Chapter Eight

Khiray awoke with a buzzing head. Only slowly his consciousness returned. He had the unpleasant feeling something very important had happened, but he could not remember...

...a fight...

...had to remember...

Saljin! He started up like from a bad dream. Saljin was hurt -- the Bears had attacked the Foxtaurs --

He tried to open his eyes. Bright light blinded him. He lay on something soft. What had happened? Where was he? Something had hit his head.

The light receded to a normal level. It was just a lamp, nothing else. He was on the 'Silver Ansicc' in a cabin -- a passenger's cabin, not his own. His own lodging had no room, however, for all the Furrys standing around the bed. Delley, Pallys, Doctor Pargenn, two crew members.

"He wakes", the old Badger noticed.

"What...?" Khiray croaked.

"Something hit you", Pallys remarked and shot a give-away look at Delley.

"You!" the young Fox moaned. "You knocked me down!"

Delley writhed. "You didn't want to come. I couldn't leave you in such a dangerous situation, couldn't I? They would have killed you possibly."

"You knocked me down", Khiray repeated in disbelief.

"You didn't leave me with another option! The Bears would have attacked you. They have..." His voice broke off.

"What? What did they have?"

Pargenn shook his head. "Nothing that should interest you. That was quite a blow. I don't know yet if you have a concussion. Would be possible. Stay put and get some rest first."

Khiray raised his hands. "I cannot... I have to go to the meeting place! I have to look for Saljin!"

"It's too late!" Delley exclaimed. "You can't do anything any more!"

"What do you mean?" The blood in his veins froze. Too late?

Pargenn cleared his throat. "You have been unconscious for three days. Some Rats, apparently, can't estimate their own strength." He glanced disapprovingly at Delley.

The Rat shook his head. "Rather have a bruise than be dead. Khiray's father entrusted him to my care, so to speak. Now that Saswin's dead, I have to look out for the little one."

Khiray hardly listened to him. Three days? Three days had passed? Then the fight was over. Hopefully... He tried to get up, but Pargenn pushed him back among the pillows. "No, young friend, you stay here... or do we have to tie you to the bed?"

"What has happened to the Foxtaurs?" Khiray demanded to know.

"Now..." Delley started, but Pargenn made him swallow his words with an admonishing look. "No agitation for the patient!"

Khiray slapped the old Badger's hands aside. "I have to know!" He swung his legs over the side of the bed. A little bruise wouldn't stop him! But he was dizzy, and his muscles felt like pudding.

No one tried to stop him. Delley looked guilty. Pallys crossed his arms. Pargenn wrinkled his muzzle. The two crew members shrugged -- Khiray was the captain!


He crossed the ship almost without major difficulties. The dizziness made him stumble against the walls one or two times, but after he took a wooden club from a storage room and used it as support, he could move rather quickly. He had no clothing on, not even his loincloth, and he was totally unarmed, but at that moment he didn't care if he looked like a mendicant day-labourer.

The way up to the meeting-place was tiring. His strength almost left him before he had mastered half the distance. He saw Furrys passing by, but they avoided him and refused to meet his gaze. Colored flames danced before his eyes.

He didn't know what he hoped to find. If the Foxtaurs had won, they would be gone. Galbren would have had taken away the bodies and the wounded. If the Bears had won on the other hand --

He had a presentiment of what he would see before he reached the meeting place. His mind refused to understand, but his feelings gave everything away.

The gored Bear hadn't died. He had fought on. Khiray couldn't remember if the wound had even bled. Those were no normal Bears, no more than Galbren's advisor was a normal Oo'men. Mercenary Bears... whoever had heard of such a thing?

No chance for the Foxtaurs. Maybe the Bears were just a crawling mass of worms inside, too. Maybe he could have seen the maggots beneath the fur. Maybe they were something else altogether. It didn't matter...

...nothing mattered, except Saljin.

The Foxtaurs were still there, at the meeting place. The Bears had been victorious. The battered, broken bodies of the Foxtaurs hung from the gallows, but it was clearly visible that they had been dead before they were hanged. Galbren obviously took their armor, at any rate, they had no clothes left.

