illustration by AKL

BEYOND THE CHRONICLES

BOOK FOUR: THE HOMEWORD

CHAPTER FOURTEEN (03/25/2011)
THE MOON KNIFE (“Moanjahrr”) -- PART TWO

By Dennis C. Callin (Rumblepurr)
Based on Stories by Anna-Karin Uhlén (Ahdeya)

Beta Read

THIS CHAPTER IS RATED “R” for Adult Situations

“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Anton Chekhov

      Early autumn came in blustery and with a promise of the chill weather to come over the lands that faced the Great Western Ocean and the Tails Sea. The remaining beautifully colored leaves were plucked from their branches, and were scattered about by the wind. The fields of golden wheat and tall stalks of corn were cut and harvested by odd machines, and left as sheaves to be gathered later. Orchards gave up their nuts and fruits, and vines added the bulk of their gourds and larger fruits to the silos and crates. The bounty of the Land was collected, and some of the cornucopia was stored for later use, while the rest went to markets for sale to the public, or to fairs and festivals.
      Lamptown was a village that sat near the battlements of the castle, and was often the site of Farview Castle’s Harvest Fair. To benefit visitors to the Province, raptor-drawn carriages ran between the various inns and hostels, and the large tents on the open grounds. Some of the tents of the past had given way to buildings, but progress still allowed for the festive atmosphere of the fair. Like most of the fairs, the tents housed much of the livestock that had been domesticated enough to be seen in the fields and pens of the farms. Several animals were destined for the butcher’s block, but most of the stock that walked before the crowd was destined for breeding.
      The people who came to the Fair this particularly slightly windy day were not surprised when their Administrator strode onto the grounds. The brightly and colorfully dressed white Poodle Lord of Farview enjoyed the fair most of all, and the fairgoers were always pleased to see his smile, and hear his laughter. Anyone who had a booth knew that the Lord would eventually come by and sample their wares. If what he tasted pleased him, and it usually did, he would reward them generously. Those who ran the games always made sure that skill was required and that winning was done fairly. No one wanted Lord Vavonno to discover anyone cheating at the Fair. And the ones who owned the vineyards and wineries that showed their wares? Of all the contests at the fair, this competition was the one most coveted by the contestants. When it came to wines, no one had a better palate than Lord Vavonno.
      This day, however, the Provincial Administrator was not the only draw to the clique that wove through the various stalls and booths. Dressed in purple, yellow, gold, white and light blue, Lord Vavonno still stood out, no matter where he went. However, the people with him immediately became the subject of many a conversation. Walking with him, and trying to enjoy the Fair as much as the Lord did, was Yeahlika! The cat-people were the guests of the Farview Administrator, and he definitely enjoyed their company. To one side of him, a tall handsome Silver Tabby was dressed mostly in white, but well-defined by a black and silver doublet and cavalry breeches. On his left, a regal gold tabby cat-woman had possession of his right arm. Her gown was basically white with black and gold trim. If he noticed, Vavonno hid his amusement at the reaction to the cat-woman on his left arm. Males would sometimes stop and literally stare at the stunning and statuesque scarlet Queen. Her gown was cut to enhance the effect her body fur gave her, and the colors of white, black and red showed her sultry figure. Her smile was not only due to the conversation that Vavonno entertained her with, but also at the number of husbands being reprimanded by their wives.
      “No matter how many times I come here, I am always amazed at the diversity one can find among these exhibits,” the Poodle Lord said enthusiastically. “I am afraid I burden Petrocah with all my purchases.”
      Looking over his shoulder, he smiled at the majordomo who was holding a box that contained several statues, odd bric-a-brac, and even a few paintings. To augment the growing collection, a trio of pages followed in Petrocah’s wake.
      “I am just glad we have a lot to look at,” Bombalurina said, licking her fingers. “It gives me a means to shake off some of the kilos all this good food is putting on me.”
      Vavonno laughed, which came out as a series of musical yips. “I am certain my good friend here provides you with ample means of alternative exercises.”
      Demeter hid her nose and smile as Munkustrap suddenly had a smug grin. However, if the barb struck home, Bombalurina did not show it. Instead, her smile became just as smug as the Silver Tabby’s.
      “Vonnie…” she replied with a subtle hip-bump that made the Poodle Lord stumble slightly. “You really and truly need a girlfriend or a wife… But… you are definitely right. The Silver Stud there is my personal gymnasium.”
      “Do not forget me,” Demeter said primly.
      “Oh, never, Dems,” the scarlet Queen smirked. “Between these two, I’m always at my best physical condition.”
      “Really…” Vavonno said softly. “Perhaps, my Lady, you have touched upon my plight. I have noticed that I have admirers…”
      “You should have asked one of them to be with you here,” Demeter said quietly.
      “Me? On a date? Lady Deme, I would become the topic of every rumor and gossiping session in and around the castle…”
      “But you would not be lonely, and this walk would be even more joyous…”
      Bombalurina looked toward her Mate-Sister. “She’s doing it again, Munk.”
      “I’ve got her, Bomba.”
      “What is it?” Vavonno asked.
      “Deme is in Sight,” Munkustrap replied carefully, making sure his hand now rested upon hers. “She meant what she said, Vonn. You should have asked one of your lady friends…”
      “That would cause some contention in my Court, Munkus. How could I chose one and disappoint the others…?”
      “How many days does the fair run?” Demeter said, blinking and then smiling up at her escort’s gentle green eyes.
      “A fortnight… You are not proposing that I ask them out one at a time?”
      Bombalurina chuckled. “It’s either that or bring them out as a harem.”
      Only the Poodle Lord’s pompadour made him taller than the Scarlet Queen, and Vavonno regarded the cat-lady on his left with an impish look. “Does that make you my date for this afternoon and evening, Lady Bomba?”
      “That depends on your intentions, and whether you want Munk to defend my honor.”
      The smile on the Poodle Lord faded slightly. “You… you believe that I would…?”
      “Vonnie… Anyone 'dating’ me has always tried seducing me…” Then, she glared at Munkustrap. “With one exception…”
      “Until we got here,” Demeter broke in.
      “Hush, Deme. You already got someone to seduce.”
