Part 1 - The Dealings of the Desperate

"Mister Norren!"
Malachi Norren stiffened at the growled words, his hand already darting towards the hilt of his stiletto dagger hidden within the folds of his robes. The human turned on heel and saw a scruffy vulpin sentinel walking along the Path of the Eclipse Dragon towards him.
Malachi knew the sentinel, and was rather hoping that he would never have to see him again. "Sergeant Cadnos! Such a surprise."
The sentinel grinned and tapped his new gold badge. "That's deputy Cadnos, mister Norren. You would do werr to remember that from now on."
Malachi pictured the sentinel lying dead in the gutter, with that damn gold badge lodged in his throat. He would certainly remember that. Oh, how this Cadnos caused him trouble when last they met, his master was most displeased that Malachi had revealed so much. "I will. So what do you want now, deputy?"
Schrau smiled easily and waved a dismissive hand. "Oh, unwind yourserf. I'm not here as inquisition into your master's affairs. Kuroryu is the reast of my concerns right now."
"So what is it you want?"
"I'm enquiring about certain artefacts beronging to a Nara Kanun."
"Kanun, Soselian king, his little toe being richer than this whole damn planet?" Malachi nodded. "Very well, deputy, maybe we should discuss this in private."

There is a certain type of store that belongs only to a certain type of merchant. The type of merchant being exceptionally rich and the type of store being amazingly sparse. Malachi's store reminded Schrau of an art gallery rather than the usual bustle of the average Wysoomian merchant, and yet he knew that any one of the dozen or so pieces that Malachi chose to display was worth several times more than the entire stock of, say, Arrow's Fine Weapons.
"So sentinel," Malachi said as an opening gambit as he ushered Schrau into a small office. "The artefacts of Kanun, well, I heard that some idiot gave the Poison Star to those lunatic alchemists who proceeded to rob the piece of its beauty." Malachi sat down and scowled. "For years I have tried to recover the Star, and now its destroyed; broken down, cut down to costume jewellery and the venom drained and disposed of. A tragic waste of several billions of gold."
"I actuarry wanted the Star returned in one piece as werr." Schrau said. "It was evidence, and it would arso rook good on my dresser. I'm sorry about your ross, but maybe I can compensate with this..." The sentinel produced an eyeball-sized lump of perfect diamond and set it on the table between them.
Malachi's eyes widened in abject reverence. "Where did you find this?"
"Some maniac with a Zarakryn fixation was using it as an eye." Schrau quietly said. "So, you recognise it?"
Norren nodded and inspected the diamond through a jeweller's eyepiece. "This was the centrepiece of the crown of Kanun, sentinel. You say someone was using it as a glass eye?"
Schrau nodded.
"I would give you everything, and I mean everything, in this store in exchange for this!" Malachi whispered. "Kanun commanded much wealth, but as far as I am aware this is the only remaining part of his crown."
"Rearry?" Schrau said. "I would have thought the crown would have remained."
Malachi shook his head. "It was made of wood. No doubt it has rotted away by now. Imagine, a king with a sceptre of diamond but a crown of wood. Almost laughable, but the crown on the massive statue in his honour was anything but a joke."
"Go on."
"It was made out of diamond - The four spikes each eight feet long and-" Malachi shook his head. "The spikes are a sight to behold, and I am a better person having seen them."
Schrau nodded. "Yes, you mentioned something about wishing to be reunited with the Poison Star, care to exprain?"
The merchant nodded. "How old were you when you first actively contributed to your current vocation?" Malachi raised an eyebrow at Schrau's blast-furnace glare and sighed. "I was seven."
"Seven?" Schrau repeated. "Seven when you first became a merchant?"
Malachi snorted and waved a hand towards the door back to his shop front. "No, you imbecile. I was seven when I was on my first excavation for the Kuroryu family. I am a merchant, but also an excavator, many of those treasures out there were reclaimed from the dank pits of wherever by my own two hands."
Schrau's lips curled back in a grin. "Okay, so not onry does the Kuroryu cran start their sraves young, they start their excavators young too. Faburous famiry."
"Actually, I requested to be a part of the excavation. My father led the group; it was him, me, a couple of antiquitarians and jewellers, and a sketch artist."
"And no doubt a pack of hired hands to carry arr the stuff, am I right?"
The slight pull at Malachi's eyes indicated that Schrau was only partly right. Schrau smiled to himself; yes, there were some hands to help, but 'hired' is such a vague and inconclusive word.
More slaves.
"Children, really. Eager to help." Malachi simply said. "Anyway, we found the mine, worked our way through the offices and small palace that Kanun built above the entrance, and found our way to a small temple where Kanun was enshrined, as well as his riches and his statue. Of course, the crown jewel and the Poison Star would be the most portable of the riches, but..." Malachi's voice became somewhat less focused and more wistful. "Father just had to have the statue before touching anything else. It was far too large to carry by ourselves, the crown was far too large, so we broke it down and started moving it out. We got three of the four spikes on the statue's crown out before-" Malachi began shuffling through paperwork in his desk drawer before continuing. "-Before there was a cave-in at the mines."
"Ret me guess." Schrau quietly said. "The Star, crown piece, statue, and fourth spike never made it out."
"And neither did some of the crew. Five hands and one of the antiquitarians." Malachi produced a folder and began shuffling through the papers. "Everyone else survived, as did the artist's sketches."
Malachi spread some sketches out onto the desk and Schrau winced. If an excavation group wanted an artist to catalogue any important items they would be forced to choose two traits of either fast, cheap, or good in an artist. The artist responsible for the sketches was clearly good, and excavators rarely hired someone who wasn't fast.
Still, they got away with three massive lumps of diamond. Schrau wondered what happened to those pieces.
Schrau recognised the Poison Star readily enough. When something gets to within a few strikes of killing you, they become more recognisable than a mother's face. The massive diamond that was once part of Kanun's crown was also recognisable.
Then there was a sketch of something that looked very much like a scythe blade if made out of a precious jewel rather than metal. In the corner of the page the artist had written 'X3' next to a scribbled-out 'X4'.
Schrau looked at the sketches of the Poison Star and the crown jewel, 'X1' had been written on the corners of all diagrams but scribbled out later.
"This;" Schrau tapped the blade-like jewel. "Is this one of the spikes on the statue's crown?"
Malachi nodded and pushed another sketch towards Schrau, a sketch of the crown when complete - A simple band with a jewel set in the forehead and four spikes rising above the head, tips meeting directly above the centre.
Schrau whistled in amazement. At least he now knew where the 'scythe' on the statue of Zaraklyn in Nokai's lair had come from.
"What happened to them?"
Malachi sighed. "Understand this, deputy; if but one of those pieces had been sold complete, it would have bankrupted the entire planet - Any of the planets. The buying merchant would have to sell his entire stock as well as acquire a mammoth loan to purchase it, the creditors would have to get their money for the loan from other creditors, and so the ripple would expand until the entire wealth of a planet was in the hands of a single person." He shook his head. "Disastrous. Only an idiot would attempt to buy a whole piece."
Schrau tried hard not to think of the auction of seized goods the sentinels would be holding next month.
"So it was commissioned out. In fact, the whole of the fortune remains solely within Kuroryu's talons. Two of the pieces remain within his vaults, the other was crafted into a weapon for the Lord of Agony, a diamond spear." Malachi smiled. "The jewel worker who did that piece was paid with all the off-cuts of that. I gather he foolishly spent it all on fineries, and now lives in abject poverty. Amazing how some people can go through billions in fortune."
"Amazing." Schrau agreed. "So... The herp that you rost during the excavation..."
"We were not responsible for their deaths." Malachi sternly said.
"I know, but I am interested in their names."
"Why?" Malachi asked.
"Oh, a strange fixation." Schrau off-handedly said. "Having not being arrowed to have a true name of my own during my chirdhood, I correct others." The vulpin grinned. "I'm sure you have some names I don't have yet."
Malachi chortled and pushed a piece of paper towards Schrau. "Here, take the lot. Every name on the excavation. The dead are crossed out."
Schrau turned the paper towards him. True to Malachi's word, only five names were crossed out. One name snared his attention.
Hoshi Nokai.
"So, happy with your new names?"
"Oh, there's one or two I arready have." Schrau sighed sadly. "Werr, I thank you for your time..." Schrau stood up and adjusted his blades. "You have been, and I'm sure you wirr continue to be, most herpfur..."

Part 2 - Paid To Do This

Carnely Krysospas, sentinel deputy, muridan, and veteran of hundreds of squalid pits in the ground that would need a thorough scouring with fire to be merely disgusting, adjusted his leather coat and said; "This place is a dump."
Schrau nodded and idly swung one of his drawn blades at the overgrowing kudzu vines that smothered the front lawn of the mansion, performing the first act of groundskeeping for decades now. "It probabry was a nice prace, which means that this is the right prace."
The muridan nodded, his thick dreadlocks rattling. "Whatever. I think something's trying to eat me."
They started up the loosely defined path towards the front door of the mansion. It had clearly been one of the better estates on Sosel, at least before something just decided to stop caring. What would have been pristine white walls were brown with filth, and a model garden - usually a rarity for the jungle planet - was overgrown with wild plants.
"So why do you need me?" Carnely snorted. "Or, more specifically, why have I been dragged into this mess with you? This is your vendetta."
"First, who said this was part of my vendetta?" Schrau said, almost tripping over a root. "Second, Girgar thought I'd appreciate the herp. And third, you wirr thank me rater."
"Oh. Good." The muridan unfeelingly said. "Speaking of Gilgal, why would he give us that one assignment back in Sauronan, then dump us on Sosel for another."
"Because he's crazy, and he has his reasons, and we're paid to do this." Schrau said, before starting to whistle.
"I hate that song." Carnely growled as they finally arrived at the front door. "One of those rat-bastard thieves stole an entire burrow from one of my ancestors."
"Yeah, and you know your rat-bastards." Schrau grinned as he slammed his fist heavily on the door. They waited.
They waited for a long time, until the rotten wood and rusty metal door creaked open. A dwarf face with a pale complexion and wispy beard appeared in the crack and studied Carnely's kneecaps for a brief moment before finally gazing upwards.
"Deputies Krysospas and Cadnos, sentinel guild." Carnely said, his voice switching from his usual bravado into a deadpan serious tone. "Madda Quickfingers, I presume?"
The dwarf nodded. "Aye, that's me. What have I done now?"
"We'd like to have a word with you."
"Oh. Then I think you should come in." Madda said, stepping back and opening the door wide. The sentinels followed.
There is a mania, a compulsive disorder that makes the sufferer collect everything they can lay their hands on. Madda clearly suffered from this disease as the hallways were several feet narrower in all directions with the various detritus and junk of several decades worth of collecting. Schrau had met, posthumously, someone who had the same disorder but failed to get far in his collection. He hoarded deadly snakes.
Madda had clearly built his nest around himself, and Schrau at the same height had less trouble than the bulky muridan in navigating the mess, though Carnely fared well with his natural agility in confined spaces.
"What have I done now?"
"Nothing," Schrau quietly said. "We just want to ask you a few questions."
"Oh." Madda said, forcing open a door and leading the sentinels into what was once a workshop. "You don't happen to want some weapons, do you? Fine pair of dwarven blades there sir, but are you sure you don't want something better."
"No weapons." Carnely said. "Just information."
Neither officer attempted to sit down, it would have been an exercise in futility. Madda somehow found a perch and glared at them.
"I was thinking, not many dwarves specialising in jewel working."
"But rike you said, weapons are your thing."
Madda's eyes opened wide. "No. Nononono. I don't do any jewel-working, just weapons. Never done anythin' with gems in my life."
"Except spend them." Schrau said. "Remember? The day when the biggest rock of diamond crossed your path and you were asked to make a weapon?"
"You were paid in the off-cuts of the slab, right?" Carnely added. "By Zaraklyn, what weaponsmith could resist that commission?"
"That's when things started to go wrong for you."
"You built the largest mansion on this rock, spent all your money, ran out. Couldn't even pay the staff." Carnely grinned.
"Couldn't even hire sraves." Schrau snarled. "And at current market varue, I could afford a srave if I were so diseased in the head to want one."
Madda's jaw was agape, his beard quivering. "B-b-but so? What do you want from me?"
"You were commissioned by a Koras Kuroryu for that job," Carnely stated. "To work a slab of diamond excavated by a..." He consulted his notebook. "Jordan Norren."
"Commissioned personarry." Schrau said. "Now, rast I heard the Kuroryu cran is-"
"Want me to take this line, buddy?" Carnely interrupted. "It doesn't look like he understands a damned word you're saying."
"Oh. Thanks."
"Anyway, Koras personally asked you to do this job. Those dragonian freaks are a pack of recluses, so for their head man to contact someone means one of two things."
"One, he didn't trust someone to act as middreman for that job." Schrau said.
"Or two, he liked your work."
"Which means he knew of you."
"Which means you already had a working relationship."
"B-b-but I had never heard of him!" Madda wailed.
Carnely and Schrau exchanged glances. "He's lying." Carnely said.
"He is." Schrau snarled. "Come on, Madda, stop trying to-"
"I swear!" Madda yelled in fear. "I swear I had never-"
"Sometimes a man's word is not worth all he owns..." Carnely began. "Sometimes it's worth exactly that much. Either way..."
"Okay! Okay! I met him the once!" Madda snapped. "Just the once! He gave me the slab of diamond and then told me what to do with it!"
Schrau glared at the dwarf down the full length of his muzzle. "So how did you deriver the weapon?"
Madda swallowed hard. "I... I was told to drop it exactly where I met him."
The vulpin's eyes narrowed. "Where?"
"In the jungle."
Carnely snorted. "You dropped a lance made of pure diamond in the middle of the freaking jungle? Do you think we overdosed on idiot pills this morning?"
"I swear! I swear! East of Drakhen Mon, near the river!"
"That's a pretty big area." Schrau growled.
"Not specific at all." Carnely agreed.
"It's true! It's the only Paira fruit grove south of the canyon!" Madda moaned. "Please! Please leave me alone!" He pleaded.
The sentinels exchanged another knowing look, with Schrau grinning so widely that it even unsettled the muridan.

"So where are you going now?" Carnely asked as they hacked their way through the jungle away from the derelict mansion of Madda Quickfingers.
"Drakhen Mon, I've got a few..." Schrau halted to slash a vine as thick as his neck. "...questions to ask and favours to carr." They trudged in silence for a moment. "Carn, you know more about the sravers on Perdow than I do."
Carnely nodded and grinned a wide rodent snarl. "Oh yes. I know all the slavers."
Schrau nodded in agreement. He knew that Carnely kept a 'to-do' list.
"Heard of an Astane Tasna?"
Carnely shuddered. "Oh yeah. Werewolf. Crazy bitch, that one."
"Heard any rumours?"
"More than rumours, she's putting me in the shade." Carnely shook his head. "She's been systematically eliminating slavers by the dozen and absorbing their businesses. One day, a pile of corpses just wound up stacked around the Tree of the Dead, slaver corpses. Astane's work."
"Any of those names on your rist?" Schrau asked. "Can I see?"
"Sure." Carnely tucked a sword beneath his armpit and started to rummage around in the folds of his coat. "Haven't got a complete list of who she's been acing, she's even killing slavers on Sosel, Crypt, and Raji." He handed Schrau a filthy scrap of paper, so old as to be practically transparent. It contained a long list of names, some with large tick marks next to them.
Schrau spent a moment as they walked to decipher the muridan's handwriting. "Hey, I didn't think there were so many femare sravers..." Schrau absently said, committing as many names to memory as possible, while also counting the stars next to each name that was ticked.
Carnely twitched nervously without even breaking stride and snatched the piece of paper back. "Oops, wrong 'to-do' list. Here ya go."
Schrau took back an almost identical piece of paper, again with ticks next to some of the names but others were crossed out.
"I can guess - Crossed-out names means someone got to them before you did." Schrau hazarded. "Hmm, an awfur rot of names here..."
"Yeah, I know. Crazy bitch." Carnely repeated.
"You know anybody that knows somebody that knows what somebody that was kirred was doing before Astane ripped their throat out?"
"Maybe. Why?"
"I'd rike to know them too." Schrau handed the list back. "To Perdow, then."
"Yeah, whatever." Carnely said, uncharacteristically quiet.
The vulpin grinned. "Astane was on both rists."
"So? She may be crazy, but she's hot."
"Which Raere was that on your rist?" Schrau added.
"What do you mean?" Carnely replied, suddenly aware of what the conversation all the way back to Perdow would be about.
"Was that Tara rearry worth five stars?"
"Shut up."
"What would your girrfriend think if she found out?" Schrau grinned merrily.
"I told you..."
"Meiris? Come on now..."

Part 3 - Here Be Dragons

Build the case, prepare your evidence. Doom awaits the unprepared fool, while a prepared fool would survive a little longer. Those were words Schrau had learned a long time ago upon joining the sentinels.
He had his case, a list of crimes several miles long. He had his evidence, there was no doubting that. And he was prepared.
For now he knew where to go. Having consulted a few more detailed maps of Sosel, ones that had very few "here be dragons" warnings, Schrau had located the one Paira fruit grove between the river and the canyon, the same area where Panappa trees grew, where slaves gathered fresh seeds from still-steaming dung to be carved into pointlessly expensive trinkets. Schrau had heard that liqueur made from Paira fruit was hardly addictive, even for an alcoholic beverage, and that Daste was one such addict. To get the craving so badly, one would have to start drinking or eating the fruit from a very early age. The lair of the Kuroryu clan had to be near the grove.
He knew how to get in as well. Carnely's investigation turned over a serious result; It turns out that the clan awards the position of chief slaver, a role that Astane Tasna currently occupies, to whomever could please them. Enquiries had been made, as usual, and all the slavers on Carnely's list had been offered an opportunity to join the Kuroryu clan at their estate and vie for position. As usual, Astane found out who had accepted the offer and proceeded to eliminate each and every piece of competition with the ruthless efficiency that had became her primary selling point to Koras. Lovely girl. The kind of lady you'd take home to mom if you grew up in some weird, sick and abusively twisted family.
Schrau and Carnely had hammered out a character profile for Schrau to adopt in order to get into the estate, a pair of blades close to the black heart of the dragonians.
He needed better preparation before attempting that little suicide. That was why he had trekked to Drakhen Mon. With vast green lands and a high altitude, Drakhen Mon was a utopia on Sosel, the only place where you could put "here be dragons" on the map for sure. Schrau actually liked it, a perfect vacation spot if you didn't mind the risk of being crushed by a careless dragon in passing.
Schrau had been in Drakhen Mon a while, being passed from dragon to dragonian, developing a seriously stiff neck from looking up at the magnificent lizards. He could wait however, he would wait as long as necessary.
Eventually, he found himself before a dragonian scribe with golden skin and a reluctance to introduce himself. Schrau had seen that before, generally in people who assumed that they were so important that everybody knew who they were.
"Ah, deputy Cadnosss." The scribe hissed as he led the sentinel into his sanctum, a room piled high with scrolls of all sizes. "I have heard that you are looking to find information about dragonian clansss."
"Onry the one." Schrau said. "Kuroryu."
The scribe stiffened and began to hiss lowly. "Kuroryu. Of courssse. Thinking of making an arressst, or isss thisss persssonal?"
"Personar." Schrau intoned.
The scribe glowered darkly at the vulpin. "Persssonal. You are navigating perilousss junglesss in dealing with the Kuroryu clan."
"I have heard some of their history, scribe. I would rike to hear more."
The dragonian nodded and reached for a scroll so large that Schrau would have trouble lifting it himself. He placed it down on a desk and unfurled it.
"Of courssse, being immortal, we dragoniansss tend not to fossster large familiesss, but the Kuroryu clan isss different. Centuriesss of inbreeding, of disssposssing of the weak hasss left them a highly insssane and viciousss clan. Murderersss, cannibalsss, the sssort of people that sssee life asss nothing."
"I was a srave," Schrau said. "There are times when I fert that rife was worth nothing."
"Ah, once again we return to the persssonal." The scribe nodded. "Yesss, the clan maintainsss a large hold of ssslavesss, though many of them are sssimply disssposssable." The scribe held Schrau's gaze. "Targetsss. Live opposssition. Waysss to releassse aggressssssion."
Schrau's stomach felt as if it was collapsing in on itself. "Terr me more."
"Of courssse, their essstate isss ssstaffed by willing maniacsss." The scribe blinked. "There isss no other word to dessscribe them."
"Anyone I should know about?"
"Their major-domo." The dragonian intoned. "Kahn Nahai. Catfolk. Collectsss eyeballsss, funnily enough."
"Yeah, hirarious." Schrau now felt his stomach threatening to explode its contents.
"Then perhapsss it'sss bessst if I don't tell you about the cook." If the dragonian had been wearing spectacles, he would be looking at Schrau over them. "He collectsss tesssticlesss."
Again, Schrau was beset by discomfort. This time it was a few inches lower than the last time. "Charming. Just how much of me wirr end up in jars if I mess this up?"
"Quite a lot, it mussst be sssaid." The scribe earnestly said, actually smirking. "Ssso, how much would you like to know about thossse you would expect to sssee in their lair?"
And so they spent the remainder of the day poring over the contents of the scroll, with the scribe briefing Schrau about each and every one of the people affiliated with the clan. Schrau began to realise that, if nothing else, no part of him would go to waste. By the time they were done, the sentinel's stomach was growling from lack of food, but the thought of eating anything with what he knew seemed to tug a little at his gut.
"Well then, are you sssatisssfied at lassst?" The scribe hopefully said.
"Yes, thank you very much..." Schrau stood up, his spine complaining in a way that he thought would not happen until old age. "Oh, excuse me, there's one thing I need."
"Of courssse, deputy. What do you require."
The sentinel's eyes narrowed. "I need some enchantments and irrusions, some powerfur ones. There's onry one way I can get out of there arrive, and that's to rast for a whire for as rong as I'm in there."
The scribe stroked his beak thoughtfully, then nodded once. "I know jussst the drakhen. If you would come with me..."

