"Prepare for touchdown." Natalie Fenkirk, Pilot, slid the last of the switches into place and braced herself for impact. The small craft struck the dry ground in an explosive dust cloud. It slowed, and then slowed some more, finally easing to a stop.
It took the dust clouds a good few minutes to settle.
"Well, it appears we have arrived," the Clouded Leopard grinned. "Although it appears this planet is not the halcyon it once was."
"No, I’m afraid it’s not," Doctor Enoch Long, the Okapi Medic, adjusted his glasses. He freed himself from the restraints of the chair. "Alas, this land was once fertile and filled with life, but it has been devastated by poor handling. The natives here truly did not understand agriculture and thus over-abused the landscape. Hence why we are here."
"To help out the poor, sad sods," spoke up the Hedgehog. Natalie felt the familiar creeping down her spine as he spoke. Roger Wilmont was a repulsive little beast at the best of times. She did her best to treat him as an equal, but it was hard, so hard. Especially the way he leered at her. He was leering at her now.
Already a crowd was beginning to gather, drawn by the landing of the "Long Odds". Small groups clustered about her, frail Bandicoot girls, their eyes too large for their gaunt faces, wild-eyed Yapok and tiny, delicate Shrews. They were all young, Natalie realized - the elders lingered back.
"Well, lets get to it then," Natalie said, as cheerfully as she could manage. The poor youngsters, they looked half-starved. She wanted to take every one of them under her arm and feed them, heal them and convince them that life could be so much better. But she had to take a less personal view on things, to act professionally.
Slowly, they disembarked. The natives surrounded them, watching with wide eyes. A few of them bowed or curtseyed awkwardly. A great many more backed away from Natalie. There was clearly something about a Clouded Leopard Fur that made the small Marsupials nervous.
She smiled as charmingly as she could, her eyes taking note of their condition. They were malnourished, definitely. Suddenly Roger was by her side, leering up at her.
"So Nat, now we’ve finally landed, how’s about I take ya on that date I promised?"
Her skin crawled at his mere presence. She put on her most polite smile. "We shall see." When Hell freezes over, she added mentally. "I think we’re going to be rather busy here. Now, excuse me, I have to help the Doctor set up his tent."
She could still feel his dark eyes boring into her back as she hastened away.
"Now, this is just a little injection, it won’t hurt," the Doctor’s voice was calm and soothing. The Bandicoot child blinked up at him, in almost a dazed confusion.
"No like needle!" She snapped. "It hurt!"
The Okapi Doctor grinned. "Well how about this, if you let me give you a teensy little prick, I shall give you a lolly." He produced a rainbow-colored candy from his breast pocket, and held it out to her. "Made with real fruit juice too," he added.
It was plain the girl was torn. Here she had to choose between a delicious treat and a moment of pain. Doctor Long watched her face, twisting in indecision. He wondered if these children had ever eaten candy – the vitamin C would do her good. All his observations had shown she was malnourished – but he needed to take a blood sample to be sure.
She nodded quickly. "Lolly first?"
He was not going to fall for that one again – not after the Shrew lad had tried it on a short time ago, and then fled the moment he was given the candy. "No, afterwards. Just look at my lovely assistant, Natalie. That’s right."
The girl stared at Natalie for a long moment. "She’s big and… OWWW!" She jumped as the needle went in. "You said wouldn’t hurt!"
"Only for a moment," the Doctor replied, as the syringe filled up with blood. "Now, don’t look at me, just keep looking at Natalie."
Natalie smiled. "You’re a brave wee thing," she said, "what’s your name?"
"Tania," the girl muttered. "He said it wouldn’t hurt but it did!"
Doctor Long withdrew the needle, capping it and setting it aside. "But I can make you feel a lot better – make you want to run and play again, yes?"
"Gimme my lolly now." She wiped one hand across her eyes and held them both out.
"Well, I think for being such a good girl, you deserve two." Doctor Long placed two of the rainbow drops in her hand. "Now run along and tell the next person to come in."
She snatched the lollies and fled from the tent, casting one final glance at Natalie. "And you’re scary!"
The Okapi sighed deeply. "Poor things, if only there were something we could do." He labeled the syringe with the girl’s name and readied a new one. "We need to find them somewhere else to live – surely on this planet there are other inhabitable landscapes – ones that they can farm using better techniques?"
"There are plenty of wild places left," Natalie replied. "I saw many of them from the air. Surely we could ferry them there – I mean, the ‘Long Odds’ can only carry so many at a time, but we could make multiple journeys. We have plenty of fuel, after all."
"That’s something we shall have to bring up with the Elders," Enoch sighed. He plastered a smile on his face as the door swung open and a delicate Numbat girl walked in. She wore the typical attire of the natives – a basic long tunic, tied about her slender waist with a length of rope. Her dark hair hung about her shoulders, a multitude of braids. There was something different about her though – something he had not seen in his other patients.
The Doctor stood to greet her. "I am Doctor Enoch Long and this is Natalie Fenkirk."
Not very much, that was sure, but she crossed the floor with poise and grace and lifted her muzzle to stare at him. "You want to take some of my blood." She said – it was not a question. "Well, do your worst." She nodded at Natalie, seemingly unfazed by the spotted feline.
"I need to do some other tests first," the Doctor said, "and for that I will need to weigh you, measure you and ask you a few simple questions."
"Very well then. Go ahead."
And so he weighed her and measured her. She was underweight, yes, but not in the same manner that some of his earlier patients had been. Glancing over her, he noticed that despite the loose fitting, crude tunic, she was still moderately well-fleshed, or at least not emancipated. Much to his interest, however, her eyes were blood-shot and she seemed to have some difficulty focusing.
"How long do you normally sleep?" He asked.
She looked him straight in the eyes. "From dusk until dawn, like the rest of us."
"Well, you seem to be showing signs of sleep deprivation. Has that sleep been disturbed of late?"
Her gaze faltered. She gulped. "Sometimes I have nightmares." Her voice cracked a little.
"And they disturb your sleep."
"Well, I am going to prescribe you a couple of tablets, they should help with your nightmares and give you a few nights good sleep. Have you been experiencing a loss of concentration?"
"Some," she admitted, a little reluctantly, he felt.
"Well, your weight is good, all things considered. When did you last eat?"
"I had lizard-stew last night. It was the first real meat we had caught in weeks. I’m afraid I made a bit of a pig of myself."
"One lizard? To feed all of you?"
"It was a big lizard."
Enoch glanced at Natalie and she nodded. "They can grow up to ten feet long," she said. "I read about it in Roger’s notes."
"How about fruit? When did you last eat fruit?"
Her brow furrowed. "Quite some time ago. I know its only autumn now, but the summer was one of the hottest in years, and many of our crops died. The fruit that did survive was mostly fed to the children. They need it more then we do."
She was little more then a child herself, Doctor Long reflected. She was, at the oldest, 17. The fruit had been little help to the famished children and, likely, winter would be fatal for a great many of them.
"And have you been experiencing lethargy – difficulty making yourself get up and do things?" Clearly she had not been experiencing much difficulty waking herself up. Poor lass.
"No, not really – sometime it’s a little harder, but it’s not too bad." She shrugged. "I guess there’s just so much to do."
Odd, she was the first of the youngsters to not be experiencing the horrid lethargy. She must have some other force motivating her. He pondered for a moment whether or not he should ask her, then decided against it. "Well, I’m afraid I have to do a blood test now."
Patiently, she bared her forearm and barely winced as he slid the needle in, drawing forth a small measure of her life-blood.
"So," Natalie spoke up, "what’s your name?"
The girl smiled. "I’m Isobelle," she replied.
"Thank you for being such a good patient, Isobelle." The doctor withdrew the syringe, sealed it and labeled it. He drew out another two of the rainbow candies. "These will help with any nausea or dizziness you may feel after I took your blood. They also contain important Vitamin C. Make sure you eat them."
She nodded, sliding them into the pocket of her shapeless tunic. "Thanks," she said. "It’s good to see someone cares."
And then she was gone.
"Nice lass," the Doctor commented. He glanced at Natalie.
The Clouded Leopard uncrossed her legs and stood up. "She’s hiding something," she said.
"And how can you possibly know that?"
"Woman’s intuition. She hasn’t been eating anymore then any of those other Natives – likely less then some of the children, and yet she seems more alive. I would be inclined to say she was living on love."
The Doctor snorted with laughter. "Love? Don’t be ridiculous! One cannot possibly live on love! No, I suspect her metabolism is just processing what food she does eat more efficiently. And that," he turned his cold gaze to Natalie, "is why I am the Doctor and you are the Pilot."
Natalie shrugged. "I am also a woman, Doc, and she was way too perky for someone that was half-starved. But, as you say, you are the Doctor and I’m just a pilot. We have to do something about these poor people though – if we leave them here through winter, they will starve!"
The Doctor nodded. "You must go and talk to Roger. He has notes about this planet - perhaps he has knowledge of a more habitable part."
Natalie sighed deeply.
Enoch frowned. "I know Roger is something of an annoyance to you, but I would suggest you just tell him. Tell him to back down or something. Elsewise you may find you are just encouraging him. You are the only crew I have, and therefore I must know to trust you. I cannot go myself – I must run these blood samples through the computer and determine what vitamins and minerals are the most urgent to provide. I will not risk the Furrs here because you have issues with your co-crew, understand?"
Natalie fell back at this outburst. She had not realized that her loathing of Roger had been so obvious. She had tried to hide it – had tried to be as kind as she could to the loathsome little wretch, but clearly the Doctor had seen through that charade. "Very well then."
How was she supposed to cope with Roger? Just the way he looked at her made her skin crawl. He was lounging outside, watching the milling crowds. They fell back as Natalie approached.
"So the Doc’s finished with you, has he?" Roger asked. "I’d say lets go and grab some lunch – but there ain’t nothing here to eat. Unless you like Lizard stew. It’s only a matter of time before they resort to cannibalism."
"Roger! Don’t talk like that! That’s just sick. We have to move them to somewhere more hospitable, somewhere they can farm. The Doctor said you might know of a place."
"And what would such information be worth?" He drew close. She could smell the rank aroma of his breath. What had he been eating? Raw garlic?
She took a step back. "I am not making such deals with you, Roger Wilmont. These people need help and therefore we need to help them – without expecting any sort of payment from me!"
He pouted. "Spoil my fun then babe. But I’m not that easily pushed aside, you know?"
"Forget about that, just please help me find a place where we can move these people too."
"Very well then, but you must come with me, into my tent and there we shall go over the maps, yes?"
Her flesh crawled. She felt almost as though she were whoring herself. Think of the poor starving children, you can help them, but you need Roger to do so. "If I must."
His smile was terrible. "Thank you." He held out his arm for her to take. She stolidly, and completely, ignored it. She would not touch him if it could possibly be avoided.
They had been on the ground for exactly four hours, and already Roger’s tent looked as though a small tornado had ripped through it. Natalie, being the Pilot, slept in the craft, but it was only a small vessel and not equipped with facilities for three people to sleep. Well, not if you didn’t want to wake up with your neighbor’s arm up your nose, at any rate. Doctor Enoch Long slept on a pallet in his medicine tent – and Roger had a small tent of his own. Currently it was a mess of books, papers, various writing instruments and various measuring instruments mixed with dirty clothes. Roger was the Biographer, and as such, made extensive notes on everything and anything. His filing system was abysmal.
"Have a seat," he said, gesturing at the room. However, the choice of seating was severely limited. There was the bed, or the floor. Natalie chose the floor. Roger looked disappointed. With unerring accuracy, he swept aside a pile of papers and drew out a large, reptile-leather bound book. Natalie was amazed – clearly, despite the mess, he knew exactly where everything was.
He sat beside her, so close his arm brushed hers. She shuffled aside, pretending to be moving into a more comfortable position. "So, where’s the place?"
The Hedgehog Biographer flipped open the book. The pictures in there had been taken from various points in the atmosphere, and just outside it. There were also a few maps made from the other continents. The Cartographers had not visited this planet for very long, it seemed. Nor been very efficient about it.
"Well," Roger began, crumpling the pages beneath his fingers. They left nasty stains on the pages. He pointed one stubby finger at a patch of green. At least his fingers were neatly cut, Natalie observed, even though he had cut straight across and not followed the curve. "This is forest land. If they were to clear a section of it, then it would be likely very bountiful." He paused, his beady eyes meeting Natalie’s. "You will notice it is not rainforest. Rainforest is what this barren wasteland once was. Ex-rainforest land is very sterile – rainforests feed on their own waste products."
"That’s nice," Natalie replied. She didn’t really need or want an Ecology lesson.
"So, I propose that you and I make a jaunt over to here – its only a few hundred clicks away, and do some tests on the soil. It’s also handy to this lake here, so irrigation of the land’ll be no problem. Dunno why they stayed here in the first place, really."
"Lack of transport, perhaps?" Natalie suggested.
"Nah, I think it has something to do with the ruins they’ve built what they laughingly call a city, around. Some sort of attachment to the Ancients, I’d guess. It’s amazing how often it happens. It’s hard for fledgling cultures to let go any signs of civilization. They cling futily to it – even if it means they starve to death. Fools." He snorted. It was one of the most disgusting sounds Natalie had heard.
She shrugged. "Possibly." She thought it sounded like so much bollocks, but was too diplomatic to say so. She had seen the ruins, half buried beneath the drifting soil-sand. Ruins of an ancient civilization – surely they couldn’t have chosen this barren place as their home just for them.
Or could they? It didn’t matter – Roger was suggesting they make a trip over to some completely uninhabited part of the world. She would not go with him. Not alone.
Then she thought of the small children, with their hollow, lost eyes and stick-like limbs. Could she put her own discomfit ahead of their suffering? Her own petty dislike over their weakening and failing?
No, she could not – not unless she wanted to have to face the guilt forever. Winter would come soon, and with winter, starvation would fly on swift wings. She could not condemn them to such a fate.
But she would also not go anywhere with Roger alone.
"Very well then, let us make the expedition. If Doctor Long cannot come with us, then I suggest we bring along three or four able-bodied Natives." She watched Roger’s face, as he opened his mouth to object, and then she carried on, without giving him a chance to object. "We’ll need help – it takes more then two people to set up the instruments, besides, these people might be going to live there – they deserve a chance to give it a once over."
"I don’t think any of them will be fit enough to come with us."
"Nonsense!" Natalie tried to sound patronizing. "I have seen several that would be up to it – or is this just a desperate ploy to get me alone, Roger Wilmont?"
Roger had the decency to look shocked at the suggestion. But the expression came a moment too late to be anything but a farce. "Of course not! Although I must admit, it would be rather a perk, don’t you think?" He moved slightly closer.
Natalie inched away some more – any further and she’d be pressed up against the tent. She could not afford him any more leeway. "Roger," she said, "I do not think that at all." I find you repellent, she wanted to add, but stopped herself. She didn’t want to hurt his feelings – not really.
He shrugged. "Whatever." Clearly he didn’t believe her. "Just let me chose whom we take."
"Not quite, how about I chose two and you chose two?"
"What, you don’t trust my judgment?"
"No Roger, I don’t."
Roger pouted. Then a smile split his face open. "Whatever ya wish, me lady, whatever ya wish."
The "Long Odds" skimmed low across the waters, the air cushion rippling the waters in its wake. It was rather a master part of craftsmanship, the "Long Odds", being both an Extra-Planetary Shuttle and a Hovercraft for intra-planetary travel. Natalie poised skillfully over the controls, her eyes focused intently on the growing landmass ahead. At her shoulder stood the pretty Numbat, Isobelle. The little lass had climbed partly up the back of her seat, in an effort to better watch the proceedings.
