From: simon leo barber 
Newsgroups: alt.sex.cthulhu
Subject: Princess Bride(Groom) 1/3.txt (S.Barber)
Date: Tue, 27 Aug 1996 02:34:57 GMT


The Princess Bride(Groom):        An Unconventional Romance, with most
				deeds performed by Arial and Mnemora, both
				copyright Ashtoreth (William Haas.)
				Words and plot Simon Barber, 1995.
(Warning! Gets R-rated in places!)
Stendahl knew it was going to be a bad day, when Inquisitor Quex failed to kick him out of bed. And though his grey-furred rump had already become more than adequately familiar with the hard grey flagstones of the Reclusium, as the painfully thin cat drew his Penitents robe on, he knew one thing was going to be different today.
"If Quex isn't with us," he silently cautioned the cold cell "He's at his other job, in the Palace. And that means .... Trouble."
The deep tolling of the tubular chime in the tower announced the start of another day, as the snow piled up on the similarly chilled stone monastery-fortress that stared down loftily on the city of Karam, capital of the nation.
"There is but one Land." Intoned the deep, humming voice of the reader, as seventy of the Penitentes filed into the long chamber for their meal.
"There is but one Ruler." The reader cast deep-sunken eyes at them, suspicion darting lightning-like from bowed head to head.
"There is but one Law."
"One Law." Came the chanted response.
"There are no borders. What we see, is All."
"We see, is All."
"And there is not, never was, and cannot be ..... sorcery."
Stendahl joined in the responses from long habit, plus the sure knowledge that disagreeing here was a distinctly Unwise thing to do. All the same, he could not put it out of his head - if something really doesn't exist, why do we spend such a lot of time and effort denying it ?
Inquisitor Quex was a tall, grey-complexioned monolith of a human, with a hard thin mouth like a single chisel stroke on polished granite. He did his job, in the way that a pillar does its job of holding up the roof - because it is necessary to do it, and because that is what pillars and Inquisitors are suited in life to do. Right now, he was out of his element, as he stood in the opulent and extravagently-lit chambers of the Royal Palace of the Karamite kings - and for worse reasons than his robes clashing with the decor.
"Treason." He spat the word out, looking up undaunted at the huge armoured equine knight looming over him. "That is what I expect to find - lies and treason. Nothing more. And a perfectly normal explanation for ..... " he waved dismissively at the wreckage where something distressing had certainly happened to the royal apartments "for all of ... this."
Quex was a man used to being the centre of attention. So he was more than slightly annoyed when he noticed the burly guard was looking over his head - the expression of abject terror was correct, but not its target. Slowly, the Inquisitor felt an unfamiliar sensation, as the fine hairs at the back of his neck began to stand on end. Something more frightening than he was, was behind him.
Slowly he turned, his black robes swinging pendulum-steady in a great swirling arc. And saw - not indeed the slavering betentacled daemonic beings rumoured to have infested the land before the extermination of the Mages, but - something else. Something so hideously OTHER that his jaw dropped open in drooling bafflement, and a terrible gasp emerged that was more expressive than a scream.
Something small, pink-fluffed and cheerful was trotting from corner to corner of the audience chamber of the Karemite Palace, tripping along far too daintily than its massive feet should permit. It was a being of direly sweet aspect, seeming almost to shed a tangible trail of corrupting fluff across the precious carpets.
Quex heard himself give a bleak moan. For a full minute he stood locked in horrified silence, before the unnaturally plushie thing waved to him, opened up a hidden seam in the once-virginal wall of the local spacetime, and hopped out of existence once more.
"It arrived without being summoned," he croaked, as the gaping rent in his hard-fought reality zipped itself shut. "Even before the Magewars - NOTHING could do that..."
Just too late, the doors at the far end of the room burst open in a furious charge of Junior priests brandishing Holy Sledgehammers and thrice-blessed Sticks Of Pointyness (+2), summoned by the rending wound in space whose opening and closing had sent ripples of disturbance out across the land. Quex pulled himself upright, addressing his juniors mostly by conditioned reflex.
"I have repelled the foulness." He gritted firmly. "Though at great cost. I Turned It, and It fled my consecrated presence."
As he led the questioning, excited brethren back towards the main Palace hall, from which the Princess and her retinue had been snatched in (now) hideously suggestive circumstances the previous day, Quex thought long and hard about what to tell his own Archpriest. For one thing, the Cute had really left of its own accord, as the other witnesses were sure to confirm. And for the other ....
It'll be back, he grimly told himself. How do I know that ? How do I know it's got plans for this place ? Because I know what it was doing. Because .... it was measuring the palace up - for carpets and curtains.
Seen from a distance, the Karemite capital suggested a jewel set in a miles-wide setting of crystal. The town was laid out as a vast octagon, its roads all leading to the Palace. And outside town, eight huge white crystalline towers poked up like teeth from green gums, rearing solidly ten stories high into the clean air. Nobody spoke of what they were for: they were the responsibility of the Inquisitors, and those were folk who asked questions rather than answered them.
At the very centre of the pattern, was a chamber carved and polished from the solid granitic heartrock the Palace rested on. And in it, a meeting was taking place that Quex would rather have never lived to see.
Rank upon rank of grey-cloaked figures sat in climbing tiers of stone benches. They stared down into a great torchlit pit - on many worlds, this would have been recognisable as a Wizard's meeting, some great conclave where deeds of spellcasting were planned and boasted of. But not on this world - and for a good, but now insufficiently good reason.