      Vavonno regarded her with amused skepticism. “Someone resisted your charms?”
      “Not only once, but several times,” Bombalurina said, and then leaned in provocatively against Vavonno. “But most of my dates at least try. If they treat me right, I treat them right…”
      Munkustrap and Demeter tried not to laugh as Vavonno swallowed hard.
      “Are you not considered married, Lady Bomba?”
      “Munk, Deme and I share an open relationship, Vonnie… He might even thank you by 'dating’ me so he can have Deme all to himself for a while.”
      “Ah… Um… Shall we stop here and sample some of what I am sure is fine afphaell brandy?” the Poodle Lord stammered slightly.
      “Perhaps, we shall,” Munkustrap agreed, still attempting to stifle a laugh.
      While the two males ordered drinks and what looked like a fruit tart covered with a slice of sharp cheese, Demeter shook her head.
      “You’re being very naughty with our host, Bomba.”
      “You know I like to come onto a good-looking guy, Dems,” Bombalurina replied, waving off the thought. “This is totally harmless… I’m right about us, aren’t I?”
      “No.”
      Bombalurina suddenly looked at her friend, lover and Mate-Sister. “No?”
      Still wearing her smile, Demeter looked up at her. “There is nothing open in our relationship, Bomba. You, Munk and I are very tightly bound to each other by love as well as by our ancestors. Remember when I told Munk 'throughout time and space?’ We soon learned that it was the same way between you and me. Here, we seemed to have intensified that because of these feline bodies of ours.”
      “Tell me about it,” Bombalurina shuddered with pleasure. “Not only do we have the equipment we had before, but the horniness that cats seem to have.”
      “So… do you intend to seduce Vonnie?” Demeter was slightly surprised when Bombalurina seemed to turn thoughtful. “Bomba?”
      “Did you ever wonder what it feels like? Cassie tried it… And from what I got outta Tugger, he and Lonzo tried that Roz chick out.” Demeter’s ears flattened to the side, but Bombalurina merely grinned slightly. “Admit it, Dems. Vonnie IS kinda cute, right?
      “But…”
      Bombalurina laughed lightly, and then sobered. “I’m sure he would treat me like a gentletom would… or maybe I should say like Munk did on our first dates. Besides. I wouldn’t think our bodies are all that different. Although a Pollie does have a little more muzzle than we have. Kissing might be a bit difficult. I wonder if they’re ribbed like our Toms are…? Did Cassie ever talk to you about that?”
      Demeter was actually shocked. “Bomba…”
      “You’re being a prude again, Deme, but relax. Making out? Maybe. The rest is always Munk’s… and yours…”
      When Vavonno and Munkustrap returned, the foursome went over to a table that sat under a small Ramada, and dug into the cheese tarts, and gratefully sipped the brandy. Demeter sneezed after the first sip, but then enjoyed the warmth of the liqueur.
      After a while, Vavonno finally veered away from the polite conversation about the weather and breezes wafting through the fairgrounds. “Must you really go?”
      “Our Master seems to think that this quest was important,” Munkustrap replied after a thoughtful sip. “But, I do have to admit that I enjoy your hospitality.”
      “I wish I could change your mind,” he said gently. “Well, one thing I can do is provide you with an escort. I will have you ride with a battalion of my lancers, and I will not take any refusal, Munkus. Besides… I have a duty to uphold the alliance between Farview and Redrock, do I not?”
      “I believe you did sign a treaty with Onaghan,” Munkustrap nodded. “And the courier sent to you indicates that he is waiting for you to close the borders with Mountain Keep.”
      “Already done. In fact, the moment the runner from the border told me about you coming here from Mountain Keep, I was suspicious, and I moved a brigade into the pass. If our mutual friends said this Elder who actually committed this breach of Heraldic manners really does want to fight, I will definitely give him one.”
      “We aren’t risking another war, are we?” Bombalurina asked.
      “At this moment, the conflict is just between Mountain Keep and you,” Vavonno said flatly. “However, Onaghan has taken a personal interest in this and so it is just between adjacent Provinces. As long as no one joins either side, it will probably remain a border dispute.”
      “What about your commitment of troops?” Munkustrap asked.
      “As long as they stay on my side of the border, I am not involved. Broken Pass has a well marked boundary post, and unless Mountain Keep makes a threatening move toward Farview, I stay on this side of it…”
      “Kind of a forced campout, isn’t it?” Bombalurina said, swirling the brandy in her glass, and sniffing the vapors. “Especially when the nights are getting cold.”
      “And we are going to be just as uncomfortable,” Demeter added.
      “I will make certain that you have good blankets, and cloaks,” Vavonno said, nodding. “Who is your quartermaster?”
      “Probably Tarfur,” Demeter replied. “Your majordomo can make sure he receives the necessary supplies…”
      “He will receive that list from me, Lady Deme,” the Poodle Lord insisted. “I want to make certain that you have everything you need -- especially since you are going into the wild lands. Munkus? I want you and Lady Bomba to visit my armory, and take what you think you will need. I would grant you an entire division of my better troops, but I know you would not accept them. You will, however, accept a special squad because I will insist upon it.”
      “A squad?”
      “Four elites who are members of my bodyguard…”
      “Vonn… I already have a bodyguard,” Munkustrap said with a slight smile. “In fact, they number at least four. I have Quaxo practically riding pig-a-back on my shoulders. Then, I have Addy, and you know the value of a Scout. And then, I have these two lovely ladies.”
      Both Bombalurina and Demeter leaned in on Munkustrap’s shoulders and smiled at Vavonno. The Silver Tabby chuckled. “Do you think anyone in their right mind would want to get through them to me?”
      Vavonno shook his head, and gave his friend a sad smile. “Munkus… your party numbers twelve -- sixteen if we add my squad. Sheer masses of troops would eventually bury you. However, I can say that anyone attempting that would lose a goodly percentage due to your Scout alone, and I do know about the ferocity of a female protecting her own. You are fortunate, my friend, that you have two such protectors. Still. I am insisting that you take this squad, and its commander to complete this quest.”
      “Commander? Vonn…”
      “No, I insist, and I do have the means to prevent you from leaving if you refuse.”
      Munkustrap regarded the Poodle Lord for a few moments, and then nodded. “Very well. May I know who this commander is?”
      Vavonno canted his head, and his expression was Pollicle mirth. “Why, me, of course!”

