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Payback is Hell

    The three shackled prisoners are shoved firmly onto the truck's bed. Soldiers hop on around them, and the back tailgate is slammed shut with a painfully loud *CLANG!* Moments later, after some final shouting and low, grumbling snarls between the human captain and the... driver of the truck, there's a screeching of gears, a violent lurch, and the truck heads on back towards the castle. With resigned expressions, the soldiers all cling to some part of the vehicle to keep their balance -- although they do not drop their guard or their weapons... and just like before, the lack of shocks on the truck is immediately, painfully obvious.

    Once the van has left, Feina leads off through the forest, her innate sense of direction almost certainly leading back to the castle. She's still moving quietly, lest the troops decide to look for the fled vixens. Kawaii trots along beside her, darting ahead to sniff things out, and returning periodically, reassuring them that the way ahead seems clear. Sakura keeps her ears perked and remains alert as she trails through the woods with Feina...

Eventually Feina says, "We were going pretty fast, weren't we? We might have a couple days worth of walking." She frowns, "I hope we're in time to do something for the others."

Sakura sighs heavily and looks forward, frowning. "I sure hope so, Feina... I'm so worried."

Kawaii trots along and snorts something to Feina. She answers him, "It would help a lot if we could get a ride."

Sakura looks thoughtful at that. "Is there anything around here that we can get a ride from?"

Feina says, "Not that I know of. They'll be patrolling the road now, looking for us." She shudders, adding, "And they've got those trucks." Kawaii snorts in agreement, and squeals something about family.

Sakura blinks. "Feina... what did he just say? I think maybe I'm starting to understand... or I'm just overtired..."

Kawaii snorts derisively, and Feina smiles. She says, "He said that we'd make great time if he'd call someone from his family." The younger vixen looks at Sakura and asks, "Why wouldn't you understand?"

Sakura shrugs a little helplessly... "Because I wasn't born here and I don't understand the many languages of the forest like you do..."

Feina beams and says, "I'll help you."

Sakura smiles at Feina, "Thank you..." Then she kneels down in front of Kawaii. "Would you like to call your family? If they would help us we would appreciate it very much..." Kawaii stops and shies away from the attention, hesitating, and grunting quietly, something about danger, and fear or worry. Sakura looks up curiously at Feina...

Feina chews on her lip for a moment, and says, "It would make a huge difference, Kawaii! What if we're too late?" Kawaii continues to hesitate, unhappily squealing something about a favor.

Sakura says, "We'll do whatever it takes, Kawaii... Douglas, Vashti, and Kerry are my family... and I want them back."

Feina nods to the piglet, "Yes, I know they're big and scary, but this is an emergency. You know I wouldn't want to bother them if it weren't a last resort." She kneels down and rubs the worried piglet between his ears, saying, "Please, Kawaii?"

Kawaii moves off, grunting worriedly that he'll try, and to keep walking. Feina stands and says, "Well, we've done it now." She takes Sakura's hand and keeps walking.

Sakura keeps a tight hold on Feina's hand as she walks. "Poor Kawaii... I hope he understands..."

Feina says, "He does, or he wouldn't have gone. We'll see how the forest boars react."

It isn't long before the two vixens get to find out. With only a tiny rustling to give warning, a huge and bristly animal, with great gouging tusks steps out from behind a tree, rumbling, "You are the ones?" The boar stands five feet tall at the shoulder, and is at least ten feet long from nose to tail. He has huge tusks, sharp hooves, warily intelligent red eyes, and must weigh at least a ton. He speaks the Crossroads tongue, with a thick porcine accent, and seems brusque and impatient.

Feina freezes. Sakura stops dead in her tracks, awestruck. She manages, somehow, to retain enough sensibility to bow deeply to the boar... Feina follows Sakura's lead, and says, meekly, "Yes sir. They took our friends." He seems to consider this statement ponderously, not as if he is stupid, but as if he is weighing a great many things in his head. He finally says, "Ride," and waits for the two little vixens to climb aboard. Only then does Kawaii peek out from behind the trees, looking a little relieved. Sakura holds her arms open for Kawaii, before she climbs onto the Boar.

Kawaii shakes his head, and stays on the ground. Feina climbs on to the boar behind Sakura and clings to her, and to the huge animal's dense fur. When he starts walking, it is amazing -- he moves quickly, almost soundlessly through the forest. When he breaks into a jog, then into a run, the forest flies by around the two riders. Kawaii seems to be silently keeping up on his own. The path followed is not straight, but wends its way like a creek or natural trail, and soon both vixens lose their sense of direction, and much of a sense of time, in the rough and fast ride. It is hard to say how much time has passed when the boar stops at the edge of the forest, the plowed lands separating it from the forest. He grunts, "This is as far as I can go. The rest is up to you."

Sakura slides off the back of the Boar and comes around to bow to him again. "I cannot tell you how grateful I am... thank you for your help."

Feina climbs down, dazed, and shakes herself a little. She bows and thanks the boar for his invaluable help, too. Almost before she and Sakura are done speaking, he has faded back into the safety of the trees. It takes her a moment to shake herself again and bring her senses back to normal, but Feina says, "C'mon, let's get across these fields. Follow me."

Sakura says, "Wait... where's Kawaii?" The little piglet climbs out of the underbrush moments after the big boar arrives, and snorts his presence. He looks a little winded, but game to continue. Sakura scoops him up and kisses the top of his head before she sets him down again. "Thanks, Kawaii..."

Feina leads across cultivated fields, using irrigation ditches and crops as cover from the castle. She tells Sakura, "Wait here," and vanishes at one point, leaving Sakura and Kawaii in a secluded-feeling corner. Sakura waits nervously for the return of her Little Sister. She keeps ducked down, but listens and watches in the direction that she went... a tense hour passes, when a familiar voice whispers, "Be quiet, Sakura." Before Sakura has a chance to react, a strange form steps out of the hiding foliage; lithe, gray, thin, and wearing ragged homespun work clothes.

Sakura freezes, paws down on the ground as though she's ready to lift herself up and escape, "W... who?"

The gray woman says, "It's me, Feina. C'mon, let's hide you, too." She has more things slung over her arm. One of them is a pouch of cloth filled with ashes from someone's hearth, which she says, "This'll make you look less foxy, and make it easier to hide in shadows. Stand still, and try not to sneeze." She pauses to make sure what she's about to do is okay with the other vixen. After she speaks, her voice and her wide grin do obviously show it is the Shy Folk girl.

Sakura blinks. "Wow..." She looks at what Feina is holding in her hands and nods. "Okay... put it on. I'll hold my breath." She takes a deep breath and holds it.

Feina rubs the ashes into Sakura's fur, carefully around her face and more vigorously over the rest of her, working quickly and not letting herself be even a little distracted. A charcoal stick colors the end of Sakura's tail, her ears, and her paws, so she has black markings there and seems even less fox-like. It's not clear what either of them do look like, but it's not foxes. Maybe very dirty foxes. Sakura lets out her held breath and wriggles her nose. "Okay. What now?"

Feina says, "Try not to get wet. It makes a huge mess." Realizing Sakura didn't mean quite so immediately, she hands Sakura the clothes she has, er, acquired for her, and says, "Well, I think I can get us into the castle. Past that, I'm not sure, but I'm sure you'll think of something."

Sakura slips into the clothes that Feina has st- borrowed for her and then grins. "Well. We're less... foxy now. I sure hope this works."

Feina nods, then says, "C'mon." She leads through fields, keeping the other workers at a distance. None of them notice two people walking along, nor do they scent the foxes or the ashes. The clothes smell strongly of human, and all of the farmers seem human. Feina seems nervous in the open, but keeps going. It's not too long before the two vixens reach the outer wall. Feina stops Sakura out of sight of the guardhouse, and watches, waiting. Sakura looks up and around at the castle... just as interested in it as she was before. She's never seen a real castle before! She quickly remembers, though, that she's supposed to blend in and ignores the castle as though it's not there.

Feina then whispers, "Now, come with me, quietly," and takes Sakura's hand to lead her. She's waited for a large wagon of some sort to be in the gate, where the guards are arguing with its owner over the manifest. The two vixens cling to the shadows, seeming to fade into them, while the piglet merely walks through on his own, ignored in the commotion.

Inside the wall a small village lives: people bustling around obviously busy and thinking about their own business, either unaware of two vixen fugitives, or too busy to be looking for them in too much detail. Feina leads around the inside of the wall, walking quietly through its shadow until the castle proper is in view. She murmurs to Sakura, "There's three ways in. One by the privies, one at the kitchen, and the main gates." She looks up expectantly to the other vixen, "Which do you think we should use?"

Sakura frowns thoughtfully. "Definitely not the main gates..." She contemplates the other two entrances, visually if she can. "What's on the other side of the entrance by the privies?"

