How deep was this shaft? He moved very slowly, admittedly, but nevertheless he had covered ten meters of descent at least. The air was stale and smelled bad. The scent of the slimy lichens hung in his nose.
If one of those rungs was too rusty to bear his weight, he could plunge to death. The heroes of his books always got into those situations, but of course they saved themselves from sure demise with elegant nonchalance (the rungs always broke in the books!)
Nothing happened. Some of the iron bars creaked in their fixture, but they held. Khiray reached the bottom of the shaft without trouble.
Carefully he felt with one paw for the ground. No, the door wasn't set in there; the raw stones didn't move. He let go of the rungs and felt for the walls.
He was surrounded by rough stone, not a streak of light came through. Deep silence weighed heavily on his sensitive ears. Somewhere there had to be an exit -- of what use was a secret entrance which led nowhere? But without seeing a thing, he had to rely on his sense of touch. The mechanism couldn't be too well hidden, after all, this was the inside of the entrance.
There! One of the stones felt differently from the others. Smooth. Concavely curved. He could push his hand into it.
Khiray pressed the stone in all directions until something clicked deep within the wall. Age-old rails and wheels started to move. The Fox leaned against the wall to push the hidden door open. Light fell into the vertical shaft from the other side, the cold, clear light of magical lamps. The hidden chambers were in use after all -- or did the lamps burn since the rooms had been walled up? Did magic have to be renewed?
He looked through the slit before opening the door any further. An empty stone room was on the other side. No one was around. Three simple doors were in his field of vision. A single piece of furniture occupied the other wall, a plain wooden bench.
He almost expected bells to shrill and gongs to sound when he left the shaft, but nothing of this kind happened. All remained silent. Down here there were no guards -- Galbren apparently didn't want to share his little secrets with everyone. On the other hand, there might be demons here, or Galbren himself...
Nonsense. It was night. Galbren probably slept the sleep of the unjust. Why should he sneak around at midnight in his own secret rooms? He couldn't possibly expect someone to enter here.
The Demons were more of a threat. Where was Alfon Sanass -- Azzhuzzim Beladanar --, where were the Bears?
They could have their quarters down here in the depth. Or there might be more than those three Demons, hidden in this very place.
One of the doors led to the dungeons below the palace, surely. Another to the rooms beneath the second tower. The third... According to Pallys' report, there should be another, bigger room down here. If the Foxtaurs were held captive somewhere near, then it had to be in this chamber.
Khiray estimated in which direction palace and tower might lie. If the constructors of the subterranean structure dug straight passages instead of confusing labyrinths, and if he came down the shaft exactly vertical, the correct door... had to be the one on the right side.
He opened it almost without a noise. Red, eerily flickering light filled the room. A chamber like a cave lay before him, with brick walls but an irregular, curved ceiling. Steps led down a Fox's length to the floor. The room had a diameter of about fifteen or twenty meters and a height of almost eight meters. In the center a pillar rose, supporting the ceiling. In the shadowy angles below the ceiling a maze of beams and supports extended, obviously added later on. Maybe the chamber was near collapsing.
The source of the light was right of the pillar. A two meter wide spot on the floor -- a puddle of red light, swirling and glittering and blazing, sometimes almost as clear as a contorting mirror, sometimes burning in opaque flames.
Fascinated, Khiray went down the stairs. What was that shining? He had seen magic light before -- there were magic lamps on the 'Silver Ansicc', even --, but this here was different. It seemed to possess some kind of life, a personality.
It seemed to watch him.
Worriedly, he stopped. He didn't come here to investigate Galbren's magic. Or the Demon's magic. He should better turn around, leave the room and look out for the Foxtaurs. They weren't here, and there were no more doors in this room, but the chambers beneath the other tower were mirroring these. Maybe Galbren held them captive there.
But the red light at his feet was really interesting.
At his feet? He hadn't crossed even half the distance!
The puddle of light had moved. Without him noticing it -- were his eyes clouded by magic? -- the shining had wandered about the room, sliding across the floor...
...and surrounded his feet.
Heat rose at his legs. Calmly he watched the flames swirling across his paws. A gate to Hell, yes, of course. Satisfied, he nodded. The shining was a portal, no, a Demon who had changed into a portal, and it led directly into the Second Circle of Hell.
Khiray smiled. All the secrets were unraveling now. He was very happy with this discovery.
The flames reached his backwards-bent heel joints. They tickled a little in the fur, but apart from that the touch wasn't unpleasant.