**********

      In commerce, one had to have something of value to trade for goods or possessions that someone else had. A farmer, for example, could trade poultry for a new tool at the smithy. The smithy would examine the poultry and then decide how many individual animals would equal the cost of creating the tool and the materials used. By bartering, the farmer and the smithy would come up with an exchange that would somewhat satisfy both parties, and the items would then change hands.
      Eventually, such a system would not be satisfactory for larger transactions. In this case, the smithy might not want poultry for his tools. After all, he did not have pens for the animals, or anyplace to keep them. Instead, the farmer would take his animals to a butcher or market, and buyers would give the farmer coins that represented a certain value dictated by the government or ruler in the area. The farmer, then, could use the coins to buy the tools from the smithy.
      Thus, the practice of using currency for goods and services required the rise of economics. According to Yeahlika scholars, the memory of a People called Romans struck a silver coin called a denarius. The coin weighed 6.8 grams of silver when it was first used. This coin was used throughout the Empire and it had a certain value when used in exchange with other nations, and between citizens. In one source, the coin equaled the daily wage for a worker.
      On the Homeworld, the Pollicles used currency. Spread out on the Northern Hemisphere, the Pollicles had divided their conquest into fifteen Provinces, and each Province had begun with its own currency. After several small wars had taken place, the “Fourteen” Provinces (with the destruction of Blackheart Castle) came up with a stable resource, and a systematic agreement on the weights of each coin. At first, a few criminals attempted to counterfeit the coins by adding baser metals to the gold, silver and copper of the established currency. However, the detection abilities of the enforcers made it difficult to last long enough to make anything worthwhile. Then, the penalties for counterfeiting made performing such an act to be counterproductive. And so, the Pollicle economy had a gold coin called a Solarius, a silver coin called a Lunarius, and a copper coin called a Cuprum. Of course, most Pollies called the coin by their metal name. The going rate was simplified by making the exchange in tens -- namely, ten coppers for a silver, and ten silvers for a gold. Because bags of gold coins were heavy, the agreement created bars that equated ten, hundred and even thousand gold weights. Each Province could still cast its own currency, but they still have to conform to the weight and purity standards. In the end, the Fourteen Provinces soon established a single currency for the entire Nation.
      When the Yeahlika returned to their lands, a curious thing happened… Currency was foreign to the cat-People. The society was based on the hunter-gatherer culture that evolved from their animal past. Even at its apex, Yeahlika tended to establish an almost perfect social system where everything was shared. If one needed something, they merely found someone who had more than they needed. Or, certain locations were established where goods and materials were available to all. Thus, when Redrock and the Temple began communicating with each other, the concept of economics versus communal trade caused a bit of consternation…
      When Lucifer learned of a discord concerning finances, two parts of his memory came instantly awake. Normally, the talk of thousands of Solarii would mean nothing to him, but then the Macavity of the previous Homeworld had never heard of economics. To that part, Solarii, Lunarii and even Cuprum were just pieces of malleable metal. However, he soon learned from one of his meditations…
      Whenever Lucifer took leave of the duties of being an advisor to the Administrator of Oak Tree Province, one of his practices was to depart from the castle grounds and climb up a rather precipitous side of the mountain within a kilometer of the outer works. Being able to levitate and transport could have gotten him up on this precarious perch easier and quicker, but he chose to climb the cliff by hand and foot. As he did, part of his mind would already be ready for the next step. Once seated on the indentation in the cliff, he allowed the physical world to depart, and his personal triad came out as three individuals.
      “You really do not understand the concepts of currency and economics, dear boy?” the Terran Macavity asked the Homeworld Lucifer.
      “I know that the Pollicles use metal coins as certain values,” Lucifer replied calmly. “Being Yeahlika, we have no need for such items.”
      “You would be called a socialist where we come from,” the human Macavity commented humorlessly.
      “Is that a compliment or an insult?”
      “Depends on where you are, and in what timeframe,” the Terran replied. “However, the crux of the matter is that all production and goods are commonly shared. This concept is practiced in the Temple, no doubt?”
      “That is correct,” Lucifer nodded. “But, let us proceed to the question at hand. We have overheard a conversation that seems to indicate a conspiracy that will net certain individuals a sizeable amount of currency, thereby making them wealthy in comparison to the general population. Should we attempt to abort this attempt by apprehending the individuals we have under our surveillance?”
      “That depends on whether the plans are illegal, doesn’t it?” the humans asked.
      “Oh, these plans are indeed illegal,” the Terran responded with an oily chuckle.
      Lucifer regarded the other two personas for a few seconds, and then nodded. “I sense there is a reason behind the reluctance to apprehend these individuals?”
      “The conversation,” the Terran Macavity replied, “was between underlings, dear boy. By incarcerating them, we 'trim the branches but leave the tree intact’.”
      “In other words, we want the hotshots that are behind the plans, and not the little guys.”
      Both the Terran and Lucifer exchanged glances.
      “Hotshots?” Lucifer asked.
      The human grinned. “Too rural for you two? The masterminds of the whole thing. We heard the little guys boasting that they have some pull over the cash flow here. But, it’s the big guys who have the real money taken care of… We just have to figure out how they’re getting the bars out.”
      “That feat should actually be easy to ascertain,” the Terran Macavity replied.
      “Do tell,” Lucifer responded.
      “How many diplomatic couriers do we allow to pass the borders?” The evil smile on the Junkyard Macavity persona made the human and Lucifer pause. “Oh, please… The diplomatic pouches can hide all sorts of things…”
      “Defilement of such a privilege is an act of war,” Lucifer said evenly.
      “Are we sure that they are getting gold out of the Province through such a ploy?” the human countered.
      “You have a better method?”
      “Who has access to the Treasury?”
      Lucifer nodded. “The Treasurer, of course. But it does not require that individual…”
      The Terran’s features swiveled forward, showing interest. “Please continue.”
      “To produce the currency of the Province,” Lucifer replied, “one must have a Mint were the raw metals are formed into bars and coins. A mint has security, and should be protected from anyone from skimming, or taking advantage of their part of the processing. However, if the security is compromised…”
      Macavity smiled. “Then the reported input of metal is undervalued, and the excess is stowed away. Those who are perpetuating this crime are then able to smuggle that amount in small amounts on their person or in innocuous items.”
      The human also nodded. “That reminds me of a song lyrics involving someone who worked in a factory… Let me see… You would not understand what an automobile is, but let’s try a very extravagant wagon. If someone did not want to purchase it, they could smuggle out that wagon one piece at a time…”
      “And assemble it whole after a certain amount of time,” Lucifer completed the train of thought. “So… We have the method and the motive… Now, all we need is to start looking into the ones who may be behind this…”
      The Human shook his head. “Just be careful doing that, my friend. If you get caught, they might make these conference calls impossible…”
      As the human persona disappeared, the Macavity image grinned. “Be careful indeed… With us behind you, those perpetrators do not stand a chance… By the way, please use caution when you regain consciousness. Your choice of meditation locations leaves a lot to be desired.”
      Lucifer saw the image fade into the ether, and then he 'awoke’. As usual, the transition between the mental world and the physical one was almost instantaneous. He gauged the drop and then slipped off the “seat” in the cliff and reappeared on the forest floor below.
      “Use caution, indeed…” he snorted as he began walking back to the castle. “Now… who profits by this subterfuge?”
      His mind began his calculations -- a feat that would have been envied by a certain character that Lucifer knew as well as his own. According to what he remembered, Professor Moriarty was a genius… as well as a mathematics instructor…

