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Ripples ---- No Comments Here Please

Started by cairn destop, May 01, 2017, 06:06 AM

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cairn destop

The sun settled in for a long rest, pulling a black cloak over itself.  The moon peaked over the horizon, ready to dance across the dark heavens.  Constellations took their places ready to bedazzle any who cared to look their way.  The bustle of day gave way to the serenity of the night.

The traveler had been moving west for two full cycles of the moon.  When he first reached this land, he sought out other morph communities.  That proved too dangerous.  Tribal leaders protected their lands and insisted he disclose his intents before they allowed him access.  Sometimes impatient leaders encouraged such revelations with a sharp knife or a hungry fire.  Now he bypassed these primitive settlements.

Province provided him with a stone roadway six days after the last full moon.  Stories told around the home campfires said such paved thoroughfares offered safe passage to all.  As long as he remained within sight of the road or camped by its side, none should harm or hinder him.  He hoped.  Things may have changed since his tribe's exile during the Dark Times. 

His first day's journey along this road brought him to a carved marker.  The graphic engraved on the stone showed the image of a lit lantern.  Those who recorded the history of his tribe described such a symbol.  It indicated an inn ahead, though it made no reference to distance.  An arrow alongside it indicated where he might find the advertised inn.  Good fortune smiled on him as the arrow pointed in the direction he traveled.  Perhaps his first impressions was in error; there might be civilized morphs living in the area.

For ten days he followed the road.  Tonight, he pushed onward.  His rations nearly exhausted, he needed to find that trading post.  If the inn existed, a safe place to rest would be welcomed.   Tired as he felt, the reappearance of the carved symbol gave him hope of finding the place.  It better happen soon.  The growing darkness would soon make any further travel too dangerous.  Last thing he wanted to do was twist an ankle on something as trivial as a broken branch or loose stone.

A turn in the road took him beyond the forest.  After so many days within a world of trees, he paused to enjoy the panoramic view.  A wide flatland extended before him.  On both sides of the path, fields of grain stood tall.  Beyond these outer fields, the crops changed.  These plants extended no higher than the lowest fence board.  Like the previous fields, the crops appeared well tended, though the darkening night may have hidden anything unusual. 

He kept to the safety of the stone road.  Nobody attempted to stop him and no guard appeared to be on duty.  A strange thing in his experience.  His paw brushed the hilt of his short sword while he walked.  His ears detected nothing more threatening than the sound of a few insects.  His eyes failed to notice anything moving towards him as he approached a collection of buildings.

Every morph settlement had at least one or more Watchers on constant patrol.  Standing on the deserted road so close to the village without any alarm sounding made him jumpy.  Any sentry worthy of the duty challenges a stranger with his weapon drawn long before that unknown morph reached a point close enough to menace the inhabitants.  Such a threatening encounter would return this scenario to something he considered normal.

Time to evaluate his options.  On the left side of the road, a series of one story buildings.  At either corner, a lantern threw enough illumination so any traveler would not trip on the porch.  All the shutters remained closed but a few hinted at occupancy thanks to a weak light under a shut window.  Several of the buildings had no light whatsoever, which had him envision a crouching predator.

He checked out the one building that dominated the settlement.  It stood three stories tall and appeared to be twice as large as any two of the one-floor structures.  Here the building's porch supported four lanterns, each throwing off enough light to keep the night at bay.  Where the other porches stood vacant, this one had several unused tables and stools leaning against the wall.  Crossing the road, he approached what he hoped was the advertised inn.

Though closed, two wide doors acted like a siren's call to a weary sailor.  When he drew closer, each entryway displayed a different graphic.  The left one showed an overflowing tankard while the other reminded him of a bread loaf.  Wavy marks above it hinted at its freshness.  At least he found a place for food and drink.

Several paces down the porch, he found another entrance that opened just as wide.  Like the first set, it had an ideogram carved into it.  When the doors were shut, as they were now, it displayed two halves of a lit lantern.  Rays of light radiated from the picture in all directions.  This had to be the Inn's main entrance.  Without hesitation, he pushed his way inside.

"Greetings traveler, welcome to River Haven Inn.  Can I be of assistance?"

The receptionist, a pudgy lady porcupine, sat on a stool behind a low counter.  Based on the dark black fur along her muzzle, the lady had to be in the prime of life, maybe as old as his parent's or a few years younger.  She wore a bright green pinafore over a sky blue dress and a pair of sandals with straps that weaved up her legs to a point below her knees.  She must have trimmed her quills as the usual barbed white tips were missing.  Her spectacles hugged her muzzle near the very tip so she could eye her visitor over the wooden frame.  A quick step brought her to the counter.

"Greetings to you, dear lady.  I am Pelzwerk and come from a place far to the east.  Can you assist a traveler with food, supplies, and lodging?"

"Most squirrels are diurnal, so we will have no troubles accommodating your needs, though we have quarters for those on a nocturnal schedule, if you prefer.  Lodging for the night is one weight of copper, and that entitles you to a hot meal and your first drink.  Just show your room key to any hostess.  When you are ready for bed, return here.  I'll have quarters arranged by the time you finish your meal."

"What of supplies?  I have travelled for some time and still have far to go," Pelzwerk asked the lady.

"Shops open at midday.  I'm sure you'll find everything you need.  Our tribe prides itself on providing only the best merchandise and at a fair price.  One look will convince you."

Pelzwerk gave the lady several copper beads of various sizes, which she weighed on a scale.  She took four of the medium sized beads and returned the rest.  Satisfied with the exchange, he accepted the key offered by the receptionist.  He placed it in his vest pocket.

She pointed to a hallway that extended off to his left.  Pelzwerk followed it from the inn's registration desk to the Common Room's main entrance.  After the solitude of his journey and the businesslike atmosphere of the proprietor, stepping into the Common Room came as a refreshing splash of cold water to the face.  He preferred his solitude but saw no excuse for avoiding these porcupines.  At least that's what he expected.

Voices bounced off the walls without being so loud that he could focus on any of the multitude of conversations.  A quick scan of the room revealed quite a mixture of morph species.  Something he hadn't encountered during his travels.  Stranger yet, none of the customers carried weapons.  Other villages he visited treated morphs of a different species as potential enemies.  They spoke words of greeting but kept their paws close to any weapon available.  He spent as little time in such places as possible.

None took any notice of his arrival so he had time to scan the room.  Six wolves occupied one booth with each pair rubbing muzzles whenever one ceased eating or drinking.  Three ferrets kept referring to some drawing on their table in a very animated manner with an older ram.  Four hares on the other side of the room discussed the weather as if it had some significance beyond a possible hindrance to their work or travels.   A lone mouse sat at some unknown musical instrument, his efforts often overridden by the many voices in the room.  Several female porcupines raced about the room in response to waves from the many patrons. 

Pelzwerk found a booth that offered him a view of the bustling activity without being close enough to attract attention from the other guests.  He no sooner sat than one of the serving girls magically appeared at his table.  She gave him a slight head bob and waited.  When he said nothing about her presence, she broke the silence.

"Your pleasure, sir?"

A wave of the key and a word about a cold beer had the female disappear.  He allowed the noise to wash over him, grateful to be sitting after a full day's travel.  Time passed.  His eyes searched for his hostess without success while his stomach protested the delay.  Just as Pelzwerk decided to seek out the bartender, another porcupine placed everything he ordered on the table.  His mouth watered at the aroma and he dug into the meal.

Satisfied, he leaned back against the cushion.  His hostess returned, asked if he required anything before removing the empties.  She returned with a slice of pie, saying it was part of his meal.  The unexpected treat proved one of the best things to happen to him since he left home.  If he thought he could enjoy some privacy before retiring for the night, he was mistaken.  Apparently the barkeep wished to greet his latest guest.

Like the lady receptionist, the fellow trimmed his quills so none showed a barbed end.  Based on his attire, the fellow doubled as the Inn's cook.  His white apron advertised today's menu via the various food stains.  Where the lady at the reception desk acted all businesslike, this fellow seemed determine to make each and every morph present his newest best friend.  His arrival took time since he greeted each guest he passed by name.

"My niece said your speech is quite unusual; it has a special twang to it.  I'm sure she's just not as familiar with the squirrel tribe's accent as I am.  It's been more than a year since any of your kind visited us.  Can you tell me if that overweight grey, Boughbreaker, still rules?"

"If there is a local squirrel tribe, I'm not with them.  Let's just say I have travelled far and am a bit tired.  Leave me be as I'll be going to my room in a bit."

The fellow scratched his ear.  "Sharpie was right, you're not from this region or anywhere nearby.  After as much time tending bar as I have and with my travels, I'm familiar with almost every accent in the Known Lands.  Would you be adverse to some friendly counsel?"

Pelzwerk gave a low growl.  "Have I any choice?"

The barkeeper slid onto a stool across from him.  "Our kind operate three haven inns.  All are welcomed on condition that any disputes they have with other morphs remain beyond our borders.  Trade negotiations, as well as peace talks, requires a neutral zone.  We act as that neutral site where compromise is possible without either side loosing face.  We pride ourselves on how well we facilitate such discussions."

"And yet I strolled into your land without ever being challenged."

The fellow shook his head.  "Guards observed your arrival when you left the forest.  Did you think our front desk lady waits there all night hoping a guest arrives unannounced?  You made no threatening move so we didn't have a reason to challenge you.  We do enforce the peace, when necessary.  As a neutral zone, you may carry a weapon but it cannot be drawn regardless of provocation.  None will bother you but if you need another's help, this is where you'll find it.  For example, an otter raft will be going to the sea in five days and a raft of ringtails is going upstream in two.  Either will take you as far as you wish for a measure of copper.  If you catch my meaning."

His message needed no interpreter to decipher.  Pelzwerk intended leaving tomorrow, but a raft ride upriver with a crew of raccoons could cut his travel time dramatically.  It would be money well spent for both passage and the extra day's lodging.  The rest would do him good.

The receptionist sent a young girl with him when he asked about his room.  The child led him to one of the buildings across the road and ushered him into a dimly lit space.  She recited a list of rules and service options before returning his key.  She departed after a quick curtsy.

Halfway up the far wall a circular hole called to him.  Pelzwerk locked the door and dropped his backpack.  He crossed the unfurnished room and with a lithe bound, jumped up.  His claws caught the jutting platform and he somersaulted into the box.  A heavy cedar smell greeted him when he dropped onto the bedding.  A moment later, sleep claimed him.
Once again my avatar is working.  Does Snoopy happydance. 