There was, though, the gnawing in his thoughts... as if he wasn't supposed to be here, as if he should fight. What an absurd idea. Against Demons he couldn't fight, and there was no one here apart from...
...apart from the fire, the fire which was a Demon, and the portal to...
The veils before his eyes disappeared, and within one moment panic struck Khiray. The Demon had affected his thoughts and captured him this way. He tried to move his legs, but the fire held them like an iron cuff. His attempts and struggles ended when he fell bachwards to the ground.
He braced his arms against the stone and tried to pull himself from the fire, but even that was impossible. The flames crawled up to his knees. It wasn't a hot fire; it rather felt like a warm breeze, but he knew that it would drag him to Hell if it succeeded in surrounding him.
Had Galbren ever been in Hell...?
His heart beat rapidly. He thought he had to scream, but who should help him? Galbren? The Demons? Oh no, this was a fight he had to win on his own.
He knew he was lost already. The fire burned on his knees and darted up his thighs. Like a living film it covered his legs, felt upward without even trying to confuse his thoughts any more. How could one fight against demonic magic? He was no sorcerer, and Pallys hadn't given him any protection against that sort of power.
Khiray drew a knife and tried to cut the flames. He almost hurt his own leg: the blade passed through the fire without damaging it.
The magical discs! The Fox fumbled his gadget from the belt and waved it through the flames.
"Ssst!" the fire said. "What are those irritating attempts of defense supposed to achieve?"
"Go away!" Khiray hissed. "Back!"
"Why? There aren't visitors around normally." The flames became stronger, flared up into a fiery column in front of Khiray. A face, vague and indistinct, formed from the red light. "Only every now and then. And if, only in a hurry. Down to Hell, back again from Hell, here to, there to. No 'please', no 'thank you', but that is Beladanar, after all."
Khiray tried to calm down although fear had its icy claws buried in his heart. He couldn't fight, but maybe he could out-Fox the Demon.
"What's your name, Demon?" he asked. His voice resembled a raven's croaking.
"Hummm? Oh, me? I am called Khezzarrik khi Valangassi. No one actually asks me that. Most Demonfolk call me Gate. About a hundred thousand years ago, some ten thousand years more or less, I specialized in this ability -- forming gates through the levels and spheres. It was just for fun, I didn't want to leave Hell after all... but Beladanar liked it very much." The flames sighed. "If you ever get the opportunity, don't do anything which pleases Azzhuzzim Beladanar. His grace is as terrible as his anger."
"I didn't want to..."
"I know. I know, little furry being." The flame column changed, formed a head and a body, then fiery arms separated from the body and fingered for Khiray's face. "Such a sweet little furry being. Your fear is like honey on my lips, your terror is tasty wine. Your heartbeat is the bread of my thoughts, your trembling like a sun-sweet apple."
Khiray groaned. "I'm a full meal, ain't I?" He didn't know what made him crack dumb jokes while he was caught in the deadly embrace of a Demon.
"Mmmm, more than just a meal. A treat. I wonder what you taste like else."
"What..." Did the Demon want to eat him? Pallys had said that they just ate negative emotions. Maybe that was just one side of their usual diet.
"You'll see..." The flame being reformed again, once more clearer and more distinct than before. The fluctuating surface calmed, and the whole figure contracted. Khiray couldn't see through the light any more which glowed deep red and didn't blind him any longer. The eyes alone in the emerging face radiated glaringly in a powerful fire.
A Vixen stood before him. Her fur seemed strangely unfinished, and tiny flames danced in it like a special kind of flea, but the body was flawlessly formed -- the Demon had to spy out Khiray's thoughts to achieve this level of perfection. Her color wasn't a Fox fur's red, but the red of dying embers, and her tail was of a blazing yellow. But she was slender and provocative from her regularly shaped muzzle to the paws. Just her right foot was strange: it tapered to a flaming tentacle which held Khiray's own paw in a firm grasp.
The Fox had a bad presentiment of what the Demon wanted. Was it female after all? Probably not, maybe there were no sexes among the Demons at all. Khezzarrik khi Valangassis just had taken on a new shape, exactly like Beladanar, after Khiray sliced his worm-figure with the Dekka'shin.
Had Khezzarrik been a real Vixen, Khiray had thought her quite attractive. But she was a Demon of living fire. She had no real fur, she had no heartbeat, and her only warmth resulted from the flames of Hell which spawned her. Her eyes were cruel blazes full of hunger and desire. And she sucked at his fear until he could feel her appetite almost physically.
