[Writing] Keller - Chapter 33 (6th Apr 2023)

Started by Tapewolf, April 14, 2022, 06:14:22 PM

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This is a project I've been working on for a while in fits and starts.  I think it began properly sometime in 2020 but I haven't been able to work on it regularly.  However, I have 17 chapters in the can so I figure it's time to start sharing, if anyone is still reading this stuff here.

'Keller' is the working title, but it might well have a better title when it's finally turned into a comic.

Chapter 1

"This is the place," Jones said quietly, surveying a pleasant-looking cottage from the cover of a large bush.  He fingered a small infra-red surveillance device, studied the display and, with a satisfied expression, vanished the small device in a puff of magic.

"They're definitely inside.  Rifles at the ready," he hissed.  "And remember your orders... we need them unharmed!  If they resist, stun them, or use tranq rounds.  But on no account are they to die, or you'll be explaining that fact to the King, the Queen, and most likely the Lord Daryil as well."  One of the younger riders flinched at this remark.

"Black Riders!  Freeze!" the red coyote yelled, and forced the door.  His subordinates followed, swift and precise.  Jones went from room to room, increasingly puzzled at the apparent absence of their quarry.

"Keller!  Amanti!  We know you're in here!" Jones shouted, kicking open the bedroom door.  "Come on out-"  He froze.

"What's happen..." his backup called, bursting into the room.  He immedately began laughing.  Other riders came up, lowering their guard now the situation was less tense.  The two feline incubi stared back at the growing crowd of demons, headwings fanning out across the pillows in a mixture of shock, embarrassment and anger.  Keller drew the sheet tighter over them.

"Incubi," Jones continued, rolling his eyes, "Always at it.  Amanti, Keller... get out of bed and get some clothes on.  You're coming with us.  King Fairwater wants a word with you."

*  *  *

Not long afterwards, the two of them stood in an imposing hall, the throne room that was the seat of power within the realm of Fairwater.  The fact that they had been brought there without having their powers neutralised by bracers or other enchanted restraints should have been a good sign, but the fact that they had been arrested at all by the fearsome Black Riders was not in any way encouraging.

Amanti glanced up at the twin thrones.  Involuntarily, his eyes crept to the wall, where the head of the murderous deer adventurer, Sven, had been mounted.  The googly eyes from Amanti's botched taxidermy had now been replaced with ones that better matched the eyes he had had in life.  They stared glassily into space, in the manner of one who had just expired in the basket of a guillotine.  Amanti shuddered in fear and his leathery headwings fanned out involuntarily.

King Fairwater cleared his throat, snatching Amanti away from his dark reverie.

"I suppose I should explain why I have had you both brought here," he began, gazing at the two kneeling figures with a solemn expression.

"Whatever it was, I'll return it!" Keller whimpered.

"I agree... You should.  But that's not the reason we're here," the King said.  "This is not about something you've stolen, Keller.  It's about something you are going to steal."

"Ohh," Amanti said.  He did not look any less worried.  "You want us to do a job for you...?"

"Yes, Amanti.  You and Keller.  I would advise you to bring Yvonne as well.  This is not going to be a simple project."

"I don't like where this is going," the red feline admitted.  "Whatever this thing is you're after, you could have purchased it outright.  You could have used legal force or eminent domain.  Hell, you could have sent your Black Riders to steal it back.  But instead, you picked a couple of misfits who botched an attempt to slay the Dark Lord Pegasus.  That means you're expecting us to die, and you want someone disposable."

"Actually, no." the king said.  "If I wanted that, I could offer a pardon to criminals.  No... this mission is politically sensitive.  With a Black Rider, even incognito, it would be far too obvious who was pulling the strings.  Whereas Keller is notorious enough that it will give plausible deniability, and you can tag along to protect him."

"Then why did you want us specifically...?" Keller asked cautiously.

"Because I have had dealings with you before, and can trust you to be discreet.  That's all, to be honest."

"What if... What if we refused?..."  Keller asked, nervously.  Amanti whimpered, staring again at the severed heads of Fairwater's foes that were taxidermied upon the wall.

"For gods sakes!" Fairwater said, rolling his eyes.  "Just because I threatened to execute both of you for treason...!  Listen.  You can leave now if you want.  After all, I haven't told you what you're supposed to be stealing yet."

"Once you do, we're committed?  Is that it?" Keller asked.

"It is a state secret, and you will be sworn to secrecy on pain of jail, should you betray me and reveal the plan.  But you will still be free to decline, even then.  It wouldn't be fair, or even legally enforcable, to coerce you into agreeing to something before letting you know what you're actually committing to."

"Then what's in it for us?" Amanti asked.  "Apart from being added to your list of reliable-people-to-do-your-dirty-work?"

"I'd have thought this would be right up your street," the King said, sounding slightly hurt.  "A nice adventure where your sponsor won't look too hard at the body count...?  Surely that's of some interest to you...?"

"Well, I was trying to give up beheadings for lent," Amanti admitted.  "But yeah, a spot of senseless violence with no repercussions would make a nice change..."

"In that case, I'm sure you'll find this mission fulfulling.  And for you, Keller... I shall grant you one of the official Black Rider outfits.  With the badge removed, mind - I will not have you commit treason by impersonating my enforcers.  I will also pardon you for the fact that you stole the Queen's catsuit."

"Oh, is that where you got it from?"  Amanti asked, looking pleased.  "It looks good on you."

"If he has been shagging Amanti in one of my catsuits, I'm not sure I'd want it back anyway," Adamaria remarked.

"Is that it...?" Keller asked, crestfallen.  "We do this job and all we get is a T-shirt?"

"A rubber T-shirt," the Queen pointed out enthusiastically.

"It is hard to know how to reward a thief and a killer," Fairwater admitted.  "If you want something, you tend to take it.  Besides, having seen your profile, you steal more for the thrill than because you actually want the item.  I suppose I could grant you some kind of boon or something.  I promise, you will not find me ungrateful.
"Now... as I said, it would be good to bring Yvonne on board.  Jason is studying at Illiath's so he's not available right now, but you also had a healer... Horace, wasn't it?"

"Yeah," Keller said.  "But he quit."

"Indeed?  Did he give a reason?  I thought you all went back a few years!"

"Look at it from his viewpoint, Majesty..." Amanti said.  "He goes away for a two-week skiing holiday, and when he comes back, he suddenly finds that his adventuring group now consists entirely of  dangerous Creatures, one of whom had killed and impersonated his former colleague."

"Aaah..." Fairwater sighed.  "Yes... that would be a problem."

"Well, at first he thought we were all replacements and were about to kill him too for learning our dark secret.  Once we got past that hurdle, he stormed off, saying we could heal ourselves from now on.  Horace is a great healer... but it turns out he's also a racist."

"Could we have Ernst again?" Keller asked, looking at the lavender-haired demon hopefully.  "He was really good... when he wasn't trying to lop off Amanti's head."

"Remember, Amanti was posing as a wanted killer who'd murdered royalty," Ernst said.  "And his own actions didn't exactly help to dispel that image.  But you forget why you're here - to misdirect people.  I couldn't do this mission if I wanted to, as I'd be traced back to the King pretty quickly."

"That also means I can't really recommend people I know too well," Fairwater pointed out.  "But you might ask Yvonne.  Either way, I know of a skilled Demoness warrior.  I think she would be perfect for this job, don't you, Admaria...?"

"Not Mary," Amanti said, appalled.

"Great gods, no!" the King said forcefully.  "This mission is far too delicate for one as chaotic as her.  Seek for one called 'Emily' at Archford guild.  If she is not there still, the commander should at least know of her whereabouts."

"How much muscle do we need for this?" Keller asked.  "If we can get Yvonne on board, we'll be pretty much set for offence.  Really we need a healer."

"Emily is both," the queen interjected.  "I met her some time back.  She is a skilled warrior, but also a very good healer.  A Demon's magical powers can do more than just hurt and kill, after all."

"What's her attitude like, though?" Keller asked, still looking a little worried.

"If Mary was a character in a role-playing game, she'd be called 'Lawful Evil'," Admaria said.  "She enjoys death and murder, but at the same time, tries to keep her nose clean enough that she stays out of trouble.  Most of the time," she muttered quietly.

"By that token, Emily would definitely be 'Lawful Good'," Admaria continued.  "Her father is an incubus, her mother a Demon.  As such her upbringing has been somewhat less murder-oriented than most Demons would have been at the time.
"She has been an adventurer for a long, long time and is considered a hero in several jurisdictions.  Including this one," the queen smiled.  "And while many of her deeds have been bloody, as you would expect from a Demon, she has pledged to use her powers to protect the innocent, so she chooses her victims with care."

"We're not exactly innocent," Keller pointed out unhappily.  "Amanti's got better but his past is definitely spotty."

"More like spattered," Ernst put in.  "With people's blood."

"But you're trying to improve," the King stressed.  "So long as you don't run around murdering innocent bystanders, Emily should be just what you need for a job like this."

J.P. Morris, Chief Engineer DMFA Radio Project * IT-HE * D-T-E



Chapter 2

With Jason Daryil away studying, and Ben and Aisha off on a mission, the guildhall was fairly quiet.  Mary and Emily passed the time in their own fashion while their commander, a German Shepherd demon by name of Steve Foster, manned the computer from which their orders were dispensed.

Adventuring wasn't quite paperless, and probably never would be, since the printed slips containing the orders constituted proof of their intentions when the Adventuring Guild and the law came into conflict.  When such proof could be the only thing between an adventurer and the guillotine, it was far better to produce a slip of paper on demand than have to use a phone with varying degrees of power and signal, especially in the backwaters where such proof mattered the most.

Like a fire department, adventuring guilds tended to have lulls where the crew relaxed or trained while on standby, only to spring into action as soon as the need arose.

A chime sounded and Steve scanned through the incoming message, his face falling as he continued to read.  His expression hardened as he scrolled through the text, and after a few quiet moments he glanced up from the computer with a look of annoyance.

"Mary, put that brain down and get over here!" he called.

"Heya, boss... what's all the excitement?" the rainbow wolf demon asked eagerly.

"I feel you may have left out a few important details in the report for your last mission.  You were to capture one Ignatius Doom and bring him to Arnost."

"I did do that, yeah.  First I captured him, and then I brought him to Arnost."

"That may be, but they were a little disappointed in his condition once he arrived.  Mary... did you kill him...?"

"In my defence, it was funny!" the she-wolf said.

"The client didn't think so.  They wanted a public execution for his soul-stealing wickedness, and a corpse is just not the same thing.  Now, Mary, whenever you've done something like that in the past, there has always been a good reason, or at least a good excuse.  So let's hear it."

"I thought he was a demon," Mary began.

"What?!  I don't believe I'm hearing this!" the German Shepherd snapped.  "I am a demon, as are you!  You cannot just kill someone because of that!  That's exactly the kind of hate crime we're chopping other people's heads off over!"

"Wait!  Let me finish!"  Mary protested, looking offended.  "That little creep was trying to steal my soul too!  So I slapped him to make him stop, only... either I got him by surprise, or he was some halfie who couldn't do skin-hardening.  Either way, the blow snapped his neck.  So yeah, my bad, but at the end of the day it was self-defence."

"Next time, be honest with the client," Steve grumbled.  "Arnost Council would understand if you failed to bring him in alive, even an accidental death like this... but trying to pass him off as sleeping and then running away was the worst thing you could possibly do!"

"It seemed like a good idea at the time," Mary sighed.  "I was never good at this customer-facing stuff!"

"I can get you lessons," Steve said.  "As it happens, it wasn't a total disaster, since they were still able to guillotine him before the people as intended.  But they had to pretend he was still alive too."

Another chime sounded and Steve glanced at the computer again.

"Ah," he said.  "Emily.  Looks like you've got a bit of a reputation."

"A good one or a bad one?" the snow leopard asked, looking up from her task of polishing a suit of platemail armour.

"I've had an enquiry as to whether you're available for a special job.  A covert acquisition."

"Stealing things on behalf of the rich and powerful so they get to look squeaky-clean," Emily sighed.  "Not really my thing."

"Agreed, but it helps keeps the guild afloat, unfortunately.  And I'd take that over an assassination job or an execution any day.
"If it helps... they're not hiring you to steal things as such... They want to second you to their adventuring group for this one job.  It's actually your healing prowess that they want you for, though your combat skills and Demon toughness are an added bonus."

"Who are they?"

"Officially, Rob Keller, Amanti Jay and Yvonne Doreal,"  Steve grinned.  "Reading between the lines... I'd say they're an adventuring party Jason Da'Real used to hang out with before he joined us.

"If so, they're really Snell, the infamous incubus thief, Amanti Keretuke, a reformed member of the notorious Jyraneth Clan, and finally Yvonne of Clan Daryil."

"Oh," Emily said.  "Yes, Jason's told me that story.  I wasn't sure whether to believe it... it sounded too farcical to be real."

"Well, if you accept the mission, you can get to hear their side of it."

*  *  *

"Good day, Ms. Strauss," Jakob said.  "It's about R-ALF, our cyberwolf,"

"Oh?  Has there been a problem?"

"Sort of," Jakob said.  "Daryil decided he wanted some kind of elite guard."

At that moment, R-ALF stepped into the room, not on four legs, but two... an anthro wolf robot clad in combat armour.  "Good day, Ms. Strauss!" he said, cheerfully.  The Demon took a step back, her hands instinctively becoming claws for a moment as she mastered herself.

"Mr. Pettersohn, this is... not what you are supposed to be doing.  We made it quite clear that your robotic animals were not to be given hands!"

"Yes," Jakob said.  "But that was several decades ago.  How long must they be evaluated for?  Also, remember that we are not currently mass-producing him.  R-ALF is experimental, and this is a new experiment."

"While this is technically true, it flouts the spirit of the law.  It skirts uncomfortably close to violating the revised New Life Treaty."

Jakob sighed sadly.  "Isn't it weird how it's a greater crime to create life, than to destroy it?  What does that say about our priorities as a society?"

"Maybe it is over-broad, but it has served well to protect us, and it is my job to enforce those protections.
"Be that as it may, warrior robots are tightly controlled, as well you know - and Ralf's glowing eyes and black frame aren't winning him any favours.  Could you not have given him a less menacing appearance...?"

Jakob chuckled politely.  "That would have been even worse.  Daryil wanted a mook, remember... someone you don't want to mess with - and a menacing appearance is ideal for that.
"Also, at the risk of stating the obvious, we are showing him to you right now.  It would have been trivially easy - and a lot less effort - to pop his brain inside an off-the-shelf android.  You may never have found out!  Instead, we went to the hassle of building a frame that was obviously synthetic, and calling you in to get your opinion."

"This is also true," the demon admitted, relaxing slightly.  "Fa'Rana clan did not show such courtesy with the Trixie affair, so it was only the combined interventions of Taun and Daryil that saved many high-level clan members from the guillotine.  Lady Finch in particular only kept her head by converting to Daryil clan..."

"And she has greatly improved under Daryil's guidance," Jakob said.

"I am glad to hear that, but we are digressing.  I still cannot believe you gave Ralf hands!  Reducing his ability to use objects was a key security feature!  What if he goes crazy?"

"I can hear you," R-ALF reminded them.

"He's already had over 20 years to go crazy in," Jakob pointed out.  "But if it did happen, we do this!" he added, stabbing at his watch.  The cyberwolf uttered a yelp of surprise and collapsed in a heap, head striking the floor with a heavy clang.

"Warn me next time!" he complained.

"Sorry, but then it would look like we staged it," Jakob said.

"Experiment or not, Daryil's record is hardly spotless," Strauss fretted.  "He has long been known in 'Cubi circles as a schemer who experimented on his own children, trying to gain the advantages of becoming a Tri-wing without any of the risks or drawbacks..."

"I heard that," Daryil said, appearing in front of Strauss.

"I am only repeating what others have said," the tigress added nervously.  "The opinions of other members of your own race shouldn't come as a surprise..."

"Some of them are justified," Daryil admitted.  "I don't claim to have a spotless reputation, but there have been precious few ascended Tri-Wings who do.  Someone once likened us to supervillains," he grinned sadly.  "I don't think that's quite fair because most of us try to exercise our enormous power with enormous responsibility.  Even so, you can't usually get this powerful without breaking a few rules."

"The ones who didn't exercise such caution were fodder for Hizell and his goons during the Dragon War," Jakob sighed.  "For all the death and genocide, I have to admit that without it, we'd probably still be just another race of predators, tormenting and killing the weaker races.  For good or ill, the threat of impending extinction does help you buck up your ideas..."

"That is true," Strauss admitted.  "The fall of the Dragon race, the revelation of exactly how much they had been warping our culture and their plans for wiping us out next once the 'Cubi were gone...  That shook up Demon society as well and caused a lot of re-appraisals.

"Very well.  You may continue with this experiment.  I will make a note of it for our records.  But now that you have done this, I caution you not to repeat the experiment on further test subjects without first obtaining prior authorisation from the Commission.
"Also, if anything untoward happens, I expect you to terminate the experiment immediately and to inform me."

"What?!" the cyberwolf squawked.

"Ralf is fully sentient!" Jakob objected angrily, standing between him and Strauss.  "We will not execute him without due process!"

"No, no," Strauss said, with a faint smile.  "You only have to end this experiment,.  I do not expect you to end him unless there is no other option.  The Commission has an interest in his continued wellbeing too, you know.
"Still, if, gods forbid, Ralf should misbehave in a way that threatens the safety of others - outside the scope of his guardly duties, of course - you are to revert him to his original quadrupedal form as soon as possible and surrender the bipedal chassis to us.  That is all I ask."

"Also, while I do not expect this to happen, it is nonetheless possible that someone within the Commission will object to your experiment happening at all.  In that situation, the same applies - he must be reverted to a quadruped.  I will of course inform you promptly if that scenario occurs."

"These terms are acceptable," Daryil said.  Jakob nodded.

"Uh, do you mind letting me get back up?" R-ALF asked.

J.P. Morris, Chief Engineer DMFA Radio Project * IT-HE * D-T-E



Chapter 3

Daryil had an unusually sombre expression as Jakob entered his study.

"You're not your usual bouncy self," the wolf incubus said.  "And that worries me.  These kind of meetings always do... I just know you're going to lay something heavy upon me."

"Close," the fox hybrid grinned.  "But don't worry too much.  No-one's died.  But there is something I have to tell you, something I should have said long ago..."

