordsmanship. It probably wouldn’t do much good beyond helping her to hold it correctly though.

    The lightning strikes were still her only source of light, so she peeked carefully around the corner and waited for one to illuminate the cave – ready to pull back in an instant if necessary. Thunder rolled as the last flash died. She waited.

    Crash!

    Thunder split the sky as lightning arced directly overhead. She saw into the cave, saw the black skinned creature crouching in the back, and paused. It looked up at her with solid grey eyes and an expressionless face. Her jaw dropped.

    ‘Sylth?’

    It cocked its head to the side.

    ‘Lyssa?’ it hissed sibilantly.

    She stepped into the cave, lowering the sword.

    The creature, Sylth, remained where he lay. His body was lizard-like, but with limbs that were longer and positioned slightly more beneath his body than was typical of most of the quadrupedal reptilians. His skin was black, with a leathery appearance, and was drawn tight across his somewhat bony frame. The black claws on his feet and hands were long and thin. His neck was one and a half feet long, strongly muscled and with two inch long flanges of skin down either side of the oesophagus. His face had a draconic snout with an equine bone structure. Fleshy frills grew in a ring around the rear of his skull and smaller frills lined the base of his jaw. His entire body was sixteen feet long from the tip of his snout to the tip of his tail – and a little over half that length was made up by the whip-like appendage.

    His face had no musculature and no expression at all, apart from the grey spheres which were his eyes. Even his voice conveyed emotion only very subtly. As she approached him, he watched her with what must have been surprise.

    ‘What are you doing here?’ she asked, standing in front of him.

    ‘Hunting a quite persistent quarry.’ He hissed.

    ‘So you’re still a bounty hunter?’ she asked,

    He nodded once.

    ‘Who is it?’

    He motioned past her with his snout. Turning, she realized that he was pointing to the pale canid still clinging to the edge of the cliff. She turned back to her old acquaintance.

    ‘What did he do?’ she asked.

    ‘Theft, cheating, aiding and abetting, false testimony. Recently suspected of murder.’

    His voice was level, with no hint of feeling as he listed the crimes of his quarry. It was a characteristic which had done little to endear him with most people he met, but she had always found him a calming presence for that reason. It was just a trait of the basilisks to appear cold and unemotional. They had their emotions, but their bodies were not well designed to display them.

    She knew that Sylth also did not care much for words, which was why his sentences tended to be very monosyllabic.

    ‘What will you do now that you’ve caught him?’ she asked, still distracted from her predicament by the surprise of meeting the old basilisk.

    ‘The larger bounty is in Raven’s Hill, but he caused more damage for the Vale. I will wait for the storm to end and then take him there.’

    The past few hours finally came back to her.

    ‘Have you not heard the werewolf?’ she asked.

    He cocked his head and raised a talon to one of the little holes that were his ears. Of course: he had very poor hearing, particularly for low sounds.

    ‘I did think I heard a howl,’ he replied, ‘but you say it is a werewolf? Is that why you are here?’

    She nodded fervently and began to explain…

    When she had finished, he seemed nonplussed.

    ‘You don’t seem very worried.’ She observed.

    Sylth made a noise that could have been a snigger.

    ‘Give me reason to be.’ He hissed.

    ‘Have you fought a werewolf before?’

    He shook his head once.

    ‘Then how can you be sure your eyes will work? They don’t affect me.’

    ‘I am certain.’ He replied

    ‘How?’

    Lazily, he rose to his feet and twisted his neck, to the clicking of vertebrae. He clambered effortlessly over the rocks on which he had lain. His body moved with an unnerving degree of stealth and precision – another factor which seldom endeared him with the people he met – while his tail snaked across the stone behind him like a black bull whip. He brushed past her and made his way towards the mouth of the cave.

    Lyssa was confused. When she turned round to follow his path, however, realisation dawned. Very suddenly.

    The white statue which loomed over her was massively muscular, shaggy, snarling and with claws and fangs bared in preparation for a lunge.

    The werewolf’s face was turned to her, but its frozen eyes stared up at where Sylth had lain. Behind the bloodthirsty grimace, there seemed to be an element of surprise in its contorted features.

    Frozen in shock, she returned its vacant gaze for some time. Meanwhile, Sylth prowled around the beasts legs. He investigated his victim like a hound, prodding it with his snout. His inexpressive features contrived to look unimpressed.

    ‘What will you do with it…now that it’s frozen?’ Lyssa asked, when she had regained her senses.

    He didn’t reply until he was standing in front of the statue. He cocked his head slightly to one side and was still for the briefest moment. Then he reared up onto his hind legs, bringing his head to the level of the werewolf’s. Lurching unsteadily, he dropped onto the werewolf, clinging to its shoulders with his clawed hands. With a twist of his body, he pulled the statue off balance and sent it crashing into the stone. White shards scattered across the floor as the right arm shattered and the torso, tail and legs broke into chunks. The head snapped free and rolled between Sylth’s legs as he dropped back down.

    Lyssa was taken aback.

    ‘Why did you smash him?’ she asked.

    Sylth turned to her with what might have been surprise.

    ‘It wanted to kill you.’ He replied.

    ‘But…isn’t it against your code to smash someone?’ she asked

    ‘A person, yes. Not an animal; I must eat.’

    He took a large chunk of stone from the pile and swallowed it for emphasis. It was how basilisks hunted – they petrified their victims and then bit or broke them into manageable chunks. The statues were not so much stone as they were a more solidified form of the creature’s body. Although the basilisk’s ability was voluntary, they could not reverse the process. Only mages could undo their petrification magic.

    Sylth left the broken werewolf and walked over to the edge of the cliff. His tail coiled around the hapless canid bandit and hoisted him effortlessly from his perch. Under the pouring rain, Sylth’s tough hide shone like obsidian in the lightning. He carried the statue into the cave and set it down gently beside the fire pit.

    ‘Stay if you wish,’ he said to Lyssa, ‘I remain till dawn. He stored wood and the coals are hot. There are stolen clothes in that trunk too.’

    She had forgotten her nakedness completely. As Sylth curled up on the flat rock in the back of the cave, she routed through the contents of the trunk. Most of the garments were either too small or meant for warmer conditions. She took out a serviceable brown traveller’s robe and slipped it on, carefully ignoring the hole in the left breast and the lingering smell of iron.

    She looked at her old acquaintance – already with his eyes closed – looked at the pile of white shards and then looked out at the storm…

    A few minutes later, smoke began to trickle out from the cave entrance. Moments after that, there was a small shower of pale stones off the edge of the precipice. The werewolf’s head bounced against the cliff face, broke its lower jaw and finally rolled between the boulders on the lower slope. With broken ears, snapped off fangs and a chipped nose, it looked a sorry sight when it settled amongst the ferns.

    ***

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    [Warning: this chapter contains mature themes of a sexually suggestive nature. Reader discretion is advised]

    A sigh of satisfaction escaped his lips as he set down his first drink of the evening. The droplets of condensation were cool and refreshing against his finger pads, a welcome sensation after a long day in the studio. The club was only half full tonight, but true to its name, it was filled with that same vibe that drew the young and outgoing to places like this the world over, to bathe in the sensations of the driving music while coloured lights shifted from warm pinks to cool blues, on into the dark purples and reds which blended with the smoke of the cigarettes and vapes to create that alluring, illicit atmosphere where it felt like anything was possible.

    He could see it as he lifted the glass to his dark lips a second time and sipped deeply from the cool fizzing liquid, feeling the cider rapidly bringing on the mild light-headedness which was at the same time both relaxing and disconcerting. The long wooden counter behind him was stocked with far more potent drinks, a number of which he’d tried before, most of which he couldn’t see the point in drinking. Once you got past the allure of all that was exotic, potent and expensive, at the end of the day he drank for the taste, not the label or the buzz.

    His long flowing tail swayed slowly behind him, the tip curling ever so slightly now and then as he sat reclining against the warm wood of the bar, dark brown eyes taking in the scenery of the night.

    Truthfully though…tonight, he didn’t really care for the scenery.

    Sighing again, this time in mild boredom, he relaxed against the bar and looked casually over the lounge area of the club, seeing a host of other species of both genders moving between couches and tables and generally enjoying themselves in all the ways people did in situations like this. Club Vibez did attract an interesting range of clientele, there was no doubt about that, which was one of the reasons the dark grey wolf had begun to frequent it more regularly. The ever changing menagerie of forms, personalities and styles made for a diverting side show while he relaxed with his evening drink. In addition, it also increased his chances in the game.

    His eyes of dark earthy brown flickered casually between the females, lingering on those who presented themselves in the most flirtatious manner, but usually passing them by in the end. Physical beauty was on display in abundance. Sometimes very much so. A young leopardess in particular warranted a second glance as she stepped between the black leather couches; her curving hips swaying alluringly in time with the tapping of her white high-heels upon the wooden floor, while her dark blue dress bared all of her shoulders and every last inch of her long and smooth-furred legs. Now and then a flash of white lace would draw the eye to the space between her thighs, but only just as the fabric of her dress slid back to cover it with the following step.

    Damian set his glass aside and watched the open show with the merest hint of a smirk. He could see the attention she was drawing from other males in the club – and several of the females too – with her carefully revealing dress and the subtle yet sensual movements of her body even as she came over to the bar and set her stylish black handbag upon the counter.

    Her emerald green eyes finally turned and met his. In the briefest moment he recognized the flicker of a knowing smile and the movement of her eyes over his body, but he simply smiled politely and gave a subtle bow of his head in acknowledgement. The latter seemed to take the leopardess a little by surprise, but she was quickly distracted by the bartender as the lithe and smartly dressed reptile asked casually what she would like to drink.

    She even had a beautiful voice, Damian thought, whilst taking an interested look at the brushed gold pendant she wore around her neck and the little crystal studs in her rounded ears.

    Then he turned back towards the club and took another sip of his cider.

    His own outfit consisted of a pair of neat black skinny jeans and a dark grey long sleeved shirt which he wore with the sleeves rolled up and the chest unbuttoned to the base of his sternum. His medium length fur was neatly kept and ranged from the off-white of his underbelly through various shades of rich grey elsewhere. On his face and muzzle, a mixture of different shades created striking and yet unobtrusive patterns like a natural war-paint.

    He was well built and athletic without being overtly muscular or heavily toned and wore his raven black hair in a loose plat, extending down to the small of his back and secured near the end by a broad silver band. His other jewellery consisted of a plain white gold band around his left thumb and an elegant rose gold ring inlaid with a line of fine dark emeralds upon his right middle finger, while around his dark furred neck he wore a snug fitting collar of deep burgundy leather with a fine border of gold thread. 

    The tap-tap of the high heels didn’t draw his attention again as the leopardess walked back down to join in the crowd, soon to be pulled away by conversation with a handsome looking stallion, to Damian’s mild amusement.

    He watched them both casually for some time. Reading the signs with practiced ease, almost idly tallying the drinks and the movement from the bar to the dance floor to the couch as both played the game as if led by some unconscious formula. There were many ways it could go, but Damian recognized the players and before the evening was over, he had little doubt what the outcome would be.

     

     

    “Would you mind if I join you?”

    She looked up with a smile and a casual shrug.

    “Sure, no sweat.”