Part 4 - This Little Vulpin

Amazing that such an impressive doorway could be hidden in the middle of the jungle. Naturally, most of the dragonian lair was hidden beneath the ground, but where there's a well, there's a hole as the old and slightly obscure Gydnian saying goes.
Amazing still was the fact that Schrau walked right up to the ettin guard at the gate and avoided a painful death. He suppressed the urge to touch the amulet that hung around his neck that was the secret to his success.
And, by the light of Sikkar, it was a powerful trinket. Schrau wasn't even aware that such enchantments existed, much less that he would be allowed access to them. The sentinel had uncharacteristically glazed over when the dragon mage had explained exactly how the crystal would work, but he knew the effects well enough - While wearing the gem and devoting a small amount of his brain power in focusing the magic within, he would be unrecognisable. His clothes, his voice, even his scent would be different.
The illusionary clothes he wore over his regular threads were amazingly tactile. Anybody touching him would feel a silk waistcoat and leather jodhpurs instead of the green leather coat. The simple black rimmed hat he wore with its ludicrously large peacock feather existed for as long as he needed it. He could even remove certain items of clothing, and they would exist independently, if only for ten minutes or so.
Yet, there was still an illusion, a feeling of his actual equipment around him. His swords were bound tightly at his hips rather than at his back as he preferred, and with every eighth step or so Schrau could still feel the slap of his coat against his leg. His clothes existed for sure, and there were three ways in which he could dispel the illusions around him; being removing the amulet, failing to concentrate sufficiently, or by gripping the hilts of his blades tightly - A clause that Schrau had specified when the enchantments were being woven into the crystal that rested against his breastbone.
Schrau felt as if he were wearing his old clothes, and the suit of his cover identity; sometimes at different times, sometimes both at the exact moment. It was an disconcerting feeling, and due to the nature of the enchantments in place he had to concentrate on the feeling while at the same time trying not to think about it.
Still, thanks to his sentinel training, Schrau was a worlds expert on Not Thinking About Things. All he had to really think about was not getting killed. He took a deep breath and walked towards the ettin.
There were, according to Aldar and his training, three ways to walk that would compensate for the short stature of a vulpin. The first was to walk with grace, the second was to walk with confidence, and the third was to walk with arrogance. Schrau over the years had learned how to walk with his hands in his pockets and shoulders hunched, a typical sentinel's walk that was nowhere near as intimidating as Aldar's three methods but kept him warm and dry on rainy days. Still, Aldar had always walked with arrogance despite being over six feet tall, and Schrau had figured out how to imitate him.
Which was fortunate, because Aldar's walk was a slaver's walk.
The ettin snapped to attention, before settling into intimidation. If Schrau knew about ettin guards, and the many minor imperfections on his skull was evidence that he did, then he figured out that one of the heads would know all the procedures and protocols on how to deal with visitors, while the other would be well versed in the art of "me smash squishies."
"Terr me," Schrau began before either head got a chance to speak. "if you had to go and get somebody from inside, which one of you would have to stay?"
Both heads glowered darkly at the vulpin, and the grip on their fine iron spear tightened to a point where the metal began to creak. "Very funny, pipsqueak." One of the heads snarled, and demonstrated himself as an intellectual by knowing a word with the letter Q in it. The other just growled.
Schrau nodded briefly, drawing back the heavy hood on his cloak. Inwardly, Schrau complained that he was stupid enough to wear a heavy cloth cloak over a hat, but kept the anger off his face. "I jest. So, this is where I might find the mighty Kuroryu famiry."
Something, maybe the lack of a question mark on the end of the newcomer's sentence, made both ettin heads decidedly uneasy. "What business is it of yours?" The first head asked.
"Oh, I do aporogise, I am..." And then he bowed lowly, causing the hat to fall off his head. Schrau quickly caught the hat in a well-practiced way that suggested that it was his intention to, before placing it back on his head as he stood upright. "Bardur Cassnor. I'm here to see the mighty Rord Kuroryu..."
"About the position of Chief Sraver." Schrau offered an easy grin. "So if you could run off and terr him or whoever dears with his business that I'm here, and maybe I may be permitted into his faburous home before something out here decides to eat me."
The ettin heads exchanged brief glances before returning their divided attention to the short vulpin before them. 'Bardur' smiled back, an easy "I'm so handsome" smile that he would never attempt otherwise. He knew that the illusions around him erased his usual scruffy appearance, blessing him with smooth crimson fur and a handsome demeanour that Schrau would never attain otherwise. Schrau could almost hear Carnely yell "prettyboy!" from where he was and knew that, this time at least, he could not argue.
"Uuuh... Yeah." The second head said, entirely unsure of himself.
"Boy, Astane'll be pissed." The first head growled. "She missed one."
Schrau smiled once again as the ettin pulled a long rope hanging next to the door. Deep inside the passageway beyond, a heavy bell rang. It didn't take long for someone to answer, as the door creaked aside and a lithe catfolk stepped out.
When it comes to suits and other formal wear, people can be divided between two groups; the first being the group that should not be allowed into a suit except under extreme duress, and the other being those who appear to have been born wearing formal wear, much to the distress of the mother.
Amazingly, Kahn Nahai belonged to both camps.
The suit he wore was well fitting and immaculate, and lay perfectly against his body in a way that would make most tailors pray to their chosen gods to be that good, and most things considered Nahai did look good.
However; nobody with at least two fingers per hand missing, a stub where a tail should be, scars criss-crossing bare legs and a face that looked as if it had been slapped repeatedly with a garden rake followed by ten minutes of tender loving care at the business end of a sledgehammer would be overdressed in a burlap sack, much less the finest velvet-and-silk suit in all of Sosel.
Schrau paused, midway between asking the major-domo who his tailor was and offering the services of a skilled biomancer, before eventually smiling confidently and saying nothing.
"Who is this?" Nahai growled to the ettin guard. "What is he doing here?"
Nahai didn't purr his words like an ordinary catfolk, and spoke with a stoicism and surety of someone who had endured months of speech therapy. Schrau once again concentrated on the battered muzzle that appeared to had been broken and reset repeatedly and thought of Cannis Rande. Maybe Schrau should go get his muzzle shattered to see what would happen to his speech.
"Uh, this is Bardur..." The ettin trailed off.
"Cassnor." Schrau offered, bowing and catching his hat once again.
Kahn Nahai glowered at Schrau with both his one good eye and the milky white sphere of his right eye. The eye was pure sclera, and actual lack of scarring on the smooth orb suggested that it had always been blind since birth. 'He collects eyeballs' Schrau reminded himself, 'maybe he's trying to find one that would fit.'
He thought, once again, of the cook that the dragonian scribe had informed him about.
"I see." Nahai responded. "A slaver, hmm?"
Schrau smiled easily once again and shook his head. "Aras, no. I was a correague of a certain Norreck Masda, who was a sraver."
"He's dead now." Nahai informed Schrau with abject certainty.
"I know." Schrau grinned back. "However, I had been informed prior to his death that he had been invited here to be found suitabre for the position of Chief Sraver, and since the invite was free, I decided to take it." Schrau blinked sadly. "It's what he would have wanted."
"Indeed. So what is it you do?"
"I own severar businesses," Schrau began, launching into his full sales pitch spiel. "free houses where those incrined may... Rerax. Usuarry in the company of others." Schrau grinned.
"A brothel." Nahai interpreted.
"Severar." Schrau both corrected and reminded Nahai in one word.
The catfolk gave Schrau a contemptuous snort. "And you believe this gives you qualification enough to be a slaver?"
"Oh, there's actuarry very rittre difference between the two... Occupations." Schrau informed Nahai. "Norreck arways said so, which is why he would not be disappointed with me being here in his stead." Schrau smiled easily at the major-domo once again. "Arr I ask is a fair hearing, nothing more."
Nahai considered this, before turning to the ettin. "Have you disarmed him?"
"Er... No."
"Not yet." The first head turned to Schrau. "We 'ave to take all your weapons."
"Why?" Schrau calmly asked. "Is this a prace where my protection is guaranteed so that I wirr not need my weapons?"
"Uh..." Both heads said at the same time before turning back to Nahai. "Is it?"
Nahai growled and cradled his face in both palms. "Idiots! Just take his weapons!" He glowered at the vulpin. "As valued a guest you may be, I'm afraid some harm may come to you if you confuse the help again..."
"Aporogies," Schrau grinned. "I couldn't resist." He began unstrapping the cutlass at his waist, which was a genuine weapon since swords that evaporate ten minutes after being left alone tend to raise suspicion. "Take good care of it." Schrau said, handing the blade to the ettin knowing well enough that he would never actually see it again. "Oh, and there's arso this." He reached into his sleeve and pulled a delicate dagger, a thin point perfect for between tough dragon scales. It also had one characteristic that seemed to amuse Nahai.
"Ah, a silver blade." Nahai grinned as Schrau handed the dagger to the ettin guard. "Perhaps we should let you keep that..." He chuckled.
"Oh, okay." The second head said as the whole began to offer the dagger back to the vulpin.
"I was being facetious!" The major-domo snapped, failing to realise that the ettin probably failed to recognise the word. "Don't give it to him!"
"But you said-"
Suddenly, the jungle went quiet as every insect and tree-dweller paused about their business if not to observe the incident but wholly aware in their primitive brains that something bad was about to happen.
Kahn Nahai stood there in all his majesty, ramrod straight and his one good eye twitching violently. "Just... Take the dagger. Cassnor, come with me."
Schrau nodded and followed the catfolk into the cool of the doorway. "Of course."

Part 5 - Riposte

No sooner had the temperature dropped in the hall it rose again. It failed to reach an unbearable level, but was still quite uncomfortable. It was cooler out in the jungle.
Nahai explained to Schrau that the estate was built over a lava flow beneath the ground. Schrau simply grumbled about cold-bloods.
Nahai sneered. "Get used to it. You will have to on the unlikely chance that you actually get the position."
"And if I don't?"
"Then the discomfort you are feeling now will be with you for the rest of your life."
Somehow, that failed to properly disturb the disguised sentinel as it should.
"So, Cassnor-"
"Carr me Bardur, your grace." Schrau quickly interjected.
"Bardur." The catfolk raised an eyebrow. "Are you aware that you share the same name as the greatest vulpin thief-"
Schrau managed a sigh loaded with disgust. "Oh yes, the great Bardur Cadnos, greatest thief ever to own part of a city..." Schrau snarled. "Apparentry, one of my ancestors craimed to, eheh, have a brief rerationship with the same, a source of famiry pride according to the twits that rever in the notoriety." The vulpin sighed again. "I hope she suffered on her deathbed."
Nahai chuckled lightly.
"So," Schrau managed in his best conversation-changing tone. "What happens now?"
Nahai eyed the pack on the back of the vulpin. "Well, first we'll take you to your room. The, uh, selection process usually takes several days." The major-domo grinned. "And then a tour of the facilities is in order. Looking forward to meeting the people you may be working with?"
Schrau grinned and almost involuntarily reached for the hilts of his swords. "Oh, very much so."

One whiff of scent and the disguised sentinel was right back where his life began. The holding cells of the Kuroryu estate was very much like every other slaver den Schrau had visited. He tried to keep the revulsion off his face.
Nahai, turned to Schrau and grinned. "Is this to your liking?"
Slaves of every age, race, and gender wallowed pitifully in their cells; their eyes both imploring and fearful as the slaver and servant to their cruel masters walked down the hallway beyond the only world many of them had ever known.
"Oh yes." Schrau croaked, unable to clear the catch from his throat. Fortunately, the enchantment over him turned it into a gleeful whisper rather than a death rattle, and the catfolk nodded happily.
Schrau decided to somehow continue. "So, how many sraves can we hord here?"
"Oh, almost three hundred maximum at any time. At the moment, our cells should only hold a third of that, but we can squeeze them all in."
"Any prans for expansion?"
"Funny you should mention that, dear Bardur, for Astane was just penning her plans to add cells for an additional three hundred slaves, doubling our capacity."
Schrau nodded, "Seems a sensibre idea."
A scream came from the far end of the corridor; a horrid, end-of-existence scream that Schrau had heard far too often from the other end of a blade. Schrau gestured towards the door. "Training room?"
"Some of the younger Kuroryu refer to it as a playroom."
"Mind if I have a rook?"
"Be my guest."
Schrau and Nahai stepped into a circular room, one that reminded Schrau of another. Schrau could imagine the room being circled by a complex weapon rack that held scores of useless wooden swords in place, but the racks held real weapons.
Standing in the middle of the room was a tall black-scaled dragonian, dressed in a loincloth. His body was covered in blood, as was the body he held in one hand as he worked at the corpse with another. The body was very formerly a skinny human male, dressed in rags. The left arm had been hacked off above the elbow, and right leg midway down the shin, both severed parts lay at various stations around the room. Both injuries sustained while the victim was alive. The dragonian squeezed the neck, and the right hand suddenly dropped the dagger it held even in death. With the other hand, the dragonian was cutting into the body at stomach level with a dagger.
With one cut, the man's entrails fell onto the floor with a splat. As he continued up the body, breastbone and ribs started to crack and break. Eventually, the dragonian stopped digging at the corpse with his knife and, with a grin, impaled the body with his knife to free up his other hand, which reached deep into the chest.
There was a grisly crunching noise, mixed with some unwholesome squelching. Eventually, the dragonian freed the heart from its cavity, cutting at the remaining connections with his claws. Satisfied, he discarded the corpse and regarded the heart.
And then ate it.
"Ah, the impudence of youth." Nahai warmly said.
Schrau clenched his fists so hard he felt his knuckles crack. The dragonian stepped away from the corpse, pointed at a couple of servants who proceeded to clear away the mess. The dragonian wiped the blade on his loincloth, and pointed again to one of the slaves cowering along the wall; a scared vulpin girl, who backed away in fright.
"Come on, it'sss your turn."
Schrau cleared his throat and stepped towards the centre of the room. "Terr you what, how about you try me?" Schrau grinned and cocked his head roguishly to the side. "Werr?"
The dragonian looked down his beak, obviously torn between laughing or panicking. Eventually, the dragonian decided on indecisiveness.
"Oh, come on now. You're afraid of me?" Schrau glanced towards the slaves near the weapon racks. "Dagger?" He held a hand out.
One of the slaves, an elf, grabbed the nearest dagger and threw it gingerly at the vulpin. Schrau grabbed the hilt and felt his arm sag. He looked at the cheap dagger, which was only a dagger by elfish standards. By vulpin standards, Schrau probably could have used it as an effective sword.
"A dagger!" Schrau snarled, hurling the long dagger away in disgust, where it nearly clipped a slave. Another blade was offered, which Schrau approved of, and held the dagger in a reverse grip in his off-hand, blade pressed against his forearm.
"So?" A one word question and command that gave the impression that, despite everything he knew himself, that the vulpin was much more confident in his ability than the dragonian.
The dragonian shook his head and muttered something, before lowering his shoulders and charging at Schrau with his dagger arm outstretched.
The dragonian eventually reached the vulpin in six steps. In three long paces, Schrau evaluated correctly that the dragonian simply wasn't any good. On the fourth, Schrau fixed his gaze on the talons of the dragonian's claw. On the fifth, Schrau stepped back and away from the dragonian's charge, and on the sixth he reversed his grip on his dagger and lashed out.
The dragonian howled and dropped to his knees, his dagger bouncing off the floor and the click of a talon shortly afterwards. The dragonian clutched his stricken hand, one finger neatly severed at the knuckle and lying at his knee, and he wailed in pain.
Schrau shook his head and proceeded to pile on the disgust in his voice. "Absorutery pathetic... Here you are, growing fat on serf-indurgience, and you can't even stand up to a proper charrenge." He leaned in closer to the dragonian. "Maybe you should stop butchering sraves to feed your own broated sense of serf-importance, and maybe you should actuarry try and improve your own pitifur abirities." Schrau straightened and snorted, "Show's over."
Nahai's face was ashen as they stepped towards the door. "Barrrdurrr... Do you rrrealise what you have done?"
"No," Schrau replied. "Maybe you could enrighten me?"
"That-" Nahai said, pointing to the dragonian currently slinking away towards another door. "That- That was Barrrus... Barrrus Kurrrorrryu..." The catfolk was so agitated that he began purring his words rather than the usual slab-like pronunciation that comprised of his usual speaking voice. "Youngest son of the family..."
Schrau knew that Daste was the youngest son, but kept that knowledge to himself. "Oh? Then maybe I have erred?"
Nahai's eyes widened. "That-!"
"-Was either a very stupid thing to do," A female voice interrupted, a voice so sharp and vicious that the fur on the back of the vulpin's neck bristled. "Or it... No, wait, that was just a very stupid thing to do."
Schrau turned just in time to witness a female human step out of the shadows. Lithe, with cruel eyes, charming smile, and silver hair, Schrau would have instantly recognised the woman as the human form of Astane Tasna, had he seen her from behind. Instead, he just remembered the voice.
By the light of Sikkar, how he wished he could forget that voice.
"Ah, Astane." Nahai said, regaining his composure. "I didn't see you there."
"Oh, but that was the point. So..." She fixed her attention on Schrau, or at least a point on his neck. "Who is this?"
Schrau repeated the bow-hat-catch flourish and smiled. "Bardur Cassnor."
"Bardur..." Astane mused, "Would you have anything to do with Bardur-" Schrau's impolite cough interrupted her. "I see. Anyway, what do you think you achieved with that little show, Cassnor?"
Schrau eyed the pile of dismembered corpses piled high up against the wall. "Werr, it seems to me that the young Barus, misguided he may be, is wasting both his time and varuabre sraves in a pointress dispray of power, power which he could actuarry be working towards if he wasn't so happy at wasting his time."
Astane's eyes narrowed. "I think you've made a grave mistake, Cassnor."
Schrau smiled happily nonetheless. "Yes, but at reast I wirr onry have to rive with my mistake for the rest of my rife." He stared at the severed talon for long enough to cause both Tasna and Nahai to look. "Barus has arr eternity to ponder his." Schrau laughed. "Unress of course his rife choice reads him to the end of his being, which I berieve it wirr. Maybe, just maybe, I've given him enough of a resson to avoid that."
Astane snorted. "A very wise interpretation, but I was referring to your mistake regarding the usefulness of the slaves."
"Oh, I beg your pardon." He eyed the slaves. "Maybe you could exprain the probrem?"
"There's no problem. It's just that these slaves are either too old to be useful, or simply refuse to comply."
Schrau nodded, understanding. "Ah, then perhaps it is best to crear away the deadwood in this way, but as for the young sraves... I think that what they have seen here should be motivation enough."
Schrau's stomach twisted. He had spent far too long playing the unconcerned slaver role he had learned so long ago through observing firsthand an unconcerned slaver. Now he wanted to drop the act, return to his room, and maybe wash himself until he felt clean.
Instead, he nodded and smiled.
Astane's eyes darted between Schrau and the vulpin whose place he took against Barus. "Well, I'm sure that little Annae is grateful at least."
And though everything that was moral and good inside him screamed in protest, Schrau just about managed to say; "I'm sure she could show me just how gratefur she is, rater."