"Oh," Jakob said, his wings wilting slightly.  "Ancient and evil secrets.  I hate those."

"If it works out, it'll be way cool," Daryil said, offering Jakob a bowl of salted fish.  "But yeah, we have to get through the sordid stuff first.

"You may have wondered how I managed to get this old," the incubus said.  "Four thousand years is quite a trick in itself, and remaining that young the whole time, let alone being able to create and sustain a hyperrealm large enough to contain a river and a hydroelectric dam..."
"I've tried not to think about that too much," Jakob admitted.  "It generally implies a pretty dark past."

"Indeed," Daryil sighed.  "While it's true that historically most 'Cubi have tended to get their heads chopped off before old age becomes a problem, those who do avoid a sudden, violent end won't usually make it past one or two thousand without some external source of power to prop them up.
"Souls will help, of course, as you have alluded to.  And I was not immune from the temptation, back when I was young, stupid and brutal."

Jakob sighed.  "I knew I wasn't going to like this."

"It's easy to see the allure, Jakob..." Daryil continued, "That by eating just one little person - someone who'd be dust a century later anyway - one single little death could grant you a thousand years more youth.
"But then you find it's a case of diminishing returns... the next soul might only buy you another five centuries, until eventually each soul you devour buys you mere decades...  It's like you build up a resistance to it.  And each soul you devour will make the law more determined to hunt you down and end your evil.  In some jurisdictions, they may even consume your own soul as justice for your crimes.

"If it's any consolation, I've only done that twice," Daryil sighed, "And both my victims had been intending to kill me.  However, that was a 'bonus' if we can use that term for something so vile.  It's not that I wanted to talk about, because I had another source of power besides."

"What, then, did you do?"  Jakob asked, his headwings drooping.

"I found an artifact," Daryil said.  "It belonged to one of Hizell's children, who was destroyed during the Dragon Wars of old.  The story goes that their killer took possession of it, but was then destroyed in her turn once Hizell sought revenge.... slaying her and her entire clan.  But somehow, Hizell overlooked the artifact, or else some ally of his victims stole it away.  Whatever happened, it eventually resurfaced, and fell into my possession."

"Yeeg," Jakob said, fanning out.  "So what happened to it?  Where is it now?"

"By 1980 things were looking up for the 'Cubi race, Jin had her hospital in Zinvth, Nact'Larn and Kish'Ta had got big into TV and motion pictures.  'Cubi were becoming tolerated in cities, if reluctantly.  I feared that this would enrage Hizell into starting another war, which it did.  And once the New War came to a head in the early 1990s, hanging on to something stolen from Hizell's family was the perfect way to be found lying somewhere missing a head, shortly followed by you, Niall, and the rest of my entire line.  The Dragons didn't play games with that kind of thing.
"So... I absorbed enough energy from it to keep me going for another few thousand years, and hid it away, hoping to get it back once the war had ended, or as a last-ditch attempt to save our clan if Hizell looked like he was going to win.
"But then the war did end, and Hizell ended with it.  I have been too busy with other projects to go looking for the artifact since, and after all, with my own ascension I now create my own energy.  Hence, I no longer need it for myself.

"But you, Jakob... you are one of my most cherished children, with the possible exception of Niall.  I would have you by my side for a long time to come, and preferably in the flesh as well.  I want you to have it."

"I'm honoured," Jakob said, bowing before Daryil, who looked embarrassed for a moment.

"But there's a snag, isn't there?"  Jakob said.  "You need to find it first."

"Exactly.  You see, the building I hid it in no longer exists, and the artifact was located during the demolition, although the significance of it has not yet been discovered, so far as I know.
"So... when I said that I wanted R-ALF as an elite guard, that's a half-truth.  I also want him to go on a quest for me.  One that would be better served by his having hands instead of paws."

"A quest to find this magical doodad," Jakob sighed.  "The Commission will go nuts if they think we've deceived them, Dar..."

"It's a secret mission," Daryil said.  "And I'm not lying, he will be an elite guard.  But I need him to do this for me first, as a test of his capabilities.  Hopefully most people will write him off as someone with some seriously fancy power armour, or failing that, a golem.  I'll come clean with the Commission afterwards, but I'd rather not risk having them go after my artifact themselves."

"Surely you don't expect him to do this alone," Jakob said.  "He's not let us down yet, but a prize like this... what if he goes power-mad and runs off with it?"

"I want R. Niall to go with him," Daryil said.  "Someone else as well.  In any case, they are synthetic lifeforms.  They can't use the artifact themselves, so we need someone flesh-and-blood to go with them."

"So that's the bad news?  You want me to do this...?" Jakob asked doubtfully.  "Find or steal some dragon relic?"

"No.  You are too valuable to risk on the expedition.  But, once the artifact is located, I will want you to oversee its safe return to headquarters.  You'll go in to collect it, once the advance team has made things safe."

"Which is why you're telling me all this..." Jakob grinned with relief.

"Bingo," Daryil said.

"So, do we know where it is?"

"Only vaguely."

"What about this Bob creature you've dealt with occasionally?  Does he know?"

"Mysterious ways and all," said a voice behind Jakob.  The wolf fanned out in shock and spun around.

"I spotted this thing and tipped Daryil off.  Obviously I could do more, but I don't want Daryil to become too dependent on me.  That would suck for all concerned.  Oh!  One more thing I can tell you... you're not the only person looking for it.  Keep that in mind."

"I owe you a favour again," Daryil said.

Bob grinned evilly.  "That's the fun part of being a godlike entity.  You give people a hint or two and they think it's some incredible blessing from the divines, when really you're just getting them to do your dirty work for you."

"I'll keep that in mind too," Daryil said.

"It kind of takes the fun out of it," Jakob said.

"That said, there is something you could do for me," Bob ventured.

"A sacrifice?"  Jakob asked, uneasily.  "Who?  What?"

"No.  Ten-pin bowling," Bob said wistfully.  "I haven't done that for thousands of years."

"Then let's go," Daryil said.

*  *  *

Amanti and Keller were dressed seductively as they entered the club.  Yvonne wore her usual catsuit, so only Emily looked out-of-place, an expression of slight embarrassment as she handed her broadsword to the bouncers at the entrance.

"I thought you were going to be the conspicuous ones," she sighed, glancing at the other patrons, who were largely dressed in skimpy outfits of leather or latex, some of them sporting head-wings.

A table at the back had a lone figure, waving at them enthusiastically.  Keller went first, eyeing them with mild surprise.  Ernst wore sunglasses, rubber leggings and opera gloves, his hair dyed blue and his wings hidden by an ornate medallion around his neck that served as a concealment charm.
"How ya doin', fellas?" he asked, grinning crazily.

"Blood is black in the moon-light," Keller replied quietly.  Ernst gave him a high-four and gestured for them to sit.

"Why did we have to meet in a gay bar?"  Emily hissed.

"Not my idea," Ernst said.  "Why 'Cubi do what they do isn't always obvious, no offence intended," he added, glancing at the other three with his same manic grin.

"So, see something you like...?" Amanti asked hopefully.  Ernst's grin didn't even falter.  "Your head," he beamed.  "But I'll lose my job if I take it."

"Heavy, man," Keller protested.

"Force of habit." Ernst grinned sheepishly.  "It can be hard to separate him from his... alter ego."

Emily excused herself and returned from the ladies shortly afterwards in a completely different outfit.  The armour had gone, replaced by colourful one-piece racing leathers.

"I didn't think biking was really a Demon thing," Keller said, looking a little surprised.

"Why not?" Ernst said, his grin genuine this time.  "It's got thrill, excitement, danger and tight leather!  And a lot less legal complications than rampaging."

"It does keep us out of trouble," Emily said.  "Well, apart from the occasional speeding ticket."

"There was this one guy," Yvonne said.  "He was a Demon, and his rampage consisted of racking up 250 speeding violations in a single day..."

"Rampages aren't what they used to be," Emily sighed wistfully.  "Which is probably for the best."

"Anyway, here's the Stuff," Ernst said.  "Let my supplier know what you think of the samples and we can arrange the deal."

So saying, he handed out a number of suspicious-looking brown packages, which the adventurers pocketed before leaving heading out of the establishment.

Emily looked disgusted.  "A drug deal?" she protested.  "Is that virtuous?"

"No, but it is legal here," Keller said.  "Kind of a shame, in a way...  Takes all the fun out of it.  Anyway, let's go to my place and try this stuff out!  Unless you want to hook up with anyone while we're here," he added.  Emily shook her head violently.

*  *  *

"Now," Keller said, casting a spell to ensure they were not being scryed on, "At last we can talk.  Let's see what this is all about."

He opened his package.  Emily's mutinous expression faded into surprise as she saw that the bags of white powder were concealing a small sheaf of papers vacuum-sealed in translucent plastic.  Quickly she opened hers.

"Read them quickly," the other snow leopard advised, "And try to memorise the contents.  They'll self-destruct in about five minutes."

"You've done this before," Emily said, looking impressed.

"They teach a lot of weird stuff at the 'Cubi academy," Keller said offhandedly, and then looked up sharply.  "Oh, yeah... and the white powder is citric acid, so I wouldn't recommend snorting it."

J.P. Morris, Chief Engineer DMFA Radio Project * IT-HE * D-T-E


I bet speeding ticket rampage demon was super proud afterwards


Chapter 4

Emily's platemail was universally accepted as adventuring gear, and Keller's wizard robes didn't stand out too much either.  Yvonne and Amanti, on the other hand, liked to wear rubber and that didn't usually go down well in medieval territories.

As such, they had switched to leather armour - Amanti in the adventuring leggings that he'd worn in the guise of Sven, and Yvonne had chosen a scouting outfit of dark leather, ambiguous in its nature as it was loved by thieves and assassins as well as those of a more legitimate persuasion.

"Not much in the way of patrols," Keller said as they passed the border with Kelland.  "You'd have thought they'd have more than just a token presence here.  I mean, it's not like Fairwater is hungry for new territory, but still... At the very least you'd think they'd want to check for contrabands."

"I heard they've had a rough time of it lately," Emily said darkly.  "Unrest in parts of the kingdom.  It may be that they've had to withdraw the folks usually stationed here to help maintain order in the trouble spots."

"That's not good," Amanti muttered.  "If the king's lost the plot, I can easily see protests in the capital.  i.e. the part we're bound for.  It's not likely to make our job any easier."

"Perhaps not," a voice said brightly.  "But it makes our job a lot easier!  Now hand over the money."

A group of Beings in adventuring gear made jumped out from a bush.  Some of them were clad in worn, tatty leathers, others had mismatched pieces of steel and chainmail, with their leader in full plate, most likely loot from a previous encounter.

"If you're the border guard, you're very lost," Amanti said.  "But it's off that way..." he added, pointing.

"Don't be an idiot," the leader snapped impatiently.  "We're robbing you."

"You should ask for more pay," Amanti suggested helpfully.  "Go on strike if you have to.  Are you unionised...?"

"We're fucking bandits," the leader yelled.  "Of course we're not part of a union!  Now I've been nice to you so far, but we can do this the hard way if you prefer.  Less lip... or less head.  It's up to you."

"Yeah," one of the others said.  "Stand and deliver!  Your money or your life!"

Emily looked back at them irritably.  "You picked the wrong group here, lads.  Get out of here, and we'll forget this ever happened."

"I dunno," Amanti said hopefully.  "We could just kill them anyway."

"How much will it take to make you go away?" Yvonne asked.

"Are you seriously suggesting we pay off a group of highwaymen?" Amanti looked scandalised.

"I prefer to think of it as a charitable donation," the puma explained.  "If they're desperate for a few gold coins we might as well, right?  If they get too greedy, that's when we start chopping off heads.  Since they've stated their threats to kill us, anything we do to them counts as self-defence..."

"I told you not to get cocky," the lead bandit snarled.  "Hand over the money.  All of it... or die!"

"Let's split the difference," Emily suggested, drawing her sword.  Amanti did the same with an eager expression.

In very short order, half their attackers were left headless.  The rest were pinned to the ground by 'Cubi wing-tentacles.

"Right," Emily said, as the survivors cowered in terror.  "Here's your money.  Five gold coins each... I just hope it was worth the price your friends paid.  Now get lost.  If we run into you again, we'll be taking the money back... off your headless corpses.  Is that clear?"

Apparently it was, as the erstwhile bandits quickly scooped up the coins and fled for their lives the moment they were free to do so.

"Damn," Amanti sighed, looking at the carnage with an expression of regret.  Yvonne looked at him strangely.

"Remorse?" the puma asked.  "That's unlike you.  Compassion is all very well, but I hope you don't lose your edge..."

"Kind of," the red feline admitted, looking a little embarrassed.  "Daryil asked me to keep a diary.  Keep count of how many days it was since I killed someone.  And now it'll have to go back to zero again."

*  *  *

The next day passed without incident until they finally arrived at the capital city of Kellsmere.  The four adventurers checked into an inn and stowed their adventuring gear before leaving to explore the city and get their bearings.

As they reached the square, a large crowd had gathered where a tall structure stood, covered in cloth.  Keller's heart sank as the cloth was pulled away to reveal a guillotine.
As they watched, a Doberman was marched up the steps to the scaffold, a look of barely-concealed terror in his eyes as he took in the blade one last time before being forced into position.

Less than a minute later there was a loud thump, followed immediately by a soft thud as the head was left lying dazed in a wicker basket.  Yvonne and Keller stared resolutely at the muddy ground of the square, and even Amanti looked a little subdued.

"Whom did he murder?" the red feline asked.

"Nay, 'twas a theft," a pangolin said, glancing at him as the rest of the crowd began to disperse.  "He didst take two loaves of bread from the baker, and paid not.  Now he hath paid with his head."

"A harsh fate indeed," Amanti said.  "I had thought he slew one of noble blood, to reap so capital a reward."

"'Tis part of our zero-tolerance policy 'gainst thieves," the pangolin continued.  "It hath reduced poverty also, for those too feckless to work shall either starve, or go to the arch."

"The arch?" Yvonne asked.  Keller stared fixedly at the ground once again.

"Aye, 'tis where the heads are piked.  It hath not been the same since the old King died...  Mark thee well, strangers, harsh times be upon us here, and harsh measures too."

"We shall be careful," Yvonne reassured him.  "'Tis not our intent to linger.  Thank you for the warning, good sir... we should get back to the inn."

*  *  *

"Shit, shit, shit!" Keller fumed, but quietly in case swearing had a zero-tolerance policy as well.  "They guillotine people for thieving, and guess what we were supposed to do!  Why do we always end up having to go to these hellholes?!"

"Where better to hide a valuable item of mythical power?" Emily pointed out.  "You'd have to be insane to want to steal something from a vicious backwater like this."

"But how can they be so cruel about it?!" Keller moaned.  "Creatures are always called monsters, but Beings seem so eager to turn against each other..."

"You've been doing this for centuries," Yvonne said, looking at him strangely.  "Why the sudden meltdown?  After all, we basically did the same thing to those highwaymen."

"We gave them the choice to flee," Amanti interrupted.  "This guy didn't get any such mercy."

"Usually where theft carries the death penalty it's death by hanging," Keller said quietly.  "A Creature can often fake that kind of death, and I've done so more times than I'd care to admit.  But taking your head off... Let's just say that has a very high success rate.  Especially when they drive a pike through it afterwards."

"Unless you're Daryil," Amanti said.

"But you're not, and I'm not, and we don't have Daryil with us - unless he's posing as Yvonne, which admittedly I couldn't rule out."

"I might be able to summon him," Yvonne suggested.  "But that tends to make things even worse.  Besides, he's taking the week off.  I should not disturb him unless we have no choice."

"Maybe we could steal the guillotine?" Amanti suggested.

"What?" Yvonne stared at him in confusion.

"As an insurance policy, in case we get caught."

"That would just mean that we wait on death row for weeks until they get a new guillotine," Yvonne snapped.  "Or we all get beheaded by sword instead, with botched executions from someone who's years out of practice."

"True.  What if we steal it as we leave?"

"You seem awfully keen on that idea.  I hope you're not falling back into old habits, Amanti... Daryil will be displeased if you start committing casual murder again."

"If I wanted a guillotine that much, I could easily build one myself," Amanti retorted.  "They're not rocket science.  Actually, I just want to get back at them for killing that poor bread thief."

"Perhaps Daryil has mellowed you after all," Yvonne said, smiling.

"Yeah.  Sometimes I do miss the freedom," Amanti said wistfully.  "Absolute freedom to kill as you choose.  But there was also absolute freedom for them to kill you.  And they would have done by now, if Daryil hadn't got me to change my ways.  It wasn't easy.  At times, I hated him for it.  But the thing is... he was right."

"Sounds like you would have made a better Demon than me," Emily smirked.  "Anyway, I am hungry.  Anyone else want food?"

"You're the only one who actually needs to eat," Keller reminded her quietly.  "But I suppose we should, or people will start to ask awkward questions."

"I shall have four meals sent to our room," Emily decided.  "I can eat them all if need be."

*  *  *

Jakob entered the large warehouse Daryil usually used for audiences and found the vulpine incubus sitting in a deck chair, stroking one of the cyberjags with a black gloved hand.  In front of them, six more of the robotic cats had formed a feline pyramid.

"What do you think, Wils?" Daryil asked brightly.

"10 out of 10," the jaguar decided.  Then he got up and bounded towards the others, leaping into the air.  He missed the mark, dislodging the top panther and falling backwards until the entire structure had collapsed.

"What did you do that for?" Panther X-RAY demanded angrily.  "We had it perfect!"

"I'm sorry..." Wils said.  "I thought I could make it..."

"...What is all this in aid of?" the wolf interrupted.  "Was this Daryil's idea...?"

"Sort of..." panther Y-RAY said, looking away.  "But it is fun."

"The plan was to hire you out as guards," Jakob said doubtfully.  "Not as a circus act.  Still, if it makes you happy..."

"Oh, let them have their fun!"  Daryil said.  "Anyway, we could use this for a promotional video!  Wouldn't it look great?  Roll up!  Roll up!  Come and see the amazing robo-panthers!  They slice!  They dice!  They stand in a pyramid reciting Shakespeare!"

"You never mentioned that," Y-RAY remarked anxiously.

"That's the next part!" Daryil grinned manically.  "Wils?"

W-ILS crouched menacingly as the lights dimmed and his claws gleamed silver in the spotlight.

