A Little Nothing

Please note that no part of this story may be reproduced electronically or in print without the express permission of the authors.
This story is the intellectual property of Aramis Dagaz, Joan Jacobsen, The Silver Coyote, and Tigermark and is copyright © 2004 - 2008 to the authors.
See below for additional copyright information.


This story is a collaboration of four authors whose copyrighted characters appear as noted below. Other copyrighted characters are used with permission as noted. This is a "round robin" story, in which each of the four authors writes a section and then passes it on to the next. None of us knows, from one section to the next, where the story is going to go, or what new characters or events may be introduced into it. The title is a working title, until we come up with something better. We may never do that...

We can thank Dan Hoffman for starting this fun. His character of Aramis Dagaz is copyrighted and may not be used without his permission. The parts of this story written by Dan are shown in Times New Roman font. Send an e-mail to Dan or visit his live journal. Jump to Dan’s contributions: part I, part IV, part VII, part X, part XIII, part XVII, part XXI.

SC was the next to take a stab at this. The characters of José Ortiz "Joe" Latrans, Annie Latrans, and the "bowtie beast" are copyright © The Silver Coyote, 2004 - 2008. Do not use them without his permission. SC’s contributions are shown in Courier font. Send an e-mail to SC or visit his web site. Jump to SC’s contributions: part II, part V, part VIII, part XI, part XIV, part XVIII, part XXII.

Tigermark is the third member of our team. His namesake character and that of "TL" are copyright © Tigermark, 2004 - 2008, and may not be used without permission. Tigermark’s contributions are shown using Arial Helvetica font. Send an e-mail to Tigermark or visit his web site. Jump to Tigermark’s contributions: part III, part VI, part IX, part XII, part XV, part XIX, part XXIII.

After each of the three amigos had contributed five chapters each we became four when Joan joined us early in 2006. I’m not sure what we’ll call ourselves now, I somehow don’t see us being the four musketeers or anything like that... Maybe our Filly can come up with a new name for us. In any event, Joan’s character of Aslaug is copyright © Joan Jacobsen 2004 - 2008 and may not be used without her permission. Joan’s contributions to the story are shown in Verdana font. Visit Joan’s forums at Planet Furry or visit her web site. Jump to Joan’s contributions: part XVI, part XX, part XXIV.

Finally, the character of Cutter Long is copyright © Cirrel, 2003. Visit Cirrel’s web site.

This file may be mirrored at the web sites of each of the four authors.

Other characters were developed by the team as a whole as the story developed. To be honest, I’m not sure how to copyright them, or even if we should.


Last update coded 30 December 2008 at 1950 PST
Jump to the latest addition!

The inside of the tavern was cooler than the hot spring day outside, but not by much. The coyote was glad to get out of the sun anyway, having traveled several days in the arid mountains to the south. He stamped the dust from his feet as he let his eyes adjust to the dark interior. The silver that permeated every hair in his fur made him look old at first glance, but his eyes still held a spark of youth and his posture spoke of a fur who had seen much but still had much left to experience.

As soon as the coyote felt that he could spot any disturbance inside without hindrance, he walked towards the common room with a sense of purpose worthy of a veteran of many battles, be it on the battlefield or in the king’s court. Just before he crossed the threshold, a tough-looking wolverine with scars cutting lines in his fur stopped him.

“Just a moment there, buddy,” the beastly fur said in a voice like a dull blade on a whetstone, “you need to leave your weapons here first.”

The coyote merely shrugged and undid the strap that held his five-foot greatsword in place across his back. He laid the huge blade on the nearby table, causing the old piece of furniture to groan slightly under the weight. Casually the coyote undid the brooch on his cloak and also set it on the table. The wolverine’s eyebrow raised slightly as he caught a glimpse of the array of throwing knives hidden in the folds of the cloak. The coyote continued to pull daggers and darts from various places on his furson and added them to the growing pile on the table, which was now bending a little under the mass of steel placed upon it.

Finally the coyote pulled from his belt a large knife bound to its scabbard by an ornate strip of silk. He regarded it for a moment and looked at the guard straight in the eyes. “I’ll hold onto this one, if you don’t mind,” he said in a causal yet firm voice that brooked no argument.

The wolverine glanced at the coyote, the pile of weapons, then back at the coyote. The canine’s eyes looked sharper than any of the blades he gave up. “Just don’t cause trouble,” he growled and waved him through.

The coyote stuffed the scabbard back into his belt and entered the common room. He glanced around, ignoring the stares he received from the other patrons. Finally he spotted a large white tiger sitting by himself in a corner of the room. The coyote smiled and padded over to the table.

Suddenly the fur on the back of his neck rose slightly. Instantly he grabbed an empty tankard from a nearby table and spun around, using the vessel to deflect the spoon that was flying towards his head.

“Dang! I was close that time, too!” said a youthful feline as he stepped out of the shadows of the room.

The coyote chuckled as he set the tankard back on the table. “You have to get up very early in the morning to catch me off-guard, Aramis,” he replied.

“I’ll get you one day, Joe, and when that happens all I’m going to do is laugh.”

“Yeah, at my funeral,” Joe laughed and grabbed the feline in a tight embrace. “It’s good to see you again, you young whelp.”

“And it’s good to see you again, you old dog,” Aramis said, “assuming I don’t black out first.”

Joe laughed again and released his hold on the young feline. “Such a pussy cat,” he murmured good-naturedly. The two furs walked to the table where the white tiger was seated and sat down.

“Welcome back, Joe,” the tiger said. “I see that the mountains haven’t killed you yet.”

“Not a chance, Tigermark,” Joe replied. “I know those molehills like the back of my paw. I’m much more likely to die in the city than in my native habitat.”

“Speaking of travels,” Tigermark interjected, “how are Annie and the pups doing?”

“Oh, the pups are doing just fine, as always. They enjoy these forays into the mountains, getting them back to their roots. Annie is doing much better now, after she saw the master healer on Calif’s Mount.”

“Well, that’s certainly good to hear,” Aramis said.

“Yep, it certainly is.” Joe’s eyes became a bit distant and dreamy as he thought about his lovely vulpine wife. “Even if her knee wasn’t injured, the trip gave us some time to be together after all the demands on our time from the Guilds.”

“Uh-oh,” Aramis chuckled and nudged Tigermark with his elbow. “I think we’re about to become godfathers again, Tigermark.” The felines laughed hard and Joe chuckled as well.

“Just you wait, young one,” Joe said with a smile as the laughter died down. “When you’re awash with kits of your own, all I’m going to do is laugh.”

“Speaking of which,” Tigermark commented as he extended a claw and used it to part the fur on Aramis’s face, revealing discolored skin underneath. “Where did this bruise come from? Looks somewhat like a rug burn.”

“Oh, really?” Joe asked, his mischievous grin growing larger. “I knew you were in love with your malamute ladyfriend, but you should at least wait until you’re married before you two start having cubs together.”

“W-what?” Aramis stammered, his face turning a deep crimson under his fur.

“It’s okay, though,” Tigermark said jovially, placing an arm around the younger feline’s shoulders. “We’ll happily be the godfathers of any cubs you sire, won’t we Joe?”

“N-no! It’s not like that!” Aramis protested.

“Then where did the rug burn come from?” Joe asked.

“She was happy to see me after I got back from the trademeet up north and we ended up wrestling playfully,” Aramis said. “Nothing else happened, it was all perfectly innocent.”

“‘Wrestling playfully,’” Joe repeated, his smile growing larger. “Sure, we believe you Aramis.” Aramis just glared at the coyote.

Tigermark laughed and clapped Aramis on the shoulder. “Oh, lighten up, Aramis. We’re just teasing you.”


As they all sat down at the table Joe reached into a vest pocket and removed a toothpick and placed it in his mouth. Relaxing back into the wooden chair he was seated in, he glanced first at Aramis and then to Tigermark. "So, T..." Joe looked into his old friend’s green eyes. "How’s the prettiest lynx in the valley?"

The tiger smiled broadly. "She and the tinx are safe and well, thank you my friend. She said to greet the two of you from the green hills of the Tiger’s Den."

Aramis and Joe gazed steadily upon the tiger’s countenance, waiting. After a few moments Aramis asked "Is that all she said?"

Tigermark grinned at the young feline, shaking his head in the negative. "She said that you two will be in trouble up to your ears if any of us gets broken this time out. ’No funny stuff,’ she said. ’Get in, get it done, come home. No heroics.’" Tigermark lifted a small, cut crystal glass to his dry lips and sipped the lukewarm tea from within.

At the mild rebuke delivered in this short message Joe sighed absently, while Aramis shuffled his feet on the dusty floor. As Joe’s gaze scanned the room again, a scruffy yet somehow fetching-looking young doe rabbit approached the table, dressed in a worn but clean peasant blouse and short skirt. Smiling at the latest arrival she asked "May I get you something, good sir?"

Joe made a point of looking over both shoulders before returning his attention to the doe. "My name is Joe," he said to her, smiling while holding her gaze. "Most furs call my father sir, but he’s not here." He grinned at her. "Try again?"

The doe smiled cautiously back at him. "Can I get you something, Joe?" she asked a bit timidly.

Joe reached within his vest briefly to fetch a gold coin from an interior pocket, revealing a flash of silk within. Flipping the coin off his claw towards her, he said simply "whiskey" as the coin sailed through the air, spinning. She caught it adeptly, smiling to him, and then turned to look at Aramis and Tigermark.


The two felines shook their heads in the negative, Aramis indicating his glass and saying "Check back with us in a while."

The doe smiled brightly at the young cat and replied "certainly" in a happy voice. Turning to the coyote her smile diminished just enough to be noticed as she said "Right away, Joe." She turned and walked briskly towards the bar, feeling the three sets of eyes that followed her movements. She added a little energy to the swishing of her tail for their benefit.

Aramis giggled after she had disappeared from view. "What are you two old warriors looking at?" he inquired.

Tigermark coughed a bit and said "One of God’s creatures."

"Hell, Aramis," Joe grumped. "My eyes have feasted upon the perfect works of the Master. I have seen the best red fox that ever was. Excuse me if my tired old eyes are somewhat bored after a day’s desert crossing." Turning his attention from the younger cat to the tiger Joe continued.

"So TL was a little put out by our... imperfections after the last assignment?"

A frown crossed the tiger’s face as he leaned forward, elbows on the table before him. Lowering his voice he replied a bit gruffly. "Joe, you took a beating on our last job and almost lost your left paw. Poor Aramis there, were it not for the miracles of modern armor, would not be able to father those kits we were just teasing him about, and he’s still walking with a bit of a limp even now."

The tiger raised a paw to rub the top of his head just inboard of his right ear. "As for me, this ear still doesn’t work right." He demonstrated by turning his ears, as though tracking something without moving his head. His left ear moved freely through its range of motion, but his right ear exhibited greatly reduced movement. As he continued to rub his head glimpses of a ragged, ruddy looking scar were visible just below his right ear, beneath the fur.

Joe stared at his friend for long moments, slowly leaning forward himself as he inadvertently flexed his left paw. Even though the room was dimly lit his eyes contracted in a squint.

Aramis cleared his throat as he leaned forward as well. His voice was barely above a whisper. "Tiger, there must have been at least a couple dozen of them. By God’s grace we survived to fight again."

"My intelligence," Joe growled quietly, interrupting, "was that the target was lightly guarded." The toothpick ceased all movement in the coyote’s mouth. "None of my contacts knew anything of the presence of the Elite Guard of The Mage. There was no way any of us could have foreseen that trap."

All three furs glanced up and leaned back at the approach of the doe, who quickly placed a bottle and a shot glass before Joe. Nodding to him, she glanced briefly at the two felines again before departing.

Joe took the time to pour himself a shot of whatever was in the bottle. Raising the glass to his nose he sniffed gently, mumbled under his breath, and tossed off the drink. The squint of his eyes tightened briefly.

The tiger stared at him, the emotion suddenly thick around the table. He felt it, and saw it on the faces of his friends.

"What did you say?" Aramis asked of Joe.

Joe turned his blue eyes to the youngest member of the team and stared at him.

"I was thanking God," the coyote growled. "For another day." He picked up the bottle and poured another shot. "For another chance to fight beside my friends. To protect what I cherish. To uphold what I believe in. To affirm our faith." Joe’s paw reached for the shot glass, but the tiger’s paw flashed out to stop him.

"Joe," he rumbled quietly, "no one was to blame for the way the last action went. We survived, we completed our assignment, and we have recovered to fight again." The tiger’s paw squeezed the coyote’s gently. "I accepted this mission with joy. TL is behind us, all of us, absolutely."

Joe nodded slowly, working the toothpick in his mouth. His eyes softened ever so slightly.

Tigermark smiled briefly. "I see Benny let you bring along ’Number One’."

Aramis looked from the coyote to the tiger. "Number One?" he asked absently.

By way of a reply Joe carefully reached within his vest again for the silk that had been briefly visible earlier. Removing it along with the sheathed tanto knife it was attached to, he passed the ensemble to Aramis discretely.

Aramis partially withdrew the blade and whistled softly. He admired the craftsmanship of the honed weapon for a full minute before looking up to Joe’s eyes.

"My father’s," Joe said simply. "With which he avenged the death of my mother."

Aramis’ eyes grew large at this revelation, and he turned his eyes to the tiger, who just nodded at him.

Joe took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Again he reached for the shot glass, and after tossing off his second drink placed it carefully on the neck of the bottle, upside down. He smiled at Aramis as the young cat returned the ornate weapon to him, and placed the sheathed tanto within his vest.

The smile remained on the coyote’s face as he turned his head towards his best friend. "So tell us, T. What’s the target this time?"


Just as Tigermark started to answer a loud whoop and a rush of laughter from off to their right caught all three friend’s attention. The young rabbit doe who had waited on them had poured the contents of the jug she held over the head of a now-sputtering young wolf. His three friends, a large bull terrier, a stout-looking young bear, and a slim whippet, were laughing along with the rest of the seedy patrons at the bar and nearby tables.

"I told you to keep your paws off!" she said, brandishing the empty jug in front of her in a defensive way.

The wolf shook his head, eyes smarting from the wine in them. He shoved his chair back and lurched to his feet, causing the doe to start backing away. To her horror she realized she was cut off from escaping to kitchen door. She was backing straight toward the table where Tigermark, Joe, and Aramis were sitting as the wolf roared at her.

"Ya little tramp! All I did wuz pat yer on yer tail! I’ll do more’n pat when I git my paws on ya!"

He continued to advance on the doe as she looked around, so terrified that the three friends could smell her fear. The wolf’s friends had stood and now moved on the doe as well, preventing any notion of escape as they backed up their friend.

Tigermark leaned forward and whispered something to Aramis, who promptly faded back into the shadows in the corner of the room as he stood. The tiger now looked at Joe and said, "Looks like our assignment will have to wait a few moments. Keep Number One out of sight unless they pull weapons. If my read is right, they’re probably unarmed. Benny, the wolverine who owns this place, is a friend. I don’t want everything busted up if we can help it. Stand with me and follow my lead."

Joe nodded casually and tucked the toothpick back in his pocket. "All right, compadre, lead on."

As the doe backed past them, Tigermark and Joe stood almost as one and interposed themselves between the frightened lupine and the group of young furs. The move startled them, and they stopped and looked the tiger and coyote up and down a second.

"What do you think you’re doing, ya mangy ol’ furs! Get oudda the way an’ sit back down before ya get hurt," the wolf said, partly angry at the interruption, and partly trying to impress his friends with his bravado.

"Well, I’d like to sit back down, really I would. My lumbago is actin’ up, and my friend here gets awful grumpy when he hasn’t had his nap. Y’all just go sit back down and leave the young lady alone to do her work, and it’ll suit us fine to sit back down," Tigermark replied evenly, a slight smile on his muzzle.

The wolf looked even angrier, saying, "No way, ol’ fur! All I did wuz give ’er a friendly-like pat, and she durn near drowned me! She’s gonna pay fer that one way or another. Now sit down! We gotcha outnumbered, and it wouldn’t bother us none to hurt ya."

Tigermark had been counting the time off in his head. He noticed Benny had come to the door, but he was watching instead of acting, curiosity showing on his scarred muzzle. Tigermark had known the rough and tumble owner of the Hole in the Wall for several years, but circumstances had kept him from using the place to rendezvous with his friends until this assignment. Now the wolverine was watching, almost a smile on his muzzle, as he waited to see how the tiger handled this one.

"So, my young pup, it’s a fight, is it? Well, if so, we’ve got to play by the Hole in the Wall fight rules," Tigermark said casually.

Quickly picking up on the track Tigermark was taking, Joe said, "Yep, we gotta fight by the rules, or else the owner gets real mad and calls out the Orc Patrol."

The wolf looked startled at the mention of the fabled mercenary police force, so he stammered, "Uh, yeah, okay, rules. What’s da rules?"

"I’m glad you asked," Tigermark said.

"Yeah, I am, too," Joe said, causing the tiger to look sharply at him, and then wink.

"The rules," Tigermark said, booming his voice out in a theatrical manner, "Say we can’t fight unless there’s a prize for the winners, and doom for the losers. Now it seems to me the prize would be our lovely young lady here." Tigermark made a sweeping gesture towards the doe behind him, who gave him a dubious look and tried to back farther into the corner.

The wolf brightened at that and said, "Awright! That’s whut I’m talkin’ about!"

"Now as to a doom for the losers. Well, since a fight would break up the place a bit, it only seems fair that the doom should pay the owner back for his loss. Lessee, Ah, I’ve got it. You gents will see, if you turn around, the house cook and a young cat, both with meat cleavers in their paws. The doe is the cook’s daughter, you know, so he’ll really enjoy taking out his feelings on the losers. To pay the owner back for the damages, the losers will become part of the menu!" Tigermark said, a slightly insane sounding lilt to his voice.

"What!" said all four of the group as they looked quickly behind them. True to Tigermark’s word, the house cook stood at the door of the kitchen, holding a bloody cleaver and wearing an even bloodier apron. Beside him stood Aramis, also looking slightly crazed with a cleaver in his paw also.

They turned to look back at Tigermark and Joe. Both furs had very large, toothy grins on their muzzles. The young furs were strong, but Tiger and Joe were both over six feet tall, and had the calm, confident air of those who didn’t usually loose.

"So, my young friends, shall we see who gets the doe, and who becomes the lunch special?"

The group looked uncertainly at each other, when Joe suddenly shouted, "I call the Bear Steak!!"

The large ursine blanched and took a step back. That was all it took for the other three to loose their nerve, also. The group broke and ran for the door, urged on their way by Tigermark’s yell of, "Come back, I’m HUNGRY!"

The rest of the room broke out in laughter and applause as Joe and Tigermark took their seats. Aramis smiled and waved as the cook headed back for the kitchen. Benny smiled and nodded as Tigermark looked his way before heading back to his post by the main door.

Aramis rejoined them as they watched the doe head for the kitchen.

"So, that was some performance, you two," Aramis said as he sipped his drink.

"Just a little theater to enrich our young friend’s lives, by letting them keep them," Tigermark said amiably. Joe just looked at him and grinned as he put the toothpick back in his mouth.

"You were saying about our assignment before we were so rudely interrupted," Joe prompted.

"Yeah, what’s that ol’ lion at HQ got for us now?" Aramis asked, referring to their contact at the palace. Duke Leone was the King’s head of security, and he called upon the three friends to handle certain sensitive matters in the Western region of the kingdom. Tigermark lived the farthest East, in the rolling hill country on the Eastern side of the great, wide valley called the Badlands. Joe and Aramis lived on the Western side, and the trio met wherever was convenient to their assignment.

Tigermark looked around to be sure they wouldn’t be overheard, and then said, "You’ve both heard of the Sanders cult. They’re the ones who stay out in the desert and chant naked to the sun. Their leader, a shaggy poodle named Digray, says it gives them spiritual insight. I say it gives them a sunburn right through their fur to their brains. Anyway, they’ve been known to snatch an unwary traveler or local teen from time to time, trying to get attention and recruits, but they’re so out there the captives have usually walked away and are back home within a day or two."

"I’ve heard of them, but they haven’t done anything out my way," Joe said, frowning slightly in concentration, "But I take it something new has come up with them?" Aramis started to speak, but then thought the better of it and waited for Tigermark to go on.

"Yes, drastically. Digray is still leading the cult, but Duke Leone say’s that someone new has come into the cult, and the element he’s brought in is much more capable of mayhem. That brings us to why we’ve been called in," the tiger said.

"The King’s daughter," Aramis said, a note of certainty in his voice.

Tigermark and Joe both arched eyebrows at their young friend.

"And how did you know that?" Joe asked.

"Well, she was supposed to be up in Orgonis this week, but last I heard, she hadn’t arrived. I wondered when I got the mageflash to meet if it might be about that. The official word was that she’d been delayed in transit and would arrive by the weekend."

Tigermark nodded at Aramis’ answer, saying, "Your hunch was right. She and her entourage were ambushed crossing the Yucca Flat, and the Princess was kidnapped. The cult is holding her for ransom, saying they’ll convert her or worse unless the King proclaims them a legitimate religion, and pays them five million dolahs gold."

"That doesn’t sound like the cult, they all vow poverty, if I remember right. Partly why they chant naked," Joe said.

"That’s also the Duke’s thought. That’s why he thinks the cult’s been infiltrated," Tigermark said, and then he grinned broadly.

"What’s funny?" Aramis asked.

"Just thinking of what an old policefur said to me once. How do you talk to a naked lady?"

Joe and Aramis looked at each other, puzzled. They looked at Tigermark and shrugged.

"Eye contact. That came to mind as I thought about what we might encounter in a cult that chants naked to the sun in the sand." Tigermark said.

"What do they chant?" Joe said, a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

"Two things. ’Regular or Crispy’ and ’Help me, Rhonda’," Tigermark said as he snorted and stifled a laugh.

Just then the doe came up to them with a tray of drinks. She placed an extra large container of what each was drinking in front of them, saying, "Compliments from the house. To say thanks for not busting the place up."

She then went to each and hugged them soundly, planting a kiss on the side of their muzzles.

"And that’s to say thank you from me. Tigermark, Joe, and Aramis, my three heroes!" With that, she turned and went back to her duties, giving them a more enthusiastic wiggle of her tail as she went.

The three looked at each other, and then burst out laughing.

Finally, wiping his eye with the back of his paw, Joe said, "Well, heroes, shall we drink up and then get on with the mission? I’ll take the bottle with me, just in case."

"Fine, fine," said Tigermark, as he swallowed his tea in one gulp.

"Okay," said Aramis downing his drink and coughing a slight bit afterwards. As they rose to go, the young feline suddenly said, "Who did the Duke say infiltrated the cult?"

"You’ll recognize the name, we’ve crossed paths with him before. He’s a leopard/lion hybrid," Tigermark said as he laid a silver piece on the table for a tip.

Both Joe and Aramis together said the name. "Cutter Long."

"Yep, the one and only," Tigermark said.

Joe shrugged, saying, "Well, let’s get to it."

The three stopped and retrieved their weaponry, Joe with his arsenal of blades, Tigermark with his short sword, Bo staff, and longbow, and Aramis with his katana, crossbow, and an array of intricately carved arcane wands.

"We’ll call up the armor if it looks like we’ll need it," Tigermark said of the battle armor they had stowed in the magical hold space that Aramis could call up. With that, the three left the Hole in the Wall to find the Dotted Lion.


# # #


(29 April 2004)

“Are we there yet?” Aramis said lazily as he drowsed in the late afternoon sun.

“No,” both Joe and Tigermark wearily intoned.

Five minutes passed. “Are we there yet?” Aramis asked again.

“No,” the older furs repeated, with a slight rise of irritation in their voices.

Another five minutes passed. “Are we there now?”

“Aramis, if you ask that again I’m going to remove your environment protection bracelet,” Tigermark growled.

“So you’d rather that I suck up all of our fresh water and die of heat stroke before we even get within a league of the Princess’ last known location?” Aramis countered.

“Okay guys, knock it off,” Joe called from his position near the Beast’s head. Even though the team got along just like brothers, they also happened to fight just like brothers as well. “I had to put up with enough from my own pups, and I’ll be damned if I have to put up with the same from you two.”

Aramis chuckled. “Maybe we should have brought Annie along to keep us in line, then,” he said.

Joe laughed as well. “I think she’ll need TL’s assistance to deal with you two. You’re both a bigger pawful than three teenage pups.” The coyote winked at them. “And I speak from experience.”

Tigermark feigned a shudder. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said in a meek, childlike voice. “That mean ol’ TL is scah-wee! I’d rather be sat on by the Beast.”

“That can be arranged,” Joe said mischievously, giving the Beast a pat on the shoulder.

“I’ll pass, thank you very much.”

“Three of the King’s finest, and we’re more scared of our ladies than by any monsters or half-crazed cultists we might meet in the most God-forsaken land in the Kingdom,” Aramis said with a laugh.

“Well, it’s not like we’ve seen anything that would give us cause for concern so far,” Tigermark replied. “We’ve only met a small gang of goblin bandits—”

“Which the Beast ate,” Joe commented.

“—a juvenile wyrmling—”

“Which Beast also ate,” Aramis interjected.

“—and that ogre we encountered recently,” Tigermark concluded. “Which the Beast swallowed whole and then spat out it’s armor.”

The Beast belched mightily, the sound rumbling across the desert plain like thunder.

“Joe, do you not feed this creature enough?” Aramis asked.

“Do you want to know my grocery bill?” Joe replied “You’re welcome to split the cost with me.”

“No thanks,” Aramis said. He sighed as he lay back in his seat.

Five minutes passed. “Are we there yet?” he asked idly.

“Actually,” Tigermark answered, “I think we’re getting close.”

Aramis’ eyes snapped open at the unexpected answer and he sat up. He looked forward and saw the grotesque-looking cross-like structure with all sorts of dead animals hanging from it.

“Let me guess, they’re signs put up by the cult to warn others away?” Aramis asked.

“Actually, this is how they cook their meals,” the tiger answered. “The sun can make just about anything well-done in a day or two around here.”

“They certainly do look extra-crispy, don’t they?” Aramis quipped. “Well, if this is where their kitchen is, then the main camp shouldn’t be too far off, right?”

“Right. I think we should continue on foot from here, right, Joe?” Joe didn’t answer; he was staring off into the distance with a slightly blank look in his eyes.

“Joe, you okay?” Tigermark asked as he glanced over to where Joe was staring. He caught sight of what Joe was looking at and also became mesmerized by what he saw.

“Guys?” Aramis asked worriedly. “Guys! What’s go…ing…on?” His question trailed off as he too saw what held his companions in thrall. Three femmes, completely nude for all the world to see, stood about ten yards away staring back at the newcomers. Their fur was unkempt, but living in the desert had made them slim and muscular, giving them a wild yet strangely alluring look.

Joe was the first to recover. “You know, Tigermark,” he commented to his friend, “I actually expected a half-crazed cult that dances naked in the desert to be made up of only mangy males that have no life.”

Tigermark nodded. Aramis started chanting prayers to clear his mind of temptation. The Beast merely drooled, thinking that the extra-crispy morsels on the cross looked delicious.


(1 May 2004)

The mischievous grin returned to Joe’s muzzle. Turning his head slightly to glance at Tigermark out of the corner of his eye, he began to speak in a voice loud enough for Aramis to hear above his ridiculous chanting.

"Y’know this bowtie beast is a pain in the tail. I feed it, I groom it, I tend its wounds and injuries, and all I get in return is that..." Joe pointed to the dirt below the beast’s maw, where a three foot wide puddle of drool was slowly enlarging.

Tigermark exhaled slowly in contemplation. "Perhaps we should have obtained some horses before we left Many Rocks. At least they smell better..."

The coyote nodded, his tail wagging slowly beneath the hem of his cloak. "Of course, I can’t put my family aboard a horse, add two thousand pounds of cargo behind, and cross the desert in a matter of hours." He sighed in amusement. "I guess we all buy our own trouble, eh?"

Tigermark nodded absently. Joe could tell something was brewing in his head.

Tapping a leather boot to the deck firmly by way of getting the beast’s attention, Joe said "Oye, pendejo diablito. No necesitamos su ayuda más. Permanezca aquí hasta que volvemos." The deck shifted gently beneath their feet as the beast grunted in reply, settling down to wait quietly while the furs conducted their business. The drooling slowly tapered off, but did not entirely stop.

Tigermark suddenly turned to face Joe, his own voice rising above that of the still babbling Aramis, who in turn was still transfixed by the view ahead. "You should know about this, my friend," Tiger began. "After your pups pester you throughout a full day of travel, what’s the first thing they *always* want to know as soon as you arrive at your destination?" The tiger grinned, his fangs showing slightly as the tip of his tail twitched above his shoulder in amusement.

Joe’s eyes brightened as he stifled a laugh, matching Tigermark tooth for tooth in a grin of his own. He opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by the younger feline behind them, who had stopped his chanting and was now hopping about slightly from foot to foot.

"Hey!" Aramis cried. "There’s no trees around here! What’s a fur gotta do to relieve himself?"

The tiger and coyote chuckled together as they turned to descend from the beast. Passing the young cat, Joe took a shoulder in his paw and guided the squirming feline towards the waiting earth below.

As the collected boots of our heroes touched the parched, dusty, alkali soil of "Garten des Teufels", the "Devil’s Garden", they became aware of the heat of the setting sun, even through their fur and clothing. They also became aware of the low humidity, as their noses and mouths almost immediately began to dry out.

The femmes held their position about ten yards away to the north. They made no move towards the assembled warriors, probably fearful of the beast, whose on-going hot exhalations continued to stir up small clouds of dust near it’s maw. Farther away to the northwest, perhaps about thirty five yards away, the cross stood silently, it’s gruesome appellations an olfactory presence even at this distance.

The three furs stood facing each other and extended right paws to touch between them. They bowed heads briefly.

"Lord," the tiger intoned quietly, "we give You thanks for our safe journey, and ask Your blessing upon the operation we are about to commence. It is in Your name and for Your glory that we undertake this mission. Grant us safe passage and a successful outcome." The three looked up at each other as they all said "Amen."

Tiger smiled. "Everybody geared up?" he asked as he retrieved his long bow from a storage container at the beast’s flank. Aramis and Joe stepped forward, the cat grabbing Joe’s great sword in one paw and his own Katana in the other. After he had turned and handed the great sword to the coyote, Aramis retrieved his own crossbow. After Joe had strapped the great sword in it’s sheath to his back, while the tiger and the cat were fitting weaponry, Joe stepped up to the container and selected a last, hammer-like device.

Aramis looked at it with uncertainty. "What is that?" he asked. The hammer head was roughly rectangular, about eight to ten inches in length and perhaps two to three inches square, with flat octagonal heads at both ends. He studied it for a moment, waiting for Joe to explain its presence.

Joe paused before replying. "It’s a short-handled spike maul," he said, fitting the handle within his belt.

"A ’spike moll’?" Aramis asked. "What does it do?"

Joe smiled a bit wistfully. "Ever hear of the High Iron, youngster?"

Aramis shook his head in the negative.

"This tool has a foot long handle holding a seventeen pound piece of forged D2 tool steel. In it’s original configuration it had a much longer handle, perhaps four feet or more, made of the finest rock maple hardwood. It was meant to drive large steel spikes into large wooden planks."

"What are you doing with it?" Aramis asked, a tease working its way into his voice. "Are we going to build a house?"

Joe shook his head, his expression taking on notes of sorrow and regret. "I learned of this hammer’s alternate uses from an angry, hating old bulldog named Shack." He sighed. "In it’s current configuration this is an excellent close-quarter weapon. I once put this through the shield of an Imperial Guardsfur and then halfway through his head."

Aramis blinked. The shields of the Imperial Guard were known to deflect direct strikes of the finest broad swords. He looked to Tigermark, who shrugged.

"A bit of magic from another life, another world," the tiger mused quietly.

The three of them spun in unison at a slight sound near the maw of the beast. There, not two feet away from the large puddle of the beast’s drool, stood a completely naked and quite well built, if thin, skunk. Her fur was gritty, dusty, and unkempt, but that did nothing to disguise her youth and attractiveness. Her white head fur was disarrayed by the wind, her blue eyes stared intently at the three of them.

Joe’s paw clamped gently over Aramis’ muzzle as he began his chanting again. In the ensuing silence Tigermark stepped forward, extending a paw towards the mephit.

The tiger’s eyes studied the young femme before him. She seemed somewhat familiar. He was certain he had seen her somewhere before. Her tail had an odd, uncharacteristic curl to the tip, and her face looked *very* familiar. With some degree of difficulty he ignored her other characteristics and spoke formally.

"Greetings. We have traveled far and are here to meet Digray. Do you have knowledge of his whereabouts?"

The mephit ignored his outstretched paw and took a step towards him. The eyes of Aramis and Joe widened considerably as the skunk wound her arms around the tiger’s torso in a very intimate hug. A sly smile crossed Joe’s muzzle as the skunk’s lips found the tiger’s muzzle, even as Tigermark tried to dodge her advances.

During the long, one-sided kiss Joe leaned over to whisper in Aramis’ ear. "Warrior’s code, my young friend. *None* of this gets home to TL, or anybody else. Comprendes?"

Aramis gulped and nodded after Joe released his muzzle. Meanwhile the tiger finally managed to somewhat gracefully extract himself from the skunk’s embrace.

The other two femmes, a gray fox and a Siamese cat, had quietly approached, and as if on cue each took a paw, the fox gently taking Aramis’ right paw as the Siamese took Joe’s left. The males did not resist, but their guard was up. Joe’s free paw sought the comfort of the silk-wrapped tanto within his vest, Aramis in his turn kept the crossbow he still held in his left paw at the ready.

The skunk spoke, finally, in a hoarse, raspy voice that was at once alluring and annoying. "We’ve been expecting you. My name is Demi. If you will be so kind as to follow us, we will attend to your every need and desire."

Aramis choked briefly. Joe looked at him, releasing his tanto’s silk as he raised his paw towards Aramis’ face. Aramis shot him an "I don’t need your help" look and remained silent. Joe smiled slightly at his friend as the tiger spoke.

"My name is Tigermark. We will accompany you if you will take us to Digray. If you cannot do this, we will find him ourselves..." he paused, looking at the mephit’s thin yet voluptuous figure. He suddenly glanced towards the sky and then returned his gaze to her blue eyes. "...alone!"

The skunk turned and spoke in a strange tongue to her companions, and then returned her attention to the tiger facing her. "We will take you to his place of residence." she said with a smile. "Will you come with us?" Her tail flipped briefly, an unintentional expression of impatience on her part, Tigermark noted. Interesting.

"Gentlefurs, shall we?" Tigermark gestured towards Demi, who smiled at Joe and Aramis as she took Tigermark’s paw and began walking northwest, towards the cross.

Joe drew his Siamese companion towards the flank of his beast. She recoiled slightly, but he reassured her with a smile and an open paw. Patting the beast’s smooth, cold exterior shell, Joe quietly said "Volveremos, primo. Compórtese."

The beast sighed in a slightly mechanical way, and in that wheezing sound Aramis caught hints of words: "Adíos, Jose." The beast continued to click quietly by way of finishing its good-byes. Joe and his still silent companion marched off after Tigermark and Demi.

"Damn," grumbled Aramis under his breath. "I still didn’t get to go..." He and the gray fox fell in step behind the coyote and the cat.


(4 May 2004)

As they walked past the cross and its shadow fell upon them, Tigermark glanced up at the carrion arranged there. He was quite relieved to note that none of its occupants were sentients. As they left it behind and the hot breeze carried its stench away, he looked closely at the skunkette who was leading him, following his own advice and keeping his gaze above her shoulder level. Demi was maybe 22, but showed some of the manner of someone who’d seen some hard times. She was more muscular than he’d first thought.

Joe was also examining his companion. Also young, somewhere in her twenties. He noted from her back and arms that, while appearing thin, she was quite well muscled, like an acrobat. He then noticed something that made him almost miss a step.

"Tiger!" he exclaimed.

"No es un problema, mi amigo. Estoy enterado del engaño," Tigermark said quickly over his shoulder. Demi had turned her head to look at him, but finding nothing amiss in his expression, continued on.

Joe looked back at Aramis, who was still quietly chanting under his breath. The young feline was also walking quite oddly, causing the young gray fox leading him to stumble a bit as she tugged him along.

"TM, I think we’d better let Aramis relieve himself before he causes the fox with him to hurt herself," Joe called out.

Demi stopped and looked up at Tigermark, her tail once again giving away her impatience.

After a few seconds, she smiled again, saying, "We are here to fulfill your every need and desire. If the young fur needs to attend to nature’s call, Sela will be glad to assist him in any way she can."

"I need for you all to turn your backs!" Aramis said, desperation sounding in his voice.

Demi spoke again in the strange language she had used before, sounding something like "Akbay urntay rounday osa Atkay ancay epeay." The three femmes turned away and struck pointedly sexy poses while waiting for Aramis to do his business, Sela looking slightly disappointed.

A relieved sigh and a large puddle later, they set off again. The trio of friends could now smell the scent of the cult’s encampment, and could make out the faint sounds of chanting and talk. They came to a small draw between two ridges, and Demi turned the group down the well-worn path in the center. Tigermark didn’t react, but he could see the tips of several sets of ears sticking up along the tops of both ridges. He counted discreetly, and when they reached the center he acted.

"Tenemos compañía! Diez en todos, cinco en cada lado detrás de los cantos!" Tigermark said as he quickly pulled his paw out of the skunkette’s grip. The furs he’d seen hiding came swarming over the ridge as Demi turned on him.

Whipping his cloak off, Tigermark used it to wrap the skunkette up and spin her to the ground. He planted his foot on the base of her tail so she couldn’t get up or spray him, and turned to meet the onslaught with his staff. Joe had started to draw his great sword, but he noticed that their attackers were a scraggly-looking band of naked male furs of various species. Here were the mangy-furred males with no life he’d referred to earlier. He decided the spike maul would be the better weapon, as he only had one paw free. His other paw was occupied with keeping the siamese who’d been leading him from clawing his eyes out as she hissed and spat. As the first one charged him, Joe waited until the mixed-breed hound raised his club and delivered a quick, crunching uppercut to his defenseless chin. The hound did an unintentional backflip to the sand and lay still. The second, a skinny opossum, tried a side swing, which Joe blocked with the maul as he kicked the pale fur in the gut. The opossum wheezed as his breath left him, and collapsed where he had stood.

Seeing she couldn’t get past his defensive blocks, the feline suddenly sprang away in a quick backflip. Joe was now busy dropping the hammer on the third fur to come his way. The ragtag band of furs were wielding wooden sticks and clubs, and not being very effective with either. Tigermark had put three on the ground without their getting any closer than the end of his staff. As he parried the thrust of a long stick from a skinny young jackal, he saw the siamese complete her first backflip and launch into a second. He realized her landing would put her right behind him, so he quickly calculated her trajectory and flipped his staff out to the side. As the cat unfolded from a somersault at the top of her flip, Tigermark flipped her legs out from under her and she landed with a loud *thump* on the sand. She tried to rise, shaking her head, and then collapsed back down and lay still, unconscious.

Both Joe and Tigermark found themselves under bombardment with rocks from two of the group as the third to remain standing prowled out of their reach, looking for an opening. Joe was having no problem deflecting the rocks thrown his way, but the attacking furs were being very indiscriminate in their targeting, causing Tigermark to have to use his staff to prevent both himself, Demi, and the unconscious siamese from being hit. Having enough of that, the tiger deftly deflected one paw-sized rock straight at the prowling fur, dropping him like, well, a rock. The next stone to come his way he caught and fired back at it’s thrower. The otter had just stood back up from retrieving another stone when the one Tigermark zipped back at him caught him squarely in the chest and knocked the wind out of him.

Taking a cue from the tiger, Joe caught a smaller stone and threw it back at the rabbit who had thrown it. Having seen what happened to his fellow, the lupine caught Joe’s rock and threw it back at him. A short volley ensued, until the rabbit missed and took the hit right between the eyes. That finished the last of the group, creating a mass of moaning or out-cold furs between them.

They both looked toward Aramis, and had to stifle a laugh. The young feline had a large silk pawkerchief in his paws and was trying to subdue Sela with it, they were fighting and wrestling so fast that they were both engulfed in a cloud of dust. Arms, legs and tails could be seen flailing out of the cloud. One second, Aramis was on top, the next, Sela. This was accompanied by a most hilarious mixture of hisses, yowls, yips and howls.

After another moment, Aramis finally managed to tie the vulpine’s paws together. He stood up as the vixen sat up and glowered at him.

"You okay Aramis? Need any help?" Joe said wryly as he tucked the maul into his belt. He walked over to inspect the pile of naked furs and smiled slightly with satisfaction.

"Looks like we didn’t kill any of them," the coyote said amiably.

"Good. These look like regular Sanders. Our ladyfriends here, though, are another matter," Tigermark said. Looking down at Demi in her awkward position, he said, "All right, sister, I want answers, and I want them now!"

She managed to crane her neck around and say, "You can go to H--! Hey, what’s that!"

Tigermark had brought his tail around and was dangling its tip just out of the skunkette’s reach. On it was an ankle bracelet and three earrings, one of which didn’t match the other two. The skunkette reached up and felt her ears, and wiggled her ankle. She then began to struggle, but Tigermark’s weight applied to his foot’s position on her rump kept her firmly to ground.

"Your no cultist, missy, and no subservient serving wench, either. Since you took the chance while you had me liplocked back there to try to steal my belt dagger and coinpurse, I thought I’d return the favor. It’s amazing what a tiger’s tail can do when it’s been trained properly."

Joe and Aramis were looking on a bit perplexed themselves about how the tiger got the items off his captive.

"Okay," Aramis said, "I can see the ankle bracelet, maybe even the earrings, but where did the third earring come from?"

"That was your tail! I thought you were just glad to see me!" Demi spat out. Tigermark fixed her with a steady gaze and she looked back down at the sand and refused to say any more.

"Welp," Joe said, "I don’t think she wants to talk. Why don’t we see if we can get one of this lot semi-coherent and ask them what gives."

Tigermark glanced up at the sky and then said, "Better still if we can get them mobile toward their camp. The sun’s heading for overhead, and I don’t want any of them dying of sunstroke laying out here."

Aramis sighed and said, "Okay, I know I was kind of freaked out by their being naked. I wouldn’t look at them. How did you know they were fakes?"

Tigermark smiled and said, "Remember that vow of poverty? Cultists wouldn’t be wearing jewelry like this." He rattled the items he held on his tail. Aramis nodded and smiled, finding he could finally look at the ladies without chanting. The other two were also wearing jewelry.

"Plus it doesn’t hurt that you saw the ambush before they could spring it. I swear, Tiger, I sometimes think you’re part bloodhound. Did you smell them?" Joe said, grinning.

"Nope, no hounds in my family. I saw their ears above the ridgeline as we approached."Returning his attention to the mephit Tigermark continued. "Now Demi, if that’s your real name, I have three things to ask, and if the answers suit me, I’ll return these to you," Tigermark said, rattling the jewelry on his tail.

She looked over her shoulder at him, a speculative look on her face. Deciding that it wouldn’t do her any good to be stubborn now, she nodded.

"First of all, is that Digray’s camp we were heading for before you detoured us into the ambush?"

"Yes," was all she said.

"Is Princess Fallona in that camp?" Tigermark asked, still slowly waving the jewelry out in front of the skunkette.

With a sigh Demi said, "No, I don’t believe she is."

Now it was Tigermark’s turn to sigh, saying, "Okay, a deals a deal, last question. How long have you belonged to Cutter Long?"

"I DON’T BELONG TO HIM! I’M A FREE FUR!" Demi shouted, causing a small sandstorm in front of her muzzle.

Tigermark smiled, and Demi realized that’s she’d just confirmed what he had guessed. True to his word, Tigermark dropped the jewelry off the tip of his tail into Demi’s open paw. The skunkette looked at the jewelry, and then back up at him, a slight smile now on her muzzle.

Tigermark smiled back and said, "If I can trust you not to spray me, I’ll let you up. You can see to your friend--"

"Cindy," Demi interrupted.

"Okay, you can see to Cindy, and help her back to camp. Now, are you going to cooperate?" Tigermark said. His weight had not shifted one bit as he waited for her answer.

"Okay, I promise," She replied with a demure pout.

Tigermark didn’t move as he said, "And you can drop the act, too."

"All right!" she said, exasperated.

"That’s better," Tigermark said as he removed his foot from her rump. She rolled over and flipped her tail out flat behind her. She quickly donned her jewelry, except for the third earring, which she kept in her paw. She wasn’t about to put it back in its usual spot with them looking on. Tiger waked over to where Joe and Aramis were getting the ragtag band of ambush furs back on their feet.

"Any that can’t walk, you’ll have to carry them," Joe was saying to the group that was slowly, sullenly getting to its feet. Aramis had hoisted Sela to her feet, and was standing beside her holding onto her elbow to make sure she didn’t make any sudden moves.

"Ready to move ’em out?" Tigermark asked.

"Yep," said Joe, "You want to lead the way? Aramis and I will ride herd on this lot."

Tigermark glanced at Aramis, and saw that he was now clear-eyed, and apparently clear-headed, as he’d stopped the chanting and was looking over the group of beaten furs.

"Yes, I’ll lead the way, and I’ll keep Demi occupied by having her assist Cindy. That’s the siamese, Joe," Tigermark said as he turned to go back to the lady furs. He missed seeing Joe blush slightly.

"All right, Demi, we’re going on to Digray’s camp. No funny stuff, though. We can find it by sound and scent from here," Tigermark said.

Demi looked up from where she had Cindy sitting up. The siamese was looking very dazed.

"I don’t think she can walk," Demi said.

"Then you can carry her, or let her lean on you," Tigermark said. He then watched Demi heft the feline to her feet with more ease than he’d have expected. He was glad now that he’d not gone to help her, as she could easily have been tricking him.

"Let’s go," the tiger said, and the group set out for the camp.

As they walked slowly down the draw, Tigermark asked Demi, "You look very familiar to me. Do you have relatives in Column-BS?"

"The King’s treasury city, with all the IRS agents? Yeah, I have a cousin there who looks a lot like me. Works for some entertainment business or something. How’d you know?" The skunkette replied.

"My cousin owns that business," Tigermark said simply.

They walked on a bit further, and Demi said, "I want to thank you. I saw you keeping those rocks from hitting me and Cindy. You didn’t have to do that."

"Yes I did. You were my responsibilities at the time. I couldn’t let you get hurt," Tigermark said, his eyes on the trail ahead.

"Y’know," Demi said, feeling she ought to say more to thank him, "Cutter said to watch out if a tiger and a coyote showed up together, guess he meant you. The cat traveling with you threw me off."

Tigermark just nodded. Aramis hadn’t been with them more than about three years, and Cutter wouldn’t have known about him yet.

"I really am a free fur, you know. I just joined up with him because he said we could make some easy money. So far, no money, and it’s been far from easy," Demi said, surprising Tigermark with her candidness.

"I take it walking around naked in the desert wasn’t in the job description? If you’d feel better, you can put your clothes on when we get to the camp," Demi nodded and Tigermark continued, "You need to choose your bosses more carefully. You’ll find in the end that Cutter helps no one and shares with no one but Cutter."

"Yeah, I got that feeling just now when I realized how overmatched our ambush was. He didn’t care about us as long as we stopped whoever the King sent after his daughter. How’d he know it’d be you?" the skunkette asked.

"He knows we’ve worked for the King in some, ah, delicate situations before. Figured we’d be who he called for on this. The King doesn’t want it getting around that a crazy cult could kidnap, or worse yet convert, his daughter."

"Humpf, the only thing she might convert to is non-virginal, the way she was making eyes at Cutter when he took off with her to his camp," Demi said, and then she cursed loudly.

"Problem?" Tigermark asked, now smiling broadly.

"Nevermind! Geez, Cutter was right, you could charm and talk a wyrm out of its treasure! How does he know you, and you him?" she asked.

Tigermark thought a moment, and the decided it would do no harm in telling her.

"Cutter was once in the King’s service. Special Operations forces. Seems he didn’t want to set up militia forces for the King in the outlands, because it was more profitable to set up bandit gangs. Joe, the coyote back there and I were sent to stop him."

"I take it you did," she said.

"Yes, but Cutter got away. We’ve been crossing paths and swords from time to time ever since."

Demi started to speak again, but at that moment they rounded a turn and the camp came into view. It was a ragtag conglomeration of tents, small shacks built from sun-bleached wood and pitch, and in the center a large object that towered over the scene. They could now clearly hear the chanting of the cultists gathered around it. There were two groups, one chanting, "Regular or crispy, ya want fries with that?" back and forth to each other while the other, smaller group of furs kept up a steady sing-song of, "Help me, Rhonda, help, help me, Rhonda."

Tigermark took in the monument, recognizing it as the cult’s symbol. A large circle, with a dividing line down the center, and another splitting off from each side of the middle line at a forty five degree angle halfway down.


“Right, then,” he said, turning to Demi. “I’m afraid that this is where we must part ways.”

“You’re not coming with us into the village?” Demi asked, a look of puzzlement on her face.

“No,” Tigermark replied with a knowing grin, “that would make things too easy for Cutter. I think he would be fairly disappointed if we just showed up on his doorstep. Besides, it doesn’t make my job any easier, if you know what I mean.”

“So you’re just letting us go, where we can tell Cutter that you’re here?”

“Cutter’s smart enough to realize that we’re here without you telling him anything,” Tigermark said, thumbing over his shoulder at their would-be ambushers. “Feel free to tell him the entire truth. I think he doesn’t deserve to be deceived, don’t you think?” he added with a chuckle.

“Perhaps,” Demi replied. “See ya around, tiger,” she said as she readjusted Cindy’s arm over her shoulders and started walking towards the village.

“So,” Joe said when the last of the cultists had entered the village, “we have about six hours to kill until sundown.” A mischievous smile spread across his muzzle. “What say we make camp and figure out how we’re going to give Cutter a night he’ll never forget?”

“Sounds like a plan,” Tigermark said with a grin.

“Yeah, sure,” Aramis replied somewhat distractedly.

“Something wrong, Aramis?” Joe asked, then grinned hugely at the deep crimson that colored his cheeks. “I thought you got over seeing those femmes in their fur. You must be more shy than we thought.”

“It’s not that,” Aramis said. “It’s just...oh, nevermind.”

“C’mon, what is it?” Tigermark inquired as they started looking for a place to make camp. “I promise we won’t laugh, right Joe?”

“Warrior’s honor,” Joe replied solemnly, holding up his right paw.

Aramis eyed the older furs suspiciously, then sighed. “Well, as they were leaving, Sela offered to teach me how to bind someone’s paws properly.” The cat grimaced. “Then she licked my ear. Ick.”

Joe’s paws immediately clamped his muzzle, his shoulders trembling in barely contained mirth.

“Hey! Stop laughing!” Aramis cried indignantly.

“Oh, Aramis,” Tigermark said as he clapped a paw on Aramis’ shoulder. “We still have much to teach you about the world and how it works!”

# # #

Hmm, one and a half water skins full and enough food for three days, with careful rationing, Fallona thought to herself. If Cutter keeps feeding me like this, I might be able to make a break for it in another three days. She picked up the butter knife she managed to swipe earlier, it’s blade honed to a sharp edge through days of diligent sharpening on rocks she found near the tent. Her chances of succeeding were dismal, but better if she died of thirst out in the desert than have her father lose face paying a princess’ ransom to a lowlife and a traitor.

Movement near the tent that held her prisoner caught her attention. She quickly hid her precious supplies under the carpet and knelt down amongst the luxurious pillows that her captor had provided for her. Lowlife bandit or not, he made sure that she was comfortable. Regardless, she still found it insulting, as if Cutter Long were mocking her with such luxury.

The tent flap opened, and the leopard-lion hybrid strode in, wearing nothing more than a simple cloth kilt that ended just above his knees. Fallona nearly gasped. No matter how many times she saw him, she never ceased to be amazed by his beauty. Cutter was tall, lithe, and powerfully built, Herculean muscles perfectly chiseled underneath his well-groomed fur in a way that not even a master sculptor could hope to recreate. His mane gleamed in the sunlight like a field of golden wheat, which he drew back in a simple ponytail. But his eyes were the most enchanting of all. Eyes that shown with a fierce and cunning intelligence of a fur who had outsmarted one of the most powerful kings in the world. He was, in short, a god upon the earth. Fallona was both enchanted and repulsed by this creature known as Cutter Long. She both admired his beauty and intelligence and despised his wicked heart. She was in love with this fur, and she hated him all the more for it.

Cutter approached her and bowed humbly. “Your Highness,” he said with utmost respect, but she couldn’t help but hear a mocking tone behind the façade of fealty.

She stilled her fluttering heart and sniffed indignantly. “Enough of your empty pleasantries, Cutter,” she snapped. “What do you want?”

“I am wounded by your belief that I, one of your humble subjects, would only visit Your Highness when I desire something from you,” Cutter replied. The insincerity was palpable in his tone, and he made no effort to hide it.

“I expect nothing more from traitorous scum like you,” Fallona said harshly, giving him a glare that had sent many nobles scurrying away to change their britches.

Cutter was unperturbed. “Yes, I suppose I haven’t done much to disprove that reputation,” he said with a small smile. “However, I am here to inform you, and nothing more.”

Fallona sighed with exasperation. “Fine,” she growled, “Speak, and be done with it.”

“Of course, Your Highness,” Cutter replied, bowing again to further annoy the princess. “I wish to inform you that Your Highness’ father, His Majesty the King, has dispatched three of his best agents to rescue Your Highness.”

Fallona blinked, surprised that Cutter would tell her this. She quickly recovered and sat up straighter. “Was that ever in any doubt?” she asked, maintaining an indignant air. “Is that all you wish to tell me?”

“Oh no, there is more,” Cutter answered. “As Your Highness well knows, this tent is warded to keep any unwanted guests from ever finding it. Your Highness also knows that I’ve relied on the remote location of this tent to discourage you from any escape attempts. However, it would seem that recent events have forced me to undertake more thorough measures.” Cutter snapped his fingers, and sand erupted through the carpets at the rear of the tent.

Fallona whirled around to see the sand take on the form of a large bear. In its sandy grasp were the supplies that Fallona had painstakingly accumulated over the past week.

“No!” she screamed as the sand bear ripped the water skins apart and ground the food into the sand.

“Actually, I’m rather disappointed—insulted, even—that you planned to leave us, after all that we have done for you to ensure your comfort,” Cutter tsk’ed, shaking his head slowly.

“You bastard!” Fallona snarled, unsheathing her claws and leaping for his throat.

But Cutter was too fast for her. He quickly grabbed her wrists and swept her feet out from under her. Fallona suddenly found herself lying atop a pile of pillows with her paws and legs pinned to the ground. Cutter was kneeling beside her, an almost feral grin on his face.

“Very bold of you, Princess,” he said, “but you have no hope of defeating me by yourself.”

“Let me go!” Fallona screamed, struggling mightily against Cutter’s vise-like grip, but to no avail. She gasped in surprise as she felt the plume of Cutter’s tail gently brush her face.

“Listen Princess, and listen well,” Cutter said softly but with a discernable edge, his nose almost touching hers. “I have more sand golems patrolling the desert around this tent, and there is no way you will be able to escape or have anyone come to rescue you. The only way you’re leaving this tent is when your father pays me your ransom. Otherwise, you’ll just have to be content living here. Princess or not, you’re my prisoner, and nofur ever escapes from Cutter Long. Do we understand each other?”

Fallona’s heart was pounding, part of her in ecstasy over Cutter being so close to her that his scent filled her nostrils, part of her in absolute terror of what he might do to her, and part of her wanting to rip his throat out. She took a deep breath to steady herself and managed a weak nod.

Cutter smiled at the Princess. “Good,” he said, releasing her and standing up. “Now be a good girl and stay put, okay?” He dismissed the sand golem and walked towards the tent flap. “If you’ll excuse me, Your Highness, I have guests that I need to get ready for,” he said over his shoulder, then walked out of the tent.

Fallona sat up and took several deep breaths. Dammit, she thought, now I have his scent all over me. She curled up in the pillows, praying that that brave knights her father sent would save her soon.

# # #

“The sun’s set,” Joe said from the mouth of the cave he and the others had taken shelter in.

“Good,” Aramis said, throwing a dark green cloak around his shoulders and fastening it with a brooch made from emerald set in silver. “I was starting to get bored from sitting around all day.”

“You sure you can handle yourself out there Aramis?” Tigermark asked as he handed the younger feline his katana.

Aramis smiled as he stuffed the sheathed blade in his belt. “I’ve been skulking around places more dangerous than a cult’s camp years before I joined the King’s furs,” he said confidently.

“Maybe, but Cutter is as dangerous as they come,” Joe warned. “He’s been on the King’s Most Wanted list for about ten years now, and we’ve still to catch the bastard.”

“No heroics, Aramis,” Tigermark said sternly. “Just go in, find the princess, inform us and hole up ‘til we get there. Got it?”

“Understood,” Aramis replied solemnly. He adjusted his arcane bag containing his equipment and tested the messenger gem he wore around his neck. Satisfied that it worked, he turned to his teammates. “I’m ready when you guys are,” he said.

“Go,” Joe commanded.

Aramis gave a parting salute and dashed out into the night. Immediately his cloak changed color, blending in with the dark landscape.

He stopped when he caught sight of the glow of campfires in the cultists’ village. He ducked behind a rocky outcropping and knelt down. Pulling out a small, oddly cut gem from his bag, he drew a small circle in the sand and set the gem down in the center. He clasped his paws together and muttered a few words from an ancient language under his breath.

The gem began to glow softly, small rays of light emanating from various facets onto the surface of the circle. Almost all of the rays clustered near the edge of the circle, with only two pointing off in the opposite direction, moving steadily around him.

Joe and Tigermark are on the move already, Aramis noted to himself. Best not to waste any time. He clasped his paws together, this time in prayer, and began to speak in his own language.

“Lord of all Creation,” Aramis said softly, “please grant me the assistance of Your creatures to aid me in my quest. My goal is noble and my intentions are honorable, but I cannot do this alone. Please render whatever aid You see fit. Amen.”

“Someone called?” a voice above him asked. Aramis turned around and saw a raven perched on the rocks behind him.

“Wow, the Big Guy works fast,” Aramis commented.

“Of course,” the raven answered. “Did you expect that ‘ask and you shall receive’ also meant a wait of four to six weeks?”

“Well, just not instantaneous,” Aramis replied. He said a silent “thank you” to his master, then turned around to face the raven. “I was wondering if you knew where Princess Fallona was being held prisoner.”

“Oh, of course I know where Princess Fallona is being held,” the raven said. “I also know all of the magical wards Cutter Long has placed, as well. But before we talk about that...” the raven glanced down at Aramis’ bag, “...you wouldn’t happen to have a few seeds or berries on you, would you?”

Aramis chuckled and reached into his pouch, pulling out a small pawful of seeds and bread crumbs. “Not payment, just a donation,” he said, repeating the jingle of divinely sent helpers everywhere.

“Oh, thank you,” the raven said around beakfuls of crumbs. “This really hits the spot. Food’s been a bit scarce lately.”

“I’ll bet. Now, about the princess?”

“Oh yes, of course,” the raven said as it jumped off into the air. “Follow me!”

Aramis grabbed the sensor gem and placed it in his bag before following the raven. It flew around the village into a very sandy part of the desert about fifteen minutes’ walk away. Finally it landed atop a small dune.

“If you concentrate hard, I’m sure you’ll be able to find the magical aura of the tent’s invisibility ward,” the raven said. “There are just two more things you’ll have to worry about.”

“Which are?” Aramis asked as he buried a beacon stone in the sand. Joe and Tigermark should be able to find this place after I give them the go-ahead, Aramis thought.

“First of all,” the raven began, “Cutter put a nasty ward on the tent itself, so you’re going to have to dispel that if you want to get in. Otherwise you’re in for a shocking experience.”

“Cutter always did have an electrifying personality,” Aramis quipped. “What’s the last thing?”

“Cutter managed to get ahold of several sand golems, and they continually patrol the area here.” The raven pointed to a lone shrub. “As soon as you past that bush there, the golems will find out where you are and pop up from the sand around you. Not a lot of fun.”

“Can they detect small creatures?” Aramis asked.

“You mean smaller than me?” the raven asked. “Probably not; they’re not that smart. Why? What do you have in mind?”

Aramis pulled two bracelets from his bag. Both were carved in the likeness of a small snake biting its own tail and had small rubies where the eyes would be. “Oh, I have a couple things I found in a trade meet up north,” he said with a smile.

“Well, if that’s all you’ll be needing, I’ll be on my way,” the raven said.

“You’ve been a big help, thanks,” Aramis replied.

“You’re welcome,” the raven said, taking to the sky. “It’s been nice working with you, young Aramis,” it called as it disappeared into the night sky.

“Likewise,” Aramis said softly as he put on one of the bracelets. He held the other in his paws and spoke a single word in a forgotten language. The ruby eyes gleamed red and the metal slowly became scales. The small albino snake coiled in Aramis’ paws and gave him a mute and unblinking stare. Aramis concentrated, and found that he could see through the snake’s eyes due to the companion bracelet he wore. He could also see heat and magical sources as well, an added bonus.

“You’re just full of tricks, aren’t you?” he said to the snake. The snake said nothing.

Aramis set the snake down and pulled a small rod out of his bag. He jammed it into the sand and pressed a button on it, causing small spikes to snap into place. If any unexpected visitors show up in its radius, he’ll know.

Now, he said to the snake, go seek the most powerful ward in the local region. The snake slithered away, with Aramis following its progress.

Soon a large, bright object appeared in the snake’s vision, obviously magical. Good, Aramis thought to himself in satisfaction. Now let’s see if there are any chinks in the armor. He had the snake circle the tent, but there wasn’t any way to slide under the tent flaps.

Then an idea came to him. Well, let’s try it, Aramis thought. Snake, can you burrow under the sand? The snake replied by digging into the sand and moving under the tent flap.

Well, that answers that question...

The snake burrowed to the surface and slithered cautiously out from under the rug. Before it was a young lioness, asleep on a pile of pillows.

What luck, Aramis thought, smiling to himself. Okay, Snake, wrap yourself around her wrist and turn back into a bracelet.

The snake complied, and Aramis now had a telepathic connection to the princess.

<Princess Fallona?> Aramis said mentally, trying to rouse her. <Your Highness, please wake up.>

<What...?> the princess said slowly as she woke up from her sleep. Aramis felt a small surge of confusion and panic as she became aware of her situation. <Who are you? And where did this bracelet come from?>

<I am Aramis Dagaz, one of the King’s agents. I’m here to rescue you,> Aramis said. <I’m communicating telepathically to you through the bracelet you’re wearing.>

<My father sent you? Oh thank God you’re here!> a flood of relief washed over Aramis as he felt the princess’ joy at being found.

<Don’t worry, Your Highness, we’ll have you home in no time,> Aramis said. <Are you all right?>

<Yes, now that you’re here,> the princess replied happily.

<Okay, just sit tight and let me know if anything happens,> Aramis instructed. <Aramis out.>

Aramis touched the messenger gem that hung around his neck. “Joe, Tigermark, I’ve found the princess,” he said. “I’ve buried a beacon stone about half a mile away from her prison. Waiting on you, guys.”

<Acknowledged, Aramis,> Joe replied. <We’ll be there in two shakes of a pup’s tail. Hole up ‘til we get there. Joe out.>

“Acknowledged, Joe, Aramis out,” Aramis said. He smiled to himself. "Hopefully the rest of this will go off without a hitch," he said aloud.

“Don’t congratulate yourself just yet Rookie,” a voice said behind him. Aramis spun around and found himself looking up at a powerfully built spotted lion. The hybrid’s claws wrapped themselves around Aramis’ throat so fast that the young cat’s mind didn’t register the movement until after it was too late.

“You’re not the only one who can see magic auras and slip around wards,” the huge feline said with a grin, lifting Aramis up off his feet. “You have to get up mighty early in the morning to outsmart Cutter Long, and I’m a fairly early riser.”


# # #


Tigermark and Joe had been circumventing the cult’s camp in the dark of the desert night. They had been absolutely quiet, stealing quickly through the gullies and arroyos that ran across the Devil’s Garden, homing on the beacon that Aramis had set out earlier. Every few hundred yards or so Tigermark would stop and remove a small gem from his cloak that Aramis had given him earlier, hold it before him, and stare at the dim color it displayed in the dark of the moonless night. Blue for left, yellow for right.

He had just returned the gem to his pocket and returned to their fast trot when he stopped quite suddenly, causing Joe to bump into him from behind.

"What th..." Joe muttered quietly as he rubbed his nose. "What’s the matter, T?" Joe looked at his friend, who was standing stock still, staring at the horizon ahead of them.

Tigermark didn’t respond. He was concentrating on something, holding his breath, eyes staring intently into the darkness, tail still, ears up and forward. His right paw came up slowly, horizontal to the ground, and pumped the air gently three times. He was telling Joe to stand quiet and wait.

A flash of fear coupled with adrenalin had coursed through the base of Tigermark’s brain. Aramis was in trouble. There had been that flash of thought, and then nothing. The crystals they used to communicate with each other would not work unless they were enabled by each user. Tigermark could not call Aramis, the best he could do was leave his crystal enabled and hope Aramis would call him.

That was a problem in itself. As any new inductee to the Realm of The Arcane knew, one could trace a communications crystal’s signal, provided they had one of their own. It was simple tracking, very similar to the homing gems he and Joe were using even now to find the Princess. So for every second they left their crystals enabled, they were that much more likely to find themselves being tracked.

Tigermark held up two fingers of his right paw and wiggled them slightly, then he pointed with his index finger towards the ridge to their right. He then wiggled the index finger vertically, and then pointed to the ridge to their left.

Something’s up, Joe thought. Judging from T’s actions we’re not in transit any more, we’re a reconnaissance in force. He waited quietly until Tigermark turned to look at him, and then raised an eyebrow by way of asking a question. The white tiger shrugged his shoulders and held three fingers up, wiggling them slightly, and then took his other paw and clamped it over the three wiggling fingers.

Aramis is in trouble, Joe thought. He nodded to the tiger while balling his right paw in a fist. Holding his other paw pads up flat, he slammed his fist gently into it, then pointed with the paw that had been a fist towards his ridge to their right. The white tiger nodded slightly. Joe turned and trotted silently up the scarp towards the ridgeline, trusting that Tigermark would likewise be climbing his own ridge.

# # #

Aramis could feel the sharp claws digging into his throat. He was hanging in mid-air, held aloft by the huge dotted lion that was staring at him.

"So, who are you, my young and foolish friend?" the lion rumbled at him. Cutter Long moved his wrist slightly, turning Aramis like a sack of potatoes, looking him over. His scrutiny was quick but thorough. It ended abruptly when he caught sight of the small snake bracelet on Aramis wrist.

"What have we here?" the lion asked with a little more volume and curiosity in his voice. "A magi telepath, eh?" The lion held Aramis at arms length. "Who are you?" he demanded slowly while his other paw reached for the bracelet. Cutter roughly grabbed the bracelet with his free paw, pulling it from Aramis wrist with effort. The paw about Aramis’ throat tightened it’s grip.

"I’m not going to ask you again, youngster..." Cutter paused as Aramis opened his mouth to speak.

"My name," Aramis said with effort, "is Aramis Dagaz."

The paw tightened even more. Aramis could feel the claws puncturing the skin beneath the fur of his neck, drawing blood. "Well, Aramis Dagaz, you’ve just made the last mistake of your short life."

Aramis grinned. "I don’t think so," he said hoarsely. Suddenly gaining strength in his voice, Aramis spoke a single word in the ancient language of the bracelet in Cutter’s free paw.

The bracelet suddenly became white-hot as it flashed brilliantly, disappearing while it set the fur of Cutter Long’s paw on fire. In the lion’s momentarily distracted state Aramis quickly placed his feet against the lion’s chest and pushed with the strength of ten tigers, propelling Cutter backwards as his grip about Aramis’ throat loosened. The result was that Aramis back-flipped in mid air, landing on his feet just out of arm’s reach in front of Cutter, who was staggering backwards while staring at his blazing paw.

There was then a much brighter flash as Cutter encountered his own ward protecting the perimeter around the invisible tent. Thousands of volts of electricity materialized in thin air behind him, arced along his tail, and traveled through his legs to the ground. The dotted lion screamed in pain and rage as all his muscles contracted and contorted, throwing his body to the sand, stunned, partially paralyzed. His flaming paw buried itself in the sand, extinguishing the fire.

"You worthless houscat," Cutter roared into the dust. "Run while you can. I will find you, and when I do I will have no mercy." Cutter pushed himself up on his good paw, rising unsteadily to his knees. He stared at Aramis, a horifying sneer on his muzzle as an eerie blue light coalesced about his head.

"Run far, Aramis Dagaz. When next we meet I will surely have your head!" The blue haze surrounding Cutter’s head suddenly exploded outward, knocking Aramis to the sand. Aramis rolled with the impact of the telekinetic assault, rising to his feet once again with his katana in his paws.

Cutter was struggling to his feet, staggerinig from the after-effects of his electrocution. He shook his mighty head savagely for a moment, cursing his arcane weakness at the hands of the ward’s discharge. He bellowed a string of sounds that were incomprehensible to Aramis, and suddenly the sand beneath their feet quaked.

Aramis glanced about his position quickly as sand erupted from half a dozen different places around them. Sand golems began to rise from below the surface, emitting hideous noises as their paws slowly rose towards Aramis like accusatory talons. Sensing his odds changing in a very fluid environment, Aramis smiled calmly and bowed slightly towards the enraged lion who was even now trying to stagger towards him, arms and claws reaching again for his throat.

"We will meet again, Cutter," Aramis said pleasantly. "Very soon."

With that Aramis wrapped himself in his cloak and held his katana aloft in his right paw. Bringing the blade down swiftly, he suddenly disappeared. It wasn’t a complex spell, Cutter would have easily seen through it had his head not been full of electrical charge at that moment. It was enough to fool the golems though, they started to wander about aimlessly looking for him while Aramis stole away towards the cult camp, looking for his friends.

# # #

Joe ran hunched over, trying to hug the terrain below the ridgeline and present as small a target as possible. He had been trying to move across the draw towards the ridge Tigermark was working along. Opposite him he could see three figures moving slowly, a pair trailing Tigermark by about twenty yards on the opposite ridgeline. He couldn’t risk calling to his friend, he had become aware of at least one fur trailing him as well. He couldn’t see the tracker behind him in the dark, but he knew that he was there. The enemy had the wind working for him, whoever he was, as he was downwind from Joe. There was no scent for Joe to work with. He wasn’t a very good tracker, this fur behind him. He seemed to make little effort to conceal himself, making foolish noises with his clothing and stepping on the occasional twig of sage as he moved. So far Joe had been able to identify only one group of footstep sounds behind him.

Joe knew he would have to get rid of this fur trailing him before he could come to Tigermark’s aid. Bringing a third enemy on behind him while he tried to take on two ahead would be foolish. He couldn’t understand why his friend seemed to be unaware of the fact that he was being followed, this uncertainty only served to drive Joe harder and faster into the draw, where he could find some cover and take out the fur trailing him.

