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When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, Hurrah! Hurrah!

    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.

The crew heads out of the castle and makes good time. Even as they cross the couple of miles of farmland, the lightning over the castle seems to fill the inner keep, and rain spreads out of that cloud formation with unnerving speed. The road begins to become muddy, and the oversized tires on the four-wheel-drive prove their worth. As the van passes the five-mile mark, the rain stops in a wall of water, as if there were a hard line there.

Feina whimpers and clings to Sakura, until the van leaves the forces of unnatural weather behind. At that point she merely holds on and stays close. Sakura turns in her seat to look behind her as they pass through the wall of water... She shudders. "I wouldn't want to be them..."

Douglas blinks as the Rover crosses the "waterline." Curiosity makes him glance back quickly, frowning. He seems introspective for a moment, glancing again back at the castle before turning back forward, sighing softly. "Neither would I, Sakura-chan," he says quietly. Then, "I wonder if that 'Master' fellow... er, person... whatever... got out of there before the Hunt came?"

Kerry blinks at the sudden transition. "I think we made it." He looks back at the edge of the rain. "I'd have to agree with you, Sakura. I don't want to be them, either." He nods to Douglas. "You noticed that, eh? He'd booked long before the end. Still don't know what he was; I couldn't see under that hood with ultrasound, either."

Sakura smiles a little at Kerry and Douglas... "Score one up for the Good Guys."

Douglas blinks, looking to Sakura... and then a large grin finally breaks upon his muzzle and he leans back heavily in the seat, looking -- and feeling! -- exhausted. "I think you're right," he says happily. "The game might not be over yet, but we have this round won at least!"

Kerry grins and turns around to start digging through the trunk. "Time for me to get dressed again, I think."

Douglas nods slowly to Kerry, "I've been thinking about what you said, Pilot. That the Master may be some sort of... machine intelligence. I remember that the manor's kitchen and bedrooms looked like they'd never been used, and yet the workshop was a location of a lot of activity. Like he didn't need to eat or sleep. If another Earth had created machines to fight their War for them, instead of nukes or uplifts..." He blinks, then frowns deeply. "I wonder if the Master will try to make it to the Alshain?"

Kerry skrees, "He can try. It won't be there by the time he does -- if he'd taken the van maybe, but I doubt he can beat us back to it. And he was having trouble accessing our computers anyway."

The drive back to Alshain, a little slower than before, is pretty much uneventful. The roadblock that stopped the van before had been reset in case another attack should come, but the camp seems to have been hit by lightning, and is too busy with their own fires to stop the speeding van. Past that it's a quiet all-night drive through a very dark and eerily quiet night. Douglas blinks, looking out the window as the van shoots by the guard camp. "Guess the Wild Hunt have a long reach..." he murmurs.

Kerry skrees, "So we were told..."

Sakura wrinkles her nose up. "I need a bath."

Feina grins shyly, "Me too. Can I soap your back?"

Sakura blushes audibly... "Uhmm..."

Douglas blinks, glancing back to the two vixens at Feina's remark, and grins quietly. "I almost didn't recognize you two, by the way. What is that gray stuff -- some kind of ash?"

Feina nods, picking at her fur with distaste, "Yes, and it's damp... it smells awful!

Once they reach Alshain, Sakura steps out of the van and stretches and yawns... "Suppose we're going to have to wait to clean up, neh?"

Kerry waves a wing at Alshain. "Do it on board while we fly. I'll get us moved and away before he can make it back here."

Douglas steps out of the van, looking around warily and watchfully. "Keep an eye out for the Master," he says softly to the others. "I'm afraid I'm not entirely convinced that he won't try coming here. Not that I'm really sure what he'll do..."

Kerry nods. "Or what he can do. I think he might very well be an android or a robot of some sort."

Sakura looks around a little fearfully. "Let's just get out of here before he comes back to his manor..."

Kerry skrees, "Still... I think we should make sure he's not nearby before we open up the ship."

Douglas goes to the back of the Rover, opening up the rear doors and digging around quickly in the trunk for his clothes. His hand closes slowly and gratefully over the labyrinth crystal. He pulls on his clothing quickly, pulling the naginata from the trunk as well, then returns to looking about alertly and warily. Kerry gets his pistol back from the trunk... and his sling. "Let's go. I don't want to experiment with that Master fellow until we're back with friendlies."

Sakura says, "Captain... Shall I load the van onto the ship?"

Vash says, "Yes, Sakura. Let's get out of here. This place..." He glances back the way they came, "...isn't healthy."

Douglas fidgets, hefting the naginata and nodding as he watches the forest line. He nods quickly at Vash's words and turns, going to the cargo ramp. "I'll open the ramp up," he provides, "-and prep the securing latches for the Rover..." Sakura gets behind the wheel of the van and drives it towards the Alshain. She waits until the ramp is down and inches it onto the ship. The ship stands, a white beacon of home, untouched and ready in the dark night. Loading the van goes without incident, and the shuttle powers up easily, responding well and normally to the flight checks.

Once the ramp is down, Kerry heads for the command deck and starts powering the ship up in earnest. "Back to Hallifred's, or all the way back to Karlstrasse?"

Vash says, "Let's go all the way back. I think it's a good idea to put some distance between us and this place. We can do a flyby if anyone's dying to say hello to the trollhome."