"Are you going to move the highland tribes too?" Spoke up Cori. Somewhat more robust then Isobelle, Cori the Bandicoot, still showed signs of malnutrition. It looked worse on her somewhat stocky frame however.
"Highland tribes?" That was the first anyone had told Natalie about them. "There are Highland tribes?" She looked quizzically at Roger.
The Hedgehog had the sense to look guilty. "I … fear they may have slipped my mind," he muttered. "But ya don’t wanna go messing with them, at any rate. They’re much harder to find, for one thing. Practically impossible."
"Does the Doc know about them?"
"Oh yes … well, err … I’m pretty sure I mentioned them to him."
"Well, maybe. But, I mean, why do we want to associate with them anyhow? Uncivilized rogues!"
"And you know this for a fact, do you?" The land grew larger and Natalie eased the craft up as it struck land, high enough so that bushes and rocks were not going to act as rather unfortunate obstacles. "Are you sure this is the right place? Only, the hills look slightly closer then I had expected?" She eased up on the throttle, bringing the Long Odds to rest on about the only flat piece of land not scattered with pointy rocks.
Roger fumbled with the map. "Sure, this is right, just 80 clicks along the coast and another 23 up-river. Thereabouts. Handy to water," he gestured back at the lake, "and lots of nice forest to be clear…" He faltered. Whilst there may have been forest here once, it had clearly faced rather radical changes at some point. The entire landscape was covered in low, scruffy bushes peering from amongst a jumble of what appeared to be stone trees, lying on their sides.
"Imagine that," Natalie commented, "a petrified forest."
Cori frowned. "Why is it scared? How can you tell?"
"Petrified means turned to stone," Isobelle pointed out, impatiently. "How can we live here? There’s no wood to build shelters from!"
Natalie glanced at Roger. The Hedgehog was leaning over the map, his face creased into a complicated expression of confusion. "This map is only ten years old – this couldn’t have happened in the last ten years!"
With a despairing sigh, Natalie slid out of her seat and knelt down beside the Hedgehog. She frowned at the map, then reached down and turned it around the other way. "This is where we are," she pointed, "by pure coincidence, there are two lakes equidistant from the colony – in exact opposite directions. You had your map upside down! Roger, do you even KNOW what way is north?"
"Of course, I am the Biographer!" He flicked open his compass and the needle flicked around, before settling in the direction Natalie knew of as south-west.
She sighed. "A magnetic compass won’t work here – there is too much metal ore close to the surface. Why didn’t you think to try my electronic one?" And why had she not double-checked him? She knew how outright stupid he could be.
"I’m sorry!" He didn’t sound sorry at all.
"Ah well," Cori spoke up, "how about we just have a look around here anyway – you never know, it might be perfect." She smiled shyly at Roger.
Roger seemed oblivious to her. He folded his map up crudely and stuffed it back in his pocket. "Yeh, you never know."
"Well, for one thing, you can’t build shelters out of petrified wood," Natalie pointed out. "But there is water and there are some trees on the ridge there, so you’d just have to clear out the stone trees first, then find flat pieces of land, then cut down the trees and roll them down the hill." There was no sarcasm in her voice, Natalie didn’t know the meaning of the word. She was just making a statement. It would be hard – but it could be done.
For the first time the Yapok native spoke. Natalie had chosen him for the journey, but he had been so quiet the whole way, she had quite forgotten he was there. "Even this place would be more habitable then our own."
She smiled faintly at him, as they disembarked and stepped out into a whole different realm.
"Excuse me Ma’am!" The Yapok came running towards her, panting with exertion. He would not, quite, meet her eyes. She had chosen him for his broad shoulders and health, but he was painfully shy.
"We, err, appear to have found something that perhaps you should take a look at. If you’re not too busy, that is…"
"I’ll be right there." She slammed the device shut, trapping the soil sample. It would be taken into the lab on the ship and analyzed for its mineral contents. This was to see how fertile the soil would be. It looked promising – the grass was thick and lush, and moss and fungi nestled around the petrified logs. Odd how there were no trees though.
Benjamin waited patiently for Natalie to finish. He watched her covertly, from under his long eyelashes. He did not venture any further information. She liked Benjamin – he accepted anything she said and did not argue with her. If she were to say something he disliked, she was sure he would tell her quietly and politely, instead of shrieking at her.
Speaking of shrieking, she glanced at Roger. He had been trying to explain how a particular device worked, to Isobelle. And he had been doing it rather loudly. It appeared that Isobelle had not taken too kindly to his habit of treating her as though she were stupid, and had stormed off. Now Roger was sulking, and taking soil samples from various points around the area, along with water samples from the lake. He would not need her help, at present.
And she certainly preferred the company of Benjamin.
He moved silently, with the easy stealth of a hunter. Another reason she had brought him. As a hunter, he would be able to read the signs in the site they chose – and thus know if prey were readily available in the region. Over a jumble of petrified trees they scrambled and she noticed he faltered a little – as though the exertion were too much for his malnutritioned body. They came to a small grove of trees, stepping into the shadows cast by their long branches. After the brightness of the outside world, her eyes took a moment to adjust to the gloom, the shape of Isobelle barely discernable up ahead.
The Numbat girl ran to meet them. "We have found some sign of previous habitation," she said. "I think it’s a temple or something."
"Made by the Ancients." Natalie pondered out loud. Such a thing was not particularly relevant to their mission, but they were scoping out the land, and if there were temples there – they needed to know about them!
The grove of trees formed a rudimentary tunnel, and had to have been intentionally planted. At the very end of them was a small, rectangular pond. The water was a dank color, and alive with seething tadpoles and frogs. The frogs disappeared into the water, in a chorus of "plops".
"A Reflecting Pool," Isobelle commented. Their eyes turned up as one, gazing at the structure in front of them.
At first glance, it appeared to be nothing but a cave, except that the opening was a little too high, a little too even. Closer inspection revealed the remnants of gigantic hinges, and the broken remains of the doors. Petrified – as the trees on the lakeshore had been.
"Curious," Natalie commented. "The wood here has been petrified – as have the trees on the shore, yet the tunnel remains undamaged."
"Do you think it is truly wise we venture in?" Benjamin ventured. "It is said that the remains of the Ancients can carry with them terrible curses, if one is to enter them."
Isobelle snorted. "That’s just rubbish told by the adults to stop the youngsters venturing into the Old City. And it doesn’t work either. I went in there once, when I was younger," and before the food ran out, she didn’t need to add it - Natalie could see the thought in her eyes. "It was on a dare – dared to spend a night in there." She shrugged. "And nothing happened, just had some odd dreams."
The Yapok frowned at her, and shuddered. "I still do not think it is wise to venture into their temple."
Despite his concerns, Natalie felt the curiosity gnaw at her. Here was a chance to discover something about the mysterious "Natives", a race that was only known from the remnants of their civilization. No research had been done, no one had considered it important enough to explore. Certainly, the Old City had been searched, but it was such a maze of corridors and so ruined with the rigors of time, no-one had explored it thoroughly. "I’m going in," she decided.
"Then I’m coming with you," Benjamin decided. He did not even hesitate, although she could see his look of intrepidation had not faded. "It could be dangerous."
"Well, I’m not being left out here with him," Isobelle cast a glance back at the shore. She shuddered. "He’s vile!"
"Oh come on," Natalie felt a strange urge to protect him. She might despise him, and he might make her skin crawl – but he was one of her crew, after all. "Roger’s not too bad, once you get used to him." She couldn’t believe she was saying it.
Isobelle snorted. "Well, Cori seems to like him well enough. I, on the other hand, have much better taste in men."
"Oh do you just?" Natalie queried. "I suppose it’s a matter of personal opinion, really."
"You wouldn’t be saying that if you knew…" She faltered. "If you knew what kinda guy I like," she concluded, rather lamely.
So there was a romance blossoming there, then? Natalie glanced at Benjamin, but the Yapok looked not in the least romantically inclined towards her. He was, in fact, looking at her, his bright green eyes glinting in the sunlight. Recognizing her scrutiny, he turned his attention to the arch instead.
No, definitely nothing between the two of them.
"Don’t you suppose we should tell Roger where we’re going at least?" He asked. "I mean, wouldn’t it be courteous."
"Probably," Natalie agreed. Unfortunately, there was no way he would let her go without her – and she didn’t really want his company right about now. "Where’s Cori, anyway?"
"Last I saw she was racing to do the bidding of his Lordship the Biographer," Isobelle replied. "I’m sure she can look after herself. No taste that girl."
Natalie had to agree. "Let’s go then."
They had no source of light, save for a crudely made torch, but still they stepped into the darkness. The flamelight illuminated a rough cavern, with a corridor exiting from it. Here the flickering light revealed a series of icons, carved into the walls. They were shall gouges now, worn away by time. Natalie brought her hand up, tracing their shallow contours. Immediately a light flickered at her fingertips, and suddenly raced along the wall, illuminating the icons carved there. She jumped back, almost tumbling into Benjamin.
"Magick?" Isobelle breathed. "I always heard the Ancients had it. I never dreamed it would live on so long after they were gone."
"Well, at least we can see," Benjamin replied, diplomatically.
Further into the gloom they ventured.
The place smelt heavy of recycled air and the tang of fungi. The feeble glow from the wall illuminated dozens of the parasitic organism. Their spores drifted in the air, stirred by the currents of their passage.
Benjamin was ahead, looking distinctly uncomfortable. As a hunter he likely preferred lesser light levels.
And so it was that he stumbled upon the inner sanctum first.
Natalie heard his gasp, and tensed in preparation – but nothing followed bar silence. She walked forward, to where he stood, gazing into darkness. Peering over his shoulder, she too gasped.
There was a large chamber before them. It was a complete and utter mess – benches lay in shattered piles, overgrown with that strange fungi. Intermingled within them were pieces of strange armor, and bones. Bones so old and yellowed and cracked that one touch and they would splinter to nothing.
As she stepped into the chamber, the spores rose in the air, with them the deep, musky scent of rot. Natalie coughed and spluttered, covering her face with her sleeve.
"What secrets this place must hold," Benjamin muttered beside her. He likewise had covered his face – sooner then she had, she was willing to bet. She could feel the spores inside her nose, she spluttered, trying to clear them.
"I don’t think we can live here." Isobelle added, sniffing and sneezing. "It’s too dangerous."
"We live next to the Old City with few casualties." Benjamin pointed out.
"Yes, but that’s different – that’s a dead city. This one seems to be," pause, "waiting."
"Right then, we’ve seen all we need to see – I think we should get out of here." Benjamin ventured.
Natalie smiled. "What, not going to pillage it for treasures?"
The look Benjamin shot her was filled with disgust. "You do not," he said, "venture into ancient temples and pillage them. It is not a done thing. You could awaken all sorts of evil spirits."
The Clouded Leopard was taken aback. "Very well then, let’s go."
And with barely a glance, they departed.
Natalie was thankful to be back in fresh air again – the dank scent of decay still seemed to cling to her clothing. She contemplated bathing in the lake, but that would necessitate risking being seen naked by Roger. Not something she greatly desired.
He met them as soon as they stepped out from the tree tunnel. "And where have you been?"
"Exploring," Natalie replied, but did not elaborate. "How goes the sampling?"
"Whilst you three have been gallivanting off getting into the gods know what…" He paused. "You smell pretty terrible, Natalie, how about you take a bath, I’ll stand guard."
"I think not, Roger Wilmont. And it is equally important to know the layout of the land then the condition of the soil and water." She turned on her heels and strode away, making her way to the lakeside. If she could not swim, she could at least do a rudimentary wash.
Still wanting to hide from Roger’s voyeuristic gaze, she chose a place where there was vegetation thick about the shore. Here there were two weeping willows and a cluster of bushes. The air was filled with their sweet blossom scent. Pushing through the scented leaves, she paused, as she realized this spot was already occupied.
Benjamin knelt in the shallows, pouring water over his head, from cupped hands. He was naked, and in the late afternoon light, the water droplets seemed to glow almost iridescently. Like tiny jewels adorning his pelt.
Natalie turned, preparing to retreat and leave him in privacy, when suddenly he turned, saw her, and muttered an oath. Blushing furiously, he threw himself deeper into the water. She had, however, already got quite a glimpse of him – and was as embarrassed as he.
"Suh-sorry," she stuttered, moving back.
He merely blinked at her from under his long eyelashes, and crouched, chest deep in the water, until she departed.
Roger was late to supper. As she ladled broth into the bowls, Natalie began to worry. They were returning to the colony after supper, and they could hardly return without Roger – as much as she would like to.
After he had gotten over his embarrassment, Benjamin had demonstrated his method of catching fish. It involved wandering the bank of the tiny streamlets until one found a trout basking near the surface. Then, slowly, he moved his hand to lightly tickle its belly. This seemed to send the trout into something of a daze – and meant they could be scooped out onto the shore. Where Natalie would dispatch them with a swift slash to the gills. Prey was plentiful here. The lake and streamlets teemed with trout and small aquatic lizards. And as they walked amongst the petrified logs, quail and partridge would erupt before them. Plenty of small animals – but large animals were somewhat scarce. Benjamin had found the trails left by a small herd of the plodding lizards, coming down to drink at the lake at dawn. Compared to their current home, this was practically paradise.
"You’d have to board up the entrance to the temple, however," Natalie ventured, "in case the youngsters wander into it. It could be dangerous."
"I certainly do not trust those spores," the Water Opossum replied. He still would not meet her eyes, and his cheeks reddened every time she spoke to him. "It took me ages to get them out of my fur."
"You mean we’re going to settle here?" Isobelle sounded surprised, and a little alarmed, Natalie noticed. "But there’s such little wood!"
"I think this is a fine place," Benjamin replied. "The food is plentiful – the water fresh and the soil seems good for crops. Much better then our barren colony. We could build from the petrified wood, were we able to break it up. It’s not as strong as rock, after all."
"Still, I mean, what about that temple? What if it’s cursed?"
"Are you saying you don’t want to leave the colony? To move onto a better place?" Cori speared a piece of fish efficiently. She had said very little – preferring to guzzle her broth. It was the first decent food they had eaten in days, likely. "There’s nothing there but the Old City!"
The Numbat looked sheepish. "It’s my home," she muttered.
A feeble excuse if ever I heard on, Natalie thought. "This place offers better prospects," she said. "But we aren’t going to force you to move if you don’t want to."
She nodded. "I know." Was that worry on her face? Likely, Natalie decided. Obviously her boyfriend, or perhaps girlfriend, was unlikely to move. It was, of course, her own choice.
They ate the rest of the meal in silence, and the air seemed almost heavy with worry and expectation. What had happened to Roger? He may not be the most desirable companion in the world – but that did not change the fact that he was one of them.
"I don’t suppose Roger mentioned to any of you where he was going?"
Isobelle shook her head, and Benjamin glanced into his broth. However, Cori made a little noise.
"He made me promise!" She muttered, shoveling food into her mouth to avoid talking.
"Made you promise what?" Talking to the Bandicoot was like talking to a very stubborn child.
"He could be in trouble, Cori," Benjamin ventured. "We haven’t seen him in some hours now. If you don’t tell us, worse could happen."
"He said he was going to see what all the excitement and secrecy was about," Cori muttered, around her spoon. It took Natalie a moment to decipher her words.
