Chapter Eleven

COLD COMFORT

BY Raynflower and Moldred

 

Azreal shivered, tumbling about in the small crate. Enclosed on five sides, it seemed to act more as a wind-trap then block out the breeze. She shuddered with revulsion as her Serval overseer pulled the crate over the snow. Drawing herself tightly into a ball, she stared out at the harsh environment of Hogarth, the ice asteroid. Her Fossa fur was ill-equipped for such conditions

Over the icefield they traveled. It was not actually snowing at present, but the breezes made that which had already fallen dance and twirl. She felt almost as though she were traveling through a very, very low cloud.

"Nice place to visit," she muttered, wondering if the overseer would say anything.

"You better remember your training, Furn," he said, his eyes narrowing at her. "Hogarth is not a pleasant place to be cast out into if you fail to please your master." He seemed to expect no response and she was not about to offer him one.

A moment later her new lodgings came into view, partly obscured by swirling snow mist. It was a low lodge, the roof a curved half-circle. She shuddered. What would the mysterious Sven be like? Her virginity had been kept intact so that he could claim it – he must be someone deserving of special treatment, but why? Would he beat her as the Hyena had? The thought made her shiver. If she didn’t please him, would he hurt her? Would it please him to hurt her?

After all, here there would be no escape – the cold was a successful deterrent against escape and the landscape was so barren and desolate that she would never survive it. She bit her lip, tasting blood. What had she done to deserve the life of a sex slave? Once upon a time there had been so many dreams – so many aspirations. And now what was there? Nothing but a faint hope that she would not be mistreated too harshly.

Without knocking or announcing his presence in any way, the Serval slammed the door open and dragged her inside. Now the heat hit her – a great searing wall of it.

"Sven Bjornston," her overseer called. "I’ve brought you your whore."

There was a long, long pause and no response.

"Look," the Serval bellowed, "if you don’t want her, I’ll have her right here." He cupped his groin with one hand, making a crude thrusting motion. "She won’t mind, will she?"

Azreal merely shuddered in revulsion, but a revulsion that she was starting to become disturbingly used to.

And Sven Bjornston stepped into view.

He was a white Wolf clad in simple attire – as one might be when one lives alone on a desolate asteroid alone. Nothing more then a loose-fitting pair of trousers and a comfortable plaid shirt, hanging open to reveal the thick white fur of his chest. When he saw Azreal and the Serval he sighed.

Azreal was surprised to find herself disappointed – she had expected a rather more impressive reaction. He had after all been stationed alone for a considerable period of time. One might even think he would show some glee at being proffered female companionship.

Instead he just shook his head. "I’ve told them until I’m hoarse in the throat," he said, and his voice was pleasantly deep with the faintest twinge of an accent, "I don’t need no whore to warm my bed."

The Serval grinned at him. "This one’s no whore - she’s special. Fully vested in the arts, but never been fucked. See?" And before she could make a move to cover herself or even realize what was happening, he swung open the cage door. Attached to her collar was a chain, and this he pulled on, forcing her from the case.

She stood before her new master, completely naked but for the pure white collar and wristbands. Her nipples, dark patches against her chocolate-brown fur, stood erect from the cold. When she tried vainly to cover herself, the Serval jerked the chain again.

"So she wears the white," Sven said, a faint trace of irony in his voice, "that fails to truly prove anything. Anyone can wear white."

"She’s as innocent and pure as the driven snow," the Serval replied, "I’ll prove it." He jerked the chain again so suddenly that Azreal stumbled and fell to the ground, feet scrabbling for purchase.

Within a second he sat astride her, one hand holding her chain short and firm, the other drawing open her legs. "Go on, feel her yourself."

Sven rose his eyebrows and stepped forward, kneeling before her. She made a concerted effort to struggle free, but the Serval merely pressed down his weight and held her firmly in place. A moment later she felt the Wolf’s finger prying not-so-gently into her nether regions. She writhed a little, especially when he tried to insert another finger within her, beside the first.

"You’re right," he said after a moment, drawing back and wiping his hand unself-consciously on the Serval’s tunic. "She’s tight as a turtle. I believe they’ve actually found a genuine virgin. Who would’ve thought eh? I thought they were a dying breed."

"They are," the Serval made a vague effort at humour, "natural selection and all that."

Either the quip flew straight over Sven’s head or he deigned not to comment. "Well, I suppose now you’ve come to all the effort of bring her here I might as well keep her. I assume you brought food? They give me precious little of that rot without making me share it with a whore."

"I am NOT a whore," Azreal growled, sick of being treated as a non-sentient being.

"Not yet," the Serval winked, frowning at her. She had been submissive on the trip. Still – she was no longer his concern, let Sven deal with her. "Don’t forget, Whitey boy – fuck her as quick and as hard as possible. Don’t let her forget who’s boss, eh? Oh," he added, "and have fun."

"Yeh, whatever," Sven shrugged, "did you bring food as well?"

"Couple of crates," the Serval replied, "the boys are bringing it over as we speak. I’ll have them dump them just in the door – I’m sure you’re eager to get down to business, eh?" And he rubbed his groin once more.

Sven rolled his eyes, "just be gone with you." He waved his hand dismissively.

"Oh, you are an eager one." The Serval grinned. "Right then – I’ll be on my way then. I’ll leave the cage though – you might need it. This one seems to be a little feisty. Must be the brisk air."

"I am a sentient being," she snapped, "you don’t need to treat me like I’m some sort of pet."

Both of them ignored her. The Serval gave a little nod of his head (a minimalist bow) and marched from the room.

For a moment Fossa and Wolf just stared at one another. Azreal had drawn herself into a crouch, her position hiding much of her body from view.

"Right then," Sven said after the pause had worn thin, "why don’t you make me a coffee?"

Azreal frowned, unsure of this turn of events. "I am not your slave," she growled, "to be commanded to your every whim."

"On the contrare," he snapped in response, "you are my Furn and as such there a certain tasks you are required to perform. Now, all I am asking, at present, is for you to make me a coffee? Or did they not teach you that at whore-school?"

"I can make coffee," she said, sticking her chin out in defiance, "but I am not going to. I am not some ‘pet’ to be Mastered."

"Right." Sven stepped close to her, "sit," he pointed to the bed.

"I’d rather stand," she declared.

"So, to me you are impetulent and rude, yet to Stefan you defer. Interesting." His eyes narrowed, "now sit. I did not ask for them to send you here and I certainly don’t need to put up with this kind of crap. Now sit down." He grasped her chain in one hand, since it still hung from her throat, and dragged her roughly towards the bed. Azreal resisted as best she could, but the Wolf was very strong and the chain was attached to her throat. She found herself losing ground. A moment later he pushed her onto the bed.

She scrabbled across the blankets (which were disheveled as only a bachelor male can leave them) and crouched on the far end, her eyes glowing hatred in his direction.

"You gonna fuck me?" She goaded. It was not an invitation. "Going to rape my virginity from me?"

He frowned. "How dare you imply such a thing? I’m not going to take you against your will." The outrage and fury burned in his words. "You’re a bloody Furn!" He threw a pillow at her, disgusted, and stormed over to the window, staring out over the endless white of the horizon.

Azreal paused in her fuming, staring at him. She was damned if she was going to fuck him – her virginity was currently the only currency she had. Well, her virginity and her stubborn pride. Everything else had been stolen from her – everything but her socks. She regarded Sven for a long moment. He was broad shouldered, lean but muscular, his muscles twitching beneath the plaid shirt.

A crunching, thumping echoed from outside and he turned back to her.

"That," he said, "is Stefan’s boys dropping off my food. If you wish to share of it – ever, you will be lying on that bed, ready and willing when I return." He started to stalk away, but paused and turned back, "and I would just like to remind you – if you think about running, that we are all alone on an ice asteroid. And I very much doubt your pretty striped socks will keep you warm long in a blizzard, yes?"

And with that he stalked from the room, slamming the door behind him so hard that the windows rattled.

Pleased to be alone, Azreal studied the room, searching for places she could stuff herself into. Certainly that would not be a long-term strategy – since there was nowhere she could possibly go. The room was fairly large, although it seemed to act as kitchen, bedroom and living room all together. The door through which Sven had stormed was the entrance-way, and another door at the back probably led to the washroom. There was some sort of computer device in one corner and a telescope propped up in front of the enormous window. Outside it Azreal could see nothing but swirling clouds of white snow-mist that obscured the sky from view. She clambered off the bed and wandered over to the computer, currently showing a screensaver view of swirling, interweaving patterns. She reached out to deactivate the screensaver, her hand almost touching the screen

"Don’t touch that! Back on the bed, Furn!"

Azreal whirled, Sven stood in the doorway, jaws curled back in what resembled a snarl. He looked extremely pissed, and Azreal did not wish to push her luck any further then she had already pushed it. She dropped back but kept the gaze steady. "Why not?"

"I do not have to answer that," he snapped, "back on the bed, wench."

Their gazes warred briefly, Azreal as unwilling to admit submission as the Wolf. This may have been a successful ploy – had Sven not stalked towards her (gaze never faltering) and seized the chain. He drew on it hard, the collar pressing painfully against her throat and making her gag. Azreal stumbled and the Wolf lifted her bodily, depositing her on the bed.

"You will stay there," he said. "Do not move! Right now I need a strong coffee."

Azreal lay in a disheveled heap on the bed, breath rasping in her throat. She scrambled into a crouch. "You hurt me," she challenged.

"I’ll do a lot more to you if you don’t stop behaving like a spoilt brat," he growled, "I did not ask for a companion and I cannot help but wish they had given me one a little more docile. Do not touch my computer."

"How about your telescope?"

"You are here as a Furn," he replied, sounding rather calmer now as he brewed himself an extra strong coffee. "And if I need to, I will put you back in that carry case. Do you want that?"

"Well, not particularly," Azreal admitted. "May I have some coffee? All that choking has made my throat hurt."

Sven sighed and rolled his eyes, preparing a drink for her. He sat on the bed beside her and handed her the cup. The drink had been over-watered. With cold water. Azreal took one sip and almost gagged.

"What are you feeding me? Is this dishwater?"

Sven shrugged.

"You don’t trust me with hot water, do you?" She asked, coming to her own conclusions, "what – are you afraid I’ll throw it in your face?"

A flicker of a smile almost flashed across his muzzle. Almost. "Something like that."

She snorted. "Then you’re smarter then you look."

A frown furrowed his brow. "I shall take that as a compliment."

"If you like." She swirled the watery, luke warm coffee about in the mug, grimacing as she took another sip. "This really is foul," she admitted, "in fact, I am very tempted to throw it in your face just to express my distaste."

"You do and you’ll wish you hadn’t." He replied. There was no trace of humour in his tone, nor a sense of threat. It was nothing more then a fact.

They sipped their brews in silence for a while, Azreal gagging as she forced hers down. After a while Sven took hers from her (still half full) and set it aside with his.

"Right then,’ he said, sounding almost as unenthusiastic as Azreal, "I suppose we’d better get onto it then."

The silence and the coffee (as foul as it was) had lured Azreal into a false sense of security and now she only stared at him foolishly, not understanding what he was implying. Until, that is, his hand flew to his groin and he began to slide his trousers down. Underneath her wore midnight blue satin boxer shorts.

AZREAL'S resolve hardened. She might be naked, but she was not helpless. She crossed her legs, clasping her feet together. He straddled her, his large hands caressing her breasts. His palms were rough, working man’s hands. She shuddered back beneath his touch, used to, as she was, a rather gentler caress. As his hands reached her thighs, inserting one between them and beneath the gentle swell of her pubis, she stirred into action.

Writhing and twisting, she squirmed up the bed, one foot connecting solidly with poor Sven’s groin. He grunted, pulling away as she scrambled up the bed.

"Bitch," he muttered. "You didn’t need to do that – I said I’m not going to rape you."

Azreal merely glared at him. "You’re male," was all she said by way of response.

Sven had clearly had enough. It was bad enough that his daily routine had been disturbed by having a scantily clad female dumped on him – but it was worse that instead of the meek and mild sex slave he had expected (broken and brain-washed) they had chosen to "reward" him with a feisty Fossa. She might be a virgin indeed, but he could not help but think that the reason they had sent him here to this desolate ice asteroid was not to reward him.

But to get her well out of the way.

"Are you ever going to cooperate?" He asked her.

"Not without good reason," she replied. She stretched languorously, and a little arrogantly. Confident, no doubt, that he would not force himself upon her.

Such confidence – and there was none around to witness it if he did.

Sven, however, had no desire to take that which was not given willingly. However, nor was he going to let her away with such insolence. Grasping her by the chain again, he jerked her to her feet. She struggled, baring her teeth and snarling, as he dragged her to the door.

With one hand he slammed the door open and the wall of cold air hit him. Azreal struggled, suddenly realizing what he was intending.

"You are truly a bastard," she snapped, "and I would rather freeze in the snow then fuck you."

He ignored her. "You can wait out there until it has cooled off your temper. Don’t come back in until you’re ready to be submissive." And with that he shoved her out into the snow and slammed the door behind her. He did not lock it – he would not be responsible for her freezing to death in the snow. If her stubborn Civet nature refused to allow her to admit to failure and she did not seek the shelter and the warmth of the lodge, so be it.

Damn foolish, stubborn wench! Were all women like that?

He returned back to his one-room lodgings, and seated himself in his observatory. At least now he would have some peace and quiet. Not that there was much work to actually be done – the white Rabbits would never come.

Outside the window Azreal padded into view, naked but for those striped socks. With her short, tropic-adapted fur, she would be frozen in no time.

She stood there, hugging herself close, and stared at him defiantly, challenging him to go out there and drag her back in, kicking and screaming.

Sven gulped, hardened his heart, and set his eye to the telescope.

Azreal shuddered. She had never been this cold in her life, but at least the wall of the lodging provided some shelter against the driving wind. She had entertained the idea of wandering out into the snow in search of shelter – but the snow-mists rendered everything all but invisible within a few feet. Besides, there was nothing here, nothing but Sven’s pitiful observatory.

She observed him through the glass – so smugly going about her work, leaving her to freeze to death in the snow. Already she was losing feeling in her fingers and her toes. She shivered, short fur standing on end. She would not give in – would not relent.

It was a foolish battle, but she did not care. All she had left was her dignity – her dignity and her virginity. Oh, and her socks. Besides, what purpose was there in her life? Abandoned on a desolate asteroid in the company of a Wolf who wouldn’t let her do anything and was constantly trying to jump her bones? And Stefan… She shuddered as she remembered the Serval. He would be back, she was sure, and once Sven claimed her virginity (as he would were she to relent) then there would be nothing stopping Stefan from fucking her – nothing but Sven that was. And Sven would likely be glad to be rid of her.

Cold coffee indeed!

Although at this present point in time, even luke-warm coffee would be welcome relief against the cold chill. She shivered, her fur making a desperate attempt to keep her delicate form warm. It failed – Fossa were evolved for much warmer climes. Already the feeling crept from her fingers and toes – devoured by the frigid air. Inside his heated sanctuary, Sven would be waiting for her to admit defeat and crawl inside. But she could not admit defeat – to escape from the bitter cold would be betraying herself, handing over her dignity, her pride – the only commodities she had left, to him on a gilded platter. She would be that platter.

No, she would not succumb to that – better to die out here in the cold.

Around her the snow-mist drifted on currents of wind. Hogarth might be little more then an asteroid, but it was large enough to sustain a breathable, albeit frigid, atmosphere. Every breath seared her lungs – as though she were inhaling shards of ice.

As the cold began to take its toll, dark spots materialized around the edges of her vision, tiny dancing faeries of black. Entranced, she reached out – trying to touch one, but it shattered into nothingness. Furiously she blinked, only to find that her eyelids were frozen and she could not close her eyes. Wiping one hand across her eyes, she brushed them away, only to find her hand beaded with spots of blood.

Her shivering, now almost uncontrollable, gave way to stillness. It no longer seemed so cold. A great peace descended on her, a great white blanket.

And with the serenity descending, she saw a figure, stepping from the snow-mist and towards her. It took a moment for her to discern the shape for it was not so much a person, but more the snow-mist taking the form of a furson. A sleek creature, fur as glistening as white as the landscape and completely insubstantial.

Azreal reached out her hand, and accepted that of the creature in the snow. Her fingers found no resistance, and she stumbled forward and into oblivion.

She was enclosed in a comforting nest, the whirring of the fans in the vent below singing in harmony. Clutched tightly to her chest was a much crumpled paper bag. Within it lay the fruits of her latest raid – a couple of apples, one too hard, the other tending towards the squishy; loaves of heavy traveling bread; a handful of cookies, some still contained within their plastic encasements. She scrambled, on one hand and two knees, through the air-ducts. The guards never checked the ventilation system and when the ship lay supine there was little risk of her getting crushed or chop-sued.

She paused, reaching the entrance, her ears searching the air for any sounds. There was none – nothing but the soft breathing of someone sleeping. Silently, she slid open the duct, listening once again.

Silence.

She dropped to the floor, hugging her prize close to her chest. The hardest part of the raid lay ahead of her – the escape.

The entranceway lay only a few feet away, door closed against the outside environment. Young Stephanie snorted in disdain – they came, proffering help and assistance and then sealed themselves away in their metal cocoon. They’d come too late to save her mother. She felt no shame at stealing their food. Her mother had died. Tears sprang to the corners of her eyes as the memory lay fresh upon her mind, once more. She could not let it distract her. At this point, any distraction could be fatal. The door was only a few feet away, the button a tempting green glow in the twilight lighting. Her pawpads fell silent against the floor, and she reached up, ears twitching as she again sought the silence for any noise.

Nothing stirred.

She pressed the button, tensing for the familiar low "whoosh" of the door opening. It never came.

Instead, the door did not open.

Perplexed and with fear flitting in her heart, she pressed the button again. Still nothing.

Maybe the door was jammed? She had entered it easily enough, however. Her hand flew to the small backpack she carried, and the device within. It was a remote control for the door, and she had swiped it from the Hedgehog earlier, when he had cast it aside to take a quick swim. He had been accused of carelessness at losing such an important piece of equipment. She pressed the button on it.

Still, the door remained firmly closed.

Panic flared in her chest. She was caught.

"What have we here?" Her panic had distracted her – she had failed to hear the footsteps. Clasping the paper bag to her chest as though it were a protective talisman, she turned to face her fate.

A strange Furr frowned down at her. His muzzle was long, equine, and short horns adorned his forehead. Stripes ringed his forearms and his pelt was a rich chestnut brown. She had seen glimpses of him earlier, of course, as he tended to her people, but never this close. She pressed herself up against the door, feverently pressing the remote in the desperate hope that the door would "swoosh" open.

"I’m not going to hurt you," he continued. "I an Doctor Long and I’m here to help you and your people." His brow furrowed. "Your name is Stephanie, yes?"

She nodded, "how do you know?"

He smiled and reached out a hand to her. There was only kindness in his expression and in his words. "There is someone here who would very much like to meet you. Your Aunt – Doctor Stephanie Foster."

"Class – I would like to introduce you to our new student, Stephanie Foster."

Stephanie stood before the class, feeling exposed and naked (although she was fully clad). All their eyes were upon her, judging her. She shuffled a little.

"Hello Stephanie," the class chimed in unison. Their voices sounded so fake, so forced. A feline girl in glasses caught her eye, and smiled shyly at her in greeting. Everyone else just stared and judged.

"Hi everyone," Stephanie responded, her voice shaking a little. She was not used to being the centre of attention.

One of the other girls, a small and delicate Vulpine with enormous ears, waved one of her hands in the air. "Miss Campbell?"

"Yes Franny?"

"I’ll show Stephanie around today, if you want me to."

"Franny’s so much a nif she has to latch onto the new kid," a voice piped up from the back.

Franny turned and poked out her tongue at the mocker, who laughed uproariously.

Miss Campbell slammed her ruler on the table, loud enough to make Stephanie jump. "That’s a grand idea, Francine; Jeremy – save that sort of behaviour for outside of school hours, yes? Stephanie, you can go and sit with Fran."

Glad to move away from the spotlight, Stephanie slunk into place beside Francine.

And the class returned their attention back to their books.

Lunchtime was a different kind of Hell for Stephanie. As she stood in queue in the cafeteria, awaiting her spaghetti, meatballs and side dish of cheese, she could not help but feel that, once again, attention was focused on her.

"So, Stephanie," a Raccoon lad stepped up beside her, "I hear some say you were from one of those refugee camps. Is that true?"

He seemed sincere, and Stephanie was naïve enough to answer truthfully. "I was," she replied, "in Grazland. Now I live with my Aunt."

"Ah," he said, "that’s why you talk funny then."

"I don’t talk funny." Stephanie replied, indignantly.

"Sure you do," the Raccoon continued, "you roll your ‘r’s and commit similar atrocities to the other letters too. I don’t see why they should let refugees into our school. Your parents were probably like farmers or something."

It was the first time Stephanie had experienced such class-ism. "What’s wrong with being a farmer?" She asked. "And for your information, my father was a book-binder. My Aunt," she added, "is a physicist."

"A book binder," the Raccoon snorted. "My father is a security officer for the government. He’s actually important. We don’t need or want your sort around here."

*What is my sort?* Stephanie wondered to herself. She did not voice the words out loud. She feared the answer.

"Excuse me," Franny tapped the Raccoon on the shoulder. "We don’t need, or want, your sort around here either, so get out of my fur before I have to force you to."

The Raccoon snorted. "You and whose army, tiny?"

Fran bared her teeth. "I don’t need no army, Ricky, and you well know it. So leave my friend alone, okay? Her kind is much preferable to you superiority complex rodents any day."

"Hey," Ricky growled, "I’m not a rodent."

Franny shrugged, "then stop acting like one, rat-boy." Her ears were beginning to flatten dangerously.

"Children," one of the cooks snapped, suddenly noticing the argument, "break it up, okay? Don’t force me to take the ladle to you."

Ricky narrowed his eyes. "I’ll see the both of you later," he growled, almost beneath his breath, and turning on his heel, stalked away.

"Aww," Franny called after him, "you’re so cute when you’re angry, Ricky!"

"Do you want food or not?" The cook snapped, "cos if you don’t, stop holding up the line, okay?"

"No, that’s fine, we want food." Stephanie replied hurriedly. Since living the refugee camp, the Fossa’s appetite had known no boundaries. She had become a voracious eater, but (much to her Aunt’s relief) did not seem to be putting on much weight. Indeed, the increased diet had done wonders to her figure – in Grazland she had been scrawny, but here she was starting to fill out nicely and more resemble the woman she would one day become.

Francine watched as she encouraged the cook to pile her plate high with spaghetti. "Are you really going to eat all that?" She asked.

"Probably," Stephanie replied. "I’ve spent so long never having enough to eat, that now I have to make up for lost time."

They took a seat in the corner, Francine picking listlessly at her noodles, and Stephanie polishing off her plate with speed and dexterity.

"You know," Franny commented, twirling noodles around her fork, "we’re supposedly an upmarket school – you’d think they’d feed us half decent food."

Stephanie snorted, lowering her fork. "If you think this is only half decent, try living on nothing but dried rations boiled in water." She shuddered, "because that’s what I mostly ate for my whole life. Aside from the biscuits and bread I acquired from the guards, of course."

"What’s it like?" Franny asked, "living in a refugee camp, I mean?"

"Not nice, there’s never enough food and it’s so cold at night that you all have to huddle together in the same bed for warmth. My father got sick and died – they were working him too hard. Then my mother got sick too. She also died." She shoveled a meatball into her mouth. Everything she said had been matter-of-fact. Whilst she missed her parents mightily and whilst the grief still rested heavy on her heart, and always would – she had accepted their deaths. Growing up in the camp, death had been a part of life. In the winter months, the coughing had echoed throughout the barracks at night, and there were so many furrs that just could no longer get out of bed in the mornings. It had happened to her mother.

"That’s pretty horrible," Franny replied. "You poor thing."

"What’s pretty horrible?" Another girl had materialized beside the table. Stephanie recognized her as the feline girl that had smiled at her earlier.

"Step's past," Franny answered, "hi Jules, have a seat."

"Hi Stephanie," the girl said shyly, "I’m Julie. How are you finding North Parklands?"

"Fine," Stephanie replied. She was about to say more when something wet spuh-latted across the back of her head. Raucous laughter rose from behind her. She turned, to see Ricky and his three friends – a Weasel, a Chinchilla and a Coyote, falling over themselves with laughter. The icky and sticky and unpleasant gloop dripped along her hair and down her back.

"Go back to where you came from, refugee-scum." The Raccoon shouted, banging his fork against his plate for added effect. "We don’t need your like tainting our school."

"Ignore him," Julie growled. "He’s a loud mouth and a bully. If you ignore him, he’ll get bored. Eventually."

"Do you know what I would like to do?" Franny snarled, "I’d like to, just for once, show him I’m not just a weak little Fox. But he always hangs around with William, Carla and David, and finishing those three off would take so long that the teachers would get wind of it and stop me." She slammed her fork hard against her plate, the resulting "clang" making Stephanie jump.

"Listen to me, Ricky!" She shouted, "one day, you’ll get yours, you filthy rat."