Sakura gets a little "longing" look in her eyes when Karlstrasse is mentioned. That's obviously her preference. Douglas waits until the van and the others are safely aboard the shuttle before closing the ramp and moving quickly to the cockpit, sliding easily and familiarly into the flight engineering station. He begins to power up the shuttle. "Control rods engaged, coolant systems show green. We're ready to go." He glances to the little vixen. "Feina? How are you doing?"

Kawaii is eventually coaxed on-board, by the simple expedient of being picked up and carried in, and the door shut behind him. His outraged squeak dies out into much looking around and snuffling interestedly... and moments later he's wriggled free and is trit-trotting busily back and forth, investigating all the rooms. Sakura giggles at Kawaii. "Kawaii, my friend... that's what I said when they tried to get me off of this ship the first time."

Feina is quite nervous. While she doesn't have to be carried aboard, she doesn't look happy, and is sitting where she was told to, hanging on tightly, her jaw clamped shut fiercely. Kawaii snorts cheerfully at the vixen... then gives the flat-eared, miserable looking Feina a concerned grunt. Kerry starts feeling bad as the engines spool up, almost nauseous even before he starts taxiing the ship to the far end of the field. He skrees, "Doctor? You have any more of those Dramamine tablets?"

Vash sighs a little and stretches. "My back's killing me. Wonder if it has anything to do with crashing up the van."

Sakura motions Feina to a seat near her and straps the other vixen in before taking up her station and strapping in securely. She takes a deep breath and swallows hard, staring at her console for a moment, collecting herself... then she smiles at Kerry and unstraps to fetch him one from her medical bag. She brings it over with a small glass of water. Kerry gulps the pill down and sits for a few minutes with his eyes closed, waiting for it to take effect.

Douglas rubs his neck, fidgeting a little and frowning as he checks the engineering console. He calls up the life-support subsystems panel -- everything seems normal. He fidgets a little more. Odd... his ears perk alertly at Kerry's request, and even more so when he sees how badly Feina is handling the ride. A cold thought makes him shiver. Oh, blast, he thinks. "It's the Alshain," he says, sighing. "It's got the same effect on us as the troll trucks did."

Sakura scoops Kawaii up and deposits him in Feina's lap... "Do you want something for the nausea, Feina?" She looks about. "Does anyone else want something to settle their stomachs before we go?"

Feina nods and says, "Please, Sakura. We're going home, right? We made it?" Kawaii makes small, comforting grumbling noises at poor Feina.

Sakura nods and smiles at Feina, putting the pill and a cup of water in her hands. "Yes... we're going home now."

Kerry opens his eyes again as the sickness recedes. "Okay. This place has affected us, but we can get used to Home technology again. Ready for takeoff?"

Sakura says, "Just a moment, please, Kerry-san... just getting ready now."

"Ready here, Pilot. Flight pre-checks complete." Douglas glances at the piglet, frowning. Kawaii seems like he's having the time of his life, and isn't bothered at all.

Vash grins a little. "Hey, Feina. When we get back we'll go for another walk, all right? Just hold on a little bit longer for me."

Feina looks at the little pastille a bit blankly, then the cup of water... then slowly emulates what she saw Kerry do. It's not as smoothly swallowed -- she coughs a bit and has to gulp the rest of the water -- but she does get it down. She looks up at Vash a little wanly, "I would like that very much, if I survive this..."

Sakura takes the cup from Feina when she's done and puts her things away. She settles down at her station and blinks, tapping at the screen. "Captain... there's a... message."

Douglas blinks and turns in his seat, looking to Sakura. Kerry turns to look at the doctor. "A... message? Zil, or our other... friend?"

Vash smiles in his best reassuring manner. "Don't worry, niña. We're almost home, now." He sits up. "What is it, Doctora?"

Sakura turns it on to the loudspeaker. It is a confident adult woman. "Attention shuttle. This is Doctor Susan Laws of the Federated Civilizations. We have noted the activity there at your vessel and wanted to reassure you that help is one the way. Sit tight and don't do anything rash. Don't give up hope. I look forward to talking to you." The message repeats once and then "Laws out." and ends.

Vash blinks, then sighs, a little irritated. "It's always some damn thing..."

Douglas blinks, "'Federated Civilizations?' More people trooping through the Gate?"

Sakura says, "That was about... sixteen hours ago, Captain."

Kerry skrees, "Sounds like it. Want to give them a call back?"

Vash says, "What time is it now, Doctora?"

Sakura says, "Sorry, Kerry-san. There's no contact information... and Captain... it's just turned Oh-six-hundred."

Douglas suddenly shivers. Oh, Hell... they're coming here... And we were worried about keeping our own universe away from Crossroads! But... maybe that's no longer possible, with the Master here... "Can you determine where the call came from with the shuttle's sensors? Or do you need an uplink to Indigo's?" His hands hover over his console.

Sakura says, "The message was downlinked from Indigo. Indigo reports receiving it on standard ship-to-ship bands..."

Vash says, "Mmm. Well, let's wait here until 14:00. No point in going back to town and scaring the hell out of everyone with more technology. If they're not here in eight hours... we'll go home. In the meantime, all of you try and get some rest."

Kerry skrees, "How long has it been since we were here last? We kinda lost track of time in that dungeon?"

Feina murmurs very quietly and a little plaintively, "No bath?"

Sakura unstraps herself, then unstraps Feina. "You can probably clean up a bit in a sink... but there's no baths onboard."

Feina says, "Oh..." and follows Sakura quietly.