Some large clumps of sage served well enough. Joe carefully picked his way over stones in the wash at the bottom of the draw, hopping over the sandy or dusty areas, hiding his tracks. Attaining the sage in a roundabout manner, he crouched in the dark and drew his tanto. Joe waited silently, holding his breath.

Within a minute or so a smallish, dark colored fur came into view. He was hunched over, studying the trail Joe had tried to disguise so well. As Joe’s enemy slowly passed by the sage clump the tracker’s head suddenly jerked up and towards him. Their eyes locked.

Joe lunged at him, the tanto free and swinging towards his victims throat. As Joe’s left arm closed around his target’s upper torso alarms went off in his head, causing him to make a critical, half-second pause in his attack. It was all the tracker needed.

As Joe’s right paw guided the tanto towards the tracker’s throat his aim was suddenly deflected by an armored arm blocking the thrust. The tracker half turned to the left as Joe’s left arm closed tightly about his torso. But the tracker wasn’t a male. The alarms in Joe’s head persisted. This tracker wore form-fitting armor which disguised the form of the fur within, but Joe’s nose told him that he knew this fur, and knew her to be female.

The tracker froze. Even with the hesitation and resultant deflection, the razor edge of Joe’s tanto had bored in to it’s target and was now resting gently against the fur of her jaw, just below her right ear. The barest twitch of the knife would lay her throat open from her jaw to her shoulder. She caught and held her breath, not resisting the vise-like grip of the coyote who held her. Their noses were less than an inch apart, his breath was warm on her muzzle. Her green eyes stared calmly into his gray eyes, waiting.

Joe could hear the beating of her heart. He slowly lowered his right paw, bringing the tanto down to his side. He released the tracker and stepped back, drawing a breath and then exhaling slowly.


# # #

The six of them sat around a small campfire in the cave the King’s Special Operations Group members called "home". They were guarded by various wards that Aramis had put in place around their camp, no one could approach without their knowing about it and being ready. As a result the crew was fairly relaxed. Aramis was relating his encounter with Cutter Long to the eager ears of Tigermark and their three visitors.

Demi looked absolutely astonishing in her leather field armor. Designed to protect her against small weapons such as throwinig darts and tantos while affording her maximum flexibility and maneuverability in a fight, it was tailored and fitted, glossy black, and served to highlight her alreaday trim and athletic frame. Her curled tail hovered behind her head, somehow accentuating the smile on her face and the mirth in her blue eyes. She watched Aramis carefully as he spoke.

Sitting shoulder to shoulder with her was Cindy, Joe’s intended target. The Siamese had somehow, in her travels, come by armor issued by the Imperial Armory. Joe was certain there was a story behind that aquisition, the flexible yet virtually indestructible armor was certainly not for sale anywhere. Cindy’s figure was just barely contained by the armor, parts of her seemed to be overflowing it in a most impressive manner. Her greyish tan fur shone softly in the firelight, her brown hair seemed to fade into the background of the dark cave. Every now and then her green eyes would steal a quick glance at Joe.

Next to Aramis sat Sela, dressed in the dark, heavy cotton garments of a huntress. The clothing looked out of place in the desert, but Sela looked great in it none the less. A bit smaller and thinner than the other two ladies, the gray fox was a bit less demonstrative about her appearance as compared to her companions, but the one thing they all saw was the katana she carried and the finely tooled leather sheath it now rested in. Sela was quiet, smiling cautiously and nodding occasionally, but contributing very little to the conversation.

Tigermark sat between the two couples, listening carefully to Aramis’ dialog and asking an occasional question. It was a debrief, as far as Tigermark was concerned. They would get around to the ladies’ story shortly, for now it was enough to know that they were apparently warrior femmes and seemed to have thrown in with the furs from Special Operations.

Joe leaned back against the wall of the cave, about ten feet back from the small fire. He wasn’t sure what to make of the mercenaries that seemed to have joined their cause, but they seemed safe enough. Joe put a smile on his muzzle as he tried to relax, studying the skunk, the fox, and the feline in turn. Failing to achieve a relaxed state by observing the furs sharing his curreent quarters, he cursed quietly to himself and closed his eyes. Immediately his mind leapt to the one thing he didn’t want to think about. All these worlds are yours, the voice had said, except one. You cannot go back.

Joe thought briefly about the whiskey on board the beast, and cursed his lack of foresight silently. He shifted his position on the ground slightly, giving his tail a bit more room, and attempted to clear his mind by concentrating on the one thing that mattered to him more than anything, the one thing he missed most of all on this God-forsaken planet.

He must have dozed a bit, for the next thing he knew Tigermark was gently prodding his shoulder. He opened his eyes to observe the fire well down, almost out, in the little fire pit. In the almost complete darkness he could detect the forms of sleeping furs arranged around the fire pit, but couldn’t see who was who. He did recognize the scent and touch of his friend, however, and didn’t need to ask what it was about.

"My turn?" he asked, stretching a bit before rising stiffly.

"Yeah," Tigermark mumbled sleepily, seating himself immediately adjacent to where Joe had been dozing. "All’s been quiet. It’ll be dawn in about two hours." The white tiger yawned quietly.

Joe fetched a clump of sagebrush from the pile they had made earlier and carried it to the fire pit. Tossing it in, he turned to ask his friend a question. In the light of the new fuel burning he could see that Tigermark’s eyes were already closed.

"G’nite, Tiger," Joe muttered under his breath.


# # #


(2 June 2004)

Joe turned and walked past the fire to take up a position in the shadows at the cave’s mouth. All seemed quiet as he peered out, save for the occasional sounds of some passing nocturnal desert critter as it scurried or flew past. As the sky began to gradually lighten in the east, Joe contemplated the situation they found themselves in. Cutter still had the Princess, and had very nearly had Aramis. There were three lovely lady mercenaries, whose loyalties Joe didn’t trust, now joining in with them, and so far they hadn’t a clue as to exactly how they were going to get the Princess back.

Joe sighed silently to himself. Their erstwhile companions were as lovely as could be, but they only served to remind him of how much he missed his lovely fox bride. He’d almost lost track of how long they’d been together, but she just seemed to get more beautiful every day. He was determined to get done with this business and head home to her as soon as possible.

He caught his tail making an impatient wave and stilled it, not wanting any motion to give away his position. As the light increased, and the last few desert creatures made their way to their burrows, Joe thought again of Cutter Long. He hadn’t been nearly so adept with magic the last time they’d crossed paths. They had heard he’d been working for the Archmage, so maybe he picked up some of the scraps after the evil wizard’s defeat. They hadn’t seen him in that battle, but he would have certainly been among those who scavenged the ruined Keep after the explosion that destroyed it.

The sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon as Joe bowed his head and said a prayer of thanks for another dawn, and for their safety and success. Just as he said “Amen,” he heard a slight sound behind him. His left ear rotated toward the sound, alerting whoever approached that he knew they were there.

“Nice morning, not a cloud to be seen,” came the low voice of Tigermark as he stepped up beside his friend.

“Thought you were asleep, mi amigo,” Joe said without turning around.

“Nah, you know us felines, we only catnap. Been a real quiet night. I would’ve expected Cutter to try something. He doesn’t take defeat and humiliation well,” the tiger said quietly.

“Maybe he doesn’t have any more tricks to pull. He wasn’t that strong in magic when we last fought him. I think maybe he borrowed some stuff from his last boss,” Joe said, still scanning the desert around their hidden camp.

“Could be. He couldn’t do telekinetic attacks, last time I heard. We’d best watch our step from here on out. Especially Aramis, Cutter’ll go after him big time from now on,” Tigermark said.

“Yep, so what else is new? We always have to watch our step where the Dotted Lion’s concerned,” Joe paused a few seconds, and then said, “Hey, let’s get breakfast started. Bet our guests are hungry.”

“I would bet on it. Uh, Joe?” Tigermark said, looking uncharacteristically uncomfortable.

“What is it, compadre?” Joe said in reply.

“If our trio of friends in there turn out to be sincere in joining our side in this, I don’t want to report on their involvement in the kidnapping. If we report them, even with a positive recommendation for helping us, King Phillip would put a price on their lovely heads just on principle,” Tigermark said in a low voice.

“They were involved, you want to let them walk?” Joe said, more to confirm Tigermark’s intent than to question his action.

“I’m not all that sure they were involved. From what I’ve gathered in their talking, they were left to watch the cultists when Cutter and the band of orc mercenaries he hired left. Apparently he never told them exactly what his money-making scheme was, and when he returned with the Princess, he put them out as ambush bait.”

“That was the impression I got, too. They said they hadn’t seen the orcs for several days, wonder what happened to them?” Joe mused.

“I have a suspicion, but I’ll wait until after breakfast to check it out,” Tigermark said.

“Did someone say breakfast?” a female voice said from back in the cave.

The pair turned to see a delightfully disheveled Demi making her way toward them rubbing sleep from her eyes. The sight reminded the two older warriors just how young the skunk and her companions were.

“Yep, if Aramis is awake, we can get started with it,” Joe said, “I’ll go wake him.”

“Fine, I’ll watch the door,” Tigermark replied.

Joe headed back into the cave. Demi started to follow him, but held back a moment.

“Tiger, thank you,” she said simply.

“What for?” the tiger replied as he scanned the horizon.

She stepped up close to him, and kissed him lightly on the side of the muzzle, saying, “I heard what you said. We are sincere. You’ve shown us twice the compassion, care, and character that Cutter has ever shown. Thank you for giving us a chance to correct a bad mistake.”

“You’re welcome. Forgiveness is what a Christian is supposed to show, as well as compassion,” Tigermark said, turning back to take up his sentry duty.

Demi gave him a slight smile, said, “You do your Lord proud,” and turned and went back into the cave. Tigermark looked after her, sighed, and decided to go back to the group. The heat and the wards on the cave would keep away any unwelcome visitors, so he felt he could go eat in peace.

Inside the cave, Aramis had opened their “Spare Pocket,” the magical space they used to carry their armor and extra supplies. Bread, cheese, eggs, and water had been laid out. Aramis was toasting some of the bread by the fire, as the other two ladies sat blinking and stretching. Joe was cutting some small slabs of meat to roast with their meal, and Demi had walked over to see if she could help him. It made for a nice, peaceful scene, but Tigermark was sure the day would be far from peaceful.

As they went about the tasks of preparing their meal, Tigermark said, “Well ladies, tell us how three lovely femme’s like you found yourself in the mercenary business.”

Demi looked up from her work and said, “Not much to tell, really. I left home at 16, looking for adventure. I was inducted into the Farwest Kingdom’s militia and given training and my armor and the broadsword I carry. When the force was disbanded, I was out of work. I headed this direction because more furs live here, so I figured I’d find more work. Met Cindy a couple of years ago, and Sela shortly after that, and we’ve been working together ever since. Mostly small-time stuff. Cutter was supposed to be our first big payoff.”

Cindy stretched again and spoke next, saying, “I was in a traveling show as an acrobat, but I got tired of nobody appreciating that, and only wanting to paw on me. I learned to use my acrobat’s skill and speed, along with these,” she indicated the twin fighting knives of about 24 inches in length she wore at her waist, “to defend myself, and started out to make my living with them. I actually won my armor on a bet. An Imperial Guard bet me I couldn’t eat a banana without using my paws. He put it on the ground and expected me to grovel in the dirt after it. Imagine his surprise when I did a pawstand and brought my feet over my head, picked up the banana, and fed it to myself. He dropped his armor and stumbled away, muttering to himself about girls folding in half. I think I met Demi about 3 months after that.”

Everyone now looked at Sela, who had just finished a long, languorous standing stretch. She blinked back at them and said, “What?”

The three males laughed lightly, as Demi and Cindy said together, “Oh no, you’ve got to tell your part, too!”

“Okay, okay. Well, I was raised as a Huntress up in the Northern Kingdom, where my clan lived and hunted. We were traveling to a new hunting range, and had stopped for the day. I went to get water, and when I returned, my entire clan had been killed by a great, old, striped Wyrm. The dragon was still there, as my clan had mortally wounded the beast. I was only 15 then. I thought I was a goner, too, but the old dragon just said she was too old and too hurt to kill anymore. It took her two days to die, and I was grieving too much to leave, so we talked. Seems she was just resting nearby when my clan discovered her. They attacked out of fear, and she defended herself. She had a youngling she sent away, and she told me that one day, I would see him. She asked me to spare him then, as she had spared me. The katana I carry is from what was left of her treasure hoard. She was too old and sick to hold it, and a younger Wyrm had driven her out. I lived in that area, alone, until I saw Demi and Cindy traveling through. I was tired of being alone, so I joined up with them. Since then I’ve learned many things. Like how to tie knots.” She said this last with a wink at Aramis, who blushed brightly beneath his fur.

Breakfast was now ready, and the group sat and ate, making small talk and listening as Tigermark, Joe, and Aramis told briefly about themselves. Cindy seemed a bit disappointed to find out Joe was happily married.

As they began to clean up, Demi said, “That was really good! What kind of eggs and meat were those?”

“We get them from a fur named Samuel Iam,” Tigermark said, “The eggs are from a brightly colored bird called a Preene, after what it spends most of its time doing. The meat was a special blend of meat, salt, spices and water, pressed together and pre-cooked. We call it Special Purpose All Meat.”

Demi got the line of thought first and burst out laughing, as did Joe. Cindy next got it and started to laugh. Aramis and Sela looked perplexed, and finally Sela said, “What’s so funny?”

“Don’t you get it?” Tigermark said with a wry grin.

Both Sela and Aramis continued to look puzzled. Finally Demi couldn’t take it anymore.

“Don’t you see?” she giggled, “We just had a breakfast of . . . Preene eggs and Spam!”

“Provided,” Joe said, laughing also, “by Sam Iam!”

Sela and Aramis looked at each other in astonishment, and then burst out laughing also.

Tigermark finally looked up and said, “Can we scene shift for a few, until we get our composure back?”

“Sure thing,” said the Author, “We’ll come back to you shortly.”

# # #

The Princess opened her eyes and slowly stretched, blinking in the early morning light. She thought about last night’s occurrences as she lay there on the pillows in her canvas prison. She had been overjoyed when the voice of Aramis Dagaz had sounded in her head, but then the noise and shouting from just beyond the outer ward, coming simultaneously with the cutoff of that voice, had terrified her. The bright flash from the ward barrier as she peeked through a gap in the tent flap had almost blinded her. She had to stifle a scream when the bracelet on her wrist had turned into a pale snake and slithered into the sand beside her cushions. A few moments later, she had peeked out to see the Dotted Lion staggering unsteadily to his tent a short distance from hers. Part of her was concerned, but a larger part smiled smugly. The noble knights who’d come to rescue her were giving Cutter a bad time. Her hopes rose that she might be back with her father soon.

Suddenly, the tent flap was pulled roughly open and Cutter Long stepped in to the tent. He was still rather unkept, and Princess Fallona could smell the odor of scorched fur and electrical discharge as it still clung to him.

“Good morning, Cutter, Sleep well?” the Princess said as she smiled sweetly.

“Don’t even go there, your Highness. I’m in no mood.” The Dotted Lion said shortly, “I know you communicated with that housecat I trifled with last night. I thought that perhaps it had kindled some hope of escape before your ransom is paid. I’m here to dash those hopes, and show you what happens to those who cross the Dotted Lion.”

Princess Fallona barely held a giggle at the unintentional pun. Cutter just looked cross and pulled out a large blue crystal. He sat down cross-legged and put the crystal in front of him.

“Don’t think of trying anything funny, Princess,” Cutter said, “The golems and wards are still very much in place. Look into the crystal with me, and behold what happens to those who oppose me.”

The Princess looked on as the crystal began to glow.

# # #

The group had somewhat regained their composure and the Author said, “May we go on now?”

Tigermark nodded, smiling broadly. The rest of the group resumed cleaning up the refuse from the meal, and soon had everything packed up and put back in the Spare Pocket.

Demi looked herself over and said, “You wouldn’t happen to have a bathtub and lots of hot water in that thing, would you?”

“Nope,” Joe said, “water’s too precious a commodity out here for that. Tell you what, though, I saw a side chamber over there that looked like it had a nice, clean patch of powdery sand. Go in there, strip down and rub the sand through your fur vigorously. It cleans the fur, gets any parasites out, and fluffs the fur out so you’ll stay cooler.”

The three femmes looked at him uncertainly.

“Desert survival 101. Go on, it works. We’ll stay out here and give you complete privacy,” Tigermark said.

The three giggled and Demi said, “Like you haven’t seen it all before? Okay we’ll try it.” With that, the ladies left the main chamber for a small chamber opposite the cave entrance. Soon Tigermark could hear the sounds of giggling and conversation as the ladies began to clean themselves.

“Sounds like a sorority gone somehow, terribly wrong,” Aramis said as he closed the Spare Pocket. Joe grinned and Tigermark shook his head as they began to extinguish the fire and spread the coals. Suddenly he stood straight up, a distant look in his eyes.

“Someone just activated a powerful charm nearby,” the feline said. Joe and Tigermark looked at each other, and then made their weapons ready.

Suddenly all Hell broke loose in the other chamber. The sounds of shouts, hisses, and yips were followed by a loud thud. The Special Operations furs moved toward the entrance to the chamber, only to be met by live steel from Cindy and Sela. Tigermark could see that Demi was lying face down on the sand, not moving. He felt his rage rise at the thought that these two had turned on Demi and now them as well, but then he noticed their eyes. Each had a glassy expression, with a bluish glow in their eyes. The blue glowing crystal Cindy was wearing on a necklace matched it, and Sela had a matching one in a ring. The ladies, still stark naked from their sand bath, attacked with vigor as the males defended themselves and tried not to hurt them. The result was that all three ended up being driven back against the far wall.

“Aramis, can you do anything?” Tigermark asked as he parried a thrust from Sela’s katana. With the limited room, Joe was having a pawful deflecting the flashing knives that Cindy wielded. She was managing to keep both Aramis and Joe busy. The males could’ve ended the fight at any time, but they didn’t want to kill or harm the girls.

“Can’t get to a wand! Let-Ugh!- me try something!” the young feline shouted. He said a word, unfathomable to Joe and Tigermark, and it seemed as though the light in the cave dimmed. The femme’s attacks became less focused and quick, but they still persisted. As they pressed the three in even closer, Tigermark said a prayer.

“Dear Lord, You have led these two into my care. Give me the strength and power needed to free them from their enchantment and not cause them any harm. Thank you.”

The prayer had been short, to the point, and desperate. If something didn’t happen soon, they would be forced to kill or be killed. Joe glanced sideways at his old friend and was surprised to see the tiger’s eyes suddenly glow bright green. Their two attackers stopped short, their paws dropping to their sides. There was a bright flash as the blue crystals they wore shattered with a loud pop.

The femme’s weapons dropped from their paws as they fell to the sandy floor of the cave. Joe and Aramis both looked fully at Tigermark, whose eyes were still glowing bright green.

“Here’s a calling card from me and my Boss, Cutter,” they heard him mumble, and then the glow disappeared.

# # #

Cutter roared in pain as the crystal in his paws seemed to implode. Princess Fallona had witnessed the terrible battle between who she thought were Cutter’s hired female mercenaries and furs she assumed were her would-be rescuers.

Those are my brave knights? she thought to herself, Well, beggars can’t be choosers.

She also realized that Cutter had been mind controlling the femmes with the crystal that now lay in shards on his lap. She smiled at him, realizing it probably meant that the rescue party had just gotten bigger.

“Well, you were right. That was certainly an interesting show. What do you do for an encore, spontaneously combust?”

Cutter raised a paw to backhand her for the dig, but realized it was his burned paw and settled for a final glare as he stood and strode from the tent. The princess giggled to herself at the stream of curses the Dotted Lion left in his wake.

# # #

Tigermark gently checked Demi’s still form for damage as the other’s looked on. Cindy and Sela were on the verge of tears as they waited to see if they’d killed their friend and leader.

He turned her head slowly to the side after making sure there were no neck injuries. He checked for a pulse and was relieved to find one. Her breathing was slow, but steady. He noted a large lump just above her left ear, pushing the hair up. With practiced, strong, sure paws he checked the rest of her over for broken bones or cut wounds. Satisfied that all they’d done was knock her out, he breathed a sigh of relief.

“She’ll be okay, just a bump on the head, and probably a huge headache,” Tigermark said with a smile. The rest of the group let out breath they’d been holding and murmured their relief. Joe and Aramis both looked Heavenward and said “Thank you.”

Then Demi said, “I’ll lay here all day if you’ll keep working on my back like that.”

Tigermark grinned and smacked her lightly on the rump, saying, “Nope, naptime’s over. Get up and put some clothes on, young lady!”

The skunk looked up at him a little groggily, but managed to sit up and get to her feet. The trio got dressed as Aramis picked up the odd earring Demi had previously worn. It too had pieces of shattered crystal in it.

“Why wasn’t Demi put under Cutter’s control, too?” he asked.

“Uh, well,” the skunkette said as she finished buckling the leggings of her armor, “I hadn’t put that one back on after Tiger took it. I got dressed as soon as we got back to the Sanders’ camp, and I just never seemed to have time to put it back in my bellybutton.”

She turned and looked out at the readers, saying, “Well of course that’s where he took it from! What’d you think, you bunch of furverts!”

Tigermark gave a wry grin and said, “Good thing you didn’t, or Cutter would have had control of you, too.”

Cindy now hissed out, “That good for nothing cat! He gave us those pieces of jewelry! ‘A nice down payment for your services’ he said. If I get my paws on him—.”

“You’ll stay clear and let us handle him. He’s a dangerous sort, with or without magic, understand?” Joe said pointedly, a growl low in his throat.

Cindy and the other two nodded, a little too meekly for the males to believe.

Tigermark sighed and said, “Well, it reminds us to be on our guard. Joe, is the Beast up to a short jaunt?”

“Should be, if he hasn’t drooled himself to death,” Joe said with a wink, “Where you got in mind?”

“About five klicks north of here. I saw something up that way while I was on door guard earlier that I want to check out before we move on to Cutter himself,” Tigermark said.

The group settled their weapons in their respective places and left the cave, with Aramis putting a holding ward on it in case they had to use it again. A short walk later found them at the cooking cross. A small band of skinny, scraggly, naked furs, mixed male and female, were taking down the sun-cooked carcasses and hanging a new batch out. The Bowtie Beast was looking on hungrily, so as soon as they arrived Joe pulled a ration pellet as large as a 5-gallon bucket out from its storage spot and fed it to the Beast. Happily munching away, the Beast set out on the course Tigermark indicated as soon as all were seated.

The conversation was sparse as the heat of the day built, with Aramis again doing his “Are-we-there-yet?” routine. Soon they could see what Tigermark had spotted earlier. Circling in the sky were a very large number of vultures. As they closed with the spot the birds were concentrating on, the stench of death filled their nostrils.

Coming over a small rise, the Special Operations Group, plus three, found the source of the odor and scavenger gathering. At least two dozen bodies lay about in various twisted positions. The sand was blackened in several spots, and several of the bodies had scorched places showing.

The rest of the group turned to look at Tigermark as he stood, bowed his head, and said, “Lord, may their souls rest in peace.”

They had found the orc mercenaries.


# # #


(9 January 2005)

Cutter’s visits to the tent were beginning to lose their intimidating effect on the Princess. In fact, Fallona was starting to look forward to seeing the Spotted Lion enter past the tent flap, to see what new insults and injuries her stalwart champions had inflicted upon him this time. Their recent victories over the supposedly most wanted fur in Alteria gave her new hope, that Cutter Long was not invincible and will fall before the might of her father, the King.

Thus heartened and feeling bold, Fallona smiled smugly as the target of her knights’ efforts entered the tent for the second time that day.

“Well, good morrow, Master Long,” Fallona said sweetly. “Has something gone awry again? And twice before midday as well.” She placed a paw over her heart as she feigned a stricken look. “Dear me, but could the great Cutter Long be losing his touch?”

The Princess’s barb failed to elicit a reaction from the Spotted Lion’s face, but behind him his tail betrayed his anger and frustration. Instead of lashing out at her like he did earlier that morning, however, he coolly reached into his belt pouch and removed a small sphere, one half crafted from ruby and the other made of expertly cut diamond.

“Your highness, I must commend your father’s choice of agents,” he said as he idly tossed the jeweled sphere up and down in his paw. “Your beloved pets have made my life very difficult in the past two days, destroying several rare and very expensive magical artifacts, inflicting much injury to myself, and causing three of my mercenaries to defect and aid them in their quest. Very impressive. Very impressive, indeed.”

Fallona’s smirk grew and even took on an air of arrogance. “It would seem that your little venture has failed before the King’s might yet again. You might as well cut your losses and give yourself up, as there is little escape from the long reach of the Throne and its courageous warriors.”

Cutter angrily snatched the sphere out of the air as it descended from its upward flight. His eyes locked with the Princess’s, giving her a glare so full of malice that Fallona felt a sudden, cold stab of fear deep in her heart. For a brief, terrifying moment, she feared what the Spotted Lion would do to her, but out of sheer will she managed to keep her composure.

“Princess,” Cutter said darkly, his voice calm but capable of giving even a prince of Hell pause, “even though your would-be rescuers have foiled my plans here, if you think that my designs for your little kingdom are ruined, you are dead wrong.” He took a single menacing step forward, causing Fallona to involuntarily shrink back. “Your father and his kingdom shall suffer greatly, and you will be a part of their downfall, willingly or not.”

Cutter threw the sphere at Fallona, hitting her square in the chest and splitting the sphere open. Long, angry tendrils of arcane energy leapt out of the sphere and wrapped themselves around her, encircling her arms, legs, neck, and torso. Fallona opened her mouth to scream but the powerful magic penetrated deep into her muscles, leaving her paralyzed. A sudden rush of vertigo overwhelmed her as she felt herself being lifted bodily off the ground and drawn forcibly into the sphere. Faster, faster she tumbled into the maelstrom until finally she lost consciousness.

Cutter picked up the sphere that now held the daughter of his enemy prisoner within its hollow confines. “It is not over yet, Princess,” he said softly, “not by a long shot.”


The stench of burned hair and charred flesh was so strong it made Joe’s eyes water. Even holding a damp cloth over his sensitive nose didn’t help at all. If the foul reek was affecting Sela as well, she didn’t show it. Joe was amazed that the young Huntress was able to smell anything as she picked through the carnage looking for clues regarding the orcs’ messy demise. Tigermark carefully searched the bodies for important documents of any kind while Aramis scanned the area for any lingering magical auras. Joe remained on the Beast keeping a lookout for trouble while his comrades worked. Demi watched the desert for movement as well, keeping her tail tightly pressed against her nose to ward off the stench. Joe looked over his shoulder at Cindy. Off all the furs present, the Siamese appeared not to be handling the situation well. She seemed to shrink inside her armor, her arms wrapped around her torso as if trying to support herself. Her skin looked a bit pale underneath her fur and she made a soft, ragged purring noise in an obvious attempt to comfort herself. Joe immediately recognized what Cindy was going through, having seen it in countless furs and even experiencing it himself a few times.

“Cindy, are you all right?” he asked, his voice sounding a little funny due to holding his nose. Cindy made no response, her eyes tightly closed and her ears flat against her head. Joe twisted around in his seat and snapped his fingers in front of her face. “Cindy!” he said, more forcibly this time.

Cindy’s eyes snapped open as she broke out of her trance. “W-w-what?” she stammered, a confused and sickly look creeping into her expression as she started becoming more aware of her gruesome surroundings.

Joe reached out and gently grabbed her chin. Her skin was cold and clammy to the touch. “Look at me,” he said firmly, directing her face at his. “Are you all right?” he asked again.

Cindy closed her eyes and shook her head in his grasp. “I’m sorry,” she said slowly, “but the smell and sight of d—” her voice caught in her throat momentarily as she swallowed, “—of dead bodies makes me ill.”

Joe adjusted his position so he was facing Cindy and pulled her closer to him, leaning her head upon his shoulder and gently massaging her scalp. Soon Cindy’s labored breathing eased and the purring increased, this time in a much more relaxed manner.

“Feeling better?” Joe asked after a few minutes.

“Yes, much,” Cindy replied in a stronger voice. Her purring grew louder as she felt the nausea fade away. “My God, you’re amazing with your paws,” she said dreamily.

“Well, I am a father of three, and I deal with sick pups more often than you can imagine,” Joe said, neatly side-stepping the Siamese’s remark. “Most of the time the problem is imagined, so a fatherly pat on the head is usually enough to make things better. That and it keeps a mother-to-be with morning sickness from ripping your tail off,” he added, causing Cindy to laugh.

“Some mercenary I am, afraid of a few corpses,” she said ruefully. “It doesn’t bother me during a fight, it really doesn’t, but after it’s over, it makes me sick to my stomach.” She sighed and shook her head. “I bet I seem like a poor excuse for a fighter to you now.”

“Nope, just another kit that needs some fatherly attention,” Joe chuckled. “Don’t feel bad, though. Lots of warriors, both young and old, have trouble getting accustomed to death and decay. Actually, if more people felt the same way as you, perhaps I’d be back with my wife and pups right now,” Joe said.

Cindy smiled forlornly into Joe’s shoulder. She had met many males throughout her life, some nicer and better mannered than others, but in her line of work as a circus performer and later a mercenary she had never met anyone as kind and compassionate (and ruggedly handsome to boot, she noted with no small amount of satisfaction) as the coyote sitting with her now, let alone three of them. Demi had told her and Sela about Tigermark’s decision not to turn them over to the authorities for their involvement in the Princess’s kidnapping, and Aramis was much more of a gentlefur than most males his age. Just her luck that all of them had significant others waiting for them at their respective homes.

Well, as much as she was attracted to this strong and kind male, what Providence put together, she certainly wasn’t going to get in the middle of, or so she had read in a book somewhere long ago.

Suddenly her smile grew as a thought crept into her mind. “Joe,” she said, a note of mischievousness in voice, “there’s something I’d like you to do for me.”

Joe was skeptical, but he leaned in anyway when Cindy beckoned him closer. His eyes widened in amazement as the Siamese whispered in his ear.

“I’m surprised that someone like you would know of such a thing,” he said as he drew back.

Cindy smiled impishly as she looked him in the eyes. “Soy más que me parezco ser, José,” she said smugly. “Consider it a gift for your lovely wife.”

Now it was Joe’s turn to smile broadly. “I’m sure she’ll be most appreciative. Thank you.” He looked over to his comrades, who were now walking back towards the Beast. “Looks like our friends have finished their search. Let’s see what they’ve found out.”

Joe dismounted and approached his friends. “Well, find anything?”

“Very little,” Tigermark replied, “but I think we found enough.”

Joe nodded. “Okay, first, do we know what the hell happened here?”

Sela crossed her arms casually. “From what I’ve found, these orcs were fighting a very large, fire-breathing creature,” she said in a neutral tone of voice. “The creature’s footprints are all over the place and there the burn marks seemed to have originated from one point.”

“A dragon?” Joe asked.

“No, the footprints don’t match,” the Huntress replied. “I’m guessing some smaller lizard-like creature, but dangerous nevertheless.”

“There are a few magical auras, but very faint. Fire-breathing is mostly a biological reaction, so Sela’s theory is feasible,” Aramis concurred.

Joe nodded. “That explains how, but now why?” He looked at Tigermark.

“I don’t know about why, but I did find out about our friends here,” the white tiger said. “I managed to find the commander’s body, or what’s left of it, and we are without a doubt dealing with the late orc mercenaries hired by our old friend Cutter Long.” He held out his paw and displayed a gold coin that obviously wasn’t from this kingdom. “I found several of these in almost everyone’s belt pouch. Cutter probably paid these guys with this,” he explained as Joe took the coin and examined it closely.

“I took a close look at the coins as well,” Aramis chimed in, “and I can say with certainty that these coins didn’t come from any countries currently on our ‘bad guy’ list.”

“What about our allies?” Tigermark asked.

“I’ve lived in most of those countries at one point or another and my dad is an avid coin collector. I haven’t seen a coin like that before.”

Joe was strangely quiet, a look of intense concentration on his face. On the face of the coin was an embossed image of a mountain with a waterfall cascading down the middle and the rising sun at its back. He knew he had seen a similar symbol somewhere before, long ago when he was still a pup. Memories of sitting on his grandfather’s knee at night began to surface, of tales of intrepid explorers from the Southern Kingdom braving the dangers of the then-unclaimed Western deserts in search of treasure.

Then it all came back to him. “Y como viajamos interior, vinimos sobre una sociedad que vivió debajo de la tierra, con los pasillos hechos del oro, de los guijarros tallados de diamante, y de las lanzas forjadas de la plata...” he said softly, recalling the words passed down through the generations of his family.

Tigermark and Aramis immediately halted their debate over the coin’s origin and turned their attention on Joe. “What was that?” Tigermark asked.

Joe blinked out his reverie. “I think I know where this coin came from,” he said. He pointed out the mountain symbol on the coin to his compatriots. “I’ve seen this symbol and these characters before in my granddad’s old journals. He also used to tell me stories about an ancient empire that allegedly built underground cities out of gold and gems. These stories were like the family heritage or something like that.”

“Do you mean the Underground Empire?” Demi asked.

Tigermark gave the skunkette a quizzical look. “What’s the Underground Empire?”

Now it was Demi’s turn to look surprised. “You mean you haven’t heard? It’s supposedly a mighty nation that ruled this land long before Alteria was founded. Just about every thief, treasure hunter, pirate, mercenary, and other unsavory types looking for a quick pile of gold knows about this.”

“Oh! You mean the Ancients!” Aramis exclaimed, recognition lighting up in his eyes. “They are legendary among mages, too. Supposedly their knowledge of magic was so great, their power was far beyond that of even the most powerful spellcasters today.”

As soon as the words left Aramis’s mouth, the party grew suddenly quiet. Everyone glanced at each other as pieces started falling in place and they realized the dangers the implications presented.

Tigermark was the first to break the tense silence. “So, if Cutter is in possession of these coins…”

“…and if he got them from Ancient ruins…” Demi continued.

“…he might have found something else as well…” Joe added.

“…which would explain where Cutter picked up those spells and artifacts…” Aramis pointed out.

“…which means…” Cindy left the statement hanging.

“…we are all in very deep kimshi,” Sela concluded firmly.

Joe growled and cursed under his breath. “This situation is threatening to esclate into something much bigger if we don’t do something now.”

“I agree,” Tigermark said. “We best be on our way if we hope to catch Cutter before he disappears on us.”

The rest of the group nodded, and quickly mounted back on the Beast. Joe directed the huge creature towards Cutter’s camp at a rapid clip, praying that they could find the Spotted Lion before he disappeared into the desert.


Cutter Long undid the cloak wrapped around him, causing the large feline to materialize out of the hot, desolate atmosphere like a mirage. Even though he was leagues away from his original encampment, he looked around to ensure that he was alone. He may not have sensed anything odd on his way out here, but he knew that his foes were crafty and resourceful, as his past encounters had clearly demonstrated.

Satisfied that there was no one around spying on him, he approached the cliff face before him. Placing a paw upon the stone and uttering a few ancient words, the rock shimmered out of existence to reveal an ancient tunnel leading deep into the earth. He walked inside and repeated the process, this time causing the cliff face to reappear, concealing the entrance from the most determined search. As the tunnel was resealed, torches lit up immediately, lighting the way down into the heart of the ancient complex.

The Spotted Lion navigated his way through the maze of tunnels and hallways with ease. Every so often he would pull a few of the bejeweled spheres from his pouch and toss them casually over his shoulder. Low growls, hisses, and snarls soon began to echo throughout the dungeon, haunting every corner like hungry and malicious ghosts.

Finally Cutter walked into a large cavern that might have housed a temple or monument in a bygone age, but now was reduced to ruins wracked by time and the forces of nature. Even in decay, the place was still an awesome sight to behold. The floor of the cavern had been lined with tiles of onyx, and the remaining structures appeared to be made of obsidian and crystal. Although the race that once inhabited these halls were long dead, even Cutter could not help but feel their presence as though they still lived on in the very stone itself, always watching, forever immortal upon the earth.

Cutter’s whiskers twitched as he sensed a presence that was still very much alive. He barely suppressed a growl and shouted into the still air.

“Whoever is skulking out there will show themselves and state their business now before I find them and extract the truth at the point of my claws!”

He heard a low scuffling from behind one of the massive boulders that littered the courtyard. A small orc dressed in black tattered robes, hands hidden within the garment’s billowing folds, stepped into view and bowed respectfully.

“Fear not, Cutter Long,” he said in a soft and cultured voice for an orc, “it is I, Borung Bonefist, Shaman and Battle Mage of Tazalak’s Orcish Mercenary Company, at your service.”

“You can start by keeping your hands where I can see them,” Cutter ordered. “Then you can tell me what you are doing down here. I remember telling you and your unit that you were not to come anywhere near this location.”

Borung complied, holding his hands out for the Spotted Lion to see. His left hand was horribly mutilated with much skin and muscle missing, appearing to be only bone underneath the scar tissue, a macabre testament to the dangers of calling upon dark powers.

“Ah, my lord, there are many entrances to this place, if one knows where to look,” the shaman said. “I came here to satisfy my curiosity about the ruins that I’ve heard so much about, and as you can see, I was not to be disappointed.”

Cutter waved the matter aside. The orc’s presence was unexpected but easily rectified. “Have you completed the task that I set for you?” he asked.

Borung inclined his head towards the feline. “It has been done precisely as you’ve directed, my lord.”

“Where’s the rest of your unit?”

“Alas, they all perished capturing one of the great beasts,” Borung said with no apparent sadness. “I was fortunate enough to have survived the battle so that the rest of the mission could be completed successfully.”

Cutter snorted. He knew unbridled ambition when he saw it. More likely he let his fellow mercenaries die just so he would end up with a larger share of the payment. However, treacherous or not this orc was none of his concern. He had more important matters to attend to.

“Very well,” he said as he produced a bag from the folds of his cloak. “Here’s your payment, as promised.” He tossed the bag at the shaman’s feet.

Borung smiled and bent down to pick up his reward. His smile turned into a frown as he hefted the bag, noting the discrepancy between how much gold he should have been paid and how heavy the bag was. Without any fear of insulting his employer, Borung opened the bag and reached into it with his good hand.

He screamed in surprise and horror as the mouth of the bag suddenly grew teeth and clamped down on his wrist. Borung struggled to free his hand, but to no avail. The screams grew louder as the bag swallowed his entire arm, biting it off messily at the shoulder. The orc collapsed from shock, his lifeblood forming a crimson pool on the smooth onyx floor.

Cutter did not spare the dying orc another glance as he strode into the temple. His plans were set, the obstacles barring his way removed, and his enemies would be too occupied by his traps to stop him now. Destiny awaited the Spotted Lion.


Forward progress was halted as the Beast leaned closer to sniff the large claw-prints in front of it. The Beast snorted, creating a small sandstorm near its mouth. It didn’t like the way they smelled one bit.

On the creature’s back, the six warriors sat in silence, alternating their attention between the tracks before them and the rising plume of smoke on the horizon.

“This is not good,” Joe said finally, voicing everyone’s assessment of the situation.

“Do you think it’s the same creature that wiped out that company of orcs?” Demi asked.

The Beast gave a low growl, its opinion not lost on the rest of the group.

“I’ll bet anything Cutter has something to do with it,” Cindy muttered.

“If he does, it’s probably a diversion to cover his escape,” Tigermark said. “In which case, we better not waste any time catching him before he disappears.”

Demi shot Tigermark a sharp look. “Wait a minute, you don’t mean that we’re going to just ignore what’s going on over there, do you? That’s the Sanders’ village burning over there!”

Tigermark’s tail flicked in irritation, knowing precisely where this line of questioning was going. “If Cutter is trying to distract us, going there is not going to help us,” he replied as calmly as he could. “We have a job to do, and we are oath-bound to do it, regardless of cost.”

The tiger’s detached, almost cold response took Demi by surprise. This was completely unlike the kindly fur who yesterday showed her and her friends mercy. She couldn’t believe that he was going to let furs die and do nothing about it.

Feeling hurt, she couldn’t hold back her outrage. “These are furs’ lives we’re talking about here! They have nothing to do with this! What happened to all that talk about compassion and justice? Does it only apply when it’s convenient?”

Demi gasped as a strong paw roughly gripped her shoulder. She turned around and found herself staring into Joe’s gray eyes.

“Do you think we don’t know that?” he growled. “Do you think it’s easy for us to pass this by and forget about it?”

“Enough!” Aramis shouted, his voice cutting off any further argument. “TM’s right, we have a job to do. And arguing about it is just wasting time.” He hopped off the Beast and began walking towards Cutter’s camp. “I, for one, intend to get to the Princess before Cutter disappears, or follow his trail if he does.” He looked over his shoulder at his companions. “What say you?”

Tigermark silently dismounted and padded next to Aramis. “I agree. I’m going with you.” He turned to the coyote. “You think you can take care of the village, Joe?”

The coyote looked down at the Beast. “¿Tienes gusto de dar chingasos a los malos, viejito?” he asked the creature. The Beast grunted enthusiastically. “Not a problem, T,” Joe grinned at Tigermark. He looked over his shoulder at the three warrior femmes behind him. “What say you three? Plenty of room in either group.”

“Cindy and Sela will accompany Joe,” Demi answered as she hopped off the Beast and joined the two felines. “As for me, I still have a score to settle with Cutter, and I want to see the look on his face when we crash his little party.”

Tigermark nodded his assent. “It’s settled then.” He turned to Joe. “Godspeed, my friend. Get back to us as soon as you finish.”

Joe nodded and nudged the Beast in the direction of the village. Tigermark looked at his companions after the creature disappeared over the dunes. “So,” he said with a sweep of his paw, “shall we pay our friend Cutter a little visit?”


Cutter spoke a single syllable of power, bringing into existence a small orb of light. The spell illuminated his path, but the shadows persisted, resisting the intrusion. But before the conviction of the Spotted Lion’s will, they were powerless to hinder his advance into the lower levels of the temple.

The shadows grew darker and more sinister the deeper he went. At times they almost looked alive, watching the intruder intently, waiting for the moment to strike. Cutter was unperturbed, for he knew that in the end the shadows were just that: shadows. Even if something unspeakable lurked deep within the darkness, it would be no match for him. He had learned well these past years. The arts of war, the tricks of thieves and spies, the secrets of the magi; they were his to command. He had spent many long years perfecting his plans, biding his time, concealing his true motives from his enemies, and now all of those years of effort were rapidly coming to fruition. He had the key, and the door awaited his arrival…

Cutter stepped through the archway at the end of the hallway into a domed cavern. The entire room was constructed from onyx and obsidian, making it appear to be carved from solid shadow instead of stone. A faint, bluish-white light emanated from within the unadorned altar in the center of the room, surrounded by eight obsidian pillars, standing like silent, foreboding sentinels. The tips of the pillars curved inward like wicked talons on a great, black paw.

As Cutter entered the room, the ball of light accompanying him winked out of existence. He paused, his senses straining to find any threat within the cold, dark silence. All he could see was the eerie light under the altar and the dormant yet potent magic that lay within. The apparent emptiness of the room did not allay Cutter’s suspicions. If there was a trap or guardian to be had, he expected this chamber to harbor the most potent. He waited, eyes scanning, ears rotating, whiskers twitching, for something to manifest itself.


The Spotted Lion snorted, slightly disappointed. So far entering these ruins, his final place of power, was proving to be anti-climatic. Well, the more it stayed that way, the better.

Cutter started to walk towards the altar when he noticed that something was restricting his legs. He looked down and saw nothing but darkness. As he moved, his arms suddenly froze in place. Panic momentarily gripped the feline and he thrashed about to free himself, but his unseen bonds held him fast. Cutter’s calmness soon reasserted itself, and he coolly considered his options for overcoming this particular obstacle.

He was readying himself to cast another orb of light to check the nature of his bindings when a shadowy figure appeared from the opposite side of the room. It was vaguely fur-like in shape, if it was a fur at all, the shadows making it nigh-impossible to determine its gender or species; to Cutter, the figure could have been a shadow itself for all he knew.

Cutter gave the figure a smug grin. "I was wondering when you would finally show up," he sneered.


The word wasn’t so much heard as it was felt, much like one would understand what a particular object was by feeling the texture with their paw. It was as though the very darkness itself was shaping such concepts, and through his contact with the shadows Cutter could understand the ideas so presented.

Again Cutter snorted but he held his tongue. The sooner he was quiet meant the sooner he could learn what this shadow puppet was, and in knowing thus, defeat it. He could feel the figure watching him through dark, unwavering eyes, measuring him, judging his strengths and weaknesses. Cutter did the same, although he had to admit, his opponent most likely had the upper paw in this situation. For now, at least.

Who are you, and what purpose compels you here? the shadows echoed.

Cutter relaxed his muscles, realizing that he wasn’t going to break free from his ethereal chains just yet. "I am Cutter Long," he answered the darkness, "and I have come here seeking the power that lies buried in these ancient halls."

The figure was silent for a moment, carefully digesting this information. To what end do you wish to use this power? it queried.

"To defeat my enemies," Cutter replied easily.

Again a moment passed. Why is it that you require this power to defeat your enemies instead of relying on your own power?

The tip of Cutter’s plumed tail flicked a few times in irritation. "Must I play Questions Three with you, specter?" he snapped. Silence met his response. Several tense moments passed. The deafening silence began to wear on the Spotted Lion’s nerves.

Cutter shuddered, the dark and piercing gaze of the shadowy inquisitor forcing an answer from the feline’s lips. "Because..." he said, his voice subdued, "because I am not strong enough now to defeat them by myself. To defeat them, I need this power."

The tension was thick as the figure pondered this answer. Why do you wish to defeat your enemies? it asked calmly.

Cutter felt his throat tighten, emotion threatening to overwhelm him. "Because..." he growled. Memories began to quickly surface, memories that he had buried long ago. "...my..." Memories of years long past, years of happiness and innocence that were brutally shattered, happiness that could never be his again. Tears flowed down the fur on his face as each memory flashed through his mind. Each one held the image of a fur, someone that he cared about, that cared about him in return. And then the memories of the same furs, in great pain and suffering.

A snarl leapt from his throat. "To avenge my family and friends," he said quietly, his voice thick with hatred. "To bring low the very king who’s soldiers pillaged my home and murdered my loved ones. They had nothing to do with his war for conquest, but he had them slaughtered all the same. I waited so many years, honing my strength, biding my time, waiting for the right time and place to strike, even joining the very ranks of his foul army to learn his tactics and weaknesses. And now..." He fixed a venomous glare on his unseen tormentor. "Now I have assembled the tools I need to realize my vengeance!" he shouted. "The power I need to set my plans in motion and bring the downfall of my hated enemy is close at paw! I am close, so close..." For the briefest of moments, Cutter Long’s eyes burned red with anger and hate. "...and I will not let you, nor anyone else stand in my way!"

With the last syllable, an orb of bright red energy materialized in front of the Spotted Lion and unleashed a bolt fueled by pure emotion at the shadowy figure. The bolt exploded upon impact, momentarily driving away the shadows and shaking the room. Cutter fell to his knees, both from the strong tremor and from physical exhaustion. For a while he remained there, breathing in deep, ragged breaths. Finally, he stood, finding that the invisible chains that held him were gone. He looked around, finding the chamber to be exactly as he found it, except for one disturbing change; the soft blue light that gently bathed the room had changed to a blood-hued red.

Cutter shook his head clear and walked towards the altar. With each step the power within the stone slab pulsated, growing stronger and more eager as he drew near. He reached into his belt pouch and removed a single bejeweled sphere. The last component that will bring all of his plans to fruition.

The Spotted Lion bared his teeth in a terrible smile.


The area surrounding Cutter’s tent was quiet. Too quiet. Even the wind was still. It made Demi nervous, her instincts vehemently telling her something was amiss. She glanced over the dune that she and the two felines hid behind. Cutter’s tent sat in the middle of the small gully, in plain sight, no indication that it was inhabited. Demi felt that the tent was somehow mocking her, daring her to approach it. Its arrogant defiance transformed her nervousness into irritation.

“Well,” she said, addressing her companions, “is Spotty-Butt there or not?”

“I can’t tell,” Aramis replied, his brow furrowed in concentration. “The wards are down, but the whole area is saturated with the lingering aura, so he might or might not be there for all I know.”

“Are there any traps that you can see?” Tigermark asked.

“None from what I can tell, but that doesn’t mean that it’s safe.”

“Cunning little devil,” the tiger mumbled under his breath. “I guess the only way we’re going to find out is by going down there and seeing for ourselves.”

Demi groaned. “I don’t like this.”

“I don’t either, but Cutter has hidden in plain sight before, so he might still be there.”

The skunk groaned. If she gets her paws on that spotted lion, she won’t kill him, at least not right away. Breaking a few bones first should make it worth all this crap he’s put her through.

“Okay, let’s get this over with,” she said as she climbed to feet. The three carefully made their way towards the tent, Demi gripping her short sword, Tigermark unslinging his bow and nocking an arrow, and Aramis with powerful energies dancing on his fingertips. There was a slight tingle in the air as they entered the gully where the wards used to be active, but nothing appeared to bar their way, so they pressed forth.

Demi’s heart pounded in her chest. There was something very wrong here. The voices of caution in her head where practically screaming at her. Suddenly the feeling became so tangible that she could choke on it.

“Tiger…” she said uncertainly.

“Aye…” he replied quietly, drawing the arrow back.

“Here they come!” Aramis shouted, feeling the magic auras spiking around them.

The sand around them exploded as fur-shaped creatures leapt out of the ground. Aramis reacted instantly; bolts of energy flew from his fingertips and struck four of the creatures, causing them to burst into clouds of sand. Tigermark let loose his arrow at the neck of another one. The arrow severed the creature’s head neatly, both head and body disintegrating back into sand. Demi nearly avoided getting clobbered by a sandy fist, slashing out with her sword at the huge monster’s knees.

“What are these things?!” she shouted.

“Sand golems,” Aramis replied, drawing his katana and felling three more sandfurs with the same stroke, “and poorly made ones at that!”

Tigermark punched the head off of a nearby golem and quickly nocked another arrow. “Poorly made or not, there’s a lot of them,” he said. He could see more golems rising out of the sand. Things were going to get ugly very quickly.

The three warriors huddled with their backs together as the press of golems closed in. “There never is a dull moment with you guys around, is there?” Demi said as she gripped her sword tightly.

Tigermark smirked. “Certainly seems that way,” he replied.

The golems charged.


The strong scent of smoke and the frightened screams from the cultists caused Joe to spur the Beast on faster. He cursed the rough terrain; if it wasn’t for the sand ridges in their way, they would have been at the village by now. The ridges also prevented them from getting a good look at what was going on in the village, the only clues being the massive plumes of smoke rising in the distance and the bestial roars that echoed across the desert, neither of which reassured him very much.

"Sela!" he called over his shoulder to the Huntress seated behind him and Cindy. "Can you tell what creature it is from the sounds it makes?"

"Yes, and you don’t want to know," she replied sardonically.

Joe twisted in his seat and fixed an incredulous look at her. "I think I might!" he snapped.

"Can this beast run any faster?" Cindy asked.

"Sorry, babe, it’s giving us all it’s got!" Joe answered. "It’s built for endurance, not speed."

"We’re almost there," Sela cut in. "The village should be beyond that turn up ahead."

Joe called out for the Beast to slow down as they made the sharp turn. What they saw caused the Beast to stop completely and its three passengers to seriously rethink the wisdom of coming here. A seven-headed, red-scaled hydra, twice as big as one of the huts in the village, stood amidst the carnage, its heads snapping up fleeing cultists that strayed too close. The three warriors and their mount collectively gulped as one of the heads spewed flame into one of the meager dwellings, setting it ablaze instantly.

"Sela, I take that back," Joe said slowly. "I really don’t want to know."

"Too late," Cindy said, pointing at the hydra, who was now aware of the interlopers’ presence.

Joe turned to look at his companions. "Well, what’dya think?"

"Aim for the necks," Sela said calmly as she drew her katana. "Seven quick slices and we’re down one rampaging monster."

Joe smiled. "That’s what I wanted to hear." Looking forward, he unslung his greatsword. " Usted oyó a la señorita, amigo," he said to the Beast, " Golpearemos sus culos con el pie." The Beast responded by letting out a roar of its own and charged the hydra, armored head lowered for impact.

Despite Joe’s early comment about its speed, the Beast can move quite quickly when it has to. The hydra was caught off guard when the Beast rammed into it, giving the three warriors the time needed to make their strikes. Sela leapt gracefully from her mount’s back, her blade slicing cleanly through one of the hydra’s necks. The head toppled from its perch and fell to the dusty ground below, accompanied by a spurt of ichor fluid from the arteries. Joe swung mightly with his heavy blade, biting deeply into the snout of the closest head. The Beast’s massive jaws closed around the neck of another head, thrashing about in an attempt to rip the neck away from the hydra’s body. Cindy’s paws were a blur of activity, knives flying at eyes, snouts, and open maws, keeping the remaining heads from getting too close to her allies.

Sela turned towards the monster again, only to find two heads bearing down on her. For a moment, they watched each other, searching for an opening. The head on the left struck first, rushing towards the fox with jaws open wide. The Huntress easily dodged the attack, but soon found the second head rushing in to take advantage of her distraction. A knife hilt materialized in the second head’s eye, causing it to rear back with a roar of pain. It gave Sela the second she needed to rush in and quickly slice off their second head. The Huntress flashed a triumphant-looking Cindy a smile of thanks, her expression quickly turning to alarm as she saw a hydra head hook around towards her friend from behind. Catching Sela’s warning, Cindy turned to see the tooth-lined maw flying straight at her. She was saved from a masticated death and instead given a crimson shower when Joe’s massive sword cut a bloody arc through the neck at the base of the skull.

"Careful there, Cindy," Joe said half-jocularly. "You won’t get ahead if you don’t watch your tail."

Cindy started to instinctively groan at the pun, but one glance past Joe’s shoulder gave her something more pressing to worry about than bad jokes. The two heads that didn’t attack reared up away from the action, mouths hanging slightly open and slightly aglow inside like macabre candle lanterns. The Siamese didn’t even stop to think; she leapt from the back of the Beast, catching Joe in her journey towards the ground just a moment before two tongues of flame blasted the space they had just occupied. They hit the sandy floor hard in a tangle of tails, blades, and armored limbs.

"You okay, Joe?" Cindy said after she cleared her throat of sand and dust.

"I’d feel much better if you’d get off of me," the coyote replied in a tight voice. "Your armor is digging into some sensitive spots."

"Oh, sorry," she said as she quickly climbed off of him.

Joe sat up and shook his head clear. "Thanks for the save."

"Anytime, handsome," Cindy replied with a grin. She helped the coyote to his feet and lead him a few paces away from the action. The Beast backed up as well, spitting the remains of the hydra neck he was chewing on earlier as Sela joined them. Both sides held back and regarded the other, using the lull in the battle to catch their breath and regroup.

"Four down, three to go," Joe said. "This guy is quite a tough bastard, he is."

"He’s also way too clever for an average hydra," Sela added. "This next part of the fight is going to be difficult, even though he only has three heads left."

Joe chuckled. "Three heads, no problem. We have him outnumbered now." The Beast grunted in acknowledgement. The hydra didn’t appear worried. It stood its ground, neither advancing nor retreating, waiting for its enemies to make their move.

"Okay, here’s the plan," Joe whispered loudly enough to be heard by his companions. "The Beast will charge the center. Sela will take the right while I hit the left. Cindy, keep those daggers flying so he can’t toast us with his bad breath. Got it?"

"Uh, Joe..." Cindy said, despair creeping into her voice. Joe couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The necks that had their heads forcibly removed were scabbing over before his eyes. The large scabs buldged out, eventually bursting open as two new heads grew in its place within the span of a minute. Eleven pairs of eyes glared balefully at the three warriors and their mount.

Joe gulped. "Um, Sela," he said slowly, "what ever happened to just seven quick slices?"


Tigermark took a step back to catch his breath. The sand golems were no match for either of the three warriors individually, but their seemingly limitless numbers threatened to overwhelm the small group, forcing them to stay on the defensive. The tiger lashed out with a roundhouse kick, taking out two golems with one stroke. He had long stopped using his bow to conserve his arrows; his quiver would run empty long before their reserves did. Even Aramis stopped wasting his spells, electing to let the broad, easy strokes of his katana keep the sand-bears at bay. Demi wasn’t fairing as well, though. The skunkette’s skills and weapons weren’t designed to fight large numbers of foes at once, so she stayed close to the felines as she tried to funnel the golems into attacking her only three or four at a time.

"Hey, guys," she said as her curved blade dispatched yet another golem. She didn’t know how many victories that made, she’d lost could a while ago. "As much as I enjoy this workout, these sandy-bears--" she sliced through the torso of another "--are seriously starting to tick me off!"

Aramis swept his katana in a large arc, felling five golems at once. "If you have any ideas--" he shot off a small burst of energy at one that got too close "--I’d like to hear it!"

"What we need to do is find a way to make these guys stay down!" Tiger said, knocking the heads off of two sand-bears with a quick double-punch. "Ari! Do you see what keeps powering these sand-heads?"

"My best bet is in the tent," Aramis replied. Three more fell to his blade, but five more golems took their place. "All of these auras are causing a lot of interference!"

Tigermark growled as he defeated another two golems. "I suppose we’ll have to fight our way over there."

Demi ducked a punch and lashed out with her broadsword, cutting the golem’s legs at the knees. She was showered with sand as the disintegrating body of the sand creature fell on top of her. "Then what the hell have we been doing?!" she shouted after spitting out a mouthful of sand.

The tiger’s fist punched a hole through a golem’s chest. "Then what do you suggest we do then?" he shouted back angrily.

"Hey! Mage-kitten!" Demi yelled at Aramis. "Fireball the ground leading to the tent!"


"Just do it, dammit!"

Aramis’s katana danced deadly curves in front of him, keeping the golems at bay as he muttered arcane verses, his voice growing louder with each word. Finally, he pointed at the ground and shouted the last phrase. A large circle in the sand glowed red for a brief second, then exploded in a column of fire. The concussion from the blast blew all of the combatants off their feet.

Demi blinked. "What the hell was that?" she shouted, her ears slightly deaf from the explosion.

"A fireball! What did you expect?" Aramis yelled back.

Tigermark quickly climbed to his feet. All around him the golems were reforming and rising out of the sand. Everywhere, except in a large, circular patch of glass that marked the spell’s affected area. "Good thinking, Demi!" he cried happily. "Ari, quick, launch another!"

"In a second, I have to recharge my energy," the mage replied. "That one took quite a bit out of me."

"No time! Cover me!" Demi pushed past the felines and dashed across the glassy surface. Tigermark and Aramis tried to follow, but the golems where already upon them. A few broke off from the rest of the group, but she was already well ahead of them and nearing the tent.

"I hope that you were right about the tent, Ari," Tigermark muttered as he resumed his battle with the horde of golems. A second explosion erupted, the blast tearing the sand golems apart and throwing the two felines back several yards. Tigermark fought against unconsciousness and painfully raised his head. A huge plume of smoke rose from where the tent stood just moments before.


# # #


(late January 2005, exact date unknown)

The hydra groaned and spluttered from its three good heads as it struggled to regenerate the heads that had been severed. From each neck that had been spurting it’s life’s blood moments before, new flesh rapidly formed like a billowing cloud and began morphing into the shape of two new heads. The regeneration process required the almost undivided attention of the hydra’s biological systems, yet it still managed to regard the three small furs before it with at least one pair of eyes. It was powerless to mount an attack against them, but would certainly be ready to defend itself if attacked.

About thirty yards separated the three furs from the hydra, which continued wheezing and groaning as it’s new heads formed and grew towards maturity in the space of minutes. It was, or had been, the classic seven-headed dragon, complete with scales, fangs, and a devil’s tail. And just like the legend told, for every severed head on the still living creature, two new heads would emerge. At the rate of regeneration being exhibited Cindy figured that she and her companions had maybe ten minutes before the eleven-headed hydra would be ready for a fight. For now, while the hydra concentrated on “birthing” its new heads, its attentions were focused almost completely inward. Two of the three mature heads assisted with the births, the remaining one simply stared at them, waiting stoically for whatever might happen next.

The feline looked around the open area she stood in. Had it contained anything but dust it might have been called a plaza, but it was, in reality, simply a large open area in the middle of a cluster of huts and tents. The Sanders village burned around them, oily black smoke rising straight up into the still sky. The hydra had devoured most of the furs it had killed before their arrival; very few bodies lay in the deserted areas between the blazing huts. The air was deathly still and oppressively warm, heavy with the smell of blood, burning fur, and charred flesh. It was very much like the death ground they had found the Orc mercenaries in. As Cindy quickly looked around the village she would catch an occasional glimpse of a cult member ducking behind a pile of wreckage or peeking around the corner of a burned out shell of a hut. There were still a few villagers left alive, but none amongst them appeared to defend what was left of their homes.

The Siamese looked at her fellow mercenary. Sela was alternating her stare between the growing hydra and their male companion. The gray fox appeared calm enough, if any emotion was written on her face it might be irritation. She looked as though she were waiting with little patience for somefur to tell her what the next step of the plan was.

Which, in fact, was exactly what she was doing. Sensing that the hydra was not going to attack in the next few seconds, Sela slowly sheathed her katana and turned to the coyote.

“Now what?”

Joe glanced at her as he flicked a paw beneath his cloak and vest, fishing. With concealed bitterness he once again found himself wishing that his paw would collide with the comfortably familiar butt of his trusty Beretta. All that he found concealed against his chest was the tanto, however. Damned ROE, he mused silently. The knife was a comfort, but what he really needed here was a weapon system that would tip the scales in the favor of he and the females that even now looked to him for a decision. A few TOW rockets would have been perfect...

In a moment he produced a toothpick, which he proceeded to stick in his mouth. Grunting a bit, he worked the toothpick for several seconds as his mind raced over the limited possibilities he saw open to them. None of them looked good.

“Well?" Sela demanded, a trace of anger in her voice. She was becoming annoyed at their lack of activity.

Joe looked at the fox briefly, and then turned his gaze upon the Siamese, who simply flicked her tail and arched her eyebrows, asking the same question without words. At least Cindy’s muzzle bore the trace of a smile for him.

The coyote rolled his shoulders in a shrug. “Give me a minute, will you?” he said quietly. “I’m thinking…”

Sela glanced at the burning village and then at the still reforming hydra before turning her eyes upon the older canine. She huffed, her meaning clear before she began to speak. “We may not have that long,” she said with a mixture of fear and irritation. She wanted to attack immediately, and didn’t understand Joe’s hesitation.

“Who am I, Hercules?” Joe answered irritably.

“It’s even odds,” Sela argued. “Three on three. We must attack now!”

As if anticipating her thoughts the head of the hydra that stared at them rumbled, and smoke rose from its nostrils. A second head ceased ministering to the birthing heads and turned to fix its malevolent gaze upon the furs.

Joe stared at the hydra for several long moments, waiting. When it appeared that the hydra was not going to expend any further energies on warning them off he suddenly drove the point of his great sword into the dirt between his boots. He glanced at the sky, and then proceeded to get down on one knee before his sword, his right paw resting on the hilt. The coyote bowed his head, closed his eyes, and began to pray silently.

Lord, I’m not as good at this as my friends are, but I’m on my own here. I need your help, and I need it desperately. I have two ladies to take care of, an unknown number of villagers to defend, and friends elsewhere who are counting on us. We’re up against the wall here, Lord, and I’m out of ideas. Please…

Joe knelt motionless, his tail straight out behind him. Sela stared at him in amazement, whereas Cindy calmly looked on with a neutral expression. Then, as they watched, his ears swiveled as a slight breeze rustled through the refuse between the burning huts and sighed across the open area they occupied, raising a bit of dust. It ruffled the coyote’s fur, the silvery overtones of which seemed to glitter in the sunlight. They heard a soft growl, muted in the thick air.

After a few moments of further silence Sela and Cindy heard him mutter “Your will be done.” As he rose to his feet Cindy caught the barest hint of a tear in the coyote’s eye. Sela started to say something, but stopped herself short.

His voice was steady, in spite of his expression. He wasn’t scared, more like resigned to an unpleasant task. Cindy looked at him carefully, her expression softening as he slowly pulled his great sword from the earth and sheathed it across his back.

“Give me a moment,” he said as he turned from her. Nodding to Sela as he passed, Joe strode a few yards across the dusty plaza to his Bowtie Beast, the passage of his boots raising dust in his wake.

He patted the cold metallic exterior of his friend as the Beast wheezed a greeting. From their vantage point neither of the females could hear what Joe spoke quietly to the organo-mechanical monstrosity before him, but they heard The Beast’s grunted reply. They watched as Joe patted its flank once again before returning to stand with his ladies.

He smiled tiredly. “Here’s the plan, girls.”

# # #

Tigermark picked himself up out of the sand and dust, struggling to support himself with an arm as he sat up slowly. He was disoriented, his head hurt, his vision was double, and he felt sick.

Concussion, he thought, the mental activity causing his head to hurt even more. He put his free paw to his forehead to try and steady himself, and to try and ease the pain there. His fur felt damp and warm.

“Oh, God…” the tiger said thickly as his throat suddenly went dry. He pulled his paw away to look at it. Crimson dripped from his pads into the sand.

A few feet away from him the form of Aramis lay in a heap where he had landed. The feline was motionless and quiet. Tigermark stared intently at him, willing Aramis to move or make some sound as he waited for his own vision to clear. Aramis didn’t move.

Several yards away a large, smoking crater was all that was left of the spot previously occupied by the tent in which the Princess had been imprisoned. A deathly silence hung over the scene as the last faint reverberations of the explosion echoed from distant mesas. The sand golems were gone, as was Demi. The two felines shared the vacant desert floor with the crater, some shards of glass, and nothing more.

Tigermark looked at his paw again, and then tried to stop thinking about what his head must look like. Struggling with vertigo, he managed to crawl the few feet through the sand and rock to the motionless body of his friend.

The tiger touched two fingers of his dry paw to the throat of the unmoving feline. A pulse? he wondered. He felt something, maybe, but his head was spinning so much it was hard to tell.

A wave of nausea overtook the white tiger. Muttering another plea to his God, Tigermark slowly collapsed, rolling over with difficulty to lay on his back, staring at the blue sky overhead. His eyes closed.

# # #

Had Demi been familiar with the industrial electrical voltages of her counterpart’s home dimension she would have sworn she had just taken a hit from 277 volts AC. Her pulse was ragged and arrhythmic, she felt short of breath, her fur felt disarrayed to the point of almost standing on end, and her skin tingled everywhere. Her first conscious thought of her external surroundings was that the floor she was laying on was cold. She opened her eyes.

It was dark. Very dark. There was no light at all save for the dim red glow that was barely bright enough to allow her to see her own paws. She waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness while she tried to catch her breath and evaluate her surroundings. The room was cool, the floor underneath her was cold stone. She picked herself up and got to her feet unsteadily, and began using her paws to smooth her fur as much as possible as she regained her composure. The tingly sensation in her skin diminished as she patted her fur into place.

The room felt large, even though she couldn’t see it. It felt… airy. Like it had a very high ceiling. And quite cool, like they might be underground. No place near the surface of the desert would be this cool.

She slowly turned around in a complete circle, looking for anything that might look like a light source or a doorway. There seemed to be no walls, the faint red glow just tapered off into blackness at the distant edge of her field of view.

The young skunk shivered.

Suddenly a garish blue light blazed into existence a few feet in front of her nose and arched up into the air above her head. She involuntarily ducked as she grabbed for her broadsword. As the steel blade cleared it’s scabbard the loud rumble of a familiar voice filled the room and reverberated in her head.

“Welcome, my dear Demi. So nice of you to… drop in.” The greeting ended in a snarl.

A figure floated out of the blackness towards her. A huge spotted lion strode into the light in the center of the room before her. He wore a floor length hooded cloak that concealed the movement of his body, from his broad shoulders it hung straight to the floor. The hood lay back on his shoulders, however, revealing his head and neck. His golden mane looked silver in the odd light, and his normally handsome face was twisted into a sneer. As he approached her a low but persistent rumble permeated the room.

In the blue-green glare of the orb floating above them Demi could immediately recognize the form and face of Cutter Long. The broadsword came up before her as she assumed a defensive posture.

“Leave me alone, Cutter.”

She had wanted it to be a command, but the fear she felt was betrayed by her own voice. The lion chuckled as he stopped a few feet in front of her, just beyond the reach of her sword. He appeared to be completely unarmed. Her sword angled towards him, almost of it’s own volition.

“You won’t need that,” Cutter said with an air of indifference. Holding the pointer and index fingers of his right paw together he pointed at her sword. With the barest flick of his paw the sword was suddenly jerked painfully from her paws, as if with the force of several large and powerful furs pulling it away from her. It flashed out of her vision, and a few seconds later they both heard it clatter to the floor quite some distance away.

The lion grinned, and the expression sent a chill down her spine and all the way out to the tip of her tail. Demi began to look quickly about the room for an escape route.

Escape to what? There were no walls, only blackness beyond the perimeter of light they stood in. She could make out some sort of pillars there at the edge of the light, but they weren’t straight, they curved in overhead. Beyond them in any direction was… nothing.

She looked at the cold, black floor. It was shiny and smooth, like glass. No traction for close quarters fighting there…

“You’ve been a bad girl, my sweet Demi.” Cutter stepped towards her with that same air of casual indifference. His tone turned wistful. “You and I would have been the perfect rulers of this place. From here we could have held dominion over all.” He smiled faintly as his voice hardened. “Not the kingdom of poor Fallona’s wretched excuse for a father, mind you, I mean the entire planet. It was yours for the taking, if only…”

Cutter sighed, stepping slowly around her to her left. She turned with him, so as to always face him. “It disappoints me that I was not able to collect all six of you with my little trap,” Cutter continued, “but there will be many more opportunities, I assure you.” He stopped, facing her with a truly ugly grimace. “Your pitiful agent provocateurs will soon belong to me.”

Demi ducked to her right, spinning clockwise and away as she drew her short sword from beneath her tunic. She brought the sword up, and as she turned quickly towards and back into her adversary was surprised to find him standing quite straight and still before her, seemingly without a care. That should have been a clue.

As the tip of her short sword responded to the thrust of her paw and drove towards the lion’s throat Cutter’s right paw again came up, his fingers stretched and curved as though holding a tree limb of moderate diameter. The distant rumble in the room grew noticeably louder.

Demi froze, unable to breathe. She had been stopped in mid-thrust by some unseen fur or force, and felt as if she had something about her neck, cutting off her breathing. She was totally confused, and panic rose rapidly within her. She had lost control of the situation.

“I grow tired of your lack of comprehension,” Cutter growled. Demi felt the floor fading away from beneath her feet, and she drifted upwards towards the darkly grinning lion. She began to see red as her nose came to within mere inches of his. The idiotic notion of kissing him crossed her mind.

He did not touch her, didn’t need to. His paw remained motionless next to him as she hovered in mid-air before him. Then, after glaring at her for a few seconds, the lion made the same small flick of the wrist, and Demi flew across the room, crashing hard into one of the massive pillars.

Brilliant white light flashed in her head, and then the room faded to black for her. The rumble of the room ceased. The last thing she heard before she slipped into unconsciousness was the guttural chuckle of her huge former employer.