    Smiling gratefully, he settled onto the barstool next to her and slid his glass onto the counter as he turned to face her. Her hazel coloured eyes openly glanced over his body and he chuckled as she gave him a knowing look and remarked outright.

    “Why? Did your date drop you or something big boy?”

    “I never had one to begin with.” He replied honestly.

    She was a fennec fox – her short, pale cream-coloured fur partly hidden beneath a long sleeved shirt cut to just below her small breasts and the ripped denim shorts which hugged her waist and her rear tightly. Her outfit was all black, as was the silver studded bracelet she wore around her right wrist and the chunky ring around her left middle finger. The black satin cord around her neck had just one round steel bead as a pendant and she wore a number of small silver rings along the inner edge of her right ear, as well as a pin through her belly button and one through the left side of her upper lip.

    “Huh, that’s kinda surprising.” She remarked with some curiosity, to which the wolf simply shrugged in reply.

    The bartender came by to set a tall glass of amber in front of the fennec and as she picked it up in her right hand, she rested her left arm back against the counter. Glancing between Damian and the now more crowded floor of the club as she remarked above the noise of the chatter and the beat of the music,

    “I’m Amanda by the way. You been here before?”

    “Damian, pleased to meet you Amanda,” he replied with a nod and a polite smile, “and I’ve been here a few times over the past year or so. What about you?”

    She shook her head and took a sip of her drink.

    “It’s a new one on me. Not half as crap as where I used to go though.”

    “Where was that?” he asked.

    “Place called the ‘The Pit’. Hmph, it sure as hell lived up to the name. I don’t imagine someone like you would have been there.” She answered dismissively.

    But he nodded knowingly,

    “Oh yes, I’ve been there. Affordable drinks, but that’s about all you can say for the place.”

    “Yeah that’s true, you could get drunk on a fiver there easy.” She replied, giving him a slightly more thoughtful look.

    “Probably,” he conceded, “I never tried. Only went there twice too, it was rather dull once you got past the madness of the dance floor.”

    “What, don’t you dance?” she asked.

    “Ballroom dancing yes, freestyling no.” he replied with a slight smile.

    He turned away for a moment, looking at nothing very much. The leopardess and the stallion were still sitting on the couch and now the chestnut male had his one arm behind her head and they were leaning in close to one another as the night progressed.

    “Well if you’re all alone and not here to dance then why the hell go clubbing?”

    Damian glanced back at Amanda. Then he looked out again. Over the friends and the couples. Over the lovers and the players. He motioned with his muzzle towards the scene and replied in a slightly offhand tone,

    "Other people do the clubbing, I just come here to relax. To get out of life and routine.”

    As he paused for a moment, a slight smile came to his dark lips. Amanda looked at him, her own expression slowly becoming one of greater curiosity, especially as he continued, his deep rich voice soft upon the ears yet seeming to resonate inside of her.

    “Sometimes it’s nice to just sit at the bar and simply enjoy a drink. Letting life go on all around you and just...observing. Being part of the show, but also apart from it."

    The half empty glass twirled slowly between his fingers on the counter, drawing her eyes to the darkly sparkling emeralds of his exquisitely crafted ring.

    Her eyes turned back up to his strong face just as he turned back to her, smiling softly as he continued in a gently alluring tone,

    "And sometimes one is lucky enough to meet someone new and interesting. Perhaps only for a moment, perhaps just for the evening. Or perhaps…for more than just a chat."

    In the silence that followed, Amanda’s cheeks flushed very slightly beneath her pale fur. She couldn’t bring herself to look away from his eyes. So dark, that by this dim light they appeared almost solid black. Suddenly she jumped, feeling something brush her sandy tail. She glanced down, and saw the wolf’s own long grey tail unfurling from her own and swaying back behind his stool. Looking back up, she saw the gently mischievous smirk upon the male’s muzzle, which turned to a casual smile once more as he turned his back to the bar once more.

    She knew what was happening. The signs were as clear as could be and his subtleness only made it show more clearly to someone familiar with the game. As she was.

    Was it the voice? The cool, sureness of his appearance and his posture? His manner?

    In the back of her mind she knew this was all a game and she knew what he was after. She knew he was playing her.

    But somehow…that only made her cheeks flush a little deeper as she smiled softly in return and glanced down a little bit shyly, before turning her lithe body to face his larger frame and curling her tail around his own in a brief caress.

    Damian glanced back at her and in an instant he read her expression and smiled warmly, turning to face her once again and leaning his weight against the bar as they both drew a little closer to one another, looking into each other’s eyes more intently now.

    “That was almost poetic, Damian. What you just said.”

    He gave a slight shrug, smiling as he replied,

    “I was never much good at poetry, but every now and then something comes to me.”

    “Would that be when you’re working, or when you’re playing?” she asked slyly, earning a gently knowing smirk from Damian as he replied causally,

    “Both sometimes. I’m a jeweller by trade, so most of my artistic inspiration and my passion is poured into that. But, there’s usually a little left to spare.”

    “Oh?” she remarked, catching the subtle hint in that pause.

    His muzzle bobbed slightly as he nodded and then laying his arm upon the counter, he lightly touched the back of her hand with his fingertips. Her blush deepened a little as she felt the touch, so light it was almost like an illusion.

    “W-what for?” she asked, when he said nothing.

    “Hmm?” he gave her a questioning glance.

    “What do you use that…extra passion for?”

    His soft smile remained unchanged, as he ran his finger tip along the back of her hand and her middle finger, murmuring in reply,

    “A different kind art.”

    Her blush deepened yet again. As his fingertip touched the short painted black claw of her middle finger she pulled back just a little, muttering under her breath even as she tried not to smile,

    “Guess you were just looking for a girl for the night all along huh?”

    Smirking ever so slightly, he turned his muzzle a little to the side and replied as cool and as confident as ever,

    “Only if she would like a boy for the evening in turn?”

    In the silence that followed he could see her sly little smirk turning into a shy, yet excited smile and soon enough her left hand came to rest on his firm chest and they leaned in to one another, pausing only for her to whisper,

    “Mm, I prefer men to boys…but you just might be in luck tonight handsome…”

    His gentle smirk faded and his dark lips parted and pressed lightly over her own as the two strangers kissed gently but deeply. Her fingers slipped beneath the fabric of his shirt and moved slowly across his right breast, feeling his toned muscle and the softness of his short grey fur. His right hand traced its fingers down along her side before resting at her waist, just as they both drew back from the kiss and held each other’s gaze for a moment.

    “Don’t think I’m easy.” She remarked under her breath.

    “If I did, I wouldn’t be taking my time.” He replied, his hand moving slowly up and around her side to press warmly against her shoulder. A gentle touch, which felt as if it held her there close to him possessively, yet still was gentle enough that she could pull away if she wanted to…

    But she didn’t want to at all.

    His muzzle was so close to hers. She could feel his warm breath, slow and soft, flowing through the sandy fur of her snout. The sweet scent of his drink tickled her nose as they looked into one another’s eyes and kissed softly one more time, her hands pressing into his chest as if to push him back, but at the same time her tail curled itself around his own, keeping him close. For a while they simply looked into each other’s eyes. His hand gently dropped down to her hip and he leaned in and placed a tender kiss upon her cheek.

    Then he leant back a little and rested his weight against the bar once more, while his hand came to rest on her soft thigh. There was something about the way he looked at her in their shared silence. Something so subtle in his features that put her at ease and made her feel…not just wanted – she knew what that felt like – this was different. Even as he delicately caressed her inner thigh with the quiet boldness of a lover, the fact that he had been a total stranger not half an hour ago…no longer seemed to matter.

    It had to be an act. This couldn’t be real and she made one last effort to break through that cool demeanour as she pressed her fingertip to his dark nose and remarked with a smug grin,

    “So what now? Are you just going to stare at me and hope I’ll take the initiative playboy?”

    His smile said it all as he curled his tail around her own just a little tighter and murmured deeply,

    “Why? Are you getting impatient Amanda?”

    Her ears dropped back, but he laughed gently as she opened her mouth to retort and he turned to face her fully once again before grasping her hips firmly and lifting her from her seat and into his lap. She gasped in surprise and her cheeks flushed as he wrapped his left arm behind her. He glanced up into her eyes with a gently playful smile, before lowering his muzzle and pressing his warm lips to her bare chest.

    For a brief moment, she was frozen in place. Before she could speak, he drew back ever so slightly and lifted his muzzle up, placing a second kiss right at the base of her neck.

    “Whether this goes further is entirely up to you Amanda.” He murmured to her, while the display drew curious and jealous glances from some of the other party goers.

    She shuddered in his grasp. Her hands which had moved to his sides instinctively to push him away, now moved behind his shoulders to hold him closer as his kiss lingered upon the side of her neck.

    “F-fuck...what kind of guy are you?” she stuttered under her breath, confused emotions running through her body as she felt this wolf hold her possessively and move his lips tenderly up her neck at the same time.

    “My own kind.” He replied, as his teeth lightly nipped her left ear.

    Then drawing back to look up into her eyes once more, he asked simply and with a look that was filled with desire, yet remained gentle and measured,

    “May I have this dance tonight?”

    She stared down at him in silence. Flustered, stunned, confused and turned on all at once. Finally she felt a smile creeping onto her lips and her mind was made up. Quickly she leaned into him and sealed his lips with an impassioned kiss for a brief moment. Then looking him in the eye with a subtle smirk, she whispered to him,

    “I’m gonna head back to my place for the night. So why don’t you come along…and show me what you can do, boy?”

  8. Passion

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    Ralen-Lykos
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    [Warning: this chapter contains adult material including nudity and graphic sexual intercourse. Reader discretion is advised]

    The sky was grey again today. The air was cold enough to give a chill, but not quite cold enough to let you wear a good thick raincoat comfortably. A light drizzle had been falling for the last few days, soaking its way through everything, including the peoples’ mood. Most of them trudged along the sidewalks or crept through the jammed up streets in their slow cars, looking sullen or irritable.

    The russet fox smiled at his vague reflection in the window on his left, as he watched the familiar London scene from the warmth of the little Café on King Street. He sat here every afternoon, working on his laptop while he slowly sipped a flat white. The manager even booked the same little booth for him every week day at the same time. He knew the waitress as well; in fact she’d invited him to her wedding a few weeks from now.

    He was a handsome looking fellow. A little over five foot nine, he had a slim build with noticeable, but lean muscle. His fur was russet red everywhere, apart from a band of white which ran from his chin down the front of his neck to behind his shirt and the white tip which graced his long and plush tail, currently draped over the edge of the seat. There was also a dark brown edging around the tips of his ears. Currently he was dressed in a black, V-necked long-sleeve top and a pair of champagne coloured long trousers with a plain leather belt and steel buckle. He wore neat black shoes which, like his clothes, had a well-cared-for appearance. All he had with him beside his laptop and its bag, was his leather wallet, his cellphone and a large black umbrella.

    The steam from the coffee rose merrily into the air as he tapped away at the keyboard, answering emails and just generally going through his admin. Pausing to read a particularly lengthy message, he lifted the half full mug to his thin lips and smiled a little smile as he heard a familiar sound from outside.

    The hiss of the buss door opening and the warning beeps reached the ears of the waitress too and she caught his eye with a wink. He smiled at the sheep and nodded in confirmation. She trotted off to the counter to place his order, flicking the single long lock of dyed red and black hair out of her face. He was pleased to see that she was experimenting with wearing fewer piercings these days – they really hadn’t suited her personality.