Part 6 - This Could Be Love

Though the term "late in the day" could be applied to any period of time between dawn and dusk on Sosel, by the time the little demonstration in the "playroom" had reached a conclusion it was almost sunset. Bardur Cassnor declined a supper meal, despite having eaten nothing since breakfast, and instead chose to retire to his room.
As soon as he locked the door behind him, Schrau was almost driven to removing the amulet around his neck and finally relax, if only for a brief while. First, he sat by the washbasin in the corner of the room and soaked his face, staring at a reflection that was not his in the mirror.
Schrau stood and walked over to his pack of clothes. Five identical pairs of leather pants, five identical white silk shirts, five identical black silk vests, five sets of underwear, and a rather pungent cologne. Schrau grinned, the clothes in the pack were all identical to what his illusionary form wore, and providing he took care to suitably muss up the clothes anyone checking his room in his absence would not notice that the vulpin had been wearing the same set of clothes. As for what he was really wearing, his leather coat would not spoil and the underwear in his pack would actually see some use.
Schrau felt like stripping and taking a long bath. He thought he had purged the constant filthy sensation that had clung to him after escaping from the slave den, but that was back with him following less than half an hour down in the Kuroryu's slave pit. A bath wouldn't be such a bad idea, if he spent less than ten minutes he could wear the "clothes" he wore again, and if he spent long enough to allow the clothes to evaporate it would be a simple matter of removing the amulet and replacing it, thus resetting the illusion.
Schrau tugged at his waistcoat and suddenly felt a new, greater respect for magic users. Though his head throbbed from the constant concentration, with the perpetual agony of his neck mark he had long since become accustomed to pain.
Someone knocked on his door. An impatient, impolite knock that suggested that if the door failed to be answered in the next three seconds it would be exploding inwards, great parts of it and the room beyond on fire.
Schrau set his hat back on his head and stood up, slowly walking to the door purely to infuriate whoever had rudely interrupted his contemplation. He unlocked the door as quietly at possible and, waiting for the right moment to open it.
Astane Tasna stumbled into the room, her fist swinging at a door that was no longer there.
She had changed, in that she was no longer in her human form and that a diaphanous silver dress clung to her body. Schrau did not expect her to possess such a dress, he had assumed that her leisure wear would probably consist mainly of leather and chains. He would simply love to see her in something a little more simple, possibly a black hood and a hemp necktie.
Oh well, aside from planting evidence, what could you do? "Astane. Such a pleasant surprise."
The werewolf leered, her teeth far too white for one famous for ripping out throats without using her hands. "I bet it is. So this is the one I missed?"
Schrau grinned back. "Missed? Hardly. If you missed me, then that meant you knew who I was."
"Ah, I thought so." Astane nodded. "I didn't think you were a slaver."
Schrau feigned surprise. "So Nahai didn't tell you?"
"He did mention something about owning a brothel-"
"-Several brothels." Schrau corrected.
"-But I thought that was some sort of side business." Astane looked on quizzically. "So I take it that it isn't?"
Schrau shook his head. "Of course, one must always be upwardly mobile. The alternative is either far too horrid or far too dull to comprehend."
"So, a pimp then." Astane looked down her muzzle at Schrau, like she was any better. "Are your, eheh, employees willing?"
"Given time, motivation, and care, they tend to be." He said, adding a slight dash of sarcasm to the word 'care' and more than a pinch of promise to 'they tend to be,' creating a perfect recipe that Astane easily gobbled.
"Oh, so we're not in entirely dissimilar practices then?"
"I often thought so." Schrau said. "As did Norreck."
Astane's eyes glazed over in recognition. "Norreck... Norreck Masda, right? Muridan."
"He was. Until he met an unfortunate end."
Astane smiled without a hint of regret or remorse. "That he did. So you knew him?"
Schrau nodded. "Oh yes. He helped me, and I... Helped him."
"Well then, I'm sure that he would be happy with you being here."
The vulpin sighed as a wave of nausea and tiredness hit him. His mind was slipping, and he was starting to lose concentration. If things got any worse, he would probably wind up changing right before Astane, and that would be the end of him. That would be the last thing he needed.
Even worse, if he carried on like this he might even be taken in by Astane's friendly act. Schrau reconsidered, that would be the last thing he needed.
"Is there a point to all this?" Schrau snapped.
Astane genuinely looked surprised. "Oh, well the point is that, with the short Soselian days, a late-night meal is often prepared and I was thinking of heading down for a bite to eat. I was wondering if you would accompany me."
Schrau glowered. "I've had a very long day. Not only have I trekked solo through much of the jungle looking for this place despite the woefully inadequate directions left for Norreck, but I've also unwittingly crippled one of Lord Kuroryu's sons."
Astane smiled. "Oh, I wouldn't worry about that. While Barus would no doubt wish to see your heart on his plate, Lord Kuroryu is in all likelihood impressed with your courage, or at least bone-headed stupidity against the odds." Astane sighed, sounding disappointed, but her smile did not waver. "Well, perhaps a nightcap before we retire?"
Schrau sniffed disdainfully, and caught something he hadn't noticed before. Namely Astane's scent, a slight emotional change from the arrogance that he detected when he first met her in an alleyway in Scarrowfell. How he could detect the change would be impossible to describe to someone who couldn't view the world as well through their nose as a vulpin, but the sensation Schrau was feeling was like he had eaten something which had decided to return the favour by starting with his stomach lining.
Oh hells...
Schrau suddenly felt nauseous. "Oh. So that's how it is. Well, Astane, I do hate to be impolite but I'm sure there are plenty of other females out there who find me just as attractive that didn't brutally murder one of my best colleagues."
Astane smile widened, no hint of denial or retort on her face. "A shame. Well then, if you do decide to change your mind I'll be next door." She nodded in the direction.
"Good night, Astane." Schrau said, slamming the door shut practically on her muzzle, locking it, before turning and leaning heavily against it and sliding down the rough woodwork to sit on the stone floor. Schrau suddenly fought the simultaneous compulsions to vomit and laugh before deciding that the bath would be a good idea.
He stood up, walking over to the porcelain tub behind the screen in the corner of the room before he realised something. He turned on hell, ran over to his bed and climbed on it. He sniffed the wall that separated him from Astane.
No doubt about it, he could detect her scent and quite strongly. He shuffled back towards the foot of the bed and sniffed again, still detecting the werewolf's odour. Eventually, he crept all the way back to the tub and still couldn't shake her scent.
He had no way of telling if she was still in the room next door or had decided to get a meal, but either way it meant that if he could smell her, she could do the same for him. If Schrau's scent changed significantly, he would be made.
His hand went to the amulet around his neck. He knew that if he removed it, he would probably be killed, but had at least assumed that he would be allowed to rest. Now he would have stay awake and lucid all day. His life depended on it.
Schrau sighed and flopped down on the bed. Not a problem, he could stay awake for days if needs be, Welstarian and Wysoomian days, and they were much longer than Soselian days. True, there was the occasional semi-psychotic episode, but he could probably use that in his present company.
It all depended on his ability to remain distracted. Lie around staring at the ceiling all night, and you'd go crazy. Lie around, counting and mathematically manipulating the ceiling tiles, and you were making progress.
Schrau sighed once again. The ceiling was painted grey, no tiles whatsoever.
Well, he still had his diary to write in, and also his memoirs. To be more accurate, they were the diary and memoirs of Bardur Cassnor, extending back several years. Schrau had gone over the entire history of the fictitious character with Carnely and other sentinels over the past few days so often that Bardur actually existed to a point, and the pages of the books had been written over the course of days but the paper aged using tried and tested techniques to make the books look old and used.
It would be a breeze to stay awake for the next few days, whether he could last any longer was questionable but Schrau was confident.
A walk in the park. A walk with a bunch of cannibalistic dragonians, an unstable catfolk, and a psychotic werewolf who loved, or possibly lusted after him.
Schrau found his thoughts turning once again towards Astane and recalled the phrase that what you loved would end up hurting you. Schrau grinned. He would have to hurt her dearly and with utmost pleasure.

Part 7 - The Menu

Schrau Cadnos rolled out of bed and adjusted Bardur Cassnor's clothing. The night had been difficult, but by no means impossible. He wasn't insane yet.
Yes, now wasn't the time to note that anyone must be insane to walk up to Gilgal and say, "Hey captain eyebrows, I like the package deal you get with the guild. Sign me up, big guy, when do I get my badge?" Some things are just self-implied.
With a slight cocksure grin, an arrogant swagger, and more than a little bravado, Schrau stepped out of his room. Maybe it was time to get some breakfast.

"So I missed breakfast then?" Schrau asked as he was shown to his seat along a massive banquet table that was ridiculously far too large for the three people dining there, himself included. He sat on one side next to the head of the table, while Kahn Nahai and Astane Tasna sat on the other side, Astane directly opposite. Nobody sat at the head of the table, even though a place had been set.
"Bardur, you missed the entire morning." Nahai commented. "Of course, we'll forgive your tardiness just this one time."
"Oh? Have I missed something a rittre more important then?" Schrau responded, his tone innocent.
Nahai smiled. "Not yet."
"So this is runch, then?" Schrau asked, before glancing at a wall clock. "Or maybe that time of the day has arready passed whire we have been wittering on?"
Astane laughed, a far too friendly laugh for a werewolf that suggested that most of it was brainless humour. Schrau caught her scent once again, and still detected the lust in it but also the scent of alcohol that suggested that Astane was indeed a heavy drinker.
"We tend not to have lunch as such." Nahai informed Schrau. "Generally, a breakfast in the morning, a large dinner in the middle of the day, and supper at night."
"Another thing I'rr just have to get used to."
"So, Astane, that is a rovery dress you're wearing today." Schrau said in compliment.
The werewolf nodded curtly and smiled. "You are most kind."
"Yes, my uncre Addra had one just rike it."
Catfolk and werewolf exchanged a brief confused glance. "Uncle?" Nahai inquired as a man would poke a cut wondering how badly it would hurt.
Schrau sighed. "Yes, we arways did worry about that side of the famiry."
Astane giggled. "Werr, we've arr got our famiry shame."
A butler with a large carafe of wine appeared at Schrau's shoulder and gestured towards the glass. Schrau shook his head and put a paw over the glass, normally he would have indulged but he needed to keep his mind extra focused over the next few days. "No thank you. Water if you would be so kind."
"Don't drink so earry in the day?" Astane asked as if this was something unusual.
"I don't drink at arr." Schrau replied. "I don't drink, I don't overindurge in food or idreness. I keep myserf busy."
"And you don't sleep." Nahai commented. Schrau failed to actually be surprised, since he had assumed that he would be observed for at least part of the night. "Unless of course that you're such a fast writer that you managed to pen several dozen pages in minutes."
Oh, so that was it. Nahai, or at least someone under his orders had read the fake diary and memoirs he had written during the night. "Werr, what with the rocation change and arr, but you are right in that I tend not to sreep often."
"So tell me about your business, Bardur." Nahai said. "I'm curious as to how one who owns brothels would consider breaking into the slave trade."
Schrau smiled. "Oh, what to terr? I own estabrishments across Raji in Suthnas, Nineveh, and Nimbus, but then again who doesn't? Uh, Sauronan is quite rucrative, but one has to be carefur."
"Ah, the sentinels and Celestials."
Schrau shook his head. "Competition from the Boar. However, the authorities are so concerned with the Boar that they often overrook my petty dearings." A grin crept across his muzzle. "And the sentiners are nowhere near as observant as they berieve to be." Best not to mention Perdow, since Astane was probably more familiar with the establishments he didn't have on that planet. "Oh, and I did once have a successfur business in Abarack, but there was a probrem with the Order of the Temprars."
"Opposition?" Astane waged.
"Customers." Schrau replied, leering wide. "Of course, Britzar was none to preased when he discovered that his beroved subjects were often indurging in sins of the fresh. It rearry is quite shocking what the temprars are interested in, as is their capabirity for pain. A shame, I have many a story about some of the more 'heroic' crerics, but I would have appreciated more. But I was rooking towards rerocating to Gydnia, since the duke and the biomancers can be bought easiry enough."
Another servant arrived, this time it was quite obviously the head chef, an ugly lump of a human with a too-wide smile. "So, what will we be having?"
Schrau glanced over to Nahai, aware that the chef was waiting for his response rather than those of the two established members of the household. "What would you recommend?"
Nahai smiled back. "Ernest here does a wonderful Rajian meatball stew."
Schrau's stomach twisted. He really liked Rajian meatballs, but what he knew about the grinning human standing at his shoulder reverberated around his skull.
"I prefer fish or seafood." Schrau calmly replied.
"Ah, werr then you're in ruck." Astane said. "Ernest is an absorute magician when it comes to the rocar catches."
"Indeed? Soserian fish?" Schrau recalled the old saying; what doesn't eat you can be eaten. A lot of the Soselian fish fell plainly into the 'not good for eating' category by that logic.
And 'fish' is such a broad term. Starting from small child-like drawings of piscine creatures and extrapolating all the way up to creatures so mammoth that they cannot be seen in their entirety by a single pair of mortal eyes.
"That would be fine." Schrau confirmed his order, completely unperturbed. At least it would be a safer option. Safer was a broad term as well.
"Excellent choice, sir!" The chef gushed before leaving the table, clearly Nahai and Astane already had their preferences.
While they waited, they engaged in idle small talk. Among many of the subjects broached was the fact that Koras Kuroryu would be preparing for challenges to his title from his sons in the next few days.
"Hopefully, you should be around to witness the duels." Nahai said. "They are truly spectacular apparently."
"I wirr endeavour to watch them." Schrau replied just as several servants arrived carrying their meals. Schrau eyed his plate with suspicion, it certainly was fish but what kind he wasn't entirely sure of. Still, the smell of it failed to turn his stomach, which was always a good sign.
Another plate was placed at the head of the table, a plate easily as large as a shield. On it was a collection of what could only be described as steaks, raw steaks, piled high with a fresh raw heart crowning the mound of meat. Exactly the sort of thing you would want to see if you weren't attached to your appetite.
"So, we're expecting another guest?" Schrau asked.
Nahai nodded and he and Astane both stood. A little slowly, Schrau rose to his feet and glanced over his shoulder.
Had there been a window or some form of illumination behind Schrau, the vulpin would have been eclipsed by the massive dragonian. Larger than even most standards, and definitely bulkier than Barus. There must be something in the water to make the Kuroryu clan so muscular.
Schrau glanced sideways at the steak platter at his right. Okay, so maybe it was all the proteins and irons they were getting in their food.
"Bardur Cassnor, this is Hadas Kuroryu, eldest son of Lord Kuroryu and is currently in charge of the clan while his father prepares for the upcoming challenges." Nahai explained.
Schrau nodded understandingly and stifled the grin threatening his composure. Two realisations dawned on him like twin suns. The first being that Hadas, being the oldest, would be the first to challenge Koras in the duels to the death before any of the brothers had a chance. The second was that Koras was not allowing his eldest son the opportunity to 'prepare' himself in the same way that he was. Hadas was a dead dragonian walking.
Hadas, however, seemed unperturbed by his destiny looming over him like an unstable ceiling. Instead, he sat at the head of the table and began messily eating the meat placed before him. The rest of the guests at the table did the same. Schrau took his first bite of the fish, surprised by the fact that it was indeed much more delicious than assumptions on appearance or reputation would claim. He made a note not to ask Ernest or anyone at the table what type of fish it was however, especially since anything they could have told him would no doubt ruin his appetite.
He could almost imagine Nahai's explanation: "Yes, a peculiar fish. Carnivorous, it's attracted by ammonia. If it detects anyone, eheh, introducing fresh ammonia into the water stream, it will head directly towards it and lodge itself in the unfortunate victim's urethra where it will feast and lay its eggs. Of course, this does make it easy to catch - You just need a few willing volunteers, several amphorae of fresh water, and a sharp knife."
No, ignorance was bliss.
Hadas looked up from his plate, flesh hanging from his beak, and glared at the vulpin. "Bardur Cassssssnor. Ah, yesss, arrived yesssterday and taught little Barusss a lesssssson he will never forget." Hadas took a large bite out of a slab of meat that was probably a cow sliced straight down the middle and actually smiled. "Ssso, do you think that wasss a brave act, or a ssstupid one?"
Schrau finished his bite of fish. "Bravery and stupidity are crose enough to each other to be the same." He responded. "Barus would have had every right and every abirity to fray me arive for that yesterday, I could not have known that."
"Barusss is harmlessssss." Hadas said. "He ssspendsss too much time playing gamesss down in the playroom inssstead of doing sssomething with hisss life." Hadas chewed on some gristle and swallowed noisily. "It'sss about time sssomeone taught him a lesssssson."
Someone. Someone expendable. Someone who probably wouldn't be alive at the end of the week. This time, Schrau did smile. It was so nice to be so special.
"Ssso, planning on ssstaying with usss for a while?" Hadas said, picking up the heart and clutching it in his talons. Blood dripped down his wrist and onto the table.
Schrau glanced across the table at Astane and Nahai, then back to the dragonian. There was something odd about Hadas, something likable. Barus and Daste both exuded some aura of malevolence that almost choked Schrau whenever he encountered it.
Then he noticed Hadas gently squeezing the heart. Squeezing, releasing, squeezing, releasing. Over and over again while he waited for Schrau to answer his question.
The sentinel realised that Hadas was no more likable than any other Kuroryu he had met, no more than Nahai or Astane. He simply liked to play with his food.
"I think I would rike to." Schrau amiably said, digging once again into his fish and reaching for his water glass. "I think I would rike to very much."
Hadas snorted a curt laugh, before raising the heart in some mockery of a toast, before eating it in one gulp.

Part 8 - Life on A Sword Edge

Another day, another morning of wrist cramp. Since there was no window or other method of telling the time in Schrau's room, he had to gauge time purely on instinct. A simple skill for a sentinel, since anyone who just sits and watches for hours on end tends to become quite adept at measuring time.
So he wrapped up writing his diary, stood, adjusted his clothing and stepped out of his room just in time to witness Astane leave hers.
The werewolf brushed silver hair from her eyes and glowered. "Don't you ever sleep?"
The vulpin paused for a three-beat before smiling warmly at Astane. "Onry when I have to, my dear."
Astane brightened up slightly, her fingers twiddling around a length of black ribbon in her hand. "My dear? That's an awful improvement on your attitude towards me. So have you recon-"
Schrau sighed. "Astane, I have standards, and I wouldn't consider it even if it was a cure for cancer."
Astane smiled. "Only one way to-"
"Not even then." Schrau interrupted in a timely fashion.
Her eyes hardened, but her smile didn't waver. "So, little vulpin, do you have any idea what you're doing today?"
"Werr, trying not to contract cancer for one thing, but I would assume that... My guests would have... Suitabre arrangements."
"Indeed they will." Astane tied her hair back into a ponytail and began fastening it with the ribbon. "Have your breakfast, little vulpin, and then head down to the slave quarters. I'll take things from there."
"Oh. Good." Schrau quietly said as the werewolf walked away. Something occurred to him about her. "A bow? A pretty, frirry, bow? I never would have thought of you as a bow person, my dear."
Astane grumbled something, but didn't turn back to Schrau. If she had, then he would have seen her suppressing laughter, which would not do at all.