"Our founding fathers", came the slow voice of Ur-Cardinal Benzen-Rhing, "saw their land laid waste by the Magewars, as every citizen knows. They persuaded the then King-priest, Valency the Third, to take all power into his own hands, to bind it forever to the Crown. That he did - he made the Eight Guardians, to gather all the mage-power in the land, and twist it into a punishing energy that no magic-user outside their boundary can stand. So much is also known: and for seven hundred years, we have kept the land free of mage-taint."
The hulking eight-foot tall dwarf turned to survey his audience. "Apart from a few suspects who we do our best to spot young, and channel into - more suitable lines, this land has no mages, its traditions and powers are gone - those with the power to flee the world did so, and the rest are ashes. Apart from the descendants of our good King Valency, of course - and with the thinning of his blood, it has been long generations since even our rightful royalty had the talent and the ability to do more than make the crown glow in the dark."
The Ur-Cardinal looked around at the front row of the audience. "Last week, monsters no more than waist-high, tore their way into our world by alien magic, despite the best efforts of the guards - and bore away our Crown, and indeed only, Princess of the Royal line. Physical force was useless - as the comrades of the deceased guards would tell you without any need for physical persuasion."
Benzen-Rhing gave a sharp, bark of a laugh. "We suddenly need magical assistance, reverend colleagues. Because, as we used to say on the farm, we are in the shit up to our eyes here."

******************************

An immeasurable distance away from the Inquisitorial board meeting in all measurable terms, is a place the inhabitants call the String. Although it is a solid enough piece of land, it lies not on any chartable world. Some few mathematicians have glimpsed it in moments of fractal-tossed hallucinations, but fortunately the attendants of such are usually selected for their stolid innumeracy.
The String is an Interesting place, much in the way that "May you live in Interesting Times" is used as a curse. Its relationship with the usual planes of existence is not so much angled, but literally screwed. As a boundary between dimensions, it behaves rather like the boundary layer on an aircraft wing: most of it stays stable, but whirls and eddies occasionally break off and vanish into Elsewhere. On the more stable pieces, people build cities - although definitions of "city" and "people" tend to be a little relaxed.
There are few voluntary tourists. Gods go there sometimes: more often they send in disposable Avatars. Some folks, though, feel right at home.
"The trouble is, dear Sister," sighed one approximately vulpine being to her twin, as the pair strolled arm-in arm through what a sane city would call streets, "What ARE we going to do today ? We enlisted with Grumash's Bloody Hordes at the sacking of Andapur last week, we found the fabled Holy Ewer of Aspantilus the week before ..."
"Makes a lovely chamberpot", her twin smiled reminiscently.
They stopped to watch with amusement as a newly-arrived detail of the Town Guard passed by. It took a very special sort of force to keep order around here, and suitable units were hard to find. Down the street salsa'd the (-3rd) Surrealist Squad, the enchanted edges of the giant can-openers and eggwhisks they carried sparkling brightly. Their leader consulted the Dali watch he carried, before letting it flow back into his pocket. They were not so much Irregular Infantry, as Fractal.
Mnemora raised an eyebrow, almost intrigued in spite of her fashionable languor. The week before, the street had been patrolled by Line Infantry recruited from a one-dimensional world - though they had difficulty in understanding tactics involving a defence in depth, their Linear Accelerators had proven effective enough in battle.
Her twin sighed, sharp teeth nipping her gently on the back of the neck.
"...And now Steelfang The Slayer's gone back to her master till next month, there's not a lot to go back home for." Their spacious pallazo, with a good view overlooking the arena (when the sorcerous flux blew the right direction) saw a rapid turnover of guests. Few of them returned regularly, even those in any condition to do so. Their neighbour, however, kept a jet-black three-metre hellhound bitch as guard and familiar, who the vixens were more than familiar with.
"Lovely glowing eyes, hasn't she ..."
""And that trick with the burning breath - most stimulating ... delightful fangs, too. I think we've taught her a few things she didn't learn back home on the 548th Abyssal plane .."
Arial and Mnemora, for such they were, looked at each other greedily, their tails entwining like a furry yin-yang symbol. In the middle of the street, various bypassers decided to give their peripheral vision a workout: currently the vixens had only eyes for each other, but there were Stories told about that pair, shocking even for here.
"Why, Ari, if it was anyone else, I'd say they were jealous," Mnemora's own eyes lit up as her "sister" nipped her eartips delicately with her sharp teeth. "Next time she's ready, you can be first - I know which I prefer.."
It became obvious to even the most blase neighbour, that the vulpines were soon going to have some business to take care of at home despite Arial's earlier complaint.
"She's only female," Mnemora whispered. "A nice taut rump indeed, but - so, incomplete - I could almost feel sorry for her."
Both she-male foxes broke out in peals of ironic laughter, and hastened home to break out the whipped-cream and 7-dimensional edition of the Karma Sutra. There were three particular positions that were impossible in any known continuum, except here under the relaxed physical laws of the uptown end of the String.
Three hours later, comfortably sprawled and sated for the moment, they lay and looked out over the marble-like expanse of the city below them, lit by the unthinkable glow of the Aurora Unrealis. Arial lay cuddled with her muscular arm round her twin's improbably slender waist. Suddenly, she felt her twitch with excitement.
