The door slammed open, startling Sekher out of his drift.
Hulking guards in full body armour decorated with the royal Ch'sty crest glared down at him, short swords in hand. The creature stirred from where it had been curled up in a corner and blinked tired grey eyes at the disturbance.
"Move it! The High Lord wants a chat with you."
Sekher groaned and hauled himself to his feet. "Alright, alright."
He knew what was coming.
Still, he was surprised they let him get through the door before an armoured forearm cracked into the back of his head. They had their fun bouncing him off the walls for a while before bodily dragging him off down the corridor.
"By the hells! He stinks worse than Feshi shit!"
"Huh! His Lordship would have our tails for dropping this at his feet. I think he needs a bath."
"You reckon all Che royalty looks like this?"
"Huh! Compared with most of them he probably looks elegant." There was a nasty laugh.
Sekher was hauled upstairs into the lower levels of the palace and tossed into a small chamber, little more than a closet, with slimy wooden grating on the floor, smelling of water. He dragged himself to his knees and shook his head, wondering where the water was if this was a bath. Then he screamed as the ceiling opened and he was deluged. It was scalding hot!
Frantically he twisted and turned, beating at the door, then huddling in a corner with his arms over his head as the water poured on and on.
Finally it stopped, the guards opened the door to drag him sopping and dripping from the cubicle.
"Smelling better, huh?"
"Probably used the hot water for the entire wing," the other laughed. "Still, he's presentable now."
"Burn you!" Sekher spat. "Shave your clan!"
"Talkative, isn't he," one of them observed as he rammed an elbow into Sekher's head. "Save it for his Lordship!"
Sheer size made the room cool, colder still for Sekher and his still-damp fur.
In another place the style of the room may have been called gothic, with peaked archways and ribbed vaulting, subtle-cross vistas, dramatic screens of fluted columns framing arched windows filled with coloured glass shedding kaleidoscopes of light across polychromatic marble veneers. It was an extravagantly beautiful sight, a room designed to overawe and impress, and that it did, bringing Sekher's head up despite himself. The craftsmanship, the skill, the expense! His father's great hall, the pride of the Che clan, was but a hovel in contrast.
Before a great circular window of gold, orange, and red glass that splintered light as though it were fragmented eveninglight, was the dais of the High Lord of the Ch'sty Rim.
The guards half-dragged him across the fine white sand of the floor, gouging twin furrows, and deposited him at the foot of the dais. Behind him a menial scuttled across the floor with a hand rake, smoothing the way. Courtiers, sycophants, and hangers-on in gaudy gowns and robes gathered around behind a cordon of alert royal guards, muttering and twittering amongst themselves.
This was the conqueror of three kingdoms? was Sekher's thought upon seeing the one resting on the cushions and furs atop the steps.
A thin, nearly skeletal Trenalbi turned slowly to look at him, letting a sheaf of papers fall to a lacquered table at his side. His fur was a deep brown, like loam, his expansive ruff the same but with grey streaks. Nothing to do with age. His head looked too big for that body, and the eyes...
Sekher felt his hackles rise, claws extruded in fear. Gods, they burned yellow with an intensity like that of the Lightbringer. Madness? And those furs...
The chill of fear tickled his back, twitching his tail, his anal scent glands. Those furs still had the heads of their previous owners attached, glass eyes glittering lifelessly. With difficulty Sekher tore his eyes away from the glassy stare of one of the Lord's former enemies.
A nearly imperceptible flick of a wiry hand made Sekher's expressionless guards retreat a couple of steps. Kissaki Ch'sty leaned forward:
"Sekher She'at Che Youngest?"
Sekher said nothing.
Kissaki sat back and hissed. "Yes. Of course you are. You are, you know, a very pleasing catch. You will undoubtedly save me some time and trouble. You are hungry?" Another twitch of his hand and a servitor scurried forwards with a small tray laden with chunks of meat, pastries, and berries.
Sekher glanced at the tray and felt his mouth betray him by salivating. He clamped his jaws shut.
"Huh! Yes, very hungry." The High Lord's ears twitched and he beckoned Sekher to go ahead: "You look like you need it, young one."
"You... you have no right," Sekher finally blurted. "Holding me here like this. You know my father..." Sekher stumbled to a halt, woefully aware of how pitiful this sounded to this Lord in the centre of his domain.