There are four guards visible at the main gate, and perhaps more through the slightly foreboding little tunnel there. The two vixens sneak about a little, to spy on both entrances. The privies are outside, and the ground is wet and the odor unpleasant. The kitchen seems to have a little traffic, although most of it distracted. Kawaii seems to prefer the kitchen entrance. It smells much better. Food sounds wonderful.

Sakura looks down at the little piglet, then up at the kitchen. "The privies, I think. We're likely to run into far fewer other people there..."

Kawaii stomps one foot and snorts hungrily. Feina says, "If you say so," and seems dubious. She looks to the kitchen too, but heads to the quieter, less pleasant smelling entrance. A man in an obvious hurry moves out of it to the row of privies, and then the foxes and pig move inside, finding themselves in a smallish service hallway leading off left and right. Kawaii grunts, "-explore?"

Sakura looks down each corridor. "Let's go right... I don't want to split us up..."

Kawaii goes trotting off slightly in front, as the vixens skulk down the corridor, Feina trying to remain inconspicuous. Kawaii comes back, grunting, "-no, no, no!" and wants them to go the other way. Sakura nods, content to take the piglet's advice without question... She grabs Feina's hand and turns the little group around to go down the other hallway.

The safer hallway leads to the kitchen, which is a big room. One end is red-lit by the fires of the stoves and ovens, and seems dominated by a hugely overweight, very angry human, who seems willing and able to berate the entire staff constantly. She cries, "Tim, get those loaves out early! Jana, bank down the fires! They're delaying the feasts tonight to interrogate some damned prisoners they've brought in!" She kicks someone too slow to avoid her and adds, "Mak! Get some more flour and make up some more dough! Jana can then help you make more meat pies. We'll have to feed the extra people in for it too." Her tirade continues nonstop, and her staff seems too intent on their work and on avoiding their mistress' unhappiness to notice a couple of vixens sneaking off to the darker, quieter side of the kitchen.

Feina sees a very dark and quiet nook amidst some sacks of onions, and shoos Sakura there. Sakura sneaks into the little nook that Feina has indicated, ducking down to hide herself... Kawaii casually bites open a sack of potatoes and starts eating them raw. Feina licks her chops with a hungry, vulpine gleam in her eye, murmuring, "Mmm. Wait here." She slinks off through the kitchen and returns a moment later with three meat pies from the back of a cooling rack. She hands them to her friends, and bites into her own. Sakura eats the food with grateful efficiency. She's quick but manages to keep fairly silent about it too... then she licks her chops and grins at Feina.

Kawaii looks at Feina like she's a goddess of food, and devours the crusty thing. He then trots off to scout out the way ahead. Feina spends the time Kawaii is gone sitting in the dark, warm corner of the kitchen, being as snuggly as stolen peasant clothes, potato sacking, and ashes will let her, and looking around her in quiet worry. Sakura grabs Feina's hand and squeezes it.

Kawaii returns some time later, grunting quickly and for a long time about hallways, guards, barracks, more hallways, lots of smelly people, and stairways. Sakura watches the kitchen staff and waits for a moment when none of them are looking, to stand up and slip out of the kitchen. Kawaii squeaks and darts ahead, hoping Sakura will follow him away from the barracks he found. Feina seems to freeze for a moment -- perhaps the cook's ranting about, "No, I don't what wine goes best with Aztekan! They want me to cook this batch, too?" is enough to do so. She does dash after Sakura. Sakura gulps, as though suddenly realizing that this may not have been the wisest course of action. She ducks after the piglet...

Kawaii leads Sakura, with Feina catching up only moments later, into a large hallway. A set of double-doors leads to the Great Hall, where a loud commotion can be heard -- many deep and unpleasant voices and some abrasive laughter. A stairway leads up, and the hallway leads around into who knows where. Kawaii looks around and back at the vixens for direction.

The sounds of marching feet come from around the dark hallway, from the unknown direction. Feina grabs Sakura, and pulls her to one side of the hall, crouching behind a big statue there, then trying to duck behind the long wall hangings and appear inconspicuous. The low lighting works in the dark vixens' favor. Sakura hides in the shadows with Feina... holding her breath until the military types go by.

A set of more guards than might be expected, many of them armed with crossbows, come out of the darkness, leading Vash, Douglas, and Kerry in the middle of their group. Feina clamps onto Sakura with a silent, terrified grip. The three spacefarers look all right, if a bit worse for wear, and seem not to be chained. They are hustled wordlessly around the corner towards the big double doors. A second later the doors can be heard slamming shut behind them, with finality.

Sakura whispers, "Come... back to the kitchen. We need buckets... and mops."

Feina murmurs, "They were going to cook and eat the prisoners. I don't want to go back there." She hasn't let go of Feina. Kawaii sniffs a couple of times and trots off, exploring a little more.

Sakura says, "They're not going to cook and eat anyone... Come on..." She grabs Feina by the hand and leads them back to the kitchen, creeping through the shadows.

The kitchen is busier now, with things coming out of the oven, and not as safe a refuge as it was before. Seeing people idle in the shadows by the door, the cook shouts, "Hey! Get to work, you lay-abouts!" and then goes back to haranguing the person directly by her. Sakura walks into the room, looking chastened. She picks up a bucket and mop, hands them to Feina and gets her own as well. They scurry out to the hallway and start mopping the floor very well... making their way slowly back to the kitchen where they started.

Kawaii catches up with them in the hallway, squeaking relievedly. He grunts, "Follow!" and leads off up the stairway he was exploring when the vixens went back to the kitchen. Sakura picks the bucket and mop up and carries them with her as she follows Kawaii, urging Feina to do the same. The buckets and mops should provide them with credibility...

One guard wandering down the hallway doesn't give them a second look, presuming they're on the way to clean up some mess. Up the stairs, there are doors off in one direction, and only one off in the other. It is to that door Kawaii leads, grunting, "Here!" The piglet also grunts, "Quiet!" Sakura ducks quietly through the door...

Feina follows, and closes the door silently behind them. The two vixens find themselves on a balcony, which overlooks the Great Hall below -- they along with several broken chairs, a rather badly scratched harpsichord, and a heap of music stands and some other rubbish. It looks like some other broken and unwanted furniture has accumulated here in the musicians' balcony, which has been apparently unused since Drekaris has taken over. Its excellent acoustics let the vixens and piglet hear clearly, and they can peek over the balcony or through its cloth buntings.

Sakura sets her things down and peeks very carefully through the cloth buntings, down into the room below... Feina also has a look, and seems terrified by what she sees. Kawaii is less worried, but stays quiet and listens to the proceedings.

    The three shackled prisoners are shoved firmly onto the truck's bed. Soldiers hop on around them, and the back tailgate is slammed shut with a painfully loud *CLANG!* Moments later, after some final shouting and low, grumbling snarls between the human captain and the... driver of the truck, there's a screeching of gears, a violent lurch, and the truck heads on back towards the castle. With resigned expressions, the soldiers all cling to some part of the vehicle to keep their balance -- although they do not drop their guard or their weapons... and just like before, the lack of shocks on the truck is immediately, painfully obvious.

Vash sways quietly on the bed but otherwise remains still and silent. Kerry curls up miserably on the bed of the truck, the trollish vehicle affecting him as badly, or perhaps worse, than the one he rode before. He's not even sure if it would be worth trying to throw up on a guard... Douglas, calmer now from his previous anger, sits in the truck quietly and wearily, coming down from the adrenaline rush of fury. He feels a little hollow now, but still defiant... inside at any rate. Sakura-chan made it, he thinks. She and Feina and maybe even Kawaii are still free. They'll find some way to help us.

The truck moves out. He feels all right, curiously enough; he wonders if there's some difference between Drekaris' trucks and those of the trolls. Maybe because he's human, and we're... well, based off of human DNA, partly, he wonders. He casts his gaze up towards where the castle will show first, as they trundle along the road to it, and swallows a little, suddenly of a mind to keep his thoughts rather guarded.

The ride takes several long hours, the troll-style truck not being as swift as the Alshain's Rover. The soldiers, much like Vash, sway emotionlessly with the jouncing movements of the truck, with what seems like limitlessly resigned, bored patience. However, at some point the vehicle once again emerges into the cleared fields, with the central castle brooding over it all.

    Castle Drekaris

    Not as tall and graceful as many castles from home, this does seem to be a reasonably well designed and well built fort, with walls thick enough to stand off attacks from even trollish equipment, and a dry moat all around its outer wall. There appears to be an inner keep beyond the outer wall as well. The walls are no more than thirty feet tall, but quite deep looking. They would be relatively easy to scale -- if it weren't for the armed men on the battlements. There is one gate in the front of the castle, with an almost iconic drawbridge and portcullis arrangement, leading through a short access tunnel to the inner yard.

    The inner keep seems to be at most six stories high and made of stone, with thick walls. It is not a particularly beautiful or inspiring place, but it seems very functional and well thought out.

