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Sapient Plague ( No Comments Here Please) 2018 version

Started by cairn destop, Sep 16, 2018, 07:57 PM

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cairn destop

A gentle paw shook the slumbering figure snuggled in a cocoon of cotton.  The morph shifted positions and continued snoring.  The paw grasped the sleeper by his shoulder and gave a more insistent shake.  This time the snores grew in pitch.  That was when the intruder gave the sleeper a light rap to his muzzle with a knuckled fist.

Stifling a yawn, the previously sleeping morph rose from his cot and took in his surroundings.  Boxes lined the shelves along every wall.  Some of these carried the familiar names of local breweries.  Others held various supplied for the bustling kitchen located on the other side of the open door.

"You always were a difficult one waking, Stonemarker.  The night is done and the day not yet started."

"I should be grateful, brother.  The night hasn't been kind."  Stonemarker covered his mouth as another in a series of yawns hit him.
Porcupines considered everyone within their clan family.  Even mates sometimes referred to each other as brother and sister.  Though in this case, the salutation contained a note of truth.  Westie was his older brother, by all of fifteen minutes. 

"Another of your dreams?"

Stonemarker nodded as he didn't want anyone else to know just yet.  Restless nights led to dreams full of images or words that haunted his waking hours.  Such words and images became part of prophecies and foreboding things.  When he did reveal his dreams, the clan acted on them as his warnings proved valid too often to ignore. 

But this one seemed to be for outsiders and would not benefit or hinder his kind.  That never happened before and he didn't know if he could trust it.  No use fighting the words or images.  Whenever he experienced such visions, they never made sense until something triggered a clearer picture.  He could do nothing more than wait.

"Anything happen overnight while you patrolled the grounds, Westie?"

"Chairwoman Goldenspike arrived at the ferry late last night.  She still waits for the first boat of the day.  I asked old Fester to launch the raft after her entourage lit the signal lamp.  His response?  Quote, not until light meets the waters unless our boss prefers swimming, unquote."

Stonemarker groaned.  They still had another full moon before winter started but the otters reported icy patches upriver.  If they broke, a wayward piece of ice could puncture a boat or smash a raft.  He could understand not wanting to risk their clan's leader to an unseen hazard in the river but you don't keep somebody like Chairwoman Goldenspike waiting.  He grabbed his jacket and jogged to the landing.

At least Fester was making ready to ferry their VIP guests with first light.  Stonemarker arrived just as the old porcupine prepared to pole across the river.  He misjudged the distance between raft and pier in his hurry to board.  If not for the quick intervention of a welcomed paw, he might be crossing the river a bit wetter than he intended and without any shred of dignity.

Eight armed guards stood around the pony and cart as their raft bumped the opposite shore's pier.  One guard lowered his blade and offered his arm to the lady sitting in the driver's seat.  Like two lovers, the guard and lady meandered down the path and onto the pier.  The lady released the guard's arm and continued to their raft.

Age had stripped Chairwoman Goldenspike of her name.  Instead of fur and quills that resembled spun gold, she displayed a pale shade of yellow.  She also moved with the help of a cane, another concession to her advancing years.  She accepted the help of the raft operator and strolled over to Stonemarker.

"Chairwoman Goldenspike, welcome to River Haven Inn."  He executed a deep bow to his clan's leader.

"Innkeeper Stonemarker, I will be staying here for at least two years, if the Fates are willing.  The inn and its operations remains your responsibility.  My function is to review your operations and assure our best interests are being met.  I've heard good things about you and may want to offer you a position on our Board of Directors at the time of my departure.  Who knows?  You may well replace me."

"Honored though I am, I'll refuse.  I prefer running this place and occasionally cooking or tending bar."

She stared at him until they completed the crossing.  Goldenspike complimented old Fester on his skills handling the raft as he shoved off to ferry the rest of her entourage.  Now the Chairwoman pulled him closer as they made their way to the inn, her words meant for his ears only.

"I am not sure if I'm proud of a child who excels in his duties or miffed at his lack of ambition.  Something to discuss later."

The rest of the morning and early afternoon had him arranging accommodations for her and her guards.  Next came the task of scheduling meetings with the senior officers of the inn and reviewing all records regarding the inn's operations.  By the time he took his leave, afternoon had turned into evening.

Stonemarker relieved the bartender.  He missed the opportunity of cooking today's dinner so he pulled rank and tended bar in the common room.  He didn't anticipate too many before the river cleared so he would have time gossiping with his patrons.  If he had to give a reason why he enjoyed being the innkeeper, mingling with his guests would be at the top of his list.

A washcloth and a dirty tankard offered him a chance to survey the common room.  One booth had two couples from neighboring wolf packs.  Another had the river otters who warned him about the icy river.  Two young porcupines worked at keeping the place clean.  Elders from his clan played cards as they enjoyed their downtime.  It would be a quiet evening.

The double doors swung open, admitting a dozen male wolves.  Each of them wore an outfit displaying an odd pattern of green, brown, and black.  With the exception of a golden eyed giant, the strange pack lacked the typical rank markings wolves proudly displayed when traveling outside their territory.  They stood just past the door surveying the room with a predatory look that made Stonemarker shiver.  All of them moved as one across the room to the largest booth.

He approached their table with his chin up but got no response.  Such a breach of civility concerned Stonemarker.  He gave the wolves a deep bow as he drew closer, hoping they would see it as a sign of submission.  He kept his eyes on the table as he spoke to the golden eyed wolf.
"Welcome to River Haven Inn, travelers.  Have I the pleasure of addressing your alpha?"

Another male, who sat near the back of the booth spoke with an accent he couldn't place.  "If you mean which of us is in command, that would be me.  We have traveled a great distance and need food, lodging, and supplies.  We will pay a fair price if you can satisfy our needs."

The wolf opened a bag and placed three gold coins, each as large as a lima bean on the table.  If these coins proved as pure as they appeared, what he saw was wealth beyond his comprehension.  The fellow than placed two gems on the table, one as big as his thumbnail and the other a quarter of its size.  Based on how the light refracted, they had to be high quality diamonds.

"Even one of the small coins would entitle you to far more than you could carry.  I shall provide meals and private lodging for the night.  Supplies you may purchase in the morning when our stores open.  I shall personally give you change, though I do hope you will accept our hospitality for a few days."

The proclaimed alpha retrieved the treasures.  Two of the coins and the gems disappeared in his pocket.  While Stonemarker had their meals prepared, he summoned the clan's jeweler.  Based on nothing more than the fellow's expression, Stonemarker knew his initial assessment correct.  Exchanging this small coin would require them to smelt it in half and still it would drain their reserve of liquid funds.

When the jeweler departed, he called over the young girl.  The child recited the welcome message as she had been taught.  Pleased by her performance, he sent her off to fetch the key and escort their guests to their private cabin.  She returned and trotted over to the booth where the wolves sat. 

The girl gave one wolf a light touch to his jacket.  It should have done nothing more than gain his attention.  Instead, several of the wolves acted as if they intended drawing weapons, though none appeared armed.  At least the child didn't notice their hostile glares.

As they left the common room, something flashed within Stonemarker's mind.  He shuddered at what the reality of his sudden insight signified.  He called over the boy and sent him for Westie while he abandoned the bar to his assistant.  It was time.

Fresh air didn't help.  He stared at the cabin assigned to the wolves and felt a sense of relief when the girl pranced out.  Westie watched the child go in and mimicked his brother's leisurely stance.  After a moment of silence, Westie asked the obvious question.

"There are three in my prophecy, Westie.  The golden eyed wolf is one.  I know the second and must seek him out within the hour.  The last remains hidden but will soon be here.  When strangers arrive, be sure they are treated with great honor."

"Chairwoman Goldenspike expects an innkeeper to remain here.  What am I to say?"

"Tell her my gift and my curse has sent me away for five days.  If I return with another, we shall speak of dreams."
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

Once Stonemarker fulfilled his promise to provide change to the wolves, he departed along the eastern path.  After a full day, he found the road he wanted and followed it.  The second day came to an end and he set up his camp.  He made no effort to hide his campfire as he prepared his meal along the road's shoulder.

Just as he finished his meal, three armed wolves stepped out of the shadows.  Each held their weapons at the ready as they approached his camp.  Stonemarker stood, keeping his paws away from his side as he confronted his adversaries.

"It seems we have an intruder."  One wolf growled.

"And a fool who builds a fire bright enough that any pup could find it from a mile away."  The second wolf did not hide his contempt.

"Intruders we can forgive but a fool isn't tolerated.  Can you see any reason why we should let him live?"  The third one snarled.

Stonemarker showed no fear as he stared into the eyes of the nearest wolf.  "I claim herald's right.  I seek one from your pack, he who was last known to be Alpha.  If Stripe still rules, then my words are for his ear alone."

The first wolf approached.  Though his winter coat didn't display its usual bulk, the fellow was an excellent example of his species.  Like all of his kind, the wolf's shoulder just cleared Stonemarker's brow.  Seeking to both intimidate and to establish dominance, the wolf twirled his broadsword as if it were an epee in an open display of power, its blade whistling through the air less than a finger's width above his head.
"You heard his claim.  Check his gear.  If he has either blade or shaft, I'll gut him myself."

The second wolf approached the campsite while leaving his friend's line of vision unobstructed.  Stonemarker did nothing as the wolf rifled through his gear.  As he expected, the wolf found nothing more than a few day's rations of traveler's food and a bottle of water. 
Having searched the camp, the wolf patted down his pockets.  He removed the fire making toolkit as well as the knife it contained.  The second wolf held the blade high so all could see.

The first wolf took a step forward and raised his blade.  Their third companion jumped between the sword wielder and his intended target.

"A herald is allowed one blade if it is paired with flint.  He has not violated the Law of Heralds and must be given safe passage through our lands.  Since he named our leader as the one who is to receive his message, we are also obligated to escort him to Stripe."

Stonemarker made an incorrect assumption.  He thought the wolf who challenged him led this patrol.  Their leader was the male who searched his camp.  A good thing too as he didn't recognize the wolf with the broadsword until he spoke. 

"I was second in the pack until this spiked-back whelp defeated me in battle.  Now I run the borders like some untrained pup or feebleminded elder."

Stonemarker lowered his arms.  Knowing the angered morph wasn't the leader gave him the confidence to confront his attacker.  Wolves respected honesty and a statement of fact garnered more honor among them than a glib tongue.

"You were drunk, Honech, and wanted to kill a boar that did nothing more than bump into you.  I even offered a free refill but you insisted on spilling his blood.  Had I not used my sap, who knows how many others may have died because you couldn't hold your liquor.  It was you who violated the neutrality of the haven inn.  If you were disgraced, it was not at my paws.  Your own stupidity did that."

It took both of the wolves to keep their companion from attacking Stonemarker.  After several heated exchanges between the three wolves, Honech sheathed his blade.  He retreated to a nearby oak and leaned against it, his eyes still sending daggers at him.

"I could claim his quills are shafts," said Honech.

This time the second wolf's voice carried a note of command that brooked no disobedience. 

"Keep your blade in its sheath or you risk your own life when we get back.  The porcupine can no more eliminate his quills than an otter can keep out of water.  Leave him be.  As a precaution, blindfold him when we take him to our camp.  If others follow, he violates the Law and our Alpha will decide his fate."

Honech tied a rope about one wrist.  He draped Stonemarker's cape over his head and cinched it about his neck.  Good thing their leader warned him of the consequences if any harm came to the herald before reaching their camp, otherwise that rope might have snapped his neck.  The hiss of steam as somebody extinguished his fire signaled their departure.