    The door of the Café opened as he set his mug down. Moments later, a pair of slender arms wrapped around his neck from behind. He smiled happily and clasped the elegant russet furred hands with his own.

    “How was the day dear?” he asked without looking around.

    “It was boring, until I stepped in.” a feminine voice replied playfully.

    His smile broadened and he looked up into the red muzzle and golden eyes of the vixen behind him. She smiled back at him and they kissed briefly. She was dressed much like him, black jeans and a white shirt, only hers was a crop top that bared the white fur of her slim belly. Sensible heels, a black and silver belt and a plain gold chain completed the differences, along with a thick grey fur-lined jacket.

    “How was yours bae?” she asked, settling herself down in the seat opposite him.

    He chuckled softly,

    “Do you remember about a month ago we lost the bid for that contract with one of South Africa’s biggest wine farms?” he asked.

    “Oh yes?” she replied, her smile suggesting that she already had an idea where this was going.

    “They called around lunch time and they want to use us after all.” he said with satisfaction.

    “That’s brilliant bae!” She leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table with a knowing look, “and who will be managing those shipments?”

    Returning her look, he turned his laptop around and pointed to a paragraph in the email he had been reading.

    She read it quickly and then lifted her hand and they high-fived one another.

    “We’ll eat tonight!” he said jokingly.

    The neatly shorn waitress trotted up beside them and expertly slid a large cappuccino in front of the vixen.

    “Here you go Gwen.” She said brightly.

    “Oh, how ever did you know Vicky?” the vixen chuckled, as she eagerly picked up the steaming drink.

    The young sheep just giggled in reply, then she tucked her tray under her arm and asked,

    “So what was that little celebration about?”

    “Oh, just a bit of good news from work.” the fox replied.

    “What he means to say, is he’s just been put in charge of managing wine imports from one of the biggest farms in South Africa.” His wife supplied with a look of light hearted reproach.

    “But that’s awesome news!” the sheep girl exclaimed.

    She grinned at the vixen.

    “Why do men downplay everything?” she whispered conspiratorially.

    “I have no idea.” Gwen replied with mock despair.

    The fox laughed.

    “Well I downplay it because I know how much you enjoy sending it up afterwards, my dear.” He responded.

    “So what are you going to do to celebrate?” Vicky asked.

    The fox shrugged exaggeratedly.

    “Oh I don’t think we need to go out of our way to celebrate.” He remarked dismissively.

    Vicky and Gwen both opened their mouths to disagree, but he dipped his hand into the pocket of his laptop bag and withdrew a little booklet, which he then set down on the table with a sideways look at the two women. They both leaned forward and Vicky gave a girlish squeal.

    “Singing in the Rain! At the New London Theatre!” she exclaimed.

    Gwen jumped to her feet and rushed to throw her arms around her husband.

    “Oh Jasper, you know me too well.” She said to him, as he softly stroked the fur of her neck, smiling gently.

    “Aww…” Vicky remarked, longingness in her eyes as she watched their embrace, “you two are always so sweet together.”

    Jasper shut his eyes with a soft little smile as his wife squeezed him tightly.

     

     

    “Cancelled!”

    The wrinkled bulldog in the spotless suit and shining bowtie, nodded apologetically to the pair,

    “We are very sorry mam, Sir…you shall of course be refunded, or you may forward your booking to the next showing.”

    Gwen’s gasp of dismay faded to a saddened expression as she sighed softly and turned away.

    “Thank you.” Jasper replied solemnly, on her behalf as well, before leaving the glass clad building, keeping close behind Gwen.

    He called to her to wait and opened his umbrella for the pair of them as the rain was coming down fairly heavily outside.

    From the steps of the theatre, the pair looked out on the cold greyness of their city. The roads were soaked and slippery, forcing the taxis and cars to drive even slower than the overcrowded streets usually forced them to. Water gurgled everywhere; spilling off the tall grey buildings, splattering against the dull paving stones, finally churning in the gutters as it swirled out of sight down the many drains that led to the city’s silt laden river.

    Gwen huddled up against Jasper as he held the brolly firmly over them, the pair making their way up the street towards the distant bus stop, the nearest one they knew of that would take them close to their street. It was already so crowded, however, that they would probably have to wait for the second bus, or at this time of day, perhaps even the third…and in rain as heavy as this, standing around for the better part of half would hardly be any better than chancing the walk back to their home. The rain had a way of drenching you no matter what and at that moment, the rain drops which skirted the wide brolly were leaping up in splashes of droplets from the pavement to soak their black jeans as they walked on together.

    Soon the fabric felt cold and heavy against the fur of their legs, the once cheery couple passing silently through the empty grey back streets, hoping to avoid the cars which sent waves of icy water spraying up from ever larger puddles in the shimmering streets. Jasper rubbed Gwen’s shoulder comfortingly as he did his best to shield her from the rain, glancing with sad eyes into her downcast face, the hopes for their time together dashed and the rain adding insult to injury as they headed home to escape the misery of this sorry evening.

    By the time they were just past Brunswick Gardens and paused to let an old lorry trundle turn the corner in front of them, both had begun to shiver in spite of their thick jackets.

    But then Jasper held Gwen back, peering down the little side street across the road. Where Handle Street turned away to the left, there was a little grassy park nestled between the buildings. Gwen looked up at her husband in confusion as he led her across the road and paused once more at the entrance to Handle Street, his eyes set on the little green space ahead. As though feeling her searching gaze, Jasper turned to her and smiling, he took her arm and led her on, holding her gaze as he quietly began a merry little tune that Gwen could not help but recognize.

    “Do do-do do, do do-do do-do do do.

    Do do-do do, do do-do do-do do do.”

    And then, as they entered the park, his rich voice rang and he dropped their umbrella and stepped out in front of her, his face warm and smiling back at her as he sang out aloud,

    “I’m signing in the rain,

    just singing in the rain.

    What a glorious feelin’

    I’m happy again.

    I’m laughing at clouds,

    so dark up above.

    The sun’s in my heart,

    for I’m here…with my love.”

    Darting in, he pecked her cheek and then spun away leaving her to watch in amazement with a happy smile coming to her lips, while Jasper peered out from behind a tree and continued with the bright words of the chorus,

    “Let the stormy clouds chase,

    everyone from the place.

    Come on, with the rain!

    I’ve a smile on my face!

    I walk, down the lane,

    With a happy refrain,

    Cause’ with you love,

    I’ll be singin’…in the rain.”

    A thunder clap rumbled above and the rain came down, but as Gwen’s laughter filled the empty park, the two lovers rushed to hold hands and dance through the trees. Smiling as they spun and sang together, the umbrella twirled in wide circles and let the rain fall upon the pair as in time they made their winding way along the streets, leaving the little park behind. The clear notes of their happy song faded back into silence beneath the pleasant pattering of rain upon the trees, while the clear drops filled their pawprints with little puddles, shining like silver beneath the grey skies.

     

    ---

     

    By the time they had made it back to their home in Wharfdale Road, Gwen and Jasper were both soaked to the skin and smiling contentedly as they paused arm in arm before the faded red door of their house. Gwen’s jacket was slung over her arm and she carried her sopping wet shoes in her hand. As she took out her keys and unlocked the door Jasper shook off his umbrella, before they both stepped inside into the warmth of their little home.

    The door shut and all was quiet. Jasper slid his black umbrella into the rack behind their door and then turned to follow his wife down the passageway. No sooner had he done so, however, than he paused and smiled softly, his eyes looking into hers as she stood before him. Her hands came up to briefly clasp his sides, before they moved in a loving caress around his back and up to clasp his shoulders and pull him close, their lips meeting as his hands rested upon her waist.

    As they kissed, the noise of the rain came as a gentle rustle, a pitter-patter sound that turned the little house with its light wooden floors and stylish red walls with slate grey edgings into a cosy cocoon of warmth and dryness. The double glazing on the windows of the little living room kept out the bustle of life as a bus trundled past, while the cream coloured curtains allowed only the glow of the streetlamps to penetrate their sanctuary from reality. Jasper’s lips left Gwen’s only with the greatest reluctance, but in the wake of their tender kiss, both smiled with contentment and a knowingness that came with familiarity.

    With a deft movement and bringing first a laugh and then a gasp from Gwen’s lips, her husband pulled her off her feet and into his arms in an embrace which left her straddling his waist while he supported her back and shoulders with his strong arms. She wrapped her long legs around his hips, elegant hands clasping his shoulders, and with a slow and graceful step, he carried her up the narrow flight of stairs to their bedroom on the first floor. They smiled at each other, while the fingers of her right hand slowly traced along the outline of the muscles of his chest, coming up to stroke the soft fur of his cheek. Jasper’s eyes briefly closed as he stepped onto the landing and then with a broader smile he pulled her close to him and planted deep kiss right between her breasts. Gwen sighed softly, her right hand keeping his head there as she shut her eyes, eager to let him take control.

    His tail flicked the switch on the wall to bathe their room’s deep red walls in a light with the warmth of the embers of a fire and the two lovers fell together into the embrace of the soft scarlet covers of their bed. Jasper lay on top, his hands now free to roam over Gwen’s form and caress her soft fur. Hers stayed as they had been, clasping his shoulder and the back of his head as she moaned softly with each kiss that graced her snow white chest. While Jasper worked his lips along her collar bone, his left hand slid beneath her white crop top and finding his prize, he cupped her breast and gave a gentle squeeze, eliciting a soft and sudden gasp from his wife.

    “A-always such a tease.” She murmured with a soft smile, stealing a brief look into his green eyes before she bit her lower lip and moaned when his short claws gently raked against the skin of her breast, pulling at her bra.

    Jasper smiled softly and easily unclipped her bra to allow him to pull away the offending undergarment and then hitch the hem of her top up over her soft breasts, leaving her chest bared for him to lean in and softly lick the sensitive pink nub of her left nipple. She arched her back slowly beneath him as he sealed his lips around it and swirled his tongue in little circles over the tender flesh, suckling gently. At the same time his right hand crept underneath her, holding her close as he released her nipple and kissed her fur softly.

    With impossible patience, he trailed kisses and slow tender licks down the white fur between her breasts and across her belly, sliding his body over her legs and stroking his hands along her sides until he reached her belly button.

    ‘N-noo…” Gwen whimpered playfully as she knew what was coming.

    Jasper chuckled softly and his soft tongue slipped past his lips as he kissed the little dimple in Gwen’s fur, tickling her sensitive nerves and making her squirm beneath him and occasionally give soft little yelps as she struggled in his teasing grasp. Finally her hands grabbed his head while her legs wrapped around his shoulders and she forced him down, giggling femininely and panting with exertion.

    “Oh you sly…”

    “Fox?” he supplied with a grin, interrupting her and then immediately leaning forward and sealing her lips with a deep kiss.

    As he pulled away, his loving eyes sparkled with good natured mischief and he leaned past her muzzle and took her pointed ear between his front teeth, gently nibbling her as he murmured,

    “You know I have many more tricks up my sleeve than that, beautiful.”

    Gwen blushed softly as she felt his left hand cup the little mound between her thighs. His fingers found their way to the zipper of her black jeans and the gentle sound of the tag being pulled down made her heart beat faster in anticipation.

