The loyal retainers of Prince Shiahd bu-Ahlmarahat, after camping only briefly at the base of the mountain, have now packed up and moved on, making their way up a treacherous road that leads toward the old castle grounds. Cottages and huts are here and there all along the way, and the way is sometimes slippery thanks to well-packed snow. The tracks indicate that a large party must have already been this way, and not too long ago.
Jynx mutters a curse under his breath; that nasty Skreek must have gotten here ahead of him. With a command to the carriage driver, the faux-leonine Khatta picks up the pace a bit, hoping to improve time. His new found "slaves" are still with him, and the cat takes a quick look at them to see how they fare thus far.
The slaves just sit timidly and quietly in the carriage, having no orders to obey, and having no desire to get in the way. The caravan moves full speed ahead, some of the retainers slipping on the sludge and patches of ice, and the beasts of burden occasionally stumbling for their footing as well. At last, however, one of the head retainers calls out, and the caravan slows … Up ahead, Gnaugh's party can be seen, blocking most of the road, up on the next curve. From this vantage point, however, the scene can be well seen Gnaugh's party has stopped, not far below the nearest tower of the castle, on a narrow road that cuts sideways across a steep slope. They are blocked only by a single, aged feline who leans on a crooked wooden staff.
The 'Prince's' party is on this same winding road, though the stretch they are on cuts to the west, then makes a tight turn to become the eastward cut that Gnaugh's party is currently halted on.
The lion cat peers out of his window at the strange scene. Why are they stopped? Surely not for a single old wandering cat. "Driver, stop the caravan a short distance behind Gnaugh's," he calls out, "And send a retainer forward to see what the holdup is about."
"As you command, Prince!" the driver replies, and the order is carried out. After a short delay, the retainer comes back, reporting, "One of Gnaugh's retainers is parlaying with a stranger, demanding that he step aside. He should be easy enough to handle, so I don't know why the trouble. The retainer is sounding terribly out of order, though He's talking as if HE is the one in charge of the party!"
Jynx's brow furrows, could something have happened to Gnaugh? Although part of his brain screams for him not to get involved, his feline curiousity wins out, and the Khatta gives the order to close the gap between the caravans and join with the Skreek's.
As Jynx's party gets closer, there are signs that something is indeed happening up ahead. A feline in the party ahead is shouting something at the old man, and then he makes a hand wave … At this command, several of Gnaugh's retainers move forward as if to apprehend the old man. The old man stamps his staff against the hard surface of the road … and then is obscured in a cloud of smoke! The feline giving the orders suddenly lets out a cry and a gurgle, then drops out of view, as if struck by an unseen assailant!
Did he just see that? The lion Khatta blinks at the spectacle that just unraveled. "What in the name of Dagh… ?" Moving the caravan yet closer, he steps out of his carriage, motioning several of his guards to come closer.
Gnaugh's retainers burst into action, and Gnaugh himself leans out of his carriage. "Find where that bolt came from! And find that Daghforsaken geezer! And " The rat is lost from view, as several villagers come running up the steep slope, bearing implements and a few genuine weapons. It is not quite a repeat of the incident with the would-be robbers from the previous village These seem to be in somewhat better condition, and better prepared. The battle has been joined … and Jynx's retainers are about to be swept up into it!
Jynx mutters another curse, drawing his daggers for the fight. "Back to the caravan, put them in a circular defense and get ready!" He hurries back towards his carriage, careful to stay close to his guards. On this road, there's no way to avoid a fight. "Remember, wound, but try not to kill!"
The tabby mother covers her two children with her arms, doing her best to shield them, as the battle joins outside the carriage. This fight is already more bloody than the last, as villagers and retainers alike fall to the blade and bludgeon. Gnaugh's servants are showing no such restraint as Jynx's are, and are being given none in return. No such mercy is being shown on those serving the Prince, either … but the tide is still against the villagers, for even on this road, the retainers are better armed and armored.
The feline noble sighs, he doesn't want to hurt the people, but he has little choice if he wants to keep his disguise up. Charging a few of them with as big a roar as he can muster, Jynx joins the fray, swiping to wound a few of his retainers' attackers.
The sight of the roaring lion is enough to goad on the retainers … and it sounds surprisingly realistic! Did Jynx have this in him all along, or has some bizarre magic worked itself upon him, thanks to his present disguise? The villagers are driven back by the feline's charge … but as blows are exchanged, there is a zinging sound, and a gurgle … as Gnaugh falls to the ground. A shout comes from the tower, in a feline and feminine voice, "Your leader is dead! You have failed to protect him! Go back to your masters and tell them what awaits them if they come again!"