Khezzarrik sunk to her knees. "Let us play, Foxy."
"No!" Khiray shouted. He pulled violently at his leg, but the Demon held him effortlessly. While wearing the shape of Furrys or Oo'men the Demons might be bound by their body's limits (or maybe not), but this was the true shape of a Demon, and no limit was confining the powers of Hell.
And that deep under the earth the probability was very low that an Archangel would come to save him -- be it a Foxy with wings or an incarnation of magic.
The Demon bowed down to Khiray. "Ssso tasty! Sweet and clean. Give me your lust!"
"What..." Desire was the last thing Khiray felt right now. What did the Demon think he/she was doing? If Demons really were feeding on emotions, Khezzarrik should know what Khiray was feeling.
But the Demon moved his/her hand down to his thigh, and white fire raced through Khiray's veins. Pain at first, but such an exquisite pain it felt almost purifying. The fear disappeared before the background of flaming torment. The world itself slowly drew back until he and the Demon alone existed in an aura of magical anguish.
"Pain... good..." Khezzarrik let his hand wander across Khiray's body, and strangely the torment seemed to pass over into the Demon, until nothing was left -- no feeling at all. "But not now, not now!" The fingers of the Demon slid between the Fox's legs and touched his genitals. "Poor Foxy, just quarrel with Demons, no joy at all."
Energy dripped out of the Demon shape, flitted across Khiray's fur and penetrated his skin. Sudden heat made him shiver. The emptiness in his head was replaced by one emotion -- and one alone. He looked down and had to realize in horror that his body was already failing him, betraying him to the Demon. His maleness had left its furry sheath and awaited eagerly the caress of the demonic Vixen.
"No!" he screamed, but in vain. The Demon was controlling him completely. He was no longer his own master; whatever his mind said, the body refused to obey. Even the fear the disgust, the horror which seeped slowly into his heart again, couldn't break the grip of the hellish being.
"Sssso good!" the Vixen whispered and lowered her head. Her tongue wandered hungrily all over his penis. "Haven't done this for quite a time. You Foxy will be mine, all mine, for a looong time..."
...no one heard him, no one came...
...pain and lust, and the first rather welcome as a remembrance he was still alive...
...and the demonic Vixen devoured both like a special, delicate meal, while Khiray, subjugated to her cruel will, had to follow her command, beyond pain, beyond exhaustion, beyond the limits of his body, animated only by the energy of Hell's magic. He had become a vessel for emotions the Demon drank from in deep gulps, and was refilled with merciless hunger. Khezzarrik didn't hold his paw any longer, but Khiray doubted he could muster the power to escape the Demon. The Hell Vixen rode his helpless body, filled the loins of her victim with just enough enthusiasm to drain his forced lust, until the young Fox gave up the struggle and succumbed to the waves of darkness which came with every new sip of the Demon.
Flickering red light reminded him where he was. Khiray had the impression he'd only been minutes without consciousness, and his tortured, abused body agreed with him. He hardly had the energy to sit up. His muscles hurt from the futile struggle, and he felt unspeakably disgraced and dirtied. For some weird reason he lay on his stomach, and the smell of stone and old moss from the cracks got into his nose. That, and the fiery scent of embers. He hadn't got any chance against the Demon...
The Demon! With difficulties Khiray turned around and hauled himself into a sitting position. Khezzarrik had turned back to the puddle shape; the circle of swirling light lay beside the pillar again. Either the Demon's hunger had been satisfied, or he gave up after Khiray lost consciousness.
Cautiously the Fox crawled to the stairway, rose slowly to his legs and forced himself up the steps. Probably the guards or Bear Demons waited for him on the other side of the door to take him into custody.
Khiray peeked through the door, but everything remained silent. The door to the secret shaft was closed. No one had discovered him. No one wanted to arrest him. Didn't Khezzarrik alert the palace?
Maybe the Demon thought he was dead. No, that couldn't be; the Hell beings weren't that stupid. Rather, Beladanar's safety did not concern Khezzarrik very much; there didn't seem to be much love or loyality lost between the two Demons. Maybe Khezzarrik wasn't even involved in Beladanar's plans and just served as gate, as a useful tool.
But Demonic politics was the last thing on Khiray's mind now. He closed the door to the chamber behind him. Hopefully, Khezzarrik couldn't call him back mentally. Hopefully...