"The temple!" She exclaimed. "Isobelle, Cori, wait here in case he returns. Benjamin, come with me. I’d bet he’s gone in there and got himself completely and utterly lost!"
Benjamin made no effort to argue, something for which Natalie was very grateful. That was why she had chosen him. She knew him enough not to ask questions or complain. He was as complacent as they came – within reason.
She lit a lantern form the fire and the two of them made their way across the petrified logs and into the tunnel of trees. The air echoed with the cries of frogs, singing to each other in the twilight. As they approached the Reflecting Pool the sound abruptly ceased and Benjamin made a small coughing noise.
He said nothing, but moved the lantern low and gestured to a perfect boot print, in the damp soil about the Reflecting Pool. The natives did not wear such footwear, and it was smaller then Natalie’s.
"Roger did come this way," she breathed.
Together they ventured into the gloom, and she touched the runes, springing the lights to life. Either Roger had not found that trick, or he had passed this way long since, for it had been quite dark when they entered. Clouds of spores still hung in the air, but better prepared this time, Natalie wrapped a kerchief about her nose and mouth, bandit style. Benjamin had followed the same example.
The Yapok darted ahead, waving the lantern from side to side as he crouched to hunt for spore. It was hard, of course, given they had all come through their only a few hours earlier. He appeared to, luckily, be an efficient hunter.
Natalie trailed behind, feeling quite unnecessary. She wondered if the Yapok fancied her – he was very shy around her. But then again, he was shy around everyone. For a moment, the image of his lithe, skyclad body, glistening with water droplets, flickered through her mind. She banished it, but there was no denying that he was certainly attractive. Even if he were a bit short.
The inner sanctum looked even eerier by lantern light. At places the fungi seemed to have consumed almost everything – and was at least knee-height. There was also, very obviously, a trail of broken, disturbed organisms. Someone had recently stormed straight through the middle, heedless of all the yellow growths crushed beneath his feet.
And then the trail abruptly ended.
"Roger!" Natalie called, and the walls through it back at her in eerie, hollow voices. "Geeer, geeer, geeer"
Benjamin grabbed her arm, and she jumped in fright. "There…" His voice faltered. She followed his gaze to rest on a shape, almost obscured by the fungi and shadow.
"Roger!" She might hate him, he might disgust her, but she could not leave him here. Without thought of the spores, she sprang through the growths, to the side of the unconscious Hedgehog. Benjamin was beside her in a heartbeat, and together they dragged Roger out of the mess, and to the passageway – which was relatively devoid of the fungi. A quick inspection revealed that he was still alive, his pulse slow and regular. His quills, and clothing, were coated in yellow spores. Clutched, close to his chest, was something wrapped in his overcoat. Try as she might, Natalie could not make him relinquish his grip on it – even though he was unconscious. Not without risking breaking his arm, at any rate.
Whatever it was would have to wait. He might be alive now – but there was no telling what the spores would do to him. They had to get him out of there, and wash him off. She shuddered in revulsion at such a thought. Imagine, having to bathe him? But there was nothing else to be done.
Between the two of them, they managed to carry him up to the surface, and lay him beside the Reflecting Pool. Its waters were filthy – but would have to suffice. Removing her cloth mask, she washed it thoroughly – much to the disgust of the frogs, and then used it to wipe the spores from his face. He stirred and his lips moved soundlessly, but he did not awaken.
"We’ve no choice," Natalie said. "It looks like we’re going to have to carry him to the lake. Then we shall have to hurry home. I think I can find the way, even in the dark and even without his navigational skills. I just hope the Doc’ll know what to do."
Benjamin nodded, heaving Roger’s prone form over his shoulder. No mean feat – given he was not much taller then the Hedgehog. The muscles beneath his shirt rippled with exertion as he scrambled over the logs. Natalie led the way, holding the lantern low to avoid accidents. It was now completely dark – and the stars twinkled above, merrily ignorant of the chaos below.
Isobelle and Cori ran to greet them. "Is he okay?" Cori asked. "He’s not dead is he?"
"No," Natalie replied, "he just inhaled too many of the spores. Stand back – they must be washed off him immediately." And I need a cast iron stomach.
Benjamin dumped him in the shallows and they tore off his clothes. Smeared with the spores as they were, they would likely have to be burned. "Benjamin, get him some spare clothes from his locker – the last thing we want is him running around naked."
The Yapok nodded once, and was gone in a flash. Natalie sighed in relief. It was good having such a responsive crew, maybe she should take him home with her. He’d be better then Roger, at any rate.
But why would a hunter want to go into space?
She rolled Roger’s prone form in the mud, and then dunked him into the water.
"Oh, so that’s how it is, is it?" He muttered, one nasty little hand reaching out to paw at her. "Always knew I’d get ya in the end."
"Shut up you vile little wretch!" Natalie had been supporting his head, but now she released it, and he fell into the water with a great splash. "You could have got yourself killed!"
He surfaced, spluttering, still clutching the package tightly to himself. "You’re such a tease, babe! You know you want me." He smacked his lips. "Come on, gimme a kiss."
Natalie was not in the mood for this. "In your dreams, Roger Wilmont, and in my nightmares! I would rather kiss a frog!"
That seemed to shut him up, at least momentarily. A quiet cough came from behind her. She turned to see Benjamin standing there, with an armload of clothing. He smiled faintly at her. "I brought the clothes as you asked."
"Good. Now Roger, what the hell is that you’re holding?" She reached out for it, but Roger, apparently feeling much better, snatched it away.
"It’s mine!" He scowled. "You tried to keep it secret – you tried to keep everything secret, damn you babe! But I found you out, oh yes I did!"
"If you are referring to the incident in the temple," Benjamin said, "we brought out merely what we took in. Only a fool," and he accented the word ‘fool’, "would remove anything from such a place. Who knows what bad-will it may bring?"
"Did you enjoy your little expedition?" Doctor Long crossed his long legs and smiled faintly at her. "You intend to move them then?"
Natalie nodded. "The place we found, whilst not ideal, is a grand improvement on this place. It is not perfect, but we lack the time and resources to travel much further afield." She paused. "I shall take as many of the able-bodied workers as I can there, tomorrow on the morn, and they can begin the building. Unfortunately, that presents us with a problem."
The Doctor nodded. "We are only supposed to be here for four days, but we can hardly make the weaker folk walk. Perhaps we should give them a day to set up rudimentary shelters, and transport the weaker and ailing the day after. It is far from ideal, but they will likely be as comfortable there as they are here, at any rate."
"Sounds like the best plan we have. Now, we best head to bed – it’s going to be a long day tomorrow."
They parted company, Natalie returning to the small cabin of her ship. There was a small bunk, set against the ceiling. It was just high enough for one person to sit upright without, quite, hitting their head. It was also comfortably far away from Roger. Outside the rain pattered down on the roof.
Curling into the fetal position, Natalie draped her tail over her nose. So much to do on the morrow, and she really should sleep, but her mind was too active. She felt slightly odd, a growing sense of dread in the pit of her stomach. It was hard to put her finger on it, but she felt very ill-of-ease. She tossed, rolling over. A noise caught her attention, nothing but a slight shuffling of feet, a snuffling.
Instantly her eyes popped open. Roger stood on the floor, beneath her bunk. There was something odd about him.
"Roger!" She exclaimed, pulling her sheet up to hide her nakedness. Somehow he had opened the door without her hearing him. "What the hell are you doing here?"
He smiled – and it was the most fiercesome sight she had ever seen. His teeth, yellowed and broken, flickered in the moonlight. "I thought you would like me to pay you a visit, babe. It is a cold night, indeed."
"Get out of here! Get out of here now!" She looked about for something to throw at him, but the pillow was her only option. "It is not that cold and you are not welcome here!"
Unperturbed by her outburst, he stepped forward and began climbing up the ladder towards her. Suddenly frightened, she struck him about the head with the pillow – in the hope of unbalancing him. The eiderdown slipped with the exertion, revealing the curve of her breast.
With unnatural balance ability – given he was a hedgehog, Roger wrenched the pillow out of her hands with his own, and threw it to the ground. He did not fall off the ladder, did not even stagger. He merely kept on climbing.
Now she was getting truly scared. This was not the Roger she knew - Roger the sniveling wretch – this Roger had a determined glint in his eye and seemed unnaturally able.
She flicked out her claws, done with niceties. As Roger’s muzzle materialized over the side of the bunk, she slashed him across the face with her claws.
He yowled with pain, blood dripping down one cheek, and grabbed her hand between his teeth. He was fast – too fast. Too fast for Roger.
"Bitch," he growled.
His teeth pressed down, she could feel them tearing into her flesh, the stickiness of blood. She kicked him in the face.
His mouth popped open. "Natalie, how could you!" He exclaimed, and then tumbled over backwards, falling from the ladder. Being a Hedgehog, he half curled himself up before striking the ground.
He did not move.
"Roger? Roger!" Had she killed him? Had he struck his head on the floor? For a moment she was concerned. He was clearly not himself and she had only the vaguest idea of what he would have done, were he to catch her. Yet so saying, he was still part of her crew. Wrapping the blanket around her, she leapt from the top bunk, landing easily on her feet. "Roger?" She bent over to investigate.
"Bitch!" He growled, grabbing her about the wrist and rolling, trying to drag her over with him. "How dare you!"
She slashed him with her claws, and he released his grip enough for her to break away. Not wanting to attack him, she ran.
Recovering from the onslaught, the Hedgehog darted after her. His dirty paws grabbed the edge of the eiderdown, and for a moment she was halted. Then she struggled free and darted towards the door – naked. It had been left open – now she slammed her hand on the button beside it, diving through as it closed.
Panic fluttered in her breast – she had to find somewhere to hide – or someone to help her. Roger would not be detained by a closed door, not for more then a few seconds, anyhow.
She did not know what it was that sent her stumbling towards the darkness of the Old City. There were lights on, in the settlement, small fires flickering as insomniacs waited up, playing cards or chatting. But instead of running towards their comfort and warmth, she chose instead the dark and silent shapes of a prior civilization. If she had taken a moment to ponder it, she would have realized she was doing exactly the wrong thing.
However, she did not pause, did not think – it was as though someone else was controlling her feet.
The Old City had been boarded up, yes, but for years untold children had been sneaking into it. The boards were old, cracked and broken, and it was no great strain to pull them off and squeeze herself downwards, into the gloom.
Only, things were not quite as she had expected them to be…
* * *
The Hedgehog let out a long, drawn out moan. His face seemed to be on fire, with ripples of intense pain. One hand touched his cheek, and felt the stickiness of blood. What had happened to him? He remembered, dimly, of a strange dream. A horrible dream in which he had, for some ungodly reason, decided to have his way with Natalie. Whether she liked it or not. He hadn’t succeeded of course, and had instead had her attack him and run away. And then he had woken up with blood on his face.
And cold metal beneath his feet.
Roger jumped to his feet, staggering slightly. His head felt rather unstable. He rested his weight against the wall. The acrid, coppery taste of blood filled his mouth with guilt. Either he had bitten his tongue, or he had bitten someone else.
What had he done?
It struck him with painful clarity. A deed so terrible, so horrific, that he immediately loathed himself with passion. He had tried to take her, against her will.
He chuckled humorlessly at that thought. As if anyone could take Natalie against her will! He certainly had not got far. One finger lingered about the side of his mouth. The skin was tender, bruised. There was only one thing to be done – he would have to find her, and apologize.
His head felt … odd… there was no other way to describe it. Almost as though it were separate from his body. He stepped forward, feeling it swoop and dive with nausea. The door "swished" open at the touch of the button.
It was dark outside – so dark. Clouds shielded the stars from view. How could he possibly find Natalie out here? What if she were lost? Or worse – what if she had fallen in her haste, and lay broken and injured somewhere, hidden from view.
What if they never found her again?
What had he done?
The Hedgehog had not walked two steps when he stumbled over a rock, stubbing his toe. His species might be adapted to foraging at night – but it was much harder to navigate by scent when bipedal. Clenching his teeth against the pain, he staggered on.
Slowly his eyes adapted, and he could see the pinpoints of light from the settlement. The residents, too excited about the move to sleep, were playing cards and talking.
Would Natalie head towards them? Would she tell them what he had done? Maybe… She had probably gone running to that Benjamin. He shuddered a little at the thought in both cold and anger. The little creep had been flirting with his babe all day! He had seen the way the Yapok was all shy and tentative – such an obvious ploy, did he not realize that Natalie was taken? That Roger had first claim on her?
Well, if she’d gone running to that bastard, he didn’t know what he would do. He had to live with Natalie, after all, had to stare at her graceful feline form. Her soft, lilting voice…
So distracting were his thoughts, he almost missed the small, dark shape of someone leaving the campsite. That would have been nothing unusual – she could have been merely slipping away to use the Necessary. However, a cloak draped her shoulders and she moved as though in a great hurry. He was only guessing from the size of the hunched figure it was female.
A stray gust of wind blew her scent to him, and he startled, recognizing the delicate musk. He had shared a small space with her, after all, and his nostrils were very sensitive.
It was Isobelle.
Where might Isobelle be sneaking off too, heavily cloaked as she was? Certainly not to the Necessary – it was a warm and humid night. Perhaps she was sneaking off to a secret liaison?
None of his business, certainly, but Roger was not halted by such constraints. Curiosity overwhelmed him. Besides – it wouldn’t hurt to follow her just a short way, would it? To make sure no harm befell her on her nightly exploits?
Furtive himself, he stole after her. She made her way slowly up the hill behind the settlement. Pausing for a moment atop a rise, she turned, glancing behind her. Against the darkness, her face was completely invisible – shadowed entirely by the hood. Quickly Roger dropped behind a rock, praying she did not see the movement. He waited for a long moment, starting to shiver. Sweat trickled down his back and his cheeks were sticky with blood. His heart sounded unnaturally loud. Surely she could hear it? How long should he wait?
He waited a moment or three longer.
Finally the tension became too much, and he risked a peek. She was gone. Her form had been silhouetted by dilute moonlight, but now there was nothing. He cursed himself. How could he be so stupid? He should have kept watching her! He was so pathetic, sometimes.
Still, maybe he could find her again.
He ran to the top of the rise, stumbling somewhat in the darkness. Certainly the ground sloped downwards, but beyond that it rose up again, up a steep, rocky hillside. Well, there was no harm in walking a little bit further, was there?
He stepped down, swallowed by darkness. Several times he stumbled and once he tripped over something. The slope was littered with small, sharp rocks, and they drove into his hands. Cursing angrily, he dragged himself upwards. There was no point in going onwards – so he may as well go back.
But which way was back?
* * *
Natalie blinked at the sudden onslaught of bright light. Well, not exactly bright but it appeared so against the darkness outside.
"Oh madam, you should not have been out there! Don’t you know it’s dangerous?" Someone bustled up to her, a worried looking Tiger. Obviously young, he wore a helmet that seemed two sizes too big and chainmail that hung from his small frame. "The attack could come at any moment!"
Suddenly aware of her nakedness, Natalie glanced down, to find somehow, mysteriously, she had gained a long shirt, knotted about her waist and leggings. Over it all hung a chainmail tunic – rather better fitting.
"What the hell is going on?"
"The Canidae are here! They’ve already destroyed the Temple of Alasheur and now they are coming here – we must be prepared. You must stay indoors and take up arms!" He paused to push the helmet upon his head. "They are merciless! Merciless!"