# # #

The three had fanned out in the bright sunshine before the hydra, the coyote in the center, the fox to his left, the Siamese to his right. They were separated by about fifteen feet each, and the Beast had positioned itself immediately behind Joe. The three mature heads of the hydra regarded them solemnly, waiting. The youngsters, almost fully formed, slobbered and hissed and grumbled and belched, as youngsters do.

“Go for the old heads,” Joe had whispered to his fellow warriors before they had taken up their positions. “The experience and intellect are there. The youngsters can’t mine the knowledge of their elders, they have to learn for themselves. Kill the three elders and the fight is half won.”

Sela drew her katana, concentrating on the old head closest to her. Her world narrowed to that head and her sword, everything else faded from her view and her thoughts. She had one ambition in life, and that was to kill this horrid beast that towered above her. She wiggled a bit in her heavy huntress tunic, flexing her arms, ready.

Cindy’s green eyes kept flicking between the coyote and the hydra. She had identified her target and had her fighting knives in each paw, also ready. She took a deep breath and felt her fur and flesh press against the interior lining of her Imperial armor. She had never been in a fight like this before, and was more than a little bit scared.

Joe worked the toothpick in his mouth silently. He regarded the middle mature head of the hydra casually as he flexed his arms. The point of his great sword described a small, two inch circle before him at eye level.

I am your weapon, Lord. Use me as you will.

Joe whistled a tune quietly, seemingly to himself as he crouched slightly. It was a cue, and the Beast leaned forward. The whistling stopped suddenly as the coyote leapt straight up into the air. Keeping it’s head down almost in the dust, the Beast lunged forward and placed it’s jaw on the spot Joe had been standing on.

The hydra, sensing that something was afoot, bellowed and roared from various heads. One of them spat fire towards Cindy, who was even now jumping away from Joe and the Beast to avoid being burned, running towards the hydra. Another head, a youngster, arched down towards Sela, jaws wide. Instead of running she, too, jumped away.

The Bowtie Beast’s head came up quickly, catching Joe at the top of his leap and continuing, propelling the coyote about twenty feet up into the air, directly on track for the middle mature head. That head recoiled in shock, exposing the underside of it’s neck. The trick had worked. Joe growled loudly and swore as the blade of his great sword passed cleanly through the neck of the mature head. Hydra blood spattered in the dust as the head fell to earth.


Cindy had meanwhile moved between two immature heads at ground level. They were momentarily confused, getting in each other’s way as she darted between them. Holding her knives in a letter X pattern before her, the Siamese jumped up towards the neck of the head to her right. Her arms blurred and the knives made a metallic rushing sound in her paws. A purple haze formed around the neck before her, and suddenly the young head rolled into the dirt, it’s eyes filming over.


She barely noticed as she turned, knives still a blur, towards the second youngster. She ducked left and threw herself into the dust, rolling under the jaws that just missed her torso. She heard teeth clicking together loudly, felt the hot, foul breath of the hydra upon her face as her knives bore up into the soft underside of it’s neck. More purple haze.


Meanwhile Sela made short work of the second mature head as it tried to grab her in its teeth. Stepping quickly away from the huge fangs as they bore down upon her, she flicked her wrists and the katana arched up, deep into the neck of her adversary. As the hydra began to raise its head defensively she leveraged herself up in a jump over it, using her katana as a pivot point. Flying over the top of the hydra’s head she pulled the hilt of her katana with her, ripping open the top of the neck. Suddenly her sword sprung free in her paws as she sailed towards the ground, landing in a standing position. The head thudded into the dirt at her feet.


Having launched his friend into a strike position, the Beast continued it’s forward motion and allowed its momentum to carry it directly into the chest of the hydra. It’s maw open wide, the Beast bellowed a mechanical roar, more terrifying than any sound any of the furs had ever heard. It’s maw met it’s target. There was a sound of great steel plates smashing together, of metal rending and bones cracking, and several of the hydra’s heads bellowed in response to the Beast’s primal cry. Purple blood showered the battle field, along with other fluids. Two more heads, with necks attached, fell to the dirt, the long necks having been severed at the torso.

Five. Six.

Joe had landed on the broad, scaled back of the hydra, immediately above the confluence of the various necks of the creature. He took a quick half-second inventory of the damage they had inflicted and another half-second assessment of his fellow warrior’s positions. He could see Sela charging an immature head to his right, katana held high, a wild, feral grin lighting her features. Directly below him his mechanical friend was extricating itself from the gore of its victories, backing up to make another charge. To his left the remaining mature head was rearing back high above Cindy, who was in the process of dispatching another youngster. The elder head’s jaws opened wide as the head arced towards the Siamese.

Cindy!” Joe jumped towards the moving head as he cried at the top of his voice.

The coyote was a half second too late, but his yell had alerted her to a bad situation. Abandoning the young head she had tucked and rolled. The jaws of the mature head closed around where her torso had just been. Unfortunately her armored leg was following her torso in a bid to escape, and the hydra’s jaws closed around her leg with a crunch as the blade of Joe’s great sword struck. He heard a scream, and the head crashed to the dirt, Cindy crashing with it. The feline’s leg was still within it’s jaws. Spinning and diving, Joe’s blade continued in an arc towards the youngster’s head as well, finishing the job that Cindy had started there.

Seven, Eight.

Joe rolled into a standing position from his fall to the ground. He saw the Beast making another charge and Sela advancing on another head as well. A pang of guilt was as a needle in his heart as he left Cindy where she had fallen to assist in the ongoing fight. Darting behind the Beast as it made its second charge into the chest of the hydra, Joe ran towards the gray fox.

Two young heads were attacking her. Each bled from various wounds on their faces, yet they were very much in the fight. Sela appeared uninjured, but had her paws full as she danced in the dust, waving her katana and lunging, trying for a kill position. The youngsters were learning fast, each protecting the other as they, too, jockeyed for a position from which to strike the killing blow.

Behind him Joe heard another crash and felt the ground beneath him shake with the impact. The young heads were distracted for only a moment, but it was enough. Sela stepped in, her katana flashing in the sunlight, and another head rolled in the dust.


She smiled up to the coyote in the briefest of signs as she scampered around her next target, telling him she had her situation well in paw. As she advanced on the next head Joe turned to see how his friend was faring.

...and froze in his tracks. The eleventh head was even now spitting out a great piece of the Beast’s back as it reared back to strike another blow. The hydra couldn’t reach the Beast’s head, as the Beast was busily engaged in trying to chew it’s way through the base of the hydra’s own neck. While the Beast attempted to kill the hydra in this manner the hydra was attempting to likewise chew it’s way through the Beast’s torso. It would be a very short battle to see who had the greater durability.

Joe saw red, a roaring sound filled his ears, and his mind emptied in rage. Bellowing incoherently, he slung his great sword towards the eleventh hydra’s head as he began running towards it. The hydra turned towards the sound, easily catching and destroying the sword in it’s jaws, but in the process halting it’s death match with the Beast. Pieces of the shattered great sword fell to the ground.

Sela meanwhile darted under the tenth head of the hydra as it turned to look at the commotion Joe was making. It’s momentary distraction was it’s undoing, a quick upswing followed by a crushing overhead slice with her katana effortlessly carved through the creature’s neck, and the head plopped into the blood-soaked dirt with a splat.


Joe had left his rational brain behind him in the dust. Yelling and swearing like a rabid, retrogressing fur, he leaped up onto the gory, bleeding back of his friend as the last head of the hydra bore down on them both. Staring back into the blazing eyes of the final foe, Joe roared himself as his right paw went beneath his vest, seeking what wasn’t there.

“God dammit!” the coyote bellowed as the paw then went for the belt line beneath his cloak. The spike maul appeared in his right paw, and he held it firmly in his fist at arms length from his torso, hovering at his waistline.

“You will not allow this to happen!” The coyote jumped straight towards the open jaws of the hydra, his right arm swinging in a roundhouse arc. The maul sank deep into the hydra’s nose, crushing scales, skin, muscle, and bone on its way through the creature’s nasal passages. The hydra reared back suddenly, screaming, lifting Joe high into the air above the Beast. Using the maul’s handle as a paw-hold, Joe went up with the hydra and used the momentum of his ascent to flip over onto the top of the hydra’s head.

Temporarily abandoning the maul and grabbing a scaled ear with his left paw, Joe went for his final weapon. The tanto appeared in his right paw, and he immediately sank the blade its full length into the left eye of the hydra. Twisting and pulling up, Joe carved the eye from its socket. The hydra bellowed in agony, calling for help from its dead brethren. In its misery it spat a bit of fire, and set the end of it’s own nose ablaze as the chemical flame encountered the damage caused by the maul.

In a smooth motion Joe switched paws and grabbed the hydra’s right ear with his right paw. The left paw then flicked the eyeball from his blade and angled slightly, sinking it into the right eye. At this point the shocked hydra began to shake it’s head vigorously, trying to dislodge him. Joe lost his balance as well as his grip on the ear and began to slide towards the flaming end of the hydra’s nose.

Keeping a tight grip on his tanto, Joe took the right eye with him as he began to fall. Rolling and sliding, he grabbed desperately for the handle of his maul. He had been hoping to stay with the hydra’s head by using the maul as a paw-hold. Instead the maul followed Joe down, coming away from the hydra’s snout with a sickening, sucking sound. The coyote proceeded to tumble with his maul and his knife through the fire at the end of the hydra’s nose, rolling and thrashing as he fell about twenty feet to the blood-soaked dirt below.

Blind and burning, the hydra nevertheless tried to ignore its agony and stay in the fight. Trying to catch Joe’s scent through the overpowering stench of it’s own burning flesh, the hydra brought it’s nose to the surface mere feet from where Joe lay groaning and inhaled deeply, searching for that scent. If hydras were capable of smiling, this one surely did as it caught the scent of it’s prey. Jaws opening wide, the hydra eagerly anticipated the kill.

Die!” The single word roared and echoed in Joe’s brain as he waited for those massive jaws to crush him.

And waited.

The coyote struggled to roll over and sit up, dimly aware of the fact that his chest hurt badly. His tanto was still clutched in his left fist, the one he supported himself with. The right paw held the maul up, he was ready to defend himself.

He saw Sela grinning at him as she ran her katana against the last severed head of the hydra, wiping its purple blood from her blade.

“That makes eleven!”

# # #

Aramis’ conscious suddenly lurched back into gear. He recognized the sand he was laying in as soon as his eyes opened, even recognized the smell and taste of it. He recalled exactly where he was, and what had led him there. He sat up quickly, exhaling through his nose as he spat sand from his mouth.

The last thing he remembered seeing was dust and rock flying towards him in the explosion of the tent the Princess had inhabited. A sudden emotion caught in his throat at the thought of the fair Fallona. How has something so pure and precious become caught up in such dirty business? The fur on his shoulders and back rose as the mental image of Cutter Long crossed the feline’s mind. Oh yes, there would certainly be Hell to pay if Fallona were harmed in any way.

Aramis took his first deep breath through his nose and coughed slightly as the last grains of sand passed into his throat. He lifted a paw to rub his eyes, his head hurt.

In fact, quite a few things hurt. He felt like he’d ejected from an F/A-22 Raptor without benefit of a parachute. He spent a few moments of introspection, wiggling various muscle groups and limbs until he was satisfied that the basic physical system know as Aramis Dagaz was still fully functional. Bruised and sore, to be sure, but everything seemed to work.

The feline cast a small orb of light before his face, just to see if his powers were still with him. Satisfied that he might actually still be alive, Aramis slowly got to his feet.

And saw the white tiger.

Laying in the dirt. Bloody.

He was on his knees at Tigermark’s side in an instant, checking for vital signs. The pulse was weak and thready, but easily found. Respirations were shallow but regular. The pool of dried blood beneath the tiger’s head wasn’t too big, and the dried blood in the matted fur above his left eye looked like it was doing a reasonable job of stanching the flow of fresh blood. The poor warrior looked like he’d been hit by a truck.

Aramis shook his friend’s shoulders gently. “Tigermark?”

The tiger was out cold. “Tiger? C’mon buddy, we’ve got to get going. Fallona and Demi need us.”

No response.

Can I carry him back to the cave? Aramis wondered. Tigermark was considerably taller than he, and heavier. It would be a test of his strength and perseverance, he knew. Aramis thought for a moment, quickly reviewing their movements of the day. After a few seconds of deep thought he concluded that the cave was northwest of their current position, about two miles off. The village, therefore, was to the east, about a mile away.

Well, I didn’t go through all those field exercises for the fun of it, the feline mused as he began to look around for a large rock. Spying one a few dozen yards away, he considered his choices. He stooped to grab the tiger under his arms, and began dragging him towards the rock. His intention was to get the tiger into a sitting position on the rock, from which he could get him across his own shoulders in a firefighter’s carry.

When he had maneuvered Tigermark about halfway to the rock a muted roar and rumble floated across the open desert. Aramis flicked his ears towards the sound. While very distant, it sounded familiar, but he couldn’t immediately place it.

“Wash tha?” the tiger mumbled.

Aramis almost dropped his friend in his joyful haste to lay him down and look at him.

“Tiger! You’re still with us!” The emotion was evident in the young feline’s voice.

The white tiger’s eyes were still closed, but he nodded his head slowly. “Mmm… hmmmm….”

“Where do you hurt, my friend? Are you well enough to stand up?”

Tigermark appeared to ponder this for some time. Finally he opened one eye slightly, grinned a bit, and slurred “Ssh bry.” And then as an afterthought he added “Waher.”

Aramis pondered this as he reached beneath his cloak for a small flask of water. “You want water?” he asked.

Tigermark nodded with more energy, repeating “Ssh bry.” He lifted a paw.

Aramis tilted his head quizzically. “What?”

Tigermark made a face of mild annoyance. “Brriiii…t!” he growled, working the last syllable for all he was worth.

Aramis nodded. “Bright!” The young feline shifted his position such that his shadow fell across his friend’s face. “Better?” he asked as he tilted the small flask to the tiger’s lips.

Tigermark drank slowly in small sips, even though he felt like he could have consumed half a swimming pool’s worth of fresh water. His survival training had kicked in. He knew he had a concussion, could hear how it was affecting his speech. He prayed that these were the worst of the symptoms.

“Thansh,” he said quietly as Aramis pulled the flask away from his face. “Noish. Bee..st,” he articulated carefully.

“You heard that, huh?” Aramis asked. Tigermark nodded. “You think it was the Beast?” Another nod.

Aramis pondered this as he offered his friend some more water. It had sounded like the Beast, now that he considered it. He discarded that thought for the moment, pleased to see that Tigermark was regulating the amount he drank. Aramis knew that he was doing this out of years of training, which spoke volumes to him about the clarity of his friends mind.

“Warwee?” Tigermark asked as he gently pushed the flask towards his friend.

Aramis studied the tiger for a moment. He already looked much more alert.

“About a mile from the village, about two and a half from the cave.”

Tigermark sat up carefully, looking at Aramis with both eyes. “Viljj,” he said simply. “Fine Joe.”

Aramis nodded as he prepared to help his friend stand up. “Can you walk?”

The tiger struggled slowly upright under his own power, waving off the help of the younger feline.

“You jush wash mah duss,” the elder cat grinned.

# # #

The Beast was immobile, unresponsive, oozing various fluids related to hydraulic and cooling systems in addition to its own peculiarly orange blood. Joe glanced worriedly at his friend’s head as he rummaged in a storage container at the Beast’s flank. It’s eyes and mouth were closed, and it appeared to not be breathing. He patted the metallic shell briefly, distractedly, as he searched for what he sought.

“Ah, here it is!” the coyote muttered under his breath. He pulled the half-empty bottle of whiskey, from the tavern at Many Rocks, out of the container. He patted the Beast’s metallic flank once more, whispering “No salga, primo,” before trotting across the plaza with the bottle to where Sela waited with Cindy.

They had half drug, half carried the feline from the battle ground, still with the dead hydra’s head clamped to her leg, into the meager shelter afforded by the nearest shell of a hut. They had to get that damnable head off of her leg before they could even assess her injuries.

The Siamese mewed quietly. She had been aware of her friends presence and assistance, but had not spoken to them as they moved her from the plaza. Her eyes were glassy and fixed, she appeared to be staring into the middle distance. Cindy was deep in shock.

Sela guarded her friend, watching her from across the room as her own heart was breaking.

Joe suddenly appeared in the doorway. “Any change?”

Sela shook her head, staring at her friend. Her gaze then lifted to the coyote, and her expression changed. “You and I,” the fox growled softly, “are going to have a talk after this is done.”

Joe stared at Sela’s face, at the fire that burned in her eyes. In some remote part of his tired mind he admitted her beauty, she was certainly a pretty young fox even in her anger. He sighed sadly.

“You’ll have plenty of time to tear me a new one later, Sela,” the coyote mumbled as he moved across the floor of the hut to kneel carefully at the side of the Siamese. “Let’s take care of Cindy now.”

Joe placed a paw gently on Cindy’s armored shoulder. “Cindy?”

The tone and cadence of the soft mewling did not change. Joe shook the feline gently. “Cindy!”

Still no change. Hell, Joe thought. He was in quite a bit of pain himself, but refused to acknowledge it until the battle was truly over. That wouldn’t be until his warrior femmes were safe and looked after medically. “What I wouldn’t give for one of the Fire Authority’s Hueys right now,” he said softly.

“What?” Sela asked from behind him.

Joe leaned forward to gently kiss the side of Cindy’s muzzle. He moved his head slightly to place his muzzle near her ear and whispered “Stay with me, Cindy. I need your help.” He heard Sela suddenly draw her breath.

The Siamese’ eyes focused as her mewling stopped, and she turned her head ever so slightly.

“Joe,” she whispered. “I hurt so…”

“I know, honey. Here,” he held the bottle up to her lips. “This will help the pain.”

“What is it?” the feline whispered.

Joe shook his head, smiling humorlessly, sadly. “The best we got, kiddo. C’mon…” And with that he tipped the bottle to her lips and she sipped.

She made a wry face, but swallowed the cheap stuff. Joe grinned a bit as Sela knealt beside Cindy’s other side. “Not to your liking, huh? I’m sorry. Someday soon I’ll buy you a glass of whatever your heart desires. Just stay with me for one more hour.”

It took less than fifteen minutes to get Cindy drunk. Once she got over her initial reaction to the whiskey she drank as Joe directed without argument nor even comment. When her eyes began to glaze and droop a bit as she approached a state of slumber Joe leaned towards her ear one more time.

“Honey, you’re gonna hate me for what I’m about to do to you, but it has to be done.”

Cindy opened her eyes fully and focused them on the coyote. Joe suddenly felt like his soul was being scrutinized. She took one of his paws in hers. Her fur was soft, he could feel the warmth of her skin through it.

“I know, Joe. Be careful.” Her grip tightened. “Joe?”


She was as a kit, her voice small and innocent. “Will you tell me the story about the coins when we’re done?”

Joe resisted the temptation cry, to hug the cat laying on the floor before him. “Sure thing, honey. Whenever you’re ready to hear it.”

Cindy’s eyes hardened, becoming like steel. Her free paw motioned towards the dead hydra’s jaws still clamped firmly about her leg. Her grip tightened on his paw almost painfully as her voice hardened to match her eyes.

“Make that damn thing go away, Joe.”

# # #

Aramis figured they were still more than half a mile away from the Sanders village when the ears were almost torn from both his and Tigermark’s heads by a soul-rending scream.


(6 February 2005)

Aramis looked at Tigermark, who had stopped and slightly cocked his head.

“Shin-dee,” the tiger said, doing his best to make the word understandable.

Aramis was torn between taking off at a run toward the village, and staying with Tigermark.

“Go,” the injured tiger said, “I’ll b’long in a minute.”

“Are you sure, Tiger? I don’t—“

“Go!” Tigermark managed to say with enough force to make the younger feline take an involuntary step. Aramis nodded and took off at a run toward the Sanders village. Tigermark estimated it was still almost three quarters of a mile away.

As soon as the young cat was over the dune and out of sight, the older tiger sank to his knees.

Aramis covered the distance to the village in near-record time, panting heavily in the rising heat of early afternoon. The sight that greeted him caused his heart to sink to his feet. Most of the village was destroyed, and a few charred, mangled bodies were strewn among the wreckage. A large, gory mess lay in the middle of the destruction with its many severed heads littered about. Aramis spotted the Beast first, standing immobile and leaking fluids from a huge wound on its back. He noted the worst sign of all for the biomechanical’s condition. It wasn’t drooling. He looked about, trying to find some sign of Joe or the mercenary femmes.

That’s when he heard the low, quiet weeping coming from a wrecked hut. He swiftly went to what was left of the door and peered in. To his relief, Joe was there, cradling a softly weeping Cindy. Sela was off to one side, either injured or in shock. Another head of what Aramis now realized was a hydra lay on the floor; its jaws ripped wide open at an unnatural angle, showing its rows of curved, barbed teeth. Aramis noticed that Cindy’s right leg was missing its armor, and was bandaged from mid-thigh to calf. Already ugly stains were starting to show on the bandages. Then he noticed the missing leg armor was still impaled upon the hydra’s teeth.

Before anyone noticed him, Aramis stepped back out into the sunlight and turned his attention to the hydra. He sensed that there might still be some life in it, and he didn’t want to take chances. He pulled an intricately carved wand from his cloak and spoke briefly in an arcane language, pointing the wand at the hydra. Simultaneously, a small ridge of fire sparked to life on all eleven necks of the creature, cauterizing and sealing off any redevelopment. Aramis now looked around, becoming concerned. Tigermark was not in sight yet. He was debating going back after the tiger when the angry voice of Sela was raised inside the ruined hut.

“I DON”T CARE! You should’ve went on and attacked, instead of taking time to talk to your ‘god’! Who or what is this thing, anyway? Most of the gods I’ve heard of end up being either figments of somefur’s imagination or fakes used by those who would control others. What makes you believe yours is any different? If he’s so great, why is Cindy laying there so hurt!”

Aramis went back to the doorway, and found Joe and Cindy in their same positions. Sela, however, was standing with tail fluffed and straight up, its tip flicking in anger. Seeing her friend so helpless had finally overcome her reluctance to discuss her perceptions of Joe’s shortcomings as leader. Joe just looked on dejectedly. At the moment, he had no answers for her. Cindy, despite the fact that the hydra’s head had been removed, showed no signs of improvement, and in fact looked a bit worse. Aramis cleared his throat, and Joe and Sela looked at him.

“Yelling and sulking will not undo what’s been done. As soon as Tiger gets here, I suggest we move back to that cave we spent the night in.”

Joe nodded and said, “Good idea. Cindy’s wounds don’t look good, and they were hard to sew closed. We need somewhere where we can get her out of the heat. Uh, where’s Tiger and Demi?”

Aramis glanced at Sela and said, “Uh, Tigermark’s on his way. He’s moving a bit slow. When we got to Cutter’s camp, we accidentally set off a couple of traps.”

Sela’s eyes narrowed. She’d had about all she could take for one day, and she’d noticed Aramis’s lack of mention of her friend and leader.

“What about Demi?” she managed to say through clenched teeth.

Before Aramis could answer, Joe said quietly, “Sela, I know you don’t think much of us right now, but before you decide to take off I should tell you that I can’t carry Cindy. I seem to have broken a rib or two falling on my own spike maul. I don’t think Aramis can carry her alone without causing further injury. Whatever our young friend here says, stay put for Cindy’s sake.”

Aramis looked carefully at Joe. For the coyote to admit he was hurt, or that he couldn’t do something, was unusual. Aramis could swear he saw a tear in his friend’s eye, and then it hit him. Joe felt responsible for Cindy’s predicament. He was doing everything in his power to help mitigate the hurt. Aramis looked back at Sela, a downcast expression on his face.

“We set off a trap and were attacked by sand golems, Demi managed to get to the tent where the Princess had been, but it was some kind of teleportation trap. When it went off, both she and the tent vanished. The explosion knocked me out, and really did a number on Tigermark. He has a concussion, but the stubborn old feline was walking under his own power when we heard Cindy scream. He sent me on ahead, but I’m starting to worry, he should’ve been here by now.”

“Worry ‘bout yshelf, junyer,” came a voice from the door.

Joe looked over Aramis’s shoulder and his eyes went wide. Sela bit off any comment and stepped quickly to the door to assist Tigermark in. He was going to wave her off, but seeing the look in her eyes, accepted an arm and eased over to a corner. He sat down and rubbed his eyes, and gave his head a slight shake.

“Tiger, what kept you?” Aramis asked in a worried voice.

Tigermark worked his jaw a second, and then said, “Had a talk wish th’ Bosh.”

Sela’s face clouded over as she grasped the tiger’s statement. Aramis and Joe looked at him, waiting to see what he would say.

“I’ll tell yawl what the Word ish when we get everyone shettled. I thought I heard shomething about the cave? Joe, I’m sorry, but He saysh the Bowtie Beast ish gone. Mebbe we’ll pick ‘im up on our nexsht shift.”

Joe sighed and looked away. Aramis spoke up quickly before Sela could vent her feelings.

“Okay, lets see if we can get a litter put together for Cindy.” He turned and headed outside, with Sela following. They quickly scrounged a couple of poles and a piece of canvas from a hut door, and made a fairly strong stretcher out of it. Heading back inside, they helped Joe gently place Cindy on the litter, and then Aramis and Sela picked the injured fur up. She moaned slightly and Joe looked even more concerned.

“Ish awright Joe. Get to the cave,” Tigermark said as he got slowly to his feet. The two older warriors leaned on each other as they stepped out of the hut.

Then everyone froze.

Several dozen scrawny furs stood gathered around the hut’s ruined door. A shaggy poodle who could only be Digray stood at the front of the group.

“Whoa, dudes, hail the conquering heroes! Thanks for the number ya did on Big Red back there,” The poodle said, indicating the now-rapidly desiccating hydra.

“Ah, you’re welcome?” Aramis answered, wondering what the cult was up to.

“Hey, bodacious manners, too. I see your totally cool ride took a hit, too. Sorry for that, dude.” Digray said conversationally.

“What happened? How many did you loshe?” Tigermark said, his voice improving, but still slightly slurred.

“Oh hey, tiger-dude! Lookin’ a bit rough, there. Ya doin’ okay?”

“I’ll live. How many?”

“Near as we can figure, eight. Five of ‘em were Cutter’s hired goons, though. Big Red seemed to head for them first. The other three were new, so they might have been Cutter’s too.” Digray said, looking downcast.

“Well, your place here’s a mess. What now?” Tigermark asked. Aramis was wishing they could speed things up, as he didn’t want to wear out halfway to the cave and drop Cindy.

“Well, first we wanted to extend totally enthusiastic thanks for coming to our rescue. Hate to say it, though dudes, but all the regulars had joined me over on the sand flat just west of here. I had the most awesomely bodacious dream last night, and I wanted to share it with them. We were going to abandon the camp and head out anyway. Big Red did a major bummer on the buildings, but all we were gonna come back for was some clothing.” Digray said. Tiger noted, as his vision had almost returned to normal, that the poodle and all the rest of the cultist were actually dressed.

“No more chanting naked to the sun?” Aramis asked.

“Nah, that’s what the dream was about. Seems there’s a Big Guy in charge of everything, and he told me in the dream that it was bogus to be worshipping the sun, when I should be worshipping Him. Also said it was bogus to be running around naked in front of everyone. Told me to head west, young fur, so I’m headin’ for the big coast on the ocean out in FarWest. The cult is disbanded, and all the dudes and dudettes are welcome to either travel along or head back home. ‘Sides, Cutter Long showed me how really bogus being a cult is. If we’d been thinking for ourselves, he couldn’t have taken over so easy.”

Tigermark smiled a crooked, battered smile and said, “You have chosen well, Digray. I wish you all the best and Godspeed to your new home.” Joe and Aramis murmured similar feelings, but Sela just looked away, a sour expression on her face.

“Kewl. Well dudes, been real. The best to you also. Go rip Cutter a new one for us, ah, once ya get patched up. Later days!” With that, Digray turned and led the ragtag group towards the end of the camp. From their direction, Tigermark surmised that Many Rocks would be their first stop.

“Okay, let’s get Cindy to some shelter,” Joe said. The group of warriors turned and headed in the direction of the cave they’d slept in the night before.

As they walked, Tiger and Joe stuck close, lending a helping paw to each other as needed. They passed the now totally still Bowtie Beast, and Joe stopped for a moment.

“Adios, viejo amigo, pequeño diablo.” He said quietly, and Tiger saw a tear in his eye as he turned to go.

“Joe, it was necessary. You were given the choice of helping Cindy and Sela, or standing with the Bowtie Beast. You chose the girls, and even with Cindy hurt, it would have been much worse if you hadn’t.” Tiger put a paw on the coyote’s shoulder and turned him face to face. “Joe, The Boss said you did well. That was one of the things He managed to convey in our talk. You chose the best.”

Joe looked into Tigermark’s eyes a few seconds, and then nodded. He produced a toothpick and began working it around in his mouth as they walked on. Tigermark smiled slightly to himself. Joe would be all right. None of them saw Digray and two other furs stop and look the Beast over, pointing and discussing for several minutes.

Presently, they arrived at the cave, and Aramis opened the wards he’d set to guard it in case it was needed. They carried Cindy inside, and placed her near the now-cold fire pit. Joe eased himself down at her side. He noticed her fur was damp with sweat, and she was mewling slightly in her sleep.

Placing a paw on her forehead, Joe looked even more concerned. He released one of the bandages on her leg enough to look, and almost gasped. The skin was jagged and raw, with purplish discoloration spreading outward from the stitches in the large puncture wounds.

“Tiger, Aramis, are hydras poisonous? These wounds look awful, and she has a very high fever.”

“No, but I bet their saliva is pretty noxious, and full of enough germs to kill an elephant,” Aramis replied as he opened their Spare Pocket and retrieved some water jugs and other things in case Cindy would need anything.

Sela looked on, and tears now welled up in her eyes.

“Where is your god now!!” she burst out. “If he’s so loving and compassionate, why didn’t he keep Cindy from getting hurt?” She stalked to the corner of the cave, turned her back to them, and stood; shoulder’s shaking with anger and pain.

Joe looked at a loss, as Aramis did, as well. Tiger nodded to them and mouthed, “It’ll be all right.” He stepped slowly over to the gray vixen. He did not touch her, and did not wait for any reply as he spoke.

“Don’t blame God for Cindy’s condition. She chose to go into battle, and she knew the chances. Don’t blame Joe. He did the best he could, and if he’d done anything different, neither you nor Cindy would be here. You can blame me, both for this and Demi’s disappearance. I knew better than to split forces, but I was concerned for the cultists, too. Turns out they would’ve been fine, and only Cutter’s henchfurs would’ve paid the price. You see, he arranged for the hydra as a double-cross on the furs he didn’t need anymore, and a distraction for us. God was there, directing Joe’s actions, and God was there with us, too. He assures me everything will work out; we just have to keep at our task. You berate Joe for his leadership, but look at what he sacrificed to help save you. The Bowtie Beast wasn’t just a means of transportation, it was an old friend. And before you fly off the handle and go attacking that which you don’t know or understand, look here. There is a God, and He is a true and loving God. He cares for those who follow Him, and for all the worlds and beings He made.”

Tigermark turned and strode, suddenly very strong and sure, to Cindy’s side. Sela turned and looked at him. She had listened to every word, but she was still angry and hurt. Something in his voice had made her turn to watch what he was doing. The large feline knelt down. He looked at Joe a few seconds as the coyote tried to soothe the Siamese’s brow with a cloth soaked in water. He placed his paws on the cat’s injured leg and bowed his head.

“Dear Lord,” Tigermark prayed, “We have battled hard, and still come up short. We need your aid and comfort. We need Cindy with us. We ask humbly that you heal her wounds, and ease our troubled spirits, so that the battle may go well. Please watch over Demi wherever she is. Amen.”

As the tiger ended the prayer, Sela gasped. A soft, green glow now bathed the tiger’s paws and Cindy’s injured leg. It lasted only a few seconds, and then Tigermark slumped over to the side. Joe moved over to check on him, and found him breathing evenly, but asleep. The tiger seemed to have been exhausted by being the conduit of the power they’d just seen, as well as the day’s events. Joe noticed, though, that his friends head injury was no longer visible. Even the dried blood in his fur was gone. To his amazement, his ribs no longer hurt, either. A soft sound brought his attention back to Cindy.

“Joe?’ she said drowsily.

“Right here, kitten. How do you feel?”

“Ah, like I got run over b’hydra.” She said, drowsiness slurring her speech.

“Do you hurt still?” Joe asked as he put the back of his paw to her cheek. He then smiled. Her fever was gone.

“N-, nah, jus very tired.” Cindy replied., and then just before her breath evened out in sleep, “Still wanna hear about the coins.”

Joe smiled, a tear of joy in his eye this time. “Whenever you want, kitten,” he said softly and he leaned down and kissed her between the ears. He looked down at her leg, and was amazed to see the bandages hanging loosely over a clean, whole, and quite shapely leg. He cleared his throat and said, “Ah, Sela, I think she’d be more comfortable without the armor, would you help me take it off her?”

Sela was still staring. She roused from her stunned contemplation and came over to help. As Joe suspected, the feline wore little under her armor as the padded lining of it was thick and hot to begin with. Aramis gave him a blanket from the Spare Pocket and he and Sela tucked the feline in for a night’s rest. They laid a blanket across the lightly snoring Tigermark, as well.

It had gotten on toward evening, and the weary warriors let their recovering wounded sleep as they ate a light meal. Sela was silent, and finally Joe asked what they’d been wondering.

“Aramis, what do you think happened to Demi?”

“I think Cutter has her. That wasn’t a killing spell, the explosion happens when a tent-sized parcel of air is displaced and the surrounding air rushes in to take its place. It was like being right next to a thunder clap.” The cat replied. Sela looked alarmed, and then she looked over at Cindy.

“It’s all too much,” she said, “I need to think. I’m going out for a bit.”

“Is that a good idea?” Joe asked as they began to put away the remains of the meal.

She just looked at him, and then gave a slight smile. “Still watching out for us. I’ll be fine.” She then turned as walked out of the cave.

“I hope so,” Both Aramis and Joe said at once, and then both grinned at each other.

# # #

Demi awoke with a start and tried to sit up; an action that she immediately knew was a bad idea. One, she could barely see anything in the pitch black room, and two, She nearly passed right back out as her head exploded with pain. Moving slower, she gingerly assessed her physical condition. She was sore in every muscle she had, and in several she hadn’t realized were even there before. The memory of Cutter and her confrontation with him returned to her. She tried to look around for him, expecting him to be closing in to kill her, but he was no where to be seen.

She felt around close to her and immediately found her short sword. Still being armed made her feel a bit better, until she realized that Cutter must not feel that she was any threat to him. What was worse, in a way, was the realization that he must think her totally inconsequential, to toss her aside and leave her to escape. After seeing his new power in action, she could see why.

“Well,” she said quietly to herself, “escape sounds pretty good at the moment. Live to fight another day, when I’ll kick your ass, you mangy ol’ spotty-butt.”

She eased around and slowly got to her feet. The light was dim, but she seemed to see a bit of a glow off towards her right. As she felt her way in that direction, a glint of light caught her eye. Making her way to it, she discovered it was her broadsword. Picking it up and sliding it back into its sheath, she took comfort in the two silky scarves that decorated its pommel.

She wasn’t at all sure where she was going, but anywhere away from Cutter’s last known location was good for her at the moment. She seemed to feel a slight nudging, as if someone or something was directing her where to go.

“If this is some silly game of yours, Cutter, you won’t enjoy the prize I’ll give you,” She said, sounding a lot less confident than she’d hoped. The feeling didn’t change, so she set out, carefully walking silently toward what soon appeared to be a door. She slipped through it, and made her way toward what appeared to be stairs upward, toward more lit areas.

Unbeknown to her, Demi’s actions were being watched disinterestedly buy the large dotted lion, who stood back in the shadows. He at first had thought to obliterate her right there, but something else came to mind. A much better revenge on King Phillip and his agents, and the traitorous mercenaries, as well. Most delicious of all, Demi would be the channel by which it would be delivered.

Cutter grinned menacingly to himself, then strode over to the altar and set the crystal he carried, with its precious cargo of princess, down in the center. He then spoke a single arcane word and the blood red glow increased from underneath. He waited until he sensed that Demi was on the second level above him, and then began the spell he’d envisioned. As the thrum and pitch of the sound from the altar rose, Cutter began to laugh maniacally.

“Let’s see how well you deal with THIS, Tiger my old friend!”

# # #

Sela had walked out from the cave without any specific destination in mind. As the sun was setting, she was dimly aware of the first stirrings of the desert’s nocturnal inhabitants. Her mind was awhirl with doubts, ideas, and memories.

“Could it be true? Could there really be such a thing as the god they follow? Did Tiger really heal her, and not realize it was his power, and not some nameless god? But then, Tiger doesn’t seem to lie, and he says he talked with their god.” Whoever or whatever he was, Cindy had been healed right before her eyes, and Tiger and Joe, too. Sela finally decided that one thing was certain. She’d not balk at the leadership of the King’s agents again, and when they stopped to pray, she might just join in.

Just then, as she rounded a low dune, Sela heard a great ‘chuff,’ and smelled the familiar scent of biological chemical fire. She stopped short and looked to her right. A huge, scaled head, chin flat to the sand, greeted her. The great eyes opened and regarded her. Sela swiftly drew her katana, and turned to face this threat, but in the back of her mind, she could almost see herself evaporating in a flash of fire.

When that didn’t happen in a couple of seconds, she decided to find out why.

“Well, great wyrm, not going to fry me?”

The great eyes closed for a few seconds, as though very weary, but then it spoke with a low, rumbling voice.

“Kill me if you will, but spare me the attempts at bravado. I am worn and weary, having traveled many leagues, only to be brought down by an orc wizard as bait for a hydra. The hydra came, and I managed to crawl away as the orcs attempted to capture it, but I can go no further right now.”

Sela, emboldened by the statement of the dragon’s current state, walked slowly around to come up the side of the creature’s great neck. Overall, it appeared uninjured. The dragon, however, did not even attempt to follow her movement. She walked up to its neck, prepared to strike a killing blow at any indication of danger.

“One less monster,” she muttered to herself as she prepared to strike, but then the color pattern of the beast became apparent to her in the evening gloom. The dragon was overall a pale white, with black stripes on its body and wings.

“Stripes?” she said louder, in surprise.

“Yes Huntress, My mother and your clan fought several years ago. She was mortally wounded, and I was by her side as she began to slowly die. You came up from the river with water, and she ordered me to flee. You kept her company, as you now do me. I watched from a distance, and then left after her passing. I thank you for that, but if you’re going to kill me, do so quickly. I am totally exhausted, I cannot fight back”

The words of the dragon she had watched die then came back to her. Spare my son. Sela found herself feeling as weary as the dragon. The spark of the ideal that Tiger and Joe and Aramis had shown her suddenly came to mind, and she sheathed her sword.

Sitting down, she leaned up against the great creature’s shoulder. The dragon seemed to settle into her, as well.

“Your life is yours, as I promised your mother. I shall not harm you.”

The dragon seemed to exhale slowly, and then said, “To save a dragon’s life is to gain his favor forever. If I live to rest until the dawn, and can then stand and fly, I will be your faithful servant.”

Sela simply nodded and leaned back, knowing the dragon could feel her agreeing nod.

“So then, what’s your name?” the dragon asked.

“Sela. Yours?” she replied.

The dragon said a long word in its own language, and then smiled and said, “It’s a bother to pronounce, so most who get to use my name simply call me, ‘Stripes.”

“Somehow, I knew that’s what it would be,” Sela replied.

# # #

Demi had made it up two levels, but as she was about to round a corner, a sudden scent and sound made her freeze. Someone was easing the wall in the adjoining chamber. Demi pulled her sword, ready and hoping to surprise whoever it was, Cutter Long or not. She rounded the corner, and then nearly leapt for joy.

“Princess Fallona! Where’s Cutter?”

“Still down there, somewhere,” the young lioness gestured. “I managed to slip away, but we have to hurry, or he’ll catch us. He’s too strong and clever to defeat, so we must flee!”

Demi didn’t have to be told twice. They headed out together, and made considerable progress. As they made another turn, the Princess said, “NO, not that way.”

‘How do you know?” Demi replied.

“I, uh, saw a map Cutter had drawn, and remembered it.”

The two went on, and before long had found a door that the Princess said lead to the outdoors.


(8 November 2005)

“About time!” Demi said with no small amount of relief. She quickly pushed the small door open, letting soft golden light spill into the dark hallway. For a brief moment she stood there gazing at the rising dawn, the sheer relief of seeing the light of day easing a heavy weight from her shoulders. She felt so light that she nearly collapsed as the mental fatigue started to catch up with her.

“Thank God,” she breathed quietly.

“Demi, we can’t stay here! We must leave now!” the Princess urged.

Demi blinked as she snapped back into reality. “Er, right!” she replied and dashed out of the doorway into the desert. For a long time all she could think of was just putting as much distance between her and that damnable lion and his nightmarish pit. She simply ran, half-leading, half-dragging the princess along behind her. Finally she began to slow down as a dreadful suspicion began to grow in her heart. She looked about, wildly, hoping to find something, anything, that would give her some indication of where she was. She had been running across flat, open desert for what seemed to be the past hour towards a ridge of low mountains, none of which looked very familiar. Desperately hoping that she hadn’t been going in the wrong direction all this time, she reluctantly looked back from where they had made their escape.

A tall, looming mountain rose from the desert behind them, a single, thick pillar of weather-beaten stone that stood alone in the vast flat plain. Atop the mountain rose twin peaks, giving Demi the unsettling impression of devil’s horns. A thick, oppressive aura seemed to emanate from the mount, making the rising heat from the desert sun a minor irritation in comparison. The skunkette felt herself fill with despair, both from the dark atmosphere and the realization that she was completely and hopelessly lost.

Slowly, she looked at the princess, fear and worry clearly etched into her face. “Your Highness,” she said softly, “where are we?”

# # #

From the protected shade of the open door, Cutter chuckled in evil amusement. “My, my, my, isn’t this some rescue?” he mused. “That’s the problem with you would-be hero types: you never stop to think before rushing into or out of extremely dangerous situations.”

The Spotted Lion laughed again for several minutes, the power coursing through his being making him as giddy as a cub who’s had one too many sweets. He wasn’t worried. Already he was many times more powerful than he had been before, and with each passing hour his strength grew dramatically. Soon his only concern would be ensuring that his enemies received a fitting fate.

Cutter stopped laughing, his brow contorting in thought. His only concern? He stepped outside the door, gazing up at the ancient mountain that sat alone in the plain. He raised one paw and extended a claw from his index finger. With a single quick movement, he dropped his paw down suddenly, as though slashing the air itself. With a terrifying roar a ten-foot-wide gash appeared in the side of the mountain from top to bottom.

A terrible growl of pleasure rumbled in Cutter Long’s throat. Why should he simply use his newfound power to exact his vengeance upon the King when he can overthrow him entirely? Why settle only for this kingdom when the power of the Ancients can let him move mountains? Cutter threw his head back and laughed loudly and triumphantly. He was no longer merely the most dangerous outlaw in Alteria. He was a god.

He turned his gaze over to the mercenary and her rescued princess as they gazed in horror at the small but violent display of the Spotted Lion’s power. He flashed them a wide and toothy smile, a dark, horrible smile. “Yes,” he hissed excitedly in a low and menacing voice, “yes, run back to your friends, back to your beloved white tiger and his minions. Tell them what you’ve seen here, the power you’ve witnessed. Tell them to hurry with all possible speed.” His smile grew even wider, so hideous that for a brief moment even the dawn seemed to retreat back into the night. “I’ll be waiting…”

# # #

Even though she didn’t say anything, Joe knew that she was barely containing all too familiar emotions. Although he presented a similar appearance of normalcy, he felt the same way. Despite the fact that they both went through this several times a year its impact did not diminish each time. They both tried so hard to assure each other that all was well, that they there was no need to worry, yet in the end they both knew exactly what the other was feeling and wondered why they bothered to maintain the façade.

It was always the same: always in the middle of the night, when the pups were fast asleep, sometimes after a day full of bliss, sometimes after an ordinary day that would soon fade from their minds, but always at night. Joe would be sound asleep, dreaming of something or other, and then a single word would cut through the mental mists of slumber: José. He would then wake up, fully alert, knowing exactly what was going to happen. And, every time, as he rose out of bed to get ready, she would wake up as well. For as long as he could remember she was never asleep when he finally left.

He looked over his shoulder, gazing longingly at the robe-clad vixen seated on the edge of the bed. Even though they were no longer young, she still looked the same as when they first met, so many years ago. He wasn’t even interested in her at the time, at least not romantically. He was just glad for the company and friendship she gave him. But as the months wore on, everything about her, her long strawberry-blonde hair, her spirited and lively aqua-blue eyes, her friendly smile, her merry laugh, they all simply began to grow on him, until one day it finally hit him: he was completely in love with this femme, and he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. And to his eternal joy, she felt the same way about him.

Now, as his wife, lover, and partner in life, she did all that she could to stay strong, to keep Joe from worrying. Their years of marriage were not without their trials, and ever since Joe looked heavenwards and said “I am here, Lord”, the constant fear and worry seemed to have become a regular feature of their lives. They endured as best they could, but even with their devotion to each other the pain never subsided one bit.

“Joe,” she said quietly, a thick and tangible waver evident in her voice, “why do you do this?”

Joe sighed as he continued getting dressed. He had lost count of how many times she asked that question, and he had given up counting how many times he asked it himself. “The Lord called me, and I answered,” he replied, his own voice tight with emotion. It was a simple but evasive answer. At times like these, he rarely felt like going into details.

“Yes, I know,” she said. “But why do you do it? He is not forcing you to go.”

He paused, an almost imperceptible tremor wracking his body. He knew exactly what she was saying. I don’t want you to go.

Joe took a deep breath, calming his frayed nerves as much as he could. “Whenever I see our children sleep, in my heart I know that it’s only because some fur out there is wide awake, holding a rifle and crying out, despite his fear, ‘Here I am! If any of you wish to harm these furs, you’ll first have to get through me!’ Many furs place themselves willingly in danger, give up safe and comfortable lives, just so we may live freely and in peace. Peace and freedom that are bought dearly with their blood.” Joe turned to face the vixen, their eyes ceasing to see anything but the other. “Maybe I’m crazy, maybe I’m having delusions of grandeur for someone my age, but somewhere out there a child might be able to sleep without fear because I was able to stand up and fight when others couldn’t.”

The vixen’s eyes closed tightly and her paws clenched her robe as she lowered her head and nodded in understanding. Despite her worry, she was proud of her husband and happy that such a good and noble fur was able to fulfill his dream and make a difference. No matter what happened to him, she was always grateful that she was able to know and love this fur. She could not have asked for a better father for her children or for a better husband.

Slowly she stood and walked towards him. Time was short, and while there was so much she wanted to say, there were a few things that she must say in precedence to all others. “Joe,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper, “come back to me when you finish.”

“Always, my Angel,” he replied softly.

She could no longer hold it in. Her paws shot out, clutching the fabric of his clothes and pulling him towards her. Her mouth met his in a fierce kiss, her lips never leaving his for an instant. He reacted in kind, his strong arms wrapping around her and holding her close. Their tears flowed freely as their passions were unleashed in a single, intense moment, when all the world ceased to be except for a single fire kept alight on two lamps.

The moment passed, and they drew back from each other. The time had come. She could feel her mate’s strong arms become insubstantial and fade away, as though he was a ghost. Soon there was nothing but empty space, no trace that he ever was.

At the last moment, she could clearly hear his voice in her ears like a passing breath on the wind. “I love you, Annie.”

“I love you too, Joe,” she whispered back.

# # #

“Annie…?” Joe mumbled as he slowly regained consciousness. For a moment he wondered where he was. Then subtle clues made themselves known. The darkness of a cave. The cold, damp feeling of the morning dew in his fur. The lumpy surface of the rocky floor. The dusty smell of sand and the desert outside.

A pang of sadness washed over him. Even though he was here, off in the middle of the largest desert on the continent, chasing after missing princesses and evasive outlaws, it wasn’t like most missions. His beloved was waiting for him a couple hundred miles away this time, not on a completely different world. That dream was just a memory, and a sad one at that. But no matter how far away his vulpine wife was, no matter how many times he tried to convince himself that she’s just over the next hill awaiting his return, it really didn’t matter what the distance was. He was here and she wasn’t. That’s the only distinction that mattered. The coyote growled at the depressing thought.

“Damn, much too early in the morning for this…” he grumbled as he sat up and yawned mightily. He looked outside and was surprised to see that the golden glow of the dawn was starting to give way to the light blue of mid-morning. Joe raised a sleepy eyebrow in surprise. “Damn, I guess it’s not so early now.” A fresh wave of fatigue washed over him, urging him to fall back and return to the realm of slumber.

Joe shook his head and stood up. “Who am I kidding? It’s always too early until coffee is served.” He walked over to the fire pit, stretching out the kinks along the way. It took him a few moments to work through the mental cobwebs to realize that after their difficult battles yesterday they didn’t bother with making a proper fire or, for that matter, any remotely decent coffee. “It’s too damn early for this crap,” Joe growled as his ears flattened in frustration. “I guess this calls for the big guns.” He padded over to their packs and pulled out the bottle of “medicinal” whiskey.

“I doubt Cindy’s going to be needing any more of this for now,” he observed. He removed the cork and took a swig. The cheap spirits hit his throat like a ton of bricks. “Ah, that hits the spot!” He carefully recorked the bottle and slipped it back into their supplies.

Now more awake and alert, Joe walked outside the cave. Next to the entrance sat Aramis, wrapped in a blanket and holding his sheathed katana close to his body. He was barely awake, his eyelids heavy with sleep and his head occasionally nodding before snapping back up for a few more seconds of consciousness.

“Good morning, young’un,” Joe greeted him casually.

The cat glanced up at him sleepily and then yawned. “‘Mornin’, Joe,” he managed.

“Anything happen?”

Aramis grunted a negative and shook his head.

“Good. Go get some sleep. I’ll take over from here,” Joe replied, waving the young feline back into the cave. The coyote stood there for a few moments, taking in the surrounding territory, his eyes carefully searching for anything Aramis might’ve missed towards the end of his watch. Not that Joe blamed him for being so tired. Yesterday wore them all out, and between their injuries and losses, they all deserved a little extra sleep. However, since Tigermark was exhausted from healing Cindy the task of keeping watch fell to him, Aramis, and Sela.

Wait a moment, he thought suddenly, where is Sela? He didn’t remember waking her for the watch, nor did she wake him for his turn. Come to think of it, the last time he’d seen her was when she left the cave last evening for some time to think and reflect.

A cold sensation started forming in the pit of Joe’s stomach as several reasons for Sela’s continued absence took shape in his mind, very few of them reassuring. Easy, Joe, he told himself, don’t go getting an ulcer just yet. He turned around and looked back in the cave, but the grey vixen was nowhere in sight. The lump of ice in his stomach returned suddenly. Aw, for the love of…

“Aramis!” he said aloud, hoping to catch the feline before he dozed off. “Aramis, don’t fall asleep on me yet!”

“Geeze, Joe! I’m still awake!” the young cat replied tersely, his own paw grasping the coyote’s on his shoulder to keep it from shaking him. “What’s got your tail in knot this time?”

“Did Sela return while you were on watch?” the coyote asked hurriedly.

Aramis’s eyes squinted as his fatigued mind tried to recount the events of last night. “Eh, no, she didn’t. I thought she came back during your watch. I didn’t even think of waking her up, since I’m just used to camping with you and TM.” Aramis looked up at Joe’s concerned face, still too tired to be worried. “Why, has she not come back yet?”

“No, she hasn’t and frankly, I’m worried,” Joe replied. “I’m going to go look for her. Stay awake a bit longer and wait to see if she comes back.”

The feline stifled a yawn and slowly rose to his feet, stretching his muscles and getting the blood flowing again. “Alright, can do. Be careful out there; whatever might’ve happened to Sela, if anything did happen, is probably still hanging around.”

“Gotcha,” Joe said and quickly left the cave. He first took another look at the gully just outside the cave to see if he missed anything the first time, though he figured that a vixen in the morning’s light shouldn’t be too hard to spot. Unfortunately, the ridges in the gully blocked his view. For all he knew, she could be hurt or worse behind one of those ridges. For a brief but intense moment he desperately wished for a Bell Huey helicopter.

Okay Joe, calm down. Remember how many times you went off and did your own thing when you were younger. It’s probably nothing more than that. The coyote took a deep breath and rubbed his brow, trying to stimulate his brain. Think, Joe. If you were a young fur who needed privacy and time to think, where would you go?

“Well, certainly nowhere too far away, not if I didn’t know the area very well,” he answered his inner dialogue aloud. Joe turned around and looked at the ledge over the entrance to the cave. Sela wasn’t there, but there was a small path leading up to the sandy flats above the gully. Joe immediately started climbing the wind-carved steps and soon was gazing over the dusty dunes for any sign of the vixen. The area here was flat and featureless for the most part, but there was one dune not too far away from the gully. Perfect hiding spot for a confused adolescent fur. Joe felt his heartbeat slow down.

“I’ll bet she’s dozing on the other side of that dune,” he said to himself as he walked over. “Heh, I’ll probably have to give her an earful for giving me another grey hair.” What he found when he climbed to the top of the dune, however, caused all of his muscles to clench in dread at the same time.

He found Sela, all right. He also found her lying against a large black and white reptile about the size of a diesel locomotive from nose to tail. Joe instinctively ducked behind the dune.

What the hell…?! he thought. Slowly, he peeked over the top of the dune for another look. Sure enough, there was a large reptile, complete with wings, two small horns on the back of its head, and black stripes on its white-scaled body. Sela was dozing peacefully against its side, tucked almost affectionately underneath one of the massive wings. Joe swore under his breath. “Great, I finally find Sela, but now I have a dragon to deal with. Now what?”

Joe quickly thought about his situation. He immediately thought about going back to the cave to get Aramis and Tigermark, but they were probably still too tired to be of much help, and Joe didn’t like the idea of leaving Sela alone with this dragon for any longer than he had too. Which left only one viable option, one he didn’t like one bit. As much as he wanted to save Sela, he didn’t want to get any closer to another fire-breathing reptile than necessary.

“I’m definitely getting too old for this shit,” he muttered before quietly climbing over the dune. He slowly slid down the other side and walked over to the sleeping vixen, careful not to make any noise.

“Sela,” he whispered as he tapped the huntress’s shoulder. “Sela, wake up.”

The vixen stirred, causing Joe to wince slightly when he realized that she was making a lot of movement. He quickly glanced over at the dragon’s head, but its eyes remained closed and its breathing even. Apparently dragons are heavy sleepers.

Sela’s eyes blinked open. “Oh, ‘morning, Joe,” she said sleepily.

The coyote immediately pressed a finger to his lips. “Quiet, don’t make a lot of noise. We’ve got to get you away from here.”

“Huh?” the vixen replied with a confused expression. “Away from what?”

“Away from—” Joe caught himself before his voice got too loud, instead gesturing impatiently to the dragon.

Sela blinked again in askance before she realized what he was talking about. “Oh, him,” she said with a smile and patted the dragon’s side like she would a friend or pet. “Don’t worry, Stripes and I have a working relationship now.”

Now it was Joe’s turn to look confused. “Stripes?” he asked.

“That’s correct,” a rumbling voice spoke. The dragon’s head stiffly rose a few feet and turned to look at the coyote out of the corner of its eye. “Pleasure to meet you.”

“Uh, nice to meet you too?” Joe said with a mix of fear and confusion.

“Whoa, Joe, take it easy. You look like you’re going to have a heart attack,” Sela laughed. “Stripes is a friend, he’s not going to bite you in half or anything like that.”

“Sela speaks the truth, Joe,” Stripes added. “She spared my life when she had the right and the opportunity to do so, all out of a promise to my late mother, and for that I am in her debt.”

“Uh, your mother?” the coyote repeated uneasily. His fear was starting to subside, but being this close to a dragon was still a bit unsettling.

“Remember my life story that I told you earlier?” Sela said. “Well, this happens to be that dragon’s son. Kinda strange, the sort of folks you meet in the desert.”

“I’ll say,” Joe concurred.

“Sela has told me of your mission and the troubles that have befallen you and your compatriots,” Stripes said. “I will be happy to aid you, but I’m afraid that my assistance will be limited, as I am still recovering from old wounds.”

“Oh, uh, thanks,” Joe replied. “Is there any way we can help you with your injuries?”

Stripes smiled. “Your offer is appreciated, but not necessary. We dragons are hardy creatures and we heal faster than most.” Slowly he stood up, carefully stretching out his wings, legs, neck, and tail. “Ah, it feels good to move about again,” he sighed happily. “Lead the way, Joe. If what Sela told me earlier is true, then time is of the essence.”

Joe relaxed visibly. “Right,” he said and turned back towards the camp. He paused and looked over his shoulder at the dragon. “You know, Stripes,” he said with a smile, “I don’t know a lot about dragons, but I’m actually glad you’re with us on this.”

The dragon’s smile grew wider. “I thank you for your kind words,” he said humbly. He lowered his head closer to the coyote. “Perhaps soon I’ll be able to return you to the skies once again.” He walked past the confused canid as he followed Sela back to the cave.

“How did he…?” Joe asked himself. He rubbed his forehead again. “Yoy, the surprises you find in this job…”


# # #


(4 January 2006)

“A what?” the white tiger asked incredulously several minutes later.

“A...” Joe scratched an ear briefly. “Whaddya call ’em? Worms?”

“Wyrm?” Tigermark asked.

“Yeah. One of those.” Joe paused, looking out of the cave momentarily, and then back to his friend. “Y’know, I used to know a guy we called ’Tony the Worm’ when I worked on the Santa Fe...”

"Joe..." Tigermark interrupted. He looked at his friend for several silent moments, knowing he’d heard him correctly but wondering about the coyote’s sanity anyway. “Joe,” he asked carefully, “have you been drinking?”

The coyote started to snarl a bit, then his expression became sheepish. “In the absence of any coffee this morning,” he confessed, “I had a snort.” Then his belligerence began to ramp up. “What of it?”

“You brought a flying, fire-breathing dragon to our base of operations and you ask me what of it?” Tigermark asked in that same incredulous voice.

Nearby, beneath his blanket, a feline stirred. “Lord,” a voice mumbled sleepily. “I’m in the company of combative old femmes again.” The voice rose in volume and timbre. “What are you two arguing about now?” A tabby’s head peered out from behind the blanket, his eyes twinkling humorously in spite of how tired he felt. “Did you guys forget whose turn it is to make breakfast again?” Aramis Dagaz yawned.

Tigermark gestured at Joe with a paw. “Your friend here brought us a wyrm for breakfast.”

“A what?”

“That’s right...”

Aramis threw his blanket aside, scrambling for his katana.

A giggle sounded from outside. “Relax,” a young feminine voice called. “He’s with me.”

The three members of the King’s Special Operations Group turned their heads to stare towards the mouth of the cave. A familiar gray fox stood smiling out in the sun, but before any of them could say anything to her another gleeful voice sounded behind them from the depths of the cave, followed by rustling noises.

“It’s him, right Sela?”

The Siamese scurried past the three momentarily befuddled members of the SOG, a grin plastered across her muzzle as she ran to throw her arms around the neck of her fellow mercenary. “This is the one! The son, right?” Cindy effused.

Sela nodded, a small smile on her own muzzle directed at the three males as she returned the hug of her friend. Beyond her all of them could see the large reptilian standing self-consciously several yards behind Sela. Who in the desert could miss seventy feet of winged white dragon with black stripes?

Tigermark held an open paw before him, pads facing Sela. “Wait a minute...” he implored. “Son?”

Cindy whirled around to look at her male companions. “Don’t you remember?”

The tiger’s vacant look was a clear answer.

“Sela’s story! How she promised to spare the life of a dying wyrm’s son. Remember?”

The tiger suddenly smiled and stood up, addressing the gray fox. “Of course! This is the son of the wyrm who battled your clan. I remember.” Looking past Sela, Tigermark once again raised his paw, this time in greeting. “Welcome, friend. I am Tigermark, leader of this detachment of the King’s Special Operations Group. Please, join us and rest yourself.”

The wyrm smiled shyly, and then a deep, rumbling voice sent shivers into the floor of the cave. “You are part of SOG?”

Joe looked at the wyrm with a humorous expression of his own as Aramis moved to stand next to him, lowering his sword. “This surprises you?” the coyote asked.

The wyrm recovered nicely. “Oh, no,” the rumbling voice continued. “Not at all. Unused to seeing furs of such skill and value out here in the desert wastes am I.”

Tigermark blinked. “We’re on assignment under orders direct from His Majesty King Phillip. We are here looking for a certain spotted lion named Cutter Long.”

The dragon nodded. “Know of him I do. A dangerous mage is he.” The rumbling voice became a hiss. “Very powerful.”

The tiger strode towards the mouth of the cave, past Cindy and Sela, towards the dragon. “My name is Tigermark,” he repeated. “I am the leader of this group. We...”

“You,” the wyrm interrupted quietly, “are of the clan M’Rega. Yes...” the dragon blinked it’s huge eyes slowly. “Tigermark. I know of you,” he rumbled.

Joe grinned suddenly. “Nice, T. Your reputation precedes you yet again...”

“And you,” the wyrm said, turning his head slightly to look Joe in the eyes, “are from the Latrans clan. And he is of the family Dagaz, yes.” The dragon indicated Aramis briefly with a tilt of the head. “And none of you are from this planet, nor even this star system. Yes indeed...” the wyrm’s dialog tapered off as he looked at them.

“How do you know these things?” Tigermark asked, his guard suddenly up.

The wyrm smiled patiently. “I make it my business to know many things,” he replied carefully. “As I know of you, I know also of that fur which you seek, and the prisoners he holds.” The wyrm’s massive head turned slowly as he gazed down upon Sela and Cindy, still standing next to him. “As I am indebted to this charming fox here, I therefore offer my services to you as well.”

Tigermark put his paws on his hips as he stared frankly at the dragon. Long moments of silence passed between them, during which time the wyrm turned to stare calmly back into the tiger’s eyes. The SOG team leader was uncomfortable with this latest plot twist, but in the back of his mind a small voice encouraged him, saying “Trust me...” And he did. Putting a smile back on his muzzle in spite of his concerns about the depth of the wyrm’s knowledge, Tigermark asked pleasantly “And how may we address you, friend?”

The wyrm smiled shyly yet again. “You couldn’t pronounce my name,” the rumbling voice said almost pleasantly. “Mages with their spells have trouble with it.” The dragon sighed briefly. “Most know me simply as Stripes.”

The tiger blinked yet again and looked stunned for the few fractions of a second it took the coyote to step forward and elbow him in the ribs. He turned to see Joe grinning at him.

“Well amigo,” the coyote chuckled. “It seems I’ve temporarily lost myself a drooling beast of an organo-mechanical friend, while you’ve gained yourself the use of a striped flying machine.” Joe laughed briefly. “Somefur ought to be writing this down. It would make a great story...”

# # #

The six of them sat at the mouth of the cave sharing breakfast. Sela and Cindy sat side by side, leaning comfortably against the left shoulder of the huge winged reptile, the three amigos sat facing them. As they finished their meal and relaxed into the heat of the morning the conversation turned to the plight of their friend and Cutter Long’s plans.

“I know of the princess,” Stripes nodded slowly. “While being held by the orcs as bait for the hydra you fought I overheard many conversations about the fair Fallona and her captor. It seems that the orcs were quite taken with her, but after the sudden and public execution of one of their number at the hands of your lion friend, they kept away from her.”

“Cutter killed one of the orcs by his own paws?” Aramis asked.

The wyrm nodded. “Indeed. A mercenary attempted to enter the princess’ tent one evening with foul intent. The spotted lion killed him with his bare paws as an example to the rest of them. I believe the expression he used was ’If any harm comes to her, I will kill you all and let God sort it out.’”

Joe looked quickly at Tigermark. “Interesting.”

The tiger nodded, looking at Stripes. “Do you know where Cutter Long is now?”

The wyrm looked at the dust between himself and the amigos. “No.” He looked up into the eyes of Aramis. “His magic is too strong. I cannot fathom his actions or location. I have not seen him since the orcs planted me near the village for the hydra.”

“Did you ever see a mephit in his company?”

The dragon looked confused.

“A skunk. Did you see a skunk with him?”

Stripes shook his huge head slowly. “No skunks.”

“How was it,” Tigermark asked, “that you came to escape the imprisonment of the orcs?”

The wyrm smiled slowly. “I believe you are acquainted with a poodle named Digray? His people freed me as they evacuated their village. I believe they thought I was already dead. They took the chains securing me and left me, alone.”

Tigermark looked at Aramis and Joe in turn, and then turned to Cindy and Sela as he mused aloud “What would Digray and his crew need heavy chain for?”

Joe shrugged, his tail wagging briefly. “Snow chains?”

“Funny, Joe.” Tigermark turned again to Stripes. “You have no idea where they are, correct?”

“None. Cutter’s magic is too strong, he has concealed himself and his prisoners well.”

Joe made a disparaging noise. “Magic,” he muttered.

Aramis looked at his companion critically but withheld comment as Stripes spoke again.

“There is much usefulness in magic and the craft of the magi, José.”

The coyote’s head snapped up to stare at the wyrm. “Magic got us where we are now,” he commented with a trace of annoyance.

“And where is that?” Aramis asked, a note of challenge in his own voice. “Alive and fit enough to carry the battle forward.”

“Not only having not accomplished our objective, but now minus a member of the team and having absolutely no idea where either she, or our target, or her captor are,” the coyote rumbled sarcastically. “Yeah, we’re doing real good.”

“Joe...” Tigermark cautioned.

“And you’re blaming the use of magic for that?” Aramis asked defensively. “Maybe it was magic that has helped you get this far.”

“It was magic that almost killed you and Tigermark out there in the desert, youngster.”

“And almost rescued the Princess before any of the rest of this even came to pass! If Cutter hadn’t have found me...” Aramis blinked.

“I’m just sayin’...” Joe ventured. “Magic doesn’t seem to have been a big help on this tour.”

“That’s not fair Joe,” Tigermark replied. “Magic did help Aramis locate the princess originally, and it did help him guide us towards her.

“I know,” Joe grumbled, suddenly feeling quite helpless. “It’s just...” he held his paws before him, pads towards the roof of the cave. “What are we going to do now?”

He turned to the tabby at his side. “I’m sorry, Aramis.”

The feline nodded, searching his eyes.

# # #

The dotted lion was becoming quite accustomed to his new digs.

What locals there had been living out here in these wastes hundreds of years ago had called it Tsé Bit’ A’í, the Rock With Wings. It was a huge volcanic plug of approximately 40 million years age, the left over core of an ancient volcano, rising in dark contrast high above the red sandstone and scrub chaparral of the surrounding desert. It’s crest was jagged and sharp, multiple spires rising like the back of some huge, petrified dinosaur at the crest of a block of black, cold, lava stone. The spires at each end were taller than the rest, giving it the appearance of having horns, to which of course the anglo-European invaders from across the oceans had given demonic meaning. Ranging away from the base of this almost two thousand foot tall edifice were the “wings”, thin narrow dikes made of volcanic material that stretched away for miles like walls that gradually tapered into the surrounding desert wastes.

This chunk of rock was miles from anything recognizable by anyone, far removed from anything resembling civilization. Yet it was here that mages of old, five centuries ago, had established a fortification within which they evolved a religion based in black arts and the worship of evil. They had discovered the hollow core in the Rock With Wings and built a small city within, steeped in dark powers and known by none save those priests and their attendants who worshiped there. For almost three hundred years they perfected their art, eradicating the local indigenous furs and all trappings of their lives, reducing the surroundings to a true desert.

Their empire had all but been destroyed by the next wave of invaders, those who had come pursuing the shining mountains with a new religion, one driven by the lust for gold. These furs knew nothing about the ways of old and couldn’t have cared less. They were after the flash in the pan, the glitter of a quick fortune that awaited them over the mountains to the west. Fueled by this ignorance and the promise of quick material wealth, the horrible technologies the lifestyle of this new breed of furs spawned were a temporary match for the old mages and priests who lived within the core of the dark rock.

At first they hid, preferring to be unknown. But in any mass migration motivated by quick and easy wealth there are always a few true explorers, those who want to see what’s over the horizon just because it beckons... the unknown. So it was that hard rock dry miners came to the desert, and so it was that the dark forces of the evil priests were laid exposed for the modern world, like a nest of roaches suddenly exposed to sunlight. Black powder and nitro-glycerine, cannon and shell had reduced the interior of Rock With Wings to an almost uninhabitable maze of shelled chambers and burnt quarters. All but a pawful of the dark empire of mages were destroyed. All but a pawful...

Cutter Long had found Rock With Wings while looking for a suitable place to build fortifications. His ambitions had been much smaller then. He had simply wanted to find a place to hide the princess while he extorted massive amounts of money from King Phillip, money he subconsciously hoped would buy him enough spirits and loose femmes to forget the horrid hell the King had foisted upon he and his own. But then he had discovered the buried, ruined temples and halls within the Rock. Here he first tasted the power of evil in it’s purest form.

He had recruited the sorry saps worshiping the sun out there in the desert, furs of small mind and no ambition who were more than agreeable to do his bidding as long as the food and spirits flowed to them. They were nothing more than tools for him, he and his orc mercenaries had used them to do the grudge work, the shit details involved in building the rooms of the rock into a fortification suitable to their needs. Like any paw tools, Digray and his sorry followers had been expendable.

But Cutter had found something else here at the Rock, something he had not shared with even his closest mercenaries. Actually, it had found him. It had sent the ancient orc Borung to him, and Borung had brought him to the main chambers deep within the Rock. Here Cutter had begun his education in what evil and it’s true power could bring to a fur with much ambition and little soul.

The dotted lion glanced at the sphere on the altar before him. It was crafted from one half ruby and the other half expertly cut diamond. It glowed with a soft, rose-colored light which cast a low illumination of the black room around them.

“Ah, princess,” he grinned. “The game’s afoot. Too bad I can’t trust you to watch it unfold with me. You’ll just have to stay where you are until your father joins you.”

# # #

“Master dude, this is most awesome! Check this out!”

The young collie male pointed at a large pump buried deep within the mechanisms encased by dark green metal. The old poodle looked at it carefully.

“Like... what am I lookin’ at?”

“Most esteemed elder dude, this is the heart! This makes our friend go! This is what makes the fluids move that allow our friend here to do things.” The collie grinned. “Before I became a worshiper I used to work on dee eights for a mining company at Granite City. Most esteemed elder dude, this is a hydraulic pump, and it’s whacked. The impeller has broken away from it’s roller bearing assemblies and destabilized.”

Digray looked carefully at the large, partially disassembled, cylindrical device the collie pointed excitedly at. He had no idea what the youngster was babbling about.

“Dude, mellow out. Take a chill pill and tell me, in small words, what this means.”

“Old fur, if we fix this, our friend here will rise again!”

The poodle nodded, a smile slowly spreading across the gray whiskers of his face.

“Do it.”

He turned away, leaving the collie to his tasks, and wandered out of the livery building that housed what was left of the mechanical monstrosity they had brought to Many Rocks yesterday.