Stunned, Khiray stared at the bodies. The Bears had hit the Foxtaurs with terrible power. Their arms and legs seemed to be turned and twisted at unnatural angles, the spine crushed in several places, and though the Foxtaurs showed only a few external wounds -- cuts and scratches from the fight against the guards -- it was evident the Bears had beaten even their dead opponents with murderous paws.

The Foxtaurs had given the Bears a fight that was worthy of them. But the Bears had used their superiority to excess. They never even bothered using their arms.

The picture slowly sank into Khiray's mind and hit his stomach like a fist. He started to retch. Everything was over. Bereft of their dignity, the corpses of the Foxtaurs slowly moved in the wind.

Death, death, death everywhere. If the Foxtaurs had never come to the city... Tears ran down his cheeks. Some pedestrians passed by and shook their heads. Justice. Where was justice now? Was Pallys right in the end?

He could not think straight, nor breathe. His father was dead. The Foxtaurs were dead. What was he supposed to do now? Where should he go? The thought of just leading his previous life as before seemed unconceivable. After all he had seen...

But he was no cub any more. He gathered the pain in his heart and steeled himself against it. He opened and closed his eyes and finally looked up to the bodies of the Foxtaurs again. This would not kill him. He would not give up that easily. The puzzle had yet to be solved.

Only slowly Khiray noticed that something was wrong.

He wiped his eyes and started to count. Four. There were only four Foxtaurs.

The corpses seemed very distant from the personalities they had once accomodated and were hardly recognizable. With a mixture of fear and hope Khiray started to identify them.

Mikhoi. Aryfaa. Dokmaris. Halann.

Saljin and Dek were missing.

Savagely, newly awakened hope filled his heart. They were alive! They weren't displayed at the gallows like the others. They had fled.

No. Maybe that wasn't the case... Maybe they were prisoners in the dungeons of Sookandil. Maybe they were dead, and Galbren had some reason not to put them on display here. It was too early to revel in unfounded hope. And if they lived as prisoners, how could he save them? He was just a single Fox, a merchant, neither fighter nor leader. He could not face Galbren and all his guards alone, the worm-being and the mysterious Bears.

But if... if Saljin was Galbren's prisoner, he had to try.

Steps made him start. He turned around and looked into Farlin's face. His uncle had a bandaged arm, but he still wore the uniform of the elite troops, a cape in scarlet red, and a sword was dangling from his hip.

"I'm sorry", Farlin said. "You should never have gotten involved with them. Galbren was right, strangers are dangerous. But I had not imagined how dangerous indeed."

"He used you", Khiray stated. "I saw it. He sent those elite troops against the Foxtaurs to keep them busy while his real soldiers circled round them and attacked from behind. He sacrificed you all, all your men."

Farlin shook his head. "I'm not the one to question his commands. That is tactics and strategy, and I don't know enough about it yet."

"Don't you realize what's going on here?" Angrily Khiray pointed at the Foxtaurs. "He plays his own game. Galbren wants power, and even more power. He doesn't just want this city. He wants the Armygan."

To speak out what was on his mind cleared his thoughts. Yes, that exactly was Galbren's plan. He himself had admitted that he thought the Drunlord unfit for office. Someone should replace him, seize power. Galbren himself, of course.

The Armygan. The whole land.

No one could accuse Galbren of meddling with minor points.

But how did the Foxtaurs fit into the picture, the worm-being, the murder of his father? The Fox had the strong feeling that only a tiny piece of the puzzle was missing. Everything was connected. Galbren didn't do anything without a reason.

But who was to stand up to him? Khiray blinked. There remained other things to do...

"Uncle Farlin, what happened to Saljin and Dek?"

Farlin looked at the gallows. "The convict and the Foxtauress you had come with?"

"Yes", Khiray growled impatiently.

"They have taken them away."

"Where to?"

"I don't know. Listen, Khiray, you have to make yourself scarce. You are not too well favoured in the city any more. Some call you a traitor."

"Are you among them?" Khiray asked bitterly.