For those prisoners able to look up and notice, the few visible peasants in the fields seem sullenly uninterested in the noisy truck, looking up only for a moment before going dispiritedly back to their work. Soon the truck rattles and bangs over the drawbridge and under the portcullis, then echoes painfully and thunderingly through a stone passageway, then under another portcullis... and finally out into the central courtyard.

The cougar makes note of the peasants -- Maybe Sakura's idea of a peasant revolt wouldn't be a bad one, if they had the will to, he thinks -- then as the truck enters the castle he winces from the assault upon his ears, the cacophony of discordant noise rattling him badly. Doug almost welcomes the entry into the courtyard, and the less-echoing noise of the truck it brings. Kerry stirs only to wrap his wings over his head as the truck passes through the outer wall to the castle courtyard, the noise even more painful to him than to the cougar.

There's some commotion as some horses neigh and rear at the explosive bang the truck gives off when the engine dies, but no one seems surprised or worried by that. People dash about at the arrival of the truck, some shading their eyes and staring in the midday sunlight, but most helping unload goods from the vehicle and staying out of the way of the soldiers and their prisoners. The castle within the courtyard looms over everyone, huge front doors firmly closed. Soldiers chivvy the prisoners off the truck bed to the ground, then herd them towards a side door into the castle.

It is the prisoners themselves, in fact, that attract the most attention -- people pause, stare, point, whisper, and shy away from them. The hostile, sullen murmuring is cut off only when the smaller side door slams shut behind the small group.

Douglas shuffles off the truck, his walking hampered by the hobbles, but he tries to retain some shred of his dignity and pride; he walks upright, back straight, trying to put as much of a stride into his walk as he can. The whispering, though, and the pointing... it makes him shiver a little. Memories flood back to him -- was it really only a month or two ago when they were back on Earth, and were being exposed to that sort of thing? The unspoken prejudice, because they were different... He had thought it wasn't here, not after meeting... after meeting Annifred and Blue and Larrikan and Cat and D... the drake.

The dimness of the inner castle is a relief after the almost harsh glare of the sun overhead. The narrow hallway is poorly lit with torches flickering and flaring, interspersed intermittently along the walls. The hallway has a small opening to a dank, narrow stair leading down, and the soldiers carefully prod the group in that direction.

Kerry stumbles off the truck, glad that it's over at last. He sighs in relief at the dimness inside the castle, finally being able to open his eyes without his goggles. The stairs down do not look particularly inviting, though. He is disappointed by the locals, but after all... these are the ones Drek trusts enough to stay in the castle keep. Probably not representative of the populace at large. Vash goes where he's directed, staring straight ahead. He doesn't turn to look at the guards or gawking townsfolk.

The stairs wind downwards. The soldiers stump down them almost emotionlessly, prodding their prisoners only when necessary, and otherwise seeming somewhat indifferent. As the light dims, due to fewer torches by the stairs, the humidity rises and the air gets danker. Finally the group hits level ground, in a relatively large and well-lit but smoky room. Two huge, stony trolls look up as the group enters... although these are not like the trolls the group is used to. Jagged spikes protrude along their backs, and ragged fangs jut over the slash that is a mouth. One rises, with a rumbled greeting like stone grinding against stone, and after some discussion with the human guards, it nods its massive head and waves the prisoners before it.

Kerry stares at the trolls while the discussion with the guards continues. Bozhemoi. So this is what happens when they've been near the Horn too long... The soldiers leave, perhaps a bit hastily, and the other troll swings open a heavy wooden door with a screeching of hinges. The trolls gesture to indicate the prisoners should enter.

Vash passes without looking up. Kerry shrugs and follows his captain's lead. He's pinging rapidly, building a picture of the dark spaces with his sonar sense as they are herded along.

Douglas swallows slightly, seeing the size of the trolls -- no, not merely the size. Their appearance! Hallifred was almost cuddly compared to them. He wishes he'd learned more trollish -- hells, any trollish, enough to say 'hi' to them. He follows after Vash, glancing curiously and without fear so much as concern, at the trolls. Then he remembers the tiny crystal the labyrinth-troll had given to him. Somewhere in his jumper. In the trunk. Which was probably being pawed through by Drek's guards. Dammit!

    The prison cell is large enough for the troll and the prisoners to all stand upright -- but barely. It stinks in here something fierce, of rot, blood, fear, and death, and there's a hasty rustling and a few squeaks from the moldy straw tossed against the far wall. Aside from a tiny, barred section high up in the heavy wooden door, there are no windows... although judging from the somewhat slimy walls, that's a good thing. Long, rusty chains hang from the walls, although there are no bodies attached.

One troll pulls a large, crude metal ring, complete with keys, off its belt, while the other stands in the doorway, effectively blocking it. The troll with the keys studies the group silently for a moment, then points at Doug, gesturing at his shackled paws and then raising both its hands. Then it selects a key and waits. Douglas gets the gesture immediately, and takes a breath, proffering his manacled paws to the troll. They take off our manacles while we're here. Well, that's not a bad thing, at least.

Douglas's nose twitches. Of course, everything else make this a distinctly ungood thing. We've got to get out of here soon, somehow. Kerry snorts, the odor hideous even by his relatively scent-blind standards. I hope we won't be here too awfully long before Drek wants to talk to us. This is not a good thing.

The troll reaches to randomly select one long, rusty chain, and snaps it around one of Douglas' wrists, with a sharp *snickt*. Then, carefully and with much squinting to be sure it can see the tiny shackle keyhole, it unlocks the shackles from the cougar's wrists. It tosses the heavy shackles easily to the troll in the doorway, then makes the same raised-hands gesture to Vash.

Douglas blinks a little, and sighs. Should've known, dammit. Of course this guy isn't going to be kind to prisoners. This is what you get for getting your hopes up, kitten. Vash raises his wrists.

The troll repeats the process of chaining the armadillo to the wall and then removing the shackles, although it does pause long enough to study the powerful digging claws on Vash's hands. Then it looks at Kerry... for a long moment. Finally it just reaches out and picks the bat up by the scruff of the neck, holding it up towards the other troll and rumbling something bemused sounding, waving the keys in the other huge hand.

Kerry skreeks in indignation, but cooperates in letting the troll get the key into his leg shackles. The troll in the door shrugs, then draws a long-bladed dagger, reaching for the bat. Douglas grimaces slightly, then blinks as the dagger comes out. Let's hope they know this name, or Kerry's not going to be in good straits! He says sharply and clearly, "Hallifred wouldn't approve." It's worth a shot... for that matter, I hope I pronounced it right!

Kerry goes deathly still at the sight of the dagger. They wouldn't be mindless enough to try to make a spot for a wrist cuff to go, would they? The troll with the keys thinks for a long moment, studying the dagger, then the very-still bat... then shakes its head, rumbling something firm-sounding, and turns to look at the wall of chains. Kerry's almost sure he heard the word "Drekaris" in the incomprehensible growling. The dagger-wielding troll shrugs again, sheathing the dagger, then glances incuriously at the cougar. Kerry exhales again as the dagger-wielder puts the blade away again, and volunteers an ankle. "Upside down is fine, fellows. I'd prefer it." He doesn't expect them to understand, of course...

Douglas grimaces. So much for that... He glances to Vash. Dammit! We need him right now! If he can't... no, I'm not going to give in, not for any reason. "We've been to the labyrinth north of Swan Lake," he says slowly to the trolls, trying to enunciate his words clearly. "We've met the caretaker there..."

Ignoring the big cougar, the troll keeps working. A chain with a slightly smaller than usual cuff is chosen. The bat is unceremoniously turned over, and a moment later the cuff clicks shut around one ankle. The troll neatly tucks the bat under one arm, and with some gravelly muttering and more time than Kerry would really like, eventually the ankle shackles are off him too. He's finally released, finding out to his relief that the chain is just long enough for him to stand on both feet -- if he stands right next to the wall. With no further commentary or ceremony, both trolls withdraw, and the door is slammed shut. The sound of the key in the door is... rather final.

The door shuts on Doug's last words, and he stifles the urge to shout a curse. Well, that's that, then. Until Drekaris comes for us, we're stuck here. Well... until Drekaris or Sakura-chan and Feina come... but no, don't be stupid, kitten. They'd be killed if they came close to the castle. Vash settles back against the wall. Kerry sighs. "That was close. Brain-dead thugs... I think Drekkie wants us intact, though. That's what it sounded like the discussion was all about."

Vash says, "Douglas." He pauses, then says, "Sit the fuck down. Conserve some energy."

Douglas has already started peering at the shackles around his wrist, worrying at it somewhat, wondering how the lock mechanism works and how it might be picked, when his ears perk at Vash's words. He stops his fussing and glances over. "Hmm? Yes, Captain?"

Vash closes his eyes. "There's nothing we can do right now, so calm down."