Vash smiles. "Sorry, niña. Soon, I promise."

Douglas nods slowly, frowning. He looks to Vash, his face a confusion of emotions. Finally he nods and lets out a breath, lying back in his seat... then sits up and frowns. "Captain... may I uplink to Indigo and see if Sakura-chan -- er, Doctor can try to spot whatever this 'Susan Laws' is coming inbound aboard?"

Kerry checks the date. "Ah... okay, we were down there a couple days, it looks like. Wonder what this Laws person thought was going on?"

Vash turns to Douglas and Kerry. "You two, go rest. That's an order. Forget it for now, Douglas... it doesn't really matter at this stage. We can't stop a landing in our current condition if we wanted to."

The day passes uneventfully, dawn turning into full day. The crew remains uncomfortable near the shuttle, and the manor and radio remain apparently abandoned. Indigo reports no anomalies. The crew cleans up a little, rests, and waits. The crew notes 14:00 comes as it will. Vash stands slowly and stretches, rubbing his neck. He groans a little. Damn it, I ache all over... nothing's ever easy. "Well... it's been twenty-four hours since the transmission. We may as well head back."

Kerry feels a bit off still, but a good morning's sleep, a sponge bath, and clean flight-suit do wonders for his attitude. He comes back to the flight deck a little before local 14:00 and takes the pilot's seat back. "Any word from anyone?"

Vash says, "Nothing. Let's head home... I'm tired." The Captain grins lopsidedly.

Kerry grins back. "But... where's home, now? Back to Karlstrasse?"

Sakura comes into the cabin, smiles, "Morning!" and flops into her seat.

Vash says, "Yes, Kerry. Let's get going."

Kerry nods and brings the engines back up to full power. "Karlstrasse it is. All ready for takeoff?"

Vash nods. "Good morning, Doctora." He hasn't been following his own orders, apparently, or couldn't sleep... he looks like he's going to nod off in his chair. "All ahead-" He pauses to yawn widely, "Full."

Douglas's energy has drained from him somewhat -- the adrenaline rush of the past few days has faded quickly, and he's relatively calmer now, and less excitable. But not much more comfortable. He's disquieted by the effect the Alshain is having on them, and wonders if they'll ever be the same again. He comes up to the flight deck after a fitful nap and catches the Captain's remark. He nods, smiling wanly, then slips into the engineering seat, re-prepping the shuttle. "Ah, good morning, Sakura-chan." It isn't until Pilot's question that he realizes, he hadn't even given a second thought to Captain's order of 'home' -- he had simply assumed Karlstrasse, himself.

Sakura makes sure before they take off that Feina and Kawaii are securely in the chair next to hers and that everyone who wants Dramamine is given a dose to keep their stomachs settled. Kawaii is still frighteningly perky, while poor Feina is looking a bit shabby and worn-down, between her physical discomfort and bits of gray ash still in her red fur.

Kerry skrees, "Ready, then!" He releases the brakes and the Alshain rolls forward, seemingly eager to be back in her proper element. The ship reaches takeoff speed and lifts off well before they run out of field and the bat points her nose toward Hallifred's Trollhome for a flyby. "On our way!"

Vash nods a little. "Glad to hear it..." After the last few days, and capped off by waiting in relative silence for word from this mysterious messenger that never arrived, he can't help himself -- and falls asleep where he's sitting.

The Trollhome, unfortunately, is difficult to pick out among the trees, and Kerry isn't quite sure they've even overflown it. However, Indigo's sensors show Karlstrasse ahead clearly, and after a brief but fruitless attempt to find Hallifred's home he turns toward the town. The rest of the flight back to Karlstrasse is uneventful. There is little to see on the ground, mostly unbroken forests with an occasional spire showing through the tree canopy. These people are not much into cities or deforestation -- no real surprise, Kerry thinks, considering that they really have dryads. The University shows a little, with its open quad and fountain, but the place the Alshain came down originally seems about the best place to land anywhere nearby.

The landing is anticlimactic after all their adventures, and the bat sets the ship down in the large field near their first forced landing site. He shuts the engines down and grins at the others. "And here we are. Take the van back to town? Hmm... can we get it past the water hag?"

Vash doesn't really have an order ready for that, except to sigh heavily in his sleep. Sakura tilts her head at Kerry, then looks at Vash. "No more playing with the water hag, remember?"

Kerry skrees, "I don't recommend it. I was wondering if there's another trail so we don't have to try driving the van over the stepping stones."

Feina eeps a little at the bouncing of the landing, and clings to Kawaii. When the plane slows and quiets, she looks up and nervously asks, "What happened?"

Douglas sighs softly and shuts down the engines. "If it's all the same, Pilot, I'm rather fond of walking in. We'll stir up less notice that way, and the walk'll do us good. Captain, what do you-" He breaks off as he turns to Vash and sees the 'dillo asleep. He blinks a bit, then smiles quietly. He turns back to his console and finishes battening down the ship.

Sakura frowns a little. "I'd rather walk, Kerry."

Vash sits up a little and mumbles drunkenly. "Er... huh? No, no, no hag... I don't wanna wrestle..." It's a few moments before his brain gets up to full speed again.

Kerry grumbles. "As if we didn't have enough walking in the past few weeks..."

Sakura takes the piglet out of Feina's lap and unstraps her. She smiles at the vixen. "We're home!"

Feina looks up at Sakura with awe, "We're home? Already? Has it been a week?"