Her retort was met with raucous laughter, not only from Ricky and his friends, but from the other students, all of whom were watching and listening, intrigued at the entertainment playing out before them. A meatball scythed through the air, winging Franny’s ear. She yelped in surprise, and the laughter rose.

"Is it always like this?" Stephanie whispered at Julie.

"Unfortunately, yes. Ricky lives to make others lives a misery. Franny, as you may have noticed, has the bad habit of jumping to the bait. Maybe if she would just sit down and keep her mouth shut, he would leave her – and us, alone. But she can’t, and thus is further humiliated."

"I think what we have to do," Stephanie replied, "is teach Ricky a lesson he will never forget."

And so the plotting began.

Sven peered through the snow-mist. It was certainly getting thick out there – too thick for his telescope to be effectual. That was the problem – the cloaking mist of Hogarth was so roiling it could cover all sorts of intruders. Not that he had really been concentrating on the skies for the last twenty minutes. No – his attention had been entirely diverted by the girl in the snow.

It was not that he cared for her, she was an annoyance more then anything, a distraction and something of a pest. No, it was more guilt gnawing away at him. If she died, he would be responsible. Her life was in his hands.

But that was a ridiculous thought – her life was in her hands. She knew the door was not locked, she knew that if she so chose she could push open the door and walk back into the warmth of his lodge. It was only her stubborn nature that kept her out there, where she would surely freeze to death within the hour.

He watched her sway, so cold that she barely shivered anymore. He wondered how she remained on her feet. Her bones must be numb with cold – maybe that was what held her upright?

Could he just sit there and watch her die?

Sven sighed. She was a right proper little annoyance and it would be decidedly easier for him were she just to cease to exist. But then again – she was a furson and he could not condone her to death, even of her own stupidity.

He stood up and brewed the kettle.

When he returned to the window she had fallen to her knees, her arms reaching upwards as though to take the hands of someone standing above her. There was a certain glazed appearance to her eyes, as though she were staring at something that only she could see.

"Stupid bitch," Sven muttered, "don’t throw your life away over something so meaningless, come back into the warmth. I’ll look after you."

It took him a moment to realize what he has said. He did not want to have to look after her. It was difficult enough, on this frozen planet, looking after himself. Wasn’t there such a thing as Natural Selection – survival of the smartest? Waiting in the snow for rescue that would never come, now that was smart. But then he had to consider what was going through her head. Taking from who knows what sort of life, and cast into that of a sex slave – trained to please men (and maybe women as well) but never allowed to actually put that training into action. And why not? Because she had to protect the only commodity she had. Sven had heard the rumours – he knew only too well what happened to the Furns branded as "whores", those that were so loose before being drafted that nothing anyone could do to them afterwards would have any effect. Being passed from soldier to soldier; crawling around on the dirty floors of dormitories and performing multiple fellatio on groups of men. Maybe some enjoyed it, but Sven could not help but think that the shame alone would be enough to kill one inside. Maybe surrendering oneself into the ice cold bosom of death was a welcome release?

He shuddered at the thought, perhaps there was some way to settle this without anyone getting hurt. With a deep resigned sigh, he pushed open the door and stepped outside, just in time to see Azreal topple face down and into the snow.

Julie’s tree house was a work of craftsmanship. It had been built by her uncle and looked almost as though it were a part of the tree. Sometimes, when it was sunny, Azreal liked to stretch across the tree branch, the bark rough and reassuring even through her clothing. Tonight, however, it was raining, great globules of water splashing against the tin roof above them.

The three girls sat in a circle, their forms illuminated by the lantern that hung hanging from the ceiling. Between them lay a large piece of parchment, the corners weighed down with stones. Upon the paper, a carefully drawn pentagram was inscribed in black crayon.

Ricky’s mocking of the girls had not declined in the past three weeks. If anything, it had got much, much worse. Somehow he had found out about the death of Stephanie’s parents and instead of being sympathetic, had taken it upon himself to make her feel responsible. Continuous gibes about "the girl that wore her parents into sickness and death," could not help but stick – even if Stephanie knew that they were blatant untruths. It had been hard for her parents, trying to raise her as well as feed themselves, but it was not as if she hadn’t done her best – "acquiring" food from the guards to help them, adding wild-growing herbs and grasses to the dry rations, in the hope of making them more nourishing and tastier… If it were anyone’s fault, it was that of the Government, however it was impossible to tell Ricky that.

When he found out she had stolen food, matters had declined further. His friends would make a show of patting their pockets whenever Stephanie was around, commenting loudly on how they hoped she had not managed to somehow remove everything from their person without even coming near them. Other students started looking at her funny, and then one day she had found a necklace in her locker.

It had belonged to Diana – one of her classmates, and the girl had been looking for it all day, bemoaning its loss. Luckily for Stephanie she had found it before anyone else, and managed to palm it. She was almost as good at palming things as squeezing into small places. Diana had found it a short while later – the clasp had broken and it had rolled partly beneath the radiator. She had been relieved, but Stephanie even more-so. The look on Ricky’s face, whilst quickly masked, was priceless.

"Do you think it’s going to work?" Julie asked, glancing across at Francine.

The Fennec girl smiled, "who knows? But it will be fun finding out, won’t it just?" She patted a heavy book with wooden covers. "You have the ingredients?"

"I have his hair," Stephanie grinned, "I stole it in chemistry, as he leaned over the microscope. He didn’t even notice. He was too absorbed in watching cell-sex. How about you guys?"

Francine shuddered, "I got the sacrifice," she said. Although I feel kinda cruel about killing it." She drew a shoebox from her duffel bag. Something fluttered against the side. Something both fragile and delicate.

"And I’ve got the doll," Julie added, "I’ve been working on it all day." It was a white cloth doll, fairly basic with a flat muzzle and small ears. It did not look at all like Ricky, aside from the striped tail. That, apparently, did not matter. Stephanie took the doll and stitched the hair to its head, using the black cotton specified by Fran’s spellbook.

"Where did you get that book anyway?" She asked, peering curiously at the volume. It was an ancient book of gypsy magic – such things were rather frowned upon by the Government.

Franny smiled, "I found it in my uncle’s attic, buried beneath a pile of smelly old clothes. I reckon he meant to destroy it, cos if he’d been caught with it, he’d be sent to prison or worse, so it was safest for him if I took it off his hands."

"And what if we get caught with it?"

"We’re just kids," Franny replied, "they can’t throw us in prison and we can always claim we didn’t know better."

"I think it’ll be best if we don’t get caught at all," Julie said, very quietly.

"Of course we won’t get caught," Franny replied, "no one's gonna link anything to us. It’s a simple spell and its not as though he’ll even know he’s enchanted." She thrust the cardboard box into Stephanie’s hands. "You’ll have to do it – it has to be done at the same time as the words are being read and I can’t do both at once."

Stephanie set the box before her, paling slightly. "I have to do it? Why can’t I read and you do it?"

"’Cos it’s my book," Francine replied, with typical teenage logic.

"Don’t look at me," Julie replied, "killing goes against my religion."

"What religion?"

The Ocelot coughed and looked away.

"Oh very well," Stephanie replied, "I’ll kill the poor thing." Her hands were shaking as she took the box into her lap. The bird scrabbled within, frantically seeking its escape. She dreaded what she must do, but memories of the torment Ricky was laying upon her spurred her into action.

"Are you ready?" Francine asked.

Stephanie nodded, she didn’t trust her voice.

"Very well then, light the candles Julie and place the doll in the pentagram." Julie silently obeyed. As the candles sprang to life, Francine extinguished the lantern, and darkness fell upon the treehouse.

Outside, lightning slashed the sky a vivid golden-white. The rumble of thunder rolled overhead, chasing the light’s tail. That in itself seemed omen enough.

For a moment the girls sat in stunned silence, and then Fran began reading the text. She read carefully, pronouncing each word phonetically.

"Eshkaratu notabilium malifaecium," she chanted, "eshkaratu oshapatu tria dibolisia malkov." The words were meaningless to their ears, but there was something unnerving about them, perhaps even more-so by the foreign factor. Outside it seemed to get darker, as though all light was blocked from the sky. Stephanie knew that clouds had probably just covered the moon, but that did not stop the shiver dancing down her spine. Inside the box the bird scrabbled harder, wings flailing, as though it sensed its doom encroaching.

Francine nodded at Stephanie – the signal.

Hands shaking, Stephanie opened the box enough to insert them, grasping the bird in her grip. She withdrew it – one wing flapping free. A canary, nothing more then a gentle songbird, it still made a concerted effort at biting through her fingers. Against her hand she could feel its tiny heart flitting. It was so small, so delicate. She only had to tighten her grip to squeeze the life from its fragile body.

"Notorato!" Francine finished, waving her hands in the air. It was time for the blood sacrifice.

All she had to do was tighten her grip, to snap the tiny bones in the bird’s neck. But she hesitated. She held its life in her hands – could she take it?

She did not think she could.

An errant gust of wind blew through the treehouse, snuffing the lights from the candles.

Darkness descended, violently.

The three girls gasped simultaneously. The bird scrabbled free from Stephanie’s grasp, flapping manic and loud in the darkness. There was a "bang" so loud that it made the small treehouse shake. Julie squealed and Stephanie sat there, rocking back and forth.

What had they done?

A moment later, light flooded the treehouse – Francine, keeping her cool at all costs, had relit the lantern.

The canary lay dead in the middle of the pentagram. Its neck was twisted unnaturally and its wings were tangled and splayed, seeking only one thing – escape.

In only a few short strides Sven was by AZREAL'S side, scooping her frail form from the ground before he even realized what he was doing. She was cold – so cold, an icy chill against his chest. The cold stung his flesh, even through his thick Arctic fur. How had she lasted so long? Her with her thin tropics pelt?

No matter how irritating she was, no matter how much he resented her presence, he could not leave her to die in the snow. Even if it meant he admitted defeat, he would not do it. What sort of game was that? A game that left her fending off death and him safe and warm?

No game he was willing to play.

He carried her inside, hoping the sudden rush of heat did not prove too much for her. She was not even shivering, and for a moment there he worried she might already be dead. Perhaps the cold had done its dastardly work? But no – her pulse still fluttered against his hand. She was alive – but for how long?

He placed her on the bed and regarded her for a moment. How small she looked - how vulnerable and innocent. He could not, would not keep her. As soon as Stefan returned with supplies, he would send her back to the institute. Furn or not, he would not have her here, where she would cause trouble and ultimately get herself killed. And on the other paw, he would not be the one responsible for ripping from her the only thing left to her. Well, that and those striped socks. He stared at her candy-stripe clad feet for a moment. Were all Furns sent off to their duty wearing nothing but a collar and socks? Or was it just the Authority’s way of keeping her warm on this frigid ice asteroid? That was typical Authority thinking, that was. The same sort of thinking that had him stationed on a desolate ice planet undertaking an ultimately pointless and rather stupid mission. Drawing a blanket to cover that fragile form, he then set the kettle to brewing once more.

Returning to her, he gazed upon her supine form. Her lips were blue, here eyelids flecked with moisture droplets – melted ice that had once hold them frozen shut. Beneath her striped socks, her feet were as cold as ice blocks. There was one surefire way to warm her up.

Entering the small but well-equipped bathroom, he drew a bath, keeping the water warm but not hot (he did not want to shock her system, after all). Scooping her up once more, he placed her gently in the water. She sighed softly and her eyelids flickered for a moment, but she did not awaken. He eased off her socks, noting how her toes beneath were tinged with blue, beneath the thin fur and on the pads. She stirred further, making small whimpering noises, as he began massaging life back into her feet.

Three days after the "ceremony", Stephanie arrived at school to find that a dark pallor had descended – at least in her classroom. Ricky’s friend Carla sobbed quietly in the corner, whilst the teacher tried vainly to comfort her. The other students sat at their desks, quiet and subdued. This in itself was something of an unusual occurrence.

And Ricky was nowhere to be seen.

"What happened?" Stephanie asked, sliding into her desk beside Francine.

The Fennec girl looked pale, dark circles shadowing her eyes. "Ricky’s had an accident," she said.

Stephanie’s heart flitted in fear – and excitement. "What sort of accident?" As much as she loathed the Raccoon, she hoped nothing too terrible had happened to him. Bad luck was all they had wanted… Punishment due for torment incurred upon them. It had been three days since they had attempted the spell, three days in which life had continued more-or-less as usual. Stephanie had all but decided the spell had not worked. Now she began to wonder.

"Apparently he came home from school last night to find that he had lost his house key. Did you know Ricky was a latch-key kid? His parents are so busy in whatever it is they do, they don’t often come home until well after dark. So he couldn’t get into his house and decided to squeeze in through one of their basement windows which he could pry open. Or something like that," Francine shrugged. "Anyhow, he was partway through prying the window open when he slipped and fell straight through it. Muzzle first. I’ve heard he’s been cut up pretty bad. What makes it even worse is that he lay there, unconscious in a puddle of his own blood for hours. His parents came home really late and when they finally found him, he was half-dead from blood loss. Looks like a piece of glass came real close to slicing open his jugular."

Stephanie shuddered. "Do you think?" She let the question trail off, aware that speaking it aloud could condemn her.

"I don’t know. Maybe. Where’s the doll?"

"It’s still in the treehouse, we put it in the tea chest, remember?"

Francine nodded. "Good. Maybe we should destroy it."

"Destroy it? You mean set it on fire or something? Cos…" she lowered her voice, "what happens if that makes things even worse for Ricky? I mean, I don’t want him to die!"

At that Fran laughed, which made many of her classmates turn and stare, frowning. She quickly turned it into a cough. "I don’t think jokes are really appropriate about right now, Steph," she said, for the benefit of the other students. "Nothing like that," she added in a low whisper, "you only have to remove the hair from it. ‘Sides, it’s only coincidence – it’s got to be, we never completed the," she glanced around at her fellow students, "’assignment’ properly. Not a drop of blood was spilt."

But Stephanie could not forget the crumpled shape of the canary, spread-eagled across the pentagram. Was that just coincidence? She was beginning to hope so.

"Don’t fret," Francine continued, "I’ll meet you at Julie’s after school."

Azreal continued to whimper and began flailing, splashing water about the room and almost kicking the Wolf in the face. Sven jumped back, startled. What was going through her head? Was she dreaming? Her eyes sprang open, and for a moment she stared directly at him. No – he realized, not at him, but through him. She was plainly in some sort of trance. Had the snow-mist stolen her senses? He chuckled dryly at that – as if she had much in the way of senses to begin with.

"Azreal?" He called, clasping her shoulders and shaking her gently, attempting to shake her back to reality.

She snarled, lashing out at him with one hand, claws unfurled. Her claw caught the underside of his arm and tore a gash through the white fur. Recoiling, he grasped his wrist tightly with the other hand. Was she bewitched?

No, of course not – Sven knew better then to believe in that sort of superstitious nonsense. The cold had clearly broken down the defenses of her mind. It was highly likely that she was just experiencing extremely vivid and disturbing dreams.

After a moment she calmed down, and he once again took one foot-paw in his hands and tried to return life to the frigid flesh.

She was the first to reach Julie’s place – Julie was running an errand for her parents and Francine had to drop home and pick up something en route. As she approached the treehouse, Stephanie could almost sense that something was wrong. A strange scent clung to the stepladder. She scrambled up it, to find Carla standing before the open tea chest, clutching the Ricky-doll in one hand. Her eyes burned as she faced the Fossa.

"Witch." She spat, "this is Ricky – isn’t it? You’re the one who caused his ‘accident’. You’ve always hated him, always hated us. Just because you’re nothing but refugee-trash."

Stephanie could not deny it. "You do realize you’re trespassing on private property," she pointed out, keeping her voice steady. What was going to happen to them now? Would Carla go to the authorities and have them arrested? She was just greatly relieved that they had buried the dead bird and the book and burned the paper. At least they would not be taken away for possession of illegal books. The doll alone was condemning enough.

Carla wasn’t really paying attention. "Do you know what you’ve done to poor, sweet Ricky?" She asked, shaking the doll in a fashion that could not be healthy for ‘poor, sweet Ricky’. "He’s so cut up it would take years of reconstructive surgery to restore his handsome face. And it’s all your fault – you and your three witch-bitch friends."

"You can’t prove anything," Stephanie replied, a little more calm now, "it’s just a ragdoll – it doesn’t even really look like a Raccoon. It could be a Lemur or a Cacomistle or even a Cat. Julie made it as a plaything for her little cousin."

"Then why is it hidden in a box?" Carla was starting to sound less sure of herself now.

"It wasn’t hidden," Stephanie pointed out. "She put it away there to keep it safe. You know how nosy kids can be, and her cousin’s coming to visit tomorrow. Don’t you think that maybe you’ve jumped to rather a few over-the-top conclusions, based on no proof, whatsoever?"

The Coyote girl bit her lip, not sure what to say, but clearly embarrassed by the whole affair.

"And you’re still trespassing," the Fossa pushed her advantage, "which I seem to remember is a crime – whereas making soft-toys for your relatives is not. At least not where I come from. I may be a bit backward, not growing up in your sophisticated cliques," she hoped Carla could recognize the sarcasm there, "but I very much doubt the construction of toys is criminal."

She wondered if Carla was about to cry. Poor girl. She was such a wimp without Ricky here to stand by her and back her up. Stephanie snorted. Poor girl indeed – Carla was nothing but a spoilt, stuck up bitch.

"I’ll tell you what – if you don’t spoil the surprise by telling Julie’s cousin, or anyone else for that matter, I won’t tell anyone that you broke into Julie’s treehouse and sorted through her stuff, okay?"

Carla frowned for a moment, as though aware that something was amiss with such a promise. Then she shrugged. It would probably be too embarrassing for her to have to admit to thinking such things, at any rate. "Okay, whatever," she replied. She pushed past Stephanie, attempting to make good her escape.

"Excuse me," Stephanie coughed, "I think Julie would be very upset if you stole her sister’s toy, wouldn’t she?"

Carla stared at the doll in her hand as though she had forgotten it was there. After a moment of deep, ponderous thought, she shoved the doll into Stephanie’s hands, scrambled down the ladder and disappeared down the street.

Stephanie stared at the doll in her hands for a long moment, and then leaned against the wall, easing herself into a sitting position with a great sigh of relief. That had been rather too close for comfort.

"Azreal?" Sven waved his hand in front of her eyes, trying to incite a blink. Her eyes were still glazed over. "Are you still in there?"

She blinked – once, twice, and then a third time, holding her eyes shut for what felt like eternity. When she opened her eyes again, clarity shone in them. Clarity – and then outrage.

"Get your filthy paws off me!" She shrieked, her voice near hysterical. Sven jumped back as though burned. Her hallucinations had clearly not helped her mood.

"Very well then," he said. "It will please you to know that I have made a decision – as soon as the supply ship returns, a week from today, it shall depart with you on it. How does that sound?"

Azreal stared at him, as though not believing his words, then she shook her head and turned her face away. "You can’t send me back there," she said, "you saw the way that creepy Serval eyed me up, like he wanted to rip or my clothes off and rape me on the spot. You can’t send me back – I won damnit!"

Sven rose his eyebrows. "So what do you want?"

"I want to be treated like a sapient being and not a sex slave," Azreal replied, her eyes meeting his without shame or any sign of submission. "You brought me in from the cold, didn’t you." It was not a question. "I wish you hadn’t. Better to sink into oblivion out there then to be treated like nothing more then a pet or an annoyance in here."

"And do you know what I want?" Sven asked, standing before her, hands on his hips, his head cocked on one side. "I want to stop being treated as though I’m some sort of malicious overlord that would rape you and throw you out in the snow to starve or freeze. If you stop behaving like a child for five minutes, I believe we can come to some sort of agreement."

Azreal was biting back a sharp retort. She would be a hard one to tame, he decided. Even the snow could not cool down her temper. Eventually she won the war against herself. "Very well then. You don’t try to force me into sex, and I’ll try not to make your life miserable."

"Good," Sven said, not allowing his face to show his relief. He proffered his hand to her. "So truce?"

She accepted it, still dripping wet. "Truce."

"Right then," he said, "well, I suggest you hop out of the bath now and we can start on preparing dinner."

She opened her mouth, no doubt to complain.

He interrupted without giving her the chance, "I may not be treating you like a slave anymore, but I do expect you to do your share of the housework. If you don’t pull your weight, then you will really be leaving on the next supply ship."

She looked chastised at his scolding. "I was only going to ask it you had something I could wear," she snapped, "I don’t want you thinking any naughty thoughts, after all."

"Oh," he replied and sheepishly handed her his bathrobe.

Azreal wrapped the bathrobe about her small form. It was too long, the hem trailing on the ground, but at least she was no longer naked. She cast a glance at her treasured socks – the only possession she still owned. They hung over the towel railing, dripping listlessly into the bathtub. It would be foolish for her to put them on, but she felt so vulnerable without them. She would have to learn to face such fears at some time or another. Plus dying from hypothermia once she had achieved an actual success was not a desirable end to meet. She sighed, tying the bathrobe firmly shut. So what if Sven had already seen her naked? That didn’t mean she should continue to display her assets to all and sundry! She stepped out into the main living area, noticing how weak her legs were. The cold numbness residing in her toes began creeping away, bringing with it a stinging, burning pain. She clenched her teeth against it – not willing to display the weakness brought on by her own pig-headedness.

Sven was standing over the stove, an apron wrapped about his waist. In one hand he held a wooden spoon, stirring about in a chunky metal pot.

"So, what’s for dinner?"

"Stew," he replied. "But you’re in luck, because not only did they bring you, they also brought halfway decent food. Stefan always smuggles me some poultry," he added, "which is a good thing, because other wise it would be rehydrated rations."

"You live in a giant freezer," Azreal pointed out, "why can’t they bring you decent food?"

His lip twitched for a moment – almost, but not quite, a smile. "Because the government have more important things to transport in their cargo ships then food for one lone Wolf." He shrugged, "besides, they only come every six months and if the food took up more cargo space, I would get more of it and likely starve before that time came around."

"Every six months?" Azreal marveled at how similar this man’s life was to her life in the refugee camp. Their rations were airlifted in bulk only once every few months, and they had many more mouths to feed. The land had provided some food, but had resisted many efforts to farm it, producing only spindly, anorexic vegetables and tiny, shriveled fruits. The young Fossa had been lucky – half-wild with hunger, she had sampled many wild plants and found a few that had not made her violently ill and had actually tasted halfway edible. It had not been enough to save her parents. Disease traveled through the crowded, dirty quarters like wildfire, killing off the newborn babes and elderly and weakening the previously healthy adults.

"I’m sure that sounds like a terribly long time to you," he continued, misinterpreting the shake in her voice. "But aside from that fact that I am only one man, on a lone outpost, the snow-mists surrounding Hogarth are frequently tumulus and dangerous, if not deadly. Every time they send a ship, they take the risk of losing it."

"So what did you do?" Azreal asked.

Sven frowned at her. "What did I do?" He repeated.

"What crime did you commit to get yourself stuck on a lonely, frozen outpost where you only get deliveries twice a year?"

"I didn’t do anything," he replied, "anything wrong I mean. This was my designated position. Of all the soldiers in my squadron, I was deemed the one most capable of surviving on my own. Which is why," he added, "I haven’t the foggiest idea why they would want to send me a Furn."

"Maybe they thought you were lonely?" She queried. "Aren’t you?"

For a moment a darkness flitted over his features, but it was swiftly replaced by his usual stolid expression. He grunted, "no, why should I be? Now, make yourself useful, Furn and prepare the chicken." He plonked the carcass on the bench in front of her. It was a whole chicken. Aside from killing it, the only other treatment it had suffered had been a plucking, the head, wings and legs, were all still affixed. "You’ll need to take out its gizzards first. Keep them to one side, I’ll use them in a stew later." He narrowed his eyes at her, "and remember, this is the only meat you are likely to see in the next six months, so don’t let any of it go to waste."

"I won’t," she sighed. Of course she wouldn’t – she lived most of her life in a Refugee camp. Sven still watched her carefully as she sliced open the chicken, scraping out the entrails and carefully setting them aside in another bowl. She drained the blood – what little there was, into a mug. After the chicken was gutted, she set about pulling it apart. The mere action of dismembering her own meat brought back memories. Survival was hard in the refugee camps, and fellow wildlife scarce, but every so often some of the young Furrs would head forth in search of prey. There were often a few birds – quail and pigeons mainly, to be found, and these made a welcome addition to the diet of the half-starved refugees. Azreal had a childhood friend by the name of Philippe. He had no voice, but talked quite animatedly with his hands and had been the best hunter of the group. She remembered the thrill of downing her first quail, and how good the meat tasted.

One never completely released their past.

"Are you going to make stuffing?" She asked. Her Aunt had been a great cook and made the most marvelous roast chicken. After much persuasion, Aunt Stephanie had shown her how to prepare the stuffing. Now, although she did not fully understand why, Azreal wished to make it for her and Sven. Maybe if she impressed him with her culinary skills he would be less inclined to renege on his promise? At least here she was unlikely to be submitted to gang rape.