Schrau had a feeling that there was no way to avoid a fight, so he took the time to "remove" his hat. He walked the corridors, empathising with the people held within the cells, and stepped into you training room.
His fears were confirmed when he found Astane standing in the middle of the room, silver fur rippling in the torchlight, with a lot of young vulpin males sitting around the room.
Suddenly, Schrau was catapulted backwards through the years. Memories bubbled to the surface of Aldar, of Rory, of the training room and the wooden swords they had to play with. Schrau eyed the weapons around the room; real weapons, if cheap. Aldar wouldn't have let real weapons lie around where a potential escapee could pick one up. When his people had elected that Schrau would be the one to make a bid for freedom, they didn't even supply him with a weapon - Just scraps of metal that Schrau had to work himself into a usable knife.
Astane had a long sword sheathed at her waist, but in her hands she carried a pair of weapons that Schrau instantly recognised - The sword and silver dagger that had been confiscated from him when he arrived at the Kuroryu estate.
"Elegant." Astane said, tossing the weapons across the floor at Schrau. "Well, Bardur, it's strange that a simple businessman such as yourself would own a pair of fine weapons. Let me guess, they were wagered in a card game by one with less sense than money?"
"Actually, they are mine." Schrau lied.
"Ah, so you think yourself a swordsman." Astane commented. "How good do you think you are?"
Schrau knew what he wanted to say; he knew that he was pretty good - Aldar's training was actually a lot better than what he had seen from professional swordsmen, and Schrau had bested him. His abilities had continued to grow during intense sentinel training, and Schrau was veteran of so many large-scale swordfights in confined area such as bars that he was a lot better than most people. He also wasn't stupid, he held back a lot during his days with Aldar to prevent him from being sold on, else he might have ended up in a place like this. People feared the legendary swordsmen of the sentinel guild, and Schrau had taken a lot of care in containing his ability.
He loved surprises.
"I'm as good as can be expected." Schrau replied.
Astane smiled and unsheathed her sword. "So, willing to give these pups a lesson in how people should fight?"
"Friendly in all senses?" Schrau asked.
"Of course." Astane grinned, and Schrau caught the subtext - Yes, it would be a friendly duel, but accidents could happen. Of course, if an accident happened to Astane, it would be murder and the death of both Bardur Cassnor and Schrau Cadnos would be swift in retribution. Any accident that happened to him, however, would simply be Astane eliminating her competition.
Life on a sword edge. You can go one way, or you can go the other. Either way would be disastrous.
"Well then, how can I refuse?" Schrau picked up his sword and dagger and held the short blade along his forearm in a defensive grip.
"Oh, and you are aware that silver doesn't actually work on werewolves?" Astane snorted.
Schrau smiled back. "It works just as well as anything else, the same way as anything else."
"Okay then, show me what you've got."
"I... Uh, okay." Schrau had realised his problem. It was all a matter of style. Even the most skilful swordsman in the guild shared many similarities in style as the most novice due to the training, and Schrau's own style only differed from the rest of the guild where Aldar's own training could not be erased. Schrau was not entirely sure how well Astane had known Aldar Morris, but she could probably recognise a sentinel's fighting style as easily as one would recognise a lightning bolt.
Astane was already adopting her pose, a typical slaver's stand that promised punishment in the face of audacity. Schrau suddenly felt like a little kid once again.
Okay, this was survivable. All Schrau had to do was quickly assume a totally unique style of fighting with enough flair and ability to suggest that he had been fighting that way for the entirety of his life. Easy. He took a slight breath, and crouched low on the floor, tucking his dagger hand into the small of his back and lowering his sword arm so that the knuckles practically rested on the floor. His tail rigid, his right hind foot pressed flat against the floor and his left with just the claws against the stone of the floor.
Astane smirked. "Such an unusual pose. Tell me, do your opponents die laughing before the first blade stroke?"
"Shut up and fight." Schrau snarled, and so Astane did. It was a typical overreaching chop that tall people often reserved for short people. Textbook, familiar, predictable.
Astane was probably watching the dagger hand for a probably parry attempt.
Schrau sprang directly upwards, whipping his arms around seemingly wildly. The sword almost rose in a sheer vertical direction, catching Astane's sword mid-blade and actually disarming her. The dagger whipped around and scored a deep cut in Astane's chest, which healed almost immediately.
The werewolf reeled back and scowled. "Interesting."
Schrau crouched low once again, this time with the dagger before him and the sword pointing up to the ceiling. Strike and switch, keep static. Most sword fighters were prepared to fight against people who would not stand their ground, keeping up the aggression and forcing their opponent onto their back heel. Schrau would die if he did that, instead he opted to move as little as possible and force Astane to retreat.
Astane lunged, aiming at the vulpin but raising her strike slightly in anticipation for Schrau's rise.
The vulpin shuffled back slightly, and parried the sword aside with his dagger. It wasn't a full parry, just far aside enough for him to trap the sword between both his blades and spin. Schrau heard something snap, he lashed out with his sword.
Astane reeled back once again, nursing a deep cut on her neck and a broken blade. She snarled and discarded the hilt. "Sword!" She snapped.
Another blade whirled across the room, aimed at Astane's head but the werewolf simply snagged the weapon mid-flight. Schrau adopted another stance, this time high with both feet together, sword pointed up and close to his chest and dagger at his hip. Nobody in the universe adopted this stance because it was far too ridiculous - The fighter's centre of gravity would be too high and it was easy to be pushed back by a rushing opponent.
Schrau might get away with it because of the height difference. It would only ever work once.
This time, he took the initiative. He lunged guardedly, hoping to capitalise on Astane's unfamiliarity with her new weapon. The werewolf parried, thrust, caught Schrau on the ribs and punched him on the muzzle with her off-hand.
Schrau backed off, unconcerned with the pain. Pain was becoming less and less of an issue in his life, the agony in his neck would simply not go away and he had a lot of time to concentrate on it during the sleepless nights. He spat blood, snarled, and righted his grip on his dagger. This time, he adopted a pure sentinel stance, with agility in mind and opportunity to intercept criminals attempting to make a break for freedom around the lawman. He once again lashed out, stepping forward and thrusting with the sword, not an elegant move but one designed to penetrate the ribs. Despite the regenerative abilities of werewolves, Schrau knew well enough that fluid flooding the lungs could be fatal on anything that drew breath. Sikkar bless the laws of displacement.
Astane wheeled back, parrying the lunge and whirling her fist forward. Her fist slammed into Schrau's eye with the force of a nova.
Schrau backed off, raising his dagger in defence.
Astane lashed out with her sword.
Schrau lost his dagger to avoid losing several fingers.
Astane stepped forward and kicked Schrau in the groin.
Schrau snarled and wrapped his still-sore hand around her throat.
Astane dropped her sword and raked both sets of claws across Schrau's back.
Schrau swung around Astane's back and clung to her shoulders.
Astane reached back and scratched along the length of his tail.
Schrau gave up with trying to choke the life out of her and settled for biting a chunk out of her shoulder.
Astane snarled and bent down for her sword.
Schrau fell off her back as she did so.
Astane gathered her sword and pressed it to Schrau's neck.
Schrau grabbed his nearby dagger and plunged it into Astane's calf.
Nahai snapped, "Stop it!"
And the vulpins watching the fight finally released the breath they were holding.
The two brawlers looked at the catfolk standing in the now-open doorway. His expression, despite being its usual horrendous self, was a mixture of both great amusement and disgust.
Astane raised the sword from Schrau's neck, who in turn pulled his dagger from her leg. The werewolf offered a hand and the vulpin took it, Astane hauling Schrau up a little faster than he expected.
The catfolk demanded, "So, what was the point of that little display?"
"We were, uh..." Schrau began.
"...Demonstrating that, uh..." Astane bridged.
"...Not arr swordfights are crean-cut, uh, disprays of fencing. Yeah." Schrau concluded, lamely.
Nahai muttered something beneath his breath and scowled at the pair. "Okay children, I suppose you now want somebody to lick your wounds for you?"
"I'rr hear." Astane announced.
"I rather rike scars." Schrau offered.
"As you wish. Well, Astane, I think you had better return to your duties. Bardur, come with me, there's some business I would like you to deal with. Oh, and try not to bleed everywhere."
Astane shot Schrau an accusing look, and the vulpin simply shrugged it off. As he and Nahai left the training room, Astane ordered one of the vulpins to stand and take a weapon.
"Anger management." Schrau mumbled beneath his breath.
"Excuse me?" Nahai asked.
"Nothing." Schrau dismissed his enquiry, before deciding to offer one of his own. "Just a thought, but it occurred to me that there are few kanku sraves here."
Nahai nodded as they walked side-by-side down the corridor. "There's a reason."
"And that is?"
"The clan does not eat white meat."
"Ah." Schrau affirmed acknowledgement as he desperately shook the pain out of his hand.
"I do hope Astane didn't cause you undue harm." Nahai said, almost as an afterthought.
"Oh, it's no troubre." Schrau said, scratching his neck as a distraction from the pain that wracked his body. "Pain is by far the onry way we can experience riving."
"Indeed?" Nahai said as they stopped before a door. "Maybe that is something you could teach our workers. Far too many of them shirk away from, as you put it, experiencing life and prefer to seek other ways to express themselves." Nahai's teeth gleamed in the gloom. "There's a little matter that must be dealt with, and normally I would have Astane deal with it, but she is such a busy girl these days..."
He opened the door and ushered Schrau into the room beyond. Before the sentinel could ask what was happening, Nahai slammed the door shut leaving Schrau alone in the room.
Alone, except for the group of vulpin slaves that were already in the room.
Schrau didn't step back, didn't shy away, he was a sentinel and dealing with complaints was something he was trained for. The pack looked to be in a complaining mood and on such a level that their mood could only be softened after they tore someone limb from limb. Schrau knew the routine, one would be the official spokesperson for the group and there would be a small pack of yes-men.
Schrau looked around, there were a lot of females in the room, no doubt due to the fact that a lot of the strong young men were currently in the same room as Astane. Schrau recognised one face, Annae, being clutched tightly by an older male. Obviously too young to be her father, perhaps a brother or maybe even a partner. Regardless, given the fact that his one arm ended at the wrist, a leg ending mid-thigh, and only one eye present, it was clear that the male probably did not have long to live with the clan.
Schrau could not help but feel pity and remorse, but by the gods if he showed any then it would be the end of him.
In fact, as he looked at the group he recognised a few faces from his childhood. There was Maury, and over in the corner was Kanna and Tiena, Schrau always suspected that they would get together, and judging from Tiena's condition it wouldn't be long before there would be another addition to the slave pool. Schrau wanted to take them all into their confidence and tell them that he was here, and if they waited a few more days then everything would be fine.
He couldn't. Instead, he forced himself to sneer and, as an added insult, smile at little Annae. She was just a little girl, much younger than he thought she was when they first met. Her designated protector caught his smile and held her tighter.
A brother then, Schrau concluded, she was obviously far too young for a mate even in desperate circumstances, and a mate would have shown more defiance.
A vulpin stepped forward, and though he was old and greying Schrau recognised him immediately. Canwen Aurnos, father to Casna Aurnos, the vulpin who had sent Schrau down the path to where he was now. Canwen was always a powerful man, and seen by many to be a leader and a father figure. When Aldar had sold him on, the group had lost much of its heart. Schrau never knew his father, but he would have loved for it have been Canwen.
And Schrau wanted to tell him that his son was fine, that he was safe. True, he was still serving a six-month sentence for larceny, but at least he was still alive and well.
But he couldn't.
And though Canwen was old, much of his strength remained. Schrau clearly saw what Nahai had meant by there being a problem. It wasn't a simple matter of an unruly bunch of slaves, it was Canwen. Canwen was not the cause of the problem, he was the problem.
Judging from the missing fur and scars across his body, Canwen had been disciplined routinely and yet the fire still burned. Nahai expected Schrau to humiliate him, to extinguish the flame.
And Schrau knew that if he was to survive, he would have to. He would have to hurt the man that was the surrogate father to each and every displaced young vulpin in Aldar's den.
"So, what is this?" Schrau snorted like he did not care. "Who are you?"
"You disgust us," Canwen roared. "You betray us and now you mock us?"
The small section of Schrau's spine that wasn't red-hot due to the punishment Astane had inflicted onto his back froze. Was it possible that they knew who he was? Ignore it, Schrau told himself, if they knew then they wouldn't tell, and if they did tell then you would wake up dead in the morning. Keep pressing the point.
Schrau levelled a vicious glare at Canwen. "Don't you dare address me in that way, old man, you have no right to if I am not even blessed by knowing your name."
Canwen scowled and said, "I am Canwen Aurnos," much to Schrau's delight. Now he 'knew' his name he was safe from accidentally identifying him at a later time. "You, you betray your species."
Schrau smiled, though it helped him greatly to believe that it was Bardur grinning. "Betray? Hardly. You worthless scraps of foxlings are what makes us a laughing stock. You are not great, you are all pathetic wastes of oxygen."
Canwen started to shake in anger. "You- You-"
"I am Bardur Cassnor, and I am a success!" He said. "I have made something of myself, and I am destined to greater things or the possibility of a quick death, neither of which I regret. And you..." He tugged at Canwen's rags, tearing off a strip. "You are all dressed in the same rags you were born in. How disappointing. You make me sick."
Canwen snarled and lunged for him, but Schrau easily shoved him backwards and sent the old man sprawling to the floor. The few men in the room tensed, preparing but wondering if they should do something.
Schrau caught this. "Oh, so is there one who is man enough to replace this ancient fossil?" He grinned wickedly. "Come, step forward."
Unexpectedly, Kanna stepped forward.
Schrau shot him and his mate one of Bardur's wry looks. "Oh, really now. Do you mind telling me your name so I may tell your child about the weak, pathetic father that died before it was born?"
Kanna looked uncertain, but glanced down at Canwen struggling to get up from the floor and discovered a new determination. "I am Kanna B-"
"Kanna, right." Schrau said, disinterested. "Tell me, which is worse. A child growing up without a father or..." He eyed Tiena viciously. "...Or you living the rest of your life without a child?"
Kanna's eyes widened, but he backed off much to Schrau's relief.
Bardur sneered. "Worthless..." He crouched down so his face was level with Canwen's. "Old man, I have no idea why you still blight the planet with your existence. Maybe you are of some worth to the clan, maybe even to Astane whom I am seeking to displace." His eyes narrowed. "But when I do, I am going to organise a celebratory feast; and you, old man, will be the first in the pot." He stood up, adjusted his bloodied shirt, and cast a critical eye across the room. "Who wishes to be second? When you've all decided, come contact me."
He looked down at Canwen, who hung his head in shame.
Schrau Cadnos wanted to help the old man up, to apologise, to beg forgiveness, but more importantly to just leave the room and throw up at the first opportunity. He could not condone what he had just done, though he knew the greater good in his actions. He could barely live with himself.
Bardur Cassnor snorted, "Pathetic." He turned to the door where it opened. Nahai was watching.
Schrau Cadnos leaned against the corridor wall as Nahai locked the door. Schrau wanted to just grab the hilts of his swords, cut the catfolk down where he stood, then proceed to do the same to Astane, to Barus, to Hadas and even Ernest with his Rajian meatballs. He wanted to kill everyone that was evil and immoral in the den, even Bardur Cassnor.
Kahn Nahai turned his attention to him. "Well, that was certainly impressive. What do you suggest we do now? Punishment, perhaps? Maybe even a few executions?"
"Ret them warrow in their own pity, Nahai. They are demorarised and without strong direction. Any further action may spark more disobedience." The vulpin grinned. "Stirr ground rots and dies, Nahai, don't go raking it up rest it finds the abirity to embrace rife again."
Schrau Cadnos would have said that in order to prevent any harm coming to the group. He didn't want Canwen to die, Kanna to be punished or worse.
But Bardur Cassnor was in charge and said those words because it was true. It was a fine punishment, subtle yet extremely effective.
"Indeed. Still, you were rather presumptuous in crowing about your presumed triumph over Astane. There is still much to be decided." Nahai's eyes narrowed. "Oh, and if you did fail in your bid, you would not be killed by our hand, you will be broken down and sent to live with those you just belittled." His demeanour brightened. "Still, a marvellous display, I will see to it personally that you are rewarded as soon as possible. Now come, Bardur, there is something I would like to discuss with you." Nahai turned his back and led the way.
Schrau drew his blades, savoured the brief chill as the magic in them activated, and decapitated the major domo before he even had chance to turn around to investigate the source of the breeze.
But in the real world, Bardur Cassnor merely followed.
Part 9 - Parasitic Identity

It was nearly impossible to shake the feeling that you were being watched while sitting in the relatively cool office that Kahn Nahai enjoyed. Most of the walls had been dedicated to shelves, shelves upon shelves lined with jars upon jars of eyes upon eyes.
And yet it was everything the vulpin expected it to be.
"Please, sit." Nahai said as he took a seat behind is desk. "Well, Bardur, I am sure that you are wondering it is I wish to discuss with you?" He gestured towards a bowl of wrapped eucalyptus leaves. "Paira fruit candies, would you care to?"
Nahai took one of the candies, unwrapped the leaf, and popped the pink sphere into his mouth. "The truth is I wish to discuss many things with you, Bardur."
Bardur cocked his head to the side in feigned interest. "Go ahead."
"Well, the first is Astane." Nahai shot Bardur a 'poor-little-girl' look. "She is, oh, how should we put this, somewhat of a delicate woman."
Schrau snorted derisively, and Bardur continued the laugh. "Dericate?"
"Yes, somewhat of a beautiful flower in poison rain. A lonely girl, one who has never experienced anything approaching a true relationship, not even one with her parents who died when she was young." Nahai's eyes misted over in fond memory. "I recall that she told me that they made the mistake of leaning over into her crib one day. Anyway, I must warn you that she was once... Oh, how should I put it?" Nahai brightened up briefly. "Hah, well, it should be said that you have had regular contact with her kind. A two-copper whore."
"Oh? But my women are worth substaniarry more than two copper pieces." Bardur nodded in understanding. "Odd, I would have thought she would have shown resentment towards me, not affection."
Nahai shook his head. "That's where you are wrong. Like I said, she has never known a true relationship, how things should be. Truth is, she rather enjoys abuse, both giving and taking. However, it was during those days that she learned that her greatest enjoyment was abusing others, so she murdered her pimp as they lay together and sold the rest of her girl friends to a local slaver, and everyone was happy." Nahai shrugged. "Well, aside from the pimp and the girls, and their clients who suddenly lost the one good thing in their miserable lives."
"So what are you trying to terr me?"
"Well, the fact is that Astane is driven by her basic instincts; to eat, to kill, to screw men in every way that can be applied to the word. She enjoys being a slave master, very much so, all those..." Nahai's voice tightened slightly, the candy cracked between his teeth. "...Strong young men, and even some of the women. We had quite the problem with her when she first started working for us, all those spoiled goods. The point..." Nahai sighed. "...The point is that I do so wish that you two would get along. She is obviously quite affectionate of you, my dear Bardur, but I feel that the fact that her emotions are not reciprocated is just tearing her up inside."
Bardur smiled. "Oh, in that case I wirr try to get arong with her, but in a purery professionar capacity." He raised an eyebrow. "There are prenty of young, attractive women out there that I am sure don't want to see me dead after one night of passion."
Nahai beamed. "Excellent! As for the other matter..." He glanced at a small waterclock sitting in the corner of the room. "Ah, but it is getting late. Maybe we should discuss this over dinner? You should really change into clothes that aren't soaked in blood and reduced to rags. Tend to your wounds as you see fit as well."

"I am impressed, deeply impressed, with how you are handling yourself. I must admit that I expected a slack-jawed lackey, a yes-man, a typical businessman seeking new employment and willing to butter up anybody who might give it to him." Nahai smiled and he raised a glass of wine. "Instead, in three days you have permanently disfigured one of Lord Kuroryu's sons, nearly butchered his chief slaver, dealt with a pack of slaves as if they were your own and just generally strutted around the place as if you own it." The catfolk purred a laugh. "You have done so with a confidence and cold-blooded attitude that puts you more on the level of skilled murderer rather than a merchant of flesh."
The vulpin said nothing in response, merely nodded humbly and sipped his water.
"In fact, I firmly believe that you are suffering from the illusion that you have already won the bid."
"If you don't berieve you can win, why bother with the race?" Bardur responded.
"Why indeed?" Nahai mused. "However, I must warn you this: Astane is extremely good at what she does, you show nerve and cunning, but it seems that you lack the necessary qualities we are looking for."
Schrau's stomach tightened. Bardur calmly said, "Is that so?"
Nahai grinned. "Bardur, for one brief moment you appeared to be positively pale. Oh, yes, I have horrified you with tales of your ultimate demise, but the truth is that several of my masters and colleagues have become quite attached to you, dear Bardur, and you did eventually break Canwen Aurnos, who is currently sulking in his cell wondering if life is actually worth living as we speak. Quite impressive." Nahai drained his glass of wine. "We never waste a valuable tool, Bardur, you are indeed an impressive individual. I am positive that we can find you a suitable position with us."
Bardur smiled, and inside he was elated. Finally, all the suffering and torment had paid off. "Thank you, Nahai."
"Oh, don't congratulate yourself just yet. For the next few days we will continue to see if you would be a suitable replacement for Astane... Incidentally, this will be our little secret," The catfolk winked. "and if you do prove to be suitable for the position then it is yours, and it may be Astane who will go onto greater things."
"One with more strong young men?" Bardur offered.
"I'm sure that it could be arranged." Nahai confirmed.
Bardur smiled and raised the glass to his muzzle. He almost made a toast to his own success.
Which was when reality crashed through his mind like a waterfall. He almost dropped his glass and choked on the water, but he managed to regain his composure.
Not that Nahai failed to notice it. "Something the matter, Bardur?"
Bardur shook his head calmly while Schrau screamed in pain. "No probrem at arr," Bardur said as Schrau smashed the glass against his forehead, "Just a rittre tired, the day has been especiarry taxing." The brothel owner calmly explained while Schrau slit his wrists with the shards of glass that lay on the table.
"Yes, Astane does that to most men." Nahai replied. "Maybe you should try to sleep once in a while."
Schrau staggered to his feet, but Bardur calmly rose to his. "I'm far too busy to sreep." They both said, turning towards the door. "However, I think I should retire for the evening."
"Of course."

The vulpin staggered into his room, slammed the door behind him and locked it before collapsing to his knees.
Schrau tried to shake the maelstrom of chaotic thoughts from his mind. He was Schrau Cadnos, sentinel deputy, and he was on a mission to release the slaves that the Kuroryu clan held from bondage.
Bardur stood up and sat on the bed. No, he was Bardur Cassnor, a successful businessman just a few days away from being part of the greatest Soselian family in existence.
Schrau growled. He was merely having an crisis of identity that he should never be having. He had spent the last few days living and breathing as Bardur Cassnor, not sleeping to secure his own safety, and performing unspeakable acts purely to survive.
Bardur snorted. No, maybe he was just realising that this would be a better life than what he could expect from the sentinels. What good would that be? A measly pension and an unhappy life. He could earn more in a year here than he could throughout a full career with the guild.
Bardur doesn't exist. He is a lie.
Go over to the mirror. Tell me what you see.
The vulpin stood, walked over, and sat by the washbasin. He soaked his face in cold water and looked up. Bardur Cassnor looked back.
That isn't Schrau Cadnos.
That is Schrau Cadnos.
Schrau Cadnos is Bardur Cassnor.
Schrau doesn't exist. He is a lie.
He stood up, and almost drove his fist into the mirror. His knuckles stopped inches away from the glass, and he didn't even know who had stopped his rage.
Bardur doesn't exist. If I sleep, he dies.
Schrau doesn't exist. If I sleep, he dies.
I am Schrau Cadnos, sentinel.
I am Bardur Cassnor, success.
Schrau. Bardur. Schrau. Bardur.
Schrau Cassnor. Lie.
Bardur Cadnos...
The vulpin blinked. Bardur Cadnos. Real. Dead. Greatest vulpin thief ever to walk the worlds and executed by the city he owned part of.
Bardur Cadnos, who once said that the only way to succeed in a con is to believe it yourself. If you don't believe that cut glass is diamonds, nobody else will.
Force your belief on others.
Be smug in the knowledge that you are better than everyone else.
Who you are is defined by what you do, what you wish for, you goals and dreams. They never change.
Schrau stretched his arms over his head and heaved a deep grunt. Okay, now he was finally in control. A crisis of identity, never a good thing to have but something that every undercover sentinel could potentially suffer from. He was stronger than this.
Astane wanted him dead.
Canwen wanted Bardur dead.
Schrau wanted Bardur dead, but he needed him.
Schrau sat quickly down at the small desk, opened his book of memoirs to the back and removed a page. Another odd habit Schrau was actually glad for, whenever Bardur needed scrap paper, he would take a page from the back and then dispose of it. Whoever had been reading his journals had noticed that pages were missing, they would hardly notice another. Such a delicious con, Bardur Cadnos would actually be proud of him.
Schrau put quill end to paper and wrote:
I am Schrau Cadnos.
He felt a little better, so he continued writing:
I am Schrau Cadnos. I am Schrau Cadnos.
I am Schrau Cadnos. I am Schrau Cadnos.
I am Schrau Cadnos. I am Schrau Cadnos.
I am Schrau Cadnos. I am Schrau Cadnos.
I am Schrau Cadnos. I am Schrau Cadnos.
Until he ran out of room on the page. He stared at the sheet for a long time, drawing comfort from those words.
Now what to do? He almost crumpled up the paper and threw it into the fire, but knowing his luck a single, legible, and incriminating scrap would survive the flames. So instead he tore another sheet out of the book and scribbled meaningless junk on it in Bardur's handwriting, various incorrect spellings of words, little notes, before wadding up the scrap and tossing it onto the fire.
He then folded up the first piece very carefully and slipped it into a secure pocket inside his sentinel jacket. Hopefully, he would finish his business in the next few days, but if it dragged on then he would probably need it again.
He then opened his diary and began writing, once again living the life of that parasite, Bardur Cassnor.

