10 Ring, 6099 RTR (17 Sep 1999) Willow meets Suprier le Chien … and then a very special Khatta.
(Airship) (Gallis) (Nordika) (Willow) (X)
Suprier le Chien's Lair
This large building should probably be a warehouse. That would be the likely cliche. As it is, it really looks to just be several houses that were crammed together on a street, and then with the walls between them knocked through to form larger areas to store ill-gotten goods. From the street, it just looks like a collection of run-down houses like any other. Inside, it's the home to the power-that-be of Mongrel Quarter.

The entire party is searched thoroughly and rudely once they get into the building. The dogs seem almost afraid to touch Willow, but in the end she gets no special consideration. At last, they are led into the main "warehouse" area, partitioned off with stacked ramshackle-looking crates. Many look like they came from the docks, but most look fairly makeshift – cobbled together from salvaged wood, some having a bedpost or knob still attached here or there.

Seated on a throne that might have been a favorite chair of some noble in better parts of town – but now propped up by a box here and held together with a few nails there – is the leader of this place, a mostly bulldog mix of a Gallah that is decked out in all the finery of the Marquis … only with patches, and with cloth that does not fit his considerable girth very well.

The lackeys about him look as if they're quite ready to lick his boots or roll over and play dead at a mere glance from their master.

Suprier le Chien sips from a battered copper chalice, his pinkie finger held out daintily in a mockery of fashionable table manners. He belches loudly, then barks, "Who let the poodle in?"

Pierre straightens up considerably at the presumed praise.

( I wonder if they were afraid to paw me because they heard about me and that Pearl thing or because I'm not a Gallah? Oh well… ) "Mind things here, Captain. I think it's safe to bet that there one or two folks here that know Standard and just aren't letting on, in case we mumble something insulting. I'll do my best to translate everything I hear." She limps along with her crew mates into the warehouse and then forces herself on one knee at the sight of "Suprier le Chien". Her broken ankle isn't all too pleased with this and lets her know… and Willow makes a point to spend some time later screaming to make up for it – preferably at Whitehead.

Behind Willow, her entourage makes similar genuflection. There are several dogs here, after all, and they make no bones about showing that they are armed to the teeth. (And they're probably quite ready to use those teeth, too.)

"You may rise," the bulldog says lazily. His earlier question must have been rhetorical.

Pierre rushes up and kisses the boots of Suprier le Chien, until the mostly-bulldog kicks him away. "Pathetic powdered posing poodle," mutters the leader.

The Skreek slowly yanks herself to her feet. "Thank you immensely for seeing us, Suprier le Chien. I hope that words from the tongue of a Skreek do not offend you. My captain and his crew would be most honored to trade with you." She bows again, her arm creaking against the cogwheel tipped staff that she uses as a walking cane.

The staff catches Suprier le Chien's eye. "Hmm. And just what do you have for trade, dirty foreign Skreek who dares to fill my nostrils with the smell of one who is lowest of all creatures?"

Pierre titters, "He's quite the one with words." He claps his hands together, until silenced by a growl from the almost-bulldog.

"I am indeed filthy and wretched and am honored that you grace me and my most noble captain with your patience." Willow keeps her head dropped low, looking almost Savanite-like. "We have a few fineries from Abu Dhabi, some amazing mechanical devices from Chronotopia, and genuine Abaddonian iron and other metals from Titania. We also have an assortment of spices and craft-works from Himar."

"Metal? Let me see this metal," barks Suprier le Chien, "and any weapons you might have."

The rat turns back to Captain Merryweather. "Unload the metal from Titania, and any weapons. He's interested in seeing it, by the looks of things." For safety's sake (After all… he might have asked for the weapons to be unloaded just because he didn't want the group to be hiding them from him in his presence) she also pulls five chitin throwing daggers from a pouch in her belt and carefully places them on the ground at her feet.

Merryweather passes the order on to the canines with him, and they drag up a chest, which they pry open, showing the wares. Included amongst them are the bits of metal "garbage" salvaged from Testament-Blaze, as well as various bits of Titanian loot. One of them looks like an oversized metal gauntlet.

Suprier le Chien sniffs in the direction of the chest, but doesn't get down from his throne. He gestures to his lackeys, and one of them jogs over and picks up the large metal gauntlet … with some effort. It, after all, is not a hollow glove, but a nearly solid contraption of some sort.

"Anything you want me to say, Captain? He doesn't seem displeased so far." Willow drops down on one knee again as the bits of metal are presented.

Captain Merryweather says, "I'm not certain how it would translate. Ah … just let him know about how that is from far away – another world, in fact. Very rare."

Pierre gushes, "They have the most marvelous perfume!"

"My most gracious master would like to say that the armor you are admiring is in fact from another world. I myself have heard that it does not break down as easily as other things made of metal here on Sinai." The Skreek keeps bowing, although her ears remain pricked for any whispers and bits of noise around her that might serve to gauge the reactions of the people here, and hopefully the chances of a possible sale.

A lackey takes the gauntlet to Suprier le Chien, who fiddles with it, turning it over in his pudgy hands. He reaches into the back, and pulls on some wires sticking out the off side. Two of the fingers on the gauntlet move. This prompts some startled barks from the onlookers … and a satisfied smile on the face of the almost-bulldog.