"'Tis now the very witching time of night... when churchyards yawn and Hell itself breathes out contagion to this world," he began, and grinned evilly.  "Now could I drink hot blood... and do such bitter business as the day would quake to look on!"

"I think we should cut that line from the advert," Jakob decided.

J.P. Morris, Chief Engineer DMFA Radio Project * IT-HE * D-T-E


Chapter 5

--Additional writing by Sofox

For the last few hundred years Kelland had been torn between its medieval roots and the emergence of new technology. As such, it was littered with the occasional anachronism. Although devoid of celluar service or worldnet connectivity, some of the more well-to-do districts of the capital sported electric lighting, and the central library had a row of microfiche viewers, which Yvonne pored over all morning.

The target was the treasury vaults... a government building for hosting huge amounts of the King's treasure. While its main function was for storing valuables, the King had clearly embraced the mantra of "what's the point of having it if you can't show it off?" Hence, part of the treasury was open as a museum for paying visitors to gawk at some of the more visible treasures.

Trying to dress casually, Keller, Yvonne and Amanti scoped out the place, Emily deciding to rest in the meantime. After arriving separately and paying for their tickets, ironically contributing money directly to an entity they were trying to steal from, they got a guided tour. Various gold statues, allegedly cursed artifacts, and random works of art from neighbouring kingdoms, were all arranged among a few arched rooms. The treasury had four main sections to it, but as "tourists", they only had access to one.

It was a strong guess that the artifact was here. An old article made mention of a strange artifact being aquired by the government, and this was the most sensible place to hide it. Still, they weren't sure, and nothing on display was giving any clear hints. Even a discrete question to the tour guide didn't help, as the elk just took a moment to say how the vaults contained "many wondrous things" and then continued on her script.

After being sure they wouldn't get more clues this way, Keller ducked into a retrofitted toilet and took out the scrying orb he'd managed to get past the entrance security. Scrying through the other sections, it was clear that two of the sections were much higher security, but the fourth and final had the most security of all.

This section culminated with a large vault door, warded against any such intrusions. Keller went back to searching the rest of the vaults, even some areas of the public rooms, and ultimately found nothing. The only possible spot was that one place he couldn't look. The main vault.

Finishing up the scrying by noticing all the security that he could, Keller rejoined the group and after a bit of performative examining of exhibits, they all left causally.

"It has to be there," said Keller.

"What if it isn't?" Amanti objected. "What if it was never brought to the vaults at all and the king is sleeping with it under his pillow?"

"Well, then we just leave and hope we don't alert any guards on the way out."

"And if we do?" asked Yvonne?

"We say 'Sorry, we were just looking for the toilets'."

"Does that ever work?"


They spent the evening preparing, and that night the four of them feigned sleep until about 3 AM, at which point they crept quietly out of the inn, Keller's spellcraft helping to silence their steps.

Circling around, they reached the freight entrance of the museum. Keller assured them that it was the best shot. The museum entrance was too public, and the entrances that the guards used were too secure, but the freight entrance wouldn't be commonly used or observed. A small door built into a much larger one was their target, and after a few spells, it broke open.

Making their way through the guts of the treasury, they kept silent with the spell. With some spells to hear better, they could tell the guard's patrols in advance, and padded from corridor to corridor, until they made their way into one of the main vaults, using the huge amount of crates and occasionally unpacked artefacts for cover. Emily was totally out of her element with this cloak and dagger stuff, occasionally clunking into things almost hard enough to break the silence spell, but after trying to match the group's movements, she felt she was starting to get the hang of crouching low and moving swiftly.

The entrance to the fourth section had two guards, standing without moving, all approaches covered by their line of sight.

"What do you usually do when this happens?" whispered Emily.

"Normally I invite one out to dinner, but in this case..."

It was a simple spell, one that made a sound like a drop of water was falling at a specific location. It was distinctive, but not loud. After a few moments of this, the guards started muttering with each other. Probably the most exciting thing to happen this shift. One of the guards went to check it out, giving the group ample time to subdue the first guard the moment his buddy was out of sight. The second guard was taken down easily while she was still looking for the source of the dripping.

Both were rendered unconscious, tied up, and hidden nearby, leaving Keller to unlock the door into the forth section, and pass through. They were sure how long it would take before the guards absense was noticed, so they hurried up.

The fourth section was loaded with magical sensors, traps and signals. Spotting, circumventing them, or just unwarding them took every magic user on the party playing full concentration. Emily was more in her element here, magical traps were something that every adventurer needed to be familiar with. Thankfully no further guards, but it was still like moving through a web of sticky thread.

In one case they were almost thrown off by a completely mundane infra red movement sensor. Keller had just been disabling a particular magical trap on the floor when he managed to catch sight of the sensor out of the corner of his eye. He was able to disable it easily after approaching it slowly, and the group moved on, careful for laser or pressure plates along with all the magical security measures.

Finally they made it to the main vault. The group collectively held their breath and were on their guard as the various magical wards were deactivated, and the locks unlocked.

Unfortunately, as time passed Keller got more and more frustrated. "It's this last seal," he complained, "I've tried every trick I can against it and it's not breaking."

"Can't we just force the door at this stage?" asked Emily.

"No, the seal is too strong."

"Well, how is the King meant to open it?"

"They need a special token that acts as proof of who they are, but I assume there's only a few of them. The only one I've seen so far is in the museum section. I remember seeing it there, on display in a more discrete part of the museeum, thinking if I took it and its nameplate, the guards wouldn't even notice it was missing..." Keller thrust his hands into his pockets in though, and to his surprise, took out the very token he'd been referring to. "Oh, I guess I did steal it after all!"

"KELLER!" Amanti seethed.

"There was an entire museum of valuables!" the snow leopard protested, fitting the token to a slot on the door.  "I was holding myself back the entire time! I think it's pretty good that I made it out of there while only stealing one artifact!"

At length there was a click and the vault door finally opened.  The group stared in awe at the artifact within.

There, in the centre of the room, a pedestal held an ornate frame, supporting a mask in the shape of a dragon's face. From its eyes, light blazed forth and illumined the room with a pulsing light that shifted slowly fom colour to colour.

"What do you suppose happens if you wear it...?" Amanti breathed.

"I'm not about to try it," Keller admitted.  "It might boost your lifespan tenfold.  It might grant you the power to see things unseen or provide mystic insight into the nature of the universe.  Or alternatively, it might just rewrite your brain and turn you into a mindless slave to Hizell and his descendants.  It's very clearly of Dragon make, and aside from the occasional outlier such as Balorie they weren't known for their generous gifts to the 'sub-races'."

"Is it even safe to touch?" Emily asked cautiously.

"I don't want to take any risks," Keller replied, donning a pair of rubber gloves.  "Oh... wait!  The seafood!" he exclaimed suddenly.

"What!?"  Emily asked, looking at the male snow leopard with a confused expression and wondering if she'd heard right.

Keller held out both hands, uttered a brief incantation and a whole frozen salmon abruptly appeared in his black-gloved hands.

"Keller, what the hell are you doing?!" Yvonne demanded.

"Oh, it's just something I used to do quite a bit in my earlier days," Keller grinned.  "It was kind of a calling card.  When I was burgling a wealthy mansion, I'd sneak into the kitchen and get a couple of fish.  Whole salmon, preferably.  Those rich estates usually have some in the fridge, freezer or ice-room.  See, I'd leave one fish in the master bedroom, sometimes just dumped on the bed, or occasionally I'd tuck it just inside the covers as if it was asleep."

"Did you put a fish in each bed...?" Emily asked slowly, looking at him with some concern and backing away very slightly.  "You know we're not actually visiting the King's bedroom, right...?"

"Nah.  The other one... well, when I was burgling the safe, or better yet, a display case... I'd leave one of the fish there, to replace whatever treasure I'd stolen.  I mean, it would be mean just to leave it empty, right...?"

So saying, he gently placed the dead fish in the vault, next to the glowing draconic mask.  As he turned back, he saw that Emily, Yvonne and Amanti were staring at him in disbelief.

"...What?" Keller asked, looking slightly disappointed.  "Have you never trolled someone for emotions?  Well, maybe Emily hasn't.  But yeah, it was all part of the fun.  Sometimes I'd stay behind undercover just so I could taste the Lord's anger and astonishment when they came home late at night and went up to bed, or off to stare at their prize possession before retiring.  It was delicious!  Sometimes, if I was burgling the place while it was occupied, I'd put the fish next to them so they saw it when they woke up.  Of course, I had to do that as the last thing because the smell tended to rouse them fairly quickly."

"This is all well and good, but we don't have all night," Amanti urged him, "The longer we dawdle here talking about fish, the more chance there is that we'll be caught.  And you know what they do even to petty thieves here!  What we're doing right now is a thousand times worse.  We could be tortured to death for this, so please... Can we get on with it...?"

"That's very true," Keller sighed, with a more sober expression.  He turned back to the vault and hesitated for a moment, before cautiously picking up the glowing artifact.

"That is far enough, you villains!" a voice called out harshly.  Keller stifled a yelp and dropped the object back onto the plinth.  Moments later they were all seized and enchanted bracers clapped around their arms.

"His Majesty, the illustrious Lord Ravage, has been expecting you," the guard captain said.  "You see, in times past, we have found that anti-scrying wards do scare away thieves," he continued.  "Thus, we have warded the vaults to detect scrying attempts, and to inform our noble liege that his treasury has been violated.  Then we know to send a team to bring the miscreants to justice."

"Isn't that entrapment?"  Keller asked.

"It is whatever Lord Ravage wishes it to be," the captain finished, with a vicious grin.  "And mark my words, Mr. Keller... You are in real trouble now!"

"Shall we slay them now...?" the guard asked, drawing his sword eagerly.

"No..." the captain said.  "The Lord Ravage has ordered they be brought before him.  It is for him to decide the manner of their deaths for this wickedness, and I would not dare to deny him such a pleasure."

"With a name like that he's got to be a bit of a tyrant," Emily muttered worriedly.

"Silence!  You speak of our king!" the guard said, slapping her armoured back with a truncheon.

"Of course, this meeting is likely to be a mere formality," the captain added sadistically.  "I expect we shall watch your heads fall in the square, to be piked 'neath the arch with the rest of our mighty king's foes.  Consider that while you await the sentencing!"

J.P. Morris, Chief Engineer DMFA Radio Project * IT-HE * D-T-E



Chapter 6

Long and torturous hours passed in the castle dungeon, with only Emily able to sleep, until morning finally came and the guards led them to where the king was awaiting their presence.

Keller, Amanti, Yvonne and Emily soon found themselves in a splendid hall, where a large dais with many steps led up to where the king sat.

"What the fuck..." Amanti gasped.

"You dare use such language before our king?!" the captain yelped, drawing his sword.  "You will show the Lord Ravage due respect, or you shall die where you stand!"

"Enough!" a voice boomed around the throne room, causing the captain to freeze as if he had been slapped.  "I told you I want them alive!  All of them!"

The four adventurers gazed in stupefaction as the guard captain climbed the steps and bowed before his master.  Where the throne should have been, a robotic jaguar sat upon silk cushions, a gold filigreed cloak clasped awkwardly around the feral animal's neck, and the letters R-AVG stencilled onto one front leg.

"These are the thieves, Majesty," the captain fawned.  "They are yours to pass the death sentence upon, or shew mercy unto as you see fit..."

"Good.  I will speak with them now," the cyberjag said, flexing golden claws.  "In private."

"As you wish, my liege..." the captain said, looking slightly disappointed.  The robot stood up and padded regally to a nearby door, which a servant opened for them.

*  *  *

Shortly afterwards the four adventurers had been forced roughly into a meeting chamber, where a smaller dais had been prepared.  The robot ascended it and sat.  The adventurers sat in the seats provided, at which point they were level with the robot's glowing red eyes.  He made a gesture, dismissing the guards, and waited a few moments for them to leave.

"I suppose you're all wondering how this happened," Lord Ravage began.

"You're one of Lord Daryil's guard robots," Yvonne said.  "What on Furrae are you doing out in the back of beyond like this?!  And what have you done to the place!?  Surely he didn't authorise this?!"

"Times have changed," the robot pointed out.  "We have recently been approved by the Being-Creature Commission for use outside of Daryil's organisation.  I was one of the first groups to be hired out to a third party."

"But this can't be what Daryil intended!" Yvonne looked horrified.  "The Commission are going to go apeshit if they find out you've conquered a realm!  Surely you were warned how scared they are of robots going rogue?  How precarious your position is as a probationary lifeform?  They'll take you apart!"

"This is a sovereign nation, and we don't actually have a treaty with the Commission," the jaguar grinned toothily for a moment, and then looked more subdued.  "But... you're right.  That's actually why I wanted to talk to you.  I need your help."

"And why should we help a tyrant?" Amanti objected angrily.  "Especially one who beheads their subjects for petty theft!"

"Then at least help me fix that," the robot snapped.  "Listen.  Six months ago, I was assigned to protect King Tavris as his bodyguard.  Life was good.  Then, five weeks later, the poor guy's heart gave out and he died, leaving no heir to the throne.
"I figured I'd be sent back to Jayhawk Cybernetics and reassigned to guard someone else... But to everyone's amazement, he'd named me as his successor.  And now...

"I'm just a bodyguard," the panther said helplessly.  "I wasn't trained for this!  They don't teach you how to run a kingdom at Jayhawk!  I can't even put this stupid robe on without help, and they expect me to be able to govern a nation...?  They want me to settle this dispute over grain tarrifs and I'm not sure I could point out a grain if you put one in front of me."

"I start to see the problem," Amanti said.  "I guess I've been assuming malice where there is actually incompetence.  I must apologise, Milord."

"Look at me," the jaguar said miserably.  "I don't have any hands!  I can't turn the pages of long documents easily, and yet people expect me to read things written in archaic Common and sign them into law.  I'm a robotic feral who doesn't even need to eat and they expect me to understand how to run a kingdom of organic lifeforms!"

"How do you sign things into law?" Keller asked.

"I stamp them," Lord Ravage said, waving a rubber-padded paw in the air.  "I push my foot into an ink pad and then press it into the document.  I can just about manage the official seal by holding it in my mouth, but I have to get someone else to melt the wax, and I need a mirror to make sure I'm about to hit the right spot."

"I still want to know why it's okay to publicly behead thieves for stealing bread,"  Keller said sullenly.

"These stupid arguments about the grains have led to a famine," the jaguar said miserably.  "My advisors suggested I enact a state of emergency.  I didn't see the fine print until it was too late."

"Can't you suspend it, or at least pass an amendment?" Emily asked.

"My advisors aren't keen on that.  Especially Sims... he keeps saying about how a king needs to appear strong in the face of adversity... even ruthless."

"So?  You're the King!  You can sign it into law anyway!"

"I also can't write," the jaguar pointed out.  "I depend on someone else to write the law out for me.  And they don't want to."

"So, your advisors are likely taking advantage of you," Emily sighed.

"Please, you have to help me!" the robot begged.  "The treasury is still paying rental for me, but sooner or later someone is going to want to check in to see how I'm performing.  If they see me like this, they'll hit the panic button faster than you can blink!  They'll pop my brain out to see what failed!"

"It might not be that bad," Amanti said.  "They'll probably have Niall or Jakob thought-read you first, and that should exonerate you."

"You certainly didn't," Lord Ravage pointed out bitterly.  "I had to explain all this to you."

"Restraint bracers tend to do that," Amanti said, waving his arm in a casual manner.  "In any case, Emily is a Demon and she deserves an explanation as well."

"I'll get the bracers removed," the jaguar promised.  "Just swear you'll try and help me get out of this mess!  Puma-lady, I remember you're one of Daryil's clan.  Can you tell him what's happened?  Can he rescue me...?"

"It's his Day of Rest," Yvonne said.  "Emergencies only.  And this isn't an emergency - not yet.  Besides, there's... complications.  See, that artifact we were acquiring?  We were supposed to take it directly to King Fairwater.  Even Daryil wasn't supposed to find out, and if I summoned him here, if I contact him at all, he'll see!  He'll know!  He'll take it from us!"

"Great," the jaguar said, doing a passable job of face-palming with one paw.

"Look, there's the very real possibility that if someone does turn up to check on me, that the guards and the advisors will object to them switching off their 'beloved king' and behead them for assault or attempted regicide or something.  And then the shit really will hit the fan!
"Even if they don't hit the big red button, do you think my advisors will easily let go of their useful idiot...?  The inspector would be trying to kidnap their precious king!"

"Have you considered abdication?" Emily suggested.

"You need a successor to do that," the robot said.  "You can't not have a king.  Even a democracy needs a leader, or a ruling council or something.  And frankly I'm not sure I want advisor Sims in charge...  I mean, look what's happened so far.  Besides, if I'm no longer useful to them, they might report me as faulty or suddenly discover compelling evidence that I'd killed King Tavris!"

"We'll sort something out for you," Yvonne promised.  "I swear by my Clan Leader that I will inform him tomorrow, and ask that he either bail you out, or send a new advisor to help you rule the place more effectively until such time as a more permanent solution can be found.  If you want me to remain here as a token of my good faith, I will do that."

"But what about the artifact?" Amanti asked.  "You said Daryil would covet it."

"Yes," Yvonne admitted.  "But, assuming Lord Ravage is happy with this arrangement, you can take the artifact back to our principal today.  Daryil should only find out after it's already been handed over - at which point we've done our bit and it's between the two parties to sort things out between themselves."

"That works," Emily agreed.  "Milord?"

"That is acceptable," the jaguar agreed, looking a lot happier.  "I shall order your freedom and have the artifact brought here.  I don't expect a magical doodad is much use to me, after all."

*  *  *

"I have reached a decision," Lord Ravage announced, padding into the throne room with the others in tow.

"May we guillotine them in the square, you majesty...?" the guard captain fawned eagerly.

"Absolutely not!  You are to remove their bracers and release them from custody.  The puma lady Yvonne has agreed to perform a valuable task for me - she will remain here overnight.  As a guest," he added quickly.
"Find her some comfortable quarters.  The others are to take the artifact they were attempting to steal, and remove it from the kingdom as it is cursed - that will be punishment enough.  Fetch it from the treasury immediately and escort them to the border.  I want that thing gone as soon as possible."

"Very good, majesty," the captain said, with an expression of obvious disappointment.  Two servants hurried off to the treasury, accompanied by a pair of guards.