**********

      From their location on the riverbank just north of the city, the five members of an isolated party sat around what should have been a cheerful fire. Being further south than what they were used to did not change the fact that this was autumn. After the sun had fled from the skies and the huge pinwheel of the galaxy made its appearance, the temperatures dropped. Still, the abundance of dead wood from the trees around them made it easy to feed the fire, and provide the necessary flames for warmth and cooking. A feral cow provided a substantial amount of meat that they shared with the members of a military patrol that seemed to always be nearby.
      The obvious Leader of the small party was a large black and white tuxedo Yeahlika, and he stood out in silhouette briefly in the firelight. Metal gleamed off of him as he donned a cloak that flowed about his muscular frame. His name was Genesis and he was legendary even before he reappeared on this planet. To the Yeahlika, he was the Master Scout -- the deadliest warrior to have ever lived. He carried an arsenal of weapons on his person like most warriors would wear armor. Even without the Scout weaponry, he was proficient in any edged, blunt or pointed weapon known, including the spear and bow, and even the blowpipe that the Exotic troops nearby carried. Without any weaponry at all, he was the Master of Hand-to-Hand Combat.
      His companion did not seem to match him at all. Female, the lithe member of the party was an enigma at first glance. Her name was Renessa and she was not as defenseless as she appeared. As a Psychic, she could affect the minds of anyone near her as well as reading their thoughts and memories. Her most effective strength was her gift as a Mystic, and her abilities to use the power of the Land to throw spells.
      At the moment, the third member of the party was being breast-fed under a protective shawl, and was relatively at peace. Born a fortnight ago, the infant kitten was large for its age. Renessa had complained about having to use magic to deliver it, causing her to be fatigued for several days afterward, but she knew the effort had been worth it. By magically shrinking the newborn, she was able to give birth without the severe complications his size would have caused. Once born, little Atlas grew back into his original size, and showed no ill effects to the shrinkage. The only thing strange about him was his aura, which Renessa began to ponder about.
      “What do you sense, Beloved?” Genesis asked gently.
      “I’m not sure, Genn,” Renessa replied. “I am picking up interference.”
      “What?”
      “She means from me, Warrior…” a voice said in the darkness beyond the firelight.
      Although somewhat surprised, Genesis did not show it as he turned to face the speaker. Slowly and carefully, the newcomer came into the light, and revealed an elderly Yeahlika male. The cat-man carried a staff, but he did not seriously lean on it as he approached. Rather, he used the wooden pole as a third leg over the uneven ground.
      “Grandfather?” Renessa asked. “You did not need to come to us here. We would have…”
      “Come to me after I sent you a messenger, I know, Mage,” the Elder nodded as he neared the fire. “May I?”
      “By all means, Elder,” Genesis said, gesturing to his perch upon a tree stump. “You are welcome in our camp.”
      “I apologize for my Grandson,” the Elder said abruptly as he sat, and bent forward slightly to feel the warmth of the flames. “He is impatient for the flow of time, and he does not wish to allow others to stand in his way. Even I was not able to convince him otherwise.”
      “Where I come from,” Renessa said as she eased Atlas to he other breast, “Rome was not built in a day. Your Grandson almost managed to do that is razing Gahlarr.”
      The Elder bowed his head. “Unfortunately, that deed was required to be done. The Gate of the Dawn will be one of the first things he will have constructed, and it will be on the shoreline of the new city. We shall require a goodly five solars or so to meet his acceptance. I only hope that my Grandson will allow the progress to be orderly and without conflict.”
      “Conflict?” Genesis asked as he ladled a meat stew into a bowl.
      The Elder accepted the bowl and nosily slurped it for a couple of healthy mouthfuls. “Yes. He could easily allow his impetuousness to want what he wishes to be in existence before time usually permits.”
      Renessa chuckled. “You mean he wants it now instead of later.”
      The Elder nodded with a slight smile. “I believe that is what I said.”
      “Why now instead of sooner?”
      Her question seemed to linger in the air in front of the Elder. The firelight seemed to twinkle in his eyes before he spoke, and his voice lowered to almost a whisper. “When the Devils came and imprisoned my People, their Will hid from the terror and the humiliation. Many of the People committed sehpahkul rather than face the cruelty of being owned. Only a few dared to oppose the Devils, and these led a very dangerous life. Many were found and their deaths were harsh and prolonged. But, when the Devils and their Minions left or were expunged from our island, our People had forgotten what they had once held. Only the story of the Warrior and the Mage kept the flame of the Promise alive. Small wonder my grandson drank in the news of your arrival on our shores. Since that time, he has poured over the Ancient texts that were kept hidden from the Minions. As soon as he was aware, he organized, and then launched the armada that overwhelmed the Minion City across the Strait of Tears…”
      “And the razing of Gahlarr?”
      “A purification in his eyes,” the Elder replied sadly. “He believed that the corruption of the very streets and buildings had to be removed, and redone. Before the purifying fires swept the city, he removed what could be salvaged, and placed the material outside the limits. What can be quarried nearby will be added to the foundations and remnants deemed worthy to remain. The rest of the city will be rebuilt of new stone like the ones on the island, and there will be more gardens and trees. Out of the ruins of the Minion City, he plans to produce a metropolis of great beauty. Thus, the City of the Dawn will usher in the first step of my People’s return.”
      “Does your Grandson have further plans…?”
      “His kittens or Grandkittens will look further west for the next step. My Grandson will not go further until the city is rebuilt. He will oversee its beginning to its completion.”
      “Do you realize that even now, the Pollicles are forming an army to prevent this from happening?” Genesis asked quietly.
      “He is quite aware of this, Warrior,” the Elder said with some apprehension. “In fact, he looks forward to it.”
      “What?” Renessa exclaimed.
      “If the Minions wish to fight, they will discover that they would face their death here. You see, we have discovered something of vast importance in the depths of this city. As you are probably aware, the Minions take what they wish, but use the foundations of buildings and fortifications to erect their own construction upon. Thus, we were able to uncover places that were serviced once by my People. The Temple you discovered in Cohlann? We found a similar Temple here. And the Books of the Ancients…”
      Genesis turned sharply to Renessa’s intake of breath. “What is it, Beloved?”
      “The feeling behind that title, Genn…” the Mystic Healer said hauntingly. “So far, I have yet to see any use of magic among the Exotics. And now, I have reason to believe they have powerful mages among the population. This set of Books the Elder speaks about hit me like a wave of cold water. In fact… Genn? Do you actually feel the presence of the Elder?”
      That comment straightened the Master Scout up to his full height. “Beloved?”
      “Your sense of the chiarr, dearest. Can you sense him?”
      For a few moments, Genesis went still. When his eyes opened again, his features came as close to frowning as he turned to the Elder.
      The Siamese Yeahlika was not there…
      “Astral projection,” Renessa said with a slight chill. “That is why neither you nor I could tell he was there until he spoke. He could be any distance from us and be quite safe. Because he was a projection, only another Wizard or Mystic could affect him.”
      “Could you?”
      Renessa nodded. “If he threatened us, but since when did he ever do that?”
      “And the Books?”
      “Now there’s a stinking kettle of fish,” she replied. “You must have read some of the Books when you came up with that story about the Warrior and the Mage. By calling it the Books of the Ancients, that title created a picture of arcane spells and alchemy. Genn… Even without magic, the knowledge in those books would make anyone formidable. Although Alchemy is often referred to as pseudo-science or even a proto-science, it did eventually create sciences such as chemistry and medicine.”
      Genesis also nodded. “And one product of that was the discovery of gunpowder. If the Exotics are able to utilize gunpowder as well as the arcane spells that you fear, then the Pollicles would indeed be walking into a death trap…”
      “Genn, love! We must convince Genghis and his Grandfather not to walk this path! Think of the escalation we went through in the Old World!”
      “We may be powerless to prevent them,” Genesis said, his voice low. “Planetary evolution may allow such progress to occur without our intervention…”
      “What about Charumcah?”
      “Even he might not be able to prevent this, Beloved.”
      “We have to try…” Renessa said, setting Atlas to one side. Like a conductor waving a baton, the Mystic quickly doused the fire, set elemental globes around the camp, and then began packing things into the ether. Other the necessary items went into saddlebags, and aboard the raptorhorses. “We must leave now before we are taken.”
      “I have already scouted an avenue of escape,” he replied softly. “Please mount now.”
      Moments later, magic enveloped the infant and he was soon strapped in place on the chest of his mother. Kohla was already on the move as Genesis mounted, and the two raptorhorses soon disappeared into the darkness.
      Still surrounding the campsite, the elementals remained bobbing in midair.
      And then, one-by-one, they began to disappear…
      Until the campsite was recaptured by the night…
      Minutes later, a mounted patrol of six riders came pounding up to the site. The officer in charge swore upon seeing the empty ground. Even when the mounts quieted, none of the patrol could hear or see anything that could indicate the departure of their quarry.
      “The Siam will not like this,” one of the warriors said.
      “Let the Siam divine where they went then,” the officer said. “We do not even know how long ago they left, let alone in what direction. Since you voiced the dislike, you can return and give our report. We shall stay here and see what we can learn.”
      The secondary patrol warrior nodded a salute, and nudged his mount back the way they came. Within seconds, he was gone, and the others dismounted. The officer shook his head as he slapped his gloves against his thigh.
      “What do they expect when dealing with the Warrior and the Mage…?”