Part 10 - Isolated Cells

Schrau had barely finished half the day's entry when there was a knock on the door. Schrau grunted, he really didn't want to see anyone in his current mental and emotional state, and if it was Astane with another offer of companionship he couldn't guarantee that he would refuse in a polite way.
With much effort, he stood up and walked over to the door to his room. He smoothly unlocked the door and opened it.
A short vulpin was shoved, squealing, into the room before Schrau could react. Standing before Schrau, acting as if the day's events merely had not happened, was Astane. Smiling coyly, the werewolf nodded.
"Nahai told me to bring her over, some sort of reward he said. He also said that you would know what to do with her."
Schrau glanced over his shoulder, and clinging to the leg of his large, luxurious bed was Annae. She held the post as a mariner would cling to the wrecked remains of a ship, sobbing and shaking in absolute fear.
Oh, this was just perfect. Intentional or not, Nahai's timing could not have been any better. Here he was, at his lowest ebb, and now he had been granted his reward.
"Astane," Schrau said, his voice a little tight. "I am not exactly in the mood for this right now."
"I know, Nahai knows." The slaver eyed Annae. "That's exactly why Nahai decided to reward you at this time. You need to unwind, Bardur, and we think that little Annae is just the thing you need."
Schrau held Astane in a tight glare, before sighing and nodding. "Very well, I'll see if she is of any help." A loud moan from the little vulpin behind him cut through Schrau's heart.
"So tell me, Bardur, why is it that you do not sleep?" Astane asked, and from the tone of her voice it was clear that she clearly wanted to know.
Schrau arched his eyebrows. "You want the truth? I haven't slept properly since the day before I opened my first establishment on Raji."
Astane nodded. "Ah, you never struck me as the sort of person to have a guilty conscience."
"Oh, it's not that." Schrau said. "It is a very demanding business, and I tend to enjoy keeping a hand in the proceedings. Over the years I've become quite used to only ever sleeping one night out of every eight."
"Indeed? Quite impressive." Astane stuck her head through the door and leered over Schrau's head. "Someone will be here to collect you in the morning, Annae. Please try your best not to disappoint our most valued guest."
"Good night, Astane." Schrau all but snapped and he motioned to close the door. As Astane stepped back, he slammed it in her face and locked the door. He turned, and Annae was still there, unmoving, for one horrible moment Schrau thought that she was dead, but realised that she was in such a stage of fear that she was utterly unable to move at all.
He stepped over to the girl and grabbed her by the back of her rags. They were baggy and unsurprisingly strong, and Schrau knew first hand that this was because the girl would have to live in the same clothes throughout the rest of her life. He hauled her off the bed leg so quickly that she had little time to react or redouble her grip, and lifted her like a lioness would carry her cub onto the bed.
The vulpin girl curled up in the middle of the bed and sobbed.
Schrau grunted and sat at his desk, and resumed writing. "You know, I would rather you didn't spend the whole night sobbing, Annae. Tell me, have you ever slept in a proper bed in your life?" Schrau looked over to her, and Annae was no longer crying but looking at him with a pair of oh-so-adorable yet bloodshot eyes.
Annae forced herself up onto her knees. "Th-th-they told m-me that I sh-sh-should make you happy." She said, and started to slip her shirt down her shoulder.
Schrau raised a hand in a cease motion. "Tonight, you would make me happy if you didn't. Like I said, I am not in the mood tonight. Just answer the question."
Annae blinked. "No."
Schrau grinned widely, remembering the night he first spent in a bed, a proper bed. Not the infirmary beds of the biomancer guild, but the first bed he spent a week's begging money on in a grimy hostel in Sauronan while he waited one night for his application to the sentinel guild to be approved. From then, he had spent a lot of nights in guildhall's lodgings during training, and then in his rented accommodations on Welstar. But it was that first night, the first night of a comfy bed after curling up in a cold stone corner or pinned down by starchy infirmary sheets, that had finally given Schrau his first taste of freedom. "Well then, there's a bed that otherwise wouldn't be used tonight. Enjoy."
Annae started to crawl towards the head of the bed, then stopped. "But where will you be sleeping tonight?"
Schrau laughed. "If I slept, then we would have quite the problem, wouldn't we?"
Annae finally pulled back the heavy sheets and crawled into bed, staying as far away from Schrau's position and pulling the sheets up to her muzzle. She closed her eyes and pretended to sleep.
Schrau managed to keep his exasperated sigh to himself. He recognised easily what Annae was doing, pretending to sleep. In fact, if he should so decide to have his way with her, Annae would still continue the pretence of sleep throughout the entire ordeal. No, she deserved a proper night's sleep, if only for one night. Even if he failed in his bid to free the slaves, Annae would always have one night of proper sleep.
He kept writing, though much of his heart was no longer dedicated to the task. She was even snoring, a cute little act of snoring. Schrau let his mind wander, though always maintaining that necessary link in order to maintain the powerful illusion that had almost driven him insane.
Of course, when his mind wandered, he usually hummed or whistled folksongs, usually vulpin tragedies such as 'The Jaws of the Hound', 'On The Tree of Abarack', and 'The Sorrow We Bring'. He really didn't know that many upbeat songs, and the only one he did know wasn't even a vulpin song.
"My mother once said to me, always dress in fineries. Shirt of silk and cuffs of lace, and always may we have grace." He turned a page and replenished the ink on his pen. "My father taught me a while, about the truth in an honest smile, said 'we can lie with a grin on our face, so show those teeth and may we have grace.'"
Schrau noticed that Annae was awake and staring at him, her expression rapt. "I haven't heard that one before."
Schrau smiled at her. "It's called 'May We Have Grace.' It's about a group of Welstarian thieves known as the Black Sheaf."
"Thieves? Bad men?"
He laughed. "Oh yes. Of course, they only stole from those with anything worth stealing, but it's not as if they did anything so noble as redistribute the wealth to the needy." Schrau snorted. "Well, except the once."
"What happened?"
Schrau finally gave up on his diary and turned to face Annae. Odd, he suddenly felt like a father telling his daughter a bedtime story. Maybe that would work, maybe Annae would get some sleep tonight. "Do you know who the greatest vulpin thief in all the worlds was? Oh, of course there are so many vulpin thieves, but do you know who the best one was?"
"It was a man known as the Red Paw." Annae said, displaying unexpected knowledge. "A lot of the older people in the cells talk about him."
Schrau nodded. "Do you know his name?"
Annae blanked. "Uh..."
Schrau smiled. "I'm named after him. Bardur Cadnos. Anyway, he was a truly cunning devil, he actually stole part of a city."
"How?" Annae asked, actually curious.
Schrau hoped that his influence wouldn't turn Annae to a life of crime. Still, the only reason he joined the sentinels and the only reason they accepted him was because he knew so much about the supply side of crime, both due to his ancestry and Rory's training in that field. "Stealing part of a city is very difficult, for one it's a very hard thing to carry." Schrau cackled. "But paper..." He tore a sheet from the back of his memoirs. "Paper is easily stolen. Bardur Cadnos once managed to break into the Welstarian offices in Keystone city and steal the land deeds for the Diamond Circle of Abarack, forged the signatures, and spent some time earning a portion of all the rent and tax of all the establishments and homes in that district." Schrau smiled. "He and his family could have lived like princes for the rest of their lives, but Cadnos decided he would rather like to live like a king. When he attempted to sell the deeds back to Abarack, the officials discovered that the signatures on the deeds were forged and arrested him at once. He died on the gallows."
"On The Tree of Abarack..." Annae whispered.
Schrau nodded. "Though that song claims that the man was anonymous, everyone knows it was about Bardur Cadnos."
"So what happened then?"
Schrau shrugged. "Of Bardur, nothing save for the fact that he was buried in a grave in the land of Charthur, though people prefer to call it Gydnia after the city that dwells within. Of the rest of the Black Sheaf, their crimes eventually caught up with them and they too were imprisoned or executed, but before that... Did I mention Bardur Cadnos had a family?" Annae nodded. "Well, I suppose a glimmer of sentimentality lived within the black hearts of Cadnos' companions, or maybe it was because he made them all very rich men, so the Black Sheaf took a sizable portion of the money that Cadnos had earned, and gave it to his mate and children. With that money, they could have built a luxurious palace and lived in glory and grace for the rest of their lives.
"Instead, they settled a small village on the outskirts of Charthur and close to Keystone." Schrau sighed. "Other vulpins joined them, and eventually the village grew and prospered. And, apparently, they lived happily for all time though..." He shook his head. "My family always insisted that I was a descendent of Bardur Cadnos, which is why they gave me his name. They insisted that I find this village and demand what was owed to me."
"Did you?"
Schrau shook his head. "Nothing but rubble and a few blackened skeletons. Someone decided to take a sizable portion of the village for themselves, as much as they could carry away. I never knew what happened to them."
But he did. While Bardur Cassnor may have gone looking for his legacy, Schrau Cadnos was growing up in the harsh reality of Aldar's den. Schrau wondered, or rather hoped that Annae would start asking her peers about this vulpin village, and maybe she would be told by those who knew or even remembered the village.
"Tell me, do you know a lot of songs?"
Annae nodded. "My mother used to sing them to me. She used to sing songs of her own too."
Ice settled on Schrau's stomach lining. "Oh, your mother is a singer?"
"What was your mother's name?" Schrau insisted, dreading the answer.
Fara. Oh, now Schrau remembered. Fara Iaro, someone Schrau had known since birth. She would always sing when she thought that Aldar or any of his men wasn't listening. It was her dream to escape from the slave den and make it to Raji to become a minstrel and sing her songs for those that would listen.
Then she was sold on, sold to this very place. When first he met Daste, Schrau was curious to know why the dragonian spontaneously began to sing one of Fara's own songs, and it was then that Daste had told him that she had taken a knife and killed herself, actually smiling for the first time in her life. "Fara, such a pretty name. Tell me, what happened to her?"
Annae's eyes became cold and almost vicious. "She won her freedom." She coldly said.
Schrau pretended not to notice the subtext to what Annae had just said. "Ah, then there's hope for you yet little Annae."
"Why are you such a bad man?"
Schrau inwardly winced. He would rather that the whole Bardur Cassnor act would not be so convincing. "I prefer not to see things that way," He calmly said. "What I do is good for myself, and sometimes good for those who work for me. At best, you can call me selfish, but I hardly believe that I am a bad man since what I do is so good."
"Why do you want to hurt us?"
Schrau smiled. "I don't want to hurt you. In fact, I have great plans for you. Tell me, what is it you do around here?"
"We clean. Some of us help cook." Annae blinked. "We go collecting Panappa seeds during the hot seasons."
Schrau shook his head and tutted. "Such a waste. Do you know what vulpins are best at?"
Annae shook her head.
"Acquiring goods through non-standard means." Schrau explained. "Theft, conning people out of their goods. I see a lot of potential with the vulpins here going to waste. Why... Was that your brother earlier today?"
Annae nodded. "Jorn."
"Why, I'm sure Jorn is a smart young man, despite his condition." Schrau's eyes narrowed. "I'm sure that, with some training, he can con a lord out of all of his possessions and actually make that lout thankful for doing so. And yet you're all going to waste your days here cleaning and cooking and gathering seeds. Pitiful." He pointed north-eastwards, or at least where he thought the north-east was, and smiled. "Edon is there, ripe for the picking. Edon and Fenriss War, rich cities, and if the clan recognised the talent we have they could own them. Should I find myself with a position here, that is what I will do." He laughed, and hoped he wasn't taking things too far. "And of course, with the wealth we will be bringing in, nobody will notice if small, insubstantial portions of it go missing. Over the years... You could buy your own freedom, I guarantee it."
Schrau tried to remember where he had heard those words from, then it came to him; Casna Aurnos would always have crazy schemes that would buy his freedom, he guaranteed it. Okay, in the end it did, but he would have to endure a few months of imprisonment before eventually earning his freedom.
"Come on, you had better get some sleep. It would be a shame if we spent all this time talking about the future and past."

On the cusp of waking, Annae really didn't want to wake up. For the first time in her life she felt better waking up than she did before falling asleep.
She opened her eyes, and Bardur Cassnor sat at his desk, exactly the way he had been when she fell asleep. There was not a single hint of fatigue on his face as he continued to write in one of his books.
"Well then, little Annae, how do we feel this morning?" He asked. "Think you could get used to sleeping in a bed?"
Annae nodded. "Very much so."
"Someone will be along to pick you up and return you to the misery of your life." He stared at her. "But always have this night. Even if things do get better, remember the night where it all started."
There was a knock on the door, and Schrau stood up. "Rumours are interesting, are they not? I think it would be best for both of us if what happened last night remained a secret between us both." He smiled. "Of course, it would also help us both if when asked you tell them that I ravished you even though you begged me to stop." He offered a hand and helped Annae out of bed. "I would hate to suddenly earn a reputation of being soft in my old age."

Part 11 - Like Mercury to Hell

Schrau didn't recognise the servant who collected Annae from his room, and that concerned him. He had been expecting either Nahai or Astane to collect her, and maybe stick a prying muzzle into their affairs.
So Schrau 'dressed' and set off towards the great hall, where Astane and Nahai were already seated, though the usual breakfast buffet had not been set.
"Why, you two seem positivery vexed." Schrau said as he took his seat next to Astane.
Astane grunted something that Schrau failed to catch, while Nahai glared at him. "And you seem positively ebullient, so I take it that Annae was just the tonic you needed?"
Schrau nodded, in fact babysitting the little girl had been just what he needed to solidify his hold on reality. Annae, Jorn, Canwen, the rest of them, they were all people that needed him now more than ever. "I dare say she was. So, is there a probrem?"
Astane and Nahai snapped to their feet, and Schrau tardily rose to his. Hadas Kuroryu had arrived.
"Be ssseated." He hissed as he took his place on the head of the table. "Assstane, Kahn, I'm sssure you have heard the rumoursss."
Schrau started to rise to his feet. "Excuse me for intruding on an obviousry private matter. I'rr take my-"
"Be ssseated, Cassssssnor." Hadas ordered. "An outsssider'sss insssight would be appreciated."
Schrau sat down and wondered what had happened.
"I have jussst received word from our people on Wysssoom..." Hadas began, and Schrau had to try extremely hard not to whoop in excitement.
Praise and be thankful to Sikkar! This would be exactly the news he needed right now.
"Malachi Norren isss dead."
Nahai cursed beneath his breath and Astane's claws scratched rents out of the table. Schrau simply rubbed the underside of his muzzle and asked, "May I be so bord as to ask who this Marachi Norren is?"
"He was a merrrchant," Nahai said, his voice stressing. "And rrresponsible for much of the wealth we enjoy."
"Our rands are extensive," Astane explained. "And there are an awfur rot of ruins and rocar exports that we exproit regurarry. Marachi Norren was our dealer. We would export our goods to him, and he would serr them. Simpre."
"But now he isss dead." Hadas gravely said.
Schrau was trying very hard to restrain himself. "Do we have any idea who is resbonsibre?"
"We?" Astane snorted.
Nahai glared at her. "As a rrrule, we do not go prrrying into matterrrs that arrre too farrr-"
"Prease, compose yourserf." Astane snarled.
"Forrrgiveness..." Nahai said, taking a deep breath. "If our agents start sticking their beaks into business already being investigated, those investigating will get suspicious."
"So who is investigating?" Astane asked.
"Sssentinelsss." Hadas hissed. "Two of their newer deputiesss - A Carnely Krysssossspasss and a Ssschrau Cadnosss."
Schrau detected Astane's sharp intake of breath on the mention of his name, but decided to play a hand. "Oh, Krysospas. A muridan. I've had dearings with him."
"Investigations?" Nahai asked.
"Customer." Schrau replied. "A regurar in my Sauronan estabrishment, though I do terr him that he should be enjoying himserf further away from his prace of work." He smiled. "Aggressive, but not that bright. Far too happy in himserf to be suspicious and, it must be said, somewhat weak against the fairer sex." He gave Astane an open-handed slap on her backside and rather hoped that he would live to regret it. The werewolf growled. "Why, I dare say that we could send Astane over to my business there and he would be dead by the morning. Of course, that arr depends on how row Astane is wirring to go."
"So who is this Cadnos?" Nahai sneered. "A relative of yours, perhaps?"
"Aras, I do not know."
"I do." Astane hissed. "He is the sentiner that humriated Ustov."
"Oh yes, I remember now." Nahai said. "Killed his butler and one of his thuul guards."
"Tenacious and suspicious, and somewhat bright." Astane said. "He was once a would-be srave, remember Ardar Morris?"
Nahai nodded. "We bought several vulpin slaves from him, yes."
"Werr, what the sentiners don't know is that Cadnos is a trained criminar, a thief and con-artist, and unrike our esteemed guest here I gather that he actuary is descended from Bardur Cadnos."
"Rearry? Then I should have a word with him regarding what I am owed from Cadnos' rife-works." Schrau brightly said, knowing that the guild did actually knew how far his training went. But what the guild didn't know is how he knew that they knew.
"How goes the investigation?" Nahai asked.
"Ssso far, out esssteemed officersss are only at the routine enquiriesss part of the invessstigation." Hadas announced. "I am not confident that they will invessstigate it to the fullnessssss of their abilitiesss."
Schrau shrugged. "If they drag their feet for much ronger, I could arways return to Sauronan for a day or so, rean on Krysospas and urge that they take the investigation more seriousry. He can be threatened as he has been severar times in the past."
Hadas sighed. "If we are not sssatisssfied, then that will be a possssssibility."
Schrau nodded. He knew that the investigation was going nowhere.
Carnely was on Raji right now, currently on leave. Knowing Carnely, he was enjoying himself very much so, being several planets away from his girlfriend and right next to a selection of young, pretty women.
Sometimes, if Schrau listened hard enough during the long nights, he could hear Carnely's face being slapped by one of a hundred hands. There was no investigation, and the two sentinels assigned to the investigation were conveniently invisible at the moment.
Schrau wondered how the hell he managed to convince Gilgal that this would be the best way to deal with things. Schrau must have been really working the con that day.
But the two most important things were the fact that his hosts believed that the sentinels were investigating the untimely death of Malachi Norren, and that he had received the news that Edon and the guild were ready to help move all the slaves from the lair. It was a trigger event, the confirmation he needed. Now he could start moving.
And the last place they would expect Schrau Cadnos to be would be here, right next to them with a pair of blades.