At the regular's tables in the bars similar stories were told, of lonely Furrys who fell into the paws of insatiable women. The heroes of those stories never were in a special hurry to escape; Khiray on the other hand couldn't get out of the Demon's reach fast enough. That hadn't been like any night of lovemaking Khiray liked to imagine. His fur seemed to stick with the stench; the transpiration of the Demon clung to his hair like a remembrance. He almost could feel the groping, sucking fingers of the Hell creature. Disgust sweeped through his mind. Rape, nothing else. Not even his mind had remained untouched.
He had to muster all his strength just to go on. He stepped into the tunnel which led to the mirror image chambers beneath the second tower. Every step sent a shudder of pain through his limbs, but this time it was a repulsive, stunning pain. Khiray wondered how he could ever be able again to enjoy Lysh's gentleness without thinking of this experience. And Saljin...
What if Galbren had thrown Saljin to Khezzarrik, as a treat or a reward? He refused to think of it. But unwanted images appeared in his thoughts nevertheless. Khezzarrik wasn't really female. He could appear in any shape he wanted and do with his victims whatever...
No. If Galbren had sent the Foxtaurs to Hell, it was too late anyway. He could only try to escape then.
Escape... Delley! He hadn't called the Rat yet! Quickly he pulled out the crystal disc again and activated the magic with a movement of the finger. Fortunately, he hadn't left it in Khezzarrik's chamber when he used it as a weapon.
"Delley?" Khiray wondered if the magic worked. They had tried the discs the previous evening, but he was more than ten meters below the ground now.
Some seconds passed until Delley's breathless voice sounded up. "Khiray! Where've you been?"
The Fox thought about it. "I ran into a Demon." He couldn't tell his friend the truth. Not now.
"The dawn has begun! You've been gone for five hours!"
Five hours? Five hours under the spell of the Demon? Gently Khiray touched his genitalia. The pain agreed with Delley's statement. Even drawn back in its sheath his member felt sore.
"I found the chambers." The Fox tried to ease the tension in his arms and legs. He wasn't able to fight in his current state.
On the other hand, fighting had been of no use before. He had to rely upon stealth and skill. When the sun rose, Galbren might come here.
There wasn't much time left.
He hurried through the passage as well as possible and entered the antechamber in silence. Here too had to be a secret shaft, but it wasn't visible. In contrast to the other anteroom this one had only two doors; a direct access to the palace didn't seem to exist.
He pushed down the bolt of the door which led to the greater chamber, ready to flee immediately if he saw any trace of the red shining. But the light was white and steady.
Below the curved ceiling beams and bars rose like in Khezzarriks room. A ladder led up to the maze of wooden shores; someone had worked here recently.
The first thing Khiray noticed was the smell of excrement -- Wolf excrement. Wolf? Did Galbren use this room as a toilet? Impossible!
Then he saw the iron cages. Six of them were lined up at the curve of the opposite wall. Every other one was occupied.
The first held Saljin. Dek was in the fifth. But the third cage imprisoned a Furry too -- a Wolf. Khiray began to guess whom Galbren was holding here.
None of the three uttered a noise until Khiray reached Saljin's cage.
"Khiray!" the Foxtauress whispered. "What are you doing here?"
"Rescueing you, of course, what else?" Khiray shook his head. "No time for long speeches. Galbren may come any moment." He turned to the Wolf. "You are Sarmeen, Galbren's brother?"
The Wolf nodded agitatedly. Then he opened his snout and pointed at it. "Naaa!"
Khiray looked more closely. Sarmeen hadn't got a tongue any more. Unbelieving, the Fox stared at the stump. Galbren had his own brother...
Probably Galbren thought highly of himself for not killing Sarmeen immediately. Or he had his own plans with his elder brother. The Demons, anyway, provided a fitting company for the governor.
A quiet sound made Khiray start. It came from outside. A door... Someone was coming. Steps weren't audible even for his ears -- the closed doors swallowed most of the sound --, but he knew how long the passage was. He had only seconds left.
The ladder! He ran across the room and startet to climb the bars. Pain seared through his legs and crawled on to his fingertips. He ignored it and climbed on.
Could Galbren smell him? Hastily, Khiray sniffed. No, the scentherb still worked and extinguished even the stench of the Demon although the paste had become a crumbly mass which made his fur stand out like a hedgehog's spines.
He arrived at a beam and pulled himself on it. If he remained motionless, he might disappear in the darkness up here.