Stonemarker followed wherever the rope tugged.  Three times they stopped and spun him about 'til he almost became too dizzy to walk.  At one point, he felt the cold waters of a mountain stream bath his feet and he almost slipped on a mossy log he had to cross.  By the end of their travel, he panted within his cloth hood.

They gave him no warning.  One moment he ran and the next instant a meaty paw slammed him in the chest.  As he scrambled to his feet, he felt the rope binding his paw drop.  Stonemarker reached up and removed the improvised hood.  The cold night air felt a lot better than what he experienced under his hood.

He stood within a wide glen surrounded by thick trees.  To both his left and right, Stonemarker spied several tents just beyond the illumination range of the central campfire.  Wolves gathered behind him as his three escorts led him towards the largest tent.

One wolf stood guard at the tent's flap.  To either side of the tent, a banner hung proclaiming this to be the Red Hill Pack.  Below the stenciled head of a wolf were three red chevrons, the emblem that proclaimed Stripe still ruled as Alpha.

The tent flap opened and Stonemarker stared down at the base of a nearby tree stump.  In his peripheral view he recognized the huge male that left the leader's tent.  Wolves were said to engage in contests of strength to determine leadership.  Stripe had the size and muscles to maintain control of his pack.  When he sat on the tree stump, it became his throne.  Every wolf dropped to one knee.

"I will hear the tale of the outsider who stands before me."

The patrol leader relayed the story of how they discovered his intrusion and the events that followed.  If the Alpha asked a question, he responded.  Stonemarker anticipated either some boastful claim or an omission of facts to justify their actions.  The patrol leader did neither but stuck to the facts of the incident.  At no time did he make excuses nor did he justify what they did.

"Honech, this is the second time you have dishonored our pack.  I can excuse somebody who drinks too much but this time you were sober.  You threaten one claiming herald's rights because of a personal grudge?  Questioning the legitimacy of a herald falls under the Alpha's responsibility.  When the Spring Rankings begin, you will not participate."

"You dare condemn me to sub omega for a year," Honech snarled.

"Three choices have you.  Challenge me for Alpha here and now, accept your fate for this year, or immediate banishment."  Silence stretched for a moment.  "A wise decision.  Be glad it is for the one year."

Stonemarker said nothing.  As protocol required, he kept his eyes focused on the ground before the Alpha.  To look upon an Alpha in such a formal setting without his spoken permission might be considered a direct challenge to his authority.  Herald or not, Stripe would be honor bound to respond. 

"You are no sanctioned herald but the innkeeper at River Haven.  Your people negotiated our trade with the Dark Forest Pack, a contract that will benefit both sides without any loss of honor or blood.  For that, we owe you a debt.  If you had a message, we would welcome your herald.  Why the need to come in person?"

Stonemarker maintained his posture of submission.  "My presence should tell you the value of my words.  Hear me and decide.  I put no onus on you or your pack.  If you decide against me, we part and nothing more shall ever be said."

"No obligation?  You have my ear and since it is for mine alone, come inside where we can converse as civilized morphs."

Stripe walked back to his tent and the guard held the flap open for both of them.  Stonemarker found the interior comforting when he compared it to his travel accommodations.  Thick pillows kept one's feet off the hard ground.  Two lanterns hung inside gave sufficient light.  In the middle of the tent, a low table.

"We are in private, innkeeper.  Forget Alpha, we are two friends talking.  Meet me eye to eye so I may judge the honesty of your words."
Stonemarker spoke of his talent for prophecy.  Than he listed the odd actions of the wolves who visited them.  He described how they moved like warriors prior to battle and how several reacted to a child's touch with hostility.  He mentioned the coins and gems the one carried and how they acted as if they knew nothing of its value.

"I can see hiding the identity of their Alpha if they traveled here as warriors, but to ignore two females in heat?  I know of no male who wouldn't offer a challenge, even within the neutral lands you rule."  Stripe shook his head.  "And what is it you want?"

As Stonemarker spoke, he stared into the flame of the nearest lantern.  He found the flame somehow aided his memory when he spoke his prophecies. 

"To fulfill the prophecy, you must travel to my Inn where you shall become the Omega to a weaker pack who tread an honorable path.  They seek a place where lightning brings death on a clear night and travel to where a field painted red shall speak without voice.  Their leader will ask much but will tell you even less, accept it.  A day will come when death stalks a bald hilltop that shall be crowned in fire, from there the path is chosen by another.  Search his path for the stone serpents that shall point the way.  They shall discard you one night as unworthy.  No honor is lost when you return home but look not to the sky for it is there that secrets best not known are revealed."

Stripe laughed.  "For this I am to abandon my pack and follow you?  The rambling words of a dream?  I think not.  In another six months our pack will rejoin the females who are farming our home fields.  If I followed this dream and I am gone beyond the Spring equinox, another will become Alpha."

"There is more to my prophecy.  It needs three warriors.  The first is the golden-eyed wolf, an enemy of enormous power and with secrets deeper than any lake.  You are the second, Stripe.  You know the land and your willingness to help will insure success.  The third warrior awaits our arrival, or so I hope.  He carries a weight greater than any mountain and is as much a babe as any pup."

"Let me answer in the morning.  For now, you are an honored guest."

Stonemarker couldn't believe how congenial the wolf acted in private.  He first met Stripe at his inn when he introduced him to the Deep Forest Pack and an arbitrator.  Stripe later thanked him for making the contract possible but always he maintained a formal stance.  Seeing a warrior wolf in such a friendly mood contradicted every stereotype known about his morph brethren.   Stripe poured wine into two tankards and offered one to him.  He drank deep of the sweet wine.  Stonemaker felt odd, and not the odd that comes from overindulgence.

"Be at ease, friend.  The poison is mild and will put you into a deep sleep.  I cannot risk others learning where we camp and stealing all that we have.  Protecting the pack is the responsibility I carry as the Alpha.  When you awaken, we shall see the power of a prophesy."
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

Water cascaded over Stonemarker's head.  He tried blocking the waterfall with his paws and gazed up at the source of the drenching.  An upturned canteen hung almost a full meter above his head.  Another meter above that, the grinning face of a wolf he knew all too well.  He hoped the pounding within his head the aftereffects of the drug and not the start of a monumental hangover.

"Very funny, Stripe.  I suppose giving me a light shake wasn't practical?"

"One never overlooks such a good opportunity at a little payback."  Stripe continued laughing while Stonemarker gathered his gear.  "I did try nudging you with my foot, but your snoring kept drowning out the crickets.  So, I decided to drown out the source of the disturbance."

By following a more direct route instead of the road, Stripe and Stonemarker shaved half a day off their travel time.  As they entered the settlement, a female porcupine hurried up to them.  When she reached the two travelers, she lifted her chin.  Stripe responded by tapping her throat with a finger and thanking her for the honor shown.  Once she completed the greeting ceremony with Stripe, she turned to the innkeeper.

"Brother, that wolf pack you told all to watch left around noon two days ago.  They bought a lot of supplies before catching the ferry across the river.  Old Fester said those wolves were on the main road going west."

Stonemarker nodded and the female continued her report.  "We also did as you suggested and kept alert for strangers.  Yesterday, a large party of ferrets came here.  They staggered their arrival but I'm sure they're together.  They all had the same strange accent and used copper coins instead of beads.  All they have done is wander about the place asking strange questions."

"Have others inform these strangers that somebody needs to speak with them at noon; then prepare a private meeting room.  Tell Chairwoman Goldenspike of my return and that there is no danger.  Stripe and I will handle these ferrets."

The female continued describing the oddities of both the wolves and their latest guests as they walked through the settlement.  Stripe did not ignore such gossip as it could prove informative.  Stripe's nose twitched as he caught the odor of the Mountain Wolf Pack.  For a moment, he scented a female in heat.  Shaking his head, he tried focusing on the chattering lady porcupine as they continued to a nearby cabin.

Once inside, the two dropped their gear.  A quick wash and hearty breakfast were followed with a restful nap.  When a young porcupine shook Stripe, he felt ready to see these strange ferrets.  Curiosity brought him but he had yet to decide if the words of a dream merited his attention.
A quick walk across the compound brought him to another cabin where Stonemarker waited.  Unlike their previous quarters, this one had nothing more than a huge table in the center of the one-room structure.  The front and back each had a large fireplace that remained unlit.  Light came into the place from windows along the side and from roof panels somebody opened prior to their arrival.  A gentle breeze kept the room at a comfortable temperature.

Stonemarker and Stripe stood at one end of the oaken table, waiting.  The door to their left opened and in stepped a ferret of medium build.  He eyed the two and remained wary, but when the porcupine pointed at the table's chairs, drew closer.  The ferret had not gotten halfway to the table when the door opened again, admitting another ferret. 

In quick order the table became occupied by a total of eleven ferrets.  Six sat on one side and the rest on the other.  None spoke as they stared first at each other and then at them.  When Stripe moved down to the opposite end, every eye followed him and continued to do so even after he sat.

Stonemarker broke the silence.  "Good ferrets, I don't know who you are but I do know why you are here.  You are tracking a pack of wolves that left this settlement two days ago."

"Sir," one ferret said, "I have never met these other ferrets or know anything about the wolves you speak of.  Like I told the one tending bar, I'm just a simple traveler going wherever my feet take me."

Stipe watched the innkeeper approach the ferret that spoke.  The porcupine leaned close to the fellow until their muzzles almost touched.  Stonemarker banged the table with the sap he kept in his vest pocket.  The bag of lead pellets struck so close to the ferret he yanked his paw off the wooden surface.  Three ferrets started to rise but sat when another waved them down.

"Now is not the time for lies!  I have brought you an ally, somebody who is an expert tracker and is familiar with this region.  Decide if you wish to continue your deception or if you will accept Stripe's help.  Our clan will provide whatever you need at a reasonable price.  All of you carry the same stench of death I smelled on those wolves and I'll not have it here."

The innkeeper turned towards the nearest door and stomped across the room.  He then flung it open and stepped beyond the threshold.  When the door banged shut, the room returned to an eerie silence.  Each ferret stared at the one sitting opposite him before glancing at the one who spoke earlier.  Stripe waited, wondering if they would continue their charade or admit they traveled together.

The ferret Stonemarker challenged gave a quick sigh.  "Testy morph.  Isn't he?"

"Porcupines can be that way."  Stripe growled.  "Thing is, this settlement is too valuable.  Every morph race has reason to mistrust others.  Such tension always makes trading difficult.  No village wants strangers prowling about.  We each fear an attack from our neighbors over land, food, or some other treasure.  This is a neutral site where deals can be enacted and goods exchanged without endangering ourselves.  For example, my pack will be here when summer ends to conclude a deal with the Dark Forest Pack for using their hunting grounds.  Without the porcupines negotiating an equitable trade, a harsh winter could prove disastrous for both of us."

The ferret rose and stood there staring in space for several seconds.  He then gazed at each of the ferrets seated before turning towards him.  Clearing his throat, the ferret shook his head as he took his seat.  Again, the silence stretched.  Then the fellow turned to Stripe.

"The porcupine is right; we have been tracking those wolves over a great distance.  We have been given the duty of stopping them, at all costs."

"So, the porcupine was right.  These wolves are either well-organized bandits or a disciplined squad of rogue soldiers."  Stripe glared at the ferret.

"I can neither confirm nor deny your assumption.  All I will tell you is that if we fail, many will die."

