Judith watched warily from behind the alleymouth until it was clear that no-one was following her, whereupon she blew out a sigh of relief and turned back to the courtyard where she’d sought sanctuary. It was a simple square with an unpaved floor, a communal well at its center. Reclining against one of the walls was Nick; after Judith had dropped him there, he’d given up on blubbering incoherently in favour of passing out. Which Judith, still in her undergarments, appreciated immensely.
She took a moment to slip into her tunic and breeches, then pulled her chainmail hauberk over her head and buckled on her breastplate and pauldrons. Once properly attired, she turned her attention back to her recently deposed partner. He was staring up at the sky in senseless incapacity, his tongue dangling out of his mouth like a wet, pink slug. She wrinkled her nose. Anyone in their right mind would leave him here to face the consequences of his duplicity unaided.
But she couldn’t. Not now. It was time to wake him up and give him the good news.
She took the wooden bucket from the lip of the well and cast it in. It rattled off the stone steining and landed with an echoing plop . When the bucket had the weight of fullness, she hauled it up by its frayed rope, wrestled it over the well’s rim, and held the bucket poised over the unconscious fox. The water was smoking cold; she could feel its sting from what leaked through the bucket’s staves and ran down her arm. Then, without so much as a pause, she emptied its chilling contents directly onto his head.
Nick came awake as if from a nightmare, thrashing and screaming. Then, when it became apparent he was not being savaged by monsters, he settled down some, breathing heavily and staring about in blank confusion.
“What happened?” he gasped. “Where am I?”
“In an alley,” said Judith, dragging him to his feet. “How are you feeling?”
“I’ve got one devil of a headache.”
“How many fingers am I holding up?” she asked, raising a paw.
With that, she brought her open palm crashing against the side of his face, knocking him straight back down onto the ground.
“And that’s far less than you deserve!” she spat.
Nick managed to sit up straight, probing his tender jaw with his fingers. “Is that your idea of administering medical attention?” he asked.
“Don’t make light of things!” Judith barked. “You snuck into my room to rob me! By my oath, I knew you were a worthless sack of deceit, but even I didn’t guess you’d go so far!”
“Then you’re a greater fool than I thought,” Nick shot back, getting unsteadily to his feet, brushing wet sand off his tunic. “Those shiny marbles of yours are worth all the gold of Sugarglidas. Why on earth did you think I wouldn’t risk swiping them?”
“You’re right, Nick,” said Judith, throwing her hands in the air. “I am a fool beyond redemption; I only warned you 800 times that they can only be touched by an anointed Custodian, and that something terrible would happen to you if you lay a finger on them.”
“You could have elaborated on the concept of ‘something terrible’ beforehand. I thought you meant I’d be cursed unto the eighth generation or whatever—not that the room I was in would blast into a hundred pieces, and I’d be given a migraine like a blackout hangover.”
“And now,” Judith continued, her voice saturated with despair, “I’ve got civic property damage to add to a growing list of things you’ve done that are putting us in the spotlight! I can just imagine the reports that will be cycling through the barracks before breakfast is over: a guard pickpocketed; a drunken brawl in a tavern; a god-damned explosion! You snuck us into this den of wild beasts unnoticed, only to ring a great big dinnerbell over our heads!”
“Look, Cottonwad,” Nick muttered, seizing a fistful of his cloak and trying to wring it dry. “As delighted as I am that you’re getting the grasp of comedic metaphor, that bucket of water you threw at my face has chilled me to the bone, and what I need is a warm hearth to dry myself by, not a lecture.”
“We don’t have time for that. Our best chance of getting out of here now is to make it to the docks and set sail before one of us is recognised. If we—”
“We?” Nick interrupted. “What the hell is this ‘we’ business? Last time I checked, my contract with you was terminated. ‘We’ don’t have to do anything.”
Judith stared at him, her expression a patchwork of anger and frustration, contempt and pity, before saying, “You can’t leave now, Nick.”