"The only definitions of the word 'fair' is in reference to the weather and a carnival, any other meaning is strictly a product of your imagination."

cairn destop

A good night's sleep always helps the morning look better.  Plezwerk gave a stretch while lying on his bed.  The scent of cedar and pine filled his sleeping box as he shifted positions.  For just a moment, his mind wandered to his home tree.  If he kept his eyes shut, he imagined himself there.  Such pleasant memories faded to the reality of another day as sunlight invaded the place.

Plezwerk checked his gear and found nothing missing.  He expected otherwise.  Such thefts were commonplace, at least according to his tribal elders.  Since other tribes proved to be inhospitable, he pressed onward rather than stay longer than one night.  The rumored pilfering considered routine, proved unfounded.  The expectation of a full belly and the prospect of making good timing on his trip had him feeling perky.  This day kept getting better by the moment and it was less than an hour old. 

He locked his room and jogged over to the receptionist.  A different lady porcupine stood behind the counter.  This lady's fur had a golden blond hue to it and where last night's receptionist had a bounce to her step, this one grunted with every shift in weight.  They negotiated a price for the additional nights he needed and received an assurance they would notify him when the raccoons arrived. 

According to the receptionist, his room fee covered his evening meal.  He did learn availing himself of the breakfast menu, would cost him extra.  That didn't bother him.  He found the prices quoted here reasonable considering how much he received.  If the morning meal proved as filling, he would regret his return to travel rations when he departed.

The morning cook / bartender kept himself behind his counter despite the near empty room.  He preferred this porcupine over the intrusive fellow from last night.  He provided the waitress with his order, which allowed him time to enjoy his meal in quiet solitude.  Plezwerk decided to nurse his cider drink as he had no idea when the shops opened for business.  He anticipated a quiet wait.

A young rat leaned forward at the bar after summoning the bartender closer.  He and the porcupine talked for a moment, their voices too low and distant for him to discern the topic of their conversation.  Both glanced his way before they continued their discussion.  A timely interruption stopped them.  The bartender shifted to the far end of the bar, beckoned by one of the wolves he saw last night while the rat remained in his seat. 

That changed.  The rat stood.  He placed one paw on the bottom of the tankard while grasping the handle with the other.  He stared at his drink for a few seconds before he turned in place.  Now that he faced in his general direction, the rat shuffled across the wooden floor towards him.  Both paws steadied the tankard, which he treated with great care.

Plezwerk took the time to compare this fellow to the descriptions he overheard when his tribal elders discussed rats.  Seems they didn't know as much about the world as he believed.  This rat was skinny without being thin or undernourished, unlike the expected overweight glutton.  His fur had a charcoal grayish hue compared to the anticipated midnight black.  The last contradiction was the fellow's expression.  One tribal elder said rats always displayed a predatory expression, not the long-lost relative look this fellow had.  The rat's grin widened the closer he came to his table.

Drunk or sober, I don't need this intrusion.  "State your business, rat, if that's why you came to my table.  Otherwise, find someplace else.  Your presence is neither welcomed nor wanted."

The fellow didn't take the blunt hint and sat across from him as if his comment were some universal invitation.  "The bartender tells me you intend going all the way upriver.  So am I.  Perhaps we can be travel partners."

"I said nothing about my destination.  As to a companion, I'm sure you have somewhere else to be as do I."

"There are four river settlements upstream.  Two are ruled by otters who have an instinctive mistrust of squirrels.  I doubt you would last a night in either.  The third one is filled with bruins newly awakened from their winter hibernation.  You would make an excellent meal and none of their Watchers would care since you carry no herald's badge.  The last and furthest village upstream is inhabited by raccoons and is nothing more than a temporary camp, a rest stop for their raft.  No trade, no other squirrels, and nothing they need from your kind since they migrate north when the spring floods ebb."

"So what takes you on such a pleasure cruise," Plezwerk asked, his tone challenging the fellow to explain himself.  "Have you business at one of the camps, or are you going as live food for somebody's entertainment?"

"A drool sense of humor, I like that, squirrel.  But to answer your question, the raccoon village is where I'll meet a caravan going south.  My destination is the archeological site of Eug On, an ancient human city.  Our tribe discovered it five years back and have been working the site from early spring to late autumn each year.  Unless you intend traveling further south into uncharted territory, we are both going to the same place.  An intermediary can open closed doors if you're hoping to find something of value there."

"Rats have a reputation as excellent puzzle solvers, you live up to that expectation," Plezwerk conceded.  "Since I am stuck with you for the duration of our travels, I will accept your offer of companionship, until we can part ways.  Your hunch that I'm going into unknown territory is right."

"Amazing what one can learn from nothing more than a talkative receptionist and a bored barkeep.  May I ask for more details on your trip?"

"No, you may not, rat.  My business is mine alone.  For now, if I interpret my waitress's signal, the supply shops have opened.  Enjoy the hospitality of the bar."

He didn't even give the rat a chance to respond.  Plezwerk exited the Common Room and stepped onto the porch.  The buildings that displayed no lantern last night each flew a different colored flag.  A gentle breeze allowed him to examine each and identify what merchandise they offered.  If his haggling skills held up, he would be fully stocked by the evening meal.

His first stop had clothing available.  Since leaving home he travelled over very rough terrain, some of his things went from serviceable garments to threadbare rags.  The porcupine receptionist was right.  He found the merchandise quality superior to anything he had back home and at a reasonable price.  They even had a rain repellant wrap that went over his attire and kept his paws free.  Satisfied with his selections, he approached the proprietor and after a short conversation agreed to a price.  When the shopkeeper handed him the receipt, he hesitated.  He kept shifting the document as he examined it.

"Not one for letters and numbers," the store's clerk inquired.

"I can do simple math, but my tribe has no tutors for those of low rank.  We never considered such a thing useful since reading or writing will not make the harvest greater."

The shopkeeper exchanged the slip for one with five tick marks and a picture representation of the merchandise he selected.  He nodded at the fellow and thanked him for his honesty.  The shopkeeper offered the services of his eldest son to summarize his purchases from the other stores so he need pay just one bill instead of several.  The shopkeeper promised to deliver all his purchases to his quarters since the local porcupine tribe owned and operated every store.

Another voice intruded.  "No need, sir.  We rats are well educated and I can assist my friend when it comes to his bill."

"Your assistance is unnecessary, rat."

The rat placed his paw on Plezwerk's shoulder.  "I can well understand your anger.  We traded riddles regarding our travels, shared a drink, bartered with one another, and yet I neglected to introduce myself.  Please excuse my ill manners and let me rectify that oversight.  I am Calator, digger third class and on my first artifact hunt.  May I ask for your name my dear tree hugger?"

"You may ask all you wish.  I'll tell you in my own good time, if I see it beneficial in any way.  Otherwise, there are more important things needing my attention than a meddling rat."

"You seem familiar with wilderness travel; I could benefit from your expertise.  Like I said, this is my first venture beyond our tribal lands.  Let me follow you and we can help each other."

How do you turn down somebody paying you a compliment?  Plezwerk felt trapped by the rat's outgoing personality but saw no way to get rid of him.  When he told him in words as blunt as possible, it didn't work. Neither did subtle hints sway the rat's fixation on him.  He remembered the fellow's name and the fact they would be traveling together regardless of his opinion.  For the foreseeable future, he may as well accept Calator's aid and companionship.  It wasn't permanent and he could endure the fellow for a short time.  Who knows, it might prove beneficial.
Once again my avatar is working.  Does Snoopy happydance. 

"The only definitions of the word 'fair' is in reference to the weather and a carnival, any other meaning is strictly a product of your imagination."

cairn destop

"Admit it, Plezwerk.  A river raft upstream beats hiking through that forest with a backpack equal to your own weight."

Calator startled him and he shoved the book he held into his backpack.  "It is faster and easier on the feet but eventually I must learn to shoulder this pack.  So what brings you aft when your fellow diggers occupy the bow, or will all of you become ticks in the fur?"

The rat pulled a notebook out of his pocket, his writing stick racing across the page like a hummingbird's wings as it darted through a field of flowers.  "'Ticks in the fur,' an idiom that any morph can relate to via some descriptive passage.  I'm guessing it infers we are an annoyance and you prefer we go somewhere else?"

"Didn't I say you excelled at puzzles?  There's your proof.  Now let me rest, Calator."

"Rats have the reputation of being sly, and most other morphs say that in an unflattering way.  Nice seeing tree huggers can stoop just as low.  You had those porcupines thinking you cannot read, but you can.  Bet that book proves your skills equal mine."

"Hiding such talents lets me gauge the honesty of a merchant.  As to a book, I have no idea what you mean.  These are maps I hope will help me find my intended destination."

"Maps?  If I uttered the word book or map, you'll not have a moment of peace.  My friends sense of curiosity will overwhelm you.  Think us ticks in the fur now, imagine the nine of us crawling under your skin and you without any repellant.  Best we share this discovery while their attention is on the surrounding forest."

Plezwerk hated to concede to his logic.  They had another five days travel and he didn't want to jump ship and walk.  That would double his time.  Worse yet, if the rat was right, he would have to go through this archeological dig to reach his destination.  It became a case of now or later.  He muttered under his breath at both his stupidity and the inquisitive nature of rats.  Yet he tried delaying that inevitable discussion.

"Everyone will be extra tired tonight.  Our ringtail Captain used the word portage and rapids in the same sentence twice with his Second during the last watch.  We will be undertaking an extended walk before nightfall.  At least that's what I've heard."

As if on cue, the raccoon Captain shouted.  "Rest while you can, we reach shore in less than an hour.  Once on land. we hike above the river's rapids so have your personal gear packed and ready.  We must not dawdle if we intend reaching our destination by sunset.  Not to worry, nothing will be lost.  The trail is well marked and the remaining journey will be much faster once we get above this canyon."

The raft glided across the water to a wide clearing.  Once the raccoon crew secured the raft to a convenient pier, everyone walked to shore.  Supplies went into wagons while each passenger shouldered their personal backpack.  The trek started with the raccoons pulling several supply wagons and everyone else following them.  An overcast day kept things cool while the sounds of the forest faded, replaced by the roar of rapids.  A dry path allowed for faster travel since the carts rolled with ease across the hard packed dirt.