[What's up ?] She sent the thought out, teasingly probing.
Mnemora's elegant eyebrow arched. [ How's this for something really - delightfully different to do. Something even we've never tried...]
Arial's ultra-sharp mind rapidly scanned through a catalogue of scenarios ranging from "De Sade's Greatest Hits" to "The Care Bears Go Flower-Picking", with not a few combinations of each thrown in. [ And, that is .... ?]
[ What if I'd thought of something so bizarre that even You never thought of it ? Something so unutterably alien, so perverse, that - well, would you try it ?]
The question was rhetorical. They tried it.
"Hateful, isn't it ?". Arial gave a delicate shiver. She had sorcerously generated a pile of popcorn, a few cans of weak, over-carbonated beer, and the ritual trays of artificial food traditionally required for their evening's entertainment.
Mnemora plugged in the Scryatron to the mana socket on the wall, and checked the strength of the sorcerous flux. This was a rough equivalent of the crystal balls used in more primitive areas - but from the String, what it actually picked up was always liable to be Interesting.
"There's something on the Ashandian wars on at nine," Arial glanced at the thick black grimoir she had hauled out of storage. Its elder blasphemies included a complete prophesy of the TV channels for six thousand years into the future. "Some of the telecast companies are doing a competition, about war atrocities. They want viewers to phone in with suggestions for some new ones."
"Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt," Mnemora gave the dial a random spin. "What else is in the Telecomnicom ?"
Unlike her sister, Mnemora took great delight in material science - as she often pointed out, "A 'Power-Word Incinerate' looks good, but you don't have to call a phosphorus bomb to mind before you use it." Unfortunately, the great Telecomnicom was not amenable to being put into electronic storage - like most Unspeakable books, half the good bits were written in Unprintable characters.
She pressed the switch, and was delighted to see one of the infamous Video Niceys playing - innocent fuzzy animals happily frolicking around a sylvian environment without so much as a rapid firing 437 mm nuclear-capable field howitzer between them. "Oh, just take a look at this one - now, that's SICK."
Just at that moment, the screen dissolved into a strangely flickering pattern of kaleidoscopic shapes, and the speaker blared out a garbled burst of alternating white and octarine noise..
Mnemora's eyes narrowed to slits.
"That WASN'T supposed to happen."
The repair-entity scratched its head, before resorbing the head and arm back into the available pool of churning, seething, liquescent horror.
"Can't see nought wrong with it." He grew an ear, and stuck a pencil behind it as he put the casing back on. "Yer's got yer Thaumic Resonator, yer Transvisional Crystal tuning, and yer Enochian Field generator in these sets, and that's the only bits that ever go wrong. Checked them out fine. O'Course, I could take it back to the shop and have a look for you....."
Arial's ears went flat. "We'd DECIDED TO have a nice quiet evening watching lame sitcoms from worlds that don't even exist - "
" - Any more - " Mnemora seamlessly joined in.
" - Since we paid them a visit - "
" - And if you won't provide that for us, it's in the rental contract - "
"- You'll have to provide a Service of equivalent value to your customers .... "
The jet-black shoggoth turned a distinctly pale hue as Arial nonchalantly sealed the room with a Warding field. He sighed, remembering to grow an appropriate vocal organ first.
"Well, a contrat' is a contrat'....."
"Mmmmmm - still, you can't say the evening was entirely wasted."
Mnemora smiled. What passed for morning arrived on the sunless plane that was the String, as a depleted Horror slumped and flowed out of the building, released at last. His only salvation was that the company had not offered Unlimited Service Guarantees.
"Quite. And we do know the Scryatron's in mechanical order .."
The twins exchanged smiles. They had known that, before calling out the repair-entity.
"So, that leaves ... Interference. Let's get the circles drawn up, and see if we can track it down."

*******************************

Stendahl had learned years ago, never to trust a smiling Inquisitor.
"You'll be SO glad to know, your repentance is accepted as pure," Inquisitor Quex had strode into the Punitorium, and tossed him a bundle of clothing. "But there is one - last test, that we have for you."
"I'll do it !" Stendahl looked hungrily at the bundle. Outdoor clothing - he was getting out of here ! "What's the mission, Your Eminence ?"
Quex had looked down at the supplicant, and remembered how that expression went. Ah, yes, a smile. Stendahl was typical of the sort of case they had these days - almost no natural-born mages had appeared in generations, thanks to the Inquisition's good work in catching them. Any innate magical sensitivity merely made a suspect vulnerable to agonising headaches, as the righteous power of the Eight Guardian stones invaded a mind that should be shut. No doubt half the suspects in the Penitentium really had nothing but standard migranes, but that, Quex told himself confidently, was not the Point.
"Ah. It's by way of a - Test, indeed. And a secret one. We have some - Equipment, that we need a volunteer to try out. And if you do well, I promise you'll never be back here again."
Quex had genuinely smiled then. Dabbling with forbidden sorceries was punishable by death, with no possibility of leniency. It was a good thing they could find volunteers like this.

*****************************

"I'm telling you, it's a Series One Thaumotron kicking out that racket, off on the 17th plane," Mnemora tapped one elegant claw in the grimoire. "One of those places where the timestream runs at about 20:1 relative to us."