Stripe laughed.  The sound took the others by surprise if he correctly read their expressions.  A few had a bemused look but each of them kept their eye on the one who spoke first.  Such actions made the wolf laugh even harder.  Stripe extended his paw to the ferret.

"Command me and I shall obey your orders.  Stonemarker claims that he saw you in a dream and said you were on an honorable path.  He told the truth.  You are hiding something but not the purpose of your quest.  So, on my oath, I shall speak to none anything I hear from this moment forward."

The ferret looked at the massive paw and placed his atop the open palm.  A brief shake was all it took.  Stripe rose and motioned the ferret into his seat and then took the one vacated by the fellow.  He didn't know which end of the table to consider the head but knew he couldn't remain in the end seat if he were to accept this ferret's orders.

For the next hour Riven introduced his traveling companions.  Riven questioned the wolf as to where he thought the other wolves were going by asking what laid beyond the river to the west.  If Stripe asked a question for clarification, Riven sometimes evaded answering it.  Stripe never pressed for explanations.  When they concluded their talks, they made for the door the porcupine used earlier.

Outside, they found the innkeeper leaning against a tree.  Stripe nodded, signaling his decision to join these ferrets.  Stripe led them to one of the stores and spoke with the porcupine behind the counter.  In moments the ferrets had selected enough gear for a trip of thirty days.  Once they finished outfitting themselves, Stripe led them to the ferry.

As they crossed the choppy waters, Stripe muttered.  "Dreams can be a real tick in the fur."
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

Stripe led the ferrets down the road at a slow pace.  While the ferrets kept to the stone walkway, the wolf kept off the path on one side staring at the ground.  After a hundred paces, they halted and the wolf searched the opposite side, retreating to where he stopped the last time.

This routine continued for the entire day.  By the time Riven ordered a halt, they had covered a distance that had the other ferrets upset with the wolf's continual backtracking.  That had the wolf snarling at the ferrets in general but at no time did he respond to any specific ferret's verbal attack.

As they sat about the campfire, Riven approached the wolf.  He kept shifting from one foot to another as he stood a distance away from the more powerful beast.  A motion of a huge paw and the wolf patting the nearby log had Riven draw nearer.  For a moment, the two sipped at the coffee they obtained at the settlement, the wolf calling it excellent while Riven compared it to muddy water.

"You didn't come over here to describe the coffee.  You're wondering why we travel so slowly when your adversaries are slipping away."

"No, I'm not complaining.  You're a tracker and we have to check both sides of the road.  I thought you might appreciate it if I told you one of the wolves we chase contacted us.  We now know they are going for something called the Orb of Storms."

Stripe gave a menacing growl.  "A wolf managed to slip past me?  Impossible!  I would have scented him long before he got in range.  I saw no parchment or stone markers, so how did you get this message?"

Riven tried maintaining a calm exterior, but his eyes followed Stripe's agitated pacing.    "Let me just say we have a way of communicating you don't know and could never understand.  I can say nothing more."

Stripe cursed as he muttered something about dreams.  Riven heard him vow to cause mayhem on a certain porcupine when this adventure ended.    Taking a deep breath, Stripe stared up at the stars and remained in that pose for several seconds.  When he returned to his place at the fire, his face displayed a look of contrition.
"Forgive me.  I don't like being omega to you or any beast.  Yet I am compelled by my oath to do just that.  All I ask is that you answer one question.  Did this wolf slip past me?  I will be of no help to you or your cause if he did."

Riven stood and placed his paw on the wolf's slumped shoulder.  "None got past you.  This form of communication is something that cannot be seen, smelt, or heard."

Such an answer made no sense to Stripe.  How does one talk without sight or sound?  If the message came by other means, he should have seen it.  No morph approached them and the ferrets remained on the road in full sight.  This communication even defied scent.  It seemed implausible but honor required him to ask no questions.

"Your warriors are good.  They move down the road watching for danger and have their paws close to their weapons at all times, though the one at the end seems inept.  He carries no weapon that I can see.  Is he an untrained welp or a coward?"

Riven laughed.  "The one you think inept is the bravest of us all.  He carries no weapon and will never fight.  He is honor bound to heal any who are injured."

Stripe hung his head in shame.  "I did not know such a custom existed among your kind.  If battle comes, I pledge my life for his."

"He would not want such a pledge if it puts you in harm's way."

"It is the time for a commander to make a decision."

Over the next half hour, Stripe explained the history of the Orb of Storms.  He relayed all he heard of the recent theft and recovery, plus the repercussions.  A map was produced and Stripe dismissed it when the landmarks didn't jive with those he knew.  Using a sharp stick, he drew a crude map showing the location of the settlement they left, the road they followed and the location of the Sanctuary.  When Stripe asked if he thought the other wolves would take the long and easy road or the more direct route, Riven laughed.

"That's what I thought you would say.  Come tomorrow, we leave the road.  We push hard enough we can gain a day as I know ways around the hills these others must climb since they follow the road.  If luck is with us, we might beat them there.  If they go through the woods, I will catch their scent."

"It's good we have you, sir.  What say we sleep now and get an early start?"

As dawn broke, Stripe roused the ferrets.  All ate a hasty meal and then secured their gear before entering the woods.  The party made no effort at stealth as they knew their adversaries were two days ahead of them.  Even Stripe no longer checked for signs of the other wolves since he knew their eventual destination.

At times the others wondered why he led them on such a serpentine route, but Stripe kept his counsel.  When the forest became too dark for running, they moved at a more sedate pace.  By the time the moon rose above the trees, the forest became too dark and they made a fireless camp.  None spoke as they fell into an exhausted slumber.

After the second day, Stripe called to Riven and informed him that the Sanctuary of the Orb would be visible when they reached the hilltop.  Many of the ferrets expressed joy at the news and all stepped a bit livelier as they climbed the hill.  Breaking out of the tree line, each ferret reached into their backpacks and pulled out a strange contraption that they placed over their eyes.

"Is that a spyglass?  I've never seen one so small."

"Size does not mean efficiency.  With this spyglass, I could count the number of bricks in that wall."

Riven kept staring at the Sanctuary for several moments before he called out to the others.  "Anyone see anything peculiar?"

The one named Lewark gave a snort.  "Yeah, if this place is so important, where are the guards?  For that matter, where are the workers for the wall?"

Riven returned the spyglass to his backpack pocket and ordered everyone to prepare for battle.  Stripe objected, claiming weapons were not allowed in the Sanctuary.  None paid attention.  In the end, Stripe joined the others as they moved across the open field to the nearest wall. 
Peering around the corner, they saw the body of a hare guard.  Using his paw to relay instructions, the others fanned out and circled the building's exterior.  Several tense moments passed before the other ferrets returned.  Everyone stood by the unbarred door.

"We found the bodies of another five hares, all showing the same . . . marks."  Lewark stared at Stripe, but a command from Riven had the fellow continue.  "There is one large wound in their head and a smaller one in their chest.  Standard commando raid protocol, an armor piercing . . . blade . . . to the chest and a hollow-pointed . . . dart . . . to the head."

"Search the Sanctuary for the ORB and check for any survivors, though I doubt there are any."

"These wounds were done by no blade or dart, Riven."  Stripe rose after examining the body.

"No disrespect wolf, but that is about as accurate a description as somebody of your intelligence could comprehend."

Stripe raised his hackles at the insult but did nothing until his ears detected something.  That something repeated itself and Stripe raced for the sanctuary door.  His shout from within the building had everyone rushing to him.  Riven tried to follow Stripe as he raced towards the building but the wolf was much faster.  Just past the reception area Riven found Stripe cradling the head of a hare struggling for every breath.

"They came . . . they came last night.  The guards outside must have thought . . . thought the porcupines wanted to see the . . . the high priestess.  They came inside, pointed something at me and thunder roared."

Riven knelt by the unknown hare.  "Did they get the Orb of Storms?"

The hare shook his head.  "They never discovered its hiding place, unless our priestess took it to the castle.  I'm a novice here and not privy to such things.  I heard the golden eye fellow say something about another Orb being located in a village of . . .."

Stripe lowered the dead body of the hare.  "Stonemarker said that we would find a place where lightning brings death on a clear night.  Would you agree with that description of what killed these guards?"

Seeing the squad leader nod infuriated Stripe.  "You lied to me.  We weren't tracking wolves; it was a gang of porcupines.  Why the deception, and why didn't you warn me about these weapons?"

"You said it yourself.  Porcupines are trusted as intermediaries.  If that trust were destroyed, it would endanger everyone, which is why your friend asked that we say nothing unless it was necessary.  We are hunting these rogues down because they have acquired weapons from an ancient site and seek an even deadlier weapon.  That is why they need an ORB, to locate that other place."

That had Stripe scratching the side of his muzzle.  "I know where this other Orb can be found.  It's in a village of ferrets, but that Orb is of little value.  It will help you learn how things are constructed, but it has no other powers.  Even the wisest of rats hasn't found a way to do more with it and the ferrets gave them a full season trying."

"True, but these others don't know that.  We're now less than a day behind these killers; can you get us to this settlement quickly?"

Once more Stripe stared at the lifeless bodies of the armored hare guards.  "If these porcupines are willing to kill trained guards, they'll not hesitate with folks armed with nothing more than pitchforks and hammers.  We give these guards a decent burial and then we move on."

"We cannot help the dead.  This is more important."  Riven's comment came across without emotion.

Ignoring Riven, Stripe gathered the body of the guard and carried it outside.  "It will take them three days if they follow the roads.  We shall travel like the honeybee and get there before them."
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

Working together the ferrets soon had a shallow pit dug along one of the Sanctuary's outer walls.  Following Stripe's directions, they removed the weapons and armor from each of the dead hares and leaned it against the wall above its owner.  When they filled the pit, the wolf had the armor laid on the ground as if the deceased warrior still wore it.

Stripe stepped back.  "We give homage to those who use sword and shield defending those that do not.  There is no greater duty and we grieve over the loss of those who fall in battle.  Let the dead be guided to a place of peace with the next rising of the sun."  After the invocation, Stripe raised his muzzle and let out a long mournful howl.

Each ferret came to attention and one by one snapped off a sharp salute.  They maintained their rigid stance for the duration of the wolf's invocation and showed no reaction to his baying.  Turning, they marched three steps forward before relaxing their pose.

"We have honored the dead; now let's hunt down those responsible before more join these hares."  Growled one of the ferrets.

Everyone nodded in agreement as they shouldered their backpacks.  Stripe led them down a stone path at a fast gait.  None complained about the pace as their feet ate the distance between the graves and the Builder's Orb.  After a short rest, he led them into the forest.  Riven saw no trail but their guide must know where they had to go.

They continued their run for another day.  An hour before sunrise, the wolf led them at a slower pace.  Riven worried their quarry might beat them but Stripe sounded so confident.  Their guide called him forward.

A large settlement dominated the skyline on the other side of a cultivated field.  Stripe pointed to the left where a road ran right to the town.  Riven had everyone observe the place.  They examined the low outer wall for any signs of an armed defense and found nothing more threatening than a pair of guards at the gate.  Riven examined the inner walls and found them patrolled by sentries who moved at a sedate pace.  All saw nothing outside the normal activities of a village awakening after a night's slumber. 

The wolf laid a massive paw on his shoulder.  "You and I must remain outside that stockade while the rest go inside and reconnoiter.  Wolves are not welcomed within their inner walls and you because of a certain porcupine's dream."

"For one who is supposed to be 'following orders,' you sure give a lot.  However, there is wisdom in your counsel.  As ferrets, we'll not attract any attention and the settlement is large enough that they might not notice us as strangers."