The door opened, and Khiray froze. He tried to follow the events without moving from half-closed eyes. The white of his eyeballs could betray him, and every movement might arise the suspicion of a person below, so he tried to become one with the shadow.
Galbren and Alfon Sanass -- no, Azzhuzzim Beladanar -- entered. The governor seemed to be involved in a heated discussion with the Demon.
"...say, we kill them like the others", Galbren growled. "We'll find the Trolls without them."
"The know the language of the Trolls", Beladanar objected. "That can be a great advantage."
"They'll never help us. They won't mediate for us, they won't teach any of us the language."
"Not so fast, good governor. If we play one of them against the other as a hostage... they are brother and sister, if I got this right, not quite as well as two lovers, but I am sure they'll be very cooperative."
"Demonic joys, heh? And a little pain and fear besides as a treat for a certain Azzhuzzim Beladanar?"
The Demon shrugged. "That's what I'm here for. Our pact is based on mutual benefit."
"The benefit comes later! First I need an army, without army no war, without war no Demon treats!"
Beladanar watched his fingers closely. "The hunger is strong, that far off the Hell Circles. Without food no Demons, without Demons no army."
Khiray mused. What the two were saying matched his guesses about Galbren's plans. But there seemed to be disagreement among the Demons, and they were not exactly cooperative partners.
Azzhuzzim Beladanar might even have plans of his own.
Galbren addressed Saljin. "I am sure you haven't changed your opinion of me."
The Foxtauress didn't say a word but stared icily at the governor. Galbren went on. "Hello, brother. What a beautiful day. -- Now, Dek, after all the trouble you gave us you could be more ready to talk a little. Personally, I don't care for your company, but my friend here likes to feed on your helpless rage. I assure you, a piece of Trollspeak or two would increase your value for me immeasurably."
Dek remained silent. The governor shrugged. "As you wish. It makes no difference to me. My plans are far-reaching. The Trolls can wait. But if Azzhuzzim is hungry, we could provide some snacks for him and his friends."
Galbren leaned against the pillar and watched Saljin pondering. "Your sister, for example. It's a pity my troops aren't accustomed to the rough mercenary life and its scarce joys. That's the disadvantage of a thousand year peace. And even if they were, they might protest. Your sister is, after all, a half animal, especially in the places which count. I don't demand of my men to mount a pig either. But maybe some hours under the whip or a carefully applied iron bar will do. Pain is pain, after all."
"On the contrary", Azzhuzzim protested. "The pain of skin burned with red hot coal tastes very different from the pain of breaking bones. Pain which is caused by..."
Galbren waved the objection aside. "Well, well, I'm sure we'll find something for every taste. You Foxtaurs are tough warriors, you'll last for many days, if not weeks. My brother dear couldn't endure the Demon's attention half as long." He turned around to leave.
The Demon followed him reluctantly. "Why don't we start here and now?"
The governor shook his head. "The showing of the instruments increases the anticipation. We'll set up the equipment at noon and explain everything in detail. I thought Demons understood those things like no other?"
"We do. But I don't taste quite as much desperation as I want to sip. Not enough fear. Even less than yesterday."
"You'll get fear. As much as you want." The door closed behind the unequal allies.
Khiray waited until he could hear the door at the end of the passage. One door, then the second... and he waited some seconds more until he climbed down the ladder.
"The power-hungry magicians of our race are bad", Saljin stated, "but this Galbren deserves death even more."
Khiray searched the room for keys, but didn't find anything. The governor had to carry them around on his person. Well, not really a problem for someone who was apprenticed to a Rat. The locks were heavy, but not too complicated. The Fox opened them with a knife's point and some wire which -- among other tools and things -- seemed to be left over from the repair of the beams.
The Foxtaurs silently left their cages. The Wolf hesitated a moment a if he couldn't grasp the sudden freedom after months of imprisonment.
Galbren had piled up the Foxtaur's weapons and armor behind the pillar. Those he had bought of Khiray weren't here; maybe the guards were already training with them. Dek started to put on the armor.
"We have to hurry", Saljin hissed. "We don't have time for this." She took a Dekka'shin from the pile, nevertheless.
"If we are armored, we're better off in a fight", Dek stated. There was some truth in this -- Khiray could see countless traces of the lost battle on both of them.
But Dek couldn't climb the shaft in full armor. He tried to explain the situation to the Foxtaurs. Dek nodded reluctantly and left most of the armor on the pile.
