Chapter Twenty-five

He awoke around noon without remembering his dreams in detail. He was sure Pallys had a part in it, but he couldn't tell what he had said or done.


The loss of the Rabbit shook him to the core - his old teacher, his friend, the Furry with a thousand books, the sage of Sookandil, the immortal. But after all that had happened, he could no longer summon any tears. He was glad to be alive.

Khezzarrik's last plan had failed. The spell did no longer bother Khiray, the game of the Demons was spoilt. Beladanar had met his end. Galbren was on his own. With his hired mercenaries alone, the governor could not topple the Drunlord, and as soon as Kooradah learned about his treason, Galbren would lose his position, maybe his life as well. The truthfinders at the court could expose every detail of the intrigue. If Galbren had some sense left, he would leave the Armygan immediately. Bereft of his Demonic support, he was finished.

But Khiray had a notion that it wasn't over yet. Khezzarrik could plan more malice in the safety of Hell. Gate wouldn't like it that he and Saljin had escaped Beladanar's cruelty and that their other companions were still alive. Only Khiray's death would end the pact and allow Khezzarrik to enter this world again.

Was that what Khezzarrik wanted? Or did the Demon's plans have an end somewhere, was there a point where Gate didn't plan ahead any more? He could await Khiray's natural end. Khezzarrik had advanced to Beladanar's position and was probably busy securing his new rank in Hell. What kind of interest did he currently have in other levels and spheres?

But Khiray couldn't be sure. And even if Khezzarrik had left the game, Galbren was still around. Beladanar didn't listen to the voice of reason and survival, and had almost craved for his end by the hand of the Archangel. Maybe the governor would react in a similar way and pursue the 'Silver Ansicc'.

No, he couldn't afford to speculate about possibilities. He clenched his fists. Speculations were unproductive. He would deal with Galbren when the time came. The governor was only a Wolf, after all, a Furry, not a Demon, possessed by cruelty and sadism.

Khiray bent over Saljin. The Foxtauress breathed heavily. He felt her forehead. She had a fever, doubtlessly. If the Demon claws had been poisonous, that venom was now pulsing in her veins. But he knew too little about the anatomy and the medicine of Foxtaurs. Other Foxtaurs, maybe, could help her if she didn't overcome the fever by herself.

He couldn't bring himself to give her some medicine from the stock aboard. After all, he didn't know what would help, what would remain without effect, and what might prove dangerous. Even within the Furry races of the Armygan, there were big differences.

There were probably Foxtaurs in Drun'kaal. They weren't that scarce there, he had heard. A Foxtaur ship would even provide a means for her to return home.

And he... what would he do? Follow her? Stay here and start business again? They had survived - had overcome all dark visions -, and the moment of the final decision drew closer with every hour.

He let Saljin sleep and ascended to the wheel cabin. Kinnih stood at the rudder while Delley slept in a corner, snoring softly, slumped at the place where he had fallen asleep.

"Captain!" Kinnih called out, but turned his voice down immediately. "Captain, Delley has sighted the Demon ship!"

Khiray nodded. "The 'Gold Nugget', I presume? Galbren would not have lent the Demons the 'Laidanna', but kept the heat loop equipped ship for himself."

"Exactly", Kinnih confirmed. "The Demons hid it some kilometers south of Alvanere. If no one comes to this place in the next few days, we can recover it on the journey back, and sell it!"

"If there is a journey back", the Fox murmured. "And if no one is curious about Alvanere and goes investigating. There are some adventurers in every town, and Taphaliel's fight against Beladanar was visible wide and far."

Kinnih wrinkled his muzzle. "No journey back? Why shouldn't there be any?"

Khiray avoided looking at him. "Maybe I leave, with Saljin."

The young Badger didn't pursue the thought. "How is she?"

"Not too well. She has a fever, and I don't know what to do against it. Maybe she can tell me when she awakes. - Pray tell, if Delley's sleeping here and you're at the wheel, who's looking after the engines?"

"Sarmeen", Kinnih replied. "As good as he can."

"I'll take the wheel", Khiray commanded. "You watch the engines. I want to get to Drun'kaal full speed." His gaze fell upon Kinnih's bandaged left hand. "What happened?"

"Demons." The Badger eyed the dressing worriedly. "They bit off two of my fingers."

"What?" Alarmed, the Fox looked up.

"Only the small finger and a bit of the ring finger." Kinnih tried to look very brave. "But we defeated them good, didn't we?"

"Yes. We defeated them good." As a matter of fact, it was Taphaliel who vanquished the Demons. Khiray wasn't too sure if they could have made a stand against the horde of the Hell beings alone, even without Beladanar - the Demons had played with them; that alone was the reason why they were still alive. "Do you still think that everything's a big adventure?"

The Badger smiled. "Oh yes! It was just like in the old stories, wasn't it? The last defenders assemble against the overpowering enemy and are victorious in the end! That's stuff for ballads, for sure. We are real genuine heroes now."