Taking a few steps away from the wolf, Riven whispered to his squad.  They each nodded and jogged off along the forest edge as they searched for another entry point.  For an hour the wolf and ferret waited.  Then the commander tapped his companion's shoulder and they advanced.
Before reaching the main gate, Riven let the wolf know that the others were now inside the settlement and working their way to the stockade.  A questioning look from Stripe had Riven assuring the wolf he knew this as fact. 

A quick greeting to the two guards and they went inside.  Riven chuckled as he complimented the wolf on his lie as they passed the gateway.  Within the outer wall the two passed several large business establishments and many homes.  These Stripe ignored as they worked their way to the rear of the heavy stockade.

On an open field stood a mound of red mud that had been piled higher than the wolf was tall.  Though none tried stopping them from observing, the armed guards made it clear that they would not be allowed any nearer.  A question from Riven had Stripe explaining.

"The ferrets who live here found this red clay half a day's journey to the north.  It's high grade mud if you're skilled in pottery.  The village uses it for trade."  Then Stripe leaned so close to his ear that his whiskers touched him.  "I have no idea how a red field can talk, but that is what Stonemarker said.  I'll leave you here and will watch for the others at the main entrance."

Riven leaned up against the wooden fence, grateful for the shade.  He watched several workers move wheelbarrows of the mud to and from the pile.  He noticed other ferrets that passed his resting place.  They either ignored him or gave a quick nod acknowledging his presence, but made no effort at contacting him.

A light buzzing sound came to his ears and checking to be sure none were near, he retrieved his communicator.  One member confirmed that there was an ORB present, but he didn't know where.  Another reported a building towards the rear made of stone that had a high number of armed guards.

That had the ferret fishing through his equipment.  Retrieving a small box, he first checked his surroundings.  None were paying him any mind.  When he turned the box on, it filled with script.

Well I'll be damned.  That wolf was right about this field talking.  I must be within twenty meters of that ORB as I'm getting a detailed view of its display.

He was about to inform his squad of his findings when all his communicator channels lit up at one time.  Riven listened as his men reported panic had struck inside.  They described armed ferrets running to and from the stone building in a near frenzy.  Nobody saw smoke and there were nothing indicating a battle.

One glance at his computer interface showed him the reason.  Instead of the sedate listings of menus dedicated to various building related topics, the screen now displayed a high-speed download.  Riven knew his interface automatically downloaded an exact copy of the material so he made no effort to read it.  The screen flickered for several seconds before a series of numbers remained on display. Then the screen blanked out before the previous menus reappeared.

Riven's anxiety came across his communicator as he contacted his squad.  "Everyone, stay alert.  The humans are somewhere nearby and they have accessed the ORB.  Locate and destroy their computer interface at all costs.  We cannot allow them a chance at analyzing any of the data they retrieved."

X x x x

Unaware of the happenings within the stockade, Stripe lounged against the village square's fountain.  Thanks to a favorable breeze, the waters sent a light mist his way that refreshed his aching muscles.  He observed the surrounding crowd, looking for the murderous porcupines.  This village wouldn't allow any other morph beyond the field holding the red clay or through the inner stockade's lone gate so he knew their quarry had to pass him.

Several youngsters approached the wolf.  The youngest wondering what kind of morph he was and pestered him with questions.  Older pups tried learning his reason for waiting there and became annoyed with his vague responses.  The more aggravating youths tried steering him to their parent's place of business.  All were trying his patience.

Just then Stripe spied the tallest ferret he had ever seen.  The fellow also fascinated the crowd as he displayed the physique of a champion weightlifter.  Some of the females offered him a hot meal if he would stay for a while.  A contingent of other ferrets surrounding the giant tried moving through the populace, but their efforts attracted even more attention.

Since they were not porcupines, Stripe ignored their passing until the wind shifted.  All it took was a quick sniff and Stripe knew one of the killers stood nearby.  Senses alert, he tested the air and located the source of the odor.  It was the huge ferret.

Moving with alacrity, Stripe raced over to the beast.  Villagers parted way and he soon stood behind the gigantic ferret.  Stripe reached out his paw, snagging the fellow's shirt.  He spun the giant around and stood muzzle to muzzle with the ferret.

"Last time I caught your scent, it was at the Orb of Storms Sanctuary.  Mind telling me why . . ."

A hard punch slammed into Stripe's chest driving the wind out of him.  Having fought in many Alpha bouts where the first blow came without warning, he reacted on instinct alone.  Launching himself forward, Stripe drove his head into the stomach of his adversary and stood.  Using his momentum, he flipped the ferret over his back and spun around.

Like a seasoned warrior, the ferret jumped to his feet after his back crashed to the cobblestones.  A vicious right missed his head and Stripe responded with a quick series of hard punches to the ferret's chest that sent his adversary reeling backward.  The ferret counterattacked.  One fist connected with his head and now it was Stripe who backpedaled as he fended off blows from a ferret as tall as him.

Nearby residents scrambled out of the path of the two combatants.  After blocking the ferret's leg from delivering a kick to his knee, Stripe connected with a series of punches that felled his off balanced antagonist.  Once again, the ferret rose and Stripe moved in closer.  A sudden tingling sensation ran through him and in his agony, had him loosen an ear-splitting snarl.  Dropping to the ground, Stripe twitched and jerked about as painful spasms racked his body.  Foamy spittle pooled near his head as his body refused any command his mind issued.

Exhausted by what had happened, Stripe struggled to an unsteady four-paw stance.  Residents that fled earlier crowded nearer, babbling about what they witnessed.  One ferret guard pushed his way to where he knelt and asked the obvious question.  Soon every morph standing there responded in a cacophony of noise that had the guard end it with a piercing whistle.

With silence restored, Stripe told the guard where to find his friend.  A few moments later, Riven stood next to him and tried downplaying the fight.  He even called it a prelude to a scheduled athletic event between two boxers.  Though the ferrets around them grumbled, none protested too hard.  When Riven slipped the guard a few copper beads, he too withdrew.

"Not here, Stripe.  We're getting out of this village right now."

Once Stripe got to his feet, he swayed down the road like an inebriated pup.  Ferrets unfamiliar with the earlier ruckus pointed at those leading the drunken wolf outside of town.  Though he wanted to growl at the laughing populace, all he could do was drool, which only highlighted his comical appearance to those he passed.

Safe from prying eyes and far from inquisitive ears, the ferrets camped on the side of the road.  One of the ferrets stabbed him in the backside without warning and the others had to restrain an enraged wolf.  They told him it was done to heal him but such words didn't help.  When Stripe regained his senses, he apologized to the one they called vet.  As strange as it seemed, he did feel much better.

Having recovered from his strange ordeal, Stripe's eyes blazed with a renewed sense of fury as everyone went through the routine of an evening meal on the road.  Though the meal was tasty, his anger consumed him.  When nobody said more about what happened, Stripe snarled.

"When we first met, we hunted wolf bandits, then we chased murdering porcupines, and now I find myself fighting ferrets that have the same scent as those killers.  Nothing you have said to date makes sense and I'm wondering how many more lies you told."

Riven nodded.  "Do you know what a chameleon is?"

"It's some kind of lizard that can change his colors to match the ground or plants.  What does that have to do with your lies?"

"Our enemy has the ability to do the same thing, only he can change into any type of morph he sees.  Thank goodness they couldn't hide their scent or we wouldn't know they escaped."

"What you say is not possible.  No morph can do that."

"Nonetheless, our opponent can.  I know it seems impossible, but where we come from, such things are feasible.  Unfortunately, they have acquired the information they need and are going for the weapon we told you about.  Now we need your tracking skills more than ever."

Stripe rose and walked over to his bedroll and scrunched under the blankets.  "Though I hate giving them any more of a lead, we'll all do better on a good night's sleep."
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

Lewark approached Riven just before dawn.  "Did you learn anything from the download, Major?"

"Most of the document is coded and we have no way of deciphering it.  One of the things downloaded were the GPS coordinates for the message source and its receiving point as well as the current location of the ORB.  That's the good news.  The bad news is that after more than a thousand years the exact location has become degraded.  Best we can do is get within a two-mile radius of the transmission point and hope the laboratory is nearby."

"How do we know which is which?"

"The first series of numbers is always where the message went and the second series of numbers indicates who sent it, lieutenant.  Since my communicator still has the coordinates of the porcupine's settlement, I could deduce the third series of numbers must have been the ORB's location.  By using the ancient map longitude and latitude numbers, I got an estimate of where the lab's transmitter was located.  Based on these numbers, the site is over a hundred miles north and west of our current position."

"Based on the distance and direction, our destination is well inside the Wildlands, Major."  Stripe said from his bedroll.   He faced the two speaking ferrets and chuckled.  "If you two want to keep your conversations private, either move further away or speak softer, wolves have excellent hearing."

Grumbling about the lack of privacy, the ferrets prepared a hearty breakfast.  All smiled as they talked about finding their enemy within a short time.  It made for an almost festive mood among them as each ferret anticipated a quick ending to their mission.

However, Stripe was not so optimistic.  He conferred with Major Riven and reviewed the maps he provided.  An examination of the land's contours and some of the more visible landmarks revealed nothing.  After the major briefed him on the location, Stripe snorted.

"Which would you prefer, an ambush or the hunt?"

The major said nothing and Stripe elaborated.  "These chameleons are predictable because they are as ignorant as you."  Stripe held his paw up to ward off any further comment.  "They know nothing of this land and travel in a straight line, so pursuit is easy once I catch their scent.  I know the woods on this side of the Great Barrier Wall and can get you ahead of our enemy; we might be able to ambush them."

"May I suggest a little of both?"  Lewark interjected.  "Let's find their tracks first and be certain they travel in a straight line.  If they do, our guide can get us ahead of our enemy."  The ferret gave Major Riven a sideward glance as he gazed at Stripe.  "Unless they get some . . . help . . . from a higher power."

Major Riven ignored Stripe's confused expression.  "I'm hoping they do get such help.  Thanks to our informant, we have . . . a way of intercepting their messages, even if they try . . . hiding them."

Knowing the approximate location where the others entered the woods, the ferrets joined the wolf searching the area for a sign of their passing.  All were becoming frustrated when Stripe called to the others.  Gathered about their guide, they soon spotted the tracks leading into the woods.  At one point, Stripe pointed to the ground as he called the others closer.

"Your chameleons have done it again.  See these prints?  Those are of a ferret.  These belong to hares.  Yet if you sniff both, they are the same morph.  It took a while separating the different scents, but I'm certain we have twelve traveling together.  That's the number of wolves Stonemarker told me about when this thing started."

Though Stripe suggested going around, the Major insisted they follow the trail.  Grumbling to himself, he kept his nose close to the trail as he continued checking for tracks and the scents he remembered from the Orb Sanctuary.  All the ferrets donned camouflage gear and secured their weapons as they continued scanning the area for signs of their adversaries.

A nearby clearing provided the proof they needed.  Arranged around the dying ashes of a campfire were twelve spots that showed signs that something crushed the grass.  When Stripe sniffed one such depression, he let out a rumbling growl and held his paw palm down at a level even with his head.  Everyone knew he smelled the giant.

They followed a near straight line course through the forest.  As they tracked their enemy, the scent became stronger.  By the time nightfall passed, Stripe announced they were within two hours of meeting their foes.

Tonight's camp had no fire.  When darkness deepened, one of the ferrets shimmied up a tree.  He remained there for several moments before the others heard him descending.  Judging by the way the fellow bounced from foot to foot, he had good news.