Sakura grins at Feina. "The ship is fast, Feina..."

Kerry chuckles at the vixen. "Only about an hour and a half, Feina, and that includes diverting to Hallifred's place on the way."

Douglas tries to remember if Feina was terrified of Schnell and her mom at the Gathering -- lordy, has it really been only a month? It seems like... so much longer. "It's faster than a drake, Feina," he provides cheerfully.

Vash blinks a few times, then rubs his eyes on the heels of his hands. "C'mon. I'm dying for a walk after all that."

Feina doesn't seem able to grapple that concept of "fast" and just stares at Sakura. When someone opens a door she steps out into the afternoon sun and looks around, staring in astonishment before she runs full speed over to the creek and falls to her knees, washing her face and drinking the cool water. Sakura's eyes light up! "Larrikan will be so surprised. I wonder if I can surprise him on his way out of class?"

Vash mms. "That's an excellent point. You want to cut past the University on the way back, Sakura?"

Douglas grins softly, "I think Dr. Zildjian will forgive us if we stop by there on our way to the Silver Egg." Now that I think about it... it's been so long...

Kerry grins. "Zil and a few others will know we made it back. We weren't that close to the town, but I suspect we could be heard by folks who knew what to listen for."

Sakura smiles, "No, thank you, Vash. I'm going to get a bath, get some clean clothes, and go see Larrikan then."

Vash nods a little and smiles. "Yeah. Maybe a shower's not a bad idea at that." He grins a little conspiratorially, "Just between us, Doctora... me, I'm holding out hope for a backrub, myself."

Kerry skrees, "I think a shower is a good idea. I stink, even after that sponge bath. Shall we take something along to hand out as gifts? Some of the trade samples, maybe? And I want to see if Zil's gotten that same message from Ms. Laws..."

Douglas smiles to Feina as she bounds to the hatch, then stands, stretching and yawning a little. "Odd... I feel glad to be getting off of the Alshain. A shower at the Egg sounds wonderful." He grins to Kerry. "I think knowledge that the horn is destroyed will be gift enough. I know a lot of trolls who're going to be... uhm... breaking our backs with hugs... now that I think about it..."

Sakura grabs Feina's hand... she can't seem to stop grinning, and walks towards the Egg... fairly quickly. Kawaii bounces along happily in front of Sakura and Feina, pausing only to occasionally glance over his shoulder and make sure they're following properly. Vash hmms and wonders idly if it's a good idea for him to be carrying a sword into town. Then again... there's always the water hag. He slings it over one shoulder and takes off after the doctor.

The walk back towards the town and the Egg is quiet. Feina leads the way through familiar forest, marveling that is really is that forest, and truly convinced only when the water hag shows up and throws insults at the group. Knowing better and having a guide, they stay out of her reach and make it back to the Egg at about 7pm, as night is falling.

Vash says something unbelievably vulgar in extremely rapid Spanish to the hag on his way past... although he does keep well out of reach, this time. Sakura grins at the Captain over her shoulder. Kerry blinks as the translator stumbles on the Spanish, "So what does that mean...?"

Walking the last of the way into town, the obviously roadworn little group gets a couple of funny looks, but nothing unusual. Sakura nearly leaps with glee when she gets to the Egg. She dashes up the steps and pushes the door open, nearly rushing in. The entrance to the Egg is quiet, but the dinner rush is ongoing, so the common room itself has a lot of people in it. Aykuh looks up from the bar, "You're back!"

Kerry grins. "Yep! We're back, we're dirty, we're tired, we're thirsty, and we're hungry for some good cooking!"

Kawaii squeals excitedly, following Sakura and Feina in and generally getting gleefully underfoot! Vash grins a little, wishing he didn't look so... funky, for his grand entrance. He unslings his sword and just stands quietly. Sakura looks around the room, anxious to see if Larrikan is among the gathered tonight... and almost hoping that he's not, so that she can clean up first.

There's a moment of silence when the group enters -- then various squeals, barks, bellows, and roars of delight! A small group of students gang-rush the Alshain's crew, and they're soon enveloped in kisses, hugs, back-pounding, excited questions, and congratulations -- to the extent that the poor translators end up giving mostly a confused babble. Hotspur isn't long in coming out from the back, apparently at the dryad's summons.

Vash blinks, once, and then the crowd is upon him. Tired as he is, he couldn't react fast enough if he wanted to. As it is, he lets himself get carried along with it. "Ay! Hey, we're all glad too see you too!" Sakura relaxes and genuinely enjoys the hugs and back patting. She's so glad to be home -- and it's nice to have a friendly welcome.

Douglas hears Aykuh's greeting from outside, following along after Sakura and Feina. He sighs, smiling, glad for just one more reminded that they made it. The sounds of lots of people within is further greeting -- and as if that wasn't enough, the onrush of people at them once Aykuh greets them is to him far, far more welcome than the sight of the Wild Hunt appearing in Drekaris' hall. He returns the greetings as best as he physically can, suddenly feeling only a little bit nervous amongst the crowd, a nervousness which passes quickly -- these are friends, after all!

Zildjian comes zipping into the room and rears high up over the group to see -- then grins and waits her turn at the heroes of the hour. The other guests are bemused, but pleased that something very good has apparently happened. For a short while the happy greeting noise is almost deafening... then people are sorted out and headed to tables, so food can be shoved at them.