"No right?" Kissaki leant forward, his lips peeling back in a glistening grin. "Cub, here your rights are my will, here my will is law. I did not have you brought before me just to listen to your ridiculous bluffs."
"Now, young one. I know you must care deeply for your homeland, your people, your clan. Correct? Yes. If you had the opportunity to save the lives of untold numbers of your people would you take it?"
Sekher ducked his muzzle, ears folding back in wariness. "Perhaps," he breathed. "And how would I do that?"
"Very simple." Kissaki rose to his feet and continued, punctuating his words with emphatic gestures. "All you would have to do would be provide me with a little information, just answer a few questions."
"Simple matters: how well prepared is Tsuba to withstand a siege? Are there any alternative routes into the city? In what towns are the largest garrisons stationed? What steps would be taken in event of an invasion?"
Sekher barked in outright disbelief at that. "Gods! You would expect ME to tell you that? While I'm at it, why don't I just give you the keys to the city's gates?!"
Kissaki laughed at that. "And how grateful I would be. I may even give you a town of your own to watch over." Then he stopped laughing, "or I could simply use the persuasion of pain to give me what I want, just trample over Che as if it weren't even there."
"That you would not do!" Sekher spat. "There is a treaty amongst Che, Taiska, and Fhel. Fight one, you challenge them all. I think that even your forces would be hard pressed."
The High Lord regarded him calmly with what could have been amusement, then turned to face the crowd of courtiers: "Heicko!"
A single figure stepped to the fore. Sekher's heart lapsed into a triple beat as he recognised the dust-grey robes, differing only marginally from the northlands to the south. Priest!
The elderly male studied Sekher with mild yellow eyes for a breath. Sekher desperately tried to hold onto his thoughts, and it was probably his imagination, but he was sure he felt a chill wind touch his mind; just for a beat. The Priest blinked, then smiled and turned to Kissaki and bowed: "Highest, he is lying."
Again Kissaki snarled his laughter. "Cub, you waste my time! I give you some time alone to think things over, then I will have you here again to see if you will be more cooperative." In turning his back he waved his hand negligently at his guards: "Take him. Shave him. The usual treatment, but nothing too permanent; I may want him again."
They seized him. Sekher howled in pain as his tail was grabbed and he was dragged towards the door. Laughter rose from the court. He scrambled to his feet and was promptly forcemarched from the room.
The huge doors swung shut behind him and again the menial scuttled out to rake the light-stained sands smooth again.
Kicking and thrashing, Sekher was dragged down to the lower levels again, to a room with walls hung with blades, needles, vices, irons, bludgeons, and a host of other instruments designed to inflict pain. He tried to break free, but now the guards beat him into submission.
Half-conscious they hoisted him bodily onto a table and strapped him down whilst a mangy male in an apron mapped with stains of gods-only-knew-what laid out a gleaming array of sharp utensils.
Fingers knotted into his ruff, pulled it taught, then a knife blade hacked through it, stripping it away. A pot of steaming water was brought over from a brazier and near-boiling liquid splashed on his face. He howled, tried to bite. Deftly a muzzle was flicked over his face, straps tightened. The white edge of a knife came close.
Sekher trembled in dazed humiliation as they delicately shaved him, turning him over like meat on a spit to remove every last tuft of fur.
He hit the floor hard, tumbling to lie in a heap against the wall. The cell door closed with a dull thunder that resonated along the corridors and the guards' laughter faded into distance.
Sekher lay still for a time, then groaned, trying to stir himself. His battered body rebelled, dumped him back on the damp flagstones. There was a deep growling from across the cell. With cheek pressed against the floor, he saw the creature staring at him, at his naked grey skin, bruised and cut, his tail looking absolutely ridiculous; like a twitching piece of grey rope.
He moaned again and closed his eyes.
After his shaving he'd been paraded through the town with other criminals and prisoners of war, then had been left in the pillories for public humiliation until the Daughters were high in the sky. Never before had he understood what it meant to be naked; completely and utterly exposed. He felt every breeze against his skin, every chill, every thrown stone, piece of rotting fruit and excrement as he had never felt anything before. It was a terrible feeling to be so... so vulnerable.