Their Captain spoke the truth, the path was well marked and the uphill climb proved an easy one though the frequent switchbacks increased the distance traveled.  In spite of frequent breaks, everyone gave a satisfied sigh of relief when they reached their eventual destination.  It didn't meet the standards of any traveler's inn, but it did beat sleeping out in the open as they did every night since leaving the Inn.  Each raised platform could hold ten of them without crowding.  Better yet, they had an overhang that kept the night's drizzle off them.  Tonight, everyone would sleep in dry comfort. 

Calator convinced his friends to share a platform while he and the squirrel kept to another one.  All agreed to the suggestion if he allowed them to store their backpacks on the other platform, which would give them more room.  A few of the ladies offered Calator condolences on his choice of bunkmates, their comments both barbed and amiable.  By the time everyone ate, what started out as an evening drizzle progressed to a steady rain.  None would wander far in such a downpour.

Plezwerk didn't need any verbal reminder of his promise; the rat's hungry expression did that.  He opened his backpack and dug out the book he inadvertently exposed earlier.  The rat took the pristine pages as if they were made of egg shells.  Calator used their central fire pit to illuminate the object of his curiosity.  The rat opened the book of ancient maps, examining each as he flipped from one cover to the other.

"How did you get your paws on a mint condition Rand?  Such books are nothing less than the Holy Grail of cartography.  Those we have are so deteriorated that much of the information we have is conjecture based on bits and pieces from dozen of fragments.  I know elders back home who might kill to have this, and you treat it as if it had minor importance."

"My story is long, so keep your questions for later."  Plezwerk settled back until he felt comfortable.
Once again my avatar is working.  Does Snoopy happydance. 

"The only definitions of the word 'fair' is in reference to the weather and a carnival, any other meaning is strictly a product of your imagination."

cairn destop

Long before either parent drew breath, the Squirrel Tribe existed.  They lived among other morphs trying to survive the Dark Times.  Things did not work out well in these lands so the tribe moved north, beyond the Barrier Mountains.  Some said they backed the wrong faction in one of the many morph wars and suffered the consequences.  Others claimed they departed the Known Lands when the forest died leaving them homeless and hungry.  A few claimed it happened due to the wanderlust nature of those who ruled the tribe.  None can say they know the actual reason but these are the most logical explanations offered.

For more than a generation, they wandered a wilderness where trees often numbered less than the fingers on a paw for as far as the eye beheld.  One day, in the morning shadows of a mountain named by the ancient humans, they discovered a pristine forest, unclaimed by any morph.  They settled here, in a land where the trees provided a never ending bounty.

Legend tells of two amorous youths racing through the trees, across the forest floor, and atop a rocky knoll.  During their extended game of tag, one of them darted inside a small cave near the summit of an unknown hill.  The other pursued their intended into the same opening.  Moments later they came out, all thoughts of romance deferred to a more appropriate time.

Within the mountain, they discovered a huge cavern.  They notified the elders of their discovery, eager to show them what they found.  The tribal elders investigated the cave.  Before the next winter's snows buried the land, the tribe constructed a stronghold and sunk two ventilation turbines deep into the mountain.  Now the tribe had somewhere to stay during the harshest of winters.  Each morph still needed winter fur and blankets, but the temperature inside never dropped low enough to threaten life or limbs.

Everyone found the cave a bit strange.  The four explored levels measured the same length and width.  Ceiling heights on each level matched, regardless of which end one occupied.  The cavern had chambers, all rectangular in shape but in various sizes.  The tribal elders declared the first two levels as living quarters and the next two they set aside for food storage.

Not all was ideal.  On each explored level, two demons with vacant eyes that never blinked stared across a narrow corridor at two other eyeless demons.  One elder tossed a torch into an eye and it disappeared below them.  Several elders pushed a heavy object they found into a different eye.  It fell into the darkness and none ever heard it hit bottom.  That first year the tribe constructed a wall before each eye so none would wander into the void, but only on the four occupied floors.  Until they needed to go deeper, they saw no reason to employ such precautions.

Two other square openings descended into the darkness at opposite ends of this strange cave.  Around the outer edge, a continuous ramp led downward.  Beyond the fourth level, either the metallic railing crumbled or parts of the circling ramps fell away, leaving large gaps.  The deeper they ventured, the more deteriorated the ramps until even the most athletic squirrel risked their life crossing these openings.  Like the demon's eye, the central shaft held only darkness.  Anything tossed into the void disappeared.  Elders warned all about the dangers of going deeper than the fourth level.

Most obeyed.  For the young, the allure of the forbidden claimed a few each winter.  Almost every youth ventured onto the fifth level, wondering what made the place such a mysterious place.  Those who ventured deeper and returned unharmed were hailed by their contemporaries as the bravest members of their tribe.  All such explorers brought artifacts from these lower levels to prove their claim.

These artifacts had no practical use to anyone.  Odd bits of twisted metal or some device that had no obvious use were discarded a short time after their return.  Those who either lost their prize or decided not to show useless items spent much of their time substantiating their claims.  Even without proof of their success reaching an unexplored level, those returning youths gained respect.

Saddest of all were those youths who intended going deeper than the seventh level.  To date, nobody ever returned from such a mission.  A day or two after the winter snows sealed the entire tribe underground, they talked about the how or when of their trip.  On the designated day, these bold adventurers departed the living area boasting of their intentions.  A few friends followed them to the fifth or sixth level, but withdrew when their friend insisted on going deeper.  They disappeared into the lower levels, their final fate unknown. 

Calator interrupted the narration.  "If nothing else, you have given me a riddle to confound even the wisest elder of our tribe.  However, it tells nothing of the Rand you carry."

"Patience," Plezwerk responded.  "How it came into my possession should be obvious.  Why it is here is another story."
Once again my avatar is working.  Does Snoopy happydance. 

"The only definitions of the word 'fair' is in reference to the weather and a carnival, any other meaning is strictly a product of your imagination."

cairn destop

As winter approached, Plezwerk learned his hope of inheriting his father's title as tribal elder would never happen.  With the birth of twin nephews, Plezwerk's ambitions vanished.  Not that he had much hope as the second son.  Now his nephews stood second and third in line behind his older brother.

He needed another way of proving his dominance.  While all stayed in the safety of the cave's upper levels, he intended going deeper than any squirrel ever ventured.  He might never inherit his father's title of Tribal Elder, but others would seek his counsel if he proved himself braver than anyone else.

Others made a similar boast every year.  None returned who attempted anything deeper than the seventh level.  The fifth and sixth levels no longer held anything valuable as earlier generations scavenged everything.  Plezwerk learned the stories of those adults who successfully reached the seventh floor.  Those bold adventurers used the winding ramp, which required one to shift from one end to the other since the ramps became more dangerous the deeper one went and they continued to deteriorate.  The ramp that seven winters back appeared sturdy and solid now had a hole big enough for a misplaced foot. 

He anticipated such setbacks.  He devised another plan for reaching the lower levels that circumvented the ramps.  It took him time devising a way of testing his idea.  A few failed, others proved themselves impractical.  Those failures did him no harm and led to modifications.  Over the last few days before the first winter storm, he tested his latest idea and found it feasible. 

Plezwerk awaited the first heavy storm, eager to put his plan into action.  When the snows did fall, he rushed to his designated living cube.  Too young to be considered an adult and too old to be accepted by children, nobody pestered him.  He checked and recheck his gear, as he waited for the right moment.

He did seek others, hoping to lead them on the deepest exploration ever.  If he lead others as deep as he hoped, those who came would not only boast of their achievement, but of his resourcefulness and leadership.  Tribal Elders would risk the wrath of the entire tribe if they dared to dismiss his voice after he came back triumphant. 

Now that winter had them huddled in the cave, his contemporaries changed their mind.  Instead of exploring the lower levels, those on the cusp of adulthood expressed no desire for such adventures.  The ones who backed his play before the snows decided the move far too dangerous or the anticipated gain insufficient. 

Trapped, that one word described Plezwerk's emotions.  He made such lofty claims prior to the winter snows that to back out now would destroy whatever role he hoped to play in the tribe's power structure.  Boastings without backing would relegate him to the role of tribal buffoon.  Not going to happen if he had anything to do about it.

Reaching the sixth level wasn't too difficult.  Most of the tribe's adults had gone that deep at least once in their lifetime.  The seventh proved harder, but with the advice of those who also ventured that deep, he made it.  The first trip from the sixth to the seventh floor scared him.  As he ferried his supplies from one to the other, he gained confidence.  Tired from all the work, he rested in a nearby chamber.

When he awoke, he put his plan into operation.  Instead of using the deteriorating ramps at either end, he intended to use the demon's eye.  He had fashioned eight grappling hooks and carried enough rope to drop as deep as twelve levels.  He dropped the first hook and tried catching the upper rim of the demon's eye one level down.  With the rope secured, he threw the line into the eye across the hallway. 

A second rope lowered a lantern.  If it didn't provide enough illumination, his adventure ended.  He grasped the first rope and slid down to the first knot.  No way out, just up or down remained.  Another knot and still another knot slid between his paws.  A quarter of the rope gone and the opening remained far below his feet.  Had he miscalculated? 

Two more knots down and he reached his goal.  In the lantern's light he saw the grappling hook and breathed a sigh of relief.  It remained anchored to the upper lip of the eye opposite to him.  He kicked out at the wall between the demon eyes and swung away from the illuminated corridor.  His momentum changed and now he approached the opening.  Plezwerk released his grip and skidded to a halt halfway between the two staring demons.  By throwing the rope around the narrow wall between two eyes, he secured the rope.  He had his means of returning to the higher floors.

As he did on the stairwell, Plezwerk lugged his gear from one floor to the next.  Once he accounted for everything, he repeated the process with a second rope, leaving the first one in place.  He thought it would become easier with repetition; it didn't.  By the time he lugged his supplies to the next level and freed the lantern, he needed to rest. 

These levels remained as uniform as those where his people lived.  The one difference, the thickness of the dust and dirt.  He didn't care about the mess.  Plezwerk cleared enough space for sleep and turned out the lantern.  The absolute darkness felt heavier than any winter coat.

Time had no meaning.  When he awoke, his applied steel to flint until the lantern flared to life.  Within that circle of light, Plezwerk feared nothing.  It was what laid beyond that boundary that scared him.  His current success spurred him to continue his descent.

When he finished ferrying his supplies another three levels, he made what had to be a monumental decision.  He would go no further down.  As much as he hated to admit it, this adventure took more energy out of him than he anticipated.  Worse yet, the air grew fouler the deeper he went. 