Jynx's ears perk up at the sound, and he quickly gazes up at the tower with eyes wide. Is it… could it be… her? Mouth hanging open in wonder, and head peered skyward, the lion waves his contingent back to the caravan, and sheaths his weapons. Trying to keep his voice low and leonine, and not his own cracking, higher teenage housecat voice, the Khatta calls back, "We shall do no such thing!" He keeps his ears open for the sudden sound of a twanging of a crossbow string, "Not until we accomplish what we came here for!"
The Prince dives sideways as fast as he can, acting on reflex at the sound of the bolt. His eyes close shut tightly, and the feline is sure that he has been hit.
The bolt buries itself in the thick of the Prince's fake mane. He can feel something wet and sticky spreading through the hairs from the tip of the bolt.
Jynx cringes, his body tensing in preparation for the wave of pain he is sure will follow. He reaches a paw back to feel at the bolt, staying on the ground for the time being.
The wave of pain doesn't follow. Apparently it is NOT the Khatta's blood that is seeping into the mane. The tip did not actually impact his skull. However … if it's not his blood … then what is it that is wetting his mane? And what is that strange acrid smell?
Poison? Acid?! Whatever it is, it isn't good! The Prince quickly jumps to his feet and grabs at the bolt, trying to pull it from his mane and on to the ground. Hopefully it didn't get into his mane too much, or his disguise is ruined.
The bolt is pulled free, but the toxic liquid is spreading through the mane. There isn't much time! Plus, a couple of villagers have spotted the "wounded" Prince and are making a run for him, pitchforks ready!
Jynx sweats: leave the mane on and get speared by villagers while his neck dissolves, or take the mane off and get speared by both the villagers and his men? Not a situation one really wants to be in, but the false lion is nonetheless in it. Smelling once again the foul smell of the liquid in his mane, the Khatta pulls it off and hurls it to the ground, his fur standing on end. He pulls out his daggers, and gets into a defensive position. As he awaits attackers from all side, he nervously looks back up to the tower.
Some of Jynx's retainers see him without the mane … but they're too busy fighting for their lives to do anything about it. Then there's a shout of "IMPOSTOR!" The two villagers slow in their charge, looking momentarily confused … then ready to press the attack once more. Still, it buys Jynx just a moment of time. He's surrounded by a mass of bodies villagers, retainers, beasts of burden a short dash away from the carriage. There's a glint of light reflecting off of something shiny from a window in the tower. If that's where the shot came from … then another could follow, for Jynx is still wide in the open!
The one who cried out "IMPOSTOR!" is cut down for being distracted. At least for a split second, it doesn't look like anyone's about to do anything about it. Yet.
The maneless lion swallows nervously. Running to the carriage could mean death, but so could just standing here. Deciding not to take his chances with the concealed attacker, he runs back towards to carraige, hoping that his reatainers won't notice his change just yet.
The swift-footed Khatta makes it to the carriage before the villagers can reach it. He still has some space to work with, and maybe just MAYBE no other retainers noticed his change in appearance. The tabby mother and her children gasp in surprise, however, at the suddenly "bald" lion.
A couple of Zelaks limber by, interposing themselves between the carriage and the two villagers. At the sight of the tall chitin-covered warriors, the villagers avert their course, going for easier pickings.
Jynx slams the door to the carraige shut and bolts it, panting heavily. Eyes closed, he sits back in his seat to catch his breath, jolting with a start when he opens them to see the tabby family sitting there. "Oh! Uh, s-sorry… close shave of sorts." He gives an embarassed grin, then starts to rummage through his bags. Drats, no mane! He sighs, but then notices something else: the Kadiban, or turban worn by Himaatian traders, maybe that can buy him some time. He takes the long strip of cloth, and begins to wrap it clumsily around his head.
The mother, not knowing quite what to say, helps Jynx straighten out the kadiban. "There … You look wonderful. Nobody will ever know you were born … ah … oh, pardon me, sire! I didn't mean to imply anything!"
*CHUNK* An axe-blade rocks the carriage, coming partway through the wooden carriage door.
The Prince gives the mother Khatta a smile of thanks, "No offense ta-" he is cut off by the sudden rocking, his claws digging deep into the side of his seat. He gives a small peer out the window to see what the trouble is about.
*CRASH* The window is no more, but the Khatta blinks just in time, as shards rattle off of his kadiban. It would seem that someone is knocking on the door. With a large sharp instrument.
Jynx's fur stands on end almost painfully, feeling as though it were trying to jump off his skin and escape this situation. Deciding that this exit may not be the best, the Khatta hurries over to the other side of the carriage, attempting to escape with the tabby family on that side instead.