Now there was a dull aching in his bones. Gods, but he was COLD! He huddled into a small ball, as if trying to squeeze the warmth from his body, a part of him yearning for the comfort of his dam's pouch.
There was the growling again. He looked up at the creature making its noises, as if trying to tell him something. It reached up to its collar and fiddled with the catch at the back.
A click and the bronze collar and chain fell away.
Sekher suddenly forgot his discomfort. His nostrils flared, his fear beginning to permeate the cell. The thing moved closer and Sekher retreated until a corner at his back halted him. Crouching, spreading his arms to defend himself, the remains of his claws poked from his fingertips, his toes. Standing upright, the creature was taller than he by almost a full head, albeit not nearly as broad. Sekher snarled, jaws gaping.
It stopped where it was, the corners of its mobile mouth curling up. Then it crouched, kneeling before him. A slender finger with the odd, flat claws traced a path down the middle of its torso, then it shrugged out of its spotless white covering, offering it to him in the same way it had offered food on that first morning.
It was trying to be friendly.
Beneath that outer layer was yet more clothing, something of a light grey almost the same hue as his own skin with blue piping. Decorations? Gingerly, Sekher reached out to touch the white jerkin; it was padded on the inside, lined with more unfamiliar materials, smooth and soft, still warm. The creature pressed it into his hands.
Awkwardly Sekher put it on. It smelt strange; of salt and damp grass, felt even stranger against his skin, slick, actually exuding a soft warmth. Parts of it seemed to have things buried in the material, strange lumps that weighed oddly upon Sekher's shoulders. It was also much too large, allowing him to huddle up and pull it around his legs.
Again the creature's mouth curved up and it reached over to pat Sekher's shoulder. Nonplussed for a second, he belatedly returned the gesture. It gave one of those deep growls again, so deep that it seemed to be more felt than heard, and moved to inspect the door.
"What are you?" Sekher again asked the creature's back. It didn't turn, gave no sign of hearing.
Chenuk hastily straightened his gleaming bronze cuirass and cuisse, settled his sword sheath and gauntlets more comfortably upon his belt, and entered the audience hall.
He had been here before, of course, standing sentry duty when the High Lord was absent, but this was the first time he had ever been summoned directly. His commander had kicked his tail from the tavern where he had been partaking in a homecoming celebration to the Palace and hustled him into his armour. Chenuk had a nasty foreboding of what was wanted of him, but he brushed his ruff flat and prayed to any deities that might be listening that nobody would smell his nervousness.
Of the two royal guards who flanked him either side, their ornate armour making his standard infantry issue appear scruffy, no scent betrayed them. They'd had their glands removed. That thought always made the base of Chenuk's own tail clench in sympathy, but that self-mutilation was something they were proud of, making them difficult to scent, and also somewhat inscrutable.
Sand warmed by sunlight pushed betwen his toes as Chenuk walked the length of the audience to the foot of the High Lord's dais, where the Highest reclined in a nest of intricately embroidered fabrics. "Milord," he knelt. The guards moved off to a respectful distance.
Unusually, Kissaki was almost alone. Of his regular retinue only a few now stood around their Lord, all five of them huddled in their grey robes. Chenuk sniffed curiously. What were priests doing here? He thought he recognised one: Sare, expert alchemist. They were all gathered about a small table on which rested several odd objects, one of which was all too familiar to Chenuk.
"You recognise that?" Kissaki asked without any further ado.
"Ahh, yes Sire," Chenuk hesitantly replied.
"Do you have any idea of what it is?"
"That was not what you told your commander."
Chenuk licked his lips, feeling his tail stiffen in alarm. "Sir, I... I did say I thought it was a helmet, but I'm not sure..."
"A helmet," Kissaki regarded him with an assessing eye. "That is a most interesting observation. Tell me, how did you come by that line of thought?"
"It... it looked a little like a war helm, especially that visor."
"You tried it on?"
"Why did you do that?"
"I... I do not really know, Sir. I was puzzled over what it was and just put it on out of curiosity. That was when the cursed thing moved."
"Yes, we are familiar with that," Kissaki mused. "Also, you claimed this thing belonged to the creature that was found in the plains."