Six levels down and still alive.  Plezwerk went deeper than anyone ever attempted and did it solo; that proved his bravery.  Him doing it without challenging the ramps showed his intelligence and resourcefulness.  His next objective, find a treasure worth the risks taken.  It had to be something the rest of the tribe would speak about for years to come. 

Refreshed after a short rest, he tried lighting one of the torches he brought.  It sputtered to life, the flame giving off a dim glow.  Plezwerk hunted for one of the corner ramps curious to know their condition this far below the four occupied by the tribe.  When he pushed the door open, the torch flared to life. 

In its illumination, he found one ramp to his left and nothing else.  Lying on it was the skeletal remains of an unknown morph.  Male or female, young or old, long lost friend or just another tribal youth, it all remained a mystery.  Plezwerk wondered if the adventurer trusted the solidity of a ramp or the security of a rusty railing before his fatal fall.  Did he misjudge a jump or was he inept with knots?  Plezwerk wondered if the others plunged to their deaths trying to do what he was doing now.

Once the door closed, the torch's light waned.  Now he knew why the air seemed so foul.  No circulation.  When he opened the door, air entered from the ramp shaft.  Problem, the door kept closing due to a device he couldn't disable.  The expected landing didn't exist at this level so he couldn't reach the mechanism that kept closing the door. 

An idea came to him.  He searched the immediate area, expanding it a little at a time until he located what he wanted, a metal box a bit taller than him.  The five compartments opened, revealing moldy papers, which he discarded.  By pure chance, he discovered a way to remove the compartments.  Plezwerk dragged the metal box to the corner shaft.  Once wedged into the doorway, it kept the door open.

Time to check out the other side of the cavern.  At least the shaft's ramps were present on this side, but his sense of self preservation kept him off the landing beyond the door.  Thanks to the torch flashing to its maximum brightness, his eyes traced a path up and down four levels.  However, these ramps appeared to be less than half the width of those in the living area and the metal barrier no longer existed. 

The added air from the two open shafts kept the torch burning brighter, which made exploration easier.  Now he concentrated on finding something worthwhile.  Stories of the first explorers said the chambers had a wooden barrier in front of them.  Pressure from a single paw had it crumble to a pile of rotting splinters.  He found such legends hard to accept until he proved them true on this unexplored level.

Two such doors crumbled when he pushed them with his shoulder.  He remained near the destroyed doors and held his torch high.  The light reflected off a shiny barrier located in a distant corner.  Metal bars, including a broken gate, extended as high as his hip, separating a portion of this chamber from the rest of the room.  Plezwerk figured something of value must lie beyond it, so he hurdled over the low wall.  He discovered a metallic ball marring the smooth metal surface of one wall.  It reminded him of something he found on the wooden doors.  This must control access to whatever lied beyond.  He tried lifting it, pushing it down, and moving it side to side.  Nothing happened. 

It resisted his efforts when he twisted it to the right.  A turn to the left produced a loud bang that made his heart race.  A sense of terror claimed him as every horror story replayed in his mind.  When no demon attempted to steal his soul or take his life, he relaxed.  His second attempt at twisting the bulb had it turn with ease but the door remained closed.  He placed his foot on the neighboring wall and with a mighty grunt pulled with all the strength he possessed.  It opened.
Once again my avatar is working.  Does Snoopy happydance. 

"The only definitions of the word 'fair' is in reference to the weather and a carnival, any other meaning is strictly a product of your imagination."

cairn destop

An unexpected gust of wind caught the raft's sail, shifting it towards the distant shore.  The raccoons made a slight adjustment to the tiller and the boat continued tacking upwind.  Unless one noticed the crew's reaction, the change caused no harm to ship, crew, or passengers.  The pleasant ride upriver continued uninterrupted.

Calator adjusted his straw hat to shade his face.  "I know of the Rand, but what other treasures did you find inside that sealed chamber?"

Plezwerk leaned back against his bedroll.  "The Elders hold a tribal counsel with the first full moon of Spring, which is when all leave the cave.  They do that to debate what the tribe needs to do during the upcoming growing season.  I decided to brag about how many levels I descended and to show off the treasures recovered at that time.  It didn't go as planned."

"Bad," Calator asked.

"I had fifty boxes, each holding a dozen wooden writing sticks.  The Elders saw no use to them since we kept few written record and only the families of Elders knew how to write.  Rolls of different sized silver disks turned out to be worthless, good for melting and recasting as nails but not a valuable treasure.  The copper ones had value, but nobody though it warranted the risk of venturing back that many levels.  My biggest treasure, six glasses used to make fire they dismissed, saying one was enough for the entire tribe."

"You didn't show them the Rands you found?"  Calator's expression showed shock at such an oversight.

"It took a month for me to open the first one.  Caution slowed me when I wanted to race the eagle.  Another week passed before I opened the second book.  Everyone laughed, thinking my collection of ancient maps worthless.  Who needs inaccurate pictures to travel the nearby forest?  Elders told me the world changed too much since the time of our Makers.  I dug a pit, lined it with bricks and mortar to make it waterproof, and buried what I found."

Humiliated, Plezwerk left after the next new moon, traveling south.  It made no sense to him recreating their legendary exile migration from the Known Lands.  Elders told tales of a fierce tribe of dogs who guarded the pass in a castle built in the time of humans.  If such a story proved accurate and he couldn't convince the guardian Dog Tribe to let him through the pass, it would force him to backtrack homeward. 

That he would not do.  Instead of backtracking, he took a simple compass and kept moving in a southerly direction.  He spent that first winter on the north side of the Barrier Mountains.  When the snows melted, Plezwerk made it through the mountain chain all considered impassible.  One of the maps showed the location of a tunnel built by the Makers that allowed passage through the mountains.  Its one drawback, it took him a great distance to the east.

A search of the maps never revealed the location of the Dog Castle.  That didn't exist when these maps were printed.  However, the mountains didn't change that much over the more than thousand years since the time of humans.  Plezwerk did find a road with the distinctive shape of the Badland Pass between the Known Lands and the Northern Wastelands.  Tribal myths said morphs occupied the southern side and he wondered if they still did.  His curiosity led him westward until he discovered the paved road and the porcupine's Inn.

Calator had no opportunity to question him.  The raccoon captain lifted a horn and blew a long note.  A moment later, another horn replied.  The crew's pace changed from casual to hectic as the raft made its way across the lake.  Eager paws operated the sweep as other raccoons raised extra canvas.

The village came into sight.  Plezwerk decided his companion's description inaccurate.  This place didn't have the feeling of temporary.  The stockade consisted of tall wooden poles buried deep into place.  Each touched its companion forming a solid wall and the tops had been sharpened into stakes.  Even from their position out on the lake, figures could be seen patrolling a walkway near the top.  One or two watchtowers might signify a temporary place, but not the six he counted.

Near the center, three piers jutted into the lake like fingers of a mighty hand.  Great pilings had been driven into the lake and the dock had a feel of permanence.  The one at the near end remained devoid of any craft.  No doubt their final destination.  A raft that dwarfed this one floated at the end of the middle pier.  The third one extended twice as far into the lake and had a virtual flotilla of small craft tied to it.

A scan of the lake revealed similar boats hard at labor gathering fish.  Some had raccoons casting nets.  Others rowed towards shore towing nets that churned the water from the bounty they hauled shoreward.  Along the beach the raccoons sorted, cleaned, and smoked fish while others worked on nets that hung like a month's worth of laundry.

Closer to shore, Plezwerk observed the village itself.  Not one tent anywhere.  Every building a solid wooden structure with a stout roof.  The outer wall protected three sides of the village and extended a fair distance into the lake itself, which acted as the fourth wall to any would be invader.  Instead of a simple box layout, the wall projected off the straight line, making it a formidable defense to any approaching from the land side.

It made Plezwerk pause a moment.  Such a high number of raccoons in one area made this a permanent camp.  The heavy defenses spoke of possible tensions with others in the area.  Stories of ancient wars between morphs during the Dark Times had him shudder.   It made him wonder who these walls protected.

"Something tells me our Elders didn't reveal everything about this camp," Calator muttered.  "Wonder who they anticipate attacking their settlement."

"A good defense discourages a foolish attacker.  It may all be for show."

As the raft drew nearer to the empty pier, a crowd gathered.  It took no intelligence picking out which youngsters had family on the raft.  They jumped and waved while holding onto the paw of another.  The adult showed more restraint but they too waved a small colored cloth as a means of catching somebody's attention.  At least they remained on the shore while the crew tied up the raft.  Once the Captain ordered the plank lowered, the raccoon crew dashed off the raft and into the waiting crowd.

Time to leave the raft.  Each rat strolled down the ramp to the dock and proceeded to the shore.  It didn't take Plezwerk much effort finding who waited for them.  The fellow was a classic rat, overweight and dark of fur.  He stood apart from the raccoons, possibly to be easier to find.

"Seven . . . eight . . . nine, all present and accounted for," the older rat muttered loud enough that all could hear.  "Welcome all.  We have a short overland hike to the dig site.  One more night of roughing it and we will be at camp before the next sunset.  Everyone ready?"

"You have one more traveling with you," Plezwerk said.  "I didn't realize I needed to pass through your dig site to continue south.  If I need some appropriate documentation or permission, I don't have it.  Just give me my backpack and I'll push on without any bother."

Calator jumped to his companion's defense.  "I'll vouch for him, Chief Digger.  We have been together since the Inn and he has no interest in our dig."

"Leave your backpack where it is.  An unexpected visitor is always welcomed, though any morph going further south is a rare thing indeed."

Four bruins transferred the cargo from the raft to a large wagon.  Plezwerk marveled at their strength.  When the raccoon crew loaded the raft at the Inn, it took six of them working together to move just one crate.  One bruin lifted a crate as if it were nothing more than a minor inconvenience.  At the rapids, it took two raccoons per cart pulling one crate.  This wagon held all ten crates and everyone's backpacks.

The bruins took their place between the wagon's trace and lifted the poles.  Without even a grunt, they marched forward.  Everyone followed the bruins.  The caravan proceeded through a large gate and over a wide drawbridge to the outlying buildings.  Plezwerk noticed the division of labor among the raccoons.  Those inside the stockade concentrated on fishing while those outside the walls cultivated fields of vegetables.