Well, the question had not been aimed at the Tiger, and the answer had certainly caused more. Clearly this was not the "Old City" that Isobelle had spoken off. Had she stepped through some sort of time rift?
Such things were not unknown – rare, but not unheard of. Black holes, on occasion, opened gateways into the past, the future or a different present. But she certainly had not passed through a black hole.
It would be best to go with the flow, she decided, and see what she could find out. It seemed unlikely that this Tiger lad would allow her to retreat outside, to see if that was the same present she had left.
"Go, down to the inner sanctum! Allow Baste to protect you, as we shall protect her!" He pushed her down the corridor by applying gentle pressure to her shoulder.
The city here was not unlike the temple she had stumbled on. The walls glowed with luminosity, highlighting a rather less fungi-covered hallway. The ceiling rose above her in an arch, glistening white and clean. As she stepped down it she saw there were shallow alcoves at regular intervals – and in each alcove waited a Furr. Snow Leopards, Panthers, Lions and Tigers. Male and female alike. Some were plainly nervous, sitting and fidgeting with their tails. Others sharpened their weapons, shone their helms. A few merely stood there, staring blankly into space. Expectation hung in the air, thick enough to taste. Their eyes turned to watch her as she walked past, trying hard not to run.
Where was she? Was this truly the past? Could it be that these Felidae were those referred to as the Ancients? She thought it highly likely.
At the end of the corridor she reached a junction. She paused, but her Tiger escort had fallen back and she was alone. Presumably she was supposed to know where to go. But where was she meant to go?
One way led down stairs, and the other down into another long corridor. For lack of having anything better to do, she sniffed the air. It smelt faintly of incense and vanilla blossom. Then suddenly she "remembered" where she should be – down the stairs.
She hurried down the stairs, hearing voices raised in muted conversation, and stumbled into a temple. At one end was a raised dais, and atop it the statue of a Cat, with regal, narrow features. This was, Natalie assumed, the "Baste" that the young Tiger guard had spoken of. It was surrounded by a selection of Feline Furrs. From the edge of the dais, big-eyed kits stared up at her, their faces filled with fear and loss. As she entered, she was met by a matronly Snow Leopard, clad in chest armor. She looked for all the world like a Valkryie warrior. Glancing Natalie critically up and down, she allowed a small grin to dance across her features.
"You must take up a weapon," she said, removing a sword, in a scabbard, from the shelf behind her. "We must prepare, the army will likely attack come sunrise."
Natalie accepted the sword, perplexed. She looped the scabbard onto her belt and made her way back to take her place amongst the assembled warriors.
She could not stay here, obviously, but she could not really see how she was to escape either – clearly she would have to struggle to get out the front entrance. But if she stayed here… could she be massacred with the rest?
Natalie gulped. Well, that was something she did not want to stay around to test. If there were any way she could walk out the door and back to the present, she would do it. She glanced around the gathered hoards. It was time for her to leave.
"Excuse me," she said politely to the Valkryie in front of the door.
"And where do you think you’re going, madam?" The Snow Leopard’s eyes narrowed.
"I, err, left something in my chambers. Please, I shall be right back."
"It is dangerous out there! You are to stay in here, under the protection of Baste!"
Natalie gulped. She didn’t want to have to do it, but she did not want to stay here either. Whilst not born to violence, and not fond of it in the slightest, she knew when it was necessary. She stepped forward. "I am afraid it is of utmost importance."
"No, I am afraid I cannot allow it." The Snow Leopard replied. "Now kind…" Her sentence was suddenly broken off by a shout from the passage outside, and a splintering crash.
"The enemies have broken through! The Canidae are attacking!"
* * *
Roger stumbled blindly – ever step he took led him further and further into utmost confusion and further loss. He had no idea where he was – whether he walked towards the settlement or away from it. Every hilltop looked the same in the darkness, every crippled and half-dead tree no different from every other. He faltered, sitting down on a rock.
Maybe he should just stay put. If he continued further, he would surely just get more lost.
Then he heard it – a thin, whispering note. Beautiful and melancholy in the still night air. He froze. What was it? Someone playing a flute, perhaps? Relief rising in him, he stumbled towards the sound. Along the way he neatly put his foot into a pothole – or maybe a giant lizard’s burrow. Lurching forward, he hit the ground with a horrible, audible "thump" and felt his ankle wrench savagely. Tears sprang to his eyes, streaking through the dried blood that clung to his cheeks.
What a sight he must make!
For a moment he lay there, in the dirt, listening to the unseen player continue their tune. He stood, tentatively putting his weight on his twisted ankle. Pain spasmed, and he clenched his teeth against the pain. It took all his effort not to shriek aloud. The night had not been good at all!
As the pain eased from a burning explosion to nothing but a dull throbbing-ache, he began following the sound once more. He stumbled further, wiping blood and tears and mud from his face.
And he blinked, and blinked again.
For, on a ridge, not far away, sat two figures. A small fire glowed, obscured by an overhang, but it was bright enough to illuminate them. A slender Agouti lad sat, fingers dancing across the flute. And before him, staring at him with rapt, adoring attention was Isobelle.
So this was why she was unwilling to move with the others. He watched them for a moment, longing filling him. If only he and Natalie could be like that. The fluting had stopped now, the instrument pushed aside in favor of a passionate embrace.
Fighting against a rather warped sense of wanting to watch, Roger forced himself to look away. He did not wish to add voyeurism to his list of crimes today… Huddling into a ball and wishing he had a cloak, Roger sat and waited for Isobelle to leave. At least he could then follow her back to the settlement.
* * *
Chaos insured. Natalie darted forward, brandishing her weapon, and the Snow Leopard made no effort to stop her. She crested the stairs, and immediately the sound of sword fighting met her ears. Although she had never held a sword in her life – and certainly never fought with one, Natalie found she was holding it confidently. With easy strides, someone came down the passage from the other direction. It was a gangly Maned Wolf, wielding a dirk. His face twisted into a snarl, and he lunged at Natalie. She quickly maneuvered her sword up to parry the blow. The Maned Wolf kicked her in the knee, and as she staggered back, he sliced the sword around, striking her in the side. She stumbled, falling against the wall. Her sword darted out, deflected neatly by his armor.
Pain throbbed in her side. Some of the blow had been taken by her flimsy armor, but she had still suffered minor damage. Blood soaked into her clothing. He slashed again, and again she parried it, but suddenly he was not alone. Beside him stood a rather savage looking Dhole. In his large hands, he grasped a double-handed axe.
Although she parried as hard as she could, there was no way Natalie could fend off both attackers. She slid to the ground, blood staining her clothing in sanguine hues.
* * *
"Roger? Roger? What the hell are you doing up here? We’ve been hunting for you half the morning!"
Roger spluttered, uncurling himself. His muscles were cold and cramped, and resisted being moved. Somehow, against all odds, he had fallen asleep. His eyes were still filmy, he wiped one hand across his face. What a mess he must look, still covered in blood and sweat and tears. It took a few moments for his vision to clear, and then he blinked. "Cori?"
The Bandicoot proffered a hand to him. "Well, you remember my name at least. What were you doing up here? We were so worried!"
"I, I stepped out last night to attend to the necessary ablutions, and got a little lost," he muttered. Feeble excuse yes – how could someone get so thoroughly lost? "How did you find me?"
Cori shrugged, "followed your footprints. You left a pretty obvious trail. Anyhow, things have gone from bad to worse. Everyone else is looking for Natalie."
"Natalie?" Dimly he remembered what he had done the night before. And now she had vanished. "What happened to Natalie?"
"We don’t know," Cori replied, "and we’re supposed to be moving some of the folk to the new place today. Only everything is going wrong! The elder-folk don’t want to leave at all, and are protesting and being very stubborn. And now the pilot’s vanished anyhow, so we can’t go and you’d vanished as well and… oh…" She stamped her foot. "Oh, and Isobelle has gone too."
"I know – it’s all totally bizarre."
"And what of Doctor Long?" Roger was slowly regaining wakefulness. What could have happened to Isobelle? Had she eloped with her strange boyfriend?
"Well, he’s gone too," the Bandicoot replied, "but at least we know where he is – the fool has gone to talk to the Mountain Tribe. Left very early this morning, just before sunrise. He didn’t want to drag you and Natalie away from your task. So he went alone. We only found you had both vanished after he’d gone." She sighed. "Anyhow, I think you need to get back to the village. Don’t worry, I remember the way."
Roger stumbled a little – his ankle was a nasty, swollen, blue-black, and tender to touch. At least it didn’t appear to be broken. He stumbled and Cori immediately caught his arm.
"Oh, you’re hurt!"
"Just a little." His own injury was nothing compared to his guilt – mere retribution. He deserved it, for what he had tried to do to Natalie. But why had he done it? Suddenly something occurred to him – Isobelle, Natalie and he, all vanished, all lost.
And they had all entered the temple.
"What about that Yapok, the one that was with us yesterday?"
"Benjamin?" Cori’s eyebrows arched in perplexion. "He’s down at the village – said he would search the Old City for Natalie or Isobelle." She snorted, "although its not as though Isobelle hasn’t pulled this trick before – the girl often vanishes for a day or so at a time. Says she goes out trying to gather herbs and other food. But she never comes back with much."
"There isn’t a lot for her to find," Roger pointed out. He didn’t know why he was covering for the Numbat. "What sort of relationship do you and the mountain tribe have?"
"Not a very good one," she admitted, helping Roger hobble over the uneven ground. "They used to come amongst us and offer sanctuary for the young ones. Said their ways were more suitable, for everything. The only problem was, they wanted us to cast aside our God, in favor of their arcane spirit-beasts. Well, obviously we would not stoop to such a level, and since then they have treated us with disdain and ignored us as best they can."
"Ah, religious differences, the bane of many a society. Religion causes almost as many wars as territorial clashes, you know."
Cori stared at him. Her jaw dropped. "Really? I didn’t know that. You’re so smart!"
This reaction somewhat perplexed Roger. Certainly, Natalie’s responses were always polite, but she always seemed to hold him in something vaguely resembling disdain. Of course, Roger knew she liked him, or would like him. If only she would agree to have a meal with him – then he could strike her with his charm.
"Thank you," he said, blushing a little. Luckily his face was so stained with dirt and dried blood, it must hardly show. "But they show no threat towards you?"
The Bandicoot shook her head. She was pretty, Roger noted, although somewhat stockier then he preferred. Her eyes had a brightness that he admired. Especially, of course, when they shone with admiration of him.
Would Natalie’s eyes ever shine like that? He staggered another step, as Cori led him on the arduous return trip to the settlement.
* * *
"You have come all your way from there, alone?" The Capybara eyed him up. Much healthier then the Desert folk, this warrior looked quite the part. His head fur was braided, the braids passed through beads carved from what resembled bone. In one hand he grasped a nicely carved spear. He was holding it in a manner that did not really suggest "friendly", and yet he was not offensive, either. Doctor Enoch Long could appreciate his stance. He was also beginning to feel slightly nervous. It had not been a spur of the moment decision to travel up to visit with the Highland folk. The Doc had always dreamed of uniting the two – ever since his first visit here, ten years ago.
"Indeed, I have. I wish to speak to your chieftain." He bowed politely as he said it. "I am a Doctor, and can offer you assistance, if any of you are weak or ailing." He tapped the kit he carried with him. It was just the basics of his profession. If they allowed him to examine them, and proved to have anything more extreme then he would move his clinic up the mountainside. However the "Long Odds" would experience some difficulty on the slopes. Not to mention it required a flat place to dock.
"And what makes you think we have need of you? The Spirits protect us, and our Shaman does us well." His grip on the spear seemed to have a little more menace now. "Is it your believe that your ways of healing are better then ours?"
"No, of course not!" Doctor Long was aware his control was slipping. He needed to convince this hunter to take him to the tribe – it would be nearly impossible to find them on his own. They lived a nomadic existence. He searched for an explanation. "I have examined the Desert folk, and found their diets lacking. I merely wish to reassure myself that your kin suffer no similar problems." That was not all he wanted to talk to them about, but what else he had to say was meant for the chieftain’s ears, not some underling.
The hunter snorted. "I fail to see why your feelings should matter to us. But perhaps there is something you can help with." He paused, as though about to commit heresy. "Almost a week ago, one of our warriors was badly mauled by a Cassowary. He was tracking it, but missed his shot, and it kicked him, almost tearing off his arm. The Spirits have chosen to save his life, but his arm has turned black, shot with nasty red streaks. If you can save his arm, then perhaps the Chieftain could be persuaded to listen."
Pretty dire conditions, Enoch thought, just to get the honor of talking with the man. Clearly the hunter was suffering blood poisoning, and it was pretty plain that amputation would likely be the only hope. Of course, they wanted him to perform a miracle – it was the only way they would consider him worthwhile.
Well, he had penicillin, a weapon in his arsenal that he doubted they had, at least not in their primitive conditions. And he had with him a handy little device that had been created to deal with intricate nerve damage. Of course – the injury had happened a week ago, so healing would have already begun, and it might be too late for his little device to work at its full efficiency. He had to try however.
"Show me to your injured hunter."
* * *
Cold… so cold… there was nothing but the humid scent of damp earth and the pungent aroma of fungi. Something, shaking. Something shaking her. What was it? Who was she? Her thoughts had all mingled into each other. What had happened to the blood smell? Why could she not smell her own death? And she was dead…
Somehow she managed to open her eyes, her pupils shrinking back from the light. So bright, so blaring. She blinked. So dry… Where was she?
The Old City, she remembered, she had been in the city – when it had fallen. Was it a dream?
"Where…?" She croaked. "Water."
"Here." A flask was pushed into her hand, and she sipped of the cool elixir. So welcome, so refreshing. She drained the flask, almost choking. Bright spots danced in front of her eyes, slowly dispersing. A moment later she focused on her rescuer.
The Yapok crouched before her, the lantern placed to one side. A thick cloak was wrapped close about him and he regarded her with concern. "It is I," he said quietly, "what were you doing down here? You should not have come down here, not alone. It is easy to get lost."
Natalie blinked. Why had she gone down there? Oh yes, that was it, something to do with Roger… No, that can’t have been true – surely Roger wouldn’t have acted like that! He was a creep, yes, but he was no rapist, no deviant. "I, I can’t remember." Oh, how pathetic she sounded. She shivered.
"Oh, I’m sorry, you must be cold." He took his cloak off, wrapping it about her shoulders. She felt weak, cold and, something more… vulnerable. Beneath the cloak he was almost as naked as she – wearing nothing but a pair of short breeches. His fur stood erect from the cold. "You can’t remember anything?"
"I, I remember…." Oh, how stupid this was going to sound. Natalie realized that whilst she did not want to appear stupid in front of this gentle young man, he was possibly one of the few people that might understand. He had been with her in the temple, hadn’t he, and he had shown reluctance about entering it. "The Old City was not empty, but filled with life. Filled with Felidae – feline types like myself. And they were waiting – waiting for the enemy to attack. And, and then they did and I got caught up in it." She paused. "I thought they had killed me, but then I woke up, to this…" She looked up then, meeting his eyes. To her disappointment, his forehead was creased in a frown. So he didn’t believe her then. Of course he wouldn’t.
"Do you think, maybe, you inhaled a few too many of the spores?" He said it tentatively, but the implication was still the same.
"You think I was hallucinating? You think I was high?" He was likely right, when she considered it. But then, why had he not been affected?
