JoJo's cutting remark reverberates in Jahura's mind as she lies next to her husband.
... until I'm summoned like a genie from a bottle.
Her eyes glaze over as she stares into the distance. Her mind wanders through image after image of beings (mostly humanoids) gathering around bonfires and in large temples, dancing, chanting, kow-towing, and in trance states.
I needed help and I appreciate the help that I got but it seems to me that I have no purpose here,
Jahura sees these images as if with eyes other than her own. These rites that the Ahuri so studied and so respected, these rites that resulted in affinity with their deity, seem now - tainted.
Mighty Agrok., God of War, give us victory in battle this day...
Please bless my mommy and my daddy and Grandma and Grandpa and tell my dumb sister to stay out of my room...
Give us this day our daily bread...
Please help me pass this exam, please, please please....
Oh Great Shaloub, send us a herd so that we may not starve...
...summoned like a genie in a bottle.
Sadly, to her, it made sense. Mortals call upon deities when they need help, even with the smallest of problems. But mostly they call on deities for wish fulfillment, as if said object of worship were a great puppeteer of the cosmos. It is only when they die that they begin to understand - and yet then those that return forget as soon as that first breath of atmosphere is taken in.
Sadly, to her, she hears the millions of prayers from her tiny little planet in a future far away - all wanting for something.
The sound of her Nyrond snoring bring her attention to him. It bothers him that he's patronizing at times.
Having finally worked his way into the underbelly of the mountain, Dorian crept along on all fours, trying to follow Boppy's scent. This deep in the caves, he hadn't run into another member of the cult for quite some time, so his search should have been simplified, but for some reason, he was losing the little mog's scent. It was as though his sense of smell was becoming weaker. The shapeshifter took a short break from sniffing around and layed back against the wall of the cave. Looking down, he noticed that his werewolf claws were shorter than he remembered. As he watched, they continued to shrink, slowly but surely, until his hands had returned to their normal form. Looking himself over, he saw that his other were-characteristics had vanished as well. Thank goodness, he thought, no more hair. I was itching like crazy. Whatever caused me to shift into that weird form must have faded. I'm finally back to being a humanoid! The shapeshifter breathed a sigh of relief shortly before being transformed into lemur. Moments later, he popped back into his normal form. "Stop, stop, stop! Stop transforming!" he cursed himself. The half-drow froze as his voice echoed through the caves. He held absolutely still, hoping nobody heard his ill timed outburst and straining his ears to listen if anyone had. As the echoes of his voice faded, he heard no cries of alarm or other indication that anyone had heard him, but another sound reached his ears. It sounded almost like the playful laughter of children. Boppy! He rushed toward his best estimation of the direction of the sound in the echoing caves.
The Lair of the Beast
Dorian finally found his way to the mouth of a large cavern. Great claw marks in the stone walls, collapsed boulders, and general debris gave evidence of some epic struggle that had recently occured. The half-drow inched his way inside, calling on his rogue training to avoid being seen. The sight that confronted him inside the cavern was utterly inexplicable. A giant, grey-skinned monster, apparently the Beast that the werewolves had mentioned, had made this cavern its lair. The Beast was nearly the size of a house with claws as long as a man and a mouth full of razor sharp teeth, but its most notable feature was the little hanyo bouncing on its head like a trampoline. With every bounce, Boppy chanted, "I'm it! ... You're it! ... I'm it! ... You're it! ..." The great and terrible Beast was in a state of total capitulation, its claws covering its eyes in a cowering pose while it whimpering pathetically.
"What did you do to it?" Dorian asked in astonishment, no longer giving any mind to stealth.
"We're playen tag, silly!" he replied gleefully. Bouncing over to the newcomer in a single bound, he landed softly and explained, "Soon as he saw me, he started chasen, so we been playen tag since." The creature in question, freed from its tormentor, quickly scurried into a recess in the cave wall that must have been where it slept, making some parting tortured whines. Looking over his shoulder, Boppy continued, "But... he musta gotten tired 'a playen, an I didn't notice... That happens lots." He turned back to the half-drow, "So what game we playen now?"
Dorian started to sweat a little. "Uh... How about we look for some things?"