Her sister yawned. "So what ? Let's pay them a visit, and - silence them." Both vixens grinned. But then, Mnemora's ear dipped slightly.
"Do you know how old those are ? They abandoned the whole PRINCIPLE five hundred years ago - it's a hideously inefficient way of sending a message, any fourth-level mage could do better. That means .." her eyes lit with the mania of a dedicated collector. "Ari ! That could be the only one still in EXISTENCE - I WANT IT !"
"You've got an extra-dimensional cellar down there, piled high with junk you never do anything with." Arial regarded her mirror image languidly. "A Series One Thaumotron is so much scrap. Chances are, it's so out of tune the signal's going nowhere they expect - or it wouldn't end up here. Why not just build one, if you want one ?" Sorcerous energies flicked round her fingers, as she called a minor Transmutation spell to mind.
Mnemora shook her head, the long forelock of hair dancing. "I want a genuine one. If that's the only one in existence, I'm going to have it. Now, let's see ... home-on-jam locked on ... compensating for temporal flux distortion .... co-ordinates in space-time set ..... right ! Let's open a pinhole portal, and see just where this is."
Just at that moment, the room filled with a magical scream like claws dragged down wet glass, an ear-splitting howl that pierced through their consciousness like a silent dog whistle, in the instant before their sorcerous shields snapped up. Hastily, Mnemora closed the pinhole portal to the place the mechanically generated spell was being cast from. And she turned round, a slow smile spreading down her sharp muzzle.
[You know, I think I recognise there. Karemite Kingdom, world Acephalia. And that signal, just before the porthole came through ....]
[ Quite. It's an automated distress signal. The world without magic's sending a message for all good people on the astral plane to come and save them.]
[ Well, we're good people, none better] Arial summoned a suit of brilliant platinum armour, and hastily erased the Chaos and death's head runes from the helmet. [Just think - they're calling for our help. I just wonder what's gone wrong all of a sudden ?]
Both vixens snickered. Mnemora summoned a matching suit, this one cast in grey tungsten carbide, and called to mind a pair of self-powered translation bracelets to take care of the local language problem. These they wore invisibly, and went unremarked like all truly transparent plot devices.
"Let's go and renew our acquaintance with those charming ...."
"Unprotected, naive, stupid, manaphobic ..."
"... Whimsical, unconquered people down there. Just think..." Suddenly Arial found her enthusiasm firing up, and her eyes widened in excitement. "If we save them..... We'll be Heroes. Actual, famous, worshipped by millions of ignorant people, and we won't have to cast so much as a Charm Person on them."
Mnemora's ears pricked up. This, she realised, would be definitely something new. Of course, both hermvixens knew implicitly that they deserved fame and acclaim as a matter of principle - but actually receiving god-like worship from millions of innocent, stupid people..... she licked her lips eagerly.
"And then, of course, if we decide not to save them, we can just sit back and watch as whatever ghastly Doom consumes them one by one: that'll be fun too." With a minor Teleport spell, she summoned another bag of popcorn from the midst of its family on its native plane. "Whichever way, it'll beat watching TV."
She looked at her twin, scenting the delicious aroma of her excitement. Arial was half-dressed in her platinum armour already, its original Chaos Paladin owner having been left in no condition to need it again. "And then ..." she cocked her head to one side.
[Yes, 'Mora ?]
Mnemora ran her finger down the lithe muscled back, savouring the contrast of fur and shining metal. [Oh, we don't have to go JUST yet. Let them stew for a bit - they'll be that much more pleased to see us.]
[ And if someone else gets there first ?]
A shrug. [You said it. That broadcast's so out-of tune, it's hitting the String - and I'll bet, lots of other places they REALLY don't want visitors dropping in from. Just imagine - they don't know it, but they're shouting, "Here we are, we've got no magic, come and get us ". If even one of our own neighbours decides they need a holiday on the mundane plane ....] Her tail twitched rapidly from side to side. [Now, that WOULD be fun.]
[Ok - let's leave it for awhile.] Arial had put most of the armour on, carefully leaving the strategic areas undefended and inviting invasion. [ Besides - it looks like we'll be too busy till at least tomorrow....]

******************************

Inquisitor Quex hurried through the darkened passages of the palace, his granite features set hard. The Ur-Cardinal had made his decision, and would not repent; they would use the Royal Artifacts to summon aid from Outside. The trouble was, for several centuries the Inquisition had made a point of persuading the good citizens that not only was there no magic inside the realm, there was none outside - and indeed, there was no "Outside" at all.
"Traband. Wartburg." He nodded to the two huge ursine guards sealing the ancient chamber. Here was the workshop of the Mage-King who had built the Eight Guardians to poison all magical sources, outside the octagon ring formed by the great monoliths rooted in the depths of the planet.
Traband, the smaller bear, scratched his head confusedly. "Yer Eminent. We's s'posed to let nobody out alive. That go for you too ?"
Quex smilingly shook his head, making a symbol of benediction. "Blessed be the mind too small for doubt," he quoted, and strode into the chamber.
In the great vaulted chamber, carved from the crystalline granite heart of the palace hill, was a sprawling, spider-like array of glittering crystal that few in any recent generation had even suspected existed. Within the Palace, magic functioned - for the King-priest Valency the Third had conquered all opposition that way, and made the local astral plane a poisoned wasteland outside it.