Beyond the raccoon village, all signs of civilization ceased.  The trail they followed couldn't be called a proper road.  It was nothing more than hard packed dirt with many ruts and deadfall that had the cart bouncing more than the raft ever did.  Sometimes a wheel lodged itself in a deep hole.  Two of the bruins would pull while the other two pushed.  If a fallen tree blocked the path, all four bruins worked at moving the obstacle.  Such hazards were frequent but seldom delayed them long enough for even a short rest.

Since he and the rats remained unencumbered, the trip turned into a pleasant walk through the wilderness.  Two quick stops during the day for about an hour allowed everyone a chance to grab a bite to eat and to massage sore feet.  Plezwerk hated to admit it, but without the caravan showing him the trail, his progress to his anticipated destination might extend through spring, summer, and autumn.  That would mean spending winter in an unexplored wilderness.  Been there, done that, but still not a pleasant experience.

Darkness and an open field equals an acceptable campsite.  Each morph pitched their individual tent.  Once camp was set, the bruins retired to one side.  Plezwerk wanted nothing more than a good night's rest.  However, all the rats had no intention of sleeping.  Questions regarding the dig were asked and answered by the Chief Digger.  There would be no peace and quiet this night.

"Since last year's dig ended, we have made a monumental discovery.  One that will forever change our view of this site," the Chief Digger announced.

"I hope this 'monumental discovery' is something other than learning the name of this ancient human city is Eugene Oregon."
Once again my avatar is working.  Does Snoopy happydance. 

"The only definitions of the word 'fair' is in reference to the weather and a carnival, any other meaning is strictly a product of your imagination."

cairn destop

The Chief Digger froze in place, his paws held up towards the sky.  Like the young diggers, his mouth hung open and a look of utter amazement could still be seen in the dim light of the campfire.  The one exception, Calator.  He placed both paws over his face as if that simple act hid him from those still stunned by Plezwerk's outburst.

"As a matter of fact," said the Chief Digger, "that is indeed what we discovered.  It took us all winter solving that one mystery and you say it as if you question our integrity.  How is it you know this when we are yet to make our findings public?"

Calator never moved, he just spoke to the nearby fire as if it asked the question.  "My companion has two Rands in his possession, both in mint condition.  Last night he showed me our destination and how we got the name incorrect."

"Nay, sir, we did not get the name wrong.  What we had was incomplete information.  Hence the name Eug On.  Incomplete information can be amended, which is what we did.  Mistakes are wrong and unacceptable under any circumstance."

There was do denying the defensive posture of the rat.  No amount of logic would sway him to see his initial blunder.  He would never admit he jumped to a conclusion years back and that his mistake took on a life of its own.  Plezwerk suspected he might need this fellow's support once he got to the dig site.  Good thing being the son of a tribal elder taught him how to placate the rat's overinflated ego.

"It takes a greater morph than I to realize incomplete information can lead to errors.  It also takes an intelligent fellow to amend what was thought to be true for what is now known as factual.  You are such a morph and I bow to your superiority in this matter." Plezwerk said.

Success.  The Chief Digger's posture relaxed.  The fellow sat on a tree stump, his head shaking back and forth at a slow pace.  When he stopped moving, Plezwerk waited.  If the fellow rejected his explanation, he had an entrenched enemy.  Good fortune smiled on him when the rat glance his way.

"Two Rands?  Both in mint condition?  Than you can answer the question that has baffled many.  What is in the book's inside pocket?"

"We have a long journey tomorrow and I don't feel like repeating myself, so let's wait until we reach camp and I can tell those who need to know at the same time," Plezwerk said.

Though reluctant to let him go, the Chief Digger agreed with the suggestion.  One by one the other rats returned to their tents, tired but eager to continue the journey.  Plezwerk expected at least one visitor during the night.  Maybe even one with either a blade for his throat or his maps.  Either possibility made the night less than restful.

Morning came and things went from peaceful to hectic.  Tents went down and everything had to be packed.  Meals were eaten in haste as the sun signaled the beginning of another day.  The way the Chief Digger kept pushing for more speed, he knew the rat's sense of curiosity needed satisfaction.  Whenever the fellow came within whispering range, he fired a volley of questions that Plezwerk fended off without insulting the older rat's position.  It made any observations of the surrounding area impossible.

When the Chief Digger announced they had arrived at their destination, it was a bit of a disappointment.  Plezwerk didn't know what to expect but somehow this seemed anticlimactic.  The area to the south consisted of a cleared forest.  Bruins pulled wagons that shifted fallen logs and mounds of debris to the camp.  He saw nothing that came close to the term excavation or anything matching the marvel of a legendary human city.

Where he anticipated a virtual village of rats, he found three camps.  One consisted of a single rough log building that could withstand anything the weather threw their way.  He counted a dozen bruins moving about this area.  Across a dirt road, four log shacks, each half the size of those used by the bruins.  Rats coming from the field went to one of these buildings before returning to their assigned location.  The last camp sprang up a distance away and was nothing more than two or three dozen one-morph tents arranged in rows.

Introductions were made between the newest diggers and the staff.  Like the night before, the rat staff insisted Plezwerk tell them everything once the Chief Digger mentioned the two mint condition Rands.  At least the camp's leader, a rat named Lockvor had the decency to forestall any additional inquiries until the staff had a chance to enjoy the evening meal.  Lockvor considered Plezwerk's books an engraved invitation and insisted that he join them.  As a courtesy, Calator was asked to attend.

The dinner rivaled that of the Inn when it came to quantity.  Quality was another issue but one Plezwerk didn't raise.  It was better than the dry rations served on the raft but lacked much in taste.  Still, hot food trumped whatever the ringtails served their passengers.

Between courses, conversations swirled about the cabin.  Lockvor led the conversation, discussing anticipated finds at different dig sites around the human city.  Others speculated about the significance of items recovered.  Theories regarding some unknown artifact often caused sharp divides among the staff.  If anything became too heated, Lockvor intervened and all agreed to either change topics or wait until additional information became available.

When all those sitting at the table finished their speculation on the latest find, they shifted their attention to their guest of honor.  His Elders mentioned ancient stories about the predatory stare rats had.  It came nowhere close to the looks he received from the principle members of the dig.  Lockvor had the look of a morph too long denied a decent meal and now found himself at a feast.  Plezwerk repeated the story of his tribe's discovery of the cave, his exploration, his treasures, and the reason behind his self imposed exile.

Lockvor leaned back.  "Calator is right, beyond this dig your riddles would confound most of those within our tribe.  To those who have been here, it is as understandable as the rising of the sun."

Several rats at the table nodded.  Lockvor explained how an unknown disaster destroyed the Maker's city, leaving three types of ruins.  Most buildings imploded, collapsing into impressive mounds of rubble.  Sifting through these yielded few artifacts.  Other structures snapped like a giant tree with the upper portion lying across a long stretch of ground.  The stump of these buildings remained exposed to the weather and like those felled by the disaster, eventually became nothing more than shards of building material.  These had more artifacts and some remained in reasonable condition.

The third type resembled Plezwerk's winter home.  The unknown disaster caused the very bedrock to shift downward, sucking the structure into the hole.  Depending on the magnitude of the shift, several floors or the entire building dropped below the ground level.  Lockvor speculated that the building housing the squirrels shifted to the bottom of the hill it originally stood upon, burying it in a near watertight container.  When a landslide from a neighboring hill covered the site, it preserved everything until its discovery.

"That explains the uniformity of the structure's overall shape, but does nothing to explain the interior," inquired Plezwerk

Lockvor took a sip of his drink before continuing.  "Tall buildings had rectangular cells used by our Makers.  They had doors on them of wood, which rotted away.  I'm willing to bet the walls were just as rotten."

A simple nod had the rat leader continue.  "Humans used stairwells built at either end for travel between levels.  These have ramps that circle a wall.  Like yours, we have found them dangerous.  What you call 'demon's eyes' are elevator shafts.  Speculation is that these moved heavy objects between floors, items too large for the stairwells.  We have never found what was contained in any of these shafts due to the structure's dilapidated condition.  I'm betting the answers we seek about elevator shafts might be contained in your winter home."

"What of my treasures, any idea what they are?"

"We have found wooden writing sticks, useable when stored in a dry, airtight box.  Nobody has any idea what the metal tip does; perhaps its function broke over time.  Different writing implements of all sizes and shapes can be found.  Why so many similar objects for the same purpose confounds us.  Since none work. nobody gets too excited finding one.  As to those metal disks, they might be a medium of exchange.  None have ever been found in such great condition but we do find them scattered about the area."

Calator interrupted Lockvor.  "Any idea about the location where our tree hugger found his greatest treasure."

"Ah yes, the Rands.  Simplicity itself," Lockvor said.  "The metal boxes he describes are like the wooden file boxes our tribe keeps back home.  Most human files are locked and have proven difficult opening.  The ones we do open contained rotting papers.  His were in a storage room the Makers considered important for some unknown reason.  The closed metal door created an airtight seal, which is why it was so well preserved."

"That wasn't the only reason," Plezwerk responded.  "Each book was in a hard transparent shell.  Very difficult opening."

Lockvor ears perked up when Plezwerk described what encased the Rand.  He darted out of the room without saying a word to any.  Nobody had a chance to speculate on his departure as he returned at a running pace.  With a flick of his wrist, he sent the object he held skidding across the table.

Plezwerk had no way of opening the clear shell attached to the book while he sat at the table and said as much.  Lockvor offered him the use of whatever equipment he needed if he would open it now.  He considered the idea and quickly agreed.  At least it stopped Lockvor from looking at him as if he was dessert.  Another rat rushed outside with the list of tools needed.

A paw saw heated over a cooking stove took time.  Patience warred with expectations as the rats fidgeted in their chairs.  Calator agreed to using the paw bellows to increase the heat of the fire. After a dozen passes, the saw's teeth wore down to worthless stubs.  Plezwerk grabbed a second saw and continued attacking the clear cover in the same spot.  When he discarded the fourth saw, he announced success. 

Near the middle, he had a crack no bigger than his fingernail.  Hammer and chisel came into play.  Plezwerk initially tapped at the crack, driving the chisel towards the floor.  Every rat expressed some worry that he might damage the treasure but didn't intervene.  Little by little, the crack expanded.  Whenever he rested, Plezwerk tried inserting two metal rods into the opening.  At last he got one rod on each side of the book.

"We need a winch to pull this apart.  With enough tension, it will crack," said an exhausted Plezwerk.