“That’s very touching,” he said. “But I’ve recently come to the realisation that being around you is worse than a case of genital mange. Fighting in your employ just involves more risk than a rogue like me is comfortable navigating. And since it turns out I can’t even touch your trinkets without getting blown into confetti, it’s time for me to move on. So, farewell forever, you stuck-up dirt-bather, and good luck saving the world.”
And with that, and paying no attention to the way her look of frustration dissolved into one of condescending derision, Nick turned his sodden back on her and walked into the street.
The twilight darkness was beginning to relent before a copper dawn, and all sorts of morning trade was well underway. It would be an hour yet before the nail-biting cold was swapped for intolerable heat, and that was an hour too long as far as Nick, standing there in his wet clothes, was concerned. So he went to a tent where a near-sighted olingo was frying pastries, bought breakfast with a pair of stamped rivetheads, and dried himself by the cookfire while he considered his options. He’d been smart enough not to offer a deposit on the skiff, and while he could still head to the harbour and claim it, or book passage on some merchant galley bound for the other side of the ocean, he didn’t fancy the idea of charting a course that might cross Judith’s at any point. There had been a broad array of caravans with their mercenary protection halted in the vast surrounds of Ashkadod, any number of which could be convinced they needed a fox with his particular skillset amongst their company. It didn’t really bother him, so long as there was money to be made, and so long as they were heading east, along the coast to the city of Bashinpur, to the territories of the Gultisian Empire, to a hundred strange and foreign kingdoms beyond. So long as they were going east. Never west.
Having his next source of employment all lined up brightened Nick no end, and he wiped the crumbs off his lips and started on his way back to the main gate.
He’d barely made it a dozen steps, however, before his head began to throb. He frowned; he’d woken up this morning with one of the worst headaches he’d ever experienced, but the dose of wellwater had seen it off, and it perplexed him that a migraine should vanish completely only to spring back a few minutes later. He kept walking, hoping that the pain would desert him as quickly a second time, but it did not; it persisted, escalating in its potency until he was forced to stop and cradle his head in his paws, groaning at the iambic pulse in his temples.
Someone ran into him from behind and told him off for blocking the walkway in their husky dialect. Nick furiously opened his mouth to fire some retort back, only to immediately snap it shut when that beast nausea suddenly uncoiled in his stomach and gnashed its jaws. He doubled over, breathing deeply through his nose in a desperate effort to keep his breakfast where it belonged. And all the while the furious palpitation inside his head continued to drum, steadily gaining in tempo, slashing the backs of his eyes with razors of pain until the only thing that kept him howling out in agony was the fear that if he parted his lips it would be to let out a shower of vomit.
Then it dawned on him why he was beset by this maelstrom of misery. Of course—barely an hour ago his brain had been rattled around by some terrific force, and he was only just now feeling its full effect! He was a like a soldier who can stand the pain until he actually sees the full extent of his injuries. And Nick had just looked down and spotted his own gizzards hanging out.
Panic seized him. He needed to find help.
Getting out of the street was his first objective, but his knees were buckling under him, his bones hocus-pocused into gelatin. He lurched against the nearest wall, the crowd parting around him, taking him for a rotten liquorfiend. He was oblivious to their scorn; all his concentration was consumed by trying desperately to recall if this was a road he had walked yesterday, a road with an inexpensive hostel where he might be allowed to lie down and wait for the symptoms to run their course. Desperate to believe there was respite up ahead, he forced himself to move, using the wall to support his weight.
Then the pain in his head spiked sharply, like an icecube dropped inside the bell of his skull. His world ran like wet ink. He could taste copper. Something was clogging his nostrils, and he swept the back of his paw across his nose only to have it come away smeared with blood. He stared at it for a long time, as if it were some inexplicable substance pouring out of him, although really he was simply arrested by the hideous thought that the damage was much worse than he had reckoned, that the explosion had reduced his brains to lumpy slurry, and that in a few seconds he would drop face-first into this gutter and die.