Until now the sun had risen, probably. The first Furrys were on their way to work. They would see the escapees for sure, and it was quite a distance from the wall to the harbor, right past the palace where guards were stationed.
Khiray opened the secret shaft. The mechanism was so well hidden it wasn't likely to be found in decades -- but did Galbren really not know about it? Maybe he just ignored the secret entrances in the sure knowledge that no living Furry knew about the hidden chambers.
Except Pallys. But how was Galbren supposed to know that?
The Fox hoped the rungs would hold. He stared into the darkness of the shaft. They couldn't wait until one of them arrived at the other side to send the next one up, that would have taken too much time. They had to risk the ascent all at once and hope none of the iron bars would break.
Luckily, the bodies of the Foxtaurs were mobile enough to use the shaft at all. The joint which connected their upper and lower body allowed turns and bends which had been impossible with a relatively rigid spine. And six paws allowed their weight to be more equally distributed.
Nevertheless Khiray let Sarmeen climb up directly behind himself, before the Foxtaurs. Dek came last since he was the most heavy in the group. Khiray believed he would be capable of fighting his way through passage and dungeon into the open if the rungs didn't carry his weight.
But they reached the tower chamber without difficulties. The bars groaned and bent under the weight, but only one of them gave way under Dek's paws, and the Foxtaur could catch another effortlessly. It was more of a problem not to hurt anyone with the Dekka'shin.
Khiray peeked outward. As he had guessed, some Furrys already moved across the meeting place. They couldn't get to the harbor without being seen, and they couldn't wait in the watchroom for darkness to fall. They had to gamble everything on speed.
Thoughtfully the Fox observed the Wolf. He wondered whether Sarmeen could stand the strain.
The pain made its presence felt and reminded Khiray better to worry about himself.
"We'll run", Dek said before the Fox could utter a word. "To the forest."
"No!" Khiray stated firmly. "To the ship!" He activated the speak magic. "Delley, I've found them. Fire the boilers." He estimated how long the 'Silver Ansicc' would need to get going. The heat loop developed enormous energies if engaged at full power, but the water in the tubes had to boil before the ship could sail.
"I did already." Delley's voice sounded self-satisfied. "We can go. Hurry up, harbor master Brokvorth comes down the quay. He'll want to know why we are under steam."
Khiray nodded, then he remembered Delley couldn't see him. "We are on our way." He turned to Dek and said: "In the forest they could hunt us down. On the river, they'll have to make a ship ready first. Galbren's own ships aren't in town."
"We can run", Dek murmured. "Faster than the guards. A greater distance than the guards."
"But no greater distance than the Bears!" Khiray hissed. "They are no Furrys. They are Demons. Galbren will do everything to catch and kill you slowly. And he will succeed! I know the river, I've got a ship. Come down to the harbor."
"I don't like this", Dek said. "What are Demons? Galbren talks of them, you talk of them. I can only see Bears and one Oo'men."
Khiray shook his head. "Not now. We have to go. We'll run to the harbor and hope no one will alert the guards fast enough." Hopefully the passer-bys were too surprised. Hopefully no guard stood at the palace entrance.
He opened the door. They started to run.
The first alarm cries sounded even before they had reached the palace.
Khiray knew he wouldn't make it. Every step was a torture. His head had begun to hurt again, and he had difficulties to keep his balance. Even Sarmeen did better than him.
The Foxtaurs were much faster. But they apparently didn't want to leave him behind. Dek tried to support him.
They hadn't covered much distance past the palace when the first guards stormed out and drew their weapons. Khiray looked briefly back over his shoulder. Those weren't the for-show troops, the so-called elite guards, but well-trained fighters. No one rushed blindly in their direction. The captain ordered his troop with a few hand signs and made them march towards the escapees.
"They're too fast", Khiray groaned. "They won't escape us!"
Dek looked down to the harbor. "How fast is the ship? Can they board it if they are that close?"
The Fox shook his head. "I don't know. It is possible. As long as the 'Silver Ansicc' doesn't sail at full speed, they could follow us along the banks. They don't have gotten bows yet, but if they get the idea, they could shoot at us from the shore."
"Perdition." Dek let go of Khiray. "Then I'll have to do something."
"No!" Saljin shouted. "You can't fight them alone!"
"I have to", the Foxtaur objected. "Flee. Thwart the plans of that Galbren and kill him for me." He raised the Dekka'shin. "No one will follow you."