"Your Eminence !" Stendahl spun round as the door opened. The young wildcat caught himself just in time to avoid putting his elbow through the lacy filigree work of the machine. In his hand he clutched the forbidden grimoire, unearthed with great secrecy from the Inquisition vaults - the dreaded "U-Serr Manual", as its long-forbidden name was whispered to be.
Quex's face was set stern again. "And have you any - results, to show for us ?" he demanded. Tampering with unclean things was bad enough, but to have to do it and fail to deliver the goods.....
Stendahl winced. "I have sent a call out, as best I can - the book assumes you know a lot of things I've never even HEARD of. We've called, Eminence, but ....."
Quex nodded. "Ignorance is the best defender of Innocence," he quoted sagely.
Suddenly, there was a brilliant flash in the room, and a sudden rush of cold, alien-scented air set his robes billowing.
"..... And just whistle, and we'll come," came a voice from inside one of the shining figures stepping down from the dais. "You DO know how to whistle, don't you ?"
Two hours later, Arial and Mnemora had decided this was a fun place to spend an afternoon. The Palace was unimpressive, a mere three kilometres on each side - but it was the people they were impressed with.
[They really ARE stupid.] Arial commented to her twin telepathically. [Look at all those happy, smiling faces - and they're all SO pleased to see us.]
[Quite.] Mnemora paused to pick up a bouquet of flowers tossed from one of the cheering crowds in front of the palace. With her tungsten helmet under one arm and the posy held elegantly, she posed as for a stained-glass window.
"If you've QUITE finished, ladies ?" Ur-Cardinal Benzen-Rhing raised an eyebrow. The twin paladins were definitely not what he had been expecting: certainly they looked powerful magic-users, but there was something definitely .... disquieting about them. His gaze flashed across the Chaos Detector that was set in the hilt of the twenty-kilo sacred warhammer that was part of his sacred regalia. Nothing showed - but still, something felt - strange.
Arial cast him an amused smile. "Cardinal. We haven't said what we'll take to do the job, or even if we'll do it. "
"Quite." Her twin chimed in. A slitted green eye opened wide in amusement. "Millions of worlds got your message, but only we bothered to turn up." She gestured vaguely towards one of the Eight Guardians, visible from over the looming town wall. "You DO know, you're not a ... popular place ? Your mages spread out and settled all over the place, and they mostly published their memoirs in exile. Folk have heard ALL about you."
"Poisoning the sorcerous flux for several continua around, denying your whole world the pleasures and protection of magic..." Arial's tail waved within its enchanted platinum, which also shielded her from the sorcerous white-noise barrage the irritating monoliths were screaming out every second.
".... Let's face it, all the kind and good folk of worlds out there wouldn't touch you with the business end of a long and particularly shitty stick."
A vulpine snigger sounded in stereo. "Or perhaps they would."
The Throne Room was designed to impress, and even to Arial and Mnemora's jaded tastes, it was a passable attempt.
[Third-level Ruritanian Imperial style, I'd say, with a touch of the Perpendicular and Transverse styles around the windows...] Mnemora surveyed the high-vaulted room with a moment's interest. [Ah. This looks like the one we're going to deal with.]
[The one with the crown and the fancy dragonskin boots, with the jewelled cloak ?]
[At a guess, I'd say he's King. Or prone to making expensive Fashion Statements.]
King Valency the Nineteenth,Monarch of All He Surveyed, was a worried fox. It had been a week since his daughter had been kidnapped, dragged off by unthinkably stuffie entities. Those things, with cuteness that did to mortal minds what a well-aimed brick does to a stained-glass window - the THINGS, had been seen twice since then. The last time...
"Brave visitors to our realm ..." he started his carefully rehearsed speech, then caught Mnemora's mocking gaze. He gave a weary grunt, and threw himself heavily down in the throne. "Oh hell, it was a stupid speech anyway. Demoiselles, my only Daughter has been kidnapped, by things that came from outside our reality - will you help us ?"
The two vixens looked at each other, an ear half-cocked apiece.
"Welllll...."
"COULD do ...."
The King clapped his hands, and a party of Palace Guards came in with something shrouded under a black cloth. "If not for my sake, or for reward, but to destroy things like ... THIS." With a motion, he indicated the guards to set their burden down.
The cloth was pulled away, and the court was suddenly filled with thuds and retching sounds as unprepared folk fainted or threw up at the sight. On the stretcher, was the rounded, pale blue form of an unthinkably cute thing. It seemed to combine elements of kitty and bunny - not merely "cat" and "rabbit", but all that was soft and fluffy in their makeup. driven to the ultimate extreme.
"Interesting," Arial said mildly. "You seem to have killed it pretty well yourself, though - don't these things regenerate ?"
Valency The Nineteenth's ears dipped. "I take it, you KNOW what it is ? But - this arrived yesterday, it didn't behave like the others - it kept shouting that we had to believe it, that it was ... well, it gave a name. Then one of our Inquisitors managed to slay it with an ancient blade forged in the Magewars. This isn't a typical one - if you look, you can almost make out .." He pointed to what looked like embroidery, half-hidden in the pale blue plush.
"The name it gave was of one of the guards who was with my Daughter when they were carried off. And that embroidery matches a tattoo his comrades say he had."
There was a second's silence.
Arial hid a smirk. [Seems like we've got Fluffy Evangelists at work - they're going to make Converts out of everyone.]