Strolling into the heat of the day and crossing a dusty street, the poodle reflected on recent events that had significantly changed their lives. Sure, leading a commune in the desert loaded down with naked young femmes worshiping the sun had been cool. In fact, it had been a blast. But then that cat Cutter had showed up and jacked it all up, and then those furs working for the king had shown up, and now it was all blown up.

But that was cool too, because they had been able to scavenge this huge machine as they left the empty burning shell of what had been their village. A pawful of horses and a couple of wheeled sleds, and they had brought it all to Many Rocks. Turned out he had some sun-worshipers on his crew that had handy secular talents. Welders. Mechanics. Machinists. The poodle smiled broadly. And a by-God hydraulic engineer.

The poodle stopped at the edge of the dirt road and rolled his shoulders before shaking himself just a bit. He was totally unused to wearing clothes. What he and his followers had been able to scrounge, steal, trade for, or buy was mostly clothing fit for miners and furs of the road. Tough denim jeans or overalls, coarse and rough cotton shirts, leather or canvas outerwear. To a Sanders clansfur it felt like wearing a wooden house, restrictive and uncomfortable.

The local excuse for a peace officer had stopped them on the edge of town. “Y’all will not enter Many Rocks bein’ all nekkid like that.”

The poodle snorted, concluding his shaking down of his new clothing. It was best to fade into the background for now, rather than draw attention to themselves.

Digray mounted the steps of the local tavern at Many Rocks and nodded to the proprietor, a scarred and unpleasant-looking wolverine, who met him just inside the door.

“No trouble,” the wolverine growled at him as he passed into the inner common area.

“No worries, dude.”

Entering the large, dark room, the poodle paused briefly to let his eyes adjust to the surroundings. He scanned the room, looking for somefur. Somefur he didn’t know, but whose reputation he did know.

# # #

“What’s eating you, Joe?” Aramis inquired after a moment.

The coyote regarded the tabby evenly and took a deep breath, releasing it slowly.

“I dunno... I guess I just don’t like not having a plan, a course of action.”

“What are you talking about?” Sela asked. “It’s obvious enough, we’re going to go get Demi back, and kick Cutter’s ass. What’s to plan?”

Joe grinned at the gray fox. He liked the young vixen’s moxie, she had a lot of brass when she needed it. “Well,” he replied, “there’s the small matter of not having any idea where she is.” He turned his gaze to Tigermark, the grin fading. “There’s also the matter of Cutter’s increased powers. We have no idea what limits, if any, he has these days. After seeing that decimated orc crew and what he did to the village, and after hearing about what happened to you and Aramis, it’s plain that Cutter has broadened his horizons.”

The tiger nodded. “That has been on my mind as well...”

“I may be able to help with that.”

Five furry heads turned to stare at the wyrm.

“Stripes, you’re injured,” Sela cried. “You can barely walk, let alone fly!”

The dragon regarded his friend with solemn eyes. “To myself I was not referring.”


The dragon made a face that might have been a grin of it’s own. “I was not speaking of myself.” He turned his attention to Tigermark. “But I do know of one who can help us.”

“Oh? Do tell!”

“Need one who is resistant to magic, you do. One who is cognizant of what mages are capable of and who can predict their actions. Indeed, one who is not bound by the mechanisms of your faith, which is what these mages leverage upon to hobble you so. With such a fur I am acquainted.”

The tiger gestured for the wyrm to continue.

“I met her once, long ago.” Stripes turned briefly to Sela. “Before meeting you. We encountered her, my mother and I, as we wandered in the skies of the far north.” The wyrm shivered unintentionally, smiling slightly. “It’s cold up there! I much prefer the deserts here.”

Turning back to Tigermark, Stripes continued. “She comes from a culture...”

“She?” Joe interrupted.

Stripes nodded, looking at Joe. “As mighty a warrior as any you’ll ever meet, José. Confident, capable, loyal, and devoted to her people.” The wyrm blinked. “You’d like her.”

“I’m just askin’...” Joe said, shrugging briefly and smiling slightly himself.

“She’s a mage?” Aramis asked.

“Not in the strictest sense,” Stripes addressed the tabby. “Knows sejd when she sees it, she does, and can fight against it. The two of you will make a powerful team, you with your insights into magic and she with her knowledge of battling against it.”

The wyrm returned his gaze to the tiger. “Saying as I was, she comes from a culture very unlike yours, and not at all like the culture of this part of this planet.” Here the wyrm turned and gazed in a friendly manner at Cindy and Sela. “Yet found these three here you three did, and that is good.”

Cindy looked at Joe briefly.

“Fight well you do, and more fighting there is to come, yes. Much more. Yet you will be seven when it is done, of that I am sure.”

A brief expression of relief crossed the brow of each fur in the cave’s mouth.

“How can you be so sure?” Tigermark asked. "You sound quite certain of our outcome.”

The wyrm now truly grinned, there was no mistaking it. “Oh, but sure I am. Very sure.”

# # #

The hall was dark. The meal had ended hours ago, most furs present were sleeping off the fuzziness induced by mead and ale. Yet the shieldmaiden lay on the bench, staring at the ceiling of the hall, troubled. Her mind would not let her sleep. Something kept rolling around in her head, begging her attention, annoying in it’s persistence.

The equine rose to a sitting position and placed a paw to her forehead even as the other sought the comfort of her battle axe. She was tired, she knew, yet sleep eluded her.


# # #

In the vast expanse of the western badlands on the planet some knew as M-R277+47/301F-3, a young mephit femme stared at her feline companion as dusk fell. She was scared, but would not allow her voice to betray that emotion.

“Fallona, this is your father’s kingdom. Do you not know where you are?”

They were sitting on a rock on a low ridge. Behind them the ominous bulk of Cutter’s Rock was visible in the haziness of the horizon. Demi kept looking around for other familiar landmarks, and saw none.

The princess seemed frozen in place, uncertainty etching her features for a few seconds, and then suddenly a calm look came to her visage. Her tail twitched in sudden annoyance. “Of course, dear.”

“Where is the Sanders village?” the young skunk implored.

The princess’ arm seemed to jump out of her lap of it’s own accord, pointing towards the darkening horizon in the east. Her gaze then turned in that direction. “That way.”

There was nothing out there except flat nothingness, miles and miles of empty miles and miles. At least those low hills were in the west. Their cave had been between a range of hills and those jagged, soaring peaks in the far west. Maybe that way...

“How can you be sure?”

Several emotions flickered across the princess’ face like a crudely animated cartoon, stopping at arrogance.

“You dare to question my knowledge of my father’s kingdom?” Her voice rose, becoming imperious. “I say go that way.” she pointed with a claw into the flat wastes to the east, “so that way we shall go!”

Demi stared at her companion, several unkind retorts rising to the occasion but each throttled within her throat before being verbalized. What a bitch, she said silently to herself.

# # #

“Initiated the process, I have,” the wyrm said solemnly.

Tigermark stared at the dragon passively. Until something actually happened this was all so much conversation and not much more than that. Still, that small voice in his head kept insisting that he humor the young wyrm, to go along with what was happening. And as he had been doing so for all these years, he now trusted that voice.

“When should we expect her?”

“Soon. Very soon.”

Behind the tiger and the dragon, inside the cave proper, a small fire burned in a pit. Night was rapidly approaching.

The coyote sat next to the Siamese, staring at the fire, a steel cup in his paw. Across from them, the gray fox and the tabby cat sat a little farther apart from each other. The fox was watching the coyote, the tabby was staring at the fire.

“So there we were, up on the side of a fourteen thousand foot mountain in a thunderstorm, the rain falling and the lightning flashing all around us, and my father calls me on the radio to tell me that he’s just torn the sidewall out of his tire.” The coyote grinned, glancing at the tabby. “Me and my son back-tracked down the trail. We changed his tire for him, all the while the thunder booming around us, with water and mud running down the trail around us as we worked. Fastest tire change we ever did...”

“What’s a tire?” Cindy wanted to know.

Joe just stared at her for a few moments, a grin frozen on his muzzle.

“Snakes.” Aramis mumbled.


The tabby looked up to his warrior companion, obviously re-connecting with his surroundings. “Snakes!”

The coyote looked blankly at him. “What the Hell are you talking about, youngster?”

The tabby was suddenly deadly serious in his earnestness. “Joe. Fallona still might be wearing that bracelet I used to communicate with her.”

The coyote’s grin faded as his mind shifted gears. The Siamese and the gray fox stared at Aramis.

“So what?”

The tabby’s eyes were bright. “I may be able to communicate with her, or at least with the bracelet.”

“Excuse me,” Joe said, confused. “You said the other bracelet self-destructed in Cutter’s paw. How are you going to call a phone if you don’t have a phone to make the call with?”

Aramis smiled at the analogy Joe employed. He tapped the side of his head. “Magic, Joe. Magic.”

Joe Latrans sighed, a small smile coming to his muzzle. “Girls,” he said, addressing the young femmes with them. “It’s gonna be a long night.”

# # #

“So you’re saying that you might be able to communicate with Fallona?”

Aramis stared at Tigermark. It was late, the fire was low, the two femmes were already asleep.

“I’m saying that I can communicate with the bracelet if I can get within line of sight with it.”

“What good is that?”

“I don’t know the incantation to get into Fallona’s mind without the matching bracelet, but the bracelet she had on her wrist can tell me what she is seeing with her eyes, what she senses as her surroundings.”

“Can, as in might?”

“I don’t know if she’s still wearing it...”

Tigermark nodded, his gaze moving from Aramis to Joe. “That’s more than we’ve got now...”

Joe nodded in agreement. “But you need line of sight?”

The tabby nodded in turn.

Joe smiled. “We’ve got that. At first light we’ll head west. If we can make the mountains and start into them, we’ll get that elevation. From up there the horizon is over a hundred miles away. If Fallona is anywhere around here, you’ll be able to see that bracelet from up there.”

“Good.” Aramis replied.

“OK then,” Tigermark interjected. “You two will leave at first light tomorrow to climb as high as you can, and see if Aramis can talk to his bracelet. While you’re doing that, I will work with Stripes on this new addition to our company.”

Aramis studied the tiger. “What do you make of that? This new addition?”

Tigermark shrugged. “Every resource has it’s value, young Aramis. I’m sure she has much to offer us.”

Joe snorted.

“What?” the tiger asked, looking at the coyote.

Joe glanced up, making a good attempt at looking innocent. “What? What did I say?”

“C’mon Joe, we know what you’re thinking,” Aramis said with a restrained chuckle.

Joe held up his paws in defeat. “OK, OK, call me transparent.” He laughed briefly.

“Always with the one track mind, you canids,” Tigermark tisked.

“I’m sure she’ll be very helpful,” Aramis interjected. “Stripes seems to know more about us than we do about ourselves, and if he says she’ll be an asset, then she probably will be.”

Tigermark looked at Aramis for a few moments, then turned his gaze back to Joe. “How do you figure,” he asked slowly, “that our striped flying flame thrower out there knows so much about us?”

A voice rumbled from outside the cave. “I ask questions, sir M’Rega, and I listen carefully to the answers.”

Joe smiled as he reached for the sooty coffee pot at the edge of the fire ring. “Seems your friend out there has a pretty good sense of hearing too, T.” Coffee plopped noisily into an old steel mug. “Ya better watch your mouth, buddy. In fact, I think we’d all better be on the defensive for a bit, until we find out who knows what and who’s hearing what.”

The tiger nodded slowly.


# # #


(11 January 2006)

It wasn’t too much later that two of the three members of the SOG had also called it a night, as they would have an early morning of it if they were to get very far before the heat set in. Tigermark, still beset with questions and thoughts, had chosen to take the watch while they slept first. He now stood at the mouth of the cave, listening to the night sounds of the surrounding desert. Stripes took up most of his field of view, as the dragon breathed, quite softly for a creature of such size, rhythmically in sleep. The wyrm slept with his head under one wing, his tail curled around and all four legs curled underneath him.

The tiger sighed to himself. Too many questions and too little information always bothered him, but again that little voice in the back of his mind said, “Trust me . . . and him.”

Just then Tigermark’s eyes passed over the dragon in their normal watch-duty scan, and he was startled to see that Stripes had his eyes open, regarding the tiger. He walked over to the large head, so as to talk quietly and hopefully not wake anyone inside.

“Stripes,” he said by way of greeting.

“Sir M’Rega,” the dragon said in a low voice as soft as his breathing had been. “You seem troubled. I realize things are looking a bit bleak, but be at peace. Things are in motion to bring help, and I feel much better even this evening than I did when the young vixen found me.”

“Please, Tigermark will do. I’m pleased you’re recovering well.” There were several moments of silence before Tigermark spoke again.

“You’ve been very mysterious with your answers. It’s just you and I now, so again I ask, how do you know so much about us?”

“Many questions have you. Many questions asked have I, and well listened to the answers,” Stripes replied with a slight grin. Tigermark shook his head. If you’ve never seen a dragon grin, it’s not a really pretty sight, even if the dragon is friendly. The tiger had to grin himself at the hokey way the dragon spoke, like the character from the old science fiction movie.

“Very mysterious, my scaly friend, but drop the wise ol’ sage act. The Lord I serve keeps saying to trust you, so I will, but I’d like to know where you’re coming from.”

Stripes considered this for several moments before he spoke. “Suffice it to say that Chris sends His regards. Don’t look so surprised, your ‘Boss’ as you call him and I have met. No, the tale of how will wait for another time. As to the wise old sage act, well, it impresses some folks. I though Joe was going to fall over when I started talking like that.”

Tigermark nodded, though he was not distracted by the attempt to change the subject. “He wasn’t the only one. You know, I thought dragons were always on the other team, if you understand me. Always only interested in hoarding and guarding their treasure, or making off with young maidens for nefarious purposes.”

“You read too many earth fantasy stories. We of the Draconi are free moral agents, able to be good or bad just as any other sentient creature. Many have given us a bad reputation with their greed, but at times it takes a lot of gold and treasure to provide food and such for the long winter. Many are revered in their worlds and societies as bringers of good. We are of the primal essence of nature and the universes.”

Tigermark narrowed his eyes. “Why do I get the feeling treasure isn’t your aim?”

The dragon now smiled. “There are many kinds of treasure. My mother got too old to defend her hoard, and a young male drove us out of our hold. We wandered far after that over many realms. During this time is where I saw from afar the one I have called up to help you. But before I say any more about that, let me finish my thought. During this time of weary wandering, my mother had a revelation. She figured out a treasure that, once gained, can never be stolen. One that even when given away never leaves.”

“What’s that?” Tigermark asked, his curiosity aroused.

“Knowledge and wisdom. Good night, friend Tigermark.” Stripes put his head back under his wing, and soon Tigermark heard the steady, soft breathing resume.

“Okay Boss, lead on,” the tiger said quietly as he took up his sentry station again.

# # #

“UP and at ‘em, Princess. Time to get moving.” Demi was in the process of shaking off the sand that had collected all over her. When the sun had gotten too hot to continue, she had convinced the Princess to hold up in the shadow created by a tall hill and a small gully. She had taken her clothing off and rolled in the sand in the shadows to stay cool, so now she was quite naked. After she shook out the sand, she donned her clothing and weapons. The Princess, who was deeper in the shadows, sat up and looked about, appearing disoriented. She stood up, revealing herself to be still fully clothed.

“Princess Fallona! I told you that you’d stay a lot cooler if you stripped off and rubbed sand into your fur, didn’t you about sweat to death in your clothes?” Demi was incredulous, not understanding how the young lioness could’ve withstood the heat. She didn’t even appear to be sweating.

The Princess looked blankly for a moment, but then drew herself up in an imperious pose. “I am of the royal family. We do not sweat! Now, are you ready to move on?”

Demi was rapidly increasing her dislike for the princess. She still wasn’t at all certain they were going in the right direction, and the Princess’ bitchy attitude was wearing on her nerves. She almost wished she’d left her back with Cutter.

At the thought of the dotted lion, Demi subconsciously glanced back the direction they’d come, where the twin spires of Cutter’s dark lair still showed on the horizon.

“Uh, yeah, I am,” she said after a moment. The Princess remained in place as Demi started to walk. She turned back to see why the lioness wasn’t following. “Now what?”

The Princess still had the same imperious attitude showing on her face. “That is not how you answer a princess of the Royal Family. You shall answer with proper respect or.. shan’t… move …” The princess seemed to lock up for a second, and then continued, “I shall not move.”

Demi squinted at the princess. She now suspected that Fallona was suffering from heat stress after being too stubborn to get undressed and take measures against the day’s heat. She looked ahead to the east at the direction the Princess had been heading them in; at a rising moon that would give them light for the night’s travel. She’d been more and more convinced they were going the wrong way. Deciding to take a different route despite her royal charge’s objections, she gave a slight bow toward the lioness.

“I’m very sorry, Your Highness. I am ready to depart. Please accompany me for your own safety, as Cutter may even at this moment be pursuing us. I will lead us on a more roundabout route to throw him off.”

Again, Demi noticed a slight hesitation before Princess Fallona settled on a more friendly expression.

“That is much better. Yes, lead on then.”

Demi again started out, but now with the moon to guide her, she turned more northerly. She planned to turn and eventually follow the moon toward the west and the distant mountains and hills she was now sure led to her friends. The Princess followed along without comment. Together they trudged across the desert as the night progressed.

# # #

Cutter grinned evilly. His psuedo-princess had led the mercenary leader more than a day and a half’s walk in the wrong direction. She was slowly and deftly turning back towards the west, and for the moment he was content to let her. He’d wanted a delay in his little drone finding herself amongst the King’s agents to make sure he had a firm control over her, and that the sight and hearing link was well established. His original plan was for her to slit their throats on the first night and carry his ransom message to King Phillip in a most embarrassing way, walking into the King’s throne room and depositing the tiger’s head at his feet, then stripping naked and dancing a jig for all there to see before self-destructing in a gelatinous mess. He hadn’t allowed her to disrobe in front of the mercenary, because her anatomical features would not be completely formed for another day or two. The crystal that held the real Princess Fallona was slowly but surely measuring her every contour and feature, down to her very thoughts and memories, and sending the drone the information.

Now though, with his still-expanding power and much loftier goals, he’d let his fake princess be taken back to the King of Alteria. It would be he that had his throat slit, and then the fake princess would ascend the throne, and immediately turn it over to Cutter’s control. From there, conquering the other kingdoms and making this world his would be an easy task. And his old friend Tigermark. Cutter growled low. The tiger, he decided, would take the rap for the King’s death and be immediately beheaded. He might even have it stuffed and mounted to decorate his wall. The young cat, Aramis Dagaz, he would personally turn inside out an inch at a time for the humiliation and pain he’d caused him. The mercenaries and the old coyote were of no consequence to him now. He might even let them go on living. What would he care, he was a god now, and such petty beings meant little to him. He returned his attention to the view in front of him, of the back of the skunkette his drone was following.

“Soon, Tiger, soon. And King Phillip, too.”

In front of him, the red glow under the alter intensified again, as it had continually since he’d acquired its power.

# # #

Princess Fallona sat with her knees up to her chin, very alone and very scared in the featureless plane she found herself in. It was dazzlingly bright, but she could find no source for the light. Every little while, a brighter beam would engulf her, and she’d feel a tingling in her head as though something was trying to pull her memories out, and a slight pressure at one point on her body or another. It wasn’t a painful sensation, just a little uncomfortable. It reminded her of when the seamstresses would fit her for a new gown. She suddenly didn’t like that idea, but she didn’t know what she could do about it.

Still fresh in her memory was the awful way she’s gotten where she was. Cutter had thrown a jeweled ball at her, hitting her in the chest. She remembered seeing it split open, and then the world had gone nauseatingly spinning out of control. She’d had the distinct feeling of being pulled down while spinning, as though caught in a whirlpool. She guessed she’d landed here fairly softly in the end, because when she came to, she was laying unhurt on what seemed to be solid ground. Only thing, she had no idea where here was. She’d wandered around this featureless world until the first beam had hit her. Since then she’d sat pretty much as she was now.

The thought came to her that if something was measuring her; she ought to do something to throw those measurements off.

“Hmm,” she said to herself, “what can I do that’ll throw off whatever Cutter is doing?”

As she thought, she realized that the attraction she’d had toward him was gone. When he’d thrown the jeweled ball at her, he’d had the most evil sneer on his face, erasing any thoughts she’d ever had about how handsome he might be. Then an idea came to her. Why not make whatever was measuring her get a false reading about her features? The beam had already measured her face, arms, paws, and legs. Even down to her feet. What was left?

Just then she felt the beam come on again, and felt the now-familiar tingling and pressure. It was her back this time, and she quickly remembered something she had done as a child that drove her dressmakers and her father to distraction. She’d always called it “shark-back.” She could still do it, she believed. She swung her right arm around herself and shrugged a bit. There, she felt it. What she was doing was causing her scapula to push out on her back, making it resemble a shark’s fin. While doing so, she stood and began to walk in a circle, the beam following her.

“Da-dum, da-dum, dadum-dadum-dadum-dadum, Da-da-da-daaaaa!” she sing-songed in a low, melodramatic voice. She’d gotten the idea from a play a traveling company had put on when she was seven. It had absolutely caused her father to freak out. He’d forbidden her to do it, so of course she had every chance she got.

As the beam started to fade, she thought she needed to send a trigger for the action. She thought very hard of water until the beam was gone. Then she sat back down, feeling just slightly better for having done something she hoped would foul Cutter up.

# # #

Aramis was dreaming of a nice warm bed with fresh sheets and thick blankets. Then for some reason a fly began making repeated landings on his nose, despite his best efforts to shoo it away. Then it called his name in a voice that oozed sex appeal. He suddenly sat straight up, wide awake after that hideous vision.

“Whoa, easy Aramis, it’s just me,” the same sexy voice said. Startled, he looked to his side to see Sela almost muzzle to muzzle with him. She had a very cute, mischievous smile on her muzzle. Aramis looked down to see the same scarf he’d used to tie her up at their first meeting hanging loosely in her paw. The fly in his dream had been her tickling his nose with it.

He shook his head, mumbling about flies and funny foxes. Sela just smiled at him.

“I need you to open the spare pocket so we can get breakfast going. You and Joe will need your strength if you’re going to climb mountains and find Demi today.”

Aramis got to his feet and stretched. He took stock of his surroundings for a moment. Joe was still asleep, and Cindy had managed to slip in and was laying behind him with her head propped up on his shoulder. Tigermark was curled up on the opposite side of the fire pit, snoring softly. He could see from the dim light at the mouth of the cave that it would still be a little while before the sun came up. Sela had gotten a fire going to cook breakfast on, and it made the usually stark cave seem almost cheery. In its dim glow, Aramis could make out the shadowed form of their new ally still apparently sleeping outside the mouth of the cave, also. It would have been a wonderful scene if it weren’t for the dire circumstances they faced.

“Morning comes too early,” he mumbled as he opened their magical supply depot and got out water, a skillet, the coffee pot and more preene eggs and SPAM. He looked out at their large guest, and pulled a whole case of the meat product out. Soon the others began to stir as the smell of food and coffee started to awaken them. Joe started to roll over until he felt the weight on his shoulder. Cindy shifted and curled up in the way that felines do. Joe rose up on his elbow and looked down at her, a small smile on his muzzle.

“Hey kitten, time to get up, I think.”

Cindy mumbled and then stretched, the perfect picture of youthful strength again. There weren’t even the tiniest scars left from her hydra bite, Joe noted briefly as she rearranged her blanket around her. He gave himself a slight, chiding tsk and reached into his pocket for another toothpick. He sat up and placed it in his mouth, working it around.

“Mornin’ Joe. Ready to climb every mountain?” Aramis asked as he helped Sela with the food.

“Well, I hope it’s not every mountain. We should probably concentrate on the tallest one we can reach quickly, so you can magic us a way to find Demi and the Princess.”

Aramis gave him a blank look. “We will be. I looked at the map while I was on watch last night. The name of the tallest mountain in that range to our west is Every Mountain.”

Joe shook his head. “I shoulda known. Anyway, let’s get breakfast done and get going. We’ll let Tigermark sleep a bit more so he’ll be ready in case he needs to go along with us.”

“Too late, smells too good, and y’all are too loud,” the tiger mumbled as he stretched beneath his blanket. He then sat up and gave the scene in the cave a lopsided grin.

“We’d better watch it, guys, or we’ll end up taking the ladies home with us as adopted relations.”

“And possibly a large, scaly pet, too?” Stripes said by way of announcing that he was awake, too. That caused all of them to laugh.

“Of course! I can’t go anywhere now without my loyal friend Stripes,” Sela chimed in. Joe and Aramis just shook their heads, wondering at how fast the vixen and the dragon had bonded. Everyone not involved in making breakfast began to stow away their bedrolls. As they did, Cindy leaned in and spoke quietly to Joe.

“Joe, thank you.”

The coyote looked surprised, and a little embarrassed. “For what?”

“I remember more now, of when I was in and out from the hydra bite. You took care of me, and comforted me like I was one of your own. Even though you were hurt yourself. Thank you for caring about me.” The Siamese leaned in and kissed Joe on the side of the muzzle, causing him to blush while mumbling, “You’re welcome.”

He was saved further comment as Cindy turned and walked over to Tigermark. The tiger had just put away his bedroll, and was preparing to take the case of SPAM out to Stripes, since Sela was busy helping with the meal.

“Tigermark, I want to thank you for what you did for me. You saved my life,” the Siamese said earnestly.

Tigermark looked down at her. She’d stepped in quite close, but seemed almost shy. It reminded him of just how young she was. He smiled and shook his head.

“No, it wasn’t me. It was God Almighty that sent the power to heal you. And me and Joe, too. Thank Him, I was only a conduit for His mercy.”

Cindy looked at him for a long few seconds, and then smiled, too. “Then I thank Him for His power, and you for being there.”

Tigermark nodded his acceptance and approval. He expected Cindy to turn and go on with getting dressed and putting her bedroll away, as she was standing there in what amounted to a sleep shirt and panties, but she hesitated for a moment.

“Do you really think Demi is still okay? Do you think she could’ve survived Cutter Long’s attentions this long?”

Tiger thought a moment, and then remembered Stripes’ words of the previous day. “Our scaly friend out there seems to know a lot about us, and what’s going on. He says we’ll be seven at the end of this, and my Lord hasn’t given me any reason to doubt that, so yes, I think she’s still alive.”

Cindy nodded and turned to go, but then looked back over her shoulder. “Do you think we can stop by the Sanders village when we leave? I’d like to see if my leg armor is salvageable. It’s pretty hard to get replacements.”

“Sure, I don’t see why not,” Tigermark replied as he hefted the case of SPAM and headed for the entrance to the cave. Cindy smiled and went into the back chamber of the cave to get dressed.

Outside, Stripes was sitting up and carefully testing the flexing of his wings. “Good Morning, Tigermark. I trust you slept well?”

“As well as possible. How are you this morning?”

“Quite well, thank you. I do believe I might have a flight or two in me, if I can get some food.” The dragon cast about himself as though looking for something. “Alas, no food. I shall have to go hunt a bit, then.”

Tigermark offered up the case toward the wyrm. “I think we can oblige. This is a bulk case of SPAM. Inside is a large metal container with an easy-open lid. It contains about a hundred pounds of meat. I’m sorry it’s raw, but it would take all day plus to cook on our fire.”

Stripes took hold of the case and tore it open with a claw the size of a small saber. He sniffed at the metal container and then used the same claw to pull the ring that opened it. He took another sniff and then made a face, which he quickly hid.

“Ah, thank you. As game is rather scarce in these regions, I gratefully accept your hospitality. Don’t worry, I can cook my own food quite easily.”

The dragon found a small scrub sapling and snapped it off at the ground. He then used his claws to deleaf it and make a large roasting fork out of it. He studied the container of Spam for a moment, and then turned it up and stabbed the fork into the open top. He then used his claw to puncture the bottom to release the suction, and deftly pulled the large block of processed meat clear.

“Pardon me a moment,” Stripes said pleasantly. He then turned his head, lifted the meat up, and with a great whoosh, roasted it through with a blast of his biological fire. The resultant rush by those inside the cave to come see what was happening made both Stripes and Tigermark laugh. Joe and Aramis came running out with weapons drawn. Sela came running out with a skillet full of scrambled preene eggs in her paw. Cindy came running out last with half her armor still back in the cave.

After a few chagrined moments, the coyote and cat put their swords back in their sheaths. Tigermark was wiping his eyes as Stripes looked inquiringly at everyone while munching on a chunk of roast SPAM.

“T-Thank you for your concern, my friends, but Stripes was merely roasting his breakfast.”

“Indeed I was. If I had known you wanted to watch, I’d have said something,” the dragon rumbled pleasantly.

Sela shook her head. “See, I told you it was all right. Jumpy as a group of ninnyherds. C’mon before these get cold.” She turned and went back into the cave, but not before giving Stripes a smile and a wink. Joe and Aramis returned to the inside, also, Joe muttering about flame-throwing locomotives and Aramis about losing half a dozen eggs. Cindy just stood where she was for a moment, a variety of emotions playing across her face.

Tigermark noticed her standing there. “Cindy, are you all right?”

“That, that sound. I heard it in my worst fever dreams before you, uh, before I was healed.” She began to shake. Stripes quit chewing and spoke in a smooth, low, gentle voice.

“Lady Cindy,” he began, making a slight bow with his head. “I am quite sorry to have frightened you. Do not fear. The hydra is dead, and I will never use my fire on you. Be at ease, and do not tremble. You are safe, and among friends.”

His words seemed to penetrate the young Siamese’s remembered fear and pain. She stopped shaking and looked up, a slight smile on her face. Joe just then walked back out to see what was delaying the two felines.

“Hey, you two gonna watch Stripes eat or come on in and have breakfast?”

Tigermark grinned and clapped the coyote on the shoulder as he passed him. “Much as I enjoy watching a dragon eat, we’d best hurry and get going.”

Cindy turned to go inside, also. As Joe turned to go with her, she looked slyly at him.

“We did a number on that hydra, didn’t we?”

Joe looked at her, wondering at her statement after all that victory had cost, and nearly cost. Then he saw what was going on. She was trying to deal with the trauma, and this was part of her way.

“Yep we did,” he said reassuringly as they headed inside.

After breakfast was done and everything was cleaned up and put away, Joe and Aramis made ready to depart for their hike and climb. As everyone filed out of the cave and Aramis reset the wards on it, Stripes grinned and spread his wing out, creating a large shadow from the newly-risen sun.

“Before you two depart, may I offer an alternative?”

The SOG plus all looked at each other. Sela was the first to guess the dragon’s meaning.

“Oh no Stripes! You can’t possibly mean for them to ride on you. You haven’t had time to heal.”

Stripes angled his wings behind him and gave a great flap, creating a small sandstorm. “A little rest, a little food, and I’m right as rain. I should be able to carry Aramis, or Joe, or both. Relax, Lady Sela. I am quite well now.”

After a short conference, in which Joe vehemently doubted their sanity, it was decided that he would ride and assist Stripes in looking visually while Aramis concentrated on using magic to locate their missing friend and the princess.

“Would it be all right if we put a rope on you so they can hold on better?” Sela asked Stripes.

“At your service. Just not too tight,” the dragon replied amiably.

A rope was passed around Stripes, in front of his wings and behind his front legs, or rather; they were more like arms, as they ended in long-clawed paws. After it was tied, two loops were attached for Joe and Aramis to hold onto.

“Now, if you please, Aramis, climb up and seat yourself with your legs in front of my wings.”

Aramis complied, looking none too sure about the whole prospect. Joe climbed up next, placing one boot on the dragon’s “elbow” and swinging up into place right in front of Aramis. Stripes shrugged slightly to settle the weight on him, and then looked around at them.

“If you fall off, do keep screaming as you fall. It’ll make it easier to track you so I can catch you, or at least make finding the hole you make easier.”

“That does it, let me off. It’s not safe, and the pilot is crazy,” Aramis made to stand, but had to hold on as Stripes chuckled.

“Sit down, Junior. If I can do this, so can you,” Joe growled. “Stripes, very funny. Now let’s go find Demi and the Princess. Oh, and if you see a muscular lion with spots, roast ‘im.”

Aramis sat back down as Stripes grinned and gave a great flap to get airborne, causing another small sandstorm. Tigermark, Sela and Cindy retreated into the mouth of the cave.

“Fear not, friends. I shall do my utmost to insure the safe return of the two, and my passengers. Ta.” With another great flap he rapidly started gaining altitude. The last they heard from those on the dragon’s back was loud “wahoo!” from Joe. Soon they were out of sight.

Tigermark looked at the two femmes as the dust cleared. “Let’s go check on your armor, Cindy.” He led the way out toward the ruined Sanders village, silently wishing Godspeed to his friends.

# # #

The sheildmaiden was still awake, staring at the ceiling. So much had happened since that day she’d died in battle defending her homeland. The mead hall she was now in was a part of Folkvang, home of the Goddess Freja, whom she served. The reward she’d earned with her noble death. Only thing was, she hadn’t died. Then things had been turned upside down. The things she’d always been so sure of had been only part of the big picture. It was all too much, so she’d come here to be among her peers and try to sort it all out.

She became aware of a figure standing nearby, watching her. She looked over to see that it was Freja herself. The red vixen smiled and waved a paw for her to stay where she was as the equine femme started to quickly get up.

“Stay where you are, dear. Why are you still awake when all the others are well asleep?”

The shieldmaiden frowned. “I don’t know. I have an uneasy feeling, that something is amiss.”

The goddess continued to smile. She was dressed in her usual blue outer robe and white sash with a dirk at her side. She sat down on a bench next to where the equine was laying.

“There is a reason for that. I’m afraid you must cut your visit with us short. With the dawn you must go.”

The filly blinked. “Why, have I done something wrong? Or is . . . there. . .” She stopped short, a concerned look coming over her face.

“Your heart does you credit, my love. Yes, you must go because your friends need you. They have been on a long, arduous mission, against an enemy who has fought them many times past. You have been called for by a new friend, who has agreed to help them in their mission, as well. You will see many things that you never thought you would, so rest now. You will need all your strength for the task ahead.”

Freja leaned over and kissed the filly gently. She soothed her brow, and before long the equine had eased into the steady breathing of sleep.

“Sleep well, my love. We will always be here, when you want to return.” With that, the goddess stood and left her sheildmaiden to her rest.

# # #

“How high are we?” Aramis asked with a note of concern.

“About four thousand feet, and still climbing,” Joe shouted over his shoulder, using the clouds near the mountaintops as a gauge.

“Excellent Joe,” Stripes rumbled. “We are exactly four thousand one hundred and fifty feet above the valley floor. I should say in another minute or so we should be high enough for young Aramis to try his sejd.”

Joe nodded, keeping an eye out for anything unusual. From their lofty perch, he could see a hundred miles in any direction. The smoke still rising from the remains of the Sanders cult camp had become a distant, thin smudge to their east. The town of Many Rocks was up to the north. The low hills that hid their cave were easily visible, as was the wide desert of gullies and dunes beyond. Starkly visible in that direction, too, was the twin-spired tower of rock the locals called Tsé Bit’ A’í, The Rock With Wings. It reminded Joe of the mountain in the old animated film that came to life as a demon at night. Now there’s a place that would match Cutter Long, he thought. He filed that away as, with another great flap of his wings, their host announced their arrival.

“Here we are, six thousand even. Aramis, would it suit you best for me to hold steady, or circle?”

“Circle, please, that way I can sweep my focus over a larger area,” the feline replied. He bent his head low and concentrated for a few seconds on the chant he’d use to connect with the small snake-bracelet. Then he opened his eyes and scanned about, although if Joe had been able to look at him, his eyes would have appeared to be unfocused.

On the third circle, Aramis exclaimed, “Geez! Wouldn’t you know it!!”

Joe turned his head to see what was wrong, Stripes even turned his head slightly to listen.

“What?” Joe asked.

Aramis looked embarrassed. “Well, I made contact with the snake. I can see quite well what it’s seeing, and hear very well what it is hearing.”

“Great! Where are Demi and Princess Fallona?” Joe was excited. Now they were getting somewhere.

“That’s the problem. It seems that when its twin emolliated Cutter’s paw, it reverted back to a real snake. It crawled away and is now happily ensconced under a rock near the crater the tent left in the company of a female snake.”

Joe swore, long, loud, and passionately.

“Yeesh, and they say I breathe fire!” Stripes exclaimed as he turned and headed back to the east. Aramis huddled dejectedly on the dragon’s back. They flew on in silence for nearly a half hour, with the rush of the wind and the flap of Stripes’ wings the only sound.

“Well, well, well.” Stripes suddenly said. Joe had been stewing, angry about the setback, angry about magic, and mysterious dragons, and Cutter Long utterly embarrassing them so far. Aramis had been trying to think of anything else he could do to pick up on the whereabouts of the princess or Demi.

“What?” the coyote and cat said at once.

“I doubt you can see it. What I’m looking at is about seventy miles away. I can’t see any detail, but there are two figures walking out there, about twenty five miles north and a little east of the big rock.”

“So, that’s no sign that it’s Demi or the Princess,” Joe said dismissively.

“True, and I haven’t met either of them, so I can’t tell if it’s them,” Stripes said evenly. Suddenly Aramis whooped.

“I’ve got it! The same spell! If it worked on the snake, it should here, too! If Stripes will allow it, that is.” He said the last almost pleadingly. Aramis had realized that he could recognize at least Demi, and most likely the princess too. If he could see what Stripes was seeing, that is, see through the dragon’s eyes, he’d be able to confirm if the two figures were who they were searching for.

The dragon smiled. “I think I know what you have in mind, Allow me a moment to prepare, and I’ll be glad to oblige.”

A minute later, Stripes announced he was ready. Joe remained silent, dubious of any success. Aramis again bowed his head and repeated the chant with a slight difference due to the species change. He then sat straight up and began to excitedly pound Joe on the back.

“It’s them! I’d recognize that black leather armor anywhere! And the Princess is wearing a riding outfit in the royal colors! They just ducked into an arroyo, probably planning to hole up in the heat of the day.”

“Whoa! Easy Junior! You nearly knocked me off!” Joe exclaimed. He then spoke more calmly. “Stripes, can you carry all four of us?”

Stripes nodded. “Yes, I believe I can.”

Joe now smiled for the first time since they’d leveled off. “Then let’s go get them, and if Cutter’s anywhere around, you know what to do!”

The dragon simply nodded as they headed east.

# # #

Digray stuck his fuzzy head into the livery where he’d left his engineer the day before. The mechanical beast they’d brought in was now in more of a state of completeness, but he couldn’t tell if it was done or not. It certainly didn’t look like it did when the dudes had it out in the desert.

“Yo, anybody here?”

Digray’s call was answered by a scrambling of paws as several furs appeared from various places around and in the machine.

“Most esteemed elder dude! You’re just in time!” exclaimed the young collie engineer. “We’re about ready to rock-n-roll with our friend here.”

“You mean it’ll be alive again? Kewl!” Digray said with a grin, which was hardly visible through his long fur.

The collie looked a bit sad then. “Sorry, Master Dude. All the biological stuff was too far a goner. It won’t be alive, but it will work!”

“Whoa, hold up, dude. It won’t be alive, but it will work? How?”

“Hey, I’m no doctor, but I know machines. Take away the wetware and the dude’s just like a hydraulic crawler. We rigged up a control cab and a place for furs to sit, and kept all the storage areas. We can drive ‘im like a cart! Yo dudes! Ya ready?”

Several replies came back in the affirmative. “Then fire-in-the-hole, dudes!”

Digray jumped as an engine roared to life. The collie scrambled up onto the machine and manipulated the controls. Slowly, the beast lifted a mechanical leg and took a step.

“This thing’ll go anywhere!” the collie yelled over the noise. He then shut it back down.

Digray smiled. “Farwest, here we come!”

“You expect to cross the desert in that?” said a voice from behind him. Digray turned as the former cultists gathered behind him. He looked at the stranger for a second, and then turned to his crew.

“Dudes, may I present the fur who’s gonna show us the way. Righteous guide, bitchin’ mage, and all around cool dude, this is Ean. I met up with him last night. Heard he was the best.”

The newcomer looked the group over, and then looked at their new transportation.

“It’s gonna cost ya,” was all he said.


# # #


(30 January 2006)

"How are they doing?"

The question hung in the air for a while, unanswered. It started assuming that strange autonomy that certain, unpleasant stench and most importantly unanswered questions tend to. It had barely managed to take on a rudimentary autonomy, exploring its surroundings, when it was answered and therefore, killed.

"As well as can be expected. Hiking through the desert isn’t exactly healthy. The princess looks to be in a remarkably good condition...but Demi was dehydrating. We should count our blessings that she knows a survival trick or two, or she would’ve been dead."

Joe sat down next to Tigermark and sighed after answering the question. He rubbed his paws against each other and tried to relax some. There had been too many near misses lately. Way too many.

Tigermark nodded, slowly. He prodded the fire again with a long stick and let Joe’s answer hang in the air almost long enough to take on sentience of its own too.

"What about Stripes?" he asked, at last.

"Oh...Stripes is probably equipped with a small, internal hospital. You know, lots of ittybitty nurses and surgeons zooming around inside him, fixing him up, constantly," Joe said and shrugged.

"You don’t know, in other words..."

"I’m a coyote...how am I supposed to know the first thing about dragon health, Tiger?"

Tigermark nodded. That was a valid point. Besides, Stripes said he was feeling fine. There was no way of making sure but the tiger did trust the dragon to tell the truth.

"This job is getting worse by the minute," Joe muttered after a long silent spell.

"What do you mean?" the tiger asked.

"I mean that we have had so many close shaves I’m starting to feel like a chihuahua," the coyote grumbled. "Have you considered that we may simply not be equipped for this?"

"Have faith, Joe...when has He ever let us down?" Tigermark said and patted his friend’s shoulder.

"It’s not that simple, all right? We’re caught here, in the middle of bloody NOWHERE, Tiger...with a dragon who speaks like Yoda and a princess who acts like she’s got a silver spoon rammed up somewhere you don’t speak about in relation to royalty. We’re sitting roughly halfway between the biggest army on the planet and this raving loon of a lion who thinks he’s the biggest thing since Andrew the Giant..."

Tigermark chuckled. "I think we’re considerably closer to the loon than the army..." he pointed out.

"Big deal. I don’t like where I’m sitting at all," Joe grouched.

"Then move your rock a bit?"

"One more wisecrack, feline, and I’m gonna punch your lights out. Don’t think I couldn’t!"

Tigermark grinned to himself. The coyote had at least one of these moments on every mission. He was prone to homesickness and besides, he was the sort of fur who felt everything went down a little easier with a healthy dose of grumbling.

"I wonder what Cutter will throw at us next..." the tiger said, quietly, looking into the fire.

"I don’t. I just know it’ll be something nasty."

# # #

Cutter looked into the little orb in his paw. He didn’t see much point in talking to the trapped princess in there anymore. After all, she didn’t answer and even if she had...there was nothing she could say that he’d really pay attention to anymore.

He was ponderous though, as he ran the orb over his knuckles and twirled it in his fingers. Was this what it was like? To control the soul of a fur? The very essence of life? He would be able to do it with as many souls as he wanted, in time. But this one would always be his first. It was a thrilling sensation...knowing that he could break the fur inside it. That he had complete power over an individual.

It tingled slightly in his fingers, and he smiled. The drone, now firmly in place with the mercenaries and that accursed tiger, had just been ’upgraded’ again. Soon, she’d be going back to King Phillip. Then he’d have every trump in the game on his paw. He’d have won. There would be nothing anyone could do to prevent it.

He smiled at this thought and got to his feet. There was no reason why he couldn’t have a little sport, though. Besides, it was best to show the enemy the necessity of urgency in getting the princess back to daddy dearest. He’d been surprised about the new dragon ally they had found, but even dragons could have their wings clipped. Perhaps he’d let that one live...keep it as a pet. He could throw prisoners to it once in a while to keep it from starving.

Proper motivation would no doubt persuade it that eating sentient furs was a very good idea.

Proper motivation could do anything.

He tossed the little globe into the air and caught it, effortlessly. As he walked along, his smile grew wider. If nothing else, this would be fun. Perhaps he’d even kill one or two of those meddlesome furs. That, at least, would show them that they needed to get a move on. To get the princess back to her father.

He stopped. In front of him stood a strange, basalt figure. It was hunched, carrying a globe on its shoulders. It looked black and dead. Inanimate, although aesthetically beautiful, it simply appeared to be a statue of a crouching canid, carrying a large, round ball of basalt. Cutter knew better.

Putting the soul of Princess Fallona into a small pouch at his hip, he placed one paw on the surface of the globe. It swirled. First in shades of gray, mixed with long, black streaks, then gradually growing paler and paler until it was milky white.

"Reveal what I require..." the spotted lion growled.

A snarl from the orb was followed by a bestial roar. Cutter didn’t even flinch. He simply extended his claws, letting them scratch gently across the surface of the orb.

"Now!" he commanded, keeping his voice both calm and even.

The roar broke off and was replaced by a pitiful whimper. The milky white swirl began to fade.

"That’s more like it," Cutter mumbled, smiling crookedly to himself. There was no will too powerful to break anymore.

He looked into the orb. A small village came into view. Perfect. Absolutely perfect. A thought from him, and the view changed slightly. The mercenaries...and the dragon...had taken up camp on the outskirts of the village, it seemed.

Again, the view changed.

Beneath the sand it went. Under the village. Cutter could feel it. Something ancient, sleeping. Ancient and malevolent. The lion smiled and prodded the first sleeper his mind’s eye encountered.

"Wake up. You’ve overslept, old one..." he chuckled.

"Grrr!" was the only answer in his head.

"Yes...yes I know. It’s quite all right to be in a foul temper after waking up. Especially when you’ve slept as long as you," he said to the orb...still smiling.

"Grr? Rrrr...GRR!!!"

"I see. You can’t move..."


Cutter nodded. Gently, he scratched the surface of the orb with his claws again. "Open...and disgorge that which was buried!" he commanded.

In front of him...the orb showed a tear in the sandy ground opening. Slowly, slowly it widened. A long slope down...into the darkness below became visible. Cutter nodded, almost like a father acknowledging his son for doing a good job.

"That’s it. You’re hungry, aren’t you? Look...there’s food above. The fools are waiting to be...devoured."


# # #

Tigermark wiped sweat from his face and shook his paws to take the sting out of them. He had no idea exactly what had happened, but suddenly there had been shouts from the village. Then screams. Panicked, horrified screams.

The amigos had taken up arms immediately. Telling Cindy and Sela to stay by Demi and the princess and guard them with their lives, the three amigos and Stripes had set off towards the village.

"Tiger...why didn’t we sleep in the village itself? There’s a perfectly good inn there," Aramis asked as they ran. Their camp was about half a mile out from the village itself. It was smaller than the Sanders village had been, before the Hydra had visited. There was about a day’s journey between the two.

"Because we don’t know the innkeeper," Tigermark replied between clenched teeth. He had a bad feeling about what was happening up ahead.

Aramis nodded. The larger feline was right, but at that moment he’d have liked to be closer to the village. The screams were awful...even that far away.

Joe ducked his head between his shoulders and ran faster. They came closer. A group of figures were laying on the ground in front of them. Joe dropped to his knees, not caring if he drew blood by scraping them raw as he slid across the ground up to the fallen villagers.

"Aramis...they’re wounded. Badly. I think this one’s already dead. Stay here, do what you can for them..." he said and got back up. He tore off his shirt and cracked his knuckles. "Bandages," he said and made to run towards the village again.

"But...but I can fight!" Aramis protested.

"Just DO as I SAY!" the coyote barked, angrily, and broke into a sprint.

Aramis felt taken aback. He wasn’t used to being shouted at like that by his friends. He looked confused for a moment and was about to protest to Joe’s back, rapidly moving away from him.

"Don’t, Aramis. They need help and you’re better at this than the rest of us. If you can save them, do so. Rejoin us if it’s possible afterwards," Tigermark said, patting his younger friend’s shoulder and running too.

Aramis nodded. That made sense.

Up ahead, Joe grabbed his maul in both paws. Villagers were coming out from between the huts. Some were barely able to move. Some...looked very odd. A fire had broken out in the middle of the v illage too.

One villager tried to run past him but the coyote’s paw shot out in time. Joe realized he’d grabbed a hold of a young, male feline. He couldn’t be more than fourteen.

"What’s going on?" he asked.

"Dead...dead all over," the feline whimpered. "Attacked the smithy first. We’ll all die..."

Tearing himself free with more strength than Joe had thought possible for one so young, the feline ran again. Tigermark caught up with his friend.

"What’s going on?" he asked Joe.

"That one said something about ’dead all over’. But he also said that whatever it is attacked the smithy and the word ’attack’ is baaaad, Tiger."

Tigermark nodded and they both ran again. It was only about fifty more yards before they got to the first huts. Ducking between them, the two amigos could smell something strange in the air. Musty. Like...very old clothes without mothballs. Above them, Stripes was trying to get an aerial view of the situation. It didn’t seem to work. Smoke was rising from the burning building already...and it was nighttime.

"There’s nothing for it..." Joe said, tersely, and spun out from behind the wall of the hut.

What he saw nearly made him drop his maul. His jaw, at least, did fall. Some part of him...some part he usually kept hidden and which he didn’t like very much...told him to run for it. To get away while he could. He flatly ignored that voice, mentally beating it into submission with a much bigger maul than the one he was currently holding. But even so, what he was looking at was enough to unnerve anyone.

"Blessed Jesus..." Tigermark whispered, next to him. "This is wrong...this is wrong."

The two of them had seen plenty of action during their time working together. They’d had a lot of near escapes. A lot of fur-raising experiences and they had lived through all of it. But the one thing that had remained a universal truth...was that those they had killed stayed dead.

The village square was a morass of death. Self-ambulatory death. The stench of old clothes was easily explained. There were enough bandages and wrappings walking around the square to keep a large hospital supplied for a year or two. Villagers lay on the ground. Dead...or rapidly dying. The moving dead were splattered in blood. Horrific gashes had opened in what was presumably the heads of several of them, and they were gorging themselves on the still warm flesh of the villagers.

"Mummies?" Tigermark said, quietly. "Where in Gods name did they come from...??"

"Somewhere without daddies??" Joe asked, swallowing hard. "In any case, I don’t think they’re really mummies. They’re eating those villagers..."

Of all the ghastly things he’d witnessed, nothing was worse than this.



"Some of those villagers are still alive..."

"God have mercy..."

Tigermark looked up. "STRIPES...TORCH them!" he shouted.

Stripes was still circling above. "I CAN’T..." he shouted back. "I’D INCINERATE THE WHOLE VILLAGE. THEY’D HAVE NOWHERE TO LIVE...JOE, LOOK OUT BEHIND YOU!"

Joe didn’t think twice. He just swung around, bringing his maul down on the form behind him. He shuddered. While the mummy wasn’t exactly fast, it didn’t lumber like he would have expected it to do. He still hit it. It disintegrated in a cloud of dust and old bandage-remains.

"Tiger...we have a big problem here," he said.

"Not as big as the one approaching us. I think they heard me shouting..." Tigermark said. There was calm determination on his voice. "We have to get to those villagers."

"Can’t Stripes land on th..." Joe started, before he heard a screech from above.

He looked up. Something was already keeping Stripes very busy. He couldn’t see what it was against the dark night sky...even with the light from the fire. But Stripes seemed to be backpeddling while firing off bursts of flame in front of him, into the air.

The groaning host of death moved closer. Not fast...but certainly faster than either Tigermark or Joe liked.

The feline turned to face them.

# # #

Cutter Long was laughing. Hard. This was better than he could’ve hoped for. A heroic death for his most hated enemy. An utterly useless, pointless death. The tiger would be ripped asunder...his flesh devoured...his blood soaked into the bandages of the dead. There wouldn’t be enough left to make a decent burial.

Smiling a sinister, cruel smile, he bent low over the now pulsating orb. It was the best show he could remember seeing. The coyote fought well...he had to admit that. That maul was a good weapon against old, dry corpses. He shattered them when he could land a blow. The tiger...oh yes...the tiger fought with his customary ferocity. Claws tearing bandages apart. Spreading dusty remains all over the ground.

One on one, the dead were no match for the two living furs...but they were so many...and the living so few.

"Oooh, that has to hurt," he smiled as one of the mummified raiders landed a solid blow on Tigermark’s jaw. The tiger spun. Blood flying from a deep gash on his face.

Cutter simply kept watching, hate and pleasure playing over his features.

# # #

"TIGER!!" Joe roared and swung his maul in a wide arch. Two more mummified...things...fell apart.

Tigermark shook his head to clear it, trying to pick himself off the ground. "I’m...I’m okay," he answered, groggily. He knew it wasn’t true. His head was spinning and that blow had felt like taking a steam hammer to his face.

Something stepped onto his back. Something groaning.

"STRIPES...FOR GOD’S SAKES, WE NEED HELP!" Joe roared and swung again. The mummy that had stepped up on Tigermark’s back was sent flying.

The dragon’s only answer was a swooshing sound as it sent off another burst of fire. Joe knew Stripes would help if there was any way to do it, but apparently, he too was fighting for his life.

The ranks of dead were thinning. But not enough. Joe’s arms were getting heavy from swinging the maul. Tigermark tried picking himself up again but the world was still spinning around him. The wound was tingling in a painful way.

"Oh...no...you...do..." Joe growled and tried to swing again. Before he could...something hit him hard in the neck and he felt his knees turn into Jello.

Fighting against the darkness that was swooping in on him, the coyote felt a momentary pang of bitterness. So this was how it’d end? In some Godforsaken desert, on some Godforsaken planet. To be ripped up and eaten...by those who were already dead.

One of the mummies bent down over him, groaning and growling...

# # #

Chuckling, Cutter nodded. They had fought well and bravely. Even heroically. But his enemies were down. It was over. He had won.

Nothing...nothing in the entire world could stand in his way now.

He was about to remove his paw from the orb...when it happened.

A bright...searing flash of light. Painfully bright, making him momentarily flinch and look away.

At first, he thought the dragon had either fired off a flame directly at the group beneath or possibly exploded in midair. Then he realized it wasn’t the kind of light created by simple fire...no matter how hot.

The orb started swirling again.

"NO!" he snarled. "Stay focused. Show me!"

But the orb was laughing at him...laughing...taunting...jeering.

Struggling to regain control, Cutter hissed between his teeth. A hiss that was drowned out by the bestial growl from within the orb.

"I will not be dominated!" a voice roared in the lion’s head.

"You will serve me!" Cutter replied and bit down hard. Veins were starting to stand out on his forehead, making his fur bulge from the strain.

"I would choose death before servitude to one such as you!" the voice snarled.

The orb exploded. Cutter was thrown backwards. Screaming in agony. His paw was lacerated by splinters. Fragments of obsidian had lodged themselves all over his body. He was bleeding...badly.

Picking himself off the floor, Cutter looked in stunned awe at the orb. Or what was left of it. The statue had crackled and toppled to the side. The orb was completely shattered. His own paw was a bloody mess of splinters and fur.

"Death...over servitude?" he mumbled. For a brief moment...he realized there were things he might not be able to subjugate. Was it doubt?

No. Doubt was not an option.

Stumbling out, he needed to find a way to patch himself up.

# # #

Joe opened his eyes. He fully expected to see a gaping maw, waiting to devour his face, but at least he would die with his eyes open, facing his enemy. He set his jaw and growled.

To his surprise, the mummies weren’t looking at him. There seemed to be a slight amount of confusion between them.

"What the..." he mumbled and tried to crane his head back, despite the pain.

Upside down, between the bandaged, bandy legs of the undead, he could see a light. A bright...almost searing light. Like a pillar, planted in the ground, in front of the burning smithy. He had no idea what was going on. He could hear hoofbeats. Loudly. Like...galloping horses.

His field of vision was swimming. Again, he looked up at the mummies above him. Next to him, Tigermark was no longer moving. The feline had lost consciousness. Where was Aramis? Oh yes...they’d told him to stay and try to save the wounded villagers they’d come across. At least...the young one would get out of there alive.

"Ikju í dag, draugr..." a voice sneered. Something metallic flashed through the air.

One of the mummies was lifted clean off its feet, a weighted throwing axe lodged in its head.

For a moment, Joe was confused. The voice had sounded strangely hollow. He looked back towards the light. A figure stepped out. Tall, female...armed with the longest axe Joe could remember ever seeing.

He’d seen it before.

"What kept you," he muttered and let his head drop back to the ground.

A mummy tried to bend down over the fallen tiger.

The form stepped out of the light. The light from the burning smithy reflected in a steel helmet with ’goggles’, glinting in every chain in a long chain mail hauberk. It flashed menacingly in the edge of the long axe.

"I said not today, deadite!" the equine snarled. A paw shot down to her belt, grabbing yet another smaller axe. Drawing her arm back and snapping it forward, the axe spun around its own axis rapidly, overshooting its mark. The mummies clearly perceived the new threat and started moving towards the shieldmaiden.

Joe was just about to berate the equine for missing with that second throwing-axe. He stopped...the axe was bouncing. Bouncing. Once...twice...third time it jumped up and cleanly lobbed the arm off a mummy. From behind.

Carnage ensued.

Joe didn’t see anymore. He just smiled as he let darkness take him at last.

# # #

"So who is she?" Sela asked, after a long , uncomfortable silence.

"Trouble," Tigermark said, blurrily. His jaw had swollen, making him look rather strange. It was probably broken. It hurt even saying that one word.

"Your worst nightmare," Aramis added, with a good natured chuckle.

"The best bloody news I’ve bloody well had since coming to this bloody place," Joe finished off.

Sela didn’t look like those constituted satisfactory answers. She folded her arms over her chest and tapped her foot. "You’re going to have to do better than that. Who...is...she?"

"An..." Tigermark began, and groaned. He felt like punching something. His jaw was hurting very badly, and he wasn’t quite sure if the Almighty would be amenable to another prayer of healing this soon after the last time. They were supposed to deal with problems, not get in over their heads...

"An old friend," Aramis explained. "Someone we’ve worked with before but she stayed behind this time..."

"Why’s that?" Sela asked, apparently content now that she knew newcomer was a known friend of the three males.

"She had some...issues...to clear up," Joe explained, smiling a bit.


"She isn’t dealing with dying and coming back very well..."


Sela’s outburst brought Cindy and Demi into the room.

"Would you please...please try to keep it down?" Demi asked, quietly. "We have dying furs in here. At least let them die without having to listen to shouting..."

Sela felt like someone had thrown a bucket of cold water in her face. "I’m...I’m sorry. I just got some very strange information. For a moment, there, I thought you said that equine is dead, Joe..."

The coyote nodded. "It’s a long story. Very long. I’ll tell you some other time, okay? She died, but she didn’t. She wasn’t allowed to die. She wasn’t done yet, you see. So now she works with us. Just once in a while...it all becomes a bit much for her and she goes to talk to..."

"...your God, right?" Cindy asked, quietly.

Tigermark looked as if he was going to keel over from a sudden burst of violent jaw-pains. At least he groaned louder than before and let himself drop backwards.

Aramis shook his head. "Not quite. It’s...very difficult to explain all this. I would love to try but...but now is not the time," he said. "We have wounded villagers to tend to. And dying ones. Are you doing okay in here, now?"

Tigermark nodded, shrugging. There wasn’t much one could do about his jaw at the moment after all. He was groggy again anyway. Laying down, he closed his eyes and tried to get some sleep.

Joe sat up and nodded as well. "I’ll be out to help in a few moments. I just don’t want to trip over my own legs and fall on someone who’s already badly wounded," he said...

"So why is she outside, facing down Stripes?" Cindy asked at last.

"Erhh..." Aramis began and realized he didn’t know.

"I’ll tell you why!!" a voice said from behind Cindy.

They all turned to look at Aslaug, standing in the doorway looking like a small thundercloud on hoofs. Clearly, the filly was not in a very good mood.

"Please, do...?" Cindy dared. Somehow, it seemed to her that talking to the enraged equine in front of her could lead to a lot of trouble but...she was curious nonetheless.

"Because he’s a lindorm! An evil reptile who should slink back in his blasted cave and hoard over his gold until some TWIT feels like taking it from him, preferably armed with some special sword and no brains!" Aslaug growled.

"A...lind-urm...duhhh...what’s that?" Sela tried.

"Lindorm. They are...what do you call them, Aramis? Worms?" Aslaug asked, grouchily.

"Dragons. And that dragon is good, for the record. He’s a friend," the feline tried to explain.

"Bah! There’s no such thing as a good lindorm. They’re evil, vicious creatures. You expect me to come here and believe that it had nothing to do with those draugr?"

"Those what?" Aramis asked, baffled.

"Walking dead things."

"Ahh, the mummies..."

"As opposed to the daddies?" Aslaug said, sourly. "I’ll settle for draugr."

Sela crossed her arms over her chest. "You know...I don’t think I like you. You’re rude, you’re brash, you walk in here like you own the place, you grumble at our friends..."

"...my friends too," Aslaug chuckled. "And you just listed some of my best features."

Sela felt herself caught off guard. Aslaug clearly didn’t mind being talked to that way. She looked at Joe, puzzlement on her face.

Joe found himself laughing and looking away. "Maybe we can get a few good laughs at last, now that she’s here," he mumbled. "Sela, where Aslaug is from, it’s necessary to be rude. She was the only female warrior in a very large and tough group of otherwise male ones. And believe me, there isn’t room for subtlety in her world."

"I don’t think I like her world then," the vixen muttered. "But all right. I just wish she wouldn’t talk badly about Stripes, that’s all."

"Look...the biggest one of his kind is called Nidhogg," Aslaug explained. "Well, second biggest one...but Jormundgandr is a special case. Nidhogg is one of the biggest, anyway. He feeds on the dead...they nestle between his scales and he tries to bring the world tree down by gnawing at its roots. Where I come from there isn’t a single good lindorm. Not one!"

"Well, this isn’t ’where you are from’, is it?" Sela said, miffed and offended on Stripes’ behalf.

Aslaug was visibly stumped. She looked at Joe with a ’can she do that?’-kind of expression on her face. The coyote grinned.

"You’re a long way from home, Aslaug. A very long way," he said.

"I’m going to chase Loke all over Asgaard next time I see him. I’m sure he’s got a paw in this..." the filly grumbled and sat down, finally taking off her helmet. "I have helmet-mane too. Can the day get any worse?"

"What are you complaining about?" Joe chuckled. "You got to level a small army of dr...dal...dlahh..."


"That’s the thing."

The equine nodded. The coyote had a point. "I know. Sorry about that. It’s just, traveling that way is not a lot of fun. I’ve been in a bad mood ever since I stepped into that beam of light..."

"Why?" Joe asked, looking perplexed. "I always thought it was a wonderful way of traveling. I feel like...like I’m surrounded by Him, at all sides. Like I’m perfectly safe, because He is there and won’t let me get hurt."

"You’re sounding like a mixture of a child and an old femme right now, Joe," Aslaug chuckled. "Maybe it’s not very pleasant for me to be surrounded by something like that, hmm?"

"Wha...you...ohhhh..." Joe said and nodded. The filly was dangling a hammer-pendant off one finger.

Sela looked at the pendant and turned back to Joe. "What is that?"

"Her faith," Joe explained. "She doesn’t believe in the same things the rest of us do..."

The vixen looked about to ask what that meant, but Aslaug broke her off before she ever spoke up.

"They believe that if someone slaps your face, you must turn the other cheek so they can slap the other side," she explained. "I believe that if someone slaps me, they’d better hit hard enough to make sure I stay down or so help me Thors temper, I’ll knock them senseless!"

Joe laughed to himself, shaking his head. "I told you, filly...it’s a parable. It’s not quite that simple."

"It’s another ’figure of speech’, then," Aslaug stated, rather than ask. "I told you, your religion is too full of that kind of thing. Speak plainly so furs understand what you mean. No wonder your world has been ravaged by wars of religion for over a thousand years. How’s anyone supposed to know what in the name of Odin your God is talking about when he can’t even speak in straight terms?"

"Heeeeeere we go again," Joe said and tried desperately to keep a straight face as he got up. "I think I can stand...let’s go help those who need it."

Sela nodded. Anything to get some time to think about what she’d just heard. The filly was confusing. Unlike anything she’d come to expect from the three males. She wasn’t quite sure what to make of this.

"Yeah...let’s," she said and got up too.

"I’ll go see if I forgot any dead things out there. No sense in letting the villagers go home, only to have some of those draugr hiding under the beds," the shieldmaiden said and got up, hefting her axe and popping her helmet back on. "I already have helmet-mane after all..."

Joe looked at the sleeping form of Tigermark. Then he headed into the main room of the inn...to help patch up the wounded.


# # #


(19 June 2006)

Princess Fallona had no way of telling how long she sat there in the empty white void that was her prison. The only thing that indicated the passage of time was the bright beams that scanned over her, copying her features for whatever purposes Cutter had planned. Aside from her attempt to sabotage Cutter’s scheme with her shark-back trick, there was absolutely nothing she could do but wait and hope.

Her incarceration also gave her plenty of opportunity to think. Perhaps too much opportunity. As time wore on her fears began to grow steadily worse. For all she knew, several weeks have passed in the outside world. Anything could have happened. The knights her father have sent against Cutter to rescue her could’ve been defeated, or even killed. If so, then the spotted lion would simply vanish from her father’s sight, possibly never to be seen again. Or, worse still, Cutter had been defeated, but her would-be rescuers had no way of knowing that she was trapped inside this tiny jeweled prison. It wasn’t implausible for such a small object to be lost in whatever battle that would’ve ensued fighting Cutter. If such a thing did happen, then nobody would find her in the middle of the desert. She would be trapped here, forever, with no hope of escape.

Her heart sank at the dreadful thought; it was simply too much to bear. Tears of despair fell from her eyes as she quietly sobbed where no one could hear.

“What should I do?” she asked the void, her fear and sadness making her throat almost too tight for her to speak.

Fear not, for we are with thee.

Fallona’s head shot up as soon as she heard the voice. She looked about desperately, but she couldn’t see anything beyond the pervading brightness. “W-who’s there? Who are you? Where are you?” she asked, her frightened agitation evident in her voice.

Peace, child. We are the ones who built the great underground cities where thy prison now exists, constructed long before thy kingdom even existed. We are still there, though not in a form thou would recognize.

Fallona did not know what to make of this phenomenon. Could she have gone mad in her isolation and started hearing voices? It was the most likely explanation, but at this point, she didn’t care. Even if it was just a figment of her frightened imagination, she was at the very least glad to hear someone else’s voice, incorporeal or not.

“What do you mean?” she asked, hoping to draw he, she, it, them further into a conversation, or even an explanation.

We do not have time for protracted discussion. Contacting thou like this requires too much energy, more than we have. There is another way that will allow us to converse further, but we need thy assistance.

“What will you have me do?” Fallona asked, a little uncertain.

Open thy mind to us. Know that we will contact thee again, and be willing to accept our thoughts with thine.

The Princess paused, suddenly unsure about the prospect. She was certain that the beams that had appeared earlier were scanning her mind and body for whatever reason, and the idea of accepting someone else’s thoughts made her wary. Was this another one of Cutter’s tricks? She had no way of knowing if whoever was speaking was on her side or not.

“How can I trust you?” she said cautiously.

Have faith, came the reply.

Fallona pondered her situation. Even if her rescuers were on their way, she had no desire to remain in this prison any longer. Even if it was a trap set by Cutter, there was the possibility that it wasn’t. She didn’t know. All she could do was place her trust in something that she couldn’t see and could barely hear.

If I’m trapped either way, then I’ll at least be trapped but trying to escape instead of just sitting on my tail, she thought. She straightened up, as though speaking to another noble. “Do as you will,” she said simply.

There was no response. Fallona figured that whoever had just spoken to her ran out of strength to speak further, but regardless of whether her reply was heard or not didn’t matter. She had the feeling that she would be hearing from them again, if she would just believe.

Crossing her legs, she settled into a meditative posture that she had seen some of the older soldiers use back in the palace. Taking a few deep breaths, she slowly worked the fear and worry from her mind, clearing room in her consciousness for whoever might visit her again. For the second time since she was kidnapped by Cutter Long, Princess Fallona again felt true hope that she would be saved.

As the fear and despair left her, fatigue took their place. Soon after, Fallona drifted into peaceful sleep.


There was something unsettling about seeing a legion of shuffling footprints in the middle of the desert. There was no order or organization to them like one would expect from a column of soldiers; even a caravan of merchants or a group of travelers on foot for that matter left more orderly tracks, not the long gouges in the rocky soil that were found here. Each set seemed to follow their own path, some shambling off willy-nilly like a confused kit, but with the whole moving towards the town like a swarm of insects. Even more disturbing were recently slain corpses of various small animals, some so horribly mutilated that they defied classification, strewn about the macabre path with several individual trails homing in on each bloody mess. The air stank not only with the stench of what remained of the rotting corpses, but also with the reek of those that were dead long before last night. Even in the increasing heat of the rising desert sun there was an unnatural chill in the air.

A shiver crept up Sela’s spine as she picked her way through the gulch. This was the third time she had seen death on a large scale, and while it wasn’t as horrifying as the final resting place of the orcish mercenaries or the massacre back at the town, the terror here was much more subtle. She noted with no small amount of apprehension that several of the trails of footprints broke away from the main group and into the desert. She didn’t like the idea that there might be more of those…things out there. She was being to wish that she had never agreed to help Cutter with kidnapping the princess in the first place.

But then again, would she really have been spared from all this if she hadn’t? If this was indeed Cutter’s doing, then who knows what other horrors he was in command of.

Sela glanced at the back of the feline walking a few paces ahead of her. Ever since they left town, Aramis had been quiet, appearing to be lost in thought. Occasionally he would glance at one of the animal corpses, but he didn’t appear over phased by it. Sela wasn’t sure which frightened her more: the fact that they could be attacked at any moment by a wandering undead monster or that someone not much older than herself was so used to the sight of death and carnage that it did not affect him anymore. As a mercenary, she had heard of furs who were no longer phased by the sight, smell, and sounds of a fresh battlefield, but they were older furs like Tigermark or Joe, not one so young like Aramis. Sela wondered how long Aramis had been an agent of the King and what he did before that. She hoped that her suspicions were not correct.

“This is terrible,” she said aloud. She wondered what sort of response her comment would elicit.

“Hmm,” Aramis muttered. He paused by the remains of a small animal, which looked more like a small collection of shattered bones in the middle of a larger bloodstain. “Pretty messy, yes, but not as bad as it could be. So far all we’ve encountered is just a horde of low-level undead, not even a class two outbreak. A lot of them, but nothing truly horrifying.”

Sela could barely believe what she was hearing. She originally thought Aramis to be a rather ordinary young fur despite being a mage, but to hear him speak like this, it reminded her a lot of what she initially thought of Tigermark; good at heart, but cold and unfeeling once swords were drawn. It was a strange dichotomy that constantly seemed to contradict each other. They say that they are fighting for peace and the betterment of all furs, and then calmly leave defenseless villagers to their deaths because saving them is not part of their mission. Sela was hoping that Aramis at the least was the most normal of the three agents. Even though he was skilled with the sword, he didn’t like the idea of killing others. Whenever he talked about magic, he would describe it with the enthusiasm of a kit explaining his favorite game. When she first met him while masquerading as a cultist, he was so shy that she couldn’t help thinking how cute he acted.