The day passed almost in a daze. Much of the clan was stunned by the death of Malachi Norren, Astane more so than anyone else. Schrau began to suspect that their relationship was more than professional.
So, in an effort to 'get along' with her, he decided to walk her to her room.
About halfway there, Astane said; "I wish I knew how he died."
Schrau halted, and fell into step about two paces behind her. An evil thought trickled through his mind. He needed to kill her, but knew there was no way of that happening in a fair or even unfair fight. He had to suitably unbalance her.
"Oh?" Schrau asked in an imitation of interest.
"Yes. He... Whoever killed him, I swear, will end up in pieces."
Schrau gripped his swords, and saw the effect of the cool breeze across Astane's unguarded back. He started to speak as the werewolf stiffened, and was surprised by the sound of his own voice. "You'd like to know how he died?"
Astane whirled around and caught Bardur mid-yawn. "What did you say?"
The vulpin finished his yawn. "Oh? Excuse me, I never had a wink of sleep last night. Annae was... Quite energetic."
Astane began an accusing remark, but it died on her tongue. "I see." She calmly turned back around and started walking.
"They were both in his office. He had just concluded business with a sentinel. Me, in fact, and was complacent."
Astane spun on heel once again. "You-!"
"Astane, you look positively spooked." Bardur asked, concerned. "Is something the matter?"
"It was you! You're-" Astane hesitated. "No, no, it can't be...."
She turned around once again, and the cold chill returned. "I stood up, and drew my blades. Before Malachi could react I had impaled him through the heart and stuck him to his seat like a pig."
Astane whirled around once again into the concerned face of Bardur Cassnor.
"Astane, dear, I think it is you that needs to unwind." He suggested. "Maybe I should see if any of the slaves are having trouble sleeping tonight..."
"Leave me alone!" Astane snapped, turning around once again.
"And then I cut his head off. A wonderful strike, absolute decapitation. Often the blade gets stuck on the spine but I managed to squeeze it between the vertebrae."
This time, Astane turned around slowly. Bardur offered a warm, comforting smile that she would have otherwise found alluring. "Or... While I lay next to Annae last night I couldn't help but think-"
"Go away!" Astane snapped, nearly bashing Schrau out of the way with her tail as she spun.
"His heart hadn't completely stopped, so there was a spurt of blood when his head came off. My blade froze the blood pumping through what was left of his heart, and it came loose like beads and rattled around his office."
Astane turned, this time Bardur was much close than he had been following.
"I was thinking... Maybe we could help each other unwind?"
Astane snarled and turned to her door, she fumbled with the lock when the chill returned.
"It rained around me, warming, melting. It fell like mercury to hell. It was quite beautiful."
Astane turned around one last time. A vision of scruffy green leather and red fur greeted her, a gold badge shining like an eye of a god and a pair of blue blades like the teeth of a demon. Schrau Cadnos cocked his head to the side and smiled. "I took his head and placed it on a display stand. One of his regular clients with keys to his store came around two days ago and discovered his remains."
Astane wanted to spring forth and gut the sentinel, and yet the overwhelming sense of fear consumed her. His descriptions, so vivid, she could hear the rattle of frozen blood drops. Like mercury to hell. She dropped to her knees and tried to say something in defiance.
Schrau grinned. "The day we met, I knew you would fall for me."

Part 12 - That Little Vulpin

Schrau sat at the breakfast table, chewing idly on a cold-cut and sipping freshly-squeezed paira juice. If newspapers were currently more than a Rajian fad, then Schrau would have been reading the financial section of the supposed Soselian Times, but otherwise his demeanour broadcast the expression of a perfectly normal day in Kuroryuville.
Kahn Nahai entered the great hall; the catfolk was visibly shaken, angry, and surprisingly concerned. He sat in his place opposite Schrau, but didn't begin to fill his plate.
"Something the matter, Nahai?" Schrau asked as he chewed thoughtfully on a slice of ham, or at least something he prayed in the name of Sikkar was ham.
"Barrrdurrr. Astane Tasna is dead." Nahai simply said, his tone implying that it was news that Schrau should already know. "Murrrderrred."
"Oh?" Schrau said, completely and utterly unsurprised. He raised the glass of green juice to his muzzle and sipped. "Care to exprain?"
Nahai glowered. "Blood - Herrr blood - Was found outside herrr rrroom. A larrrge pool that led away-"
"Prease, compose yourserf." Schrau calmly said, his voice as serine as an iceberg on the Wysoomian sea.
"Forrr- Forgiveness." Nahai hesitated. "Her blood, leading away from her room to an access door to the lava flow. The trail ended there."
Schrau inwardly smiled. He was glad he had taken the time to locate which wall panels provided access to the lava flow that ran beneath the estate and not what were hidden cupboards. In fact, there were so many hidden passages and compartments that Schrau was amazed that the den stood.
"And you, being awake all night, didn't hear a thing?" Nahai said accusingly.
"Actuarry, I srept rike a pup rast night." Schrau replied. "One of the best night's sreep I've had in a whire."
"I see." Nahai said. "You know, ever since an incident in which one of our slaves committed suicide we have been very careful with blades within the estate. Naturally, you know that your weapons were confiscated on entry, and we are always careful with the weapons in the training room."
"Yes, I noticed that."
"So whoever killed Astane, and I'm not accusing anyone of course." Nahai said in what would go down in history as one of the poorest attempts at reverse psychology of all time. "They did so unarmed, they took down a werewolf unarmed."
Schrau cut some more meat, chewed on it, while rolling the silver knife between his fingers. "Or perhaps not."
"Oh?" Nahai said in the same way that sentinels spoke when they were expecting a criminal to foolishly spill a confession.
"Astane was armed with a pair of particularry nasty daggers." Schrau said, regarding the knife.
"Oh, come now. She was a werewolf! Why would she need-"
"Did you ever notice how she moved?" Schrau calmly said. "Whenever she stooped down, whenever she sat, she arways did so in a way that her back was rigid."
Nahai blinked, he had noticed that. Schrau had noticed that about her during his fight with her, and when he grabbed onto her shirt his fingers found more than Astane beneath her shirt.
"She carried her weapons arong her breastbone, sheathed and strapped tightry." Schrau explained. "Whoever had kirred her knew that-"
"Bardur, drop the pretence." Nahai sighed, finally tired of playing games. "It is clear to both of us who killed Astane."
Schrau smiled easily. "Werr, I thought about what you said, and decided to get to know her better. So we stopped outside her room when she began to unbutton her brouse." Schrau's eyebrows arched. "Fortunatery for me, if I had been captivated more by her charms then it would have been me merting in hot rava."
"You retaliated?"
"Naturarry. A struck her with a stunning brow and rerieved her of her weapons, driving one through her heart."
"That would have been nothing but a discomfort for Astane." Nahai said, unbelieving.
"Yes, it is hard to kirr a wereworf. Decapitation is by far the best method, but aras I was unabre to succeed." He pointed the knife towards the ceiling. "So I did something that I'm sure Astane would have appreciated. I dropped to my knees, spread her regs apart..."
"Oh my."
Schrau grinned diabolically. "And cut the inside of her thighs over and over again," He began twirling the knife in a wide circle. "not stopping untir arr of her brood had pumped out of her body." He placed the knife down. "It's a surprisingry effective method, Nahai, rike cutting the bottom from a bottre. Of course her heartbeat, aided by the adrenarine rush she was experiencing, made the process brief and simpre."
Actually, Schrau had just hacked at her with his swords until she went limp. It doesn't matter how fast one can regenerate one's self, if you take enough physical punishment in a short enough time then not even a last-minute reprieve by Zaraklyn himself can save you. "Arso, it's perfect if you want a comprete pert. Stitching the head back on reaves such an unsightry scar arong the rug."
"And then you dragged her away and gave her about the best thing to a burial you could give her without leaving a corpse."
"They rot so quickry in this heat." Schrau admonishingly said.
Nahai glared at him, wondering if to believe the vulpin's tale or not. He peeled a large slice of cured pork from a platter and placed it on his plate. "I shall believe you, for now. There is one thing I am curious about - No jokes, please, I've heard every single one about curiosity and catfolk..."
"I thought there was onry the one."
"Hahah. Anyway, if you were keen to drop to your knees and spread her legs apart before she tried to kill you, and knowing her barely-veiled affection towards you, why did she attack you?"
Schrau shook his head. "A misunderstanding, I'm sure."
"A misunderstanding?"
The vulpin sighed, "Oh, I'm sure it was entirery my faurt. As I walked Astane to her room, I merery commented that there would possibry be a prace for me within the group."
"Norren's position?" Nahai said accusingly. Schrau nodded. "Hmm, well I do suppose that it is the sort of jest that Astane would take far too seriously, and it would be her typical reaction to gut you. Curiously enough, we were in fact discussing a suitable replacement for Malachi..." Nahai smiled. "Now, Bardur, if it were up to me I would congratulate you on your success and triumph over Astane, and then kill you." Nahai's voice had switched from amiable to vicious in less than a syllable. "Astane was a crucial part of this operation, and her abilities will be missed. We simply cannot tolerate this disobedience!" Nahai stood up sharply. "You, you arrre disposable. Astane was not. She did often mention how she would seduce you, and then kill you durrring the afterrrglow, but forrr you to-"
"Prease, compose yourserf." Schrau attempted, his voice utterly lucid as he regarded the angered catfolk as an executioner would a criminal on the gallows.
That reminded Schrau that he had missed the execution of Braus Heckler by being a guest of the Kuroryu clan. He inwardly tutted, that would have been a good show.
Nahai glared and didn't seem to calm down, though his speech returned to what was normal for him. "However, the decision does not lie with me. It rests with Lord Kuroryu, and Hadas is currently discussing the matter with him as we speak." He glanced up as it somehow got darker in the room. "Ah, here he is now."
Schrau didn't even stand, musing all the while that there must be something about Hadas' scales that caused them to absorb light. The dragonian appeared at Schrau's side.
"Cassssssnor, my father will sssee you now."

Part 13 - Be Lucky

Normally, Schrau would have been one of the two escorts as they walked down the corridor towards a mammoth set of double-doors at the end. Schrau had seen almost every part of the estate save for whatever lay beyond those doors.
Instead, it was he who was being escorted. Hadas at his right, Nahai at his left. Schrau picked up on their feeling of complacency, and hazarded the bet that he could draw both his weapons and kill Nahai before Hadas had opportunity to blink.
Of course, the dragonian would be a major challenge. The only thing Schrau would have on his side is luck.
As they approached the door, Hadas and Nahai quickened their pace. Patience, little one, Schrau told himself. Stabbing them both in the back would be possible but still ostensibly risky.
The doors swung aside at their touch, and Schrau was ushered into a large circular throne room.
Koras Kuroryu sat on a throne in the middle of the room, beneath a large dome of green glass through which the midday sun shone. A couple of minutes ago, Schrau was having breakfast with Nahai and now he would be executed at noon. Koras looked identical to his older son, even a little more youthful. He was naked save for a loincloth and a sash from shoulder to opposite hip, both in black. Koras gave the impression of sitting on a flaming throne crafted from the bones of his fallen enemies, a pair of massive hellhounds at each arm, but the throne was remarkably small and made of fairly plain wood. The only two things at his side were his wings; arched and giving the impression of being capable of smothering planets.
Schrau tried very, very hard not to be impressed by the dragonian. If he had been then he would have stooped to bow as Nahai and Hadas did.
Instead, he reacted.
He drew both his blades, the Bardur Cassnor image vanishing in but a blink of an eye. He whipped his one sword around, severing the leather thong that held the enchanted crystal around his neck. The amulet dropped, hit the ground, and shattered into uncountable pieces with the magic dissipating incredibly quick, consuming the larger pieces of crystal as they did so. Just like he had requested.
Bardur Cassnor was dead. Good riddance.
Schrau pressed the one blade against the side of Nahai's neck, against the jugular. The other blade dug slightly into the spine of Hadas, the dragonian's back stiffened, and Schrau pushed forward again in demonstration of what he would do if Hadas moved again.
Koras looked on with mild interest. "Ssso, the truth about Bardur Cassssssnor isss revealed." He blinked calmly, almost as if his son and major-domo was not being held at blade point. In fact, Schrau suspected that he did not even care. "And you are?"
"I am Schrau Cadnos." The sentinel said, his eyes narrowing into slits. He could feel that Nahai was preparing to do something rash, so he rocked his blade slightly, shaving off a small patch of fur.
"Ah, Cadnosss." Koras hissed, smiling. "One of the Sssentinelsss invessstigating the death of Malachi Norren. How isss that going?"
"I think we have it wrapped up."
"Of courssse." Koras replied. "Ssso, what isss the meaning of thisss? You ssseek my arressst?" He placed his arms forward, forearms together, wrists upwards. The universal 'shackle-me' gesture even those in the know would shackle a prisoner wrists-down with arms behind the back. "Or isss there a more... Persssonal purpose to you infiltrating my home, gaining our confidence and murdering my chief ssslaver?"
"Severar years ago, you purchased sraves from an Ardar Morris." Schrau stated. "It's them that I'm here for."
Koras raised an eyebrow. "Oh? And by the way, releassse my ssson and Nahai, they are getting rather desssperate."
Schrau did so, and both men stood and took a step away from the vulpin.
"Vulpin ssslavesss." Koras recalled. "Sssurprisssingly well-trained, I had the feeling that we had got more than we had paid for. Of courssse, if you're here to releassse the vulpin ssslavesss, then you mussst alssso want the releassse of the othersss."
"I think that's a given." Schrau whispered.
Koras cackled. "And your plan isss?"
"Negotiate for their rerease." Schrau said.
Koras seemed to consider this for a long time. Schrau noticed the shadows shift. "I think I would rather have you killed."
Hadas and Nahai both turned, vengeance in their eyes. Schrau backed off quickly and raised both blades in a defensive stance.
"Hold!" Koras bellowed. "If I wanted sssomething killed, I am wholly capable of doing it myssself." The dragonian rose from his throne and paced towards the group. "Yesss, in fact, I would like to negotiate the releassse of the prisssonersss with you, Cadnosss. One thing firssst: If Nahai here had even bothered resssearching if there was indeed a Bardur Cassssssnor, would he have found one?"
Schrau nodded. "Yes. Bardur Cassnor, vurpin, owner of a string of brothers across the universe. Nahai probabry wouldn't have found out that the rear Cassnor is currentry awaiting triar for his crimes on Wysoom." Schrau winked. "We're good with secrets."
Koras nodded. "Nahai, you are blamelessssss."
"Thank you, Lord."
Koras actually smiled at Schrau. "The perfect con. Ssso, willing to hear my termsss?"
Schrau nodded.
"A duel, to the death." Koras said, and Nahai all but reacted in horror. Hadas stood stock-still like a statue. "If you win, Cadnosss, then you will be allowed to freely walk out of here with your precioussssss ssslavesss."
"Unharmed?" Schrau instantly said, knowing that if he trusted the dragonian for one minute that he would be dragging three hundred corpses out of the estate.
"Of courssse." Koras said. "I am a man of my word. Nahai, sssee to it that the ssslavesss are prepared to be moved in the unlikely event that Cadnosss here defeatsss me."
"But my Lorrrd!" Nahai began.
"If but one perssson is harmed, you will be resssponsssible and duly punissshed." Koras warned. "Hadasss, ensssure that my will isss enforced, and the word ssspread. Cadnosss would likely face opposssition if not."
Hadas and Nahai bowed slightly, then set towards the door.
"So what do you get if you kirr me?" Schrau asked.
"If?" Koras laughed. "There isss no 'if' little vulpin, you will die and you will be an example to thossse ssslavesss." Koras turned around and walked towards another door at the far side of the throne room. He opened it, and then stepped inside.
Schrau followed, the room beyond was an even larger circular room, with a higher domed ceiling. There was no window up above.
Torches flickered around the walls at regular intervals, also at regular intervals were five life-sized obsidian statues of dragonians.
"The previousss Lordsss of Agony." Koras told him as he gripped a slender spear that glimmered in the torchlight. The diamond spear, Madda's Insanity. "Entombed within each ssstatue is the heart of each of the former Lordsss."
Schrau nodded, understanding. From what he had gathered the heart had a particular meaning for the clan, considering it was the first thing a triumphant member ate of their downed opponent. The Lord of Agony had a certain respect, and when bested the victor would leave the heart untouched, entombing it for all eternity.
Utterly immortal.
"One day, my heart will join theirsss. It is my dessstiny." Koras turned to face Schrau. "What isss yoursss?"
Schrau gave this question a little thought. "I suppose it wirr be to free my peopre."
Koras laughed wickedly. "No, no, no! That isss your goal! What isss the one thing that you will have to face up to?"
Schrau shook his head and rubbed his neck. Though the black mark had been erased from view while under the effect of the amulet, the pain had not been. Now, in full view of the world, it seemed to burn hotter and brighter and he just wished it would stop. "My destiny is to no ronger feer pain."
Koras blinked. "You are cursssed? Well then, perhapsss if you defeat me and become the new Lord of Agony, you will meet your dessstiny." He took the spear and cut a huge gash along his side. "To be the Lord of Agony meansss to never have to feel pain at all. Thisss isss our curssse, and it isss why I will defeat you, mortal."
Schrau glanced down involuntarily and noticed the one final detail about the room. The floor was smooth, so the mosaic beneath had to have been covered by some sort of varnish. The mosaic was of a massive black dragon that curled around the room, its wings spreading across the room like an evil shroud. The head of the dragon sat in the middle of the room, staring at the ceiling with a representation of Sosel being crushed in its maw.
Two large fangs glinted in the gloom. Two scythe-shaped growths of diamond. Kanun's crown.
Koras tapped the mosaic with the spear. "And that isss the dessstiny of the Clan of Kuroryu."

Part 14 - Stay Lucky

Koras and Schrau began limbering up, the dragonian grinned. "Only mortal."
"What was that?"
"Only mortal." Koras snorted. "You. What can a mortal do in the face of eternity?"
Schrau cracked his neck with a satisfying popping sound and stretched his tail. Speed, agility, and luck would be the three things that would get him through the next few moments. "Werr, I can onry speak for myserf, but arr I can do is die." He settled into a ready-stance. "Say good-bye to eternity, Koras."
Koras charged, and Schrau recognised the scenario. Daste had charged him in what would be the turning point to their encounter. Schrau grinned and dropped to his knees as he crossed his blades over his shoulders. At least this time he wasn't out of his mind with fear.
Then again, fear got him through that little moment.
Schrau roared and swung both swords. He felt impact, saw the two deep cuts on the dragonian's stomach, felt the twitch of his smile, then chaos as Koras body-rushed him, sending him into a tail-over-head roll.
Okay, at least his blades hadn't cracked like the last pair. He was risking getting dangerously good at this. Schrau slapped his tail hard onto the ground, braced himself with his legs, and reversed the roll. Cutting neatly between the dragonian's legs and avoiding being crushed by his tail, Schrau rose to his feet and twisted. He lashed out with his blade, admiring the trail of snowflakes it left and enjoying the gash he cut along Koras' tail.
Koras turned, batting Schrau with an outstretched wing and then driving the haft of the diamond spear into his ribs. Schrau was catapulted back, and felt a rib crack.
Koras covered the distance, drove his spear down, and the vulpin barely managed to roll out of the way. Schrau flipped to his feet and swung his blades.
He felt every single muscle, tendon, and bone along his arm rattle. Schrau almost dropped the sword in pain. Stupidly, he had just smacked Koras with the flat of his blade rather than cutting with the edge.
Koras all but impaled Schrau on the spear and heaved him away. Schrau landed heavily on the floor, a fresh wave of pain rolling across his body.
"There wasss once a sssect of martial artissstsss, Cadnosss." Koras calmly said. "The finessst ssswordsssmithsss in all of Sssosssel. They crafted katanasss with edgesss ssso sssharp that they have yet to have been besssted. However, they practiced a ssstrict dissscipline of only ssstriking opponentsss with the flatsss of their bladesss." The dragonian chuckled. "Anyone who allowed hisss blade edge to cut an opponent would be expelled from the sssect. And do you know what happened to that sssect?"
Schrau shook his head, completely and utterly disinterested in the history lesson and concerned with suppressing the pain.
Koras gestured grandly. "Thisss wasss their dojo before my ancessstorsss crussshed their pitiful ssstyle and moved in."
Schrau stood up, worked the kinks from his back and tested his breathing. All good, proceed.
Koras charged once again, and Schrau backed off.
Snarling, the vulpin took the initiative. He thrust with his blade.
Koras parried it.
Keeping the momentum, Schrau swung his other blade around.
Koras parried that as well.
Schrau pressed the spear aside, showing some strength at least. He lunged again with his first blade.
And Koras wrapped his talons into a tight fist and smashed it into Schrau's muzzle, sending the vulpin almost fifty metres with one punch. Schrau hit the ground hard and slid along the lacquered floor almost unable to stop. Every tooth and brain cell vibrated with its own frequency, and he tried to shake it off before Koras could strike again.
The dragonian leapt, aided with his wings and raised the spear in a triumphant two-handed grip over his head. Just like Daste and his Fellblade. The Lord of Agony eclipsed the sentinel.
Schrau quickly rolled aside, almost losing his tail as he did so.
"Good dog, play dead!" Koras ordered, trying to rake his hind claws across the vulpin's body.
Schrau nimbly dodged the foot.
"Roll over! Play dead! Bad dog! Bad!"
Schrau flipped to his feet purely on instinct, keeping low as Koras thrust with his spear.
"Play dead, dog, dead!"
Schrau gripped both hilts tightly and chopped them downwards, meeting the spear and driving it down. He placed one hind paw on the haft, sprang off it, and tried to wrap his blades around the dragonian's throat.
Koras grabbed the vulpin by the front of his coat and hurled him away. Schrau hit the ground hard again, sliding to a stop against the door.
Koras grinned, crushed something in his hand, and flicked it towards Schrau. It landed on Schrau's lap; his gold-plated deputy's badge, almost folded neatly in half.
"Bastard." Schrau muttered, standing. Koras thrust again. Schrau span aside, rolling along the length of the spear and struck. He felt impact, heard the now-familiar click of a severed talon hitting the ground.
Koras backed off and studied his new hand, minus one finger. "Impressssssive, Cadnosss. You're almossst getting good." And he thrust the spear one-handedly.
Schrau parried it away and ran forward, aiming a strike at Koras' head, though the best he could hope for given the height difference was a blow to the shoulder. He carried on, avoiding the wing and slamming both blades into it, severing a sizable portion of skin.
Koras turned on heel, but Schrau ducked under his swipe and leapt onto his back, trying desperately to wrap his two blades around the dragonian's neck.
Koras reached back and grabbed the sentinel by the back of his jacket and whipped him over his shoulder. The vulpin slammed spread-eagle onto the floor and almost failed to roll away from Koras' follow-up strike.
Schrau struggled to his feet, and made it before Koras swept his tail around and took Schrau's legs from beneath him. Schrau felt something crack, possibly a shoulder blade, and rolled hard and fast away from his opponent.
Koras rushed forward and scooped the sentinel up by the front of his jacket again. This time he gripped onto so much fur and skin Schrau couldn't even move his arms to decapitate the dragonian.
"You enjoy praying with your food too, huh?" Schrau wheezed.
"Very much ssso." Koras leered, and threw the vulpin hard into the door. The woodwork barely even buckled under the impact and Schrau bounced off it, muzzle into the ground.
He tried to stand up, but couldn't. This was it.
Then something caught his attention. The sound of breaking glass from the room behind him. Schrau remembered the green dome that was the only other contact to the outside world aside from the entry way. He slowly hauled himself up, listening. Steel footfalls echoed from within the throne room.
Koras had heard it too, for now his interest was no longer on the vulpin but the doorway.
Schrau backed away, risking standing by Koras' side. "That scent..."
Suddenly, the smell of strong acid flooded the room as smoke began to curl around the door. Then the wood splintered and collapsed under the might of a Fellblade.
Daste Kuroryu was home.