    “Please…let me, love…” she begged him softly, and before he could reply she reached past him, undid her belt and popped the button of her jeans, before shimmying out of them as quickly as she could.

    Jasper sat up and caught her hands in his before she could go any further, smiling as he brought them up and pinned her arms either side of her head.

    “Mine.” He growled softly, then released her and slipped back down.

    Laying down between her thighs, he leaned in and pressed his muzzle against the pure white fabric of her lace panties. Gwen, keeping her arms obediently held back, arched her back again and her lips parted in anxious excitement as Jasper gently nuzzled into her womanhood. He breathed in deeply, his sensitive nose picking up the familiar sweet scent of her most intimate of places and stoking his own desire as he took the thin layer of white fabric between his teeth and pulled firmly, uncovering her at last. Sitting up, he slid her panties down the smooth fur of her legs and as she lifted her dark brown paws for him, he smiled and took hold of one dainty little foot, bringing it to his lips to place a brief kiss on the gentle arch. Gwen’s blush deepened, as did her smile, but neither of them faded as he released her paw and leaned in once more, grasping her thighs and pulling them apart.

    With her sex bared to him, Jasper lay down upon the bed, resting on his elbows as his hands clasped and held Gwen’s thighs, and he pressed his lips against the soft white fur that surrounded her entrance. Her eyes shut and she clasped her left breast gently, her fingers tweaking the nipple, as his lips parted and his tongue dragged slowly along the length of the little pink slit. She moved gently beneath him, while he continued to lick slowly and tenderly at her soft folds, his eyes shut as he lost himself once more in the joy of pleasuring his mate. Turning his muzzle to the side, he pressed a little deeper between the folds of her sex, quiet moans escaping her lips as he would slow down to let her feel the texture of his vulpine tongue trailing across her sensitive flesh. Now and then too, a sudden flick would brush across the hard nub placed above her entrance and cause her to gasp and shiver as a spark of pleasure raced along her spine.

    If Jasper was exceptional in any way, it was in his self-control. Even as the scent and taste of Gwen’s sex drove his own desires wild, the lustful cries of his own instincts fell on deaf ears. For minute after minute, his only action was to lavish his lover’s sex with ever more intense touches as he worked his tongue deeper and searched out the special places within her. Here and there he paused to press against her soft inner walls, each time bringing a sharp gasp or breathless moan from Gwen’s parted lips as he expertly caressed her most sensitive spots. Until finally she began to lose her own restraint and reached down to grasp his head between her hands, running her fingers through his short fur and stroking his pointed ears as they lay back against his neck.

    “Ohhh Jasper…” she moaned softly, her amber eyes shining as she watched his every loving movement, “Ahh…please bae…you know how good this feels for me…but please don’t forget about yourself love. I’m ready for you. I’m always ready for you.”

    She smiled softly, cupping his cheek and encouraging him to pull back, which eventually he did, his tongue reluctantly slipping free of her entrance, earning one final sigh of pleasure from Gwen even as it did so.

    Cupping her hand gently with his, Jasper sat back on his haunches. He trailed his index finger slowly down the side of her belly and along her inner thigh, causing her to giggle softly and curl her tail.

    “And you know that I’m happiest when I’m loving you my girl.” He replied with a gentle smile.

    Smiling in return, she gave a slow nod and then sat up in his arms and untucked his shirt from his jeans before pulling it up over his head and tossing it away. Pressing her hands against his toned chest and rubbing them over his fur affectionately, she kissed his belly and murmured in reply,

    “Which is exactly what you will be doing now.”

    His belt rattled as she unbuckled it, unzipped his jeans and helped him out of them, pulling away his underpants at the same time to free his manhood from the much too tight confines. She smirked softly as she took it in her hand and leaned up to kiss and lick the tip of his shaft, before sinking down onto him and sealing her lips against the soft fur of his sheath. Jasper growled quietly, his hands clenching into fists before running his fingers through the fur of her cheeks as his voice betrayed just how much he was actually needing this by now. Slowly moving her head back and forth, she ran her tongue along his hard member, taking her turn to taste him and breathing in his rich earthy scent. Left to her own devices, she would gladly have continued pleasuring him just as he had her, but after a few minutes, Jasper could wait no longer and he grasped her shoulder to ask her to stop.

    Her lips left his shaft as she looked up with a shy smile into his bright eyes. He smiled back and without a word the two moved together.

    Rolling over and raising herself onto all fours, Gwen shuddered in anticipation as Jasper knelt behind her and she raised her tail, holding it out of the way for him to penetrate her. He grasped her hips and she felt the first touch of his member as he eased the pointed tip inside her flushed sex, both of them sighing as he pushed forwards and sank the first few inches into the tight embrace of her smooth passage. For a moment they were still, savouring the shared bliss of that moment.

    Her body trembled with excitement as she felt her mate lean over her and wrap his left arm around her belly, steadying himself with his right arm as he rocked his hips forward and buried the rest of his length inside of her. She rolled her head back and moaned softly, Jasper sighing with relief from his burning need to take her and placing a loving kiss on the nape of her neck as he started to thrust into her slowly and rhythmically. His skilful touch earlier had left her more than ready for him and his member glided between her soft folds with perfect ease, every movement a blissful wave of pleasure as they shared their love.

    Gwen’s eyes stayed shut as she tilted her head to one side, baring her neck to her husband’s lips as he alternated between soft kisses which made her blush with happiness and tender bites that made her gasp with delight. Her breaths came in soft pants of pleasure and desire and as he thrust inside her, she pushed back against him, working his manhood in to the very hilt. Already she could feel his knot spreading her folds just a little wider, the smooth bulge of warm flesh pulsing rhythmically with his heart beat as every passing moment brought him closer, until Jasper paused and held her fast underneath him, lest he reach his climax too soon.

    “Ah…p-please love…d-don’t stop…” Gwen begged him, bucking weakly against him even as he nibbled her ear affectionately and murmured to her,

    “Let me set the pace Gwen. I want you to come first baby. I want to hear you scream.”

    She quivered as he slowly brought his hips forward and sank his shaft between her folds once more. Now he moved slowly yet again, but thrust in harder, withdrawing with agonizing slowness that made Gwen whimper as she was held still, forced to submit herself entirely to her mate’s loving and biting her lip as he pushed her ever closer to her peak. She held back, trying to prolong the pleasure, never wanting the moment to end as she shivered and gasped in her lover’s grip, her senses filled with the warmth and scent of his naked body and the touch of his silken fur.

    A breathless gasp told that she was close and as her hand came up to clasp his strong shoulder, Jasper opened his dark lips and bared the small ivory canines within before biting down softly between her neck and sloping shoulder.

    Gwen’s scream of bliss turned to a high clear howl as she arched her back in a last shock of pleasure. Her passage tightened its grip on Jasper’s shaft and he growled deeply as he held his mate and gave a last few quick thrusts, before his own orgasm sent a rush through his body; his knot swelled within her blushing folds and the two were locked together in shared ecstasy.

    As little beads of clear sweet fluid trickled from her sex, Gwen felt warmth blossom within her as Jasper’s seed flooded her womb and as her howl faded and she knelt panting beneath him, she smiled serenely to feel his warm breaths caressing her neck as he tenderly licked the little dimples left by his love bite. Then he laid her down upon her side, wrapping his arms around her middle and resting with her in the gentle afterglow.

    Gwen’s fingers traced slowly along Jasper’s forearm. Her eyes half closed, she smiled softly, feeling his muzzle resting against her neck. Her left hand drifted slowly along the gentle curve of her belly, at last tracing where the snow white fur of Jasper’s sheath kissed the delicate pink lips of her sex.

    She felt him stir and warmth blossomed as his lips kissed her softly blushing cheek yet again. She turned her face towards his, the pair sharing a tender smile, their dark noses touching gently and each closing their eyes and cupping the other’s cheek in a loving embrace.

    Laid together upon the rippled sea of the scarlet covers, they nuzzled into one another in the warmth and quiet of their little room until darkness fell outside and the light above them faded to a gentle glow under which both soon passed into a blissful slumber. Held in each other’s arms, they stayed there until morning came again and the dawn light, filtering through the scarlet curtains, bathed them once more in the deep, warm glow, of the colour of passion.

  9. Miorjah had forgotten what it felt like to live in a home. She had spent so long in nature itself, curling under trees or up in branches hiding from the world, sometimes spending days wandering across running clear creeks or hidden in damp caverns. This wasn’t the case anymore, she found herself in an expansive warm stone room. The windows reminded her of home, long and tall on an inner garden and courtyard, it was a contrast of how she remembered seeing the outside of the towering stone stronghold, which nearly melted into the mountains around it. Inside it was far more pretty, and she liked that in a way. It pulled at her delicate heartstrings as she found herself curled up in a bed of soft plush comforters and thick furs. This uncomfortable tangle of uneasiness in her heart and her mind wandering to her history. She never could seem to calm herself, her mind always wandered to “what if”, and never calmed enough to let her sleep properly.

    She didn’t always feel like that, steady her little heart. She found comfort in the wolf who found her, a king, so he claimed and quickly proved. The chambermaids were kind, even if they towered over her and doubled the weight she was used too. She felt so small in comparison, and that was a new experience. She was always too tall back home, usually a head over the little dainty pureblood unicorns around her. Now she felt nearly like one of them, compared to the horses, sheep, and wolves she had met in her time here.

    They treated her like a little doll, so delicate. She didn’t entirely mind it, never really knowing how to understand her own beauty and appearance; Her mother often playfully joked she was like a willow or a towering birch tree, but she didn’t find that very kind. The prey-bred servants were nothing like she was used too, they towered over her with heavy matronly frames that seemed to be all northern women, they treated her like a little flower, dressed her in fine clothing and brought her meals she was slowly getting used too. She realized the king thought of her similar to a horse, or a doe, he wasn’t entirely wrong, and she didn’t mind the change in diet, but she missed rosewater a bit.

    She enjoyed the silent company of the king. He towered over her, a strong body built for battle that matched his deep baritone voice and fearsome visage; scars of war and conflict wandered up what bits of fur she could see under his heavy armor. She found him ruggedly handsome, even the long-healed scar down one of his molten gold eyes added to his charming appearance. She couldn’t look at him for too long before feeling her face warm in a flush and her throat slowly knot. So she rarely did, hiding from his presence at times.

    Thankfully he was hard to miss, much less hear approaching as his massive paws always made heavy steps no matter how delicate he was trying to be. Admittedly, she felt his sudden change in demeanor a bit charming, even if it made her feel… strange. She didn’t really know how to place a finger on it, but it made her keep her distance. In the back of her mind she hoped he would tear down the guards she had put up.

    It was hard for her to put into anything but wandering thoughts. This massive Dire Wolf made her feel so safe. He had this natural protective air to him, he was a king, after all, and that was his charge to all his people. She tried her best to reason away these feelings, that sudden comfort she felt in his presence that made her way to spill her guts out and stare into his golden eyes. She always shook it away the best she could, even if she started seeing him in her dreams. It was always so vague and soft, and she felt at peace often when she was able to sleep. His very touch made her feel secure and fuzzy in her heart, but she often found herself resisting it. She knew so little about him, the king of the north, this dire wolf who towered over her but treated her like the princess she was.