**********

      “You are WHAT?” the Whippet shouted uncharacteristically.
      “Petrocah, please lower your voice,” Vavonno replied casually as he removed his earrings. “While I am sure the staff truly wishes to know what is taking place, I really do not want that to occur.”
      “But, Sire! There is a reason why no one is advised to travel north and east of the Belt Hills! Whoever disobeys that edict disappears! And besides…”
      “Now, now, now! None of this,” the Poodle Lord said, waving his hand. “I am going with them and my mind is made up. The Prime Minister is to take over this evening when we leave and the official word is that I am meeting with Lord Ahlagon in his alpine villa.
      “But Sire… Vonnie…”
      He smiled. “You have not called me that for a while, Pettie. When you do, I find it very difficult to refuse your wishes. However, that ploy will not work this time. My mind is set to go with Lord Munkus.”
      “Fine! Then I am going with you!”
      “What? You cannot be serious, Pettie! You dislike going camping with me.”
      “Your idea of 'camping’ is not exactly the same as the version you are going to experience this time, Sire. The sight of you taking off your favorite adornments has some credence, though. Where they are going, such niceties are more a hazard than something pretty to look at or wear. Are you taking a demotion?”
      “Of course. A Captain is a high enough officer for such a sortie.”
      “And your armaments and armor?”
      “Standard issue,” the Poodle Lord snorted. “Give me some credit, Pettie. I do not wish to draw attention to myself that much.”
      “Very well,” the whippet nodded. “I shall be your aide.”
      “I would not have it any other way,” Vavonno replied. “We will be departing just past the noon hour so we can be in the field before sunset.”
      “Your border units will recognize you, Sire.”
      “Perhaps, I can have that little problem rectified. I hear that Misto can do a bit of cosmetic work that will last longer than a dye job like the theatre troupes use. I think I would look smashing as a black standard. Do you not think so?”
      Petrocah’s mouth opened and then closed without saying a word. Finally, he grinned slightly and shook his head. “You truly have to change you manner of speech, Sire.”
      “Nonsense! You know that my breed tends to be a bit ostentatious…”
      “Ostentatious is not the correct meaning here, but as you will, Sire.”
      “And you need a set of dapple spots on you, and platinum hair… Yes, that would look idea for a Guard’s aide.”
      “My Lord, please!”
      “Petrocah,” Vavonno insisted. “Indulge me a little.”
      “Do you realize how serious this is? Your life will be in danger the moment we step across our border. This is not a game, Vonnie!”
      The majordomo was surprised when the Poodle Lord’s features sobered. “No, it is not a game at all. We owe them, Petrocah, for all of the horrendous events and actions against their People. And yes, I know our People did not know any better. When the Old War was fought, we were just above the animals of this world, and we did what we were trained to do. However, we are no longer what we once were… with some exceptions… I want to show Lord Munkus that we are capable to being honest, and civil, and if that means I sacrifice my life for him, then I will. If I thought it would mean anything, I would lead our frontier forces against first Mountain Keep and then in search of whatever Lord Munkus deems necessary. He believes I might still perform the first of those two actions, but not the second.”
      “What do you mean, Sire?”
      “The Lady Demeter, Pettie. She sees a small force and a matter of honor…”
      The light quality of his voice made Petrocah marvel at his master and friend. “She… She has seen this?”
      Vavonno smiled humorously. “I have been told that Seeing is one of things she does best. The East will not be conquered by armies is what she told her friends and husband. Because of our friendship with these People, Petrocah, I will place my life in their hands readily.”
      “I truly hope that you are right about that, Sire” Petrocah said, opening the door to the guest quarters. “Because that is what we shall be doing.”

