Not that Khiray held it against them. They sailed into a very uncertain future, hunted by Demons; maybe they'd never reach their goal. The murder of their captain had freed the crew of a great part of their loyalty. They didn't owe anything to Khiray. The Fox was young (although not inexperienced) and had shown a remarkable talent to get into trouble. The ones who had left the ship didn't know anything of the Demons or of Galbren's plans; they had just noticed that Khiray made an enemy of the governor, stumbled into a street battle and sided with the obviously guilty - the muderer of their captain - in a completely fair and just trial.
Khiray could have imagined. He had seen 'his' crew during the trial.
So much for loyalty.
On the other hand, even Uncle Farlin had joined the guards, devoting himself to Galbren's cause. Why expect more from sailors?
Khiray looked over the assembled crew. Shooshun, whose true motive might be that no one else would hire a Cat his age for a responsible position anymore. Kinnih, who admired Khiray (Kinnih was only fifteen and seemed to see an elder brother in Khiray - something Khiray himself had never noticed as intensively before). Delley, of course. His 'new acquisitions': Pakkaht, a Deer of maybe thirty years, a muscular guy with proud attitude; and Kaslin-Ray, another Rat from Delley's far-reaching family, if Khiray understood him correctly. Kaslin-Ray had been taken into confidence by Delley already and considered it a good move to leave Sookandil immediately. Khiray knew nothing about Pakkaht's motive; Delley had met him in the workshop of the tinkers where he worked as journeyman. Sweaty hard work like this was not common for Deer, maybe Pakkaht hid from someone. The Fox didn't ask. Under the given circumstances he could not afford to be choosy.
Those five, plus Khiray himself, were the crew now. The others - Pallys, the immortal Rabbit, Saljin of the Stones, the last surviving Foxtauress, and Sarmeen, the tongueless Wolf - had to be trained in the subtleties of shipwork before they could occupy a post aboard. Maybe not Pallys; during his fourteen thousand year life he might have served as a sailor too. Khiray hadn't given him much thought. After all, Pallys stood at the wheel this very moment while all the others were assembled here in the mess-room; Delley had trusted him with the ship without further complaints. And that meant a lot.
They hadn't dared to stop for awhile. The engines didn't run full power anymore, but faster by far than on a normal merchant journey. None of them knew how fast Demons could travel. Khiray didn't know either where Galbren's own ships might be or how fast he could call them back to start the chase. Ships had left Sookandil already to spread the news - or rather, Galbren's interpretation of the news -, and they might carry instructions for Galbren's captains, too.
"Demons", Pakkaht said incredulously.
"I told you so", Kaslin-Ray stated.
The Deer shrugged. "Doesn't matter. A job is a job."
"You take this awfully well", the Rat remarked.
"I've got my reasons."
Pakkaht screwed his eyes up. "Which are none of your business at all."
The Rat made a face, insulted. "I just asked. One can be a little curious, no?"
"No", Pakkaht responded coldly. "One can not."
"Please", Khiray said. "That isn't funny."
"It's not supposed to be", the Deer growled. "I knew Galbren was up to something, long before this ship even came in. I had learned tinker in my time, so I went into service as journeyman. Directly beneath the eyes of the enemy is the best hiding-place, after all."
Khiray thought he could see something in the eyes of the Deer: Pride? Defiance? No, even more. Battle experience. Pakkaht might be anything but a tinker. But the Fox didn't ask to know.
"We have to reach Drun'kaal as soon as possible", he stated. "We will have tosail day and night and only stop to stock up our supplies."
"Do we have to take an ambush into account?" Pakkaht asked.
"Maybe", Delley murmured and glanced suspiciously sideways at the Deer. "The Demons can travel from our world into Hell and back. Maybe they can reach every single point in the world this way. Then they can wait for us virtually everywhere. Pallys knows more about it for sure."
"Even if not", Khiray threw in. "Three ships have left before us, with almost two days' lead. Galbren's own ships are probably not too far away. If the captains are instructed to stop us, they'll do it."
"But them's merchants", Kaslin-Ray said. "No guards. No soldiers. No Demons."
"What's more, we fled from Sookandil after those ships were well under way." Delley shook his head. "I don't think Galbren could have guessed all this. He had the Foxtaurs locked away in long-forgotten dungeons. And he could not have reckoned with a stubborn Fox like Khiray. I hadn't thought either, and I know him!" A shimmer of pride flashed on Delley's face. "So, maybe Galbren orders his ships back, but he's hardly commanded an attack on us, just on suspicion. If he issued new orders after we left, they haven't reached their destination yet. We haven't been overtaken by any other ship."