Khiray shook his head. "Do you want to continue the hero business?"

"Continue? Are there still Demons somewhere?" Kinnih didn't seem too enthusiastic about that prospect, which comforted Khiray somewhat. "I mean, we have done everything..."

"The work of true heroes is never done. There wouldn't be any new ballads otherwise, would there?"

"Dunno. I mean, being a hero is a good feeling..." He raised the wounded hand. "But some scars would have done nicely. 'Cause of the girls and all that. Scars impress them, if you can tell a good story to go with it. But my fingers... It hurts. And it doesn't look very nicely."

"And we could have died all together, just like Pallys."

Kinnih looked at the river again. "Yes. Maybe. And no one will believe me, will they? When I tell them about it. They will think I'm a braggart."

"That's possible. Maybe not, however. Alvanere is destroyed, and the Otters are spreading the tale already. Perhaps they will indeed sing ballads about us one day. Until then... Well, maybe you should just keep quiet and play the mysterious Furry. That's a good trick as well. Real heroes don't praise themselves, anyway." As he knew Otters, they would do that for them. The tales Fryyk would spread...

Kinnih sighed. "Heroism is well and fine, but if we can't even boast a little about it, it doesn't really have a point, neh? I'd rather... I'd rather sail my own ship, have a family, be an honorable, well-known captain."

"Heroes don't have families", Khiray said quietly. "They have only themselves, and maybe some friends. And they do what they do because it's the right thing, not to impress the girls. Because they can't help it. And in the end they meet someone or something that's stronger than them, and..." He fell silent.

"Mmh", Kinnih mumbled nervously. "I'll look for the engines."

Khiray watched him go. Heroes? He didn't feel that way. It was Taphaliel who had beaten the Demons. It was so much different from the books, the songs, the tales. But maybe the truth behind them was no better: a little more dirty, more boring, more cruel, more tedious and more terrifying than the sparkling images people imagined.

But it had never been his idea to become a hero in the first place. He just wanted to survive - wanted that Saljin survived, that no one had to die any more, like Pallys, like the other Foxtaurs.

He had a lot of time to think. The river was calm and free, and while the ship hurried southward, he hadn't anything to do but to keep it on course. Khiray was a little bit ashamed not to have thought of his crew at once. He had only cared for Saljin and didn't even know about the injuries of the others. He was no good captain these days. He neglected his duties.

One day... when everything was over, when the world has calmly settled again, just like in the days when his father was captain and cared for everything...

He dreamt of that time while the 'Silver Ansicc' followed the stream at full speed.

* * *

Saljin wasn't much better when he finished his shift at the wheel. Delley had looked after her when he awoke, but he didn't know a useful advice. There were doctors in the villages along the river, quite a lot of them - they had entered the most densely populated area of the Armygan, and there were specialized physicians for every race. But no one knew about Foxtaurs, probably.

Khiray tried to talk to Saljin, but she was dizzy and weak.

"Rasil roots... reduce the fever", she said. The Fox had never heard of such a thing. A Foxtaur word for a plant he knew by another name? Or some herb that didn't grow in the Armygan at all, or was very scarce?

Pallys would have known the answer. He had traveled with the Foxtaurs for years. But Pallys was dead, and the rest of the crew was deplorably inexperienced in questions of medicine. Perlish and Delley knew the most, at least about injuries, cuts and broken bones. Delley had some experience from his years on the river, Perlish from his raids. Fryyk didn't know a thing about general medicine, just some Otter stuff that didn't help. Kinnih had learned everything from Delley, just like Khiray; the Rat knew Ayashlee's lore as well as the Fox. Sarmeen... of them all, Sarmeen was most useless in this respect. Being the son of a governor, he had always trusted in the city's doctors, not seeing any necessity to learn about medicine.

Rasil roots. Khiray was tempted to stop at the next big city and ask a doctor or herb healer for it. The Foxtaurs surely had had some medicine in their bags, but all of their property was destroyed or had been left in Sookandil.

Saljin laboriously described the plant for him, but even that caused no inspiration in him - and according to the Foxtauress it had to be processed before application, anyway.

He couldn't sleep. That was bad; with only six more or less able crewmen they had to work every waking hour, using every minute left for sleeping. As far as possible, they needed one Furry at the wheel, one at the engines and one as lookout. The more dense the traffic on the river became, the more important it was to sail with foresight, especially at their speed. It was supposed to be dangerous to sail that fast in the south. No captain did such a thing. But Khiray had no reputation to lose anymore, and it didn't matter to him by now whether the engines survived the speed without damage or not. Just to Drun'kaal, no further. Just to Drun'kaal where other Foxtaurs would help Saljin... if there were any other Foxtaurs present...

His dreams were troubled when he finally fell asleep.