The Chief Digger stepped outside saying he knew what he needed.  When he returned, four bruins followed him into the cabin.  A strong knot on each rod and two bruins on each rope stood ready.  When the Chief Digger nodded, the four bruins pulled with all their combined weight and strength.  At first, the book hung in midair.  The loud shriek preceded the shattering of the transparent cover, sending four bruins onto their rumps.  The book dropped at Plezwerk's feet.

Lockvor picked up the book before anyone else could grab it, "We found this in a buried building called 'Fraternity.'  Other books inside this buried structure rotted into paper mulch, but not this one.  'Third Year Algebra,' I wonder what secrets it holds."

One bear stood up and pointed at the camp's leader.  "Per our contract, since we were the ones responsible for acquiring this specific treasure item, our two tribes share its contents.  Or do you intend to contest our claim?"
Once again my avatar is working.  Does Snoopy happydance. 

"The only definitions of the word 'fair' is in reference to the weather and a carnival, any other meaning is strictly a product of your imagination."

cairn destop

"I have no intention of reneging on our agreement.  Select a member of your tribe to protect this book and you may hold it until hibernation.  It goes to our tribe at that time.  Any bruin from your tribe has unlimited free access to this book but we safeguard it.  I know we must divulge any secrets we learn from this specific book, a clause that binds your tribe if you discover something first.  That too is per our treaty."

The four bruins stood as one, each dusting themselves off after their undignified collapse.  Their spokesman took possession of the book in spite of the many protests voiced by the other staff members.  Lockvor demanded silence and once restored, apologized for his colleague's comments.  The bruins withdrew.

Lockvor faced the collective wrath of his staff.  "We break a treaty negotiated by the porcupines and our tribe can never expect another morph to trust our word.  We will stand alone and without protection.  Against another tribe we might prevail, but an endless series of wars will destroy everything we have achieved since the Dark Times.  All our discoveries, destroyed forever.  Even a treasure as priceless as that book cannot justify a genocidal war.  I'll not have it!"

Every member of the staff sat, their heads bowed.  The resulting silence settled on all like a wet woolen blanket.  None spoke.  Plezwerk reached into his backpack and withdrew one of the ancient book of maps.

"Your Chief Digger asked what the inside pocket held.  First time I cracked that shell, I broke it.  Second one, I was more careful.  Take it.  I give it to you as a gift; perhaps you can translate the lettering 'mac orb pc.'  It baffles me as I cannot think what the missing letters might be.  Maybe it's an unknown human language."

Plezwerk passed the object to the first rat.  As he said, one side was all white with faded lettering.  Only the strange letters he read remained visible.  One rat extracted a strange glass that fit to his eye and extended out the length of three fingers.  He touched it to the white side and slid it around for several moments before he relinquished the large disk.  A few rats examined the shiny silvery side while the stove's fire turned the surface into a colorful rainbow to everyone else in the room.  The staff even allowed Calator an opportunity to examine the disk.  When all had their chance at viewing the object, Lockvor took it.

"Your generosity creates an onus on us.  One we must repay.  Calator said you intend going further south, into unexplored territory.  Tell us your reasons and we will do all possible helping you."

Plezwerk lifted the cup of tea, savoring its warmth.  "When I left my tribe, I wanted to reach the Known Lands.  My goal, nothing more than learning what happened to the morph races living there since our exile.  The Inn resolved that mystery.  It left me unfulfilled."

"How so," asked Lockvor

"Stories of the Before Time when our Makers ruled this world speak of marvels beyond belief.  Back at the Inn, I heard of a fox who found a human military base that was intact.  A ram spoke of a weapon that caused terrible pain without doing physical damage.  Both stories sounded recent.  Once I knew my first destination was Eugene Oregon, I searched my book for a place most likely to contain human treasures."

He pulled out one of the books he carried and motioned the others to draw closer.  Plezwerk pointed to the overview map and the location of Eugene Oregon.  Pages turned and he showed the rats a more detailed map of the city and the surrounding area.  A reference number took him to a third map.  With a firm tap to the page, he indicated his final destination.

Calator read the map.  "A military training facility?  Your sense of logic is sound.  If two other morphs have found treasures and marvels at other military bases, one marked on a map must contain wonders beyond comprehension.  Makes me wish I was going with you."

Questions regarding his quest came from every rat.  Lockvor called for order.  That is when the real work started.  First came inquiries regarding necessary equipment for a trip there and back.  Plezwerk admitted he never thought that far ahead.  In his haste to discover something, he overlooked the logistics of such a mission.

Fortunately, Lockvor knew about such things as he led the expedition that found this ancient city.  His first list considered just the basics needed.  The one for just food and equipment soon exceeded what Plezwerk could ever carry alone.  That realization had the rats debating who and how many must accompany the squirrel.  With each additional morph, the rats recalculated the supplies needed.

Plezwerk didn't want to admit it, but his ambitious quest was doomed to failure.  He never planned further than the next moment, thinking this adventure no more strenuous than a simple hike in the woods.  Seeing this dig site convinced him otherwise.  If he pressed on by himself he might become hopelessly lost.  If he expected to come back with any treasure his quest had to extend well beyond winter.  Doing this in unexplored territory made success near impossible at best.  Once again, he felt defeated.

However, Lockvor sounded too optimistic.  He convinced Plezwerk that this first trip had to do nothing more than scout the area in hopes of finding the human base.  They had the maps as a guide but the conversion from human miles to what morphs used varied.  Lockvor had the experience navigating unfamiliar territory with maps from a time so far removed that landmarks changed.  In spite of such difficulties, he found this human settlement. 

"As much as it pains me to say this," Lockvor said, "we will need those bruins.  The problem is our friend here is not a party to our treaty.  If something is found at this military base, its ownership will be disputed.  Are you willing to loose anything found if the porcupines later rule against you?"
Once again my avatar is working.  Does Snoopy happydance. 

"The only definitions of the word 'fair' is in reference to the weather and a carnival, any other meaning is strictly a product of your imagination."

cairn destop

Plezwerk scaled the highest tree within sight of their campsite, just like he did every morning since they left Eugene Oregon.  For the time it took him to scale the forest sentinel, he experienced a sense of rejuvenation, as if he rediscovered a lost part of himself.  The texture of bark against his bare feet, the smell of running sap, and the rustle of leaves that surrounded him brought back memories of his youth. 

Two-thirds of the way up, he reached the highest branch that supported his weight.  This is when he questioned the wisdom of his Makers.  In the time before humans augmented squirrels, they scampered to the highest branch without fear.  Squirrels gained size, weight, and intelligence without loosing their bond with the forest.  Learning to integrate these gifts destroyed many of their kind before their creators disappeared.  Today, such things are learned in the folly of childhood and tempered with experience.  Regardless of the changes, squirrels loved their bond with living wood.

His feet found purchase on the limb as he shuffled further from the trunk.  A morning breeze made the branch sway.   When their expedition started, his bouncing at the end of a slim branch had his companions worrying  about him taking foolish chances.  After the first week, none doubted his innate sense of balance.  Without any conscience thought, Plezwerk's stance adjusted to compensate.  He stood far enough out that his chest cleared the nearby foliage.

Once the sun cleared the horizon, he checked the area for landmarks.  Instead of a simple compass, he used something Lockvor called an orienteering compass.  He sighted through the two slits as he lined up first one, than a second landmark.  Experience had him check the readings three times for accuracy.  Plezwerk let the compass fall to the end of his neck lanyard as he retrieved a writing stick and paper. 

Such recordings kept track of their progress but presented them with a new set of problems.  Their landmarks became too hard locating after the first week.  Plezwerk learned how to draw a picture of two other mountains along their course.  With these new reference points, their group proceeded.  Satisfied with his numbers, he returned to his anxious companions.

A flick of the wrist sent the notebook flying across the campground to Lockvor, who caught it.  He than handed the compass to Calator who pulled out a copy of the original maps.  The two rats consulted the notebook and triangulated their location.  Satisfied with the readings, they calculated their progress.

Lockvor approached the group gathered around the campfire.  "We're making excellent progress.  If I'm reading the human scale right, we covered between ten and fifteen miles yesterday.  At our current speed, we should reach the outskirts of this military base in another two or three hours.  I'll need a third reference point before leaving for our return trip once we reach our destination."

Their bruin companion transferred the cooked food to each morph's plate.  "Our second axle broke yesterday and our spare wheel cannot take too much more abuse.  The wagon holds one more axle.  Break that and we have to abandon the wagon.  Our progress will slow to a crawl if we must walk with these backpacks."

"The wagon is a luxury I anticipated abandoning when we reached the human base.  If it last long enough to get us even partway home, consider it a bonus," said a bored Lockvor.

Calator checked the compass, looking through the two slots.  He retrieved their axe and marched up to the tree Plezwerk climbed that morning.  Two quick chops removed a strip of bark and another two chops left two lines in the tree's trunk.  With everything packed, the four of them left camp along the course Calator believed would take them in the right direction. 

Travel proved no easier than the prior days.  The compass provided the course but the forest seldom cooperated with their party.  Trees required circumnavigation as those guiding the wagon hunted for a level path wide enough to accommodate the wagon.  Today, Calator kept to the designated course while the others struggled to go where he led. 

An open field didn't mean easy traveling or a swift passage.  They remained on course but the field often had unexpected hazards.  Several days earlier an open field defied them.  An overlooked rock shattered a wheel.  The stress of the prior days and what all thought an inconsequential rut cracked an axle shaft.  It turned what all though would be an hour's walk into an overnight stay.

Once more an open field stretched before them.  On the other side, another forest beckoned.  But this wide a field offered them a chance to see the nearby mountains.  The rats worked with the compass for several moments before an elated Lockvor made his announcement.

"The forest across this glade is within the human military base.  We have reached our destination.  No more traveling."

Crossing an open field required caution or one wandered to the left or right.  Grizzon, their bruin companion, relayed signals to Calator that kept him on course.  A hundred paces out and Plezwerk passed the rat a long pole.  The rat drove a stake into the ground, removed the stake, and inserted the long pole into the hole.  Now they had a reference point high enough to see above the tall grass.  Two such poles in alignment indicated a straight line.  They continued driving poles into the ground every hundred paces until both reached the first tree.

"You go back to the others," Plezwerk said.  "Lockvor said we will be staying here.  I want an opportunity to do a quick scan before he comes.  Maybe I can find a good place for camping."

"What you mean is you want to find something first.  Don't deny it; I'd do the same thing if I had the chance."