"That's not the time to play hero", Khiray growled. The line of the guards took almost all of the street's width behind them. They didn't attack right now, but Khiray could see the captain looking back. Galbren was on his way.
Dek sighed. "I would rather be elsewhere, too. The journey didn't go as well as I hoped. But fate is playing dirty tricks on us sometimes."
Saljin grabbed Dek's arm. "I don't want to lose you too." Her eyes wandered into the direction of the palace, where the dead Foxtaurs were displayed on the other side.
"I'll be with you forever. Khiray, you risked your life for us. I apologize for my hatred. You are my brother now. Wherever you'll be, my spirit will watch over you."
Saljin's tongue licked Dek's muzzle. "Farewell."
Dek smiled. "I regret only that I hadn't time to earn a name. No one will remember me."
"They will", Saljin whispered. She watched the line of the guards. "Dek of the Thousand Foes, your name will be sung at every fire from Crystal Cave down to Golden Shore."
The Foxtaur nodded. "Then all is well." He turned to the guards. "Do you want to fight?"
The uniformed Furrys looked at each other worriedly.
"Then fight!" With an ear-piercing scream Dek charged, the Dekka'shin swung in circles, covering almost the full width of the street with its sweeps. Unvoluntarily, the soldiers backed up.
Saljin pulled Khiray along. Sarmeen was far ahead of them, almost reaching the ship.
"But..." Khiray exclaimed.
Silently, the Foxtauress pushed him onward. The first shouts emanated from behind them. The Fox thought he could hear Galbren cursing. "Kill them, you idiots!" or something likewise encouraging.
The pavement seemed to burn beneath his paws. Unbearable pressure haunted his skull. There were voices, no, just one voice, a whisper from afar...
"Come back, Foxy, I'd like to play a little longer! So sweet, so tender..."
Khezzarrik. Fiery fingers seemed to pull at Khiray, made him stumble. He slipped from Saljins grasp and fell helplessly to the ground.
The Foxtauress helped him up again. "What's the matter with you?"
"Demons", Khiray moaned. "They want me..."
Saljin looked around. Khiray noticed her face expressing pain when she saw the battle scene. "No one..."
The Fox waved the objection aside. "Not the time, later..."
He heard Delley calling from the quayside. Sarmeen was aboard already. The ship slowly moved, glistening water sprayed from the mighty paddle-wheels that rotated leisurely. They were almost there. Almost there. Brokvorth the Wolf stood there with crossed arms and watched the events somewhat uninvolved.
The roar from behind shook Khiray deeply. The Bears had come. The ground trembled under their gallop.
The 'Silver Ansicc' shoved onward.
Khiray mustered the rest of his strength. He had to jump; the ship had withdrawn all the gangplanks.
Pallys' tiny figure scurried past them. "Hurry up! The Demons are here!" It was hardly possible not to hear that: the rage of the Bears drowned out even the battle sounds. Khiray didn't look back. He freed himself from Saljin's hands and ran. Two meters, one...
His momentum carried him across the dark water. He hit the deck clumsily; his legs refused to carry him any more. The sounds he heard and the voices in his head merged to an undistinguishable noise. The blood throbbed in his veins, and the air had escaped his lungs.
Saljin elegantly landed beside him and turned around on one paw, the Dekka'shin in both hands. The Bears were too fast. They would catch the ship.
Khiray sat up. Pallys handled a small staff full of strange carvings, not more than a plaything against the sheer mass of the Bears. The Demons prepared to jump, ignored the Rabbit as if it wasn't even there.
Pallys swung the staff in a circle. Green fire emerged, blazed across the ground and formed a line along the quay. The Demons collided with the line as if it were a solid wall. Roaring, they clawed at the invisible obstacle. They didn't even seem capable of going around it.
"Magic", Khiray murmured. "Pallys is a magician!"
The water at both sides of the steamer became white foam. Delley had switched the machines to full power. Without the heavy load of a freight, the 'Silver Ansicc' almost jumped forward, out to the middle of the river, and left the furiously screaming Bears, the fighting soldiers and the thoughtful harbor master behind.
The strip of water seemed too wide for Pallys already, but the old teacher was a Rabbit, for sure, and Rabbits were known for their ability to jump. With one mighty leap Pallys conquered the distance and landed safely on deck.
Khiray saw Dek falling. Even on the ground he fought on, until the lance of a soldier ended his fury.
The young Fox saw tears in Saljin's eyes. He couldn't say a word.