"No -- no, of course not. But you did wrong, you have to face that. Your father would not have wanted all of this. You should never have gotten involved with strangers. But it's not too late. Go away. Take the ship and start anew down in Drun'kaal. The gold should support you until you have built a well-going business. No one knows you there, no one will even mention the Foxtaurs. You always wanted to return to Drun'kaal, didn't you?"

The thought was almost tempting -- in another time, in another life.

"Where are Dek and Saljin?" Khiray demanded to know.

Farlin sighed. "I really don't know. They are not in the dungeons, I've been there yesterday. The other guards don't have a clue too. Believe me, I asked that question myself."

"What does Galbren say?"

"I haven't talked to him again. I'll go to the training camp the day after tomorrow. Please take my advice! If you continue that way, you'll die, and your family line with you."

Khiray shrugged. It wasn't important any more. Slowly he left the meeting place and limped down the street to the quay. Farlin didn't follow him.

* * *

"I don't know where they could be", Delley complained. "Do you think I poked my nose out of the porthole? I sat at your bed all the time, watching you."

Khiray crossed his arms. He had chosen the captain's cabin to talk to Delley and Pallys in private. He was the captain now, after all. "No wonder, you did hit me after all. You have a guilty conscience."

"Are you starting that matter again?"

Khiray wrinkled his muzzle. "Do it now. Go to the guards. Ask them. Someone has to have seen them. Dead or alive, they could not disappear from the earth without a trace."

"Why don't I go to Galbren immediately?" Delley grumbled. The Rat flopped deeper into the chair as if he wanted to take cover.

"I thought about it", Khiray explained, "but somehow I've got a feeling that Galbren will not be willing to hand out any piece of information."

"You simply won't give up, will you?" Pallys asked. The Rabbit had slumped down and looked as old now as he probably was. Khiray wondered for a moment if Pallys was indeed more than seventy years old -- he had to be if he really taught Galbren's father already. The teacher didn't look a day older than fifty, normally... but right now the years and the sorrows caught up with him.

"No", Khiray explained decisively. "I will not run away. I won't turn my head, shrug and go south. I won't close my eyes and let Galbren do what he wants."

Pallys laughed hoarsely. "That are quite courageous and heroic words. Considering, of course, that the one who speaks them has never been lying on the streets, slowly dying from loss of blood, never waited in some cellars of a dungeon for the next slimy meal, never looked into a hangman's eyes at the foot of the gallows. One time is always the first time, young Fox, and sometimes the first time is the last time too."

"I don't give up", Khiray said calmly. "I want answers."

"You didn't listen", Pallys sighed. He took a telescope from the desk and turned it thoughtfully. "When I was young, well, so to speak -- I traveled many a country then. Oo'men countries beyond the Empire of Dharwil, realms of no-Oo'men beyond those. I have seen the world, and the world is big indeed."

"You never wanted to speak about it", Khiray interrupted.

"Isn't a Rabbit supposed to keep all his small secrets?" Pallys asked ironically. "I have been wandering for years. Some places were rotten, full of ruin, fear and violence. Some cities suffered from the after-effects of eternal wars. Some cowered beneath the whip of a cruel tyrant. Other places were beautiful, rich and full of happy beings, with fur and without. Here tolerance and freedom ruled, there suffering and misfortune prevailed. But one thing they had in common. They were not eternal. Tyranny ends, like happiness does. That is the course of the times. What may be cruel and insufferable for us today, will be a footnote in books centuries from now. If we hope for the Golden Age to last forever, we fall for an illusion, because beauty passes and dies just like ugliness. Eternity is a long time."

"And that's why we are supposed to sit around and do nothing?" Khiray exploded. "Maybe we can't do anything. Maybe Galbren is too powerful already. But we can try!"

Pallys set the telescope back to its place. "I hadn't expected you to understand this. If you live as long as I do, you see cities fall and empires wither. Everything changes, everything flows."

"Don't boast!" Delley murmured. "We could think you were among the founder fathers of the Armygan itself."