Plezwerk didn't contradict the rat.  His friend read his intent the second he volunteered to carry the poles, a task usually given to Grizzon.  The others would take more than an hour crossing the field as they guided the cart past any hazards the two of them missed.  So much time and yet so little too.

His paw caressed the tree like a lover with his intended.  A gentle touch revealed so much to him.  The forest where his friends stood showed evidence of old growth with most of the trees over a hundred winters old.  A walk along this forest edge confirmed what his paw told him, none of these trees passed that mark.  Most still had more than three decades to go before hitting that milestone.

No huge stumps and no decaying trunks taller than him lying in sight.  That told him the lack of ancient trees wasn't due to fire or torrential rains.  Those fallen trees he did find were no older than those standing.  Something kept the trees from establishing a sufficient base to withstand whatever passed for normal winter weather. 

He discarded his sandals and climbed.  Plezwerk jumped from one tree to another as he probed the surrounding area.  His sudden weight had many of the trees sway more than anticipated.  He shortened his jumps.  By the time his companions summoned him, he explored the immediate area but not much more. 

"Good news," Plezwerk said.  "Something in the soil stops the trees from reaching the century mark.  None of these trees have a deep root system.  It might have something to do with what I found about a hundred yards towards the mountains.  There are a number of huge bushes I've never seen before that are half the height of these trees."

"What makes high bushes such good news?"  Though Lockvor tried to hide it, he too must be curious what made a new plant worth mentioning.

"The bushes are in straight rows and all appear to be the same dimension.  This is despite the fact that there is no evidence of somebody tending to them.  You know of anything in nature that is so uniform?"
Once again my avatar is working.  Does Snoopy happydance. 

"The only definitions of the word 'fair' is in reference to the weather and a carnival, any other meaning is strictly a product of your imagination."

cairn destop

Anticipation trumped a restful night.  The four attempted to sleep but the thought of some human marvel had them tossing about in their bedrolls.  The one morph benefitting from such expectations was whoever had guard duty.  The night dragged on for what seemed an eternity.  Dawn didn't help.  Each of them jumped up eager to finish the morning meal.

Since Plezwerk knew the location of the oddity, he lead.  With expectations running high, none wanted to be left behind on this first day.  A short walk through the trees brought them to the bushes.  From ground level, none noticed the uniformity of the plants nor the orderly rows and files. 

If not for his scouting the area yesterday from a higher vantage point, the others would walk by these bushes never realizing they might hide a treasure.  Lockvor accepted the squirrel's report and proceeded to measure the first bush.  While the two rats performed their preliminary survey, Plezwerk and Grizzon attacked one corner of the plant.

It took a good hour before either noticed any progress.  The plant turned out to be more clinging vine than bush.  The thing held onto whatever it covered with a tenaciousness that defied the short blades they used.  Grizzon wanted an ax while Plezwerk preferred a machete.  The expedition's leader turned both of them down, insisting on the smaller paw held blades.  He wanted the structure preserved.

By the time the rats finished their exterior measurements, the others cleared an area that came up to their knees.  Both workers needed a rest but pointed at their discovery.  One corner consisted of some hard rock that withstood all these seasons since the time of humans.  A white shell rested atop this rock, which laid hidden beneath the vines.  Just a paw's width of this shell had been exposed but it appeared undamaged by either time, the weather, or these clinging plant.

"Grizzon, we will need the wagon and the tools we loaded.  The three of us will find a way to get the tools here.  Plezwerk, you keep clearing this side of the building."

Plezwerk grumbled at the assignment but admitted he wanted to clear this building first.  Whatever these plants were, they existed no other place.  He saw many species of clinging plants in the forest back home, at the inn, and at the excavation site, but none held onto their support with such tenacity.  These plants should have conquered the entire forest, maybe the known world, but they extended no further than the immediate area. 

His knife probed for any space between the structure and the plant.  Once he found such an opening, he switched to a short, serrated blade.  It still galled him using tools intended for a paw when he wanted something bigger but those tools were in the wagon.  Plezwerk also missed Grizzon's strength.  Pulling the severed piece took great strength, which he didn't have.  His mind fixated on the task and the unexpected voice jarred him.

"Didn't mean to scare you, but we're back and with better tools." said Lockvor.

Now the four attacked the plant as a team.  Calator crawled under the structure with a lamp and a spear in case any non-morph animal inhabited the underside.  Lockvor attacked the base of the plant with a shovel seeking any root system.  Plezwerk used a saw and machete to slice through the harden vines.  Grizzon yanked the loosened vine from its base and dragged it to the clearing.

The midday meal remained a quiet event.  The rush of excitement from their initial discovery faltered as the work intensified.  The plant had a root system like a living curtain.  Anywhere the vine touched the ground it anchored itself.  Lockvor worked in a trench that came up to his waist in order to get below these roots and still they held with a tenacious grip.

"You're right about one think Plezwerk," Lockvor said.  "These plants do cover a human building.  My preliminary findings would support more structures, but there are gaps in the layout.  Some must be missing, perhaps destroyed over the years."

"How do you know some are gone," asked Plezwerk.

"Humans prefer order and uniformity.  As I anticipated, each plant, every open space, and all external dimensions match.  You were right when you said nothing in nature is that organized.  When we find the door, we will have a base line for locating other human constructs in future explorations."

"Don't you mean if we find the door?"  Plezwerk wondered about the reasoning behind the rat's logic.

"We have an excellent chance since humans place doors on the shortest sides of a small structure like this one.  That short extension near the middle should be a porch, which is what humans used to enter elevated structures like this one.  The other end has no such protrusion.  Like I said, our makers were highly regimented in their actions.  They preferred uniformity."

Such confidence inspired the others.  Until the sun settled low enough that all laid in shadow, they worked at clearing the one side.  Lockvor expressed elation when they uncovered a door near the middle of the short side.  His expectation that a porch extended under the structure's door proved correct.  Like the building itself, the landing consisted of the same material, which made removing the vines difficult. 

Once they cleared the landing, the four morphs could approach the last barrier standing between them and whatever marvels existed within.  Three of them wanted to force the entryway open and examine the interior in spite of the growing darkness.  Lockvor objected.  He expressed caution and insisted they clear the one wall before considering the interior.  With their goal in sight and a firm commitment to breaching the door, all attacked the vines until the night forced them to withdraw.

If the prior night proved restless, this one made that seem like hibernation.  The sun's first rays were yet to show and the explorers stood ready.  Food they consumed because they needed their strength, though all resented the time lost.  They marched off, confident that today they would discover some great marvel from the time of their Makers.

Their first discovery came when they reached the pile of discarded vines.  In less than one day, the plant remnants resembled a forest in late autumn.  Leaves displayed shades of gold and red while the vines turned brown.  Both were dried out and brittle to the touch.  A wayward spark from their lantern turned the mulch pile into instant cinders.

"This explains why the plant hasn't spread.  They must need something from the actual building to survive.  Once separated, it dies."  Calator strutted when none contradicted his observation.

"Think that amazing?  Here's another observation.  These plants do not consume whatever element they need, otherwise both would no longer exist," said Plezwerk.

A second revelation didn't come as a pleasant one.  In the course of the one night, several vines produced trailers that extended down the side they cleared yesterday.  Over three paw's width from every edge had a green covering.  If the plant expanded at this rate unchecked, the cleared surface would be hidden within a month.  Fortunately, the newer vines lacked the toughness of the established growth and came off with ease.

"It's time we force that door open."  Lockvor rubbed his paws together in anticipation.

Forcing the door open proved anticlimactic.  A simple twist of the bulb freed it.  Grizzon applied his strength and with a loud protest, pulled the door open.  Even his exceptional power couldn't overcome a millennium of rust.   Still, it was enough that any one of them could squeeze themselves inside.  All wanted to rush inside, but Lockvor called them back.  In the end, weight determined who entered the building while those outside gawked at the interior.

Calator weighed less than any of them.  It made him the luck morph who got to explore the interior.  If the young rat thought he need do nothing more than stroll inside, he was mistaken.  While Plezwerk and the bruin scanned the interior, their leader established the rules.  His continual emphasis regarding the inherent dangers of entering an unexplored ancient place finally penetrated the young rat's confidence.

The rat used two wide wooden pallets to distribute his weight over an untested floor.  He moved across one, relocated the second, and repeated the process until he reached the nearest item in the room.  Along one wall, a series of metal bars stood in formation.  The structure supported two similar platforms, one above the other.  Calator sketched the object and made his measurements, being careful not to touch the object.

The rat found no way of scaling the metal piping to the upper platform.  This puzzled the rat and after shouting instructions or suggestions back and forth, came up with a possible means of ascending it.  The rat placed his foot on the lower platform intending to use the extra height as leverage to gain the top.  As soon as he transferred his weight to the metal pipes, it collapsed. 

Lockvor had the younger rat toss a pipe to him.  A poor toss had Calator repeating the process.  Those errant pipes shattered like raw eggs on a kitchen floor but persistence paid off when Lockvor caught one that stayed intact.  Time and the elements may not have affected the exterior but it did change everything inside it.  The metal had changed into brittle rust.  Calator confirmed the deteriorated condition of the remaining pipes and they abandoned any further examination of the other metal structures.

Two metal boxes sat at the interior end of these pipe platforms.  Lockvor decided they would remove one and examine its contents.  A tossed rope and a quick knot on the handle was all it took.  When Grizzon pulled, the handle snapped off the box.  So much for the easy way.

Their second attempt took much longer.  An incline plane placed at one end and the entire box secured by the rope moved it far enough that Calator could place a marble under it.  He guided the box to the doorway while the others maintained tension on the rope.  The rat placed a second marble under the box before the first one rolled free.  By making certain at least one marble rested under the box, he could guide it towards the doorway. 

Everyone celebrated the extraction of the chest.  First thing done was sketching and measuring the box.  Thanks to the daylight, they made out the faded writing stenciled across the lid, "US Footlocker."  Despite Lockvor's caution, lifting the clasp removed the lid and the box shattered. 

"That lid doesn't make sense.  A letter must be missing.  It must have read 'Use Footlocker," Plezwerk speculated.

They found rotting cloth within the box.  Even the light summer breeze shredded the ancient material.  Lockvor poked at the cloth, sifting through the debris.  His efforts revealed a pair of shoes still intact and standing upright.  Unlike their open footwear, this one resembled foul weather gear as it seemed designed to fully enclose the foot.  Instead of a solid look like their boots, the humans appeared to secure them via thin ropes.  When Lockvor attempted to move one boot, the upper portion on both boots crumbled away, leaving two soles made of some unknown material intact. Lockvor moved these aside.