Not long afterwards, the two servants returned, empty-handed, and knelt before the king in obvious terror.

"What has happened?" the cyberjag asked.  "Where are the guards?"

"M-Majesty... the artifact... it is gone!  It was stolen!"

"The guards stole it...?" the robot queried, looking astonished.

"No!  Monsters, sire!  Horrible black figures in armour!  With red glowing eyes!  They slew them and made off with the artifact!"

"Shit," Lord Ravage said.  "Okay, change of plan.  You four... retrieve the artifact, and bring in these villains.  Just make sure Yvonne comes back here to fulfil her oath."

J.P. Morris, Chief Engineer DMFA Radio Project * IT-HE * D-T-E



Quote from: Merlin on May 20, 2022, 07:27:34 AM
hahaha I do love the Ravage reveal

I was soo tempted to get Ahro to draw Lord R, but it would be a massive spoiler, even though this thing is years away from running as a comic.
(I think I asked for a biomimetic cat prince instead)

J.P. Morris, Chief Engineer DMFA Radio Project * IT-HE * D-T-E


Slight delay owing to Confuzzled!

Chapter 7

Keller, Amanti, Emily and Yvonne went back to the treasury first, looking for clues to the theft.  The captain went with them.

Their first task was to examine the body of the fallen guards.  Keller's expression changed as he approached the first victim.  "Hold up," he said.  "This guy... he's not dead!  He's just been stunned.  I can't blame the others for not sticking around to check, mind."

"Good," Emily said.  "That probably goes for his buddy over there too.  Captain, I suggest you take your underling back to the King and let him know the good news.  At least it's not a murder hunt."

"I could have done with a good execution," the captain sighed, but carried the unconscious guard back to the castle.

"So what does this mean?" Yvonne asked, glancing at the others.  "I figured from the description, we were dealing with warrior androids.  Black armour, red glowing eyes - that would describe Lord Ravage himself if he wasn't a quadruped.  But robots don't use magic much.  From what I hear, it's very difficult to achieve."

"Then presumably it's an android and a furre acting together," Emily said.  "That makes sense... if you were a supervillain sending a team out to take something by force, you'd have some androids for the muscle and a flesh-and-blood accomplice to handle the magical side of things."

"What worries me is that your so-called supervillain could well be the Lord Daryil himself," Yvonne said, looking extremely guilty.  "Not many others have the technology to do this.  I'm already in a conflict of interest here and I don't want to make things any worse..."

"We may not be able to recover the artifact at all," Emily sighed.  "If they came in here, beat up the guards and took the artifact, they'd probably have teleported back by now.  No-one's actually seen them leave the treasury, right?
"Robots aren't going to leave DNA evidence, and in any case they've probably been issued recall amulets."

"Ah," Amanti said.  "But those won't work here."  So saying, he suddenly pulled one of the vaults open.  "Treasuries are always warded against teleportation."

"Ah shit," R. Niall said.  "We need to improve the mind-shields, don't we?  Also, was that fish your doing...?"

"It would help," Keller grinned, opening his hands expectantly.  "And yes.  Now... The artifact, please?  Hand it over, then you can slip out of here and we'll tell the King you escaped.  That's better than being brought to justice, isn't it?  Stealing from the King, that could cost you your heads!"

"But-" Yvonne started, looking horrified.

"I know, I know... You're an android or something," Keller continued smoothly, "But even then, the guillotine isn't likely to be a pleasant experience, right?  So let's make a deal.  What do you say...?"

"Nuh-uh", R-ALF replied and leapt at Keller, throwing the artifact into the air where R. Niall caught it effortlessly.  Keller and R-ALF both lay on the ground, wrestling with each other.  Keller's wing-tentacles came out, but he quickly realised that nothing short of a lethal attack was likely to make much difference.  Rather than continue to struggle he just went limp, glowering at R-ALF angrily.

"Are you going to behave now?..." the cyberwolf asked, as R. Niall held the artifact to his chest with one hand and made a defensive gesture with the other.  Daniel LaGrange covered him, stun spell at the ready.

"Why has today consisted of constantly battling insane AIs?!"  Amanti wailed.

"Who are you calling insane?" R-ALF demanded, and Niall looked offended as well.

"You're an armoured warrior robot, and you assaulted us!"  Keller protested.  "I happen to know that there are still tight restrictions on what AIs are and are not allowed to do, and you've crossed that line!"

"I have not!" R-ALF retorted indignantly.  "You're virtually unharmed.  I used minimum necessary force to retrieve something you were stealing from us!"

"Ralf's right," R. Niall said, stepping between them.  "We're only carrying out a mission for our master.  I think you know who sanctioned this operation," he nodded briefly at Yvonne, who looked at the ground miserably.

"Even so, I must ask you to give us the artifact," Keller said.  Suddenly the salmon slapped wetly into his face and he fell over backwards with a yell.  Snarling, Emily leapt at Niall, barrelling him over with a clang as their two armoured forms collided.  With a yell of horror, he struggled and flailed as the precious thing fell from his gauntleted hand.

The mask tumbled and struck the edge of the vault with the ping of metal on stone, bouncing into the wider room.  As it clattered to a halt, the mask's blazing energies flickered and died.  The fighting ceased instantly, every person in the room staring in horror at the priceless object on the floor, now dead and inert.

"You've destroyed it!"  Keller gurgled.

"N-No!"  R-ALF protested, appalled.  "You did!  You were trying to take it from us!"

Gently, Niall cradled the now-defunct artifact in his black metal fingers and made his way gingerly back towards the vault.  As he approached its resting place, the mask suddenly blazed back into life.  He stepped back, and it guttered in to darkness once more.  Somewhat less carefully, he took the artifact in one hand and waved it backwards and forwards, causing the blazing light to flash on and off as he did so.

Amanti threw back his head and laughed.  "Wards!" he giggled helplessly.  "This amazing magical trinket is being extinguished by the same forces that stop us from teleporting!"

"Bullshit," Daniel said.  "Are you suggesting that this dragon-built power source, which has likely been running for millions of years, is so feeble that a mere ward can shut it down?!  That's ridiculous!"

"It might be by now," Niall pointed out.  "Maybe the energy source has a natural half-life like a radioisotope.  Maybe the event that kicked the Dragons out might have throttled it down to uselessness too...  Or maybe it's all been used up to the point where it's merely a fancy toy."

"No," Keller murmured, studying the object over in his hands, which were glowing faintly with magic.  "No, it's not.  But it's not the artifact, either.  This is a forgery.  Cleverly built, but still only a copy."

"What?! Then what have you done with it?!" R-ALF demanded.  "Our orders were to retrieve it for Lord Daryil!"

"...And our mission was to retrieve it for another party who must remain anonymous," Keller said smoothly.  "But it seems we're both going home empty-handed.  Unless you want do draw lots over who gets to takes home the replica."

"I have met Daryil," Amanti said.  "While our sponsor must remain anonymous, Daryil is by far the more powerful of the two parties.  But at the same time, he's also pretty laid back.  So maybe we could take it to our boss, and Daryil can negotiate with them for access to the artifact?"

"You don't understand!" R-ALF protested.  "I was entrusted with this mission to prove I was worthy to serve the Lord Daryil... And now you're asking me to report failure?  To Him?!"

"That may happen anyway," Keller pointed out.  "We don't even have the real artifact, and there's no guarantee we'll ever find it.  It's a little early to be fighting over who gets to keep something we haven't even found."

"What are we going to tell the King?"  Yvonne asked Keller, looking very worried.  "Thieves or not, these people are from my Clan, and I can't let you risk their lives."

"I don't think they'll have too much trouble with the King," Amanti said.  "But the guards are likely to be a lot less accomodating.  We didn't see the King at that thief's execution so... yeah, we need to treat this carefully in case someone tries to rush it through and get us out of the way before his majesty can intervene."

"Who actually is the King here?" Daniel asked.

"Are you familiar with a cyberjag named 'Ravage'?"  Yvonne asked them.  R. Niall grinned.  "Oh yeah!  Dad got the name from an off-world comic or something.  Actually, he was sent to these parts, wasn't he?  Yeah... he was sent to act as bodyguard for the King, right...?  I take it you've met him recently... How's he doing?"

"He took the King's place," Amanti blurted.  R.Niall gasped in horror and covered his muzzle with his gauntleted hands, wings fanning out.  Even R-ALF looked shocked.

"Idiot!"  Yvonne snapped at the red feline.  "I was trying to tell them delicately, so they don't jump to conclusions and execute him or something! You said this needed to be treated carefully, and now... Urgh!
"Look, Niall...  This wasn't his fault.   Lord Ravage hasn't gone rogue, the old king died and left him heir to the throne.  He wants out, but the advisors aren't going to like that idea.  He was hoping I could get him reassigned, or at least taught how to rule a realm properly.  But that's more your area, right?"

"That's still not great," Niall sighed.  "It'll be a right PR mess if word gets out.  But I'll do what I can."

"Can you tell Daryil right now?" Yvonne asked.  "It's his day of rest, but you're much closer to him than I am, right...?"

"Sorry," Niall smiled sadly.  "I'm an android.  I can't commune with him at all.  But Daniel can."

"I don't want to disturb him unduly either," the border collie said.  "I'm not exactly part of his inner circle myself."

"It was just a thought," Yvonne said.  "I promised the King I'd contact Lord Daryil tomorrow... this just seemed like a good way to expedite the..." she trailed off.  Niall was staring into the distance as if struck by a revelation.

"D-Did he contact you?!"  R-ALF asked nervously.  Niall shook his head swiftly.

"You know," he said slowly, "There's a problem with your ward theory, Amanti.  We were hiding inside the vault, remember?  If we could teleport we'd have done so before you came, instead of waiting for a chance to leave.  But the wards are present there too."

"Then what...?" Keller looked confused.  "What was causing the artifact to stop working?"

"Well," the incubus said, "I don't know if you were given much of a description of what to look for.  But supposing that mask is just a decoy?  Hmm... yes.  Try feeding it a little bit of magical energy and see what happens."

Keller did so.  The mask lit up brightly for a moment and then went dark again as the spell was cancelled.

"Oh boy," Keller said, face falling.  "So maybe this really is part of the artifact, but it's just the power light?  Or, as you say, a decoy?"

"Precisely," Niall said.  "The mask may just be a test harness or demonstrator.  In that case, it may be that the real target of our quest is the vault itself."

J.P. Morris, Chief Engineer DMFA Radio Project * IT-HE * D-T-E



Chapter 8

"I don't buy it," Keller said.  "The vault can't be the artifact, surely!  Besides, Daryil must have given you some idea of what the thing looks like?  What you're actually supposed to be fetching him?"

"He told us about the dragon mask, yes," Niall said.  "But he also said there might be a decoy.  He suggested we bring that to him anyway."

"He may have mentioned the vault and I misunderstood or forgot," Daniel said.

"If he did, I must have missed it too," R-ALF said.  "But this mission is also a test for me.  He might have deliberately withheld that information in case someone overheard.  And if we have to lug a chunk of masonry back with us, that would certainly explain why he chose a warrior android to do it.  Though a Demon would have worked too, I guess..."

"Perhaps," Keller said, "But I'd still like to check the artifact again.  Just in case."

"If that thing disappears up your sleeve, I'll hold you upside-down until it falls out," R-ALF promised.

"It won't," the snow leopard promised.  "Kleptomaniac or not, I know better than to antagonise the Lord Daryil."

R. Niall handed the mask to Keller, who studied it closely.  A jeweller's loupe appeared in his hand and he studied the thing closely.  Then cast a spell on it.

"It's not just a receiver," he confirmed.  "This thing has a source of magic, and lots of it.  But however it works, the wards in the treasury are throttling it somehow.  Oh shit..." he exclaimed and went wide-eyed.

"What?!" the others chorused.

"You won't believe this," Keller said.  "It's got a spacewarp.  Like a bag of holding.  Do any of you remember that trick Abel sometimes did at SAIA where he'd hide inside a mirror and mess with anyone who looked in it?"

"Oh shit," R. Niall said.  "Are you saying what I think you're saying?"

"I think the real artifact is inside the decoy."

"That would sound a lot more impressive if we hadn't just jumped to the wrong conclusion about the artifact actually being the vault," Amanti pointed out.  "But it's still a neat trick if it's true."

"Well, we'll find out when Keller opens it," Yvonne said.

"That might take a while," the snow leopard sighed.  "It's locked.  Quite a complex lock too.  Brute-forcing it will be tricky, even for Daryil.  It may have been designed to keep Hizell and his minions out of it too..."

"Does it matter?" R-ALF shrugged.  "If the real artifact is inside the fake mask, we take it back to Daryil anyway.  Opening it is his problem.  We were only required to locate it and then bring in a specialist."

"There's a key," the snow leopard pointed out.  "I can tell that.  Daryil might have it himself.  If I were you, I'd get Daniel to find out.  If so, we'll have to find it to make this anything more than just a pretty trinket.
"Remember, pocket domains can be a very effective defence.  Even Hizell himself wasn't able to breach SAIA's domain without Fa'Lina allowing it.  Otherwise he'd probably have eradicated us all."

"So we'll need the key anyway," Niall sighed.  "I love mission creep.  Where are we even going to find such a thing?"

"It could be somewhere else in Lord Ravage's treasure collection," Amanti said hopefully.

"How do we even know what it looks like?" Daniel asked.

"Let me check something," Keller said, and cast another spell on the mask, causing the indicator magic to flare brightly for a moment.   "Aha!  There we go..." the thief said, sounding pleased.  "'Memo to self: Seek for the three jewels of Ariganum.  Together they are the key.  -LID'".

"Lid...?  Key lid...?"  R-ALF sounded confused.  He took back the mask and studied the area Keller had cast the spell on.  Tiny writing had appeared, and Daniel took a photo on his phone before it could fade away again.

"L. I. D, " Keller volunteered.  "Presumably short for "Lord Ikaarion Daryil".  If he sent you lot to fetch this thing, he clearly knows a lot about it and is old enough to have encountered it himself at some earlier point."

Niall sighed.  "This was supposed to be a secret mission.  I can't reveal everything we were told in the briefing and I've already said more than I should.  But I will confirm you are correct.  Daryil did own this artifact himself for some time, but hid it during the Dragon Wars, fearing that it would be found and coveted by Hizell."

"So this message was intended to help him regain it when he felt it was safe to do so," Keller surmised.  "That makes sense."

"But if he did write it, wouldn't he have just put his clan mark on the text instead of using his initials?"  Yvonne queried.

"Perhaps.  But depending on the spell he used, it can be easier to inscribe predefined letters," Keller said.  "Given what Niall has told us, Daryil may have been in a hurry.  If I was holding something during the Dragon Wars that could attract the attention of Hizell himself, I'd get shot of it pronto.  And if I had to leave my future self a reminder in such a situation I would not be too concerned about getting the caligraphy perfect."

"Yet, he still had enough time to create a passable fake and put the real one into some weird hyper-realm," Daniel pointed out.

"Why don't you ask him?" Keller retorted testily.  "Perhaps he'd already made a copy for display purposes to confuse others trying to steal it from him."

"Hold, villains!" a voice demanded.  "You shall all lose your heads for this treachery!"

"What...?" R-ALF said, looking puzzled.

"It's one of the guards we stunned earlier," Daniel said.  "Look, I'm sorry about that."

"You will be, when you are taken to the Square!  And the rest of you...  Our King took you into his confidence, and now you betray him by siding with these thieves and monsters!
"I should take your heads to him myself- hurk!" the guard's tirade ended suddenly as R-ALF put him in a choke-hold.

"Sorry about this," the robot said, "We'll go and see your King afterwards, okay?  But stop threatening my friends, or we'll just have to stun you again."

"These three serve Lord Daryil, whose organisation created your King," Amanti informed him.  "Lord Ravage will be terminally displeased if you slay them, for he wishes an audience with the Lord Daryil and murdering said Lord's allies will jeopardise that."

"And that's ignoring what Daryil would do," Keller added, with a shudder.  "Most likely the King would kill you personally, and then Lord Daryil would reanimate your corpse just to punish you further."

"He might not," Amanti said, "But trust me, kid, you don't want to risk it.  For what it's worth, they're rivals and we still haven't decided who should get the trinket.  Besides, the King only said he wants it gone from the Kingdom, he didn't specify who removes it."

"This is certainly true," the guard admitted, as R-ALF relaxed his hold a little.  "But you shall all go to see the King.  Their fate must be his decision, not yours."

"May as well," Yvonne offered.  "I don't think there's much more to be gained in the treasury.  And Keller... anything you've taken, you should probably put back right now."

"Oh all right," Keller sighed, removing a couple of gold necklaces from his sleeve.

*  *  *

"Ooh!" Daniel said excitedly.  "I've heard of the panthers, but never seen one!  Can I take a selfie...?"

"You will respect our king, rogue!" the guard captain demanded, drawing his sword.  "You should be on your knees, begging for his mercy!  Or that 'selfie' shall become your last request!"

"Flattery does work sometimes," Lord Ravage said.  "Your boon is granted.  Make it a side view, though.  I look best in profile."

"Majesty!" the guard captain insisted, once Daniel had put his phone away, "I fear you do not understand the gravity of the situation.  These three villains stunned two of your royal guard and attempted to steal the artifact!  They must be punished for their impudence!  An example must be made!"

"An alliance with their lord is far more important," the panther decreed.  "I will not jeopardise that by harming his kin.  I hereby pardon them for this misdemeanour, though I do insist that they leave the realm as soon as this audience is ended.  I want the cursed artifact gone - who removes it is not my concern.  Of course, if one of you wishes to stay in order to facilitate the alliance with Lord Daryil, I shall reward them well."

"I will stay, MiLord," Daniel decided.  "I can summon Daryil here for you.  I think that would be a better use of my time than accompanying R-ALF and Niall back - with or without the artifact.  They shouldn't need my help now."

"So be it," Lord Ravage announced.  "Yvonne, you are free to leave with the others."

"So, who gets to take it back?"  Keller asked, gently placing the dragon mask in a foam-lined metal briefcase, a flight case often used for transporting cameras, microphones or other fragile and expensive equipment.  "We could flip a coin," he suggested.

"Not one of yours," Niall said.  "I know your reputation at games of chance."

"Let's ask the King," Amanti suggested.  "He's a neutral third party."