He was going to die. And there wouldn’t even be a decent funeral.
But then, mercifully, he felt the pain begin to abate. His stomach ceased its churning. The razors were withdrawn from his eyeballs. And slowly, slowly, the agonising pulse in his head lost its intensity, and at last departed completely.
“Oh, thank god,” Nick muttered, his eyes pinched shut. “Whatever and wherever you are, thank you, thank you, thank you…”
“I never thought you’d be so religious, Nick,” came a familiar voice. “But it is nice, if a bit blasphemous, to call me a god.”
Nick opened his eyes, squinting. His world was regaining colour and form, but one patch remained resolutely grey, and that’s because it was Judith, standing over him and staring as a nursemaid might at a misbehaving kit.
“If you were god,” he groaned, “I’d pray I was going to hell. What do you want?”
“You look ill, Nick.”
“I’m fine,” he muttered, but he certainly didn’t look so; his fur stood on end, there was blood crusting in his nostrils, he couldn’t stand up straight and his eyes were completely bloodshot, a storm of red lighting bombarding each shrunken pupil.
“Are you sure, Nick?” Judith asked, her voice thick with mock concern. “It really looks like you’ve come down with something. Are you sure you don’t need medicine?”
Her feigned unease pricked his rage, and he waved her off with an uncoordinated swat. “Begone!” he snarled. “All I need is for you to get out of my sight!”
“I wouldn’t recommend that, Nick. I’m the only thing keeping you alive right now.”
“By the devil’s ass, what are you talking about!?” he cried. But she was grinning smugly at him now, which froze him and his tongue directly in their place. Judith’s emotions existed on a tiny spectrum, with ‘irritated’ at one pole and ‘tongue-chewing anger’ at the other. There was no space on her continuum for ‘smug’.
“I told you not to touch them,” she said. “And I saw the glint in your eye, a loud and clear larum that you wanted to possess them. And I saw, everytime I warned you, that glint get brighter and brighter. Well, now that it seems all my warnings fell on deaf ears, it’s time I explained to you exactly why you were so warned. Like I said, the stones are conduits that channel the magic shielding our world, and there is more power in them than we could ever imagine. You’ve seen for yourself; it was the Tooth that stitched life to those lifeless bones beneath the Deadstones. But something else altogether happens when a living creature with free will disturbs them…”
Nick’s face fell. The misbehaving kit was about to feel the leather strap.
“You are altered, Nick. You are you, plus something else stirred in: it’s not just blood creeping in your veins; not just bones propping up that lurking form; not just muscle composing that fearful look on your face. Now there is magic coursing in you as well. And if you don’t keep close to the stone you’ve touched, that same magic will rive your muscle and crack your bones and dry up your blood. It will destroy you. '' She leaned in close, her face inches from his, so she could watch clearly as his confusion and outrage were transmuted into dread, and added, “In short, Nick, you won’t accompany me to Sunspire for an extra five gold a week. Now, you’ll do it for free. Or you’ll perish.”
“You’re bluffing,” Nick protested hoarsely, but his voice was empty of conviction, and Judith simply shrugged and said, ”For your sake, I hope so.” Then she turned and sauntered down the lane, moving as one without a care in the world, as one on their way to lunch with amiable friends. Nick watched her melt into the crowd, until all he could see of her was a pair of ears bobbing amidst the bustle, and then nothing at all. A chorus of voices was screaming inside his head, demanding him follow her not! She’s the puppeteer at the strings of a malicious lie! And he wished deeply to believe that voice, to follow its advice, to head for the surrounds and the caravans and the beckoning horizon.
But one quiet and persistent tongue cut through the self-deceiving clamour and told him over and over that it was the truth. Then he felt the nerves behind his eyes knot together, felt fresh blood well in his nose, and, with a venomous curse damning this interior soothsayer, he rushed after her.