"Galbren is unscrupulous enough to sink the 'Silver Ansicc' just in case", Saljin remarked. "He could hire pirates. He can't let us go at any price, and he must have known that Khiray would side against him, after all he did."
"But he cannot afford to perform seemingly unfounded attacks on other ships", Khiray mused. "He plays a dangerous game. As soon as the people get a whiff of his intrigues, he'll lose everything. We Furrys aren't stupid. He managed to stir up the fear and fan the flames of hatred, but when the waves calm down, many will ask what all the killing was for. Until then, he'll have to get a firm grip on Sookandil; everyfurry has to believe in his untainted reputation and his honorable intentions, and first of all there mustn't be voices that call up new doubts."
"Hardly possible", Delley remarked. "All his critics are here."
"Farlin is still in Sookandil."
Delley sighed. "Farlin is fully Galbren's Fox now. I fear we'll have to forget your uncle."
Khiray looked down. "I feared you'd say something like that."
"Galbren hasn't anything to fear in Sookandil." Delley scratched his ear. "Perlish is dead, the only outlaw who deserves that description. The Foxtaurs are dead, Pallys has gone, you have gone. He can entrust Sookandil to a deputy and hunt us down, with his Demons and his best guards. Sookandil is safe. We are the danger."
"Are we?" Pakkaht giggled without happiness. "Our voices against his. What'll count more at the Drunlord's court?"
"Kooradah will listen to us. He's got magicians at court who can detect Demonic presence. As soon as he knows what's going on, he'll send his troops against Galbren."
"Your trust in the Drunlord is honorable", Pakkaht mumbled, "but what's detected as the truth by the Drun'kaal magicians depends as much on the politics of the day and the wishes of the powerful as on the facts." The Deer spoke as if he knew what he was talking about.
"Kooradah cannot act in any other way." Delley flattened his ears against his skull. "Galbren will deprive him of power if he lets him go."
Pakkaht slowly moved his antlers left and right. "If you say so. Maybe you are right, and if not, it's not my business anyway. I'll go ashore as soon as the ship reaches Drun'kaal. Are we armed?"
"Not too well", Khiray confessed. "The Troll steel weapons stayed in Sookandil. Saljin and I have a Dekka'shin each. The other weapons on board are just common swords and lances, the usual in case of pirate attacks."
"One hunting bow, appropriate arrows. Not many of them, we lost some." Khiray was not surprised by Pakkaht's questions.
"The crew should always be armed. Everyfurry has to be on his guard 'cuz of an ambush. From the land, or maybe from the river. Can we stop somewhere to get some more arms?"
"I'll think about it", Khiray nodded. "I think we should get some sleep now. Delley, would you take the wheel?"
The Rat grunted. "Kinnih will look for the engines." Delley and the young Badger left the mess-room. The crew dispersed.
Khiray looked after them.
"What do you think?" Saljin asked. "What shall we do?"
The Fox shook his head. "We can't do anything. Just wait, let the ship run, follow the river in its bed. It's Galbren's move now."
"Isn't there any possibility to send a message to this Drunlord?"
"Messages travel down the river. A letter wouldn't be any faster than we are."
Khiray sighed. "We need a magician for that."
"Pallys seems to be a magician. No matter what he claims."
"He said his powers arise just from magic tools. Like, say, our heat loop. We can use it without being magicians ourselves. He has collected a lot of those toys."
"Including a magic staff against Demons." Saljin made a face.
"You don't believe him?"
"He always has something useful at hand. Scentherb." She ran a finger through Khiray's fur which still stuck with the scent-absorbing mixture. "A Demon barrier. He has the knowledge of the Ushinki. And he claims to be fourteen thousand years old. I can't believe all this."
Khiray sat down on a wooden chair. His sticky fur left greasy stains on the polished boards. "He is my friend. He was my teacher. I believe him. If he really knows the stronghold of the immortals, he does well by guarding his secrets closely. There are enough people who would torture him to madness without a further thought to get that piece of information."
"For example. But I wouldn't trust Kooradah too much, either." He let his glance wander about the empty mess-room. "And Pallys hasn't always got the right magic item, too. If so, Dek and the others would still be alive. We could beat the Demons ourselves and imprison Galbren. Until now, we just were lucky." Very lucky indeed, he mused; it was nothing more than Pallys' suspicion which led him into the secret dungeons so he could free Saljin and Dek and Sarmeen as well. They had escaped the Demonic Bears by a hair's breadth and left Galbren's guards behind them as well.