"Not exactly," Lord Ravage corrected.  "I want to be in Daryil's good books, remember.  So I think he should have it, if that's what he wants.  After all, it does appear to have been his property at one point, from what you're saying."

"The King has spoken!" the captain said, eyeing Keller with a faint sneer.  "The artifact goes to the Lord Daryil as a peace offering between our realms!"

"Bugger," Keller said.  "Oh well, it's probably for the best.  Let's go...  Best of luck to you, your majesty!"

"Sorry, Keller," Niall said apologetically as he double-checked the contents of the briefcase.  "Send Fairwater my apologies... And remember, he is welcome to negotiate with Daryil for access to the thing."

*  *  *

Not long afterwards, R-ALF and R.Niall appeared inside the arctic base, and made their way to Daryil's office.

"Welcome back!" the fox incubus smiled.  "Daniel has already contacted me, so I know most of what has occurred.  I'm glad you're all safe, and I've already sent an avatar to help out Lord Ravage.  Now, let's see the artifact!" he added, an eager expression on his face.

Carefully, R-ALF placed the briefcase on the desk, and opened it gingerly.  Daryil's expression of delight and anticipation melted away into concern as the camera case opened.

Inside was a slightly beat-up looking salmon.

"What the fuck...?" Daryil gasped.

"KELLER...!" Niall screamed.

J.P. Morris, Chief Engineer DMFA Radio Project * IT-HE * D-T-E



Chapter 9

King Fairwater sat upon his throne to greet the returning heroes.  Admaria was wearing one of her more succubus-like outfits, a royal blue PVC dress and matching rubber opera gloves.  Faintly menacing, but less so than the black latex she preferred when passing a sentence of execution.

As Keller, Amanti, Emily and Yvonne approached the throne, the snow leopard incubus raised a metal camera case towards the king in triumph.  Placing it upon an ornate table, he threw it open to reveal the blazing light of the dragon mask replica.

"Impressive...!" the doberman breathed.

"Amazing!" Admaria exclaimed, clapping her hands.  "With power such as this, we may be able to rescue our clan Leader, Kansuri, from his self-imposed exile!"

"Don't get too excited, your Majesties," Keller cautioned.  "Firstly, it won't work without the Jewels of Ariganum - until then, it remains locked.  Pretty, but useless apart from lighting the castle.  Also, I don't know how Daryil will react when he finds I've switched the cases.  He may come looking for it."

"Great," Fairwater sighed.  "You know, it would have been more diplomatic to let him have it in the first place."

"It seemed like a good idea at the time," Keller sighed.  "It was the perfect opportunity since it was being taken back by androids... they wouldn't be able to detect the spell."

"True, but I cannot afford to make an enemy of Daryil, nor would I really wish to.  Still... If we can get the jewels, we may be able to extract some of the energy from it before he comes to claim it.  Let's take a look at this thing."

So saying, he reached out to lift the mask from the briefcase.  As soon as his fingers touched it, there was a clap of thunder and he disappeared.

"Oh fuck!"  Keller yelped.

"What happened?!" Admaria demanded.  "Where is the King?"

"I... don't know!" Keller whimpered.  "But I've just realised... he was the first person to touch it directly!  Everyone else used gloves or armour... or was robotic!"

"It was trapped!  Did it kill him?" Ernst asked, looking appalled.

"No - we'd have felt that," Amanti assured him.  "That clap of air closing up when he vanished... I think it teleported him.  But where...?"

"I bet he's inside the damned artifact!" Keller moaned.  "Now we'll definitely have to get those jewels!  Or confront Daryil directly!

"Yes... I think this definitely counts as an emergency now," Yvonne said, and closed her eyes.  Forty seconds later, Daryil materialised in front of them.

"You stupid idiots," he sighed.  "Why do you think I tried to keep this thing a secret...?  Your ignorance is my bliss... or was, anyway.  You know that dragon artifacts can be very dangerous!"

"We also know that this isn't one, Milord," Keller pointed out.  "It's a clever fake, which we believe you built.  But that's not the point.  Where is Fairwater?  Is he safe?  Is he inside it...?"

"Yes.  In stasis... I did not build lethal defences into this thing.  Assuming we can get it open, we might also find a few other unfortunates trapped inside it, but they should be unharmed."

"What would have happened if Hizell had obtained it?"  Amanti asked, awed.  "Would he have been trapped in there like a fly in amber?"

His expression suddenly turned into one of fear.  "W-what if one of his children did?  Do we risk opening it up and finding an angry Dragon inside, ready to kill us all?!"

"That would be bad," Daryil agreed.  "Bad for all concerned.  It is said that our world is no longer capable of supporting draconic life, but that doesn't mean I want to see one slowly expire in front of us, to say nothing of the damage they could cause in the meantime... or the possibility that they could use the artifact's power to keep themselves alive long enough to avenge their race.
"That said, I would have thought that a Dragon disappearing would cause a massive enough splash that we'd have heard about it, so I suspect that's the least likely outcome."

"But what do we do?!" Admaria wailed.  "The King is missing!  Do you have any idea what you've done?!"

"What I've done...?  He chose to meddle with something he did not understand," Daryil retorted irritably.  "There are countless stories and parables where greed overcomes someone to their doom.  Ascension alone has cost countless members of our race everything they were...
"That said, I do agree - he can't stay like this.  I need to get this thing open and extricate him, along with anyone else.  If there is a live Dragon preserved inside that thing... well, Bob put us up to this - He can deal with it."

"So we need to get the jewels after all," Keller sighed.  "I don't suppose you have them...?"

"You found out that much?"  Daryil looked at the snow leopard with new respect.  "I guess you were wearing gloves, or it was still inside the suppression field in the vault...?  But to answer your question, no.  I don't have the jewels either.  But once we have even two of them, I'll at least be able to look inside and see how many people are trapped inside the thing."

"What do you suggest I do in the meantime?"  Admaria asked, calming down a little.  "I can rule in his absence, but questions will be asked.  Rumours will circulate!"

"If anyone does ask, tell them the truth... that he's temporarily stranded inside an ancient artifact.  It's hardly the first time such a thing has happened.
"I can have this avatar on side to advise you if you need help.  I could even pretend to be the king for that matter, but that kind of deception never really appealed to me and besides, Fairwater will get twitchy about it.   He keeps worrying about me wanting to take over his kingdom or something."

"For a long time that was how things worked," the queen pointed out cautiously.  "That the big and the powerful would seize territory from their rivals because they could."

"The day I seize your territory will be the day your rule has descended into tyranny," the tri-wing declared.  "The lands Daryil Clan has dominion over are to provide a safe haven for my Children and other Creatures who have traditionally faced persecution, and may yet face it again in the millennia to come.  So long as your realm remains such a haven I shall continue regard you as valued allies, even if we share differences of opinion in other matters.
"Only if you fall into true evil or seek to make an enemy of me will I consider taking your realm for my own.
"Who knows?  Maybe my attitude will change in the long run, but if that does happen it will be your distant descendants who have to worry about it, not you."

*  *  *

"Your grace," the white wolf said, kneeling before the ornate throne with a faint creak as his black motorcycle leathers shifted and stretched.

"Sethir Clandover," the Archbishop said.  "I thank you for your prompt arrival.  I have summoned you here as I have a job in mind, one that requires considerable discretion.  You would be ideal for this task."

"Your grace, I am no assassin," the wolf sighed.  "If I am to take a life in your service, it must go through the proper channels."

"It is not an assassination that I need," the vulpine smiled.  "I too must use the proper channels when such regrettable situations occur, or my own life could be forfeit.  I have not remained Archbishop for so many centuries by risking my neck.

"Rise, Sethir.  It is best we discuss this elsewhere," he added and the wolf gratefully straightened up with more creaking.  The Archbishop rose too and shortly the pair of them were sat in a plush but dimly-lit office, where a photograph of three gemstones was projected onto an adjacent wall.

"Sethir, for over a thousand years the Church has been guardian to the legendary Jewels of Ariganum," Archbishop Williams began.  "Sinners have, in times past, plundered these precious stones from our treasury, and but one remains in our keeping.
"I desire to see this collection restored.  In six weeks hence, the Grand Solstice Festival shall take place, and it would please me greatly if all three jewels were on display for this event."

"But I am no thief either," Sethir said, looking anxious.  "It would not be virtuous to steal them, not even for the Church..."

"A loan, then, for the greater glory of the gods," the Archbishop said.

"Your grace!" Sethir looked appalled.  "A theft is still a theft, even dressed up in a pretty euphemism!  Please understand that I am a synthetic lifeform, your holiness... The Being Creature Commission does not entirely trust me with all the upgrades I have had installed, and my actions will be closely scrutinised!"

"Actually I meant it literally," the fox corrected him.  "While I greatly desire to possess the remaining stones, if this cannot be achieved by legal means, I would at least see them loaned to the Church for their display during the Festival.  That a talented individual such as yourself is protecting them should ease the fears of their owners significantly."

"Then why this secrecy, your grace?"  Sethir asked.

"Because I am not the only one looking for them," the vulpine demon said.  "Recently they were on the cover of Temporal Magazine, with an article chronicling their history.  So now, at least two other factions have recently posted bounties for their acquision, by fair means or foul.
"Such groups are likely to acquire the jewels simply to sell them on the black market for some grossly-inflated sum which the Church can never match.  Our resources are not unlimited, especially for an item of little actual practical value.  We may never see them again if some crime-lord should acquire them.

"One of these groups is the Talon Corporation..." the demon trailed off.

"Urgh," Sethir winced.

"That was my reaction as well," the Archbishop admitted.  "They may 'accidentally' kill their way to the jewels in self-defence, and then 'accidentally' kill their rivals in self-defence.  And if things do turn ugly, you will be far better placed to deal with such matters.  And that is why I am hiring you to do this instead of sending one of the Clergy.

"Thank you, your grace," Sethir bowed.  "Where should I look first?"

"While I do not wish to draw attention to the fact that I am seeking for them, I have had my trusted aides make a few discreet enquiries as anonymously as they could.  I would start your search at Grimhaven."

J.P. Morris, Chief Engineer DMFA Radio Project * IT-HE * D-T-E


ahhh yes, always good to have more Sethir!


One week I'll remember to update these on a consistent day, but apparently this wasn't it.

Chapter 10

"Welcome to Grimhaven, Mr. Jaye," the innkeeper said.  "We have an adventuring suite prepared for you in room three..." he hesitated, glancing at Yvonne with an expression of trepidation.

"Is there something we should know about?" Amanti asked politely.  "Some local trouble?"

"As adventurers you may be able to take care of yourselves," the lion admitted, "But even so I should warn you, yes.  There have been evil deeds afoot of late.  A dangerous criminal has been busy in these parts."

"Oh?" Yvonne asked.

"Aye.  A feline in glossy clothing has been stalking the land," the lion said, fearfully.  "Many murders have been committed, and the press have dubbed them 'The catsuit killer'!"

"Oh," Yvonne said, glancing down at her attire.  "Should I change to something more conventional?"

"Perhaps.  Eyewitnesses state the felon to resemble a man of slim build, so you yourself are unlikely to be suspect, but still... Many people have been slain by an evil feline clad in shining black!  Some fear it may be an incubus gone bad!"

"Amanti..." Keller began warningly.

"Wasn't me," the incubus protested.  "I've never been here before.  Besides, you know it would anger Daryil.  He's been uncommonly generous in helping straighten me out despite the terrible things I've done.  If I repaid that by committing a spree of unprovoked murders... Ooof, I'd probably get my head on Queen Admaria's wall, next to Sven's!"

"When caught, they are to hang in the market square as proof that the reign of terror is ended!" the innkeeper interjected.

"Ewww!  But what if the killer is a Demon?" R-ALF asked.  "Hanging doesn't really work on them."

"With the proper anti-magic restraints it just might," Keller said.

"If the killer cannot be hanged they shall be guillotined," a nearby adventurer put in.  "The details matter not, so long as all can see that justice has been done and that they can live safely once more."

"Unless they execute the wrong person," Amanti said.  "Catsuits aren't that uncommon."

"Even before the murders such attire has been considered sinful in these parts, but aye, it is true that some have been wrongly accused over their choice of garments," the innkeeper said.  "Fortunately we have 'Cubi in the Department of Finance and Justice who could read their thoughts, and acquitted them.
"Nay, things are not that savage here.  Indeed, executions are a rare event at all.
But those who commit so many killings cannot be redeemed.  And when this mass-murderer is taken, their punishment shall be swift and harsh!"

"Talking of which, put that cutlery back," Emily prompted.

"Aw," Keller sighed.

*  *  *

Lord Karl glanced up from his book at a sudden noise.  The volume fell from his hands as the toilet flushed in the en-suite bathroom of his palace bedchambers.  Moments later, Keller walked out of it.

"You!" he snarled.

"Hi there!" the snow leopard beamed, waving cheerily.

"For a notorious master thief, you have made a grave mistake," the official growled.  "You must be slipping to be caught so easily."

"That was the whole idea," Keller said.  "Your flunkies wouldn't allow me see you.  So I took matters into my own hands.  You see, I have a proposition for you."

"Keeping trouble such as you out of here was the whole idea as well," the bear snapped.  "All right...  Get to the point and I shall listen first before you are thrown out."

"I understand that you have one of the Jewels of Ariganum," Keller replied smoothly.  "In fact, I know exactly where it is.  While I probably could just lift it and go, it will still be something of a challenge.  But more to the point, my companions feel strongly that we should try to acquire the gem by legal means first."

"What have you in mind, thief?" the bear replied guardedly.

"We understand this place has been having a few problems with a serial killer," Amanti said, stepping out of the bathroom just as Keller has done.  "While I enjoy killing people myself, I don't get very much opportunity to practice these days.  So I figured... if we take down this murderer for you, you could give us the Jewel of Ariganum as a token of your gratitude."

"...And if I refuse you'll try to steal it anyhow," Lord Karl snapped, eyes narrowing as Keller nodded happily.  The nobleman went quiet for a few moments, and then slumped back in his chair.
"This feels like extortion," he snarled, "But at the same time... My guards have had no luck in capturing the culprit.  Very well, I agree to your terms.  Now get out of here!"

"See you soon," Keller waved, and went back into the bathroom, followed by Amanti.  When Lord Karl looked inside, it was empty.

*  *  *

"I still think I should have just stolen it," Keller sighed.

"That's Plan B if we can't find the culprit," Amanti said with a wide yawn.

"Yes, but now he knows we want it.  It could be replaced with a fake, hidden away or something," Keller sighed.  "Hell, we could still have stolen it first and then offered our services as compensation for his loss!  But now we're definitely going to have to find some lone psychopath on a murder spree."

"He agreed too quickly," Emily said.  "I don't like it."

"I was expecting him to demand we brought them in alive as proof," Amanti admitted.  "Who knows?  He might just have been saying that to get rid of us.  Or at least to make it look like something's being done about the serial killer, even if he expects us to fail..."

"In fairness, we don't know these are unprovoked murders," Yvonne pointed out.  "It might be a turf war, or a vigilante bumping off some thugs who wronged them."

"Then we'd better read up on it," Keller decided.  "Since this Lord Karl hasn't been as helpful as I'd hoped for, we'll have start from scratch.  Fetch a list of the victims and look into their backgrounds.  See if we can establish a pattern."

*  *  *

An hour or so later, the table was covered in pieces of paper and print-outs.  Amanti stared at it all with a glazed expression, while Emily slept, the only member of the party who still needed to do so.

"So, can your computer mind see any kind of pattern?"  Keller asked the cyber-wolf with an expectant look.

"No it can't," R-ALF snapped, sounding offended.  "And you're making it sound like I'm some kind of application program!  I'm not!  I'm a fully-sentient combination of neural network and soul just like you are - only made from different materials!"

"Oh," Keller said, headwings fanning out slightly at the robot's sudden burst of anger.

"To be fair, most 'Cubi aren't really up to speed on artificial intelligence, Ralf," Yvonne pointed out soothingly.  "You've spent much of your life surrounded by Daryil clan members who are experts in the field.  And electronics as a whole is a field that's evolved quite rapidly, especially when incubi and succubi can live for a couple of thousand years."

"I did last take a computer course in the 1980s," Keller admitted.  "It helped me pull of a couple of heists.  Once I hacked into the Fifth Sixth Bank mainframe and made it move the truncated parts of rounded fractions into my account.  That was fun while it lasted...  But you're right, things have moved on a lot since.  My apologies, Ralf."

"Apology accepted," the android said, sounding mollified.  "And Yvonne is right... I have lived a sheltered life, and I should have different expectations for people outside that bubble.
"But to answer your question more politely, no.  I'm not seeing much of a pattern so far."

"So what do we do?  Wait for this maniac to strike again?  Pose as a target?  Put out an ad challenging him to a duel?"

"Bob," Keller muttered, closing his eyes in prayer, "If you want Daryil to have these bloody jewels so badly, at least give us a hint."

When he opened his eyes, a post-it note was stuck to the table with a street address and a time written on it.  Underneath were the words "90% probability.  Best I can do... mysterious ways & all."

"Oho!" Keller said, with a gleam in his eye.  "Ralf, rouse Emily.  From a safe distance, in case she snaps in her sleep.  We're going hunting!"

*  *  *

It was 10PM when they reached the alleyway.  The sun had long since set and the streets were dimly lit by the occasional sodium vapour lamp.

"Shit," Amanti mumbled, "We're too late."  Two dark figures were already engaged in a desparate struggle.  Finally there was a slash and one of them fell limply to the ground, long tail twitching for a moment and then going still.

Emily and R-ALF broke into a run, faster than any Being could achieve and in short order the fugitive was brought down.

"Oh fuck," Keller said, shining a torchlight on the dead man.  A cheetah's eyes stared glassily, face a frozen mask of shock, blood still trickling from the wound on his throat, across a polished rubber bodysuit to where it pooled on the ground by his arm, a fractal-bladed knife still clutched in one black-clad hand.

"It's him?!"  Amanti gurgled.  "That's... handy, but what about his assailant?!  Why the hell were they running away?!  They could have claimed the bounty for bringing the Catsuit Killer to justice!"

"I still say it could be gang warfare," Yvonne muttered.  "Even if this death was a public service, they'd still be in trouble for their other crimes..."

"Let's find out," Keller said.  R-ALF and Emily led the figure back out of the shadows and towards the dimly-lit spot where the feline had met his end.