"Certain members of the fungi family have been known to be hallucinogens," he explained, "and perhaps because you are of the same kin as the Ancestors, it may have affected you more. Now, I think it would be best if we explore this idea further outside – where the sun can warm you and we can get some food into you. Can you walk?"
She nodded mutely and accepted his arm. Her head felt rather light, and her body a little shaky, but she could walk just fine. It was her mind that was a mess. What was happening here? Roger, who had been covered in spores, had tried to attack her and she had found herself here, in the ruins, believing herself back in the past. But if the spores were the key – why were the natives that had been exposed, not being affected to the same degree?
She sighed. With regret, she would have to face up to Roger.
Unable to pace, Roger had to resort to biting his nails. It was midday now, and no sign of Natalie, Isobelle, or even Doctor Long for that matter. Where were they all? "What the hell is going on here?" He snapped at Cori. The Bandicoot girl jumped back, almost spilling the broth she was bringing him. Disgusting stuff, it seemed to be ninety percent water, sprinkled with a few herbs and a microscopic amount of meat.
"I don’t know," she whimpered, "but I brought you food."
"I’m sorry," the Hedgehog sighed, abandoning his gnawed fingernails in favor of a slightly tastier snack. "I just feel so … useless."
"They’ll find her," Cori replied, with that almost annoying optimism. "Don’t worry about it – just concentrate on getting better."
"I’m not sick!" He shouted, then calmed himself. "It’s just a twisted ankle for God’s sake. What if something terrible has happened to her?"
As if on cue, Benjamin came striding in. "Don’t worry Cori," he said, ignoring Roger entirely, "I found her. She’s resting in her craft at present." He glanced across at Roger, and the Hedgehog saw accusation in his eyes. "I don’t know what you did to her, ‘Hog, but don’t ever let me catch you doing anything again!" The venom was almost instantly replaced by a return to his usual shy demeanor. "Now, I am going to find my patient some stew." He turned on his heel and walked away.
Roger had gone pale beneath his quills. Had she told the Water Opossum what he’d done? What was going to happen to him now? He glanced at Cori, but she was merely watching the tent flap swing back into place. "What did you do to him?"
"I guess he’s just jealous," Roger remarked casually.
* * *
Doctor Enoch Long snapped the gloves over his hands. He felt the familiar tingling of the electrodes in the gloves. They were activated by his body heat. When he used them to touch flesh against flesh, special nanobots would be released, to fuse the damaged ends back together. Before him sat the wounded hunter. The Nutria was badly injured, but was clearly trying to be staunch in front of his companions. His arm was a mess. It was streaked with red – a sign of blood poisoning, and his fingers had lost all color. If nothing were done to fix the blood vessels and nerves now, his arm would have to be amputated. In fact, it was almost too late, as was. It would take a lot of penicillin and dumb luck to save this hunter’s arm. Obviously the tribe knew this, the Nutria Warrior certainly did. Doctor Long glanced at the congregation. It was amazing how many of the Clan had gathered. They looked a likely lot – as wild as the wind, their hair braided and decorated with feathers. Some had dyed their fur in geometric patterns. And they all stood there.
Glancing fitfully around them, Doctor Long forced a grin onto his face. "I’m afraid I’m going to need the two strongest of you to hold Leif here still."
"I can cope,’ Leif muttered, through gritted teeth.
"I think, all in all, I would prefer if someone were to take hold of you. Unless you want to be anaesthetized?"
Leif shook his head furiously. "No, I am prepared for what pain I must endure." Doctor Long knew he was adding, in his head, "because I do not trust you with me asleep."
"Very well then, you two, hold him still." He nodded at a particularly stout Capybara and an Agouti. "Leif, you should lie down and we shall spread your arm out to one side."
Leif looked somewhat pale – even given his injured arm. The upper arm was swathed in heavy bandages. Probably this tourniquet was not helping the blood flow to his hand, but at least it would be limiting the spread of poison into his body. He lay down. The Doctor leaned over him, investigating the fingers. Still no smell of decay – that was a good thing, at least. Perhaps, if he were lucky, the arm could be saved.
Gingerly he unrolled the bandage, noting it was rather largely stained through with blood. Not pleasant. It would require washing out, preferably with penicillin, but the Doctor had not brought much of the precious organism.
"I shall need some alcohol," he said. Which drew some rather odd looks from those gathered. "Not for me," he pointed out, a little indignant, for him."
Leif grinned broadly, despite the pain – he liked that idea.
He liked it somewhat less when Doctor Long poured it into the wound.
His scream ricocheted around the cliff faces, bouncing off and echoing away into a fading noise. Those holding him struggled against his wide thrashings. Finally they managed to calm him down, looking even paler, his eyes showing their whites.
"We did not bring you here to torture our warriors," one of the Clan spoke up.
"I am cleansing the infection from the wound," the Doctor pointed out. "Please do not argue with me."
He could see the injury more clearly now. The bird’s foot must have caught Leif just below the armpit, and torn it upwards hard enough to tear muscle and dislocate the shoulder. The pain must have been unbearable. Leif had been very lucky the arm had not been torn straight off – Cassowary were very strong birds, quite able to crush a man’s skull with one kick from the powerful feet. As it was, the healing had already begun, and scar tissue was beginning to form between the shoulder bone and the collarbone.
It was going to be a hard day’s work.
* * *
The Desert folk were restless. All night they had waited with the expectation that some of them were going to be leaving, and now, it seemed, it had been delayed. Small differences of opinion quickly turned into screaming arguments, as tempers frayed.
"If we move now," Natalie said, "do you think we will have time to make shelters before sunset?"
"After all you’ve been through today, do you really think it would be a good idea to go through with this expedition now?"
"I have to do something," Natalie replied. "I’m scared," she admitted, "I’m scared to spend another night in there. I don’t know what might happen." She shuddered, despite the warmth of the day.
Benjamin patted her on the shoulder. He was getting more confident, she noticed. She didn’t know whether it bothered her or not. Not yet, anyhow. At least he wasn’t making lewd suggestions. "Well, I imagine it is early enough so that we could compose some sort of rudimentary shelter – especially if you bring Roger’s tent."
The thought of Roger made Natalie pale considerably. She still did not want to face him, but she knew it was a necessity. Besides, it wasn’t really his normal behavior, was it? The spores had somehow addled his brain. That had to be the case. She gulped. If they had made him act like that, what had they done to her?
Her thoughts were interrupted by a knocking on the shuttle door. Doctor Enoch Long peered around the door. "I’m back," he said. There was a certain haggard look to him, a weary, stressed out glaze to his eyes.
"Back from where?" Natalie had known he was gone, but not known where.
"I went to visit the Highlanders," he said. "To ask them if they wanted to move with the Desert folk."
"And the verdict?"
"Well, firstly I had to help one of their injured, before they would even allow me to talk to the Chieftain, so I did my best. He was suffering from mild Septicemia, infection and torn nerves. I did the best I could, but I very much doubt he will regain much use of that limb." He sighed. "And that gave me the privilege of being shouted at by their Chieftain. They don’t want to move. So I mentioned to them that some of the Lowlanders did not wish to move either, and would they be able to help them out. And do you know what they said?"
Natalie rose her eyebrows in expectation.
"That they would have nothing to do with those fools who did not believe in unity with the Nature Spirits and had thus destroyed the gift they had been given. They also indicated that they did not want any left behind to further anger the Spirits." He sighed, leaning heavily against the wall. "So it was all a damned big waste of time. I cannot unite them by simply asking." Then he appeared to realize something. "Why are you still here anyway? Weren’t you supposed to be flying some of the young ones off to the new site?"
"Plans somewhat went astray," Natalie explained. She would have to tell the Doctor – only he would know what maybe happened here, all those years ago. "I ventured into the Old City last night, and think it threw me into some sort of dream. The place was filled with Feline Furrs, like myself, and they seemed to be preparing for war against…" She dug in her memories for the name, it was hard to grasp – as though it were a half-remembered dream. "The Canidae. Dog folk. And then I tried to escape and they attacked me. That’s all I remember." That was a lie – it was not all she remembered, she also remembered dying, but she didn’t really want to talk about that right this minute. "Until Benjamin found me."
Benjamin blushed. "’Twas nothing," he mumbled.
Doctor Long stroked his chin with one graceful hand. "It would be a shame to have all our endeavors go to waste," he said, "I think it would be best for you to move some folk onto the new environment – it would certainly aid in alleviating some of the restlessness exhibited out there. If you stay the night and fly back early tomorrow morning, I shall investigate further into this Old City. And, I’ll take Roger with me."
Relief flooded over Natalie. How could the Doctor know? Maybe it was pure guesswork, or maybe just coincidence. Roger was his biographer, after all. "Right then, Benjamin, find Cori, Isobelle and anyone else who seems fit, and have them assemble here as quickly as possible. I shall see about acquiring Roger’s tent – it won’t hurt him to share with the Doctor or sleep under the stars."
"Are you sure?" Benjamin asked her, concern evident on his face.
"Of course I’m sure, I have to face him sooner or later. Don’t I?" She had been somewhat discreet in revealing her reasons for entering the city, except that Roger had upset her. "Besides, it’s not like he’s coming with us."
Benjamin smiled at that. "Very well then." He bowed to Doctor Long and then stalked out through the door. Natalie watched him go, in that quiet hunter’s gait.
"Things don’t look that good at all," Doctor Long said, "the Highlanders are claiming the Spirits have been angered, and they will wreck vengeance down upon the desecrators of the land. That’s the Desert folk," he added. "Which is why we need to get them away from here as soon as possible. Unfortunately, I have spoken with the elders here, and they refuse to leave. I insist, and they become even less willing to listen to reason." He paused, "quite upset in fact, almost violent. This is their home, and they do not wish to leave. I cannot force them."
"No," Natalie said sadly, "but if the transferal goes as planned, then perhaps they could be convinced later."
He nodded. "That’s why we must put our plans into action as soon as possible."
"I can’t find Isobelle," Benjamin panted, swinging aside the tent flap. "She’s vanished! You remember she said she did not wish to leave? I would think she may be in hiding."
Natalie glanced up. She had been in conversation with Roger, sitting as far from him as she could. He had been perfectly well behaved, if somewhat reserved, for the Hedgehog. And both of them had been too embarrassed to mention the occurrences of the night before. Cori sat, very quietly, in one corner, filing her nails. "We shall have to go without her then. Are the rest ready?"
He nodded, "all ready for boarding."
"Let’s not waste any time then. Come on Cori, let’s go."
Cori looked up from her filing. "I’m not going," she said, "not yet anyway."
"What, not you too?" Natalie sighed. It seemed everything was disintegrating around them. She glanced at Benjamin, seeking help.
"I have to look after Roger," she muttered. "He’s hurt!"
"Very well then," Natalie tried very hard to keep her temper from fraying. "I’m sure we can cope without you. I gather you’re still coming at least, Benjamin?"
The Yapok grinned. "Of course, milady."
"I am not your lady, Benjamin."
"No, no of course you’re not," he muttered, falling over his words, "it’s just a term of address. I’m sorry."
"Come on, we have to finish cleaning out Roger’s tent and get it folded away."
"What’s this then?" Natalie fished the package out from under the folding bed. It had clearly been squirreled safely away, and likely forgotten. There was something heavy, wrapped thoroughly in a rather stained shirt. Feeling somewhat guilty, but not enough to stop, Natalie unwrapped it. Perhaps it was the item Roger had removed from the temple?
It was a small obsidian statue of a jackal, with glowing green eyes. Possibly emeralds. As she touched it the eyes flared a brilliant green for a second. In alarm, she dropped it, jumping back. It tumbled to the ground, rolling for a moment.
There was no doubt it had been taken from the temple – spores were still stuck to the shirt. Benjamin jumped. He had been busily piling up Roger’s books and sorting them back into the storage cases they had arrived in.
"We have to take it back!" He exclaimed. "You can’t take things from temples – not without bringing wrath down upon you!"
"I didn’t take it," Natalie pointed out. "And I sure as hell don’t want to go back into there again!"
"No, I can quite understand that," the Yapok replied. "Maybe we should make Roger take it back."
Loud shouting erupted from outside. The Natives, already restless from waiting half the day, were starting to get more then a little anxious. "I’ll worry about it later," Natalie muttered, gingerly wrapping it back in the shirt and placing it on top of the box. "There are more important matters to attend to."
And so the stolen token was set aside, and once more forgotten.
The darkness surrounded him, rank with the smell of abandonment. How exciting it was, to be within the realms of a once great city. He could smell the history. Well, the mould anyway. His lantern-light illuminated moss covered walls, but none of the fungi Natalie had warned him about. In front of him danced the little Shrew girl. The vitamin C candy he had given them had improved the children tenfold. Two days ago this child had been apathetic, listless, and now here she was dancing ahead. It was amazing the effect a little bit of sugar could do. Pity it would not last – he had not brought enough of the dietary supplements to last them all that long.
Originally it had come as some surprise that this tiny wisp of a girl was the best guide to the Old City that the desert folk could provide. Dayna was so small, delicate, little more then maybe eight years old. Yet she knew these ancient corridors better then anyone else.
"I take you to the book room!" She said, "not that ya can read the books no more – they’re all falling apart and written in a strange language. But you’re from another world, so maybe you can!" He just hoped the library would offer him the answers he sought.
It did not – even if it had once, it did not any more. Moisture had clearly leaked in here at some point in time, rendering most of the books into sodden messes. The pages were stuck together in such a fashion that nothing would part them – not without irreparably damaging them, at any rate. The air stunk of mildew, and light green fungi covered everything. It still did not resemble the insidious fungi of the ancient temple. The few pages he could read, after scraping off as much of the mould as he dared, revealed a strange flowing script that he could, possibly, translate.
But he was persistent, of course, one had to be in a career such as his and he made a thorough investigation of the room. It still yielded nothing.
With a sigh he flung one mess of a book onto the wooden shelving – the wood warped and twisted from years of exposure to moisture.
There was a strange clicking noise, and slowly, very, very slowly, the bookshelf turned. About a foot, revealing a dark opening behind it.
"Hey, mister Oka-pee found a secret passage!" The girl crowed. "I wonder what’s behind it? Maybe a secret gold-treasure hiding place!"
"Maybe indeed." Doctor Long ignored his new nickname, too intrigued by the passage. He sniffed the air at the opening. It smelt musty, mainly, like all the air here, but there was something more too. A strange, sickly sweet underlying stench – like fruit left too long. "I think we should go back and find others to help us search."
He had spoken a moment too soon – Dayna had already squeezed through the narrow gap, as fast as a darting fish.
"Hey, come back!" Doctor Long called. A glee-filled giggle was his only reward. "It could be dangerous!"
Damnit – he must have fed her too much sugar. Her little body must not have been capable of taking as much as he had thought. Well, if he went back for help, she would be lost and hurt and possibly worse before he returned. She had no light source. He had no choice but to follow her.
He glanced around the room, seeking some object big enough and sturdy enough to wedge the shelf a little wider. Finally his eyes lighted on another bookshelf. The shelf had splintered off, torn away by the nails. Mustering his strength, and Doctors had to be quite strong, since often patients were, he ripped the shelf free of its fragile moorings. It splintered slightly as he wedged it into the gap, but the shelf moved another few grinding inches. Still not enough.
Putting all his force into it, he pushed again, and it grinded open somewhat further. It would still be a squeeze, but he could do it. He leaned in, shining the lantern light on the passageway beyond. Stairs, leading downwards, further into gloom. Cobwebs clung to the walls and ceiling, a Shrew-shaped hole torn through them. Sighing deeply, and cursing the fact that he was having to take risks here, stepping into the very unknown, he squeezed through the opening. And began downwards, into the gloom, batting away cobwebs in his way.