Two days. Three if he listened to Delley, four, if they kept to the allowed speeds. Freight ships had to turn sharply when the big steamer passed by them. Rowing boats and small ferries rocked in the wake of the 'Ansicc'. Curses and insults followed them. Khiray gave emergency warning signals to pacify the furious Riverfurrys, but the 'Ansicc' would probably not have the best possible reputation when she went upriver again.

It didn't matter.

In the afternoon of the first day they passed by Koshmore. Here the river forked again, as it did quite often; here as well began the only bigger continuous road network of the Armygan. Drun'kaal wasn't far away.

The quay walls of Koshmore beckoned. Curious onlookers assembled when the harbor workers realized that the arriving steamer would not only pass without stopping, but did not even reduce speed, hissing and pounding. Fortunately, no ship was leaving or entering the harbor at the time, and only a few boats were on the river.

A horse was faster than a ship, at a small distance. But the ship could sail day and night, needed no pause, and thanks to the heat loop the 'Ansicc' didn't even need to reload coal or firewood.

Koshmore, the silver Koshmore with its famous spice markets, stayed behind, its inhabitants astonished or infuriated, depending on their temper. From here, the river led straight to the southwest. Fields and villages spread in every direction. Roads and paths followed the river, and every so often there was a bridge spanning the stream in a bold huge arc, higher than any mast, higher than any funnel. Carts with horses or oxen trundled along. The ship passed them all.

At night, only Khiray or Delley could steer, none of the others had the experience to maneuver on a well-travelled river in the darkness. Thus, the Fox went to his cabin some kilometers beyond Koshmore to take a nap.

Saljin was awake, but barely conscious. Her breath was shallow, and she trembled. "Rasil... Rasil roots..."

"We don't have any plants like that." Khiray could hardly bear to see her like this. "But there are surely Foxtaurs in Drun'kaal. Less than a day to there. Just hold out until then, they'll help you!"

"Will try..."

He attempted to pour some water into her muzzle and changed her dressing. She didn't bleed any more, but that was little evidence. If the wound had gotten inflamed from within...

Tears he couldn'd shed for Pallys, he cried for Saljin.

* * *

They arrived at Drun'kaal around noon the following day, although they had to reduce speed finally on the last part of the voyage. Too many ships were sailing here.

Drun'kaal looked impressive even from the river. Tall houses, magnificent palaces, decorated towers arose on the hills that formed the foundations of the city. The sea of buildings stretched on both sides of the river, as far as the eye could see. Two giant bridges spanned the river and connected the parts of the city.

The ocean was not yet visible, but they could smell it. Salty sea air blew over the town. Ocean ships moored at the big sea quays, whereas the river had been converted over all its length on both banks into a harbor for the river ships. As always, the city was in a state of flux; whole quarters were torn down and re-erected in a new fashion, old houses gave way to parks, parks were covered with residential buildings, open squares shrinked and grew with the tides of stone breaking along the roads. Wooden constructs, temporary cranes, incomplete storehouses graced the quays.

The only exception in the continuous changes was the quarter of the Drunlord. The avenues and blocks surrounding the palace had been renewed only, but not modified. That did not hold true for the palace itself, it grew like a strange plant, but its neighbourhood was unchangeable by decree.

Khiray moored at the most distant quay. He'd rather have continued seawards, but the nearer one came to the markets and to the sea-harbor, the more expensive and harder to find were the mooring-places. A captain had to know whom to bribe, where to hand out tips, and where it was not possible to do anything but to wait patiently or to order in advance. That far out, away from all the hustle and bustle, harbor workers were hard to find, the facilities were in a sorry state, and the makeshift warehouses not worth a second look for every self-respecting sailor. But they could moor without answering questions. The responsible harbor master struggled out of his shabby office shack and limped nearer.

The Fox showed a gold coin, and the down and out Rat doubled his efforts.

"No freight?" asked the harbor master, screwing up his eyes. "Never seen that, someone comin' all o'th' way t' Drun'kaal and has no freight."

"We've got our reasons. How much for the mooring place?"

"Ah..." The Rat stole a glance at the gold coin.

"Official prices", Khiray demanded. "This here is for... personal service." He let the coin wander through his fingers like a skilled juggler. His father had showed him the trick. The movement made the coin sparkle in the sunlight.

Greed showed in the eyes of the harbor master. "Ten a day."

"A week." The coin disappeared in Khiray's closed fist.

"Just what I said, didn't I?" The Rat stretched out his fingers.

"And we need a cart. With springs, to transport an injured Furry down to the harbor. The best and fastest available."

The coin changed its owner. The Rat hurried off, obviously hoping for more tips.

"You drive a hard bargain", Delley stated. "Thirty a week would be fair, even for a dump like this. It's Drun'kaal, remember?"

Khiray wrinkled his muzzle. "If I'm supposed to give gold as a tip, I don't have to pay even more for mooring. And if I hadn't haggled a little, we would have been suspicious to the Rat. Even more than we are now."