Kerry blinks as the crowd rolls over them and has just enough time to get up on the nearest table before he's buried under the well wishers. Even up there he's hugged and backslapped enough to last for some time. He waves a wing at Zildjian when she shows up, and mouths, "We need to talk."

Larrikan is there, as are Aedaith and Bandé, although the other two foxes are a bit apart from the students where Larrikan is. Larrikan is one of the first over, giving Sakura a warm hug -- and completely oblivious to the fact that she's a little grimy. To him she's beautiful. Sakura hugs Larrikan tightly! "Oh, I'm so glad to see you!" Larrikan's face lights up and he steps smoothly to the side, drawing Sakura close -- then happily loses himself in a long, slow, thorough kiss of his returned lady-love. Sakura blushes to her ear tips, but she certainly doesn't pull away from the kiss. She returns it gladly.

Annifred and Jurgens are in the crowd too, both cheerfully trying to hug everyone. Kerry grins at Jurgens. "Hey! Any luck yet with the flyer? We'll take you down to see ours now that we've got it back!" Douglas blinks as he finally spots Annifred in the crowd -- finally? She's a troll, it shouldn't be too hard! -and with a wide smile tries to wind his way in her general direction, not skimping anyone on greetings or embraces.

Kawaii, ever the pragmatist, is gobbling food and hastily grunting to a few fascinated looking folks who don't seem to mind his rather... eccentric eating and story-telling style. Feina's in tears, she's so happy to be back, enthusiastically hugging her sister, her sister's lover, her heroine, her heroine's lover, and any other fox (or even person) within reach. Zildjian straightens up again until she's quite tall, and leans over to offer Kerry a hand, with a grin, "Welcome home, y'all!"

Blue is a little slower getting to the travelers. She seems in less of a hurry, but no less relieved to greet those returning. Vash stands up on his toes, trying to see over the crowd, and eventually ends up forcing his way through by sheer willpower until he comes out face to face with Blue -- and then... he can't think of anything to say. He blinks, then just stares for a long moment before saying quietly. "Hey... long time no see." Blue doesn't say anything at all -- she just flings herself into Vash's arms, her eyes very bright, and hugs him tightly!

Sakura finally does break away from the kiss and looks about for Feina. Feina is getting busily fretted over by Aedaith, who seems relieved to see her -- and completely surprised. Feina smiles, looking very tired and very relieved to be home, and is hugged by both her sister and Bandé. She murmurs something quietly to Aedaith, who grins and bounces over to Sakura, giving her a huge hug and telling her, "You bought her back safe! Thankyouthankyouthankyou!" and then giving her a long, warm, and happy kiss.

Sakura hugs Aedaith tightly. "Thanks for letting us bring Feina along, Aedaith... we would have been hopelessly lost without her."

Vash wraps his arms around Blue's waist and holds her tight. He sighs heavily and smiles a little bit. Just loud enough for her to hear he murmurs into her ear, "I always keep my promises." Blue starts crying, silently and in huge relief, on Vash's shoulder. She's so emotionally wrought up right now that she can't even speak coherently, although once she realizes she's crying she tries, with a mix of gestures, tears, and laughter, to let him know she really isn't crying because she's unhappy, really!

Vash shakes his head and smiles brightly. "It's okay... it's okay. I know. Just don't let go, okay?" He holds her as tightly as he can. If this isn't for real... and I wake up... there's gonna be hell to pay.

Annifred gets to Douglas and gives him a huge hug, "Hiya, cute fuzzy! You back!" She nuzzles cheerfully at his ear and keeps him in a huge hug, lifting him slightly off the floor and pulling him back towards a table, asking, "What happen, prettyfeets? You okay? Got ship? What about horn?" Doug can hear various creaks and protests from his spine... but somehow that's not important right now.

The cougar laughs, hugging Annifred tightly, of course not coming close to the sheer immensity of her hug. He cheerfully lets himself be pulled to a seat as he catches his breath. "We're okay, everything's... most everything's okay." He shakes his head and smiles radiantly to her, taking her hands. "The horn's gone, Annifred. It's been destroyed for good now. Trolls no longer live under curse; trolls free!"

The people immediately around the cougar fall suddenly silent.

Then folks near them start whispering, asking what just happened... the news travels swiftly out, through whispers and occasional small sounds of astonishment, "Gone?! How can it be gone?!" "Is that... good?" Larrikan is staring at Douglas. After a moment he turns and says to Sakura, "You destroyed the horn?" His voice is tinged with awe. Aedaith looks at Larrikan, then at Sakura, then at Larrikan, and asks, "Are we in trouble?" because she can't quite read his expression, either. Sakura's ears go back just a little at the reaction in the room.

Douglas's smile... starts to fade a little, as the people around him go silent. He looks around, feeling oddly nervous at the silence and the murmuring. He hears Aedaith's question and wonders, I think that's our line, Miss.

Larrikan says, "Well... no... I mean..." and sort of runs out of steam. He finally adds, "I don't know. I didn't know you could do that." Sakura looks from Douglas to Vash to Kerry, chewing on her bottom lip.

Blue stops trying to wipe tears from her face and just stares at Vash for a long moment, her eyes shining and tears gleaming on her cheeks in the firelight, completely oblivious to their surroundings... then she just buries her head against him and hugs him tightly, almost as if she's afraid he also is no more than just a much-longed-for dream...