[That should be fun to watch] Her sister flashed back, trying to look shocked and concerned in just the right combination. [Just think of it - the whole population forcibly .... stuffed.]
Arial licked her lips. [Are we just going to tell them ?]
[No. More fun to have them believe in us awhile longer. Always good to save a few surprises for later...] She glanced down appreciatively at her twin's bulging armoured codpiece: evidently the folk here assumed that she had just taken a standard male armour and altered only the breastplate to fit.
"Of course..." she held her voice serious. "It is the duty of all right-thinking, honourable and Good folk to oppose this Evil. And we are, naturally, Good."
[We're EXCELLENT] Her sister flashed contentedly.
"Then you'll do it ?" King Valency half-rose out of his chair, his ears pricked up. But Arial held up an armoured hand.
"There's just a matter of details ... what does your Daughter look like - assuming we can still recognise her if we find her ?"
Her twin gave a mental snigger.
King Valency pulled out a miniature from the pocket above his heart, and handed it over. "Princess Melissa, heir absolute to - everything." His ears dipped again. "If she lives, she will be the one ruling voice after me - in her paw will every life rest. Find her, I beg you - do what you must, but bring her back. She's no warrior, like her retinue - she's just a pure, happy cub, barely of marriageable age.." He sank back with a groan.
The twins surveyed the picture. It was not the formal portrait they had expected, but an action drawing of a young vixen strenuously playing some tennis-like game. Her fur was sleek and golden-red; slim digitigrade legs were graceful with athletic prowess, and her figure was evidently filling out nicely.
[If we bring her back and she's turned plushie, they'll have a direct connection into the Royal Family....] Mnemora commented, running her eyes hungrily over the portrait. [Which would be rather a waste.]
[Still, I doubt local law would disqualify her from ruling, whatever her .... condition... no matter what happens to her.] her twin raised an eyebrow. [I think we've got our motivation. The Spare Hares don't deserve her.]
There was an instant's silence, and then unformed thoughts passed from mind to mind. Slow smiles spread in stereo.
[That would be a shame .... ] Mnemora summed up. [Letting them plug themselves into the Royal line, that easily..... when someone more deserving could....]
"We agree - we'll go looking for her." She said aloud.. "There's the matter of payment, though - just for our expenses, you understand ... we crossed twenty Dimensional Planes to get here, and we need our Plane tickets home to pay for."
"Our treasury is open to you .." the King began, before Arial cut him off.
"I THINK the usual reward is your daughter's hand, and half the kingdom," her eyes narrowed to slits. "It's an old tradition."
"Impossible !"
Both vixens fixed the monarch with coldly calculating stares.
"You should be grateful that ..."
"...We're not demanding the whole..."
"...Of the kingdom and half..."
"...Your Daughter's hand instead...."King Valency looked from one face to another. "Well, if you put it like that..."
"We do. And we want your sorcerous jamming system off, and we want it off right NOW. Or we'll never manage to track where the Cutes are breaking through, with these shields of ours running on full."
There were cries of horror from amongst the senior Inquisitors.
"Don't listen to them, Majesty !" One cried out "Without the Guardians, we'll be prey to every foul sorcerer in the cosmos!"
There was a loud thump and groan as the Ur-Cardinal restored order with his holy warhammer.
Cardinal Benzen-Rhing stood forward, his eyes troubled but his face resolute. "It seems to me, Your Majesty, that we already ARE at the mercy of such. If deactivating the Eight Guardians can help us seal the leak - then we will have to follow their advice. After all, they're the only hope we have."
The vixens smiled triumphantly at each other, sly thoughts passing from mind to mind.
There was a long silence. And then, in the distance, came a confused noise of shouts, crashing and doors slamming open.
Suddenly the great double doors of the throne room flew apart as if a battering ram had driven them in. All heads turned to see what had disturbed sixteen tonnes of iron-bound timber so.
[Oh, shit.] Arial inwardly groaned at the sight.
[Shit, piss and the waste from a dozen thaumo-industrial complexes.] Mnemora agreed. [We just lost our exclusive contract on this.]
"Sorry I'm late," came a harsh, synthetic-sounding voice in the suddenly absolute silence. "I was out when your call came through. Had to hurry in here - don't worry, the guards are only stunned."
Standing in the open doorway was a figure two and a half metres tall. Like the vixens, it was fully armoured - but in a vastly different style. The material was a glossy non-metallic black, moulded in organic curves and spiked on the joints and shoulders like a well-defended seedpod. Wires and conduits could be glimpsed hidden behind translucent panels, and the whole suit was outlined in a crackling, blue-sparking glow as the local magical field smashed itself against the unearthly material.
[Tech-mage.] Mnemora glumly pronounced.[ Active Thaumic field generators on the suit, looks like - must be using up a hell of a lot of mana running them over here..... probably no match for us both, but he's got a lot of very nice and flashy toys.]
The figure strode forwards to stand outside grabbing range of the vixens. It nodded towards the open-mouthed King, then to Arial and Mnemora. "I hear you've got a problem with Spare Hares around here. Started breeding already, have they ?" A spiked gauntlet gestured towards the stuffed thing that lay in two pieces on the stretcher. "Looks like I got here just in time."
"It's CUSTOMARY," Arial pointed out frostily "To take off your helmet when addressing Royalty."