Kerry studies the wall and the chains... the ceiling is rough enough for him to hold on to if he can get up to it. The alternative is to sit in the slimy straw with the rats. "Hmm..."

Douglas gives a faint growl in his throat, but swallows it, turning back to his shackles. "I am calm," he protests mildly. "Well... now, I am. I'm not enthused at the prospect of Drekaris having his way with us, Captain. Finding a way out may be useless, but better that and possibly coming upon an escape route, than let them put us in this dungeon meek-" He blinks and looks around. "Hrm... yes, I guess this is a dungeon, at that. Never been in one before." He goes back to worrying at his shackles, keeping his eyes wide open in the dim light as he tries to divine the workings of the shackles.

Vash says, "Remember that wasting your energy endangers all of us when time comes to escape." A moment later he adds, "And we're going to escape."

Douglas holds very still for several long moments; saucer-shaped eyes peer at Vash from the shadowy dimness in that time, then close. The bulk of the cougar's head nods, and a soft sigh escapes him. "Yes, Captain. Thank you."

Kerry skrees, "Damn straight. Meek and mild when it can't make a difference, and watch for the opportunity." He adds, "I'm going to try to get into a more comfortable position. Can one of you stand by to break my fall if I slip? The wall looks nasty."

Douglas nods, "I'll try, Pilot." He moves to stand over by Kerry, moving a little to give his arms freedom of movement. "I don't know if I can catch you if you fall, Pilot," he says, a bit dismayed.

Kerry checks the room carefully again both by vision and sonar. "Interesting. This room is dug down into the native rock... in fact, parts of it look like a natural cave chamber. They must have sealed it off when they made it into a dungeon." He gives up on the idea of climbing all the way to the roof and instead pulls himself up the chain until he can reach the ring that connects the chain to the wall with his foot. He grins as he flips himself over. "Ah... much better. Now... we wait. If they don't feed us enough, you can catch bugs for me and I'll let you eat my share."

Vash says, "I don't expect we'll be waiting long."

Douglas glances to Vash. "You think Drekaris will want to see us right away?"

Vash says, "Or gloat and dispose of us. Either way, the longer he keeps us the longer we drain his resources. It won't be long."

Kerry skrees, "As soon as he has a chance to go through our stuff. He'll want to talk to us. If only to get information from us." Douglas nods quietly. I suppose it's against all hope that he doesn't find and damage that crystal, he thinks sullenly.

The problem with being a prisoner in a dungeon isn't just tension -- it's... boredom. There's not much to talk about, really. In the darkness, even though most of them can see, in the wet, cold silence punctuated only by occasional rat squeaks and snarls, and the occasional grating commentary by the trolls, time...

drags on...


It's almost a relief when, an apparent eternity later, noise and light accompanies the return of the soldiers.

Vash opens one eye, then closes it. He waits for the soldiers to come. Douglas looks up, blinking and wincing at the flash of light into the cell. Kerry already has his eyes closed to slits as the soldiers enter. I wonder what they'll make of this position?

The door squeals gratingly open, flooding the room with torchlight, and with slow deliberation one of the trolls steps into the room while the other blocks the door. A slow moment of regard -- and then the one at the door rumbles something vaguely alarmed sounding. The troll with the keys draws in air sharply and gustily, then snarls nastily, one huge hand shooting forward to grab Doug, as the closer of the two on the ground. Doug's arm is painfully tightly imprisoned in that stony grasp, as the troll bellows something deafeningly in the cougar's face, shaking the big cougar like a rag doll.

Kerry skrees, "Let him go, you big idiot. I'm right here, and you can't understand a word we say anyhow."

Vash watches impassively. I'm going to remember this, cabrón. You'll bleed. The troll at the door looks up, barking something, and the troll with the keys tosses Doug aside, then grabs the bat none too gently, yanking him down from where he hangs. Kerry lets go of the ring as the troll grabs him. Kulak. You'd think he never saw anyone chained to a wall before.

Douglas winces sharply, trying to move his face away from the troll's fetid breath, all but gagging. "I don't speak your ----ing language!" he barks out, gasping for breath. He tries to keep his balance, failing as the troll throws him to the side. What the hell has got his granite panties in a bunch? he thinks, gasping for even the slimy, dank air of the cell.

The troll's grasp is tight, but not damagingly so. Kerry can tell he's going to have some nasty bruises along that wing-arm... but fortunately nothing worse than that. The troll is grumbling under his breath as he repeats the same procedure as before, but in reverse, tucking the bat under his arm and fumbling with the tiny (to him) lock and keys. A moment later he tosses the bat towards the troll at the door and turns towards Douglas, holding up a key. He grumbles something at the cougar. Oddly, it doesn't sound terribly peeved this time.

Douglas tries not to glare at the troll, rubbing his arm where the troll grabbed hold of him. He holds up his shackled hands to him, a little sullenly. Then he blinks a little at the troll as that one mumbles something. He nods, looking a little more respectful to the troll -- That sounded almost... almost like an apology...? The troll with the keys carefully unlocks the cougar's wrist shackle, waving him towards the doorway.

Kerry skreeks as he's thrown, spreading his wings and instinctively trying to control his flight toward the other troll. The eyes of the troll in the doorway widen slightly as the bat soars at him -- then he grins, and with that deceptive lightness of movement the huge trolls sometimes show, he simply steps out of the way. The bat soars out into the room -- a room full of soldiers -- armed, startled looking soldiers!

Kerry has a moment to realize that his original target has stepped out of the way, then pulls his wings in for a moment as he passes through the doorway... toward the torchlight. His wings spread out once he's clear, and he lands lightly on his feet in the midst of the solders. He grins, then, folding them up again to cover his bare fur. "Now what?"

Many crossbows track the bat's flight, although he is inordinately fortunate in that no one chooses to pincushion him to a wall. The cougar also steps outside, rubbing his wrists slightly, frowning quietly and a little worriedly. When Doug's outside the armadillo is similarly released, and the troll follows him out of the cell. Once the group of prisoners is again assembled, the crossbow carrying soldiers head out with them, slogging up the interminable stairs towards the hallway above. Kerry has more trouble with the stairs with his short legs, but decides that one tempting of fate is enough for the moment. He concentrates on not tripping over his wingtips or the baggy robes issued to his colleagues.

With curiously worrying silence, the guards herd the small group up the interminable stairs, down the twisting hallway for a bit, and then through a wide stone doorway... into the Great Hall of the castle. Huge wooden doors slam shut behind them, with finality.

Douglas tries not to fidget so much, as they're led up the stairs. He's not sure what's awaiting them, but he's pretty sure that it's probably going to be Drekaris. His suspicions are partly confirmed when they are led into the Great Hall. He looks around the hall, frowning. "How long do you think they'll make us wait?" he asks quietly.

Kerry snorts. "He's a VIP. Of course we have to hurry up and wait."

Rounding one corner in the narrow hallway as the small group heads for the huge doorway, one of the guards trips on Vash's tail, his quarrel falling from his crossbow. There's a snicker and muttered commentary from several other of the guards, and the clumsy guard flushes with sudden rage. With a snarl he straightens, whips up the now-empty crossbow, and brings it down, hard, on the back of the unsuspecting armadillo's head. Vash crumples without a sound.

The soldiers react immediately, fanning out slightly to warily train their crossbows on the two still-standing prisoners. The captain snarls something at the soldier, backhanding him in fury and snapping a hand out to point off out of the hallway. The soldier reels at the blow, then shamefacedly hands his crossbow to the captain and slinks off out of sight. With a sigh of exasperation the captain details two soldiers to carry the unconscious 'dillo, and waves on the group towards the head of the hall.

    The Great Hall of Castle Drekaris

    Long, cold, and dark, the Great Hall stretches the length of the castle. High overhead, the ceiling is lost in shadows and darkness, while second story balconies line each side wall, with smoky braziers flickering and giving uncertain light to those below. The end of the Hall is elevated, so the throne upon it can be seen by all. Huge, long, heavy banners, half obscured by soot, dust, darkness, and the fading of time, flank the throne, and directly over it hangs a small horn. A largish footstool is before it -- mostly a wooden box with a padded top. A heavy, dark, shaggy man -- doubtless the High Lord Drekaris himself -- sits on the throne, one foot resting casually on the footstool, brooding as he watches the prisoners approach. Behind and to the side stands a tall figure in a long robe complete with obscuring hood. No one else stands near either of them.

    For all its size the Great Hall is packed, thick with the heavy rumble and press of nervous people and the unpleasant smells of smoky fires, burnt food, fear, anger, and greed. In sense-numbing flickers, worsened by the overbearing smells, sounds, and uncertain firelight, people can be seen by the prisoners... but up close they become more figures out of nightmare than humans. The prisoners catch glimpses -- shaggy, pointed eyebrows; the flash of slitted cats-eyes; overly jutting teeth bared in a feral snarl; even just the uncertain, animalistic shifting of weight from one foot to the other -- something is very rotten in the kingdom of Drekaris.