**********

      Having returned from the Festival, Demeter and Bombalurina retired to their 'private’ quarters to perform a very personal duty -- namely, pump out the breast milk that their bodies were generating. With their kittens back in Redrock, both mothers did not have someone to give the milk to… Mistoffelees finally got around to come up with the means to use the Wizard’s Ether to do a transfer between Farview and Redrock, but the 'milk run’ started here.
      Nightchaser shook his head as he studied one of the two bottles that had been sent by that mysterious manner. Even though he was rated as second in Wizard Power behind Mistoffelees, the triad that made up the black Yeahlika Tom still marveled at magic. The Nightchaser who came from this world was a Wizard as was the Junkyard persona that came here during the Return. The human, however, never saw such power.
      “Spooks you, doesn’t it?” Jellylorum commented as she picked up the second bottle.
      During the second week of the Festival, Jellylorum and Jennyanydots had traveled with Skimbleshanks and Gus to Redrock and had taken up residence in the rooms that Munkustrap’s group had taken first.
      “If you’re talking to that Tyson person in my head, yes,” he nodded. “Two parts of us think it’s kitten’s play. Tyson doesn’t understand the concept of ether.”
      “Well, when you talk of ether, I think about a liquefied gas that puts people to sleep. Your type always gave me the willies.”
      “You old enough to remember Felix the Cat?” he asked.
      “Through my parents,” she nodded. “He had a carpetbag that did some rather magical things. Is that…?”
      “That’s the idea behind ether,” Nightchaser grinned. “Open the bag, reach in and you can pull out just about anything, including the kitchen sink. Ether can hold just about any physical object. The difference between that bag of Felix’s and the real thing is that you have to store it inside the ether first. I could pull out a grand piano, but I don’t think anybody has ever put one in there for me to grab hold of it.”
      “So Deme and Bombie give their bottle to Misto, and he pushes them into that squishy stuff. How do you know where it is, and how does it get here so you can find it?”
      “That’s the beauty of it,” he said with a slight chuckle. “Ether is like a two-dimensional universe. Thus, there is no true distance. However, one needs to know what they are reaching for. That’s why Misto and I needed to see the bottles. After that, we know what we’re after, and we can draw the bottles to us.”
      “Is there any harm to the milk?”
      “Would I allow you to give that to Arielle or Saraphina if there were?”
      Jellylorum held the bottle to her chest -- the same one she would give to Bombalurina’s kitten later. She could feel the residual warmth of the milk, meaning that the nutrient had just been pumped from… the Matron blinked. “No, you wouldn’t.”
      “As far as any Mystic knows, the ether doesn’t affect the atomic structure of the object at all. What you see is what you get. Jelly… Are you sure you really want to get involved…?”
      “Chaser, the group doesn’t have a Healer with them,” Jellylorum said with her characteristic harrumph. “I remember that Munkus didn’t like having Healers go along on things like this, but this time he’s going to have one whether he likes it or not.”
      “That’s because your Gift is very precious from what I understand,” Nightchaser replied. “Right now, your abilities are rare until the second generation begin practicing.”
      “Meaning Althea and Hermia,” she said with a warm smile. “They are a precious treasure and I am glad they are back at the Temple. I can’t think of any place safer.”
      “Praise of Tantomile and Coricopat?”
      “Oh, hush! I think they have already shown their worth many times over.”
      Nightchaser nodded. “I actually agree, believe it or not. Very well, Jelly. Get ready and I will connect with Misto when you are set to travel.”
      “What will happen to me?” she said after a nervous pause.
      “The teleport? Do you ever remember stepping through a waterfall?”
      “Yes.”
      “Just like that. One moment, you’re here, and the next, you’re with Munkus and Misto.”
      “Just like that?”
      “Yes… Come on, Rhetta… The one person you know that will never steer you wrong is the one who knows that name better than who you played. I still flinch when I see my reflection, but I remember the one you know as well. Go get your things, Jellylorum. I’ll get word to Misto that you’re coming, and you’ll be in Munkus’ camp in no time.”
      “Are you still going?” Jennyanydots said as she picked the bottle out of Nightchaser’s hands, and examined the liquid inside.
      “Jenny… We discussed this and you agreed with me. Gus even agrees with me.”
      “What if I un-agreed with you?”
      One dark brown glove rose to Jellylorum’s temple. “Jenny, not again.”
      “You could get killed out there!”
      “We have already been out there,” she replied wearily. “From what Coerah said, we landed north and east of their settlements, and we managed to come back out. Now before you start, let me remind you that we could be killed anywhere and at any time! Munkus needs a Healer, and I’m the one going. Please, Jenny… I don’t want to argue with my best friend.”
      Jennyanydots set the bottle down and moved into an embrace with the Butter Calico Queen. As she did, Nightchaser plucked the other bottle out of Jellylorum’s hand and set if down on the table.
      “I’m sorry, Dearie, but I don’t want to lose you!”
      “I don’t think you can, Jenny.” Jellylorum said softly.
      “What do you mean?”
      Kissing her friend on the cheek, the Butter Calico Queen chuckled. “We seem to get back together all the time, don’t you see? Besides… I’ll be surrounded by a band of strong and mighty Warrior Toms, and deadly Scouts…”
      “Not to mention Quaxo,” Jennyanydots grinned.
      “He’s already got two girls, dear…”
      “And Leccie and Scatty aren’t near him now.”
      “Then he has Munkus to watch over. Really, Jenny! And it was only that one time…”
      Jennyanydots laughed. “That you know of… Dearie… I packed your bag and brought you your travel clothes. You know the ones you had me do for your journeys out to the farmlands and back?”
      “Good. I will have need of a good sturdy work clothing. You’re a dear, Jenny.”
      “Just come back and bring our Toms home.”
      “I will. Nightchaser? I know it’s early…”
      “Say no more…” Nightchaser nodded, and then went still for a few moments. “Uh… You may want to put that leather apron and cloak on, Jelly. Misto says that another rain storm is on its way in.”
      “Oh, bother…” Jellylorum snapped, and then donned the apron, and then the cloak. Taking the medical bag, and then tapping knuckles with Jennyanydots, she was surprised when a wooden staff with carved head suddenly appeared in her free hand. Nightchaser nodded.
      “What’s this?”
      Jennyanydots chuckled. “A Journeyman’s staff, dear Jellylorum. You are going into the wilds and you need one. My gift to you and courtesy of Skimble and Gus for the carving.”
      “You are a dear, dear friend, Jenny.”
      “Just come back.”
      The Butter Calico nodded and then smiled impishly. Standing upright, she lifted her chin, and used by 'Imperial Headmistress’ voice. “Nightchaser? One to beam out!”
      Shaking his head, the black High Guardian still had to grin. “I’m the one who’s supposed to have been corrupted by Chas, Rhetta. Godspeed…”
      The golden medallion on Nightchaser’s chest flashed briefly and Jellylorum disappeared.
      For a long moment, Jennyanydots stood still, and then moved slowly to the doorway to the terrace. Following, Nightchaser seemed to understand. Coming out, they looked to the north and west where they knew Castle Farview lay. Drawing close, he put an arm around the Tortie Healer’s shoulders.
      “Bless you, Chaser…”
      “Small wonder you’re so loved, Jenny. You’ve got a good heart.”
      “Even if it bleeds for all the wrong reasons at times…”
      “Well, I do remember a few things about you, Carla. Like Jenny, you were always concerned about everyone around you -- especially the kittens. You are a natural nanny-cat, and so I trust your instincts when it comes to treating other members of the Tribe. Now speaking of kittens, I think we have a delivery to make.”
      “Goodness! And I always like to give it to them fresh…”
      Nightchaser laughed gladly as Jennyanydots blustered back into the room and snatched up the two bottles of milk. Making sure the ribbons identifying the mothers were wrapped around the necks of the bottles, she placed them into the cocoon of her carry bag, and then disappeared into the interior of the Keep. Looking back toward the northwest, Nightchaser cleared his mind.
      // Did Jelly arrive safely, Misto? //
      /// She did. Her eyes kinda went wide for a few seconds, but she recovered. ///
      // Jenny wants her back, so you’d better take care of her. Tell Munkus his kitts are fine. Oh, and you better relay that to Deme and Bomba as well. //
      /// And risk getting beaten to a pulp by not telling them? As soon as I sent the bottles, they asked me to get an update! As if they change that quickly! ///
      // Never argue with a mom, // Nightchaser chuckled. // You live longer that way. I’m sending the washed bottles back. Let me know when the next feeding time is… //
      /// Thanks, Tyson. I really mean that. ///
      // No sweat, Jason. Viya con Dios. //
      /// From your mouth to the Great Cat’s ears… ///
      With a mental tap, the connection was broken, and Nightchaser grinned. Looking around at the broken sky, he could sense the coming rain in the form of lowering atmospheric pressure. Still, he felt good, and re-entered the Keep in search of Jennyanydots…