Jurgens is the first to puzzle it out aloud, "But... if the Horn is gone... then... then... no one controls the Wild Hunt!" He thinks about that for a moment, then laughs cheerfully, "This calls for a DRINK!" People turn to look at him, listening... then the room erupts into joyous cacophony! There's more back pounding, hugs, tears of relief, kisses... a cheery song breaks out in a corner, while the lamia and the little dryad are kept quite busy for several minutes drawing drinks. Food and drink is pressed on the returning heroes -- except for Vash and Blue. There's a small, good-natured circle kept clear by common assent around them... until they're ready to rejoin the others.

Sakura blinks at that and visibly relaxes, even managing to smile a bit behind the exhaled breath she didn't realize she was holding. Vash smiles a little at Sakura, then grins and shrugs as the room explodes a second time. After that he just holds onto Blue and tries to tune out their surroundings, very gently stroking her hair, mindful of his talons.

Douglas almost collapses in on himself in relief. Trust, the kitten in his mind mewls, the people have trust that the forces of nature here will take their own due course if they're not subject to the vagaries of the whims of mortals. It's just like a thunderstorm or hurricane: destructive, devastating... but at least without an agenda. And who knows, he thinks back to the Huntress speaking of "unfinished business" in Drekaris' castle, maybe the Wild Hunt does have a purpose, one that serves something higher than the goals of petty tyrants and would-be worlds-rulers.

Aedaith says, "No more Hunt?" and looks in complete awe at Sakura, then to Feina, who she asks, "You saw? Is that right?" Feina nods and says, "It was amazing!"

Kerry skrees, "The only way to destroy the Horn. Doug figured it out when the Horn landed in his hands during the last battle... the Hunt themselves could do it safely. They're not able to be controlled now... not unless someone rebuilds the Horn."

Sakura leans her head against Larrikan's shoulder, a little weary from all the excitement. Aedaith hugs Sakura again, then lets go and bounces away laughing with glee, enjoying all the cheer of the others. Larrikan collects the foreign vixen and says, "If anybody could have done it, it would have been you." He kisses her some more.

Sakura grins and returns both Aedaith's hug and Larrikan's kisses... "I'm just glad to be home, Larrikan."

Feina snuggles up against Sakura on her other side, also looking a little tired... but happily so. Safe home again -- oh! She straightens suddenly as the music starts, "Wait! Wait, I have their song! Do you want to hear?!" The reaction is almost instantaneous -- she's immediately the center of an attentive group who want to know what happened?!

Douglas blinks, looking over to Feina. "Song...?" he murmurs.

Kerry looks astonished. "We have a song? Already??"

Sakura blinks and looks at Larrikan. "Our song?"

Annifred just laughs brightly at the bat, "Ja, all heroes have songs!" She grins cheerfully at Feina and says, "Sing song, vixen! You there, so your song best of bard's. Give it first!" Douglas blinks again. She's a bard?! Oh, dear... I'm glad we didn't do anything embarrassing!

Shy little Feina straightens up and beams through her dusty mask, "Of course there's a song! Why do you think bards travel with heroes?" She adds a little smugly to the crowd, "I got the best heroes to travel with, too! Wait 'til you hear!" Thus tempted, the crowd goes a little quieter, making sure she has a high place to sit, waiting patiently while she tunes her borrowed balalaika-like instrument.

Vash murmurs softly to Blue, laughing quietly under his breath, "Guess we're heroes now. I don't feel like a hero... would you believe my back is killing me?" He grins a little and moves around behind her, arms still crooked around her waist so they can both watch.

The song starts out cheerful and upbeat, obviously a traveling song laying the groundwork of who the heroes are. The members of the Alshain's crew are described in glowing terms -- their cleverness, the swiftness with which they learned martial skills, their terrible wrath and righteous mercy when crossed by evil minions -- whilst scarcely breaking a sweat... Feina sings admiringly of Sakura's bravery and stoicism in the dreadful troll vehicles, as well as her fierce and terrifying defense of her bard... she sings of the group's amazing sturdiness in dealing with the frightful tech, mastering the huge metal bird with no fear whatsoever...

Sakura blushes to her ears when Feina sings about her. She wasn't that brave. Douglas blinks, also listening to Feina's song. He can feel his ear tips starting to turn a rich, deep shade of pink. Good Lord, she's a one-vixen PR firm! No... there's no way I'm anything like what she's describing. I'm just a cougar... Larrikan stands behind Sakura, his arms around her, and beams at her and at the crowd, without a doubt that they were at least that valorous.

The crowd eats it up, singing along with the bouncy choruses, giving more food, drink, and admiring and impressed looks at the terrible foursome! Then the song takes on a more menacing cast as Feina sings of the dreadful Keep of the Master of the Horn, the vile and dangerous Warlord Drakeris. She sings of the capture, and the almost breathtaking cleverness of the captain and the doctor -- how swiftly -- almost silently! -- they'd given her the inspiration to follow Sakura, slipping away with Kawaii, splitting up the group into two attack formations -- one led by the fiercely befanged captain, the other by the terrifyingly resolute doctor! The crowd goes silent, clearly caught by the obvious sincerity in the young girl's voice.

Vash tries his best to grin winsomely at all this. Dios mio, how am I going to live up to all this? Kerry grins at Feina's song. She hasn't mentioned her own bravery and helpfulness yet. Modest little vixen. On the other hand, any good fighter jock is hard to embarrass with flattery... Vash thinks about that for a moment. Wait a minute... I don't have fangs! Feina pauses for a drink and a breath... and obligingly the crowd presses for more, more, what happened next?! She grins, putting her mug down, and runs her fingers lightly over the strings... then takes a deep breath and continues singing to the rapt crowd.