As he reached the foot of the steps, he saw Dayna dancing along, peering into what appeared to be glass jars. A strange, sickly green light lit the room. Tendrils of fungi clung to the walls and some of the instruments, and this time he recognized it as that which Natalie had described to him.
"Eww!" Dayna drew back, drawing her muzzle away from a jar. And no wonder- for in it, beautifully preserved despite the obvious age, floated a toad, curled up fetaly. There were other preserved animals here too – a jar filled with lizards, crawling over each other even in death, a crow’s head, and most disturbingly, the fetus of a kitten. Curled up, it looked more like the primitive animals the Furrs had once been – if it were not for the fact that it was sucking its thumb.
"It’s some sort of laboratory," he commented, flickering the lantern light into the darkest corners. A very, very dead alligator was suspended from the ceiling. Obviously too dry down here to rot fully (despite the growth of fungi, a rather odd abnormality), the creature had mummified instead, the skin shrinking to fit neatly around the bones.
"It’s cool!" Dayna exclaimed. "I never have seen it before! I think maybe someone who did the magicks used to live here, don’t ya think?" She opened a jar and prodded at the powder within.
"You shouldn’t touch that," Doctor Long grabbed it from her hands, sniffing it carefully, before returning the top to its rightful position. "It could be some sort of dangerous chemical. It could have made your skin fall off your finger!"
Instead of being horrified, the girl seemed genuinely delighted at such a prospect. She held her finger close to the lantern, inspecting it minutely for any sign of looseness to the skin. Then she sighed. "No, I guess it was nothin’. Hey, do ya think if I read these I could be a wizard too? That would be soooo cool!"
Enoch grabbed the book from her fingers, dusting off the cover. It was much better preserved then the other titles. The language was not one he recognized immediately, but after he opened the front page, recognition dawned. It was an early form of Felidae. It also seemed to be a journal. Excitement swelling in him, he flipped quickly to the end. The last thirty or so pages were blank, and the final entry before that began (once translated):
I fear this is the end for us, but at least, thanks to my magicks, our legacy shall survive.
Excited beyond measure, the Doctor whispered a silent prayer to whatever god was aiding him. The last journal of the Felidae, the Ancients, this must hold the answers. And written by a sorcerer, no less!
"Come on Dayna, I’ve got some reading to do."
"Awww," the Shrew girl stepped away from the strange glass contraption she was fiddling with. "Can I take something with me?"
Her lower lip trembled and her face fell, but the Okapi’s mind was fixed. He would not be swayed by a little girl throwing a temper tantrum. "How old are you, Dayna?"
"Ten years!" She said proudly, surprising him. Malnutrition must have stunted her growth.
"Don’t you think that’s maybe a little too old to try throwing a tantrum?"
She pouted still, but the trembling stopped. "Well, you’re the one trying to take me away from my greatest discovery ever!"
"Who was it that worked out how to open the door?" Doctor Long had never quite got the hang of working with children. In his surgery it was okay – but once you got them outside – dynamite.
"It was you," she admitted, somewhat sheepishly. "But still, the other kids don’t need to know that!"
"Come on," he said, "let’s get going. If I need to come back here later, you can show me the way, deal?"
A grin split her face. "Deal!" They began back up the stairs. "Hey, Doc, when we get back, can I have a little more of that candy?"
The Okapi rolled his eyes.
Some time later, the Doctor sat on the bench in his workroom. Dayna, once more filled up with too much candy, had gone out to torment her parents instead of him. He adjusted his glasses with one hand, the other drawing the lantern closer to the page. How he wished he had brought a decent light with him, but such things required power, and to run that, he had to attach it up to the craft. And the craft was, of course, gone, having flown away earlier that afternoon. It was now late evening. Roger lay curled up on his stretcher, placed annoying close to Enoch’s own pallet. The Hedgehog had gone to sleep an hour or so ago, fed up on broth and whisky and god knows what else that Cori had managed to scavenge. The Bandicoot was doing too much for his assistant, he felt, it would make poor old Roger even less mindful of others. Still, even the rasping-snorting snore of the Hog could not disturb him from his readings.
The Canidae are coming. They claimed the Temple of Alasheur two days ago. Why they attack we do not know, save that they claim we have removed of them a trinket, a sacred icon. Stolen from their inner sanctum, they desire naught but its return. It is my belief, and many others, that this is merely an excuse. Long they have craved to own our most fertile lands (Doctor Long snorted at that, "fertile" indeed!) and long we have held them off with treaties and peace agreements of the past. Not the Treaty has been broken, they can seek vengeance as they see fit.
I fear it is all my fault. Yes, it is I that removed the trinket, a semblance of their Canidae deity, the Trickster. But please understand, I did not take it to bring about such despair. All I sought was to unite both Canidae and Felidae and to open up trade between the continents. A worthy venture, indeed and one unable to be achieved without the art of sorcery. With the trinket I sought to bind the two of us together as kin, and then return it to its pride of place, but alas, things went astray...
Here the words were written so small, so rushed, that Doctor Enoch could not read them by the lantern light. He skimmed onwards, to the point where the writing became larger, although no less rushed.
The western forests have been scoured of their life. Only the alley of sacred oaks remains. The magicks of the Canidae are strong indeed, to turn tree to rock and boil the lakes dry. Our land is dying beneath their paws.
He skimmed further.
Today the Sorcerers have gathered in a final attempt to save our world. Firestorms, our firestorms, have torn their homeland and will continue to do so, until all is destroyed.
It appeared the Canidae had been well matched and also that the blame seemed to lie on the shoulders of the Felidae. Whatever they had done to the Canidae’s homeland, it had clearly had a much more devastating effect then the Canidae’s affect on the Felidae homeland.
And what of the Marsupials and Rodentidae? The Desert folk and the Highlanders? Had they been around then? No mention was made of them in the journal. Was that just an oversight on the part of the Felidae sorcerer? Or had the resident Furrs here arrived afterwards? It was a mystery, and not one that anyone here seemed willing to share with him. Provided they even knew, that was.
The survivors have gathered. There are so few of us. Guilt makes my heart heavy. I cannot bear it anymore. I fear this is the end for us, but at least, thanks to my magicks, our legacy shall survive. It is the least I can do, given the tragedy I have brought down on my kin. I have created an organism, a fungi, that will carry with it the memories of our kin.
The fungi! So that explained it then – well some of it. Clearly the fungi had affected Natalie – probably all the more so because she was of the same kin as the Ancestors. It did not explain why it had affected Roger in such a fashion though. Still, that was a mystery that might be answered later.
This fungi can grow in the most arid of environments, feeding off the residual magick. Its spore contains our memories, our kin it shall Awaken, and those not of our kin shall be torn asunder with madness.
Ah, so that was what had happened to Roger. So why hadn’t it affected Benjamin, or Isobelle?
Or had it?
Could Natalie be in danger from them, even now?
They are coming now. I can hear them. I only pray that the trinket finds its way back into their hands. If only it had not been taking from mine! I had infused it with the magick, the magick to unite us, but it was taking from me. I know not where it has gone. I suspect Slink. The nasty little Ocelot vanished without trace on the same day.
I hear the splintering now, the outside door has been broken. There is nothing more to do. The last of my magick has been spent now. I am useless.
I must pay my penance, I must drink of the poison.
"Bastard!" Doctor Long shrieked, amazing himself and causing Roger to stir in his sleep. "To cause all this tragedy and then kill himself… Bastard!" He slammed the book shut.
"Whaa … fng?" Roger muttered.
The spirits had been awoken, he realized that now. What harm would they bring with them?
* * *
Natalie could not sleep. Maybe it was the heat of the humid night air, or maybe it was the snoring of the Furrs sleeping in the craft with her. Or maybe it was just general restlessness. After another lifetime of tossing and turning and listening to the snorts from below, she decided that fresh air was the key. She picked her way through the Furrs asleep on the floor.
Outside it was drizzling, but the coolness was welcome relief after the stifling heat inside her craft. They had got there too late to do little except clear aside some of the petrified trees, leaving space for buildings to be built. Benjamin had insisted that the first thing they do was to board up the old temple’s entrance. It was a task done with little regret. She would not enter there again, and yet…
As she stared over the silent waters of the lake she could almost see the procession of Felidae, traipsing down the hillside to worship their deity. She was born of a more scientific age, an age where gods were not the basis of a society. And yet, there was something about Baste that drew at her.
Across the lake, a loon screamed, an eerie sound that sent chills down her back. How quiet the desert had been at night, how different this new place was. Surely the people would be happy here? Certainly there were more resources for them to exploit. Once they cleared the land of the stone logs, crops could be planted and homesteads erected on the hillside. If it was all managed properly, then it would likely be successful.
If it were managed properly.
It took her a moment to register that she was not alone by the lake shore. A quiet plopping sound was the first thing to draw her attention. She strode forward, to see Benjamin, standing knee deep, flicking stones out across the water.
For a moment she entertained the notion of heading to talk to him, but then decided better of it.
Sleep was finally catching up on her.
* * *
Isobelle’s heart felt unusually light, as she made her way up the hillside, towards the meeting place. It had been a long day spent wandering, but she was not returning to the village. If they could not find her, they could not make her leave, could nor drag her away from her beloved Jakob.
And no matter what, she would not leave him.
The beautiful sound of his piping caught her ears, a dancing, lilting sound, beautiful beyond measure. Her heart swelled as she topped the rise and saw him, sitting cross-legged on the rock, playing for her, and her alone.
Unable to contain herself – one day was such a long time! She ran towards him, his name blossoming on her lips. He saw her immediately, and cast the flute aside, standing to catch her in a glorious embrace. So warm and comforting were his arms. HE brushed one hand through her hair.
"Oh Isobelle," he breathed, "I was afraid you would not come."
She blinked at him, "and why would I not come? I love you, you know that, not even the hounds of hell would keep me from your side."
"There is a danger brewing," he whispered, kissing her forehead, her eyelids, her cheeks, her nose and finally her mouth. For a moment she was lost in the warmth. Then he drew away. "There is talk of war. The Spirits are angry with your kin, at the way you have desecrated the land. The Doctor came today, and said he was planning to move all those that were willing." His arms tightened. "Are you going to leave me, Isobelle?"
She melted in his arms. "No, Jakob, my darling, I am not going to leave, I shall stay here – there are those that will remain."
He shook his head. "You must not stay – there is no life for you here – see how thin you are? If you do not leave, you shall perish this winter." He smiled without humor, "unless my kin chose to kill you all first."
She inhaled sharply, drawing back from his embrace. "You think that is likely?"
"There is discourse, and speak of war. Oh Isobelle, what am I to do? It will be a massacre! And if I do not fight alongside my kin I shall be labeled a traitor, or worse!" His grip tightened. "But I love you so much, the idea of sending you away, to where I must never see you again, seers my heart."
"Then come with me," she said. She hadn’t meant to say it – it had just erupted form her before she had thought it through. "My kin are more amiable towards yours then vice versa," she added.
He slid away a step, taking her hands in his. "I suppose it is not such a foolish idea, but I do not know – how am I to leave my family, my friends, and settle with their enemy?"
Isobelle’s eyes flared. "I offer you sanctuary and you deny my love for that of your family? Do you truly love me, Jakob?"
"Yes my dear, I do!"
She broke the grip and stomped away a few feet. "If you truly loved me then you would come with me, instead of sending me away. Is there someone else, Jakob? Or is your Highlander kin more important then me?"
"No, of course there isn’t, it’s you I love, Isobelle, but how am I supposed to turn my back on everyone I know?"
Isobelle was not listening – she had stormed off down the hill, tears dampening her cheeks. She knew the implications of what he had said – he had said that she was in danger if she stayed, and therefore must go – and he would not go with her. What sort of foolishness was that? There was nothing holding him here, he had spoken against his kin’s ways enough times.
He would choose them over her?
She kicked a pebble, listening to it rolling away down the hill. Her kind would accept him, she knew they would! He was so kind and gentle and wonderful…
She stormed further down the hill, so lost in her thoughts that she did not hear the footsteps behind her.
Did not hear anything – until the strong hands closed about her.
She struggled as furiously as she could, kicking and biting and swinging out with her fists, but their grips were firm and they were strong – so strong. A moment later something struck her across the head, and she crumpled like a broken puppet.
The runner came into the settlement soon after dawn. A pale-furred Cavy, his pelt was decorated with a multitude of splotches. Whether dyed or natural was impossible to tell. He paused outside the Doctor’s tent, pushing aside the tent flap.
"Wakey wakey, rise and shine," he said, "I’ve come to bring you news." Then something caught his eye. Sitting by the tent entrance was a box, and sitting at the very top of it, atop a pile of books and half-wrapped in a tattered shirt, was a small, pretty statuette. As yet no one had woken to look at him – they wouldn’t notice. The green eyes seemed to wink at him.
As quickly as he could, he snatched up the figurine and tucked it away in his pocket. It was a comfortingly heavy weight. He coughed again. This time there was a reaction.
"Who’s that then?" The voice was ever so slightly slurred. A moment later the familiar face of the Okapi materialized over the edge of the bench. He blinked sleepily at the Cavy hunter, and then snapped wide alert. "What are you doing here?"
"Oh," the Cavy grinned. "I come to bear you news. We have taken one of the Lowlanders into our custody. Pretty wee thing, maybe we’ll keep her."
He leaned close to the Doctor, allowing the Okapi to see his teeth filed into ragged points and the bone piercing through his lip. "Or maybe we’ll kill her. Unless, all of the Lowlanders depart this place, before tomorrow’s dawning."
Oh, how furious the Doctor was, how confused and befuddled. And how frightened. "You will hand her over now." The Cavy noted his voice trembled on the last syllable.
"Oh will I? Bit difficult, given I don’t have her with me at the moment. But this is the deal – you get everyone out of here, and then come back with your little flying machine, and we shall hand her over to you. But only once everyone else has gone, understand."
He paused, staring at the Doctor. "And if they come back, then we shall kill them." He winked. "You understand?"
"Completely." A number of expressions were crossing the Doctor’s face. For a moment the Cavy wondered if he were going to be attacked. It was not impossible, after all. Perhaps they would think to take him ransom in retaliation?
He snorted at the thought. "And don’t go thinking you could capture me, donkey. My kin have the Spirits on our side and whilst your friends are half-starved, I am strong and fit enough to kill many of them." He flashed his sharpened teeth again. The Highlanders might have rodent backgrounds, but rodents were noted for being omnivorous and advantageous hunters. They would eat anything, if it were required.
"I don’t think that will be necessary," the Doctor was plainly a little panicky, but trying to keep his cool. "I’m sure we can get together and discus things in a mature fashion, without having to resort to petty hostage situations."
The Cavy rolled his eyes. For the Spirit’s sake, what did this donkey think he was? Obviously he thought he was better then the Highland folk! Reluctantly, however, the Cavy had to admit that the Doctor had done a fairly decent job on Leif’s arm. The red streaks had faded and it looked less like they would have to amputate. He heard a shuffling sound and turned, to see the little Hedgehog had materialized beside him, brandishing a syringe, as though it were a weapon.
He laughed hollowly. "You won’t get me that way, Hog." He reached into his sporran and felt the powder tumbling through his fingers. Taking a deep breath, he flung the sulphuric powder into their faces.