Willow keeps her own face a blank mask. A smile might make her look too eager, a look of fear might make her seem like someone that can be bullied into a lesser deal, and a look of aggressiveness might be taken as a sign of arrogance. She knows this game fairly well, and hopes she remembers the rules to it.

The head dog nods approvingly. "I like it," he proclaims. "I will take all the metal and weapons you have for sale. For this… " He holds up the gauntlet.

"… a gold," he pronounces.

"He says he will take all of the weapons and metal we have for sale. And he'll pay us a gold for the glove." Impressively, Willow passes this along as blandly as she would a grocery list. Although considering the night she's just had, it's not all that surprising.

Back on the Merryweather, the ship's namesake looks to be in considerably better spirits. Suprier le Chien might not have given top shekel for what items of this sort could draw in the best of ports … but it was rather generously above any expectations the captain had once relegated to the Mongrel Quarter. (And, of course, with items such as this, and dealing with nobility, there could have been the chance that a noble would confiscate expensive items as 'gifts', or would have no earthly idea about the actual value of an item and act insulted when the deal wasn't struck. It doesn't do to insult nobility.)

Burr is back, and he brought Whitehead back as well. Whitehead pounds on Burr and cusses at him, insisting that the cheetah owes him a gold shekel. Burr doesn't show any sign of wear from the rat's attacks so far.

Willow hobbles back on the deck, heading straight for the large Savanite and his dangling captive. "You… I should crack your fool head in, and right now the Captain might scruddy well let me for almost getting this whole ship into trouble like that!"

"Ah … Willow! No, no, no, it's not like that! It was the Marquis hisself!" babbles the rat. "He wants to make you another Dagh-lovin' carriage driver! A Skreek! Somebody blathered the idea to him, and he thought it'd be … dandy." He says the last word in a really bad attempt at a Gallisian accent.

"And you believed him? The only place he probably wants me is in front of that guillotine carriage, and I'm disappointed that you thought to sell me out because you thought if I were gone you could add a couple more notches to your bedpost." Willow leans on her staff wearily.

Whitehead frowns. "Uh? What makes you think that? I can get plenty on my own, ya know."

"Because you scruddy well said so!!" the gray rat retorts, shaking her head. "I assure you, I am no threat at all to your conquests. You've just been to busy sizing me up as a rival to notice that… which, considering what else you could be sizing me up as, I've been happy with up until now when I figured it was harmless."

Whitehead stammers, "Oh yeah? Well, hey, you have your own personal … uh … well, you have Misty on board. On the ship! And … I mean … Well, no, you're not any threat. When did I say that?"

"This morning," answers a Rhian nearby, by the name of Hammerhead.

"You misunderstood me!" shouts Whitehead. "You loose-tongued whistle-head!"

"You moron." Willow unties her hair and shakes it loose, then reaches back and twists her normally baggy shirt tight so that it hugs her figure more. "Look at me. You've been scruddy well jealous of a girl all this time! I made friends with Misty because there was no way in fires that I was going to let a filthy letch like you touch her. And if you turn your attentions on me, I'll break your fingers and set them backwards!"

The white Skreek's eyes go wide. "Guh … guh… guh… You're … " He points dumbly.

"Girl, a lady, a doe – I'm sure you know all of the terms for my gender rather well." Willow lets go of her shirt and looks back at the Savanite. "Did you see any sign of Testament-Blaze while you were out there?"

Burr shakes his head in the negative.

The Rhian asks, "You mean Testy?"

"Drop the rat. He's not going to go anywhere while his brain is trying to figure all this out." Willow turns around. "Yeah, Hammerhead, Testy. Have you seen him?"

Whitehead, once dropped, stumbles off in a daze. "She's a … guh … guh … guh… … An' I didn't know… guh… "

Hammerhead says, "Well, yeah, though it's third-hand through Whitehead, and you know how much he can be trusted. Seems the poodles caught up Testy and got a translator, and apparently he made them upset with what he had to sign about their carriage race. So, they're putting him on trial."

The iron tipped staff falls to the deck and Willow wobbles on her feet, "They WHAT? Do you have any idea where they're keeping him? Or when this trial is supposed to be?"

"Uhm … in the Marquis' dungeon? And I don't think Whitehead cared enough to ask for dates and show-times," Hammerhead adds with a shrug. "Anyway … uh oh. Don't go going all heroic or anything over a spotty. The Marquis has an army. He rules this land. And nobody's going to bully or sweet-talk him into letting that spotty go. Testy got himself into trouble, and that's where he'll stay … until he loses his head for good, that is."

The gray Skreek picks up her staff again. "I can't fight an army. I do stupid things sometimes, but that doesn't mean that I'm stupid." She cups her face in her hand. "How soon until we cast off? Blast it all… blast the whole world."

The Rhian just backs off. "Hey … sorry." And then he makes himself scarce.

Burr crouches down, looking at the Skreek.

Willow looks away from the Savanite's eyes. "It's my blasted fault. I thought that getting him off the ship might help me find a way to keep him from getting sold into slavery… and instead he's going to get his head lopped off. Bah, just like a stupid rat."