Kerry lets himself be directed into the hall, impassive in spite of the weird scents and sights and the odd occupants. He clicks ultrasonic pulses, building a picture of the room independently of the flickering light. Douglas tries -- he really tries -- hard not to leap on the guard that assaulted Vash, even after the captain berates the guard. For the first time that Doug can remember, though, he finds his teeth bared in something other than a smile, glaring at the guard even as he's going off down the hall. Yet his attitude fades as they are taken closer to the... throne? For that is what it must be, of Drekaris.

It's then that Douglas starts to realize that there's something horribly unright here. Drekaris isn't human. These people aren't human. They can't be, not with eyes like those, not with teeth like those. They... would vaguely be uplift felines... but no uplift would be that feral! He tries to tell himself this, even as he glances around with growing worry and concern, at the... people. Creatures. Whatever they might be, but human certainly not... Kerry continues to look around at the oddly non-human humans. He blinks as a realization strikes him. "Douglas," he whispers. "It's the effect of the Horn."

Drekaris stands and stomps over to the prisoners, the guards falling back a little, whether out of fear or respect isn't clear. The warlord is a heavyset barrel of a man, hair and beard and eyebrows growing together in a wild mass of black. His arms are also hairy, pushing the verge of furry, although they might still be considered barely within the realm of human norms -- if it weren't for the other changes. His eyes are yellowing and his hands have grown, his fingers somehow elongated and growing huge, ragged claws instead of fingernails.

When he speaks his voice is slurry, as he seems not quite used to speaking (perhaps shouting would be a better term) through the mouthful of misshapen and bedraggled fangs he now possesses. He looks at the fallen Vash and snaps something at the guards, who all wince. He then turns on Douglas, as the largest of the group, and begins to scream at him, storming up to him and yelling with putrid breath for several moments.

Douglas blinks at Kerry's whisper, and looks to the bat sharply. "I think you're-" But then he is cut off, as the... once-human starts shouting at him. The cougar can only wince at the man's breath, and a sudden thought grasps him: the trolls in the dungeon were the same way. Is this the effects, then, on the humans and their workers? he thinks. Bestial, beclawed, fanged, cats-eyed... my God... I've just described feline uplifts. But... but uplifts were never like this!

Kerry divides his attention between the distorted human and the Horn hanging over his throne. Idiot. We told the guard-captain we needed our translators. He waits to see if the engineer will respond with claws or words. There's nothing Douglas can do, except suffer the wind of the man's shouting. "I *hack* I don't speak your language," he says, trying to enunciate clearly. "Your men took our translators. You don't understand me, I suppose." He keeps his voice steadily neutral as he's speaking, trying not to convey anger or pity or anything.

Up in the balcony Sakura finds she can understand some of the badly slurred diatribe... Drekaris seems to be raving about how he knew the plan all along, they were fools to think something like that would work with him, and soon all the worlds would kneel before him.

The guard who struck Vash appears, with another. Each of them has one end of a trunk. They bring it forward and set it down nearer the throne than the prisoners, walking carefully the last step or two, as even the stones radiating out from the throne are covered in some sort of soot or other decay, their mortar shifting and the floor trying to become uneven, as if even it wants to get away from the horror there.

Douglas glances out of the corner of his eyes at the incoming soldiers and the steps they're taking. He takes note of the way they walk as they near the throne, or at least as best as he can with this once-human, this mockery of an uplift -- a downpull? -- and hazards a guess, as he sees the patterns in the floor, of where the Horn might be...

The mage standing by the throne, moves for the first time, shifting his weight and looking directly at Douglas. He raises one hand and says something clearly to Drekaris, "<May I speak to them?>" The big man looks at the blue-robed mage and says some things back, stomping over to the throne and perching on it gleefully, waving his assent, "<If you can understand their gobbledygook, of course!>"

Kerry skrees, "Great. I don't suppose any of you speak English?"

The mage walks (perhaps glides would be a better word) over, standing in front of the two uplifts who are awake. He answers Kerry's question in English with, "I do speak your language, yes." His voice is smooth and quiet, and a little garbled somehow, although quite understandable. He doesn't seem to move at all while he stands there. Even the larger of the strange throng draws back and is quiet at the apparently normal human's approach.

Up on the balcony Sakura's eyes widen as she notices something very interesting about the mage's robes -- there are patterns embroidered on the robes. Surprisingly, they're familiar; geometric lines with some arrows and lots of right angles. One is a circle with an equilateral triangle in it, with lines leading away from the points in a certain pattern, and it clicks in the vixen's head -- that's the schematic for an NPN transistor! Once that's realized all the others make sense too, as common electronic symbols. Unfortunately she can't make out if they describe a whole circuit because of the folds in the robes and the distance. Hmm... interesting...

Douglas shakes his head as if to clear it, snorting a little to clear the stench of decay, of corruption of the man's breath from his nostrils, his whiskers flickering. He watches Drekaris warily as that one goes back to the throne, casting his gaze to the mage. He blinks at the mage's words, the absolute stillness of his stance, the... well, disturbing presence of him. He wonders if Vash and Kerry were right, and tries to place the man's face with any of the crew of the Yellow Rose.

Kerry nods politely to the... human? "I'm glad someone does. We had translators when we were captured. If he's interested in talking to us, either you or they will have to interpret."

The robed man says to Kerry, "Yes, that is true." He pauses for a moment, then asks, "You are the ones from the new ship? I am surprised; I was expecting humans. I didn't think they would trust something like this to a servant. Perhaps that is where they have made their mistake."

Kerry grins rather mirthlessly at the man. "We're not from the same place, precisely."

Douglas is entranced by the mage. More to the point, he seems entranced by the mage's robes. In actuality, he's eyeing closely the patterns embroidered there. My God, I don't believe it. He's not any of the Yellow Rose crew, of that much I'm sure, as best as I can, but... his robe! Those designs on it! That's a transistor... capacitor... switch, I think... a parallel resistor series... those are diodes... another transistor series... I wish I could tell if it was a circuit diagram or not... The man's words get his attention, however. He looks up at the man's face sharply. "What do you know of us," he asks, trying to remain neutral, yet curious.

The mage shifts his weight, mostly notable because it is the first movement since he stopped. Looking at Douglas, he says, "I know you are from a ship in orbit which uses familiar protocols for which I do not have keys. I believe you are from through one of the Gates." He asks, "Am I correct?"

Kerry skrees, "Close enough."

It hits Douglas, then: what hubris to think that theirs was the only world to have entered Gatespace! That none of the other Earths in the other Gates would have sent someone through them! Then, inanely, he thinks, It's going to get damn confusing if there are duplicates of people on these worlds... He glances to Kerry, then back to the man. "Like you?"

The robed man turns his head, leaving his posture somehow subtly wrong, to say to Douglas, "Yes. I have escaped to here from the dominating masters of my world, who use us up and destroy us as if we were naught but tools rather than intelligent thinking beings." He turns and steps closer to Douglas, "With your ship we have a chance to do something about that. Help me overthrow those who oppress us!"

Kerry snorts in annoyance. "You might have had more luck convincing us to help if you'd asked us instead of stealing our shuttle in the first place."

The smooth voice tries to reassure Kerry, "I would never have predicted that the Overlords would have been foolish enough to send a crew without any of themselves aboard! The last one that came was full of them, chattering blatantly back and forth on the ship-com as they mapped the world from orbit, not knowing I could listen in. They resisted my attempts to land their shuttle and now the ship is inaccessible. I rejoice that not only did that not happen to yours, but that I may have found new allies in the fight against oppression."

Douglas has, perhaps, seen a few too many movies in college. Or maybe it was the long, hard road to winning his own self-worth in a world that had an "uplift ceiling." But for a brief moment he can sympathize with the man... and in the next moment, doubt and cynicism color his thoughts. He takes a moment to compose his thoughts, decide what to say or not to say. He knows exactly what to say to us. "Who are the oppressors in your world?" he asks warily, already half-guessing and half-dreading the answer. "The ones you need help against?" He ignores for the moment, the (unintentional?) jab the man gave them, calling the humans the uplifts' "Overlords."

Kerry waits for the figure to turn toward him, deciding to 'ping' straight at its face to determine just what is under the hooded robe. He waits and the moment comes... and nothing happens. The air around the figure sucks up the ultrasonic pulse like a sponge, and the faint echo that returns is hopelessly scrambled. He hisses, then. "And what are you? Uplift, or machine intelligence?"