    In a way, she wasn’t used to that. No one in her home court had ever dared deny her title, she was a princess, but she was never properly treated like one. Her mother was lavished and dressed fine and invited to every fancy court ball and meeting looking as divine as her golden coat shimmered. Miorjah was always dressed plainly, whites and the occasional soft pink to blend into the shimmering white and pink marble of the palace. She had to blend in, no one could notice she was truly there, the ghost. She was gifted those fine gowns as a formality from her grandmother but forbidden from wearing them. She’d never get them back, the dragon probably burning them in the fire from that ferocious anger he wore.

    She’d never have anything she had before back, and those memories always hit her like as truck, that overwhelming memory of… fire. So much fire, she never escaped it until that day she got away. Her life had been torn asunder, and it was only slowly settling now. This world was so different from the open-air halls of her homeland, but she could hear the boisterous laughter of men and women in the rooms below, the sounds of what she only assumed were noble bloods and servants in these stone and wood halls. She found it relaxing, but she hadn’t dared to explore them without the king at her side.

    He worried for her, she felt it. Even with her disguise she was still afraid. She’d wait for him to invite her to what she assumed was the public, like her own home.The Rosehart’s haughty courts bred gossip and rumors and she knew no different. So she’d stick on his word, when he felt it safe. She trusted this king, even if she didn’t fully understand why. Perhaps it was destiny, as all her life seemed to be.

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    He stares out across the barren land. His eyes are weary – the icy blue irises half hidden beneath heavy eyelids. The sun is low in the sky once again. Is it truly a full day? Can that even be possible? Yet the memory of that commencement is forever seared into his mind like a brand.

    The horns had sounded their deafening chorus and the ranks had given chase. It had been dark before he had reached the mountains and the treacherous climb by moonlight had consumed the short night. The morning had found him stumbling through the rushing river – immersing himself in its icy depths to conceal his passage and mask his scent. The fearful howls of the frustrated hounds had echoed throughout the valley all the day, but none had come close enough to spot him. Now, however, he can only gaze in despair at the open wasteland which is his sole path to freedom.

    His weary legs tremble at the prospect of the thirteen mile trudge to the border. All around him the once thick stands of sprawling trees have thinned out to a mere scattering of gnarled shrubs. The once mighty river, having split into several smaller tributaries, blunders into the baking red sand and steadily fades away. As far as the eye can see, there is not a scrap of plant cover. Gently sloping dunes do offer some obscurity, but only at the price of exposing the luckless traveller’s path to all who may pass.

    There is nothing for it, except to take his chances and force his tired body to undertake a mad dash across the scorching wasteland in the appending darkness; hoping against hope that he will reach the edge of the beast’s territory unseen. Considering his opposition though, he would almost certainly have to reach the nearest free city to be at all safe – if he could ever truly escape the tyrant’s clutches at all.

    A hideous wail rolls across the waters behind him and his body goes rigid. Breaking into a cold sweat, he glances back up the freezing river. At first he can see nothing. The cry sounds once more and the blood in his veins runs cold. His sharp eye’s – weary though they are – peer keenly up the river towards its nearest bend, some three miles away. There he can see a two foot high wave appearing from around the corner and heading down the straight towards him.

    With a desperate groan, he throws himself at the water and forces his way through the shallows to the nearest bank. The wet sand sucks at his feet and by the time he has emerged from the ravine, it has claimed what remained of his tattered sandals. He takes little notice, charging towards the vast desert with all the speed he can muster. His feet pound against the still firm ground, ignoring the little pebbles which bite into his soles. No sooner has he passed the last, dying tree, than the chilling cry sounds once more. This time, however, it is tinged with a note of ravenous anticipation.

    The last withered bush passes by as he enters the desert true. The baking sand hugs his feet, already sapping his remaining strength. The horn sounds again. The first dune rises up before him and he throws himself against its steep slope. He claws his way up, scrambling madly with his hands and feet, groaning at every slip and slide which undoes his effort.

    Through the mists of fatigue, a vague memory surfaces of how this great desert was formed. He recalls his father’s tale of how the dark armies were defeated during the Long War, and how the beast then poisoned the land around his kingdom with his magic, so that none could dwell within sight of his castles or pass unseen across the border. Perhaps those same magics are still at work now, set against him by their master.

    The horn sounds again. He shakes off these thoughts as he at last reaches the summit of his first obstacle. Risking a glance back, he observes that same strange wave passing down the river beside him. As yet though, there is still no sign of its creator. He grimaces at the sight of the obvious marks left by his passage.

    The dash down the other side of the dune is as much a test for his weary legs as was the ascent. Half way down, his knees buckle and he falls. Sand fills his tattered vest and cakes the inside of his sodden braes, as he tumbles and rolls through the shade of the dune. He lands heavily on the compacted sand of the valley below. Dragging himself upright, he scarcely winces at the new aches caused by the impact; his body is too numb and his mind too shaken to notice a few more pains. He staggers slightly, but keeps his balance and pushes onwards, as the horn sounds once more…

     

    ----

     

    The gibbous moon hangs above the horizon, shining across the desert to the distant plumes of smoke which mark the site of the fortified city of Resolute. Lying only half a mile from the border, it saw both the rise of the beast and his defeat during the Long War. Eighteen years after that historic moment, it remains a heavily guarded fortress of stone and steel. Scarcely a man or woman lives there who has not seen service on the frontline. Its iron-handed leaders command the deadliest army in the free kingdoms; a select force of fierce and determined fighters, trained by the Masters and armed by the greatest elven weapon smiths.

    The shadowy form of this hardy city, clothed in smoke and glowing red with the light of many torches, shines like a diamond in the eyes of the weary fugitive. His raw hands dig into the frigid sand as he drags himself towards his goal. The border is only a hundred yards away. He takes a deep, ragged breath and hauls himself onto his knees, but he only manages to crawl a few feet before once again collapsing into the sand. He raises his head and gazes blindly at the city. Moving shakily, he glances back over his shoulder. The moon stares back at him stoically, outlining the dark silhouettes of the last range of dunes which he fought his way across. It has been quiet for some time, but they must still be following. The beast would never relinquish his prey, never…

    The bellow of the horn rolls across the silence of the night. He all but cries out in despair, reaching into some last reserves of energy as he desperately scrambles through the sand. He digs his elbows into the cold ground, awkwardly dragging his body forward while his legs weakly push behind him. The horn sounds a second time and then a third and suddenly a chorus of throaty howls erupts into the night. He forces himself onwards with what little speed he can muster. They have spotted him! The hounds have spotted him!

    -

    The pack assembles on the summit of the dune; twelve shaggy figures outlined by the moonlight. Their bodies are half as large as a horse and with the sleek, streamlined build of a wolf. Their muzzles are short and stocky, but with an unusually long skull. Large and rounded eyes stare out from beneath a prominent brow. White light comes from within them, making the pupils shine like glowing pearls. Lean muscles ripple beneath a long and flowing coat, while stubby tails twitch with excitement. As one, the creatures break into a run, barking and howling freely now that their quarry is before them.

    -

    As he reaches the first border marker, he grabs hold of the painted stone and heaves himself upright. He grits his teeth, groaning loudly at the pain in his legs, but he must hurry! He pushes himself off towards the city, advancing in a lurching jog as his weak legs move in awkward succession. He sways and weaves, but is just able to keep his balance. Now he can feel a change in the ground as his feet begin to tread on patches of grass. The coarse sand is steadily replaced by good honest soil and the very feel of it is enough to make him quicken his pace. The cries of the hounds are now a constant companion and he knows that he only has minutes before they reach him. If he can only make the city gate…

    A loud snap sounds to his right and he just manages to throw himself down as a standing mortar detonates in the tree ahead of him. The blast rips through the air at stomach height, cutting through everything in its path and showering him with splinters of wood and bark as it levels the trees and shrubs around him. He groans as he lies there. Fool! How could he have forgotten about the traps!

    They were set everywhere along the border, littering the entire landscape within a thirty yard radius.

    The hound’s chilling chorus halts for a moment. The blast obviously reached their ears. Despite the danger, he presses on. Every moment counts.

    Sure enough, the hounds soon resume the chase. With their master’s command behind them, not even the risk of death will deter them. He stumbles onward as fast as he can, trying to shut out his memories of the kind of traps which had been laid in this area. They had been intended for such monsters as were dreamt up in the beast’s dungeons. Standing mortars were just the beginning.

    The hounds must now be only a hundred feet from him. He stares forlornly at the light ahead. He isn’t going to make it… 

    A deafening groan shakes the ground, followed by an almighty crack. A pitiful wail comes from the pack of hounds, then another and another. He shivers at the sound. To think he could have been caught in that! Now there are nine hounds left. If the traps could at least slow them down, he might still make it.

    A hollow thud signals the death of a fourth hound. He must be near the edge of the danger zone now.

    An explosion sounds and he automatically throws himself down before it dawns on him that this standing mortar is nowhere near him. Groaning at the wasted time and energy, he drags himself back onto his feet. Just as he steps forwards, however, a rope wraps around his legs and pulls them out from under him.

    He crashes face first into the ground. He feels his nose break and as he rolls over his head hits a stone. Although not a hard knock, it is enough to leave him slightly dazed. His hands fumble with the rope for a while, but as the hounds call out once again he sighs and goes limp. There is no hope of escape now. After all that has happened, he finally gives up.

    Within a minute, the scraggly bushes are torn aside by one of the surviving hounds. It stops suddenly when it sees him and bares its teeth in excitement. Its pale tongue lolls, dripping saliva, while the creature pants furiously. Its ashen grey coat is matted with sweat and glistens by the moonlight. After a moment, it raises its ugly head and calls out in a long and triumphant howl. Excited barks answer its call and soon the remaining six hounds appear from out of the darkness, trampling the bushes in their path.

    He watches them vacantly; beyond care after his ordeal. His only thought is a wish that they would finish him off now. However, though they drool in anticipation, none of them make any move to attack.

    ‘Come on,’ he rasps, his voice like dry parchment, ‘finish it…’

    The hounds draw aside. A bright light shines through the trees behind them, swaying as it draws closer, accompanied by the sound of branches being broken. His eyes go wide. It cannot be him…surely he would never leave his territory…

    The last tree topples with a crash as the master of the hounds comes into view. His giant steed raises its scaly head and extends a long purple tongue, tasting the air. A blue light shines from a cage suspended on a chain around the base of its neck, throwing a harsh illumination onto the cruel scene. The creature’s monstrous serpentine body stretches back out of sight, supported by disproportionately small legs. Expressionless eyes lock onto the figure sprawled out before it and it opens its maw and hisses, before turning aside to expose the tall figure seated upon its shoulders.

    The beast rises from the saddle and drops effortlessly to the ground beside his lizard mount. A dark-green cloak of fine satin covers him from the neck down to the ground. Even his arms are hidden away. A hood overshadows his face, but by the light of the magical lantern, it is plain to see.

    Human-like features, exceptionally elegant, are clothed in soft russet-brown fur. A feline nose sits above thin lips and two green eyes peer intently at his victim. Their slit pupils are open wide and shine from within as they reflect the magical light. Short whiskers twitch with suppressed excitement; the only sign of any feeling at all until a smile spreads across his delicate mouth, revealing two sets of sharp fangs.