As the figure passed by the orange glow of the streetlamp, they saw a glossy sheen to his body, mistaken at first for Emily's platemail or R-ALF's armoured hide.

"Oh dear," Amanti sighed.  "Are you who I think you are...?"

"Hi there," the cheetah said, raising two rubber-gloved hands where they could be easily seen.  "Name's Greg.  I'm the notorious Catsuit Killer."

J.P. Morris, Chief Engineer DMFA Radio Project * IT-HE * D-T-E



Chapter 11

"Now.  We won't be disturbed here, and you're outnumbered," Amanti said, arms folded.  "So you'd better explain your deeds, and explain them well, if you want to be taken alive.  Because that's strictly optional.  We caught you red-handed, with the corpse of someone who's clearly set up as your patsy."

"You don't understand," the cheetah protested.  "Yes, I admit I have blood on my hands, but you don't get it!  They had to die!"

"This is still murder," R-ALF said.  "I do not wish to escort you to the guillotine, but that is the way things are heading."

"Fine!  You want to talk about murder?  Let's talk about Ferdinand Muller!" the cheetah snarled.  "He was murdered!  All he did was write an article critical of Lord Karl.  It wasn't even published!  But within the week of it being rejected, he was found stabbed!"

"He was your lover...?" Amanti asked, headwings drooping.

"Yes!  And as soon as the fuss had died down... the investigation was just quietly dropped!  But I'd been doing some investigations of my own.  I found the article he'd written.  I found his notes... and from those I found his killer."

"And you took matters into your own hands?" Keller looked disgusted.  "Did a little killing of your own?  Stabbed them back?  Did it not occur to you to go through the proper channels?"

"Oh yes, because accusing the guards and the ruler of corruption and murder would really get the job done!  Even the Adventuring guild... you think they'd touch that with a barge pole?!
"No...  I never wanted to become a murderer, and I'm not proud of what I did, but at least I brought justice for Ferdinand."

"Big words, but your little murder spree has claimed nearly two dozen lives," Emily said stonily.  "Maybe you started out with noble intentions, but you cannot possibly expect us to believe that all those people killed your lover!  And what of their loved ones?  Your evil deeds may have created a hundred new mourners out for vengeance!  Why should we not turn in your head to give them closure?"

The cheetah laughed sadly.  "Did you actually look at the victims?  Try to work out a pattern?"

"They seemed pretty random," R-ALF admitted.  "Some of them had links to the guards, or officials.  The rest... didn't seem to make sense.  Which implies they were killed at random, or opportunistically.  Or possibly they knew too much and had to be silenced before they could tell."

"I'll give you a clue.  They fall into two categories," Greg said.  "Firstly, the three people I killed - the hitman and his backup - and then, all the rest.  That was my biggest mistake... choosing such a simple outfit as my calling-card.  It was a gift... to the very people I swore to stop."

"Shit," Amanti said, his face falling.  "A copycat killer?"

"Literally.  Let's say we have a cheetah in a catsuit who's gone vigilante and killed a few hitmen.  Now, imagine you're a corrupt official looking to disappear a few rivals and a bunch of other annoyances like my poor Ferdinand, or worse still, their family to send them a message and obfuscate things, okay?
"So what do you do?  You find some other cheetah on your staff, stick them into a rubber bodysuit and bingo!  Now this corrupt official can pin their crimes on me too!"

"Well... until I offed his double of me, anyway," Greg remarked, prodding the corpse with one boot.

"Ten to one, Lord Karl knows it's me!  Maybe he can't prove it... but more likely he was using me as an excuse to clean house... so when he's finished I'll suddenly get the rope for it all.
"To be honest, I thought that's what you were here for... to take me in once I'd outlived my usefulness as a scapegoat."

"We offered to help find the killer in exchange for one of the legendary Jewels of Ariganum," Emily said.  "But as always, there is a lot more to this than it first seemed."

"Why did you use a catsuit anyway?" Yvonne asked.

"It was a present from Ferdinand.  The last time we were together, we..." he trailed off in embarrassment.

"I get the picture," Amanti said.  "So you figured it had a poetic justice?"

"That and to embarrass the guards when they arrested me.  I didn't figure on getting away with it.  Since the execution will be public, my last request will be to demand I die wearing the catsuit, just to make a spectacle out of it.
"Lord Karl is a bit of a puritan.  I think that's one reason Ferdinand was killed... he was big in the Pride community."

"There is one thing I don't get," Emily said, eyes narrowing.  "I can accept that you killed a few criminals to avenge a loved one, and then realised that other people were stealing your likeness to pin their own crimes on you.
"But if that's the case, why are you still doing it?  Why are you still wearing the catsuit if that's your trademark?"

"To try and fix that mistake," Greg said.  "If I can save people while wearing the thing, twist the 'catsuit killer' into a hero, that'd break the pattern.  It'll mean Lord Karl will have to find some other way to hide his crimes, at the very least.
"This... This wasn't the plan, killing my impersonator... but I can't say I regret it either."

Emily glanced between Yvonne, Amanti and Keller.  "You're the thought-readers," she said.  "Is he on the level?"

"The innkeeper was right," Yvonne said.


"He's one of us," Yvonne replied, staring at the cheetah with a look of intensity.

"A Daryil?!" Amanti looked appalled.  "He won't like that... not at all!"

"I doubt that," the succubus replied.  "But he's almost certainly 'Cubi, like the innkeeper feared.  The unusual mind-shielding.  The fact that his lover's murder caused him to snap completely and kill people out of vengance.  And of course, the rubber," she finished.

"That's not true!" the feline gurgled, with an expression of terror.  "I'm not a monster!  I'm not!"

"I didn't say you were.  But you're not a Being either.  You have a ring or something to hide your wings, right?  Something you were given from an early age to pass as a Being?"

The cheetah slumped in despair for a few moments.  "It is true, isn't it?  I'm an incubus... it would explain a lot about everything..."

"So what are you going to do?" Greg asked, defiantly.  "Shop me anyway to get two rewards?  If I feared death I'd not have put my own neck on the line like this.
"Just take me in alive, okay?  If I can denounce Lord Karl on the scaffold, I will die happy knowing that justice was served and that I will be with my true love again.
"But dying in some alleyway as a scapegoat for my Lord's own murderous deeds... that's not what this was about!  I just killed a man to avoid that!"

"No question of that now," Yvonne sighed.  "It would have made things easier, but we're still an endangered race.  We'll have to take you under our care until we can figure things out.  After all, we can turn in your double as the real murderer..."

"But he's still a killer!" Emily protested.  "You can't just let him walk away!"

"But he doesn't know what he is!"  Amanti protested.  "He hasn't been trained in self-control or anything!  He's not rogue, he's just unable to cope with what he is!  He needs help, not decapitation!  And a lot less help than I needed, at that!"

"He's right," R-ALF said.  "I do not agree even with killing corrupt officials, but this... Urgh!"

"I say we just steal the gem and get out of here," Keller spat.  "We can leave the city to sort its own mess out - it really isn't our problem."

"Oh, but it is," said Lord Karl.

"Oh fuck," Amanti said, turning to see a number of armed guards flanking the city's ruler.

"People have already begun to question the narrative of a lone maniac," Lord Karl said.  "Some of those have since met the Catsuit Killer themselves, but as the bodies pile up, more and more will reach the same conclusion.
"And that means I need another scapegoat.  And now look..." he said blissfully, "Not one, but four more felines to taste the blade for my doings... one of them already wearing a catsuit, and another a known murderer, even!  Truly you are the answer to my prayers!"

"This is going to look good at the trial," Keller pointed out.  "When we point out that you've confessed to most of these murders yourself, and that you should submit to thought-reading from an impartial 'Cubi... I doubt you'll get the swift mercy of a beheading."

Lord Karl just shook his head.  "You still don't understand the blessing that this incident has been.  It was just the excuse I needed to obtain emergency powers.  You will face summary judgement at the People's Court, followed immediately by the guillotine."

"...And if you need to clean house again in the future...?"  Yvonne asked.  "With the killers dead, you'll need a new scapegoat.  Or do you mean to gradually kill us one by one over a longer period?"

"No point," the bear corrected her, eyes staring into the distance with an expression of eager anticipation.  "Now that I have the People's Court, I can go around and just execute anyone I want!"

"You know we'll denounce you on the scaffold," Keller pointed out.  "Tell the crowd what you've done... and it'll look very suspicious if we're all gagged to prevent us being able to give our last words.  What's your plan for that?"

"I've taken the opportunity to modernise things," Lord Karl smiled.  "No more barbaric public executions, from now on all shall receive the decency of a private beheading as is done in civilised society.
"If the people demand proof that justice has been done, I can always put your heads on display, but... ugh, so medieval!"

Amanti's eyes narrowed and Emily drew her sword, but some of the guards were demons and the fight was very brief.  Enchanted bracers snapped around their wrists and and short order, the party was taken.

"Come..." Lord Karl laughed.  "It is time for you to pay for my crimes!"

"Weren't there six of them?" asked one of the guards.

"Perhaps," Lord Karl said.  "If so, we'll catch them later.  Or maybe just let them go... a useful villain to pin things on if they stay, and out of my fur if they flee the city.  Let's just take these five into custody.  And make sure the guillotine is serviced, as it will soon be very busy."

*  *  *

Shit, R-ALF thought, returning to visibility once the alley was empty again.  Now I'm going to have to break them out of jail or something... and I don't even know where the jail is!

J.P. Morris, Chief Engineer DMFA Radio Project * IT-HE * D-T-E



I'm really not doing well at updating this on time.  Still, here's the next chapter

Chapter 12

Five shackled and bracer-clad prisoners stood before Lord Karl, as he stared down at them with a look of amused contempt.  So far the trial had been six minutes of Lord denouncing them, and any attempt to speak or deny the charges had been met with a blow from one of the guards.

"...And so, I sentence you to a well-earned death by decapitation!"  Lord Karl decreed.

"Does that mean we don't get the reward?"  Keller asked insolently, and was quickly struck for his pains.

"Your reward is the guillotine," Lord Karl smiled.  "You shall all be taken from this place to the execution chamber where you shall meet your fates beneath the blade, one by one.  While the rest watch," he added.

At that moment there was a smashing sound from high above.  Fragments of glass dropped to the floor of the court, followed by a black figure who lay sprawled on the ground.

"What has happened?!" Lord Karl demanded as his guards ran to inspect the fallen body.  "Murder!  Get to the roof and find the culprit!"

As the guards rushed out to get to the roof, the figure suddenly rolled over and leapt to his feet, pointing at the robed bear with an imperious gesture.

"Lord Karl, I find you guilty of treason and murder!" R-ALF boomed, addressing the room with an amplified voice.

"So you are the sixth member of this sorry band!" the bear snapped.  "You too, shall face the guillotine, creature!"

"I repeat, you are a murderer and a traitor!" R-ALF yelled, voice calm despite the extreme volume.  "I have a recording of your confession!"

"I am the ruler of this land!  How can I betray myself?"  Lord Karl demanded.  "You, on the other hand, shall lose your head immediately for threatening my person!  Guards!  Do your duty!"

"I was made to be an elite bodyguard," R-ALF pointed out.  "I highly recommend you surrender."

"Pin him down!  Get that armour off, and then we'll see exactly what he's made of!"

"Good luck with that," R-ALF said, followed shortly by "Oh shit," as he realised that some of the guards were Demons and might, in fact, be able to dismember him.

With the android struggling but unable to move, the guards pored over his armour looking for catches and suchlike to remove it, only to find that it was sealed firmly shut.  Mystified, one of the demons released his grip for a moment and R-ALF was able to break free.
Leaping across the room, he vanished and nimbly stepped aside as the guards piled into the location he'd last been, only to smash into the wall at full force.

R-ALF reappeared by the group and pulled a small amulet from a cavity in his chest.  "Grab it," he hissed quickly.  Everyone did, and in short order the six fugitives blinked out of the People's Court and reappeared at their room in the inn.

"Nice work, R-ALF!" Keller grinned.

"Don't thank me yet," the cyberwolf retorted, replacing the amulet into his storage compartment.  "We're still in the city, and as escaped prisoners who've just been sentenced to death, and you're all still wearing those anti-magic restraints to boot.  I'd have preferred to beam us back to somewhere further away, but I can't adjust the amulet myself."

"I can," Yvonne said.  "Get those bracers off me and I'll switch it to a Daryil safe-house.  Then we'll have to grab our things and beam out of here immediately!"

"But the Jewel...!" Amanti protested.  "The Queen... what will she do to us if we come back empty-handed?!  We can't just leave!"

"Fixing the realm isn't our job," Keller said.  "We've already done that once on this mission, and that's more than most people manage in a lifetime!  Trying to force change in every despotic hellhole we run into will only get us killed, like being an adventurer in the bad old days.  I say we cut our losses and scarper back to Daryil.  With the catsuit killer.  As you say, he belongs in a 'Cubi academy.  Remember, we can try for the jewel another day - but only if we get out of here first."

"What about the room?"  Emily said, as R-ALF crunched a bracer and pulled it off Yvonne's arm.  "We can't just run off without settling our tab!"

"It was prepaid," Amanti said.  "Much as Keller loves theft.  They might send us a cleaning surcharge but it's better than being executed."

"Does that mean they can use it to track us down?" R-ALF asked worriedly.

"Perhaps, but we'll be in Daryil territory.  Or Fairwater territory.  Either way, we'll be under the protection of a power Lord Karl won't dare confront.  Now, everybody grab your luggage!  Quickly, because the landlord has probably already heard us and phoned the guards."

At that moment, there was the sound of boots running up the stairs.  The door smashed inwards just in time for the six figures to vanish yet again.

*  *  *

"Well?" Queen Admaria demanded.  "Have you retrieved the jewel?"

"We've failed, your highness," Keller said sullenly.

"What?!" the Queen looked furious.  "What happened?  You know we need all those jewels to release my husband!"

"We cut a bargain with the ruler to get the jewel in exchange for his dirty work," Amanti retorted.  "After which he not only refused to give us the reward, but framed us for it and tried to chop of all our heads for the favour!"

Admaria paused angrily for a moment, trying to decide if it was a veiled dig at anything she'd done.  "I see," she said at length.  "Would you care to elaborate on that?  And who is this stranger?"

"Oh, that's the so-called Catsuit Killer," Emily said.  "We were supposed to kill him for Lord Karl in exchange for the Jewel of Ariganum which the city museum holds.  But it turned out Lord Karl had ordered most of the killings himself and was pinning them on this guy."

"He killed my lover," the cheetah said wretchedly.  "For speaking out against him.  So I got my revenge.  I am not proud of it, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.  Then this copycat killer showed up and started killing dozens of people... people opposed to Lord Karl."

"He is an incubus foundling," Yvonne added firmly.  "He needs rehabilitation and enrolment in a 'Cubi school, not summary decapitation in a kangaroo court as a scapegoat for a corrupt ruler."

The border collie glowered for a moment and bit back a retort.

"I agree with Yvonne," Daryil interrupted, startling everyone.  "I shall see to this Greg's rehabilitation personally.  Yes, he has done wrong, but so have you, your Majesty," Daryil pointed out.  "So have we all.  And at the end of the day, under the laws of both our realms, he would not qualify for a death sentence.  Remember, he did this to fight back against an oppressive ruler, not out of racial hatred nor for his own amusement.
"As for the mission, I think you do them wrong, Admaria.  Not every mission can or will succeed.  Were it not for Ralf they would all be headless by now, and we'd not only be missing the jewel, but have lost a very capable team including one of my own Children.
"If that had happened, do you think I would risk losing more of my precious clan to an evil tyrant?"

The Queen looked guilty for a moment and then slumped in her chair.

"This is true.  I apologise," she said.  "But my husband... You know what he means to me!"

"That's quite alright," Keller said, as the tension began to ease noticeably.  "And I'm sorry, but these things do happen.  I'm infamous for some pretty audacious thefts, but you don't usually hear about the ones that failed.  And there are a lot more failures than you'd think, given my reputation.
"No... we'll just have to regroup and try again.  But it has just got a lot harder, because we're wanted criminals and Lord K knows we want the Jewel.  He will assuredly try to use it as bait."

"Thank you," the Queen said.  "In the meantime I will see if I can reach out to this Lord Karl and arrange the purchase or loan of the jewel through more conventional means.
"As for Greg, well he is currently in Daryil territory anyway.  That makes him your problem... but if he ends up here, I shall give him the benefit of the doubt unless he actively causes trouble.  As you say, none of us are innocent and I would likely have done the same in his place.  Strictly, Fairwater did."

"Good," Daryil said.  "My plan is to send him to Illiath's school, which is jointly-owned.  These days, with technology overtaking magic for daily wants and needs, 'Cubi are often late getting a clan mark so identifying him may require a blood test or feather analysis from the 'Cubi Registry.  That said, I believe him to be of Clan Avari, like Keller."

"A thief?"  Yvonne asked doubtfully.  "He doesn't seem that way inclined from what little we know."

"Excitement and thrill-seeking," Keller corrected.  "Thieving is just the way I go about it."

"If I do have some kind of innate attraction to that, it would explain a few things," Greg admitted uneasily.

"It'll be fine," Yvonne reassured him.  "We all go through these hangups."

*  *  *

"So," Lord Karl said, studying an ornately-ribboned warrant.  "You have been sent in search of the Jewel of Ariganum that is in our possession, to bring it back to the Church of Universal Reconciliation in Neuheim, for their Grand Solstice Festival."

"That is correct, Mi'Lord," Sethir said, leathers creaking slightly as he sat wingless in the meeting room of Lord Karl's palace.

"A pious cause indeed," the bear sighed.  "One that I should love to assist you with, but unfortunately the Jewel has been stolen from the realm by the notorious thief, Keller.  It was taken from the Palace display room last night."

"I see," the white wolf's blood-red eyes narrowed.

"Worse, he is abetted by the equally notorious murderer Amanti Jyraneth," Lord Karl snarled.  "Lately he has been at large here, slaying my own officials and citizens under my care!  Over two dozen have fallen prey to him, whom the press have dubbed 'The Catsuit Killer'!"

"So, to get the Jewel back, I will have to take it from two notorious criminals," Sethir looked unhappy.

"And soon, before Keller can fence this precious thing off.  In addition, I will pay a vast reward for Amanti's head."

"He is known to me," Sethir smiled coldly.  "I have no love for serial killers, but for those who have eaten souls...  Disposing of him will be a pleasure.   Thank you again for your assistance, Mi'Lord," he bowed, and left the palace.