Lockvor continued sifting through the trash the box held.  At the very bottom, they found a metallic stick with strange markings on either edge.  Lockvor cried at the sight.  With a gentle push, he freed it.  It sat flat on the porch, which made the older rat cry even harder.  He took a deep breath and lifted the object.  It did not break.

"A human measuring stick, and it isn't warped!  This will be the greatest discovery since we first found that human city." 

Lockvor sounded so excited, though none understood why.  No doubt the puzzled expressions jolted the old rat back to the present.  He placed the measuring stick in a box half filled with sand.  Than he filled the box with more sand.  Satisfied that his discovery would suffer no damage during transport, he explained his elation.

"We have a catalogue of human measurements but no accurate means of converting from the scales our Makers used and what morphs have developed since the Dark times,"  Lockvor said.  "Every measuring stick found has been warped or damaged.  Those have been good enough for estimates but useless to anyone who is trying to establish an accurate conversion.  Worse yet, humans used two measurements for the same thing, which is most confusing.  This stick has both scales intact, another incredible find."

"Wonder what we will find tomorrow,"  said Plezwerk.

"Nothing.  Grizzon, close that door.  Tomorrow we return to the dig site."

"Why?  We have over a dozen human structures to explore.  Do you really want to abandon this site?"

Lockvor's voice reminded him of an instructor with a dense student.  "You spent the spring learning how to travel through unexplored territory without becoming lost.  We left the dig on the first day of summer and agreed to return with the first full moon of autumn.  Today is day sixty of our trip.  If we leave now, we might get back by that time if the wagon doesn't break down during our first week.  Not to worry, this place isn't going anywhere."
Once again my avatar is working.  Does Snoopy happydance. 

"The only definitions of the word 'fair' is in reference to the weather and a carnival, any other meaning is strictly a product of your imagination."

cairn destop

Plezwerk dashed across the road, his boots leaving deep impressions in the snow.  Heavy snowflakes fell from the night sky driven by a fierce wind.  That wind lifted the hood of his winter jacket sending the snow down his back.  The fur on his face turned wet as  icy crystals lashed him. 

He put on a burst of speed determined to escape this storm.  Plezwerk jumped from the path to the middle step and allowed his momentum to carry him onto the inn's porch.  Thanks to the porch roof, the snow and ice no longer pelted him.  He scraped the snow off his boots, removed his winter jacket, and gave it a flick of his wrist.  With much of the snow removed, he pushed through the doors and into the dry warmth of the inn.

A step to his left brought Plezwerk to a stool where he removed his boots.  He crossed the hall to a closet guarded by a young porcupine.  He exchanged his wet coat and boots for a colored token and a pair of soft slippers.  In an exaggerated motion, he looked left, than right, and left again.  Plezwerk placed a piece of hard candy on the counter and the child popped it into his mouth.

What a change from my first visit.  The Common Room stood vacant of guests, only the bartender, a serving girl, and several members of the porcupine clan occupied the place.  Not surprising considering both the season and the weather.  If some desperate traveler joined them, he would double the number of guest staying at the inn this night.

Activity at the inn turned frantic with the first winter storm.  One day of snow left the ground looking like a multicolored drop cloth splattered with patches of white.  All porcupines not needed for their guests attended to the last of their crops, gleaning whatever could be stored.  Guests snatched supplies and took to the road, determined to reach home before the next storm.

The second storm left a thin blanket of snow that disappeared after a week of sunlight.  While this snow melted, the last scheduled raft tied up to the dock.  Several ringtails mentioned hard freezes that covered the lakes with a thin layer of ice at night, which explained their late arrival.  The crew offloaded passengers and moved several crates to the appropriate warehouse.  Instead of the usual relaxing overnight stay, the crew loaded the raft with the last of their consigned cargo and turned homeward within the hour.

Plezwerk didn't think this third storm's snowfall would melt before spring, it fell that heavy.  Day and night turned into a grey void filled with snowflakes.  When the storm started, the snowflakes were marvels to enjoy.  On day four the winter storm turned ugly.  A wind drove the snow and dainty snowflakes turning them into icy pellets.  That was almost a full week ago and the blizzard continued.  Snow accumulated and buried the world he remembered.

Being the sole guest had its advantages.  The serving girls knew his preferences and didn't need to visit his table.  He also had the opportunity to talk with his hosts.  These porcupines knew much of the Known Lands and did not mind sharing such information with their guest.

Morph tribes had individual cultures and customs.  Dogs, like his tribe, had a hereditary leader.  Wolves engaged in ritualistic combat to determine leadership.  Bruins conducted a wrestling contest between the eight largest males.  Rats selected their leaders through a contest of riddles. 

Porcupines had a corporate structure.  The leader of any inn was the innkeeper.  He selected officers to run general operations, such as the stores, housekeeping, procurement, and farming.  All the other porcupines were workers assigned to whichever officer needed help.  When necessary, the innkeepers elected a leader of their clan.  The selected porcupine held the title of chairman, or in this case, chairwoman.  As the clan's absolute leader, she had the final say on any tribal matter and was known to all morphs as the Last Arbitrator.

Chairwoman Goldenspike entered the Common Room.  Her fur resembled wheat in color, though up close it had an almost transparent look due to her advanced age.  She now used a cane as the recent cold weather made her joints sore.  Every porcupine within the room stood and gave a modest head bob in her direction.  A wave of her paw and all returned to whatever interested them before her arrival.

Goldenspike hobbled across the room, her destination obvious.  Plezwerk moved to the back of his selected booth, which gave the old lady her choice of sides.  She took the one to his right, placing her cane on the bench behind her.  Neither spoke as she arranged her quills.  A grunt or two sounded as she made herself comfortable.  A paw in the air and two raised fingers sent the serving girl scurrying.  Two mugs appeared on their table.

"Cider with cinnamon warms the body and calms the soul, child.  Lockvor paid good coin to see that all your needs were met this winter.  Word has come to me that you are not happy and I am here to resolve any problem," she said.

"My time here has not earned me the right to a name?"

"Forgive me, child . . . Plezwerk.  As tribe leader, all within my clan are called child, no disrespect intended.  I honor you with that word but understand the need for what is yours."

Plezwerk sipped his cider and complimented her choice of beverage.  He voiced his pleasure at both her company and the hospitality of the Inn.  Her expression remained neutral.

"I am deeper into winter than any here and it gives me sight to see the unseen and ears for what is not spoken."  Goldenspike drained her mug.  "Speak.  Consider that a polite request."

"Failure, all that I touch turns to failure."  Plezwerk stared into his tankard.

"Than yours is the most glorious of failures.  You are a rock cast into a still pond, there and gone.  Let me show you the ripples your failures have caused."  Her laughter came across as genuine and not the condescending one Plezwerk anticipated.  "I must bring another to our table before I continue."

A quick wave of her paw had the bartender rush to the booth.  He than darted into the kitchen and another female appeared.  She hastened to their table.  Goldenspike introduced Sharpie and ordered her to join them.  Plezwerk didn't mind her presence.  Since his return to the inn, he considered her one of his closest friends among the porcupines.

Once the girl sat, Goldenspike spoke of the rats.  Her words dashed his hopes.  They had no intention of taking him to either dig site come spring.  Their generosity had another purpose, the creation of an obligation.  They desired a look at the cavern Plezwerk's clan used during the winter.  If they couldn't gain access, the rats would consider returning with his books and the maps inside a treasure beyond measure.

His influence did not stop there.  The squirrel tribe heard of him and many of the ladies intended a sexual partnership without obligations.  As an outsider, any offspring added value to their tribe.  The squirrel leaders wanted Plezwerk to take them to his former tribe.  If they convinced a lost tribe to return to these lands, it increased their influence among other morphs.  Even if they failed, having a tribe in the Northern Wastelands increased the perceived power, influence, and reach of their tribe.

Prince, leader of the dog tribe feared what he represented.  Until Plezwerk's arrival, they alone guarded the sole route between the Known Lands and the Northern Wastelands.  Goldenspike spoke of his suspected mental state and how she sought assurances from the most influential lady of his court, Annabelle.  Even she wondered how far Prince might go if this tunnel granted free access to the Wastelands.  If it became common knowledge that these lands supported crops, Prince might see a mass migration through a route he didn't control.

Other tribes learned about the possible existence of kin beyond their border.  Tensions between some tribes, such as the elk and boars, might escalate if perceived wrongs in these new lands became fodder for future conflicts.  Ferret leaders consulted the Builder's Orb in secret meetings, researching how to repair and maintain a tunnel.  Rumors had them investigating the construction of fortifications at either end.  Unsubstantiated stories said the High Priestess Elara or her sister Alamma entertained the idea of controlling the tunnel.

Even the most minor of tribes felt his ripples.  Goldenspike explained how all believed the lands east of the road poisoned.  Legends said such lands supported plant life but crops grown there proved poisonous to any morph during the Dark Times.  None challenged that perception until his presence disproved those stories.  In less than a year, the known world more than doubled in size.  So much unclaimed lands must lead to conflicts and inevitable bloodshed.

"Come spring, every tribe will be seeking a stake in these new lands," said Goldenspike.  "Our clan intends scouting these new territories and building at least three travel lodges and a new haven inn with the hope of maintaining peace.  I intend naming Sharpie our clan's fourth Haven Innkeeper.  Until construction is finished, consider Sharpie your concubine."

"I will not accept such an abomination," shouted a distressed Plezwerk.

"Her relationship is not sexual, but she must know you better than a mate.  You need an advisor who understands you better than yourself.  She shall act as the liaison other morphs can trust.  My blessing will give her that power with all who migrate to these new lands.  She must earn both the respect and trust of those already residing there when she mediates any dispute."

Goldenspike took her leave.  She walked across the Common room and left without a backward glance.  Sharpie's expression said she still felt the initial shock over her new status.   Neither spoke for several moments, each lost in their own thoughts.  The lady porcupine placed her paw on his arm, demanding his attention. 

"We are about to change what was into what can be.  Let's make it something wondrous."
Once again my avatar is working.  Does Snoopy happydance. 

"The only definitions of the word 'fair' is in reference to the weather and a carnival, any other meaning is strictly a product of your imagination."