On the other hand: Dek was dead. And the other Foxtaurs hadn't survived, too. Khiray had been under the spell of a Demon already. Azzhuzzim Beladanar still served the scheming governor, and Galbren's plans were far from being thwarted. Khiray's reputation in Sookandil was gone, his merchant future more than uncertain.
And whatever they achieved, whatever they did: nothing would bring his father back into life.
Khiray took the time to wash the repulsive scentherb from his fur before he lay down to sleep, although he was dead tired. He slept restlessly, rolling from one side to the other, and when he finally began to dream, those dreams were all but pleasant.
A lake of red light...
A voice that called him, enticed him, lured him, irresistible and sweet and full of cruelty at the same time. "Foxy! Ho, Foxy, let us play!" The dream voice of Khezzarrik khi Valangassis, Gate, stroked his fur like a hand. He laid back his ears, tried to drive away the feeling, but without success. Flame fingers touched his body. The Demon bowed down to him. "Foxy, you taste sweet as honey. Come to me, and I'll show you Demonic lust!"
Khiray reared up against the influence. His muzzle was locked. It is only a dream, he told himself, just a dream...
But was it? Khezzarrik khi Valangassis had called him when they fled down to the harbor. The Demon could project his voice over a certain distance. Why not all the way to the river?
He tried to wake up, shake off the sleep, but he couldn't. A daze weighed heavily on him, and his consciousness seemed to be buried beneath layers of black, damp earth.
"You are mine." Khezzarrik's face appeared out of the amorphous dream environment, grew until it filled Khiray's sight.
Wasn't the Demon afraid? Beladanar had to be wary of the Archangels, Pallys had said. They would drive him away or even destroy him. Gate didn't seem to have reservations.
"The sphere of dreams knows no Archangels", the Demon said. "Nothing stands between you and me. Don't forget, I can open gates in every sphere and every level, to any point in any dimension. If I can't have you in your world, well, this one will do."
The fire became a crushing weight on Khiray's chest. He couldn't breathe any more. Flames wrapped him, warm and pleasant, touched his whole body, enclosed him in a Demon's dream...
"Archangels!" he panted. He tried to imagine the shape of those beings. An Oo'men body, Pallys had claimed, the head of a great bird of prey, feathered wings and an aura of power...
The pressure on his chest disappeared. "Spoiler!" the Demon howled. "Dream visions of Archangels to get their attention! That's not a fair trick!"
Khiray didn't really understand what the Demon was talking of, but he kept the thought image alive. It seemed to frighten Khezzarrik... or the Demon feared whatever might happen if he kept on thinking this one thought. With effort, the Fox imagined the magic aura which enclosed the golden body of the Archangel like cloth. Again and again the irritating picture of a Foxy with wings mingled into the vision, but finally he seemed to have a stable Archangel dream. He was wide awake now, but still caught in the realm of dreams. Surrounding him, dreams of strangers arose, pictures, thoughts, wishes and hopes, bloomed just to sink back into nothingness. Confusing colors and forms were all around. The only things which kept their shape in this world was the Demon, the Archangel and himself.
Khezzarrik drew back his flames. "You have a dreaming talent. Return to the world of the waking, before someone is hurt. Especially me."
Somewhere, an eye opened. The Demon jumped. He made a fiery gesture, and the dream world disappeared... but in that very second before Khiray found himself in his own bed, the eye passed by him, and a glance of terrible intensity hit his unprotected soul.
An Archangel looked at him.
Then nothing was left of the dream realm, not even a faint whiff of sleep. He sat upright in his bed. The pads of his paws and the palms of his hands were damp with sweat. His fur stood on end like a brush. He was wide awake.
So Khezzarrik followed him. And he could open a gate everywhere. Along the river, for example, to create an ambush. Khiray walked over to the wash-basin and splashed cold water over his face. With a small brush he smoothed his bristled fur.
All this did nothing for their position. Why didn't the Demons catch up with them already? They could materialize somewhere, then the Bears would storm the ship and cut them all down. End of the story. If he'd been Galbren, that was how he would handle things. Before they had the opportunity to tell their version of the events to someone, before the slightest shadow of suspicion, the tiniest wee rumor could stain the governor's reputation.
No, that was probably beyond Gate's powers. Maybe the creation of the passages through spheres and levels needed its time - whatever spheres and levels might be. Maybe Gate could find them reliably only in the dream realm, but not in the real world. Or maybe he had simply lied, and there were only certain fixed passage points between the worlds.