It would not have its complete effect – there wasn’t a fire in here, but if inhaled it was still highly unpleasant.
The Hog reeled back, coughing and spluttering, trying to wipe the stuff from his eyes. Alas, the Okapi was further away, and it did not have quite the same effect. The Doctor threw himself over the bench, but was a moment to slow.
The Cavy flashed his teeth in a final grin, and darted away.
* * *
To say she was miserable was an understatement. Isobelle had never felt so violated in her life. Here she was, standing in a cave, a cave of all places, trussed like a game bird to a pole. Her hair was a mess, tangled with brambles and her head throbbed with every heartbeat. She must have the most tremendous bump up there. She wished she could touch it, of only to reassure herself that it had not cracked her skull open.
Had he betrayed her? She did not think Jakob would behave in such a fashion, and he had been trying to convince her she should leave. Or had he known what was about to happen?
What was she here for? Why had they captured her? Oh gods, how her head hurt…
She looked up, blinking against the pain. A Cavy grinned down at her. His piebald fur made him look almost comical, but there was nothing comical in that grin. His teeth flashed, sharp daggers. "I just spoke with your friends," he snarled. "I imagine you’re wondering why we have you here, yes?"
Isobelle tried to find words, she really did, but her mouth didn’t seem to want to work right.
"Well, let me tell you. Your kin have desecrated the land and angered the spirits. For many years we have tolerated your ignorance, permitted you to pillage and destroy that which Nature gives to you, willingly. But no more. You see, yesterday we had a visit from your foreign Doctor. And he mentioned that your kin were leaving.
Which came as great relief to us.
But then he tells us that some of you wish to remain! To continue to destroy and rape the land until no life can bleed from it anymore! And we decided that not one of your kin must remain here. That, my dear, is why we have you. You’re our insurance."
He stroked her cheek and she flinched back, but could do nothing. For a moment she entertained the notion of biting him, tearing the flesh from his hand. It was just a fleeting notion, however – even if he were bitten, she would still be bound.
"Pretty wee thing that you are, they surely won’t leave you in our care. Especially not since we’re horrible cannibals," he winked, "don’t think we do not know those tales told to the children by the fireside. We will not release you until they have gone. And then, the Outsiders will come to pick you up to join the rest. If any try and return," he shrugged casually, "we shall kill them."
"Bastard!" Isobelle shrieked, despite common sense. "You would never dare attack us or threaten us if you didn’t know we were already leaving!"
She saw the slap coming, but was helpless to prevent it. Pain erupted across her cheek and her teeth clamped down painfully, biting her tongue. The coppery taste of blood filled her mouth, making her gag somewhat. She kicked out at him. Her feet were tied together, yes, but only her hands were bound to the pole. The strain on her wrists was terrible, but she connected, and the Cavy sprawled in the dust.
"Why you little bitch!" He growled, crawling to his feet. His face was a mask of terror, he looked ready to commit rape and murder both at once. Isobelle shrunk back as best she could, aware how vulnerable she was.
"No," came a calm voice, and someone stepped forward. For a moment her heart started – it was an Agouti, but it took less then a heartbeat to realize it was not her beloved. "We must not kill her, yet," he said, flashing equally filed teeth. "We need her as our insurance and she is useless to us dead."
"Heathen scum," the Cavy growled, cracking his knuckles. "Better dead, the lot of them. But he kept his anger in check. "Keep an eye on her, Jarrod. I must leave, lest I hurt her."
"Aye," Jarrod replied. He glanced at her a moment, then seemed to notice something on the cave floor. "Wait a moment," he called, but the Cavy had already stormed out. "You forgot your trinket," he added, more quietly, then stooped to pick it up.
There was a brilliant flash of green as the emerald eyes flared. Jarrod muttered in exclamation and stumbled back, dropping it. It tumbled into the corner of the cave.
"What sort of evil does he bring?" He asked, a rhetorical question, Isobelle thought, since he did not even look at her. The Agouti guard kicked it into the corner. "It can stay there, might be nice company for you, yes?"
Isobelle could barely see it in the gloom, but at the flare of green, something had stirred in her. A memory, perhaps? She struggled against the bonds, fighting a desire to reach out for the statue – it was not as though she could grab it, anyhow. She glanced at the Agouti. "Jarrod, what was it?" It hurt to talk and she tasted blood at every word.
He snorted. "Just a little dog statue. But it must be cursed – to react in such a way to touch. Anyhow, shut up, I’m not supposed to talk to you anyhow."
And he returned to his corner, in the shadows, where he sat, witling away at wood with his knife.
Time passed, how long Isobelle could only guess, from the sunlight streaming through an opening in the ceiling. It seemed more dilute now – getting on to evening, perhaps? She could not be sure. Her arms ached, her head throbbed and her cheek felt as though it were on fire. All in all, she had certainly felt better.
Movement drew her away from the pain and back to the present – someone had entered. A Nutria entered, one arm bound to his chest in a sling. He flashed a smile at Jarrod. "You will excuse me," he said, politely, and, much to her surprise, in a kindly fashion.
Jarrod nodded. "Yes sir, but don’t overstress yourself. You’re still on the mend, yes?"
The Nutria rolled his eyes. "Yes, I am well aware of that."
Seemingly satisfied, Jarrod made his way outside – probably glad for the fresh air. Isobelle wondered what this new guest meant. He certainly didn’t seem as obnoxious as the Cavy, and his injured arm likely mean the wasn’t going to hurt her.
"You may wonder who I am," he said, as though in answer to her thoughts. "I am Leif. A week ago I suffered a painful injury and thought I would lose my arm, but thanks to your Doctor friend, I may yet keep it. Even if it will be next to useless," he added wryfully. "Better a useless arm then no arm at all, yes?"
Isobelle did not know what she was supposed to say to this – so she said nothing.
"And all the Doctor came to do was to ask of us a small favor." He shook his head. "Now, I cannot say that what your kin have done was right – you did over-abuse the land and destroy it, and ignorance is no excuse, but then again, have we all not done wrongs in the past? And was it not your past that was thus affected?" He moved closer to her. "You realize, I am admitting heresies here, to condone your race, but I cannot condemn them either. The Doctor came to ask us for help, and helped my arm, and we reward him by kidnapping you and threatening them." He shrugged. "I don’t know what I can do, but if there was anything, I would do it."
"You could untie me," Isobelle offered.
"Alas, if I did such a thing you would be punished as well as I. No, I am afraid I cannot do that. But is there anybody I could send message too?"
"There is one amongst you called Jakob," she said, gulping. "I would wish for him to know of my captivity here. He is," she paused, "I have met him before. And," she glanced at the corner. "If you could perhaps place that statuette there near my foot and wedge it into the dirt. That is all I ask."
"You won’t get out," he said. "We are the finest hunters and trackers in these realms."
"At least give me the chance to try. I promise I shall not lay the blame on you."
"Very well then." He fetched the statue and placed it by her foot. The eyes did not flare again. "I do not see how that can possibly help."
"Don’t let it bother you," she replied, "just see that Jakob knows I am here, yes?"
"Yes," he said, and then reached into his sporran, producing a jar. "I brought you some broth," he admitted. "I shall have to feed it to you and I’m afraid it’s a little cold." He knelt on the ground, holding the jar between his knees so that he could wrench the lid off. The motion sloshed it a little and he spilt some. The smell was tantalizing – Isobelle was ashamed to find herself dribbling.
With one hand he poured it into her mouth, and she guzzled it down. The taste was so welcome she did not even care about the undignified manner in which she was being fed. He did not bother putting the lid back on the empty jar, merely slid it into his pocket, bowed once, and left.
Such little time before the guard returned! Isobelle slid down the pole, twisting so that the rope binding her wrists was rubbing against the figurine. It did not have a great many sharp edges, but Leif, aware of her intent, had angled it so that the ears – the sharpest point in it, could touch the rope.
She felt one thread snap, before she heard the footsteps of Jarrod returning. Quickly she stood up, drawing on the ropes experimentally. No, only one thread had frayed through.
Jarrod barely glanced at her, but returned instead to his wood carving. He looked thoroughly bored.
There was nothing to do but to wait – maybe, with time, Jakob would come to save her.
* * *
It was a busy day for the Desert folk, beginning their new settlement. Benjamin and one of the other hunters left before dawn, bringing back a five-foot lizard by mid-afternoon. The others were occupied in clearing the petrified logs and using them to create very basic shelters. It looked as though things would proceed as planned, Natalie decided, and they may as well finish ferrying the people over today. They would cope better here, at any rate. Besides, with the number of folk dropping logs on their feet or cutting themselves, getting the Doctor looked like it would be a good idea.
She left mid-afternoon, to a chorus of cheers and waves. It was actually good to be alone again, she thought, skimming across the waters. As much as she liked the Furrs of this planet, the incessant questions were starting to get on her nerves, just ever so slightly.
The news Doctor Long had for her been not good however.
"The Highland kin have chosen now to turn against the Desert folk, not just in words, but in actions. They have taken Isobelle captive and are threatening to kill her if we do not evacuate everyone. I have spoken with the Elders, and they feel that they do not want the Highlanders taking control. I am afraid this links somewhat to the past." He sighed. "I explored the ruins last night, and found a journal – the Canidae and Felidae of old turned against each other over the theft of a trinket – a semblance of their Canidae deity. And also a war over land. I feel your entering the temple may have set it all off again. Pray tell me, did anyone remove something from the temple?"
"Why, Roger had a statue – I found it in his tent yesterday, a little dog with green eyes." She felt a shiver as she said the words. "Do you think that was the deity?"
Doctor Long’s face showed, very clearly, that yes, he did believe it was the trinket. "Where is it now? We must return it to the temple!"
"I put it in one of his crates, I meant to get it later, but I guess I just … forgot." The Okapi was already hurrying across to look in the crates, flinging back the lids and throwing the contents about. Finally he dropped in despair.
"It’s gone. That foul little Cavy must have stolen it."
"Foul little Cavy?"
"Yes," Roger answered. He was leaning heavily on a wooden crutch. "Little bugger came in here, told us they had kidnapped Isobelle and then threw something foul in our faces. You mean they stole my trinket?" He hobbled towards the entrance of the tent, and would have made it, too, if Cori hadn’t suddenly materialized before him.
"I’ve just heard!" She shrieked, "what terrible news! What are you doing out of bed, Rogie?"
"You can’t possibly hobble up there like that!" Natalie exclaimed. "Rogie?"
"Rogie!" Roger narrowed his eyes. "I’m Roger to you, miss. And I must get it back! I must! It’s mine!"
"Calm down everyone!" Doctor Long shouted over the threatening racket. "We must all remain calm. We must get the trinket back, yes. Roger, you’re hurt, you have to stay here."
"I bloody don’t! It’s mine, mine!"
"You bloody do!" Cori shouted back. "Now sit down!"
Roger lashed out with the crutch, and Cori barely managed to jump away in time.
"What do you think you’re doing?" Natalie stepped in. There was something weird in Roger’s small eyes, a glint of green fire.
The Hedgehog slumped to the floor. "I don’t know," he muttered, "but you have to take me with you. You have to take me up the hill and into the cave they’ve hidden it."
She narrowed her eyes. "You know where it is, Roger?" Natalie still felt uncomfortable getting close to him. She had not forgotten two nights ago. And what she had seen in her eyes a few seconds ago had been equal in ferocity to what she had seen in his eyes then.
Fingers pressed hard against his forehead, Roger appeared in deep concentration. "Yes," he replied after a moment, "it is in a cave, illuminated by fading sunlight." He blinked. "It calls to me."
"It calls to you?" The Doctor sounded almost excited, despite himself. "Could you find it?"
"I… I think so." He gulped. "I must look! I must!"
Natalie sighed. No matter what, things seemed to draw her and Roger together. She loathed him, yes, and now feared him, a little, but still, she must travel with him.
"Isn’t Isobelle slightly more important then some sort of trinket?" She ventured.
Roger’s brow furrowed, and he drove his stubby nails into his forehead. "She is in the cave with it, yes."
Natalie glanced at him suspiciously. "That sounds rather more then a little convenient," she said, narrowing her eyes.
"It is true, honestly!" Roger sputtered. "I would not lie about anything so important."
The Clouded Leopard sighed. It looked like they had little choice in the matter. "Very well then, let’s go and find your trinket. I’ll go and warm up the "Long Odds" and prepare her for a travel up a mountainside. Doctor, you’re coming too, Isobelle might need you." There was no way she was going to be alone with Roger – not again.
"Hey, you’re not leaving me behind," Cori interrupted. "Isobelle was my friend to and Roger is hurt. I have to keep an eye on him."
"Very well then, you guys grab your stuff, I’ll start the engines."
* * *
Jarrod’s head had fallen, his muzzle resting on his chest. Occasionally his shoulders would shudder with a snorting-snore. Grinning wickedly to herself, Isobelle crouched down, feigning sleep herself, whilst also rubbing her bindings against the statue. The problem was, she was catching herself on the sharp ears as much as the rope, and her hands were sticky with cuts. At least the blood would lubricate the rope, she thought wryfully, and prevent further chafing. She felt the rope give slightly, as another thread broke.
There was a sudden flash, and the eyes flared brightly. Isobelle gasped in horror as the cave was alit in sickly green light. "Please, please," she whispered. "Stay asleep…" The Guard twitched and muttered, jumping to his feet, brandishing his carving as though it were a sword.
"What the hell?" He exclaimed, glancing around the cave. Then he saw the carving, the eyes still faintly glowing. "You little bitch!" He ran over to her, just as she managed to tug one arm free and grasp the statue. Her fingers were numb and refused to work properly, but she managed to grab hold and swing it about, connecting with the Agouti’s cheek. The eyes flared brilliantly again and he fell back, clawing at his eyes.
The statue tumbled from her fingers as Isobelle fumbled with the bindings about her leg. They were tight and had torn into the skin beneath. She could almost slide her finger beneath them. Meanwhile, Jarrod had recovered from the blinding and charged at her, knife slashing through the air.
Isobelle had one chance and it was a long shot, but it was also the only shot. She dropped onto her back, pushing upwards with her hands so that her feet shot out, connecting with the Agouti. Such was the force that he tumbled backwards into the mud, dropping the knife. The Numbat wasted no time in scrambling after it. Her hands were still numb, but she managed to slash the rope, freeing her legs. Scrambling free, Isobelle drew herself upright, using the pole. Her legs folded somewhat beneath her, threatening to send her crumpling to the ground. She stooped for the knife, holding it between her teeth.
It looked like running out of here was going to be more then a little difficult.
"Isobelle!" The plaintive shriek filled the air, and suddenly there he was, swinging a dirk about his head. Isobelle felt her heart sing at the mere sight of him!
"How could they do this to you?" He ran over, kicking poor Jarrod in the face. The Agouti had just about made it to his feet again. "How could they? That’s it, Isobelle, we’re going!"
Oh, how she had dreamed of hearing those words! He would run away with her – away from this horrid place. His arms about her were so welcome. Her legs still felt like jelly, but that did not matter, for he scooped her up, heaving her over one shoulder, brandishing his dirk in the other.
"No!" She shouted, disturbing herself as much as him, "there’s something I must get first!"
Perplexed, he eased her down to the ground, and she bent over, scooping up the obsidian statue. In lay in her hands, just a hunk of carved rock. She kicked Jarrod in the groin for good measure.
He made a huffing noise, expelling all the air from his lungs, and then wisely chose to lie quite still. She staggered a little, but was quickly scooped up by Jakob. Tucking the statue inside her shirt, she clung to the knife stolen from the guard. The statue was cool relief against her skin.