**********


      Walking casually into their Temple apartment, Coricopat studied his slender Mate in her Lotus position and noted the elegance of her posture and the svelte curves of her body. She was completely relaxed, even in the Yoga position that many could not emulate so gracefully. Knowing her intimately aroused him, and he was tempted to make a Tantric adventure with her, but he would allow her to make that decision.
      ** My body is yours, my All. If you wish to join with me… **
      He smiled. ~~ I would learn what takes you into meditation, my One… ~~
      She returned the smile. ** Join with me and learn. **
      The position that made this communication possible was a face-to-face one where Tantomile straddled his lap, and so Coricopat eased into his own Lotus. The mystic smile of his Mate never wavered as she slid out of her Lotus and eased unto his lap, joining her body with his. Fiery sulfur-colored eyes locked as she placed her arms around his neck, and his hands caressed the front of her body.
      ** Your touch is like playing with my soul, ** she whispered in his mind.
      ~~ Your nearness is like being warmed by the sun, ~~ he whispered back.
      ** Come with me… **
      Their eyes were still open, and their gaze and bodies were still locked, but their souls slid from their bodies and eased into a plane where paths seemed to move among the stars and planets. Their astral bodies glistened with stardust as they strolled the 'moon paths’ up to a large gaseous planet that looked familiar, and yet was not.
      ~~ Like Jupiter, and yet unlike, ~~ he said softly.
      ** You have never explored this system yet, have you… ** she remarked.
      ~~ I have never truly had the need, my One. Wait… V’Yeegah brought you here…~~
      ** Very astute, my All. The craft made me curious. I remembered that we were once able to journey in this manner. Today, Plato and the farmers came in with some of their first fruits, and the kittens had other teachers to occupy their minds. With that, I sought the first plane, and I achieved that with ease. We have arrived… **
      Coricopat turned and his astral sight found a nebulous circlet that seemed to steam with a blue-white energy. The droplets of power flowed about the edges of the circlet like a mist around a waterfall. Without asking, he knew what he was witnessing.
      ~~ This is the stargate that brought us to this planetary system… ~~
      ** Very good, my All. You can feel the power from Charumcah’s creation, and how the gate transports the arriving Yeahlika to the Homeworld. I discovered this by feeling the currents flowing on the paths. ** Tantomile stopped, and watched as the dark calico male turned to contemplate the many wonders around them. The giant planet hung in the heavens like a piñata: a gaily-painted ball that was one-quarter in shadow. Burning like fireflies in the velvet darkness of space, the many stars of the Greater Magellan Cloud still seemed to be within easy touching distance. However, his gaze stopped as he regarded one path that seemed to go in the direction of the huge pinwheel of stars that made up the Milky Way galaxy. She nodded, mostly to herself.
      ** That is a ponderous way, my Beloved. **
      ~~ The way to our previous home, no doubt. ~~
      ** Just so. Charumcah sent his power down that path to discover Tellar -- our earth… He nearly expended his astral travel to reach his destination, and he then vowed to discover the means to hasten the journey… **
      ~~ The stargate… He trapped a wormhole in his magic, and fitted the two rings to each end. Each ring knew its own location, and anything entering one ring would be whisked to the other ring. And to facilitate the first and last part of the journey, he devised the means to transport from the ring to the ground and vice versa… Beloved? How do you know this? ~~
      ** Reach out your hand and allow the aura of the gate to touch you… **
      Coricopat nodded, and did as he was instructed. As soon as his fingers sought the gate, a tentacle of misty silver-white slid out of the ring, and reached for his hand. He did not fear the energy as it caressed his palm and fingers, and wrapped twice around his arm. His normally sulfur-yellow eyes turned stardust silver, and an expression of sheer wonder crossed his features.
      ~~ Great Cat… ~~
      Quickly, images of the creation of the gates swiftly went through his mind like a film on fast-forward. The mighty form of the Planetary Caretaker stood naked in space, his hands spayed as he formed the huge circular ring of power. In a flash of light, every star in the Magellan Cloud seemed to shoot particles of its celestial body, and Charumcah used them to empower the ring. A second ring appeared and was empowered by the stars in turn. Then, he placed the teleportation spells on the two rings, and they would seek the worlds in the spells. Then, seemingly, a great gulf of the heavens squeezed between the rings, and the second ring suddenly disappeared. Finally, Charumcah nodded as the ring cycled. Looking down, the huge black Yeahlika watched as a hot ball of light erupted on the surface of the world below, and sped rapidly into space. Within moments, the ball sped into the ring and the gate blinked in a blinding display of every color light has in both the visible and invisible spectrums. The ring dimmed after that, and Charumcah frowned… A second entry had been made… Looking down, he spotted a spacecraft wobbling downward. There had been two of them before… This one would crash somewhere on the world below… But the other…
      ~~ Macavity’s craft was shot through the gate… He would be too late to affect the expedition for centuries… ~~
      ** Tarfur’s calculations and theories are true. The Expedition entered the gate, and were transported across the vastness of the void between the galaxies. Macavity’s captors were unwittingly sent in their wake. I only marvel how he survived and the Conquerors that were in his craft did not… **
      ~~ Our time draws nigh, My One. We must return to our bodies… ~~
      ** Pity in a way… I would love to spend an eternity of our physical time and just explore all these marvels…** Tantomile suddenly paused and then chuckled. ** I wonder… Could all of this be the Heavyside? **
      Coricopat nodded as the astral tether pulled him back to his body and the sensual joining he had with his Mate. ~~ Maybe it is… and maybe it is not… ~~
      He kissed her - a long gentle contact that seemed to radiate into every plane where they existed. When he released her mouth and pulled back, he chuckled. A silver-white glow in their eyes had replaced their normal sulfur-yellow, and that slowly faded as the droplets of power dissipated. She nodded and then returned the kiss…
      ** You can definitely be my Heavyside… **
      ~~ And you, mine… ~~