    ‘Ahhh...’

    The sigh is as gentle as a spring breeze and drips with pure satisfaction.

    ‘A wonderful chase,’ he says, ‘a far better challenge than I anticipated.’

    His victim does not respond, continuing to lie still in exhaustion and resignation while the blood drips from his face. The beast grins.

    ‘When my hounds failed to track you down before morning, I knew you would be a quarry worth pursuing in person. I must confess though that I never imagined you would make it this far. Your false trails were an ingenious ploy to slow me down.’

    The broken figure remains unresponsive.

    ‘Such spirit,’ the beast smirks, ‘it seems a pity to end it like this. You won’t even make much of a meal.’

    The inflection in his voice causes the figure to stir. He raises his head slightly and stares hopelessly at his tormentor. There is deep fear in his eyes, which is not lost on the beast.

    ‘Yesss,’ the feline hisses darkly, ‘such a fighting spirit would fare well under transformation.’

    His victim’s face turns pale and he begins to shiver violently.

    The beast laughs at the sight.

    ‘Did you really think I would just kill one as rare as you?’ he asks tauntingly.

    The prisoner shrinks away as best he can, as his tormentor advances towards him.

    ‘The fire breathers have eluded me thus far,’ the beast muses, ‘your draconic heritage could be just what I need. Coupled with your elven nature…who knows what kind of a monster you might become?’

    His eyes sparkle dangerously as he contemplates this and the half-elf desperately tries to shuffle away from him. The hounds draw nearer in mounting excitement as their master extends a clawed hand towards his victim.

    A shrill, screeching cry pierces the night. The beast’s head snaps up and he leaps back as a heavy figure crashes into the ground before him, sending up a cloud of dust. The hounds growl and the monstrous lizard hisses as they peer warily through the veil to see what creature it is that has so surprised them.

    The newcomer unfurls herself and rises swiftly to her feet. Immediately she turns to face the beast, adopting the defensive posture of a wrestler. Humanoid, with a short and somewhat stocky build, her body is powerfully muscled and covered with thick scales like natural plate-mail. In contrast to her thickset frame, her reptilian face is noticeably feminine, save for the pair of horn-like spikes which stick up on either side of her head. Her three fingered hands are also heavily armoured, making them perfectly suited to boxing. A robust and nimble tail extends behind her, at least as long as her body. She wears only a simple sleeveless top and a kind of loincloth.

    ‘What is this?’ The beast hisses in displeasure, but his question goes unanswered as another figure bursts through the bushes.

    Seven feet tall, he is a mirror image of the beast – save that his fur is black instead of russet. His body is lean, but strong and he moves with typical feline grace. A long and plush tail sways in the breeze behind him. His face is more thickset that that of the beast and his left ear has been pierced with a golden earring. He wears a leather jerkin and a pair of short trousers, with a sturdy baldric slung over his shoulder. His sword is drawn and held at the ready. It is only a simple two-handed greatsword, but with a blade at least five feet long and impossibly sharp.

    As he steps forward, another black feline appears behind him; dressed in an identical outfit and wielding an identical sword. This individual, however, is undoubtedly female.

    The beast frowns at the unexpected turn of events and turns to his pets, but as he does so he catches sight of several more figures which have appeared in the sky above him.

    Their vast wings beat slowly and rhythmically, as they keep themselves well out of reach of the beast’s monstrous lizard. There are six of them in total. Vicious curving beaks gleam dully in the pale light, while their grey and white feathers almost seem to glow where the moonlight strikes their flanks. Their hooves paw the air restlessly as they watch over the scene below. Each carries a cloaked figure whose bearing and metal stave leaves no doubt that he or she is a mage. There are two canids, two elves, an equine and another whose body is completely hidden by a voluminous robe of navy blue.

    ‘What is this?’ the Beast snarls angrily, ‘You show yourselves now?’

    ‘I said long ago that your arrogance would be your downfall Laurith.’ A voice rumbles.

    The beast and his pets whip around to find the speaker standing behind them. The hounds draw away and the beast hisses in fury.

    Twelve feet tall, his powerful body encased within a full suit of heavy plate mail, this behemoth looms over all those present. Gauntleted hands, large enough to wrap around a man’s head, firmly clasp his weapons. His right forearm is strapped to a broad kite shield, which is shaped like a flame and runs in line with his arm rather than perpendicular to it. The sword in his left hand is a subtly curved damask blade; similar to a falcata, but easily eight feet long.

    His strong legs end in three toed feet with long talons, over which he has secured even longer steel claws. The long and nimble tail which sprouts from the base of his spine is protected only by sandy scales in patterns of brown and grey. Sharp spines and a tracery of scars towards the tip, suggest that it is used for more than just balance.

    His long, bony snout and scaly visage bear little expression. The line of his jaw has a slight curve which turns up at the cheeks, giving him the rigid and unfriendly half-smile typical of the reptilians. Large, staring eyes sit slightly to the sides of his head, but still able to look forwards. Their yellow irises give his gaze a cold, predatory intent. The impression of emotionless is dulled only somewhat by a measure of expression in his brow. At the moment, it is drawn together in a look of steely determination.

    ‘I knew you would come after him.’ The titan rumbles tauntingly.

    Laurith hisses threateningly, but his darting eyes betray his agitation.

    ‘Curse you Eshkiel, he is mine!’ he shrieks.

    His hounds leap forward and charge the giant, while Laurith leaps onto his mount and sets his eyes on the half-breed. The armoured wrestler readies herself and glares at him, daring him to come after his prize.

    ‘Step aside stone-skin.’ He spits venomously.

    Her eyes flash brightly at the familiar insult. Baring her pointed teeth, she tenses her muscles and wordlessly implores him to come at her.

    The beast quivers with rage when she does not charge and raises his arms into the air. A shimmering veil of magic blossoms above his head and races down on either side, forming a shield between the mages above and the warriors facing him. Then he whips his lizard mount with a bolt of electricity and it lurches towards his opponents.

    The twin blade-masters race forward to protect the half-breed, while the armoured maiden rushes at Laurith and his mount. As she leaps into the air to meet it, Eshkiel’s blade cleaves one of the hounds in two with a sound like tearing silk. It’s brief cry melds with that of the giant lizard as she somersaults and brings her tail slamming down into the dome of its skull. Laurith pulls a fine steel rapier from somewhere within his robe and jabs at her as she passes within reach. She arches herself so that the blade passes beneath her and bats it away with the back of her hand. She swings her tail at him, but he leaps from his saddle and twists through the air to land on the back of his lizard.

    Above, the airborne mages have formed a ring around the shimmering dome. Raising their staves, they cry out in unison and each send a bolt of energy toward the dome’s apex. The six blasts meet and tear a hole through the defence, causing the shield to collapse.

    Laurith looks up, gritting his teeth in irritation. He raises his arms once again and instantly a new barrier appears.  

    Suddenly his mount lurches. He loses his balance and falls to the ground, just managing to land on one knee. Looking up, he is just in time to see the midnight black felines leaping at the lizard’s neck. He glances over to where the half-breed lies, but the armoured wrestler has moved to guard him while her comrades attack. Coming from either side, they make it impossible for the giant creature to focus on both of them at once. It hisses loudly as it is torn between the two threats and finally begins to rear up, but it is too slow. The twin felines bring their swords together and draw them across the thin scales of its neck.

    The great lizard’s hisses turn to a gargling scream. As the feline twins land gracefully, its legs give out and its long neck topples to the ground; blood gushing from the two deep gashes, so precisely made that they almost meet in the centre.

    Laurith roars furiously and, in his distraction, the mages break through his barrier once again. He quickly forms another, but as long as he sustains it his magic will be limited.

    A sharp yelp, abruptly ended, marks the death of the last hound. Eshkiel lowers his shield, letting the limp body fall to the ground. Its crushed skull drags against the coarse bark of the tree, lightly smearing the surface with its dark blood.

    Eshkiel turns to Laurith – his face just as stony as ever.

    The beast rises to his feet. His shoulders hang low and his hooded face is turned to the ground, as if in defeat.

    Without warning, the shimmering barrier vanishes. Immediately one of the elven mages swoops down beside the half-elf and leaps to the ground, her staff held ready to defend against any surprise attack. The beast does not move. The other five mages begin to circle slowly overhead, as they wait to see what he will do. A minute goes by. Another, and then another. Still he stands motionless.

    In the stillness of it all, the sound of cloth moving over steel rings out like a bell. The mages and warriors turn to their leader and the beast too looks up.

    Eshkiel leans against the nearest tree, casually wiping the blood from his sword with an old rag. Despite his reptilian visage, he manages to convey a feeling of disinterest and even boredom. Laurith gapes is utter disbelief. Eshkiel cleans off the last few specks and then goes on to inspect the blade for scratches and nicks. Not once does he glance up at ether his friends or his opponent.

    Laurith’s face clouds with fresh anger. His eyes sparkle dangerously as he raises his right arm towards Eshkiel and flexes his clawed fingers.

    ‘Burn!’ he screams, sending sapphire blue flame billowing towards the stoic figure.

    It finds its mark and spreads out in a wide wave. The dead, rotting trees ignite and crumble into ash within seconds under the intensity of the conflagration. The firestorm lasts only a few moments, but its ferocity levels everything in its path. Yet when the smoke clears, Eshkiel stands unharmed – his armour glowing red from the heat.

    ‘Flame,’ he rumbles, ‘against a dragon.’

    Laurith’s fury at his own mistake is plain to see. He raises his hands once again and twists them in a complicated pattern, summoning a whirlwind of crackling energy around himself. Eshkiel steps towards him, unmoved by the violent display. A single bolt arcs from the melee and strikes him square in the chest, but although his armour sparks, he continues to advance.

    Snarling, Laurith sends seven tendrils of energy stabbing at him. They dance across his armour and scales and immediately force him to pause. Grimacing at the pain, he raises his shield and sword. The lightning earths itself on their metal surfaces, drawn together into three stronger bolts.

    A bright light shines down from the sky. The six mages have created a sphere of white light, suspended in the air between them. It hums resonantly with power.

    Laurith glances up at it and hisses angrily. Feeling a momentary dip in the fury of his assault, Eshkiel pushes forwards once again and gains another few feet. Laurith is quick to sense it, however, and turns his attention back to the giant. The searing bolts suddenly swell with power and Eshkiel groans under the strain and drops to one knee. Laurith grins with satisfaction and feeds still more power into his attack. By now both Eshkiel’s shield and sword are glowing white hot. His groans become louder as the energy coursing through his body begins to burn even him. Dragon-kin can resist much, but they are not immune.

    A cry sounds and Laurith turns his head just in time to see the lizard maiden launching herself towards him from behind; where his shield of electricity has faded as its power is fed into the attack. Their eyes meet and he grins darkly. His attack instantly changes direction and the bolts of lighting strike her full in the chest. She opens her mouth in a scream, but her body freezes with the shock and no sound comes.

    Laurith quickly breaks the spell and claps his hands together. An explosion sounds. A blast wave erupts from between his fingers and rips through the air towards the wrestler. Then he turns back to Eshkiel and summons the twisting sphere of lightning again. Behind him the blast cuts into her body, splitting the skin open down her chest and throwing her back several feet.