There came again that oddly synthetic voice. "I fear, Your Majesty, that you would not see anything of information to you. I am Doktor Kantus, what is left of me. This suit provides an artificial arm, two artificial legs, and ...." he reached up and unscrewed the helmet. The crowd gasped, and a few retched whatever they had remaining at the sight.
"Now, that IS impressive," Mnemora murmured. "An artificial Head."

**************************

On the battlements above the gateway leading of the inner fort, Stendahl looked from one face to another. He felt uncomfortably like a mouse referee at a freestyle cat fight.
"The thing IS," he swallowed, feeling the ice-cold glares of the vixens and the impassive scanning plate of Doktor Kantus riveted on him, "we've no Idea what's out there. It'll take every willing crusader to follow the trail, wherever it leads." He had suggested a platoon of Palace Guards accompany them: Arial And Mnemora had eagerly accepted. The real trouble had started when Doktor Kantus had stated authoritatively that mundane, non-magical troops would simply perish in a bloodbath the severity of which intact mortal minds had no parallel for.
[ Busybody.] Mnemora had flashed to her twin, annoyed.
Doktor Kantus stirred, his glistening armour catching the late evening sunlight. "You are faced with annihilation." His voice was flatter even than the synthesizer usually managed. "You are facing Spare Hares, and what they bring with them."
"What DO they bring with them ?" Stendahl asked flatly. He very much doubted he would like it, whatever it was.
The techmage idly picked up a weathered shard of stone from the battlement, and lobbed it over the edge, tracking the smooth parabola of its fall.
"Some worlds have dragons, some Arvonian Devourers, some have Chaos "Mange-tout" pea vines .... " he said distantly. "Ferocious indeed - monsters that could flatten this palace in an evening like an insect-eater ripping into a hive." He paused. "But believe me, there are worse things than being devoured alive and digested by such."
The vixens exchanged knowing glances. The techmage was proving interesting. His suit, even, was made of a substance their analysis spells could not get to grips with - a heavy, synthetic element that not only did not, but actually could not, naturally exist in most planes of existence.
"When the Spare Hares make a place their own ... " he said slowly, picking over the words like a barefoot man picking his way over broken glass ".... they digest not only its inhabitants, but its - reality. Those fuzzy outer forms you see are the fractal-edged event horizons of Pastel Holes in your dimension, where the power and terror of their native place, the Elemental Plane of Plush, seeps through like leaks in a boat hull. Which is why they are almost immune to physical damage - they are solid shadows, of things that are not truly HERE. And neither will your magical barrage jammer cause them the mildest twinge: they have no need to gather the tainted mana of this world, they not only have, but ARE, the pipelines to their own supply."
"Of course, a big enough disruption can cast them back, you know ..." Arial's tail waved idly.
"If you have big, a BIG one.... " her twin continued, tongue caressing sharp teeth as she eyed her match and mate up and down.
".... In physical terms, you're talking energy releases on a rather unmanageable scale for most neighbourhoods..."
"... You're really talking hydrogen bombs ...."
"....WITH Contact Fuses....."
"... Or the sorcerous equivalent, a couple of MegaThaum direct hits on the seams can explosively unstuff them all over the landscape ...."
"....And that can spoil their whole day ...."
"But ... Inquisitor Quex - he Turned them, with his holy presence," an unwilling supporter of the Inquisitor burst out. "He sent them back, with the Words and the Will !"
Vixen sneers came cheaper by the pair, or so it seemed. "Turned ? Him ? He couldn't "Turn" warm milk on a hot day," Arial yawned dismissively.
Stendahl's ears drooped. "What can we DO, then, against things like ... that ?" He asked weakly.
Mnemora snickered. "You could hope they go away and lose interest until you've had a few millenia to rebuild your sorcerous traditions ..." she suggested helpfully.
"..... You could all perish hideously, the way whole nations and worlds have, crushed ..."
"Plushed," her sister smiled.
"Plushed beyond all recognition, beneath the all-conquering tread of those adorable pawsies..."
".... Or you could leave it to the professionals, and make sure you pay them enough to do a thorough job for you. Otherwise, you're Really stuffed." Mnemora finished up, her lip curling in a grin that exposed a fine set of sharp, white teeth. "You're all going to Maximise your Genetic Protein Potential, as soon as they get here in force, you know that ?."
There was a silence. Stendahl looked out over the green fields and distant mountains of his world. Even with the Inquisitors, it was somewhere he loved and understood - and the unspeakable fluffiness of the things that were taking unguided tours of the Palace, were nothing that belonged to any sane or wholesome universe.
Doktor Kantus scanned the vixens up and down. "I destroy Spare Hares." He stated flatly. "It's what I do. Not for fame, or reward - but to put an end to them in all spaces for all time. And I have to admit - I often fail." He tapped his artificial head ironically. "I managed to keep my brain and optic nerves intact, but much of the rest was - irrevocably contaminated. " He paused. "If you hope to maintain life as you know it on this world, give these two everything they desire. You know but dimly the truth that you spoke, when you said you need all the help you can get."
Arial and Mnemora felt as much as saw each other's ears rise appreciatively.
[Well, now ....]
[Well indeed. He's not such a bad sort, after all ! ]
Deep in the heart of the Palace, a great rock-hewn chamber was unsealed for the first time in generations. In the exact centre of the Eight Guardians that stood outside the city walls, a brilliant crystal a score of paces thick, stretched up through the hidden heart of the tower and down into unguessable depths of the planet.