"Ah, yes Sir. It was carrying it and it did seem to be a perfect fit for its head."
"I have yet to see this beast," Kissaki said.
A guard stepped forward and bowed. "It is being brought to you now, Milord."
"Ah, excellent." Kissaki rose from his cushions, stretched and stepped down to the sandy floor, walking over to the tray of demon artifacts. "Here," he beckoned Chenuk. "Do you recognise any of these?"
He did, the creature had been carrying all of them, but they were all utterly alien to Chenuk. There were parts that looked like metal, and other parts that were of something he couldn't identify. Kissaki picked up an object that resembled a lower cannon, a piece of armour intended to protect the forearm, save that the thicker, flattened face of the thing was engraved with a pattern of small squares and circles. Chenuk blinked. Perhaps some of those projections DID look familiar.
"Uh, no Milord."
Kissaki returned the artifact, then took up the helm-like object and moved over to confer with the priests in muted tones that Chenuk didn't even try to eavesdrop on. All the while the Lord was turning the device over and around in his hands with a lack of caution that made Chenuk's ears flick backwards. He hastily caught himself from that breach of etiquette before Kissaki returned his attention to him.
Which Kissaki now did. Briskly he marched over to Chenuk and thrust the helmet-thing at him: "Put it on."
"Mi... Milord?" Chenuk stammered. By sheer dint of effort he kept his ears from wilting, but he couldn't restrain his fearscent.
"I said, put it on," Kissaki repeated in what could almost have been a bored tone, but again there was that keen glint in his eyes, like the edge of the knife Chenuk could find himself up against if he disobeyed a direct command from the apex of power itself.
"Yessir," he croaked, and mumbled a prayer as he took the demon device in his own hands. His was not an inordinately religious upbringing, yet it was at a time like this that the faith took him, and if ever he needed a god, now was that time.
This time there was far less reshaping of the helmet's interior, but still air whispered around his face and the visor flared, transforming the room into a hellish scene. There seemed to be no light, no shadows, the walls a shade of grey and the sun-warmed sand a lighter shade. Torches in their sconces were the brightest of all. When Chenuk turned to look at Kissaki he almost screamed.
The High Lord's visage was that of a demon, with a white-hot mouth and grey eyes and ears. The shape of his skull was visible beneath the pale halo of fur. Not just him, all the Trenalbi, nobility and guards alike, glowed white where fur and flesh was exposed, slightly darker where there was clothing, and darkest of all where there was metal. Chenuk could see the outline of daggers and darters concealed beneath the priest's robes and that shook him still more. Priests were not supposed to carry weapons.
And they were not the only concealed things. Behind tapestries hanging around the edge of the room Chenuk spied the glowing outlines of hidden guards, also door-sized patches of wall that didn't match their surroundings.
"Hai, soldier." One of the priests was addressing him. Looking at the priest was a mistake. It did something to his stomach to be addressed by a creature with a glowing head breathing clouds of glowing steam with every sentence. "You are alright?"
"Uhhnn, yes." Chenuk's own voice startled him, deadened in the helm instead of reverberating as it would have in a normal one. "I think so."
"You see," the priest declared triumphantly. "It can be used by anyone. The shape changing proves it. It is intended to fit heads of varying shapes and sizes. It does not necessarily have to belong to that creature."
"Then who does it belong to?" another interjected. "Can you name a craftsman with the skill to produce something like that? And I have never heard of any priest with the skill to devise a visor such as that."
They were using him as a test subject. Although the helm didn't actually seem to be dangerous, he would still rather much prefer to be back in the tavern with a chilled ale and a few friends, cracking jokes about climbing the wall.
"Alright soldier, you can take it off now." Kissaki returned to his seat.
A relieved Chenuk hastily pulled the helm off, depositing it on the tray with the other devices. If a helmet had that kind of power, what capabilities were the others bestowed with? That small box with the little glass window and still more of those engraved squares, what powers was that gifted with?
The double doors at the far end of the hall swung open again, admitting entrance to a squad of Royal Guard and the burden they carried between them. Forgotten for the time, Chenuk stood quietly at ease as the priests scurried forward to inspect the stretcher that was deposited at the foot of the dais. Even the High Lord craned foward to look down upon it from his seat. Chenuk caught a glimpse as the surrounding priests parted: the demon; eyes closed and unmoving, strapped down on the cot by heavy restraints about chest, arms, and legs.