"If you like," Sven shrugged, "I’ve never bothered before. Didn’t seem much point. I doubt I’ve got the right ingredients for it anyway."

What have you got?"

Sven scowled at her, irritated at her wasting his time. He made no reply but began fossicking through the cupboards and flung a handful of items on the bench-top. He stared at her in challenge.

Very well then, she would accept his challenge and she would make him a tasty meal. From a couple of very old pieces of waybread, a shriveled up object that may have once been an onion (before suffering an unpleasant death by dehydration), a green block of cheese and a couple of rice cakes.

Azreal smiled slyly. "you wish for me to cook?" She asked, "how about you go look in your telescope and I’ll see what I can do."

The Wolf looked skeptical, but shrugged. "Very well then," he replied, "but remember- if you ruin my chicken, you’ll be sleeping in the snow tonight."

Somehow, Azreal did not think him serious. "Just go stare at the skies or something," she replied, and turned her attention to the cooking.

"You ready?" Azreal asked. Sven didn’t need to answer – he was practically drooling. Some ancestral habits proved difficult to break. She set the servings of roast chicken upon the card table serving (currently) as a dining table.

It was delicious – even the taciturn Sven had to concede. For a Furn, the lass certainly knew how to prepare a meal. Of course, he’d been living on dried, plain rations for so long that it could have just been the chicken, but he didn’t think so. He polished off the meal in record time, and may even have gone in pursuit of seconds if Azreal hadn’t stopped him.

"If we leave some now," she said, stepping in front of him, "then we can enjoy it tomorrow." She was using the no-nonsense voice of her Aunt. Having lived life half-starved, Azreal had been much inclined to eat everything available, but her Aunt Stephanie had made an effort at teaching her Manners.

Unwilling to admit that her idea was a worthy one, Sven pushed past the Fossa and drew himself a glass of water instead.

"Not bad," he admitted. "You might have some uses after all."

That was about as much of a compliment as she expected.

Sanguine stained the snow-mist as the asteroid turned its face from the sun. The blood-red sunset was disconcerting, Azreal was used to rather more passive colours.

Sven glanced up from the book he was reading. "It’s the chemicals in the atmosphere," he said, by way of explanation, then buried his muzzle once more.

Azreal crouched on the floor, staring at the sky for some time. The snow-mists had parted, revealing the darkness beyond. Was this the whole of Sven’s job then? To stare at the sky in case something happened? In case, what? Enemies chose to invade the little frozen ball of nothingness that was Hogarth.

His life was as pointless as hers.

"What are you reading?" She asked, as the sun faded from view altogether and the world outside was pitch black once more.

"Shut up," Sven growled. "I’m trying to read."

His tone was such that Azreal fell immediately silent. She gazed out the window longer, but there was nothing to see. After a time she yawned. With nothing else to do, she may as well sleep.

Drawing the bathrobe close around her, she clambered up onto the bed.

"What do you think you’re doing?" Sven peered at her down his long muzzle.

"Going to bed," she replied. "I’m tired and it appears to be dark outside."

"You’re not sleeping on the bed." He replied. "My hospitality does not extend that far. If you will not submit to me, then you shall not share my bed."

"So where do I sleep then?"

He shrugged, stood and stretched. "The floor, the armchair, I’m not particularly concerned. I’m sure you’re work something out. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to bed."

Azreal contemplated arguing and forcing the matter. She thought she could win such an argument – she had won the battle of wits in the snow, after all. But she was only now realizing how tired she was. It had been a long and involved day. Maybe Sven would be more agreeable in the morning.

"This argument is not over," she growled, eager to get in the last words.

Sven ruined any victory though however, by merely shrugging his shoulders, not giving half a damn. He stripped off his shirt and trousers as though oblivious to her presence. This argument, clearly, was over – at least as far as he was concerned. It had probably never even begun.

The Fossa curled up in the armchair, wrapping the bathrobe around her like a blanket. She was disappointed that Sven did not even spare her a glance as he settled himself into his bed.

Would anything she do ever impress him?

And why oh why did she care?

*

For the next few days, Sven spent much of his time stolidly ignoring her presence. He went about his usual duties of inspecting his equipment every morning, over his first cup of coffee, checking various things on his computer (Azreal could not even begin to comprehend the multitude of screens and so forth) and dealing with interstellar news and messages. Then he would generally undergo his morning ablutions. During this entire time he paid no heed to Azreal, until, in an effort to get some sort of reaction from him, she waited in the bathroom whilst he went about his cleansing duties. Perched on the closed toilet lid, she waited for him to enter and turn the shower on. At first he ignored her, and she wondered if he had even seen her, but just as she thought he was about to remove his boxer shorts, he whirled to face her.

"Out!" He snapped, "now!"

Azreal stood up, but did not move.

Sven was clearly not having a good morning, for in two strides he was in front of her, and had grabbed her about the waist and flung her over her shoulder before she could object. She pounded on his back and kicked, but it was all to no avail.

He carried her out and dumped her on the bed.

"Don’t make me hurt you," he growled, slamming the bathroom door behind him.

Well, Azreal admitted, she had certainly got his attention. She wasn’t sure to what ends though.

He then went on to ignore her entirely for two days.

Most of the morning the Wolf spent engaged in his "exercises". He had a few rudimentary exercise tools in one corner of the room – a rowing machine, some weights and a wooden box. For about an hour he would lift weights or row, and then do exactly one hundred step-ups onto the box (Azreal knew this precisely because she counted them – he never missed one and he never did an extra one, so he never lost count either). This generally left him with a hearty appetite for lunch and in need of another shower. The second shower was always a cold one, Azreal noted.

After a fairly substantial lunch, Sven generally spent an hour in what Azreal began to think of as "contemplation mode". He would wash off his dishes and turn on his stereo, before positioning himself comfortably in the armchair and closing his eyes. Whether he was meditating to the dramatic classical music he chose to play, or if he were just completely immersing himself in music, Azreal could not tell, but there was certainly something immense and engrossing about the music. It was powerful and emotive and she frequently found herself sitting cross-legged on the floor, eyes closed as she too sank into it.

The afternoon was much the same as the morning, except that there was less fiddling with the equipment and more staring aimlessly at the sky then turning back to the book.

Azreal wondered how he could cope with such an existence. It was not as though he could go outside for a quick stroll, the cold would chill anyone to the bone. And with only the two main rooms, the storage shed and the hallway, there wasn’t a lot inside either. Then again, perhaps he liked this dull, repetitive existence.

It was on the fourth day, exploring through his cupboards in the hope of finding something to do, that she found the chess set. It was an old, cracked and chipped affair, but none of the pieces were missing. She set the board up on the card table, carefully dusting and polishing each piece.

Some time later she noticed Sven looking at it.

"Do you play?" She asked, creeping up behind him and making him jump. Perhaps he had forgotten she was there. They hadn’t spoken in two days, not since the bathroom incident. She had been trying to keep out of his way and their dinner time communication had been little more then a series of grunts and nods.

"Once upon a time," he replied, "’tis rather difficult a game to play by yourself. I grew tired of losing all the time."

Azreal could not help but snigger at the uncharacteristic joke. "My Aunt taught me," she said, "I’m not very good at it, but I think I can remember how the pieces move. And who knows, you might actually win?"

He smiled at her a little crookedly. "Well, it is about time I got some use out of you, lass, and if you’re not going to submit to me sexually, maybe you’ll submit to me in chess."

And so they seated themselves at either end and within thirty minutes (and the sacrifice of many pawns later), Sven took AZREAL'S Queen with his Knight.

"Check," he said. "No, wait, make that Checkmate."

Azreal grumbled, staring at her vulnerable King. "Okay, so you win," she replied, "but I believe a rematch is required."

They played long into the night, and Azreal never won once. After the sixth triumphant loss, she conceded, throwing up her hands in despair:

"Very well, you’re the better player."

"You did get me into Check three times," he admitted, "maybe next time you’ll win."

"Maybe indeed."

Her defeat may have been complete, but she had to admit to herself, curling up in her armchair, that a barrier had been broken down between them. That night, as she drifted off into the deep clutches of sleep (and dreams filled with Knights ravishing her poor Queen) she felt Sven gently place a blanket atop her supine form.

*

Azreal sunk back into the water, enjoying the feel of the lukewarm liquid lapping about her spine. She closed her eyes and for a moment allowed herself to escape into a different world. Her life had always been one of trials, from her birth in the camp to her difficulty at school and finally her arrest. This was just another trial she would have to struggle through. Sven was a decent enough sort, for all his brusk nature. He had been true to his word and had never tried to force her. She had to admire that. But she could not hide the fact that she was a little disappointed as well. It would be nice to see some sign of lust in his eyes – to feel she was attractive to him and that he desired her. How would it feel, to have someone desire you?

As she sunk back, pondering such thoughts, a new sound emanated from the living room. It sounded like someone strumming a guitar.

She blinked back to attention, lying their listening for a moment or three. It was definitely not a recording. Clearly Sven was also a musician, and a pretty good one if this tune was anything to go on.

After a time she stood up - the water was growing cold anyway, and eased herself from the tub, wrapping the towel about her. Quietly she padded to the door, peering through at the white Wolf. He sat cross-legged on the floor, strumming some sort of triangular guitar. There was a calm aura about him, he seemed more relaxed then she had ever seen him, even when asleep. It was as though the tension seeped through him and into the instrument. She padded closer, unable to resist but unwilling to disturb him from his trance.

He finished the tune, lost in his own world and humming quietly along with it and then placed the instrument aside. Only then did he notice her and a frown furrowed his forehead, his smile returning to its usual discontent scowl.

"You play beautifully," Azreal commented, keeping her eyes shyly on the floor. She felt almost as though she had intruded on a personal moment.

"Thanks," he replied, rather less gruffly then usual.

*

A loud, shrill noise pierced deep into the dreams of the slumbering Fossa, tearing her from sleep. She awoke, thrashing and throwing her blanket to the ground.

"What’s going on?" She asked blearily.

Sven was staring into his telescope, his entire body tensed. Whatever had set the alarm off could not be good news. He said nothing, but merely made a vague gesture towards his computer monitor. At first the image on the screen meant little to Azreal, but after a moment she could see what appear to be a great black pyramid. It speared through the star-studded blackness with intent.

"What is it? Are we being invaded?"

"I don’t know," Sven replied through gritted teeth. "It’s on a collision course towards us, however. I’ve tried reaching it on radio, but I keep getting an automated response in a language the translators cannot understand." He pushed the button and the alarm cut off sharply. The silence it left in its wake echoed loudly.

AZREAL'S ears perked up. "Aliens?"

He shrugged, "who knows, the translator isn’t entirely complete, there are some obscure dialects not programmed into it."

"What are you going to do? Blow it up?"

He chuckled, despite himself, "a tempting idea, but they didn’t equip me with a laser canon, or any such device. Indeed, all I can do is send a signal through to my superiors on Geode and they can work to intercept it. However, that won’t be necessary, since it’s going to hit Hogarth in approximately ten hours and thirty five minutes."

"Surely they’ll just fly it around!"

"You’d hope so, but I don’t know, it’s definitely a recorded message I’m receiving – I’d say the crew are in stasis and something’s disrupted the auto-pilot. Either that or they’re on a suicide mission."

Azreal was starting to feel a little panicky now – Hogarth was a fairly sizeable asteroid, but being struck by an out-of-control spaceship was distinctly non-ideal. "What can we do?"

"Pray," Sven muttered, "pray that it doesn’t impact within a ten kilometer radius of camp, because that’s how far away it would have to land to destroy us."

"Is that likely?"

He nodded, "I’m afraid so, calculations indicate that the orbit of Hogarth will put us directly under the ship when it pierces the atmosphere." He turned to Azreal, concern showing on his handsome face as he saw her panic. "It’s impossible to know what impact the atmospheric entry will have – it may refract the ship completely off-course and away us, or even burn it to a crisp. If we’re lucky the pilots will have resumed control by then and skim it along the atmosphere and away. Don’t worry – it may not be the end of it all yet."

"We could run away, travel to somewhere else on the asteroid!"

"I can’t," he said, "I have to send reports to Geode – if it does skim across the atmosphere, it could be a threat to them."

Azreal snickered, although it was almost completely without humour. "You’re going to stay here to die just because your boss needs to know what’s going on?"

"I’m a soldier. It is my duty."

"You’re a fool!" She exclaimed.

He moved so swiftly she barely had time to flinch, let alone dodge out of the way, his paw slapped her cheek hard, four pale welts materializing in its wake. She squealed in anger and lashed out at him, claws unsheathed. He seized her tightly about the wrist.

"I’m a fool because I take my duty seriously? I swore to defend Geode against invasion, and here I am, watching a potential invasion. If I were to flee now, I would be demoted, demoted to a position lower then the lowest gutter-whore. Don’t you understand that? I would be lower even then you. Besides – have you seen the world we’re in? It’s a frozen wasteland. This lodge is the only habitable place on its entire expanse. Anywhere else, even with all the blankets and food we could carry, which would be very little, we would have frozen to death within a day. And a Hogarth day is only thirteen hours long." He was speaking quite calmly, the tightness of his grip the only betrayer of the anger raging within him. "Do you understand?" And he released his grip, flinging her away from him in the same move.

Azreal stumbled back, trying to balance herself by way of swinging her long tail. She failed and fell to the floor, catching her arm on the card table as she fell. Chess pieces cascaded everywhere and she crawled under the table in a panic. Blood gushed from a gash in her forearm.

The change that came over Sven was profound, expression radiating only concern, he dropped to his knees down beside her. "I’m sorry," he said, and actually sounded apologetic, "are you hurt?"

"Oh so you’re all concerned now? It’s only a scratch, I’ll live." She smiled crookedly, "at least for another ten hours."

"Well, I guess that’s a positive then," he smiled dryly at his own bland humour. "Do you need a bandage or anything?"

She examined the gash on her arm. It was shallow and already the blood was beginning to dry. "It’s just a scratch."

Sven nodded and proffered his hand to her. Ignoring it, she crawled backwards out from under the table and stood up.

"Just don’t touch me again," she growled. "You may be willing to die for your stupid superiors, but I don’t want to admit defeat just yet."

"Can you move a planet from its orbit?" He asked. "I thought not, besides, you could not survive the wastelands of Hogarth. The cold would eat you alive. None can survive the frozen cold."

"It’s better then waiting here to die."

He shrugged. "Like I said, you can always pray."

For the next few hours, silence reigned. There was nothing they could say to each other, nothing they could do to relieve the impending doom. Sven hovered over his telescope like a worried mother, eye glued to the eyepiece. Azreal merely paced. Back and forth, back and forth, trying to seek a way to relief all the nervous energy that swelled inside her.

They picked their way through a desultory lunch of beans and bread and the last of the meat. Azreal felt that somehow a last banquet would be more fitting, but was unable to pick up the motivation to prepare anything more then beans on toast flavored with what little remained of the chicken.

For a while the snow-mist cleared, and she saw, with her naked eyes, their destruction coming towards them. Vast and black, it was the spear that carried with it their doom. As the hours passed, it grew larger and larger as Hogarth’s orbit brought them closer to devastation.

They did not bother washing up the dishes.

The snow-mist thickened and the wind began to howl around the eaves. Hogarth was ever an uneasy asteroid.

Azreal sat on the bed, head in her hands. Soon she would be dead. Whether she chose death by impact or death from cold, well, the end result was still the same, wasn’t it?

And was pacing back and forth any way to die?

It was not the way she would chose. And despite everything, she did not want all her training as a Furn to go to waste. She did not want to die a virgin.

And since Sven was the only likely candidate…

She gulped, stepping towards him and placing her hand on his shoulder. A tremor passed through him at the contact, but he did not push her away. Not yet.

"What are you doing?" He asked. His voice wavered slightly.

"In under two hours we’re going to die, yes?"

Sven gulped and nodded. "It would appear likely."

"And there’s absolutely nothing we can do?"

"Short of moving Hogarth from its orbit, no."

"Then we’re going to die right? And if we can’t die fighting…" She faltered, and took a deep breath, trying to still her pounding heart. It was not a successful ploy. Lowering herself, she breathed gently in his ear, her tongue flicking out lightly to tease his earlobe.

He shuddered again, but it was a different kind of shudder.

"You want to…" He seemed to be suffering from the same inability to finish his sentences.

"To go out fucking," she said, "do you think it would make much difference to your superiors?"

"At this point," Sven replied, "I honestly don’t give a damn." He paused, looking at her quizzically, "are you sure you want to do this?"

She nodded, a little tentatively, "it’s probably my last chance."

"Oh thanks," he replied, ruefully, "well, I guess it’s my last chance too, so it would be a shame to let it slide by." He turned to his computer and flicked a few switches. "It’ll let us know if it diverts from its current path," he said. "Now where were we?"

She knelt before him, demonstrating the submission encouraged by her tutors. "What is it you desire of me, master?" She kept her eyes averted; submissive and shy, that was the image she had been taught to display. Submissive, shy, but most of all, willing.

Sven growled, low in his throat. He crouched before her, one hand lifting her chin so that their eyes met. She fought to break the eye contact – there was something so intense in his gaze, so… hungry, something his body had beaten into submission, but could never fully be tamed.

She struggled against the intensity of the gaze and sought deep into her memories of the Training for her next move… what should she do? Kiss him?

He answered the question for her, his lips brushing against hers as he tested the water. A shiver vibrated down her spine, thrilling at the contact. Her training was forgotten as animal instinct took over. She drew him closer to her, her hands stroking through the thick white fur of his mane and ruff to the delicate skin beneath. He sighed deeply, then scooped her up in his arms, took two steps, and flung her onto the bed. A moment later he pounced on her, pinning her shoulders against the mattress. His body was warm and hard against her, as he slowly rubbed his chest against her. Azreal moaned, low in her throat, as the heated bulge of his groin rubbed against her. There was no one word to describe the way she was feeling, sort of nervous, excited, the spaceship closing in on them almost forgotten.

Sven growled low in her ear. His hands groped her breasts rather indelicately, pinching her nipples between thumb and forefinger. Azreal quivered in expectation, arousal and a little pain. He lowered his muzzle, tongue flicking out to taste her salty flesh, then blew gently in its wake.

Cold shivers shuddered down AZREAL'S spine and she made a low groaning noise in the back of her throat. This Sven took as encouragement, and bringing his muzzle closer, gently nipped her nipple.

She shrieked then – partly because it hurt but mainly because with the pain came pleasure. Between her legs she could feel the moisture beginning to pool and her arousal made her writhe beneath him, running herself along his erection. This, in turn, made him spasm in delight and make small, ineffectual, thrusts of his own.

His hand traced down the contours of her belly, stroking gently through the paler fur, caressing, massaging and tugging slightly on the hairs.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" He asked, his voice heavy with lust.

Azreal nodded – she did not trust herself to speak.

"Good," he replied, "but I suggest, if you would rather I stop, that you tell me now rather then later." He paused. "Because I think, once I start, it will be most difficult to stop myself."

In response Azreal could only nod. She did not want him to stop, she wanted him to do oh-so many other things. The things Selma had spoken of – but where they true? Or had the Civet merely being toying with her?

All thoughts were cut off as Sven’s hand reached her crotch.

His touch was nothing like Stefan’s, or indeed any of the other men that had fingered her in her sordid, better forgotten, past. His hands were rough, yes, the palms calloused and worn, but his touch was slow, cautious. Many men, and women, had laid their hands on her genitalia, but none had done it with such gentleness.

"So it’s true what they say then?" He said, his fingers brushing gently against her engorged clitoris.

She startled. "What who say?"

He gently flicked his fingers and a wave spread through her, clouding her mind and emotions for a fleeting moment. "That Fossa femmes have an organ of their own."

She shuddered, half from pleasure, half with embarrassment. "Yes," she said, although the words came as a struggle. "Does it bother you?"

"Not at all," he replied, flicking it again, "it’s just… different. Does it work,’ he added, almost embarrassed.

"Not in the…" She gasped as he ran his fingers across it again, "the way that… yours does."

"For that," he replied, "I must confess I am somewhat relieved."

Azreal giggled, sounding almost manic to her own ears. In less then two hours she would be dead, and here she was worrying about what her lover would think of her exaggerated clitoris. That thought just made her laugh harder and Sven stared at her, looking hurt.

"You haven’t gone mad have you?" He asked.

"No," she replied, blinking back tears of lust and laughter. "At least, I don’t think so. Who knows?"

"You sure?"

She nodded.

He grinned a little then, and kneeling before her, proceeded to draw down his trousers, exposing his member, ready, willing and clearly able.

Azreal choked a little at the sight of it. She was supposed to put that inside her?

"It’s, it’s so big," she exclaimed.

Even the taciturn Sven chuckled at that. "Thank you," he said, "I’m honoured at the compliment."

Azreal looked up to meet his eyes, and there was pleading in hers. "Can I… touch it?"

Her sudden shyness seemed to appeal to him, for his return smile was one of kindness. "Well, I certainly won’t complain," he said, "but please keep your claws sheathed."

Tentatively, her hand shaking a little, Azreal reached out, running her hand down the skin and over the strange lump partway down its length. She was surprised at how soft it was, between the web-like threads of veins and arteries. Her touch was very light, very gentle, but Sven still shuddered, closing his eyes.

She closed her hand about it, wondering how this must feel to him. How would he feel inside her? He was so much bigger then she had expected – were all men that well endowed? Her trainer certainly had not been, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. Size varied, Selma had told her, but it was what was done with it that counted. Selma had chuckled after saying that, as though it were some sort of enormous joke.

"Maybe the corporation were right to send you," Sven panted, leaning forward to kiss her once more. "I want you. I want you now. Don’t say no?" He added hopefully, as though it were a question.

"I won’t," she replied, and he eased her legs apart, kneeling between them. A moment later he lowered his head towards her burning groin. His fingers pried at her nether lips, and then he blew gently upon them. Shivers cascaded down her spine and just as they were about to burn out, his tongue flicked out, moistening them further.

"Are you ready?" He asked, drawing away and she wanted to say ‘no’, wanted him to nuzzle her further and for his tongue to do its magic dance, but her own tongue seemed too thick for her mouth. She nodded once more.

Sven eased himself between her legs, gently easing the tip of his penis between her nether lips. He pushed into her. She gasped at the pain – and it was pain, proper pain, a tearing sensation and she wondered shakily if his gigantic cock was going to tear her apart. Was it supposed to feel like this?

Feeling her shaking, he eased off the pressure, gently running his large hands down her cheeks and catching her tears of pain. "Does it hurt badly?" He asked, and she could hear the lust, ill-concealed in his voice.

She nodded mutely.

"Do you want me to stop?"

She pondered this, actually thought about it. Selma had warned her it would hurt, at first but then the pain would go away, but had the Civet ever fucked a man this well-endowed? She didn’t doubt that – judging from Selma’s stories, she fucked half of Geode. And this would be her only chance.

She wanted the pain to stop, yes, but there was another part of her that demanded him not to. She was more aroused then she had ever been in her life.

"No," she replied finally, and the look of relief on Sven’s face was enough to reward her. "Only… be very gentle."

"I will," he replied tenderly, running one hand down her jaw-line and resting his fingers in the hollow beneath her mouth. "I will." He kissed her then, on the eyelids, the nose and finally the lips.

She gasped as he pushed himself further into her, his eyes rolling back with the pleasure, his lower jaw hanging open. "Oh the gods," he whispered, "you’re so tight. Oh god, I don’t think I’m gonna last very long."

AZREAL'S fingers clawed at the bedspread. It was easier now, it was still painful, yes, but her inner wall had been broken with the first thrust, taking the ripping agony with it. And now she could feel him inside her, caressing her intimately. His belly rubbed against her exaggerated clitoris, and she moaned in response. Every thrust the pleasure outweighed the pain a little more and she could feel the pleasure welling inside her – a floodwall threatening to burst. So close… so close…

And then Sven released his seed with a mighty gasp and collapsed across her. Strangely enough, he did not seem heavy, more the weight of him atop her was comforting. She wrapped her arms around his neck and held him close as he panted and gasped in the after-throes of passion. Her own need still gnawed at her and she opened her mouth, prepared to beg him to bring her to completion.

But then the alarms went wild.

The shrill shriek reverberated about the small cabin, bouncing off the walls and filling the room with its presence. Sven slid off the bed and hopped over to the window, tugging his pants up on the way. He affixed his eye to the telescope, fiddling with the computer with one hand and tying his trousers with the other. Azreal wondered why he bothered. Maybe he didn’t want to die with his pants around his ankles, it did seem a bit undignified. A moment later an image sprang into view – the spear that was the spaceship.

"It’s broken through the atmosphere," he informed her. He was trying to keep his voice steady but nothing could halt the waver in it. Such a break in his usual demeanor could be excused – there was imminent death loaming on the horizon, after all. Flames engulfed the ship as it passed through Hogarth’s ozone layer. Azreal stood, her legs shaky but quite capable of holding her, and stood by the Wolf’s side.

Together they would watch their world end.

Except it didn’t. As the ship passed through the atmosphere, it jerked erratically, its path turning away from them.