Pallys didn't bother. "You have two alternatives: swim with the river and let things happen. Or brace yourself against the flood and sink to the ground in the end. I am no hero who wishes to die fighting. I'm just a Rabbit who likes to lead a peaceful life."

"History doesn't just happen", Khiray emphasized. "History is made. We Furrys, Oo'men, Foxtaurs, Trolls or whatever -- we thinking, feeling beings -- make a difference. We determine the flow you are speaking of. We form and change it. No one just drifts with the times. And even if we go down in the end, if we can only achieve a tiny wee bit, hardly visible in the big course of things, we know we haven't lived for nothing!"

"The powerful make history. The small ones adapt or die. Khiray, you've read too many heroic tales."

The Fox glared at the Rabbit. "Maybe. But I know: who never makes any effort to realize his dreams and ideas will never live in a world of his dreams. Who tries to, may some day gain a piece of his dream."

"Nicely said", Delley murmured.

Khiray's ears went red. "That's from a book I read once."

Pallys smiled. "Some more book wisdom?"

"What about that: 'Is it better to live eternally, paying the price of eternal insignificance, forever drifting with the river of time as a grey Mouse, without hope for happiness? Or should one pay the price of death and throw one's life on the scales of fate to gain what one believes in? Is it better to submit to the dictates of history and the knout of the mighty, never to see the dreadful face of the life-taker? Or should one strive for becoming a titan against all odds, defying the danger of failing?'"

"'We weigh the value of our lives against the ideals we believe in'", Pallys continued, "'against the fate of those whom we love, against the torrent of time itself. We make a choice, and when death passes by, we have to live with it. We can be a speck of dust in eternity or a bright flame...' I have read this book too."

"It is very old", Khiray explained to Delley whose unspoken questions were visible in his face. "It tells about a stronghold of immortals which is said to exist somewhere on this world, and about two brothers, Leopards from a noble family. The one brother dedicates his life to searching this stronghold to become immortal himself, the other builds a flowering country in the time of his life. After the second brother has died, the first lives hundreds of years in this paradise and wonders if immortality was worth the price... but in the end the land withers away and is destroyed..."

"Enough!" Pallys had jumped from his seat. His ears trembled with excitement. His nose twitched as Khiray had never seen before. "Those old stories lead nowhere!"

"It is a really good story", Khiray insisted. "It deals with decisions."

"I know. But what do you know? You never saw death in its face. For you it's far away..."

Khiray just stared at him. Did Pallys forget he lost his family? His mother, and now his father too? That the Foxtaurs had died a horrible death?

Eventually, Pallys lowered his eyes. "I'm sorry. I didn't want to... It has been a long time since I read this book. I remember... remember too many things recently. Decisions, yes. Maybe I made a wrong decision once. As the story says, we have to live with it."

"It's okay", Khiray murmured gently. "I don't know if I want to know at all. Will you help us? That is the only question on my mind right now."

"And oppose Galbren and all his guards?" Pallys shook his head. "I lived very long with my convictions. Am I supposed to forget them right now?"

Delley grunted. "Damn you, Rabbit! We don't ask you to take part in a revolution. We only want to find Saljin and Dek."

Khiray looked thankfully at the Rat. Delley showed a daring smile. "And uncover the whole mysterious matter", he added. "I can imagine Galbren's plans now, at least. But I still don't know how Alfon Sanass fits in..." Suddenly he realized he never told his friends about the worm-being that incorporated the Oo'men now. He started anew to unroll the tale of the murder night and didn't forget to mention that Alfon Sanass revealed himself to him after the trial.

When he was done, Pallys whole figure trembled. His ears were laid back flatly, and his paws twitched nervously as if he wanted to flee from an invisible danger at any moment. The Rabbit seemed to be dead pale beneath the fur, and his muzzle had become a pinched line. "Khiray, oh Khiray!"

"What?" the Fox asked worriedly.

"You have made mighty enemies indeed. Mightier than you can even guess. The true name of the worm-being, as you call him, is not Alfon Sanass, but Azzhuzzim Beladanar, Lord of the Worms. He is an Ushink -- a Demon from the Second Circle of Hell."