He helped the others to carry Saljin on a makeshift stretcher out to the quay. The Foxtauress was unconscious, but she still breathed. Khiray felt for her pulse. Too slow for a Fox, too fast for a Bear... and much too weak, that much he knew. She didn't move.

They didn't have to wait long until a cart arrived, four-wheeled and with very comfortable looking suspension. Four Deer were pulling it; the use of draft animals was very limited within the city limits due to hygienic reasons. One of the front draggers left his part of the pole and came to Khiray. "You have called for a fast cart?" The harbor master obviously had contacts to a runner, or else the cart would not have been here so fast.

"Yes." Khiray noticed the Deer's suspicious look. His - doubtlessly expensive - service probably wasn't ordered very often into this part of the town, especially not by a ragged, unbrushed, poor crew like this. A ship without freight, damaged and hastily repaired, with a visibly long voyage behind it... The Deer had reasons to believe in a fraud. The fact that he had come nevertheless honored him. Khiray produced another gold coin. "We have an injured Foxtauress here who needs treatment by her own people, urgently. We need information about Foxtaur ships that are in the harbor."

"Foxtaurs, huh?" The Deer swayed his antlers, went over to the others and talked to them. "You are lucky", he said when he returned. "There still is a ship in the east harbor. If Belank is right, they'll sail with the high tide in the evening."

Khiray nodded. "We have to take her there immediately." They heaved the stretcher onto the cart. "Kinnih, you go with her. I need the exact mooring place."

"Thirty-one East Four", the Deer called Belank informed him.

The Fox handed Kinnih the magic Dekka'shin. "Protect her. Explain to the Foxtaurs what's up. I'll follow in a short moment. Give that to them." A bag of gold followed the moonsilver weapon.

"You don't want to let the little one go all on his own", Perlish grumbled. "You'll attract a bunch of thieves with all that gold."

"That's why I gave him the weapon. I'll just sign the papers with the harbor master. If I don't, they'll put the 'Silver Ansicc' on a chain." As much as he wanted to accompany Saljin, he couldn't ignore the formalities. He was the captain, he had his duties. And formalities were the fashion in Drun'kaal.

Perlish shook his head. "I'll go with him."

Khiray nodded at him thankfully. He didn't expect the bandit to help him even a single step beyond the given promise. He watched the Deer pulling the cart onward, moving along the quay and disappearing down a street.

"I could have escorted them", Delley mumbled.

"With your diplomatic abilities, the Foxtaurs had raised anchor at once. Kinnih is young, he can behave if you haven't managed to spoil him by now, and the Foxtaurs won't distrust him as much as a Rat like you."

"A Rat like me? What's with me, now? What about my diplomatic abilities? They are quite good, those diplomatic abilities!"

"Yeah, just like in Kandrin... you know, that affair with the three Oo'men sisters and the thickset bartender..."

Delley grunted. "Okay. Maybe Kinnih won't mess up. I taught him everything, after all."

"That's just what I feared." Khiray allowed himself a smile. "Kinnih has my full confidence. He's crewfurry. Come, let's visit the harbor master."

They needed half an hour to work through the papers, even with the two of them. In Drun'kaal, even in a poor quarter like this one, they were rather thorough, quite different from Sookandil. It was no help that Khiray's thoughts strayed to Saljin every once in a while. And even with a golden tip a harbor master had to attend to his duties.

When they returned from the office, Khiray noticed that not a single worker was nearby. The quay was completely empty of all hired hands. Of course, they must have noticed by now that the 'Ansicc' carried no freight; there was nothing to earn here.

The Fox opened the secret compartment of the gold reserve in the navigation chamber and put the gold into a belt. Other than the usual small coins, these valuable assets consisted of heavy, big discs. He had to fasten the belt tightly, so it won't slip over his hips. The weight was comforting.

Then he took a kitbag and stuffed it with some of his personal belongings: clothing, two of his books, the dream knife, the carvings of the dream companions Saljin had made for him, and the small statuette of Saljin herself. A watch, the compass and a set of maps. He took the time to wrap the statuette and the maps thoroughly. Brushes and combs, Lysh's gift, the Nashi'tarr... His most precious belongings. He owned more than he could carry: many books, gadgets, and there were the possessions of his father as well; he had not even touched them... no time to search them for important things. He looked only superficially into the cabin and added the items to his kitbag that caught his eye. His mother's jewelry... a small painted portrait. There were no pictures of Saswin.

Then he brushed, put on shoes, donned his best vest and adorned his ears with the most expensive clips he owned. He wanted to make the best possible impression on the Foxtaurs. Maybe they belonged to a clan that wasn't on friendly terms with Saljin's family. It was only sensible not to arrive like a beggar.