They remained silent for a long time. Soldiers arrived at the quay. Some even jumped into the water, but the ship was sailing at full speed now and left the swimmers behind. When Galbren finally ordered bowfurrys, it was too late: the 'Silver Ansicc' was beyond reach.
Deep within the ship the machines roared. The paddle-wheels sprayed foam into the cold morning air. Sookandil stayed behind them.
"You are a magician", Khiray said into Pallys' face.
The Rabbit fingered at his staff. "No, I'm not. I've just collected some magical items over the time."
The Fox shook his head. "You knew of the secret chambers, because you worked on them yourself. There is no other explanation." The Demon's voice was silent. His body still felt abused and dead tired, but he was able to think clearly again. "No one else could know about it. There are no documents. Only the governors, maybe, know about the chambers."
"I didn't deny my involvement with the building of the hidden rooms." The Rabbit sighed. "I've been the architect, to be exact. I just said I'm no magician."
They had met on the afterdeck: Khiray, Pallys, Saljin, Sarmeen and Delley. A crewman stood at the rudder.
"Wait a second!" Delley burst out. "The architect of the wall? At the time of Galbren's anchestors?"
Saljin had lain down on deck and leaned against the cabin wall. "Only magicians live that long... You were the Rabbit who visited our people once, weren't you? The one I've been told about."
Pallys slowly nodded. "I've lived for a long time."
The Rat crossed his arms. "That's what you always say."
The Rabbit smiled weakly. "It is true. I encountered Saljin's people four hundred years ago and lived with them for many decades."
"I don't believe it..." Delley walked up and down the deck, furiously. "You lived for four centuries?"
"I came to Sookandil later on, living there under various names, with short interruptions." Pallys lay down the staff. "You did suspect that, didn't you?" He looked into Khiray's face.
"Too much magic..." Khiray murmured. "I did guess something. But suspected, no, I cannot say that." But it fitted. Pallys' tales. His refusal to speak about his early wanderings. His claim he saw empires come and go.
Slowly, the shadows of the story lifted before Khiray's eyes. He began to understand. The story... the old story which made Pallys react more violently than appropriate...
Delley laughed. "Next we'll hear you've been among the founder fathers of the Armygan."
"No." Pallys lowered his ears. "At that time, I was elsewhere. I came to the Armygan for the first time only some centuries afterwards."
"At that time, you..." Delley exploded. "That's been one thousand three hundred years ago!"
Pallys looked up to him, an uninterpretable expression on his face.
"Pallys..." Khiray folded his hands. "Pallys, the story of the stronghold of the immortals..."
The eyes of the old teacher became cloudy. "Yes?"
"They weren't Leopards, were they? They were Rabbits."
Pallys shrugged. "Leopards are better suited as heroes of a legendary tale."
Gods. It was true then. Pallys wasn't born in the Armygan, but...
"The stronghold really exists, then. You know where it is."
"Yes. I spent many years searching for it. It gave me eternal life, but it didn't return my youth. I've been content nevertheless, for a long time. Just the question, the eternal question... My brother had built an empire in all those years, a fortunate empire, a home for many Furrys, while all I had accomplished was just for myself. My brother was a king, a hero, loved and held in the highest esteem. When I came to Syrradrea, I was a stranger."
"Syrradrea?" Delley grinded his teeth. "That's a legend! A story for children and fools! A tale from the ancient lands!"
"Today, maybe", Pallys admitted. "But it had been true, once."
"Pallys", Khiray gently asked, "how old are you really?"
The old teacher looked dreamingly over the rail across the river, the shipping channel, the forest. "I remember... when I was a little Rabbit... those memories never fade. I have forgotten so many things, but not this one. I was four or five years old, and I ran across a field. What was Syrradrea later on, was only a valley with some poor huts and cottages then. The sun shone, it was summer, and the smell of fresh grass hung in the air. I don't know whether I've been so happy ever after again. There was earth beneath my paws, and little brooks with splashing water, and trees growing up to the skies." He looked at Khiray. "I don't know whether I'll die tomorrow or in a hundred years -- rather, be killed, because I don't age any more, and illness doesn't affect me much. But when I die I want to remember this thought, a perfect summer's day fourteen thousand years ago."
No one said a word. Even Delley remained silent, with open muzzle.
Slowly the forest passed by. Birds chirped in the trees, and grey shadows whisked through the branches, unmoved. Behind the 'Silver Ansicc' white water foamed. Before the ship, the vast land stretched.
They sailed down the river, into an unknown future.