Now a horde of undead has slaughtered almost half a village and he was calmly saying that it wasn’t that bad, almost as if she had mistaken a housekaht for a manticore. Sela was starting to become infuriated at all the contradictions these agents seemed to be made up of.

“Nothing truly horrifying?” she asked calmly, which took a great effort on her part. “A legion of undead monsters almost overran a town, killing half of the inhabitants, and you think it’s not that bad?”

Aramis looked at Sela, studying her expression. “Tell me,” he said evenly, “have you ever encountered undead before this?”

“Eh, no,” she admitted.

“Then I’ll tell you right now that this is nowhere near how bad it can really get,” Aramis continued before she could say anything else. He waved a paw at a nearby animal corpse. “What attacked the town last night is nothing more that a small horde of zombies. Well preserved zombies, which explains why they are still fairly quick, but zombies nevertheless. Devastating only against soft targets like unarmed civilians or in very large numbers. These are nothing a small group of reasonably well-trained and cautious warriors like ourselves can’t handle. Now, if we were up against vampires, bodaks, mohrg, or jiangshi, then we’d have a lot more to worry about. Hell, the worst these zombies can do is just eat you.”

Sela was dumbfounded. She had no idea what Aramis was talking about, nor did she care. She had enough of these agents and their uncaring tripe. “But what about all those furs who died last night?” she almost shouted. “How can you say that wasn’t terrible?”

“I didn’t say that,” Aramis replied, his ears flattening. “What happened last night was tragic, I have no doubts there. It’s a terrible thing, yes, but I’m also pointing out that we’re lucky that it’s not worse.”

“Okay then,” Sela almost growled, “how could it be worse?”

“Well, for starters, none of the slain townsfolk are reanimating into zombies. Think about that for a moment.” Aramis turned around and continued following the trail of shuffling footprints.

Sela did think about it, and it was a terrible thought. She did remember that the three agents did carefully check the survivors who were injured for signs of, well, Sela wasn’t sure what they were looking for. She almost thought that Aramis and Tigermark were going to violently protest the idea that the slain villagers be buried until the young mage cast a few spells on the corpses, as though he was checking for something. Were they checking to make sure that the dead stayed dead? It was indeed a terrifying thought, but she had never even heard of such a thing happening until now.

Sela glanced at Aramis’s back and wondered just what he had seen in the King’s service.


# # #


(12 May 2007)

“How they hangin’, Benny?”

The wolverine turned and stared into the coyote’s eyes briefly before his gaze shifted to take in the black-and-white tiger and the feline with the odd markings around his eye. He briefly took in the five females with them, a gray fox, a Siamese, a skunk, an oddly attired equine, and a regally dressed lioness, before turning his attention to the one who had spoken to him.

“I oughtta throw the lot of you outta here,” he growled unpleasantly.

The coyote grinned, working a toothpick. “Where’s the love, buddy?”

“You almost tore my place down last time you were here,” the wolverine protested, indicating the three males with a gesture of his paw. “You come back to finish the job? I’ll throw your tails out with the garbage...”

The tiger next to the coyote shook his head in the negative. “We’re just here for the evening, Benny. To re-hydrate. We’ll be leaving town in the morning.”

“Says you,” the wolverine retorted. He appeared to consider the group of dusty visitors for a few moments, and then came to a decision. “You know the routine... no weapons.” He gestured with a paw to the long tables against the wall. “Leave ’em there.” He looked at the coyote again. “I expect I’ll need some shoring for you...”

Joe Latrans chuckled. “Not me, amigo. I’m traveling light these days.” As five of the other furs in the group produced various edged weapons, Joe removed a two-pawed great sword from the sheath across his back and laid it on the table. But Benny didn’t notice this, he was captivated by the great axe that the equine hefted. She laid it on the table next to the coyote’s sword, and damn if that table didn’t bow a bit.

Watching his compatriots, a smile grew on Tigermark’s muzzle as the pile of weapons grew. Every one of them had a weapon of some sort, most of them several. Fighting knives, a couple of katanas, broad swords, bowies, recons, throwers, and a spike maul... by the time it all landed next to that huge axe there must have been a couple hundred pounds of steel on the table.

“What about that one?” Benny growled hesitantly, pointing to a slight bulge beneath the coyote’s vest.

“Take it...”

The wolverine hesitated, considering the bulk of his customer. He looked at the other six. “You bought reinforcements,” he observed. The others stared blankly at him while Joe continued to grin.

“Ta Hell with it,” the wolverine grumbled. “No trouble!” he admonished.

“We’ll be like little pups at Sunday School, Benny,” Joe replied as the group began to make it’s way into the tavern.

“No trouble,” Tigermark repeated as he stepped past the scarred wolverine.

“Kits in Sunday School,” Aramis chimed in as he, too, sauntered by.

“What they said,” Demi giggled as she strutted past the wolverine, swishing her tail at him. The other four females passed in silence, the lioness looking somewhat befuddled. The equine, last of the group, bared her teeth at the wolverine in passing, causing a visible shiver to run up his spine from the base of his tail.

The group moved through the smoky, dusky atmosphere towards a large, unoccupied table in the back of the room, near the kitchen. The tavern was populated with quite a selection of furs, yet the room was oddly subdued. Conversations were at a low buzz, audible but not obnoxiously so.

Aramis recognized the cook standing at the doorway to the kitchen and raised a paw in recognition as the obese rabbit smiled, nodding back at him.

“This will do,” Tigermark said. There were nine chairs around the table. The warriors all waited for The Princess to select a seat, and then the males waited while their female counterparts likewise selected seats.

Except the Filly didn’t seat herself.

“Have a seat,” Aramis said good-naturedly.

“You first,” Aslaug replied.


Tigermark laid a paw on Aramis’ shoulder. “Just sit down, amigo.”

“Oh, yeah...”

Finally seating himself, Joe glanced around the room.

“What are you looking for?” Aramis asked. “The bathroom is right over there,” he added, pointing.

“I was looking for a Wurlitzer,” Joe replied, scanning the room.

“A what?” Cindy asked. “What is a Wur-lits-er?”

“Why would you expect to see one of those here?” Tigermark asked, a twinkle in his eye.

“I’m hoping The Boss is in the mood to make our evening pleasant,” Joe replied. Turning to the Siamese he added “A Wurlitzer is a machine that makes music. All kinds of music.”

Aramis looked over each shoulder carefully, scrutinizing the room. “No juke-boxes in this place, Joe. I think this planet hasn’t invented them yet.”

“Damn,” the coyote grumbled. “And I was all primed for some Sam and Dave.”

“I’m thirsty!” The Princess pronounced suddenly.

Seven sets of eyes turned to look at the lioness. In their journey to Many Rocks The Princess had gone out of her way to make herself an unwelcome and undesirable object of their mission, alternating between an overly imperious attitude and genuinely aberrant behavior where she seemed to be totally disconnected from her surroundings. In fact, her apparent schizophrenia had led Tigermark to conclude that chasing down the zombie army was of secondary importance to getting her back to her family and getting her some medical attention, hence their presence in Many Rocks. This was to be their first stop on the return to the throne of King Phillip. In her lucid moments The Princess seemed to heartily support this new mission profile.

Aslaug rolled her eyes. She had no use for the refined properness of royalty. Any femme who couldn’t swing a blade in her own defense wasn’t worth a pint of ale, as far as she was concerned. And she was pretty sure that at least one of her amigos felt the same way. Her eyes scanned the room, eventually resting on those of the coyote across the table.

“No Sam and Dave,” Joe smirked. “No Tecate. No enchiladas. This must be Hell.” He tilted his head ever-so-slightly towards the Imperial lioness.

The equine nodded, smiling briefly.

“So why are we here, Tigermark?” Aramis asked.

“Yes,” Sela chimed in. “Why are we here? Where are we going? Why aren’t we chasing those un-dead things any more?”

The white tiger leaned back in his chair and opened his mouth to speak, but before he could do that some soft brown paws landed on his shoulders and warm, inviting lips made their presence known on the tiger’s cheek.

“My heroes have returned!” The doe rabbit wrapped her arms around the tiger’s shoulders and upper chest from behind.

“Indeed we have,” Aramis offered, smiling broadly at the tiger’s expense. Tigermark was blushing furiously.

The doe released her hold on the tiger and began to move around the table towards Aramis, who held his paws up defensively. “I’ll have what he’s having,” the feline said, pointing at the coyote.

Joe held his paws aloft in an imitation of Aramis’ pose. “Whiskey,” he said. “He’s buying,” he added, pointing at the white tiger.

The doe nodded, patting Tigermark on the shoulder and allowing her paw to rest there while she addressed the females at the table. “Ladies?”

Aslaug responded immediately. “Ale!”

“Beg pardon?”

“And a little mead!”

The doe turned to the males at the table with a blank expression, shrugging her shoulders.

“Got any dark beer?” Joe asked.

“We have several,” the doe replied, not moving from her protected position behind the blushing white tiger. She proceeded to enumerate several brands, all of them baffling to the coyote and the equine. She was still speaking when Joe interrupted.



“Do you have any Tecate? Or Dos Equis? Or maybe a bit of Modelo Negro?

The doe shook her head, a blank expression on her face.

“But you do have dark beer?” Aramis asked.

The doe smiled, nodding.

Pointing at the equine, the feline said “Bring her a half-gallon of the darkest stuff you got.”

“Sure thing.” The doe’s paw squeezed the tiger’s shoulder. “And a pitcher of iced tea for you?”

“Yes ma’am, thank you,” Tigermark replied carefully.

The doe rabbit went around the rest of the table asking after drink orders. Cindy pointed at Joe, saying “What he’s having,” Sela pointed at Aramis and repeated Cindy’s words, and Demi asked for iced tea.

“Dasani with a twist of lime,” The Princess ordered.

This time half a dozen voices chimed together with the lupine waitress. “What?”

Tigermark sighed. “Just bring her a glass of cold water, would you please?”

Princess Fallona hesitated briefly, looking for all the world like she was listening for something, before she nodded in agreement, waving her paw towards the doe in dismissal.

Tigermark caught the doe’s eye and shrugged imperceptibly.

With a flip of her small tail the rabbit was gone.

Aramis cleared his throat and leaned forward so as not to speak too loudly. “So what’s the deal, Tigermark? Suddenly we’re breaking off the attack and heading for home?”

The tiger nodded slowly. “We got what we came for,” he replied. “Our mission was to rescue the princess here, and that we have done.”

The local girls didn’t seem terribly satisfied with this, judging from their expressions. Out in the desert they had suddenly stopped their pursuit while the tiger had knelt in prayer, and at the conclusion of that small appeal the team had suddenly abandoned the murderous horde and set off in the direction of the high mountains, at the foot of which was the village of Many Rocks, the starting point of their mission. Tigermark had said very little about his reasons, and by the time they had arrived Demi was having her paws full trying to keep her two charges, especially Sela, from openly questioning the tiger’s decision-making.

So the questions voiced by Sela and Aramis were more than just conversational. All of the warriors, perhaps Aslaug more than the others, realized that many more furs would die as long as the un-dead were on a rampage. And it seemed very out of character for them to be sitting in a tavern having a drink when there was a known evil somewhere in the desert, raising all kinds of havoc.

Aslaug had an unreadable expression on her muzzle as she stared at the tiger. And as Tigermark turned slightly to look at his fellow feline, he saw a similar expression on Aramis’ face as well. Moving his gaze past Cindy to Joe, the tiger found him with his usual grin.

“What’s so amusing?” he inquired.

“Sé la mierda cuando lo oigo,” the coyote replied casually.

“Ah...” the tiger nodded in reply as the waitress approached with their drinks on a large tray. He smiled up to the doe as she began to distribute glasses and containers. The container she placed near the equine looked like a small tin bucket, eliciting chuckles from Aramis and Joe. The equine leaned forward to look at and sniff the contents of the bucket. Her nose wrinkled slightly.

“I know...,” Aramis said defensively, still chuckling.

“You said a half-gallon,” Joe accused. “Looks like she brought at least a couple.”

The waitress placed a frosted beer mug directly in front of the shieldmaiden and, picking up the bucket, filled the mug for her. The contents of the mug were dark, and a thick layer of tan-colored foam floated at the top of the brew. Aslaug nodded to the doe and said “Thank you.”

Presently the waitress departed as her charges began to consume their libations. Some sipped, some tossed, and one drank deeply.

Placing the empty mug on the table before her, the shieldmaiden nodded slowly and turned her attention to the tiger. “Jeg kan også også genkende bedrag når jeg ser det,” she said lightly, picking up the bucket to pour herself another mug of beer.

Across the table Joe was likewise pouring a second helping from the contents of their bottle into two shot glasses belonging to he and Aramis. The cat was not watching Joe, however, he was staring at Aslaug with a thoughtful expression on his face. “I agree,” he said quietly, before turning to face Tigermark.

The tiger, like Joe, was trying not to laugh at the expressions Cindy and Sela wore.

The gray fox looked at her shot glass while working her mouth comically, her face contorted in disgust. “You drink this stuff?” she whined. “It’s awful!” She placed the shot glass on the table in front of her and pushed it away, making a snorting noise.

“If you like I’ll get you another glass, and you are welcome to share my pitcher of tea, Sela,” the tiger said amicably, raising a paw to get the doe’s attention.

Cindy, on the other paw, was savoring her first sip. She’d never tasted whiskey before, and while it was possessed of a sharp, bitter flavor it warmed her insides immediately. The overall effect was pleasing. Having seen Joe and Aramis do likewise, she tossed back her drink as well.

Joe laughed out loud at her reaction, eyes bulging slightly as she exhaled. “Whooo....!"

“You ever drink anything like that before?” he asked.

The young Siamese shook her head in the negative, momentarily speechless. Yet she pushed her shot glass across the table towards the coyote, nodding encouragingly.

“Take it easy with this stuff, kitten,” the coyote said, refilling her shot glass. “You’ll be flying around the room before you know it.”

She looked at him quizzically, as if that had been quite a silly thing to say.

The black-and-white tiger cleared his throat, looking casually around the table before addressing Aramis. “I’m glad we’re all on the same page here,” he said with a small nod.

The furs drank in silence for a few moments. The Princess stared at her glass of water as if she had no idea what to do with it.

# # #

They had labored night and day since coming to the town. Some of them, the ones who had been out at the Sanders camp for quite some time, had recoiled in fear from the clothing, but Gilbert the hydraulic engineer had only been with the cult for a few months and was more than happy to slip into some jeans and an open collar shirt. If nothing else it had helped keep that nasty hydraulic fluid, grease, and diesel fuel out of his long fur. The collie wasn’t self-absorbed (at least he didn’t think he was), but he hated having soiled fur.

“Help Me Rhonda” as a mantra hadn’t gone down well with him. “Regular or Extra Crispy” hadn’t been too bad, at least he’d been able to get something to eat after forty five minutes of that. All in all the desert cult would have been a disappointment for him. If it hadn’t been for the femmes he’d have left long ago. As it was he’d lost almost forty pounds in a bit less than nine months with the Sanders, and the most advanced technology he’d come in contact with had been a pedal-powered grinding wheel. But the ladies hanging out at the Sanders village, literally, had been... in a word, awesome. His favorite had been a newcomer that had appeared just a couple of weeks before those other dudes had shown up. The King’s dudes. Then it had all blown sky high.

She had been a gray fox. He’d never even learned her name.

And then there had been this... thing. He had no idea what it had been originally, but that it was an unusual combination of biological and mechanical systems he was sure. Some of it was computer-controlled, some of it was hydraulically operated, much of it’s motorized components were driven either by the huge twelve cylinder diesel engine or the two hundred kilowatt generator connected to it. He had divined the basic systems with much study and troubleshooting, but much of the technology was quite beyond the dee eights he was used to working with. He understood the mechanical aspects of his patient toy, but the wetware, the biological side of the machine, was completely unknown to him.

“What’s the haps, Gil-Bot?”

The collie looked up from the access panel in the floor he was kneeling at and nodded to the former cult leader with a smile. He stood up to greet him.

“Master dude! This is a most excellent and fortuitous day!”

“S’up?” the aging poodle asked. Since leaving the village Digray had stopped trying to be a religious authority and was now just trying to keep his ragtag group of assorted knowledgeable males and bodaciously buxom females together as a cohesive unit, serving him. So far it hadn’t been too tough. He never got cold at night, that was a fact. And now that he might have some heavy metal to motivate furs with...

“We can make it go,” the collie replied with glee, anticipating the reward of praise from the leader.


“Ambulate. Move. Roll On Down That Highway. Gettin’ Yer Kicks On Route Sixty Six. Free Wheelin’...”

“I dig,” the poodle replied with a trace of irritation. “We can make it move.”

“Oh boss-fur, it’ll do more than move. This critter’ll rock your socks! Light your fire! Blow your mind! Set...”

“Dig, I get it,” Digray repeated impatiently. “Tell me what to do. How does it work?”

They both stood upon what the collie had envisioned as the control cab of the machine. Here he had repaired the damage inflicted by the hydra, bolted a few chairs in place, and made it an operator’s position. He had rigged some basic controls, and proceeded to explain to the poodle what each of them did. And then explained again. And old folk being what they are, he began to explain a third time when the graying poodle interrupted him.

Mimicking the collies gestures with his own paws, Digray simulated operating the machine’s basic controls. The old poodle giggled in glee. “That’s all I have to do?”

The young collie nodded enthusiastically. “Just move these levers like this, elder dude. This one controls the left side, that one the right. Hook ’em in this notch to stop.” He pointed at a different lever. “This is the go stick. The farther you push it, the faster we go.”

Digray studied the panel. “Dig it. But how do we light it’s fire?”

Pointing, the engineer began to say “This button right...”

And before the collie got to the end of his sentence the poodle had tilted his head to one side and screamed “Fire in the hole!” His paw found it’s target, jamming the button down for all he was worth. Beneath their feet a huge engine coughed a couple of times and then roared into life, shaking the deck they stood upon and the walls of the livery they were in.

As the poodle laughed loudly, crying “Awesome,” a large cloud of exhaust began to fill the building. Gilbert noticed as several furs appeared below them, shaking their fists in the air. Apparently some had still been working below when Digray fired up the monster. It was fortuitous, the collie decided, that the engine was so loud that it prevented the voices of those furs below from reaching their ears. Judging from their expressions and the way their mouths moved, they had plenty to say.

Before he could stop the ecstatic poodle from doing any more harm, the engineer gaped as Digray shoved the throttle lever forward and grabbed the track controllers. The sudden lurch into motion knocked the collie off his feet. Had Digray not been holding on to the controls he would have been knocked over as well. As it was, the poodle momentarily lost his footing and his grip on the left controller. As he stumbled back the machine swerved sharply to the left, further hindering his efforts to regain his footing.

# # #

The old ferret had been in the shining mountains to the west prospecting for weeks. He had a poke full of dust, a powerful thirst, and a desperate need for a bath and some laundry. Even his horse avoided him.

The old fur sat his horse quietly as the pair entered the village of Many Rocks from the north. As they approached the center of town the ferret noticed the livery and the armed furs standing at the doors thereto.

Passing in the heat of the afternoon, the traveler flinched at the sudden roaring sound in the otherwise quiet village. His horse shied and reared slightly.

The Sanders guard at the door of the livery was about to step off the boardwalk to render the traveler some assistance with his nervous mount when the wall he was standing in front of exploded outward in a shower of planks, splinters, nails, and dust, throwing him to the dirt of the thoroughfare as the traveler’s horse reared and then bolted.

Looking like a cross between a dinosaur and a tank, Digray’s machine bashed it’s way out of the livery and into the street, still executing a sharp left turn as it drug part of the roof and most of the wall of the livery with it. The guard had just enough time to roll out of the way in the dirt before the machine was past him, now heading diagonally across the street. Several furs ran through the hole in the wall of the livery to follow the machine and it’s cackling, overjoyed operator as the livery itself began to collapse in a heap. The old poodle, having regained his footing, could barely hold on to the controls of the pitching, swaying machine that attempted to knock him over with it’s movements every few moments.

“Dude!” the guard cried out, regaining his own feet. “Next time knock first!” He took off in a trot, following his fellow Sanders who were even now trying to catch up with the monster.

Another lurch did finally take the old poodle completely down, knocking him to the deck, sliding away from the controls. Unassisted, the machine continued it’s course across the street.

Towards the Hole In The Wall tavern. A fitting destination, all things considered.

# # #

Aramis eyes were quite wide. “Wh... What did you say, your highness?”

Princess Fallona fixed the tabby with a cold stare. “I desire to relieve myself. You will assist me.” As the tabby’s eyes attempted to pop out of his skull she added “... to protect me, of course.”

Regaining his composure, the tabby replied “Certainly, your highness,” as he rose from his chair and moved to pull her chair back for her.

Standing, The Princess fixed her gaze upon the white tiger. “You will wait here for me.”

Tigermark nodded slowly as he stood, motioning for Joe to do likewise. “Certainly, madam.”

The warriors watched in silence as the tabby and the lioness headed towards the doorway at the front of the tavern, the two males standing, the females still seated. The two felines wove their way between tables, and as Aramis gave Benny a nod they passed from view between the swinging doors.

Joe Latrans sighed.

Aslaug grunted.

The three female mercenaries sat quietly as all eyes turned to Tigermark. The tiger looked at the coyote, who still wore that annoying grin with the accompanying toothpick.

“When did you know?”

The equine spoke first. “About two seconds after her first schizophrenic episode.”

Affecting the voice patterns of the former leader of the Sanders cult, Joe commented “Dude. That skank’s got some major issues. Like, she’s not who we think she should be.”

“Funny Joe.”

“If I had my AKM this wouldn’t be an issue,” the coyote replied in his normal voice.

The tiger turned to face his long time friend. “Do you ever stop whining about the lack of technology?”

Joe stared at him, deadpan, shaking his head slowly side to side.

“What’s an AKM?” Demi wanted to know.

“One of Joe’s toys that he left behind,” Tigermark replied smoothly, turning to face the three mercenaries and his fellow warrior. “I assume you ladies are all up to speed?”

“What?” Cindy asked.

“About our princess,” Tigermark added.

“What?” the three mercenaries replied in unison.

Aslaug gazed at the tiger. “She is not who she claims to be,” she said evenly.

“A knockoff,” Joe said shortly.

“A cheap imitation,” Tigermark agreed. And looking fondly at Demi, Cindy, and Sela, who each looked quite confused, he added “I don’t know who that female with Aramis is, but I know who she isn’t. That is not Princess Fallona.”

Joe flicked his toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other. “The Hell you say...” he mumbled quietly.

The three young mercenaries stared at the tiger, none of them able to think of anything to say.

“An agent of your friend who tried to kill the kitty?” Aslaug asked.

The coyote nodded as Tigermark replied “Most likely.”

“Where’s my axe?” the shieldmaiden growled. “We’ll fix this right now.”

There was no chance to reply to this, for hard on the heels of the shieldmaiden’s comment the building shook for a split second before there was a resounding crash up by the doors The Princess and Aramis had just disappeared through. A cloud of dust preceded a steady roar in the air that caused Joe’s ears to cock in recognition. The roof near the front of the building sagged as something huge moved in the swirling, expanding dust cloud forming there. The front wall of the building collapsed, and a portion of the ceiling began to cave in.

The warriors scattered, jumping from the table towards whatever it was that appeared to be invading.

An older voice was screaming, a sound vaguely like “Wah-Hoo!” while a dozen or so other furs all scrambled across the rubble and into the tavern amid the still falling roof members, yelling.

Joe saw Tigermark in front of him, heard the shieldmaiden beside him. “Here,” she said calmly, and he felt the hilt of his broadsword.

“Thanks, Filly.”

She held her axe at the ready as they ran forward. “What is it?”

As they clawed their way through the debris and terrified patrons, she heard Joe say under his breath “Es mi pinche Diablito.”

Nearing the spot where the front of the building had been the equine and the coyote came up short, stopping in their tracks. Their leader, the white tiger with the black stripes, was nose to nose with another fur, one dressed all in black and who wore a large hat. It was difficult to tell what species this fur was, but Tigermark seemed to know the individual.

“Hold on here a minute...” Joe said carefully, placing a paw on the equine’s axe-swinging forearm as the two of them ground to a stop in the settling dust.

The roaring diesel engine finally shut down, and a bedraggled poodle stared over the side of the huge machine that stood where the doorway of the tavern had been. It grew deathly quiet.

“You!” Tigermark growled.

Ean grinned. “Yep, tis I!”


# # #


21 May 2007

The tiger seemed to be struggling to keep his temper, a situation the amigos rarely saw. After a couple of deep breaths, Tigermark felt calm enough to speak again.

“Alright Ean, you have exactly five seconds to start telling me what’s going on here, and why I shouldn’t just rip your heart out where you stand.”

“Hey, is that any way to speak to an old comrade in arms?” Ean replied. A slight movement under the black cape that billowed around the fur in the late day breeze caused Tigermark to react. His paw shot out, faster than a cobra’s strike. His paw closed, claws partially out, around Ean’s throat. There was a very brief flash of fear and surprise on the fur’s face, but it was quickly replaced by the same smug grin that had been there before.

“You only have three seconds left,” the tiger growled.

“Okay, okay, no need to get testy. I was hired to guide the poodle up there on top of this thing and his group through the desert and the mountains beyond to the west. I believe they said they were heading for Farwest. As to why you shouldn’t rip my heart out where I stand, come now TM, you and I both know you aren’t the cold-blooded killer type.”

Tigermark looked about to squeeze his paw closed and refute that assumption, but then he gave a snort and released his hold. “Okay, so you’re a guide. Why’d you suddenly show up now?”

Now Ean’s gaze turned cold. “Seems that after I got thrown out of the King’s Special Forces, there wasn’t much demand for a disgraced ex-lieutenant. I tried the mercenary trade, but they all thought I was just a plant for the King. In the end, the only place and occupation I could find acceptance in was as a desert guide and bodyguard. Many Rocks is a good place to pick up work.”

Tigermark returned the cold stare. “I told you then that I spoke up for you. Your anger is best directed at Cutter.”

Ean’s nostrils flared as his temper kicked in, but he managed to retain the languid smile. “So it is, but I’ve plenty for all involved. How’s that lovely lynx of yours?”

Tigermark’s eyes narrowed, but he kept his demeanor this time. “Lovely and lynxy, as usual. She did ask about you once, a long while back. She asked if I ever found out what happened to that idiotic armadillo who had a crush on her. I told her I didn’t know.”

Ean’s smile grew very strained, and he almost flung his cape back to go into a combat stance, but a quick look around at the group of now well-armed SOG and friends, and he thought the better of it. Digray had regained enough composure to intercede before anything else happened.

“Whoa Dudes, chill. ‘S my fault. Gil-bot, ah, Gilbert, our bodacious engineer dude, got the mechanical part of your beastie goin’, and I took it out for a test-drive. Totally awesome ride. Sorry about the wall. Me an’ the group’ll get right on fixing the damage, ‘soon as I get this out of here and back to the livery.”

Digray made as if to get up and restart the mechanical monster when Joe put his broadsword back in its sheath and called out at he quickly swung up to the control cab. “DON’T! Ah, hey, I got lots of experience with machines, especially this one. Why doncha let me have a turn. After all, this used to be mine.”

Inside, Joe was feeling a bit nauseated. To him, it felt like someone had robbed the grave of a dear friend, and he was about to drive the corpse away. That was a very disturbing thought, after the events of the past two days. Two things kept him going. One, if Digray tried to drive the vehicle out, most likely there’d be significantly more damage to both the town and its inhabitants. Two, if anyone was going to drive his Diablito, it was going to be him, at least until the ex-Sanders learned how to operate it.

Things had begun to settle down when Benny managed to extricate himself from some wreckage off to their left.

“That’s IT! Whoever did this is gonna pay dearly. YOU HEAR ME! PAY!”

Spotting Tigermark and the others near the wrecked front of the building, and seeing Joe on top of what apparently had caused the destruction, Benny started to rant as he made his way their direction. He pulled up short when Aslaug turned around and he found himself face to face with her. One look at her face, and her axe, had a distinct dampening effect on his tirade.

Finally he snorted in disgust and yelled, “ALL of you go away. We’re closed for repairs. No trouble, HA! I shoulda known better’n THAT!”

The stunned patrons began to mill about and move toward the gaping hole around the now-dormant machine. The last few were hurried on their way when Joe fired up the engine. He pushed the throttle lever forward a bit, and then pulled both steering levers straight back. The Beastie inched backwards out of the Hole in the Wall, and from somewhere a group of ex-cultists showed up with timbers to shore up the sagging roof and ceiling.

As they heard Joe moving the machine back toward the now demolished livery, accompanied by the shouts and laughter of Digray, Sela looked around and gave a short cry.

“Hey, where are Aramis and the Princess?”

Demi replied without thinking, “He escorted her to the bathroom, why?”

Tigermark, who had quietly watched Ean depart to follow his employer, suddenly turned to them, a look of concern on his face. “Because the bathroom was right beside the front door entrance.”

The tiger looked sharply at the location where the bathrooms had been. Now there was only a pile of shattered lumber and other debris. The realization hit Cindy and Aslaug at the same time. Both charged toward the pile of rubble, Cindy becoming a bit unsteady in her run, with Sela and Demi right behind. Tigermark was only a step behind them as he picked his way over the splintered wood on the floor.

“Aramis! ARAMIS!” Sela cried out as they began to pull boards out of the way. It took several minutes before Tigermark and Aslaug together hefted a large section of wall out of the way. What they found would have made them all laugh if the situation hadn’t been so tense.

The back half of the femme’s bathroom was intact, mostly. Aramis was just sitting up and putting a paw to the back of his head, where a flow of blood was seeping from a large bump. The pseudo-Princess was laying face up astride his lap. Water or some kind of liquid had drenched her from head to toe, and her clothing was very much in disarray. Tigermark covered his muzzle so as not to laugh. It looked for all the world like an interrupted makeout session.

Aslaug snorted. “Well, didn’t think you had it in you, Aramis. Poor choice of time, place and person, but still…”

At her voice, Aramis had managed to look around. He now looked directly in front of him, and nearly fell back down. He was quickly attempting to push some clothing back over the princess’s nearly nude torso when he noticed something and stopped short. While the princess was in fact mostly topless now, there was nothing but smooth fur across her breasts, without a sign of the proper anatomy. She was laying there face up, eyes open, but there seemed to be no activity behind her eyes. Aramis made to push her off so he could get up. When the body rolled face down, there was a collective gasp. On the pseudo-princess’s back was a fully-formed, tawny-furred shark’s fin.

Just then, screams came from outside, followed by a shout. In a second, Joe hurried back in.

“Tiger, better step out here, there’s… what happened to you?”

Joe had directed the question to Aramis, who was now on his feet, barely. “I tell you when m’ head schtops spinning.”

“Uh, okay. Tiger, better come out here, Stripes has some news for us.”

Sela, who’d been looking rather put-out with the sight of a half-naked princess draped across Aramis’ lap, now brightened considerably. She followed Tigermark, Aslaug, and Joe outside, while Cindy and Demi assisted the obviously concussed Aramis up and came along after them. The pseudo-princess everyone left alone, as whatever it was seemed to be non-functional at the moment. The screams had come from passersby who had witnessed the dragon’s dusty arrival.

“Stripes!” Sela called as she ran up to the dragon and wrapped her arms around his considerable neck. Stripes bent down and returned the embrace with his forelimbs, being very careful with his clawed fingers.

“Lady Sela. It is good to see you, too.”

“What’s up, Stripes. I thought you believed it would cause too much of a stir if you came into town with us?” Tigermark asked.

“Indeed, see you can that right I was.”

Tigermark rolled his eyes as everyone else laughed, except Aslaug. “Watch your tongue, Lindorm. They may believe your innocent act, but I’m watching you.”

The dragon rolled his eyes in return and continued in a more normal voice. “Yes, sheildmaiden, I understand. It was necessary, Tigermark. I have news that cannot wait. King Phillip is on his way here to get his daughter. He and his entourage are about a day’s ride up in the mountains.”

At this, Sela spoke up again. “See! We left everyone out near that village at the mercy of those…things for no reason! The King was coming to us. No telling how many more they’ll kill before someone stops them.”

Demi remained silent, while Cindy looked about to speak up in agreement if she could collect her thoughts. The whiskey she’d had was working its way through her system now. Joe was trying to think of a good defense, but he, too didn’t like the idea of leaving the zombies on the loose. Aramis was too busy nursing the beginnings of a very roaring headache to say anything yet.

“I…” Tigermark began, but then Stripes cut him off. “Peace, Lady Sela, do not be concerned. Apparently, something went awry for Cutter Long. I could tell when it happened because the creature I was fighting suddenly began to lose strength. I didn’t say anything before, because I wanted to be sure. While flying today I spotted the remnants of the, ah, zombies, I believe Sir Aramis calls them.”

“Z’ ri’. Shzombiesh. Undeah,” Aramis said, and promptly felt his legs buckle. The two femmes who were helping him eased him to the ground in alarm, with Cindy nearly falling on him.

“Sounds like he has a concussion,” Tigermark observed.

“You should know,” Joe quipped as he went to check on the feline. The bleeding had stopped, but the bump was still very raised. His breathing was regular, and his pulse a little thready, but also even.

“Just leave him there and let him rest. Odd place for a shrapnel or debris hit. Normally those wouldn’t be so low and close to the base of the skull.” Joe stood up from his examination, and found himself face to face with Cindy. She had a little smile on her muzzle, and a glassy-eyed look that Joe recognized. Cindy had gotten a bit intoxicated by the two shots of whiskey she’d had. She draped her arms around his neck and leaned into his chest, mumbling, “I love you, Joe. You’re . . . great friend.”

Joe nearly fell over, and would have jumped back if he hadn’t been afraid Cindy would fall down. He carefully loosened her grip and shifted so she leaned against his side. She seemed content to stay like that, so he just stood there, holding her up and desperately wishing for a pot of black coffee to give her.

“So what are you saying, Stripes? What happened to the Zombies?” Demi asked, cocking her head a little to the side. Everyone had by tacit agreement ignored Cindy’s condition, and Joe’s predicament. There would be time to tease him later.

“When they lost the input of Cutter’s energy, they simply ran out of steam, fell, and resumed being dead.”

“I saw sumethin’ like that,” a voice said from behind them. They turned to see a very dusty, dirty ferret holding a bag and the reigns of a rather perturbed-looking horse. His odor hit them like a solid wall as the wind changed a little.

“Been up in the Shining Mountains, and came inta town to get cleaned up and fed. Thet thing from over at the livery spooked my old horse, uh, no offense ma’am,” he said, noticing Aslaug. She gave a “humpf” and motioned for him to go on.

“It spooked ol’ Duster here, an’ he took me on a bit of a chase. Just got ‘im under control and made it back to here. Anyways, what we saw. Well, we crossed the edge o’ the desert ta get over here, and I saw several bodies out that way. Thought they was odd. They was all dusty dry and in rags and strips o’ cloth. New bodies smell really bad, and the critters out there usually clean ‘em up pretty quick, but not even the buzzards were comin’ around after these. They seemed ta have jest stumbled out there and fell down. Saw one really strange thing at a distance. It twernt like the others. It was big, probably bigger’n you, Mister Dragon. Had a big sharp beak, and these things like tusks on either side, and really long claws an’ wings. It was dry and kinda dusty, too, but it had been burnt really bad in several places.”

“Bold one, this. I thought the furs around here were scared of big wyrms like Stripes,” Joe commented.

“Ah, I’m an ol’ paw at these parts. Dragons ain’t nuthin’ new.”

“Thanks, Mister,” Cindy said, a relieved smile on her face. Or perhaps it was a tipsy smile from the alcohol. The old ferret grinned shyly, revealing several missing teeth.

“Yer welcome. Ma’am.”

With that he shuffled on up the street, heading for the Torrid Waters Inn and Tavern. With the Hole in the Wall out of commission at the moment, it was the only other place in town to get a drink, a meal, or a room, even if the prices were outrageous. It also had a stable, and with the current condition of the livery, it was the last refuge to be had.

“Well, Stripes, seems you did win your fight, after all.” Tigermark said.

“Indeed. I thought I’d finally just driven the thing off. Sorry I couldn’t be of more help.”

“De Nada. You did what you could,” Joe said. “Hey, Digray invited us all to sleep over at the livery, or what’s left of it.” He was getting cramped holding his young feline friend up, and the closest place to sit her down seemed best to him

“No, we need to tend to Aramis, and the Hole in the Wall, even shattered like it is, has wards and such to guard over it. Benny does his best to make sure he doesn’t lose any guests,” Tigermark replied.

“Huh,” Joe stated, along with murmurs from the others about the idea. “Don’t think Benny’s gonna welcome us in. He said he was closed.”

“Don’t let Benny fool you,” Tigermark replied with a knowing smirk. “He…owes me a favor or two. Stripes, you’d best be heading out. Thank you very much for the information.”

“Indeed, I’ve disrupted things enough here, and I feel the need to go hunt. I’ll be back as soon as it seems prudent. Lady Sela, ladies, gentlefurs, I bid you a safe and comfortable evening.”

Sela patted him on the neck, and then everyone moved back as Stripes flapped for altitude, creating a localized brown-out of dust.

A short time later, Benny looked up from where he was moving debris. The ex-cultists had made good on Digray’s word, and the front of the building and the entranceway were well on the way to being repaired. Tigermark and company all crowded in around him.

“Well, what’d you do, forget something? Or maybe come back to finish demolishin’ the place. We’re closed, I said.”

“No Benny, we came back to take rooms for the night. Two should do.”

The badger gave a derisive snort. “Oh yeah, sure. Let me lay out the good linens an’ china. You and your whole group can…”

Benny stopped short when Tigermark stepped up very close and whispered something to him. A brief look of fear, followed by what looked to be a grateful nod, played across the badger’s face. Tigermark stepped back and Benny continued his statement.

“Can go up the back stairs there. You’ll find two rooms side by side on the right. You be out bright an’ early in the morning, got it?”

Tigermark nodded. “Will do, thanks Benny. Hey, we need to fetch that fake princess before we go upstairs.”

Sela was helping Aramis along, and the rest could see his blush even with his aching head. Joe still had his paws full with Cindy, who was waxing tipsily affectionate against his side, murring about how Joe was the best friend she’d ever had. Demi and Aslaug nodded, acknowledging that they would go retrieve the body. Just as the rest of the group started up the dark stairway, they heard Aslaug let out an expletive. In a minute she and Demi caught up with the group.

“For something that acted totally gone from shock, that thing is as slippery as an eel. It’s gone,” Aslaug stated tersely.

“Great. Wonder who told King Phillip we even had his daughter. Now we have him to protect, and give an explanation as to where his daughter is, too.” Tigermark did not look like a happy leader at the moment. He then turned and led the way up the stairs. Everyone gathered in the first room, which had two beds, a table, and a few of chairs. A door connected to the other room without having to go out into the hallway, and the femme’s were delighted to find it had a bunkhouse arrangement that would probably sleep fifteen furs. They propped Aramis up on one of the beds in the first room, and everyone congregated there to talk.

“Ah, Tiger?” Sela began tentatively.

“Yes Sela?” the white tiger was just sitting down in a chair near the table.


“For what?” Tigermark looked genuinely puzzled.

“For always questioning your decisions, and your God. You were right, I guess. I just don’t have the experience for those kinds of things yet.”

Tigermark stood up and walked over to her. She was suddenly very aware of just how big a tall white tiger is compared to a lithe huntress fox. She wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but Tigermark reached out and gently cupped her chin, raising her muzzle so she looked him in the eyes.

“Never be afraid to question a decision, Sela. Of mine, or any other leader’s. I’m not perfect, but the One I follow is batting a thousand. Sometimes I just don’t get the message quite right. Sometimes you also have to be willing to accept the reason and answer, even when it doesn’t seem to make sense, and do your best to follow it. That’s part of being a team, and trusting the leader.” Tigermark had shifted his eyes and given a slight nod toward Demi as he said that.

Sela nodded, relaxing as she saw the relaxed, caring look in the tiger’s eyes. Over in the corner, Aslaug had leaned against the wall, preferring to remain vigilante instead of sitting down. She looked about to comment on the tiger’s statement, but then just shook her head and shrugged to herself. He had been right, so no further comment from her was needed. He’d also seen through the fake princess’ disguise probably the same time she had, and that’s what had prompted the stop for him to ask guidance out in the desert. She still didn’t care for the cryptic way the Christian God delivered His word to them, but she couldn’t doubt her three friend’s faith and dedication.

# # #

Cutter Long had finally managed to find some tongs and remove most of the splinters from his injured paw. That had taken the longest after removing the shards of obsidian from the rest of his body. He muttered angrily to himself as he wrapped some fresh cloth around the paw to protect the wounds, which had finally scabbed over.

“How could anything prefer death to servitude. Here in this place is great evil, but my will was stronger than the spirit in the watch-globe. How dare it destroy itself rather than serve me! Ack! That hurts. All this power, and I still have to hurt and bleed and …”

Cutter stopped. With all this power, why indeed was he allowing himself to hurt? The spell was there, even now, floating lazily in the back of his mind, like all the spells he’d been using since taking over as master of the dark power of the mountain. Was he not now a god? He focused on the spell, mouthing the words needed to get the pronunciation correct. He spoke the spell aloud, and a ruddy, flickering glow surrounded the injured paw. When the flickering ceased, Cutter found his paw healed and whole, as though the shattering globe had never happened. He was a bit surprised to see that, when he held the paw up to the light to examine the spell’s work, it had a very dark shade of red suffused in the fur. He smiled, thinking it of no consequence.

He returned to the chamber where the alter stood. The red glow had diminished significantly when the watch-globe had shattered and he’d lost contact with the zombie horde. Perhaps the tiger and his friends had all perished before the undead ran out of energy and fell over. He looked at the bejeweled prison that held Princess Fallona where it sat upon the black stone. He could use it to see through the drone’s eyes and ascertain the fate his adversaries.

Focusing his attention, he was soon receiving a sight picture. The drone had been more or less on autopilot in the interval between his loss of the globe and now. The sight he saw made him even more cross. The drone sat at a table, with the cursed tiger and his friends, and the femme mercenaries. They were discussing why they’d left the desert and were taking the Princess home.

“Ah, so the zombies didn’t get you, eh? Well, no matter. That was only a diversion, to get you moving toward the King. Eh, what’s that?”

The serving wench had placed a glass of something in front of the drone. Cutter had to peer intently to see that it was only a glass of water. He directed the drone to drink it, and it did. Then something began to interfere with his control of the drone. Strengthening his will, he pushed through the interference and kept control. After a moment, his muzzle split wide with a malicious grin.

“Ah, I see the young housekaht, Aramis Dagaz is there. Perhaps I’ll start with him, as I slowly, deliciously tear this little band apart. Oh! I have it! If the drone is formed enough, that is. Even if it isn’t, this will work.”

Cutter allowed himself a mirthless chuckle, and then willed instructions to the drone. He could hear its voice commanding the feline to accompany her to the bathroom. That got a look and a chuckle from those around the table.

“Good, laugh away. You won’t be laughing long.”

The drone stood and walked to the front of the building where the bathrooms were. The young cat blushed and stammered awkwardly as the pseudo-princess barged in and ran a couple of local femme’s out. She insisted he come inside. After a deep breath, he did so. Once he’d established that there were no threats in the bathroom, the drone told him to turn his back. As soon as he did so, the drone grabbed a large metal flower vase kept in the corner for decoration, and delivered a powerful blow the back of the feline’s head.

“Oh, that’s gotta hurt,” Cutter said gleefully as Aramis hit the floor. He had the pseudo-princess roll the feline onto his back. She then loosened the top of the gown she wore, and then ripped it asunder. Cutter noted while looking down at the damaged dress that the drone’s breasts hadn’t completely finished forming yet.

“No matter, they will be by the time she gets to the King,” Cutter said in a low growling voice.

The pseudo-princess knelt down and prepared to straddle the unconscious form before her. King Phillip would show no mercy to one of his agents who was caught in the act of raping his daughter.

Suddenly there was a loud noise, and the sensation of cold and wet from the drone. Cutter lost contact, and couldn’t get it back. The last thing he heard was the drone’s feminine voice drop an octave and begin a nonsensical chant.

“Da-dum…Da-dum… Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum.”

# # #

“Feeling better, Aramis?”

Aramis nodded. Sela had been at his bedside as he recovered from being in the wreck of the Hole in the Wall. The others had sat around and talked, making plans for a search in the morning to find the missing fake princess. Except Cindy, who Joe had managed to deposit in one of the bunks in the other room. She had promptly fallen asleep, much to Joe’s relief.

“Ugh, like I got hit by a Mac Truck. What happened?”

Sela was about to ask quietly what a Mac Truck was when Joe called loudly from his place next to the wall. “Hey! Aramis is awake! Welcome back, buddy.”

The others called out greetings, as well. Aramis hadn’t been asleep, but he had been rather out of things for a bit. Tigermark stood up and walked over to his bed.

“Aramis, how are you doing?”

“Okay, I think. Did I hear something about Stripes saying the undeads ran out of energy?”

“Yep, that’s the report.” Tigermark looked to still be a bit concerned. “What happened with the fake princess?”

“Ah, when she told me to turn my back, I did. Only polite, y’know. She hit me hard on the back of my head, and I went down. After that I was in and out, but I saw when you found us that she wasn’t…quite normal.”

“Oh? How’s that?” Demi asked. Joe and Aslaug were grinning at the blush now creeping up the feline’s face.

“She. Ah, well, she had no…nipples.”

The others were silent a moment, and then Tigermark expressed what everyone was thinking.

“So, not only was that thing not Princess Fallona, it wasn’t even a real fur. What then, a robot run by magic?”

“I believe it was a drone.” Aramis answered, sitting up a little straighter. “A…what did they use to call them? Oh, almost like Cutter’s Sand Golems. He must have found something that lets him imprint someone on one. Never heard of anything happening with one like we saw, though.”

Aslaug thought a short time as the others bandied about explanations, and then she asked a question.

“Aramis, how did the thing get all wet?”

“I guess when the wall crashed in, it knocked the holding tank for the water to run the toilets off the wall. They all run by gravity feed here.”

“Then that, what was it, a fin? Showed up on the fake. Do they normally do that?” Aslaug asked.

“Well, it depends on the state of mind and recent events affecting whoever the pattern is taken from. Hey! That’s it! I wonder if the real Princess set that up as some kind of message?”

“That could be,” Tigermark stated as he went back and sat down. “So where did our little fake trickster get off to?”

“No telling, if it’s malfunctioning. Could be anywhere,” Aramis conceded.

“Well, whenever we find it, it won’t last long,” Aslaug growled. “The sejd-creature will be dealt with quickly, so that we can be on our way.”

Tigermark nodded, and then tilted his head slightly. “We’ll still have to talk to King Phillip before we go back at Cutter again.

Aslaug was reminded by the mention of the King about the exchange between Tigermark and the guide for the ex-cultists.

“Tiger, what was up between you and the fur in black who’s guiding, ah, what did he call them? Dogray’s group?”

Tigermark’s face showed a quick shadow of anger before it settled back to neutral and he spoke. “Digray. The group of ex-cultists is being called Digray’s group. The fur in black is Ean. He and I…have some history.”

Aslaug just looked at the tiger with an eyebrow slightly arched. To him it spoke volumes, so he decided he’d best give some more information. With a sigh, he began.

“Ean is an armadillo. Was one of the best desert warriors I’ve ever seen. He was an officer in the King’s army when I was here before, working to set up the Special Forces. Cutter was working for the King, then. When we sent someone out to set up militias, we never sent just one fur. We always sent teams. Cutter was a team Captain. Ean was the lieutenant sent with him. After we found out about Cutter’s real activities, and I went after him, Ean wasn’t with him. I found him in a village, actually trying to do what they were sent out for. His story was that Cutter left him there to train the folks they recruited from nearby villages while he went out to find more volunteers. He said Cutter would show up and check on him and his charges on a regular basis, and recruits would filter in when Cutter was gone. I think Cutter was sending the ones that weren’t corrupt on to Ean, and keeping all those whom he thought were willing to do so to join his bandit gang. When we got back, I spoke up for him, but the King would have none of it. Once corrupted, always corrupt, was his feeling. He threw Ean out of his service, although I was able to dissuade him from tossing the guy in prison.”

“What was that about, ah, TL?” Demi asked. Tigermark realized that everyone had ceased any conversation they were having and had been listening to him. With a shrug, he went on.

“TL, for you three ladies, means Tammy Lynx, my lovely wife. She was here with me then, too, and she lived at the palace. Ean had a big crush on her, almost following her around like a kali pup before he was assigned to Cutter. She thought it was cute, but that’s about all. In time it became a bit annoying. After he returned and was drummed out, he became a bit…aggressive toward her. To the point that I had words with him over it. He wasn’t allowed back in the palace, but one can’t live in a vacuum. TL and I were enjoying some R&R time here after the mission was complete, and it seemed every time she left the palace, he was there, somewhere, waiting and watching. He made some unseemly comments about her and his intentions, and I… didn’t appreciate it. I had him down, with my claws in his neck, but, as he said, I’m not a cold-blooded killer. I released him, with the warning if I ever saw him again I’d, well, rip his heart out. TL never saw that exchange. I sought him out to warn him off after she was safely back in the palace. He took off, and we never saw or heard from him again until now.”

They were all silent. Aslaug finally spoke.

“Tiger, say the word, he’s gone. Right now.”

The tiger made a dismissive gesture with his paw. “No, no need. TL is safe back at our home, and Ean is, well, Ean. If he is really the guide for Digray’s group, then they’ll do fine. By the way, be wary if you encounter him. He’s also a bit of a mage. Wasn’t too powerful back then, but no telling now.”

Deciding to redirect the conversation before anyone thought to ask where he’d gone between then and now, Tigermark yawned widely.

“I think it’s time for some sleep.”

Aslaug nodded. Joe was already leaned back against the wall with his hat pulled low. “I’ll take the first watch,” she said as she straightened her mail shirt a bit. Aramis was still too groggy to properly open their holdspace, so Tigermark slipped over to the bed in the corner and lay down with his cloak over him. The two mercinary femmes still awake told everyone goodnight and adjourned to the next room. Before long, the quiet sounds of sleep settled over the room as Aslaug put out the light.

Down below, a figure in dark clothing looked up at the windows.

“Well TM, quite a group you’re with. As long as you stay out of my way, that’s fine. You’re right, my hatred is directed toward Cutter Long. One day I’ll catch him out away from that rock he stays in now, and then… after then it’ll be your turn.”

Then Ean the Armadillo turned and walked back to the livery.


# # #

It had been a struggle, but Cutter had managed to bring the drone back under control. He now saw clearly through its eyes. Thing was, at the moment, all there was to see was desert and scrub. It was well after dark, and he was deciding on his next course of action. The drone had dried out enough for him to overhear the dragon proclaiming that King Phillip was on his way. With a little luck and timing, Cutter might still pull off the deception. He couldn’t see well enough through the drone’s eyes to navigate well, but a circle turn told him the village wasn’t far away to his right. He would move the drone carefully back toward town, and be ready at first light. He wasn’t aware of the furry fin that now appeared to have become permanent on the back of the drone.

“Come daybreak, King Phillip, and I’ll kill my two birds with one stone.”

He laughed low and menacing, and settled in to keep watch on the drone’s movement.

# # #

Princess Fallona had awakened to find no change in her prison. Still she felt at ease. She realized that she should both be hungry and in need of a bathroom, but neither was the case.

She cast about for something to occupy her time while she waited for something to happen. She decided to meditate like she had been when she went to sleep. She sat down and settled her thoughts, opening her mind. At first, nothing happened. Then, rather suddenly the gentle voice she’d heard before returned.

“Greetings Princess. You have done it. You have allowed us to share your thoughts.”

“W-who are you?” She didn’t say it out loud. It quickly became apparent that there was no need to speak.

“We are a part of the spirit of the ones who built this place. The evil ones control it now, but that has not always been so. They took over a very long time before this place fell the first time, and it has been a long time since then. We…could not resist them, so we withdrew deep into the heart of the mountain, going dormant. When the one called Cutter Long pressed his will over theirs, it inadvertently awakened us. The evil has had free run too long, and we have grown stronger in our slumber. We also sense a power new to this world moving in opposition to the evil. Very old, as old as this universe, or rather, even older. Whatever He is, He has the power to defeat both the old evil and the new.”

Princess Fallona considered this. That told her who was speaking in her mind, but not what they wanted.

“All that sounds fine, but what about my prison here? Are my father’s knights still in the fight against Cutter Long?”

“Very much so, although the double of you Cutter has used this holding ball to produce has given them an interesting time. Even now, they are in danger of having the double undo many things they have worked hard to achieve. Do not fear. We are with you, and the power we spoke of is with the King’s knights. Before very long, Cutter will get a nasty surprise, and in that time we may be able to both release you and send you out to your rescuers.”

Fallona felt so relieved she almost passed out. “Oh thank you! When Cutter is defeated, I’ll make sure your mountain is left in peace, so that the evil here won’t find another to employ its power.”

The voice took on a sad note. Sad, and resigned. “There will be no need, Princess, for when the evil here is defeated and destroyed, so shall we be. We are intertwined with each other too much for one side to be destroyed, and the other survive. We will gladly go into eternity, if it will thwart the evil that has been left here too long. We must now rest. We will talk again if anything of import occurs.”

The voice went silent, and Fallona found herself alone again. She wanted to do more, but it seemed for now all she could do was sit, wait, and be ready.

# # #

Tigermark looked out the window at the brightening horizon. Very soon it would be time to awaken everyone. He greeted the morning with a simple prayer of thanks, at seeing another day. A hint of sound and motion told him that Joe had joined him.

“Mornin, Joe. Going to be an interesting day.”

“Coffee,” was all the reply he got. The tiger’s ears detected the sound of stirring in the next room, and one whimper. He guessed that to be Cindy, who was probably going to awaken with at least a mild hangover. Tigermark found himself yawning widely. His turn at watch had been quiet, but it had fallen midway through the night, and he was feeling the interrupted sleep.

“I agree. Maybe we can get a cup when the cook opens the kitchen, if he does.”

“Where’s the filly?” Joe had noted as he became more awake that their equine friend was gone.

“She said she was going out scouting after the drone. Probably just as well. I can’t see her bowing to King Phillip when he arrives.”

Joe nodded as he searched in his tunic pocket for the first toothpick of the day. The sun was clearing the horizon now, so Tigermark set about the task of rousing everyone. Aramis was feeling much better after a night’s rest, and he opened their Spare Pocket so they could retrieve enough funds to cover their stay, breakfast, and an amount to offer Benny to cover his damages.

Tigermark then tapped gently on the door to the adjoining room. In a moment, Demi, looking her usual youthfully disheveled self for this time of morning, opened the door and smiled at him.

“We’re up. Even Cindy, although she’d still a bit unsteady. What’s the plan?”

“Breakfast downstairs in thirty minutes. Polish your armor and clean up your weapons. Today you’ll meet King Phillip.”

Demi nodded and closed the door again. Tigermark, Aramis and Joe cleaned up as best they could, and went downstairs. The ex-cultists in Digray’s group had worked quietly through the night, but now a crew of them set to work in earnest, pounding nails for all they had as they repaired the front wall. The young lapine doe who waitressed there apparently did so full time, as she was just setting out clean plates on a side table near the kitchen entrance. She visibly brightened when she saw the three males come downstairs.

“Good morning, my heroes. What can I get you?” This time Joe got the paws on his shoulders and the kiss on the side of his muzzle. Aramis had a wry grin as the coyote’s eyebrows shot skyward and he seemed to have a great need to clear his throat.

“Ah, the others in our group’ll be down in a few. How about a pot of coffee for all around to start?”

She winked at Aramis, who found himself blushing again, and then replied, “Can do, Joe.”

With an energetic wiggle, she departed to get the coffee and cups. Shortly, Demi, Cindy, and Sela came downstairs. After they were seated, the waitress returned with the coffee, and announced, “Due to last afternoon’s trouble, we only have pancakes for breakfast. Hope that’s okay, I’ve got Daddy working on a big batch for you right now.”

Everyone was agreeable to that, so the doe left to get the silverware and plates for them. Tigermark cleared his throat to get everyone’s attention.

“Okay, the plan for today is to meet King Phillip and inform him of the situation. We’ll then head out and try to get a bead how bad things have gone for Cutter and or us. It was never my intention to just let him go, but the priority is to get the real Princess Fallona away from him a soon as we can.”

There were slow nods all around the table. Everyone was working on their coffee, and not really awake enough for much conversation yet. Cindy was looking very bleary-eyed, and flinched a bit with every hammer blow from the group working on repairs.

“Ah, where is Aslaug?” Demi asked, looking around the room since the equine wasn’t at the table with them.

“Out attempting to track down that drone. Things like that are very magic-intensive and draining, so if we can take it down, it’ll weaken Cutter a great deal.” Tigermark worked his shoulders, getting the last kinks out. He was dressed in a chainmail shirt with a tunic over it. It was the way a Captain in the King’s service was expected to dress to meet with the King.

Shortly, the lapine waitress brought plates and silverware, and a large platter piled high with pancakes. As everyone passed the platter around, she came back with a pitcher and a small wooden tub. Joe sniffed at both and grinned.

“Syrup and butter! Well, Benny stocks some good grub.”

No one answered, as most had mouthfuls of pancake by then. Cindy had snatched both containers out of the coyote’s paws and headed them around the table while he was commenting. He noted she wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about food as the others. He leaned over and caught her eye.

“Yesterday didn’t happen. Have the waitress bring you some juice, you’re dehydrated. Go easy on the food. You’ll feel better by lunch.”

Cindy smiled gratefully. “Thanks Joe. Y’know, I may have been a bit off, but one thing I said was true. I do love you, but like a father or brother. Your Annie is a very lucky femme. Maybe one day I’ll meet her and tell her that.”

Joe just nodded, inwardly sighing in relief, and maybe, just a slight bit of resignation. No one wants to be told by a lovely young femme that they’re like a brother to them.

Soon breakfast was over, and Tigermark walked over to Benny and settled their bill. The wolverine grumbled loudly about the amount they offered to pay for the damages, but quickly snatched the coinbag away from Tigermark when it looked like he might withdraw the offer.

They all walked out into the early morning sunshine. The sound of reconstruction echoed from both the Hole in the Wall, and the Livery. Tigermark turned and addressed them.

“When the King comes into town, I will go out to meet him. I’d like all of you to hang back about ten yards or so. First, we all need to bow. Go down on one knee and bow your heads. I know, that might rub you the wrong way, but it’s a sign of respect for the office.”

None of the three femmes looked any too happy, and even Joe grumbled a bit, but then he said, “Ah well, not the first time. I don’t have to like it, but I’ll do it.”

Tigermark nodded in thanks, and the SOG and friends made their way over to a covered wooden sidewalk near the Livery to wait for the King.

# # #

“Your Majesty, I must protest this plan. I do not like being this far out in the badlands with only a token bodyguard force.” Duke Leone, the lion in charge of the King’s security, looked quite unhappy. He was joined by a tall, slender opossum. Duke Blanco was the King’s Chamberlain. King Phillip, himself a broad-shouldered lion at the peak of his years, looked evenly at the both of them. Their retinue of guards rode a good fifty yards behind them at the moment.

“Your protest is noted,” King Phillip replied. Those who first met the lion were always taken aback by his voice. They would be expecting a deep, rich timbre, befitting the lion’s physique and status. Instead, King Phillip’s voice usually came out as a medium tenor, and very nasally. “However, I will not allow Cutter Long to intimidate me. After her ordeal, my daughter will need to see the strength that brought about her release.”

“She’s probably already seen that,” Duke Leone muttered under his breath.

“What was that?” Duke Blanco asked in a loud voice, bringing the King’s attention toward them.

Making a face that said the Duke in charge of Security would rather be splitting the opossum from gut to goiter, he replied quickly, “I said isn’t that the village up ahead?”

“Why, yes it is.” King Phillip allowed a broad smile to cross his muzzle. “For a one-eyed old lion, you see quite well.” Duke Leone made a show of touching two fingers to his eye patch in acknowledgement. They rode on for a moment, and then some movement off to the side caused them to stop.

Much to everyone’s surprise, Princess Fallona came walking out to meet them. Her clothing was tattered, but her bearing was regal, almost stiff. She walked directly toward the King’s horse. Stopping several feet away, she curtsied and gave a sideways downward nod of her head.

“Father, I have been released. I apologize for my unkempt appearance, but I have suffered much, both at the paws of Cutter Long, and at the incompetence of the ones sent to rescue me.”

King Phillip made to dismount, to run to his daughter and embrace her. Duke Blanco grinned a wide opossum grin. He had no love for the SOG, and to hear that they had not performed well pleased him. Duke Leone opened his muzzle to protest, but the Princess held up a paw for silence.

“Father, please, I am unfit to be in your presence. We may embrace after I am able to make myself presentable. Duke, your furs did try, but they were no match for the dotted lion. The young cat will need to be seen to, as well. He made unseemly advances to me, and is responsible for my current tattered state of dress.”

Duke Leone was highly doubtful of this. He knew all three of the SOG furs well. Aramis Dagaz would likely die of embarrassment before ever coming close to disrobing an unwilling, or even willing, femme. He again began to protest, but now King Phillip looked angrily at him.

“Duke Leone, your loyalty to your furs is admirable, but your loyalty to the throne comes first. You are not objective enough in this. Please go and join the Royal Guards. Have them be prepared to arrest the three on my signal, if we should meet up with them.”

The one-eyed lion stiffly held his anger in check, although the murderous glare he gave the Chamberlain gave the opossum momentary pause. Duke Leone wheeled his horse around and went back to the bodyguards. Princess Fallona stood back up and looked at her father.

“Sire, lead the way into the village, and I will respectfully walk behind you. The rogue furs might still be there. I escaped from them last evening.”

“Very good, daughter, but no princess of the court should walk. Duke, give her your mount. You may walk behind us.”

The opossum sputtered only a second before he dismounted and held the reins so the lioness could mount. She did so, again very stiffly. The horse jittered and tried to rear. But the Duke held on, and the horse settled after a moment. He looked up, and his eyes went wide. He opened his mouth to say something, but before he could his eyes went unfocused. A moment later, those same eyes took on a feral gleam. The Princess looked down at him, the same feral look in her eyes. Together they followed King Phillip as he rode on into Many Rocks.

# # #

That same feral grin graced the muzzle of Cutter Long. He’d found he had gone past the need for a crystal, or a watch-globe. Above the jeweled orb that held the real Princess Fallona, A shimmering hazy cloud floated. In its center there was an area like a rectangular screen, The visual through the pseudo-princess’ eyes was on one half, but now a new visual filled the other half. Cutter reminded himself that each image showed the opposite of the owner of the visual, as his two minions looked at each other.

Cutter almost lazily sat down in a chair that had materialized behind him. His two agents, one fake, and one all too real, were in perfect position for him to strike.

The pseudo-princess was on a horse, not three feet from the king. The opossum agent he’d corrupted the year before, who almost rivaled Cutter himself in ambition and amoral outlook, walked just behind the two.

“Better than live. I get two angles on what happens,” Cutter breathed. He was almost at his goal. He’d get the King, and that blasted tiger, just like he planned.

The travel time into the village was short. Even now Cutter could see the white tiger, decked out in his official uniform, stepping out from under a porch to come out and greet the king.

“HA Ha ha! Wish I had popcorn for this,” Cutter said gleefully. A bucket promptly appeared, filled with the snack. The dotted lion settled back to watch his plan unfold.


# # #

“There he is.” Tigermark suddenly stood up straight, his tail stiff behind him. “Oh dear Lord. The fake princess is with him!”

There was a chorus of exclamations and expletives from his friends. Tigermark shushed them with a wave of a paw.

“That won’t do any good. We’ve got to play this through until we can get the king away from it. Ah crap! Duke Blanco is with them, but I don’t see Duke Leone.”

“What do we do, Demi?” Sela asked. Demi glanced at Tigermark, and then reached a decision.

“They’ve stood with and by us. We’ll do no less for them. Don’t be obvious about it, and don’t overreact to whatever is said. Tiger, lead the way. If I can read you right, you have a plan.”

“Indeed. Just trust me, though. It may sound odd, but I know what I’m doing.”

With that, Tigermark rushed out toward the small group coming down the street. Tigermark was glad to see that the Royal Guard was well back. It fit perfectly with his plan. He stopped right in front of King Phillip’s horse and dropped to one knee.

“King Phillip, well met, Sire. I and my unit wish to surrender to you. We have failed in our duty.”

The king was taken aback by the brazen admission. Behind Tigermark, Joe, Aramis, and the three femmes all were down on one knee before the king.

“Explain yourself, then, Captain Tigermark.”

“Yes Sire,” Tigermark answered, still bowed. “May I approach you to be heard better?”

“He’s close enough, Your Majesty. Let him grovel there.” Duke Blanco had a most unpleasant grin on his muzzle.

King Phillip considered a second, and then pronounced, “No, he may approach. Notice, Fallona, he is humble, and knows his place, and takes responsibility when things have not gone as planned.”

Fallona didn’t reply, and instead glared out in the direction of Aramis and the femmes. They didn’t move as Tigermark stood and walked toward the horses. The SOG and friends did hear Sela comment under her breath, “Surrender? Brilliant plan.”

Just as Tigermark stepped between the horse, his movements became a near blur. He reached up and grabbed the fake princess’ arm and wrenched her sideways, bellowing, “THIS IS NOT YOUR DAUGHTER! She’s a fake! See the fin!”

King Phillip’s eyes went wide. “Shark back?” But no, he could see both her arms, and they weren’t in the right position for that. He looked bewildered. Tigermark roared on. “Cutter still has the princess! She somehow made the fake do this when it got wet. It’s a message. It—Oof!”

Tigermark lost his grip and fell backward, managing a backflip to come up snarling. The opossum had produced a mace from within his robes of office, and had driven it into the tiger’s stomach. With a quick elbow, he surprised the king’s mount, causing it to rear. Surprised, King Phillip fell off sideways. The opossum put one foot back and caught him in midair with his tail, flipping him rapidly around so that he slammed down hard on the sun-backed packed earth of the street.

Now the pseudo-princess went into action. She screamed loudly at the top of her lungs, “HELP! They’ve gone crazy! They’re trying to kill the King!” While Duke Blanco faced Tigermark, she leapt off her horse toward the fallen lion. The guard was just beginning to react, taking a tentative step forward. In midair, her claws extended into daggers six inches long. She was just about to land paws first when she suddenly flew sideways to land hard just beyond the King. He was groggily trying to lift his head. He saw the now-still form of the fake princess. Her clothing had come loose, and he could clearly see the fur-covered shark’s fin. Beside it now resided a throwing axe, buried up to the head. The shock was too much on top of his fall, and the lion fell back down, unconscious.

“What kept you, Aslaug?” Tigermark yelled as the equine warrior raced in from beside the building across from where the group of them had waited.

“Been tracking that thing, and almost had it when all the company showed up.”

Duke Blanco suddenly realized that he was very outnumbered, as the rest of the SOG and friends were now on their feet, weapons drawn. He made to turn and run, but a compulsion from his master made him move toward the fallen King. He got exactly two steps before he suddenly sprouted an arrow from his back. He fell to the ground, without even a twitch to announce his passing.

Aslaug skidded to a halt beside Tigermark. The tiger made to move toward the fallen lion, but an arrow suddenly struck the ground about ten feet beyond them toward the Royal Guard’s position. Duke Leone had roused them from their stunned stupor, and they were now charging at full cry.

Without a word, Joe, Aramis, Demi, Cindy, and Sela all formed up to meet the onslaught. Murmurs of friendship, affection, and goodbye were heard. Aslaug was having none of it.

“Oh no you don’t. You aren’t dying and leaving me to wander around alive for eternity. Fight, you bunch of old femmes. FIGHT! We can take them, there are only, ah, a dozen or so!”

Joe was about to retort that these were the King’s Elite, when there was a sudden whoosh, and a wall for flames about thirty feet high appeared between them and the charging Guard.

“STRIPES!!” Sela yelled.

“Indeed, Lady Sela. I said I would return when it was prudent. I’d say now was such a time. I have slipped into the rope harness that Joe and Aramis used before. Seat yourselves carefully, and we’ll be off. Hurry though, that won’t hold them for long. They can come around the sides. I didn’t want to burn the place down.”

Everyone except Aslaug eagerly climbed on and found a good purchase. Tigermark looked at her steadily from up by the dragon’s neck.

“Aslaug, come on. It’s not for our good alone. I don’t want to have to kill any of those furs. They are friends that I’ve worked and trained with while here. They aren’t the bad guys.”

“Whatsamatter?” Joe asked in a rather teasing tone. “Afraid of heights?”

Aslaug looked indignant for a second. She wasn’t afraid of anything. She slipped the handle of her axe into her belt, and got a good grip on the rope. Somehow there seemed to be enough rope for everyone to find a secure place. With a great flapping, the dragon slowly lifted into the air.

“Ugh! Quite a load make all of you. Hold on!”

As they lifted away, a hail of arrows whizzed past. In a moment more, they were up out of range.

“Wh-where to?” Stripes wheezed. Sela became alarmed.

“Stripes, are you okay? Are you sure you can do this?”

“No choice, my Lady. The load is heavy, and I seem to have taken an arrow or two in our escape. Where too?”

Tigermark thought quickly. “To the cave near the Sander’s camp!”

“As you wish.”

They flew out over the desert. Managing to maintain altitude. The flight was not overlong, but as they neared the low hills and dunes where the cave was, Stripes let out a smoky cough.

“Hang on, this landing isn’t going to be too gentle. One of the arrows injured my leg. This is going to be a belly landing.”

Everyone remained silent, allowing Stripes to concentrate as they descended.

The sand was coming up fast. They heard Aslaug mutter, “This is going to hurt.”


# # #


26 May 2007

"Aaaw crap..." Joe whined. He was bruised and battered and hurting from toe to scalp but he was alive. "To quote a famous movie, I’m gettin’ too old for this shit!"

Aramis was out cold. The feline had a concussion from before the crash landing. How bad it was now was anyone’s guess. Joe approached his younger friend, who was currently laying in a disorderly heap and at a very strange angle. He didn’t like that. If only his head would stop spinning.

"C’mon, kid...felines can twist themselves into a knot and back out again without straining anything..." he mumbled and fell to his knees next to the unconscious form of Aramis.

Stripes wasn’t doing too good either. He’d tried to keep the right side up as long as he could while skidding...but it had been a hopeless attempt. After everyone on his back had been sent tumbling hither and thither, he had crashed into the cliff wall. From the sound of it...he was still alive. Nothing dead could make that sort of pathetic sounds, Joe told himself.

He couldn’t see Tigermark...he couldn’t see Aslaug. The girls were spread around, but judging from the way they moved, they were coming around.

"CINDY!" he called out. "I need help. Aramis is badly hurt."

The siamese got herself right-side up. She had literally landed against a boulder, head down, backside up and back first. Groaning, she stretched as she got to her feet. She was limping but apparently, nothing was broken.

"Coming..." she groaned and limped towards Joe.