The other side of the carriage is walled in by rock and snow … but it's still possible to climb, thanks to the carriage parked up against it. With some trouble, the "Prince" and his slaves scurry up onto the top … just high enough to get up to a ledge higher than the road on this steep slope.
"There! He's ESCAPING!" one of the villagers calls out, pointing with a pitchfork. The retainers, though greater in number, are being dispersed. Gnaugh's servants are fleeing in disarray, and the Prince's retainers seem to be in poor morale as well.
Jynx is now on a ledge on a short rocky wall adjacent to the carriage he was previously in. By a simple step, he could stand on the carriage … or he could try to scramble his way up the slope, toward rubble at the base of the castle walls. Right now, for the moment, he's in the open not a place he wants to stay in for very long. Closer to the tower, though, he might be out of range of that crossbow. But there are still the villagers to contend with…
A couple of Zelaks clatter their way up onto the ledge, flanking Jynx, and taking positions to defend him from the villagers. Alas, they provide no cover from the tower.
The faux Prince's heart jumps up into his throat at the sight that he is presented with. He mutters a silent prayer of thanks that the Zelaks haven't yet found out his secret, and starts off up the slope. "Towards the castle," he says to the other felines, "We'll be safer there!"
Another bolt *zings* past Jynx, but he slips in the snow at just the right time to be missed. More bolting, and he's made it to the rubble at the base of the tower, with his slaves soon catching up behind him. The Zelaks, however, will take much longer to catch up, and it will be some time before his retainers can get an opening to climb over the rocky wall to make the final dash.
Jynx stops, his heart beating wildly, and looks around for somewhere to duck and cover, where he won't be seen. Perhaps now may be a good time to drop his disguise and make his presence known, however good it'll do…
There are plenty of rocks to dive behind. Plus, the wall has crumbled enough that it might actually be able to climb through one of the gaps in the outer wall. Of course, there's no telling what might be waiting INSIDE…
Motioning for his slaves to follow, the lion Khatta dives behing the largest piece of debris he can find, near to the gaps in case he should need to make a hasty reatreat. Grabbing a handful on snow, he begins to rub at his face, trying to wash off the tawny make up covering his face, licking his paws instinctively to help wash it off.
The mother tabby gasps in astonishment at Jynx's transformation. "Sire! Oh!" She covers her eyes. "Forgive me! I saw nothing!"
The din of battle can still be heard but not seen from this vantage point.
Washing the last few bits of makeup from his ears, Jynx pulls off his kadiban and Himaatian shirt. "Don't worry about it. Now, follow me, and hurry!" Jumping back to his feet, the cat begins to make his way to one of the gaps, intent on climbing through and taking his chances inside the castle.
As soon as Jynx steps through, he catches a glimpse of a flash of gold out of the corner of his eye. "Don't move one IN " And then the voice stops in a surprised tone. It sounds feline and female and very familiar. "What are you DOING here? You FOOL!"
The black Khatta freezes at the voice, then slowly turns his head to get a look at his confronter, "G-Grandma… Martinette?" He put his hands up, just in case he's wrong. "I c-came to find you… "
"Ah, so you're dropping the 'Shikouju' act, eh?" the lioness says scornfully. "Well, just LOOK what you've done! Bringing the whole lot of those loonies with you! If you expect me to cook dinner for you and put you up for the night, you're SORELY mistaken, young man! And who are THESE gawkers?" She gestures with her crossbow to the tabby family. "Dragging peasants along to watch?"
"I-I came to help… " The Khatta doesn't say much more; he's come all this way for this? His tail twitches nervously; Martinette sounds more like Lylia mad than she does a woman who just killed several people just moments ago. "Th-these are some people who needed help, an-and I'm here to help you against those… loonies." He cringes kittenishly.
"Help? Do you expect ME to help them?" Martinette says, then laughs. "Just look around! This whole LAND is dying! And I'm dying too. Dying rather comfortably, I might add, until all of this started… " Then, her expression softens, and she reaches out to pat Jynx's head. "Now, now, I'm being too hard on you. I guess they were bound to come ANYWAY. Excuse me. I have to pick off a few more of them, and maybe they'll leave." She clambers up to a vantage point on the wall, and raises her crossbow up to aim.
Jynx closes his eyes at the pat, half expecting to get a swift whack. He still can't believe his ears though, seeing his grandmother an angry terror one second, kindly old lady the next, then nonchalantly going back to killing yet after that. Fur standing on end from the very real danger that surrounds him, Jynx merely stands, not sure what to do.
*zing* "AIEEEE!" Jynx's grandmother calmly reloads. *thwack* "AAAAAAA!"