Burr looks lost. He signs, "If hit me make you feel better, I hold still."

"No Burr, the only one I want to hurt right now is myself. Just… bah… just stay outside my cabin door tonight and make sure I come out in the morning." The rat starts to limp below decks. "There's a bottle of brandy with my name on it, as well as a few sleeping herbs. Heck, maybe I'll sprinkle some of Dagh's black powder in there as well and see what happens."

The cracked chitin latch wiggles and the weather-beaten door finally pops open. The gunmetal-colored rat limps in and starts digging through various cabinets, until she produces a couple of sleeping pills (rather weak herbal things that she normally takes on stormy nights… any doctor knows better than to mix strong drugs with booze) and finally a bottle of that black powder. The puts the bottles and the glass on her bed table and pours the first drink.

The door softly closes shut – Burr's doing, as further evidenced by the sound of his body sliding down the door, as he takes a seat just outside it. Nobody will be getting in to bother the rat without getting by him first.

"Here's to you, Testament-Blaze. May your Star protect you… or put you in a better world than the one you ended up in here." She holds the glass aloft, pops the pills in her mouth and swallows it all in one gulp. In one swift motion, she refills the glass and then sprinkles a couple of pinches of that black powder into the mixture. "And this is to you, Mom, wherever you are. I hope you made a tidy profit when you sold me off or when you conceived me. I'm bloody glad I don't remember you." And in a series of more delicate sips, the second glass goes down.

It takes a while for anything to happen. Or it just seems that way. It's not as if an herbal sleeping pill just becomes a medicinal "off button". But even if the Skreek decided to try, she wouldn't be able to cling to consciousness much longer – not even when, in her dim consciousness, she caught the vague sound of breaking glass, and a shadowy movement out of the corner of her closing eyes…

( As long as you're not my mum and I wake up with my head, I don't care who you are as long as you let me sleep… ) the rat thinks as her eyes slowly snap shut.

And then they open again. There's no telling how much time has passed. Any sleep was without dreams. Suspicious, though, is the lack of a pounding headache from a hangover. Also suspicious would be that the Skreek is seated at one end of a long dinner table in a nice-looking dining room.

It speaks of luxury, yes. Not absolute drop-dead lavish luxury of princes or kings or of the Sabaoth, but the sort of lifestyle of one who has just enough not only to be comfortable, but to put nice trimmings on the edges as well.

The air smells of scented candles, and of food. And there's plenty of it before the rat. Although the table should be able to seat a large family and guests, she's the only one seated there. There is, however, a place setting at the far end. It is presently unoccupied.

The style of the trappings have a Gallisian touch to them. Yes, the architecture looks to be local. Through a doorway can be seen a conservatory, with a grand piano, and atop the piano is a bust of some dignified-looking German Shepherd. The fireplace is lit, giving the room a soft glow. By the light, it must be evening.

The air is comfortably cool. It's late summer, turning into fall, in this part of the country, so it can get a bit chilly at night, but the house is kept at a comfortable temperature.

The first thing Willow does is let a hand fly to her head, if only to make sure it's intact. She snuffles through her nose as she tries to pick out the scents of the things around her, and then takes a moment to make sure her arm and leg are still in casts.

No. They aren't. That would be another oddity. And they don't feel as if they need casts.

"If you don't mind," Willow shouts out as she tries to stand up from the chair, "I would like to go back to my ship now."

There are no bindings that hold the rat down. She's able to stand freely on her own. Footsteps come from the conservatory, and an outline of a man is silhouetted by the light of the fireplace.

It soon becomes evident that Willow's attire has been swapped. She's decked out in some sort of zolken outfit of blouse and billowy trousers. It's not a frilly Gallisian dress by any means, but not her usual down-to-business work-clothes attire, either.

Willow says, "Gah! I'm all puffy! Still… considering how most of my nightmares are about forgetting my clothes, this isn't so bad." She opens and closes the fist of her left arm, remembering how much that effort used to hurt, as she turns in the direction of the approaching man. "Who are you, and what am I doing here? Are you this Marquis fellow?"

The man steps out of the conservatory. He's feline, not canine. "Ah. That would be reasonable, given the scenario, now wouldn't it? No, I'm afraid it's just me. Hello again, Willow." It's Tyrne – although he might be known by other names as well.

"I saw someone break into my room. Was that you?" The Skreek makes a vain attempt to keep the table between her and the black cat.

The Khatta seems inclined not to let the Skreek's attempt be quite so vain, as he walks over to the place setting at the opposite end of the table, then sits down. "Please, be seated. It wouldn't do to get a good meal go to waste. And, no, that wasn't me. Not precisely. Just a creepy fear, the fringes of a bad dream. Not that I wouldn't fit that description, depending upon whom you may ask."

"So am I still on the ship? There's folks looking for me, and I'd rather not wake up in a dungeon if it's all the same." Willow sighs and sits down. "Not that it matters. I suppose I made those pills a bit too strong."

"They won't be bothering you. Rest easy," purrs the Khatta. "Besides, it's not like you can do much about it. Next time, try not to mix your medications so freely, or you might be stuck here with me for keeps." He smiles a predatory grin.