J.P. Morris, Chief Engineer DMFA Radio Project * IT-HE * D-T-E


every Seth appearance is super exciting, to me


Chapter 13

From a window, Lord Karl watched as the wolf biker straddled his racing bike and sped off.

Incubi are such fools, he thought to himself with a wide grin.  For empaths and thought-readers, they can be so easy to manipulate!  Something I must keep in mind for the future.

Touching a secret panel in his private study, Lord Karl took a concealed elevator down into the basement of the palace, to a room which only he knew of.

Ancient fluorescent tubes flickered and snapped metallically as they sputtered to life, and he opened a heavy steel door to the room where the ruler's most precious valuables had been stored for generations since the palace was built.

Inside it, a glass cabinet held the red jewel... but Karl already had a sinking feeling that all was not well.  Drawing closer, the bear suddenly realised that his prize had been replaced by a photograph, the black background nearly invisible against the satin display.  There was also a faint smell of fresh trout.

With a scream, he turned the key in the lock and picked up the offending object.  Flipping it over he read the words "I. O. U.  -Keller".

Beneath them, in a different hand, someone else had scrawled the words "Fuck U  -Amanti"

*  *  *

"Well, that's very interesting," Emily remarked, reading the newspaper in the safe-house they had set up, squatting in a kitchen inside an abandoned industrial unit.

"Hmm?" Keller murmured, glancing at the other snow leopard.

"The headline is that you've stolen the Ariganum jewel," she said slowly.

"It's nice to be acknowledged for your accomplishments," Keller grinned, patting a padded brown envelope to reassure himself it was still there.  "After all... I have stolen it!  This very afternoon!"

"That's the problem," Emily said.  "This is the morning paper."

"What?!" the male snow leopard's wings fanned out in shock.

"Precisely.  And this place is still stuck in the 1950s, they refuse to use anything more advanced than telephones and video cameras.  So to make it for this morning's paper, it went to press last night, while we were back at Fairwater."

"The sneaky little shit!" Keller snarled.  "When the thing was missing from the display room case, I figured it was moved to a private location to prevent me from nicking it.  I didn't know I already had.  What the hell is his game...?"

"Could you have taken a decoy?" Yvonne wondered.

"If I were Lord K, I'd have made sure the decoy was on display as soon as he knew I was after it," Keller said.  "The question is, which one did I steal from his private vault?"

"We could take it back to Daryil and see if it works," Amanti suggested.  "If not, at least it narrows things down."

"But if we have the wrong one, we need to move quickly to get our hands on the other before he can... whatever the hell he plans to do with it!"

"Either way it's a risk," R-ALF said.  But if you give the thing to me, I'll take it back to Daryil, while you investigate the other one.  It's always possible Lord K actually has two of the things."

"Very well," Keller said, reluctantly handing the cyberwolf the precious envelope.  "But meet up with us as soon as you can."

*  *  *

In his chamber, Lord Karl paced fretfully.

Shit, he thought.  Maybe 'Cubi are not as dumb as I thought.  Keller has somehow broken in, and this Sethir has fled the city entirely!

He went back to a wall panel and slid it back to reveal a CRT display, which slowly brightened to show a map and a blip upon it - the tracking device he'd had placed on Sethir's bike.

Is it possible that someone else has stolen his motorcycle?  Or could have have gone for reinforcements...?  Well... if he has betrayed me, I shall have his head off next.  Even an incubus is no match for my demon guards, and they only have to hold him in place until the blade falls.  Yes... perhaps I should order his death anyway, just in case.

"I heard that," Amanti said.  "So... you're planning more murders?"

"I am the ruler here," Lord Karl said, turning around and pressing a panic button.  "Rulers do not murder.  They execute.  And your own execution is long overdue!"

"Then I'd like a last request," the incubus said.  "How many of the Jewels of Ariganum do you have, and which one did we take?"

"Oho," Keller said, seeing a red gemstone lying carelessly in a desk drawer.  "I fancy this one's a decoy!  Let's go."

"You'll find that difficult," Lord Karl smiled.  "This place has been warded since your last break-in.  You're not going anywhere!"

"We got in," Amanti pointed out.  "If you've got this place protected against teleportation, it's clearly not working very well."

"The ward prevents people leaving," the bear smiled evilly.  "It wouldn't be a very good trap otherwise, now would it?  I have also warded the People's Court, and the death-house in particular.  My guards will be here soon to give you a personal tour."

"If you're talking about the panic button, I cut the wire," Keller added helpfully.  Then he screamed as a bullet struck his chest.

"The next one will be through your head, Keller," the bear said, standing over the prone incubus with a revolver.  "Time to kiss your brain goodbye!"

The shot rang out, neatly punching through Keller's ear as Amanti's rubber-gloved fist tugged at his arm and ruined his aim.  Then a wing-tentacle snaked around Lord Karl's neck.

"You hurt my lover," the incubus hissed, eyes glowing with rage and a demented snarl across his features.

"You cannot murder me!  I'm the ruler!" Lord Karl screamed, clawing futilely at the 'Cubi's extra limb.

"You don't murder rulers," Amanti snarled.  "You assassinate them."

Shortly afterwards there was a crash of breaking glass and Lord Karl's head tumbled from an upper window of the palace.  He was dead before he hit the ground.

*  *  *

In a shabby street west of the capital, Sethir Clandover paced fretfully.

Did I get this wrong? he wondered.  Lord Karl said that I should intercept Keller before he could hock the jewel off.  This is the obvious place to pawn something.  Why hasn't he come...?

He sighed despondently to himself.  Perhaps that's the problem... that it's too obvious.   But... this is the only place for 300 miles where he'd stand a hope of shifting something that valuable.

"Shit," he muttered, kicking an empty beer can.  I was never good enough at thinking like a thief... What if... What if it's stolen to order?!

He hurried back to the bike.

I have to go back, he thought.  There's two possibilities.  Either Keller is still in the city because that's the last place anyone would look, or he's gone.  If he's there, I can find him.  If he's gone, I'll either find a clue, or I've failed and will have to inform Lord Karl.  Either way, there is nothing for me here.

*  *  *

When Keller came to, he was lying on an old couch in their safe-house.

"You're awake!  How are you feeling?"  Amanti asked anxiously.

"Like I've been shot," Keller whispered.  "How bad is it...?"

"You're lucky," Emily informed him.  "That shot could easily have been fatal.  Even with my healing magics, I'd give it a few more hours before I'd recommend moving around too much."

"But we may have to risk it," Yvonne put in.  "After Amanti took out the city's ruler...  They've got even more reason to take us apart.  The recall amulet is missing - we think it got left in Lord K's chambers after Keller was shot."

"Oof," Keller said.  "If the guards find it, Admaria and Daryil might have a few surprise guests.  I hope they treat them gently."

"Quite.  But more importantly for us, it means we'll have to take the long route home."

"I don't suppose anyone has a warp-aci?" Emily asked.  "They're not really my kind of thing."

Suddenly there was a sound as the door was kicked in.

"Hands up!"  Seth said, covering them with his sidearm.  "Hand over the jewel."

"Are you robbing us?" Keller snarled, sitting up with a shudder of pain as Emily reached over to steady him.  "Because I'm the only thief around here, and I won't stand for any competition!"

"That's why I'm taking the jewel," Seth replied evenly.  "Because you've stolen it.  It must now be returned to its owner."

"Um, they're dead," Amanti put in apologetically.  "It's too late for that.  But we'll see that it goes to a good home..."

"Robbery and murder?!" Seth's expression turned into a snarl, and a katana appeared in his other hand.  "I might have known you would be in league with the Talon Corporation!  I should slay you myself!
"I'll ask you once more... Give me the jewel of Ariganum, or I shall turn you in to the authorities, where you may contemplate your folly upon the executioner's scaffold!"

"We're not with Talon," Yvonne said.  "The loss of life here was regrettable but necessary.  At least, I hope Amanti regrets it," the puma added with a glance.

"Nah.  But in my defence, it was for a good cause.  He was crooked as fuck, and worse - he tried to kill my boyfriend," the cat grinned evilly.  "In doing Lord Karl, I helped avenge the many murders he got away with as a high official, pinning them on that so-called 'Catsuit Killer'.  My lopping his head off will do this place a world of good!"

Sethir winced, but lowered his blade.  "Be that as it may, " he said, "I represent the true owner of the Jewels of Ariganum and have been tasked with their retrieval.  Please don't make me use force."

"Tell us who wants it first," Keller said, folding his arms and immediately regretting it.  "Because we've got a very powerful patron who is desperate to have it."

"I cannot tell you that," Sethir said.

"Then you cannot have the jewel," Keller said.  "But... if you take us to your client, I'd be happy to negotiate on behalf of ours."

"This job was supposed to be strictly hush-hush," Seth snapped.  "I can't do that.  But if you won't co-operate, I'll have to..."

"Have to what?"  R-ALF said, coming out of hiding and making as if to crack his knuckles.  "For good or ill, these people are under my protection.  You are not."

"You're an android too!" the wolf gurgled.  "Shit!"

"So we're at an impasse?" Amanti said.  "Are you sure we can't meet your client?  Hey... if wolf-boy is an android, we might be able to get that information out of his cyber-brain!  Then we'll know who to visit next on our little shopping trip!"

"No!" Seth yelped, looking scared.  "I... I agree to your terms.  We will negotiate with... my client."

"Talon Corporation!" a voice yelled, and a number of avian mercenaries in body armour stepped out from behind a stack of barrels, guns drawn.  "Hand over the jewel, or die!"

J.P. Morris, Chief Engineer DMFA Radio Project * IT-HE * D-T-E


Chapter 14

"Last chance..." the mercenary said.  "Hand over jewel, or die!"

"We haven't got it," Amanti said simply, spreading his gloved hands with a disarming smile.

"Then you're no further use to us," the avian said.  Amanti's wing threw off the gunman's aim and he leapt aside.  Emily fanned out her wings to protect the others and leapt into the fray, followed shortly by R-ALF.  A rocket slammed into a wall of the building, filling the room with smoke and dust as Keller did his best to remain small and hidden.

Yvonne cast a fireball at one of the barrels outside which promptly exploded, killing the gryphon instantly and blowing out another wall.  Seth staggered as a round hit him neatly between the eyes, but he recovered, irises glowing faintly as he flowed into motion.  Shortly the Talon gryphon had the favour returned, eyes staring glassily and a red mess on the adjacent wall.  Keller looked away, appalled.

Another rocket hit, setting fire to the building, but it was the last.  Yvonne had spotted their position and a sniper round finished them off.

"Great," Emily sighed, wiping her sword clean and kicking her opponent's head across the room.  "Now we'll have these psychos after us as well."

"Yes.  We will have to leave, and quickly.  Where's the jewel?"  Sethir asked, brushing his hair to conceal the head-shot he'd suffered until the nano-repair systems could patch up his synthetic pelt.  "Is it safe?"

"Oh, that?" Keller asked.  "We really don't have it.  Ralf had couriered it to our patron before you even arrived.  What we've got here is a decoy, courtesy of the late Lord Karl.  I wanted to have both just in case it was some kind of double-bluff.  But this is definitely a fake."

"Then I made the right decision in agreeing to your demands," Sethir said.  "Listen, we have to get out now," he added urgently.  "The building's on fire!  I can't say I cared much for Lord Karl, and I'm willing to give Amanti the benefit of the doubt - this time.  But a war just broke out in an industrial estate.  The guards will be on top of us soon, and you've assassinated their boss to boot!  They'll kill the lot of you on sight, and probably me as well!"

"We've lost our recall amulet," Amanti said.  "R-ALF, did you bring one back?"

"No," the android sighed.  "I didn't have time to get mine recharged and I didn't think to swap it out for a fully-charged one.  There was enough power to get me back here, but I figured I'd be using yours for the return trip."

"I do have one, but it will take me back to my client," Sethir said.  "Taking us all will drain the power, but I think it can be done.  I'll have to return later and try to recover the bike, though."

"Oh yeah, Lord Karl had a bug planted on your bike," Amanti said.  "He was thinking about it when we arrived."

"Then they'll know exactly where to find us," Keller said, conjuring up a walking stick and yelping with pain as he got to his feet.  "We go... right now".

*  *  *

"Well... this'll save us from having to rob the Church, I guess!" Keller said brightly, admiring the architecture.

The Archbishop stared at him with a look of intense distaste.  "At least you are upfront about your intentions."

"I have a reputation to keep," Keller said.  "Plus it'd be a fun challenge."

"Sethir, I presume you brought these miscreants here in connection with your mission?"

"I'm afraid so, your Grace," the white wolf said, bowing.  "They beat me to the Jewel in Grimhaven, but have agreed to treat with you to discuss the possession of, or access to the Jewels."

"For over a thousand years this Church had kept the Jewels of Ariganum safe, until they were stolen in 1980 by an evil incubus," the Archbishop intoned, looking at the group with solemn eyes.  "I seek to bring them back under our protection.  You seek to thwart me in this.  Why...?"

"The jewels were used by our client to seal an item of great power.  To unlock it, we need to have access all three jewels," Keller explained.  "I suspect we need all three of them together.   After that, well... you can always make me an offer!"

"I know exactly who you are, 'Keller'," the Archbishop scowled, "And I shall be certain to count the candles and search your person very thoroughly when you leave.  So forgive me for not believing what sounds like a tall tale to allow you to acquire them yourself."

"Very well," Amanti put in, "The ancient artifact we need to unlock has our King trapped inside it, and the Jewels are the only way we're going to get it open in a realistic timeframe."

"So, your client is King Fairwater?"

"Actually it's the Lord Daryil," Emily chimed in.
"Aaah!" the Archbishop yelped.  "He singlehandedly disrupted the Grand Solstice Service, conquered my Church and usurped my position all so he could perform some elaborate prank!  After which, the jewels were gone, I might add!  Since he has robbed us of the jewels in the first place, his name is not a password to my favour!"

"Oh yes it is," a booming voice said.

"My Lord!" the Archbishop glanced upwards with a concerned expression.   Shortly afterward, Bob materialised in front of them and the vulpine demon fell to one knee.

"Yeah.  These guys are on the level," Bob said.  "Daryil does need the Jewels of Ariganum.  But there's no reason he has to keep them once they've been used.  I figure this will be as good a place as any to store them afterwards."

"You mean the Lord Daryil is also in your service?!" the Archbishop looked mortified.  "Why didn't you say so...?"

"Actually, I'm in his service," Bob said.  "Quid pro quo."

At this, Daryil materialised in the middle of the room.  The Archbishop stepped back in alarm and several armed guards entered the room, watching nervously and caught between their desire to protect the Archbishop and the knowledge that Daryil's avatar could probably vapourise them all where they stood.

"Ehehe," Daryil said, waving at the Archbishop with a slightly sheepish expression.  "Sorry about disrupting that Mass...  But yeah, I really needed to borrow those jewels, and scatter them after I'd used them to make things harder for Hizell and his lot.  I did return one anonymously to remain here in your safekeeping, which I hope you still have.

"For what it's worth, your Church did steal them from somewhere else in the first place.  They are of Dragon make, after all.
"While Beings and other Creatures might leave artifacts to the Church in their will to ensure their swift passage to heaven, I rather doubt a Dragon would.  'What happens to me after I die?' has never been a favourite topic among Dragonkind, after all."

"But they belong in a museum!" the Archbishop protested.  "Whatever their origin, they should be put on display for all to enjoy!"

"I agree," Daryil said.  "And now that the danger of that time is past, that seems the best idea.  Once I have used them to unlock the seal, I can disarm the trap and I shouldn't need them again after that.  Then you can keep them on display as far as I'm concerned.  All of them, to help atone for disrupting your service."

"But if we're all on the same side..." the Archbishop looked confused and uncertain.

"This is why I like having fingers in a lot of pies," Daryil grinned.  "If everyone's your friend, or owes you a favour, it makes it harder for an enemy to organise against you without causing a conflict of interest.
"Also, pies are tasty and I can lick the filling off my gloves easily."

"So is that agreed?" Keller asked.  "We hand over the jewels to the Archbishop, he lets Daryil borrow them to unlock the artifact, and then they're returned to the safekeeping of the Church once he's done with them."

"That is acceptable," Daryil said.  "Though, of course, we'll still need to retrieve that one final jewel in order to release King Fairwater.  Now... may I borrow the one currently in your keeping?"

"Must you...?" the Archbishop looked extremely unhappy.

"With two, I can make sure that the King is safe and see how many other unfortunates are trapped in stasis," Daryil said.  "Also, should the Talon Corporation get the idea of violating holy ground to seize it, it will be far safer in my care."

"Lord Karl had a decoy made," Keller added helpfully and offered the stone to the vulpine demon.  "This was the one they had on display.  You could pull the same trick until Daryil is finished with them."

"Very well," the Archbishop sighed.  "But I do have misgivings."

"I can send Jakob here as an emissary," Daryil offered.  "That might not be a bad idea, since he can alert me if the Talon Corporation do rear their ugly heads."

*  *  *

"So that's it?"  Jakob said, wings fanning out as Daryil broke the news to him.  "You claimed I was too valuable to risk fetching your dragon artifact in the first place, and now you want me to act as bait for the freaking Talon Corporation?!"

"It'll be fine," Daryil reassured him, patting him on the back of the neck.  "You'll be getting a recall device, and one of the panthers is the first line of defence.  If those lunatics do turn up, you can just warp away and I'll deal with the rest of it.  That's all we need."

"But why me?" the wolf protested.  "Any one of your clan could do this.  Yvonne was already there!"

"Because you helped the Archbishop before," Daryil said.  "You risked yourself to uncover my evil plan, and as a result he trusts you a lot more than me, even though you're going as my representative.  And the fact that I do value you so highly, that I'm sending one of the clan's Primary Line to him, that is a token of my good faith."

"I guess so..."  Jakob said, unhappily.  "But what if it goes wrong?  What if the cathedral is warded against recall amulets after you pissed them off 200 years ago?"

Daryil's hand reached up suddenly, pressing firmly into the grey wolf's neck with a tingling sensation.  Jakob pushed Daryil away and extruded a tentacle from his wings, using the tiny wolf-head upon it to see what his Clan Leader had done.

Jakob sighed.  "Did you have to magically tattoo 'do not remove' on the back of my head, Daryil?"