"I spotted a low fire about a mile ahead, near the crest of the hill."

Stripe rubbed his paws together.  "We wait until the moon rises and we'll attack."

"No, we'll all bed down and have a good night's sleep.  Come morning, I'll show you why."  Major Riven's voice brooked no argument.

Stripe almost demanded an explanation, but held his counsel.  He grumbled about his being with cowards but none of the ferrets took the bait.  He tucked the corners of his blanket tighter as late fall nights could be as cold as winter.  On one point he grudgingly gave Riven credit.  They moved off the forest trail and posted guards, which showed Riven feared his enemy might try the same thing he proposed, a night attack.

A short time after dawn they resumed the hunt.  They soon found the clearing where the fire had been located.  One of the scouting ferrets raised his paw and made a fist.  He pointed to the left side of the trail before making a motion even Stripe understood.  The scout spotted something he wanted them to see.

It would be easy overlooking such a slight depression dug into the ground.  About a half dozen feet to either side, they found two more similar depressions.  One of the ferrets knelt in the depression and peered over the intervening tree limbs.  Then another ferret found the same formation on the opposite side of the trail.

"They must have detected our scout climbing the tree last night and prepared a nasty reception if anyone approached their camp.  I must say, they did set an excellent crossfire ambush.  Anyone following that trail would be worm meat."

Stripe nodded at the unknown ferret's comment.  "I agree, they were waiting for us, but how did they know?  We used no fire and the wind is in our face.  None caused any noise that would have alerted them.  Can you tell me how they knew we were tracking them, Riven?"

"These chameleons have a device that can detect body heat from a vast distance.  A calculated risk on my part sending somebody up into that tree last night but it backfired.  Now we both know about the other.  It's time we try your plan, wolf."

Rubbing his paws together, Stripe turned in place.  When he finished his third turn, he moved down the hill and followed a wide gully.  At first, he kept checking the ground for signs of their prey.  By midday, Stripe had the ferrets jogging through the woods.  As evening rolled around, Stripe led them to a stony ridge.

"Our foe will travel through this clearing early tomorrow if they maintain their present course and speed.  It lies in roughly the right direction of their travels.  They will be within range of your bows as well."

Each ferret dug a deep pit and mounded the rocks as a barrier facing the clearing.  They did several dry pulls with their bows while others poked crossbows between the rocky openings as they reviewed their line of fire.  Major Riven looked down the short hill and noted the almost perpendicular angle of the rocks.

When night came, he scanned the dark woods with his spyglasses while three others did the same.  Late into the night one ferret snapped his fingers and pointed back along their enemy's anticipated course.  A low whistle from Riven sent everyone to their stations where they bedded down.  Even in the dark of night, Stripe saw Riven grinning and heard the excitement in his voice.

"For the first time, we have them at the disadvantage.  They're checking behind and wondering if anyone is following.  None anticipate an ambush up ahead.  Tomorrow will be a glorious day for victory."
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

Each ferret peered through the openings they left in the rocky barrier as they awaited their enemy.  None spoke and if any coughed or shifted position, the others would give the offending morph a scathing glare.  Even Stripe felt the tension and kept checking that his war ax could be snatched at an instant, though Riven insisted this would be a fight over distance.

The ferret on the far right flicked a pebble at the ferret on his left who did the same thing until it reached the depression where Stripe and Riven awaited the battle.  When the pebble struck the stones, its pinging sound alerted them to the approaching enemy.  It took a quick glance to ascertain where their adversaries stood.

Riven saw his trap unraveling as his enemy drew closer.  Instead of taking the easier course through the wide glade, his opponent hugged the forest boundary.  He also had his unit alert as they moved at a cautious pace, always checking the forest for any adversaries and watching their rear for possible pursuers.

Major Riven watched his enemy approach the kill zone while his unit kept their eyes on him.  When he gave the signal, those with crossbows loosened their bolt through the slits they constructed the previous day.  Those armed with longbows jumped upright and released their shafts before ducking behind the stone barrier.  All Stripe could do is finger the edge of his war ax.

At least they caught the enemy unawares.  Major Riven watched as two of the bolts found their targets, but cursed under his breath when those soldiers joined the others in the forest.  As he searched the woods for signs of their opponent, the others prepared for another volley.

Two hares exited the forest and knelt on the ground where the ambush first started.  In unison the two lifted tubes to their shoulders and scanned the stony rise.  Major Riven saw this and blanched.

"Everyone, start crawling into the woods as fast as you can."

Stripe didn't understand why they retreated, but did as ordered.  They were halfway to the forest when the wolf's ears detected a strange whooshing sound.  A second later, the stone outcropping erupted into a wall of flame.  Fire poured through the rocky barrier and filled the places where they had hidden throughout the night.

Safe within the forest, Major Riven pointed in the general direction their enemy would follow.  Nodding his head in understanding, Stripe led the group through the trees low enough that their opponent couldn't detect them.  As they rounded a hill, Major Riven used his spyglass.  He relayed his observation regarding their enemy continuing along their original course. 

"Where did those lizards learn how to command such powers?  I know of no such weapon that can hurl fireballs from a stick."  Stripe couldn't hide his shock at what he had just experienced.

"We were lucky, this time.  I thought they wouldn't use their powers here, fearing others might learn about them.  Considering the stakes, I should have anticipated them using whatever means they could."

"What other powers do these lizards command?  It's hard enough chasing after an enemy that can become another morph at will.  If this were a more populated area, we wouldn't know if that was another contingent of hares or the killers we pursue until we got within sniffing range."

Falling in place behind their adversaries, the ferrets continued their pursuit.  An examination of the tracks showed that at least two suffered injuries.  One was mild as he no longer bled though his foot dragged.  The second one appeared to be losing a lot of blood.  Stripe reported the injured were not delaying the others.

Rounding a bend in the trail, the ferrets surprised the hares.  They too appeared startled by the sudden appearance of their pursuers.  Both sides grabbed for weapons and Stripe drew his war axe.  A barking sound came from the hares and fearing another firestorm, Stripe dove for cover.  In the ensuing silence, Stripe watched the hares continue on their original course.  One by one the ferrets came out of hiding.  A quick headcount showed one was missing. 

They found his body in the middle of the trail, riddled by holes similar to those suffered by the dead at the Sanctuary.  Stripe helped bury the group's medic, expressing his appreciation one more time for his aid after fighting the giant.  Every member of the party wore a resolute expression as they pledged vengeance for their fallen comrade.

Riven changed his strategy.  Ambushes didn't work since the humans had modern weapons and equipment that put them at a disadvantage.  Trailing their enemy might be safer but it conceded the race to them.  They couldn't allow that.  He had but one option available.

Instead of a direct firefight they couldn't win, Major Riven sniped at his opponent.  Whenever the humans stopped, one soldier crept close enough for one quick shot.  Sometimes that unexpected shot came from a ferret Stripe led to an ambush spot ahead of the humans.  At night, they crept close enough that the automated alarms activated, depriving their enemy of a restful night's sleep.

Their plan seemed to be working.  The trip should have taken no more than five days, but seven had passed and they were nearing the halfway point.  When the one ferret returned from his nightly sortie, he gave his commander some good news.

"I think those lizards are running short of ammo.  Last night I got the guard to fire a volley at me, this time he left his weapon holstered.  And that happened again when they changed guards and I crept within shooting range.  They became alert and knew where I was, but nothing else."

Major Riven slapped the fellow on the back, congratulating him on a job well done.  It seemed the odds might have shifted into their favor.  Riven approached Stripe. 

"Can you get us to another ambush point?  This time we might have the stronger paw because our weapons are renewable."

No words were spoken.  Stripe moved through the woods with the others trailing him on a course that led away from their enemy's line of travel.  Once Riven said they were beyond detection range, Stripe changed course.  When Stripe called a halt, he had them crouch behind a line of rotting trees facing a wide trail.  The hard part came in awaiting the arrival of those they pursued.

Their quarry came into view.  All awaited the signal; even Stripe hoped he could get off a shot with the bow one ferret offered him.  A dozen hares approached the clearing when a strange warbling sound came from the one leading the others.  In an instant, all of the hares dove for cover.

The sudden move had Riven's group fire a hasty volley.  The yelp of an unknown voice told them that at least one arrow or bolt scored a hit.  Then the forest became quiet.  After watching the area for several moments, one ferret slithered forward.  Seeing him stand confirmed their suspicions.  The enemy eluded them once more.

This time, they gave chase.  They were about to charge up a hill when Stripe signaled a halt.  Major Riven almost countermanded that order until the wolf gave his reason.

"Stonemarker said 'death stalks a bald hilltop.'  Until now, every hill we crossed had trees.  There are none on that hill.  After what we experienced earlier, I'm wondering if this is the one that will be 'crowned in fire.'"

Prudence said caution but listening to a mystic defied logic.  Major Riven sent one ferret up the hill.  All waited at the bottom watching the lone scout as he went forward.  Moments later he hastened back spooling out a long string.  Saying nothing, he reeled in the string.  Suddenly the hill erupted like a volcano in flames.

Turning to his commander the scout said one word, Claymores.  The humans must have used at least ten of those things to cover such a wide swath of land.  They already conserved ammo so this has to be a desperate attempt at trapping them.  Major Riven had to concede it almost worked too.

"Can you take us to where we need to go and not trail these hares?"

Stripe shook his head.  "A day's travel north is the Barrier Wall.  It's too high to climb and is too deep under the ground.  The only passage through the wall is guarded by the dog castle.  I doubt Prince would allow anyone into the Wastelands without a valid reason."

Another reason to hate the Puritans. The Northern Nation recognized the sapience of morphs, which caused a rift with its neighbor to the south.  That led to the construction of an impenetrable wall to keep the morphs from shifting south.  Major Riven never anticipated a need to cross that barrier when he first planned for this mission.  If the humans did, they would have some contingency for crossing that wall available.

"Stripe, is there any way we can get pass that wall?"

"A year ago, Stonemarker advised communities along the wall of marauders who discovered a way through the barrier.  His warning saved the lives and property of many morphs.  We tracked them down and found out how they slipped under the wall.  Prince was advised of the breach so I'm sure it's sealed by now."

"Perhaps Prince is not the most diligent."

Stripe laughed.  "I thought you knew nothing of this area, Riven.  Prince is easily distracted if something isn't immediately important to him.  It is possible those responsible for sealing this breach might not have completed their task."

With no other option, Stripe led them to a low-lying hill.  Riven was pleased seeing the cave unsealed and unguarded.  One by one they filed inside and followed a rocky path that meandered deeper.  When it became too dark, Riven called for torches.

Riven reached into his backpack and activated the chemical light stick.  An eerie green light soon filled the cave as each ferret held up a similar stick.  Thanks to the light, they continued downward.  The sound of rushing water drew them to an underground river.  Stripe told them the last marauder was supposedly killed as he fled downstream.

With no other option, Riven followed the water.  Their journey took time as Stripe and Lewark scouted ahead for the trail that led them to the other side.  Several times they found the remnants of burned out torches or campfires.  Those confirmed they followed the right path.  When the green sticks faded, Riven decided they would rest there.

Good thing they each carried multiple sticks.  Just as their third torch waned, they heard a low rumble and felt the wind pulling them forward.  The stream exited the hillside as a small waterfall that ended in a plunge pool at the base of a sheer cliff.  Above them there was no path, but to the right of the cave, a rough trail could be seen in the setting sun.  Before night had fallen, all had scrambled down to the base of the waterfall.
As everyone went about preparing the evening meal, Major Riven felt his communicator vibrate.  Making certain that Stripe was nowhere near, he activated the device.  His brow furrowed as he noted the communication channel.  The message was from their agent among the humans.