Almost at once he was presented with an impassable wall of mammalian traffic, having to squeeze between tight-packed shoulders, paunches and buttocks where Judith had slipped easily between their legs. He fought desperately for a sign of her, calling her name, though his words were lost in the mad clamour. Suddenly he spotted a ripple of purple fabric through the commotion, only to have it eclipsed just as suddenly by the huge gut of a corpulent bull who could not see the fox for his armloads of sacked flour, and Nick had to dive through the bovine’s legs on his belly, avoiding being squashed by the slimmest of margins. He was quickly on his feet and turning to spit a mouthful of curses when he ran backwards into an antelope with a basket of linen, and two of them, along with all her precious white laundry, landed in a heap on the filthy lane. The doe began to shriek as if she were being murdered and pummeled Nick about the head with her hamper’s lid.“Enough, you malignant shrew!” Nick howled, trying to kick the aggrieved laundress away. But he was enveloped by her linen, his struggle more humorous than harmful, and when he finally got to his feet and rushed off down the street he did so wrapped head-to-tail in a crisp white sheet, looking like a rushed mummy, a mummer’s ghost in a stageplay, and the onlookers’ howls of laughter chased him far more efficiently than he was chasing his quarry. He cursed and growled and finally got his claws into the fabric, rending it to ribbons, just in time to see Judith walk through the beaded curtain of a vestibule archway. He sprinted to catch her, though his legs locked up and his face descended into nauseated disbelief when he saw that the sign over the door read Mystic Springs .
An outdoor gymnasium. For naturalists.
“You have got to be kidding,” Nick muttered.
Already feeling his innards begin to twist into queasy knots, Nick barged the beads aside and found himself standing in a small, eclectically decorated antechamber, illuminated solely by the flames of heaped candles melting slowly into communal puddles of wax. There was a velvet curtain filling an ogee arch at the far end of the room, and, seated in meditation behind a low wooden counter, was a yak, humming softly through a buzzing cloud of flies. Nick didn’t need the powers of a Custodian to know the yak was completely naked. Grimacing, he tried to tiptoe across the room, hoping to slip through the curtain unnoticed, but a pair of piercing eyes suddenly appeared from a crack in the yak’s waterfall of lank hair and pinned Nick in place.
“Oh. Greetings, friend,” the yak said pleasantly, getting to his feet and momentarily displacing the swarm of insects that coated his fur. In defiance of what Nick actually wanted, his eyes did a quick sweep of the yak. Yep. Completely.
“Greetings, uh...guru,” Nick said, keeping his gaze on the goggling orbs peeking out from the yak’s fringe for fear he would see again another pair of orbs. “I’m searching for—”
“Ultimate truth?” the yak suggested. “Aren’t we all, my brother.”
“—someone…” Nick finished. “And I’m pretty sure they came through here. So, if I could just…”
“Hold up, my furry friend,” interrupted the yak, moving to block Nick’s passage with his considerable presence. “I’m afraid I can’t let you in as you are. The mammals in there are tapping into the energy of the cosmos, trying to get close to the true meaning of existence. If you walk around in all that black leather and fabric, their connections are going to get all...unconnected.”
“But you let that rabbit in all her armour go in!” Nick protested.
“Huh? Rabbit in armour? No way, friend. I’m sure I would have noticed.”
Suddenly Nick heard a snort of laughter from behind the curtain, a spark that set off the dry tinder of his irritation. She was standing right there , listening to his humiliation. In a paroxysm of indignation, he unbuckled his effects and hauled off all his clothes, until he was wearing nothing but his rucksack, every other stitch he owned bundled up in his arms.
“Thanks, my canine cousin,” said the yak with a blissful smile. “Now you can feel the world’s spirit against your naked fur. Can’t you feel it?” As if to demonstrate the superiority of this ungarmented state, the yak gyrated his hips. Something else gyrated along with it.
“Oh, I’m going to murder her so many times for this…” Nick hissed, and kicked the curtains aside with his foot.