Lady Martinette hisses, then says, "There are a couple of Zelaks headed this way! These bolts won't hurt THEM. Not quickly, anyway. Dearie, now WHY did you have to bring them this way? I say, if I weren't full of gray hairs already, you'd have just added two more!"
The black Khatta paces quickly back to the gap, he had forgotten about the Zelaks! "It wasn't my idea for them to follow me!" Then he gets an idea. Hiding so that the big bugs are unable to see him, he calls out to them in his lion voice, "Forget me my followers; guard the caravan!"
The Zelaks clack and buzz in response. Lady Martinette says, "My! Now THAT is impressive. You've come a long way, Dearie! But I don't expect you'll be able to pull the same trick with all your loyal retainers. Oh! Looks like a rout! Well, that should buy us a little time, at least." She climbs back down from the wall. "I'll make sure the surviving villagers are well paid for their trouble. Did a pretty good job this time. Hope there are enough of them LEFT. I'd like a little bit of insurance for the next time your friends come calling."
The Khatta paces back over to his grandmother, "Those were hardly my friends," he replies,"it was the only way I could get here, and I cam to help you fight them." He then smiles, "But its good to see you."
The tabby family just finds a corner to cower in. Lady Martinette ignores them. "Well, now you've seen me. Fine. Now go home. I haven't any more presents to give you. You're big enough to play 'Shikouju' now. And you won't accomplish much by doing it here."
Jynx blinks, what did she say? "G-go home? I d-didn't come for any more presents, and I don't want to play Shikouju," he stares at Martinette in hurt disbelief, "I-I came to find you, and to learn more! And now to stop these madmen?" He starts to get angry, "How can you just tell me to 'go home'?"
"Simple," Lady Martinette says. "Like this. Go. Home." She turns and sway-walks toward the door to the tower, then stops partway, and turns around. "Just what else did you hope to learn? I suppose I can entertain a few questions, since you went to the trouble. But I don't think you'll like the answers."
The black Khatta looks startled, he came all this way to ask questions, but never actually thought about what he would ask. "W-well… where's d-does our family come from? What ever happened to Sh-shikouju," he pauses, fighting back tears at his next question, "And why did you marry Lord Calderas?"
Lady Martinette sighs and sits down on the head of a collapsed statue. "I married him … because he loved me. At least until he lost his mind." She turns her head, looking at the wall, so that Jynx cannot see her eyes. "The story I told you was a lie. Not entirely, but enough. Your grandfather was nothing like you. He was no hero. He was an assassin. Just like the rest of us. He did what he did best … killing. He did it for money and glory."
Lady Martinette continues, "I didn't tell you the whole story. There were certain details left out. Like, for instance, how Shikouju boasted of our many adventures to some writers, more for glory and money. And, of course, he embellished quite a bit, and claimed a few feats that didn't belong to him. By changing the pronouns, he even claimed a few of MINE." Lady Martinette makes a cruel smirk.
"I didn't tell you about other important things … like Calderas' counter-offer. The one that Shikouju refused. I didn't tell you about how the rest of us accepted. Do you see where I'm going yet?" Lady Martinette asks.
Jynx's heart thuds heavily, he shakes his head wordlessly, but the back of his mind knows where she's headed, "Wh-what offer?"
Martinette says, "A lot of money. Shikouju wouldn't go for that sort of thing. It would ruin his reputation. But that didn't stop us from following up. We all had our reasons. First, of course, it was more than what Xante was offering. Secondly, Juniper Jade was tired of all our methods being published for the world to see. Palao Alto was tired of Shikouju getting all the credit."
Martinette pauses, then says, "I was tired of being cheated on. I knew my time with the Compass Rose was coming to an end. I carried your mother. Would Shikouju settle down with me? Need anyone ask? Would he stop his trademark dalliances with anything female and bipedal that came along? Need anyone ask?"
"But… but… " The Khatta has no idea what to say as tears well up in his eyes, the truth of his grandmother's words hitting like a fist. He sinks heavily to the ground and sits, his tail motionless as he continues to listen.
"And Lord Calderas … he, at least, could be counted on for reliability. Oh, of course, I knew he'd outlive me. Or so I expected. He was an immortal, you know. At least, compared to such short candles as ourselves. How ironic, though. King Xante went to hire some cutthroat assassins to avert a war. He ended up bringing not only his own doom, but a full-fledged war on account of it. And all of this is what is left of his kingdom. Calderas went mad. I'm just glad he sent me away before I had a chance to see most of it. Your mother never saw him. And I never saw that cursed Artifact."