"For the morphs to win, you must lose.  Expect no further help."
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 camp remained in darkness thanks to the sheer cliffs near their camp.  The sentry on duty woke Major Riven as the sky displayed the beginnings of a clear day.  Though the birds chirped within the nearby woods, none of the morphs heard their melodious calls over the continual roar of the waterfall.  A light morning breeze swirled about the steep cliffs.  A heavy mist left everyone's fur damp.

"Not the most pleasant sensation or the nicest smell," grumbled Stripe.

"Quit your griping, wolf.  Following that stream got us down here faster than finding out how those hares got down those cliffs and hoping we could follow them.  Anyway, we could all use a good bath."

"Speak for yourself, Major.  We wolves don't shed water as well as ferrets since our pelts are too fluffy.  As to 'smell,' tell me you have no complaints once the sun gets down here."

Everyone went about the task of preparing the morning meal and packing their gear.  As was his habit, Riven kept an eye on their wolf guide, making sure he wasn't watching him.  Satisfied that Stripe was occupied with the normal campsite chores, he slipped his paw inside his backpack and opened his computer. 

He reviewed the radio traffic since last night.  Thanks to the human agent, Major Riven had a way of monitoring the Hydra's communications.  After the humans were dropped off, he learned the Hydra returned to orbit and now waited there.  Based on the timer the spy provided, the humans either missed their scheduled call to the orbital spaceship or they changed the radio frequency.  Without that radio signal, he couldn't monitor the human ground force. 

Just then Private Lewark tapped the Major's shoulder.  Of all the remaining members of his squad, Private Lewark had proven the most adaptable to the oddities of this world.  He had a natural way of making friends of anyone he met, which got him a lot of information at the Inn.  It also left him with a splitting headache after sampling too much of the local brew.

"I'm not questioning your commands, Major, but why not race those hairless monkeys to the finish line?  We do have the map coordinates."

"Yeah, we could race them to the finish line, but we would still have to find the lab.  Trailing them lets the hairless monkeys do all the work.  Remember, our mission is to eliminate the lab and all traces of its existence.  That means eliminating the humans too."

"If I were those hairless fiends, I'd take my ship back through the wormhole and get a bigger force here, especially since they know the approximate area."

"And what if there's no lab, lieutenant?  They have to be certain it exists and that the formula is there before they contact their ship.  If they are successful, there will be no need for a follow-up mission.  If the virus and the information necessary for its creation doesn't exist, they haven't wasted valuable resources on a fruitless venture."

Major Riven pushed himself off the ground and stretched the kinks out of his back.  Giving a quick shake first, he smoothed his fur.  After connecting the solar charger, he returned his computer terminal to its place before joining the others.  Their guide pointed out the course of the stream and everyone followed the waterway.

Sunlight brightened the valley and all were in jovial spirits.  As Stripe predicted, his damp fur left a bit of a stink.  The ferrets delighted in jesting with their guide who took every opportunity at staying upwind to them.  By the time his fur dried, the sun had almost reached its zenith.
Stripe pointed to an open field bordering the stream and a small column of smoke.  A quick march brought the ferrets to the burnt remnants of a campfire and the bodies of five dogs.  Each of the morphs had a large hole in their chest.  A closer examination of the campsite found both the bodies and the ashes still warm.

"Last night's rain has destroyed whatever scent trail we could follow.  No way of tracking your lizards that way until the ground dries, which might take a day or two."  Stripe continued to examine the shoreline near the campfire's ashes.

"What makes you so certain our enemy killed those dogs," Riven asked.

"Three things.  The first is that we are in the Wildlands where most creatures are the ones not blessed with self-awareness or intelligence.  They wouldn't know how to build or maintain a fire.  Then there are these dog tracks near the stream.  Based on the number of tracks, there should be more dogs or more bodies.  Looks like your lizards have changed their appearance."

"You said 'three.'  What's the third?"

The wolf smirked.  "Stonemarker's prophecy.  We have found the pyre, so now I have to wait until somebody else directs us since I'm no more familiar with this region than you were of the lands I knew."

Muttering under his breath, Major Riven reached into his backpack.  A quick consultation with his computer terminal and the help of a compass gave them a general direction.  Now it was his turn to give directions.

All kept alert as they anticipated running into the humans who were no more than four hours ahead of them.  They pushed themselves hard as they tried covering the distance, hoping they might see their adversaries.

Several times along the way, Riven checked his compass.  Using it as a guide, he would locate some landmark up ahead and make for it.  Once there, he found another landmark and they continued pressing forward.  By the time nightfall came, all were footsore from the hard day's travels.

One private scaled a tree that night and checked out their surroundings.  He felt disappointed that he spotted no fire, but then remembered that they too would go without one in fear of alerting their enemy.

Two more days passed like the first did, Major Riven using his compass and everyone following where he pointed.  As the third night started since discovering the dead dogs, Major Riven gathered everyone closer.  Even Stripe sensed something had changed since their last rest stop.

"According to my readings, we are about to enter the area where the ancient laboratory is located.  With one exception," and here Riven stared at Stripe, "all know that whatever weapon our enemy seeks is contained in this hidden place.  Tomorrow we start searching for this place, but keep alert.  Our enemy is out there doing the same thing."

When dawn came, the ferrets established a search pattern.  Each morph scanned his section of the area for signs that would lead them to their objective.  While the ferrets did the searching, Stripe kept watch for their enemies.  That had him muttering about becoming a shepherd to a herd of ferrets.  Every ferret took any excuse as a reason to pass their wolf sentry and bleat like a contented lamb before returning to their assigned area.

The next day started out with the same routine.  All moved out into a low field as they went to their assigned areas.  Grumbling about the slow pace and the lack of contact with the lizards, Stripe scanned the area for a good lookout perch.  As he passed the Major on his way to a stone outcropping, Riven gave a poor imitation of a sheep that left the wolf laughing.

From atop his rocky outpost, Stripe could detect any movement within the nearby trees and could scent anyone approaching from the opposite direction.  He continued his vigil as the sun first climbed and then started its descent.  Reaching for his canteen, Stripe dropped it.  As his paw grabbed the metal container, his eyes widened in surprise.

"Over here, I found something."

When the ferrets gathered about him, he pointed down at the base of a large rock.  There, chiseled into the rock was an ancient symbol that the recent rains had revealed when the surrounding mud had been washed away.  Etched into the stone was the ancient emblem of a doctor, the caduceus.   

With a note of pride, Stripe announced "Behold the stone serpents that shall point the way."
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

Removing his spyglass, Riven examined the area along the line suggested by Stripe.  He felt like a fool following the advice of some prophet, but so far, the porcupine's predictions had proven valuable.  His mutterings about the search area changed when he found a cave opening to the right of the track indicated by the worn stone serpents.

"We might be in luck.  There's a cave just outside the search area, perhaps that hill buried the lab or it was built underground.  No telling how extensive it could be underground.  Maybe the transmission point wasn't in the lab, but near it.  It's worth the time checking."

Having a destination put a jaunty step in the squad's pace as the ferrets made for the low hill.  Even Stripe felt proud that it was his discovery that led them to the distant cave.  All thought the race was won and that this cave represented the finish line.

Such thoughts had the ferrets dropping their guard as they approached the hillside.  They stepped through the few trees near the cave without taking any precautions.  The distinctive barking sound of an automatic weapon erupted.  Though Stripe didn't know the source, he remembered the sound that preceded the death of the unit's medic and dropped to his belly.

What Stripe would later describe as "a swarm of angry hornets" whizzed overhead and bark from the trees flew off wherever the insects struck.  Stripe was no coward, but he did have the intelligence to know when his weapons were outclassed.  He might have been closer to the trees than the ferrets, but he was the last reaching the relative safety they offered.  Each time he tried moving, his size attracted the hornet's attention.

Leaning against a tree, Riven focused his spyglass on the mouth of the cave.  There he observed several dogs guarding the entrance.  By dialing up the magnification power, he located a Great Dane that towered above the others running into the cave.  Without realizing it, Riven stepped clear of a tree and one of the dogs pointed his weapon at them.  Another dozen hornets slammed into the nearby tree just after a meaty paw yanked him onto his back in a most undignified manner.

Stars danced before his eyes and the spyglass shattered on a nearby rock.  Rolling onto his belly, Major Riven took a quick inventory of his body and found nothing damaged other than his pride.  A glance to his rear showed him the culprit responsible for his latest fall.

"Looks like I owe you one, wolf.  They almost planted me that time."

"I'm returning the favor owed" growled Stripe.  "Last time those lizards used their weapons, it was you who pulled me down and saved my life."

"There must be another entrance on the other side of the hill.  We would have spotted them earlier if this was the only way into the laboratory."

One of the privates peaked around the tree he hid behind, watching their enemy's movements.  "We have plenty of cover between us and that cave, major.  Should we try forcing our way inside?"

"No choice.  If they find what they're looking for, they can leave by the other exit and will escape."

Retreating deeper into the tangled mass of trees, the ferrets gathered about their commander.  He divided his force into two groups and outlined his plan.  Each group would attempt reaching the cave from a different side.  If they caught their enemy in the crossfire, they might force a way into the underground complex the hill buried.

Stripe followed Riven who moved to the left side of the cave's mouth while the Lewark led the rest of the unit on the other side.  Several times one group sprinted across an open area while the others kept a steady stream of arrows and bolts flying at the dogs.  Once both teams reached the hill, they worked their way to a point where they could fire down at their adversaries.

When the dog guards hastened into the cave, the ferrets opposite Major Riven charged into the fray.  Both dog and ferret pulled out knives as they started a deadly sparring match.  They joined the battle, taking on the outer sentries while the rest charged into the cave.  Riven killed his opponent and prepared to join those fighting in the cave.  A great fireball erupted that filled the cave's entrance.

In the quiet that followed, Stripe approached the cave with his senses alert.  Major Riven and Lewark soon joined him.  A quick peek inside showed them the charred remains of those who were fighting earlier.  Such was the intensity of the fireball that the three could do no more than count the charred bodies.  Based on the number of ash piles, everyone fighting in the cave mouth were exterminated.

"I'm betting these lizards believe they got all of us.  Best we go in with our ears open and our noses twitching."

"We go in, Stripe, but I lead.  Our enemy might still have a few tricks up his sleeve and there's too few of us left."
"By my count, there should be four of them and three of us, makes the odds a bit more even."

That's when Lewark quipped, "Yeah, but their weapons are still a lot better than ours.  One of them could take on a dozen of us without a problem."

At the end of the short tunnel they found a circular path leading downward.  After following the stone walkway twice around the central pole, the three spotted a faint light.  When they came to the new tunnel, they found two paths illuminated by dim lights that flickered.

"They must have located the control room and switched on the emergency lights.  It's amazing that there's still power in this place after more than a thousand years."

"Your words are meaningless to me, but you don't sound too surprised, major."  Stripe gazed in awe at his surroundings.  He placed his outstretched paw close to the flashing white sun and whistled in amazement.  "This light gives off no heat."

Lewark gave a snort as he shifted his search from one tunnel to the other.  "Back where we come from, such things are quite common."  That elicited a sharp hiss from the major.