    Laurith smiles thinly to see the look in Eshkiel’s eyes.

    ‘A student for a stude…’ he begins, when he notices the sudden darkness.

    White light flashes; tearing through the returning blackness and enveloping the entire battle field. A harsh scream comes from within, followed within seconds by a wet noise and a gentle thud.

    The light dies. Darkness falls completely.

    With a hissing sound, a small globe of yellow light appears in the blackness of the sky. The mages urge their flying steads towards the earth, drawing the soft light along with them. They land swiftly, and a second elf and the equine leap to the ground and rush over to where the lizard maiden lies bleeding. As they tend to her, the remaining three look at what remains of the Beast, Laurith.

    Vacant eyes stare at the sky, locked in a dull expression of shock. The open neck has spilled pints of blood over the dry earth and a trickle still drips from the gash. The body lies sprawled on its back with the head held on by only an inch of flesh. The remnants of his final spell occasionally crackle through his fur as the energy dissipates.

    Eshkiel looks down contemptuously at the corpse and finally raises a clawed foot and brings it down on the head. Several of the mages gasp in horror at the stomach turning noise of the skull crushing. When it has been reduced to a bloody mess, Eshkiel grimly twists his foot, smearing the remains into the earth.

    ‘And now a master for a student.’ He says blackly, finally content with his revenge.

    ‘Eshkiel…’ the elven mage remarks.

    The glare this receives silences any further comment.

    ‘Be grateful that I do not indulge myself in the battle custom of my kin.’ He growls.

    ‘Sir.’

    The she elf set to guard the beast’s quarry beckons to the others and they immediately hurry to her side. The half-elf lies still, his eyes closed and his breathing shallow.

    ‘He will live, but he must be given treatment. His flame is close to failing.’ The she elf supplies.

    ‘Kal can carry two. Let me take him.’ The equine suggests.

    ‘Hold.’ Eshkiel commands.

    The mages turn to him.

    ‘Stand aside.’ He instructs.

    No sooner have they obeyed, than he takes a huge breath and exhales a wave of fire over the unconscious half-elf. The inferno is short-lived, but within seconds he awakens and leaps to his feet, flesh and long black hair ablaze.

    Only, he is not burnt. His flesh glows beneath a layer of pale yellow flame, but no harm comes to it. His worn clothes, however, are quickly reduced to cinders. Beneath, an otherwise elven body is alternately covered by skin and scales. Smooth red plates sit like metal armour over his chest and back, while those on his stomach are a pale cream in colour. The burgundy scales extend down his thighs and across his shoulders and arms, slowly giving way to fair skin.

    After a moment’s confusion, clarity returns. He exhales slowly and the flames quickly fade. He staggers, but the she elf quickly comes to his aid and gently helps to steady him.

    ‘Welcome back Cor-ing.’ She says sincerely.

    ‘Aye.’ A canid mage agrees, handing him a spare robe.

    Cor-ing wordlessly accepts the clothing and swiftly dresses himself. When he is once again decent he looks up at Eshkiel, who towers over him, looking down with some satisfaction.

    ‘Feeling better?’ the titan rumbles jovially.

    ‘How did you come to find us?’ Cor-ing asks hoarsely.

    Eshkiel grins.

    ‘Our scouts have watched for you day and night ever since you were captured. Laurith taunted all his prisoners thus. Normally he would let his hounds destroy them, but I knew that at the very least he would want to watch your demise.’

    Cor-ing listens coldly as Eshkiel casually continues.

    ‘We could not meet you deep within his territory, but I felt sure you would make it within sight of our borders.’

    He turns to the wretched corpse with a sneer.

    ‘Laurith’s strength lay in the armies he created…but numbers can work against the evil as well as for them.’

    ‘He knew of my heritage,’ Cor-ing says softly, his voice hoarse, ‘I was to become one of his creatures; to begin a race of fire breathers.’

    ‘I know.’ Eshkiel replies.

    Cor-ing frowns.

    ‘How?’

    The dragon looks at him impassively.

    ‘It was not for nothing that we sent you away to Lorelei. There you were out of his reach.’ He replies.

    ‘Then why did you summon me back?’ Cor-ing asks, noticing a sudden uneasiness about the mages. 

    ‘You are the only one of your kind. I and my kin are strong, but the elven blood which flows through your veins has augmented the already powerful abilities of our race within you.’

    ‘Which is why the beast sought me out. What of it?’ Cor-ing says shortly. 

    ‘Ael believes that he can give others the same ability,’ Eshkiel replies, oblivious to his growing displeasure, ‘that without changing their appearance, he can give our elves the abilities of a salamander.’

    In the silence which follows, the mages look away guiltily. Cor-ing is still. After some time he firmly pushes the elven mage away and draws himself up, shakily. Eshkiel remains oblivious; waiting for Cor-ing’s reply.

    ‘Of course,’ he says, when none is forthcoming, ‘now the deed is done, there is no urgent need for that.’

    Cor-ing nods slowly.

    ‘Aye.’ He rasps.

    A quiet gasp draws the attention of the group and they turn their eyes to where the pair of mages have been tending to the fallen wrestler. She twitches as the equine mage casts a final spell upon her wounded chest, drawing the skin together. Eshkiel quickly walks over to her.

    ‘Hael, how is she?’

    The mage shakes his muzzle stoically.

    ‘Skin and flesh I can restore, but bone and muscle will take time to strengthen.’

    He indicates the still red line running from her left shoulder down to her right knee.

    ‘Her ribs were badly broken, as was her pelvis. The muscles both here and here were also torn,’ he says, pointing from her stomach to her thigh, ‘which is no small injury in one such as her. I would not let her train at all for at least a month.’

    ‘Noo…’ the maiden groans, opening her eyes, ‘I am strong enough…’

    She tries to raise herself up, but both mages quickly hold her down.

    ‘Keep still Shaal!’ the elf scolds, ‘Or do you want to spend two months healing from torn muscles?’

    Shaal sighs morosely and then notices Eshkiel standing over her.

    ‘Master…’ she begins, smiling weakly.

    ‘What have I told you?’ Eshkiel asks flatly.

    The smile vanishes from her face.

    ‘Well?’ he repeats.

    ‘To control my emotions.’ she replies shamefully.

    ‘Always.’ He says, nodding severely.

    He turns away and walks back to the group.

    ‘Tomorrow we will begin a new campaign,’ he declares, ‘I shall lead our elite troops into Laurith’s lands to begin eradicating his monsters. Jet, Jasper?’

    The twin felines step forward.

    ‘You will be the scouts.’ He announces.

    They nod in perfect unison.

    ‘Cor-ing, when you have recovered, you shall join us too,’ he continues, ‘you are the only one of Laurith’s prisoners to have escaped. No doubt there is much that you can tell us.’

    Then he turns to the group in general.

    ‘Now it is time we returned. I shall expect to meet all of you in the great hall at sunrise.’

    With that, Eshkiel starts on his way back to the city, leaving the others to follow. Cor-ing watches his retreating figure until the darkness swallows him up. The feline twins come up to him and bow silently, before they too vanish into the night, leaving only himself, the mages and the injured Shaal.

    He sighs heavily and begins to sway once more, but again the elf maiden catches him. Wordlessly the mages prepare to leave. Shaal is gently strapped to the back of the hippogriff Kal, who’s master just manages to find enough space to sit before her. The blue shrouded mage beckons Cor-ing to its mount and he quietly obliges. When all are seated, the six hippogriffs take to the sky as one, flying swiftly back to Resolute.

    Cor-ing remains silent, but then to his surprise, the normally silent mage in front of him speaks

    ‘How did the beast capture you?’ the figure asks, in an undoubtedly feminine voice.

    ‘My food was drugged at an inn on the green road,’ he explains, ‘when I came too, I was in a cell in his dungeons. I have no idea how I came to be there.’

    ‘What of your guard?’ the mage asks.

    ‘Guard?’ he repeats in confusion.

    The mage turns her hooded face towards him.

    ‘You were unguarded on the roads?’ she asks in disbelief.

    ‘Master Dale received no instructions to take any precautions. The roads along the coast have always been safe.’

    The mage remains silent for a moment.

    ‘Eshkiel arranged a guard to meet you in Black-Moor,’ she mutters quietly, ‘at least…that is what he said he had done…’

    ***

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    ~Galathena~

    Chapter 1- To the Surface


    Narrator Dog: Welcome to Dreamland! The most wonderful place
    in Sofia's mind! 

    Narrator Raven: But not as wonderful as Dreamland's top area, 
    Crossover Plaza! A public space with a concert stage, 2 snack bars,
    tables of course, and an indestructible glass round wall surrounding
    the plaza. Why is it called Crossover Plaza? 'Cause characters from 
    all movies, TV shows, video games, cartoons, etc. all come to hangout!

    Narrator Dog: We are not going there yet. Deep in the Sea of Dreaml-
    and, there lives a family of blue tangs and yellow tangs in a house in a 
    coral reef.  
     

    Family by SweetStarryGalaxies
    ~The Shells Family~ From left to right: Toby Shells(4), Duke Shells(16), Athena Shells(18), Morgana Shells(38), George Shells(40)
     
    Toby: Vrrooom! *playing with his toy car*

    Duke: *goes upstairs to Athena's room* Hehe >: ) *knocks on Athena's door*

    Athena: *reading a book about Dreamland* Go away!

    Duke: *opens the door* Boo! >: D

    Athena: The frick Duke?! I said go away! 

    Duke: Ah..nope. Morgana said to come downstairs. 

    Athena: Ugh. *gets up, pinches Duke's cheek, goes downstairs to her mom*

    Duke: ...Ow?

    Morgana: *frying some seaweed* 

    Athena: What do you want?

    Morgana: Ok, so, I want to let you know that one of Sofia's emotions, Anger, is 
    going to come to this town and only choose one out of all the townspeople here
    including us to give out the most magnificent gift of all time for a marine animal.

    Athena: ...Which is?

    Morgana: The ability to breathe air and underwater. Now, he only does this during
    back-to-school shopping season, so it's only once a year. I thought you'll be intere-
    sted in this since you're always researching about Dreamland and I feel like you
    want to just get out of the water.

    George: Honey, l-let's not suggests anything to her.

    Morgana: Just stop. She's 18 now. Let her do what she's interested.

    Athena: *slightly smiles*

    George: Ok. Fine. If she kills you, don't expect me to bury you.
    *walks away to the living room*

    Athena: *fake laughs*

    Morgana: Classic George. Always overreacting. Now, it might not or might be you,
    but always remember, there's always next year.

    Athena: Yeah. I know. 

    *The underwater town's clock tower begins to ring*

    Morgana: 
    Oh, it's time! Right after we talked about it 😂

    George: Let's go, people! *picks up Toby and goes outside to Town Hall*

    Morgana: Will he ever be patient? Oh well, let's go. *follows George* 

    Athena & Duke: *follows them*
    ================================================
     
    Anger and Joy in water by SweetStarryGalaxies
     
    Anger: *waiting for everyone to settle down* Jeez, there weren't this many 
    marine creatures last year.

    Joy: Maybe more people knew about this than last year.

    Anger: I can't wait 'til this is over.

    Joy: Wut?

    Anger: Nothing.

    Joy: Well, I can't wait who will be the chosen one! Wait, but how will we know
    who it is?