Why a kitbag at all? He shook his head over himself. It was not like he was leaving forever. First, he had to explain his wishes to the Foxtaurs: treatment for Saljin - Kinnih had hopefully taken care of that - and a passage home. Oh, and a load of that medicine the Foxtaurs originally had come to the Armygan for.

But if the strange Foxtaurs wanted to leave today, he couldn't go with them. Too much was left to do. He had to inform the Drunlord, uncover Galbren's plan. The Lord would probably insist on Khiray staying at the court until Galbren had been found, so the governor could be submitted to a truthfinding.

And once this sorry mess was cleaned up, he had to sell the 'Silver Ansicc', write good references for Delley and Kinnih, help them finding a new captain... or he could leave the 'Ansicc' to Delley, as a whole. He deserved it, and Khiray didn't need the additional gold that much while he travelled Foxtaur Territory. The 'Ansicc', even without the heat loop, was more valuable than all the gold he carried now, but what to do with all this wealth?

He sighed deeply. It seemed to him as if he said goodbye to his ship, his heritage, already in his thoughts. And what for? To see foreign lands that might have many nasty surprises for him.

No, he hadn't come that far. Saljin was in the best hands with her own people, and he had no other urgent decisions to ponder on. He could look forward to days, maybe weeks, of enjoying the Drunlord's hospitality.

Maybe there was a reward, even. Sarmeen would get Galbren's position, and Perlish would make himself scarce as soon as he could... but Delley, Kinnih and especially Fryyk deserved more than just a pawshake. The Otter had helped them without being asked to, without being involved; he had risked his life for strangers.

He shouldered the kitbag and went down to the engine room. Delley had stopped the engines. Fryyk was there as well, only Sarmeen was missing.

"You look as if you want to move", Delley remarked. "Something wrong with your cabin?"

The Fox shrugged. "No, it's just... I had this notion, and... You're right, it's silly. Dumb enough to carry around all that gold, but that stuff as well, no... I'll leave it here."

The Rat nodded slowly. "You really want to go, don't you?" he gently said. "You want to follow her. With this seaship, if possible."

Khiray felt as if he stood with one leg in the past and with the other in the future. "Yes... no!"

"You can admit it, it's okay." Delley looked at his engines. "She's worth it, isn't she?"

He nodded weakly. "Yes."

"I'll watch out for the engines. I'll sail the 'Ansicc' for you, until you return. Hey, when you're here again, Kinnih and I'll have made a profit for you you can buy a whole fleet of!" Despite his put-on happy face, Khiray could read in Delley's eyes.

"No use...", the Fox replied. "I'll have to inform Kooradah. He'll search for Galbren - by the time everything's said and done, Saljin is home again. And whether I follow her... whether she wants me to follow her... that's in the lap of the Gods."

"I can settle the matter with Kooradah, if you like", Delley offered.

"One could get the impression you want to get rid of me", Khiray smiled.

"No, no, really!" the Rat exclaimed. "Hey, I have known a few girls in my time..."

" your time?" Fryyk interrupted. "With all the things Kinnih told me about you, you probably still have one in every port!"

Delley glanced at him menacingly. "I mean, really known. Good enough to almost once have set up home with her... So, if you mean it, you should go."

Khiray nodded again. Maybe Delley was right. Maybe he couldn't do anything else but accompany Saljin. Her fate was connected to his, and every reason he could think of why not to sail with the Foxtaurs was just an excuse - an excuse he cobbled together because he could not bear the thought of change.

But in fact the ship didn't count at all. His heritage was not important. Delley could sail the 'Ansicc' as well as he would. The only things that counted were Saljin and him... living souls, not dead property. The Foxtaurs didn't own more than they could carry. The very thought let his merchant soul shudder.

"You haven't been there from the beginning", he considered. "What do you want to tell Kooradah?"

"Huh! I've been there at the end! I have seen the Demons. And Sarmeen is the one responsible for beginnings. He's been Galbren's first victim..."

Sarmeen staggered into the engine room. The arrow that pierced his chest stuck out of his back. Whoever shot it was a true master. He had hit the heart with unfailing accuracy.

The Wolf fell to the floor. Khiray and Delley ducked behind the door. Fryyk hid behind a machine part. "What the...!" the Rat cried.

Khiray peered cautiously around the door. Galbren's soldiers swarmed over the quay. The governor himself held bow and arrows. Before he could aim and shoot again, Khiray and Delley had thrown the heavy iron door shut and locked it. Outside, the first soldier's steps boomed on the planks.

* * *

"You may as well come out", Galbren called. "It's probably less painful to die by the sword, than slowly suffocate in the smoke when I'm setting the ship on fire." Judging by the voice, he stood directly in front of the engine room door.

"That's rather undiplomatic", Delley replied. "You could at least lead us to have some false hopes to lure us out of here."

The governor snorted. "I won't insult your intelligence and degrade my words by working with cheap lies. You will die, and the only choice you have is how you want to die!"