The sergeant responsible for the squad delivering the thing snapped to respectful attention before the High Lord. "Sir, I'm afraid it got loose from its chains. We had to use force."
"So I see," murmured Kissaki. "It's not damaged too badly?"
"Very good." The guards were dismissed. With a clatter of arms and armour they left the hall, the doors swinging shut behind them on well-oiled hinges. A menial scuttled from another concealed door to attend to the churned sand.
Kissaki stepped down to stand above the creature with hands clasped behind his back, then he knelt and took two handfuls of the creature's clothing and pulled; hard, lifting the cot partly off the ground before dropping it back. The cloth didn't part. "Huh," he snorted. "Very well. Hai, Neric, you're the expert. Can you tell us anything about this?"
One of the priests, a young one, burly and well groomed, obviously uncomfortable in his robes, stepped forward to give the creature a cursory examination. "I have never seen its likes anywhere... and I am familiar with all the animals of the plains, lowlands, and mountains. Nor is it described in any of my texts."
"Perhaps from beyond the mountains?" another suggested.
"Don't be ridiculous," he retorted, running fingers through the golden fur on the thing's head. There were traces of unnaturally red blood there. "Still, it bleeds."
"A minor demon?" There was uneasy stirring.
"Huh! And I am a female! Well, we can settle the matter of where it comes from!"
A hush settled over the hall as the priest settled himself cross-legged at the head of the cot, his hands on the creature's head. Slowly he bowed his own head until his breath was stirring the fine fur, his eyes closed.
Many heartbeats passed.
The creature twitched; once, then again, then spasmed, the straps holding it fast creaking under the strain. Cords stood out on its neck as lips fleered back from square teeth. A rumbling howl shook through the hall.
And Neric screamed also, mouth gaping and eyes staring in absolute terror as his own body was wracked with convulsions. Blood began to flow from the corners of his eyes, his ears, spreading through his fur in dark rivulets as the scream continued to force itself from his lungs. There was an explosive stench as he voided his scent glands and bowels simultaneously.
"Gods! Separate them!"
Guards were throwing the hall's doors open, pouring in from doors on all sides, but the priests were already prising Neric's hands from the creature's skull, throwing him back to the sand and holding him as he threshed and bucked, foaming and bleeding, eyes staring into nothing.
Slowly he subsided, winding down like a clockwork machine, sheer exhaustion subduing him until he lay whimpering and gasping.
"Neric?" a priest cautiously spoke the name.
There was no flicker in the eyes. Neric was no longer there.
Sekher's ears perked up at the commotion in the corridor outside. At last; already the solitude was beginning to gnaw at his consciousness. Keys rattled and the door swung open. Beyond it the hall was packed with guards, all with drawn weapons, enough raw steel to outfit an army. They pressed back against the walls as more came through, carrying the stretcher.
The creature, still unconscious, looked a lot the worse for wear than when they'd carted it away, despite the battering it had taken. There was blood coating its face and the scent of terror was a palpable aura around it.
Without further ado the guards clamped the chain about its neck then slashed the bonds holding it down and dumped it off the stretcher, retreating in haste. "Hai!" Sekher called. "What happened?! What's going on?"
But the door slammed shut, not quite blocking out the fear rolling from the guards. In the dimness Sekher stared at the prostrate form of the creature lying in the spread of light seeping under the door.
"Hai, you alright?"
At a push it flopped over onto its back and Sekher stared at its face, the closest he'd been. There was blood on its forehead and what seemed to be a fine layer of fur sprouting on its chin. Hardly daring, he reached out, stroked the face. Yes, there were bristles there. Strange that in captivity he should lose his fur and this creature grow more. That hairless hide was soft, incredibly fine, and that fur... He stroked it gently. At his touch the creature twitched, gave an unmistakable moan, and curled up into a peculiar little ball, arms wrapped about knees hugged against its chest, head tucked down.
Sekher looked from it to the closed door. What had happened out there?
Was it showing some sign of recovering?
The rumble, as low as that of the mighty sheets of bronze used to signal prayer, stirred the air in the cell as the creature stirred.