Boppy brightened up. "You mean a scanvenger hunt? That sounds fun! What we looken for?"
Thinking for a moment, the shapeshifter finally replied, "How about technology."
The young mog stared back, tilting his head quizzically. "Tekna-wha?"
"You know, machines, computers, and such..." Technology being new to him, Dorian was at a loss for how else to explain whatever link-blocking gizmos they may be looking for.
"Oh... okay." Boppy seemed to understand suddenly and started sniffing the air. "Found some!" he decalred in triumph.
Dorian looked unconvinced. "You can smell technology?"
The little mog shrugged. "Sure. Masheens have grease and stuff, and when you smash 'puters open, they smell like hot sand and weird metals..." He suddenly looked concerned. "Uh, don't tell big brother 'bout that last part."
The half-drow couldn't help smirking. "Alright, I won't tell if you help me find what we're looking for."
Why did this water suddenly have a weird metallic tang to it?
Carlota found herself back in human form, wearing some kind of brown robe. She was standing in some kind of carefully tended garden, facing a gazebo with a lone occupant on a bench.
"Where am I? How did--?" She looked around, confused at her surroundings.
Yeesha held out her hand. "I'll take that, please."
Still dazed, Carlota hadn't realized she had handed the black sphere over until Yeesha had closed her hand around it. When she opened her hand, the sphere was gone.
"Why am I here?"
"Come, sit with me.," she replied. They sat on the bench. "You have been given a rare and precious gift, Carlota Staralla. It may seem like a curse at first, but, in time, you will master it."
"But what about Cannax? And TOOO?"
Yeesha smiled. "They will say their farewells. Cannax has chosen a new path, with new responsibilities. As for TOOO, he will continue his path to learning."
They stood. "We will meet again."
She suddenly found herself bathed in white light. When the light cleared, she was on a deserted street in what appeared to be ancient Rome - still in human form, still wearing the brown robe Yeesha had given her.
If what TOOO had told her was true, the City was awfully quiet for a place that had just had a major slave uprising. In her bahro form, she wouldn't have been able to wear a KI, so, now, she had no way of contacting TOOO.
Wandering the streets, she noticed that the City was pretty much what you'd expect from a working Roman metropolis. Even the gladiatorial games were back in full swing - judging from the posters, anyways. She couldn't read Latin - at least, it looked like Latin, sort of - so she could only go by the artwork. So, how do I find Cannax?
One-Eye frowns at the jar in his hand. He studies the label. There isn't any indication the contents are used for anything but consumption. There is something familiar about this whole situation, though. Then a flash of an image in his mind comes to the surface - a vending machine. .
These big-nosed apes were here before.
They brought in vending machines that dispensed capsules of magical trinkets to keep the abominations away. As a pup he remembered they were at almost every shop entrance. There were maybe one or two left after it was found the trinkets didn't work. By then, the apes had moved away and were never seen again, until now.
One-Eye's eye narrows. A low growl emits from the depths of his throat.
The infidels are back. The others won't be far behind.
Tully swipes again at the buzz against his ear.
He looks around. wondering if that was what he thought it was.
"Oi!" A tiny voice says into his other ear.
Tully looks around again. That was definitely what he thought it was.
The glowing bug floats around and hovers before his face. The bug is in fact a small fairy.
"Shhh." The tiny creature lifts a finger to her lips in a hushing gesture, then points to the outside of the bars where two hooded sentries with rifles stand at attention.
Tully nods. The fairy floats around to his right ear.
"I need your help. I can get you out of here but I need you to do something for me. I need you to get to the inner fortress and find five cloths with red wolf prints on them. You don't need to take them, just touch them."
Tully raises his eyebrows. This sounds very familiar.
"Why? Do they open a door?" He whispers under his breath so only she can hear.
"They open a gate." The fairy answers back, "My friends and I are trapped here and we need to escape."
"Same here. What a coincidence." Tully replies, "will the gate take us home?"
"Eventually. But my friends and I need it first before we can direct it to your home."
"All right." Tully nods, "how can we find them?"
"There's one at the entrance to these cells. I don't know where the rest of them are. They have iron gates and clovers all around the entrances to the inner fortress. We can't get to them, but you can, and once the gates are open we can follow you in and help you find them!"