Fryyk had lit another light illuminating the dark engine room. There were no windows and only one door. The wooden walls were reinforced by iron bands. The soldiers would not easily overcome that obstacle.

But they were trapped. If Galbren really set the ship on fire, they had no way out. A crashing and bursting from above hinted at the devastation the mercenaries brought upon the ship already.

"He really shouldn't be here", Khiray mused. "Khezzarrik said he was sailing the Long Run southward. We took the faster route; how could he catch up with us?"

"Khezzarrik probably transported both of his ships, just as he carried the soldiers that were supposed to ambush us on the way to Larynedd", Fryyk claimed. "Why should he have told you and Saljin the truth in every respect? I bet it'd have insulted his Demonic honor if he didn't lie to you in some points."

"But..." Khiray gasped. "What does he want here?"

"Just what he told us."

"No, before! Did he want to waylay us, should we make it all the way?"

"Probably." The Otter rubbed his tail. "But it doesn't matter anymore, does it? We're finished."

"Do you hear me, in there?" Galbren shouted. "We set the stern on fire right now! The choice is yours! I'll wait here until you come out or the ship is all aflame!"

"The 'Ansicc' doesn't burn that fast", Delley replied. His ears and his hairless tail were white with fury.

Galbren. The governor had finally caught them in a trap without a possibility to escape. Where his Demons and his soldiers had failed, he himself succeeded.

"It won't help you, Galbren!" Khiray called. "The Demons are destroyed, they will never return here! Without them, your plans are worthless!" Did the governor know that the Demons had been defeated by Taphaliel? If he had been all the time in Drun'kaal to throw out his net of spies and informers, he couldn't have had any contact with Beladanar. Except if they spoke through magical gadgets like the one Pallys had given to Khiray. Yes, that was highly probable: Galbren wouldn't want to leave Beladanar totally without control.

"We will see." The governor wasn't surprised by the claim, at least.

"You can't topple Kooradah! We already sent word to him!" It was a bluff, but Galbren couldn't know that.

"I am well aware that only four of you are aboard", the governor said. "Three now; I think I hit my traitorous brother quite well."

"Traitorous?" Fryyk laughed. "If there is one traitorous fur here..."

"Otter, you'd better stayed in your village. Well, how do they say: caught together, hanged together. And the others I'll get to as well. Four here, four there, isn't it?" He didn't know about Pallys' death. He just wanted to sound them out.

"They are probably already at the court!"

"That doesn't matter", Galbren claimed without bothering to explain. "They will die just like you, sooner or later, quickly or slowly, as it pleases me. The ship is already burning. I could chat on for a while, but I fear in a few minutes it will get rather warm here."

Khiray felt terrible. Slaughtered or burned to death, the result was the same. And Kinnih had got the Dekka'shin with the Archangel's powers... why had he ever given it away?

At least Saljin would survive. Galbren couldn't track them until the Foxtaur ship had left harbor, and he would certainly not bother to follow her trail afterward to exact his revenge.

"Chat on, Galbren, as you like", Delley told the governor. "We are very interested listeners."

"Oh, to my dismay I run out of topics. Since you vanquished my Demons, you surely know the rest. I won't explain every detail to you now, but you can be assured: the plan was a masterpiece, and my next will be no less brilliant. Kooradah will fall, and I will rule the Armygan in his stead!"

"Just brag on until someone hears you", the Fox called out. "Someone will see the fire, or the armsfurrys. There are rules in Drun'kaal, Galbren! We aren't in a northern village any more!"

"You made it easy for me by choosing this mooring place", Galbren stated. "I had to hand out only a few silver pieces to remind people that they have current, urgent duties elsewhere. Closer to the center of the city I would have had to spend far more!"

"We aren't finished", Delley whispered. "We can get out!"

"How?" Fryyk asked.

"The shaft bridge. Neither of us is very big. One can crawl along the axle for repairs, right to the paddle wheel. There's a hinged lid to the outside. Not really recommendable to use that passage while the engines work, but in harbor one can get through the lid, climb into the paddle-wheel and get out!"

The shaft bridge? Of course. Khiray remembered the construction of the ship. "But... we'll just get into the water!"

"Water is freedom!" Fryyk sang happily. "We are saved!"

Delley looked broodingly. "You are, maybe - if you dive long enough to get to the ships at the other side of the river, or until you are so far away that Galbren won't notice your head bobbing on the waves. But we... we can't stay underwater for so long. The ship is full of soldiers. They watch the river as well, be sure of that. As soon as we stick our neck out of the water, we'll get an arrow right through our eyes." He pointed at Sarmeen.

The Wolf lay motionless, lifeless. So far he had come since their flight from Galbren's secret dungeon, and now he had fallen prey to his murderous brother after all. Without a chance for revenge, without a possibility to stop his younger sibling rival or to tell Kooradah his story. He had fought bravely in Alvanere, just to be shamefully killed here.