However, they had to keep their guard up.
He couldn't sleep anymore. Khezzarrik wouldn't possibly molest him any more, after he had almost risen an Archangel from its sleep, but the memory was too strong... of the dream and of the things Khezzarrik had done to him already in the waking world.
He rose again and went on deck. Chilly night air blew through his fur and cooled him down. Slowly he wandered around the ship to the afterdeck. A lonely figure stood there at the rail and stared down into the wake.
The Foxtauress turned around. "Oh, Khiray! I couldn't sleep."
The Fox cleared his throat. "I... couldn't, either." He went to her side at the brass rail. He didn't waste a thought about him not wearing any clothes; he didn't have to impress Saljin with his status, and the sense of shame which was so popular with Oo'men was almost nonexistent among furryfolk. Besides, she didn't wear anything either.
"You look as if you encountered a ghost."
"In a manner of speaking." He hesitated to tell her about Khezzarrik. The memory was too fresh, too painful. The Demon had abused him, left him humiliated beyond words. He couldn't forget those hours. The mere thought of it made his hands tremble. He strengthened his grip on the rail to prevent her from seeing his fear.
She just looked at him. Then she raised her hand and stroked his arm softly. "What happened?"
For a moment Khiray felt a familiar arousal. He forgot Khezzarrik, forgot the Lord of the Worms. When Foxtaurs make love, he wondered, how do they do it? Like dogs, standing and from behind? Or like Oo'men, belly to belly? At the same second he was frightened by himself. How could he think such thoughts? His father was dead only a few days, and Saljin had lost her brother - all her companions. They were in grave danger. Demons wanted to destroy them. And he hadn't got anything else to think about?
Was this a part of Khezzarrik's curse, some relics of the Demon fire still circling in his veins? Or was it the very danger which sharpened his senses and made him try to savour the moment? He felt the engines pulsing within the ship, heard the night's voices around them. So many things had changed. Not least himself.
In the end, he told Saljin everything. He couldn't keep it for himself, and he couldn't take Delley into his confidence; friend or no friend, he knew what the cynical Rat was bound to say, and he needed everything else but that kind of commentary.
The Foxtauress embraced him and stroked his tense shoulders. "All this because you rescued us?"
"No", he replied in a fit of unsuccessful humor, "because I opened the wrong door."
"You could have left immediately. Without us. Without Sarmeen. Galbren would have had no reason to hunt you down. He'd have suspected nothing, and you could have informed the Drunlord without any danger."
"Of all the things I could have done", he quietly said, "this is the only option I never would have chosen."
The walked over to the wooden wall of the cabin structure, settled down and leaned against it. The shadows of the things that had happened hung heavily in the night, but together they could bear it more easily. So they held each other through the night's darkest hours, and the Demons - the real ones as well as the demons of the spirit - stayed away from them.
"Hello, lovebirds", a voice said.
Khiray awoke, his muzzle buried in a cloud of lovely scented silk-soft fur. "Huh?" They still sat on deck, embracing each other, and the day was barely dawning. But despite the few hours that had passed, despite the hard planks, Khiray got the impression he hadn't been that well rested since a long time. "We didn't..."
"I can smell you didn't." Delley wrinkled his snout. "But maybe you better had. Could have been the last time."
Saljin looked up. "What happened?"
The Rat pointed to the bow with a thumb. "Ships."
They hurried upwards to the steering cabin. Far downriver the night-lights of two big steamers drifted eerily across the water. They moved towards the 'Silver Ansicc' with high speed.
Khiray tried to recognize the combination of lights that burned at the front cargo boom and identified the ship and its owner. "Galbren's 'Laidanna' and his 'Gold Nugget'", he established. "They travel at top speed."
"The 'Laidanna' has got a heat loop, like the 'Silver Ansicc'." Delley nodded slowly. "The 'Gold Nugget' hasn't, at least I haven't heard of it." He took the telescope. "No, the funnels are smoking and flashing sparks. They still sail with standard boilers."
Kinnih, who had taken the wheel, handed it over to Delley. "Shall I wake the crew and call them to arms?"
The Rat nodded. "But silently. No unnecessary movement, and nobody is supposed to be seen on deck. If they don't suspect anything, we don't want to arouse their attention. If they attack us, they'll start with arrows, and we'd better stay under cover."
Khiray tried not to think about their chances in a battle against two fully equipped and occupied ships, possibly with guards on board. He stared at the steamers which covered the distance all too fast and tried to hope.