Hope dawned in AZREAL'S heart. "What’s happening?" She said, unable to believe her eyes. "Are we maybe not going to die after all?"

Sven grasped her hand tightly. "I don’t know. I think we may be in luck. Either the storms, or perhaps Hogarth’s somewhat distorted magnetic field, has knocked it off course." He drew her closer to him, seeking comfort in her presence. "We’re not out of the woods yet. We better get prepared for when it hits."

Azreal nodded. The adrenaline flowed through her and she felt oddly exhilarated. It may have been the sex, or it may be the near-death experience, but she had never felt more alive.

Sven collected all the blankets off the bed. "Wrap yourselves in these," he commanded, "and get beneath the bed – it’s the sturdiest thing in the room." It was indeed a very sturdy bed, made of good solid timber – a relic of a bygone era. How it would hold up to an earthquake was another matter entirely.

Sven pushed her under the bed, then crawled in after her. It was cramped underneath, and smelt of must and sweat and the bitter after-tang of sex. Yet she drew comfort from the smells and the closeness of Sven – reeking of musk and sweat himself. They were familiar scents, comforting scents. She cocooned herself in them and waited for the collision.

"Why don’t you tell me a bit about yourself," Sven asked, disturbing her from her contemplations. "Is Azreal your real name?"

"Hardly," she chuckled, "why do you suddenly care about me now?"

"Because if we are to die, it would be nice to die knowing something about the woman who lost her virginity to me. Besides, it might help break the tension."

"Like I know anything about you," she replied, "but since you asked." She paused for a moment, collecting her thoughts. "My parents called me Stephanie, after my Aunt, but they died and after a while I went to live with my Aunt and well, in school I called myself ‘Azrael’ and everyone took to calling me that because it was too confusing having two Stephanies in the house. That’s all there is to it really."

"Your parents died?" He queried, "that must have been hard for you."

She shrugged, her shoulders brushing close to him. "I survived," she said, "Papa got sick because he worked too hard and his lungs weren’t up to it and Mama followed him a few years later, when the influenza struck. It wasn’t a good time for anyone. I got sick too, but Aunt Stephanie turned up and brought with her medicines and so forth."

"Sounds like you had a rough childhood. Where did you live?"

"You are being nosy today," she said, "but if you really want to know, it was Grazland."

"Grazland?" His brow furrowed, "isn’t that a relocation camp? You were brought up in a relocation camp?"

"Didn’t I just say that? How about you tell me something about yourself now, Mister Nosy?"

He opened his mouth then – perhaps with a short rebuttal, or perhaps with an answer – whatever it was she would never find out, because at that instant the ship struck the ground.

The vibrations reverberated through the earth, making a noise like a plucked violin string. Azreal, much to her shame, wriggled in close to Sven, as though his presence could somehow protect her.

A rattling followed, as the earth shivered and Sven’s utensils danced across the bench top. This was swiftly followed by the sound of smashing pottery as several danced off the bench and onto the floor.

And only then did the full blast hit.

The earth heaved as though awakening from a long sleep. No longer did it feel like the ground beneath her, but waves instead. It bounced her upwards, so that the top of her head compacted sharply with the underside of the bed. Whimpering, she buried her head in her chest, just as the bed lurched sharply sideways. Sven grabbed her and dragged her beneath it again.

There followed an almighty clattering as anything not supported fell over, followed by a quiet "ping, ping, ping" which Azreal could not identify.

The lights, an ever-present constant, flickered and died.

And then silence came crashing down, broken only by the howling of the wind.

Some time later the lights flashed back into life, flooding the devastation of the room in subdued halogen glare. The two survivors crawled out from beneath the bed, investigating the damage. It was not as bad as it looked – the huge window had not broken (a situation which would have been almost fatal), thanks to the flexible, bullet proof, glass it was constructed from. The telescope had tilted sharply to one side, and leaned heavily against the computer. Broken crockery, utensils and chess pieces littered the floor, and several of the food bags had split open. Flour covered a large patch of the floor so that it looked as though the snow had come in.

Several of the boards of the ceiling were buckled and hanging. The "pinging" had been the nails working loose and tumbling to the linoleum beneath. The bed had held up amazingly well, not even damaged from its skip-hop across the floor.

"That wasn’t as bad as it could have been," Azreal commented.

"Indeed, we’re still alive. You know," he added, "your collar’s changed colour."

"Has it?" Her fingers flew to it, but it felt no different. However, the bands on her wrists had turned from pure white to a fresh, grass green. "Odd," she commented.

"Must be magical," he said and stooped, buckling on his heavy "outdoor" shoes.

"What are you doing?"

"Putting on my boots," he replied. "Isn’t that obvious?"

"Why?"

"I have to go and investigate."

Azreal looked out the window to where the ever-shifting snow-mists swirled and heaved like living beasts. "Looks like the weather’s turning nasty," she pointed out. "Shouldn’t we wait until the storm passes over?

"It’s the storm season. If there were any survivors, they won’t last long in a Hogarth storm. It also took out one of the sensors, so I’ll have to go and investigate for Geode." He moved over to the computer and fiddled with it. After a moment of flickering, distorted images, it sparked into clarity, showing a rather staticky image of the spaceship.

"Always for your bloody country," Azreal snapped, "can’t you ever do something for yourself? Why risk your neck for someone that you don’t even know? Can’t you just rewind and see what that camera recorded earlier?"

"That’s not a camera." He snapped, "the sensor views the world using sonar and constructs the image based on that. The damned thing took out the camera. This is the only image I have of it."

He flicked some more switches and the alarm died, much to the relief of AZREAL'S ringing ears. A moment later another image appeared on the screen. It appeared, to all intents and purposes, to be a great ball of flame. A great ball of flame that was getting bigger and bigger.

Then struck in a shower of snow and static.

"How did it survive that?" Azreal asked.

"Most spaceships are built with an inner core to withstand the great heat of atmospheric re-entry," Sven explained, "didn’t they teach you anything at school? If anyone was on it, they could have survived the crash." He stood up, making his way over to the big wardrobe. "I must go and investigate," he replied, "I shouldn’t be too long. Keep the kettle hot and don’t get into trouble."

"I’m coming with you," Azreal stated.

"No you’re not."

Azreal was not about to let him win this argument. He was going out to investigate something that could possibly be exciting and there was no way she was going to let him leave her behind. Cabin fever gnawed at her. She had to get out! "So you trust me enough to leave me here?"

Sven pondered this. "If you damage anything here, then I’ll send you back with Stefan and he’ll be more then willing to take advantage of your loss of virginity."

The damned Wolf had made his point, now she was ‘soiled’ she would be fair game as far as Furns went. But she had another trump card to play. It was a bit of a risk, since she had only an inkling that he was starting to grow used to, and maybe even enjoying, her company (and she had to admit, the sex must have helped), but she was not going to allow him to leave her here alone whilst he went out and had all the fun.

"If you leave me here, I’ll follow you."

He chuckled, "you’ll die in the snow. You really are a suicidal lass, aren’t you? One near death experience not enough for today?"

"Better to perish in the snow then stay here and wonder if you’re ever coming back," she replied. "Besides, you might need my help."

"I never have before."

She shrugged, "whatever. Leave me here then – see what’s left when you return. Who’ll you beat at chess then?"

He sighed. "Very well then, just quit delaying me further. There could be people out there dying in the snow whilst you manipulate me, you little fiend."

She grinned, trying not to skip. This checkmate was hers.

An hour later, she was starting to wonder if victory had really been hers. Sven’s snow-pod raced across the snow, the Plexiglas dome keeping out the wind but doing little against the cold. It was not a vehicle made for two, and Azreal was scrunched into the storage compartment behind the driver’s seat, her knees tucked under her chin and her hands braced against the dome to stop her tumbling about like an ice-cube in a blender.

Even in the thick, oversized gloves and three layers of clothing, she could feel the cold. Her palms burned with it, touching the dome as they were. The little pod jerked and bounced over the uneven ground erratically, threatening to capsize in the roaring wind.

She could not hear anything, the screaming winds and the hum of the engine drowned out any chance for speech and for that Azreal was glad. She would have so many bumps and bruises in the morning.

The view was nothing to write home about either – roiling white clouds blocked out all but the tiniest glimpses of the purple-black sky. The balaclava Sven had forced her to wear obscured most of it anyhow. It itched and irritated, but at least it was warm.

The little pod lurched and groaned for several hours, or perhaps an eternity, and then skidded to a halt, snow cascading up around it in great billowing clouds.

"Stay here," Sven shouted to be heard above the roaring wind. The dome slid back and he stepped out, pulling it back down behind him. They stood on he edge of a crater, the earth torn open from the impact. The edges were wavy – as though there had been several blasts and each had taken out another layer. And down in the depths, where the wind twisted and whirled a maelstrom, was the glistening black pyramid of the spaceship. It looked smaller then she had thought, and she felt oddly disappointed. Then the snow-mist licked over it again, obscuring it from view.

So, they were here, and here she was, made to wait in the vehicle while he had all the fun. Azreal didn’t really want to go out in the snow – it was quite cold enough here without the addition of wind chill, but her legs were paining her something wicked. She would just get out and stretch her legs, just for two minutes. No harm would come of it.

She somehow managed to drag herself out of the storage compartment and into the driver’s seat. Cramp burned her thighs, her muscles exclaiming loudly as such treatment. It did not take long for her to work out how to open the dome and slide out into the rugged wilds of Hogarth.

The wind struck her, so swift and fierce that it near nigh lifted her from her feet and sent her tumbling and rolling like a tumbleweed. The cold inside the dome had been nothing compared to the cold out here, not even the cold of her temporary exile could compete. It seemed to strip her through all her layers of clothing, fur, skin and flesh and head straight for the bones. When she moved, it was as though her joints were filled with broken glass. Sven was nowhere to be seen – but then again, she could not see more then a few feet at any rate.

Was it her imagination or was the storm getting worse?

She waited, the cold gnawing at her and the wind doing its best to undress her. Her eyes grew sore from peering through the snow-mists in search of someone who did not come.

Why was he taking so long?

And then came the high-pitched whistling sound, so high it danced around the top of the auditory spectrum, echoing in her head and making her brain throb. Her clothing crackled with sparkling blue lights and her hair stood on end, even beneath the thick clothing.

And then a brilliant blue-white flash, so dazzling it seared her retinas, scythed through the sky, illuminating for an instance the hulk of the fallen spaceship. And then a wave of energy swept over her, throwing her to the ground with the force of it all.

Beside her the snow-pod made a low whining sound that abruptly turned to a shrill shriek and then cut off.

Silence descended, save for the ringing in her ears.

Around her the snow continued to fall, although the wind seemed temporarily stilled.

The air reeked with the scent of ozone and heated metal.

"Sven!" She shrieked, dragging herself to her feet, concern for her only companion in this desolate wasteland flooding her senses. One glove, too large for her small hands, tumbled off and she scrambled after it feeling the cold claw at her exposes flesh.

Bracing herself against the wind, which was rising once more, and sliding the retrieved glove back over her hand, she made her way over the edge of the crater. The snow had been blasted clear, and she found herself edging her way down rock and a dry, shingly dirt that shifted under her feet and threatened at every footfall to send her tumbling to her doom.

It did not take long for one foot to slide from beneath her and send her lurching to the side. She skidded ten feet before falling to her knees and tearing shreds from her trousers. The cold burrowed deep and she was forced to half crawl, half slide, the remainder of the way.

And then, finally, she approached the hulk.

Lightning struck again, arching brilliantly across the sky. It was not followed by the characteristic rumble of thunder - only the howl of the wind answered it.

The after-image of the lightning, echoing in her vision, she struggled to seek clarity from confusion and soon the hulk of the fallen spaceship rose before her.

"Sven!" She called again. What if something had happened to him? She would be stranded out here – she couldn’t drive the pod and even if she could, how could she find the homebase again?

She stumbled closer, the wind lessening as she stepped into the lee of the fallen spaceship. Where was he? Her voice was hoarse, stolen away by the chill wind. Her limbs felt heavy as lead.

Once she staggered, almost falling and catching herself barely in time. She could no longer feel her feet. And then she saw him – or at least she thought it might be he, a hump in the snow at the base of the ship.

Finding energy she didn’t know she had, she staggered closer, towards the fallen figure. It was Sven – he lay in the snow as though dead, one hand extended towards the ship. Beside him lay a long metal pole of unknown purpose.

The stink of singed fur filled the air, even through the frigid air.

She hastened to the side of the fallen Wolf, crouching beside him. Her fingers quickly confirmed he was still breathing, the pulse in his neck fluttering like a trapped moth. "Sven," she hissed, close to his ear, but he made no response.

She had to get him into shelter – even here in the lee of the crashed ship, the cold would kill him in only a few short hours. But where could she take him?

The snow-pod was too far away.

Shuddering, she removed her outer layer, a thick, plush coat, and laid it across his head and shoulders. Those were the important parts to keep warm. She stared up at the wrecked hulk.

Where had it come from? Where was it going? Why had it crashed? The concept of finding the answers to such questions both daunted and terrified her. Not that log ago, the prospect of a crashed ship had been exciting – but now she was not so sure. Had some deadly virus wiped out the entire crew? Had there been an equipment malfunction?

Would the inside be more dangerous then the cold outside?

The chances of that seemed unlikely, and time was of the essence.

She studied the hulk for a while, growing colder and colder with every passing moment. Her toes went completely numb, and she could no longer feel her nose, even with the thick boots and balaclava, she was slowly freezing from the inside. Would she have to return to Sven’s side, curl up beside him and the both of them freeze quietly together?

It was then that she saw the fracture in the ship’s casing. The force it had struck the ground must have been extreme, to damage to the shell of a space traveling vessel, cracking open the joint where two sheets of metal had been welded together. Perhaps the extreme heat of atmospheric re-entry had been the cause.

The crack gaped, a long dark gash wide enough for her to crawl through, possibly, but certainly not for the Wolf. She would have to widen it. Stamping her feet and hugging herself tight, Azreal made her way back to Sven. The metal rod glowed faintly in the lavender light of the water Hogarth sun. It could work as a crowbar. Couldn’t it?

As she stooped to pick it up, she realized that there was something attached to it, some sort of metal cylinder with wide straps. A small smile danced on her lips as she recognized the device.

It was heavy, almost too heavy for the small Civet, but she managed to wriggle into the straps and lift it from the ground, moving like a hunchback. She should have realized Sven would not have undertaken such an adventure unprepared.

Staggering beneath the heavy weight, Azreal returned to the gash. Bracing her feet, she held the nozzle of the pipe a foot from the bodywork of the ship and pulled the trigger.

The gas erupted and alighted, a spear of fire of the purest white. The force unbalanced Azreal and she staggered, an erratic gash materializing in the bodywork. The fire-blade cut through the metal as though it were little more then cheese. She fought to regain control before she accidentally bisected herself in the process. The light flickered and died as she released her grip and she sagged in relief.

Well, it worked. Now all she had to do was learn how to control it.

Now that she expected the recoil, it was not so bad, and after much effort she succeeded in enlarging the crack so that it was large enough to crawl through.

A chunk of amputated metal crunched onto the snow in a cloud of steam, Azreal leaping back and releasing the trigger at the same instant. Sweat beaded her body, forming a layer of ice between her clothing and her fur as the air chilled it. Her muscles throbbed with the exertion. The fire-spear had been heavy.

After the edges of the new porthole had cooled, Azreal tentatively peered in. The innards were dark, tinted with lavender reflected from the sky. Another bolt of lightning shattered the sky some distance away, illuminating her surroundings in vivid blue. She appeared to be in some kind of corridor. It was cold, yes, but at least there was no wind and she was not going any further without Sven – even if she did have the fire-spear to protect her. It was too heavy to carry back across the snow, so she left it, leaning against the ship.

The Wolf had moved, casting the blanketing cloak aside. He still wore his heavy clothing, of course, but that would offer little protection.

"Sven," Azreal half-knelt, half fell to her knees beside him and shook him. He muttered something. Not unconscious then, delirious maybe? "Can you stand up?"

He muttered again - it could have been a foreign language for all she knew. He opened his eyes, his pupils were dilated and the iris bloodshot. Hands twisted into claws grasped at her shoulders and for a moment she was scared of him. She was used to his distant, often borderline-aggressive nature, not this wild-eyed creature he had become.

His teeth clattered together. She had to get him out of the cold. All feeling had dissipated from her fingers and she dreaded to think how he might feel. Together the two of them managed to regain their footing, although who was leaning on her was quite unclear. Sven kept babbling to himself and she could feel his heart pounding even beneath his thick clothing, it was erratic and unsteady. What had the lightning done to him?

By the time they reached the shelter of her newly-created spaceship cave both of them were more dead then alive, the only thing keeping them upright and mobile their sheer stubbornness. Sven collapsed first, his legs folding beneath him and lurching to the wall, taking Azreal down with him in a tangle of limbs.

For the longest moment the two of them lay there, too exhausted and cold to move. AZREAL'S brain felt foggy, as though her brain were packed in place with cotton wool.

"We have to keep moving," she murmured, disentangling herself from Sven. He grabbed at her, holding her close to him in a grip stronger then she thought he could manage.

"Don’t leave me," he growled, half pleading. He was like a frightened child, vulnerable and desperate. What had happened to him? He hadn’t been struck by lightning, that was plain, for if he had, he would be dead. Maybe the lightning bolt had shattered his mind?

Azreal helped him to his feet again. "Do you have a flashlight?" She asked.

He did not verbalize an answer, but one hand fossicked around the inside of his coat and after what felt like forever, produced a flashlight. It was a heavy, black metal affair that could double as a club if the situation demanded it. A moment later the glare split the darkness.

They had were in a small, square and completely empty room. There was a heavy door on the far side, with a small, but strong, glass window set in it. Some sort of airlock, Azreal guessed.

Beside the door was a big red button, which she pressed, hoping that the lightning strike had not fried the electrics. She was in luck. There was a whining of gears and a few sparks flew, some reaching dangerously near her, but the door slid open about a foot and a half, then stopped. It was enough.

The two of them staggered through the opening and they found themselves in a small, roughly square chamber. What appeared to be a particularly bulky type of space suit lined one wall. They were of very primitive design and looked most uncomfortable to wear. A row of metal drums, not unlike the cylinder of the fire-spear, rested against the opposite wall, and on a shelf above them was as series of clear glass domes. They looked to be designed to fit a race with a very flat muzzle, something Azreal found startling.

And it was quiet – so quiet. If there were crew around and alive, wouldn’t they be examining the damage? Perhaps they were all dead?

Or maybe they were all asleep?

There was another door at the end of the short corridor, and it too opened at the push of a button. As the doors slowly "swooshed" open, they revealed a large chamber, the centre of the pyramid.

It was like no spacecraft Azreal had ever seen.

The chamber was a smaller pyramid within the larger one, the walls angled upwards towards a single point, in which a great sphere burned like a miniature sun, small sparkles of colour dancing across its surface, crackling quietly. Walkways encircled the walls, connected by ladders. Azreal shuddered, half-expecting to see someone standing on one of them, observing the new entrants.

"Odd," Azreal commented. "At least it’s warm. Ish."

It was indeed warm, as though the bizarre sun produced heat. Sven collapsed against the wall.

"My heart…" he muttered, "what’s wrong with me?"

"I don’t know." Was all Azreal could respond. Had the lightning struck him? He didn’t appear to be suffering any burns, or at least there were none visible. The Wolf slid down the wall to sit in a huddled heap at the bottom. Azreal placed the cloak over him.

It was warm here – but not quite warm enough. Shouldn’t the residents have blankets or anything? Perhaps she could find something flammable – aside from their clothing, of course. Everything, however, looked extremely sterile.

Her explorations led her to a vehicle. It was a squat device, with huge, wide brimmed tires, plainly designed for rugged, dusty terrain, and a small cabin consisting of four seats and a storage area, encased in a tinted glass dome. She opened the bonnet, but the engine was completely alien to her, aside from the small sphere floating in the middle of it. It looked like a miniature and inactive version of one above. The alien’s power source, perhaps?

After a scrabble and a scramble, she managed to open one of the doors and clambered inside. The design was different – obviously these aliens had no tails, because the seats had fitted backs and were fairly narrow. She scrambled across the seat and examined the interior thoroughly – there were a large number of dials and buttons and lights which probably measured everything from oxygen content in the air to the ambient temperature. The language, however, was an unknown one compiled of an iconographic style font. She slid out, there was nothing useful to be found here, although the vehicle may come in handy later. If they drove it back to the base camp then it would be possible to properly study the energy source.

Her explorations carried her further around the chamber and made an even more interesting find.

Set in the wall was a collection of glass domes, each looking into a small chamber. She angled her flashlight to view the contents and froze in horror as the light darted across the ivory of old bones.

Inside every chamber was a skeleton. Some were curled up into a fetal position, grinning skull faces staring forever at nothingness. Others, perhaps disrupted from the impact, were nothing more then scattered piles. There was something decidedly odd about them - the bone structure was … different. For one thing, the skull faces were flattened with no trace of a muzzle whatsoever. The legs too were decidedly odd – the lower calf bones longer and the feet differently proportioned, not unlike the limbs of a Raccoon. There was no trace of a tail structure at all, save for a pitiful stump at the base of the spine.

What manner of an alien had these bones belonged to?

She stared at them for a long while, almost expecting them to move, but of course they did not, their grinning skull faces merely stared at her, secrets kept safe within their bones.

What had happened to them? Clearly their life support had failed and it was equally clear that it had happened some time ago. No scrap of tissue remained on the bones. That in itself was bizarre, because even with the heat, there was nothing that could have rotted it.

Was there?

She had many questions, but alas, the skulls weren’t talking and Sven was behind her, perhaps freezing to death or perhaps exhibiting some bizarre after-effects from the electricity strike. Azreal didn’t think the lightning had actually hit him, but it certainly had done something to him.

There was a walk-in-wardrobe at the end of the stasis chambers. Inside it, perfectly preserved, were about two dozen jumpsuits, made of a coarse material that looked almost flammable, hanging from a railing. There was also – and this was much more to her liking, a pile of blankets. Filling her arms with them, she hastened back to Sven.

He appeared slightly more coherent now then when she had left him, and had managed to pull himself upright. His eyes were still bloodshot and his ears lay flat against his skull. Sweat beaded his brow from the effort.

"I found some blankets," Azreal said, unrolling one and proffering it to him. "You need to keep yourself warm."

"And what about you? Aren’t you cold? It’s so cold…" He shivered, despite his thick fur.

Azreal was not finding it that cold, and it worried her. "Here," she said, "wrap these around you, I’ll be fine. I’ve found us a vehicle and…" She paused. "I don’t think the inhabitants of this place are going to bother us much. They’re dead."

"Dead? Before or after?"

"Before I’d be guessing," she assumed he meant the crash, "unless the impact stripped their skin from their bones. They’re aliens," she added.

"I’ll have to see them," he replied, "must make a report. If only I could stop shaking."

"My guess is that they’re some sort of exploration party, so they’ve probably got food around somewhere. I’m going to try and find it. You’ll be okay?" She couldn’t cope with him in this state, he was frightened, that was clear, but he would never admit it to himself, let alone to her. Sven was not the sort to take kindly to attempts at comfort. Better to be practical.

He nodded mutely by way of response. Azreal patted him on the shoulder. "Hang in there," she said, and walked away.

Sven watched her go with a mixture of relief and disappointment. After their coupling earlier, a part of him wanted nothing more then to curl up with her here and last out the storm. The other part of him took a more realistic, practical, approach. He could not explore the alien spacecraft – the electric current had passed through the ship and struck him and offset the rhythm of his heart. He felt weak – weaker then he ever had before and far weaker then he was comfortable with. The only hope was that somehow the fibrillations would pass and his heartbeat would return to normal. But for now he was helpless, able to do nothing more then wrap the blankets around his shoulders and body (and it was so cold, and he was used to the cold so why did he feel colder then he ever had before?), close his eyes and wait.

After a short search, Azreal found the barracks. Clearly this pyramid had been built as a landing base – which seemed odd to her, because usually shuttle-ships were used, but then again, they were aliens… And when the ship landed, the crew would go forth and investigate the landscape and return here. As far as barracks went, it was pretty rudimentary – a series of narrow bunks, set three high in the wall. There were no blankets at all here, but a small door led into what she took to be a washroom, except that instead of water it sprayed some sort of damp gas that reeked of cleanliness. Then again, maybe time had not been too kind on it either. There were some cylindrical objects with oval holes cut in the top that she took to be some sort of lavatory, although perching on such would be both awkward and inconvenient. The alien culture seemed surprisingly similar to her own - aside from the obvious structural differences.

Departing the barracks, Azreal continued her search around the walls. The beam of the flashlight did not penetrate more then a few feet, and thus she fell over the low wall before she even realized it was there. Lurching forward, the flashlight tumbled from her fingers, clattering to the ground. The beam thinned for a moment, almost surrendering altogether, then flared back to life. The Fossa picked herself up, brushing her hands against her trousers. She had fallen into some sort of jelly. It took her a moment to reach the flashlight, the substrate sucking noisily at every footfall. She wiped the torch clear of the goop and investigated her new surroundings as best she could.