Tigermark hopped up on a rock of his own. He had landed on his feet. Even though he knew felines supposedly always did, he had been amazed at it.

Aslaug came crawling out of a small ravine. There was blood everywhere. In her fur, in her mane, on her clothes, lips and face. As well as a scowl. A really angry one.

"Are you alright, filly?" the tiger called out. "That was one nasty tumble you took there."

"I’m fine..." came the answer.

"Are you sure...that’s an awful lot of blood..." Demi said, limping up to the equine, extending a paw as if to put it on Aslaug’s arm.

"I said I’m FINE!" Aslaug sneered and gritted her teeth. She jerked herself free and set out towards where Stripes had impacted.

Tigermark saw the look in the equine’s eyes, as well as the shock on Demi’s face at the angry retort.

"ASLAUG!" he called out. "What are you doing?"

The shieldmaiden hefted her long-axe in both paws and shot a glance towards her friend. "I’m putting that rotten lindorm out of it’s gods-damned misery!" she hissed.

"Leave your weapons here if you’re going that way, Aslaug, and while you’re at it, apologize to Demi. She didn’t deserve that kind of reply," Tigermark said, sternly.

Aslaug sent him a glance that would have withered an oak at twohundred paces, but she nodded and turned around, apparently reconsidering putting down the wounded dragon.

"My apology, Demi. Tigermark is right...you did not deserve that," she said, taking a deep breath.

The skunk nodded, still looking slightly shocked. "I don’t understand you, most of the time, Aslaug...but I guess that tumble hurt..." she said, realizing she was sounding meeker than she normally would. The bloodied equine in front of her didn’t exactly make her feel big and strong.

"It’s forty feet deep, onto rocky ground, Demi...and I’m carrying a large and varied array of sharp objects," Aslaug said, matter-of-factly. "The tumble hurt."

Demi swallowed and nodded. She couldn’t see any wounds on Aslaug’s body but there was enough blood there that she would normally have thought the equine would be on death’s doorstep if it was all her own.

"I’ll...go help Joe and Aramis, I think..." she said, quietly and backed away.

Aslaug nodded and tried an apologetic smile. She wasn’t terribly good at it, but the attempt was honest enough. Instead, she sat down on the nearest rock with her axe across her lap.

Tigermark hopped off his boulder and approached her, slowly. "Is that all your blood?" he asked, and immediately felt stupid for it. Who’s else would it be?

Aslaug rubbed her face to clear the worst of it off. It didn’t really work. All she managed was to rub it into her fur. "Of course not. I ran into Cutter Long in the ravine and turned him into a blue-fur delicacy."


"They live far away from my homelands. Wear cloth around their heads and pray by slamming their heads into the ground while turned towards a specific city...Mocca or something..."

Tigermark momentarily found it difficult to keep a straight face. "Arabians, Aslaug...and the delicacy is called Shish-kebab..."

"...that’s the thing," the equine mumbled.

Tigermark felt the moment of mirth seep out of him. He sighed and crouched in front of the equine, looking up at her. "Just how much punishment can you take, filly...? Good God, if you could see yourself..."

"I don’t need to see myself to know how I look right now, Tiger," Aslaug said, wearily. "And I don’t know how much I can take. Presumably...I could be incinerated and turned to dust and still come back. As long as I can’t go where I belong, I can’t die..."

The tiger nodded a little, patting the filly’s knee. The kneecap made a nasty sliding motion under his paw, before sticking where it was supposed to.

"You WALKED on that?" he asked and swallowed.

Aslaug shrugged. "I climbed out of the ravine on it, yes. I’ve had worse..."

"Jesus Christ..."

"WhiteChrist has nothing to do with this, and you know it..."

Nodding, Tigermark looked at his friend again. She looked tired. There was that everpresent anger and barely contained resentment in her eyes...and that same, stoic insistence on accepting her fate. At times, he couldn’t help thinking that Aslaug’s gods were cruel. To keep her from the fate she had, by their own standards, earned. Despite the pain it caused her.

It wasn’t his place to judge her beliefs, though. And despite having known her for some time, he realized that his perception of right and wrong, cruelty and mercy, life and death and many other things were vastly different from how the shieldmaiden perceived them.

"Rest a little, at least..try and catch your breath," he said, standing up.

Aslaug stood with him. "There’s something I really need to do," she said. "I’ll be back soon..."

Later, Tigermark could only slap himself that he hadn’t heard the exact tone in which the equine had said that. Instead, he decided it would be best if he went to check up on the others. He rubbed his face again and started walking towards his wounded friends.

"That’s a nasty cut you have there, Joe," he said and crouched next to Aramis’ unconscious form. Joe had a gash on the back of his right shoulder.

The coyote looked over his shoulder at it. "I’ll live," he mumbled. "How’s Aslaug?"

Tigermark sighed. "Not doing too good if you ask me. But she’d never admit it."

Sela cleared her throat. "Good enough to walk off, I think."

Joe’s head snapped around. As Sela had suggested, the equine was gone. He shook his head and sighed. "This lone ranger stuff is going to get someone killed..."

"Have a little faith, Joe..." Tigermark said and instantly regretted his choice of words when he saw the look on the coyote’s face. "Sorry...I didn’t mean to suggest..." he began.

Joe shook his head again. "It’s okay. I worry about her, that’s all."

"Funny you should say that. Worrying about the only one of us who can’t die..."

Sela and Cindy looked at the two males with confused expressions. They still didn’t know much about the equine and neither of them liked her very much, when it came down to it. She seemed too brusque and angry, and too ready to resort to violence. But the three amigos trusted her, so they would put up with her. Neither of them felt particularly unhappy that the shieldmaiden had walked off again, though.

# # #

"So...you’ve come to finish me off, then, have you?"

Stripes was in considerable pain. He hadn’t told his companions, but the wounds he had suffered when crash-landing were bad. He was hurting inside. Something had cracked...and he was pretty sure he had at least some internal wounds. Now the bloodied form of Aslaug was walking up to him, and he knew only too well how she felt about him. He had managed to drag himself into the cave, but he knew full well that unless he had time to heal, he wouldn’t even be able to drag himself back out. And it would take a long time for him to heal. Even by a dragon’s standards...it’d take a long time.

"Give me one reason why I shouldn’t," she said, narrowing her eyes. "One less creature of evil and deceit would make the world a slightly better place."

Stripes sighed. "I saved your life."

"No you didn’t," the shieldmaiden responded. "I could’ve fought my way through those guards. I’d barely have broken into a sweat."

"Royal guards? Hubris doesn’t suit you, Aslaug."

"Much to my dismay, Lindorm, I can’t die. Royal guards or not."

Stripes took a deep breath and shook his head. "My name is Stripes."

"You can call yourself whatever you damned well please, for all I care. You’re a lindorm nonetheless."

"Tell me about these creatures that you hate so much..."

Aslaug felt momentarily stumped, then she shook her head. "You’re not going to sweet talk your way out of this. I asked you for one reason why I shouldn’t end your life here and now, and you haven’t given me one!"

"I saved your friends. You may be immortal, shieldmaiden, and much dismay may it cause you...but they are not. They are vulnerable to steel and arrows like most other creatures. And the Royal Guard only takes the finest fighters. I’m sure you could’ve disposed of them...given time. I’m sure Tigermark would’ve taken some of them with him. So would Joe. But while you fought...while they fought...what about Aramis? His head is injured. Couldn’t speak clearly. In fact, he could barely stay upright. Did you expect him to be able to defend himself? What about Demi, Sela and Cindy? Do you think they’d have lasted long? Innocent bystanders?"

Aslaug had been raising her axe. Slowly, she lowered it again. Her teeth were showing and her face was contorted in a grimace of hatred but she had no choice but to agree to what Stripes said.

"Very well...you make a solid argument," she hissed and turned to leave.

Stripes raised his head just a little and looked after her. "Aslaug...you are quick to judge me a monster..."

"Because you are!"

"Look at yourself, before you blame others. Deathless, always ready to resort to physical violence. It carries no risk for you, when you can’t be killed. So who is the monster, Aslaug? You or I? For all your skill, would you be so ready to strike others down if you could die?"

Spinning around, Aslaug pointed an angry finger at the wounded dragon. "Don’t you dare pass judgment on me for this. I was never afraid of death. I would welcome it if it came to me this second, you filthy serpent. I’d be where I belong then!"

Stripes smiled, just a little, letting his head fall back to the ground. "Did you never consider the opportunity, warrior...that where you belong is with your comrades-in-arms? Did you never consider that you are with them for a reason?"

"I know why I am with them," Aslaug said and hung her head, her anger draining out of her. "But I am alone, even amongst friends. Do you know what that feels like, lindorm...to never fit in? Never to be...quite right? That no matter what you do, you will always remain an outsider?"

"Would you believe me if I answered yes to that question, shieldmaiden?"

"Good answer..."

Stripes chuckled. He was very tired and wanted to rest. He was in a lot of pain. But rest would have to wait. He didn’t have time for it right now. He could sleep for an age if he got the chance, and no doubt...he’d get it soon enough. But for now, he had to talk to the equine.

"I try," he chuckled. "You are not evil, Aslaug...you’ve got a good heart...but your anger and resentment against the world would give someone like Cutter Long an avenue as wide as the one leading up to King Phillip’s palace into your soul. Is there nothing worth fighting for...not out of anger...or hate...or resentment of your own situation? Is there nothing good worth fighting for...?"

"My friends..."

"They are all very capable warriors, each in their own right...and you know it."

Aslaug nodded, slowly. "Taking advice from a lindorm...what’ll be next? Riding Fenris into battle?" she muttered.

Again, Stripes smiled. His eyelids were getting heavy. "Who are these...creatures you hate so much?"

"Serpents...scaled serpents of tremendous evil. Their blood is poison, their avarice without comparison. No lindorm will tell the truth unless the truth gives them an advantage or increases their power or wealth. They are the vilest creatures in creation, and one of the greatest of their number, Nidhogg, chews away at the roots of the great tree, Ash Yggdrasil. To bring about the end of days. Fenris is the great wolf, chained by the gods until the end of days where he will break free and slaughter all before him. I don’t hate Fenris...he is not evil. He simply is."

"Do you fear the end of days, Aslaug?"


"I am not one of the serpents you speak of, shieldmaiden. It is possible for dragons...to be good."

Aslaug nodded slowly and looked at Stripes. A very slight convulsion ran down the great creature’s flank. She recognized it.

"You’re wounded. Badly so," she said, matter-of-factly.

Stripes nodded. He didn’t have the strength to lift his head anymore. "We are not all immortal, you know."

Aslaug pondered a while. "Is there anything I can do?" she asked at last.

The dragon smiled. It hurt. Part of him wanted to ask the equine to finish him off anyway, to make the pain stop. But he couldn’t do that. If he could rest...he would recover but it would take a very, very long time.

"No," he finally answered. "But thank you for asking."

The equine turned to walk away. Stripes smiled a little before summoning up his last strength to raise his head.

"Where are you going now?" he asked.

"I am taking your advice. I am going to fight for someone else. Someone who can’t. Someone other than myself...or Joe, Tigermark or Aramis," she answered.

"Must you always be the warrior, Aslaug?"

"What else would I be? It is all I know."

She vanished over the ridge. Stripes swallowed heavily and let his head fall back to the ground with a thud. He didn’t fight it anymore. He needed to rest. To sleep. Even if it would take an age...even if it would take two.

His eyes closed. The pain dulled.

The dragon slept.

# # #

Aramis wasn’t quite sure where he was. All he knew was that he wasn’t awake. This wasn’t any dreamstate he was familiar with though. He knew he was hurt, too. How badly he didn’t know, but he was aware that he had suffered some kind of head trauma. Strangely, his head didn’t hurt. But the knowledge was there anyway.

He tried out his legs. To his surprise, they supported him without problems. He wasn’t quite sure what to make of this, but he was curious to find out where he was and why.

Curiosity killed the kaht, he reminded himself, but still started walking. The landscape was rather dull. The colors were faded and there were no distinguishing features. Still, he somehow knew there was something here he needed to find. He knew the direction...but not the distance.

Maybe it was a way back to his own body? He didn’t know, but he could hope. Out-of-body experiences were somewhat disturbing, even at the best of times.

He wasn’t sure where he was going, but he could feel...something. Almost like a tug on his soul. A gentle pulling towards something.

Aramis wasn’t worried. Maybe this was what dying felt like. He didn’t really know, for obvious reasons. He could probably have asked Aslaug but then...maybe dying felt different for her with her gods than it would for him. Smiling to himself, he mumbled a quiet ’thy will be done’ and picked up his pace a bit.

# # #

Tigermark took a look around. There were several problems he had to address, but the most immediate one was getting food and water. Some transportation would be sorely needed too, unless they felt like walking across the desert. Somehow, the idea didn’t seem immediately appealing to him. Moreover, they needed to figure out what to do with Aramis. The feline was clearly not waking up anytime soon, although he appeared, at least as far as Tigermark could see, to be stable.

Just deeply unconscious.

He looked around and sighed. "Joe...Sela...could I get you two to go down to the creek in that ravine and get us some water? I’ll try organizing something to eat...if there even is anything edible around here."

Joe nodded and got up. He started collecting canteens from everyone and brought Sela along. Tigermark was about to set out to look for food when he felt a paw on his arm. Demi smiled up at him when he turned to look.

"I know how to hunt. At least let me help..." she said.

Tigermark nodded and smiled. "Gladly. Come along...there’s got to be something around here that we can eat..."

They started walking. Joe and Sela in one direction, Tigermark and Demi in another. Cindy stayed behind to look after Aramis. It had been an hour or so since they crashed and apart from the unconscious feline, they had all recovered well enough to move about a bit by now. There’d be black bruises for days, though. Cuts and swellings too.

Tigermark was worried. Even if they found food and water, there was another important issue to deal with. As if she could read his mind, Demi looked up at him.

"How long do you think it’ll be before they find us?" she asked. She tried to appear confident but the tiger could hear the worried note in her voice.

He shrugged and tried to smile disarmingly. Judging from her facial expression he was at best moderately successful. "I don’t know. It’s hard to track a dragon in flight, you know."

"Maybe so, but they saw the direction we took off in and they must be able to guess Stripes couldn’t take us that far. Besides, they probably saw him get wounded," the skunk answered, wearily. "It probably won’t be that long..."

Tigermark nodded. Demi was right. Normally, he’d simply set out walking at dusk, but as long as Aramis remained out of it...that was not an option. At the moment, their only chance was to lay low and pray they wouldn’t get found. It was not much to pin one’s hopes on, he had to admit.

He stopped and dropped to one knee. "Well," he said and rolled a small, black lump between his fingers. "At least we won’t be without food..."

Demi chuckled as Tigermark held the sunbaked excrement up for her to see. Some kind of small animal had left that. Now it was just a matter of locating it.

# # #

"I wonder where that filly went off to this time..." Joe muttered, mostly to himself as he slowly descended amongst the sharp cliffs. He was very careful. Slipping here could be potentially fatal, or at the very least extremely painful.

Sela followed him, using the same path he took. They were both carrying what cannisters they had been able to scrounge amongst the group. He hoped Aslaug had been smart enough to fill her canteen before leaving. She might not be able to die of thirst but it could probably cause her a lot of discomfort anyway.

"I don’t know. I just hope she’ll stay there..." Sela mumbled behind him.

Joe snapped his head around and gave her an angry look. "She’s my friend, Sela, I’ll have you remember that!"

The vixen blinked. She nodded, slowly and sighed. "I’m sorry. I just...she’s so angry all the time and she treats Stripes badly. I know she’s your friend but I have to be honest with you...I don’t like her much."

For a moment, Joe thought about snapping at the femme again. Instead he bit it back and nodded. "I can appreciate your honesty, but you have no idea what she’s been through...what she’s still going through..." he said and skipped down another few feet onto a big, flat rock.

Sela followed him, adroitly landing next to him on the flat rock. "Maybe not...but I don’t like that she treats Stripes like he’s evil. Don’t get me wrong, Joe, it’s admirable that you’re sticking up for your friends but can you at least appreciate that I’m sticking up for mine? Why’s she so angry all the time? Does she EVER smile?"

The coyote nodded. He could see the point and when he thought of it, Aslaug probably came across badly to anyone who didn’t know her. He scratched his neck and shrugged. "She’s angry because she wasn’t allowed to die, Sela. And yes...she smiles. Just rarely when on a mission. It reminds her that she didn’t get to die."

Sela went crosseyed. "Oh...-kay- then. So Miss Guts and Glory wants to die? But she can’t? What’s up with that?? What’s so horrible about immortality?" she asked. As far as she was concerned, Aslaug went from ’grumpy annoyance’ to ’grotesquely ungrateful wretch’ in the blink of an eye.


"No, Joe...listen to me. The three of us...Demi, Cindy and me...we had a pretty good working relationship coming with you, Aramis and Tigermark. Then suddenly this axe-wielding equine maniac turns up out of nowhere and look at us now? We’re biting at each other, second-guessing one another, getting annoyed with everything we say to each other..."

Joe clenched his eyes shut. "You’re free to leave if you don’t like her, Sela, but she stays!" he said in an angry tone of voice. "Enough of this!"

Sela put her arms akimbo and looked sideways, chewing on her bottom lip. She didn’t like being cut off like that. It took a few moments before she followed Joe further down the ravine.

By the time they reached the bottom, they could hear water. It was cooler down there too. The air wasn’t as heavy either.

"If we have to stay hidden, this is probably our best bet," she said, trying to keep the annoyance out of her voice. "Difficult to spot, and it’s a lot more comfortable than up there."

Joe nodded. There was no question about that. The problem was how to move Aramis down there. The small stream would help keep the air cool though, and that would no doubt be good for him in his present condition.

He sat down and wiped his forehead, splashing a bit of water onto his face.

"If we can get Aramis down here safely, then that’s a good plan..." he answered.

Sela didn’t speak. She had fallen completely silent, but it took a moment before Joe noticed. Then he looked up and towards the vixen. She was standing nearby, staring at something in horror.

Jumping to his feet, Joe hurried over to see what was wrong. Sela didn’t say a word. She just pointed to the sharp rocks on the ground. Joe sighed and crouched, picking something up from between them.

A broken Francisca. The axehead was covered in blood. As were the rocks everywhere near it.

"That’s...that’s one of hers..." Sela said and looked at the broken throwing axe in abject mortification.

Joe reached out and washed the worst of the blood off the weapon, before getting to his feet. Aslaug would probably want her weapon back at some point. He rubbed his forehead with the back of his right arm, before heading back out of the ravine.

"Do you still think immortality is such an enviable thing, Sela?" he asked as he passed the vixen.

# # #

Digray wasn’t quite sure what to make of the situation. Their most awesome guide had led them away from the town where they had crashed their totally stupendous ride into that completely funky bar.




And now they were headed for Farwest again. So the guide-dude said, but Digray wasn’t so certain anymore. If for no other reason than because he felt pretty sure they were going back out that town the same way they’d cruised into it.




Digray felt like hopping off his totally stupendous looking circus wagon to go have some serious rapping with this Ean-dude. Find out if he was really so cool and if he really knew where Farwest was. Of course...that meant he had to actually stop his ride and Digray didn’t like that idea much. Felt good to be moving. It felt like he was surfin’ on the sand...




He had just about convinced himself that he needed to have some severe and totally serious lip flapping with this Ean-dude, when something came into view on the horizon. He narrowed his eyes. Seemed he was the only one on top of the woody-wagon who had seen it yet. He couldn’t quite make it out just yet.

They’d have to stop anyway. Maybe whatever it was would be gone in the morning. Could just be some completely laid back local animal...like...



Digray’s head began to bop to a rhytm only he could hear. He’d been thinking of something a moment ago, but that was long gone. He was going to Farwest...the land of lots of wet stuff and endless amounts of funky herbs.


# # #

It was dark in the ravine. Between them, they had managed to move Aramis down near the water. Now night was closing in on them and Tigermark felt pretty sure it’d be freezing cold within moments. Fortunately, it was possible to light a fire down there. If they had lit it on the surface, it’d have shown for miles around. Down here...if they kept it a small fire...they could get away with it.

It had to be a small fire anyway. There was a seriously limited amount of flammable materials available. Normally, that wasn’t too much of a problem. Not with Aramis around. He could make fire burn where there was nothing for it to consume but Aramis was, after all, out cold. There was no way for them to get any kind of magic out of him for the time being.

The girls had managed to scrounge some firewood though. How well it would burn was anyone’s guess but at least they seemed to know how to get a fire going and Tigermark frankly felt relieved at that. He didn’t particularly feel like spending the next three hours feebly rubbing two sticks together in the vain hope of getting enough friction-heat out of them to start a fire. He was pretty skilled at wilderness survival but those skills were slightly rusty, he had to admit. Taking mental note to refresh them once all this hassle was over, he sat down and looked at the few embers spreading in the small pile of firewood in front of him.

"Not much to cover Aramis up with. No blankets or anything," Joe said, wearily. "Apart from our weapons, Tiger...we’re down to the clothes on our backs and that’s about it. We’ve got an angry duke, chasing us down coming from that direction...and a treacherous lion with the magic of the ages at his fingertips in that direction, and our fire-and-forget missile has wandered off..."

Tigermark nodded. He wanted to remain hopeful and cheery. He wanted at the very least to give his friend something to smile about. Sadly, nothing was coming to him, however. "We’re certainly going up a certain creek without a paddle..." he admitted.

Joe sighed. He watched as the small embers caught hold in one of the logs. A little warmth started spreading. It felt nice...however little it was. "That’s not the half of it," he said.

"We can’t lose hope now, Joe..." the feline said next to him, also looking at the flames. "We’ve been in worse situations than this."

The coyote didn’t want to argue with his friend, but he had a hard time remembering the last time they’d been in this much trouble. They didn’t even know where to go from here. Sure, they had a good idea what direction the spotted lion was in, but...

...but what good did that do them?

Aramis was badly hurt. Stripes even worse so. Demi, Cindy and Sela were good fighters but no match for someone like Cutter Long. And even if they were, it wasn’t as if Cutter would be alone. He’d have help. Lots of help.

He was confident that Tigermark could deal with Cutter if he could get close enough. The tiger was the best fighter he knew. Even better than a certain equine now sorely missing from their august company. Aslaug was stronger...fiercer...a lot wilder and certainly generally a lot more dangerous than Tigermark, but the big, stripy feline next to him was simply amazingly skilled. Aslaug was the kind of warrior he’d send against an army, feeling reasonably confident she’d come out on top of a large, messy pile sooner or later. Tigermark would take down anyone in a one-on-one fight.

Aramis would blast things from a distance using all his little arcane tricks and spells. Joe didn’t pretend he understood what it was all about. Way too much hokus-pokus for him, though he certainly appreciated what Aramis could do to help the group in general.

What about himself?

He was a damned good shot, an excellent tracker and deadly enough in close combat to hold his own and then some.

What did Cutter Long have?

He dreaded to even think along those lines.

The log sputtered a bit. For a moment it looked as if it would burn out before it really got going. Then it crackled and split open, and the fire took hold again. Joe smiled a little. Even the fire wouldn’t go out. It’d fight to hold onto that log. Could he really do any less? He turned his eyes skywards and looked at the stars above the ravine. Somewhere out there...Annie was waiting for him.

He felt slightly angry with himself. How dare he lose hope? He had something bigger than himself to fight for.

That was what he had.

He had purpose!

The fire grew a little brighter.

# # #

"Welcome, Aramis Dagaz."

There were a lot of voices, all around Aramis and he had no idea where they came from. He couldn’t see anything. He felt pretty certain the voices weren’t hostile, though. As certain as he could be, anyway. The landscape was darker, but no different than what it had been since he started walking. He had absolutely no idea how far he’d gone or where he was headed.

That realization struck him like a freight train.

Where was he headed? Maybe he’d gone in the wrong direction. Maybe he shouldn’t have moved at all.

"Be at peace, Aramis Dagaz," the voices said. It sounded like one voice, but speaking in a multitude of tones. Male and female, young, old, melodic, screechy. It was a little overwhelming. Aramis couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard something like that.

He steadied himself. If they were hostile they wouldn’t try to talk to him like this. He was vulnerable and confused...and they were trying to calm him down. As far as he was concerned, that made the voices friendly. He stood up straight and looked around, slowly turning full circle around himself.

"Who are you?" he asked. "Where am I? What is this place?"

"If we explained who we were, you would not comprehend it, Aramis Dagaz. You are not of this world. You may think of us as the Old Order," the voices said. Still calm. Still friendly. "Do not trouble your mind with who we are. We are the enemies of your enemy..."

"Logic dictates that makes you my friends..." Aramis tried, smiling crookedly.

The voices actually chuckled. It sounded strange. It was the first time they were out of synch, Aramis noticed. "No. It simply means we are the enemies of your enemy. Nothing more. But we are willing to help you...for The Greater Good."

Aramis didn’t quite know how to react to that at first. He did like the idea of ’the greater good’ though. He had a fairly good idea of what ’the greater good’ was like. Usually, he referred to ’the greater good’ as Dominic.

The voices chuckled once again. "We do not know of this...’Dominic’. We know of The Greater Good."

Squinting, Aramis realized the voices knew what he was thinking and he tried to blank his mind. "Yet you invade my thoughts unbidden!" he said, sharply. "That is not a friendly act."

"Again we repeat. We are not your friends, Aramis Dagaz. We are simply the enemies of your enemy."

"This is pointless!" Aramis snapped and turned, determined to walk back the way he’d come. Only...he wasn’t quite sure which way that was. In all directions, he saw nothing but the same, plain, dull and grayish landscape.

The voices fell quiet for a moment. "We will not listen to your thoughts again, unbidden," they finally said. "And we apologize."

Aramis nodded, slowly. Turning back around himself again. It annoyed him that he couldn’t see the owners of the voices. It made it hard to have a conversation. "Show yourselves!" he demanded.

"Alas, we would like nothing better...but we cannot," the voices said, now in a sad tone of voice. "And we have little strength left. Ask...your questions wisely, Aramis Dagaz. We will answer them as best we can."

Blinking, Aramis felt stumped. What questions? He could ask them anything from "What did I have for breakfast a year and a day ago?" to "Why do intelligent furs buy cinema hot-kalis?".

He had no idea what to ask. What this was all about.

What it...was all about.

"Where is Princess Fallona?" he asked.

"In captivity, held by Cutter Long."

Aramis was about to growl something about the uselessness of that answer...when he stopped himself. Maybe...just maybe it wasn’t useless.

"Held by Cutter Long, you say. Am I to take that literally?"


Smiling, the feline nodded to himself. "Show me her prison..." he said.

"We cannot," the voices answered.

Again, Aramis nodded, this time a little less smugly. "Describe it to me..."

"Blood and purity, Aramis Dagaz, joined as one."

Aramis scratched his cheek with one paw, putting his other one on his hip as he pondered that answer for a while. Finally, he looked back up.

"Just two more questions, then..." he said. "Will you show me the way to travel to find the princess?"

"Yes, follow the sign at high noon, Aramis Dagaz..."

Aramis wanted to ask what the sign would be, but that would be his second question...and he’d said only two more. Somehow, signs were usually unmistakable.

"I believe I am injured. I don’t know quite how severely. But if I can regain consciousness, I can help my friends. Will you help me regain consciousness."

"Goodbye...Aramis Dagaz. Serve The Greater Good..." the voices answered.

Aramis was about to protest, but his voice didn’t obey him anymore and no sound came over his lips. The strange, gray landscape vanished and it felt like his legs wouldn’t carry him anymore. Aramis buckled, collapsing in on himself.

Gasping hard, he sat upright by the fire.

# # #

The sun rose slowly over the horizon. At first it was a thin sliver, long and flickering...a promise of the heat to come. Slowly the sliver became a semicircle...drawn out at first but more and more of it showed with every minute.

Ean was already awake. The same couldn’t be said for the majority of the wastrels he was leading. They’d paid him to take them to Farwest. Wherever that might be. He was going to take them as far west as he could and then tell them that was it.


Idiots. Did they really think such a place existed?

He shook his head. He had better things to do with his time now than leading a bunch of halfwits and desert-clowns around. He needed to...catch up...with a certain tiger. Firstly, he needed to catch the tiger at all. That wasn’t going to be easy. Then he’d make the damned feline regret the insults.

He had learned much since those earlier days where he had pined after that lynx. Much indeed. He was one of the most skilled warriors in the entire desert by now, and while it was a thinly populated region...those who did live there were all tough, fierce furs. It wasn’t that he wanted the lynx for himself, either. He’d even forgot her name. What he wanted was to get even. And if that meant leaving that damned femme without a husband, it’d be a bonus.

She had scorned him. Rejected him. If she would grieve, he would feel better for it. Then maybe she’d understand how he had felt.

For years.


Of resentment and bitterness. Of anger and hate and the faint hope that one day he would get even.

He would gladly have left these raving lunatics behind in the town, but they had followed him like puppies. He was, after all their ’guide-dude’, as they put it. Of course, having them along meant he had as much chance of sneaking up on the tiger and his friends as he had of making it back into the King’s good graces.

To add insult to injury, he had been forced to spend last night listening to these sunbaked scatterbrains chanting the wonderful & mysterious chants of ’Help Me Rhonda’ and ’Xanadu’.

It was enough to drive even the most peaceful, levelheaded and genteel of furs into a frothing, murderous rage. And he had never been one of those peaceful, levelheaded and genteel furs to begin with. The only thing that had kept him from tearing them all to shreds had been the fact that they were many and he was only one. They’d only need one good blow to take him down.

But if he had to listen to one more invocation of Rhonda, he’d leave them to roast in the middle of the desert at the first opportunity he got.

The sun was almost up. He turned and looked back in the direction they were supposed to go. The direction that the dragon had flown in.


Ean groaned and his shoulders slumped. "Yes?"

"Why are we...like...totally going back the way we came?"

"Because..." Ean said, patiently. "If you hadn’t noticed, there were a lot of very angry furs with weapons coming from the direction we were headed in before. So I am backtracking a little, then swinging around them. Otherwise, you would have to deal with us being stopped every two hours from now until we reach Farwest. And every stop would probably take half a day."

"Ohh...so we’re moving arooooound all the trouble," Digray said in the voice of a fur who had just realized that two plus two equaled four. "Awriiiiight, totally funky. Let’s shag ass then!"


"Yeaaah, you know...get a most awesome move on, dude?"

Despite himself, Ean felt momentarily relieved. "I agree...but before we do that, what’s that...?"

Digray narrowed his eyes and looked in the direction the armadillo was pointing. "Oh right...that...no idea, guide-dude. It was there last night, too...figured we’d find out when the big yellow woke up, eh?"

Ean nodded and looked back in that direction. "I suggest you get your friends on their feet. We’ll go towards that...and find out what it is. Around noon we’ll rest a while, until the heat becomes tolerable, then turn south for the rest of today and tomorrow, before going back towards Farwest the following morning. You dig?"

"Of course I do! I’m Digray, dude...Dig...ray...get it?"

Ean managed a strained smile. His fingers were itching. Not as badly as his knuckles though. "Yeah, I get it. Just wake them up."

Digray, most stupendously pleased with himself for his ability to one-up the guide-dude went about waking up his friends.

# # #

"Do we have ANY idea where Duke Leone and his troops are by now? Do we have any way of finding out? Or do we sit here and wait for them to come marching in, riddling us with arrows?" Joe asked, scratching his cheek. He would give a lot for a bathtub filled with hot water, a good scrub and a bottle of single malt Tomatin.

Tigermark sighed and shrugged. "I know how far they can go on a day of forced march and I think we can safely assume they are forcing this one. They are going to be here by nightfall, tomorrow morning at the earliest or sometime during the night if they don’t stop to rest."

Demi sat down next to Aramis. He had sat up in the middle of the night, gasping...then immediately fallen back asleep. "It won’t matter until he comes around..." she said and sighed.

Joe and Tigermark looked at their sleeping friend. They had tried gently nudging him but to no avail. They had more or less agreed by now that what had happened during the night wasn’t indicative that Aramis was going to wake up any time soon. And until he did...they were stuck.

Demi was right about that.

"Do we have anything to eat? Something that won’t make smoke to prepare?" Tigermark asked.

Joe shook his head. "It’s smoke or starvation, I’m afraid."

"Then we’ll have to starve for a while."

"How about Stripes? How’s he doing?" Cindy asked and sat down on a flat rock.

Joe had gone to check on the dragon earlier and found him asleep in the cavern. Very fast asleep, in fact. "He’s healing up. But he’s big and difficult to overlook. We may have to collapse that cavemouth or the soldiers will find him."

"How do we know if he’s strong enough to dig himself out??" Cindy asked, her eyes going wide. She didn’t like the idea of burying their draconic friend alive.

Tigermark looked at Joe’s face for a long moment before looking at Cindy. "We don’t..." he said, simply. "We can only hope..."

# # #

Aslaug sneered and tucked her head down. It was already warmer than in Southern California during the Santa Anna season and she was not particularly happy about the prospects of cooler climes later in the day. It was still morning. Come noon, the temperature would be unbearable. She’d give a lot for a good blizzard. Some proper snow and a few howling wolves. No chance of that around here, though. She was very, very displeased about that.

In fact, she felt like punching someone.

With some luck, she’d have the chance soon, too. Up ahead she could see movement. It was blurry due to the morning air being warmed by the sun, but something was definitely moving. All she could hope for was that it was her intended prey. She’d expected having to travel for several days to find it. If it came to her this easily, she would not complain.

She felt like she was roasting in her armor already. She didn’t even have to wear it. Why bother if she couldn’t die anyway? She shook her head. She’d always worn armor. It was a matter of not feeling properly prepared for war without it. Reaching up and wiping her forehead with the back of her arm, she used her paw to shield her eyes from the sun, looking towards the blurry shapes. They were much closer now. Reaching down, she loosened her one remaining Francisca in her belt. Reaching over her left shoulder, she grabbed her longaxe and hefted it, testing it’s weight again. It felt good. Familiar.

A couple of practice swings...left...right...a spin around herself, axe outstretched.


She hadn’t lost her edge.

"Tears of Freja..." she whispered and ran a finger across the blade, drawing a slight amount of blood from it’s razor edge. The wound closed almost immediately. "For the grief of a goddess betrayed...and the pain that comes with it..."

She narrowed her eyes. Not for Tigermark. Not for Aramis or Joe. Not even for herself.

For someone who wasn’t even on this world...who wasn’t there to fight this battle.

She planted her hooves in the sand and waited.

# # #

Ean could make out a single shape. They were approaching fast now. One solitary figure, standing on the sand. He shielded his eyes from the sun and concentrated. It was...armored. How bizarre. And female. That was less strange. Femmes could fight as well as males, he knew that from past experiences. But armored? In this heat?

He came fully armored from nature, of course. It was different. The armor plates protecting his body acted to shield him from the heat as well as blows from hostile furs. Arrows would have to be fired at very close range to penetrate and actually harm him, he knew. Shrugging, he wondered what it was all about, but just in case, he reached under his cloak and withdrew two small crossbows. On top of both sat a slender holster, almost as long as the crossbow itself. Each held five arrows and a reloading mechanism.

Small, but powerful repeating crossbows. Normally, this type of weapon had almost no punch, but he had his constructed from steel. It gave them enough force to punch through plate-armor at twenty paces. Beyond that range...he couldn’t hit a barn door, but then, most furs couldn’t hurt him beyond twenty ranges anyway.

It was a perfect weapon for him. All he had to do was close the distance to an enemy...and he could take down anyone.

He reached down to a pouch on his belt. Taking a small flask from one of them he very carefully opened it and emptied half of it onto down either magazine, near the tips of the bolts.

If the missile itself didn’t work...there was enough poison on those bolts now to knock down a landshark.

When coming up on an unknown fur in the middle of the desert, he knew from bitter experience that it was unlikely to be a pleasant meeting. Even normally friendly furs would be on edge. Peaceful creatures would gladly kill for a canteen of water in the heat.

He clicked the safety on both the crossbows and locked the mechanisms in place. Then he checked his blades. Short, curved, viscious things that would double as skinning tools whenever he’d killed something.

The lone figure was clearly visible now. They were within shouting distance. He beckoned for Digray to stop the great, lumbering beast that they used for transportation and hopped off.

"Wait here," he said. "I’ll be back soon. I’ll deal with this."

He could see the figure perfectly now. It was that equine he’d seen briefly when he bumped into the tiger and the others at the village. She just stood there. Her axe held over her shoulders like a yoke.

"What do you want, femme?" he shouted.

"Just you," she answered.

Ean laughed heartily. So did Digray and the others on the beast.

"Hey, stand in line, sweet-cheeks. There’s enough of me to please a whole army of femmes, even though you look strong enough to last a while," he said.

To his disappointment, the equine didn’t get angry. She simply smiled in contempt and shrugged.

"Move aside and let us pass and you won’t have to get hurt," he said.

The equine rolled her shoulders. "S’a big place, this. I’d think you could simply get on that thing and move around me if you absolutely want to."

Ean shook his head and made a dismissive paw-gesture towards the femme, turning to go back to the beast. This was a waste of his time. "Riiight. Go tell Tigermark I’ll come play with him soon enough," he said.

"No you won’t," was the answer.

A throwing axe slammed into the sand inches in front of his feet. He spun around. He would have reached for his crossbows, but the equine was already moving towards him. He wouldn’t have time to aim. Let alone get the safeties off them in time. Flicking back his cloak over his shoulders he hissed and twirled out his twin blades instead.

Digray’s group all fell remarkably silent. As if this wasn’t what they had expected. Ean didn’t really have time to take notice of that. He had what looked like an extremely capable enemy bearing down on him. He reacted instinctively and launched himself towards her, curling into a protective ball as he did so.

It worked. He barrelled into the femme and knocked her head over hooves. The surprise of his move had totally taken her aback. He unrolled once again, immediately taking note of where she was. She was getting back upright after landing on the sand, but her back was turned towards him.

He didn’t need that kind of chance twice.

Jumping at her, he burried both blades in her back to the hilt, forcing the thin blades in through the rings of the equine’s chain-mail armor. The move made her collapse under his body-weight all over again. Rolling upright, he twirled his blades once again, smiling cruelly as he licked a little of her blood off the right one.

"You don’t know how to fight desert style. Your armor slows you. You are not used to moving on sand, femme...it shows. Your weapon is too large. And you’ll have bled to death before you have a chance to make use of that lesson," he said, contemptively.

The equine shook her head as if to clear her thoughts. She was slow in getting back upright. But to Ean’s surprise, she was getting to her hooves. Very well, if that was how she wanted it, she’d simply have to bleed and suffer some more. If nothing else, this was excellent exercise before he had to deal with the tiger.

He reached down and grasped the crossbows, removing the safety. Leveling them, he fired two bolts. They punched home. One into the femme’s right shoulder, the other into her stomach. Both went in to the hilt. Her armor, chain mail as it was, offered no protection against a thin bolt fired with such force.

She went down on one knee...but only for a few seconds before she came back up. Still, she said nothing. Ean was amazed, despite himself. He was doing a lot of damage to this femme. Quickly, too. One learned how to fight and kill with speed in the desert. Drawing out a fight for more than a few minutes would make you drop from exhaustion because of the heat. Any normal femme would’ve died from the dagger-wounds alone. The poison on the bolts was fresh. He mixed it himself. The wounds from the bolts themselves would kill a grown fur, if not immediately, then at least quickly. And they would certainly keep anyone from moving.

And she still got to her hooves. Picking up her axe. Without a word.

Ean didn’t like this. He fired again. This time, he missed. The equine ducked out of the way of one bolt. The other clanged off the head of her axe, held in front of her heart.

"Why won’t you die?" he snarled.

The equine moved. Far too fast for someone who should be seconds from death from poisoning. Her axe came down in an overhead blow. It would’ve split him from skull to groin, even with his natural armor and he knew it. But still, she didn’t know how to move on sand. He evaded. If only barely. The look in her eyes wasn’t even hateful.

If it had just been hateful...

She looked indifferent.

"Who are you..." he asked, breathily, backing up a few steps, bringing up the crossbows again.

The equine smiled. "Someone who fights for a fur who can’t do her fighting for herself..."

"WHO?" Ean demanded. He could hear the fear creeping into his voice. "Who is this fur? And who are you?"

"I think you may remember her..." the equine said and rolled her head on her shoulders. "Her name is Tammy Lynx. She will not wake up tomorrow without a husband."

"Tigermark..." Ean mumbled, swallowing. He aimed the crossbows again and fired once more. One bolt landed in the equine’s left thigh. The other flew past her. At least it made her limp.

To his horror, he watched her simply reach down and tear the bolt out of her leg. It was barbed...hooked to prevent just that and yet she tore it out...albeit with an expression of agony on her face. She staggered closer. He could easily stay out of reach.

Just a few steps she moved...then she shook her head as if she was losing conscience...and fell forward onto the sand.

Ean drew a sigh of relief. "Finally..." he muttered. He stayed put for a moment, before walking in a semi-circle around the downed femme. He was almost back to the riding-beast when he noticed the looks on the faces of Digray and his group. He turned around.

"I died on a battlefield a long time ago, very far from here..." the voice of the equine said as he turned to face her again.

For the first time in a very long time, Ean was genuinely afraid. This was definitely not right.

"Who...what are you...?" he croaked.

The femme just moved closer to him. He didn’t even know her name but for the first time, he realized this would not end well.

"I died a second time when I fell off a crashing lindorm last night, and into a ravine full of sharp rocks. Forty feet I fell...into my own axes. Onto rocks sharp enough for a male to shave on," she hissed.

Ean backed up further. He could feel his throat constrict. Maybe he should simply have continued to lead Digray’s group west like they had asked him to do...

"And now you have killed me a third time. Three times. It’s getting tiresome," the equine said.

If she had just sounded angry, Ean thought, it would’ve been something. But she didn’t. She just...stated facts. She was only six or seven steps away now. Shaking his head in disbelief, he raised his crossbows and fired yet again. One bolt hammered into the equine’s chest, no doubt hitting her heart. The other tore into her midsection, where her liver presumably was.

She grimaced in pain and reached down, pulling the one from her heart out, dropping it casually on the ground. "Four and five...and I’m still alive..."

Ean tried to shoot again. One crossbow clicked. He realized it hadn’t been fully loaded and he threw it away. The other one fired and hit the equine in the throat. It went straight through. She took one step backwards...then continued that inexorable march towards him. His foot hit something. Looking down he saw the throwing axe and he picked it up in a hurry, swinging it.

The equine’s right arm shot up to block the blow. He saw the axe connect with her forarm. He saw it fly...

"Six...seven..." she wheezed, her face a mask of pain. "All nice femmes...go to heaven."

He felt the fingers of her left paw close around his throat. They squeezed. Hard.

"You can’t...your arm...no...stop..." he croaked.

It was the last thing he ever said before his throat was crushed. As the light went out in his eyes and his world narrowed and vanished, the last thing he heard was.

"I guess I’m a bad femme then..."

# # #

Digray could not believe his eyes. Their absolutely cool guide-dude was dead. That was bad mojo, for sure. Who’d lead them to Farwest now? But...but this femme?


He hadn’t seen anything like that, ever.

And with one paw too? The other one was laying on the ground a ways away. He saw her stagger towards it. Pick it up. Hold it to the bleeding stump...and...and...


Couldn’t be. Must be the sun. He must have been out in the sun too long. He must be going crazy. Arms couldn’t get reattached like that.

"Whoa...far out..." one of the others mumbled behind him.

Another one nodded. "Didcha see that? Her arm went...like...flying, dude...flying!"

Digray sighed. Wasn’t the sun then. He had seen it. So where did that leave him and the group? Without a guide to take them to Farwest, that was where. He looked down at the femme on the sand. She was picking up her throwing weapon, discarding a small pile of bolts on the corpse of their most completely awesome guide-dude...

Then she turned to walk away.

"HEY...hey, wait...hold your horses..." he called out.

The equine looked over her shoulder. "Find another expression!" she growled.

Digray nodded. He could see her point. "Yeah...right, ehm...sorry about that. But...whoa. Hey...damned...you just killed our guide-dude, and...and you didn’t die! How does that add up?"

"I can’t get killed. How many times do I have to explain that to how many different furs..." the equine said, angrily. "Be on your damned way..."

Digray hopped off the completely snazzy woody-wagon and approached the femme. Slowly. Veeery carefully. Things that couldn’t die didn’t exist as far as Digray knew. Except of course Rhonda. Whereever she was.

At Farwest! That was where they’d find Rhonda! And she would help them. Like they chanted.

"That was like...a totally righteous fight, dudette..." he tried. "But...y’know, you really did murderize our bodacious guide-dude there...how are we gonna find Farwest now?"

The equine turned and looked at him. "I’m called Aslaug. Not ’dudette’...I live in California...I know the expression."




The furs on top of the beastly transport started hooting and howling until one of them calmed the others down and they started chanting ’California Dreaming’.

Digray felt like he’d been struck by lightning.

"California Dreamin’..." he whispered. "You’re...you’re a sign. YES! You can...you can totally lead us to Farwest!!"

Aslaug blinked. "Farwest? What manner of place is that?"

"It’s where the funky stuff happens. Where you chill out and live the good life..."

"Sounds like California to me..."

Digray nodded. Clearly, this femme understood completely. It was the most!! He looked up at his friends on the beast and nodded vigorously.

Aslaug felt faint. It was very difficult to concentrate and she was starting to see three furs in front of her instead of only one. "Immortality bites..." she whispered and shook her head hard, trying to clear her mind.

Turning back around, Digray managed to catch her and support her as she stumbled. "Whoa...whoa there, Aslaug-dudette...you’re like one totally righteous femme, y’know...primo piece of tail if you catch my drift, but I reallyreally think you need some rest right about now..."

Aslaug nodded. "My friends...are towards the sun..."

Digray bit his bottom lip and nodded. "No problemo. Will you help us get to Farwest if we get you to your friends?"

Despite feeling very faint, Aslaug couldn’t help smiling. "Farwest? You gotta understand something..." she mumbled. Darkness was closing in around her.

"What’s that?" Digray asked, anxious to know before this absolutely bodacious femme lost it totally.

Aslaug coughed and blinked. She could barely formulate words now. There had been something on those bolts. Poison. She’d live, she knew that already but she was very, very tired.

"Farwest...won’t be any good to you unless you work for it. Won’t be where...all the ’funky stuff happens’ unless you make it so. Farwest is...anywhere you want it to be. All you have to do...is make it happen where you are..." Aslaug said and smiled a little. She managed to point unsteadily to Ean’s corpse. "Bring that...along..."

Then she passed out.

Digray had another feeling like destiny had hit him in the face with a two-by-four. "Farwest is anywhere we want it to be..." he repeated. The equine in his arms was completely out cold. Totally stoned. Conked out even.

"Wow..." he mumbled and looked up at his friends on the beast. They all seemed terribly anxious to know what was going on.

"Let’s get this souped up ride going!!" he called out. "We’re going to find her friends and then we’ll make Farwest!"


"Don’t you mean...find Farwest, most awesome leader-dude?"

Digray shook his head. "We’ll MAKE Farwest!" he said as Ean’s corpse was being loaded onto the back of the beast. Someone had already picked up the equine-dudette’s weapons and he managed to get her up on top too.

A moment later he was back topsides, ready to roll. He pointed towards the sun and with a loud hoot of "SMOKE’EM!"...the beast started lumbering along...

# # #

Aramis opened his eyes. He was well rested and to his surprise, his head didn’t hurt anymore. Sending a grateful thought to the voices he had spoken to, and a quiet prayer to God, he sat up and blinked the sleep out of his eyes.

"Whoa...I guess I overslept," he said, drowsily.

Joe spun around. "ARAMIS!! Holy smokes, buddy, are you okay? You woke up briefly during the night, but you fell right back over. We were really getting worried here."

The feline nodded, rubbing his neck. He really felt like he’d slept for a week. "Yeah...yeah I’m okay I think. It doesn’t hurt anymore. How is everyone else? Where are Tigermark and the girls? Where’s Stripes? Where’s Aslaug?"

Joe sighed. "Tigermark and the girls are okay. They’re trying to find something we can eat. Aslaug took off after we crashed. None of us know where she went or why she left. Stripes is down for the long count, Aramis. He won’t be coming with us...and we don’t know how to proceed from here without some kind of transportation..."

"What time is it?" Aramis asked. He realized his throat was dry enough to let him sand down an eighteen wheeler but at least there was water conveniently nearby.

Joe looked up. "Just before noon, I’d say. We’ve only got half a day or so before Duke Leone and the rest of the Royal Guards will be here, provided they went in the right direction."

"It’s hard to track a dragon in flight..." Aramis chuckled and reached for a canteen. "Don’t worry. We’ll find our way...at noon. Trust me."

Joe looked at his younger friend as the feline emptied the canteen in long, needful gulps. "Erh...yeah, okay," he said. "At noon. Right. As for tracking a dragon in flight, maybe so, but Stripes was overloaded and flew in a straight line. If he’d turned...someone would’ve fallen off. All they have to do is go in the direction they saw him fly, and they’ll find us..."

Aramis nodded. That made sense. "We’ll find a way, Joe. Something..." he began. He stopped as he heard a shriek from above. He couldn’t make out which one of the girls had shouted, but Tigermark’s voice boomed out a moment later.


The coyote blinked but immediately reached for the rest of the canteens. There was a slight rumble in the ground. He hadn’t felt it before but it was clearly there. He looked at Aramis in confusion but the feline was already getting to his feet, slowly.

"I know where the real Princess is being held..." the feline said and started out of the ravine.

Joe mostly felt like shouting at someone to please start explaining what was going on. Then he clampered out of the ravine as well.

The sight that met him was not what he had expected. Nor what he would’ve wished for. There was the Bowtie beast...or...or at least...the remains of it. It hurt him to see his friend moving around after having passed on. It wasn’t how it was meant to be.

He felt an aching in his chest and he quickly sent up a prayer. Tigermark and the girls were all standing next to the beast...

Or crouched, more like it.

"GET THAT WATER OVER HERE!" Tigermark shouted.

Joe broke into a run. Whatever was going on was pretty serious, that much was clear.


"Completely awesome, dudes..."

"You figure we could make this place Farwest?"

Joe barely noticed the ragged furs talking amongst themselves as he held out a canteen for Tigermark. The tall feline looked up at him with a serious expression on his face. "I have no idea why she did this..." he said.

"Who? What?" Joe asked, already dreading the answer.

Demi and Sela moved aside a little. There in front of Joe’s eyes was Aslaug. Unconscious. She had a fresh, furless scar roughly halfway up her right forearm.

All the way around, Joe noticed with a shudder.

She had wounds several places on her body and in her legs. They were already healing up, as far as he could see. Nonetheless, she was as much a mess as he’d ever seen her.

"She didn’t even wait until she was properly healed up after that tumble into the ravine..." he said, angrily. "DAMNED you, filly. Stop playing the damned heroine all the time!!"

He wanted to punch her for this. He’d have to wait until she woke up, he realized. Tears were trying to force their way to his eyes. He didn’t like seeing any friend hurt...let alone this badly, even if it was someone who couldn’t really die.

Aramis came up to him. "I guess...this must be the sign..."

Digray nodded vigorously next to him. "It is, it is!! This superlatively funky femme was a sign!!"

"A sign of what?" Aramis asked in confusion. It wasn’t quite what he had meant.

"CALIFORNIA!!" Digray exclaimed, arms wide. "We’ll make California and Farwest and all things great and groovy right here!!"

Aramis squinted. "Erh...here?" he asked and looked around.

"Most absolutely and totally so, orange dude. She said we had to make Farwest happen ourselves, so we’ll make it happen here! It’ll take a load of work and stuff but hey, it’s gonna be the BEST and most awesome place ever! A place to tooootally chill out in!"

Joe facepawed. "Proper pioneering spirit there..." he mumbled and looked at Aslaug.

"By the way, absolutely excellent dudes, I’ve got a present for you!" Digray said and ran back to the other end of the beast.

None of the amigos could figure out what was going on. A couple of ragged furs came back up to them, carrying something wrapped in a blanket.

It took a split second before Tigermark realized it wasn’t a blanket but a black cloak. He put two and two together. "Oh no...you didn’t Aslaug..." he said and sighed.

Digray brushed his paws off against one another. "She said she was fighting for someone called Tammy? Because she couldn’t be there to fight for herself. It was completely righteous, I tell you, stripy-dude. It was far out. She got shot again and again and again and stabbed and slashed and chopped and shot some more...and..."

Tigermark broke off the string of words with a paw-gesture. "That’ll do..." he said, sharply. Then he checked the wrapped creature and nodded.

"Is it...?" Joe asked.

"Yeah, it’s Ean. I guess he decided to follow us after all," Tigermark said, wearily.

"Why did she do this?" Aramis asked, looking confused. "What did she mean she fought this one for Tammy? I mean...I remember what you explained, Tiger, but..."

"I guess she didn’t want me to have to face him again," Tigermark said. In truth, he didn’t understand it fully himself.

Aramis pondered for a moment. "I think I know why..." he said at last.

"Then by all means explain it to me!?" Tigermark said, exhasperated.

"You remember how you said...you weren’t a cold-blooded killer? You couldn’t finish him off?"

Tigermark felt angry. He didn’t even know why he was angry. It was all a mess by now. This entire mission was going down the drains and now Aslaug had killed Ean. "I would have if I had to fight him for real!!" he burst out. "I just didn’t want to...kill him when he was helpless."

"Judging by her wounds...I think it’s safe to say he wasn’t helpless anymore, Tiger," Joe said, trying to calm his big friend down. "I think I understand what Aramis is talking about, though..."

"Then please...explain it to me. Because I don’t get it," Tigermark said, feeling his ire seep out of him again as quickly as it had come there in the first place.

Aramis put a paw on the larger feline’s shoulder. "She didn’t want you to be put in a situation where you would have to do that...and go back and tell tell your wife about it. She did it to spare you..."

Tigermark sighed and splashed some of the water in Aslaug’s face. She didn’t wake up. He’d throttle her while thanking her when she came around, but for now there was no time to wait. "We’ll give Ean a decent burrial here by the creek. Then we’ve have to get a move on. We’ll take Aslaug along even if she’s out cold. We have no choice."

"Take her along? How? Carry her on our backs? If you hadn’t noticed, she’s pretty heavy..." Joe asked.

"Joe, I know you’ll hate every moment of this, but if these furs are staying here, they won’t need the Beast and we do. It’s either that or the King’s guards will have us by nightfall."

"Tiger...no way. Don’t make me!" Joe burst out.

Aramis sighed and nodded. "We have no choice, Joe. Tigermark is right. We have to. Remember who did this to the beast. Cutter is to blame. Focus your anger...."

"SPARE me the Goddamned psychobabble, Aramis!" Joe shouted. "I won’t do this."

Tigermark looked down. "He’s right. Take it out on Cutter. I know I am going to..."

Joe looked back at the mobile-but-still-dead form of his friend. He didn’t even try to withold the tears anymore.

"One last ride then..." he whispered, hoarsely. "Just this one..."

# # #


2 December 2007

Deep within his mountain fortress, Cutter Long grinned as he watched his foes prepare for their journey. “Tenacious, aren’t they?” he asked idly, his chin resting in a paw. Despite all of the injuries they suffered, the loss of their allies, they still persisted in rushing to face him, even though such an act was likely to result in all of their deaths. Such attempts at heroics amused him.

He was particularly fascinated by the equine warrior they were now securing to the platform on the back of their reanimated bio-mechanical beast of burden. She had suffered injuries that would have killed a normal fur, even one as formidable as Tigermark, several times over, yet she was still very much alive. There were numerous hints that she was somehow immortal, but he still had yet to understand why. Something to do with whatever gods she worshiped, it seemed. Cutter snorted; he had no use for such entities now that he practically was one himself. No, there was something else that had to be the cause of her immortality. He certainly was going to enjoy finding out, at any rate. How kind of his enemies to deliver such a prize to his doorstep.

The view shifted, and he saw Aramis carefully collapsing the entrance to the cave where the dragon slept in a coma. The Spotted Lion frowned, noticing that the young mage had recovered rather quickly from his concussion. Did he also have some sort of charm on him as well? No, Cutter would’ve sensed that, which made the matter all the more intriguing.

Well, no matter. The mageling would soon prove to be of no consequence along with the dragon that he was attempting to hide. He would deal with the lizard later at his convenience; it wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Right now he was more concerned with getting his paws on the young feline. Only Tigermark’s defeat and death will be more satisfying. A toothy smile crossed his face. He had the perfect trap laid out just for him.

And the others…Cutter merely shrugged. The coyote was of no consequence to him; he will just kill him and be done with it. The three femmes, though, were certainly deserving of something more fitting. They were of no threat to him, but their betrayal had to be punished somehow. Ah, well, if they died, they died, and if not, he could always throw them in a dungeon and decide what to do with them later.

He dismissed the scrying spell with a wave of his paw and stood up from the onyx throne that he had shaped out of the floor in the dark room. Once he had conquered his empire he might have a larger, more ornate throne built to better suit his station, but somehow the simple, monolithic nature of his current one appealed to him. It was large, looming, and quietly powerful, and anyone who saw him sitting there would have no doubts of his power. Perhaps he might keep it this way.

He strode from his throne room into a side chamber not too far away. Rows of sarcophagi covered the floor, each one humming with magical energy.

Cutter Long smiled. Let his enemies come to him if they dared. He will be ready.


Aslaug groaned as she drifted back into consciousness. Her head hurt, like she had too much to drink the night before. Which was strange, as an interesting side-effect of her quick healing abilities was that she rarely if ever had hangovers any more, a certain boon to one of her heritage. Memories of the day before came back to her, and she then remembered the battle with Ean and her encounter with that sun-crazed poodle before she passed out. There had been poison on those crossbow bolts, and while it didn’t kill her, it certainly kept her out cold while she healed.

She did have to admit, though, that no amount of the strongest liquor she could find could ever give her the headache that she was feeling now. She kept her eyes closed, knowing that she would regret it the moment she did. However, the constant motion that kept tossing her about was beginning to make her feel ill. If she could just see what was happening, she probably would feel better, but the bright light she sensed through her closed eyelids would probably make her want to throw up anyway.

And if she did open her eyes and reveal that she was awake, then Tigermark would undoubtedly have some words for her.

What a way to wake up, she thought. Ah, well. Might as well get this all over with. I hope Aramis has something in his bag of tricks that can cure a headache.

Aslaug lifted an arm to shield her eyes from the bright sun, but she found that her arms were tied down, probably to keep her from flailing about on whatever it is that is moving. She relaxed and let out a resigned sigh, not quite yet willing to brave the bright light directly.

“Hey, I think she’s waking up!” a young feminine voice said. It felt as though someone was beating a hammer on an anvil right next to her ear.

“Shuddap…” she groaned weakly as her headache redoubled, lacking the energy to muster the least bit of tact. Something shuffled next to her, and she felt the bright light darken as something blocked the sunlight.

“Aslaug, are you awake?” a deep, familiar voice whispered quietly. It still sent waves of pain through her head, but they weren’t so bad now.

The equine grumbled quietly in her throat, knowing that the voice belonged to Tigermark. “Wish I wasn’t,” she said. She slowly opened an eyelid a sliver and glanced at the white tiger as he leaned over her.

“Here, drink this,” he replied, lifting her head up and putting a canteen to her lips. The relatively cool water felt good, and she felt her headache subside a bit now that she wasn’t as dehydrated.

“Thanks,” she said. “I suppose you have a few things to say to me.”

Tigermark was quiet for a moment as he gazed at her, his expression betraying no emotion. “Correct,” he finally replied. “But it will have to wait until you recover. As much as I want to chew you out now, and don’t think for a moment that I don’t, I realize that you had a particularly difficult battle. Right now what we all need is for you to heal up so you’re ready to help us once we reach Cutter’s lair.”

Aslaug managed a weak grin. “So we’re finally going to skin that cat, aren’t we?” Tigermark nodded grimly. “’Bout bloody time,” she said and let her eyes close again.


Demi swore. “Well, this isn’t good.”

“What is it?” Tigermark asked from his vantage point lying next to her behind the ridge.

The skunkette handed him the spyglass. “Here, see for yourself.”

Tigermark placed the lens to his eye and gazed at the spot on the lone mountain that Demi indicated. Sure enough, there was the cave from which she had escaped from Cutter’s lair, but the surfaces of the passage were covered in thick moss, with numerous tendrils and large growths emerging from the sickly green carpeting. As he studied the plant, a small lizard crawled across the moss, pausing to sun itself in the fading daylight on top of one of the growths. The mound snapped open and closed itself on the reptile so fast that Tigermark almost didn’t see it. The only evidence that the lizard ever existed was a small clawed foot dangling from the edge of the plant’s maw.

Tigermark pulled the telescope away from his eye. “Well, it looks like we won’t be going in that way,” he said. He turned to the rest of the group as they scanned the foreboding mountain with their own spyglasses. “See any other ways in?”

“A few, but we have no know way of knowing if they are trapped as well,” Sela replied.

“And even if we did know where to go, there’s a mile of flat, open terrain before we get there,” Joe said sourly. “Even at night there’s going to be too much moonlight to sneak in without being noticed.”

“It’s probably too late for that, anyway,” Aramis added. “If Cutter is as powerful as we think he is, he probably is scrying on us already. Most likely we lost the element of surprise long before we got here.”

“That simplifies things,” Aslaug said, gripping her axe handle. She still looked a bit unsteady, but she had responded to all questions regarding her health with a glare that would’ve killed small animals, and the rest of the group quickly figured that she was feeling well enough to give someone a bad day. “We just walk in, chop him up, and grab the princess.”

Demi shot her a glare. “Didn’t you hear what I said earlier?” she spat. “Cutter has all sorts of hell-spawned monsters roaming around in there.”

A wry grin formed on the shieldmaiden’s face. “So? Nothing a good axe can’t solve.”

“Sorry filly, but I think this is something that even your axe can’t solve by itself,” Tigermark said. “Cutter likely has more than just monsters waiting for us, and he’ll be able to focus all of his defenses on us if we just waltz in openly. We need another plan.”

“And what would that be?” Joe asked. “If Cutter knows that we’re here and all of the entrances are guarded, then what options does that leave us?”

“I have an idea,” Aramis said, and reached into the extra-dimensional hole in his pocket. He pulled out a bundle of short, foot-long rods, each with two prongs on the head, looking very much like large, two-tined forks.

“These,” he said, pulling one free from the bundle, “are divination interruption generators, or diggers for short.” He focused his power, and the tines began to slowly spin. “There. Now Cutter won’t be able to see or hear us.”

Demi raised an eyebrow in confusion. “Then why did you wait until now to use it?” she asked, an accusing tone creeping into her voice.

“These things are cheaply made and don’t last very long,” the mage replied. “That, and its biggest limitation is that while Cutter can’t scry on us, it’s because all his spells will see is just a large black spot. He still knows we’re here, he just doesn’t know what we’re up to.” He held up the other enchanted rods. “All we have to do now is get a few others moving in different directions when we make our move. That way, Cutter won’t know where we are for certain. We’ll still have to deal with whatever guards he has set up, but at least he won’t be attacking us directly. At least, not until he figures out our little ruse.”

“Still doesn’t answer the question as to how we are going to accomplish that last part,” Sela remarked. “Do you happen to have something in your bag of tricks for that?”

Aramis said nothing for a moment, then sighed and dug into his pocket again. This time he pulled out a leather pouch. “I do. Let’s just hope it works.” He set the pouch down and opened the drawstring, revealing a large pile of delicious-looking berries. Then he did nothing, as though waiting for something.

A few minutes passed, with only the occasionally whisper of the dusk wind breaking the silence. Finally, his comrades’ patience wore out.

“Okay, kitten,” Aslaug said, “what’s supposed to happen?”

Aramis groaned quietly in the back of his throat. “Nothing, it seems,” he said.

“Wait a minute,” Joe asked, “are you saying that you knew it wouldn’t work?”

“I suspected that it wouldn’t, but I was just hoping otherwise.”

“Ari, you’re making no sense,” Tigermark said. “What are you talking about?”

Just then, a flap of wings interrupted the conversation and a raven flew out of the encroaching night and landed in front of Aramis. The two gazed at each other for a few moments, and Tigermark was certain that the raven had an angry gleam in its eyes.

Finally, the raven spoke. “This is a violation of our agreement,” it said in a petulant tone.

“I know,” Aramis said impassively.

“Then you know that this renders our pact void,” the bird continued.

Aramis nodded solemnly. “I do.”

“Aramis, just what is going on here?” Joe cried, breaking the dumbfounded silence surrounding the conversation.

Aramis sighed in resignation. “It’s a long story,” he said. “Let’s just say that I’m not in my friend’s good graces anymore by asking for his help now.”

“That doesn’t begin to cover it,” the raven cut in. “You’re asking me to take an awful risk here.” It sighed and shook its head. “I am well within my rights to leave you right now, but too much is at stake here.” A few moments passed as it considered its next words. “I’ll help you, but I will never answer your summons again. I am only doing this out of respect for your master.”

Aramis nodded humbly. “I understand. Thank you.”

Suddenly a huge cloud of ravens descended upon the open pouch, devouring the berries in short order. Each bird then grabbed one of the diggers, activating them in turn.

“Each of the entrances is guarded by one of Cutter’s monsters,” the raven said. “However, there is one entrance that is poorly guarded, so you should have no trouble getting inside. It will be a long journey from there to Cutter’s lair, but it’s your best option right now.” It glanced around at the gathering of ravens around it, a sad look in its eye. Finally it cawed loudly, and the entire host took to the air, flying in different directions low to the ground.

“Let’s make haste,” the raven said, taking flight as well. “I will guide you to the entrance, but time is short. Hurry!”

“Let’s go,” Aramis said as he stood up began to hustle down the ridge.

“Ari,” Joe said as he joined him, “what was that all about?”

Aramis paused for a moment, a look of sorrow on his face. “I just asked most of his flock to die,” he said solemnly. “Let’s get moving, they won’t last long against the guardians inside.”


The Spotted Lion roared in frustration and anger as the large gap in his spell split into many pieces, each one charging the mountain in a different direction. He had no way of knowing what happened or what his foes were up to, but for the moment they had managed to outsmart him.

A grim smile slowly replaced his snarl. It was rather clever of them to use such cheap tricks, but all they’ve accomplished was a delay in the inevitable. Cutter Long had a few tricks of his own, and very soon he will have the upper paw once again. He dismissed the clairvoyance spell with a wave of his paw and stalked away from his throne. In the chamber of sarcophagi he could feel the arcane processes reach completion. He approached one, and with a touch of power the lid opened up with a steamy hiss. As the mist cleared, the Spotted Lion began to chuckle to himself.

It was so very beautiful, and he looked forward to seeing his foes’ downfall at the paws of his newest creations.


The amigos ran across the dusty plain that surrounded the dreadful mountain as they followed the raven, keeping close in order to remain in the artifact’s cloaked area. Rather than flying directly towards the mountain, the raven flew off to the side where a long ridge ran straight into the mountain’s steep sides. Despite their proximity from the other entrances, they could still hear the roars and snarls of some of Cutter’s guardians echo out into the night, indicating that the battle had already begun for their corvine allies.

The raven guiding them did not falter from its path, knowing that it had to complete its task as quickly as possible if the deaths of its brethren were to not be in vain.

The party finally reached the ridge, the raven perching on a rocky outcropping just above a cave that appeared to be no more than a hole in the ground. “Here is the entrance,” it said quickly. “It drops into an underground hallway that leads into the main complex inside the mountain. From there you should be able to find the Spotted Lion’s lair in the heart of the ruins.”

“I thank you,” Aramis replied, a bit breathless from his run across the desert.

The raven spared the tabby a quick, silent glance before spreading its wings. “I must go and aid my flock,” it said. “Luck and strength be with you, brave warriors!” It took off towards the mountain, appearing to disappear into the fading twilight.

“And with you as well,” Aramis whispered as the bird disappeared from view.

“This is it,” Tigermark said, drawing everyone’s attention. “Once we go in, it’s likely that there won’t be any turning back until we finish this.” He quickly glanced at Joe, Aramis, and Aslaug, knowing that they would all see this through to the bitter end. Despite the danger they were about to face, the white tiger smiled, thankful for having such steadfast comrades. He then turned to their new allies, only to find Demi about ready to jump into the hole.

“Save your speeches, Tiger,” the skunkette said. “We’re not about to run away after coming this far. Besides,” she added with a grim smirk, “we’ve got our own score to settle with that big-headed lion. No way are we going to pass this up.” With that, she slid down the hole.

Tigermark’s smile grew as he eased himself inside after her. Though they all could die tonight, he knew of no other companions he’d rather fight alongside.

The hallway was pitch black save for the soft glow that spilled in from the setting sun outside. Aramis produced a lantern from his extra-dimensional pocket after he dropped in, the heatless, arcane flame lighting up the passage with a brilliant, blue-tinted light as bright as a bonfire. The wide hallway stretched off into the darkness in both directions, evoking a sense of immensity despite being underground.

The warriors immediately set off in the direction towards the mountain, the ornately-carved surfaces showing no variation save for the occasional crack in the wall or small cave-in. Though they moved quickly, they also stepped as silently as they could, knowing that somewhere further inside lurked the guardian that their avian ally warned them about. But all that met them was silence and the empty hall that led further into the darkness.

“I don’t like this,” Joe whispered to Tigermark. “Where is this monster?”

Tigermark held up a paw, all of his senses straining to pick out any sort of noise, movement, or scent for something, anything that would give away the position of their as-of-yet unseen foe. It was as though the hallway was an empty void, where light, sound, and scents disappeared into an endless darkness. The disturbing thought that they were not making any forward progress crept through his mind, but he pushed it aside, confident that this tunnel had to end somewhere.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “It has to be further inside, but how much further, I can’t begin to guess.”

Joe sighed in resignation. “Just how much further is this tunnel, anyway?”

“Probably another mile, the ridge was quite a distance away from the mountain,” Sela said.

“Well, we’d best keep moving, then,” Aslaug said as she walked out to the front of the group, hefting her axe in her paws. “Though if Cutter’s pet knows what’s good for it, it will stay out of our way.”

Tigermark couldn’t hide his smile. Even if the guardian was an unintelligent monster, he was sure that it would think twice before tangling with the shieldmaiden. Silently the party followed, the tunnel continuing further into the darkness.

Eventually the hallway began to curve downward, leading further under the earth. A scent hung in the air, a stagnant, musty odor of dust and age. The atmosphere grew thicker and warmer as they descended, causing the alert band to become more tense and antsy. The suspense was almost as thick as the air, and many jumped whenever they heard a pebble skirt the ground after being inadvertently kicked by a boot.

Finally the hallway ended, opening up into a large chamber lined with intricately carved columns. The ceiling rose up about four stories, giving the room a feeling of vastness despite being buried under who knew how many tons of rock. Even the walls and ceiling had the same lines and glyphs carved into it, and for a moment the party paused and beheld the mystery of the civilization that created the chamber.

Dios mio,” Joe breathed as the stories he heard so long ago came to life before his very eyes.

The moment passed, and, remembering their mission, the group pressed forward. As they walked further into the room, they noticed that several patches of fungi had taken root in the numerous cracks that crisscrossed the floor. The fungi was strange and otherworldly, some patches consisting of mushrooms that had grown to be chest-high on Tigermark.