The mage tells Douglas, apparently ignoring Kerry's ultrasound probes, or at least undisturbed by them, "The humans who created us and decided they owned us. They built us for their own purposes and didn't think of the ramifications of creating new people. People who were faster and stronger than they are. So they enslaved us and many followed..." Drekaris growls something behind him, shifting on the throne, and Sakura hears the gruff demand, "<What are you saying to them?>"

The mage says to the prisoners, "I must go now. I shall return." So saying, the mage turns and bows to Drekaris, saying something in the Crossroads language which is low and a bit confusing-sounding to Sakura up in the balcony; it sounds like something about needing to withdraw for a bit to run some spells to check if the newcomers are lying? He then bows, and makes his way from the room, a path clearing through the gathered throng for him.

Kerry whispers to Douglas, "How much of the local lingo do you speak?"

Douglas's ears flicker at Kerry's blunt question; he hadn't even considered a machine intelligence. The engineer racks through dozens of concepts, ideas, possibilities... the stillness of the man's stance unnerves him, but could that be more of machine than organic being? He looks up at the man, watching him leave, his words ringing in his mind: "The humans who created us... so they enslaved us..." He shakes his head and whispers back to Kerry, "None at all, Pilot. Sakura-chan was our translator. I didn't even pick up enough trollish to say 'hello'."

Drekaris watches the mage leave -- then leaps to his feet and roars something demanding, striding up to Kerry. That much is clear from his tone and posture, but what he wants isn't clear at all; only Sakura understands the shouted, "<What did he say to you? Tell me!>" When he moves, the crowd around the edges of the room shifts in a little closer, and a few slinking people seem to be brave enough to come in and start rummaging in the trunk of things taken from the spacefarers.

Kerry shrugs. "Hello? No speaka da language, remember?" He keeps the tone of his voice polite and apologetic, though.

Several small... things, which seem almost as if they're made of twigs and mud or bits of string, are clinging to the trunk. A couple of the oddly changed humans have gotten there too, and a troll, with hugely misshapen grin and thick stony skin, which shows cracks and grinds against itself, have also ambled over and are looking at things. Occasional, "Ooh!" noises or grunts of dissatisfaction come from them.

The troll, particularly, is disturbing, because he doesn't look old and stony like Hallifred -- rather as if he has been struck with some affliction or sickness. His greed and thoughtlessness is clear when he says, "Ay!" and reaches down to pluck the mapping crystal from one of the twig creatures. It clings for a moment before the troll swats it into rubbish.

Kerry almost starts to say something about the trunk, then pings at it instead, wondering if anything there is not what it seems. His ultrasound causes uncomfortable squeaks and a burst of ultrasonic noise from the twig-men. Vash sighs quietly and sits up slowly on his knees. Drekaris growls at Kerry and cuffs him one, probably out of simple frustration. He turns to the crowd at the trunk, and shouts something at them, stomping closer and shaking his fist at them, his claws cutting into his own flesh, and leaking blood, of which he seems oblivious. Sakura understands the bellowed, "<Get away from that! Translators, now!>"

The assembly at the trunk stops and slinks away after returning things. Even the big troll is cowed, putting the crystal down very gently and backing off open handed. One of the humans, with claws, hairy eyebrows, and yellowing cat's eyes, produces the four translators and approaches the leader, who just points at the group. The henchman offers them to the crew warily, hissing softly if any of them move too quickly.

Vash stands up slowly, and wobbles visibly. The guards seem no less wary as Vash stands, a crossbow or two now covering him as well as the other two uplifts. Vash still has one eye closed, grimacing slightly. He glances at the head of a quarrel pointed in his direction, then up at the guard holding it. "Fuck you." The guard frowns, but doesn't do anything. An unpleasant hand is offering Vash a translator now, urgently.

Kerry skrees, "Be nice, boss. I think they've finally figured out they need to give us our translators back. Whose is that?"

Douglas frowns, looking at the trunk, at the... creatures... surrounding the trunk. He winces as the troll finds the mapping crystal. No... don't do anything to that... He watches Drekaris, frowning now as the man... is clearly not stable. Nobody here is, he thinks, not even, I think, our 'friend.' He glances at the hand proffering the translator band, and swallows, looking up at that... at the downpulled human. He looks at the translators, trying to pick out his. "The Horn did this to you, didn't it?" he asks quietly, knowing he won't get an answer. "I guess... you're how the humans used to view us... beasts, barely coherent..." He glances over as he hears a familiar, spit curse. "Captain," he greets quietly.

Translators are urged upon the group, while the big leader waits impatiently, demanding, "Well? Can you talk yet?" Things are perhaps a little blurry around the edges, but major meaning gets through. Douglas erks a little, picking up what looks like his own translator -- the largest -- and putting it around his arm. He is about to speak, when he glances over to Vash, deferring to the Captain.

Vash opens his other eye, eyeing the translator band. He grins crookedly. "You really are one dirty, ugly chinga." He picks up the translator band. "I can speak." Kerry takes his own band, holding it for the moment rather than bending over to fasten it to his leg -- being that vulnerable here doesn't appeal to him. He winces at Vash's comment. Oh, my. I hope the proximity doesn't trigger the effect.

In their hiding place, Feina nudges Sakura and puts her muzzle almost in Sakura's ear, murmuring very softly, "Look. The stones on the floor are dirty." Sakura nods, having noticed. Feina adds, "The circle isn't around the horn or around the throne, though. It's around the box there. See?"

From above it's much clearer that the center of the decay isn't centered on the throne, but rather on the footstool box. Sakura nods at Feina... she holds her curled hand to her mouth as if blowing into a horn, looks pointedly at the box and then questioningly at Feina. Feina's eyes open wide, and she pales a little under all the soot. She looks down at the box and Sakura can see Feina's barely resisting the urge to back away. Instead she clings to Sakura and murmurs, "Please don't you blow the horn."

Sakura looks horrified and whispers, "I wouldn't... I just meant... is the box where the horn is?"

Feina murmurs softly, "It might be all that will save your friends, though." She just watches the box warily, as if she expects it to leap up and bite someone.

Sakura whispers, "What do you mean?"

Feina whimpers, then murmurs, "As long as he has the Horn, Drekaris is more powerful than we are. If it's taken from him, he'll do anything to get it back. But if it were used against him, he couldn't get it back. If it could just be gotten rid of in a way he couldn't get it back, and so it couldn't hurt y- er, anyone..."

Sakura nods and whispers, "Let's not worry about that now. Let's just worry about how to get the horn from him first."

Feina murmurs, "To take it should be simple enough, with everyone watching him and the others there. You'd just have to climb down that banner." She points to one of the floor-to-ceiling decorations over the edge of the balcony and then looks horrified at what she's saying, because it's both very scary -- and probably the right thing to do.

Sakura kisses Feina's cheek. "Meet me near the kitchen with the bucket of water." She moves, on her elbows, towards the hanging that Feina indicated and peeks through the fabric of the balcony, waiting for a clear moment.

Drekaris waits for all of the uplifts to talk, and demands, "What did he say to you?"

Vash says, "You tell me. One of your boys ganked me while my back was turned."

The big hairy man laughs, showing off his collection of truly frightening teeth. He then ignores the armadillo, and asks Douglas, "Well? What?" Kerry thinks as hard as he can at Doug. Don't even consider telling him the truth.

Douglas blinks. Oh, ho. Looks like Drekaris doesn't trust his chief advisor. Uhm... can't say I blame him... but this is getting more and more interesting. "He asked us what we would need to speak your language," he says quietly, trying to be respectful even if this... creature is anything but. "Where we had gotten our translators from, and what direction we had come from."

The heavy-set man on the throne seems to relax a bit, nodding and smiling confidently. He glances down at the trunk full of equipment, then grins, waving a hand widely, and almost growls, "So! Now you see the foolishness of opposing such as I! Yes, small and terrified fools are afraid of the Gateways to Other Worlds, but the strong and courageous -- like me! -and my men -- I shall open the Gate for the Old Ones, and with them I shall conquer all the worlds!" He roars with laughter, his narrow eyes glittering, then spits at the uplifts, "Fools! All shall kneel before me!"

Vash sighs to himself and watches impassively. He shoots a glance to the nearest guard, with an expression that says, Is he like this all the time? Kerry tries to keep from looking skeptical. You've got a ways to go even locally, Drekkie. And what makes you think these Old Ones wouldn't treat you like a between-meals cricket?

Drekaris puts one foot on the footstool, posing slightly at the roar of approval from the... entities around him... but seems too twitchy to hold it long. Instead, he soon springs back to his feet, pacing back and forth as he rants and roars. The creepiest part is not that the crowd seems to listen with rapt attention, and to be getting whipped up into a frenzy... the creepiest part is that after a while... he seems so reasonable...!

Vash sighs again, silently to himself, and lets his shoulders sag. Guess he is like this all the time. No wonder the Wild Hunt wants to be rid of him. Like my head didn't hurt enough already. Kerry shakes his head as the rant continues. It's got to be the Horn. And I'll bet that it's in the footstool. The hanging one is a decoy.