Lady Martinette shakes her head. "Those Society of Cinders people are fools. I don't HAVE the Artifact. I never did. If I had, your mother would have been a mindless animal, from what I've been told. Calderas awakened it. He sought to gain power from it. And when he feared others would take it from him, he sent his minions with it on an airship to Nagai. It never made it there. The sailors, the tale goes, went mad, and fought each other over the Artifact, destroying the ship. It's somewhere out there in the Savan."
The words sink in slowly and painfully, and Jynx's mind attempts to sort it all out. For a long time he says nothing, silent in misery. "Eve came to see you too," he finally responds, holding back tears and not looking at Martinette, "She wanted to see her gandma. We just wanted to see you."
"Eve?" Martinette gasps. "You brought EVE out here? Precious little EVE?!? What HAPPENED to her?"
Jynx sighs, "She's still back in Half-Valley with friends. She's safe. And she insisted on coming." He lifts his eyes back up to look at Martinette, then pulls out the silver dagger and stares at it. "Why did you bother, if you wanted so little to do with us? Why did you tell me lies? Why?"
Martinette lets out a long breath. "I was … uninformed at the time. I had assumed that you were in your right mind, and that you'd simply grown up, left home, and decided to take on grandfather's legacy … such as you knew of it. Since then, I've pieced together that you were not entirely … yourself at that time. If I'd known, I would never have seen you … put my family and myself at such risk."
Martinette shakes her head. "I honestly thought … oh! What a fool I was! I had heard the rumors … and thought it was Shikouju back from the dead. I went there to … I don't KNOW what. To ask forgiveness? To pay with my life, at his blade? To just act as if nothing had happened, and live out some fantastic delusion? I didn't know I would find YOU there."
The black cat snorts, "Your family? Since when?" He stands up, angrily regarding his grandmother, "And why should you care if he forgives you or not? You didn't seem to care back then! And it's so nice to know that you never would have had anything to do with me otherwise, or Mom for that matter!" He turns around and starts to walk back to the gap in the wall, then stops, staring at the silver dagger.
"Then go home, Feli," Martinette says. "I am a murderess. And I'm afraid I can't give you a happy ending to your quest. The Society of Cinders will keep coming after me, and one day they'll either find me … or they'll take long enough that I'll die of old age. They won't find their precious Artifact, though. There's no chance of that. And just as well. I'm sure that whatever they believe about it is a lie. It certainly didn't grant Calderas quite what he wanted, in the end."
Martinette looks at the wall. "That Artifact started doing horrible things once it was 'awakened'. It … did things to all forms of life around it. Mutations. And it turned Calderas into a wild beast, a parody of what he once was, devoid of his mind."
Jynx doesn't respond immediately, then replies in a emotionless, monotone voice, "Then I'll destroy it." He pauses to look at the silver dagger one last time, then tosses it to the ground. He continues forward, returning to the gap in the wall.
Martinette cries out, "Feli? FELI!" Outside, Jynx can see the aftermath of the battle. A few broken Zelaks can be seen, but many more bodies of less-armored fighters. Many are the villagers whose blood stains the snow, and many of the retainers as well. Most of the caravan has fled, but a few toppled wagons and crippled beasts remain. The tabby mother and her two children timidly follow, stepping gingerly through the snow.
The fight is over, and the only ones who remain are a few villagers that scavenge through what has been left behind.
The black cat ignores his grandmother and begins his way back down the crack, stopping only to help the tabby family down with him. Silently he makes his way down to the battlefield below.
A pair of black Drokars with white dapples on their flanks have broken free of their restraints, and trot by uncertainly.
Of those few villagers still present (and able to move), none accost Jynx or his 'entourage'. They're more intent upon raiding stores … or sizing up slain Dromodons for a fire and spit.
Jynx tries to catch the Drokars, attempting to repeat the commands that he heard his carriage driver give them, if these are of his caravan. They will be necessary if he wishes to make the journey back to Half-Valley, and far away from here.
Jynx's memory serves him well, and he now has a couple of mounts. The tabby mother catches on, and quickly grabs some provisions and saddlebags, her children getting some smaller parcels to add to the store. In short order, Jynx is prepared for his next journey. With any luck, it will be easier going downhill.
Making sure that all provisions are in place, and that his fellow feline companions are all accounted for and ready, Jynx kicks the Drokar's sides and gives the command to be off, making his way back to Half-Valley. Although his heart is heavy, he decides that he must head for the Savan, grandmother or no. If the artifact still exists, it poses a threat if anyone were to find it, especially those lunatics from the Society of Cinders. As he rides off down the mountain, Jynx hopes silently that he finds the artifact. Maybe if he were a mindless animal, the pain wouldn't hurt so much.