"I felt like being risky. Besides, there wasn't any way I was going to use Burr as a test subject on that stuff. What is that black powder anyway?" She swirls a glass of wine around a little, but doesn't seem all that inclined to eat or drink at the moment.

"Oh … something special. I won't bother you with jargon that would fall outside your field of expertise. But in your case, think of it as a link to … my realm. It seems to have a more remarkable effect in your particular case than it would on most. You seem to be particularly… " The Khatta poses thoughtfully. "… receptive."

Willow clinks a dull claw against her plate. "You seem to be pleased by this. I figured you'd be angry at me after I pegged one of your pu – er… demons in Rephidim, when it tried to kill me."

The Khatta waves a hand. "How could I blame you? You were only defending yourself. Besides, my servant was under the sway of that … well … puppet of Amenlichtli's at the time. I'll consider any grudge to be between myself and her."

"So I'll get down to the bones of things. I'm not one for small talk over nice meals." The Skreek leans back in her seat. "Am I interesting to you? I remember hearing an old crow say something about an old acquaintance being kissed by Dagh at the cradle, until his life got too boring."

"Interesting." The Khatta looks thoughtful. "Yes, I suppose that could describe it. Interesting. No … That's not really the whole of it. You see … the reason you're interesting is that you're alive. I mean, really alive." He gestures with his hands, as if trying to grasp some concept out of the air. "I am no dark god of death. That would be the realm of Sunala or Amenlichtli. No. I stand for living life to its fullest – for stirring things up, so to speak."

Willow raises an eyebrow up just a fraction. "So why is it that Wyrd woman back in Sylvania was ready to jam a knife into her chest in your name? A bit creepy that was… and all her talk about how I was fated to be consumed or some rabble like that."

The Khatta shrugs. "To put it quite simply … she was a bit disturbed. Weak-willed. Oh, yes, she had just a spark of life in her … enough to have a vague hint of what potential you truly harbor … but she assumed that you were just the same to me as she was. There are always people like that. They trundle along through life, with no real notion as to what they want out of it. They may crave 'power' … but if you were to ask them just what they'd do with it, their answers might not be terribly creative: power for the sake of having power, as if that were an end in and of itself."

"So how long have you had an interest in me? Ever since I butted heads with the demon, or before that?" The rat places her wineglass back on the table. "And I suppose it might be in my interest to ask how much you know about me? I notice that you use my adopted name, but you also seem to know about things I did before I changed it."

"I'm not omniscient, if that's what you're asking. True, I didn't have any special interest in you before you had a tussle with that minor fiend … " The Khatta sips at his own glass. "… but I have considerable resources, to put it mildly. I was further interested in you when you went to Abu Dhabi. The curio shop, of course. Well, you weren't really going for the 'marvelous item of magic at bargain prices' shtick. And you didn't really seem to be ready to have any of my 'creepy and evil tour through the Seven Hells' routine, either."

"You're not one to be easily enticed or intimidated. But you're not just one of those bone-headed Exiles who knows no fear, who will try to deal with a rampaging dragon by chastising it or calling it nasty names." The Khatta taps his head. "You've actually got something up here. A rare commodity these days."

The Khatta takes a break in his talking, taking up a knife and fork, and casually cutting off a few pieces of Rughrat steak on his plate, then leisurely munching on a morsel. He closes his eyes, obviously savoring the taste as he chews.

Willow smirks just a bit. "I'll accept the compliment, although I've noticed that folks that compliment you too much usually intend to ask something from you later. But the reason why I didn't go looking for prophecy stones or great potions is because when I eventually strike it I want folks to see that I did it with my hands… not with some sparkly trinket." She drums her fingers on the table, her mouth watering slightly at the food. "You talk of power, which you obviously have, and how some folks who have it don't know what do to with it. So I'll ask you – what do you do with your power?"

There's a pause, as the Khatta takes his time finishing the morsel of meat, and then he dabs at his mouth with a cloth napkin. "Simply delicious. You're welcome to have some, of course. This isn't Bosch. You won't be turning your soul over to me or any nonsense like that by having a nice little fantasy about a well-cooked supper. Now … about your question … "

The Khatta takes another sip from his glass, then sets it down again. "Aside from spooking the unwary, and inspiring power-hungry 'cultists' to do horrible deeds in my name, there actually is some method to my madness. You see, as I said before, I'm interested in what is alive. I'm interested in life. Of course, life is not just about growing and spawning new life. It's also about struggle, conflict, conquest and defeat."

"It's not that. I'm afraid I'll wake up to find I've eaten half my pillow, and that straw wasn't all that fresh." Willow taps her fingers against the table again. "So you push the marbles around? A bit like Chaos magic."

The Khatta waves a hand. "Believe me, in your current physical condition, you're not doing much of anything. Except dreaming, of course. Now … pushing the marbles around? Yes, I suppose that's one way of putting it. I stir the pot up. I give heroes a bogeyman to fight against. I give villains a promise of power … presuming, of course, that you really buy into labeling both sides of a conflict as 'good guys' and 'bad guys' so easily. Personally, I do not. It's simply a matter of perspective."