* * *

Demons? Khiray had never believed in such beings. But on the other paw, he had never seen an Oo'men before who was made of worms. Magic was at work, a more powerful magic than he had ever watched before. And of a totally different kind, too.

But it explained a lot. For example, why Galbren hoped to overturn the Drunlord with just a few inexperienced guards. The governor didn't need his guards -- he was in league with magical powers far beyond the strength of the magicians in Drun'kaal. Even if the legends of Demons known to Khiray exaggerated their magic by far, they were still dangerous enough. The puzzle... the riddle...

And suddenly every part fell in its place.

Khiray groaned. Galbren's plans had progressed far more than he had expected. "I understand..."

"I don't", Delley grumbled. "Demons? Is Galbren some kind of magician, or what?"

"You don't need to be a magician to get in contact with Demons", Pallys explained. "Demons often seek their middlemen by themselves. Azzhuzzim Beladanar probably just waited for someone like Galbren."

"Galbren wanted power... ever." Khiray nodded. "Who knows what friends he made in Drun'kaal; maybe he is not that inexperienced in the field of magic. When his father died, he saw the opportunity to get that power. But he couldn't stop at a mere city. He wants to own the whole country."

"He made his brother disappear already", the Rat growled.

"With the troops he could acquire, he could never set his plans in motion", Khiray continued. "So he sought contact with that Demon, or the Demon watched him and observed his dilemma, deciding to side with him. I don't know what's been on the Demon's mind."

"Death and suffering", Pallys claimed. "The Ushinki are known for their taste for negative emotions of the mortals. The drink fear and hate, panic and desperation, fear of death and bitterness, just the way we enjoy a good wine. But Demons are not welcome in the world of the mortals. They need a gate, a partner in the sphere of the Furrys. And they have to mask themselves so their enemies cannot spot them."

"Enemies?" Delley crossed his arms. "That's starting to become too difficult for me. What enemies? Sorcerer?"

"Archangels", the Rabbit explained. "The servants of the gods. They watch over all the world. A Demon can't afford to raise their suspicion. Azzhuzzim Beladanar plays Galbren's advisor to escape their attention."

"Archangels", Khiray repeated. "Foxys with wings?"

"Nonsense", Pallys growled. "Those are children's stories. The Archangels are powerful beings, born in the fires of a first beginning where the gods came to life too. No mortal remembers that time. Archangels are no Furrys -- I doubt there are beings on this world in their shape."

"What do they look like, really?"

"I have yet to see one. But Archangels often walk among the mortals, and there are a lot of stories about them. They allegedly have a body similar to the Oo'men, without fur. The head of a great bird of prey rests on their shoulders, and they have its wings, too. The feet are neither like Oo'mens' nor Furrys' but birds' claws, and the body is cast in gold. Their form is perfect, and the power they radiate blinds even magicians. They are as big as Bears, but their physical strength is far beyond a Bear, and in the cloak of their magic they are almost untouchable."

Uneasily, Khiray tried to imagine what an Archangel would be like. A bird's head? He had never met a being with a bird's head before. The body had no fur, would the head be covered in feathers? And why did people tell their children of Foxys with wings if the truth was common knowledge?

Not to scare them? A being clothed in magic had to be terrible. Maybe glorious and tremendous, but horrible and powerful too.

"So the Demon hopes for a lot of dead people", Khiray mused. "And he will get them... has gotten them already..." He laid back his ears. "The Bears who killed the Foxtaurs seem to be Demons too. Galbren does not only have an army of Furrys, but a troop of Demons. He could achieve his goal and overthrow Drunlord Kooradah."

"If he's got Demons, he doesn't need normal troops", Delley threw in. "What for, then, is the recruiting?"

Khiray laughed bitterly. "What would you think if Galbren took Drun'kaal with an army which came out of nothing? If he made himself tyrant with supernatural allies? People would hate him, despise him or even fight against him. You can fight an army, but not those you want to rule. No, Galbren needs two things if he wants to seize Kooradah's power: a reason people accept, and Furrys who stand up for him, give their life for his cause or tell of their deeds after the battle. The latter he has: his guards. Poor people he had provided with a task and a living. People who will fight, unknowingly, side by side with Demons. As soon as Galbren is Drunlord, the Demons might disappear, but veterans remain to tell of the war. The Furrys in his army are the disguise for the Demons."