"Iron gates?" Tully says questioningly, "I didn't know they kept fairies out." He looks at the bars on his cell.
"There are a lot of things you probably don't know about us."
"How did you get in through these bars?"
"Those are steel." The fairy answers, "they're nothing to our kind. Get ready."
Tully readies himself to dash as the small light floats around to the front of the lock. There's a soft click and the door opens ever so slightly. The fairy then floats up and begins to buzz rapidly around the heads of the guards.
"What the - " the one on the right says as he ducks from the buzzing.
"An abomination!" The other cries, aiming his rifle at the small glowing kamikaze. "Sound the alarm!"
"Watch where you point that thing, George!" The first one cries as he now pivots to duck out of the other's aim as well as the fairy. She stops, hovers between them, and howls an aroooooo before taking off down the corridor of cells, The two guards bolt after her.
After a few moments, when the coast seems clear, Tully pushes the door open.
Just as she had said, a burlap cloth with a red wolf print is affixed to the wall by the dungeon's entrance. Tully quickly steps up to it and touches it. One of the toes of the paw glows bright red.
This is looking very familiar, he thinks to himself.
"...and I don't see that you did anything wrong," says one wolf to another. "All you did was say what some of us were thinking."
"Yeah, well, it didn't go down too well, did it?" the other says glumly, and then steps back as One-Eye rounds the corner, striding furiously, clutching a jar of the lycan lichen remedy.
"Come with me," he growls.
"Something up, One-Eye?" says the first wolf.
"The prisoner has lied to us," One-Eye snarls. "He is no more than an advance scout for an invasion force of apes. This," he brandishes the jar, "is useless."
"You mean--" the second wolf falters. "You mean we're all going to get...lycan lichen??"
"Idiot!" One-Eye howls. "There is no lycan lichen! Do you not think I would have warned you about such a thing?"
"Well," the first wolf mumbles, as Tully slips unobserved past and into a side passage, "you don't warn the cublings about poison oak or brambles."
"You say they ought to find out for themselves," adds the second wolf. "You say it builds character."
One-Eye controls himself with an effort. "We must discover the apes' battle plans. The prisoner must be put to the question. Follow me."
"If I get lycan lichen, I'm putting him to the challenge, I swear on my grandsire's tooth," mutters the second wolf as they trudge after the priester.
"I heard that," floats back over One-Eye's shoulder.
Tully, meanwhile, has located an iron gate, hung with knotted mats of clover, every plant bearing four leaves. He takes the hangings down, spends a few seconds on the antiquated padlock, and swings the gates wide. His luminescent cicerone, who has been hanging back nervously, flits through the opening, and Tully follows on silent feet.
On the other side of the gate is a long tunnel that inclines at a steep grade. Tully is short of breath by the time he gets to the end, and he places his hands on his knees to gulp air in. The air is thin, though, and Tully's head spins slightly as he braces himself against the wall. Another clover-decked gate bars them from the other side, but Tully again soon makes short work of that padlock, as well.
With the exception of the walls and the huge domed trellis that extends above, the scene beyond makes little difference from any other mountain resort town. Cafes and shops in faux Bavarian and Alpine themes line the road to the left and the right. People go about their normal business in normal attire excepting for paper booties about their feet to keep the peanut butter on their feet without too much mess. Further down he can see Marae, Duke, Tora, Tasho, Jo, and Neko all assembled around a sidewalk table in front of a cafe with a burly fellow in their company. The stranger, although large and bearded, looked neatly trimmed and hardly wolfish at all, especially in his silk shirt and tie.
Marae looks up from her menu, and seeing Tully, beams and puts her hand up to wave. Tully quickly waves his hands in front of himself and puts his finger to his lips, shaking his head. A wash of concern spreads over her face, but she gets the hint. She looks back down at her menu with a nod, pretending not to have seen him.
The fairy perches on his belt against his back.
"Are those your friends?" She asks.
"Some of them." Tully responds, "I don't see the rest, though. Any ideas where to start?"
"Try a bakery." The fairy whispers, "that's the first place I'd look."
"Right." He smiles.
"In the meantime, now that the gate is open I can call in some of my friends to help."