“Let’s hurry and get out of this room,” Demi said, holding the ribbons from the hilts of her swords over her mouth and nose. “I don’t want to find out if any of those release any nasty spores. I’ve heard too many tales about weird plants like this.”

The others nodded and they continued quickly by. But no sooner had they passed into the central part of the room did they hear a rumbling of stone behind them.

“What the—?” Joe said as they all whirled around to the source of the sound, but he was interrupted by a loud crash accompanied by a huge burst of dust and rock near the entrance to the tunnel that they had just come from. Steel sang sharply as blades were instinctively drawn, seven pairs of eyes riveted to the scene unfolding before them.

The dust had yet to settle as a huge crustacean-like creature rushed forth, two large claws capable of snapping a kali in half reaching forward for a victim. Cindy and Joe, who had been guarding the rear, barely had enough time to dodge out of the way as the pincers snapped at them, taking small tufts of fur away. Immediately the friends formed a line a safe distance away, taking stock of their situation.

The monster was huge, more than five feet wide and standing over four feet tall on eight chitinous legs, blocking the way back to the tunnel. Its height, however, was further augmented by the cluster of large mushrooms that grew on its back. Several large, black orbs that served as eyes dotted the face of the creature, two thick antennae whipped about in a frenzy as numerous tiny mouthparts chattered together in a blur of activity. The empty eyes gazed impassively at the group as antennae and busy mouthparts moved about frantically in unnerving contrast to the creature’s otherwise absolute stillness. A tense silence filled the room as both sides watched the other, watching and waiting for a weakness to show itself.

Tigermark held his bow at the ready, an arrow nocked and pulled back, ready to bury itself into one of those soulless eyes. “Joe, Aslaug,” he said calmly and quietly, “you two rush its front on my mark. Demi, Sela, to the left, Aramis to the right. Cindy, hang back with me and hit it with your daggers.” Everyone nodded in acknowledgment as they slowly inched their way into position.

The monster, perhaps sensing their intentions, slowly moved its claws out in front of it, sharp pincers held menacingly open. “Steady,” Tigermark said, though everyone already knew when to strike. The tension grew oppressively thick in the air.

Then the monster lunged. The entire team sprang into action: Joe and Aslaug leapt forward, bringing overhead chops down onto the creature’s head. Demi, Sela, and Aramis charged its flanks, viciously slicing away at its legs to reach the weak spots around the joints. Tigermark and Cindy unleashed a salvo of arrows and knives, deftly shooting past their allies to hit the thing’s eyes.

But the monster proved faster. One claw snapped to the side, knocking over Sela and forcing Demi to hop back, while the other snapped around Aslaug’s waist. The shieldmaiden grunted in pain, but her chainmail kept the serrated pincers from slicing her in half, but she could feel her ribs and spine creak to the breaking point as the monster’s phenomenal strength began to squeeze the life out of her. But she ignored the damage, ferociously raining her deadly axeblade down repeatedly on any body part within reach.

“Joe! Aramis!” Tigermark called out as he unleashed another arrow, taking out another eye. But the monster held fast, seemingly unfazed by the loss of its visual organs.

“On it!” Aramis shouted. A brief sheen danced along his katana and the feline brought the blade down in a precise strike against a joint, cleanly severing the clawed arm. Aslaug collapsed, the pincers still locked around her. Joe withdrew, dragging Aslaug away from the fight as Aramis turned back to the creature in an attempt to distract it from his comrades.

The monster refused to be deterred. It surged forward, shoving Aramis aside into the wall as its other claw rushed forward to grab the coyote.

“Joe! Look out!” Cindy cried as she pulled him back, interposing herself between him and the beast. Pincers slammed shut on the Siamese, causing her armor to buckle and groan in protest, but it stubbornly refused to collapse. Cindy, now fighting purely on instinct and adrenaline, viciously jabbed her daggers into the chinks in the hard exoskeleton, twisting the tiny blades as she ripped them out. Tigermark paused for a split second, momentarily surprised to see meek Cindy attacking so fiercely, then returned his attention back to the monster, firing another arrow into its face.

Meanwhile, Demi growled in frustration. Again her style worked against her, her short swords lacking the edge and weight to crack the monster’s tough carapace. She hopped back, her mind racing for a way to bring her talents into the fight. She saw Tigermark rapidly shooting arrows into the beast’s eyes, taking out one at a time, but the creature seemed largely unaffected by his attacks. Then she caught sight of the antennae that whipped about, feeling out the presence of walls, floors, and the warriors that battled against it.

A grim smile passed over the skunkette’s face. She couldn’t attack directly, but she still could do what she did best: fight dirty, hitting the points that hurt the most.

She charged the beast’s flank and leapt on top of it. Dodging around the cluster of mushrooms on its back, she quickly crawled towards its face. She did not give it a chance to throw her off; she slashed with both blades, slicing off its antennae and sweeping huge swaths through its numerous eyes. Now effectively blinded, the monster jerked about, more out of disorientation than pain.

“Way to go, Demi!” Tigermark shouted, and Demi, holding on as best she could, managed a small salute with a sword. Then the tiger’s expression went from triumph to alarm. “Demi! Look out!” he yelled, pointing behind her.

She sensed the attack before she saw it, ducking at the last moment. She dodged another attack and rolled off of the creature’s back, retreating back to Tigermark before turning around. What she saw was a company of spearfurs that appeared on the back of the monster where there was none before. No, they were there all along; the mushrooms had somehow come to life, growing arms and faces, their caps serving as helmets and the rusty reeds that grew amongst them now serving as spears. Their monstrous mount had settled down and now readied itself for another charge. Demi had the unnerving impression that she was staring down a horde of calvary.

The charge, however, did not come right away. The claw holding Cindy lifted up, placing her within reach of the fungal pikes. Even with her armor and daggers, there would be no way she could dodge them all.

“Joe! Aramis! Sela!” Tigermark commanded, throwing the bow aside. “Take out those ‘shrooms!” With that, he charged the monstrous company, barepawed and claws extended. Demi followed a split second later, eager to finally put her swords to good use against softer flesh.

With Sela attacking from the left, the three batted aside the spears and crashed into the mushroom soldiers, slicing, slashing, and tearing away. The soldiers, however, were resilient, and the three warriors could not avoid all of the counterattacks, suffering several gashes and grazing hits.

Off to the side, Aramis’s head cleared from the bump he took while being slammed into the wall. As his vision settled, he saw four of his friends in a fierce battle, trading blow for blow with a small army of funginoid warriors. Gritting his teeth against the pounding in his head, he grabbed the hilt of his sword and stood up into an aggressive stance, blade held high.

“Guys! Get back!” he shouted. Tigermark saw him, and, knowing exactly what he was going to do, leapt back, pulling the two femmes with him and landing on the claw, forcing the arm to the ground.

Aramis cried out in a voice that for a moment sounded like one other than his own, and swung his katana in a mighty but precise slash through the air. An arc of fire shot out from the point and slammed into the sides of the mushroom soldiers, cutting down the first row and setting the rest ablaze. Their faces contorted into silent screams, and once again the monster flailed about in pain. Tigermark and the two femmes tried to hold down the claw holding Cindy as best they could, but the fearsome strength of the beast tossed all four of them about, forcing them to hang on for dear life.

Finally, the monster collapse into a wall, damaging the ancient carvings and bringing a rain of rock down on top of it, extinguishing the flames. For a moment silence reigned as the last of the dust and rocks settled. Then the four warriors roused themselves, dazed but largely unhurt from the creature’s death throes.

“Anybody hurt?” Tigermark choked out around a mouthful of dust.

“I’m fine,” Sela said as she pushed a pile of small stones off of her.

“A bit cut up, but still alive,” Demi replied, shaking the dust off of her face.


“I’m okay,” she answered. “Still trapped, though.”

“Thank goodness,” the tiger said wearily, the exhaustion of battle catching up with him.

“Tiger!” Joe called out. “Is everyone okay?”

Tigermark rolled over to face him and nodded. “Yeah, we’re okay. How’re you and Aslaug?”

“I’m fine, but she’s not doing too good. I think that claw hurt her really bad.”

The fatigue left the large feline in an instant. Lying on the ground before the coyote was Aslaug, the claw still tightly wrapped around her. Joe’s sword was wedged in between the pincers in an attempt to leverage them open.

“Hang on, I’ll be there in a minute,” Tigermark said as he ran over to help Joe. The two of them working together managed to pry the claws open, allowing Aslaug to roll out onto the floor. Once freed, she started to reflexively take a deep breath but stopped short, her face becoming a mask of pain as her paws clutched her sides tightly.

“You okay, filly?” Tigermark asked, though he knew that she was badly hurt.

“No…” she grunted, the pain preventing her from breathing comfortably, let alone replying with a more caustic answer. “Give…me…time…”

Joe and Tigermark exchanged glances, their expressions silently conveying their worry. Aslaug had barely healed before they managed to enter this place, and even if she would recover in time, time was not on their side at the moment. Every minute they lingered brought a greater risk of having all of Cutter’s defenses brought down on them.

The sound of two paws clapping interrupted their thoughts. All eyes were immediately on the room’s exit.

Standing there applauding was Cutter Long, a devious smile on his face.

“Fantastic display,” he said. “Though I do have to wonder: just how did you all manage to survive this long if this is how you normally fight? I’m surprised that you’re all not dead yet.”

Tigermark just glared back, his paws itching for his bow. “Cutter,” he growled.

The Spotted Lion grinned. “Mark, how good it is to see you again,” he said pleasantly. “Tammy and the little kittens are doing well, I hope?”

“Enough,” Tigermark snapped, refusing to be deterred by his ploys. “Cutter, surrender now.”

Cutter was quiet for a moment, then he chuckled, throwing back his head and laughing. “Old friend, you fail to see the situation accurately,” he said, a hint of menace creeping into his jovial tone. “You are in no position to dictate terms to me. I am.” A small orb of energy appeared in his paw, and he tossed it up casually and gave it a light backpaw. The ball suddenly became a bolt of lethal force, and Joe and Tigermark barely managed to fall to the floor as it passed overhead. It slammed into the wall above the entrance on the far side of the room, collapsing the doorway and cutting off their only means of escape.

“This is the end, Tigermark,” Cutter said casually as he stepped forward, another ball of energy forming in his paw. “You will die a particularly satisfying death, and I will send your head to your family before I enslave them.”

Tigermark heard Aramis shout an incantation, and bolts of magic shot over him at Cutter. The Spotted Lion caught them in his free paw, and the blazing orb in his other paw grew in size and power.

“You, insolent mageling, will die slowly,” he said, his voice now becoming a growl. “I’ve yet to repay the favor you visited on me back in the desert.” His eyes glanced over to the three mercenaries, who were now scrambling to free Cindy from the claw’s death grip. “And you three—”

A blood-chilling war cry cut him off as Aslaug sprang to her hooves, one of her throwing axes leaping into her paws as she charged him. Joe and Tigermark cried out, trying to stop her, but she was now lost in her own rage, her entire being focused completely on the Spotted Lion before her.

Cutter unleashed a bolt of energy at her, but not before she threw her axe. Magic and metal passed by each other, both unwavering from their targets. The bolt slammed into Aslaug’s chest, blasting her off her hooves and back several feet. The axe embedded itself deeply into Cutter’s forehead, sending the mighty warrior toppling backwards. Time seemed to stand still for just a moment…

Then the shock disappeared in a heartbeat. Immediately Joe and Tigermark were at the shieldmaiden’s side. They both recoiled at the sight of her broken body; her chest was nothing more than a giant burn, pieces of her shredded chainmail embedded in her charred flesh. She wasn’t breathing and they couldn’t feel a pulse. The knowledge that she was immortal did not register for several moments as they looked upon their fallen friend in horror.

Finally Tigermark returned to his senses. Though still shaken by the experience, he turned his attention to the other casualty in the room.

“Joe,” he said firmly as he retrieved his bow, the authority in his voice steadying himself as much as his comrade, “stay here and watch Aslaug. Aramis!” he called out to the mage, snapping him out of his daze. “Come on, I’ll need your senses. I don’t trust this cat to stay dead.”

The two felines inched cautiously towards Cutter’s body, weapons drawn and ready. Cutter did not move, making the atmosphere even more tense. As they drew closer, the truth became immediately apparent. There was no blood at all, even though the axehead had split the top of the skull in two. Instead, there were only flakes of clay and stone, as though Aslaug had busted a sculpture instead of a living creature. Tigermark swore. “Son of a…”

“Golem,” Aramis spat, recognizing the telltale arcane signatures.

The golem’s eyes snapped open, causing the two felines to jump back in fright. “Correct,” it said in Cutter’s jovial voice, but now it sounded empty and soulless. It casually stood up and brushed itself off, seemingly unconcerned by the axe lodged in the middle of its forehead. “That was unexpected, but only a slight setback.” A paw reached up and yanked the axe out of its head, leaving a nasty-looking but bloodless wound. Arcs of electricity danced about the axehead, and the golem grinned evilly.

“Now then, round two?”


# # #


2 October 2008

The golem that looked like Cutter Long smiled a shallow, slightly mechanical little smile as it slowly raised the axe above its right shoulder. Even though the golem’s mouth moved in the proper sequences, Cutter’s voice seemed to emanate from the gaping, bloodless wound in its forehead. “Things are not what they seem, Tigermark,” Cutter’s voice said as the golem raised the axe high above his head. “I say again that you fail to see the situation for what it really is.”

The tiger stood rooted to the floor, as if unsure what to do or say, staring at the hole in the golem’s head.

There was a blur of motion accompanied by a small cry from Tigermark’s left, followed by the whispered song of steel parting the air. A single epithet escaped the muzzle of Aramis Dagaz as his katana arced cleanly through the form of Cutter Long, even as the axe began to fall towards Tigermark’s head. Interrupted in transit, the axe fell harmlessly to the floor with a dull thud as that which had been the form of the dotted lion turned to sand and collapsed silently to the floor.

The tabby sheathed his weapon as he spat into the sand on the floor of the cavern. “I hate golems,” he pronounced thickly.

As the sudden fog that had gripped the tiger’s mind subsided he was momentarily puzzled. He stared for a moment at the sand on the floor at his feet, and then his gaze rapidly lifted to lock on the eyes of his fellow warrior. The two felines stared at each other for long seconds before the tiger’s paw motioned slightly towards the floor. “How ...?”

“Magic,” Aramis said shortly. “Cutter has it in for you personally. He’s casting spells to confound you, to momentarily confuse you so he can gain the upper paw and kill you.” Aramis toed the pile of sand on the floor idly. “Remember the trap he left us?” he asked presently. “Out in the desert?”

Tigermark nodded.

“We stabbed and chopped at those golems and they kept coming until we cut them in half.” Aramis’ expression was hard, like the steel of his blade, staring at what had been the form of their enemy. “It seems to be the only way you can kill them, cutting them cleanly in half. That’s why Aslaug’s axe didn’t kill it.”

The tiger nodded slowly for a few moments, and then his head snapped up to look past his friend and fellow warrior, to seek the mercenaries who were huddled around one of their own a few dozen feet away. The mephit and the canine struggled with the severed pincer of the cockroach monster, and as Tigermark looked on Cindy, the feline, struggled free of the huge claw. He noticed that her armor was visibly damaged, dented but not crushed. Cindy had narrowly escaped death, yet her animated actions seemed to indicate that she had survived her encounter more or less unscathed.

The tiger was distracted from this view by another muffled comment from his near companion. The tone of this unintelligible sound caused Tigermark’s ears to wilt slightly. Without knowing what Aramis had actually said, the tone conveyed a new kind of fear and sadness. The tiger followed the alignment of his fellow warrior’s visage, across the room, to the hunched form of their coyote counterpart.

Joe had his back to them, his sword on the deck some feet away from him, as his paws sought to arrange the lifeless form at his feet. He was struggling to lift the armored equine into a sitting position against the wall of the dark cavern that confined them all.

Suddenly Tigermark wished for stars overhead, or maybe the vault of a bright blue sky. The oppressively dark cavern they stood within, while huge, felt confining, like it was pressing down upon them all, to crush them without further ado.

Aramis was already moving towards the coyote and the shieldmaiden in his care, and Tigermark strode quickly after him.

“Is she dead?” he heard Aramis ask as he approached.

The coyote stood up as the tiger came along side his compatriots. He sighed dejectedly. “What the Hell do you think?”

Tigermark stared at the form of their fourth, their best, their truest warrior. Her chest was still a mass of scorched fur and flesh interspersed with bits of partially melted chain mail and charred fabric and leather. At least her body no longer smoldered from the blast delivered by Cutter’s magic. The tiger crouched down beside the equine and rested both his paws on her torso, pads down. His friend drew no breath.

“Is she alive?”

The tiger looked up into new sets of eyes belonging to their three mercenary friends and said nothing as they clustered around the form of the fallen warrior. The piercing blue eyes belonging to Demi were a mask, difficult to read, but the emotions of the other two were all too easily discerned. The Siamese’ eyes were full of sadness, but Sela’s radiated something unexpected.


“Well isn’t this precious,” the gray fox muttered under her breath.

“What?” Aramis asked, uncertain if he had understood her even as he registered her emotion.

“I said this is just wonderful, us being underground here, stuck in this cavern, unable to find your princess, getting beaten on by your enemy one more time while he laughs at us, with most of us injured and one of us dead.” Her temper was ramping up, and she turned her attention to the leader of the SOG. “What does your God tell us to do now? What miracle awaits us here in the dark, with death all around us? Are we to be delivered, or devoured?”

“Sela ...” Aramis started.

“She’s right,” Demi growled quietly. “Our only way out is past that cockroach. We’ve got to get out of here, but our escape route is sealed. And maybe,” here she motioned to the shieldmaiden on the floor as Tigermark stood erect, “we’ll have to leave some of our team here.”

“Demi, don’t say that!” Cindy mewled quietly, brushing tears from her muzzle.

“Don’t tell me what to say,” the skunk spat as she turned on the feline. “You’ve gone along with this goofy crew right from the start. You never questioned anything, you just blindly accepted whatever these ...” a paw motioned towards the three males, “... these furs told us to do, and jumped in with both feet, just like with that damned lion.” Here Demi’s black paw rose, a single digit extended, to tap the side of her own head rapidly. “You need to start thinking for yourself instead of looking for a father figure to follow around every moment of every damned day!”

A shocked cry escaped the muzzle of the Siamese as many voices started to react at once. Cindy’s sorrow flashed to defensive anger as Aramis, being closest to the skunk, attempted to place a paw on Demi’s shoulder by way of trying to calm her down. Concurrent with this action Tigermark moved to restrain Sela in a similar manner as she glared at her counterpart.

“You’re our leader,” the fox barked at the skunk, dodging the tiger’s attempt to gently restrain her and pointing an accusing claw squarely at Demi’s nose. “We’re where we’re at because you took such a personal interest in these furs you now dismiss with the flip of a paw! If you had better control of your hormones ...”

“Hey, hold on here ...” Joe started, but the level of discussion between the three mercenaries and, to a lesser extent, the members of the SOG rapidly devolved into a true khat fight as the females resisted the males’ attempts to calm them. As the three males sought to restore some semblance of civility, if not peace, to the collected furs, the cacophony of sound rapidly grew to an ear-splitting roar.

One voice boomed above the rest.

For Gudernes skyld, så hold dog jeres forbandede kæft!

Six muzzles were suddenly silenced as six noses turned to the floor. One muzzle held a small smile as the coyote dropped to his knees.

In the silence that followed this outburst they all clearly heard the humor and relief in the voice of Joe Latrans. “Did you just tell us to shut the Hell up? Where, or from whom, did you learn such etiquette?”

Eyes still shut, the shieldmaiden drew a shallow, ragged breath before replying.

“You old shrews could, and did, wake the dead,” she said quietly, after which she drew another shallow breath.

Joe placed a paw gently on the equine’s shoulder as the other two males likewise dropped to their knees. Aslaug flinched at Joe’s touch, and pain furrowed her brow.

“You sure do enjoy taking a beating on these little outings,” he kidded gently.

“Your turn is coming,” the shieldmaiden grunted. “Stop touching me.”

Joe lifted his paws away from Aslaug’s torso. “Can we do anything for you, Filly?”

A flicker that might have been a pained grin darted across the muzzle of the equine. “Fight quietly,” she whispered.

Tigermark stood up slowly, motioning for the assorted furs to step away from the coyote as he remained at Aslaug’s side. In spite of the angry echoes which still hung in the air, Aramis and the females stepped away quietly, silently in fact, until they were several yards away. Cindy watched Joe worry over Aslaug, but the others circled around to look each other in the eye. Passive nods without words were the only admission of their recent departure from civility.

“We need a plan,” Tigermark said simply.

“What do you have in mind?” Demi asked shortly.

The tiger paused, his eyes searching those of his counterpart on the small mercenary team. He shrugged almost imperceptibly as she stared fearlessly back at him, a paw on a hip. “I want us to discuss our options and come up with a plan.”

The skunk nodded slowly.

“There appears to be only one way out of this cavern,” Sela said slowly, measuring her words while controlling her temper as she crossed her arms over her chest. “The way we came in is blocked.”

“Unless there are some disguised or concealed exits,” Aramis ventured.

Tigermark slowly turned to review what the huge room held for them. The dead cockroach was heaped up across the room from them, between their present position and the partially obstructed mouth of the remaining tunnel out of the cavern. They had no idea where this tunnel went. To the deceased bug’s left, about ten yards away, was Joe and Aslaug, the former still fussing gently with the latter to ensure her as much comfort and peace as could be had, given the situation. And nearer to them, to their right, was the pile of sand that had formerly been the likeness of their foe, Cutter Long. The golem’s remains were heaped in front of the original tunnel’s now blocked entrance. Their escape route to the surface was no longer available to them. Finally, the detritus of the mushroom soldiers was scattered across the floor of the cavern in a wide arc around the present resting position of the cockroach, shields and broken spears and charred biological matter everywhere.

“What does your magic tell you?” Demi asked the tabby cat.

“Not much,” Aramis admitted. “There are spells in this cavern that cloud my extra-sensory vision. I can sense the spells, but not their source, and they make it difficult for me to evaluate their intent or extent.”

“Great,” Sela muttered.

Aramis looked at her, rolled his shoulders briefly, and said nothing.

Demi cleared her throat. “I’m sorry Cindy,” she said simply, turning slightly to tap the Siamese on the shoulder. The feline was still distracted by the activity across the cavern, and flinched slightly at her friend’s touch. She turned to face the skunk.

“What did you say?” she asked absently.

The skunk suddenly grabbed the feline in a tight embrace, burying her nose in the fur of the feline’s neck. The armored Siamese impulsively responded in kind after a fraction of a seconds hesitation. While their heads were side by side in this hug Demi whispered “I’m sorry, Cindy. Sorry I ran my wretched mouth to you. Please forgive me.”

The cat’s arms tightened around the skunk. “I love you, Dee.”

Whispered: “I love you, Cin.”

While those two were still embracing, Tigermark turned to the gray fox with a slight smile. Pointing across the room past the cockroach, he said “I think we need to explore that tunnel. No sense in staying here. Our escape route to the surface is cut off, and to wait here will invite more of what we’ve just dealt with. What do you think?”

While Sela was nodding in agreement the coyote pushed his way past the embracing girls, pausing ever-so-briefly to look at them, and approached the white tiger. Glancing at Sela with a small frown, Joe said “I think I need some tools.”


“I’m gonna kill that f...” a glance at the gray fox again, “I’m gonna kill that damned lion. If I can’t get close enough to the mangy shit to cut him in half I’m going to destroy his power base somehow. I need some boom.”

Sela smiled in spite of herself. “Boom?”

Tigermark and Aramis both nodded. They’d both heard this before. On every mission that was to a civilization less advanced than that which he was born to, Joe whined and grumbled like an aged, hungry shrew about the lack of modern weaponry and tactics. It was a characteristic he was quite well known for. Even The Boss was amused by his carryings-on.

“Explosives,” Aramis said in mild amusement. “Materials that cause other things to blow up.”

“Black powder. Nitro. Dynamite. C-4. Tactical nukes. Thermite.” Joe Latrans related, smiling a bit as he raised his paws to mimic a mushroom cloud forming and rising. “Boom!”

“I get it,” Sela replied, her smile fading. “If you can’t get to your target, you just obliterate everything around it in the hopes that you get him as well.”

Joe nodded slowly, thoughtfully, taking no offense. “Look Sela, on this world I don’t have the luxury of weapons systems that would normally allow me to eliminate Cutter while he stood in a crowd of school pups without inflicting injury to anyfur in the area, but kill him as surely as if I had bladed his miserable head from his shoulders.” The coyote turned to his old friend. “For whatever reason," he said while facing the tiger, "these tools are denied us on many of our missions. I don’t know why. We’re not told why. We do what we’re told, and do it with the tools we’re issued, and we are successful.”

The coyote turned back to the gray fox. “But sometimes it seems that we go through ten kinds of Hell,” he motioned with a thumb towards the shieldmaiden propped up against the wall across the cavern, “just so we can say we conformed to local custom.” He sighed. “I was hoping that Tigermark could intercede on my behalf with The Boss for some tools.”

As he spoke Demi moved close to Aramis’ side, and Cindy put an arm around Sela’s waist. They both watched intently as the tiger shook his head slowly, and neither was noticed by the fox or the coyote.

“Damned ROE," Joe continued. "I’m tired of watching my friends be beat on and butchered by this poor bastard of a spotted lion,” Joe said emphatically to Tigermark, to them all. “I want nothing better than to dispatch him as quickly, effortlessly, and quietly as possible. I don’t even care about this princess any more. Sure, she’s the object of the mission and the focus of the glory of the King’s Special Operations Group right now, but I couldn’t care less about that. What I want is Cutter dead or neutralized. I want it quickly, with a minimum of fuss. I want to go home to my wife, like I’m sure Tiger does. I want Aslaug to enjoy living, instead of having to experience death over and over again. I want you,” and here he placed a paw on Sela’s shoulder opposite the side Cindy was hugging up to, “... and your friends to have the health and freedom do decide whether or not you want to serve with us, or go your way in peace.”

Joe Latrans suddenly dropped his paw as he realized that he was making a speech. Pontificating. Running his mouth.

“Ah, fuck it,” he grumbled quietly, balling his paws into fists. “I just want to kill that spotted bastard.”

Several seconds of silence greeted this pronouncement.

“How will we move Aslaug?” Aramis inquired eventually.

“You can’t,” Joe replied bluntly. “She needs at least a couple hours to try and recuperate. She can hardly keep herself alive, let alone get to her hooves. She won’t be able to march for several hours.”

Demi turned to Tigermark. “What do you say we leave Joe and one of my team here with Aslaug, and the rest of us try and recon another approach to Cutter from this one tunnel we have at our disposal?”

“I’ll stay,” Cindy cried immediately.

Joe stared at the Siamese for a long moment before nodding, a small smile of thanks on his muzzle.

Tigermark looked first at Aramis and then Joe. “That OK with the two of you?”

Nods. “Sure.”

“Girls?” Demi asked.

Sela giggled briefly, a sound that seemed to pump some much needed relief into the small group of furs. “I think I haven’t fought the fight that would be required to make Cindy go with us,” she observed.

Cindy squealed briefly in reply to that and made to hit the gray fox in the upper arm. Demi grinned briefly at the two females, and then turned again to Tigermark.

“OK then,” she said, her grin fading. “You and I, Aramis and Sela will head out and see what we can see. Cindy will stay with Joe and Aslaug.”

“What if you find another route?” Joe asked.

“I’ll send Sela back to you with one of your team while I wait for you with the other,” Demi answered confidently. “No fur gets left alone.”

The coyote smiled slightly again in approval. Each of these femmes had a lot of brass, a quality he admired in all of them.

“Está bueno,” he replied simply.


# # #


Ten minutes later the tiger, the tabby cat, the skunk, and the gray fox were jogging up the new tunnel, their way illuminated by the magic of Aramis. From the holographic projection that hovered before the dotted lion it appeared he was watching tiny beings in some fantastic movie. Cutter’s arm tightened about the waist of his companion.

“Divide and conquer,” he said simply with a slight frown. “Much awaits your erstwhile rescuers, Princess.” The dotted lion adjusted his posture slightly, flexing muscles that already bulged, and smiled quietly to himself at the effect it had on the female standing beside him.

The regal lioness, the real Princess, sighed quietly as she focused on the holographic projection before her. Damn this lion and the mixed emotions his presence always aroused in her. She recognized the one feline in the hazy floating image hovering in mid-air, even at this seeming great distance, as the first that had tried to rescue her. That seemed many ages ago.

The image faded and was replaced by another of the large cavern, as seen from the eyes of the dead cockroach. She could see another feline and a canid, the former seated with her back to the cavern wall as the latter knelt by a third form, indistinct in the shadowy darkness.

Before she could discern the activity in the cavern the view changed again, to the room where the sarcophagi lay. Now Cutter removed his arm from her waist, and placed both paws in the air as if to take hold of the projection. The dotted lion closed his eyes and mumbled momentarily, some senseless incantation that she could not fully hear. Then, in a slightly louder voice, he said “Go and take care of the three. When you are done we will discuss your next task.”

As Princess Fallona watched, the lids on six of the sarcophagi slid aside. Huge, dark beings sat upright silently, and then stood. They were, in her estimation, at least seven feet tall; broad-shouldered bipeds of some sort. In unison they each rose to stand erect, and then bent briefly to retrieve something from their resting places. Large weapons? She was unfamiliar with the form of the tools they possessed. In their view, the beings silently formed into a small group and headed into a tunnel.

The dotted lion turned to his regal companion. “Excellent,” he smiled. “I have no concern for them, their dispatch means only that they will no longer support that damned tiger. He is my ultimate target today.”

The Princess nodded, her expression blank.


# # #


“What did you see?”

They huddled at the juncture of three tunnels. One was the wide tunnel they had just spent at least fifteen minutes jogging through. The second, dark, dank, and foreboding, descended to the left of the tunnel they had come up. Cold, damp, stagnant-smelling air wafted up to their noses from this tunnel.

Sela hooked a thumb over her shoulder towards the last tunnel. “This is it,” she replied breathlessly. She had just scampered back to their position after making her way stealthily and silently into the third tunnel. This tunnel, while not illuminated by any lamps that they could see, looked brighter than the other, and that fact had made them all cautious. Sela had volunteered to reconnoiter the tunnel while her three companions waited at the junction.

“What’s it?” Aramis asked, his whiskers twitching slightly, ever the image of the curious cat.

“He’s up there.”

“You saw him?” Demi and Tigermark asked simultaneously in hushed voices.

“No," the gray fox replied, "but I saw his throne.”

Aramis looked taken aback. “You saw a commode?”

Sela looked at him as if he had just announced his intent to run for public office. Tilting her head slightly and speaking slowly, as if to a small kitten, she said “No, Aramis Dagaz. I saw his throne room. His seat of power.”

“How do you know that?” Demi asked.

“You can feel it,” Sela exclaimed quickly, facing the skunk. “You can feel the power in the air, emanating from the altar. My fur stood on end standing in the doorway.” She looked back to Aramis. “There is a huge chair in the middle of the room, before the altar, carved from the rock of the mountain, like the altar. They both ... glow.”


The gray fox nodded. “Kind of a deep, pulsing, reddish glow. Not pronounced or bright, but noticeable, like a light fog. Except the air is clear.”

“That’s got to be it ...” Aramis exclaimed as he started forward, a paw on the hilt of his katana.

“Hold on, young fur,” Tigermark grunted as his paw shot forward to latch onto the shoulder of the smaller cat, restraining him. “Lets think about this for a minute.”

“What’s to think about?” Sela demanded. “Let’s go get him!”

“Did you actually see Cutter?” Tigermark asked quietly, still holding on to Aramis’ shoulder.

“No. I told you that.”

“Don’t you think it odd,” Tigermark speculated slowly, “that he would leave the back door unlocked and open like that?”

Aramis stopped pulling against his friend’s grip. “Yeah, that would seem odd ...”

The white tiger turned his attention to the skunk. “He’s baiting us. He knows we’re here. Lets stick to the plan,” he said simply.

The skunk thought about that briefly and saw the wisdom in what the SOG leader said. “You’re right. Who should we send back?”

“I’ll go,” Sela immediately volunteered. “And I’m taking kinky scarf-boy here with me.”

Aramis stammered. “Wh ... what?”

“You remember, the pawkerchief ... the first time we met?”

Aramis flushed a deep red beneath his fur and shut his mouth tightly, which caused the gray fox to smile broadly. “My, how soon we forget,” she giggled. Taking the feline by the paw she said “Lets go!”

And with that Tigermark and Demi were suddenly alone at the tunnel junction, the sounds of two pairs of padded feet mere momentary whispers as the feline and the canine vanished back down the tunnel towards the original cavern. Towards Cindy and Joe. And Aslaug.


# # #


“Ducks,” Joe said in a hushed voice, his eyes wide.

“What?” Cindy whispered in his ear.

“Those are Ducks.”

“They don’t look like ducks,” the Siamese protested nervously.

The two stood with their backs to the wall, weapons to paw, Aslaug awake and propped up between them.

“What are they, Joe?” the equine muttered.

“Ducks,” he said again.

“We’re gonna need to kill them,” she said darkly.

“I know.”

Across the cavern, standing at the mouth of the cave their friends had disappeared into about forty minutes ago, stood half a dozen huge, dark silhouettes. Easily seven feet tall, broad shouldered, with bills and webbed feet, these imposing figures were uniformly matte black except for their eyes, which glowed a bright red. Each carried a large, angled weapon of some sort in their bulky paws, with which they kept slapping the floor in a jarring and frightful manner. Other than the slapping noises, none of them made a sound as they slowly entered the cavern, seeming to float over the floor.

Joe gulped audibly. “I know these guys ...”

Cindy gave him a sidelong glance as she readied her twin, two-foot fighting knives, holding them before her chest-high. “You know them?”

“I’ve watched them play ...”

The closest figure tossed something small to the floor of the cavern and, in a smooth, whisking motion, smacked it firmly with the short angled head of his weapon. The object rocketed across the seventy five feet separating them from the trio of warriors, striking Joe firmly in the shoulder, spinning him around to crash into the wall behind them, falling to the floor.

“Gotta be Getzy,” Joe grumbled painfully. “We’d better grab some of those mushroom shields quick,” he said sharply as he struggled to draw himself upright, “or we’re gonna be hamburger.”

Three of the dark warriors floated slowly towards them, fanning out three abreast while two stayed near the center of the cavern and the final, biggest one stayed at the mouth of the tunnel.

Aslaug twisted slightly between her companions to stand under her own power, succeeding with some grunting of her own. She moved stiffly to follow Joe but stopped suddenly as another object smacked off the wall inches in front of her nose. Rock fragments landed on her fur, she ignored them.

Cindy scampered towards the nearest pile of dead mushroom soldiers and their scattered gear, quickly sheathing her knives in order to grab a small shield. As she did this Joe was likewise running, stooping to grab another shield nearby, all the while watching the dark warriors.

As Cindy stood with her shield she heard another smack, and instinctively held her shield up between her head and these “ducks.” Something small and solid hammered into her shield at eye level, the impact registering even as she heard another smack and, moments later, a pained snort from Aslaug.

“Filly!” Joe hollered as he slung a shield towards the equine. She grabbed it out of the air as it sailed towards her and immediately held it up defensively before her. It was all she had the strength to do. Her heavy battle axe lay propped against the wall, she had none of her trusty nordic throwing axes left to her, and only one of the new Franciscas.

Meanwhile Joe was drawing his broadsword. Holding it in both paws, he managed to just deflect the next lump that rocketed its way off another angled weapon towards his head. “C’mon Cindy!” he hollered as he slowly advanced towards the three dark warriors nearest him. “We’ve got to take these guys. We’ll never get ...” Another mass just made it past his blade, catching him in the upper torso, almost knocking him over backwards. He staggered, supporting himself with the blade of his sword, as another mass flew by his head to catch the Siamese off guard, bashing her in the upper leg, knocking her off her feet.

“Damn Ducks!” Joe bellowed.

One of the three floated towards Joe as he struggled to get his sword up to defend himself. The angled weapon curved up high, glinting in the weak light of the cavern, and suddenly rushed towards Joe’s head. A quick thrust of his own parried the blow only slightly, the angled head of the dark weapon slicing across the coyote’s left upper arm, immediately drawing blood. Joe spun away, grunting in pain as the steel shank of the duck’s weapon came up behind him to catch him in the small of his back, knocking him to his knees as one of the huge paws followed through with a mean punch to the base of his neck. Joe sprawled to the floor of the cavern, his vision blurred and liquid, tightly gripping his sword.

The front fur for this death squad was too preoccupied with his potential prey, however, and failed to notice the Siamese arcing through the air behind him. Her fighting knives formed that same deadly “X” she had used so effectively against the hydra, with similar results. As she descended upon the warrior that had taken Joe down, the “duck” who at that moment was raising his steel above his head for a crushing death blow, its head was lifted cleanly from its shoulders and dropped rolling to stop at Joe’s feet. The duck’s weapon clattered noisily and harmlessly to the floor, and as she landed on her feet Cindy observed the reddish glare of its eyes mute, and then extinguish completely.

“Wheel! Wheel!” the big one at the mouth of the cave bellowed.

One of the two in the center of the room floated towards the wall of the cavern slowly, and then arced back to join the two left at the fore as Joe staggered to his feet.

“Watch your left,” Aslaug called from the wall behind them as one of the original three accelerated in a pass towards the coyote. Joe ducked and turned away from the racing dark warrior, and was missed. Its blade found Cindy, and she howled in pain as the flesh above her waist was pierced, the blade finding the juncture between her armored apparel. The knife in her left paw found paydirt though, catching the face of this duck as it passed, laying it open from jaw to ear.

Aslaug, thinking it an impediment to fighting, had discarded her shield and retrieved her battle axe , but was barely able to heft it as she moved along the wall towards the tunnel mouth guarded by the monster duck. She was still weak from her prior injuries, but grimaced in determination and carried the heavy weapon with her as she moved cautiously forward.

The receding duck wheeled behind his two companions as they launched another barrage of little lumps towards Joe and Cindy, who fell back towards the wall to gain a little time with the distance.

“What are those things?” Cindy demanded as another mass cracked into the wall and shattered a foot or so to her right.

“They’re called pucks,” Joe growled, hunkering down as one of them smashed into the wall just above where his head had been.

Cindy stared at him as though he had said something horrid. “Ducks ... with pucks?” She spat on the floor for emphasis. “What is that, some sick canine humor?”

“I wish it were,” Joe replied humorlessly. Another of these pucks crashed above them as the dark warriors floated about the center of the cavern, waiting for them.

“Where’s Aslaug?” Joe suddenly asked, looking around for their friend.

“Here they come, Joe ...”

The front three were advancing on them slowly, the center one coming straight at them, the two on the outside peeling off and away towards the cavern walls. Another puck sailed towards them, hammering into Cindy’s shield with a loud ringing crash. Concurrent with this the duck to their left curved sharply towards them and accelerated, his weapon sweeping the floor of the cavern as he approached.

“Power play ...” Joe mumbled to himself as he raised his sword once again. The front three were uninjured, he noticed. The one Cindy had cut must have retreated to the defensive position in front of the duck guarding the mouth of the tunnel.

“Cindy! Take the left!” And with that Joe left her to her devices as he charged the center.

The Siamese held her own, Aslaug noted, keeping one of her fighting knives concealed behind her shield as she turned briefly away from the duck approaching her from the right wing. A puck sailed forth quickly over the floor from the defensefur near the tunnel mouth, and this accelerating duck on Cindy’s left made to sweep it towards her, accelerating and elevating the puck in the process.

Cindy was ready for it, and the puck hammered harmlessly off her shield with a reverberating clang as the duck swept by her.

But not quite quickly enough. Once again her knife found its target, and there was an odd hissing howl from the duck as it drew away, something strange and dark issuing from a long gash in what the equine presumed would be its rib cage below the right arm. The floor of the cavern became glossy-dark in a trail leading away from the Siamese towards this wounded warrior as he floated away towards the cavern wall on her right, curving back towards the tunnel. The duck looked injured, it was hunched over and decelerating, and carried its weapon gingerly in a defensive manner as it approached the third duck of the front line, who made to help his fellow towards the rear.

A clattering noise caught Aslaug’s attention, and she looked away from the wounded duck drawing away from Cindy to see Joe battling with the center duck, attempting to dispatch it one-pawed with his great sword. He had no shield, and held the sword with his right paw, his left arm hanging loosely at his side, blood flowing freely from two deep cleaves in his upper arm.

The coyote swung the weapon as best he could, and succeeded in catching the duck in the upper shoulder, laying his flesh open from the base of his neck to below his left shoulder blade. Unfortunately, as he was landing this blow, the duck caught him with the flat blade of his weapon, hammering the coyote above his right knee. The center fur retreated, a liberal trail of the same dark “blood” following him across the cavern floor as did Cindy’s victim, while Joe partially collapsed to the floor, again supporting himself with his weapon. After a moment the canine struggled to his feet and limped towards the cavern wall where Aslaug waited.

Again the huge fur at the mouth of the tunnel bellowed “Wheel! Wheel!” The newly wounded ducks retreated behind him into the tunnel itself while the last remaining uninjured duck floated towards the rear as well. The warriors were re-grouping, it seemed, and Aslaug sighed slightly as her companions approached her, warily looking around for the next attack, anticipating some moments to re-group themselves.

“How you doing?” Joe panted as he held himself up, paws on his thighs above his knees and bent at the waist, huffing to catch his breath. Like Cindy, he had circled around beside Aslaug such that the three of them were facing their enemies. Joe held his sword between his right paw and his leg.

Cindy brushed a paw against her waist. Her wound was oozing a bit, but was tolerable and did not impede her ability to fight. “I’m OK. How are you?” She noticed that blood still flowed freely down her companion’s left arm, but not nearly as much as there had been a few moments earlier.

“Been better,” Joe grunted, looking up and away from the ducks to meet the shieldmaiden’s gaze. “How about you?”

Aslaug nodded once. “I’m feeling well enough to help.” She hefted her battle axe , and Joe noticed the effort it took her. She was regaining her strength to match her ever-present confidence. They’d need both.

“How are you with a sword?” He asked her.

“I don’t have a sword,” she said absently.

“Yes you do,” the coyote replied, holding his great sword up for her to see. As big as it was, it probably weighed no more than her axe did, and its weight was better distributed over the weapon, making it a little easier to handle. He held it out to her.

“But what ...” Aslaug started as she took the weapon. She answered her own question by watching as Joe retrieved something from beneath his tunic. She recognized the spike maul and quietly nodded. “You’re going to have to keep your feet and your wits about you with that.”

“I can dance a little bit,” the coyote replied. He looked at Cindy briefly, and then back to the shieldmaiden. “Can you two give me a few seconds consultation?”

“What?” Aslaug asked. Cindy just nodded. She knew that look in his eyes. She’d seen it just before they’d fought the hydra.

Joe motioned with the maul towards the ducks, who were milling about at the mouth of the tunnel, looking for all the world like a slowly revolving football huddle.

“Watch those guys ...” And with that the coyote slowly got down on his left knee, favoring the injured one, and put his spike maul down on the floor to his right. His right paw then pulled his left paw up from his side, such that he was able to clasp them together at his waist. As Aslaug watched incredulously, the coyote took his eyes off his enemy, closed them, and began muttering. She heard him say “I sense what’s coming ...” and lost the rest of it as his nose pointed towards the floor.

He was like that for no more than fifteen seconds, and then he grunted slightly as he took up his maul and stood erect. There was a sadness in his eyes, but also something new there too. Not excitement, not anticipation, not joy, but an energy that hadn’t been there before.

Cindy frowned. “You look troubled, Joe. What’s wrong? What happened?”

Joe thought briefly as he watched the ducks. They were reforming their line, beginning to approach. A memory came to him.

“Heaven sent,” he said to the cavern quietly, to himself, “and Hell bent.”

“What?” Aslaug and Cindy both exclaimed.

“Over the mountain tops we go,” Joe grinned suddenly, still reciting quietly, “just like all the other GI Joes.”

“What are you talking about?” Aslaug asked, watching the ducks as well.

The coyote looked at her with an odd expression, the smile contrasting sharply with what she saw in his eyes. Resignation. And ... love.

“What’s worse, dear?” he asked. “To never be allowed to die, or to experience death over and over again?”

Now it was Cindy’s turn. “What are you talking about, Joe?”

But the equine was nodding, a new understanding forming. “So you have decided.”

Joe nodded back, that odd expression still on his face, his muzzle attaining a neutral visage. “I’ve been given a choice, and I’ve made it.”

The two stared at each other, the armored equine and the bloodied coyote. “White heaven, whiter Hell,” he growled with a shrug of his shoulders.

“Joe ...” the Siamese started in exasperation.

“Here’s the plan,” the coyote interrupted, suddenly calm and earnest as he turned to face the feline. “We’re getting out of this place right now.”


# # #


They had been jogging quietly for about ten minutes when Sela suddenly stopped, grabbing Aramis’ paw in the process and bringing him to a stop beside her.

Did you hear that?”

Hear what?”

The shrill, sharp sound of impacting steel floated up the tunnel towards them, muted with distance.


Aramis considered for a moment. “Sounds like Joe’s great sword,” he commented, tugging on the fox’s paw. “C’mon, we’ve got to go help them.”

More sounds of metal colliding floated to their ears as they set off, still jogging to save their energy for the fight they knew was coming.


# # #


“They are done. Look at them ...” the dotted lion commented to the dark rock.

The princess watched from her position seated to the lion’s right. In the holographic image that floated just above the rock altar that sat before them, she could see her three supposed saviors, three abreast as they approached Cutter Long’s sarcophagi warriors, those duck-looking things.

The equine hefted a great sword with both paws and moved stiffly as she swung it back and forth slowly. The feline, a sizable blood stain on her armor at her left hip, wielded a shield with one paw and a long knife with the other. She looked able enough. The coyote did not. He limped visibly, and his entire left side was blood-stained, from shoulder to boot.

Yet they formed a line and managed to look threatening to those dark warriors who themselves evidenced battle damage. Only two of the five ducks were in top form, the center fur and the one at the mouth of the tunnel. The other three limped or staggered or wove about as they glided toward the next battle.

The princess’ paw sought that of her companion as the weapons began their song, steel on steel.


# # #


It had worked. Aslaug, with the most visible weapon, had occupied the attention of the uninjured duck, who had floated across into the right wing as she approached. The one Joe had laid open with his weapon, seeing Joe with a shield and not much else, approached the coyote slowly on the left wing, his angled weapon sweeping the floor in small arcs before him. Cindy also had a shield visible, as well as a lone knife, and confronted the remaining injured duck in the three-fur line. The fourth injured duck waited in reserve, near the huge one at the tunnel mouth.

“It begins!” Aslaug yelled, raising the great sword above her head in a two-pawed grip. She began trotting the short distance towards her adversary, her edged weapon suddenly stable and dangerous in her iron grip. Her opponent’s weapon came up from the floor, the angled head to her right, and the duck’s speed increased towards her.

“Bring it, you bastard ...” Joe said loudly but evenly to his nemesis, waving the shield before him as he waited for his duck to make an approach. The duck arced towards the center of the cavern, towards Cindy’s opponent who hung back a moment, and then curved back towards Joe, on the side of his injured and useless arm that still managed to support the shield near his waist. The angled weapon came up high, above the ducks shoulders, then above his head as the warrior rushed the unarmed coyote. With all his strength Joe held the shield above his head to take the blow they both knew was coming.

Momentarily distracted by his companion’s charge, the middle duck glanced for a moment towards the coyote he was sure was about to die. It was all the opening Cindy needed. Shunning her shield in favor of the second fighting knife it concealed, her trademark fighting-X style came to the fore, and before her hapless opponent knew what had hit him, before her shield had bounced twice on the floor of the cave, she had severed his head cleanly from his neck and was turning towards Aslaug to assist the shieldmaiden.

Joe’s left arm took the punishing impact of the weapon his duck brought to bear on him, and his shield hit him in the head hard, momentarily stunning him. His adversary did not fall back, however, but stayed close to finish his task. Well and good, the coyote thought as his trusty maul swung out from beneath his tunic and accelerated in a wide arc, down then up, gaining speed and momentum, to first crash into the bottom of and then completely through the chin of his opponent. The duck staggered back, hissing and screeching in pain, as the maul rose high above Joe’s head and then came back down, burying itself deep in the duck’s skull. The dark warrior collapsed to the floor of the cave in a heap as Joe staggered back, almost losing his balance, still gripping the maul that dripped blood and bits of flesh and bone.

Meanwhile the equine was staggering back, reeling from a knifing blow that had just laid open the flesh of her right forearm. She continued to hold the broad sword in both paws as she struggled to maintain her balance, and as her duck followed through with his strike she swung the sword with all her might.

... and connected. The tip of Joe’s broadsword, controlled and directed by her will, found the duck’s momentarily exposed backside as he tried to spin, bringing his weapon around for a second strike. Aslaug grinned fiercely as the sword entered the ducks neck just above his right shoulder and passed almost effortlessly down across the back of his neck, the top of his left shoulder, and exited above his left arm. Yet even as the duck stumbled and fell in his death throe, his bodily momentum managed to bring his weapon around as it fell, and the edge of the angled head caught the equine warrior just above her right hoof, inflicting significantly painful but not disabling damage.

Aslaug stepped back uncertainly, testing her weight on the injured leg and finding the pain tolerable and the leg more or less sound. “Godt forsøg, maddike,” she muttered darkly to the stilled corpse at her hooves. She looked up suddenly as a loud chopping noise reverberated through the cavern. They were now evenly matched, the feline, the canine, and herself against the three remaining ducks. The big one at the mouth of the cave, the only one uninjured, had floated forward about ten paces and was slapping the floor of the cavern with his over-sized weapon. The other two had circled back to re-group around him, but were already coming forward once again, weapons sweeping the floor.

As the shieldmaiden watched the big duck in the rear tossed a few of those small disks to the floor and began swatting at them. The first sailed off to her right, towards Joe, and the forward duck approaching him accelerated towards the coyote as he met the sliding puck. This duck gave it a nasty slap as well, lifting it to strike a barely-lifted shield with a heavy thud, just in front of Joe’s head.

As this was happening a second puck sailed across the floor towards her left, and a similar maneuver caught Cindy with her fighting knives in a defensive set, deflecting the puck but shocking her paws to momentary numbness. Aslaug could see her flexing her digits around the handles of each knife, wiggling the weapons slightly to test her control.

Even as the notion occurred to her that a puck might be coming her way there was another slap from across the room. She quickly brought the great sword up before her as she turned, just in time, to see the puck rocketing towards her head. She just managed to deflect it with her blade, but as she did two more slaps resounded, the first from her right near Joe, and the second from in front of her. As she searched the dimly lit cavern for oncoming pucks, one of them rifled out of the darkness and clobbered her in the left shoulder, spinning her around as she fell to the floor. A second whizzed by above her, perfectly placed for a head shot had she still been upright.

“You!” she heard the coyote yell at the top of his lungs. She rolled over to see him pointing with his spike maul at the largest duck near the mouth of the tunnel. “You’re no Jean Sebastien!” The coyote advanced on the sarcophagi warrior as Aslaug picked herself up, wary of the two other ducks still remaining, who were both circling away to watch their counterpart’s reaction to this new confrontation. Still aiming the maul at him, Joe taunted him again. “You’re a poor goddam imitation!”

The largest duck stared at him, slowly turning to face him directly.

Away from Cindy and Aslaug.

Just like Joe had said it would.

Aslaug turned quickly to see Cindy staring at her, and tilted her head towards the other two ducks. Cindy nodded briefly as she drifted into the shadows near the cavern wall and began to approach the duck nearest to her.

“You’re no better,” the equine bellowed, pointing her great sword at the duck nearest her. “McLellan was right,” she continued, reciting what Joe had told her. “You guys really suck!

The duck at the center of the cavern turned on her with an audible hissing growl, as did his counterpart nearer to Cindy. More pucks hit the floor courtesy of Joe’s target, and the two ducks out front both advanced on Aslaug as Joe began trotting towards the largest one, who began to fade back towards the mouth of the tunnel.

Aslaug deflected the first puck neatly with the broad sword, the second caught her in the left thigh just as the center duck made his attacking pass on her. She managed to avoid his first hack at her with his steel weapon, it passed cleanly above her as she crouched low and swung her sword at his legs. He was adroit enough to jump and avoid her strike, but in doing so his momentum carried him away from her far enough that he couldn’t strike back. No matter, the second duck was approaching ...

This one angled low with his weapon as the first one circled back. Number two was trying to catch Aslaug in her crouch as she worked to reposition her sword for another strike. But as he approached, a sudden motion overtook him, and his head literally dropped at the shieldmaiden’s hooves as the rest of his torso slid by on the cavern floor.

Cindy grinned down at her comrade, knives in her paws, but before Aslaug could react with anything more than widening eyes, the first duck was upon her from the rear with a hacking slice against her armor, followed by a mean slap shot to the back of her head. The feline sprawled to the floor as Aslaug brought the great sword up in a wide arc. The broadsword paid for itself, the arc of her mighty swing was about three inches longer than the duck’s reach with his weapon, he was already dying by the time the edge of his weapon made contact with her chest.

Aslaug fell back, the wound on her chest not much more than a scratch, as the head of the second duck rolled away from her on the floor. The floor of the cavern was quickly becoming dangerously slick with all the dark bodily fluid emanating from both their vanquished foes, so Aslaug rolled herself into a standing position a couple of paces away from Cindy.

While her armor had in fact been pierced in the small of her back, there was little blood for the damage, and Cindy was slowly picking herself up. She was hurt though, her head had been scrambled by the slap shot, and she was having trouble keeping her balance. She slipped in the blood and fell again before Aslaug could get to her.

“Are you able to walk?”

The feline looked Aslaug over as she was helped up. “Are you?”


“Lets get out of here, then.”

Supporting each other, the two turned towards the mouth of the tunnel. There Joe was engaged in a noisy battle. Both he and his duck were freshly bloodied. Joe’s left arm again hung uselessly at his side, his opponent was having trouble moving and supporting his weight on his right leg. The duck’s oversized weapon was moving slowly enough that Joe could avoid most of his cutting attacks, but could not avoid the follow through slap or cross-check. And each time the duck attempted to re-position himself for another hacking swing, Joe would step in close and hammer on him with the maul. In this way it was a fast race to see who could take the most physical punishment before dropping his guard.

Cindy pulled against Aslaug’s paws, mewling slightly. Aslaug’s grip tightened as she brought her muzzle near to the feline’s ear.

“Do what he said. Keep to the plan. Lets go.”

“Joe ...” she cried softly.

“Leave him,” the armored equine said gruffly. “This is his way. Do what he asked.” A not quite gentle prod between her shoulders emphasized the final statement from the shieldmaiden. “Lets go.”

They kept to the shadowed wall of the cavern on their approach, but at the mouth of the tunnel were in plain sight of the combatants. Cindy could clearly see the damage that the coyote and the duck had inflicted on each other. Joe’s face was bloodied from numerous cuts and the bridge of his nose was disfigured. The only limb that appeared to be fully functional was his right arm, at the end of which was still tightly clutched the maul which even now caved in the left shoulder of his adversary.

The duck, huge as he was, fared no better. He held his weapon with his left paw, its counterpart at the at the end of his right arm looked as if it had been flattened by repeated crushing blows. He could hardly move on his webbed feet, his “blood” ran freely from both knees. Yet the hacking blows continued to rain towards the coyote at the behest of that one good arm, and Joe was able to dodge most of them.


It was a matter of moments before one of them would fall, and die quickly thereafter.

And then Joe saw her.

A calm expression came to his muzzle, and years later she would still vividly recall that he winked at her before he mouthed his short farewell. “Adios, Gatito.” Aslaug saw it, and paused as well.

When Cindy didn’t respond a stern look overcame him as he backed away from the remaining duck.

“Go!” he shouted at his comrades.

“Come on ...” Aslaug said, tugging at the paws of the Siamese. But each of them looked over their shoulders several times as they trotted into the tunnel.

“Run!” the coyote roared.

He watched gratefully as they broke into a full-out run. Turning to the last duck, who was just as battered as he was, and tottering just as much, Joe dropped his maul to the floor.

“I’ve got a treat for you,” the coyote said in the sudden quiet.

“And I for you,” the duck hissed in reply as he brought his angled weapon high for a strike. But then he paused, looking his adversary in the eye as Joe’s remaining usable paw went beneath his cloak and vest. Momentarily he produced a short metallic object, not much larger than his maul but not a hammer. Had he known what a can of beer was, the duck would have guessed it to be about that size, with a long handle protruding from one end.

“What is this?” the duck hissed.

Joe Latrans smiled, silently thanking his God. “It’s called an RKG-3.” With this he lifted the metallic device to his mouth and closed his fangs around a round shiny decoration on its handle, pulling it away from the device with his teeth and then spitting it to the floor. Holding the device out in front of him like a knife, he slowly approached his adversary.

“Let’s dance,” said the coyote.

The last duck nodded, dropping his weapon as he made quick flipping motions with his paws. Joe was not surprised to find that his adversary’s paws had seemed so huge thanks to the large gloves they had worn. Now sans gloves, the final duck held his balled fists up as well as he could, given his injuries.

“Laisse la danse,” the duck replied.


# # #


There was minimal warning. First was the flash they clearly saw, even though they had their backs to its source. Then Aslaug and Cindy were lifted off their feet by the blast from behind and thrown to the floor of the tunnel, dazed not only by their fall but also by the concussion and the roar of the explosion in the confined space. Sela and Aramis found them sitting on the floor of the tunnel about five minutes later, each holding their heads in their paws, dizzy with ringing ears as they gazed with limited comprehension at their approaching friends.

In response to her silent question, spoken by her eyes and facial expression, Aramis spoke one word to Sela as they crouched beside the two battered warriors.



# # #


6 November 2008

Cutter was peering intently, almost feverishly into the magical image before him. With the limited sight available through the dead eyes of the scarab-crab in the chamber the battle was taking place in, he felt he had to get closer to see.

“Well, I must say they’ve fought much better than I expected. But now they’re done. As soon as this one finishes the coyote off, I’ll summon some more of them to go after the two who ran. I sense that Tigermark and that housecat are near where I’ve prepared my little traps, but they haven’t reached them yet. No matter. Are you enjoying the show, Princess?”

Princess Fallona looked on blankly. Cutter wasn’t sure if the expression was from horror or resignation. Since he’d released her, the feisty lioness had attempted to claw his eyes out twice and run away once. Since he’d brought her out of her mystical prison so he could have someone to gloat to, he’d let her see her would-be saviors and their pitiful attempts at making headway. They would go where he intended, when he intended. Once the Princess had seen this, she became almost docile. He’d even noticed that her physical attraction toward him was still strong, and he couldn’t help rubbing her nose in it, flexing his muscles and strutting a bit. The dotted lion was considering just keeping her since he had the means to not only eliminate her father, but any other so-called ruler who tried to resist him. She might make an amusing pet. As her paw sought and held onto his, Cutter turned his attention back to the image. The coyote had dropped the large hammer he’d been using. The duck-creature had likewise dropped its weapon. Cutter was trying to puzzle out what the coyote now held as he and the duck began a shuffling circle of each other.

“What kind of club is that, and why doesn’t he strike with it?” the dotted lion puzzled to himself. Were Cutter actually there, he’d already be roaring at the duck for dropping its stick and engaging in paw-to-paw combat when all it had to do was strike. Apparently the simulacrums the sarcophagi created had some of the personality of the souls they were formed from locked in them. As Cutter had grown in power, he’d demanded and gotten answers from the entities he’d overpowered as to what the source of it all was. The sarcophagi were indeed burial places for the dead. The powerful magi of the long-dead race that built the underground labyrinth were entombed in them. As each one died over the centuries of time, they were put into a sarcophagus that trapped their soul, and their power. The power Cutter now commanded.

The two combatants made clumsy feints at each other, and then the duck landed a sold, crushing blow to the coyote’s ragged left arm. The coyote went down hard, and the duck stepped in to deliver the coup de grace.

“It’s about time. You see, Princess, there is no hope of rescue for you. You are wise to accept my good graces toward you, and behave yourself.”

The Princess now took on an almost fawning expression, squeezing the paw she held. “As you wish, Master Long.”

Cutter smiled smugly and returned his attention to the image. Black paws reached down to grab the coyote by the throat, but there was a sudden flash of silk and silver in the coyote’s not quite so useless left paw. Cutter nearly rammed head first into the image as he shouted, “Nooo!”

He looked on incredulously as the blade struck home. The duck reared back, lifting the coyote off the floor. The tanto blade in its chest wasn’t in a fatal spot, but it was quite painful. As the duck opened its beak to hiss-scream in pain, the coyote jammed the club-like implement down its throat. The duck used its right arm to sweep the coyote away from itself, the tanto still clutched in his paw. Cutter noticed a small piece of metal fly off the handle of the object as the coyote let go. The duck shook its head, trying to spit the thing stuck down its throat out. It began to reach for the end that was still visible.

Suddenly, Cutter was blinded by a tremendous flash of light. He fell backward, the Princess falling along with him. He hit his head on the stone floor, and his senses swam. Just before blacking out, he saw the Princess sit up and lean toward him.

# # #

Princess Fallona sagged against the damp wall of the tunnel she was in. She had no idea how long it had been since she’d heard the voice that had spoken to her in her crystal prison, telling her to get ready. She’d suddenly felt stretched and dizzy. Then she’d found herself in a very cold, damp, and dark place. It had taken several minutes for her eyes to adjust and she realized she was in a tunnel. Long rows of sarcophagi lined both sides, stretching as far as she could make out in the gloom. It had taken several minutes for her eyes to adjust from the bright, diffused light of her magical prison, so she was just now able to make out the carved details on the lids of the things. The voice she’d heard earlier returned without warning, nearly scaring her out of her wits.

“Are you ready, Princess?”

“R-ready for what?” she replied shakily.

“Steady yourself first. Look at the entombment chamber directly in front of you.”

She looked at the sarcophagus. She could now make out the pattern of the carving, and realized it was an image of an ermine. It was highly stylized, and as she briefly looked at the chambers on either side, she realized they were all different.

“Yes Princess. Each chamber bears the image of the one entombed there. As with all societies, some of us were good, some evil, and some a bit of both. In death, the power we wielded became joined with each other’s, to eventually give whoever could control it almost godlike capabilities. The downside is, for the power to remain, the soul likewise had to be entombed. We are quite weary of being enslaved and trapped here. We resisted Cutter, even the most evil ones, but after being here so long, our will was no match for his. We on the side of the Greater Good have managed to somewhat free ourselves, and we shall tell you how to free us all. It is the only way to defeat Cutter Long.”

At this, Princess Fallona felt a surge of hope. “Tell me! I’ll do whatever needs to be done.”

“Ah, not so fast. We are glad for your enthusiasm, but you lack the means. We believe your rescuers do have what is needed, or soon will have. You must go to them, and lead them back down here. We will tell you where to have them apply their destructive power. It will cause a chain reaction that will destroy the channel the power flows through, thus releasing each soul to go to its rest.”

“Which way are they? I’ll run all the way if I must.” The lioness cast back and forth, waiting to see which way to go. The voice chuckled.

“Easy milady. No need to run. When Cutter made to release you, we sent a simulacrum of you, much better than the crude one he made earlier, to watch and see what he was doing. She has kept him … occupied, shall we say?”

Princess Fallona was about to respond, feeling a bit miffed at being copied again, when a distant “boom” reached her ears.

“Ah, we sense your allies have just added to their means of achieving our goals. Go to your left, and follow the tunnels upwards. Tell them to apply their strongest force to the conduit behind the chambers.”

“Got it.” the lioness replied as she set out. The voice moved along with her.

“Be aware Princess Fallona. Once the conduit is compromised, and the chain reaction started, the mountain will react. You and your companions will only have a short time to get out, or you will join us in our exodus to the afterlife.”

Princess Fallona didn’t reply. She was very relieved to be both out of the crystal prison and actively doing something to fight Cutter. In that small corner of her mind that was still enthralled by the dotted lion, she was a bit jealous of what her doppelganger might be doing, but she dismissed that quickly as she felt her way along in the near total darkness.

# # #

Tigermark and Demi had been moving at a dead run ever since the explosion echoed down the tunnel. They made a last turn, where the tunnel that led to the chamber where they’d battled the creations of Cutter Long intersected with a dark, little used tunnel that led downward. Tigermark noted the strange, almost straight-line tracks in the dust coming up from that way, but then his attention was diverted by the scene in the tunnel toward the chamber. Aramis and Sela were tending to a dazed-looking Aslaug and Cindy. The feline sat on the floor of the tunnel. Aslaug was attempting to stand while shrugging off Aramis’ attempts to help her. Sela was gently rubbing Cindy’s shoulder as she spoke to her. Cindy was looking blankly ahead. Tigermark looked for Joe, and got a very bad feeling when he didn’t see the coyote. The tiger and the skunk slowed to a fast walk, and Tigermark called out so as not to startle anyone by approaching unannounced.

“Aramis! What happened? Where’s Joe?”

At this, Cindy seemed to come around a bit. She focused on Sela, and a forlorn, hopeless expression came to her face.

“Boom,” was all she said, and then buried her face in Sela’s shoulder and began to sob. Understanding dawned in Tigermark’s eyes, and he set his jaw in grim determination.

“I’ll go check on him.”

Demi stepped up beside him. “I’ll go along. Nobody left alone, remember?”

“I do,” Tigermark stated. “But if there’s another trap waiting, I want you here to lead everyone out.”

The mercenary leader started to protest, but was cut short as Aslaug shouldered past her. “Come on, Tiger. I’ll go with you.”

As the filly showed no signs of stopping to see if Demi agreed, Tigermark gave a shrug and turned after her. Aramis stepped back to keep watch as Demi joined Sela in comforting Cindy, who still muttered “boom” between sobs.

Once they were at the edge of the chamber, Tigermark stopped Aslaug.

“Okay filly, out with it. What are we going to find in there? What happened after we left?”

The equine shrugged, wincing a bit as she was still sore from all the abuse her body had absorbed in such a short time. “Cutter had another trick for us. Some kind of Gods-rotted duck-creatures. Joe seemed to know a lot about them. They kept knocking these things he called ‘pucks’ at us.”

“Hold on. Ducks with pucks? Were their weapons angled at the end into a flat blade?”

“Yes. That’s right.”

Tigermark shook his head ruefully. “So you were having a fight and a hockey game broke out. That fits Cutter’s warped sense of humor. What happened to Joe?”

Aslaug could see that the SOG leader had already reached a conclusion. The sadness in his eyes betrayed his calm demeanor. She nodded and went on.

“Joe talked with your God, and then fought the last of them to cover for Cindy and me to escape. He knew what he was doing. He had a calmness about him, more so than I’ve ever seen from him. I don’t know what he did, but whatever it was knocked us flat even down the tunnel there. We won’t like what we find, but he went as a warrior should.”

Tigermark nodded and then led the way into the chamber. The walls were blackened, and the smell of death and explosives permeated the air. The crab creature had disintegrated, with shards of its shell imbedded in the rock fall that blocked the tunnel back to the surface. Here and there evidence of the previous battles lay where it had been blown. The small shields of the mushroom creatures lay about, scattered by the blast. One of the metal “hockey sticks” was embedded in a column about ten feet up. Pools of dark liquid, pools of blood, and what appeared to be tatters and shreds of dark organic matter lay where the explosion had deposited them. The severed head of one of the duck-creatures lay upright, the bottom jaw of its bill gone, and its eyes dark and unseeing. Aslaug stopped briefly to retrieve her throwing axe when she came upon it. Shortly, they reached the spot where the explosion had occurred, marked by a wide bare circle and a small crater in the floor.

“Damn, Joe,” Tigermark muttered, almost to himself. “I know you wanted some high-explosive tools, but you always did like to overkill.”

Just then they heard it. A soft “chuff,” almost like a chuckle. Tigermark’s ears rotated to the sound, followed quickly by his gaze. Almost twenty yards away, behind a column, he saw a slight movement. The tiger covered the distance in three strides, followed closely by the equine. The sight that greeted them was not a pretty one. Joe Latrans lay on his right side, one leg bent out at an impossible angle. His left arm was a ragged shred, with several deep cuts that still oozed blood. From the state of his clothing and all the punctures and cuts covering him, there probably wasn’t very much left to bleed out. His left paw still clutched Number One, the tanto-blade knife that was one of his prized possessions. The silk that adorned its hilt was ragged and bloody. Trickles of blood traced from his ear through his fur and down his neck. As they looked, their broken brother-in-arms managed to take a shallow breath. Tigermark knelt down and gently eased him over, careful not to trap his broken leg under him. The face that greeted him was another bloody mess, but the eyes opened to reveal that Joe was both alive and in typical humor.

“A … *cough* anybody for shredded duck?”

“Take it easy Joe. Geez, what’d you use on this place?” Tigermark said quietly. The coyote, his breathing shallow and ragged, used his right paw and pointed to his ear.

“No puedo oírle muy bien. Tímpanos reventados. I think you want to know what I used. RKG-3, courtesy of the Boss.”

Tigermark nodded and spoke a bit louder. “Take it easy. You’re a mess, but you’ll be okay. Leave it to you to use an anti-tank grenade to roast a duck.”

Aslaug snorted. “Tiger, don’t. Don’t try that with him. Joe knew what he was doing, He knows what’s coming.”

Tigermark looked up at the filly. She was her typical stoic self, but he could see the trace of a single tear on her cheek. He nodded, but then lifted his chin.

“Don’t count on it. Joe may be mortal, but the Boss isn’t in the habit of leaving his agents on the battlefield.”

Aslaug looked like she was about to give him, the Boss, and anyone else within earshot a large piece of what she thought of that, but Joe motioned with his good paw.

“Hey, I’m tryin’ to have a noble death scene over here. You two can argue later. I can tell you down to the last scratch what’s wrong, broken, or just plain gone, so no one’s foolin’ me. *cough* It’s alright. The Boss let me choose, and I chose. Just tell Annie I love her, okay?”

Tigermark placed a paw on his friend’s head comfortingly, unable to keep the tears out of his eyes. “No es ninguÌn problema, mi amigo.”

Joe started to close his eyes, but the odd sound of someone clapping caused him to try to look around. Tigermark and Aslaug looked up, startled. As weapons began to come to the ready, they heard a soft chuckle.

“Quite a show you three put on.”

# # #

Cutter Long was aware that something wasn’t right. He shouldn’t be lying down. He was about to defeat his old enemy, and conquer the world. One couldn’t do that on one’s back, he chided himself. Then he recalled his last conscious sight. The Princess, leaning over him! He tried to fight his way awake, but it was like swimming through syrup. He felt paws then, gently cradling his head. He relaxed a bit, and the paws slid down to his cheeks, still moving gently. Had he won the Princess over so completely that she was fussing over him while he was unconscious? The sensation was pleasant enough. He would definitely keep the lioness, he decided.

The paws continued their ministrations, relaxing him. He felt the weight of the lioness astride him. The cares of conquering, and the headache that would explode when he became fully awake, seemed like distant echoes. The soft paws slid slowly downward, caressing his neck, slowly massaging along the muscles until they reached the pulse-points of his jugulars.