"And the Archangels would notice if Galbren got a thousand-strong army suddenly", Pallys added. "They cannot have their eyes everywhere, but such an event would not go unnoticed. That's the reason Galbren has to pretend, at least, to recruit troops."

"The cause for war", Khiray continued, "is a thing Galbren builds all the time very carefully. Fear. Fear of strangers against whom an idle Drunlord does nothing, as it seems. The Demon talked the people into believing the Oo'men are their enemies, slavering for their land. The murder of my father awakened the anger. The fight against the Foxtaurs filled the citizens with fear."

Delley hit the arm of the chair with his fist. "He drove the Foxtaurs into battle!"

Slowly, Khiray nodded. "It was Galbren all along. Galbren killed my father, or the Demon did it on his intructions. Galbren and the Demon manipulated all evidence so that Dek would appear as the culprit. And he made it easy for them with his behaviour." Anger pulsed hot through his veins. He felt his ears glow. "It wasn't just the secret of the Troll steel, although he surely wanted to have that, too. He provoked an open battle with countless dead..."

"...eight guards, six Furrys trampled to death, about fifty injured...", Pallys counted.

"...and four Foxtaurs", Khiray growled. "All this just to cause panic, to support his accusations and limitless exaggerations. To raise rumors about strangers being vile savages, potential invaders... he fans the flames of hatred..."

Delley made a spitting noise. "Small ships have left harbor the same day. The rumors are well on their way."

"Everything gives him the right, in the eyes of the people, to demand actions from Drunlord Kooradah. Kooradah will do nothing, of course. Why should he? To Drun'kaal the strangers just bring riches. But Galbren can repeat his game wherever strangers appear, and build his army until the north is in his hands. And the people will celebrate him as protector. He knows to talk, he can interpret history according to his plans. Some day he will find a pretext to send his army against Kooradah, and thanks to the Demons he will win. Then the Armygan is his."

"Fear in one hand", the Rabbit murmured, "hope in the other."

"He cannot do this", Delley exploded. "People can't believe everything he says! Someone has to see through this deception!"

"Deception?" Pallys whispered. "Truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Galbren does far more than just deceive people. He erects a new truth. He forms the world in his image."

"He cannot do that", the Rat repeated with a groan.

"He has begun already." The Rabbit shook his head. "He has begun."

* * *

Pallys' house seemed to be smaller than just days before, when Khiray last visited his old teacher. The books on the shelves, once regarded by the young Fox as priceless treasure, seemed to be meaningless in the light of Galbren's plans.

Pallys digged wordlessly in an old oak chest.

"We can't fight against Demons", Delley said. "We have to notify the Drunlord. He surely knows what to do. Maybe he calls upon an Archangel to drive the Demons away. Without them, Galbren's army is useless."

Khiray nodded. "Alone, we aren't able to do something against Galbren. But I have to know first where Saljin and Dek are. I could never leave them behind."

"That's dangerous", Pallys said from the depths of the chest.

"If I fail, you'll have to go to Drun'kaal alone", Khiray clarified. "But I have to try. What's about the crew?"

Delley raised his hands. "What's left of it... well, some have quitted and left the ship..." The Rat waved the thought aside. "Some think you're a traitor. I'm sorry. Others believe you won't make any good business here any more and owe them their salary. I paid them off."

Khiray nodded. "The rest?"

"Those who are still there are loyal to your family. We have enough crewmen to sail the 'Silver Ansicc'."

That was a better result than the young Fox had expected. Obviously Galbren's open and hidden accusations hadn't the intended effect on everybody. "Let them go aboard. If I find Saljin and Dek, we may have to leave Sookandil as fast as possible." He didn't mention that he would try to free the Foxtaurs; that seemed like a natural thing to do. He didn't know where they were, who guarded them, how he could break into their secret prison -- or if they were alive at all. But he was determined to do his best.