Willow stares at her plate. "And how much of what's happened to me is your doing? The nuts in Sylvania? Morning-Mist and Bakanal? Weatherwax in Blitzheim, and Bangle almost getting murdered? Testament-Blaze? The carriage race?" She hesitantly picks up a polished iron fork and grinds its edge against the corner of her own portion of meat.

"All of it and none of it, really," answers the Khatta. "I can't expect you to be too terribly pleased with the troubles I've visited upon you. I do not pretend to be your friend. I am who I am, after all. The 'nuts', as you so charitably call them, think to serve me, and to hasten my return to Sinai. They amuse me, since my return is really not dependent upon their actions."

"As for Morning-Mist and Bakanal … Yes, I've had some influence there. And, yes, if you hadn't done anything, Morning-Mist would be dead. She is alive wholly because you took interest in her," the Khatta says, in between bites of steak. "Weatherwax was in contact with some more of those 'nuts'. Bangle was tied up with them as well. Their fates are entirely their own fault. As for the carriage race … well, that is a whole thread of conversation by itself."

"I'm indifferent to most of it, believe it or not. Although I thank you if Weatherwax was your doing… I sleep somewhat better knowing he's gone; I just regret that he never knew it was the Sawtooth that did him in – and I'd have been a bit more pleased if I wasn't stuck in casts, but considering the alternative… " Willow lets the last part remain open and unspoken. It's not as though she really needs to say anything more. "As for the carriage race, I just hope that puppy's mum is stuck with a headache for a while. Testament-Blaze is another matter, and if his jailing was your doing, I'm doing to stop being indifferent rather quickly."

The Khatta sets down his fork for a moment, smiling. "Weatherwax? Oh … he knows. Believe me, he knows." But then the smile fades. "What do you care about Testament-Blaze? He's a would-be authoritarian goodie-two-shoes who blathers on about the 'Star'. Surely you haven't bought into that yifflewash."

"Yet this 'interesting alive person' would be kibble for their Drokars right now if it weren't for him." Willow clicks her teeth together. "I think he needs to be more realistic, but he's still a good fellow. He doesn't deserve to have his head lopped off, especially by a bunch of people who don't regard life any higher than the garbage in the streets." She saws off a portion of her steak and chews on it contemplatively. ( An interesting reaction… )

The steak is more tender a morsel than Willow has ever tasted. But it's not absolutely perfect, if she cares to be critical. There's just a tiny bit of gristle, and there are just a few flecks of ash on the edges … but in a way, that makes it seem all the more real. The sensation is far more real than any dream would produce … but then, it's rather obvious by now that this is no ordinary dream.

"Well, actually," counters the Khatta, "you were in no mortal danger from the guards. The Marquis got this notion into his head – amazingly enough – that you would make a marvelous carriage driver after your special performance. The self-sacrificial action of that martyr-wannabe priest was entirely vain. But why should you worry about him? He has a chance to get what he wants, the poor diseased fool."

The fork drops from Willow's hands. "Thank you so very much for letting me know that. So it's my bloody fault he's going to get his head knocked off. I was going to protest that he should have stayed with me and Copy and snuck out through the back, but I didn't think I could outrun that mob while I was in casts." She blows an angry breath out through her nostrils. "I'm fairly sure I saved his life in Titania. When I make an effort to save someone's life, then I'd like to know that they remain alive for awhile. And if you haven't noticed, it's the fact that I even bother with saving people that's made me so scruddy interesting."

The Khatta shrugs. "I still am not sure just why you saved him. You seem to have your head in order for the most part. Your 'good deeds', after all, are justified. Morning-Mist was nothing particularly special, where she was … but you could make fairly good use of a scullery maid. There. She is alive, and with purpose. Testament-Blaze, on the other hand … well, the most use he ever served you was as a decoy."

"You see," continues the Khatta, "the difference between you and him is that you have a reason for 'saving' people. He, on the other hand, does what is good because of a carrot-and-switch arrangement with a fictitious deity. Do good, and you get to go to the happy place when you expire. Do bad, and you get tossed into the Darkness. Is he really all that good after all, if he's just doing it out of fear of some 'deity'?"

"At least something matters to him; that's why I like him – and he's been tested for it. The Titanians whom he held no ill will towards, the crew that made him the butt of his jokes, and Captain who pretty much took everything he owned and seems bound and determined to turn him into a slave. Any faith I might have had would have been lost through all that." Willow flings a hand up into the air. "What the fires do you care about religion anyhow? I just want to rescue him."

The Khatta sighs. "Very well, then. Would you like him back? He's actually caused me a great deal of grief already. It might be best to get him out of Gallis before he can do any more damage, anyway, as some blasted martyr."

Willow smiles. "If you're worried I'm going to become a flowery follower of the Star, no. I believe in things I can see, and every god I ever asked for help turned their back on this rat." She takes another munch of her steak. "Besides, the only thing that a rat can look down to is a spotty. He'll keep my life interesting. Er… anyhow, I suppose that's a 'yes'. Yes, I'd like him back."