**********

      In the autumn of the year, the storms that swept in out of the polar northwest began with cool rains, followed by cold somewhat hard rains, and finally to cold snowy storms. The one that came in off the coast and plowed into the Western Mountains was more the cool variety, but that never was enjoyed by anyone who had to be outside. Warm and wet was good… Cold and wet was another thing all around… Although the road was made of cobblestones, which marked it as a major trade road, the raptorhorses of nearly twenty riders trudged as though they were in the mud that rimmed the roadbed. Cloaks mostly hid the riders’ identities although some were definitely armed and armored.
      “Remind me why I’m here,” Tugger growled.
      “As usual,” Alonzo growled back, “Comic relief. I’m almost sure that before this gig is done, Bomba will knock you over and drown you in a mud puddle. A sorta variation of the pushover followed by the gut-stomp.”
      “Har-de-har-har, Lonzo, you’re a riot.” Tugger rose up in stirrups and looked over his shoulder at the force following them. “Can you believe old Vonnie? He wants to come with us. He’s even put himself under my command after we drop off most of his pups at the border!”
      “Quit putting him down, Tugger,” Tumblebrutus said flatly. “Just because he’s a Poodle doesn’t mean he’s soft.”
      “What about it, Roz?” Tugger asked, looking at the Shepherd riding next to him. “Are Poodles soft?”
      “Some of them are,” she replied honestly. “However, I don’t think Lord Vavonno is.”
      “Why do you say that?” Tumblebrutus asked.
      “I can’t quite put my finger on it. He may act like an aristocrat, and titter and treat things as trivial, but there’s something lying underneath that act that I don’t buy.”
      “He’s a Pollie Lord, Roz. No offense, but that only means he’s crazy,” Tugger said, making a noise that Erri duplicated seconds later.
      For a moment, the light rain let up, and the breath steamed from Yeahlika and mount alike. A few drew the hood of their cloaks back and tried to let their manes shed some of the water that crept under the brim. Up ahead, the vanguard found a fire blazing fitfully in a covered stove. Off to each side, a berm rose over a meter tall with sharpened stakes stuck in the angled side. What could not be done with earth was done with branches, such as the cheval de fries, or spiked logs. As the vanguard approached the post, a company of ten quickly formed across the road with visors down, spears forward and shields in hand.
      “Halt! Advance and be recognized!” shouted the company commander, who came out mounted on a war mount.
      Sitting a warhorse, a tall figure came forward with an impressively large companion behind him. From out of nowhere, two figures slid into view just at the edge of the firelight. The Captain of the post spared the outer two a brief glance, and concentrated his attention on the advancing rider, who finally stopped.
      About ten meters out, the tall rider opened his cloak and drew back his hood. The firelight gleamed in the silver stripes and in the feral green eyes. To some, they later stated that the green glow behind his eyes was a trick of the light. Near his right thigh, the cover of a great sword indicated that the rider was definitely a noble.
      “I am Lord Munkustrap of the Yeahlika Nation,” he growled. “I bring you orders from your Lord, Castle Farview’s Vavonno, as well as his field forces. The good General commanding those troops behind me will inform you later of those orders.”
      “I would have those orders from an officer of that force before I allow you to pass.”
      “Do so quickly, Captain,” Munkustrap said tersely. “I have come this far in a cold rain, and I detest having to stand in it again this evening.”
      From behind the Silver Tabby, another rider came forward wearing an officer’s rank of Captain, and five companions. As Munkustrap had done, the leader pulled back his hood and then opened his visor. A black standard Poodle stared at his counterpart.
      “I am Captain Vondeh of the Lord’s Guard,” the Poodle said haughtily. “Our Lord Vanonno has entrusted these orders to me and are to be given to the commanding General of the Pass Brigade.”
      “Vondeh? I do not recall anyone of that name in the Lord’s Guards,” the officer said, critically regarding the black Poodle.
      “My papers are included,” he replied with just a trace of iciness to his voice.
      The aide, a dappled Whippet, came forward with a satchel, and made a careful show of dismounting, opening the satchel, and extracting papers. The company commander did not look pleased as he examined the documents. He extracted the General’s Orders and gave it to a runner before he once more regarded Munkustrap.
      “A Yeahlika Lord…”
      The huge warrior right behind the Silver Tabby made a movement to dismount, but Munkustrap motioned him to stay put.
      “You have a problem with that, Captain?”
      “Should I?”
      “My Lord…” rumbled the warrior.
      “Peace! Captain? Let me give you some thoughtful advice. Be careful how you act this night because your military career is very much on the line here. You did read Lord Vavonno’s directives concerning my presence, did you not?”
      “Yes, I did…”
      “And this is how you would treat Lord Vavonno if he were here?”
      The company Commander squirmed in his saddle. “Lord Vavonno is a recognized Lord.”
      “As am I…”
      Two more riders approached behind the huge warrior.
      “Take your sword out and stick him, Munk. I’m cold and wet, and I would like a hot rum toddy, if this frickin’ world has one.”
      “That’s enough, Bomba… Captain Vondeh? Would the Lord’s Guards willingly be false in manners pertaining to the Lord?”
      “No, sir,” the black Poodle answered. “They are loyal to his Lordship and faithful in duty to him.”
      “Does Lord Vavonno consider me a Lord?”
      “He does, sir,” the Poodle nodded.
      Munkustrap turned back to the Company Commander. “Well, Captain?”
      “Ah, there you are!” a gruff voice came out of the darkness. Another five riders approached from the fortified berm to the left of the road. The one in the lead had his hood thrown back and was easily identified as a wolfhound. Normally gray, he sported white in the sides of his muzzle and his hair around his ears -- thus showing his age as being a bit past his prime. However, he sat his mount well, and still showed considerable strength.
      “General Rashan! Sir!”
      Coming up, the General glanced briefly at the watch company and took in the Silver Tabby. “You must be Lord Munkustrap. Lord Vavonno told me to expect you and here I find you being detained by my watch. Not something I expected of you, Milord.”
      Munkustrap smiled at the old hound. “I would not make a very good impression if I took out a few of your troops, General.”
      “It might make them better for it, sir,” he said with a doggish grin. “After all, not many warriors swing a blade like the one our good Lord told me you possess. Perhaps, you can show me what it looks like later. Right now, I think you would rather have a warmer place out of this cold and damp.”
      “I certainly would,” Bombalurina agreed.
      “Milady… Bahmbah…?”
      “Bomba, General Rashan, but you knew who I was.”
      “Very hard not to, Milady,” the General said, ignoring the Captain of the post. “Lady Deme, I presume?”
      The black and gold Queen next to Bombalurina nodded her head. “A much easier name to pronounce. Thank you, General.”
      “And this must be your Military Advisor, General Tuggah?”
      “Close enough… sir,” the maned Tom replied casually as he reined in beside Demeter.
      “Come along then,” General Rashan said, and then he noticed the Black Poodle. “You, uh, waiting for Lord Vavonno, Captain?”
      “Captain Vondeh, and no, sir,” the black Poodle said, and then remembered to salute. “Independent assignment to the Yeahlika expedition.”
      “Expedition? I was under the opinion that this was a border dispute between Mountain Keep and Redrock, and that we were making sure that they stayed on their side of the mountains. Well, no matter. Come along, then. We’ll get out of this blasted weather for a little while. Carry on, Captain.”
      While the large force that had followed Munkustrap and his company to the pass veered off, and began digging in, the Silver tabby and his retinue followed General Rashan to his campaign tent. Being the commanding officer of the established brigade, he had a large tent that traveled in its own wagon, and gave the officer and his aide a fairly comfortable place to meet his command and guests such as Munkustrap. When they arrived there, six smaller tents had already been set up for the expedition.
      “Munku?” Mistoffelees suddenly said. “Nightchaser just contacted me, so I need to talk to him. I’ll be there in a little while.”
      “Anything important?”
      “I don’t know. Later…”
      The Wizard Tom quickly found the tent that he would share with Tarfur and Adrasteia, and disappeared inside it.
      Tugger dismounted and made certain that Tumblebrutus, Alonzo and Roz put their raptorhorses in a convenient barn that the brigade had taken over. Then, Munkustrap, Bombalurina, Demeter, Tugger, Quaxo, Tarfur and Captain Vondeh followed General Rashah into his large tent. An armored aide, an Ensign by his shoulder pip, handed the General a ceramic mug that steamed. He took a sip and nodded.
      “Cider,” he said. “The farmer whose land we’re on has several barrels of this, and he gave me a small one. “Channik? Make sure these fine folk have some as well.”
      As the Ensign readied a set of tankards, the General went to the black poodle. “I don’t care what you told anyone, I know for certain that Lord Vavonno would not send an officer into my area that I did not know. Who are you?”
      “General? If I gave you long enough, I daresay you would eventually find me out.”
      The wolfhound squinted and studied the black poodle’s face. Slowly, his eyes widened. “Lord Va…”
      “Do not voice it, General,” he replied. “I had to find out a few things in private, and this is my method.”
      “Begging your pardon, Sire, but just what DO you intend to do?”
      “I intend to follow Lord Munkustrap and find out what the Wilderness holds for him.”
      “The Wilderness? Sire, I wouldn’t trust going in there with my entire Brigade. Do you expect me to let you go into that dark place with only a dozen Yeahlika and a Guard Squad?”
      “I must, General. Surely you understand what a debt of honor means?”
      “I do,” Rashah nodded soberly. “However, let me remind you about the reputation of that Land as being very unforgiving… sir.”
      “Nevertheless, I need to follow Munkustrap, and that is where he is going. Now, his Scouts are already making a route through your camp that will give us the means to leave you tomorrow morning without you really knowing that we are gone. Now, your orders are still the same. You are to patrol the pass and make certain that no one is attempting to infiltrate my Province from the East. The second Brigade is here to ensure that Lord Foukomor does not try anything as well.” Lord Vavonno reached out and up to place his hand on the wolfhound’s shoulder. “General… I need to do this. It is VITAL that I do this. If I do not return, then the Little Known Gods have willed it so, and the world goes on without me. And so, General, for now, I am Captain Vondeh of the Lord’s Bodyguards.”
      The wolfhound returned the shoulder clasp. “I understand… Captain. Be it as you wish. While I am still able to, let me say this. Your father would be proud of you.”
      “He also might call me a damn fool, but I am sure even he would see the need. Now… where is that warm-up you promised us?”

***** End of Chapter Fourteen *****

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