"It's covered by your hair, though!  It's fashionably discreet." Daryil beamed.

"Then what's the use?  They'll only get to read it after I've been decapitated!  What good is that?  Anyway, the Talon Corporation tend to prefer shooting people's heads to chopping them off."

"It seemed like a good idea at the time," Daryil said.  "Now, I've got two out of three jewels here, so let's go and take a look inside that artifact."

J.P. Morris, Chief Engineer DMFA Radio Project * IT-HE * D-T-E



Chapter 15

Jakob waited expectantly as Daryil stared deeply into the two crystals, which shimmered with the energy of the dragon mask.  Queen Admaria watched over a video link, clearly on edge as she awaited to hear the fate of her husband.

"I am not seeing as clearly as I had hoped," Daryil sighed, placing the jewels down on the desk.   "I can tell that the victims are safe, however.  And yes, Fairwater is among them.  Beyond that, it's rather murky and I won't be able to get a full picture until we have that final jewel."

"That is some relief," the Queen admitted.  "Supposing we failed to get the final jewel - would it be easier to open with the other two?"

"It would definitely reduce the search space for the combination," Daryil agreed.  "However we're still talking around 10 years worth of effort.  Hopefully it won't come to that.  And if it does, well... tying up one of my avatars for a decade, that's a big ask, even for a Tri-Wing.  You would owe me a significant favour.  Installing one of my clan members to rule a province or something."

"I will seriously consider your proposal if the last jewel has gone beyond recall," Admaria said unhappily.  "But let us hope we can manage without it."

*  *  *

As night shadowed the Great Catheral, panther P-XRF padded down the corridor into the transept, glossy black fur rippling like silk as he did so.  A wild jaguar in a zoo might pace the border of their enclosure and Pixie was doing much the same now, but not out of boredom.  He was on patrol, watching the cathedral for signs of intrusion.

Turning off and strolling down the dimly-lit nave, he suddenly halted.  In the centre of the floor was the red dot of a laser beam.
Before he could properly question why it was there his feline instincts kicked in and he leapt towards it.  The red dot slipped away causing him to prance madly as it danced about him erratically.  Finally it settled between his eyes.

"...Oh shi-"

The silenced round struck P-XRF square in the forehead and the black jaguar pitched over, eyes staring blankly, mouth open in a stupid look of shock.

The lupine soldier shouldered the sniper rifle and crept down the stairs from the pulpit to examine the body.

"Subject terminated," he whispered into his headset.  "No breathing, no pulse.  Guess they died instantly."

"Proceed, but with caution," the radio advised.  "There may be more of those animals.  What actually was it, anyway?"

"Jaguar, I think."


"Well, now it's more like jagu-aren't.  I'm gonna hide the body."

Silently, he made his way across the nave, dragging the panther's lifeless carcass into a dark corner of the Church.

Shortly after the intruder had left, P-XRF rolled over and stood up shakily.  While he lacked the heavy armour of the other cyberjags, his biomimetic frame still afforded excellent protection for his vital parts, his brain and power plant most of all.  The jaguar made a faint giggling sound as his green painted claws unsheathed.  Cutting his own motive power and rolling his eyes had been enough to let him to play dead.  Now it was time for the intruders to become dead.

*  *  *

"Surprise, motherfucker!" the panther yelled, claws raking the soldier's back and tearing through the body armour.  The big cat's weight brought the wolf down in front of the altar and the intruder found himself face-to-face with a very angry feral jaguar.  A large paw rested heavily on his muzzle, fluorescent green claws slowly unsheathing until they stopped just millimeters from his eye.

"Look at these!" the jaguar said enthusiastically.  "Tell me who sent you, or you'll get to see them very close up!"

"Back off, Pixie," Jakob ordered, with Daryil following closely in tow as the main lights came on.  "We'll handle this."

"But he hurt me!" the jaguar protested, dutifully retracting his claws.  "He tried to kill me!  Look what he did to my face!  Can't I mess him up too, just a little...?"

"H-how..." the wolf gurgled.

"I have the gears and wires of a robot whirring away beneath my synthetic panther flesh," Pixie said brightly.  "Otherwise I would definitely be dead, and you'd be next as soon as they found you.  And I still think you deserve to be taught a painful lesson..."

"This is holy ground," Daryil said.  "Killing or maiming him here would be a sin.  But don't you worry, Pixie..." the fox continued, baring his teeth in a brilliantly evil smile. "Once he's in my realm, I'm going to hurt him in ways he didn't know existed."

Gritting his teeth, the wolf's hand moved suddenly for the concealed holster.  Daryil turned sharply, but moved too late.  The shot rang out, punching a neat hole through the assassin's chin.  He made a brief choking sound and went limp.

"Shit!" Daryil said, kicking the corpse angrily with a shiny boot.  "You bastard!  Can't we go five minutes without me having to resurrect someone?  An enemy, no less?  Do these people think I'm made of magic?  I have half a mind not to bother.  Let him go to judgement for his crimes.  Or I could sacrifice him as an offering to Bob..."

"Technically you are mostly made of magic since your ascension," Jakob said nervously.  "And maybe we did scare him too much... but ultimately, Pixie is right.  We need to know who sent him."

"Yeah, yeah..." Daryil said.  "It's just... Urgh.  If anyone writes a story of our exploits, this part is going to be so formulaic.  Oh well, let's get it over with..." he finished, and his eyes began to glow.  Reaching down to the dead man, he cradled their head in his hands, forced open their muzzle and planted a kiss on their mouth.

At that moment two Demon guards burst into the room.  "What the hell is going on?!" one demanded.  "There was a shot and now... This had better not be what it looks like!"

"Daryil's stealing their soul," Jakob explained.  "Please don't disturb him."


"He's only stealing it, not destroying it," Jakob added hastily.  "The intruder killed themselves to avoid capture and this is the only way we can reverse that."

"I don't like this... and the boss really won't like this," the guard said.  "But if that's the Lord Daryil, we can't exactly stop him anyway..."

"When you're done, can I go back too?" P-XRF asked.  "I'd like to get my forehead patched up..."

"Yes," Daryil said, pocketing a large, glowing gemstone.  "I'll sub you for the Ray twins.  This guy had a headset so he clearly has friends, and fully-armoured units would be better in the light of what's happened.  Urgh... You know, Pixie, you're lucky they didn't use a flamethrower."

"That.... that's horrible!" the panther squawked.

"It probably wouldn't have killed you," Daryil sighed, "But it would have done serious damage and left you in excruciating pain.  That's one drawback of having fur..."

"What about me?"  Jakob asked nervously.  "Pixie can take a lot more damage than I can!"

"I'm afraid you must stay.  I promised the Archbishop you would be on hand," Daryil said.

"But they'll murder me!"

"Even the Talon Corporation has to give a warning, and prove some kind of self-defence angle to justify their atrocities.  Agreeing to abide by those rules of engagement was the sole reason they haven't been declared a terrorist organisation and eradicated.
"Now, Mr. Wolf believed Pixie was just a trained animal rather than a person, so they skipped that step.  But you are obviously a person so they won't legally be able to pick you off from a distance without announcing themselves first, and they know that full well.  That said, I'll bring you some body armour just to be safe."

*  *  *

Jakob sighed as Daryil disappeared.  He stood there in the gleaming grey body armour that his clan often used in times of danger.  The visor on his full-face helmet provided light amplification.

"Don't worry, master, we'll protect you," one of the jaguars promised eagerly.

"So these two are the 'Ray Twins'?" one of the Demon guards asked.  "Ah, I see... X-RAY and Y-RAY..."

"Gamma," one of the panthers corrected him.

"So, is there one called F-UCK...?" the other Demon asked.

"No, and there won't be if I can help it," Jakob said.  "Four letters gives us codes for nearly half a million robots and the Being-Creature Commission isn't expecting us to exceed that limit in a hurry."

"Well, we'd best be back on patrol," the Demon said and the two of them went back to work.

"What about us...?" one of the jaguars chirped up.

"I don't think I'll need two bodyguards," Jakob said.  "At least, I hope not.  So X, you can go patrol the wider area of the cathedral.  Gamma, you should patrol the church itself, but stay within earshot."

As the panther departed on its rounds, a shadowed figure peered through the lens of a sniper rifle.  They sighted Jakob's face, beading one of his eyes and squeezed the trigger.

*  *  *

Jakob was guarding the fake Ariganum Jewel when the shot struck his visor.  Before he could react, a second round struck the other side of his face, covering the armoured glass with paint and leaving him blinded.

"Daryil...?" Jakob said, taking the helmet off, and trying unsuccessfully to wipe it clean with gauntleted metal fingers.  "That wasn't funny!  We're in a dangerous situation here..."

"Talon Corporation," a gruff voice said, placing a sword to his throat.  "And don't you even think of trying to teleport," he added, "Won't do no good if you get home with your head missing, will it?  Or with your brains left behind on the wall.  I've got sharper rounds than paintballs, you know.  And you're welcome to find out what they taste like if you try anything funny."

"That's a valuable tapestry behind me!" Jakob protested.  "Don't kill me here... you'll ruin it!  They'll never get the blood off!"

"Very funny," the leopard said.  "But I'd be a bit more concerned about yourself, mister incubus.  So, put your hands up, nice and slowly... and if you're very good, you'll be getting out of this alive."

J.P. Morris, Chief Engineer DMFA Radio Project * IT-HE * D-T-E


Chapter 16

He came to with a strange lurching sensation, and the wolf found himself lying on his side.  Suddenly his eyes snapped open to see a jaguar's furry black face staring back into his, a strange red light reflecting in their eyes.

"Hellooo!" Pixie said, attempting to grin winningly and failing miserably.  "Remember me...?"

"Aaah!" the wolf yelped and tried to escape, but his limbs wouldn't respond properly.

"I take it that's a 'yes'," Pixie said, and then scrambled back down as Daryil approached, grinning that brilliantly sadistic smile once more.

"Silly boy," the incubus said.  "I am the Lord Daryil, and people live or die according to my will.  Shooting yourself was stupid... all you have done is place yourself completely within my power!"

"You..." the wolf slurred.  "Suck my dick, monster!"

"Normally, I'd take you up on that offer," Daryil smiled.  "We are a lust clan, after all.  Sadly, that is now impossible.  We don't give our robots that kind of equipment, you see."

He held up a mirror and the wolf saw a gleaming black metallic face, glowing red eyes staring back at him.  He tried to move his hand and a glossy black paw moved in front of his face.

"No!" he screamed.

"It will take a lot more than a bullet to the head to save you this time," Daryil purred, trying hard to keep the delight from his voice.

"What will you do to me?!" the cyberjag wailed.

"Why do you care?" Daryil asked, glancing down and inspecting his gloves with an insolent tone.  "Clearly you don't fear death, having already commit suicide on us.  That's considered a sin, by the way."

"It was to save my soul," the robot said.  "You are an incubus and would eat it."

"One, that's rude and racially offensive to boot.  Two, topping yourself was the worst thing you could have done, since it plopped your soul right into my lap," Daryil pointed out.  "How else do you think you ended up in the robot?"

"So... I was left helpless... and you did this to me?  Why...?"

"Revenge," Daryil said.  "You have offended the Lord Daryil and must pay for your deeds."

"Then you mean to torture me!"

"I haven't decided yet," the fox incubus smiled.  "Nigel, what do you think we should do with John, here?"

"We could put him on trial for murder," the German Shepherd incubus mused.  "Technically he did kill someone.  Even if it was himself."

"The courts wouldn't like that," Daryil murmured.  "We'd be wasting their time.  Also there is precedent...  Someone tried that trick with an undead centuries back and the case was dismissed with extreme predjudice."

"It was just a thought," Nigel said.

"But we could definitely do him for attempted murder!" Pixie put in, climbing up front of the other cyberjag.  "He shot me in the head!"

"Perhaps," Daryil said.  "But first, I think we'll try and correct him."

"What does that mean?" the ex-wolf demanded.

"You stay as a robot and serve me for a few decades until we're sure you've been cured of these murderous tendencies," the fox informed him.  "If you're good, you might get a cyberwolf body instead of a panther."

"Is that it?  These robot animals are... your prisoners?"

"Why, you cheeky bastard!" Pixie snarled, baring his elegantly-manicured claws again.

"Most of them aren't," Daryil interrupted, seizing Pixie's collar and pulling the irate panther back down.  "But we have experimented with it.  The majority of the Panthers and all the Wolves were born cybernetic, so to speak.  Like Pixie here.  Now, some of them - such as Binky - used to be genetically-enhanced ferals who died of natural causes and were given synthetic bodies to continue their lives in.
"But a handful of our robots do contain the souls of miscreants.  People like you, who have offended me greatly yet deserve a chance to redeem themselves.
"Their serial numbers have a red background to denote that they were once organic and are on probation.  If they are rehabilitated successfully, we can upgrade them to a full android body.
"And this is the choice I offer you now, assassin.  Serve me, and repay the debt you owe... or you shall be disposed of.  In accordance with all applicable regulations."

*  *  *

"You could always surrender," Jakob suggested, as he looked the leopard up and down.  They were dressed in tactical uniform like the wolf had been.  "Seriously... just put up your hands when the others arrive.   I'd highly recommend that... It'll go down a lot better with the Lord Daryil."

"Your Daryil killed my partner!" the leopard snarled.  "I heard the shot over the comms!"

"Daryil doesn't shoot people,"  Jakob sighed.  "Even I don't do that anymore, and I used to be pretty trigger-happy in my misspent youth.  No... I'm afraid your buddy shot himself to avoid capture.  But that doesn't mean you have to go the same way!  Give up and you'll just be facing a rehabilitation stretch at St. Parmesan's Home for the Morally-Challenged..."

"I know your history, Mr. Pettersohn," the leopard said.  "And I know you're one of his right-hand men.  With you in my power, Daryil will be forced to negotiate... or watch as you end up like John did!"

"Fine," the wolf snapped.  "Your buddy killed himself to try and avoid capture, but it didn't help.  Daryil simply took his soul captive instead, so that makes us both hostages...  If you kill me, Daryil will stomp you, but he can also do terrible things to your friend John.  And you too.
"Besides, as a member of the Talon Corporation, there's already a whole host of people who'll want an excuse to lop your head off.  Do you really want to add Daryil to that list?  It's not his business to right all the wrongs in the world, so he's not had a reason to go after your group before, but now your lot will be firmly in his crosshairs, starting with you.  He might begin your torment by sending you away to trial and the guillotine, and then reviving you with your head on backwards!  So please, for everyone's sakes, just chill and I'm sure we can-"

"What's going on here?!" Gamma interrupted, and the leopard turned, shooting the jaguar in the eye without removing the sword from Jakob's neck for a moment.  Y-RAY screamed in pain and toppled over, legs twitching.

"Uh-uh," the leopard said as Jakob made to move towards the stricken panther.  "You stay where you are, or you'll get the same as your pet."

"H-Help..." the creature stuttered.

"Tough little bugger, aren't you?" the leopard observed.  "There's only one kind of help I can give you...  A bullet in the ear ought to end your suffering.  Or the mouth... a shot in the other eye perhaps?  I can keep trying until I finally get to your brain or CPU or whatever you have..."

Jakob snarled with rage, eyes beginning to glow faintly.  "Naughty," The leopard said, digging the sword into his throat, cutting through the fur and piercing the skin.  "None of that magic.  If I see your eyes go funny again, it's decapitation time."

"Why are you doing this?" the wolf demanded thickly as he struggled for self-control.  "Those panthers aren't my pets, they're my staff!  If you kill them, the Lord Daryil will command your death!"

"Perhaps," the leopard said.  "But at least it'll show him I mean business.  See, your Lord Daryil has the artifact, and we need it for our client.  So taking his right-hand man hostage... that'll force him to return it!"

"Then you'll need me alive," Jakob said.  "Listen, I still think surrender is your best option.  There's more than just Gamma and myself here... the others will have heard the shot and they will not be pleased.  Can you still hold off three others while stopping me from escaping using my evil incubus powers?"

"If they make a move, you die," the leopard said simply.

"And if that happens, Daryil will destroy you, the Talon Corporation and your precious client," Jakob said.  "What's your end game, other than having us all deadlocked here until the Archbishop arrives and rips you in half with his bare hands?"

"H-help... help..." the stricken panther whimpered.  "Master... I... failed you... "

"SHUT UP!" the leopard yelled.  "Shut up and die, beast!"

"I love you, master..." the panther continued feebly.

"Hang on, Gamma..." Jakob called out desperately, "The others will be here soon..."

"Then I'll have two hostages," the leopard snarled.  "You and your robot animal.  And if there's more of these things, I know how to take them down!"

"You bitch!"  X-RAY screamed, turning a corner and taking in the scene.  "Die!"

The panther leapt at his opponent, who dived out the way.  The leopard aimed at Ray's face but this time he missed, the round striking the jaguar's forehead and richocheting off across the church.

"Protect your eyes!"  Jakob yelled, and received a slap in the face from the leopard.

"Put that down, child." a voice said.  "You're in big trouble now... don't make it any worse."

The leopard shoved the gun hard against Jakob's temple with a look of desperation.  "Stay back!" he yelled, "Back, or the incubus dies!  I mean it!"

"And how will that improve matters?" the Archbishop enquired, flanked by two of the Demon guards.  "You can still get out of this with your life.  Put the gun down, and you'll get a fair trial.  Do anything stupid to my guest here, and it'll become a public execution."

"It's too soon," the leopard whimpered.  The sword fell from his hand, but the gun remained steady against Jakob's head.  With his free hand, he squeezed a badge on his shoulder, which lit up.  He grabbed Jakob's hair and moments later the pair of them disappeared.

"How the hell did he do that?" one of the guards pondered.  "The church is protected against such magics."

"It may not have been magic," the Archbishop said.  "There have been recent discoveries that make space warping possible through technology, but it is tightly controlled for this very reason, that it can cut through many teleportation wards.  It is illegal in most jurisdictions, but the Talon Corporation have a rather... flexible attitude to the law."

"Talon or no, I've never heard of them doing this before," the other guard said.

"It is also possible that it was given to them by their employer for this specific job," the Archbishop said.  "I will have to inform Lord Daryil immediately," he added.

Beside him, X-RAY was pawing at his fallen brother, who lay there inert and unmoving.   "Please..." he begged.  "Say something..."

J.P. Morris, Chief Engineer DMFA Radio Project * IT-HE * D-T-E