It was a small paddock, for want of a better term, filled with a thick greenish-brown substance. But that was not the weirdest thing. No – the weirdest thing was the plants.

A small circle of the plants clustered about the centre of the paddock, the tallest reaching her shoulder but most no higher then her waist. The stems seemed soft, almost like fungi, and they entangled each other. A few pinkish-blue blooms sprouted at intervals along their length. She had never seen anything like it.

Perhaps this was the alien’s mobile food source? But would something that could sustain an alien race sustain her and Sven? Or would it poison them?

Azreal was always willing to try anything once. She had experimented enough with potentially poisonous plants to know exactly when you should spit them out and when it was safe to swallow them.

She had never failed yet.

Drawing her knife from her pocket, she cut off the tip of a stem. The plant seemed to quiver beneath her hand, and she jumped back, feet sliding from under her so that she fell to the ground with a "splouss". Pain radiated up her spine, but luckily the jelly mostly cushioned her fall. She backed up, until she ran up against the wall, and slid over it.

Outside the compound, she examined her find. Small speckles of red marred the greenish-brown coloration and it smelt faintly fruity. Oh well – nothing ventured, nothing gained. Very carefully, she took a tiny bite, a nibble, and held it in her mouth for a moment. There was none of the tell-tale burning or the slightly foul taste that usually came with the more poisonous plants, and after a moment she began chewing it – taking care not to swallow.

The taste that filled her mouth was not exactly pleasant – but it could hardly be described as unpleasant either. I tasted mostly like over-ripe fruit. She waited a few moments, but there were no negative side effects. It appeared the plant was in fact an alien food source. The beam of her flashlight revealed that the plant was motionless, and probably the movement had been her imagination.

Probably.

She clambered back over the wall and sloshed her way towards it, hacking off a larger branch this time. No, it was not her imagination, the plant shuttered quite noticeably. Azreal almost fall over the wall in her haste.

Sven was starting to look a little better as she returned to him. He even gave her a little half-smile of greeting.

"Feeling better?" She asked, "I think I found some food." She proffered him a length of the stalk. "It’s a bit chewy, but it’s not unpleasant. And probably not poisonous," she added as an afterthought.

The Wolf stared at it a little skeptically. "What is it?"

"I don’t know," she admitted, "but I seems to be their food source. I think this was an exploration ship and has been set up as a base ship for a crew on a planet."

He nodded, "that would explain the shape. You’re shivering," he added.

Azreal only then realized that she was – quite badly in fact. It might have been warmer in here – but the combination of cold, exertion and stress had finally struck her.

She leaned against the wall, easing down beside the Wolf. He lifted the corner of the blanket and draped it over her. Together the two of them huddled together in the alien spacecraft.

Outside the wind howled its banshee wails.

Azreal awoke to find her head resting on Sven’s shoulder. In an uncharacteristic act of companionship, he had draped his aim around her. His eyes were closed and his relaxed breathing indicated both that he had recovered from his near-death experience and fallen asleep. She remained motionless, unwilling to move and wake him up. He was so peaceful, in his sleep. Azreal smiled, wishing he was like this all the time instead of serious and stuck in his ways.

Outside the wind had fallen and all was quiet and calm.

After a while, she began to grow restless. "Sven," she hissed, "the wind’s fallen."

Sven grunted once, then opened his eyes. "Then," he said, "we’d best be going." He eased his way to his feet, shaking Azreal free in the process. She could not help but feel a little disappointed – but then again, what had she really expected? There were more important things to worry about then her own affections, after all.

The snowstorm had largely died and the ever-restless snow mists were little more then wisps of white-tipped cloud. The sky above them was a rich lavender, tinting to violet as it reached the atmosphere.

The sunlight reflected off the snow drifts in a manner that was just shy of unbearable. Sven reached into his copious jacket pockets and produced a pair of dark goggles. These he snapped around his head and then glanced across at Azreal, squinting uncomfortably. With a deep sigh, he took them off again and handed them to her.

"You better wear these," he admitted, handing them to her. He then pulled his balaclava around so that he stared not through the eyeholes but through the woolen weave.

The crater wall looked worse in sunlight. – the sides rose to a height of at least thirty feet and many of them were steep and precarious. Trying to climb up them would likely result in a broken neck or worse.

It took Azreal a moment to find the point where she had slid down, a cascade of ice crystals and snow making a slight trail down a less sheer portion of the wall. She was very thankful that she had done so in the dark and not been aware of how risky such a venture was. After a moment she saw the rope, only slightly to the left of the path she had created.

Sven would not set out on such a venture completely unprepared, Azreal realized, feeling a little foolish at her own undignified descent. They made their way to where the rope dangled downwards and Sven grabbed her about the waist, bolstering her up to reach the end of it. Was it her imagination or did his hands linger on her bottom a little longer then was necessary? She grasped the rope, wrapping her legs around it and began to drag herself up.

She did not get far.

This was completely unlike Gym class, and she’d never been a particularly skilled rope-climber there at any rate. This rope was slippery, for one thing – ice had frosted across it and now burrowed its way into the tender palms of her hands, clawing through the gloves she was wearing. She managed only a few feet before feeling the stickiness of blood on her palms and noticing the blood stains on the ice-encrusted rope. Clenching her teeth against the pain, the biting cold and the breeze that had just sprung up, Azreal clambered only a little higher before her arm muscles retired altogether and she slid back and into Sven before catching herself.

"I don’t think I can do this," she muttered angrily to herself, trying to hide the sob that threatened to betray her.

And then Sven’s strong hands were upon her, strong and warm and such a relief.

"I’ll carry you," he said, and she was surprised to hear he didn’t sound angry with her, more concerned. She gasped a little as he braced his knees against the scree slope and flung her over his shoulder. For a moment there she felt she was going to fall, but then she was just hanging over his back, staring at his tail.

She had to admire the way his buttocks rippled as he drew himself up the rope.

The wind hit them full force as they neared the top. It tugged at AZREAL'S balaclava and her goggles, threatening to tear them away to join it on its merry dance. Snowflakes scattered, clinging to her clothing and melting so that the chill soaked through the wool. She wrapped her arms about Sven’s neck and hung on for dear life.

A moment later he threw her rather unceremoniously to the ground and hauled himself up beside her. They staggered to their feet together, only about ten feet from the snow-pod.

As they neared it, the smell struck them. It smelt of burnt ozone, a very, very bad smell for a machine to have.

Sven hovered over it like worried parent. He snapped open the bonnet, stared at it for a long moment, sighed sadly and shook his head.

"It’s dead." He said. "The electrical charge has killed it." He kicked one of its runners in anger and grunted in pain at the impact. When he brought his eyes to meet Azreal, his expression of hopelessness frightened her. "We’re stranded."

As if to accentuate the point, the wind began to howl, tugging at their clothing and stirring up the snow-mist.

With a deep sigh, Sven slid open the pod’s dome and placed Azreal inside before she had the chance to object. He clambered in behind her, closing the dome behind them. The smell was worse in here, acrid and choking, it made her eyes water. The tears froze as they touched the frigid air. Even in here it was freezing cold, although the lack of wind helped. A little.

"What do we do now?" She asked, as Sven tried in vain to start the engine. Once, and only once, did it even catch, and only then for a millisecond, during which is caught, screamed shrilly, and then died forever.

No manner of persuasion would coerce it into catching again and after a time Sven slumped over the control panel in frustration.

Azreal, in the interim, removed her gloves rather awkwardly (Since they were sticky with blood) and inspected the palms of her hands. The shards of ice had done their job swiftly and messily and her pads were spattered with gashes, cuts and patches of frozen blood. She shuddered as the pain awoke within them, a tingling ache.

"We die," Sven said, finally and bleakly. "There is no way we can get back to the station without a vehicle." He wrapped his arms around Azreal in an unusual gesture of affection. "I’m sorry it all had to end like this. You should have stayed back at the cabin where you would be safe. It’s your own stupid fault, you know." The words, although harsh, were said kindly enough.

It was then that Azreal remembered. "The alien ship!" She exclaimed, "there was a vehicle in it – two of them and they were running off the same sort of power source as the ship. Maybe they’ll still work?"

Sven frowned. "The ship is ancient," he commented, "I doubt any power supply could last that long."

"The ship was still mobile, wasn’t it? That sphere thing still seemed to be alive."

"True," he commented, and then finally smiled. "Well, we’ve got nothing to lose but our lives, which we’ve as good as lost already, so we might as well give it a go."

And with that optimistic thought in mind, they set out once more into the frigid air, pausing only to swath AZREAL'S tattered hands in bandages. If nothing else, the snow-pod contained a well-equipped first aid kit. Sven, she noted with some satisfaction and more then a little envy, was wearing much heavier gloves. So that was how he could climb the frozen rope when she had failed. He’d chosen the best gloves for himself!

It was much easier going down the rope then up it, although it still pained her palms. The crater was decidedly warmer then the surface, something for which she was most thankful. The two of them darted into the welcoming warmth of the spaceship and Azreal led the way to the parked vehicles.

"They’re not very comfortable," Sven remarked, as he tried to angle his tail and digitigrade feet around the pedals. "And I can’t read a word of the language. This should prove to be a unique and entertaining experience," he added dryly.

Azreal flung the blankets into the back seat. At least there was space in this vehicle for the two of them and provisions. She made no retort to his sarcasm, having no desire to get his ire up. All she wanted was to get out of this frozen wasteland and back into the warmth of the lodge.

"Should we take some of the food?" She asked, not really sure if she wanted to approach that plant again. There was something about it that unnerved her.

"Yes," he replied, "we’ll need everything we can get our paws on."

She handed him the knife. "I’ll show you where it is, you can cut it this time."

Sven shook his head emphatically, "no, alas, I have to work out how this bizarre machine works, you go get it."

Azreal stamped her foot in frustration, but she knew when she was beaten. If they didn’t get the machine going, they would never get out of there, and getting out of here was of the utmost importance, about right now. Sighing deeply, she took up her flashlight and returned to the strange plant.

This time she cut off a long branch and felt it whiplash beneath her hands. A shrill sound – almost above her hearing range, echoed in her ears. Did plants scream? Was this a plant or some sort of plant/animal symbosis?

She did not hang around to find out, but hastened back to Sven with her spoils.

Just as she was approaching, the vehicle made a "chug-chug-chug" noise, closely followed by a roar that echoed throughout the cavernous chamber.

"It’s alive!" Sven shrieked, almost manically. It was rather out of character for him, but Azreal could only conclude that certain circumstances demanded a certain amount of glee. Of course, there was still one huge problem they had to solve…

Their new vehicle was at the bottom of a rather deep crevasse.

Azreal did not really like to point this out to Sven, however, as she didn’t want to upset him. He’d had a trying time of late and if he got further upset, he’d make her time more trying too. Maybe he had a plan.

She could but hope.

Sven was already inside the vehicle when she approached it. He swung open the door for her and she clambered in, crouching awkwardly on the strange seats, angling her bottom so that her tail was not stuck up her spine.

"Are you ready?" Sven asked.

Azreal nodded.

"Hang on tight!"

And he flicked the switches.

Eerie blue light flooded the room, and then he slammed another lever down and the vehicle lurched back suddenly, almost hitting the wall before he managed to find the brake. "Oops."

"Maybe I should drive?" Azreal offered.

Sven chuckled at that. "I think not," he replied. The vehicle lurched forward, skidding awkwardly and almost striking one of the walls, then skirting along the wall to the entrance way, engulfed in a shower of sparks from the impact. It slid through the entranceway they had created, clearing the sides with only a whisker to spare, and then shot out into the snow.

And faltered.

"You’re not going to pull it up there, are you?" Azreal asked, "I don’t think even you’d be strong enough to pull up a vehicle."

"Thanks," he commented, a hint of sarcasm in his tone. "I am rather hoping this will prove to be an all terrain vehicle."

Azreal frowned. "You’ve gotta be kidding!" She exclaimed, "you want to take this up that steep slope? It won’t make it."

"Look at the tires," he said, sliding open the door. Azreal leaned out. They were large, wide and somewhat spiky. "I think we can make it. Besides, the gravitational field of Hogarth is somewhat weaker then Geode. That’ll help."

"You’re crazy."

"Feel free to stay here," he commented, "you weren’t really invited on this trip anyway."

Azreal snickered at that. "Oh yes, I was just going to stay behind and twiddle my thumbs. For sure. Come on, let’s see what this baby can do."

Sven lined the vehicle up with the base of the slope, reversing back so that it almost touched the crashed pyramid. "Hold on tight," he said, revving the engine.

And then it erupted forward, with so much speed that Azreal was sure they were going to go through the wall instead of up it. The roar of the engine changed to a rather more subdued, grinding sound, as the tires cut into the slippery scree surface and carried it upwards.

The path was not exactly vertical, but it was a pretty sheer diagonal, and Azreal found herself leaning forward out of pure instinct. Sven leaned over the steering wheel (which was more T-shaped then a wheel at any rate), sweat beading on his forehead and an expression of intense concentration on his muzzle. He’d taken off his balaclava in order to see better, she noted. Good thing the windscreen was tinted to take out the sun-glare. The vehicle crested the hill in a cloud of snow and a grinding of gears.

"Thank the stars," Sven muttered, wiping the balaclava across his forehead. "Now to scavenge what we can from the wreck, I guess."

They stripped the snow-pod of its supplies, including the medic kit. The extremely accurate compass (programmed in to the lodge), unfortunately, was set into the dashboard and could not be removed without ceasing to operate, meaning they would have to rely on Sven’s portable one. He programmed in the coordinates of the spaceship so that they could relocate it later.

"It’s going to be a long trip back," he commented, "especially if that snowstorm hits."

Azreal didn’t care – she’d had enough of this adventure and wanted nothing more then a long, hot bath. She was just glad to be mobile again.

The snowstorm hit a few hours later. It started small – with the typical snow flurries and the descent of the snow-mist. But it quickly escalated into a fully-fledged storm. Snow devils whirled and danced across the path of the alien vehicle. The wind tore mercilessly at them, threatening to capsize the vehicle (which was rather bulkier then the snow-pod) if they were not leaning into the wind. AZREAL'S hands clenched so tightly that she could feel the blood beginning to pool beneath the bandages. Occasional bursts of wind would send the vehicle hopping sideways and everytime the two of them would hold their breathes and hope that it didn’t strike against anything that might prove fatal.

Visibility dropped to three feet, then one foot and then nil, so that all they could see, gazing out through the thickened glass was a great sea of white. The compass still kept them firmly on course, but now they could no longer see any crevasses, potholes or rocks that might be in their way.

And thus they swiftly ran up against one.

A high-pitched whine filled the air as a rock ground against the vehicle’s belly, closely followed by a thump-thump-thump as it tried to make its way over it and failed. It was a solid vehicle – it was unlikely to be damaged (these aliens had clearly not known what terrain to expect and had thus prepared for anything), but it was well and truly stuck.

Sven switched off the motor with a sigh, and the howling wind rushed in to fill the lacuna of silence. "At least we’re warm and out of the wind," he commented.

Azreal dragged the blankets over from the backseat and wrapped some around herself. She didn’t feel warm, she hadn’t felt warm for far too long. She could barely even recall what warm felt like. Tucked up in her nest, she stared across at Sven. The Wolf had leaned back in his chair, his expression radiating annoyance and frustration. The Fossa could sense that if she left him in that state, he would be climbing out of the vehicle to try and lift it off the rock. Something like that was not particularly healthy in an environment where the wind could make a one ton vehicle skip sideways. He would be scooped up and tossed away like nothing more then a piece of garbage.

And then she would be left alone, with a vehicle she barely knew how to drive. Plus, she had to admit she was starting to develop a certain affection for the Wolf – she didn’t want to lose him, not yet.

Maybe not ever.

Dragging her bed of blankets with her, she crawled over so that her head almost rested on his shoulder. She reached up and touched him, somewhat tentatively. He jerked a little – surprised at the contact, but made no effort to shake her off. His posture showed no signs of relaxation however.

"They taught me some other stuff in my Furn training," she half-shouted in his ear (she had to, to be heard against the wind). Her long fingers touched his shoulders, and his neck, rubbing gently at the tension in his muscles. For a moment he still sat there, rigid and angry, but then her fingers did their work, and his expression sagged, his posture loosening.

"If you don’t learn to relax," she informed him, "you’ll end up old before your time. Trust me."

He sighed in response, as her fingers found the particularly delicate spot behind the ears. She raked her hands through his hair and fur, running the tips of her sheathed claws against his scalp. He emitted a tiny moan and she noticed that whilst some of him was relaxing, other parts certainly were not. There was a rather specific tenseness in his groin.

She pulled the blanket over the both of them, trying to trap in the heated air. It would not do to become so distracted that one accidentally caught hypothermia, would it?

And then she stretched herself along the front seat, propping herself up on her elbows so that her head was just above the rather prominent bulge in Sven’s groin. Her fingers fumbled a little at the drawstrings of his leggings, the action causing small flickers of pain that in fact delighted her more then disturbed. Sven drew himself up on the bench, so that she could ease his leggings down and begin on his longjohn-style underwear. Luckily they had a flap at the front - for ease of use, presumably.

His penis sprang out to meet the world, escaping the confines of his underwear. Azreal ran one hand down his sheath and through his pure white pubic hair, smiling as his face twitched in response. There was one sure-fire way to make Sven smile, she decided. The size of it no longer intimidated her, she realized how gentle such a big man could be.

It was an odd-looking piece of equipment, she pondered, examining it properly for the first time, her fingers tracing the prominent veins and arteries and the "canine knot". Sven made no word of complaint – unless that gasping intake of breath was a complaint? Somehow Azreal didn’t think so. She leaned over it, her finger tracing the smooth helmet. So soft and yet so hard. Leaning closer, she flicked out her tongue, tracing the base of the head whilst keeping one eye on Sven’s face. His mouth twitched into a peculiar half-grimace that she took to be a sign of pleasure. He certainly made no effort to stop her.

Gently she blew on the dampened skin, and Sven shivered with the sudden chill.

Then, confidence growing, along with the tingling in her own groin, she opened her mouth and took the head of Sven’s cock into its warm depths.

The Wolf gasped, hands clawing at the covering blankets and eyes rolling back into his head. His entire body shuddered and Azreal felt quite pleased with herself. It felt good to put her training into practice. And it felt even better to achieve such a noticeable and positive response.

A sudden gust of wind sent the vehicle rocking wildly for a moment, drawing Azreal back, momentarily, to the precarious situation outside. She tensed, her gums closing tightly about Sven’s organ and his half-gasp, half-moan drew her quickly away from the external dangers. His hands grasped at her, fumbling for her breasts, but getting only handfuls of cloth. Azreal was not sure about removing her clothing, it was rather cold after all, but his large, calloused hands felt so good….

She drew more of him into her mouth, as much as she could bear without gagging. His hands clawed harder as she increased the pressure, then tickled it gently with her tongue.

One hand found her nipple, twisting it, making her moan in a combination of both pain and pleasure. The heat between her legs expanded, almost like an internal fire being sparked, and she rubbed herself along the seat, enjoying the feeling of the rough cloth against her delicate regions. There was a slight tingling of pain there too – she had not fully recovered from her deflowering. She didn’t care. She tried to drag herself upwards, to bring her mouth to Sven’s, but his hands were on her shoulders now, holding her in place, deep shuddering sighs answering her every move.

Her own arousal was becoming almost unbearable.

"Sven," she panted, freeing her mouth for a moment, "please … touch me!" She kissed down the length of his penis, tugging gently on the soft skin of his balls with her teeth.

In response, he drew himself free of her embrace – rather reluctantly, it had to be noted, and straddled her so that his penis hung above her head, and his head lingered somewhere about her nether regions.

Propping herself on her shoulders, she took his organ in her mouth again and nibbled gently on it.

His fingers fumbled at her leggings, jerking them unceremoniously down to her knees. She gasped as the cold struck the exposed skin, a chill that combated with the burning internal heat.

And then Sven brought his muzzle down to her groin, his tongue flicking lightly across her elongated, engorged clitoris. The spasms shot through her like so much electricity, and she writhed, trying hard not to bite down on his most delicate appendage.

With one hand, his fingers parted her cleft, allowing more cold air to rush into her and chill her with delight, and then his tongue bathed it in warmth.

AZREAL'S hands and feet clawed instinctively, her still-sheathed, but only just, claws raking at his semi-exposed buttocks. Her groin made small, involuntary, thrusts, aching for more, for more, always for more.

Her eyes glazed over and the storm outside, howling in its fury, was completely forgotten. The world had become only this, this intense, extreme flooding of pleasure.

And then it struck her, as involuntary as a sneeze but much, much, more pleasurable, the first orgasm washed over her and her entire body shuddered, her teeth closing on Sven’s penis a little too tightly.

"Oooooh," he moaned, his tongue ceasing its magical lapping, "ow."

"Su-suh-sorry." Her mouth was having trouble forming the words.

"I’ll forgive you this time," he said, "just don’t do it again."

"I’ll try not to," she replied, regaining control of her lips. At least for the next two seconds.

Then he lowered his muzzle again, and continued with his licking and nuzzling and blowing and she didn’t really know what he was doing down there, but goddamnit if it wasn’t the most wonderful and magical, but also terrible, thing she had ever felt in her life. The sensations overwhelmed her in a wave, threatening to engulf her – to drag her away forever, then they broke and she shuddered with the pleasure before the wave began to build again.

"Do you want me?" He panted, and she realized with a start that there was nothing, nothing, in the whole world that she had ever wanted more, at least at this moment.

"Yes," she sighed, "oh yes."

Sven turned, although she managed to place one final kiss on his cock first. He brought his mouth close to hers and she could smell herself on his breath, a salty, odd scent, but not unpleasant. He kissed her, hard and deep, tongue probing and she tasted herself on his lips.

At that same instant, he plunged himself into her, gently at first, as though testing the water, and then ramming himself home.

Azreal gasp-screamed, almost biting his muzzle in the process. And he sighed as though in great relief, a half-smile dancing on his lips. He thrust again, and the sensation almost sent Azreal clawing across the bench. It was so wonderful, so warm.

For a moment there they were not two beings, but one amorphous one. If she had to describe the sensation, she would have had to make use of such words as "internal massage" but even those did not invoke feelings even remotely close to those that flooded her senses. There was joy, yes, inhibited, unbridled delight. And pleasure – a pleasure greater then any she had ever imagined was physically possible. But there was pain as well, a tingling as his large organ tore across the newly healed skin, sending droplets of blood trickling out to stain the seats. She ignored it – the pain was nothing compared to the pleasure.

He thrust again, and she could feel the emotion coursing through him, in his hands, the tension in his body, the deep gasping sighs he emitted at every motion. The thrusting gained momentum as he neared climax, pushing himself against her so that her clitoris rubbed up against his belly, sending waves of pleasure more intoxicating then any she had ever experienced before.

Then the wave broke, collapsing down on her, making her tingly all over, radiating out from her groin and transforming her limbs to jelly. A moment later Sven unleashed a great, gasping sigh, plunged deep once more and held himself in that one position, his entire body shaking from the power of his orgasm. He sighed again, muttering something she could not hear above the roaring wind, and collapsed across her, still firmly within her.

There was something comforting about his weight resting on her, and he was very, very warm, like his skin was on fire beneath his fur. Every so often he would spasm and gasp again as the knot that held him inside her completed its work. The windows of the vehicle had completely steamed up, rendering even the minimal view invisible.

"Oh, goddess," Sven muttered, and Azreal wondered if he was making a reference to her or praying. "Goddess - save me from falling…" With a final, shivering sigh he was completely spent.

His words made no sense whatsoever to Azreal, so she pointedly ignored it and lay back, basking in the afterglow.

The two of them curled up together, whilst outside the wind ravaged and roared.

Some time later the wind died and silence descended like a blanket. Azreal listened for a time to Sven’s breathing - he had fallen asleep again. Typical male. Her fingers traced the gentle, relaxed, contours of his face and she watched his mouth twitch slightly, threatening to smile. Leaning close, she blew lightly in his ear. He twitched, but did not awaken.

Ah, such a silent sleeper.

Azreal stretched, casting her gaze out the window and at the white wasteland that was Hogarth. It was beautiful, albeit desolate. Spears of rock protruded through the snow, a stark black against the pure, untainted, white. The tops of these were lightly dusted with snow and small mounds were banked up around the bases, but for the most part, they were bare. There was something odd about the arrangement of the though.

Azreal did a double take, yes, she was right, the rocks were not random protrusions, but formed a distinctive shape. There were seven of them, and they were each evenly spaced. If she joined them, she fancied she would get an octagon, missing one side. It was then that she realized the vehicle was wedged up on one of the rocks one that lay horizontal on the ground. The wind must have bolstered them up onto it, then wedged them firmly in place.

But why were the rocks there? Who had built them? Something like that could not occur naturally, she was sure, and they looked archaic. If Sven or his fellows in the Geode military had erected them, wouldn’t they look more… modern? And wouldn’t Sven have told her?

Well, she couldn’t be too sure of that – Sven told her very little of anything.