His inspection of the strange sun completed, Stripe dropped to a four-paw stance and checked the stony floor.  Then the two ferrets noticed how the wolf's hackles stood on end.  The wolf pointed to the left and the three moved in that direction.

As the group worked their way deeper into the complex, they continued following a serpentine path deep underground where the only light came from the flickering light fixtures.  Alcoves created dark rooms extending no more than three paces from the central aisle they followed.  Though no evidence of the inhabitants remained, the stony chambers had piles of rotting fabrics that hinted of accommodations in a very distant past.

A quick peek into one room resulted in an even hastier retreat.  The bark of an automatic pistol sounded like thunder exploding inches from one's ears as the sound echoed off the walls.  That was followed by a sharp tangy smell Stripe couldn't identify, though it was the same odor as that left by the fireball at the cave's entrance.

Working as a team, the two ferrets would draw their enemy's fire.  Then they heard a noise they knew was the removal of an empty clip followed by cursing.  Springing into the doorway, both ferrets fired their arrows at the Doberman standing by the rear wall.  Hearing him scream had both ferrets rolling into the room.  When there was no returning gunfire, they stood.

Stripe followed Riven.  He strolled into the room, his paws close to his war axe.  Senses alert, he sniffed the stale air.

Though the chamber contained objects that dated back to the legendary time of the humans, the place itself appeared quite primitive.  Every surface remained in its natural state.  Nowhere were there signs that the chamber had ever been modified for its inhabitants' comfort.

The Doberman leaned against the far wall with two arrows in him.  One had pierced his hip and had him using a stone shelf for support.  The second shaft protruded from his chest and stained his brown fur a crimson color.  Despite his pain, the dog laughed.

"You mangy fur balls have interfered in our affairs one time too many."  He pulled a sealed bottle from a box and held it high.  "We couldn't retrieve any data from the ORB and the scientists working here were too paranoid.  They even used ancient computers that relied on silicon chips and those have long since reverted into sand.  But we found half a dozen of these in a working stasis box.  The war is over and you lost!"
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 Doberman pulled back his arm and threw the glass object at Major Riven.  Moving faster than they expected, Stripe charged forward.  Drawing his war axe, he used it like a club.  Giving a mighty swing, he shattered the flask, which drenched the three of them with the liquid. 
As the Doberman slid to the floor, he picked off bloody glass shards driven into his body by the force of the wolf's swing.  Still the dog continued laughing.  Riven approached the dog, an arrow at the ready.  Lewark grabbed the empty box the dog discarded.

"This room is packed with enough C4 explosives to collapse this whole cave system.  There's no way of deactivating the bomb before it goes off and I wouldn't if I could.  At least I'll take you filthy animals with me."

Major Riven understood everything this human said.  The word bomb told him he had to act.  He turned towards the room's doorway.
"We have got to leave.  Now!" 

Time was running out for them.  They raced down one of the tunnels, urged onward by the dog's maniacal tirade.  A cross tunnel had him hesitate as he searched for the exit.  Stripe dropped to all fours as he sniffed the ground.  He didn't need to say a word when he raced down one hallway.  He and Lewark followed the wolf as he ran down the tunnel.

Stripe led them down several twisting passages until he made a sudden sharp turn off the lit tunnel.  Once more they found themselves in the circular room.  This time they climbed.  At the final turn the racing trio spotted daylight up ahead and everyone made a mad dash.  Then there came a deep rumbling noise that rolled closer with each passing second.

Like lava from a volcano, the three were vomited from the cave by the preceding shockwave.  The cave filled with flames followed by debris as the entire region reacted to the explosive powers unleashed.  The ground shook and trees that had grown for more than a hundred winters jumped into the air as if they were frogs.  Boulders shattered and a brownish fog blotted out the sun.  All three morphs hacked as they breathed in the grit.

And then a peaceful calm.  They stood battered, bruised, and exhausted by their ordeal.  The three morphs surveyed the extent of the calamity, too numb for any reaction.  That was the moment when Stripe gave an impressive shake that showered the area with the wet grit still clinging to his fur.  Even the ferrets sprayed the immediate vicinity with remnants of whatever liquid had been in the flask as they duplicated the wolf's latest action.

"We can . . . we can give . . . give chase after a short rest.  Those lizards will never get to use that weapon."

"It's too late, Stripe.  Listen."  Major Riven said.

The wolf did as Major Riven directed.  A loud whining noise could be heard coming from the other side of the demolished hill.  Then the noise became a thunderous roar that soon dissipated.  Shaking his head, Stripe stared at Major Riven.

"Our enemy is using a ship that goes through the sky.  Now we have to depend on others to win this battle or that Doberman will be right, the war is lost."

"It's regrettable I never got to finish my fight with the golden-eyed one but if all is done, I'm going home.  My pack needs me," said Stripe.
Major Riven raised his bow and aimed it at Stripe.  "The three of us are infected with a plague that will kill every living morph.  If we stay here, we'll die, but others might live.  That was the weapon our enemy sought, and it's what was in that flask you shattered."

Stripe stood there deep in thought.  Hanging his head down, he faced the two ferrets.  A simple nod had Riven lower his bow as the three proceeded deeper into the Wildlands.

Over the ensuing six months, the ferrets honed their hunting skills thanks to Stripe.  Though Stripe pestered them about their homeland, neither ferret offered any stories.  However, the two ferrets remained mesmerized by the tales Stripe recounted about life in his homeland.

They all avoided talk about their illness.  At first, they suffered a severe flu that left them as helpless as a newborn pup.  Four days later, their health improved.  Their stomachs no longer rebelled whenever they ate.  It didn't stop each of them from scrutinizing the other two as they awaited the first symptom of the unknown fatal disease.  But as the days passed, all marveled at the apparent health of themselves and their two companions.

This night was no different from the others that preceded it.  At least it was until a strange warbling noise came from Riven's backpack.  Although he still had the communicator he appropriated from Lewark connected to the solar panel on his backpack, Riven never used it since all the rest were destroyed at the cave.  He should have discarded the thing as excess weight but feared some native might find it.

"No use hiding this." 

Riven withdrew his communicator and was about to punch the on button when he realized the device's off switch had been overridden by an unknown transmitter.  Riven looked at his two companions and held his finger before his nose in the universal sign for silence.  He then punched the speaker button.

"Major Riven, please respond . . .. I say again, Major Riven, please respond . . .." 

The unknown female voice continued its message without ever breaking.  No doubt the message was an automated one and would continue transmitting until disconnected at the other end.  Riven hit the transmit button and gave his name.  The recording stopped and he could hear static crackle over the channel. 

A male voice came over the comm link.  "Thank goodness you're alive.  The war is over and we won.  We're using your signal as a homing beacon and can be there shortly."

Major Riven almost dropped his communicator.  "Confirm last transmission.  Did you say the war is over?  It sounds too incredible to believe."

"Affirmative, Major; the war is over.  Everything will be clarified after debriefing.  We have confirmed that the weapon you lost is inert.  I say again, the plague is inert."

"I know there's one here who will be happy to know that."

"Major, are there any indigenous life forms with you?"  Even over the communicator, the metallic voice sounded agitated.

The wolf almost laughed when Riven answered in the affirmative.  When the unknown voice asked if the indigenous life form could overhear them, Major Riven gave an emphatic no.  Stripe flashed the shame-shame sign.  Major Riven promised to call back as soon as he removed the problem.  He turned the communicator off.

Standing tall, Stripe sauntered over to the lean-to they had called home.  After snagging his backpack, he studied the heavens.  Stripe turned and hugged the two ferrets and shouldered his backpack.

"That porcupine was right again.  I'm going home.  But I'll also remember his words until I find that cave we used through the Barrier Mountains.  'Look not to the sky for it is there that secrets best not known are revealed.'  It's been a pleasure, Major.  Perhaps we shall cross paths in the future?"

Riven said nothing.  Once more Stripe looked skyward as he pointed out the stars forming the Great Ladle.  With the Northern Star on his left, the wolf marched out of the camp without a further word spoken. 

Another hour passed before Major Riven activated his communicator.  After several exchanges, the two castaways broke camp and walked westward until they reached a wide glade.  A quick word with the unknown voice confirmed the viability of the field as a landing strip.

Soon the night sky filled with the shriek of a madden beast.  As it reached its crescendo, the glade exploded in bright lights.  Riven and Lewark waited in the trees until the vessel landed.  The Mongoose, a cargo spaceship smaller than the one that brought them here, hovered above the ground before it settled.  Even as its ramp dropped, they sprinted for the doorway.  In less than five minutes, the ship's engines roared to life once more.  Home beckoned.
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

They anticipated a hero's welcome.  Instead, each was taken to a private cabin and locked in their quarters.  Based on the ship's chronometer, nobody communicated with them while they traveled to the wormhole.  Major Riven found himself a virtual prisoner and was willing to bet they did the same to Lieutenant Lewark. 

A paw written message next to the computer terminal asked him to provide as detailed a report regarding his experience on Earth as soon as possible.  Since the computer had no connection to the ship's network, he had to use the memory stick an unknown crewmember left in the room prior to their rescue.  Major Riven laughed at the extreme security measures they used to isolate them and whatever information they provided.

The crew never released them from their cabins.  A ship-wide announcement alerted them to the vessel's final orbital approach on Terratwo.  The ship's captain issued his order that all personnel secure themselves as he alerted his crew to the time remaining before reentry.  They had just enough time to secure themselves before the Mongoose entered the atmosphere.

It seemed the High Command's sense of paranoia didn't end when they landed.  The crew remained on the ship but both of them were ordered off the ship.  Armed soldiers in full assault armor formed two security rings around them as they left the Mongoose.  The soldiers escorted them from the landing zone to a distant hanger, their weapons continually sweeping the area.  Three gunships hovered over the spaceport as they were loaded into one of five armored carriers.

Their unseen driver reminded Riven of a certain wildcat.  The two of them held onto a support post as the vehicle raced to its destination. Based on nothing more than the time in transit, they must be a great distance from where they landed.  Riven would have sold his soul for a window.  After more than a year, he wanted to see the surrounding countryside of his home world.

One moment the driver's actions threatened to throw them around like dice in a cup and the next it slowed to a pleasant pace.  At such a sedate speed, Major Riven could hear the distinctive sound of a gunship hovering overhead and wondered if it followed them from the spaceport.  Another thirty minutes passed before their carrier stopped.  As they emerged from the vehicle, either the same contingent of guards or another security detail established a defensive perimeter. 

Riven wanted to see the sky.  None existed within the underground parking facility.  He tried reading some of the signs, hoping to discover if he was inside a military or government facility.  Even knowing the where would relieve his sense of anxiety.  That too defied his powers of observation. 

The guards gave them no choice but to go where they led.  They marched to the far end of the underground facility to a bank of elevators.  The guard's commanding officer motioned them inside the one open car.  As soon as they entered, the commanding officer joined them.  The security officer punched a few keys and they went down.

The doors opened.  All about them they saw heavy security as guards in their best dress uniforms maintaining a constant vigil.  One pair of guards marched up to them and after exchanging papers with the commanding officer that accompanied them, ordered them to follow him.  Those were the first words spoken to them since their rescue.

In silence they followed these uniformed soldiers deep within the facility.  Coming to what appeared as a blank wall; the guard placed his paw on a scanner and a door materialized.  Using their rifles as pointers, their chaperons directed them inside and the door disappeared, leaving a solid wall.

Within the room, the two ferrets found a conference table and several comfortable chairs.  The two had not been seated more than a moment when the door materialized.  Seeing who entered, they snapped off their best salute and remain standing even after the wildcat general motioned them to sit.  Not until the heavyset rat who preceded the general gave his permission did they return to their chair.