Pallys threw some boxes and packages onto the desk. "You'll need this."

"We haven't even a plan yet", Delley considered.

"I think I know where the Foxtaurs are", the Rabbit said. "There are secret rooms, long forgotten, beneath the city. I don't know how Galbren got word of them -- maybe the rooms aren't that secret at all, and the knowledge is handed down among the governors from generation to generation. Maybe the Demon told him, though."

"Secret rooms?" Delley's whiskers trembled.

"A little more than two hundred years ago, one of Galbren's anchestors built the big piece of wall which separates the day-laborers' quarter from the town's center today. At the same time, he had rooms built beneath the wall, in the foundations of the towers. A corridor that runs directly under the wall connects those rooms; another passage leads to the governor's palace. If I remember correctly, that corridor ends in the watch room of the dungeons. However, there are secret entrances in the wall's towers. Nobody knows of them today; after the construction work had been cancelled, they were supposed to be filled in and walled up. But actually the rooms are still there. The son of that governor didn't like his father's plans, but he deemed it useful to have a secret sanctuary. The chambers are located deep in the earth so that no noise penetrates the stone."

"How do you know all this?" Delley demanded to know.

Pallys raised his eyebrows. "I have my part in the secrets of this city."

Khiray had the impression that the questions around Galbren weren't the only puzzle in the city. But he trusted Pallys. The teacher's knowledge was the only thing he could work with right now. "Are you sure Saljin and Dek are there?"

"Sure?" The Rabbit grunted. "No. It's just a possibility. I thought of it because no one seems to know where they are. Galbren could have brought them outside the city as well. But I don't think he did. No, I cannot answer all your questions. I don't even know which chambers still exist, which secret corridors are still passable and which are walled up, or what will wait for you there. I'm no genie from the bottle who generously spreads out his knowledge whenever you pull the cork." Suspiciously he watched Khiray. "I do assume correctly that you want to search for the Foxtaurs in those rooms?"

Khiray shrugged. "'Want' is the wrong word. I don't have a choice, haven't I? It is our only hint."

"We could leave for Drun'kaal now." Pallys looked with wistful nostalgia at the rows of his books.

"No", the Fox said firmly. All this was his fault, in a manner of speaking. Hadn't he made the weapons deal, Galbren had never seen a possibility to stir up hatred against the Foxtaurs by murdering Saswin. Maybe he had framed the strangers with some other plot, but his father...

...his father might be still alive.

The pain of his loss was too fresh. Khiray refused to think of it. Things had happened -- and Saswin's death was anyone's fault, it was Galbren's.

But he was indebted to the Foxtaurs. His fate and theirs was linked.

And Saljin...

"Do you love her?" Pallys asked, as if he had read his mind.

"I hardly know her", Khiray answered. "I don't know... It is a strange feeling."

The Rabbit nodded. "It always is. But don't let yourself be blinded by your feelings." The teacher opened one of the boxes and took two reddish, flat crystal discs out of it. "Here, this is a magical tool from a faraway land. You can talk through these discs, wherever you are. As soon as the magic is invoked, the discs transmit every noise." He gave one of the discs to Delley, the other to Khiray. "If something happens, alert us. This here is scentherb." He opened another box. "I cannot make you invisible, but this paste from the herb absorbs your smell when you rub it into your fur. Even a wolf's nose cannot make you out then."

Khiray stared at the slimy mass. "Phew!"

Delley grinned. "This looks exactly like that day when we had to go through the sewers and..."

"Don't remind me", Khiray sighed. "Well, thank you."

"I'll tell you where the secret entrances in the towers are and how you can open them", Pallys continued. "You'll have to wait til nightfall, anyway. Are you sure you don't need some day's rest?"

"Very sure." They hadn't got the time. Who knew what Galbren might do to the surviving Foxtaurs? Khiray still felt somewhat dizzy, but nightfall was some hours away. He had time to rest.