The cunning patience of the group in the dungeon is described, as well as their cleverness at stalling long enough that the second attack wave could be in place just as they were taken before Drakeris! Feina's admiration is tinged with a bit of confusion there, of course -- she has no idea how Vash managed that, but she was stunned at his tactical brilliance! -or maybe it was Sakura who managed that...? Feina congratulates them both, then sings on... the dreadful hall is described, the horribly distorted individuals within, the awful fate that Drakeris doubtless intends is hinted at... and then Feina triumphantly sings out, bold and strong, how breathtakingly brave Sakura was, distracting the entire hall long enough for Vash to leap for his weapon! -how swiftly the well-trained group reacted, like flowing water around jagged stones -- each to their position, each supporting the other, each cleverly keeping Drakeris and his minions distracted and confused long enough -- for Vash to blow down the dread warlord, while the amazing Sakura tossed the horn to Douglas!

There's a gasp from the crowd! Annifred gets a worried look, hugging Douglas tightly, and people look in awe at the group... still... they did make it, didn't they? They must've -- they're here... Feina starts singing again, fast and furious, trying to show through the song how terrifyingly breathtaking the moment was -- the Horn is blown! The Hunt arrives! And then -- then the pinnacle of the story! The true sign of greatness and generosity of spirit the group possesses is shown -- they don't let the Horn possess them... they actually give it to the Hunt!

Douglas starts to shift a little embarrassedly, a shifting that is cut off by the sudden ferocious hug from Annifred -- which doesn't quite make him loose consciousness -- but he tries to hug Annifred back reassuringly, as sheepishly as he's smiling. The rest of the song is almost anticlimactic after that... the gratitude of the Hunt, the triumphal procession from the hall accompanied by the Wild Ones, the flight back in the huge magical-technical-something-weird roc of metal -- the arrival in less than a week!! -and then... the joyous return and hero's welcome!

The crowd erupts into cheers and happiness again after the song is finished, and there are folks already working on memorizing it, going to corners to hum it quietly to themselves. The group seems a bit larger than it did when the crewmembers arrived... and in fact, more can be seen slipping in through the door, getting updates from folks on the fringes of the joyous throng. The Silver Egg is doing a bang-up business tonight! There are a few who murmur dubiously about the reality of a metal bird carrying everyone back in less than a week, but the nay-sayers are hushed by others in the crowd, with the gentle admonition to let the pretty vixen get away with one whopper... it's been a long month for her, after all!

Kerry looks offended at the disbelief about Alshain. "The metal bird is in the clearing a few miles south, if anyone doesn't believe her about that. It's the one thing she didn't exaggerate, folks."

Larrikan tries to keep near Sakura, but the crowd manages to separate them. Sakura is surrounded with happy people who want to congratulate her for her escapes and ask how she could be so brave, while offering her all manner of food and drink and admiration. Blue stays close with Vash, though, not letting the crowd move her. The song impresses her, and she clings to Vash at the end of it, simply enjoying being with him. Sakura looks quite overwhelmed by all the attention... blushing and not quite able to make proper conversation with anyone. As far as she's concerned, she was just doing her job and that anyone would have done the same in her shoes. She accepts the congratulations a little reluctantly, but she does accept them nonetheless.

Douglas lets out a breath. Oh, lordy, do we have a lot to live up to! he thinks with a wan, sheepish smile. Me... I'm just glad we made it back. Later we can worry about the Master and this... this 'Federated Civilizations' thing, whomever they are. For now... we're back. Douglas, too, loses Annifred in the crowd -- how do you lose a troll? -- and is surrounded by enthusiastic people asking questions and offering drinks and hugs and things.

Vash smiles the whole time, his cheek against Blue's, gently swaying back and forth with her. At last he says, softly, "I still don't feel like a hero." Giving her a little squeeze, he says, "This is all the welcome I really wanted." Blue blushes faintly, tucking her head into the crook of Vash's shoulder and neck, hugging tightly.

Kawaii, now stuffed, sits proudly on one end of the hearth, politely accepting all pettings and admirations with small, gracious grunts. People gather under and around Kerry, asking him questions and trying to get him to come down and talk with them. They've never seen anything quite like the bat, and want to know all about him. Can he fly? What does he eat? How did he know what to do about Drekaris?

Kerry answers questions and drops down to crouch on a table with his adoring fans... "I'm afraid I can't quite fly. I'm too heavy for my wings. Just gliding is all I can manage..." He fields the rest of the queries as best he can between sips of ale and occasional waves at Zil as she helps Aykuh and the others cover the huge business.

Zildjian, while listening to the hero's song, had to cover a giggle a few times, but her demeanor is burstingly proud of her friends, even as she has to really hustle and reach to get everyone served. Her grin is so broad her fangs are almost springing free, and the grin almost seems to wrap around her face. At Kerry's wave she flickers her tongue amusedly at him, then continues shaking her tail to get food and drink passed out to those requesting it.

Sakura slowly makes her way back towards the other foxes, hugging Bandé, who she hasn't hugged yet, before she slips back into Larrikan's arms. Bandé hasn't been in a rush, but is quite happy to be hugged. He kisses Sakura gently on the top of the head and murmurs through the noise, "I'm glad you made it home safe."