"You are no doubt wondering about all this elaborate security?"  The rat inquired.

"Chancellor Pica, we expected to be debriefed, but not by the Morph Supreme Ruler."  Major Riven stuttered.  "Nor did we anticipate such a reception when our mission failed."

That got the rat laughing.  "Didn't the crew tell you we won the war?"

Major Riven maintained his silence.  Chancellor Pica turned to the general that accompanied him and asked for two folders.  After the general placed the packaged documents onto the table, Chancellor Pica dismissed him.  The rat pushed one folder at each of them and waited until they opened it. 

Just reading the first page had the lieutenant whistling and him staring at the rat. 

"Talk about a problem in translation," snickered Lewark.  "That plague we were sent to destroy was created by morphs.  Somehow the original document omitted who designed this biological weapon."

"Not quite correct," said the rat.  "The original memo never mentioned the scientist or their intended target.  All it did is give a lot of technical information alluding to its purpose.  Back when this document was created, morphs didn't have access to an ORB so we thought this originated with humans.  We now believe this item to be a piece of military intelligence and not a scientific journal or research paper.  Until Major Riven copied the ORB's data, we didn't have the full intelligence report, just a random page."

"The document had a point of origin, shouldn't that have alerted somebody as to who originated this paper?"  Major Riven couldn't believe the humans that inept.

"Back when this was first transmitted, humans and morph communities were intermixed north of the Great Barrier Wall.  We now believe the morph scientists developed this weapon in secret.  For reasons none will never know, the humans didn't destroy the lab or failed to determine if anything related to the research still existed.  Instead, they transmitted their information from a nearby location to a well-known human biological warfare facility on the eastern coast."

"And we made the same assumption the humans did.  We both thought the research done by humans based on the exclusive human use of ORBs and the reception point, not its point of origin."  Major Riven gave a snort.  "If the humans had transmitted that document from a more distant site, that lab's location would still be lost."

"Indeed," the Chancellor responded.  "Our agent said the initial discovery came from a recovered computer anomaly.  During the voyage from Earth, somebody tried to delete an inbound priority transmission, which explains how one random page survived.  If some computer tech hadn't searched the root directory of the generation ship's original computer, nobody would even know of its existence."

Riven nodded at Chancellor Pica's assessment of the events leading to the document's discovery.  Without the full intelligence file, its original intent remained too vague.  For reasons known only to the humans, they never used the copy of the military codes provided as part of the ORB download to decipher the full report. 

They knew, or had the means to know, the bioweapon affected humans only.  It begged the question why the dog / human back at the cave believed the weapon the golden grail for eliminating the morphs.  Major Riven couldn't fathom how such a monumental blunder eluded them.

"The Mongoose's Captain transmitted everything you recorded on the computer you used on Earth, Major.  That included the ORB download of the human military code.  Once we translated the original report, our analysis showed the lab communicated with a morph reservation in ancient Ohio.  Apparently, knowledge of the weapon became lost after the detonation of a nuclear device over Canton."

"Did we ever learn who supplied us the information," inquired Lieutenant Lewark.

Chancellor Pica drummed his fingers on the table.  "No, we never did find out who supplied us the data.  He stopped transmitting the day the Hydra entered the wormhole."

"So how did the war end?"  Major Riven was glad Lieutenant Lewark asked the obvious question.

Without saying a word, the rat pointed to their folders.  Both Major Riven and Private Lewark scanned the pages.  According to captured documents, the Hydra suffered major damage while running the morph gauntlet when they reentered the Terratwo star system.  Morph scientist theorized several of the beakers shattered and their contents leaked into the atmosphere prior to their landing.

Three weeks after the ship's return, the humans suffered a severe flu epidemic.  Within another week, the true nature of the plague manifested itself.  Humans died at an alarming rate.  Health officials tried containing the epidemic but it already infected humans on every continent.  They had no way of isolating all of the known plague victims.

The human scientists learned the plague consisted of not one, but five variants, each with a lethal potential of seventy percent.  By the time it had run its course, approximately twenty-four hundred people survived out of every million inhabitants.  Other deaths indirectly related to the plague reduced that number even further.

The war of extermination with the morphs made recovery difficult.  Viable births dropped as the number of humans capable of reproducing fell below five percent.  Without the manpower to maintain a social structure or their technological achievements, anarchy followed as basic survival needs overrode everything.  War production on the human controlled continents stopped.

Soldiers at the front lost all logistical support.  Ammo, fuel, and food dwindled while military discipline deteriorated.  With the morphs pressing them along all fronts, the soldiers fell back, which led to their inevitable exposure to the plague.  Those behind the front lines died, which denied the humans the replacements they needed.

Two months after the Hydra's return, the morph's probing sorties became an all-out offensive.  The human forces remaining on the contested continents of Sagittarius, Pisces, and Taurus were overwhelmed.  Human naval forces were found drifting at sea, their crew dead or dying.  Even the lunar bases suffered as reinforcements carried the disease there before the humans realized what had happened.  If any human force survived, they could do nothing more than await the exhaustion of their supplies.

Then the morphs invaded the largest human controlled continent of Primary.  The invasion fleet entered the naval command port city of Australia without meeting any organized resistance.  Morph soldiers searched the region for humans and found rotting bodies lying everywhere.  Those few humans discovered alive did not live long as the invaders carried out their orders to exterminate humanity. 
Morphs could not allow the humans a chance to repopulate the world.  The next generation would be immune to the plague that destroyed their elders.  If the humans grew in sufficient numbers, the war of extermination would begin anew.

That was when Morph High Command remembered the mission to Earth.  A high priority was set on sending a ship through the wormhole to investigate.  The day after the Supreme Military Commander declared victory, a morph ship launched for Earth.

"I'm pleased the war is over, but I do have a question."  When the rat indicated his approval, Major Riven asked about their secondary mission, the investigation of Earth's morphs.

"Our scientists believe your wolf companion, Stripe, will infect his pack and any other morph he meets.  For them, it will be an inconvenience of a few days with no lasting impact.  In less than a year, every morph residing within a hundred miles of that wolf pack will carry the plague.  It will take a few years, but eventually every morph on Earth will become carriers.  If humanity ever returns to Earth, the virus will destroy them as it did the humans of our world."

Leaning back, Chancellor Pica continued his summation.  "We intend limiting contact with Earth to a very select group of scientists.  Their culture is too primitive and would suffer too great a shock if we revealed ourselves.  For now, the keyword is caution."

The rat stood up, which effectively ended the meeting.  Major Riven and Lieutenant Lewark saluted the Chancellor before following him out the door.  When they reached the streets, the Chancellor dismissed them and suggested they enjoy an evening in town before returning to base.  He assured them that by this time tomorrow, both would be mustered out of the military as honored heroes.  The war was over and the only thing left to do was hunt down the last remnants of humanity.

Major Riven watched the Chancellor's entourage depart before he relaxed his rigid military posture.  He then raised his muzzle and took in the familiar sky of his home world.  Ying appeared full, just below the constellation of the Great Pagoda while Yang hugged the northern horizon.  A paw tapped his shoulder and a discrete cough reminded him that another morph stood next to him.

"I was just thinking," said a wistful Major Riven.  "We stand here looking upon the night sky and the downfall of humanity.  Will we enter a dark age similar to the long night we faced if humanity won or will we witness the dawn to a new era of enlightenment?  Have we learned enough from our creators to not repeat their mistakes?"

"No way to know for sure, Major.  I do know we have the time to explore all our potential.  Let's do as the Chancellor said and enjoy the possibilities."
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


To:  Chancellor Pica

From: Special Agent Gamma 19

Re: Human Court Martial Transcript

Classified as High Command Security Level Four (Number authorized to read this document currently stands at three.)

Background:  I discovered this transcript while searching the city of Australia.  Once I realized what I had, the material was reclassified "Eyes Only, pending final security disposition."  Based on my examination of earlier testimony, I am certain the accused, Lieutenant EP Selon, was the human agent feeding us information.

Judge:  You admit to commandeering the spaceship once it reached Earth orbit by murdering the pilot and then shooting the two surviving members of your unit, Privates Purser and Sink.  You then humidified the ship, locked yourself in an escape pod, pressurized the ship to seven atmospheres, and allowed us to recover the ship via remote control after it entered Terratwo's atmosphere.  You abandoned the ship with two flasks of the plague via the escape pod after activating the pod's stealth unit.  You poured one beaker out at 25,000 meters over an active storm front.  You dumped the other flask in the Hamburg City Reservoir before your surrender to military authorities, a fact you did not reveal for five days.  You also sabotaged the spaceship to have a minor accident upon landing that released the pressurized atmosphere before we could initiate quarantine procedures.  Is this a fair summation of your crimes?

Selon:  Yes sir, though you forgot to note a warrant for my arrest was issued after the shuttle landed and you discovered the bodies.

Judge:  Did you know what those beakers held?

:  It held the viable contents of a plague developed by Earth morphs to eliminate all primate life forms.  I learned the true nature of the bioweapon after I translated the intelligence files downloaded from the ORB.  This virus thrives in fresh water and can remain viable as water vapor while aloft for a period of four weeks. 

Judge:  Nobody on your team knew the true nature of this bioweapon?

Selon:  I confirmed their wish that it would destroy all morph lifeforms.  They believed what I said since they thought the bioengineered safeguards against deceiving those in authority still affected me.  Their faith in that allowed me to hide the truth until the material reached my superiors.  They didn't translate the document for almost two weeks.  By that time, too many carried the infection.

Prosecutor:  If I may summarize our medical witness, your honor.  In two days, the disease becomes contagious.  However, it doesn't manifest itself for three weeks.  During this contagion stage, the plague spreads via perspiration through any form of personal contact.  At week four, those with the weakest immune systems manifested the first signs of the plague.  Health individuals took up to a week more to show signs of an illness.  None realized the danger until the number of casualties exceeded a thousand per day.  By that time, we believe too many contracted the illness.  We had no way of containing or curing the disease.  In less than six months, humanity will face the real possibility of extinction.

:  You realize what you have done to your own race?

Selon:  I liberated them, sir.  I'm a humanized morph, genetically bred as an intelligence officer with a life expectancy of seven years.  Our scientists considered the shorter lifespan a reasonable trade for a memory capability greater than many computers and the ability to make intuitive leaps.  You considered us a disposable commodity.  I am essentially a representative of a race of slaves bred for submission to your will.

Judge:  You're still one of us, a human.

Selon:   Don't you get the joke my creators made when they named every male "Ep Selon" and every female "Eppi Selon?"  Say it fast and the names becomes "epsilon," the letter designating us as belonging to the fifth generation of a genetically created human.  We feared creating another morph slave race, knowing what happened.  Scientist developed a race of subhuman entities designed for specific purposes.  In your folly, you believed this race had no self-awareness.

:  Your timing was a little off if you intended destroying humanity.  Two days after your departure our scientists discovered a viable world.  One of our generation ships containing a crew of three hundred and sufficient genetic material to remain a viable species launched three weeks later. 

Selon:  I don't care.  At least this world and Earth will be safe for the morphs.  The virus will contaminate them and they will become carriers.  If ever humanity tries enslaving morphs again, it will result in your extermination.

Judge:  And you are proud of this genocide?

Selon:  An ancient human once said "Give me liberty or give me death."  Since you have denied my kindred the first, I have given yours the second.

(Transcript pages 1374 through 1376)

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."