"Delley and I will call the rest of the crew and wait on the ship, just in case. Maybe you can free the Foxtaurs, maybe not. We'll see. But if you are successful, we'll have to cast off before the Demons can follow you."

Demons. The Bears. Khiray shuddered. There was a very real threat emanating from the giant beings. The thought to sneak away from Sookandil seemed attractive enough. Maybe Galbren would assume he had left the city to find his luck elsewhere. But if he freed the Foxtaurs before, the governor would know that his plans were laid open and pursue them for sure.

No. He couldn't leave them to their fate. If they were still alive, and if he got the chance to save them from Galbren's claws, he had to do it.

Could the Demons materialize from thin air? Could they jump great distances on just a thought? Were they able to conjure powerful magic? Khiray hoped not. But he didn't know anything about his adversaries. The things Pallys had told him were serious enough. The Demons had to obey the limits of their mortal bodies -- they simply had to. If they had the advantage of demonic magic in addition to their pure power and hardiness, he, Delley, and Pallys had no chance at all.

This way or another he might lead them all to certain death. But he had made his decision. He would have to live -- or die with it.

* * *

The tower soared into the sky in front of him, dark and thick-set. It seemed to be part of a fortress, but only on one side of it a wall rose. Nobody was nearby. The night had pulled a cloak of silence over Sookandil. The pulse of fear and anger was almost physically perceptible. A cool wind blew from the north. Khiray shivered.

With the exception of a belt with a chisel, two knives and a dagger, he was naked. His whole body was soaked in slippery paste which stuck in his fur and made it shaggy. He could not smell himself anymore, strange enough; hopefully the Demons wouldn't detect him too. The paste took the gloss from his fur and smeared it with grey and brown colors; maybe this was enough of an optical disguise.

He didn't stay long in the open. The longer he was visible for everyone, the more probable became the possibility he was seen indeed -- and betrayed. He entered the small watchroom in the basement of the tower through a heavy wooden door.

No one was inside, of course. Guards never used this room, why should they? The wall had never been completed, after all. Every now and then homeless Furrys hid here during the winter, but right now it was too warm to prefer a stuffy windowless chamber over the open forest or the fields. What's more, a great part of the poor Furrys had joined the guards and didn't need a hiding and sleeping place anymore.

There was no furniture in the watchroom. Stone stairs led upward to the second floor. The simple fireplace used for heating the chamber was left unused for years now. Khiray went to the corner formed by wall and fireplace and started to search for the secret mechanism according to Pallys' descriptions.

Pallys. The Rabbit was another puzzle. The old teacher seemed to know all the answers and solutions for Khiray's questions. Without him, he hadn't even guessed that there were secret rooms somewhere down here, much less found the entrance. He hadn't suspected, too, that Alfon Sanass was a Demon. Pallys owned magical gadgets like the discs and useful (if icky) things like the scentherb. What was the source of his knowledge, of his possessions? Collected during a long life, the Rabbit would say.

But did Pallys really was what he pretended to be? The matter with the Demon Azzhuzzim Beladanar made Khiray suspicious of appearances. Sometimes the visible body was just a mask. What if the Rabbit was a magical being, too? He could only hope that Pallys was, indeed, on his side.

That this secret entrance wasn't some sort of trap.

Did he understand the game now? He could not very well ask Azzhuzzim. In the end, there was no certainty -- maybe everything he, Delley and Pallys guessed about Galbren's plans was wrong. He put his life at stake for a simple assumption...

No. This was not the time for doubts. He had to trust his feelings.

The cover moved only crunching and scraping after Khiray chopped off some mortar from the surrounding tiles. No wonder no one ever found the entrance!

Stale, foul air drifted into Khiray's face. A narrow shaft led straight down into the deep. Rusty iron handles provided a dangerous hold. After some meters the hole disappeared in absolute darkness.

Reluctantly Khiray entrusted himself to the makeshift ladder. Slimy lichens grew miserably in the lightless abyss. Rust trickled under the grip of his paws. He started his descent.

Above him, the mechanism of the secret entrance closed like the cover of an Oo'men coffin.

End of Chapter Eight