‘Keep the knife hidden," Jakob muttered to her. "We might just, if we’re lucky, be able to walk out of here."
Her feet throbbed with pins and needles. Somehow she managed to slide the knife up her sleeve.
And Jakob began walking out of the cave.
There was a small group of Highlanders gathered outside about a small fire, Cavy and Capybara mainly. They were engrossed in a game with small, carved sections of bones. One of them looked up as Jakob staggered past, carrying his burden. With a shudder Isobelle recognized the piebald Cavy of earlier.
"Hey, where do you think you’re taking her?"
"I have been sent to move her," Jakob replied, keeping his voice steady, although Isobelle felt his shoulders shake with the effort. "Do you not remember the orders? It appears the Desert Kin know of her whereabouts.
The Cavy drew his dirk. "I think you are lying, Agouti," he grinned, his teeth flashing. "Please, don’t tell me you have a thing for the little desert-freak?"
"Run," he whispered to her, "run as fast as you can towards those trees. Do not look back, do not worry for me."
"You dare to challenge my authority?" Jakob demanded.
"What authority? You’re nothing but a bloody piper!"
The other Highlanders were gathered in a semi-circle, watching the two with interest, but without any intent. Yet. Jakob had slowly inched as far from them as he could. He slid Isobelle to the ground.
Her legs shot into action, even though her heart demanded she stay behind. Isobelle ran, darting down the dangerous hillside. Every step she took could wind up with her stepping in a burrow, tripping on a rock. But still she ran.
One of the Capybara darted in front of her, and she slashed him with the knife. He stared down at the blood, as though in amazement that he were leaking. She dared not look back – to look back would possibly break her heart.
The others were coming after her, she could hear their feet pounding on the ground. Her breath rasped in her throat, her legs throbbed but fear gave her feet wings. Fear was a terrific motivator.
Not even fear, however, could keep her going for long. Her lungs burned. She reached the trees as colors started flashing before her eyes. With the remainder of her energy, she clambered up the nearest tree, as high as she could. Which was not all that high, everything considered.
She clung to the bark, resting her cheek against its comforting roughness. Beneath her she could hear voices. The hunters had come. Luckily it was night, and even the best trackers would have trouble tracking by night. She concentrated hard on keeping her breathing shallow, of hiding the rasp in her throat.
After a while they split up, pounding through the undergrowth and shouting to each other. She merely concentrated on holding tight to her perch and waiting. Unfortunately, waiting did little to help her thoughts. What if Jakob were dead? How could she possibly go on without him? She loved him… Oh, she had to know how he fared – would it not be better to die by his side then live a lifetime without him?
Ignoring commonsense, she slid down the tree, making her way to the edge of the wood. She was pleased to note she had regained control of her legs once more, although they still vaguely resembled jelly.
The light from the flickering fire illuminated someone lying on the ground, casting them up as a dark silhouette. Was it her beloved? Or was it the Cavy? She had to know…
There was no sign of the trackers, as she stepped back into the open, tentatively stepping towards the fallen form. There was no sign of the other combatant.
And then her heart almost seemed to stop.
It was Jakob.
Her wariness forgotten, she ran to his side, dropping to her knees beside him. "Jakob, Jakob my love?" His skin was warm to the touch, but he was deathly pale beneath his fur. Her hand slipped to his throat, shaking so hard she had difficulty feeling his pulse. It was small and fluttery, like a caged bird.
"Jakob!" She cried, tears streaming down her cheeks. "Please wake up, please!" She leaned over him, kissing his forehead, his nose, his lips.
He did not stir.
And then she felt the touch of cold steel against her throat.
"Well, little precious, if you didn’t return to his side," the Cavy sniggered. "Alas, you’re just a little too late to save your boyfriend." It was then that Isobelle realized her clothing was sticky with blood. "And now, little pet, I’m going to cut your throat." He twisted her away, so that she could no longer see Jakob’s battered body. It was something of a relief – even though she longed to hold him one last time, as he died.
The blade nicked against her throat and she felt, to her disgust, his hand creeping over her body. "But before you do that, I think I should punish you in an appropriate fashion." One hand grasped her breast, kneading and pulling crudely. "You’d like that, wouldn’t you, little bitch?"
The knife was in her hand - somehow it had not fallen from her sleeve. She stabbed backwards, ignoring the blade against her throat. It bit flesh, and skimmed across the surface. At the same instant she twisted, feeling his knife bite into her throat. Shallow, but painful, never the less. Blood trickled down her neck.
The Cavy grabbed her by her clothing, throwing her onto the ground. She had cut him, yes, but only across the side, tearing through his clothing but only scratching his flesh. He knelt on her knife arm, and she felt the bones crack beneath his weight. Her fingers fell numb.
"Wench," he growled, "try and cut me, eh? Well I cut you better!" He touched one hand to her throat, then brought it to his mouth, tasting her blood. She could feel the searing heat of his groin, and struggled feebly, trying to make her escape. He twisted his knee, grinding against her arm.
Black flashed behind her eyes and for a fleeting second she lost consciousness, only to find herself struggling back through the murky darkness to the surface. One hand was fumbling with her leggings, the other pressing her shoulders firmly against the ground. The pain in her arm was so intense, it counteracted every effort at escape.
Then, suddenly, there was a disgusting sound, like someone plunging a sword into a melon. The Cavy’s eyes rolled back in his head, turning red, and he collapsed across her. She struggled, but even as a deadweight, she could not quite manage to struggle free. A moment later, however, he was pushed aside, and hands grabbed her, pulling her upright.
"Jakob, you’re alive!"
He was, although barely, from the look of him. His eyes were bloodshot, his clothing sticky with blood. Beneath his fur, his skin was the color of a corpse’s.
"I… think I may be bleeding to death, Isobelle. We must go. You must go."
"Not without you," she said firmly. Her arm hurt mightily, but somehow she managed to rip the Cavy’s shirt from his body. It was then she noticed the dirk that seemed to have sprouted from the back of his head. It had been pushed in almost to the hilt, at the base of his skull. The strength it took must have been amazing, and she looked at her Agouti with even more admiration in her eyes. If such a thing were possible. Wadding up the Cavy’s clothing, she pressed it against the wound in Jakob’s chest. It was just below the ribs and bleeding profusely. "Hold this in place."
He nodded, staring at her limp arm, and the blood that trickled down her throat. She could feel it pooling in her cleavage, sticky and uncomfortable.
Staggering together, they made their way down the hillside, away from the forest.
"I love you, Jakob," Isobelle whispered. "I cannot live without you. Don’t worry, we shall make it out of here. We have to."
He squeezed her hand in his own, but she noticed his grip was weaker then usual. The weight of him against her was increasing with every step, as he relied more on her for balance. He had lost a lot of blood, she realized with a start. He had almost been dead, lying there by the fire, and had managed to summon enough energy to save her from death and worse.
Now the adrenaline was fading and so was he. Fast.
And then to make things worse, the sound of pursuit suddenly rose up behind them…
She ran, dragging him with her. There was nothing else to do, save throw herself to the mercy of the Highlanders. And even without the sadistic Cavy leading them, she doubted they would be particularly lenient. At one point Jakob stumbled, his legs folding beneath him.
Isobelle jerked him painfully back to his feet. "Don’t give up on me, Jakob, please no! We have to do it, we have to make it. We can make it! Please keep trying."
"Isobelle," he whispered, but his words were slurred. He stumbled again, and she realized then that he had dropped the cloth bandage. Blood freely stained his clothing.
Forcing him upright again, she scrambled another few steps, the weight of him almost dragging her down as well. The shrieks of excitement were rising around them, coming in for the kill.
Isobelle ran once more, although it was hardly a run anymore, more a drunken jog. The blood pounded in her own ears, and the landscape blurred before her.
Somehow she managed to stop in time, gazing down in horror to see pebbles tumbling down the sheer cliff before them.
"Are you sure this is the right way Roger?" Natalie sighed, as they changed direction for the umpteenth dozen time.
"Of course I’m sure! It’s calling to me, it wants to return to me, Natalie."
"That’s what you said ten minutes ago – when we were headed in that direction," she pointed, shoulders drooping in exasperation. Why could he not just make up his mind? "This thing does not turn easily, you know."
"Trust me, please," he tried to put his hand over hers, but she jerked it away. "This is not a wild goose chase!"
"Yeah," she sighed, "maybe it’s moving."
"That’s it!" Roger cried, "someone must be carrying it! That’s why I can’t track it to one place!" He paused, pressing his fingers against his temples. "No, its useless," he screeched in frustration, "all I can see is darkness!"
Natalie smiled faintly. If we do not find it soon, I’m going to land us and we can hunt it on foot – this is using up way too much fuel." She could not, of course, use the hovercraft facilities on slopes as uneven as the mountainside.
"We’ll find it, you’ll see." Roger just sounded so damned sure. Could she really doubt him?
Isobelle glanced over her shoulder. The Rodentidae were coming in from every side and neither she nor Jakob could run anymore. There was only one way to go, and that was …
"Jakob," she whispered, "do you love me enough to die with me?"
His face split into a painful smile. His hands closed about hers. "Isobelle, I love you enough to die for you and since I am surely dying," he coughed, blood trickling from his mouth, "but I would not die with you. For I would not," he coughed again, "have you die. Please, turn yourself over to them. They might be merciful. Please…"
"No," she whispered, and holding his hand tight, jumped over the cliff.
* * *
"Is this Heaven?" The words sounded awkward, as though the mouth they came through was not hers. She blinked against the bright lights, everything seemed so silver and white.
And oddly familiar.
An equine face materialized in her few. "No, this is the ‘Long Odds’. It’s good to see you awake, Isobelle."
"I’m alive? What of…" She didn’t want to say it, didn’t want to destroy this faint feeling of hope rising in her breast. "… Does Jakob live?"
The Doctor put his hand on her shoulder, his face drawn with concern and weariness. "He lost a lot of blood," he said, and she felt her heart crash and burn.
"So he’s dead then?" She asked bluntly.
The look of worry did not disappear, but the Doctor’s lips formed a faint smile. "No, he clings to life with great ferocity, but … perhaps you should see him." He helped her to her feet. Her arm had been bandaged and was strapped to her chest, and when she touched her throat, she felt a neat line of stitches dancing across the flesh.
"It was a deep wound," Doctor Long explained. "Luckily it missed your jugular vein, or you would most assuredly not be walking right now. Or ever again," he added. He supported her against his broad chest. "The highlander is in here." He pushed aside a curtain.
Isobelle was not prepared for what she saw, even though she was expecting much worse. Jakob looked so small, so weak, stretched out on the pallet. A thin blanket covered him, and she was grateful to see the gentle rise and fall of his stomach. The Doctor helped her into a seat beside him, and she took his pale hand in her own. Her fingers traced the curve of his hands. His graceful hands.
"Jakob," she whispered. His eyelids flickered a fraction, but did not open. "Jakob, I love you." Tenderly she kissed him on the lips, just a gentle peck.
Smiling faintly to himself, Doctor Enoch Long closed the curtains and stepped away. He had a feeling that everything would be all right.
"Roger, you must put it down!" Natalie demanded, hands on her hips. "You must leave it here!"
The Hedgehog narrowed his eyes at her, clinging the obsidian jackel close to his chest. "No, it’s mine!"
"Roger, do you realize you’re acting exactly like a small child?"
"Do I look like I care? I found it, therefore it’s mine!"
"You stole it, from a temple. Please just put it back where you found it. Then everything will be well."
"Everything is well," he pointed out. "We got them all to move in the end, didn’t we? None of them wanted to live near those insane Highlanders. Therefore, the statue is now harmless, even if it did have anything to do with the hostility in the first place! We’ve got no proof but the Doctor’s silly journal."
"The spirits will not settle until the Jackel is returned to its protected place. Unless of course you wish to take it back to the Canidae’s temple? I‘m sure a journey to a continent ruined by firestorm would be quite up your alley, wouldn’t it?"
"If I put it back," Roger grinned, threatening mischief. "Would you come out for a meal with me?"
She sighed. Heck, she would agree to do almost anything to get him to put the cursed thing back where it belonged. Almost anything. "If I must."
"And you’ll pay?"
"Well, you make better wages then me, don’t you?"
"Okay, Roger, if you place that cursed statue back in this hall, exactly where you found it, I shall pay for you and I to go out for dinner, back in the Spaceport. Deal?"
"Shake on it." He proffered his hand, and with great regret, she shook it.
"Right then." And the Hedgehog strolled across the fungi-strewn hall, pushing apart a chunk of it to reveal the grinning form of a skeleton. It had the longer, narrower muzzle of one of the Canidae. Slowly, with seemingly great regret, he pressed the statue into its hands. For a moment the eyes flickered, seeming to die almost in satisfaction. The skeleton’s muzzle grinned at him.
Roger took a step back, not removing his eyes from the statue. Natalie moved quickly to his side. "Do you want to have dinner or not?" She asked.
"I… I don’t know…" He glanced at her, then back at the statue.
With a long-suffering sigh, Natalie turned his muzzle towards hers and, closing her eyes tight, kissed him on the lips. She drew back, trying not to let disgust show on her face.
"Still want your silly little trinket?" She asked.
Roger looked somewhat glazed. He blinked stupidly. She had never realized she could have that sort of effect on a man. "Err, no, I, I think dinner would be … good."
She steered him out of the temple, and back into the fresh air.
They had not gone far when the explosion ricocheted behind them, echoing off the mountains. A moment later Benjamin materialized beside them.
"That’s that then," he grinned, "all sealed up – not even God himself could dig through that one." He winked at Roger. "Looks like your temple pillaging days are over, yes?"
"Err, wha… yeah." Roger’s mind still seemed a little … affected.
* * *
Roger leaned back on his pallet, staring at the ceiling. What a handful of days it had been. It still amazed him how quick he had been in operating the grasping arm of the shuttle. He grinned, remembering his satisfaction as the hand had closed securely about the two refugees. What had they been thinking, jumping off a cliff like that? Still, they had been hurt pretty badly, perhaps they weren’t in their right mind.
Natalie must have been proud of him for that maneuver, he thought with grim satisfaction. Oh, how nice it would be having dinner with her! But what if it had just been a ruse to get him to leave his pretty trinket behind?
No, that was a ridiculous thought – she had kissed him, after all.
He touched his lips, still tingling from the memory of the kiss.
But of course it had been a last ditch effort, he thought, somewhat more bitterly now. Natalie could not feel anything for him – she had treated him forever with just disdain and after what he had done only a few days ago… No, of course she cared nothing for him. Who could possibly? He was just a dirty little Hog.
He sat up, throwing his pillow across the room. Besides, what did she want him for? She had that Yapok and he was everything Roger was not… Kind, polite, sleek and stealthy. Not clumsy and stupid and muddled!
Who could possibly see anything in him?
He jumped slightly, as the tent-flap stirred and opened. "What is it?" He grumbled, not in the best of moods.
"Sshhh," the Bandicoot whispered, stepping into the tent. "I’ve come to say ‘goodbye’."
"Cori?" Roger blinked in amazement.
"The one and only," she grinned, stepping towards him and running her hand down his bare chest. "Do you think you might, perhaps, miss me a little?"
He noticed then that her other hand was clasped to her chest, but only because, at that moment, she moved it, and the cloak about her shoulders fell away…
Oh yes, Roger decided, he would miss Cori very much indeed.