"Good," replies the Khatta. "I really would rather not see you become like that – some fool who wastes away this life for the promise of something bigger and better once she passes on. The truth of the matter is that there isn't anything after this life. For the vast majority of us, when we die, that is it. When brain functions cease, so do we. There is no golden paradise with happy spirits flitting about, perched on puffy clouds, playing harps and singing praise songs for all eternity. Actually, I'd find that quite boring."

"The truth," says the Khatta, gesturing with a fork, "is that this is all there is. Now, Sinai is a little odd in that respect. There is something resembling an 'afterlife' … if you sign on with me, that is. But everything comes to an end. With the end of Sinai will come the end of the gods. Eventually, this whole universe will fade away into nothingness. Don't sit around waiting for something better. All you have is now."

Something sits just a little bit wrong with Willow at Tyrne's words. It's nothing she's never said to herself before, but he seems to be trying to convince her of something she's already believed in most of her life. "Like Weatherwax, you mean. You mentioned he'd had some dealings with you. I suppose he's running around as a spook for you now and scaring your followers for you? Or is it a bit more complex than that?"

Tyrne shrugs. "No, he's no zombie or ghost flitting about. That is Amenlichtli's little specialty. And, yes, it's a bit more complex than that. It might be better to save that for another time. I'm not sure if you're quite ready yet. I'll at least satisfy you by letting you know that he disappointed me greatly, and his fate has disappointed him in turn."

"But before we get off on some tangent," adds the Khatta, "I would like to bring up the matter of what I should get in return for handing over the priest to you. It's not that I wish to gouge you, or anything. I simply never give anything for free, and I'd hate to ruin my reputation over something as pathetic as this fool."

"That's fair, besides… I earn my pay for anything I do. As long as nobody that matters to me gets hurt." The rat cups her chin in her hand. "I'm mostly just interested in what his specific reaction was."

Tyrne smiles. "Maybe I'll let you find out someday. I can't just give it all to you for free." His smile fades again, as he gets back to business. "Now then … well … how much is a cheetah priest worth to you? Make an offer."

Willow plucks at her lower lip. "I'm a rat. I don't have buckets of gold streaming from my ears or magical powers streaming from my nostrils. I don't even know what's valuable to you." She ponders quietly, "I've got that Necropolis book, but since you were the one I snagged it from, it probably isn't worth all that much to you. All I can really offer you is my work. As long as you don't plan on having me plunge a knife into my chest or sacrifice babies in your name, I'd be willing to do something for you in exchange. You know me well enough to know what my restrictions are. Is that good enough?"

"Well, truthfully," answers the Khatta, "I don't know what your restrictions are. And, no, I'm not interested in buckets of gold or fireballs shooting out your nose. Suicide or murder isn't really necessary. Really, I'd just like to see you come up with something. I can say 'yes', or I can say 'no'. Half of it is that I'd like to see what you come up with."

"All right… how about this: Weatherwax seemed interested in some artifact that belonged to some big important guy in Chronotopia. I can try to get you info about obtaining it. Or maybe I can help you with your problem with Necropolis sometime; I still owe her one for my tent." Her naked tail curls around one leg of her chair.

"Hmmm," ponders the Khatta. "An interesting offer, but regarding that artifact … some of my servants are about to have it in hand already. As for Necropolis … I really don't want to risk Amenlichtli taking an interest in you, too – just to spite me, no doubt. Noble offers, though. What else? And it needn't be some big, life-threatening quest."

"It's just a spotty, after all," says the Khatta, looking bemused for some reason.

Willow wags a finger in the air. "All right. How about this: my hands are yours for one favor, whenever you call upon them. You seem interested in banging marbles around; I'll give one a flick sometime. All I ask is that you don't make me hurt anybody that doesn't deserve it, and the end result doesn't strain my already frayed relationship with the captain. Something nice and mysterious for a mysterious fellow."

The Khatta raises his eyebrows. "Do you really want to leave me such an opening? What if I ask you to do something that you might deem humiliating or degrading? When it comes time for me to haul in a favor, it won't be just if you feel like it."

"I'm a rat. Humiliation doesn't mean too much to me. Heck… I would have smooched Suprier le Chien's foot if it would have landed us a deal here in town." Willow looks down. "Although you have a point… so I'll try to come up with something more specific. I'm a good druggist; I can concoct something for you or one of your followers. Or I can pass a message along to someone for you. If those aren't good enough, then I guess an open favor will have to do it, because it's the best thing I can come up with."

"That will be fine," replies the Khatta, with a wave of his hand. "One or the other, when I call upon you. Don't get me wrong. I would freely abuse such an open-ended offer in most cases … but I think I would rather be on talking terms with you, as opposed to having you resent my taking advantage of you. With any luck, we just might develop a lasting relationship." He finishes the last morsel of his steak. "You get the cheetah priest. You give me a favor, that I may call in at any time, in the form of having you concoct something for me or my followers, or else you deliver a message for me. Gehnoh?"

"No poisons, and I stay in the clear with Captain Merryweather." Willow stands up and holds out her hand. "I don't believe in exchanging a life for a life, and I don't want anyone like Misty or Burr to get hurt because of this. Otherwise I'll do whatever you want."

The Khatta gets up from his chair and walks over to Willow, taking her hand in his. "As you say. It is a deal, then."