So many were left behind - so many had died. Khiray began hating Galbren as he had hated only the Demons before. If there only was a way to destroy him...!

Of course.

"A distraction", he said. "That's all we need." He walked over to the engines and activated the heat loop.

"Get the ship moving...", Delley mused. "Khiray, as soon as the engines are running, the axle turns. We won't be able to get past it. If we get our fingers under the drive-shaft, the engines will rip them off. If our clothing is caught, it will get wound up. If our fur gets into it, we'll have some bald spots. And Galbren won't be irritated for long. And the ship could crash into another and hurt innocents."

"I don't intend to irritate Galbren", Khiray corrected. The water in the boilers was already heating. "I intend to kill him."

He climbed on the machine that waited motionless for the start lever to be operated, and blocked the security valve with a bolt.

"Gods, Khiray...", Delley moaned when he realized what the Fox was doing.

"Galbren set my ship on fire", Khiray said coldly. "He won't enjoy it for long! Can you guess precisely when it happens?"

"Uh, yes, as long as we stay near the wheel... We'll die if it doesn't work!"

Khiray shook his head. "Maybe Galbren or his bowfurrys will miss."

The Rat climbed up to the axle and took away a piece of the panelling. Behind it, a dark, narrow passage opened, not very long - just long enough to cross the surrounding deck outside -, but looking rather uncomfortable.

Delley crawled inside first. He knew best how to open the outer lid.

"Did you decide on burning?" Galbren asked outside.

"Oh yes!" Khiray replied. "It is the more pleasant option, mylord." Mockery and disrespect were the things that hit Galbren hardest. "Otherwise we would have to open this door and look at you, and we'd get nauseous then. We don't want to do that to ourselves."

"You will forget your scorn and derision as soon as the first flames lick at your fur! I just regret that I can't give you a more painful end."

"Oh, but you are doing that already! Your voice tortures our ears splendidly. If it were a wee bit more cutting, it could carve you a way through the door!"

Galbren went silent for a while. Khiray glanced at the pressure reading of the engines. The power transmission was off, but the heat loop ran at full power. Steadily, the water in the boilers vaporized without a way to escape.

"You know nothing at all", the governor finally claimed. "You haven't seen the decadence of the nobles with your own eyes. You don't know the dangers of strangers in your country. Everything I have done, I did for the better of the Armygan!"

Oh, that old litany! Khiray let Galbren talk and followed Delley and Fryyk into the darkness of the shaft bridge. The Rat had already unhinged the outer lid; when he opened it, light flooded into the tiny passage. Nothing else happened. Delley slipped out.

"The populace will thank me one day for freeing them from the tyranny of the Drunlord...", it sounded from the door. Did Galbren actually think he could impress them by hiding his selfishness, his hunger for power, his arrocance and brutality behind hollow phrases used up long ago? Only the cheap villains of Khiray's novels talked that big.

But maybe Galbren was nothing else but a cheap villain. The Demons had been evil, in an almost fascinating way - terrible, pitiless creatures with awesome powers. Galbren, in the end, was nothing more than another tool Khezzarrik had used. Khezzarrik had helped Ghanzekk developing the new magic staffs. What mask had he worn to flatter Galbren's vanity, to awake his greed, to spur his hunger? Galbren thought even now that his plans were truly his own.

Poor, misguided governor. Even now he failed to recognize that he had never been more than a useful fool - in a game of power in Hell. Galbren thought he commanded the Demons. His Demons! What a concept! Khiray had almost laughed out loud.

He crawled on hands and knees through the tiny space, dragging the kitbag behind. The thick axis of the paddle-wheel lay in its fittings, sticky with grease and vibrating a little, as if it felt the power of the machines and trembled in anticipation. There was little room in the shaft bridge - Saljin would have had problems getting through it. Khiray's back touched the ceiling already while he worked his way with hands and paws along the drive shaft.

At the other end of the short connection he had to wriggle around the main bearing of the wheel. Behind it, the inner spokes of the wheel extended. Without a sound he squeezed through to the gaps, hauled the kitbag behind and finally reached the inner space of the paddle-wheel. Two rows of spokes led outward to the paddles and the mighty wooden rings that stabilized them. This was a place Khiray had never been at in his life. Fascinatedly, he watched the pattern of spokes. The casing of the wheel protected him from discovery by the soldiers whose steps and voices he heard.

At last he lowered himself through the construction and slid into the water a Furry-length below where Delley and Fryyk were already waiting. He hoped he had wrapped the maps tightly enough to protect them from the water. The two books would hardly survive diving. Regretfully, he looked up to his ship. The 'Silver Ansicc' had done her name great credit, carrying them all in the shortest possible time to Drun'kaal, across Dorn's rapids and through the Sea of Alvanere.

If someone would really sing a ballad about them, he should not forget to mention the name of that ship.