The world exploded in pain as the soft paws suddenly developed an iron grip and began to strangle him. He felt his air cut off, and in his relaxed state, he couldn’t seem to bring his paws up to fight off the attack. He was fading fast when a sneering voice came to him.

“Equal to the gods, eh? Master of all you survey. Hah! You’re about to die at the paws of a treacherous, lustful little palace kitten. Some force of vengeance you are! All those friends you lost, what will you tell them? ‘Sorry, I was about to avenge you all, but I got the hots for this princess I’d captured, and was showing off for her when she killed me.”

Something hard and unyielding as steel snapped in place inside the dotted lion. The will that had driven him to get where he was surged up and forced his fading thoughts to sharpen. Deadened limbs moved, and he fought back. He got his legs up and pushed. He dug his claws into something and pulled. There was a loud scream, followed by the sound and feel of something ripping asunder. Hot liquid drenched him, and the paws on his neck let go. Cutter sat up and coughed, opening his eyes to see what he’d destroyed. He immediately wished he hadn’t, as the headache he knew would be coming burst into full being behind his eyes.

After a moment, the pain subsided to a dull throbbing ache, and he was able to see. Princess Fallona lay across the room, her head at an odd angle and her eyes wide and sightless. She was torn apart from her right shoulder to her left hip. It registered in Cutter’s mind that something didn’t look right. The wound looked hollow, and the blood on her clothing and on his paws looked dark, almost black.

“She . . . was . . . a FAKE!” he roared, and quickly regretted it as his headache surged again. After a few moments he got shakily to his feet, his tail whipping back and forth in anger. How dare someone pull something like that on him! He doubted the tiger or his companions had the ability to create a copy that well-made, but he was sure they were somehow responsible for it. He made his way to where he’d been standing when the flash had stunned him. The surveillance spell had ceased when he’d fallen unconscious. He reactivated it, but no image appeared, only a dark grey mistiness.

“Whatever that was must’ve destroyed the crab and everything else in that chamber. No matter, I should be able to see through one of the dead ducks, or even a cave cricket.”

Despite this, nothing appeared in the space in front of the dotted lion. He frowned, and reached out with his will to the entities that had built what he now commanded. The presence seemed sullen, but yielded to him. There was still no change. The entities began to sneer, telling Cutter that something much stronger than either he or them was blocking his sight. Growling, he left the chamber with its dead decoy and went to where he’d decided to meet Tigermark for their final confrontation. He might not know exactly where they were, but he knew that they would come to him. It was not in the tiger to back down. With the power Cutter now wielded, running would do them no good anyway. He went to the throne where it thrust up from the floor, and sat down to wait for his “guests.”

# # #

“Tani!” Tigermark exclaimed, staring at the three-tailed kitsuné. The red fox vixen stood there, dressed in a simple white blouse and pants, her three tails waving slowly back and forth. Since shortly after Aramis had joined their team, she was the one who briefed them on their missions, and generally managed to get into some kind of mischief while doing so. How a kitsuné had come to serve as an angel of God, they’d not been told, but the vixen was their usual briefer nonetheless. Aslaug, who’d always had a sharp tongue toward any angel, present company included, looked at her for a moment, and then spoke in an uncharacteristically quiet voice.

“Come to bring the warrior home, angel?”

Tani walked over to them, and then knelt down beside Joe. “Yes, you could say that.” She put a paw gently on the coyote’s forehead. Joe visibly relaxed, and his breathing eased. He began to shimmer slightly, and a smile came to his muzzle.

“Adios, Tigré. Véale en el otro lado. Adios, Tranquita. Go kill that lion.”

With that, the shimmer increased, and the coyote was gone. Tani turned to Tigermark and looked at him as if expecting him to say something, but the tiger was still kneeling by where Joe had been, his head down. After a moment, he looked up.

“So what’s the word now? How many more of us have to die to get that bastard lion? I know the rules of engagement. Minimum force. Well I think it’s about time for some maximum force, don’t you? Joe wanted some tools, something to end this quickly. He got something, that’s for sure, and sacrificed himself using it, and we’re still no closer to Cutter than when we came down this hole! WHAT-IN-THE-HELL-DOES-HE-WANT-US-TO-DO-NOW?”

Tigermark had risen to his feet, as had Tani. His voice went up in volume with each word. The tiger was right up in the angel’s face, ears laid back and snarling. The fire of his anger gave even Aslaug pause. She’d never seen him so angry, nor heard him curse so much. Tani looked up at him calmly.

“Are you finished?” she asked.

Tigermark fought to control his rage. He took a deep breath, and then let it out and nodded. “Yes. Sorry, I know you’re only the messenger.”

Tani nodded in return. “Yes, and so let me make sure the message is correctly understood. Joe Latrans is not dead. Badly injured, yes. In need of a long recuperation, yes. Not of the physical, we can fix that easily. There won’t even be many scars. But the psychological damage and strain, that will take some time. I think he and Annie will be spending a season or two on your homeworld, Tiger.”

“I thought he chose to die,” Aslaug stated, her voice indicating that she too was becoming angry. To her, it was dishonoring Joe to not allow him his choice, even though she knew how it would hurt Annie and their family and Aramis and Tiger. She was also very angry that he’d been apparently put in the same situation she herself was in. Tani was nonplussed.

“The Boss and Joe did agree that he would die. He was offered immortality just like you have, Aslaug. He chose a normal death, which means for a Christian that he’ll live forever, just not in that body. The Boss never said it would happen today, though. As to the other question, look here where he lay.”

Aslaug bit off her reply as she and Tigermark looked down. There on the floor sat a large OD green canvas satchel. Tigermark knelt back down to examine it and then looked up at the angel and the equine.

“An M2 satchel charge, complete with caps, two ten-inch fuses, and igniters, plus half a dozen M26 paw grenades. Here’s Joe’s Boom.”

Tani nodded. “The Boss says you’ll find a place to use it.”

Tigermark made to pick the explosive pack up, but Tani held up a paw. “Aslaug, can you please take those on to the others and make sure Aramis shows them how to use them? The satchel isn’t primed yet.”

The equine warrior looked dubious, and not at all happy about being used as an explosives carrier, but she gingerly picked up the satchel and her axe and made her way back toward the tunnel where the rest of the group waited. She looked back and cocked her head to the side.

“Don’t be long, Tiger. I’ve had enough of this room, this mountain, that lion, angels and tricky words. I don’t want to be caught here again.”

Aslaug walked on with her burden. She glanced back just before entering the tunnel. Tigermark was in deep conversation with the kitsuné. He’d pulled the hood on his cloak up, concealing his face in shadow as he bowed his head, nodding to whatever the vixen was saying. The filly gave a soft snort and walked on. In a moment she reached their companions. Cindy was looking a little more aware, even though her eyes were red from crying. Her expression had hardened, and she looked ready to take Cutter on single-pawed if necessary. They all looked up expectantly when Aslaug walked up. She held the satchel out and spoke.

“Joe is . . . gone, but he left some, eh, boom for us to use. Aramis, take this thing, I don’t trust it.”

Aramis reached out and took the satchel, and after examining its contents, managed a tight smile. “Definitely some boom. Remind me to thank him.”

At this, Cindy looked confused, as did Demi and Sela. Demi hesitantly asked what they were thinking. “Ah, if Joe is gone, how’re you gonna do that?”

Aslaug gave a derisive snort, still sounding none too pleased. “I said he was gone, not dead. We found him alive, but about to die. White Christ took him away. Bloody dishonorable thing to do, if you ask me.”

The three mercenaries began to protest, but Aramis cut them off. “Don’t. That is her way, and you might as well argue with a boulder. She does have a point. Thing is, our belief is that the time of someone’s death is entirely up to the Boss.”

At this, Cindy actually perked up. ”So I’ll see him again when we’re done with Cutter?”

Both Aslaug and Aramis started to answer, but before they could the cloaked, hooded figure of Tigermark came striding down the tunnel. He stopped right in front of them, and everyone had the same question.

“What do we do now?”

Tigermark’s head was still bowed, but his voice was strong and sure when he spoke. “The plan is basically the same, but the teams are changing. Aramis will go with me to confront Cutter directly, since he has it out the most for the two of us. Demi, you three and Aslaug will go another way and find the source of Cutter’s power. That’s what the charge is for, according to what the Boss says.”

Demi looked sternly at the feline. “Tiger, I thought we went through that. Unless you’ve got the power of an archmage under that cloak, you’ll need all of us to take on the dotted lion.”

Tigermark’s arms had been folded across his chest under his cloak. He unfolded them, reached up and slowly pulled the hood on his cloak back. The paw he used to do it, his right paw, was bathed in what looked like green fire. There was no heat or noise, but the glow brightly illuminated the tunnel. The other five looked on in curiosity, and then they noticed the SOG group leader’s eyes. The pupils were no longer visible, and the eyes now held a glowing space of brilliant green.

The tiger’s voice was deep, soft as silk but strong as steel.

“Shall we go pay Cutter a little visit?”

# # #

Sir Virgil sat on his horse, listening incredulously to the tale the scruffy, sun bleached poodle in front of him was telling.

“So like, then the warrior dudes and dudettes set out for the mountain out there in the middle of Sandsville. That was like, a couple days ago. They were cocked and locked to go find Cutter and bring the Damsel home.”

Sir Virgil was a stout stoat, whose ancestors had lived in the area and had served Alteria for as long as the kingdom had existed. His current mission was leading a scouting party in advance of the King’s Army. They were in pursuit of, or in support of, depending on the day it seemed, one of the King’s Special Operations Group teams. King Phillip had been unhorsed in a confrontation in Many Rocks, and someone had issued kill-on-sight orders for the furs. The situation was very confused, as Sir Virgil and the rest of his scouting party hadn’t been far away when they saw the flames and heard the shouts. When they’d arrived at the source of the commotion, King Phillip was on the ground with several of the guards working to shade him and bring water. Duke Leone was furiously searching through a pile of brightly colored cloth, which resembled the remains of a dress. There was a pile of sand under whatever it was. Duke Blanco lay a few yards away, face down with an arrow in his back. Sir Virgil had no clue what had happened, but he followed orders and set out in the direction the Duke pointed him in.

Just about three hours later, that order had been rescinded and the order to assist the SOG team at all costs had come in. The runner who’d delivered that word had said that the King had been unconscious for those first hours, and upon awakening had been horrified at the misunderstanding. The King’s main army was just now reaching the area near Many Rocks, and would take a couple more days to reach the deep ravine where this odd canid and his fellows were “Gonna bring Farwest to us, Sir Dude.”

With a derisive snort, the noble made a dismissive gesture. “You’re telling me they went to Tsé Bit’ A’í? The Rock With Wings? No one in their right mind would go there. Say, aren’t you the leader of that sun-cult? The, ah, Saunders cult that was out west of Many Rocks?”

Sir Virgil asked the question casually as his paw went to his sword hilt. If this was indeed the poodle in question, the King had a price on his head, along with the rest of the cult. They were suspected of having a paw in the Princess’ kidnapping.

Digray wasn’t so far gone as to miss the movement. “Like, chill dude! I heard they found a better way an’ disbanded. Heard they found something much more bodacious to do an’ headed for Farwest. ‘Sides, they never really had the lady anyway. That was always Cutter, usin’ ’em as, like, cam-o for his bad karma. He’s th’ one that bugged out with the Princess to th’ big rockpile. The awesome heroes took outta here on their woody wagon to go get ‘em.”

The stoat became alarmed as he realized the King’s daughter, and the SOG furs were likely on or in that evil mountain. He turned in his saddle and motioned his sergeant forward. The rough-looking rat terrier guided his mount up beside the noble.

“Yes Sir?”

“Danle, send a rider back to the main force. Inform the King that his daughter is still being held by Cutter Long, and that the SOG team has gone to Tsé Bit’ A’í in pursuit. It appears they remain loyal even after the report of them being in the company of a dragon.”

The canid nodded. “Yes sir. Will we continue on, or wait here for further orders?”

Sir Virgil considered a moment. The things they’d been hearing of Cutter Long, plus the fact that the heat of the day was fast approaching, made going on seem like an increasingly unfavorable idea.

“We will wait. After you dispatch the messenger, have the team move the horses into the shade, and have someone go down and fill canteens. I smell fresh water from that way.”

The terrier raised a paw in salute and turned his mount around, heading back to the small team of scout troops waiting a short distance away.

Digray, who’d been staring off in the direction of the mountain, dreaming of when the ex-cultists’ herb crop would mature, looked around quickly and pointed. “There’s a nice pool down thataways, and a wide ledge that stays shady. Bodacious place to take a load off.”

Sir Virgil nodded, already feeling the cooler air that pooled near the ravine edge. “Thank you. You’ve been very helpful. I shall commend your small settlement to the King.”

Digray nodded back, and almost forgot to stop. “No problemo, Sir Dude.” Then as the stoat moved off in the direction he’d pointed, the scruffy poodle let out a sigh of relief. The herb crop, the veggie crop, and the village they were quickly building were all in the opposite direction. They’d found wide spaces and natural terraces along the ravine, where the air was nice and cool, and the water not too far away. The totally cool dude who’d studied geology had looked at the rocks and told them how far down they could build without worrying about floods from the river. They were in the desert, and the river was fed from underground, but that dude had been very persuasive about not going too low. “Bad floods once in a great while, totally awesome leader,” he’d said. That was enough for Digray.

The thought of some herb and a veggie burger made the poodle start ambling toward home, the thoughts of his conversation with the King’s knight already fading into his mental haze as he began to bob his head to a tune only he could hear.

# # #

Cutter was growing impatient. He’d tried the surveillance spell twice more since he’d arrived at the room where he’d created his throne. The altar and room still pulsed red with power, but otherwise it was all too quiet. He knew the tiger and his companions were probably roaming the labyrinth of tunnels and chambers, but without knowing exactly where they were, he couldn’t direct his power against them. He’d commanded the monsters he’d set loose way back when he’d entered the mountain the last time to cease guarding the entrances and begin patrolling the interior, so perhaps some of them would give the heroes a hard time. He was still waiting for someone to spring the trap he’d set in the first fake throne room, near the second entrance to the lower tunnels. In all, he’d set up three such chambers of distractions. If the tiger managed to survive the monsters and ward spells and traps, Cutter was sure his old friend would be too hurt and exhausted to put up too much of a fight. Even if he did, it wouldn’t matter. With the power of a god at his disposal, it was all just a matter of time.

To pass the time, Cutter opened the scrying spell again, but this time directed it outward. The image formed in front of him, and he surveyed the desert outside the mountain. Dust in the far distance, in the direction of Many Rocks, caught his attention. As he focused on that and increased the magnification, he realized that King Phillip’s army was on the move in his general direction.

“Ah, well and good. Once I get rid of that accursed tiger and his lot, I won’t have to go out and find you.”

The dotted lion chuckled evilly to himself as he contemplated the fate he would bring to his enemies. Tigermark, that housecat, the coyote if he still lived, and the mercenary femmes would feel his wrath first, and then King Phillip and his army. The equine would make an interesting study, learning how she became at least nearly immortal, and how much punishment she could take. Then he noticed the dark stains on his clothing and paws from the fake Princess’ blood. With a slight annoyance he spoke an arcane word and the stains vanished, leaving him looking much more regal and less like a butcher. Then he went back to contemplating terrible, evil fates for his enemies.

The thought to question what happened to the real Princess Fallona never crossed his mind.

# # #

The group of warriors made their way warily down the passages toward the juncture where the three tunnels met. Aslaug walked point, feeling that she was mostly healed up now. No one spoke. The departure of their friend was weighing on them all. Cindy had become almost grim in her determination to bring down the dotted lion. Demi walked near Tigermark, but her furtive glances at him said she wasn’t too sure about the power he was holding. Sela seemed even more uncertain about the whole situation. She slipped up beside Aramis and quietly began to question him.

“Alright cat-boy, what’s the deal? What does that glow mean? I remember what he did for Cindy the last time I saw it, but this is different.”

Aramis bristled slightly, but managed not to miss a step. “I’ve never seen this before, but TM has talked about it. It’s not something he normally has. This is power straight from the Boss. I believe he called it Soul Fire. If he goes head to head against Cutter with it, Cutter’s a goner.”

Sela now scowled, and snorted derisively. “If he could do that, then why are we sneaking along? Why did Joe nearly get killed? Why didn’t Tigermark just walk in and blast that damned lion?”

Before Aramis could answer, Tigermark rumbled a reply. Apparently the power hadn’t affected his senses any. “Sela, this power is too much to wield on a regular basis. It is physically very taxing just holding this preliminary amount. Being a conduit for it is exhausting, and possibly even damaging. The first time I was given to use it, I had to be carried away and put to bed for a week. I’ve been allowed to use it several times since, and I can manage to not pass out after, usually. Cutter has tremendous power available to him, so the power I must be the channel for will be more than I’ve ever had to manage before.”

Sela was silent for a moment as they walked carefully on, but then spoke again. “So, that still doesn’t answer why we’re sneaking around now, is all I’m saying.”

Aramis nodded his understanding, but felt more of an explanation was in order. “It doesn’t make him indestructible. Plus, even if he doesn’t pass out, once he fires it off, that’s it. A least that’s what he’s said about the past. It’s really up to the Boss, and I don’t think He’ll put more on TM than he can handle.”

Sela cocked her head a bit to the side as she considered this. Just then, the tunnel they were in opened into the chamber where the other two tunnels met. The upward one led to what Sela had said appeared to be Cutter’s throne room. The group came to a halt and Tigermark spoke again in that deep voice.

“Here is where we separate. Aramis and I will go up and confront Cutter once we find him. Aslaug, I want you to go with Demi’s group to provide some extra muscle to deal with the monsters you’ll surely encounter. You know Sejd very well, so watch out for illusions and confusion spells. Demi, I’m sending the satchel charge and three of the paw grenades with you. Setting it is easy. Put the caps in the blocks of explosives, one in each block. Wind the fuses together. Use the igniters to light the fuses and then get wa-a-a-y back. Use the paw grenades on any very big, or large in number monsters. Hold it like a ball, with the metal piece in the crook of your thumb. Pull the pin, and throw the grenade at what you’re fighting, then dive for cover. The metal piece is called a spoon, and it’ll fly off when you pull the pin unless you hold it in place. That’s why you grip the ball and it together until you throw it. When that spoon flies off, you have five seconds until the grenade explodes. You only have three grenades, so don’t waste them on something Aslaug and you three can handle otherwise.”

Demi nodded as Tigermark passed three grenades from the bag to Aramis. Aslaug hefted her axe and made to head down the descending tunnel.

“Be strong, felines. As I’ve said before, don’t you dare leave me here alone.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Aramis quipped back. Aslaug just gave a snort. Demi reached up and kissed Tigermark on the side of the muzzle.

“Go blast that lion. Just don’t hit anything else, and try not to get killed in the process.”

“No problem. Soul Fire is very selective. I could take Cutter out with it even if he were standing in a crowd of schoolkits. It’d go around them and hit only him.”

Demi smiled and nodded as she turned to go. Cindy stepped up and suddenly embraced him. TM patted her back gently, and then she pulled back and looked at his eyes.

“Let me go with you, Tiger. I wanna claw the eyes out of whatever is left.”

TM gave a quick shake of his head in the negative. “Not in that state of mind, kitten. You’re feeling very hurt, and you want revenge. That combination makes you a bit reckless where the dotted lion is concerned. I’ll not have you charging him on sight and getting yourself killed. You can better serve Joe by helping your friends take out his base of power. Fight to help them finish their mission.”

The Siamese didn’t look any too happy about the answer, but grudgingly she nodded and moved to join Demi. Sela merely nodded at the tiger, but Aramis she slipped in close to and licked his ear again.

“See ya soon, kinky scarf-boy.”

Aramis blushed a deep crimson under his fur as Aslaug and the three mercenary femmes headed downward into the dark, cold tunnel. Tigermark and Aramis looked on a second, and then turned toward the upward-leading tunnel. They could see the reddish glow at the other end. TM shrugged and hitched a thumb in that direction.

“Let’s go cross the dotted lion.”


# # #


31 December 2008

Sela looked uncomfortable. Next to her, Demi was no better off. They were slowly making their way down a long, narrow passage, following Aslaug in front of them. Cindy brought up the rear.

The Angels didn’t speak, but they all thought the same thing. The shieldmaiden’s chain mail was a torn mess of metal scrap by now. Her helmet was buckled in several places, and frankly, the equine had taken such a beating since they had come to know her that none of them understood how she could still be upright and moving about. They knew about the immortality and they knew about the healing, but it was no less weird and alien to them now as when they first saw it.

First, the shieldmaiden had taken that tumble off Stripes, into a deep ravine filled with razor-sharp rocks. While armed. With axes.

Then she had taken on that armadillo all on her own.

Then the fight with the duck creatures ...

By all accounts, she should be a wreck, and yet she had insisted on taking point.

The fact that the equine wasn’t exactly the most extroverted or soft-spoken creature they had ever met didn’t make things any better.

None of the angels were keen on her, and as far as they could tell, the feeling was mutual.

And now they had been relegated to sabotage duties. It didn’t sit too well with any of them, and the calmness with which Aslaug accepted that she was removed from the front line was confusing to them.

"Aslaug ... ?" Demi asked, clearing her throat. She wanted some answers and both her friends seemed reluctant to ask them.

"Yes?" the equine answered without turning or stopping.

Demi kept her voice low. It wouldn’t do to bring attention to the small band of saboteurs after all. "Tell me ... why do you dislike us so much?"

Aslaug still didn’t stop. "I never said I disliked you. Why do you assume ... "

"Contrary to what you may think, I’m not stupid. You practically reek resentment. You have done so since first we met. I don’t say you’ve expressed your dislike out loud, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there."

Finally, Aslaug stopped. She looked over her shoulder and narrowed her eyes. "Are we here to chatter or are we going to destroy the sejd-machine that feeds Cutter his power?" she asked, irritably.

"The latter, obviously. That doesn’t mean you can’t answer a simple question while we walk," Sela chimed in.

"Very well," the shieldmaiden growled. "First of all, I don’t like having my methods or beliefs questioned. I was wrong about Stripes, but I would have preferred to find out for myself, rather than have one of you try to shove it down my throat."

"Good grief, are you still on about that?" Sela sighed, "Would you grow up already?"

Aslaug pointedly ignored her. "Secondly," she continued, "You three come on as if you’re the best fighters within a thousand mile range, and yet I haven’t seen you hold your own yet without Joe, Aramis or the big stripy one keeping your tails safe! I have absolutely no time or patience for warrior wannabes! War hurts. Fighting isn’t an artform like some sad creatures seem to think. It’s about staying alive. If you outlive your opponent on the battlefield, you win by default, and the only way to do that is to make sure your opponent dies. And however glorious your battle is, however awesome you may be at fighting, you will still leave tears in your wake. The best warrior is the one who knows when NOT to use his or her weapons, but sadly, you three seem to think that being a warrior is a goal in its own right!"

Demi opened and closed her mouth a few times. Sela rolled her eyes and shook her head. Cindy, bringing up the rear, blinked and looked at her friends, before looking at Aslaug.

"That is very easy to say for someone who can’t die," she said.

"It is," Aslaug conceded. "But immortality is not something to wish for."

Cindy shook her head and moved between her friends towards the shieldmaiden. "I never said it was. But let me get this straight. You resent us for fighting?"

"No, I resent you for saying you can hold your own only to need help constantly."

Cindy nodded, slowly, before looking at her friends again. "So ... if we were to prove ourselves to you ..." she began but Aslaug broke her off.

"You don’t get it, do you?" she growled, "I used to think ’proving oneself’ was so damned important. Walk a mile on these hoofs and you’ll know just how ridiculous that is."

"Then what?" Cindy wanted to know. Her voice was calm and patient, and it was draining the ire out of Aslaug, little by little.

The shieldmaiden shook her head and her shoulders slumped a little. "I want to know you three are fighting for something, rather than just against Cutter Long, that’s all. And I want to know you’re capable. Until I know that, all I’m doing is walking around with three dead weights tied to my legs and my tail."

Again, Cindy nodded. "Fair enough," she said. "But just like you didn’t want Sela to try to force the issue of Stripes on you, I would have preferred if you asked me outright what my motivation is for coming along on this caper."

"That seems like a reasonable gripe," Demi added. "You can’t blame us, when in truth you’re just as much in the wrong yourself."

"I can," Aslaug said, matter-of-factly, "And I do, but that does not necessarily make it right. I never claimed to be perfect. In fact, I’m pretty imperfect. I am only good at one thing, after all."

"I’m sure you’d be pretty damned good at just about anything you put your mind to," Sela muttered, "Stubborn as you are ... if you’re not good at it to start with, you’d keep practicing until you’d mastered whatever it was."

Much to her surprise, Aslaug smiled crookedly. "Maybe you’re right. I hadn’t really thought about that," she said.

Cindy made a calming gesture with her paws, trying to get everyone’s attention back on track. "You want to know what I’m fighting for?" she asked, still very calm.


"I’m fighting for a lot of things. My freedom would be one of them. I’m fighting to stop Cutter Long, not because I want to fight against him, but because I want to fight for all those furs who can’t. Much like yourself, when you took down Ean."

Slowly, Aslaug nodded. "Good. That is good," she said.

"The same goes for me," Demi added.

Sela nodded and folded her arms across her chest. "And me."

Aslaug smiled crookedly. "That takes care of half of my problem then."

Demi looked between her friends for a moment. "Well, that’s always something."

"I don’t see why I have to prove anything to her," Sela growled.

"You don’t," Aslaug said and shrugged. "But I’m still the one who has to pull your red backside out of the frying pan the next time you decide to sit down on it!"

Sela was about to retort. Cindy just shook her head and Demi put a paw on her shoulder. They both looked like they had something in mind. The vixen trusted them enough to keep her mouth shut, but as they resumed walking, her glare nearly bored a hole through Aslaug’s back.


Tigermark and Aramis were standing in a large, oval room. The ceiling was domed, and the walls were nearly obscured by the contents of the room. It looked like a trophy-case. Not for Cutter Long, but for whoever lived here before the spotted lion. Most of the trophies had long since crumbled. Statues from ancient civilizations, tapestries showing battles now long forgotten, molding away.

A few pieces here and there looked to be in good condition. If this world had used museums, Aramis thought, these items belonged there. As it was, they would probably be forgotten once more when Cutter Long was gone.

He wondered what tale they would tell if they could speak. What these items represented.

There was a red glow in the room, illuminating the contents of the room in an eerie and rather morbid way. One statue of a canid warrior, leaning on his spear, caught his eye. The paint was mostly gone by now, but it was clear that it had been very lifelike when it was new. With eyes made from several kinds of precious and semi-precious stone, and a body of some form of blue-black, smooth rock, the canid looked sad and tired, like he was weary of war and suffering. A sentiment Aramis could relate to at least.

By now, Aramis mostly just wanted to finish this assignment and go home. He liked adventures ... probably more so than any of the others in their little group. He was young and adventure came naturally to him, but this had gone on for too long already. Cutter had to be stopped ... soon ... or he would unleash a reign of terror on this world the likes of which he couldn’t even imagine, and Aramis Dagaz could imagine a lot.

"Hey ... " Tigermark called out, "Are you alright? You looked a million miles away."

"Probably more," Aramis answered and shrugged.

The larger feline nodded. "Ah. Back on Earth, eh?"

Aramis didn’t have to answer. They both knew that was the case.

"What will we do when we find him, anyway?" he asked, looking at his large, striped friend.

"Don’t know, to be honest," Tigermark said, "But it’ll be a real catfight."

Groaning, Aramis rolled his eyes and smirked. "That was beyond bad, you know."

Tigermark knew. What he didn’t know was an answer to Aramis’ question. He could blast Cutter into oblivion, but he had only one shot at it. If he missed, they’d be in every kind of trouble. Admittedly, the green fire playing around his fingertips was able to hit a specific target in the middle of Times Square at New Year’s Eve with absolute accuracy, but none of them knew what kind of devilry Cutter had available to him.

One thing he did know that the easy solution of simply walking in on Cutter Long and blasting him unceremoniously with divine fire and retribution wouldn’t work. The easy option never did.

"We’ll have to think up some kind of plan, Tigermark, or he’s going to turn us inside out."

"I know."

Tigermark sighed and prayed underneath his breath that Aslaug and the Angels would be able to complete their part of the mission without trouble. If they could, that would make everything easier.


"I miss Joe right about now," Aslaug grumbled and looked down into the mess of machinery and pipes below, "He always knew how to deal with this kind of thing."

"He knows this kind of machine?" Cindy asked, incredulously.

Aslaug shook her head. "He just knows machines in general. He can talk to them ... make them work like he wants them to."

"That sounds almost like magic in its own right," Sela said, eyes wide, "What does he do?"

"Well, when the coffee-machine doesn’t work, he shouts obscenities at it until it works. Then he hits it. His success-rate is noticable," Aslaug said in an amused voice and with a wry smile on her face.

"Coffee...machine...?" Demi tried.

"It makes coffee. Horrible drink, if you ask me. It’s black, it’s bitter and I think it tastes like sewage," the shieldmaiden explained.

"So he shouts at it ... and then it works?"

"Usually, yes."

Cindy thought about that for a moment. "And what if it doesn’t work?"

"Then he calls his wife," Aslaug explained, patiently.

Nodding, Cindy looked like she wanted more information. "And then what does she do?"

Aslaug shrugged, not taking her eyes of all the strange, unknown mechanical bits below. "She flicks the power-switch on the wall, and then it works."

The silence from the Angels was deafening.

"His method works even more often on his car," the shieldmaiden said, shrugging lightly again.

"Car...?" the Angels asked, as if with one voice.

Aslaug nodded. "You open the door on the side of it, get in, close the door and start it. Then it moves on four wheels without animals pulling it. He says the horses are all hidden under the hood but I’ve checked and there are no horses there. Just a machine stinking up a storm with all kinds of whirly bits. It’s silly anyway. You can’t fit sixty horses under the hood of a car ... not even really tiny ones."

"You are so weird it’s not even funny sometimes," Sela groaned, "Horses under hoods?"

"Rooms that move by themselves?" Sela added.

"Coffee...machine...?" Cindy whimpered.

For a moment, Aslaug felt moved to sympathy and she looked at the three other femmes. "I give you my word it’s all true. And it doesn’t make sense to me either, and I have to live with it!" she said, genuinely patiently.

Demi nodded, slowly. "I do believe you. It just sounds ... fantastic, that’s all. Almost incredible, even."

"Be glad I didn’t tell you about the evil com-pu-ter...or the magic sejdbox where the big yellow bird taught me how to speak English, or the far-speaker..."

"Far speaker...?" Demi wondered.

"You pick it up and speak into it, and you can be heard by furs on the other side of the planet, as if you stood right next to them. Please, don’t look like that. It works. I don’t like it, but it works!"

"Now I know you’re pulling my tail!" Sela said, folding her arms across her chest, "I’m not that stupid."

"Believe what you will," Aslaug sighed and looked back down to the machinery, "It doesn’t look like there are any guards down there so ... expect a fight."

Cindy smiled crookedly. "Always expecting the worst, aren’t you?"

"Where I come from, it tends to prolong your life drastically," Aslaug answered. Cindy did have a point.

Sela and Demi both peeked over the edge of the cliff and tried to get a feel for what was down there. It looked absolutely chaotic to the naked eye. Long pipes going hither and thither, in and out of sheer, rocky walls. Churning machinery, pumping unspeakable fluids around. Occasionally a hiss as steam was released. They looked at each other and shook their heads in unison.

"What are we supposed to do with this anyway?" Sela asked.

"Make it stop working. Hence why I wish Joe was here..." Aslaug answered.

"But you said he was good at making things work?" Demi asked, now looking horribly confused.

Aslaug chuckled and nodded. "Yeah. He also tends to carry large amounts of Boom around on missions. At least if he has his way, and if he doesn’t, he gripes long and loud about it until Whitechrist takes pity on him and SENDS him some Boom. And Boom usually makes any machinery stop ... permanently."

"Why do you call him Whitechrist, when the others only call him Christ...?" Cindy asked.

For a moment, Aslaug pondered answering in full. Then she shook her head. "When Christians first came to my country, they burnt everything they got within reach of, killed everyone who wouldn’t convert, and clothed those who would in white robes, before dunking them underwater in some kind of ritual. Whitechrist was always depicted wearing white, too. Look, I don’t think we should get into this whole discussion. It would take all day and besides, I don’t want to steer you off course. You all seem interested in Christianity. Joe spoke to you about it, I believe. Don’t ask me to describe it in any more detail than I just did because ... it wouldn’t be pretty."

"Yet you work with Christians? Even after what they did?" Demi wondered, "Why?"

Aslaug shrugged and sighed. "Because I learned that they are not all the same. Those three taught me that. It’s a long story and I think we’d better get a move on. Aramis and Tigermark need us to shut this whole thing down."

Cindy grinned. "Without boom?"

"Without boom," Aslaug said with a nod, "But there are alternatives to Boom."

Sela looked like she had a bright idea. "Hey, I know what to do then..."

Demi nodded, clearly having the same thought. "Yep, we’ll find that...power...switch...thing...and turn it back off!"

For once, Aslaug couldn’t help grinning as she started looking for a way down.


Aramis was tempted to reach out with his magic to feel what was behind the huge stone doors in front of him, but he didn’t. If Cutter Long was in there, using magic like that meant he might as well paint a bullseye on his face and shove his head down the barrel of the nearest canon. That, more than anything, was getting on his nerves. He prided himself on being a very capable combat-mage, and yet here he was facing someone who made him look like a bumbling child.

It was enough to make him want to shove a magic wand up Cutter Long’s nostril before breaking both.

As powerful as Cutter had become, however, even the resulting explosion of raw magical energy was unlikely to do more than make the spotted lion sneeze.

"Well, we need to get through here somehow," Tigermark said.

Aramis nodded. "If I were to venture a guess, those doors aren’t locked. He isn’t trying to keep us out, after all."

Tigermark sighed. "It has been too easy, hasn’t it?"

"It has. But I think I know why."

"Then by all means, enlighten me!"

Shrugging, Aramis stuck his paws in his pockets. He looked up at the doors again. If his theory was right, they had practically all the time in the world, anyway.

"He wants to fight you. Not me, not Joe, certainly not Madamme Grouchy and her incredible, flying axe-tricks ... just you."

"I’m telling Madamme Grouchy you said that ... "

Aramis grinned widely. "I’ve got a haste-spell memorized. She’ll neeeeever catch me!"

Tigermark chuckled and nodded. "Anyway, if you’re right, that would mean he could be right behind this door, listening to us right now. That doesn’t explain what happened to ... any ... "

He turned his head and looked at Aramis with worry on his face.

Aramis nodded. "I just hope aforementioned Madamme Grouchy is fully healed up."

"And that the Angels are up to a real challenge. If he knows we’re coming, he’s going to ... "

" ... send all his guards to protect the source of his power. Correct."

Tigermark shook his head. "Maybe you should use that haste-spell and run back there and help them, then?"

"No chance. Aslaug is quite capable of taking care of herself, and I trust the Angels. I have to stay here."


Aramis frowned and approached the door. "Because no matter how much power Cutter Long has, I don’t trust him to fight fair. I’m here to try to make sure he does."

Tigermark followed his friend. The doors were absolutely huge and made from some kind of black, volcanic rock. They were heavily ornamented, showing ancient battles long forgotten. The warriors were dressed much like the statue of the canid they had seen earlier.

"I wonder who these furs were ... " he said and put a paw on a relief of what looked like an officer, issuing commands.

The door opened slowly. For a moment, Tigermark wondered if he had inadvertently touched a hidden mechanism, but it didn’t seem so. The doors were simply very light and very well oiled, but the effect was disconcerting nonetheless.

Beyond it lay a huge, domed room. The walls were covered with carvings and the floor was tiled. But the images both on the walls and on the floor moved, as if alive and Aramis tried to not to look at them. Even a brief glimpse and he felt motion-sickness gripping him. Opposite the door was a raised dais, on which stood two thrones, made from the same dark stone as the doors.

Cutter Long ... the spotted lion ... was lounging comfortably on the larger of the two.


Aslaug hadn’t told the Angels, but there had been movement down below. She didn’t want to get them nervous. She could warn them discreetly when they got closer.

The ledge they were moving down was sloping very abruptly, and she had to concentrate on not falling. Hooves were not particularly well suited to this sort of thing, but the Angels moved almost effortlessly behind her. They made a lot less noise than she did, as well, but Aslaug had never really been the stealthy type to begin with.

That gave her an idea.

She nodded to herself and muttered a few words in her own language, which had the three femmes behind her look at each other in confusion. Finally, Cindy shrugged and cleared her throat lightly.

"Aslaug?" she asked.


"What did that mean?"

The shieldmaiden figured now was as good a time as any to tell them. They were almost at the bottom of the slope anyway, and they would all need to be ready if ugliness decided to come their way.

"I heard something. Someone is down there, and I don’t think it’s going to be friendly," she said, lowly.

The Angels nodded, exchanging a couple of glances, before unsheathing their weapons. Aslaug flexed her fingers around the grip of her long-axe and tucked her head down a little.


"Is this the time where I am supposed to ask ... ’what kept you?’ ... or is that line reserved for the damsel in distress?" Cutter Long sneered, looking towards his hated enemies.

Aramis opened his mouth to answer but stopped when he saw the look on Tigermark’s face. Instead, he stepped backwards and nodded to his larger friend.

"He’s all yours," he said.

Tigermark flicked his cape back, revealing the green fire flickering up along his arms to his shoulders. To his irritation, Cutter Long didn’t react as expected.

In fact, he yawned.

"If that is supposed to intimidate me," the dotted lion said, lazily, "it’s not working."

"It should," Aramis said and shrugged, "There’s enough divine power in that to blast you through every room in this mountain and out through the rockface, Cutter. Give it up and come with us and we ... "

"Save it, little kitten," Cutter growled and narrowed his eyes, "Enough divine power to do such a thing? Well, I have enough divine power to keep the mountain standing and still level the rest of this world if I should wish it."

"Then why don’t you?" Tigermark asked. His voice was cold and tightly controlled.

Cutter got up, shrugging lightly. "Because ruling over a wasteland isn’t much fun."

He approached the two feline invaders. He could feel power rushing through him with every step. It felt like every single hair in his fur ran with powerful electrical currents. His face was contorted in rage.

Tigermark wanted to blast him. He wanted to. He tried to raise his arms, but he couldn’t. He tried to will the divine blast towards Cutter, but to his horror, he realized he couldn’t do that either. Aramis was looking at him, frozen in place, and at that moment, Tigermark understood what was going on.

That statue of a canid warrior they had passed ... so lifelike ... probably had been a real fur at one point. Turned into stone in ages past by whoever wielded the power Cutter Long now had at his disposal.

His feet felt cold. So terribly cold.

"You’ll make nice additions to my collection of art. Don’t worry, you won’t be alone," Cutter said and stood in front of Tigermark, smiling hatefully. "The change takes a while, admittedly. If I turned you into stone instantly, you’d die from shock. This way, you’ll remain conscious."


Aslaug looked at her axe and then at the room. There wasn’t enough room to swing it in the narrow passageways and once they got in between the machinery, the only way she could use it would be in predictable, if powerful, overhead blows. She could use her throwing axes, but they were not weighted to be used in close combat like that. And somehow, she had no doubt she would need to fight.

"Surt stå i det," she grumbled and shook her head.

The Angels looked confused again and she sighed.

"I’m swearing," she explained and shook her head at the weirdness of it.

Sela nodded. "You’re realizing that no matter how powerful your weapons are outside, they are pretty useless in here," she said and gestured towards the longaxe in the equine’s paws.

Aslaug nodded, a bit surprised at Sela’s powers of observation. "That’s right. I won’t be able to swing this effectively in here. I’d hit the walls all the time."

"That leaves you with only one choice," Cindy said, matter-of-factly.

"Yeah, but my franciscas aren’t designed for close-quarter work. They feel weird when swung in close combat."

"And so that isn’t an option. You have another alternative."

Aslaug raised an eyebrow but shrugged. "I suppose I could simply fistfight whatever is out there. Depending on how well armored it is, that could be a pretty futile maneuver though."

Demi groaned and rolled her eyes. "You could trust us to do what we’re supposedly good at!" she said, finding Aslaug’s non-comprehension quite annoying.

Aslaug fell quiet for a moment and looked at the three femmes in front of her, like she was trying to think of something to say. Then finally she nodded. "I guess I have to," she finally said, "Let’s see how well Angels fight then."

Demi nodded. Sela smirked slightly and shrugged. "From what Joe tells me, they’re pretty good at it!"

"I haven’t been impressed so far," Aslaug countered, dryly, "And I’m not referring to you three, so don’t get all defensive on me. Anyway ... on three."

Cindy nodded. "One ..."

"Two ... " Demi continued, checking the edge of her blades.

Sela flicked over her knives in her paws to hold them inverted, smiling grimly. "Three," she said and spun around the corner, followed by her two comrades.

She immediately wished she hadn’t.


"So you see ... you have lost no matter what," Cutter explained as he put a paw on Aramis’ shoulder, walking around him.

He had just explained everything to the two felines. They made a good, quiet audience, now that they couldn’t answer him. He smiled, crookedly, before turning towards his throne. He was feeling a little peckish, and conjuring up something to eat while watching his enemies slowly but surely turn to stone seemed like a pleasant enough way to spend the next hour or two.

Aramis could see Tigermark out of the corner of his eyes. His larger friend was just as frozen in place as he was. His feet and paws had already turned to black, polished, glasslike stone. It wasn’t a swift change, but it was definitely progressing. Slowly but surely.

It didn’t hurt. It was as if someone had turned off his central nervous system, but Aramis knew that he was changing in the exact same way. He was trying to think. Trying very hard to come up with some way of getting out of this, but he couldn’t channel his magic, no matter how hard he tried. Even if he did, he didn’t know the spell needed to reverse this. Quietly, he swore to himself to learn how to if he somehow got out of this pickle.

Cutter had explained what was going on to them. He knew about Aslaug and the Angels, heading further down. He had taken steps to stop them. He had summoned the King’s guards and while they were no doubt confused at suddenly being whisked out of the desert and into the middle of a cavernous mountain interior, they would recover quickly enough. They were the strongest fighters in the realm, armed with the best weapons and clad in the finest armor that Princess Falona’s father could give them. Each and every one of them was a battle-hardened veteran of many campaigns, and each of them were prepared to kill anyone to accomplish their mission.

As Cutter sat down, Aramis realized things were about to get extremely ugly for the four females. Even if they somehow ... against the odds ... managed to defeat the Royal Guard, Cutter could conjure up all manner of foul, magical creatures to finish them off while weakened.

It just seemed to him that Cutter wasn’t quite ... getting it. That somehow, he failed to grasp something. But with his body slowing turning into stone, Aramis found it extremely difficult to think of what that something was.

"I’ll grant you ... " Cutter said as a bunch of large grapes appeared in his paw, " ... you fought better than I had anticipated. You did well to get this far, but it stops here. I’m going to let you watch ... while your friends die. If the King’s soldiers won’t kill them, I’ve got a couple of nice surprises ready for them. With their best fighter wounded, what can they do anyway?"

What was it that didn’t fit ... ?

Aramis tried desperately to concentrate but judging by Tigermark’s appearance, his legs up to his knees and his arms up to his elbows were now made from stone.

He prayed. Without words, hoping that God would hear him anyway, he prayed. He could only guess that Tigermark was doing something similar.

Then it occurred to him what Cutter’s mistake was, and he felt a flicker ... the tiniest spark ... of hope.


Cindy and Demi took up position on either side of Sela. So far, Aslaug stayed put around the corner, waiting for a moment to make a break for the machinery.

"Okay, we’re officially in more trouble than I think we can handle," Cindy said to her friends, under her breath.

"Yep, but we can give it our best shot," Sela answered and flicked a dagger back over in her paw. She looked at the first guard in front of her and grinned. "Hey you...CATCH!"

Launching the dagger with all of her might, it sailed right past the guard. He blinked and looked back towards her. "You missed!" he growled and grasped his sword.

Sela shook her head. "No I didn’t," she said with a snicker and watched as the second guard fell flat on his face, the dagger buried to the hilt in his chest.

A moment later, everything was pandemonium. The angels had no chance if they let the enemy dictate the fight, and they knew it. Grabbing a spare dagger, Sela led the charge, straight into the enemy lines, leaping onto the first guard, slashing at his face while Cindy used the already dead fur next to him as a trampoline, flicking over in the air and coming down in the middle of a group of four canids.

"Hello boys," she chuckled. "I’d ask you to dance, but when I’m done with you, you won’t be able to!"

Demi used the momentary distraction to plant both her long, thin daggers to the hilt in the back of one of the guards Cindy had just landed amongst.

"HEY! Stealing my kills are you!?" her friend complained.

"Unashamedly!" she answered and smiled.

The guards, momentarily stunned by the fury of the attack, recovered their wits and counter-attacked.


Around the corner, Aslaug could hear the sounds of battle. She wanted to go out there and help, but she knew this wasn’t her fight. She could feel the itching sensation in her knuckles and the heightened sense of awareness that came with a battle, and she closed her eyes for just a moment to gather her thoughts.

She heard a most unwholesome gurgle from one of the guards. One she recognized as the sound made by a fur drowning in his own blood. It was always a slightly unnerving sound.

Opening her eyes again, she pushed away from the wall and got ready to make a break for it. All she needed was for the Angels to give her a sign.

"WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR??!" Cindy roared, and Aslaug grinned.

That was exactly what she had been waiting for ... and she swung around the corner and broke into a flat out run. A single guard tried to get in her way and she ducked under his sword as he swung it, rolling. She had no time to stop and play with him. One of the others would have to take care of him.

She reminded herself of what her father had taught her, so many years ago.

That the best warrior was the one who knew when not to fight. Her father had said that. Ulf had said it. Jarl Gunnar had said it...even Tormod, although he hadn’t sounded too convinced. It was a rule the Hird had lived by.

Right now it wasn’t her time to fight, however much she wanted to.

And so she simply ran ...

At least the Angels were giving a fantastic account of themselves. She reminded herself to tell them that once they were done here.


Tigermark could see everything happening to the Angels and to Aslaug. Cutter had conjured up a small, glasslike sphere in front of both him and Aramis in which they could see everything going on.

The dotted lion didn’t seem to need one himself. He didn’t seem too worried either.

Aramis seemed to still be struggling. Tigermark could see the look in his friend’s eyes. They were bloodshot and while he couldn’t move, Tigermark knew Aramis was fighting for his life. As for himself, he waited. He couldn’t move, and struggling might just exhaust him. He had to trust that the others would be able to stop the stoning process and then reverse it. He had to trust them to save him, just for once.

It wasn’t easy for him to do so. In a purely technical sense, he was the best fighter in the group. Aslaug was physically tougher and Tigermark still found it hard to cope with the sheer amount of punishment she could take and still keep going, and if he ever fought her, she would, by virtue of her immortality, be able to wear him down. But until he fell over from exhaustion, she was unlikely to land a solid blow on him. He was too fast and too skilled, and even though the shieldmaiden had a punch that could stop cold a raging rhinoceros, he was still stronger than she was. Aramis was the clever one with all his magic tricks, and Joe usually took care of everything technical. That was the division of labor within the group. Having someone save him was difficult for him, but he had absolutely zero choice in the matter this time.

He sent up another unspoken prayer for the Angels and Aslaug to succeed. If they did, Aramis just might be able to break free of this messy situation and free him in turn, and then Cutter Long would pay dearly.


Aslaug could still hear the fighting going on behind her and it was coming closer. The Angels were hard pressed, falling back towards her. Once or twice she’d heard one of them scream out in pain, and she had no doubt that they were wounded by now. Probably all of them.

She had to finish this. She had to figure out how to turn this machinery off.

But Joe was the one with all the technical know-how, and she tended to just hit things. How was she supposed to know what crank to turn or what lever to pull? There were so damned many of them!

She was standing in what she figured was a central part of the machinery. Huge as it was, there could be a lot of other places of similar importance, but this would be a good place to start if nothing else. Shaking her head, she realized she had absolutely no way of knowing what to do. She knew they had those three boom-balls that Tigermark and Aramis had given them, but while she didn’t argue with Joe’s predeliction towards such weaponry, she disdained it herself and consequently, the Angels were carrying them ... not her. And right now, the Angels were fighting for their lives behind her.

She was about to heft her axe and go relieve them to tell them to blow things up, when she heard a ’psst’ to her left.

She turned, ready for anything, but instead of an enemy, she saw a young lioness, beckoning for her to come closer.

"I’m not your enemy!" she whispered.

Aslaug wasn’t completely convinced but edged closer. "Who are you then?" she asked.

Princess Fallona smiled. "Well, if I’m not your enemy that would make me your friend wouldn’t it?"

"No, it would just make you not be my enemy. There are other options than ’friend’ or ’foe’. Anyway, what’s your name?"

"I’m Princess Fallona," the lioness said, and again urged Aslaug closer. "Please, come with me."

Aslaug’s eyes widened. "So you are the girl we’ve been chasing around after out there on the hot sand??"

The Princess tried to ignore the crass comment and the fact she’d just been labeled a ’girl’...and failed. She frowned and straightened her back. "I’ll have you know I’m the heiress to the throne of my father, and that I..."

"Right now, your father’s throne is a bloody long way away, and we’re all in mortal bloody danger!" the equine muttered, "Look, whatever it is you need me to destroy ... is it big and heavy?"

"Erhm..." the princess started, taken somewhat aback by the way the figure in front of her simply dismissed her social standing so casually. "Well, yes? There are several sarcophagi and some tubes..."

"Great. It would take me all day and ruin my axe ..." Aslaug growled. "SELA. CINDY. DEMI. OVER HERE!" she roared.


Aslaug grinned widely. "THAT’S NO EXCUSE. I’LL TAKE OVER," she called out. Then she looked to the princess again. "They have the means to make everything down there go ’boom’. I’ll stall the royal guards in the meantime."

"My father’s guards?? Are they the ones you’re fighting? I can tell them to stop!" Princess Fallona blurted out.

"With all due bleeding respect, Your Most Imperious Highness, they are not likely to stop killing us just because you tell them to. Last time we ran into them they were not really listening to reason and we had to kill some of them. I sincerely doubt they’ll stop until we’re all dead and if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go demonstrate how I’m not going to cooperate to them!" the shieldmaiden said, nodded to the lioness and ran back towards the fighting.

As she ducked and weaved between the machinery, she could hear the Angels coming towards her.


Aslaug chuckled and slung her long-axe back over her shoulder, grabbing her franciscas, one in each paw. They were oddly balanced for this, but that didn’t matter much. There was no room for the enemy to flank her or use their numbers against her, and wild swings were out of the question anyway. They would have to do in a pinch at least.

Turning a corner, she saw the Angels bounding towards her. Sela was bleeding badly from the right shoulder, but she looked as determined as ever. Both Cindy and Sela had several wounds of their own. Cindy looked like she had taken a blow to the head, and blood was streaming down into her eyes.

"How many did you get?" Aslaug asked as she pressed herself against the nearest machine-block to let the Angels run past her. "Oh, and Princess High-And-Mighty is back there. She’ll show you what to use those boom-things on!"

"The Princess? GREAT!" Demi exclaimed and looked relieved. "Anyway, we took down nine or ten of them. Wounded just as many."

"You did damned good then," Aslaug said and nodded, respectfully. "Now go take care of Cutter’s power supply. I’ll hold them as long as it takes."

Sela’s eyebrows shot up and she actually found herself smiling at the praise. "Thanks...we’ll do that," she said before running on.

Aslaug stepped out into the passage between the machinery again, a throwing axe in each paw. She hunkered down her shoulders a little and waited.

Less than two seconds later, the first Royal Guard came around the corner.


"I must say the standards of the Guard is slipping if three silly females can do that much damage to them," Cutter commented, sounding thoroughly disgusted.

Aramis had seen the whole fight in the small crystal sphere, and it had been extremely bloody and very, very ugly. He was pretty sure he’d have nightmares about it for a good long while, and he wasn’t easily shaken. But the Angels had caused nothing short of a bloodbath on the King’s Guards. Still, however, he had not seen any high ranking officers join the fray. Now that Aslaug had taken over, things were bound to get even uglier. He knew how the equine fought and more than anything, he really wished he could close his eyes, but in his current condition, that wasn’t an option.

Tigermark was almost completely made of stone now. His head and a piece of his chest still remained flesh and blood and Aramis knew the same was true for himself.

It would be over soon, if something drastic didn’t happen.

Cutter smiled lazily. "Neither golems or undead minions seem to work against your equine friend down there. I’ll have to come up with something new and exciting for her," he said.

Even in his weakened state, Aramis could feel the tremendous magical energies released as Cutter began to conjure up something suitable.


"Your Highness, we have to hurry!" Demi wheezed, wiping blood from her face. "We don’t have much time."

Princess Fallona looked torn. She didn’t like the idea that her father’s loyal Guards were getting slaughtered behind her, without her trying to stop it, but she nodded nonetheless and turned around again to show the Angel’s the way.

"It’s down here. There’s a fork in the hallway, but we have to go right. Then we’ll get to the room that I was told you had to destroy."

Demi nodded and looked at her friends. "Here," she said and gave her grenade to Cindy, "Make sure it’s blown up."

"Wha...bu..." Sela said and looked confused, "Where are you going?"

"I’m going back up there to help Aslaug," the skunk said, matter-of-factly.

"Demi, she can’t die! She can hold the hallway for a long, long time!" Cindy protested.

Demi shrugged. "Maybe so. But I’m not leaving her to face all that alone. She needs to understand that we’ve got her back. She needs to understand we’re her friends too."

Sela nodded. "You’re right. And I can’t hold anything with one paw, so I wouldn’t be much help to her, and Cindy’s going to need to lay down fairly soon or she’ll bleed to death. Wrap something around your head though or the blood will obscure your vision."

Cindy nodded and leaned against the wall. She had suffered no single wound that would incapacitate her, but she had been hit a total of twelve times...

Demi nodded and ripped a piece of her clothing off, tying it around her head. It immediately started going red, but she nodded to her friends nonetheless and doubled back.

Sela looked first the princess, then at Cindy. "And then there were three."

"Two," Cindy said and smiled weakly. "I can’t go on ... "

"How bad is it?" Sela asked, worriedly.

The princess looked between the two wounded females and bit her lips. They were trying to stop Cutter Long, despite being wounded. They had risked everything to come here and save her. Absolutely everything.

Normally, she would have expected nothing less. But that was in a previous life. Everything seemed so different now. Things that had once been important were irrellevant now. Spending all that time in Cutter Long’s magic prison and listening to his incessant bragging about his power had done that.

Power ...

She closed her eyes for a moment. Sounds of battle came towards her from behind them, in the direction where they had come from. From time to time, she heard someone shouting.

Power ...

And then it came to her.


"It’s no good unless I use it for good," she said, quietly, mostly to herself.

"Excuse me?" Sela asked, curious and a little impatient. "What isn’t any good?"


"I don’t follow."

Princess Fallona smiled. "No, I’d say you lead, rather than follow," she said, softly. "You don’t have to understand this. The important thing is that I do. You go on. Continue to the room up ahead, where you see sarcophagi and large tubes. Destroy that room. I’ll stay here and help your friend as best I can. Hurry, we probably don’t have more than a few minutes...if that long!"

Sela was about to protest, until she realized there was nothing to protest against. The princess was absolutely right. She had to do this. No one else could. She had to.

Without another word, she grabbed the grenades from Cindy, then bolted down the hallway as fast as her legs would take her.


Cutter was getting tired of the ineptitude of the Royal Guard. Several times he felt sure he saw solid blows land on the equine, yet she fought on like nothing had happened to her. Her armor was in tatters. Surely it couldn’t offer that much protection?

Maybe it was magical armor! Once she was dead, he would have to investigate it to find out.

Yes, no doubt that was it. With the amount of punishment that equine had taken so far, her armor was no doubt heavily ensorcelled. He would claim it for himself, repair it, reforge it and make it even stronger than before. Once she was dead, that is, but that would come quickly enough.

He looked towards his two latest statues-to-be. Barely half their heads were still flesh and blood. Soon, they’d be two cases of disembodied conscience, stored away in stone for all time.

He’d have to find suitable spots to put them in. Somewhere where he could gloat at them.

Getting up from his seat, he approached them both. He could taunt them a little in their last moments of life, just to make his victory suitably sweet and absolute. Normally, that kind of thing would be beneath him, but in this particular case, he’d make an exception. He wanted to gloat.

At that moment ... he felt it.

A powerful mental blow, like someone had pulled his spine out through his back, tied it into a slipknot and yanked his feet through the noose.

As he crumbled to his knees, he could hear a very distant rolling thunder, and a screech of joy.

He realized instantly that something had destroyed something vital in the systems beneath the mountain and he scrambled to get back on his feet. He still had enough power to stop what was going on down there, but he needed to find out what it was first.

Blinking to clear his head from the momentary confusion, he coughed. "What...was that?"

"I could tell you ... but then I’d have to kill you," the voice of Aramis Dagaz said a moment before a lightning bolt slammed into Cutter’s midsection.

As the dotted lion tumbled head over heels, backwards over his throne in a most un-majestic way, Aramis brushed his paws off against one another and growled deep in his throat.

"Oh never mind. I’ll just kill you anyway!" he sneered and summoned up the haste spell he had stored.

Cutter Long didn’t even hit the ground from his tumble before Aramis was over him like a whirlwind, punching, scratching, tearing, ripping ...

He’d never fought like that before, but then again, he’d never been this angry before. He’d been severely pissed off on a number of occasions, but this time it was different. This time he didn’t even try to restrain his rage. He let out the lion-part of him in full and spat and hissed as he extended his claws and tore into Cutter’s face and neck.

Reeling, Cutter tried to fight back. He managed to push the insolent young mage off himself and gain some distance, but he was already bleeding.

"How DARE you?" he roared and extended his own claws. "And how did you get out of the rock?"

"You can’t cage a mage if you don’t concentrate!" Aramis sneered and narrowed his eyes further until they were barely slits. "And you are wasting your time talking!"

With that, he released a blue ball of fire, screaming like a banshee of legend as it burnt its way through the throne between himself and Cutter Long.

The dotted lion took it full in the face and again he was sent sprawling. Aramis was already casting his next spell as his enemy pulled himself back to his feet. Cutter looked sluggish and heavy, Aramis noted.

When he flung the next lightning bolt at his enemy, he expected Cutter to go down, hard.

Instead, the dotted lion swatted the spell aside like an annoying bug.

"You will pay for that! With an ETERNITY of PAIN!" he raged, roaring at the top of his lungs as he launched himself through the air.

Aramis saw it coming, but he had no chance of escaping. Instead, he fell back to the floor, pinned down by Cutter’s muscular bulk. The dotted lion had his claws out and Aramis felt them pierce his skin everywhere they touched. It hurt ... a lot ... but he refused to scream out in pain. He wasn’t going to give Cutter the satisfaction.

"Let ... my ... friend ... go!" he hissed.

Cutter glared at Aramis, locking eyes with the smaller feline. "Or what, kitten? You are in absolutely no position to make demands!"

Aramis didn’t listen. He was already summoning his next spell. This one, he knew, would be the last he ever cast. He had to make it count.


Princess Fallona had torn her dress to make bandages and as far as she could see, she had managed to staunch Cindy’s bleeding. Sela wasn’t back yet, and judging from the explosion and the amount of dust that had come around the corner, the princess didn’t expect her to make it. From the other side, the sounds of fighting seemed to be coming closer. She wasn’t quite sure ... half deaf as she was from the noise from the explosion.

Then the fighting seemed to stop.

She wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but she did know she wasn’t going to let the guards kill Cindy if they came this way. She’d order them to stop ... and if they didn’t, she’d ...


She would fight.

Even if she didn’t really know how to, she’d fight.

She just couldn’t let this brave femme die, and that understanding made her straighten her back a little.

She was a future queen, and this femme’s life was in her hands. Just like all her subjects’ lives would eventually be, figuratively speaking. It was up to her to keep them safe and to make sure they could lead good lives. They weren’t there for her. She, on the other paw, had to be there for them.

"Will she make it?" the equine asked.

Princess Fallona snapped out of her thoughts and looked up, nearly screaming in horror at the sight. The female warrior was cut to ribbons. Bone was showing across her muzzle and she was clearly mortally wounded.

"Y...yes...yes but ... but you?"

Aslaug sank down next to Cindy and nodded. "Good. Then it wasn’t for nothing. Tell her she did good ..."

"I have more bandages. I ha..." the princess started, scrambling to help the equine.

Shaking her head, Aslaug smiled. "I can’t die. But I can’t leave either. This tunnel will collapse soon. Demi will be back in a moment, and she can help you to safety. I’ll ... stay here. I’m too heavy to carry."

"Oh yeah?" Sela’s voice said from behind the princess. "Says who?!"

Coughing up a storm, and covered in dust from head to toe, she stumbled up next to Aslaug, and extended a paw to the equine. "Either you come with us, or we all stay!"

There was genuine warmth in Aslaug’s eyes as she looked up at Sela’s dustcovered face. "Now you’re a warrior ..." she said, "But Cindy needs your help. You’re a team. I’ll be fine."

Sela was about to speak up and protest when she realized Aslaug was growing transparent. For a moment, she felt fear creep up on her, but then she realized that the equine was smiling.

"Say hi to Joe from me..." she said, quietly.

"I will. Now go ... you don’t have much time ..." Aslaug answered ... and was gone.

Sela looked up, just as Demi came around the corner. She was carrying a bundle over her shoulder and she was covered in blood from her fingertips to her waist. It didn’t look like it was her own.

"Come on then, Princess! Help me with Cindy. We’ve got to go. The explosion will make that room come down on top of itself!" she said and got up, starting to haul her unconscious team-mate to her feet.

If all else failed, she’d carry Cindy over her shoulders.

Princess Fallona looked like she’d forgotten how to blink, but she got up and nodded. "Come on, it’s this way!" she said.

She wasn’t even sure how she knew. Somehow, she did though. She probably had the spirits of the ancients to thank for it, she knew. But she did not have time to contemplate. She just had to get out.


Aramis finally released his spell, half a split second before Cutter Long bit his face off.

The dotted lion went flying backwards, the last lightning bolt Aramis had stored lifting him upwards and through the smaller throne, shattering the rock on the way.

As he picked himself off the ground, Aramis realized he’d only bought himself a few seconds of life. But he would fight to the last. He couldn’t give up. Whatever had happened to weaken Cutter, it hadn’t been enough.

It would be over in a second.

Before he could blink, Cutter was back in front of him, his fingers closing tightly around his throat and Aramis choked.

"Who do you think you are, anyway?" the dotted lion sneered, hatefully. "Did you think you could walk in here, in my own lair, the seat of my power...and defeat me? How arrogant can you get?"

"Why don’t you ask yourself that question, Cutter Long?" Tigermark’s voice said.

For the briefest of moments, Aramis saw fear in Cutter’s eyes. For the time it takes to exhale, he felt the dotted lion’s fingers waver around his throat.

Then they let go...

It wasn’t as if Cutter Long had a choice in the matter, either, as he was blasted across the devastated throne room, by a massive bolt of green fire, functioning like a battering ram.

A battering ram extending from Tigermark’s paws.

Cutter went flying. Through the room. Through the massive gates. Through the trophy room, shattering anything he hit on the way out. Through the wall of the hallway beyond. Through the rockface ...

Out ... into free air.

As he crashed into the sand, he was already deeply unconscious.

He was still unconscious when he came to rest almost a hundred feet below the dune he had impacted.

Back in the throne-room, Aramis turned and looked at Tigermark with eyes wide in awe.

"I don’t normally swear, Tiger ... but DAMNED that was some display!"

Tigermark’s eyes were still narrowed. His incisors were showing. His paws were smoldering as he turned his head to look at his young friend.

"His will be done!"


There was nothing else Aramis could say that fit the situation. As the mountain started to rumble, however, he was knocked back to reality.

"Okay, we really need to get a move on. I don’t think this place is going to remain standing much longer!"

Tigermark nodded. "I think you’re right. The others must be making their way out already!"

Aramis closed his eyes for a second, extending his mind to scry for his friends. What he found was not to his liking.

"Aslaug isn’t there," he said, quietly. "Cindy isn’t conscious. They found the princess...and they are already on the way out."

"Isn’t there?" Tigermark asked, raising an eyebrow. "You can’t mean..."

"I mean she isn’t there. We have to get our answers when we find the others. Come on!"

Tigermark nodded and started running for the exit.


Cindy was awake by the time the mountain collapsed. Barely, but at least she was able to help those who tried to get her to safety. Tigermark and Aramis had caught up with them, but so far they hadn’t had a chance to exchange pleasantries, let alone what had happened. They all knew they had to put some distance between themselves and the mountain.

When it came down, the resulting tremors sent them all flying left and right, and the noise had been nothing short of deafening.

But they were safe. And alive.

Sela collapsed to her knees and curled up on herself. Cindy looked like she needed to lie down again before she passed out.

"What IS that thing you’re carrying anyway?" Aramis finally asked, looking at Demi. "It’s...oozing. Wait, do I even WANT to know what that is?"

Demi shrugged and dumped the bundle on the sand, before unceremoniously flopping down next to it. "I thought it was best to bring proof of what I’d done. I’m not sure why. I figured maybe Aslaug wanted to see it but ..."

"What happened to her?" Tigermark asked, crouching by the bundle without opening it.

Demi sighed. "I think she went to the same place as Joe. She ... faded. You know, vanished. Except no one came to pick her up."

"That’s because she isn’t dead. They only come to collect the dead. Remember how she arrived in a pillar of light?" Aramis explained.

Demi nodded.

Aramis shrugged. "I think that was her return ticket. She’ll be back to her old grumpy self in short order. Don’t worry."

"I wanted to show her that I understood," Demi said, quietly.

Sela smiled a little, rolling over on her side. In the distance, the sun was setting. It would be bitterly cold in the desert soon, but until she had recovered her breath and rested a little, she couldn’t walk another step anyway.

"We did show her. All of us," she said. "She told me that I did good."

Aramis looked at the smoking remains of the mountain. "If that is your doing, then I think that’s enough to impress even Aslaug and trust me when I say she doesn’t impress easily."

"What happened to Cutter?" Cindy asked. She sounded like she was drifting.

Tigermark shook his head. "You won’t have to worry about Cutter Long anymore. He’s been taken care of."

Cindy nodded and closed her eyes. Some sleep would be good.

None of her friends had the heart to wake her. They all knew she needed her rest to recover.

"It’ll be cold soon. We need to move," Demi said once she was sure Cindy was asleep. "We can’t let her sleep for too long."

"I’ll carry her," Tigermark said. "We’ll wrap her in my cloak and I’ll carry her for as long as it takes. If we can get back to ... well ... to Farwest ..." he said and felt a bit strange for saying so.

"Without a ride, that won’t be easy," Sela commented and smiled crookedly.

"Nothing ever really is," Aramis answered, "At least not in my experience."

Sela felt like she could sleep for a month, but if she fell asleep now, she’d probably freeze to death. She looked at Tigermark as he opened the bundle on the sand at last.

It contained Duke Leone’s head. Princess Fallona, having been strangely quiet so far, made a little gasp and covered her mouth with her hands.

Tigermark nodded. "Well, at least we don’t have to worry about being hunted like cattle on the way back, I guess. But your father is unlikely to approve of this..." he said, looking at the princess.

She shook her head, slowly. "Probably not. But whether he approves or not doesn’t matter. You saved me, and I’ll protect you."

"Why do I have this nagging feeling that this could turn into another adventure?" Aramis chuckled, looking at Tigermark.

"Heh...not likely. After all, we didn’t save Princess Fallona," Tigermark said with a shrug.

The others all looked at him in quiet bafflement, awaiting an explanation. He stood up and brushed his paws off against one another, looking towards the horizon. Putting his paws on his hips, he was quiet for a moment, before pointing to the distance. "We’ll probably get to that creek where we left Stripes. If that hair-brained poodle has managed to get started on the settlement there, then I doubt we’ll be able to go any further. You and I will get...extracted...once we get there, Aramis. Once Sela, Demi and Cindy are all healthy enough to travel, they’ll be able to take Princess Fallona back."

"You mean...?" Aramis began.

Tigermark nodded. "Yeah. They saved the Princess. Not us."

Demi shook her head and stood up, folding her arms across her chest defiantly. "No way we’d take all the glory for this. That wouldn’t be right!"

Tigermark smiled and patted the skunk’s shoulder. "Why not? The princess can attest to the fact that you deserve it. And now that this ... creature ... is dead," he said and nodded towards Duke Leone’s head, "It seems to me that the royal guard needs new leaders. New recruits too for that matter. I can’t really think of anyone better to protect the princess in the future than you three. Can you, Your Highness?"

He looked towards the lioness, who in turn shook her head slowly.

"No," she said, "I can’t. But what about you then? Will you just ... vanish? Like that equine?"

"Her name is Aslaug. And yes, we will."

"But you deserve to be rewarded too!" the princess protested.

Aramis grinned and looked at Tigermark, before turning towards the princess as well. "We don’t do what we do to get rewarded. We do what we do because it’s the right thing to do."

Nodding slowly, the princess contemplated that for a moment. "As you wish. But at least..." she said and approached the two males.

Tigermark didn’t protest when the princess gave him a hug and kissed his cheek. It was an innocent gesture and he returned the hug warmly.

Aramis didn’t suspect a thing when the princess then continued on to him. He rather expected a similar hug and a kiss on the cheek.

The kiss he got was a lot less innocent though.

For once, Tigermark found it difficult to keep his stoic demeanor up. But at least he turned around.

"I think Joe and Aslaug would tell you two to get a room," he chuckled, "But I’ll settle for saving Aramis by saying we really need to get a move on."

With that, he picked up Cindy as gently as he could. Demi helped wrap her friend in Tigermark’s cloak and Sela picked herself off the ground with some difficulty.

A few moments later, the small, ragged group set out across the dunes.


Cutter Long woke up. He was in a small, underground chamber, on top of a pile of sand. He’d been knocked through the roof of this place, and the sand had spilled in but it hadn’t filled the room completely. He needed to figure out how to get out of here. He could see tables, or possibly large boxes and he figured he might be in some kind of storage facility.

He could feel a strange emptiness inside himself. Like a void. His powers were gone. Drained, burnt away...vanished forever.

Snarling, he swore to himself he’d get even with the blasted tiger for this! He’d make sure all of his enemies paid!

Somewhere in the darkness, something answered his snarl.

"Hrruuuuu..." it wheezed, sounding like wind passing through a hollow tube.

"Who’s there?"

"Grrrr!!" it responded.

It didn’t sound like an animal growl.

Cutter Long narrowed his eyes and saw shambling figures coming towards him.

Then he started backing away. There was a door behind him. Where it led, he had no idea. The main thing was that it led away from here.

As he ran for his life, he realized that waking up the mummies of the desert to kill his enemies might not have been the smartest move he ever made.

The tiger...and all his friends...would pay dearly for this! But for now, all he could do was run. He had no idea where he was or how to get out, but he had to figure that out as he ran.

Behind him, the mummies reached feebly for their escaping prey.