Sakura beams a smile at Bandé, "Thank you, Bandé... I'm glad to be home. It's good to see you all again. I missed you..."

Bandé chuckles and reassures Sakura, "We all missed you too, but Larrikan was particularly worried. He'll be much happier now. Sleep better." Having said, he lets Sakura go back to Larrikan, who beams and melts against her. Feina answers some more questions, then slips through the crowd to Sakura's side again and sits next to her, two slightly gray-around-the-edges vixens. She happily begins telling the people Sakura is being polite and self-deprecating about how the brave doctor saved her over and over.

Douglas fights down a moment of panic as the tide of people sweep him and Annifred up and away from each other. He remembers what Zildjian told him back at the gathering and tries his best to just accept the congratulations, hopefully modestly without letting it get to his head. The Hell of it is he still remembers painfully vividly the moment of weakness he had, with Drekaris' oddly demagogical words upon him. It does wonders for keeping his head from getting too big, if it was even inclined to do that.

Annifred eventually shows up again across the room, talking to Feina. She grins and says something, then makes her way back to Douglas, grinning wildly. When she gets to him she says, "Hey, cute fuzzy!" People seem to make room for her, and she puts her arm around Douglas and snuggles into his fur, "When you had enough hero, you say, and we go have fun. Or get you hot bath. Or both, ja?" Her toothy grin would be threatening to someone any smaller.

He finally makes it back to Annifred, and smiles warmly in relief to her, and even warmer at her words. "Ja," he says, laughing softly, "I'm thinking I'm way, way more than enough the hero. A hot bath sounds like a godsend." His grin becomes an almost-shy smile. "And 'both' sounds... even more wonderful."

Douglas briefly, though, excuses himself from Annifred, and moves towards Feina. He says quietly to the young vixen, "Feina... thank you. That was a wonderful song." He gives her a warm and cheerful hug despite whatever state of uncleanness she's in.

One of the bards in the room cheerfully sings a... somewhat garbled version of a song they know is an old favorite of the spacefarers, and people are soon crooning along, swaying a bit with each other and their drinks, "Ground-kin-troll two meyja tomyor circus dead their sumthin rong...!" Blue oh!s at a sudden thought, leaning forward on tiptoes enough to reach one of Vash's articulating ears and tilt it gently towards her. She whispers, "I have your special metal thingies still! ...um... do you want them back?" She seems a bit... diffident, almost... as if she'd gladly give them back if he wanted... but wouldn't mind keeping them either? ...if he didn't mind?

Vash smiles, and bends his head to kiss Blue gently. "You hold onto them... then I'll always have a way to come back." Blue beams shyly at Vash, then contentedly curls up against him, softly singing the lamia's song with the rest of the group.

People are still coming in, as others leave, being told, "The horn is gone!" and, after a drink, going off to spread the good word. Kerry remembers his data-pad after a while and shows off pictures of the Alshain for the crowd at his table. "See? That's what we rode back on." The people just laugh and don't seem to take Kerry too seriously, simply taking it for granted that he's not wanting their trusty bard to appear to have gone too far. They nod and smile, but don't believe a word.

Sakura grins and kisses Larrikan's cheek. She leans over to whisper something in his ear... something that makes her blush, if not him too. Larrikan doesn't blush. He perks right up and then smiles at Sakura and looks around, as if he's wondering how soon he can get the lovely lady home. He isn't in enough of a hurry to say anything, though. While he's looking interested, Feina murmurs, "I'd like a hot bath." Kawaii snorts quiet agreement with Feina's request.

Sakura just grins at Larrikan... looking a little mischievous. That must be his influence. Saki never looked mischievous before him... the grin is enough for Larrikan. He starts to tell people goodbye, that he's going to take these two heroic vixens home and pamper them and let them get all caught up on sleep and feed them a good breakfast. Bandé and Aedaith collect with them, and soon all five foxes make a cheerful exit, with people waving and calling after them happily. Sakura waves goodbye to her crewmates and the folk in the bar as she's hurried out the door with the other foxes.

The party seems likely to go on much of the night. Annifred gathers up Douglas and says, "We go tell trollhome. You be bigger hero there." They too make their way out.

Vash nuzzles Blue's cheek gently, and whispers something to her. Blue brightens a bit at Vash's whisper, and takes his hand carefully, tugging him gently through the crowd. She pauses to whisper to Zildjian as she slowly works her way through the crowd of well wishers and cheerful congratulations. Vash waves cheerfully to all on his way past, pausing to give Zildjian a quick hug.

Zildjian nods and grins at Blue, happily hugs Vash tightly, then straightens way out and reaches over the crowd to collect Kerry. At any squeak of protest she simply cheerfully hisses, "You need a bath, boy-o!" She slithers out with Kerry, Blue following with Vash.

Kerry was planning to hold the fort while the others escaped, but happily joins Zil for the offered bath. "If you think I'm bad now, you should have smelled us when we first got back to the shuttle. Spending two days chained to a dungeon wall doesn't do a lot for your personal hygiene."

Blue quietly and happily has Vash all to herself as they head for the showers, while Zil slithers up the tree-chute to her rooms with Kerry. Unsurprisingly, Dow is there waiting, and they happily slither off with him to get clean -- and for Dow to be updated as well on the astonishing happenings.

Last modified: 2002-Jan-10 08:56:56

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