Delley had pressed his big ear to the ship's hull. "Soon, soon! I can hear.."

Khiray started to breathe deeply. Heat loops produced tremendous amounts of energy. Enough to heat the water in the engine in a short while to the boiling point.

And beyond.

Galbren's voice was no longer audible. Did he finish his pathetic speech, or had he noticed that no one was going to answer him?

"Watch out!" Delley whispered breathlessly. "Three... two... one... now!" He inhaled and dived away. Khiray followed him immediately, pushed off from the hull and swam for his life.

He didn't have to worry for Fryyk; the Otter could stay under water for a longer time than Khiray and Delley together. If something went wrong, he would survive to inform Saljin and the others.

He sank deeper fast, almost faster than he could push forward. The gold! The belt pulled him down. Well, fine. The more water lay between him and the ship...

The shock wave tore through the water, churning up the river, sooner than expected, too soon. Khiray couldn't actually hear anything, but he felt as if he had been hit by a hammer. A giant's fist pressed the air from his lungs.

He could hardly see in the clouded, dirty harbor water; he lost orientation, drifted through the muddy filth. He had to ascend, get to the surface - breathe! Galbren's bowfurrys couldn't possibly be there anymore. Those who had survived the explosion were probably fleeing by now. Bribes or not, the city's authorities would not just overlook that detonation.

The gold kept dragging him down. It was too heavy, hang like a stone around his midst. But he couldn't just leave it! It was his last money. All his other possessions he had destroyed with the 'Ansicc'. And where was the kitbag now?

If he let the gold drop into the mud, he would be a beggar. He couldn't pay the Foxtaurs for their efforts, he could not ensure that Saljin brought home the needed medicine.

Water bubbled into his muzzle. Beggar or not, he had no choice. He opened the belt buckle. The gold sank so fast that he wasn't even able to watch it on the way down.

Up - up was the opposite direction. He swam, freed from his load, towards the feeble gleam of light. Eternities later, he broke the surface.

The 'Silver Ansicc' was burning. The explosion of the boilers had torn apart the superstructure, ripped the paddle wheels from their bearings and split the hull. The ship was sinking slowly. In the fiery inferno no soldier could have survived. Debris was scattered across the quay or drifted in the water.

His home. His only place. Khiray had spent his whole life on this ship. His father's possessions. The heritage of his mother. All the small items his heart was attached to, destroyed in a second.

But Galbren was dead. His corpse was nowhere to see - some mercenaries lay on the quay, and one or two floated on the river, but the explosion had probably torn most of them to pieces. A few - those who stood farther apart from the ship - might still be alive. But as the governor had stood near the engine room door, it was hardly conceivable that he was among the few survivors.

Khiray followed Delley to the bank. They gave the sinking 'Ansicc' a wide berth and climbed a stone staircase two hundred meters downriver. The Fox sat down on the quay wall and let his legs dangle. He felt empty and alone.

Nobody came. Fryyk had disappeared. Excited Furrys scurried about on the opposite bank, but on this side, everyone had hurried to safety and anonymity. No one wanted to be questioned by the city police.

Finally, Khiray rose, shook and wrang out his vest. There was no use in waiting here. He had to look after Saljin. The few coins he still had in a bag should rent a fast cart for him. "Delley?"

The Rat peered over the wall. "Wait. Fryyk's coming."

The Otter climbed the quay. He carried Khiray's gold belt and the kitbag. "Yuck! That water is an insult for every Otter!"

"Fryyk!" Khiray had almost called out "The gold!", but he curbed his muzzle in time.

The Otter looked at him with a face of surprise. "Sure. Did you think I would drown?" He giggled as if he made a good joke. For Otters, maybe, it was. "I'd say you were lucky I saw you going down. You Foxes have a style of swimming like a middle-sized stone. I wanted to help you a bit when you let the belt drop. I caught it; if it had ended up in the muck, even I would have had some difficulties retrieving it." He sniffed at his fur. "Vey! I need a bath! Is there no clean water around? That river is the dirtiest stretch of water I have ever swum in!"

Thankfully, Khiray buckled on the gold again. Then he opened the kitbag and took the soggy books out. Oh, after proper drying, they might even become readable again.

That were his possessions now, everything he owned. Enough for a new start, although not on an own ship. The money his father owed Galbren was invalid now. Chinnap's family line had ended.

He looked back to the wreck of his ship. It was Galbren's fault. Nothing else. The Drunlord should have it removed on his own cost.

Khiray hardened his heart against the stinging pain, turned his back to the ruins of his past and marched towards the city, followed by Fryyk and Delley. He ignored the scolding harbor master who finally crawled from his hiding place and demanded more gold for his scare, and disappeared among the houses, searching for a cart that would carry him to the East Harbor.

End of Chapter Twenty-five, go to Chapter 26, back to Chapter 24.