She was itching to get out and investigate them, not to mention that there was rather a pressing need in her nether regions – and not a sexual one this time. She badly needed to empty her bladder, and she was not about to do it in here!

"Sven," she hissed, shaking him. He stirred, muttered something, licked his lips and fell asleep again.

Azreal sighed. Did sex always tire men out that much? Or was he still recovering from his near-death experience? She fidgeted, wishing he would wake up.

Well, nature called and at the very least, she had to answer.

It took her only a few fleeting moments to learn how to operate the door and slide out into the snow. The cold bit deep and she was thankful for her many layers but worried about the natural function she was about to perform – what if she caught frostbite in the process? Oh, if only she were male.

She crouched down in the shelter of the vehicle, one foot on the runners, the other on the black rock, and relieved herself as quickly as was humanely possible.

Clouds of steam rose from the snow. Azreal hastily redid the drawstring of her trousers and prepared to step back into the vehicle. Only, her right foot – the one on the rock, slipped from under her and she fell, landing face first onto it.

It was then that she noticed the runes. Once they must have been quite prominent, but now the almost constant wind had worn them away to shallow scratches. She ran her fingers over them – it was some sort of script formed from symbols.

Obviously once there had been life on Hogarth.

Azreal was curious, of course, but she was also very, very cold and didn’t want to linger any longer then she had to. If she drew Sven’s attention to her discovery, he would want to take rubbings or notes or something and she didn’t have the time nor inclination for that sort of thing. She wanted to get home. Adventures were one thing, but she could no longer feel her toes or her fingers and certain other body parts were beginning to feel distinctively chilled.

No, she didn’t want Sven to notice. She examined the manner in which the vehicle was stuck. Firmly wedged would be a better description. The rock had been half buried in snow, and the vehicle had driven straight up and partly over it so that the front wheels hung over one side, nothing but the air beneath them. The wind, meanwhile, had hollowed out a nice little cave between the back wheels and the ground, so that the belly rested on the rock but both sets of wheels had nothing to grip into.

The only way to free the vehicle from such an obstacle was to either lift it off, or to wedge snow underneath the rear tires, pack it as hard as possible, and hope that the tires would be able to gain traction on it.

Azreal didn’t think she could do that alone – already her hands were numb and playing with snow could hardly help matters. It was a real shame there was nothing resembling trees on Hogarth. A few branches would do the job nicely.

Alas, the only items they had on hand were the blankets, and Azreal was not quite sure she was willing to sacrifice those, even for the greater good.

There was no way around it, she would have to wake Sven and hope that he didn’t notice the runes.

It took some effort to rouse the Wolf, but finally he snorted, blowing air out his nostrils, and glared at her, disgruntled at being thus disturbed from his slumber.

"The wind’s died down," Azreal replied, before he had a chance to say anything that could be construed as offensive, "so we’d better get moving. The vehicle’s quite nicely stuck," she added. "It seems to have got wedged on a rock."

"Right then," said Sven, "I’ll just grab the rope."

Rope! Azreal had forgotten about the rope. With it they could be out of these horrid frozen wasteland so much faster.

Then Sven paused and cast her a suspicious look. "Azreal," he said, quite calmly, "did you get out of the vehicle?"

Azreal did not look even mildly abashed. "I had to pee," she said, "and I don’t think you would have approved of me doing that in here."

Sven did not question her further, but blushed ever so slightly and glanced away. Azreal smiled inwardly – he could watch completely dispassionately whilst someone inserted their fingers inside her, and yet the mention of perfectly natural toilet behaviour embarrassed him. Men!

It took a while and some rather acrobatic maneuvers before Sven managed to secure the rope about the bars adorning the back of the vehicle. Unfortunately, the longer they worked, the more savage the winds became, sudden wind gusts threatening to unbalance Sven and to lift Azreal up with it on its hectic dance. She clutched to the vehicle and held her breath at every icy blast.

The hail started just as Sven had secured the rope. At first it was nothing more then tiny pellets, little bigger then seeds. They bounced harmlessly off the two Furrs thickly padded clothing and leapt off the vehicle’s windscreen. Azreal huddled as close to the vehicle as she dared (since it was swaying alarmingly in the wind) and it was a good thing too – because gradually the hailstones increased in size.

First they were seeds, then they were peanuts and finally they were the size of golf balls, each blow leaving in its wake a painful bruise.

Azreal found herself bodily snatched up and dragged beneath the vehicle. It creaked and groaned ominously above them, whilst hailstones, now the size of tennis balls, impacted messily with the ground.

"I think this planet hates me," she said.

Sven grunted. "Not a planet," he muttered, "asteroid."

"Whatever." She shrugged. "It still hates me."

"Hogarth," Sven replied, "hates everyone. Be thankful you didn’t get hit by one of those monsters."

They sheltered beneath the vehicle for a while as thunder crackled and raged across the sky. It soon became clear that the weather intended to remain hostile for quite some time yet.

For a freezing eternity, the two of them huddled together as the weather grew visibly worse. White darkened the sky, a constant, raging flurry. Then as suddenly as it started, the snow whipped up and away.

It was then that they saw it – after all, it was impossible to miss. The snow-mist had entwined together, swirling around itself in a mighty tornado, whipping snow into the air and sprinkling the land with large chunks of hail.

And it was heading more-or-less directly at them.

Azreal shrieked a teensy bit in startlement and even Sven looked rather panicked.

The first gusts of wind struck, sending the vehicle to groan ominously and rocked from side to side. She did not like being under here.

And she very much did not like that thing coming in their direction.

Grabbing Sven by the arm, she dragged him out from the shelter just as, in a grinding of metal on rock, the vehicle slid another foot and then crashed to the ground. Snow cascaded over the two Furrs, sending the both of them sprawling.

Sven yelped as an oversized hailstone impacted sharply with his shoulder – pain ricocheting down his arm. He fell once more, clutching at his shoulder and dragging himself forward.

It was he who spotted the cave first. A dark hole not ten feet from where the two of them crawled through the snow, being pounded by hailstones. The wind tugged and dragged on them, trying to seize them up into its crazy twirling.

"There!" He shrieked, the wind tearing his words away, but his gesturing hand indicating what he wanted her to see.

Azreal nodded – underground was about the only safe place to be when such a twister struck. Clinging together for mutual support and to anchor themselves, they scrabbled towards the hole, hailstones bruising them with every passing second.

One sudden gust grabbed the Fossa sharply, and she felt herself rising. It was a terrifying, yet oddly wonderful, sensation, and one that was quickly, and painfully, brought short by a strong hand grasping her by the tail and yanking her back to the earth.

The wind roared, such a cacophony it drowned out all other sounds.

And then they were at the hole. A strong gust of wind exploded forth, pushing Azreal into the dark, dank depths, and thrusting Sven after her.

Behind them, the tornado took hold of the vehicle, lifting it as easily as though it were nothing more then a toy. It then proceeded to drag it up into the air, where it rotated it in its fury for several minutes, then discarded it, dropping it neatly into the hole the two intruders had fled down.

For a while it tugged at the black monoliths, but the remaining seven had been well planted and only the eighth, the broken one, proved an adequate toy. It twirled in the air, like a giant’s baton, and then too was tossed away into a snowdrift, where it buried itself ten feet into the frozen ground.

Meanwhile, whilst the tornado had its fun, Azreal and Sven were busily occupied falling to their dooms.

Azreal flailed, a scream rising in her throat. It had no time to erupt, however, because at the moment she opened her mouth in preparation to release it, the ground caught her.

This might not have been so bad, had she not then provided a comfortable landing pad for a writhing, and not particularly light, Wolf.

"Oof,’ she exclaimed, expelling her lungs of oxygen.

Sven rolled off her and drew himself into a defensive crouch. Outside the wind howled and roared its wrath. Inside it was dark and still and….

Warm?

This was not the warmth caused by the energy source of an alien spaceship – this warmth was deeper and more penetrating. It didn’t just take the chill of the air – it actually warmed it too.

"Are you okay?" Sven asked, forehead creasing with his concern.

"Just fine," Azreal panted. "Aside from the broken ribs and the crushed organs, that is," she added.

"That’s good then," Sven replied, without much feeling.

There was a bone-crunching ‘thunk’ and a scream of tortured metal as something almost fell into the same hole they had fled down.

"There goes the transport," Azreal commented, trying to make humour of a shaky situation. Luckily the hole was smaller then the vehicle was long and it wedged neatly in place.

Or perhaps not luckily – would they be able to escape? Not that it would be particularly possible to climb back up to the hole, at any rate.

Sven fossicked around in his coat pocket for a while, unearthing a flashlight and illuminating their surroundings.

They had fallen into a great cavern. Eight black pillars supported the ceiling, arranged in a circle. They lay at the foot of one monolith – although this one did not reach the ceiling, but was broken off about three feet short of it, leaving behind sharp spears of rock.

Of course! The eight stones that made up the circle, and this one was the broken one. But how could rock be splintered? She marveled their luck, had the wind not propelled them through the hole, they would both have been skewered. She ran her fingers down the black rock, feeling the same, or at least very similar, runes to those above ground.

"Sven?" She queried, "you know how you said it was thought there was once life on Hogarth? Could this be the work of that?"

Sven closed his large hand about hers. She could feel his nod of agreement through the tension in his shoulders. Whilst she could not see him, she was pressed as close to him as she dared. "Quite possibly," he commented, "we’ve made rather a few discoveries today." He drew out his little Dictaphone and spoke into it, his flashlight flickering about the chamber as he described it into the recorder.

"… It appears to be some sort of large cavern, possibly natural, and at least a hundred feet in width and maybe eighty in length. We’re currently standing in the middle, beside a thick black monolith." He tapped it, "it seems to be made of rock, but such rock is not commonly found on asteroids and I have never seen it before on Hogarth. The rock has been carved with pictograms, not unlike the language of the Ancients. " He paused, "there are eight rocks and they appear to be arranged in a circle. This does not look to have occurred by natural means, but may be the creation of an ancient Hogarthian civilization. Seven of these rocks are visible above the ground, but the eighth appears to have been broken off – possibly a result of the earlier earthquake. At the centre of the circle," he paused again, his flashlight scooping out the chamber, "there appears to be a dark black patch – possibly a pond of some description. The air is unusually warm and stinks of sculpture. This find coincides with the samples of Hogarth’s core taken ten years ago that confirms Hogarth is formed about a molten core, a discovery that also explains its erratic and wild weather patterns. Beyond the circle," he stepped away from Azreal and she scuttled after him, unwilling to let him from her sight (an impossibility at any rate, given he had the only light source and unless he turned it off, was easily visible to her), "appears to be some sort of crystalline ice structure."

AZREAL'S jaw dropped as she saw it, reflecting the light’s beam back and forth a hundred thousand ways. The walls were multi-faceted crystals, slick with moisture. Condensation, she fancied. It could not be ice, as hot as it was in here, ice would never last.

Hogarth, she reflected, was a damned weird planet. Asteroid, she corrected herself. Burning hot in the centre, frozen solid on the outside, and so barren that a single storm could rage forever and completely alter the landscape on a regular basis. Azreal had not paid a great deal of attention in Geology class (after all, what use was knowledge on rocks? It wasn’t as though you could eat them or tame them or that they’d actually change much in your lifetime), and now she was beginning to wish she had. Her curiosity was getting the better of her.

"Sven?" She asked, catching up to him and noticing he had not spoken into his recorder for a few moments and therefore was free game for questions, "how can Hogarth be boiling and frozen at the same time?"

He looked a little surprised, as though he didn’t expect such thoughts to even vaguely entertain her. "Hogarth is fairly young as far as asteroids go," he commented, "and it is not well understood. However, it is believed it was once a small water planet, or possibly a gas planet, where the main gases were hydrogen and oxygen. However, the sun that it circled began to die and the outer surface began to freeze. Then, somehow and nobody can understand this, it was disrupted from its orbit, or so some hare-brained new age scientists claim. The old school scientists of course laugh at such things, it’s practically impossible to force a planet, even a small one, from its orbit and certainly it is not something that could happen without extreme intervention."

"What about if the sun supernovaed?" Azreal asked, remembering something else from her Astrology classes.

"Then the planet would have been obliterated." He said. "A supernova would decimate life on surrounding planets and render everything dead. Even if it did disrupt the planet from its orbit, that would not be enough to send it across the unfathomable depths of space to a new orbit around a new planet."

"So how did it move then?"

He shrugged, "I’m just military, Azreal, not an astrologer. I don’t really know much more about that kind of thing then you. Besides, scientists have been wrong before and they shall most certainly be wrong again."

Azreal chuckled, "you know what?" She commented lightly, changing the topic, "this place reminds me quite a bit of that spaceship we just explored. Wouldn’t it be really freaky if this turned out to be not an asteroid at all but some sort of alien spacecraft?"

The utter ludicricity of such a comment made Sven laugh along with her. But it got him to wondering – was it really such a stupid idea? Alien spacecrafts could look like almost anything, after all, and there was surely technology out there that Geode scientists could never even comprehend. Azreal was not much more then a child, certainly, but that also meant she had a child’s imagination. And sometimes the imagination of a child could open doorways and make connections where the minds of skeptical adults could not.

"Wouldn’t it just," he replied, humoring her. No point in making a fool of himself by explaining such thoughts to her, better to wait for confirmation first. And there was certainly no way that this was going on his report. "How about we have a look at that pond? Take some measurements?"

Azreal was still not done with her new and quirky theory. "Maybe the storms are caused by the engines that once made the asteroid move," she continued, "and now it’s fallen into orbit and there’s none left to look after them, they just run riot."

He chuckled, playing along with her, all the time his mind racing along the possibilities. Was it really so ridiculous? Yes, he scolded himself, it was. There was no point in encouraging the insane imagination of a girl that was old enough to know better. "Yes," he added, "and maybe the crew that manned it are frozen in the ice walls?"

At that comment the Fossa shuddered, images of zombies breaking free of the crystal walls and coming after these ‘invaders’ coming to mind. She glanced anxiously around the cavern, finding darkness on all sides, safe for the reflected beams of the flashlight. But were those reflected beams? They looked a bit like eyes…

She shuddered, stepping as close to Sven as she dared.

He knelt down beside the pool, its dark depths devouring the light. "Pool is circular and measures approximately ten feet in diameter," he stated into his Dictaphone. "It appears deep, no bottom is visible." He dipped his hand in the water. "Temperature is slightly above body temperature," he continued, "I shall now conduct a simple experiment to approximate depth." Reaching into his copious coat pockets again, he drew out something no bigger then a peanut. After running his fingernail across the surface, he dropped it in the water.

It landed with a splash, and began slowly to sink.

Both Azreal and Sven craned their ears, but there was not a noise to be heard.

"Pond is very deep," Sven recorded, "the sensor reached maximum measurable depth without reaching the bottom."

"What’s that?" Azreal grasped Sven’s arm hard, claws sinking through his clothing. She was plainly upset – she’d unsheathed her claws.

"What’s what?" Sven asked, but was silenced by Azreal placing her hand across his mouth.

He heard it then, a thin, musical tinkling coming from the crystal walls.

"It’s them!" She shrieked, "we’ve woken them up!"

Sven chuckled, putting his arm around her. "You’re letting your imagination get away with you," he said, "its probably just been dislodged by the tornado tossing things around above ground. I wouldn’t think anything about it."

At those words the temperature dropped about twenty degrees. Azreal looked quizzically at him. "Explain that," she said.

"The storm outside is bringing the temperature down?" He ventured rather tentatively, and without believing a word of it.

A further tinkle of crystal followed, louder now. Sven shone his flashlight towards the source of the noise and for a fleeting instance something moved in the light, before skittering back towards the wall. It was too fast for either of them to make a proper observation – it happened too quickly for them to even be sure it was something living and not just the light’s reflection, but Azreal fancied she saw long, insectile legs and an elongated face.

But then again, she did have an overactive imagination.

"Can we please leave?" She queried. "This place is spooky, and I think the tornados passed over."

Sven glanced at her, his hand about her shoulders confirming that she was shaking. Poor lass, but he was not about to leave this new and fascinating discovery. Then again, he wasn’t paid to venture out into the wilds of Hogarth and a more thorough investigation with proper equipment could be made later, after he sent the information back to Geode.

Not to mention that the temperature was dropping substantially in here.

There was just one minor difficulty – there was no way to get out.

And then the pool began to boil.

Azreal gave a little shriek, pressing close to Sven and almost distracting him with the nearness of her lithe feminine body and lingering musk. A heavy scent filled the air, obliterating her sweet perfume. It was acrid, and thick and weighed heavy upon the lungs.

His body demanding oxygen that it could not find, Sven began wheezing and gasping, one hand clasping at his throat as though seeking to free it of an invisible, non-existent, binding. His vision blurred – no longer did one Azreal stand beside him, but two, and the air was filled with a blue-white glowing smoke. There was something wrong with it – Sven narrowed his eyes and saw it twisting, entwining, but such movements were not random. It seemed to be coalescing into what could be described as a vaguely bipedal shape, albeit one with a decidedly insectile touch to it. And a touch of bird. Tendrils of it snaked about them and Sven tried to push it away, but his arms felt as though they were made of lead and the muscles were jelly. The tendrils caressed him and he felt them prodding delicately at his ears and his nostrils. Their touch was cold and soft, almost feather-like.

He thought Azreal might be screaming something, but the noise didn’t seem to reach his brain. She quivered against him, then drew herself straight.

"What do you want?" She demanded, before Sven had the chance to speak.

A face had formed in the steam now, an elongated muzzle tapering to a point and two huge, black almond-shaped eyes which regarded him with the utmost compassion. It cocked its head to one side, and then spoke in a musical voice.

"You ha-ave invaded our sanc-tuary. Why?"

"We did not invade," Azreal replied. Her voice was surprisingly calm, given Sven could feel her shaking against him. "We sought shelter from the twister."

"Twi-ster?" The alien creature tried out the word as though tasting it, although it did not appear to have a mouth.

"The tornado," Sven explained. "Hogarth is famed for its hazardous weather patterns."

"Ho-garth." The alien paused. "How much time has passed." It was more a statement then a question, and it was one Sven could not have answered at any rate. How long had these creatures been here?

"Quite a bit I’d be willing to guess," Azreal ventured.

It was then that Sven realized there was something about the alien’s appearance that wasn’t quite right. It was not the sheer oddity of it – that in itself was expected. No, it was the fact that it seemed both fragile and two-dimensional, more like an image then a tangible being. A small smile flickered across his face and he stood proud and all.

"What are you?" He asked.

"We are the Eternal," it said. He realized now that it was not merely one voice he heard, but many, all in exact, precise, harmony with one another, and all identical. It was eerie, but melodic and beautiful. "And you have committed the ultimate crime."

"Entering your chamber is the ultimate crime?" Sven frowned. "What about murder?"

"Murrr-der?" Once again, the syllables were thoroughly tasted. "What is this murder of whence you speak?"

Azreal nudged him. "They’re called the Eternal," she hissed in his ear, "maybe they don’t really know what death is?"

She had a point, Sven admitted to himself (privately, where she couldn’t hear it and get all arrogant), Azreal was not as foolish as he had thought all Furns to be. Bubble-headed bimbos had been his pre-conception, nothing more then willing sexual slaves, without much of a thought in their pretty little heads, except to please their master. He shuddered – how wrong such a conception had proven? Azreal was more sexual partner then sex slave (and there was a distinctive difference) and she seemed to be pretty quick thinking. Of course, she probably had once had to be – how must life in the camp have been for her? He squeezed her hand, partly in reassurance, partly for the physical contact.

"So what is the punishment?"

"We have tasted of your thoughts and … feelings," the alien (or was it aliens?) sang. "Your kind is so filled of delicious emotions. We wish for more."

At this Sven could not help but be puzzled.

"I can feel you in my head," Azreal said, "why? Why do you do this?"

"We Eternal cannot feel, only dine and for too long now we have fasted. But you creatures of flesh and blood and organs, are most scrumptious indeed. We ask only that you allow us to taste these emotions, through you."

"Does it hurt?" Azreal said tentatively.

"That we cannot know."

Azreal nodded. "You do not feel pain, do you?"

"Only through flesh and blood like yourself."

"And if we refuse?" Sven queried.

"Then you shall remain here until you agree. We think you will find that we have the patience."

Sven did not doubt that – after all, they called themselves "the Eternal". And he certainly didn’t have that sort of time. Even now he could feel the chill creeping into his body, a deathly, numbing chill that could only result in the sweet oblivion of nothingness.

"What does it entail?" He gulped.

"We would simply implant a small part of us inside you. We do not believe it will cause you pain, although we cannot say it will not. In this manner we will travel with you and feel what you feel." He felt something tickling in his head, as though someone were running a feather over his brain. It was a decidedly unpleasant sensation.

"We feel that you are ill at ease. You do not like the idea?" The almond-shaped eyes narrowed into slits and the voice, when it came, had lost some of its melody in favour of menace. "You wish instead to stay here and freeze in the snow?"

Azreal held up her hand. Blood trickled down beneath the bindings and the glove, freezing in a bracelet about her wrist. "I agree," she said, "plant your seed in my head or whatever."

"Az, are you sure about this?"

She nodded. "I don’t want to die here," she replied meekly, "and I cannot make myself move."

"And you?" The almond-shaped eyes regarded him solemnly.

Sven swallowed, but if Azreal was going to be brave, then so was he. "I accept."

He could feel the tendrils caressing his face, their touch almost like that of a lover’s – soft and delicate and frighteningly arousing. He whimpered as one forced its way into his ear, it was both thick and as soft and as intangible as a breeze. It massaged the inside of his brain, settling into a spot at the front of his brain. He could feel it there, a small tingling lump, claws latched into his emotion receptors. And he wanted nothing more then to reach in, pull it free, and stomp on it.

Alas, that was impossible.

The control the aliens had exerted over him to keep him standing upright released, and he collapsed to the ground in a tangle of limbs with Azreal. She had curled into the fetal position and her hands clawed at her face, as she sought to tear herself free of the alien parasite. Sven shuddered, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder.

"It’s all right," he said, "everything is going to be all right."

But he thought he lied, even to himself.

Gathering her up into his arms, the two of them leaned against the supporting pillar stone. Ahead the sky was a rich, calm lavender, obscured somewhat by the vehicle lying across the hole.

"How do we get out?" Azreal whispered. "They’ve trapped us here after all, haven’t they?"

Sven ran his fingers through her hair, realizing with a start that she had clawed her balaclava off in her panic. He stroked her cheek, feeling furrows in the thin fur, trails left by her claws. There were no words to be said, how could he reassure her when he couldn’t convince himself?

It was then he felt the rope against his back. It had been tied about the vehicle before the tornado had advanced on them, and when the tornado had been thrust after them, the rope had found its way down the hole.

Coincidence? Sven wondered if there was such a thing, but was glad of the discovery all the same. Scooping Azreal up and thrusting her over his shoulder, he began to heave himself up the rope. His arms felt so weak he did not know how he found the strength, but within a relatively short period of time, the two of them were above ground once more.

And, against all odds, the vehicle’s energy supply had not been damaged and it burst into life at the first attempt.

He tenderly placed Azreal in the passenger seat and wrapped the blanket about her, tucking it tightly into place. She was shivering violently and her eyes were wide, unblinking, as she gazed into middle distance. "Don’t fight it," he whispered. He could feel the parasite seed, feel the waves exuding from it, the hunger as it sought to devour his emotions. But would it really eat them? He wondered. Would it take them away from him forever? Or was it just a silent observer, growing fat on borrowed feelings? He could not even begin to comprehend how it worked.

The world looked different to him too, he realized as he turned his attention to the rugged terrain before the two of them. No longer was Hogarth a barren, desolate wasteland, physically it had not changed, but the soft hues of the sunlight playing on the snow brought simple delight to him, and the deep, shadowy crevasses held new secrets and new magic.

Maybe it was just the joy of being above ground once more? But Sven did not think so, he thought the seed must be doing something to interfere with his brain signals. Maybe it was digesting his emotions and excreting this newfound sense of wonder?

Azreal uncurled ever so slightly and her eyes found new focus. "Beautiful," she whispered, "you never told me Hogarth was this beautiful."

Sven chuckled. "I guess I never saw it before," he said.

As the vehicle approached the lodge, a new sense began creeping up on him. It was a feeling one not infrequently experiences upon approaching home after a long trip away – a sense of nagging doom. Had the lodge burned down in his absence? Had the tornado taking it out? Had he forgotten to turn the kettle off?

The small, nagging concerns esculated as the structure came into view, deepening into confusion as he saw the large, dark shape of a moonlander craft crouching on the flat ground like some sort of lurking beast.

Then he laughed. Of course – he had radioed Geode just before the spaceship made its crash-landing. They would, naturally, send the nearest cruiser to investigate, and to clear up his remains to send back home for a proper burial. He could not recall if he had sent through a message that they had survived. It seemed like a lifetime ago. He drew the vehicle to a halt beside it.