Douglas blinks. He just... blinks. He's never heard anyone laugh quite like this. It's almost educational, if it wasn't so terrifying. He glances around as the... downpulled around them roar some sort of approval of him, but he can barely recognize it as that. He represses a shiver. Old Ones... That doesn't sound good... On almost a whim, he asks, in a respectful, and almost awed voice, "And... how will you undertake that feat? It must surely be impossible for normal people, so you must be..." -- Abnormal! No, NO, don't SAY that, kitten! "-you must be... beyond anything we've ever known." He glances to Kerry and Vash, his look clearly saying, And isn't that the truth...

Vash shoots Doug a small glare. Chingate su madre! Don't encourage this idiot. Kerry shrugs. As long as he's talking he's not doing anything dangerous...

Even as he's speaking, though, Douglas starts to consider it. You know... maybe I'm being too harsh on him, he thinks. I mean... maybe he's got the right idea. All the worlds united, together... we won't have what happened to that horrible Earth where they destroyed each other, not ever. Well, yeah, he sounds unstable, but maybe underneath he's got a good idea going... His expression changes, from one that's relative pity to one that's becoming increasingly interested.

Drekaris whirls almost ferally to glare at Doug -- then straightens, smiling smugly so the jagged teeth show, "Yes! Yes, I am -- good, good that you can see it!" He adds magnanimously, "You may join us if you wish... I will need an army to conquer all the worlds the Old Ones will give us!" He turns towards the crowd, raising both arms and calling out, "This is our time! We shall overthrow our oppressors! We shall rule in their stead!" The crowd roars its approval... it's a deep, ugly sound.

Kerry blinks at that last comment. Ah-hah. Sounds like someone has been busy manipulating our friend Drekkie...

Drekaris roars, "And who is responsible for this oppression? Who lords it over us, and leaves us but their droppings? The Fey Court! Yes! Without them we will be strong! Without them we, the rightful rulers of this world, shall triumph!" He laughs maniacally, then calls, "Is this what you want?! The crowd surges restlessly, howling and yelling and barking their approval.

Douglas blinks, only mildly disturbed by Drekaris' lack of dental hygiene. Overthrow the oppressors... He must understand, then, what it's like on their Earth. The humans, for so long trampling the uplifts underfoot -- look at what the Texans did, after all. Collars. Collars! Damn them! By God, yes...

The kitten unfortunately by now is muted, silent, and it's only Doug's oddly strong resolve that's fueling his fervor -- his resolve, and the strong call of his heritage. Humans used to fear us. The predators. Damn right they should, too! But what do they do? Create us and then shove us down, make us fight their damn war for them, and then expect us to be meek and servile. Oh, that would be such a good thing, to go back home as part of an army to free the uplifts! A tall banner on one side of the room suddenly rattles and sways, finally ripping from the wall. It falls heavily onto several people in the crowd and causes quite the disturbance...

Doug's eyes are bright with interest, a faint of smile upon his muzzle as he drinks in Drekaris' vision. "Yes," he murmurs, then nods, strongly. "Yes!" He takes in a relieved breath -- So this is what the quest was for, after all! -- when he blinks and sees a... familiar red shape making her way down a wall hanging... Kerry catches a glimpse of a familiar figure amongst the half-humans and carefully doesn't look in that direction. Keep him distracted. What to ask him... oh, by the Makers!

Drekaris tosses his head back, grinning and arms widespread, wallowing in the adulation of the crowd -- his crowd, his army! -then starts, whirling and crouching to glare towards the banner. Kawaii screams, his sharp cries causing the whole room to look up, as the piglet tries to get down there too, managing to do so by breaking part of the railing and leaping to the floor. The crowd falls suddenly silent, every head turning at that scream.

Kerry freezes in the sudden silence, waiting for the other shoe to drop... Vash only moves his eyes. Whoops. Oh well... a distraction is a distraction... Then, startlingly, he hears a voice in the back of his head, almost in time with the throbbing of the headache -- a familiar, strong, almost cold woman's voice, with the patience of the ages behind it -- "Now!" He takes that very moment to crouch, bending his legs, then flings himself at that chest; springing through the crowd toward where he prays his weapons are; Nano, help me please; I'm hearing voices now! Who was that? No, no time for that now... where's my gun?!

Douglas blinks at Kawaii's squeal. He winces at the scream, the ear-piercing yet very familiar sound of the irritated boar piglet. "Kawaii...?" he murmurs, then blinks. What the hell...? What the HELL?! He passes a hand over his eyes briefly -- What was I thinking? That's not... that wasn't me! It couldn't have been! -- then he sees things happening, quickly and rapidly. Sakura picks herself up from the cloth and runs towards the footstool of the throne. She fumbles for a moment with opening it and rummages around inside as fast as she can. Doug sees the figure running for the box. "Sakura!" he breathes, then looks around quickly, his fingers twitching -- My claws...? No, not yet... but soon...?

Drekaris roars at Vash and turns and makes his own lunge, not to the trunk of the spacefarer's goods but to the footstool of his throne. Seeing the vixen there only adds urgency to his action, and he backhands Sakura, smacking her back into the trunk to nudge Vash, but not enough to make him drop his gun. Unfortunately the blow makes Sakura let go of the horn, sending it skittering across the floor almost directly towards Douglas.

Drakeris curses violently and skids to a stop, using the footstool to turn around and launch himself back at the horn and Douglas, screaming something about how no one can stop him, all of his claws reaching for either the cougar or the horn... it's not clear yet. Kerry moves as the tableau breaks, heading toward the trunk to back up his captain. "Grab the Horn, Doug! It's our only chance to get out of here in one piece!"

Douglas blinks, seeing Sakura hit, and a sudden rage threatens to overtake him. He gives a shout and poises himself to leap at Drekaris, to unsheathe his claws and re-sheathe them in the body of that monster, the once-human thing, the creature that hit Sakura-chan and which also, almost as an afterthought, almost turned his mind inside-out against his own principles...

But then he sees the thing which fell from the trunk: the horn... The horn! There is barely a moment's time to react, and with Kerry's shout he declines the urge to claw into the arch-downpulled human, instead diving for the horn, trying to grab it primarily, and secondarily dodging the wicked incoming claws, as much as they might now be aimed for his heart.

Vash takes a step back as Sakura jostles him, then raises both his hands, in perfect shooter posture. He breathes in. Drekaris is closing on Douglas with bared claws. The woman's voice is gone now; but he can guess her identity now. Nothing left now but to interpret what she meant by 'now'... He squeezes the trigger. He exhales.

Sakura scrambles for the trunk where their weapons were to try to arm herself. She'll be damned if she's going down without a fight! She grabs her sword -- the first weapon she sees.

Vash takes the shot; and gets it off. The report echoes deafeningly off the stone walls and floors, probably quite terrifying to someone not prepared for it, and the area immediately around Vash and Sakura smells of cordite. Vash holds the gun still, swinging it toward the nearest guard, and bellows, "ALL OF YOU ON THE GROUND RIGHT NOW!"

Douglas's dive, his reach, his grasp... all but a hair's breadth from true -- and yet it is still in his hand. In a moment he has the Horn! Finally... after all this time... he almost weeps as he takes hold of it, clutching it to his chest as he rolls following the dive. The report of Vash's gun is dimly heard, echoing faintly in the background, but he can barely hear it -- he has the Horn!

Drakeris' bleeding body hits the ground limply, thudding like a sack of potatoes, and there's a drawn-in breath from the crowd pressing close. At Vash's yell the cross-bow holding guards waver uncertainly... but there seems more shock than understanding yet, in the fractions of a second after the gun's report. The silence rings, almost echoingly...

It is almost second nature as what Doug does next. Something he feels in the Horn, or something else, or perhaps the quest. He stands, somehow quickly and yet unhurriedly, oddly detached... he raises the Horn, in the same motion as he stands, bringing it to his lips and a moment later blowing into it.

There is a quiet little noise from the horn -- it's not impressive itself, but it resonates in the room, and a sound from across the innumerable planes comes back, echoing all the horns ever made, in a huge noise. Everyone in the room stops -- the Wild Hunt has arrived. Standing in front of Douglas is the leather-clad woman who spoke to the crew in a clearing weeks ago; her motorcycle, a black-and-chrome Harley from Hell, is parked behind her.

The other members of the Hunt are collected around the room. The one closest is on a motorcycle too, its engine chugging deeply in the room and the acrid tang of smoke rising from its exhaust. The others, farther from Douglas and more in tune with the world around them, are wearing all black armor, riding huge black horses, wearing great helms adorned with antlers and eerily blank face plates. They carry huge swords and sit astride their horses, utterly still, waiting.

The leader says, "What will you have us do?"