Part 15 - Only Mortal

Daste spread his arms and wings in a menacing pose. Unfiltered sunlight illuminated the dragonian's form in the doorway as he stepped into the room. "Father, now we-" The Fallen blinked. "Cadnosss?"
"Your timing stinks, Daste." Schrau snarled.
"What are you doing here?" Koras demanded.
Daste leered. "Time to meet my dessstiny, father. Sssoon, I will be Lord!"
"Ah, famiry dispute." Schrau backed off, sheathing his swords. "I'rr just reave you two to it." He grinned, happy to let them duke it out. Either way, it would be one less Kuroryu to kill.
"Oh Cadnosss." Koras nonchalantly said, backing off. "If he killsss me, the deal isss off."
Schrau drew his blades quickly and leapt at Daste, his vigour and determination suddenly renewed. He hated sentinel luck; if you were given half a chance to smell the roses you'd trip and fall into the manure. He barged the Fellblade aside and tried to pierce Daste's armour.
White-hot pain seared along Schrau's back, Koras was more than happy to take advantage of Schrau's unguarded back.
"Foolsss!" Daste bellowed. "I'll kill you both!"
"Your heartsss are mine!" Koras roared.
"Dammit! You're both under arrest!" Schrau snapped, split seconds before Daste shoved him aside with the Fellblade. Schrau heard the two massive dragonians clash as he slid once again along the floor. Hey, at least he was getting good at something.
The vulpin hauled himself up to his feet, angry, weary, pained. The only chance he had against Koras would both be the doom of his people and his own personal death and eternity within a Fellblade. That would suck. Royally.
He watched, and Koras seemed to be having the upper hand, talon, whatever. His spear was tearing chunks out of Fallen armour and contents, and Daste's strikes seemingly had no effect on the Lord of Agony.
It works just as well as anything else, the same way as anything.
Schrau snarled and snapped up us weapons. "You are both under arrest!"
He charged them both, happy to capitalise on the fact that both father and son were happy to be in their own private little world and stabbed his blade deep into a rent in Daste's armour left by the spear.
The Fallen clearly suppressed a pained grunt. Invincible and all powerful a Fellblade may be, it's the physically frail body of the knight that takes all the damage.
"Respect my authority!" Schrau growled as he threw his entire weight at the Fallen warrior.
Pain lanced through Schrau's shoulder, Koras hissed a laugh as he twisted the spear and Schrau squirmed in agony. He quickly evaluated that, while the wound wouldn't hurt his sword skills much, he would probably have to marry and live with a biomancer for the rest of his life, receiving all the medical attention he could drain from her, and it still would hurt several years even after his death. "That's a keeper," as Rory would say.
Koras withdrew the spear, and thrust again. Schrau managed to dodge out of the way just as Daste lunged forward. Spearhead met breastplate, and Daste huffed as all the air from his left lung was emptied.
Schrau swept around, slashing into Daste's wing and leaping onto his back. He once again tried to slit a dragonian's throat, though said dragonian also had the painful distraction of his father jabbing him repeatedly in the chest in a bid to make a Fallen-and-sentinel shish-kebab.
Daste growled, reached behind him, and stepped back. As he did so, he grabbed onto Schrau's coat and slammed him heavily onto the floor. Again. Two fabulously exotic weapons fought to be the first to impale the unfortunate vulpin, but Schrau managed to roll away in the nick of time.
He hauled himself up onto all fours and coughed. Blood. He was spitting blood. Not good at all. He turned around just to witness the spectacle of the diamond spear spinning end-over-end in the air as a result of Daste's disarming upswing.
Koras grunted, leapt back and using his wings to get a little boost. He plucked the spear out of the air, flying almost as if the earlier wound on his wing had not affected him either physically or aerodynamically. He leered, brought his shoulder back, and hurled the spear at his youngest son.
Schrau could swear he heard a small sonic clap as the spear flew through the air. He certainly saw the effect, the spear lanced down like a bolt of lightning and struck Daste in the thigh while embedding itself in the floor. Daste struggled to free the spear, but was utterly unable to.
Koras stood far back, arms crossed across his chest and grinning malevolently.
Schrau stood and charged once again at the semi-helpless dragonian. He smashed a blade into Daste's flank, creasing the plate.
He rained blow on top of blow onto the dragonian.
He lashed out, scoring a cut on Daste's cheek.
A lucky cut scored a blow where his gauntlet covered his wrist, a steady stream of blood began to drip from the wound.
Daste snarled, and grabbed the vulpin painfully by the front of his jacket. Schrau never even managed to savour the taste of deja vu as he was hurled across the room. The arena blurred by Schrau's vision, then stopped as he did so.
Koras had snatched him out of mid-flight, he turned the vulpin to face him and grinned. "I could asssk you the sssame question, tenaciousss whelp."
And Schrau hit the ground so hard that the thick lacquer cracked beneath his back. His vision was tunnelling, every single fibre of his being ached with a new intensity.
Koras stalked towards Daste, taking the time to step on Schrau's chest and place his entire weight onto the vulpin's ribcage which duly cracked beneath the pressure. Schrau almost blacked out when he heard the two goliaths clash.
"Get up!" A vicious, yet refined voice snapped. "Pitiful vulpin! How did you develop the delusion that you could fight?"
Schrau groggily hauled himself up, ribs popping like a fire. He tried to stand up.
"On your feet, vulpin!" Aldar's voice bellowed. "I will not ask you again!"
Schrau shook his head as he subconsciously followed the orders. You can take the slave out of the den... He rolled his shoulders, still in absolute agony, and then quietly said over his shoulder. "I don't think you're ristening to me. You are both under arrest."
He turned, redoubled his grips on his swords, and ignoring every single physical complaint he charged both dragonians. He slid on the smooth floor between the legs of the Lord of Agony, rose sharply, drove his one blade into the hole in Daste's thigh that had once occupied the bloodied spear now in Koras' hands, and boosted himself into the air off Daste's knee. Gripping his one sword in both hands, he brought it down in a descending chop.
Which only succeeded in cracking Daste's helmet. As Schrau withdrew his sword from the thigh, Daste growled and grabbed his helmet by one horn, pulling it so that it split. A thin cut had been scored on Daste's scalp, and blood dripped down his beak.
The diamond spear whistled by Schrau as he dodged, and Koras cursed as he stumbled forward. Schrau ignored him, he half-stepped forward, his leading blade low.
It whirled around him in a wide, frosty orbit. Triumph turned into annoyance as Daste stepped back from the impending strike, and Schrau's momentum carried him onwards.
He felt impact, but little resistance. Schrau recognised the experience; a perfect decapitation blow. Usually the blade gets caught up in the spine but sometimes it squeezes between the vertebrae.
Koras had dropped to his one knee as he missed Schrau with his final strike. This had put him in a perfect position to intercept the blade.
Cold blood freezes quicker than warm blood. Koras' heart pumped once, twice, thrice, each spasm thrusting frozen icicles of lifeblood into the air. Larger drops, not the tiny rivulets of plasma that Malachi's heart had pumped in his final moments.
Like mercury to hell.
Schrau stepped aside to let the corpse drop as the head of the Lord of Agony thumped heavily into the ground some distance away. The spear rolled from his unresisting fingers towards the door, almost as if it was making a pitiful bid for freedom.
Daste backed away as well, his face an uncharacteristic pathos of horror. "No..." He whispered.
Schrau grinned as the full realisation of what he had done dawned on him with the intensity of a delayed-blast fireball. Koras was dead, dead by his hand. The slaves were free. "Onry mortar, Koras."
Daste bellowed a pained howl and charged the vulpin. Schrau was too wrapped up in self-satisfaction to attempt to avoid the Fallen, but Daste merely settled for swatting the vulpin aside.
As he rolled along the floor, his skull rattling and broken bones twisting, Schrau realised that he hadn't suddenly become immune to pain by killing Koras. A pity, pain insensitivity would have been a blessed gift at this point.
He forced himself to a stop, twisting his wounded shoulder in the process. He saw Daste crouched over his father's body. "I... didn't rearise that you were so crose..."
Then he saw the Fellblade point towards the heavens again, before descending and striking the fallen Lord of Agony in the chest. Nothing. The Fellblade arced into the air again and struck once more. Again, nothing.
"You... You missserable little mortal..." He looked over his shoulder, and if looks could kill Schrau would have been Edon Fried Vulpin right now. "...You have no idea what you have done..." He stood up. "I'm sssure, however, that my Massster will sssettle for your sssoul..."
Schrau tried to defend himself, but Daste smacked him with the flat of the Fellblade, the vulpin hit the ground hard as Daste rolled him with his tail and brought the blade flat down once again onto his ravaged ribs.
Daste kicked him twice, once to rake him with his talons and again to send him rolling towards a statue. Schrau hit the hard obsidian, and it toppled over and practically crushed him.
Armour clanked as Daste approached, and the obsidian shattered as Daste struck it. Schrau looked up at his nemesis, and Daste gripped the Fellblade in both hands.
"Play dead." He hissed as he brought the blade down in an effort to cleave Schrau into two separate pieces.
The diamond spear cut across the blade and held it with remarkable strength. Schrau blinked groggily and saw... Koras?
No, it had to be someone else. Koras was dead.
"Get up and go, Cadnosss!" Hadas hissed as he parried Daste's Fellblade aside with ease. Fresh blood against a practically crippled and emotionally unstable Fallen, pretty much about an even fight. "You've defeated my father and have earned the freedom of your people. Go to them. Now!"
Schrau hauled himself up, obsidian shards tumbling from his ruined coat. He sheathed his blades and coughed. "Hadas..."
"Leave!" Hadas snapped as he skewered Daste through his sword arm. "Nahai failed to do asss my father inssstructed, ssso you will have to free them! Go!"
Schrau hobbled to his feet and started towards the ruined door. Every single square inch of his body ached, he could feel every single strand of hair on his body and they impossibly hurt as well.
"Asss for you, brother..." Hadas whispered behind Schrau's back. "I think it'sss time we sssettled your debt to the clan, don't you think?"
Schrau made it to the other throne room door, mentally unable to deviate around the broken glass in the middle of the room and so he was starting to leave bloody paw prints behind him. Seconds before he closed the door behind him, he heard a pair of angered roars as metal and diamond and scale met in a mighty clash.

Part 16 - While The Storm Rages

The human warden's eyes snapped open as he felt a very cold blade pressed into his neck.
"You've got a choice. Either you can go and unrock every cerr door in this prace, or you can die and I'rr take the keys off your cord body and do it myserf."
The warden took a closer look at his assailant. Vulpin, severely mangled, exceptionally scruffy. He wore a green leather coat much like that worn by sentinels but not the badge. "Can I negotiate?"
"The head rives for five seconds after being severed from the body." The vulpin nonchalantly said. "I bet that if the brood is cord enough, you can rast a rot ronger. Now, if you want to negotiate, you can find out firsthand."
"Master'll have your heart."
"You're under new management, son." The vulpin snarled. "Now do as I say. And if one srave is harmed, we're both going to see how much of the human body can be amputated without anaesthetic before the subject succumbs to death. Move."

Schrau found the selection of cells he had been looking for: Vulpintown. For the first few minutes, Schrau had been watching the warden like a hawk ready to drop on him at the first infringement of his orders, but now he let the warden continue his given tasks while he searched for the cell he was looking for.
Some of the slaves had been leaving the cells without any encouragement. Others needed a little. The rest remained where they were. Though the average number of people in the cells were three, Schrau had found a couple that held less, possibly solitary confinement.
Canwen Aurnos was in such a cell. Though he had a cot to sleep on, he was instead sitting in the corner clutching his knees to his chest, his gaze vacant. Utterly demoralised.
He never even looked up at Schrau when he opened the cell door. Instead, he stared at the floor. "Cassnor. So you've-"
A softly-glowing blue blade rolled along the floor, stopping in Canwen's field of vision before the steel faded into silver.
"I remember a swordfighter that even Aldar wouldn't dare take on. He'd get a regular thrashing whenever he did." A voice said.
Canwen looked up at his visitor. "Is that... Cadnos? Schrau Cadnos?"
Schrau nodded. "Get up, old man. I can't do this by myself."
Canwen pulled himself up the wall, bending to gather the sword. "What's going on?"
"I made a deal with Lord Kuroryu. He's dead, by the way, and you're free. Unfortunately, Nahai didn't execute his final orders and prepare you all for evacuation." Schrau laughed. "He probably assumed that I had no hope of winning."
"There's another here, Bardur Cassnor. He-"
"He's dead, Canwen." Schrau's eyes glazed over. "It's... It's a long story, but I wouldn't be here if it weren't for him. But he definitely won't be back."
"I see." Canwen coldly said. "So what do you want me to do?"
Schrau smiled. "Well, if you ever want to see your son again, you'll help me wake up and inform everybody what's going on here. Sentinel forces are waiting in Edon, they'll help you all."
"My... My son?" Canwen gasped.
"Yeah, funny story. Failed in his bid to become the greatest vulpin thief in the worlds." Schrau's eyebrows arched. "The greatest vulpin thieves wind up being executed. He just bungled and wound up with a year inside. You'll be able to see him after all this is over." Schrau smiled. "C'mon, let's get going. I've left a lot of graves in my path to get here, I don't want to leave more because we were too bloody slow."
"Right," Canwen nodded. "What's the sword for?"
"Digging graves." Schrau quietly said before moving onto the next sell. "Annae! Help your brother up onto his fee- Foot, and you'll be able to sleep in a proper bed again, just like you wanted!"

Okay, it had surely gone down in the list of Stupid Things to Say, and Schrau was not wholly prepared for the furious outcry that had been the response. Nevertheless, he had managed to calm everyone down when Annae had confirmed what had happened that night, though the tricky part had been getting the girl to recognise him as Bardur Cassnor.
The warden was dead too, as soon as he left Schrau behind and turned a corner, he tried to have his way with one of the slaves. Unfortunately for his machinations the occupants of the previous cell he had opened jumped him and repeatedly slammed the cell door on his skull until it collapsed like a rotten watermelon. They then took the keys and continued the task he had begun. The release of the prisoners, that is. Not habitual rape.
Schrau and Canwen led the already freed slaves by his corpse. "You meet the most wonderful people in this line of work." Schrau mumbled.
"We have to be quick," Canwen warned him. "Astane will be doing her nightly rounds soon."
"Have you seen her today?" Schrau asked. "She's dead."
"Dead, unless werewolves have suddenly developed the ability to survive being melted down in obscenely-hot lava."
"Magma." A vulpin just behind Schrau corrected.
"When lava is underground, it's known as magma."
Schrau blinked. "I thought it was the other way around."
"Maybe, I think that I'm right however."
"So what are we doing now?" Canwen asked, slightly annoyed at the meaningless banter.
"First, we head to the playroom and arm everyone who can fight." Schrau told him. "Just because Hadas supposedly enforced Koras' will on the subject of us leaving here unharmed doesn't mean a muridan's ass while we're heading for the door." Schrau grunted. "We'll probably also have to scour the estate for any slaves Nahai was supposed to return to their cells, since he failed to do his duty. That's where we need everyone's co-"
"Cadnosss!" An angered roar interrupted Schrau's orders. Schrau and Canwen turned around so fast that they nearly wound up wearing their fur back-to-front.
The crowd parted, letting an extremely-angered Barus Kuroryu pass. He clenched a fist that was missing one talon and glared at Schrau. "You humiliate me, you murder Assstane, you murder my father, and now you sssteal what is rightfully oursss! I will have my vengeance!"
Schrau sighed, and then realised something. "Yeah, yeah; mind if I have just one minute, skippy?" He turned to Canwen. "Now, it hasn't escaped my attention that you're... Well, old."
"Direct and to the point, son."
"And I bet you're uncooperative as well."
"That's true."
"Yet Astane and Nahai told me that they cull the old and the uncooperative, so how come you're still alive?"
Canwen smiled, but refused to look away from Barus. "Because little Barus couldn't hold a candle to me. The other brothers could have killed me, but I think they kept me around so they could enjoy watching me humiliate him."
"Ah." Schrau cleared his throat and turned back to Barus. "Okay, so if you couldn't beat either of us whire armed, what makes you think you can beat both of us unarmed?"
"I-" Barus said, uncertainly, but he took a step forward.
Schrau and Canwen both took a step forward as well. "Whenever you're ready, boy." Schrau calmly said, bluffing on the fact that he wouldn't physically be up to killing anything else without direct medical attention. The paired swords flickered in the gloom.
"I-" Barus growled, stepping back.
Schrau levelled the dragonian with Bardur's 'you're-so-pitiful' withering look. "Run arong and pray with the other rittre kids, boy. Carr me again in a few years."
"I-" Barus stood defiantly and pointed at Schrau, unfortunately he did so with his severed talon. "I'll be back!" He turned, knocking a few slaves over with his tail and stormed off.
"Well, that went as well as could be expected." Canwen muttered. "You were bluffing, right?"
Schrau sagged. "If I swing this sword one more time, I think my arm will drop off."
"Youth has few advantages over experience, Cadnos." Canwen grinned.
"Oh, great, now you're starting to sound like Aldar."