"Are you leaving?"
"Just for a short while to get them. We'll meet at that gift shop on the corner in an hour."
"Roger that." Tully looks at his watch which hasn't worked in decades. "An hour, then. Should I bring them?" He says, indicating Marae and the others.
The fairy buzzes in front of his face before flitting back down into the tunnel. "The more, the merrier." She says as she disappears, "but only one needs to touch all the cloths to open the door."
"I guess I'm it, then." Tully says to himself.
"Hey, Gemma. Do you smell that?" Tana the Squirrel Nymph stops and sniffs the air. The willow-haired nymph halts next to her.
"What do you think?" She says with contempt.
"Oh. sorry." Tana blushes. "I smell peanut butter. Lots and lots of peanut butter. Yum!"
Gemma thinks for a minute.
"Could be bait." She reasons after, "don't follow it just now. We'll just keep heading for the limestone cave."
"Good news, Captain! A gateway to the inner fortress is open!"
Captain Anderanae of the Formhothaithe Division is pleased at this news. She turns to the fairy addressing her.
"And what about the keys?"
"He's searching for them as we speak. One down, four to go. I also touched it just in case. Rendezvous at the Bric A Brac Shop in fifty minutes. Here are the coordinates." She hands the captain a note on a piece of daisy petal.
"And the Tehmal cultists?"
"They're just approaching the rampart."
"Good work, Lieutenant." Anderanae nods. "Bring some recons with you. We'll assemble on your signal. Dismissed."
The fairy salutes, pivots, and flies out of the hollow tree.
Carlota looked up. After wandering the streets, hopelessly lost, she happened upon a shop front with this word on it. Not speaking a word of latin (or whatever they spoke in this strange place), she did happen to notice the rolled-up maps! But how could she buy one - no money, no knowledge of the language.
"Hello," she told the shop owner (who she hoped would take her for some gullible foreigner - and probably wouldn't be far off), "I'd like to buy a map."
"Of course, of course, fine lady!" the elderly shopkeeper answered with a thick accent. "What would you like to see?"
She was taken aback. "You speak English!"
He shrugged. "Of course! Many peoples of the old world were brought here! I trade with many travelers such as yourself, so I must learn many languages! Now, how can I help you?"
"Well, I'm not sure," she replied. "I'm hopelessly lost, and--"
He smiled, and held up a hand. "Here, let me show you just what you need." He spread out a large map on the counter, showing Nova Romae in the center. There were other kingdoms up and down the coast, but her eye fell on a small kingdom to the north.
She pointed to it. "I have never heard of this kingdom," she told him. "Is it new?"
He chuckled. "It is more like a duchy than an actual kingdom, good lady. Two years ago, there was a slave rebellion, led by a warrior queen who called herself Cannax. She--"
"Two years ago?" Carlota caught herself. "I'm sorry, I was just... You see, I know this Cannax person. But I had no idea! Thank you! Thank you!" She quickly fled from the storefront, looking for a private place, maybe a back alley.
A young boy heard a strange chittering scream from the alley behind his house. But when he threw the shutters open, all he saw was a brown robe on the ground, forgotten.
A long howl, followed by responding howls all throughout the stronghold, stops One-Eye in his tracks. He howls in response and turns to the two with him who howl long and deep.
"Go fetch Champ," he growls to one of them, "tell him to bring the 'guests' down to holding and for the moon's sake don't let them share any of the cells or talk to one another then meet me in the manor! GO!"
To the other wolf, he growls, "Secure the gates! Don't let anyone in or out!"
The two wolves flinch and skulk around One-Eye as they advance toward the tunnel to the inner city to do his bidding. One-Eye follows rapidly after and emerges through another clover-covered gate. He pulls back his hood, and his wolven features recede back to their more natural apish state, with a bald topped head and the band of his black eye patch retracting to fit the new shape of his head. From the pocket of his shirt underneath the hooded robe, he produces a small silver whistle. He blows on the whistle and an extremely high-pitched tone comes out. A taxicab stops shortly afterward in the street before him, and he climbs in the back.
The driver immediately recognizes him and shuts off the meter. The Alpha never pays fare.
"Where to, sir?" The driver asks the rear view mirror.