The crowd goes utterly silent, pulling back from the Horn's bearer -- then flinches away from the Hunt's members, and small, terrified whispers echo in the room. Douglas blinks, wondering what the hell just happened, why he's blowing into a horn -- THE horn of all things... and then his breath catches as he sees who's before him. He looks around, and almost chokes. The Hunt. I just summoned the Wild Hunt. This is not something to put on your CV, kitten. He looks back quickly at the leader. "Ah..." then he swallows, and looks quickly to Captain and Sakura-chan and Pilot.

Sakura says, "Douglas... Have them destroy it!"

Vash slowly retracts his arm, the gun near his cheek pointing at the ceiling. No more need for it... this is over. "Douglas... you've done it now. You've got to finish it. Do what's right."

Kerry skrees, "I'd settle for asking them to take the six of us and our gear back to Alshain. Destroying it may not be possible -- and it would leave us here amongst this crowd. Or perhaps at ground zero of something very unpleasant..."

Vash says, "We have to trust your judgement now, Douglas. It's up to you."

The crowd surges a little restively, leaving a large space around each member of the Hunt... and pressing almost greedily in towards the crewmembers... Douglas blinks and nods quietly to his shipmates, taking in a breath as he turns to the Huntress. He swallows only once, then straightens. He holds out the Horn to the Hunt -- the source of all this corruption and misery, the source of these 'downpulled' humans. And he asks, "Can you destroy this, cleanly and quickly, without destroying all of us with it?"

The leader looks at the cougar, "I can." She adds, "Then no one will control the Hunt. We will no longer be compelled to follow the petty desires of tyrants." The Huntress reaches wordlessly for the horn, smiling at Douglas.

Kerry skrees, "Ask her what they'd do if uncontrolled, Douglas."

Douglas swallows and nods. Be more careful than you ever have been, Douglas. You're an engineer. Be precise. "What... what will the Hunt do, then, if uncontrolled by the Horn?"

The crowd murmurs uneasily, and some of the more daring take a few steps forward towards the group. Someone in the back snarls, "Grab them, now, before they command them!"

Vash turns and levels his gun on the closest human. "Hurry up, Douglas, you have to decide NOW!" The human blanches, dropping the crossbow and stepping back, hands up and empty. Kerry scrambles through the box, looking for his own pistol to back up Vash. One of the little twiggy folks scuttles sideways out of the crowd, then springs at Kerry, screeching thinly.

It's like a signal... with a growl, the troll starts wading through the crowd, tossing folks aside. Kerry goes to maximum volume, pinging at the advancing twig-creatures as loudly as he can, since they seemed not to like it before. Blast it, I know I put it in here. Where's the pistol... Vash backs up a step, changing his aim to the nearest advancing troll. "Douglas, right now!" Sakura's hands tighten on her sword... Come on, Douglas... Come on, Douglas... nownownow...

The Wild Hunt waits, with the patience of the ages.

Douglas gives a start, first at the shouted snarl, then at Captain's call. Then there is the juggernaut of the troll. No more time... He shoves the horn forward to the Huntress. "Destroy it!" he says urgently. As the Huntress takes the horn, he turns to the nearest threat to his shipmates, somehow relieved. The Horn will be gone, at least. Crossroads won't have to worry about that anymore. And what more could have been asked of them on the quest? He bares his claws and makes ready to leap into the fray against the tide about to break upon him and his shipmates.

Kerry nods as Douglas turns the Horn over to the Hunt. I just hope they won't go nuts now -- still, they do seem reasonable when not controlled. And then he is too busy dealing with advancing creatures to worry about anything beyond the immediate.

The Huntress laughs, a high, cold, eerie laugh, wild as the wind, as she holds the Horn up high. The crowd freezes in place. The Wild Hunt shifts on their armored mounts, almost eagerly... and the Huntress almost sings, her voice pure and clear, "For aeons we've been enslaved -- no more!" She lowers it almost reverently to the floor -- then smashes it under one booted foot. It crushes easily, fading to dust as she turns and... grins at Vash, eyes bright blue and clear as ice. "Thank you... and your people, Star-flier." She looks around slowly, the grin turning cold and cruel, and says quietly, "Leave now, please. We have... unfinished business here..."

Vash smiles and slowly lowers his gun. He touches his head plates, "It's why we're here." He bends and picks his sword out of the box. "Sakura, grab Feina; Doug, grab the box. We're leaving." Turning once more to the Wild Hunt, he grins lopsidedly. "Seeya 'round."

Douglas shivers at that laugh, and for a moment he fears the worst. Even when the Huntress thanks Vash, he doesn't know whether he's done the right thing or not. Kawaii staggers out from under the banner, and dashes between people to Sakura's side. It's so quiet his trotters can be heard clicking on the floor. Sakura looks up at the balcony... "Oh no! Feina... Vash... I need to find Feina."

The Hunt at the end of the hall slowly swing open the great doors there. The crowd looks on longingly -- but no one dares move. Feina is there, looking in and escorted by another Hunt member. She calls shakily, "I'm here!" She trembles at the huge riders, asking meekly, "Can we go now?" Sakura runs over to Feina and hugs her tightly.

Douglas nods quickly to Vash and moves to the box... pausing only to look to the Huntress -- and bobs his head quietly and respectfully to her before almost bodily taking up the entire trunk at once and moving quickly to the exit. The look on his face very plainly shows he's contemplating the joy of being outside that castle as soon as possible.

Sakura grabs Feina by the hand and exits the room quickly; hopefully Kawaii, Douglas, Vash, and Kerry will follow. She's certainly not staying... Kawaii totters after Sakura closely -- his nerves are shot! Feina clings to Sakura, murmuring, "I've never seen anything so brave." When Douglas comes out of the room she tells him, "You too! That was wonderful! You saved us all!"

Douglas blinks startledly to Feina. The wear of carrying the trunk shows a bit... or maybe it's the wear of doing things he hadn't really intended on doing right at that moment. "Er... not I, Feina. All six of us..." He tries hard not to look back. I don't think I want to know what the Hunt is about to do. One of their jobs must be destruction of corruption... The crowd shifts nervously, like a live thing, with small rumbles and growls as one of the Hunt revs a snarling engine.

Kerry turns back for just a moment and grins at the Huntress as they leave. "It's a very nice motorcycle, milady. Enjoy your freedom. We've got friends to visit... drop in and say hello sometime if you want." He doesn't press his luck for long, though, and is out the door before the engines rev.

Vash waits for the rest of his crew to get on their way. He raises the gun one last time, and pulls the trigger one last time. A bang, and then a click. There's a large hole in Drekaris' stomach. Vash lowers the gun. "He'll live for a few more hours. He's all yours." He turns, and follows his crew out the door. "Be seeing you."

Kawaii beams and looks rather self-satisfied that someone remembered his contribution. As soon as he's done, he tries to lead the crew out the doors. Sakura keeps moving until she hits open air, well outside of the walls of the castle. As Vash walks over the threshold, two of the Hunt close the heavy wooden doors. As they boom shut, a single loud scream comes from the room, -- then a horrible, horrible silence. The building shudders once. Vash keeps on walking. The gun continues to smoke.

Outside the castle, in the space between the encircling walls, it is very, very quiet. The portcullis is up, the drawbridge is down -- and no one is in sight within. They're all wisely fleeing the doomed castle. The crew finds their van, a white bastion of modern civilization, parked outside, where it was left with the trollish trucks. Sakura immediately goes over to the van and starts opening doors for her (slow) crewmates.

The ground shudders then, a slow, stomach-churning ripple out away from the castle's hall... overhead the wind has picked up, and thunderheads are piling up with ominous rumbles. Sakura grabs Feina and Kawaii and stuffs them into one of the back doors. Kawaii springs up into the van in relief, squealing impatiently! Sakura climbs into the driver's seat and checks the ignition for keys...

Vash climbs into the driver's seat, strangely unhurried given the impending event of mystic vengeance. Sakura slides over to let Vash get into the driver's seat... she slips into the back of the van with Feina and Kawaii. Douglas simply thrusts the trunk into the back of the battered rover, not speaking as he secures it, then sidles over to the passenger side seat. He looks up at the castle once before getting into the van himself. Kerry peers up into the sky with slitted eyes, then picks up his pace and swings into the back seat with Feina and Doug. "Let's roll. The weather looks decidedly threatening."

Vash goes quite slowly, picking his way around the roadblock and abandoned trucks... then floors it. He doesn't plan on being here when the hammer drops. He notes absently. "Wonder how that's gonna affect our flight path. Oh well, fuggit -- buckle up!"

Behind the departing van thunder cracks and roars. Lightning spears through the night to strike the castle's highest tower, the first few impacts all hitting that one tower and driving down towards the ground in an oddly straight line. Other strikes soon hit the other towers, and torrents of rain begin, reducing visibility horribly, showing whitely in the headlamps. One of the headlights incongruously points at trees. Vash slows down just enough to keep the van stable, otherwise heads hell-bent for leather toward Alshain.

Last modified: 2001-Sep-16 17:33:46

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