"Gehnoh," the rat grunts out, trying to ignore the lump in her stomach. "Funny, this isn't at all what I figured making a deal with… er… Dagh would be like."

"If you'd rather sign a contract in blood, or prance around an altar of burning sacrifices, I can always arrange that," the Khatta replies, with an amused glint in his eye. "But, really, there's so much more to me than that. I look forward to getting to know you better. Now, then … hmm." The Khatta looks off at a clock. "I do think you're still going to be under for a while. Is there any particular fantasy you'd like to be entertained with until you wake up? Or maybe I could just leave you to enjoy your meal. You might as well enjoy it while you can, as you're going to have one terrible hangover when you come to."

"I don't go for fantasies; they distract you from real life. Usually people who dream of being knights in shining armor or great heroes tend to be the folks who end up as gravel in someone's path." She eases herself down back into her seat. "Oddly, this isn't that far from my real dream. A nice comfy house that isn't extremely lavish, but still better than any rat could hope for." Willow coughs. "I would be interested in how you plan to release the cheetah from jail. I'd written his situation off as hopeless."

"True, quite true," comments the Khatta. "But I really don't think that you're in danger of becoming that sort of self-deluded loser. If you were, I wouldn't make you the offer. And I'm glad you appreciate the surroundings. You could have this, you know. For real. But then … you're not really the sort who wants it handed to you, now are you?"

"As for the cheetah … well, come along, won't you?" He offers Willow his arm. "Shall we go for a stroll?"

Hesitantly, she takes Tyrne's arm. "No, I wouldn't want it. Everyone would say, 'Hey! There's Foxfire's house! I always knew the only way a rat could make anything out of himself would be to make a deal with Dagh!'." She shakes her head. "And even if they didn't say it, I'd feel it inside. One of these days, I'll finally strike it and I'll be happy. And if it never happens, I'll cope. Anyroad, where are we going?"

The Khatta nods. "Well, we have to figure out the best way to get you your fool priest back." He walks toward a doorway that leads out onto a balcony. A misty, starry expanse can be seen beyond.

"And here I thought you had everything planned out already," Willow chitters. She sniffs at the air, remembering that her own dream house had a balcony as well – one where she could look down on folks and laugh at them all. "So what tools do we have?"

"Well," answers the Khatta, "more than enough. I could simply tell the Marquis to hand the cheetah priest over to you – 'or else' – but I suspect you'd rather not establish such obvious ties to me. Not, at least, until you're already well established on your own." The starry expanse fades into a blur, and then comes into re-focus as Tyrne leads Willow out onto the balcony. The balcony is no longer attached to a dream house, but rather it is inside a courtroom that looks to be built somewhat like an opera house. The underlying suggestion might be that what pass for judicial matters here really only exist for the entertainment of the elite.

Down on the main floor of the packed courtroom, a battered-looking cheetah in ragged robes (far more ragged than when Willow last saw him) makes hand-signs with slow, deliberate, strained gestures.

The rat flinches at the sight of the cheetah. "No. I'd rather spook folks by my own power as well. Tormenting Whitehead is enough fun for me."

"It seems that your priest friend has stumbled upon a loop-hole in Gallisian law," comments the Khatta.

Willow leans down over the rail and peers at the priest. "A loophole, eh?"

A husky in robes and curly wig looks at the cheetah, and translates, barking, "'But the greatest of these is love… '"

The Khatta wrinkles his nose disdainfully. "Yes. You see, the accused is occasionally given a chance to speak in his own defense. Some fool thought to get a translator. That cheetah has been signing continuously ever since he took the stage."

"When he asked how much time he was allowed, the judge replied that he had as much time as he needed to state his case, though with no breaks. He hasn't taken any," says the Khatta.

"Smart boy." Willow nods her head sharply, noting Tyrne's reactions out of the corner of her eye. "So are you going to encourage them all to just give up and let him go?"

"Smart boy?" hisses the Khatta. "He has only been delaying the inevitable. No, the blasted fool thinks to try to convert the very ones who seek to relieve him of his head! They've tortured him and beaten him and done a number of things I won't repeat out of consideration of your pleasant company … and he thinks he's going to save their souls!"

"… but without love, I am a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal … " translates the husky.

"I'm tempted," says the Khatta, "to have some disaster befall the courtroom. Wipe out every last poodle, collie and schnauzer that has dared listen to this fool's rambling. No witnesses. And then you could just go in and fetch him."

"But he's not begging for his life or blubbering." Willow's ears flatten. "I'd rather you didn't. Can't you just move him to the ship and make it as though none of this ever was? I mean… Punja's shop. I… er… had a feeling that if I bothered to ask anyone about it, nobody would have any idea what I was talking about."

"Mass hypnosis would be too much of a stretch," replies the Khatta. "Despite common perceptions, not every poodle is without a brain. And this has caused enough of a disturbance already that it would be a considerable achievement to completely blot out what has happened. And I'm not about to just have him disappear in a puff of smoke. They might think the Star has rescued him. How ironic that they would have gotten it so wrong."

Tyrne snaps his fingers. "I've got it. I'll have some madmen rush in, rescue the cheetah, kill a few people, then escape."