Azreal, on the other paw, showed a decidedly different reaction then relieve. "It’s him!" She shrieked, "he’s come back to get me, to claim what he believes is his." A calm settled across her, a calm that was somehow more frightening then the panic she had exhibited seconds before. "I shall teach him," she snarled, "he will not touch me like that again."

It was then that Sven realized who she meant – Stefan, who brought the supplies, and who had brought Azreal with him, on his last journey. And who was to say what atrocities he had committed on the Furn on the journey? Certainly, intercourse had been forbidden, but there were other ways to torment sweet and (relatively) innocent girls without leaving a mark on them. He could not forget the way the Serval had crudely shoved his fingers into her most private of regions. It had disgusted him then – partly because she had tolerated it, but now it made him almost physically nauseous. She was not a sex toy – she was a living, thinking, being!

Funny how opinions changed, once you got to know someone, he reflected.

But this was not the supply shuttle – this was a tripod-like landing pod which meant there must be a mothership up there somewhere, orbiting the asteroid. He squeezed her hand. "Don’t stress," he said, sounding less compassionate then he would have liked, "it’s not Stefan."

Azreal, however, appeared not to be listening. She was staring out the wind, her face pale beneath her fur and her hands clawed against her waist. Blood trickled down her hands and stained the gloves a deep rusty brown.

"It is," she said, and her voice sounded both angry and lost at the same time. "It is. And worse, much worse."

It was with those words that Sven realized what had happened. She had gone insane. Poor stubborn Azreal had suffered too much, and it had broken her. Sadness welled up in him and he drew her close to him, so that her head rested against his chest. Grimly, he groomed her hair with one hand, keeping the other firmly about her.

"It’ll be all right," he whispered, "it’s just a couple of researchers, come to investigate the crashed vessel."

She was shivering violently, but as he held her he felt the shudders cease, until she lay calm against him. The vehicle may have been heated internally, but the temperature was dropping now the engine had been cut. They could not stay out here, not when there was warmth and food to be had inside.

Food… His stomach rumbled at the mere thought of it, and the thought of returning to their peaceful games of chess, of cooking exotic meals from bland ingredients and arguing over the petty things in life.

How he longed for a return to the monotonous schedule, a schedule without spacecrafts manned by dead aliens and aliens that wanted to plant their seeds in your head.

He felt a strange, sharp jab at that thought and recoiled, abashed. It seemed as though the aliens were trying to pass on a message.

"Come on," he said, putting his arm around Azreal and leading her from the vehicle. "It’ll be fine, everything will be fine, you’ll see."

At first she made no resistance, allowing herself to be lead as though she were nothing more then the mindless sex slave he had initially taken her for. It was only as they neared the door that her eyes became wide with panic and she started pulling against him.

"No,’ she whispered, "no."

He grabbed her firmly, swinging her so that their chests touched and he gazed down on her, kissing her on the forehead. For Sven this was an unusually affectionate gesture.

"Out here there is cold and death," he said, "do you want to die, Azreal?"

"No," she replied, pressing her head against his chest. "But I don’t want to go in there either."

"Well," he added, more gruffly this time, "you have no choice, Stephanie – if you stay out here, you will die, but if you come in there with me, you’ll see everything will be just fine and even if it isn’t – I’m here to protect you."

"Yes," she whispered, "thank you."

Whilst she had not agreed to his words, she put up no resistance either, allowing herself to be escorted into the warmth of Sven’s lodge.

It was only as they pushed the door to the inner sanctum open, that Sven realized maybe he should have trusted her instincts.

Sprawled across the bed, looking for all the world as though he owned it, and lived there, was Stefan. With one hand he was flipping through Sven’s personal journal (not a diary, because Sven would never do anything as girly as keep a diary) and with the other hand he held a bottle of Sven’s beer. Sven only received one crate of beer per visit, and hoarded the bottles as though they were pure gold, savoring them when he felt particularly deserving.

The pile of bottles on the bench indicated that Stefan considered himself extremely deserving of such treats. A quick mental calculation revealed that the bottle in his hand was in fact the last one.

Ordinarily, this would have swept Sven into a rage, but he managed to restrain himself this time, not only because of Azreal cowering beside him and tugging to escape, but also because Stefan had brought a friend with him.

Sitting in Sven’s favorite armchair – the one where Azreal slept, was a Furr the Wolf had never seen before. He was a Raccoon, clad very neatly in a business suit, complete with tie (although it hung loosely and crookedly about his throat) and cufflinks. The impression however, was somewhat destroyed when one glanced at the Coon’s face. An eye-patch covered one eye, but it did little to disguise the slash of scar tissue that ran from the Raccoon's forehead, under the eye-patch (where surely it must have taken out his eye) and down one cheek, to finally end in a great lump of pinkish-white flesh just beneath his muzzle.

"Looks like the bold explorer has returned," Stefan commented, "your life makes really boring reading, I must say." He flung the journal in Sven’s vague direction, misjudging the distance so that it fell to the ground some feet away. "But at least your liquor cabinet was well stocked." He twitched one over-sized ear.

"What are you doing here?" Sven asked, keeping his voice as calm as he could – which wasn’t very, given the circumstance.

"I suppose I should introduce you to my companion," Stefan continued, completely ignoring his reluctant host, "this is Doctor Ricardo Blake, Alientologist. He’s come to have a little geeze at the spaceship that didn’t quite manage to kill you."

"And why are you here, Stefan?" Sven repeated, happening to glance at Azreal.

The Fossa’s face had gone entirely slack and her gaze was affixed entirely on Ricardo Blake. There was something in her eyes – recognition and fear…. More then that, the seed in Sven’s head added – she was terrified, but there was guilt too. She unsheathed her claws suddenly, plunging them deep into Sven’s arm, penetrating through the fabric. He howled, more in surprise then pain, but relinquished his grip in the process. It was too late to make a move to stop her – Azreal was gone, fleeing down the hallway and out into the snow, leaving the door hanging open. The wind slammed it shut with a BANG.

"Feisty wee thing," Stefan continued, "looks like you’ve done nothing to tame her Whitey, me-lad." He chuckled. "Have you fucked her yet? Oh don’t fret," he added, "she’ll be back – they always come back. ‘Specially if you fuck them good."

Sven did not think the Serval’s crass comments demanded an answer, and thus did not give one. Doctor Ricardo was paying both of them no attention what-so-ever, indeed, he was staring out the window, his fingers interlocking as he watched the Fossa run across the snow.

"So Stephanie Foster," he said, shaking his head, "who would have thought I’d find you here?"

Azreal ran, flinging open the alien’s vehicle’s door and collapsing across the seat. Her heart pounded. What was he doing here? Had he followed her? She shuddered. So many years had passed since she had last seen him. Had he even recognized her? She doubted she would have recognized him, had it not been for the facial scar.

And not to forget Stefan. That look he got in his eyes was enough so send her heart spasming in terror. She slid behind the horseshoe shaped steering bars and tried to repeat Sven’s actions. It was a very simple vehicle to drive, the engine screaming into life without hesitating once.

A moment later it was racing across the snow. Azreal didn’t really have any idea of her destination – she only knew that she had to get away from there. Away from Stefan and his lust-filled eyes, away from Ricky, whose scars ignited her guilt. Away, across the frozen tundra whilst the wind tore furrows in the ground around her and hail bounced off the windscreen.

She barely even noticed the cold.

"You," Sven snarled, "disgust me. What did you do to her, Stefan? What did you do to frighten her so badly?"

Stefan had the decency to look hurt, although he could not pull the expression off very well. "Nothing," he scoffed, "I did absolutely nothing." He paused, seeing the anger boiling in Sven’s eyes. "Well, nothing that a slut like her wasn’t used to."

"Slut?" Sven raised his eyebrow. "Because I have it on very good authority that she had not engaged in sexual intercourse before arriving here."

"There are other ways to fuck a woman." Stefan commented.

It was not a wise statement to utter aloud. One of the discarded beer bottles had found its way into Sven’s hand, and now he flung it with unerring accuracy at the Serval. Stefan barely had time to yelp before it impacted sharply with his forehead. He howled, fingers clutching at the budding bruise and Sven advanced on him, throwing him backwards onto the bed and looming over him.

"If I find out you laid one of your dirty paws on Azreal," he growled, "I will gouge out your eyes. Comprehend?"

The threat did little to deter the smug Serval. "Touchĕ," he mocked. "Why do you care what’s happened to her in the past? She’s only a whore. Or are you going as soft and stupid as your father?"

Sven slapped him across the cheek at those words, aware as he did so that in losing his temper, he was letting Stefan win. He didn’t care. Stefan had over-stepped his mark.

The Serval recoiled for a moment, then his trailing hand found the now empty beer bottle. In one swing, he shattered it against the headboard, and slashed at Sven’s face with the improvised, but deadly, weapon.

Sven closed one large hand about his wrist, twisting hard until he could feel the brittle bones beneath the skin move. He would have broken the Serval’s wrist, had not the Raccoon chosen that moment to intervene.

"Stop bickering children," he said, his tone holding scorn and mockery. "You’re precious little Furn has fled into the snow, Sven, shouldn’t you be going to save her?" He grinned, an expression not helped by his facial scar. "Indeed," he continued, "the lass and I have our own score to settle."

Sven froze, his grip still firm about Stefan’s wrist. The broken bottle fell from the Serval’s limp grasp, rolling to the floor.

"How do you know Azreal?" He asked. Their previous experiences cannot have been very pleasant, if her reaction were anything to go on. Maybe it wasn’t just Stefan she was scared of?

"She’s an old school," pause, "acquaintance," he said.

No, they had definitely not been friends, Sven decided. He could not dally and strike up a conversation, however, Doctor Ricardo had been correct. Azreal had fled into the snow, and with her lack of knowledge and experience in navigating Hogarth, could easily get lost. Better he head out now in search for her, before the snowstorms covered her path - if they hadn’t done so already.

He cast one final glare at Stefan and stood up. "Right," he said, "I suppose I’d better go and find her then, make yourself at home," he glanced around at the discarded bottles and assorted food wrappings, "well, I see you’ve already done that." He was going to add something more, but then decided that any further suggestions would be a complete waste of time. Stefan was unlikely to show him, or his lodgings, any respect and as for Doctor Ricardo… The Raccoon seemed polite enough, but there was something about him that unnerved him. It could have just been his facial scar, of course, but that did not change the fact that his mere presence had been enough to send Azreal fleeing into the snow and almost certain death.

As he stepped out into the snow, he saw with a sinking sense of dread that the alien vehicle had gone, the only evidence it had ever been there being a deep, savage gash in the snow - the sort of gash that could only be achieved by someone with little experience as to how to get the thing moving.

It appeared he had not choice – he would have to haul out the Rusty Rattletrap.

The Rusty Rattletrap was an archaic snowpod. It was a tiny, spear-like vehicle, with very little space for one person (excepting perhaps a midget) and certainly not enough for two, balanced ridiculously between two long, splayed skis. It had once been painted a particularly unpleasant shade of green, but a previous owner had clearly not found this aesthetically pleasing and had painted over it in neon pink. After being exposed to Hogarth’s dramatic weather patterns, much of this top layer had chipped off, giving it now a mottled neon pink and bile green appearance. The previous owner had also clearly not been a very good driver, or had enjoyed driving through hailstorms, for the chasse was battered and dented and spotted with rust.

Sven stood in his small garage, regarding the empty space where his now burned-out snowpod had stood. There was no alternative however.

The door slid open with a screech of protest, and he squashed himself into the tiny cabin, knees pressed against the steering pole and only a few inches from his chest, back hunched uncomfortably. The key still sat in the ignition, where it had sat for the last year or so. There was none on Hogarth to steal anything, and even if there had been, they would not have touched something as ugly and beat-up as Rusty. The engine at first made no response, but after the third go he was rewarded with a spluttering roar that quickly broke off again. On the sixth effort, the engine caught, sputtered for a few minutes and finally roared into life.

The Rusty Rattletrap crawled out into the snow, as though reluctant to set its skis on the harsh terrain. It was not called the Rattletrap without good reason – it trembled and shook and rattled as it passed over even the smallest of potholes. Steering it to the place he had left the alien vehicle, Sven followed the torn snow – glad that, for once, Hogarth’s weather seemed calm.

He had not gone far when something roared past him, something sleek and black and fast – at least twice as fast as his embarrassing transportation. There was barely time for him to recognize Stefan’s face, leering and laughing at him through the window, before the snow cloud kicked up by its wheels, struck his windshield and obliterated his view.

Effectively blinded, Sven slammed on his brakes, which reacted sluggishly and with noisy protestations. The bastards – they’d brought their own vehicle, and were obviously intent on finding Azreal before him.

He shuddered to think at what that might be – ‘a score to settle’ Doctor Ricardo had said. And he doubted that any score those two would wish to settle would be particularly pleasant.

He had to get to Azreal before them – he had to!

The Rusty Rattletrap rattled and groaned and whined and complained and he knew it was an impossible mission. If he pushed the archaic vehicle too far, it would disintegrate and leave him stranded to freeze in the snow.

Azreal slid down the scree slope, grazing her hands and knees again in the process. More ice shards burrowed beneath her skin, but she didn’t care, all she cared about was escaping and hiding. If she had of known how, she would have stolen their ship, but for all her good intents, Azreal knew driving such a vehicle was beyond her. And for all her fears, she was not willing to die yet.

She could feel the seed in her head, feeding off her fear and feeding her fear, escalating it into panic. For all her bad memories of Ricky in the past, for all her fears that one day he would find out what she had done to him and seek his vengeance, she would never have reacted quite like this, not without the negative influence of the aliens’ implant.

Or at least she hoped, prayed that was the case.

There had only been one place on Hogarth she could flee to, only one place she could seek sanctuary. And for all the aliens’ probing persuasion, she would not return to their cavern. No there was only one place.

The crashed spaceship.

It had offered her and Sven sanctuary once, and it was familiar enough to be comforting. She crawled inside the black dome, blinking in the very dim light. Her pupils dilated as she sought out possible hiding holes, but she had examined the ground floor thoroughly and knew there were none. There was no way she would crawl inside the stasis pods that had claimed the aliens’ life.

At least these aliens had been flesh and blood, like her.

It took her a while to locate the metal staircase that lead up onto the walkway. The steps were narrow, and difficult to scale in the dark, but Azreal was a survivor. She swung herself up onto the walkway, which was filigreed beneath her feet, metal as delicate as lacework, but which thankfully held her weight, and crouched there for a moment, peering at the lavender light that marked the opening.

There was no sign of pursuit, not yet at any rate.

She did not doubt that pursuit would be made. There had been something in Ricky’s eye as he recognized her. Hatred, yes, but something deeper and darker.

Lust?

No, that was ridiculous.

Was it?

She shivered, even though she could barely feel the cold now, and drew her blanket closer about her shoulders. She was thankful that they had left the blankets in the vehicle. Ricky would come after her, she knew it. And likely enough, he would watch as Stefan committed all manner of atrocities upon her.

Could Sven save her? She didn’t think so. She wasn’t even certain he would try. Their love-making may have influenced his opinions of her somewhat, but to all intents and purposes, he was a practical man. If she was skittish and foolish enough to run off into the snow after experiencing Hogarth’s erratic weather conditions first hand, surely he would decide there was no sense in following her. After all, why risk his life just because she was stupid enough to throw hers away?

She huddled in the darkness and waited, but for what she did not know. As the initial adrenaline rush of panic settled down, awareness of what she had done kicked in. She could hardly stay here forever, even if that plant were edible and capable of sustaining her. But the only way to leave the planet was via Sven, or Stefan. And there was no way she would try and smuggle herself away on Stefan’s ship.

So that left one choice – she had to wait it out here until Stefan and Ricky grew bored or gave up and returned to their homes, wherever that was.

It was then she remembered something else. Stefan had introduced Ricky as "Doctor Ricardo, Alientolist." That could only mean he had come here to investigate the alien craft. This alien craft.

Panic seized her fiercely, almost crushing her in its grasp. She should not have come here, but there was nowhere else to go – nowhere on this planet she could be safe. Maybe Sven would lead them to the indigenous aliens instead? No, the nagging seed in her head assured her that would not be the case. The implants would not allow either of their hosts to betray them.

As she made her way along the walkway, motion in her peripheral vision caught her attention. A shadowy shape filled the entranceway for a fleeting moment. Her heart thrashed wildly, the huge ears were unmistakable.

Stefan and Ricky had come for her.

Keeping low Azreal half-walked, half-crawled, realizing that any movement might catch their attentions, even in such dim lights, but also that they would be distracted by the vast interior of the spaceship.

She needed a small place to hide herself – and she needed it now.

Surely alien spaceships had some sort of ventilation duct?

She could hear their voices now, surprisingly loud and clear.

"Well, where else would the little bitch be? Her vehicle is up there."

"She’s here," the second voice was Ricky’s – it was decidedly more cultured then Stefan’s, and she fancied disgust had crept into it. Ricky had no great love for the Serval either, it appeared. Perhaps she could use that to her advantage.

Or perhaps not.

She crawled higher, cresting another flight of stairs.

"So what do you have against her?" Stefan asked.

"That," Ricky replied, "is my business and my business alone. I would ask what your intent towards her is, but I’m afraid the answer would quite nauseate me."

"I want to fuck her and fuck her good." Stefan replied, as though taken encouragement from Ricky’s scorn. "I want to use her like the whore she is."

"Thanks for sharing, now shut up."

Stefan obeyed, for at least a few seconds. "Do you think Whitey will be after us? He seems fond of the little whore if you ask me. Too fond. He’s taken after his father."

That comment made AZREAL'S ears prick for a moment. Sven’s father had some sort of relations with a Furn? She hadn’t yet had the chance to breach the topic of his history with him, and had the sneaking suspicion he wouldn’t have talked about it even if she had asked. For a moment she paused, willing Stefan to reveal more (but not willing too hard, lest he overhear her), but nothing was forth-coming. Indeed, Ricky made no response, and Azreal imagined him scouring the interior with his one good eye, seeking out a shape in the gloom that could be her.

Stefan was not about to let perfectly good silence go to waste. "You have heard about his father, haven’t you?"

"I care nothing about the Wolf nor his father," Ricky snapped. "My interest is only with the girl. So stop your foolish tongue, before I remove it from your mouth!"

"Sorry," Stefan snapped, sounding neither contrite nor sorry. He did, to the Raccoon's credit, shut up. Perhaps Ricardo actually scared him.

He certainly scared her, she could imagine his one eye scouring the darkness, intent on pinpointing her. She shuddered, drawing herself as far into the darkness as she could. Alas, she still did not feel safe.

In her movement, her slow creeping, her foot dislodged something and it tumbled to the ground with a clatter. She could almost hear the two Furrs prick their ears and point their muzzles in her direction, albeit some feet beneath her.

Fear flared within her, and she ran, scrambling up another ladder and another.

It was then that they saw her.

"There," Stefan hissed, and she imagined him pointing at her slight form.

Their boots pounding across the floor echoed off the vast walls. It would take them a moment or three to find the ladder, and she was a good three walkways above them. She had the lead.

And she did not intend to lose it.

She made no effort to hide anymore – they knew roughly where she was and would be too intent on scaling the ladders and their footing to keep an eye (or two in Stefan’s case) on her. Trailing one hand along the wall, partly to keep it in sight, partly to be aware of any openings, she walked as fast as she could. Running could be fatal, for the higher she got the less stable the footing.

The chamber was large and dark and far, far beneath her, her breath heaved in her chest and the seed in her head thrilled at the exertion. She hated it for finding pleasure in her pain.

Her pursuers were only a floor beneath her now, she could hear Stefan cursing and swearing and panting. Ricky was silent, aside from his pounding boots on the metal balcony, and this somehow made him all the more frightening.

And then something caught beneath her feet and she fell.

The clatter echoed through out the chamber, bouncing joyfully off the walls in mockery of her anxiety. Blood trickled from her hands, sticky against the cold metal. The pain jarred through her body, sending her already pained muscles to throbbing agony. Azreal forced herself back to her feet, to much protestations. A part of her just wanted to lie there and wait for the pursuers. They would catch her anyway, she knew that. There was nowhere to go but up, and soon she would run out of up.

It was then she realized what she had fallen over – a mat. As she stood up, a greater patch of deeper darkness alerted her to the presence of an opening in the wall. She picked up the mat. No point in leaving it there to trip up Ricky and Stefan, after all. With any luck they would just run past without even realizing there was a door.

There was a button inside the doorway, she pushed it and the door slid shut with a gasping sigh. Her heart pounded, surely they could not help but hear that? But she was secure in the knowledge that she was on the other side of the door from them.

And then all the lights flickered on.

Heart pounding, she pressed herself against the door, before calming herself. The button must have activated the lights as well as the door, she reassured herself. Yes, because none would want to walk into a dark room.

For a moment fog danced across her vision as her pupils reacted to the light levels. She blinked furiously and then saw before her a screen. A face appeared on it, but it was like no Furr she had ever seen, yet not nearly as alien as the aliens. It had no muzzle to speak of, and the eyes were close together against a narrow ridge that terminated in holes. Nostrils, maybe, but with no nose, or at least not a nose that she recognized. And it was completely lacking in fur.

It had ugly fleshy bits about the gash that was probably its mouth.

"Greetings and salutations," it said, moving these fleshy bits, and Azreal recoiled. How could she understand it? Not only was it alien, but Sven had mentioned a recorded message, broadcast by the ship, had he not, and he had failed to understand that.

"Um, hi," she replied. "Who, what are you?"

"I am SOL," it said. "I am the voice of the spaceship Wanderer." The image flickered and crackled for a moment.

"Oh," she said. "Where are you from?"

The image’s forehead creased for a moment. "A blue planet," it said, looking perplexed. "I forget." The screen flickered static and when it cleared the face looked rather less composed. "So long, so long. Failure to report from line 40273, out of memory error. Error… Error…" It began to beep erratically and the image blurred and fuzzed and blurred again.

Azreal looked fleetingly around the room, looking for some way to switch it off. Her eyes alighted instead on a long cylindrical device painted a bright red with a hose at the top. It looked enough like the firespear to catch her attentions. She scooped it up and found it was quite heavy. A small smile flickered across her muzzle.

Footsteps sounded outside and stopped just outside her door.

"There’s something inside there," came a voice she recognized as Stefan’s. "I bet that’s where the little bitch has gone."

She hefted the cylinder above her head and stood to one side of the door.

The door ground open an inch and then stuck fast.

"Bugger," Stefan cursed. "Did you bring the crowbar?" She heard Ricky pass something and then the end of the crowbar came peeking through the door. After much pushing, heaving and cursing, the door began to ease open.

"A blue world, so many light years away," the image crackled into clarity on the screen and began singing. A striped stocking cap had appeared on its head, complete with pompom. "Won‘t you let me take you back to my blue planet, so many light years away?"

"What the fuck?" Stefan exclaimed, quite reasonably surprised.

He was answered at precisely that instant by a fire extinguisher across the head, as Azreal heaved the cylinder at him with all her strength.

He fell in a tangled pile of limbs and tail, quite unconscious and the fire extinguisher hit the ground, activating the lever on its side. Whitish gas flooded the room, choking and cold and clinging and wet.

"Come along with me, we can dance on the oceans and swim in the seas and play in the clouds with the birds and the bees."

Azreal had the sneaking suspicion SOL was making up the words as it went along. She dropped to her knees, where the air was clearer. Stefan lay sprawled across the floor, blood trickling down his forehead and pooling in his large ear, which twitched spasmodically. She wondered fleetingly if he were dying and realized with a start that she didn’t really care. Did this sort of disregard for other’s life make her evil?

Although, in all honestly, she did not have time for such thoughts, because at that point the crowbar sliced through the air towards her. Attached to the other end – a Raccoon, grinning manically.

She threw herself to the side at the last minute, finding strength she had thought long drained. The crowbar struck the ground in a shower of sparks.

"Oooh," SOL stopped singing. "Fluffy people are playing, having fun. Why won’t anyone play with me?"

For a moment Ricky looked as though he would like to throw the crowbar through the screen, but a microsecond later his attention was returned to her. That microsecond had given her time to roll away, desperately scurrying for the fire extinguisher. It still belched forth the white gas and the room was cold, breathing difficult. The gas made her choke and must surely be having a similar effect on Ricky.

She could no longer see the red cylinder, but reached through the thick white gas and closed her hands about it. The carbon dioxide choked her and she rolled away and onto her hands and knees. It was no longer a useful weapon – she would suffocate if she hefted it once more.

Ricky marched through the clouds of gas, seemingly resilient to it, he swung the crowbar again and nearly brained her. Azreal yowled and flung herself at his legs as he brought it down again, across her back.

Pain exploded through her spine and she wondered fleetingly if he had shattered it. But no, she still retained feeling in her legs, still retained the power to drag him down.

The two of them fell to the ground in a tangle of bodies, the crowbar falling harmlessly, if loudly, to the floor.

One of her hands closed about his eye patch, tearing it free. He yowled and clawed and bit and struggled and eventually pinned her to the ground.

The gas had dissipated somewhat, and she could see him clearly in the artificial light. No longer was he well dressed and smartly clad, no longer did he look even vaguely professional. His face was horrible, the side where the glass had pierced so many years ago was nothing but a tangled mess of scar tissue, but it was his eye that terrified her the most.