"Feeling better?" Sekher asked, looking up.
It didn't pay him any heed; struggled to sit up, slumped against the wall clasping its head in its hands, contorting its features in a hideous grimace.
"Obviously not," Sekher said. "You want some water? You're going to have to get it yourself. I still haven't figured out how you open this..." He shut up. He was babbling. Gods! How much longer would they leave him alone in here. Solitude was not something that any Trenalbi handled well. Give him a few more days and he'd be a gibbering ball in a corner.
He scrambled across to the door, pounded against it shouting, "Hai! Anyone! Say something! Gods, answer me!" Not a whisper from the far side, just the oppressive nothingness of the dungeons. Sekher leaned his head against the wood. "Say something," he moaned.
And the creature growled at him.
"And YOU close your face!" he snarled back at the top of his voice, ears flattening.
The creature cringed at his shout, shutting its eyes and holding its head, then it rose unsteadily to its feet, the wall its support, and growled again.
"Why by all that's holy did they have to stick me in here with YOU?!" Sekher howled, impotently furious.
It winced again, then roared back at him. Sekher stared in mute shock, the cell echoing. Gods! The thing was LOUD. His ears were still humming. He awkwardly tried to pat his nonexistent fur flat again, stroking only skin covered in tiny bumps, and coughed. What was the use of shouting at that thing?
"Sorry," he muttered. It stared at him, head tilted to one side, then beckoned him. Sekher flinched, but the thing mimed drinking so Sekher allowed it to touch him, to open that hidden pocket on the jerkin. It drank deeply from the flask, then poured a little over its face and proffered the flask to Sekher. Gratefully he also partook, it was a welcome change from the metallic-tasting stuff in the pitcher the guards had provided. When finished, the flask was slipped back into its pocket in Sekher's right side, and the creature returned to its corner, curling up on the floor and closing its eyes.
Its breathing slowed, the only movement was the twitching of its eyelids, then that stopped. Unconscious. Sekher crept close. It was as it had done at nights in the cage. Perhaps a way to avoid boredom? Why did it not just Drift?
He shook his head violently, rubbed at his muzzle, then flopped down in his corner and slowly sank into Drift himself, mulling over this little enigma...
Door? A noise, movement, shifting light.
Sekher slowly returned, withdrawing nictitating membranes from across his eyes. What was it...?
There! Again. Metal scraping on metal as a key was fitted to the lock. Sekher groaned; now what? Which of them had they come for this time. Over there the creature was still unconscious, oblivious.
Keys rattled again. There was a muttering outside, then a voice hissing: "Che? Sekher Che?"
"Huh?" His ears pricked up curiously. The warden losing the keys? Not likely. "Who?"
"Friends," the voice hissed back. Again metal rattled in the lock and there was muffled cursing. Sekher scrambled to his feet to listen at the door. At least two of them, arguing.
"We're here to get you out."
To trust his ears? Sekher gaped at the door in disbelief, then pressed up against it, hands spread against the wood. Again metal rattled in the lock. "Gods!" he hissed. "Hurry!"
There was a pause. "The key! It's not here!"
"WHAT?!" Sekher slammed his hand against the door. Hard. It didn't budge a finger.
"Calm down!" the voice hissed. "We'll get a pry bar."
"No time!" the other voice growled.
"Then what in all the gods-blasted wastes ARE you going to do?!" Sekher screamed.
"Quiet yourself!" came the desperate hiss and the sound of metal scratching at the lock.
And from behind him came another sound, a questioning growl as the creature stirred and blinked strangely coloured eyes at him. Sekher sank to a squat and shook his head ruefully at the thing. "Even if you could understand, you wouldn't believe it," he said.
The scratching stopped. "What?" came from the other side of the door.
"Nothing," he spat back. "I was talking to a friend."
"Two of them?" he heard through the thick wood. Two of them? Huh, sort of... Now what was it doing? Growling and pointing at the door. "Someone's trying to get us out," Sekher told it. "Idiots got the wrong key and I don't need any trouble from you."
"What's going on in there?"