What lay beyond was a veritable bacchanalia of bareness. Animals were relaxing in the tranquil waters of a bathing pool, and sunning themselves on flat rocks, and reclining in wallows of sizzling mud, and meditating on the soft grass and reclining on sofas and reading philosophical texts and licking and combing themselves and all without so much as a cap to be seen. And there, standing unseen by a small grove of palms and grinning at Nick in the most insufferable fashion imaginable, was Judith. She hadn’t removed so much as a bootlace.
“Looking good, Nick,” she chuckled, and he self-consciously lowered his bundled clothes to cover his shame. “I’d join you, but I’ve already been for a scant-clad jaunt this morning.” With that, and apparently unobserved because of her small stature, Judith set off across the palaestra, and Nick had no choice but to gird his loins and follow.
It wasn’t that he was prudish. (And where exactly had this brazen streak in Judith come from? He’d thought her so uptight that she might not even get fully undressed to bathe, and here she was sauntering through a gallery of genitals without so much as a blush!) Gods knew that he was no stranger to a bout of public indecency, especially once augmented with enough drink. What made his skin crawl with discomfort now was this sudden shift in power. Just yesterday, it was he who held all the cards; now Judith’s paw was crammed with aces, he was running out of money to meet the ante, and she was proving to be quite the cardsharp. The thought of being at her mercy made his stomach churn...although, some of the more permissive attitudes on display at Mystic Springs weren’t helping. It would be a while before he had a dream unhaunted by that elephant laying on her back with legs spread and pointing skyward. It would be a while before he wanted to eat oysters again, as well.
When he finally reached the other side, Judith was waiting for him, slouched against a pillar and studying with undisguised humor his graceless attempt to clamber back into his clothes.
“I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did,” she snorted. “And what did we learn?”
“That you’re a repressed deviant?” Nick hissed, wrestling one boot on with partly gloved paws.
“Well, I hope you learned that being small isn’t a handicap. I hope you learned that when I tell you something, it’s in your best interests to listen. And I know you learned that there’s no easy way out of this predicament you’ve put yourself in. If you ever stray too far from this—” She held up her paw, suspending on her finger the blue gem that just hours ago he had been desperate to possess, and how never wanted to see again. “—you’ll start to fall to pieces. So, wherever it goes, you’ll follow. Like I said—you can’t leave.”
“For how long?”
“Until all eight of the Teeth are reunited. Until my quest is done.”
Sitting there half-dressed on the sandy ground, Nick was the very portrait of pitiful. He looked up and fixed her with his wobbling green eyes. “So I’m your slave then? Hmm? You crack the whip and I must obey?”
“Think of it more like this; you foolishly caught a sickness, and I’m your medicine.”
He sighed, and then stood up, shoulders slumped in defeat. “Alright. Alright, then. All eight of the bastards. I’ll stick it out to the end. I don’t exactly have a choice, right?”
“Let’s shake on it, anyway,” Judith suggested with a smirk. “Make it official.”
Nick hesitantly raised one paw, but let it fall to his side a moment before Judith could take it.
“Oh, don’t be such a poor sport,” Judith said, but then she glanced up and saw utter incredulity plastered across his face, and saw that his eyes were not on her, but on something over her shoulder. She turned, and immediately adopted Nick’s expression for herself. Standing at the mouth of the street was a weasel of late acquaintance to them, a weasel with a fat lip and a missing fang, with murderous intent extruding from his every pore.
And with five Grey soldiers standing at his back.
“That’s them,” Weaselton hissed. “They’re the ones you’re hunting.”
At that, two of the soldiers, DelGato and Fangmeyer, in their black tunics with blue sashes, stepped forward, one of them uncoiling a length of black silk binding rope while the other drew his sword and levelled it at the startled pair.
“You there!” DelGato barked. “By the will of his Highness, the Regent Lionheart of Ashkadod, you will throw down your weapons and submit to arrest. Do as I say...or your lives are forfeit”