It was still there, bright, unharmed, nestled in a mass of tangled, knotted flesh. Somehow its perfect form made it all the more horrifying.

"How does it feel?" He asked, "to see how you made me, with your childish pranks? Does it feel good to see me rendered into a monster?"

AZREAL'S ears flattened. "It was an accident, a nasty freak accident." She replied. She did not really think there was any way she could reason with him, but nor was she willing to claim responsibility for what had been a freak accident.

He snorted. "You call unleashing the dark magics an accident? You’re just lucky that Carla was too dim-witted to be able to recognize what you’d done immediately and that by the time she informed me, you’d hidden all proof. Do you know what they do to practioners of the dark arts?"

"Draft them as Furns?" She suggested.

This seemed to amuse Ricky greatly. He guffawed and slapped her thigh. She tried not to recoil under his touch. "Oh but they got you in the end, didn’t they little refugee girl? How’d they catch you? Finally caught in the act, eh?"

She stuck her chin high. "I was arrested on false charges and then detained on very little evidence," she said. "I don’t practice dark magic."

She barely had a chance to see the crowbar swinging at her head before it struck and rendered her deep into blackness.

Sven felt the blow to her through the seed. It seemed to spasm inside his head and for a moment his vision blurred and his entire body convulsed. With the passing of this quick seizure came a surge of adrenaline.

The other implant had been damaged - he must save it.

He slammed his foot down, the Rusty Rattletrap responding with a leap forward that almost carried it into a snowdrift. It clattered and clanged and eventually got back on track. Would he be fast enough to save Azreal? What fate had befallen her? His head throbbed as the seed convulsed, wounded by the injury incurred by its other. The Rusty Rattletrap leapt and barreled over small drifts and tumbled around other ones.

Finally the shape of three vehicles rose before him. His other snow-pod all but buried in snow, beside it the alien vehicle, returned to its home and the sleek, gleaming black vehicle that could only be the property of a professional like Doctor Ricardo. He drew the Rusty Rattletrap to a jaw-crunching halt beside it and eased the door open stepping into the snow.

Stefan and Ricardo had arrived already, and judging by the pain in his head, had found Azreal. He could only hope that he would arrive in time to save her.

His eyes alighted on something half hidden by the shadow of his burned-out snow-pod. The fire-spear, overlooked by their panic perhaps? He dusted the snow from it, strapping it to his back. At least he would not go against the enemy unarmed.

Thus armed, Sven Bjornston set out to save the girl.

Azreal blinked furiously, her eyes seemed to be hazed in a mist of blood. Constant, throbbing pain radiated out from her temple, blurring her vision if she so much as moved. Her cheeks were sticky, the fur plastered down with blood and tears.

She was bound, spread-eagled, across a metal table. It was cold and hard and rough against her back. Indeed, everything was cold, for her clothes had been stripped from her and now the chill Hogarth air nibbled at her most sensitive areas.

"Ah, the little lady awakens," came the voice of Ricky, polite, controlled. "Did you sleep well?"

He smiled down upon her, but his smile was cruel and filled with evil intent. "Not that I am much worried, either way," he added.

She did not deign him with an answer.

He brought his hideously scarred face close to hers. "Admiring your handiwork?" He asked. "You know, you shouldn’t have let the little things bother you so much back in school. But then again, what do you know? You’re only dull-witted refugee scum, after all. Even though you tried to ruin my life, did you succeed?" He chuckled, "I’m a professional now, with a very important job. You ruined nothing but my face. But," and he smiled that cruel, cold smile once more, "all you have going for you is your pretty face and soon you won’t even have that."

And Azreal recoiled as he held before her a jagged length of glass. The light shone off its edge, somehow more bright, more real, then anything she had seen before.

"Oh yes," he said. "I’m going to cut you up good, little whoring wench."

The glass came close to her face, and she turned her head away, but his other hand was upon her forehead, pressing down so that she could not move and the pain exploded in her worse then anything she had ever felt before as he pressed against the seed nestled within. Then the glass was against her cheek, hard and so sharp she barely felt the cut, but she could feel the stickiness as the blood gushed out and trickled down her cheeks, setting her fur into savage spikes and pooling in a puddle beneath her head and she shuddered and inside her head the seed kicked out, savagely and her entire body spammed and Ricky was thrown to one side and the glass fell to the ground with a tinkle and then he slapped her across the other cheek and she couldn’t feel anything anymore and then Ricky was pulled backwards sharply and something red and hot and burning exploded through his chest and the air in the room was so hot, so very, very hot and filled with thick and acrid smoke and she couldn’t breathe and she couldn’t see and she didn’t know what the hell was going on except that everything seemed to be happening at once and then Ricky fell to one side and the air reeked of burned flesh and fur and other things so terrible she didn’t even want to imagine them.

And then Sven stood before her and she didn’t know if was real or a dream or a dream turned real.

"Azreal," he said, and there was so much tenderness and concern in that voice that she knew, just knew, she had to be dreaming and she wanted to reach up for him, but her body wouldn’t obey her and she couldn’t move her arms. "You’re hurt."

And then something was pushed against her cheek, a piece of cloth held by a large and calloused hand and she knew then that this really was Sven and he really had come to save her.

And then the tears really began to flow.

Azreal was not a crier. She had barely shed a single tear in the refugee camp, even following the death of her parents, she had not been able to cry. Then she had felt a cold, encompassing numbness that had weighed her spirit with the weight of a ton of bricks, but she hadn’t cried, had forced herself to fake it so that the others would not think of her as a callous, unfeeling bitch.

Now she let those tears go, relinquished everything she had ever held private inside her in a flood of tears that matted her fur and washed away the blood. Sven, not really knowing how to react when faced with a sobbing woman, held her in his awkward, but reassuring, manner and wondered why she was so tearful. Hadn’t he just saved her life?

He still felt a numbness of his own. He had just killed a man. Impaled him with a fire-spear. The rancid smell of burning Raccoon flesh hung in his nostrils, marking him for his crime.

A tear trickled down his cheek, and he blinked it away.

Life could never return to normal on Hogarth again. Azreal was aware that Sven’s attitude towards her had changed, but she could still not pick up the courage to voice the question she craved the answer to. She could also not help but feel a little bit guilty that they had left Stefan unconscious in the downed spaceship, with only the burned out snow-pod and the Rusty Rattletrap as his means to escape.

"We shall tell the authorities that they set out to investigate the ship," Sven said, "and never returned. Possibly they activated its self-defense weaponry or some such thing."

Azreal did not much like the explanation – and neither did the authorities, although they accepted it with much reluctance. Ricky’s corpse was dutifully collected and returned home, but Stefan was never found.

Nor was the room where he had lain unconscious.

Indeed, the investigators showed great reluctance to enter the craft at all, after the first venture into its cavernous hull. One of them later confided to Sven that he had heard an eerie singing – a duet. One voice had been tinny and crackly, the other worn and weary, as though its owner were exhausted beyond all measure.

Epilogue

"Are you sure this is a wise idea?" Sven queried her once more as he bound the satin ribbon firmly about her wrist.

Azreal squirmed a little, making herself comfortable. "It’s the best way to beat my fears," she said, "and maybe it’ll help stop those awful dreams." It was a long shot and she knew it, but she would not admit that to the Wolf. If she had to face another of those terrible dreams, the nightmare of being strapped tightly as the blade came closer and closer… Oh the thought was unbearable. Even the gentle bondage of satin helped stir those horrid memories.

But that was the point, wasn’t it? To relieve the feel of the experience but give it a positive end. It was what the psychiatrist had said, after all. Azreal could not help but wonder if the psychiatrist would approve of this method of cure.

She needed someone she trusted though, and thanks to the alien implants, there was none she trusted more then he. He had saved her life, after all.

She broke from her thoughts to find the white Wolf frowning at her, "well, if you’re sure." She knew the idea intrigued him and it had been a while since they’d answered that particular call of nature. Indeed, the last time had been inside the alien snowmobile. The implant inside her head went almost forgotten now, she had grown used to the occasional odd thought and the loose emotional bond that had formed between her and Sven intrigued her. There was a reason they had not engaged in acts of a sexual nature – there was no telling how the two seed implants would react. Her dreams had leaked over into Sven’s and thus he was as eager to rid her of them as she was. But the method disturbed him somewhat. He did not want to become Ricardo in her mind.

"I won’t hurt you," he whispered, his muzzle tracing down her cheek, "I care too much to do that to you."

Azreal, catching a bit of his concern, felt a tear materialize in the corner of her eye. She blinked it away. How could she fear him?

"I know," she replied. "I know."

His tongue lightly darted across the tip of her sensitive muzzle. It tickled ever so slightly and she squirmed and wriggled, but the satin ropes held her firmly in place. He frowned at her a moment and she feigned a smile in response.

Gradually his hands moved up to the top of the bathrobe she was wearing, and one moved inside, his hands cool upon her heated skin. She sighed almost reluctantly, as his fingers found a nipple and twisted it slightly. The pain was brief but exquisite. A gasp parted her lips, and Sven sighed in response, his fingers grazing across her skin. In one swift motion he ripped the bathrobe open, her breasts exposed to the air. She gasped as lust and frantic desire flooded through her. It was like nothing she had ever experienced before and she realized then that it was not hers - it was his. Sensing her surprise and desire, Sven grinned at her wickedly, pressing his swollen loins against hers and rubbing against her. Her body tensed, pulling against her bindings, but she was incapable of drawing free. There was nothing to compare with the intermingled lusts and the confinement of the ropes.

Warmth enclosed her nipple, and Sven’s darting tongue flickered across its tender surface. She moaned and writhed beneath him feeling the moisture seeping and pooling in her groin. Lifting her head, she caught him with a kiss that seemed to seer deep into her soul.

Chuckling, Sven drew himself away from her, leaving her feeling bereft. She could feel his mocking bemusement and it annoyed her. Then he drew open the knot that belted the bathrobe shut and ran his hands across the thin fur of her belly. With little playful nips he traced the curve of her body down from her cleavage, over the gentle swelling of her stomach and towards her groin. She thrust it at him, almost involuntarily. He paused above her woman’s mound, gently easing his fingers between her legs. She could barely struggle – splayed and bound as she was, and she barely wanted to. A deep sigh shivered within her as he ran run his finger along her engorged clitoris, gently stroking its length. Sven waited but a moment, then lowered his muzzle, darting tongue licking, tasting, teasing.

She whimpered, struggled, whimpered some more and made small choking groans in the back of her throat as wave after wave of pleasure struck her. His passion and lust combined with hers, feeding the internal fires and sending her into pleasure so intense she could barely stand it. And then, just as she had crested the wave and was riding it down, he entered her.

He slid in smoothly. His head thrust back at the sheer ecstasy and for a moment, Azreal knew how it felt to be male. And then he thrust and they were no longer two separate beings – Azreal and Sven, but one.

She could feel his orgasm building within him, urging him to thrust harder, a passion so intense that it stole all thoughts from his mind, all everything except the here and now. Her moan joined his, as their joint culmination hit with all the force of a brick wall. Fireworks danced behind her eyes and then died, leaving behind delightful sparks that make her wiggle and whimper.

For a while neither could move, but lay there, locked together, gasping and whimpering. Finally, Sven, canine knot firmly in place, braced himself on his elbows and stared into her face. Tears trickled down his cheek but he paid them no heed. She darted her tongue out, catching one, enjoying its salty wetness.

"You’re crying," she said. And in truth she felt almost like crying herself. So intense was the emotion, so intense their joined passion.

"My gods, Az," he said, blinking furiously. "I love you so much it hurts."

Azreal frowned, hearing the words, but not really believing them. "You love a Furn?" She paused, gulped and swallowed back the tears that were forcing to break free, "you love me?"

He nodded mutely and ran one hand down her cheek, realizing a low sigh and shuddering as his canine knot did its work. "Yes," he said. "Just as my father did."

"Your father?" She was beginning to feel something like a parrot. Sven had never told her much about his family – or about himself.

"Ironic, isn’t it? He left my mother for his whore. No offence," he hastily added, tracing the shape of her face with his hand. "Tore the family apart and the community never looked at us the same again. A year later I was sent off to join the military. Why do you think they stuck me here on this gods-forsaken hole of an asteroid? My father ruined our family’s status." He kissed her then, and another micro-orgasm seized him, and her, sending the both of them tumbling once more into the clouds of passion.

For a time they lay together, content in the warmth and security found in each other’s arms.

It did help with the dreams.

*

"Incoming space craft at 4 o’clock!" Azreal grinned at Sven, thrilled at the prospect of meeting with her childhood friend again. Those halcyon days seemed so far now, before the humiliation of Furn training and her subsequent exile to the frozen planet. No - asteroid.

Sven merely shrugged and turned back to the mechanical widget he was fiddling with. Probably just nervous, she reflected. It was not, after all, every day that they had visitors, one of them a trained Furn and the other a fellow officer. Azreal was somewhat nervous herself. She wondered how the Furn slavery had changed her friend, Julie.

The small landing shuttle cruised in gently, looking not unlike a great spider. The legs touched first, then curled up underneath it so that the cab lowered to the ground. Azreal found this pretty nifty but quickly abandoned the large viewing window in favour of running towards her friend.

As she opened the door she caught her enthusiasm before running barefoot across the snow and instead stood in the doorway, watching as a strong, grey-furred Coyote leapt agilely from the hatch and then helped Julie down and into the snow. Azreal faltered a bit as she saw her. Julie had always been the quiet one, but she had never looked quite so… worn before. There was tenderness though, in the manner in which the officer, whose name she had been informed was Charlie Twoclouds, helped her down and there was a warm smile on her face when she saw Azreal.

"Azreal," she said, approaching her at a swift walk (running on the snow was not recommended, unless one liked ending up nose down in a snowdrift). The two girls embraced warmly.

"It’s good to see you again," Azreal said after a moment.

Julie smiled. "It is, isn’t it. You’re looking well."

"Thank you." Azreal wished she could say the same of Julie, but decided that silence was the better path to follow.

"Greetings Azreal," said Charlie, catching up with the Ocelot girl. "I have heard many things about you."

"All good I hope?" Azreal quipped.

Charlie only smiled slyly. "Well, some at least," he admitted. "Are you going to invite us in? I think my toes are about to drop off."

"Of course," Azreal stepped aside, gesturing them into the warmth of the lodge. All three of them made their way down into the main living room, where Sven was tuning his guitar. He looked up as they entered and rewarded his guests with a slight nod of his head.

"Welcome." He said, without standing up. "Please come in, Azreal will fetch you some coffee."

Azreal flung a glare at him and he winked surreptitiously at her. Having no desire to create a scene, she brewed up the beverages. "I like the spider-shuttle," she commented.

"Oh that old thing?" Charlie said, "I managed to pick it up for next to nothing at a yard sale. We reconditioned the engine and reconfigured the electronics and now it works almost perfectly."

"Almost," Julie commented. "Anyhow Az, we’ve got a lot to catch up on." She glanced across at Sven. "Is there somewhere I can speak with you alone?"

Azreal nodded and lead her childhood friend into the bathroom, whilst Charlie attempted a conversation with Sven. It seemed mostly one-sided.

As they stepped into the bathroom, Julie turned the shower on. "I don’t want Sven to hear what I have to say," she said in response to AZREAL'S rather puzzled look. "I know you have spoken well of him, but I don’t trust him."

"This isn’t a social visit, is it?" Azreal had already realized that social visits from Furns did not just "happen" and that if Julie was wandering around in apparent control of her senses, there was something else going on.

"We’ve gone rogue." Julie explained. "Charlie’s deserted and we stole a ship."

"And you want me to join you?"

"Definitely," Julie exclaimed. "The first thing I declared we had to do was liberate my friends from the Furn trade. So, do you wanna be liberated?"

Azreal paused. She cared for Sven, yes indeed, but doubted that (unlike Charlie) he would be willing to turn rogue. He tried too hard to untarnish his father’s image. And even though she was currently in a situation that was more-or-less comfortable and yes, of course, she loved the white Wolf, she was also aware that she was still a Furn. If the superiors got word that Sven and her had developed feelings for one another or that she had an alien seed nestled in her brain, well, she knew that they would be highly unlikely to leave her with Sven.

She loved him, yes, but would she rather be free and alone, or trapped forever as a Furn, forever at the whims of the government?

"Yes, yes I do," she replied and her voice only cracked slightly on the words as she condemned herself to a life without Sven.

Julie allowed herself a smile. "Excellent," she said. "We shall offer you a trip in our spider and then whisk you away. Unless you think Sven will need restraining."

Azreal pondered that thought. Would he try to keep her here against her own intentions? Possibly, she realized, if he thought that were in her best interests. "I, I don’t think so," she answered.

"Good. Now take off your clothes."

Azreal frowned at her, somewhat startled by this turn of events. "Pardon?"

"We’re in here with the shower running. If we don’t want him to think we’re conspiring against him, we better have a damned good reason. Males like nothing better then to imagine two females together. Besides, I want to see if he’s marked you at all."

She shook her head. "No, never." But she slipped her shirt off anyway and let Julie inspect her back and chest, running her fingers through her fur in search of bruising or cuts. Her caresses were gentle, almost erotic but Azreal brushed such thoughts aside.

"Besides," Julie said, stripping off her own outfit, "it has been a long trip in that mechanical spider followed by a traipse through the snow and I find that water rather tempting." The Ocelot girl’s body was still supple and lean although in some places the fur had grown in slightly discolored – the sign of injury to the skin beneath. Amongst her patterned pelt it was almost invisible. Azreal tentatively reached out and touched one such injury and Julie flinched ever so slightly, more from reflex then actual pain. "What have they done to you?" The Fossa asked.

But Julie would not answer, merely shook her head and cast her eyes downwards. "You do not want to know about it," she replied. "Let’s just say I was lucky that Charlie took an interest in me."

Azreal stepped forward and embraced her, naked body against naked body, beneath the streaming water. For a moment the Ocelot tensed, and then relaxed, sobbing onto her friend’s shoulder. Azreal held her, stroking her hair gently.

A loud banging roused them from their reverie. "Don’t use up all the hot water," Sven snapped through the door. Azreal sighed and rolled her eyes.

"We’d best turn off the heat now," she said with a deep sigh. "It takes hours to warm up again." And she reluctantly cut the flow short. The room was filled with steam. "Will you let me comb your fur?" She asked, feeling such companionable gestures were needed at this current point in time.

Julie nodded but said nothing and merely stared at her hands as Azreal combed through her soft pelt. Her own fur was so short and fine it dried much faster and required little in the way of grooming. The Ocelot closed her eyes and leaned back, a low purr forming in her throat. Azreal smiled. It was good to be back together again. Then it struck her that she would never see Sven again. She choked back the sorrow that welled in her heart. What was more important, freedom or love?

She glanced down at Julie, her eyes closed in peaceful contentment, and wondered.

Sven frowned as he watched Azreal and Julie step out of the shower. Their fur was spiky – as though recently dried but he could feel the tension inside Azreal. Tension intermingled with excitement and sadness. A strange combination, he thought. It affected him oddly, making him irritable.

"You were in there a long time," he snapped, "now we won’t have hot water for days."

Confusion welled in Azreal and she wrapped her arms protectively to her. Julie shot him a look that was pure venom.

"It’s been a long trip," she replied, "and a water shower made a welcome change. Just because Az is a victim of a sadistic government doesn’t give you the right to treat her like she’s worthless."

Sven was taken aback at her bite. It was something he expected from Azreal – more then the withering look she was currently gracing him with, and not what he expected from a dispirited Furn. Catching Charlie’s eye, he rose an eyebrow inquisitively – was the officer going to let her insult the government like that? But Charlie merely shrugged and smiled a small, sly smile. Unable to find a suitable retort, Sven turned his attention to staring out at the stars.

Julie fumed and may have made a scene had Charlie not put his hand on her arm. "Come on," he said, "let’s show Azreal the Spider and give Mr. Bjornston a chance to cool down."

Fighting back the conflicting emotions within, Sven let his head sink into his hands, confused. Why did she feel so anxious? Shouldn’t she be glad to be reunited with her old school friend?

He glanced up in time to meet her eyes as she followed Julie and Charlie out into the snow. Their gaze locked and it was at that instant that he knew.

Azreal buckled up her shoes in preparation for the trek to the transporter, her heart a leaden weight in her breast. She could feel Sven’s confusion, and tried to block her emotions from him. It was not a skill she had perfected or even practiced but the link between them was pure emotion – it was not a method of reading thoughts. The aliens cared nothing for thoughts, it was emotions that fed them.

It did sadden her that she could not even touch him one last time, to hold him close or feel him inside her. She wondered if the emotional link between them would deteriorate the farther away she got from the asteroid. She wondered if it mattered.

Julie and Charlie had stepped out into the snow and paused now, turning back and waiting for her. She knew she should follow them – to put Sven and her Furn-slavery behind her and never look back, but she had to take that one last glance – something to freeze him, her love, in her memory forever.

She looked back and he was staring straight at her. Their eyes locked and at that connection her soul became transparent. Her betrayal reflected in his eyes.

And her will left her.

She would have run back to him, thrown her arms around him, anything to banish the look of complete bewilderment and abandonment that she could see in his soul, but alas, she could not, for at that moment Julie grabbed her arm.

"Come on," she insisted, "do you want to see the craft or not?"

Azreal hesitated and Julie dragged her outside in the snow. "Look," she said, not unkindly, "you have made your choice, now follow through with it."

The Fossa nodded, hardened her heart, and left into the snow.

Sven watched the door swing shut behind him. "Goodbye, my love," he said, his heart torn asunder in his chest. He had never felt so empty, so bereft. Picking up the nearest object at hand, a book, he flung it at the wall, then upturned the chess board. Little wooden pieces cascaded to the floor in a flood of black and white. He kicked them under the bed, then fell on it, clutching his head.

The seed was a ball of fiery agony beneath his skull. He clutched onto the pain, it would be all he had left of her.

Then inspiration seized him. He almost sprang up from the bed and bolted after them.

At the very least, he had to try.

AZREAL'S entire body tensed as the memories assailed. Julie, in the process of strapping her into the chair, frowned. "What’s wrong?"

"Nothing," Azreal muttered. But the lie was transparent to everyone.

Julie crouched before her. "You don’t have to come with us," she said, "not if you’re happy on your asteroid." She paused. "You love him, don’t you?"

The Fossa choked on her words and could only nod.

"Az!" Julie exclaimed, "why didn’t you say? We’re not kidnapping you, you know. Does he feel similarly for you?"

Azreal clutched her head, in which the seed was beginning to throb. "Yes," she whispered.

"And why didn’t you tell me? Your best friend?" Hurt radiated in Julie’s tone.

"I couldn’t," she said, "in our correspondence I couldn’t tell you half of what went on. Not with Them watching. They would’ve taken me away in a heartbeat."

"That’s true," Charlie replied. "And they have been watching Sven particularly closely. To see if he takes after his father, I suppose."

"Would he come with us?" Julie asked, ignoring her mate, "I mean if we had actually asked instead of whisking you away from under his nose."

The Fossa shook her head. "No, he’s dedicated to what he does."

"And you know that for a fact?"

She nodded. "I can’t ask him to give up everything he’s ever striven for just for the sake of a Furn."

"Why not?" Charlie said, "I did. And I don’t think he’s really too happy with being stuck on that godforsaken asteroid. Not that it really came up much in conversation. Bit of the sullen sort, isn’t he?"

"I have to go back," Azreal declared, fumbling with the buckles. "I need to say ‘goodbye’ at the very least. He did save my life – in more ways then one."

Julie rose her eyebrows at that. "After that," she said, "you must come back to us because I can tell you’ve got some stories to share."

She nodded, freeing herself and jumping up, ran to the door. Standing before it, she took a deep breath, hardening her heart for the incoming onslaught and pushed the button.

The door swished open to reveal to her a rather nervous lupine, warm clothing hastily thrown on and a guitar tucked beneath his arm, the other hand poised in preparation to knock on what was now thin air.

Azreal faltered as the words she had planned in her head dissipated into nothing.

Sven saved her the problem. "Thought you could turn rogue without me?" He queried, jumping lightly into the ship beside her and wrapping his arm about her waist. His usual taciturn attitude seemed relaxed, as though he were finally comfortable with his own behaviour. "Think again, Azreal."

Azreal sunk into his shoulder. "I’m sorry," she whispered, and his fingers pressed beneath her chin, drawing her eyes to meet his, sealing her apology with a kiss.

It was quite a long, passionate kiss and would likely have gone on much longer had Charlie not coughed in a rather penetrating fashion.

"Excuse me, lovebirds," he said, "but I feel I should remind you that we are somewhat wanted by the government and that such displays of affection can probably wait until we’re safely in unmonitored space."

"Are you sure?" Azreal asked Sven, as they breathlessly parted.

"Are you?" Sven retorted, "yes, it’ll be good to see the sun again. I don’t suppose your flight plans involve a beach resort do they?"

And nestled in their skulls, the alien implants throbbed with satisfaction. They too had been trapped on this frozen asteroid for too long