"Local entertainment," Sekher shot back, and even that little exchange excited the creature. Frantically, it pointed at Sekher again, indicating the jerkin, that it wanted to touch him. This time it opened another concealed pouch low down on Sekher's hip, removing a couple of slender little silver cylinders, each no larger than a finger, some coloured with red and white stripes, others yellow and black, others with even more peculiar colour combinations. Only one it selected, blue and white checks. It fiddled with this, slipped it into the keyhole, and seized Sekher's arm. The Trenalbi squalled, automatically slashed out and connected with useless claws, but the creature was amazingly strong and hauled him into the corner furthest from the door. Again not hurting him. It was gesturing at the door again, making pushing movements, move back.
"Back!" Sekher shouted at his amateurish liberators beyond the door. "Get away from the door!"
A couple of beats later the lock exploded into a shower of red sparks, then a brilliant scarlet light flared. Sekher squeaked and threw his arms over his face. Heat seared against his hands, arms, legs, ears; all exposed skin.
An acrid smell was hanging heavy in the cell, a haze of smoke obscuring the door. The lock was a formless mass of glowing, heated slag dribbling down the blackened wood. A charred hole the size of a head and a half had been bitten from the door. The lock had been welded to the frame, but was no longer attached to the wood. Nose and eyes running, fanning smoke away from his face, Sekher tugged the recalcitrant door open. For once the hinges chose not to squeal.
Air in the dungeons was heavy, static, slow moving. The smoke hung like a heavy veil over the doorway, stinging his nostrils as he stepped through it. How long until somebody else smelled it, raised the alarm?
His saviours were also wreathed in smoke, blurring but not concealing the arrays of multicolored veils and gossamer robes adorning their bodies. Females? By all the denizens of the Ramparts! Why did they...
And Sekher knew that exotic pelt of blue-grey, the eyes that glittered gold.
"You," he croaked.
She and her companion were both staring past him, at the door, with confounded expressions. "How did you do that?" the dark-furred one breathed: awed. Her voice... With the exception of his dam and some others when he was no more than a cub, still in her pouch, he had never spoken with a female, had never grasped the subtle differences in their speech.
Sekher's ears wilted. "Ah, my companion," he began, then winced. Gods! What would they do when they saw...
He knew when their eyes went wide and arms spasmed as they brought claws up. The creature had appeared in the smoke, an apparition from the farthest hell. It halted in the doorway, looming in the moving torchlight, eyeing the females warily while they began to back away.
"Hai! No, it's alright," Sekher hastened to reassure them. "It won't hurt you." I hope, he added under his breath.
"What... is it!" the dark-furred one hissed, eyes wild.
"I have not the tiniest idea," he confessed. "But it seems to be on our side."
They stared again. "You cannot expect to take it with us?"
"Think of it, male! That thing? It would be more conspicuous than a shen in a bed!"
"We can't just leave it. It appeared when I most needed it..."
"A sending, you believe," she looked doubtful.
"What else?" he asked.
She stepped towards the creature, examining without touching. "It understands you?"
"I think not," he admitted. "Sometimes I don't think the thing even hears me. Nevertheless, it's more than a simple beast."
"What must be done, must be done," she finally spat, obviously not relishing the idea. "Bring it and let's get out of this stink."
Sekher touched the creature's arm, tugging it. "Come," he said and it followed him, docile as a well-trained shen.
The sight that awaited him in the torchlight of the guardroom to their level was not entirely unexpected. There was a lot of blood. All three of the soldiers on guard there were naked and dead, two sprawled on thin pallets, slit open from crotch to chest, chin to breastbone, the other lying twisted as if he was trying to clutch at the pair of throwing daggers that caught him in the back just before he reached the door.
"Males," the darkfur grinned. Almost a warning.
"Huh!" Sekher looked around at the carnage. Such ruthlessness was something he'd never expected in a female.
The creature was hovering in the background, staring at the corpses and both females were regarding him in the brighter light. "You know, Sekher," the dark one said, "you look a great deal different without your fur. And where did you get that tunic?" He ignored that. "You know my name. Do you happen to have one?"
Darkfur stroked at one of her square little ears, then grinned. "Alright, Sekher Che. Call me Chaiila, my friend is Nersi."
"I think I owe you."
"Not this time, male," Chaiila said. "I'm repaying a debt."
"You came all this way for that?!"
"I had other business as well," she muttered. Then: "Alright. Now we get out of here."
End Godsend part 4