"Does it have to involve these people dying? They seem to manage killing each other just fine without any help, and that would just make him an escaped prisoner on the lam." Willow folds her arms. "How about his punishment is him ending up getting sold into slavery, stick him in Pierre's hands, and he can drop Testy off at the ship in exchange for that second bottle of 'perfume' I owe him?"

Tyrne shakes his head. "Now, we're not in Rephidim, Nagai or Babel. The Gallees consider slavery to be barbaric. Oh, very well. He should wear himself out soon enough. Either that, or he's most of the way through reciting that 'holy book' of his. When he runs out, I'll see to it that they label him a harmless lunatic, make a mockery of him, then return him to your ship. It's a pity you didn't pursue the carriage-driver opportunity, though. You could have gotten on good terms with the Marquis, gotten the priest back as an amusement, and easily gotten your house as well."

"Or gotten turned into a pancake." She frowns and sinks her head down a bit. "Besides, it probably would have meant I would have had to run over folks like that kid. I'm not too pleased with his mum, but I'd rather he not end up an orphan."

"Whatever," the Khatta says, with a another wave of his hand. "In any case, you'll get the cheetah back. And I'll not shed any blood over it, since that wouldn't suit you."

"Thanks." Willow smirks again. "Think of it this way: that little quirk of mine is what makes my life interesting for you. At least I'm not a bleeding heart puppy who screams for sanity, or someone who sticks flowers in musket barrels. Besides, I used to be one of the bits of garbage in the street here, and a lot of that garbage is still in me… there's just a fire burning in it as well now. I don't know what kindles it, but I feel it all the time." She taps her chest.

The Khatta gives Willow a dubious look, as the courtroom scene fades away, replaced by the balcony of the "dream house" again, and a starry, gaseous, colorful expanse beyond its walls and foundation. "Yes … I suppose if you were any other way, we wouldn't be having this little conversation." He takes Willow's hand, and kisses it. "It's been a lovely evening. One of many yet to come, I hope."

"Um." The Skreek looks at her hand for a moment. She's not used to being treated like a lady. In fact, she avoids such treatment whenever she can… Still, the discomfort she feels isn't from the kiss itself. "I'm tempted to ask if you could do something about my casts while you're at it, but they'll heal on their own and I've no intentions of pushing my luck. Thank you for your help, and for better or worse, I'm interested in learning more about you. It's only fair, considering what you know about me after all."

The Khatta smiles. "All in good time. It shouldn't be much longer until your ankle heals … and with all the sprinting around you're inclined to do, that will probably aid you the most. Healing is not my specialty, although I could pull some strings … but, you really don't want to owe me for too many favors, now do you?"

"Not to sound insulting, but no. I don't." Willow smirks. "I think the phrase 'physician, heal thyself' applies to me." Her smile fades a little. "One more question: You seem to have plans for me, so what do those plans entail? You mentioned something about your second coming and such."

"Oh … that." The Khatta casually leans against the balcony railing. "As for plans for you … well, truth be told, I'm mostly just trying to figure out more about you. What motivates you. What makes you what you are. You intrigue me. You might have some potential … but I think it would be a little too soon for me to go making grandiose offers of, oh, immortality, god-like powers, riches, et cetera, et cetera." The Khatta dismisses it with a typical wave of his hand. "You'd see that as all some cliche, some phony, hollow promises anyway. No, right now, I just want to learn more about you. And as I learn more … and if you are interested … I may let you learn a bit more about myself."

"Maybe the next time we meet, we can swap answers for answers then. I've a few questions myself." Willow brushes off her clothing. "But I suppose for now I should just brace myself for that hangover. I'm sure that Burr will probably bash down the door once I make the first groan."

The Khatta nods. "As for my second coming … well, we're running short on time. I don't think I could do the topic justice, and I think you should wait a little while before you try paying me another visit. Please don't mix sleeping pills, alcohol and the powder that way again. I would be most disappointed if you ended your life that way," the Khatta says with a frown.

Smirking, the rat nods. "And what's the proper way to take it, then? That happy little bottle didn't come with instructions."

"There is no proper way. You're an oddity," replies the Khatta. "Next time … oh … let's just try the alcohol and the ashes. And not enough to give yourself a hangover. If you made a negative association between me and hangovers every time we met, you wouldn't exactly be looking forward to doing dinner dates with me again, now would you?"

"I suppose not, although I must confess that I've probably inadvertently blamed every other hangover in my life on you – same with half of Sinai." Willow taps a fingernail against the doorway leading back inside. "I do hope our relationship remains a pleasant one. Your followers in Sylvania didn't make the greatest of impressions on me – but I'll confess to being a hard rat to make friends with."

"Until later, Willow," bids the Khatta. "I'll be watching you."

Details slowly fade. It would seem this bizarre little dream is coming to a close.

( Wonderful. ) The rat nods. "Just don't watch for the first few hours of my hangover. I'm not going to be all that pleasant to watch." She rubs her head in expectation of the first twinges to start.


GMed by Greywolf

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Today is 10 days after Reckoning Day, Year 25 of the Reign of Archelaus the First (6124)