As Schrau distributed the cheap weapons around the more able members of the slave group, Annae snuck up to him and tugged on his coat.
"There's another door over there. Some of the brothers used it."
Schrau followed Annae's direction. There was a smaller weapon rack on the wall, almost as wide as two doors side-by-side. He inspected it, found a small depression, and pressed it.
"Okay, we've got two choices as I see it." Schrau said aloud. "We can either risk the dark, scary tunner, or we can go back and say our greetings to Barus on the way out."
"Tunnel sounds good to me." An elf said as he tested a rapier. The same elf that had thrown Bardur the first dagger in his brief fight with Barus.
"It could read anywhere." Canwen warned Schrau. "Onry the brothers would use it, maybe it wirr take us right to their riving quarters."
Schrau closed his eyes and mentally pictured the architecture of the Kuroryu estate. "If I'm right... C'mon, ret's go."
Schrau led, with pockets of slaves that could see as well in the dark guiding those that couldn't. Still, Schrau heard the occasional curse, stumble, and frightened wail. They eventually came to a door at the other end of the tunnel after a fairly sharp upwards climb.
Schrau figured out the locking mechanism and opened the door.
The arena lay on the other side. Schrau saw the cracks in the floor, the scars where weapons had gouged chunks from the mosaic. Blood was everywhere, some of it his. Very little had changed since Schrau had left the room, except for a drop-cloth that had made a makeshift replacement for the door Daste had cleaved.
There was no Daste, there was no Hadas. The only corpse in the room was that of Koras Kuroryu, who lay in a different place to where he had died. Koras lay on the floor directly in the middle of the room, on top of the representation of Sosel within the dragon's maw. He held his severed head in both hands on his chest.
Schrau stepped forward, and something smoothed rolled beneath his paw. He looked down. Half of the haft of the diamond spear lay there, the grip end. It had been snapped in half. The solid diamond spear had been snapped in half...
Schrau stooped down to retrieve it. The Poison Star that Hoshi Nokai had carried had been surprisingly light, while the remaining shard of the spear was incredibly heavy.
Schrau shook his head. When the alchemists had attempted to fathom the secrets of the Poison Star, it had taken several hours of heavy cutting to make a dent in the diamond mace. The diamond spear had been snapped easily and cast aside as if it barely mattered.
Where was the rest of it?
"Okay, everyone to the other door." Schrau quietly said, and the slaves took the wide way around the room. Schrau checked them, made sure that they hadn't picked up any unwelcomed guests and made sure everyone was safe. He then took a more direct route across the circular room.
As he passed Koras' body, the nearest arm flopped down and bounced onto the floor. Schrau almost leapt out of his skin and almost backed away from the body and readied his weapon. Then he realised that he was already carrying a weapon, the spear. Almost unthinkingly, he crouched by Koras' corpse and pressed the spear into his hand, rolling the talons around the haft, before lifting the incredibly heavy arm back onto his chest.
He could have bought worlds with that shard of diamond, but he left it. Idly, he continued to wonder where the head end of the spear had disappeared to.
The slaves had gathered around the drop cloth, unwilling to go through. Schrau gripped it and pushed it aside, stepping into the throne room beyond. Into a procession; everyone, from the lowliest cook to the remaining brothers of the Kuroryu clan in the estate had gathered in the room in solemn silence. Everyone but Hadas, Kahn Nahai, and Barus. As one, everyone turned to face Schrau as he stepped into the throne room.
The throne had gone, as had the glass that Daste had left behind.
As the slaves trickled around Schrau, the group parted; forming a clear line to the door leading from the throne room.
"Watch yourserves." Schrau warned, before taking one step forward.
The door on the opposite side of the room burst open, and Barus charged in with a mighty two-headed axe in his talons. He bellowed, "Cadnosss!" before charging down the path in the centre of the room.
Schrau growled, snatched his other blade from Canwen, and started to limp towards the angered dragonian.
Barus made it about half way.
A massively-muscled black arm lashed out and grabbed the young dragonian by the throat. By the snapping and cracking as he fell to the ground, it was clear that Barus would never stand up again.
Suddenly, every black-scaled dragonian pounced onto their fallen brother. Claws and tails and fanged maws descended into the melee, only to rise once again soaked in blood. The pack became more and more frenzied, even after one dragonian rose from the group clutching a twitching heart high into the air. He eyed it greedily, and then consumed it before returning to the maul. More and more heads rose from the group, flesh hanging from their maws or clutching parts of limbs.
Eventually, the feeding frenzy subsided, and the dragonians rose to their feet with a calm air that suggested that nothing had happened.
All that remained of Barus Kuroryu was a shallow puddle of blood. No carcass, no bones, not even the clothes he wore.
Schrau heard several slaves behind him being sick, and his stomach started to twist as well. He shook his head, sheathed his swords, and started to limp towards the door with the people following.
About halfway down the procession, just when Schrau's paws began to feel sticky because of the blood, a taloned hand reached out and stopped him.
The dragonian was easily the largest he had seen during his days with the clan. Larger than Koras, larger than Hadas, Schrau recognised him as the dragonian that had taken Barus' heart.
"I am Kanno Kuroryu." The dragonian informed him. "The grief you have causssed the clan will never heal."
Schrau considered what to say next. He thought back to the battle with Koras and with Daste, to the despicable acts of Bardur Cassnor, to the murders of Astane Tasna and Malachi Norren. To standing aside and watching the misery and suffering of the people that now stood behind him while convincing himself that he could only help them if he waited.
To the insanity that had almost gripped him.
"Kanno, I was wirring to do anything to further my cause." He calmly said.
"That isss all you can do, Cadnosss." Kanno blinked. "We have eternity to recover. Enjoy your relatively ssshort life, mortal." He bashed a blood-soaked fist against his chest in a salute. "We will be ssstrong. We will meet our dessstiny."
Sosel in their jaws...
Schrau nodded solemnly and continued walking onwards. As he did so, every dragonian repeated Kanno's salute.
The door had closed since Barus had entered, so Schrau heaved it aside. Standing outside was a small pack of slaves that hadn't been returned to the cells.
The nominal leader of the group, a catfolk with large, lazy eyes blinked. "Sentinel, Nahai said-"
"That can wait." Schrau quickly said. "We have to reave. Now."

Night had fallen by the time they arrived at the front door. Schrau led the people out into the cold, yet somehow stifling jungle. The first time he had been outside since arriving several days ago, and for some of those behind him this would be the first time they had seen the outside world.
"Well then," Canwen quietly said. "What now?"
"We-" Schrau began seconds before a large, gold-scaled dragon descended from above the tree line, snapping several branches on the way. Dragonians and others hopped off the dragon's back as several more massive lizards broke through the branches.
A rose-scaled dragonian descended from above, landing so heavily several feet before Schrau that the earth buckled beneath his weight. He was wearing somewhere between the region of eight-hundred pounds to a tonne of metal armor, and is was practically impossible to imagine that he could fly by himself.
He saluted Schrau sharply. "Deputy Cadnosss. Addra Rosssessscale at your service."
No, wait, he was a she. Schrau shook his head and tried to shake the tunnel vision ruining his view of the world. He belatedly returned the salute, and actually snorted to himself. 'Uncle Addra had a dress just like that.' Bardur's life would haunt him for the rest of his days. "Addra, what's going on?"
"We know your plansss were to take the releasssed ssslavesss to Edon city and await processssssing, however the sssudden appearance of Dassste Kuroryu forced usss to act." Addra nodded solemnly. "We fear for the sssafety of sssuch a group moving through the jungle at thisss time of the night."
Schrau blinked. "You were watching when Daste arrived?"
Addra nodded. "Yesss, on ordersss of Gilgal-"
"Did you see him reave?"
Addra shook her head. "No. However it isss possssssible that he made an essscape without usss noticing him. Black scales in the black night are hard to sssee."
That, or he left through a world rift. Schrau suddenly felt a little better, since that seemed to be Daste's usual method of escape when critically injured. He swatted a mosquito that was buzzing around his head. "So what now?"
Addra opened her mouth to speak, but Schrau interrupted her. "Oh, before that, can I get some medicar attention?" He swatted the mosquito again.
Addra's eyebrows arched. "You're trying to ssswat a biomancer right now."
Schrau turned to face the supposed biomancer so hard that his vision swam. When it normalised, he could clearly see the little atomy hovering inches away from his face. "Oh. Sorry."
"Quite all right." The atomy squeaked as he opened up his micro-sized copy of the Biomancer's Textbook. "I think sir had better sit down, the damage appears quite intensive."
Schrau slowly sat on the floor, his body complaining all the while. "Anyway, what are the new prans?"
"Vulna mortis sana!"
"We will move the ssslavesss by air to Drakhen Mon, where they will be sssafe. There, we will processssss them and allow them to move on."
"Vulna mortis sana!"
"I see." Schrau softly said. "I have to get to Edon, and then to Sauronan as soon as possibre."
"It's night, the-"
"Vulna mortis sana!"
"-pods are closed."
Schrau sighed, causing his ribs to pop painfully. "Then get someone to open them."
"Vulna mortis sana! Uh... Are you feeling any better?"
Schrau shook his head. "No."
The atomy mumbled something beneath his breath. "Vulna mortis sana... How about now?"
"A bit."
The biomancer blinked. "Whew, I think I need some help over here." He turned and called out, and suddenly several biomancers of varying races crowded around him and began casting healing spells.
"You look exhausssted." Addra said. "Maybe you ssshould get sssome sssleep."
"I'm much too busy a person for sreep." Schrau automatically said, before groaning at length at himself.
"Don't touch that!"
"Sorry, I thought they were detachable on vulpins."
"That shouldn't even be visible! Vulna mortis sana!"
Schrau looked at Addra with a hint of dread. "Where did you get these biomancers from?"
"Anywhere we could find them-"
"Hmm, odd, it won't go back in."
"-Dassste'sss appearance did not leave usss with much time to organissse a more experienced group."
Schrau slowly stood up, at least his vision was back to normal and the dizziness had passed. "I know a good biomancer on Wysoom." He watched as more and more of the slaves climbed onto the backs of the dragons.
"I'm tapped." One of the biomancers complained as Schrau brushed them off.
"So, can you take me to Edon?"
Addra nodded. "Of courssse. What about the ssslavesss?"
Schrau closed his eyes and shook his head. Something was about to hit him, but he couldn't tell what it was. "Terr them that they wirr be just fine, terr them that they're safe. Terr them to be strong."
"Asss you wisssh."

Part 17 - I Am Schrau Cadnos, Hear Me Write

Schrau sat at his desk, sipping water and giving his report the once-over. His first draft had been written completely from memory, and if the concussion had persisted then Schrau would have filed that away and left it at that. Instead, he remembered about the myriad of notes as well as Bardur's diary that he had stuffed into various pockets inside his jacket. Most of the scraps were torn or shredded, and the diary had a talon hole through-and-through that happened when Koras had so kindly stepped on him.
He hadn't slept, he hadn't sought medical aid, he had just made his way to the Sentinel Guildhall and proceeded to write his report after dealing with a few minor details. Now he was at the stage where he would fine-tune his report using the unordered notes and the diary.
It was now mid-morning, and various sentinels had drifted in to write or file reports. Schrau's desk occupied the same office space as the desks of the other deputies, and as each and every one of them turned up they gave the bloodied and battered vulpin a concerned look before returning to their work.
Schrau started shuffling through the papers, when he remembered words spoken almost an eternity ago. "No Cadnos, you have not thought any further into the future than that day when Kuroryu and his clan will lay dead and your people will be free."
Schrau blinked the sudden tears from his eyes. They had been the words of Hoshi Nokai, lone cultist of Zaraklyn who had an amazing ability to know detailed histories of his victims.
"You will be a spent force, Cadnos, doomed for eternity to merely spiral back towards mediocrity."
But that hadn't been the whole speech. Schrau's mind automatically rewound it to the beginning.
"Maybe to become the greatest sentinel alive, to lead the guild?"
Schrau shook his head. He had no desire to lead. He had the desire to be a great sentinel, but by no means the greatest or one of the greatest.
"To be the greatest swordfighter in the worlds?"
Again, pointless. Schrau had bested many opponents who had thought themselves better than he. His skills were good, perhaps even amazing, but there would always be many that would always be better than he in their own ways.
What else had he said?
"Heeeeeyyyy, prettyboy!"
No, that wasn't it. Schrau didn't even look up as he squeezed off an automatic response of "Not-the-prettyboy," to Carnely as the muridan sat on his desk. He consulted another note, decided not to draw on it, and put it with the rest of his junk notes.
"You look like hell, prettyboy." Carnely dryly observed.
"Yeah, werr picking a fight with two dragonians wirr do that to you." Schrau replied. "Oh, by the way, your to-do rists?"
Carnely nodded.
"Cross Astane off both of 'em. She's been done."
Carnely almost sulked. "Lousy vulpin, stealing my fun." He sighed. "You need a new coat."
Schrau looked at the shredded and bloodstained green leather, as well as the broken strap that would normally allow itself to have a badge clipped onto it. "I need a new badge, too. I just want to empty this coat first." And he reached inside a pocket and pulled out another fistful of crinkled scraps of paper. "So how was your vacation?"
"It was good." Carnely shrugged. "Relaxing. Hey, you promised to tell me what Gilgal was up to with those strange assignments."
Schrau blinked. "Rater."
"Fair enough. Hey, nice desk, prettyboy."
Schrau grinned. "Thanks."
"It looks almost like Seij's old desk."
Schrau nodded solemnly. The news that Seijirou had left the guild during his absence had come as a shock to the vulpin, but he had more pressing things to think about. Naturally, he would watch his peers a little closer over the next few days, especially those that had known Seijirou for longer than he.
"Do you have any idea how stupid that sounds, Carn?" Schrau calmly told the muridan. "If this was Seij's desk, then a criticarry wounded and mortarry exhausted vurpin would have had to drag it in arr its three-hundred pound mahogany grory from Seij's ord office, through the narrow confines of the fire room, down the stairs, and between narrow rows of other deputy's desks to where I am now." He snorted a wry laugh. "Muridans and their imaginations..."
"Okay." Carnely quietly said, his tail twitching. "Anyway, me and a few friends are gonna head off to Tanglewood to rough up the trolls. Wanna come with?"
"Maybe." Schrau mumbled. "I am suffering from a rot of internar injuries, maybe I should have them checked out first."
"Whatever's good for you, buddy."
Schrau opened up another scrap of paper and started to read it;
I am Schrau Cadnos. I am Schrau Cadnos.
I am Schrau Cadnos...
He quickly folded it back up and placed it on the junk pile. His hand started to move towards another scrap.
"Maybe something more personal, hmm? A wife, children, a future?"
His hand stopped, the quill dropped from his writing hand.
"Something the matter, prettyboy?"
Schrau's hand twitched, his fingers spasmed. Pain lanced down his arms.
Schrau stood up quickly. "Mind if I take a raincheck on that trorr thing?" He gathered all of the notes and papers on his desk and bundled them unceremoniously into a drawer. "There's someone I have to see first."

Part 18 - Medical Attention

Corliss Bowne looked from beneath the curtain of water that poured from her hood at the vulpin who seemed to stay remarkably dry as he sat, knees to his chest, under the overhang over the door that led into the shared accommodations that she rented.
"Schrau? What-"
"I'm hurt, Corliss." Schrau quietly said. "I'm hurt, and I thought I could get better but I can't."
"You'd better come inside." Corliss quickly said as she reached for her keys and unlocked the door. Schrau struggled to get up, but Corliss had to eventually haul him to his feet. They stepped inside and Corliss removed and shook the rain off her leather cloak. Schrau, though relatively dry despite the best efforts of the Wysoomian storm, shivered uncontrollably.
"How long have you been like this?" Corliss asked as they moved into her room.
"First round of injuries... About three days. The rest happened yesterday, but I've only started to g-get the shakes about an hour ago."
Corliss placed her Textbook down on the table. "And didn't you think to get help sooner?"
"I had some."
"Some isn't enough." Corliss said, practically furious with the sentinel. "Sit down on the bed, get that coat off and let's have a look at you."
Schrau did so, letting the shredded mass of green leather pile up on the floor. As he sat down, he felt a thick trickle of blood roll down his back. "You'll probably have to change your sheets after this."
Corliss pulled up a chair to face him. "I was planning on doing the laundry tomorrow, but thanks for the advice." She cradled his head in her hands and began twisting it all ways. Schrau winced. "Did you sustain any head injuries?"
"A couple. Hit the ground a few times. Got punched by a dragonian once."
She felt around the back of his skull. "Some tenderness, skull's fine. It's so damned thick I now know why you didn't seek help sooner." Corliss grunted and she held his eyelids open. "Exhaustion. When did you last sleep?"
"I can't remember."
"That's not good." She held his neck by the sides and gently rubbed it. "Tender?"
Schrau tried to nod, but had to settle on verbal confirmation.
Corliss then carried her gaze downwards to his blood-soaked undershirt. She saw the smooth, regular holes as well as the jagged cuts in the material. "Did a dragonian step on you?"
"Yes. Raked me a couple of times too."
"Take off your shirt."
Schrau winced. "You'll probably have to cut it off."
Corliss blinked once, then reached for a pair of sharp scissors. As she eventually worked the cotton shirt off his body, she saw why - A massive wound on his right shoulder, much of the material as well as some leather had been embedded into the wound.
"All broken, or at least they were." Schrau reported. "I think the biomancers on Sosel fixed that.
Corliss saw the cuts and neat punctures on his chest, saw that they had almost healed and it would only take a few minor spells to finish the job. She tested his ribs, one at a time, which was easier than she assumed it would be since Schrau was more skinny than she had assumed him to be. "The ribs are fine, a little tender judging from your reactions. I can fix that." She pressed a palm into his chest. "Heartbeat... Irregular, but fine."
"The real damage is around back." Schrau told her.
"Lie down."
Schrau did so, and Corliss had a good look at the wound on his back, as well as several large claw marks across his spine. "I don't want to know what company you keep to get these..." Corliss muttered, before noticing that Schrau was already out cold in a deep sleep. She winced sympathetically, but continued her examination.
First off, she checked his left shoulder blade, which was cracked just like she expected. She then inspected the wound on his right shoulder in more detail, the flesh was dirty and open for infection or parasites but she had to clear the foreign objects from the gaping hole first.
"What did this to you?" She quietly asked the sleeping sentinel as she reached for a pair of tweezers and began pulling scraps of cotton and leather and fur from the gaping hole and dropping them into a nearby bucket. Corliss suddenly found something somewhat more substantial and tried to pull it free. It refused to budge, so she reached for something that resembled a pair of pliers and tried that.
The bone shard that Corliss had discovered was caught up in the flesh but otherwise free of the surrounding bone, so it came free with just a little effort. Corliss inspected the bone, and recognised it as a shard from the shoulder blade, easily as large as her fingers. It was smooth on two sides, which meant that whatever had broken the bone had gone cleanly through. Had it not been free of the shoulder blade, Corliss would have reset it back in and healed the break, but now she had no choice but to heal the shattered bone without the shard and allow it to regenerate over time. Not strictly the best option, and Schrau would have to go easy on that arm until it did heal. Corliss leaned in and listened to Schrau's breathing, failing to detect any irregularities that would have been of some concern. If Schrau had suffered some lung damage, then it had already been healed.
Corliss cleaned the wound, as well as the others and the blood that had streaked down his back before continuing to check his spine. Some tenderness, possibly bruising, easily healed. She checked his tail, knowing that any damage to the bones would be painful and failed to find anything more extensive than bruising and the occasional small cut. The legs were fine, aside from the expected bruising one receives in a fight.
And then she came to his feet, which were positively rotten. Glass, stone, dirt and grass had found their way into the cuts on his footpads, and Corliss spent the best part of an hour cleaning the wounds while Schrau blissfully slept.
Corliss began preparing the spells that would heal his wounds, and mustering the energy to execute those spells. It took about three further hours of casting and regenerating her sapped energies before she was eventually satisfied with his condition.
She considered waking Schrau, but glanced out the window and saw that dusk was settling in. Besides, his condition had been severe, and Corliss had spent many nights awake in observation for much less. Corliss pulled a sheet over Schrau's back and sat at the main table. She began writing a detailed medical report on the subject, knowing that Gilgal would want to know of any serious medical attention his sentinels had received, and a few of the more experienced biomancers would be interested in Schrau's condition as well.
Corliss began cleaning up, throwing the ruined shirt into the bucket with the rest of the objects she had extracted from Schrau's back. Corliss considered throwing out the jacket as well, since it would be good for practically nothing, she could go into Sauronan, drop off a copy of the medical report, and get him another jacket for him to wear. She began checking the pockets, making sure that she wasn't throwing away anything potentially useful or valuable, but found nothing in them.
Corliss couldn't even find his badge, the badge which she knew Schrau always wore with pride.
She dumped the coat on top of the bucket and stared at the sentinel, her gaze attracted to the black mark across his throat. She studied it closer than she had done in the past, assuming it to have just been an unusual fur mark. She chuckled at herself when she thought the word 'unusual,' like she was normal with her silver fur.
Corliss saw that the skin beneath was black, completely and utterly black, she also saw that the hair was much thinner over the black mark on his neck. It wasn't a bruise, it didn't look like any cancer she had seen, and it didn't look like a birthmark.
It always seemed to give Schrau trouble, Corliss remembered. He had never spoken about it, even though he was pretty transparent about the rest of his life. Corliss reached out to touch it.
She had barely grazed it when Schrau reeled back, acting as if she had punched him in the throat instead. He clutched his throat and started to breathe hard, he looked at her; surprised but not accusingly.
"What is that?" Corliss asked.
"It's- It's- It's-" Schrau began. "It's something I have to live with." He smiled weakly. "A family heirloom that I just can't auction off."
"Want me to have a look at it?"
Schrau shook his head. "Even if you did, it wouldn't do any good. It's been looked at, by bios, by mages, by pretty much everyone who think that they can do something about it."
"It's all right, Corliss." Schrau quickly said. "You get used to it after a lifetime." He blinked slowly. "So how's the patient?"
"Mostly fine." Corliss answered. "He'll probably have a few nagging injuries for a while, he should be resting."
"Thanks." Schrau quietly said, settling down.
"Schrau..." Corliss began. "I heard what you did back on Sosel." She sighed. "It was a brave thing to do."
"It was a stupid thing to do, Corliss." Schrau replied. "The only important thing is that it worked."
"All those slaves... I- With-" Corliss stammered. "I don't know how you can even look at me."
Schrau looked and smiled at her. "I thought we had been over this; it's not your fault what they did, Corliss, you've done nothing but the right thing."
"No, listen." Schrau pulled himself out of bed and sat on the edge. "You're a compassionate person, a brilliant biomancer, and a wonderful friend; there's not that much more I can ask for." He took a deep breath, hung his head. "Besides, there aren't that many people I'd rather look at."
Corliss felt her jaw drop. "Did you just say-"
Schrau rose sharply, grabbing his ruined coat from the garbage pail. "-Something stupid? Yeah," He chuckled nervously and slipped the coat over his arms. "it's a habit. I'd better go. G'night Corliss. And thanks, I feel much better."
"Wait!" Corliss rose to her feet. "You need-"
Schrau had already opened the door and left the room as if his tail was on fire. The door slammed shut.
"-rest." Corliss finished, lamely, as she heard the outside door slam shut. She sighed and looked at the bloodstained bed that Schrau had just left in a hurry, before sitting down at the table. She stared at the report in front of her, before crossing her arms and resting her chin on the table, staring at the words before her until her focus slipped far enough to blur them into the paper.
She hated it when people didn't pay attention to medical advice.