    Anger: With this! >: D *holds up a glowing cyan-colored berry*

    Joy: Oooh..a berry?

    Anger: Heh, not just a berry, a magical berry! This berry holds the ability of 
    breathing both air and underwater. When it's time to choose, the berry's glow-
    ing light will weaken when I firmly press it once. We will go around the whole
    audience and the berry will brighten its light as we get closer to the chosen one. 

    Joy: Ooo fun!

    Anger: Not really. I can't stand a big crowd. Which is why I brought you here. I
    don't want to be alone with these people.

    Joy: But..but crowds are fun : D! 

    Anger: For you it is!!

    Joy: Ok uh..calm down please! Let's just start the ceremony : O

    Anger: Yeah, let's begin. *picks up a french horn and blows it*

    *All of underwater townspeople gave all their attention to Anger and Joy
    and sat down on the sand floor* 

    Anger: 
    *puts down the french horn and holds a microphone* Welcome, Sea Of 
    Dreamland, to the 6th Annual To-The-Surface Ceremony!

    *The crowd applause and cheers*

    Anger: For those who are new, this ceremony is not about fish, but all aquatic people
    who dream of stepping foot..or fin on the dry grounds of Dreamland. This magic berry
    right here will give the chosen one the ability to breathe air and underwater. When this
    berry is consumed, it will give the chosen one a bit of pain but they'll be fine. Alright,
    Joy?

    Joy: Who is ready for the berry?! : D

    *The crowd goes wild*
     

    Joy: What do I do now, Anger?

    Anger: Pick me up and walk through each section of the crowd while I just hold the berry.

    Joy: Oh ok! *picks up Anger*

    Anger: *gently presses the berry once and the berry's glowing light disappears* 
    Settle down people!

    *The crowd silences and the intensity rises*

    Anger: We will now start with the anthro sharks! 

    (Narrator Raven: *plays this song on the background*)

    Joy: *starts walking through the anthro shark section* 

    Narrator Dog: As they walk through the anthro sharks, the berry did not glow.
    They walked through the sea turtles, dolphins, starfish, orcas, and seahorses 
    sections, and still..the berry did not glow..

    Anger: Well, here's the last one, the fish section..

    Joy: *keeps walking*

    Anger: You know what? I think this was a waste of ti-

    Narrator Raven: Suddenly, the berry slightly starts glowing as they get closer to
    The Shells family.

    George: Please no..

    Morgana: Could it be?..

    Anger: *walks to Athena and the berry lightens up the brightest*

    *The crowd gasps*

    Athena: 
    Holy fuck!

    George: Language, young lady!

    Anger: Shut up, pops. Congrats, Athena! Come to the front.

    Joy: *runs to the front of town hall, holding Anger*

    Athena: *follows them, smirking*

    Joy: *puts down Anger* 

    Anger: Behold, this year's chosen one: Athena Shells!

    *All the marine creatures cheer for her*

    Anger: Here Athena, eat the berry, but you will feel pain in your gills and throat.

    Athena: *takes the berry and eats it without hesitation*

    Joy: ..Are you feeling any pain?..

    Athena: ...GAHH! *pain strikes her gills and throat as the berry gives her the ability*

    3 minutes past

    Athena: *inhales and exhales* My god. That was new.

    Joy: She's fine everyone! : D

    Anger: Thank you everyone for coming! You can continue your lives.

    *All aquatic creatures went away*

    Anger: 
    Alright Athena, go pack up your stuff, we have provided you an 
    apartment already. We'll catch up to your house.

    Athena: *goes to the house with the rest of the family*

    =====================================================

    Athena: *packing up her luggage* Ah, I can't wait to get outta here.

    Morgana: I'm going to miss you..

    Athena: I'm...gonna miss you too.

    Morgana: *hugs Athena tightly*

    Athena: ...

    Anger: *enters the house*

    George: Anger please, don't let her live in Dreamland, she will bring
    chaos to all!

    Anger: Shush! You're starting to annoying me with your ignorance.

    Athena: *walks downstairs to Anger*

    Morgana: *crying* I'm gonna be the only blue tang in this household 
    😭

    Athena: *gets a random piece of paper, draws a heart on it, signs it, and
    gives it to Morgana*

    Morgana: ;_;!

    Anger: Let's go Athena. *goes outside*

    Athena: *follows Anger*

    Morgana: *goes outside and stays on the front yard*

    Athena: Bye Mom!! *waves goodbye*

    Morgana: Bye!

    Narrator Dog: The more Athena walks away from her house, the
    less Morgana lose sight of her..


    Morgana: *looks at the viewers/fourth wall* She may look like she doesn't
    care about almost anyone, but I know deep inside that she does really care.
    Maybe one day when she lives on Dreamland, she'll be able to show her 
    emotions..


    ...







    Morgana: *gets on her knees and starts crying on the floor*







    Narrator Dog: She sobs on the floor about her daughter, hoping that she'll come back to her soon. See you readers in chapter 2.
     
    =========================================================================
     
    *Note: This story will contain action and some cussing.
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  10. When They Met

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    selnyam
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    Pixie hung up her apron and stretched.  Her shift at the coffee shop was over, and she was ready to head home.  It had been a fairly slow day, the highlight of which had been Bianco, the fabulously dressed chinchilla who came by often.  They had sat in the back corner, sipping their drink for hours. Which was normal for guests, but Bianco had just sat and stared, wide eyed and grinning at everyone, but mostly following Pixie as she worked.  Finally one of the other workers asked them to stop and they agreed, leaving the cafe with a wink. That Bianco loved causing trouble, thankfully nothing actually serious.

    Pixie adjusted her clothes, making sure the snaps were all done up on the side.  Clothing for gliders was tricky, because due to the patagium she and other winged and gliding mammals have make normal clothes a little restricting.  So most of her clothes were dresses that worked like a large poncho with snaps or buttons along the side, that could be secured. Though she could always wear normal clothes, that were a little looser if she was certain she wouldn’t need to do any gliding.  Waving to the other workers she headed out the door and down the street. It was a nice sunny afternoon and the short glider smiled up at the sky.

    “I think I’ll go to the gym before dinner.  I could use a little exercise!” she shouldered her purse and started walking.  She was lucky to have the apartment she did. It was only a few blocks from the cafe, and the gym was a few blocks from that.  There was even a grocery store within walking distance, so besides when classes started up again, she was close to everything she needed.  Humming and almost skipping she made her way the few blocks and took the elevator up to her apartment. It only took a few moments to grab her duffel bag, change from her work clothes, grab a bottle of water, and then be back out the door.  

    About half a hour later she had checked into the gym, changed into her gym clothes and was using the treadmill.  She put her earbuds in and was happily jogging along to some upbeat pop music. She eventually slowed down to a brisk walk as the music changed to a less high energy tune.  She used this moment to take a look around the place. Some of the regulars were there, including a big snow leopard over at the weights. Over in one corner she saw someone she recognized from the shop.  A tal, well built pangolin woman was spotting a younger ocelot man. She was wearing a simple pair of shorts and sports bra, and was encouraging the guy to push harder.

    Pixie knew that she worked her, but had never spoken to her.  There was NO WAY she could. She’d seen posters around the gym for MMA fights, and the pangolin woman was on some of them, on top of working in the gym as a personal trainer.  A strong woman like that? Pixie was far to gay and soft to get more than a few words out before turning into a panicking blushing mess. This was proven true when the woman looked up and made eye contact, smiling and giving a wave.  Pixie almost fell off the treadmill as she waved back, trying to turn and hide. She stopped the machine before she fell, then turned and hurried to the changing room. Once inside she splashed some water on her face, and took a deep breath.  

    “C’mon! You useless lesbian!  How are you ever going to get a girlfriend if you can’t even LOOK at a pretty girl!”  She sighed, annoyed at her own awkwardness, and turned to her locker to change her clothes.  She had just opened it when she heard a voice behind her.

    “Hey, are you okay?  You looked like you almost fell back there.”  Pixie squeaked and jumped, nearly banging her head on the locker door.  She turned and there was the woman. “I’m Kaylee by the way. I’ve seen you in here quite a few times.  You work at the cafe around the corner, right?” The taller woman walked over to a locker and popped it open.  She stretched and began undressing, continuing her conversational tone “It’s always nice to see other young women in here working out.  It’s usually just dudebros or people who show up once or twice then vanish” She pulled a small towel from the locker and wiped her face and brow, before draping it over her shoulders and taking a drink of water.  “Have you ever thought about signing up for any of the classes?” Pixie busied herself in her locker, keenly aware of Kaylee’s naked body, and standing there in her own simple underwear. She also was suddenly aware that the woman was much taller, and so her chest was right at Pixie's eye level.

    “I don’t know how much time I would have for them,  Once classes start back up I’ll be busier.” the short glider reached up and made a show of doing something in her bag above her.  This had the benefit of using her patagium to hide her blushing face.

    “Oh, you’re in school?  What are you in school for?”  Peeking around her arms Pixie was grateful to see the muscular woman had put her pants on, a pair of black shorts with ripped bottoms.  Pixie pulled her sundress out of her duffel and quickly pulled it on. She did up the snaps and stuffed the remaining things in the bag, still avoiding eye contact.

    “I’m going for business.  I want to open a bakery someday.”  She shouldered her bag, not wanting to seem rude, but at the same time being far too anxious and gay to keep talking for long.  Her plans were brought to a screeching halt when Kaylee spoke up again

    “A bakery?  Oh that’s awesome!  I love cake and sweets!  Do you bake in your spare time then?”  Pixie perked up about her hobby.

    “Oh yeah!  I love baking, especially cupcakes!  I also like experimenting with different flavours to make new things!  Like the Mango Sweet Onion cake I made on a dare! I could make something for you”  Pixie blushed as she realized what she had said. Curse her love of baking for people!  Kaylee laughed, a happy sound full of mirth.

    “That sounds weird as hell.  I’d love to try your cakes sometime!”  The pangolin stood up and pulled a piece of paper out of her locker and scribbled a number on it.  “Here’s my phone number. Call me up some time! We can hang out, maybe bake something. The only thing that makes cakes better is getting them from a pretty girl.”  She winked at Pixie. Pixie froze and began stammering

    “Wh… wh.. Wha? I’m… not… I mean.   Uh.. You’re the pretty one.!” Kaylee held up her hands.  

    “Oh geez, I’m sorry.  I thought I’d read you right and I kinda come on strong.  You can throw that out, Sorry again. I just thought you were cute and wanted to get to know you more.”  She pulled a tank top on and turned away. Pixie quickly, and a little too loudly reassured her.

    “OH!  I’m sorry!  I’m really bad at telling when a girl is flirting with me!  I would love to go out with you!” She pulled out her phone and quickly entered the number, before sending off a text.   “There. Now you have my number and um… we can plan!” She started to back away but bumped into the door frame. She giggled, embarrassed, confused, and happy.  Kaylee winked at her and smiled

    “Sounds good cutie.   Hope to see you soon!”  she waved as Pixie hurried out the door before smiling happily and finishing changing her clothes.  That poor girl was so easy to push her buttons, and her blush was just adorable. Hopefully they hit it off and she could spend more time with her.  She wanted to see more of her smile, and idly wondered how far down that blush went.

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