"The Sceptre Stone," breathed Ur-Cardinal Benzen-Rhing. "Keeper of the Keepers - the key to our world's defences. He stood, looking up at what had been the centre of the Realm for so long, the protector against all useable magic, and the core of the Inquisition's faith. Pulling out a tiny platinum key from deep in his robes, he began to chant even as he strolled towards the small panel set in its one exposed facet. The key turned once, one tiny movement - and the Karemite Kingdom changed forever.
"Ah ..... that's better." Mnemora sighed, shaking her head as she looked down over the battlements. "They've turned it off. " She gradually lowered her shields: although she could have kept them steady for literally weeks, it was a great relief to be able to gather native mana. Stretching, she put down the helmet on the cold stone bench of the lookout post.
Stendahl looked lost. "After all this time .... it's .... gone ?" He winced, and looked around as if he expected to see a horde of evil sorcerers emerge from the stones of the castle.
Doktor Kantus nodded gravely. "And now there is no more time to be lost. Every second may count - should a legion of Spare Hares appear, we might be overwhelmed. For when many are together, their combined presence overstrains the local reality until it ....."
"Is stuffed." Arial finished smugly. Her sister smiled, and ran elegant fingers through the long silky quiff of head-fur. She stood up, stretching her long lean body, the waist improbably slender even in armour. "Shall we hunt ?"
Stendahl had joined Doktor Kantus on the quest for the sorcerous trace the magus assured him would still be there to find. He scratched his head wonderingly. Today seemed - different, all of a sudden. It was like the feast-days had been, when he had woken after a full night's sleep rather than the four hours the Rule prescribed.
For two hours they roamed the corridors and echoing rooms of the great Palace, following a device that squeaked and cheeped faintly. But nothing seemed to be centred anywhere: just random echoes and traces of the monstrosities that had padded down these hallowed halls.
"But ... " he shook his head wonderingly. "I thought the Eight Guardians were meant to stop that sort of thing from happening ? I mean - " her looked around himself quickly, to see if any of the Inquisition were in earshot. "There's a whole list of things we've been taught couldn't exist - teleporting's one of them, so is something they called a "gate" spell. I suppose, all the stuff they told us couldn't exist - if it really couldn't, there'd be no point telling us so." He cocked his head on one side. Thinking suddenly seemed so much easier.
Kantus imitated the gesture, and for an instant Stendahl had a strange impression. It was as if the faceless figure was smiling back at him - as if he was perceiving with some other sense than vision.
The techmage stood up, his suit no longer illuminated with crackling coronal discharges as it fought the sorcerous barrage. Now it shone with the slippery organic gloss of fresh seaweed, of some strange new life-form unknown to the Book of Rule.
"Spare Hares." Came a measured tone. "Break their way in where they can find a gap. For a mage to travel from Here to go Out, one must draw on the power that is Here - and that was what the Eight Guardians poisoned. But the other way round .... they burrow from without like shipworms. " Again came that unfamiliar sensation, as if Stendahl could see a troubled frown on the Face That Was Not. "Was it a natural rift, I should be able to detect it. But a foci - if some mage specially constructed a gateway aligned to their world, it would be indeed a weakness...."
From below them, there came a rolling boom, and the windows rattled.
"The cellars !" Stendahl shouted - "Down here !" He threw open a door to a narrow servants' staircase, and dashed down - halfway down the stairs, his brain suddenly seemed to seize, though his legs kept moving.
What am I DOING, he thought desperately, while Doktor Kantus in his heavy suit followed a few paces behind. - I've no idea what's down there ... it could be a host of them, and there's not a thing I could do about it ....
Through four of the great vaulted cellars he forced his unwilling legs, with the hiss and heavy armoured tread of the techmage's suit the only spur onwards. In the fifth cellar he stopped, the Detector behind him suddenly squeaking like a wagonfull of kittens..
There was light here. But not the cheerful glow of torch or firelight. From round the corner came a polychrome riot of pastel putrescence, each shade as subtly off as a harp with all its strings badly tuned.
"The portal opens," Doktor Kantus muttered. "As it says in "Die UberPflaumig Kulten" of Von Tuu, "By their hues beyond Law and Nature, shall ye know them - beware the shade that lies in no mortal brush, and the light that no goodly sun gives forth". And the dread Compte D'Isgny's "Cultes Des Schtroumpfs", says much the same..." With a flick of his right wrist, an obsidian black blade snapped out, and began to glow with a clean, starlight brightness.
Stendahl gulped. "Will we be ... hopelessly overmatched, captured and dragged back for a brief but unhappy life as slaves to fluffy entities of ultimate Evil ?" He looked up at Doktor Kantus, as if for reassurance.
The half-machine stirred. "Quite possibly. But if we don't go to them - be sure they will come to us - when they decide they are entirely ready." Swinging his Scalpel of Seam-ripping (+5) in a long, slow arc, limbering up his surviving organic arm, he slowly moved forward, till he rounded the corner lit with the synthetic pastel horror of a Toonish Hell.
Arial and Mnemora stood decoratively by each side of a yawning hole in the air, through which a sick rainbow mist billowed and gave nightmarish glimpses of a world beyond.
Mnemora blew the newcomers an ironic kiss as they edged around the corner. "Took your time getting here," she commented, her gaze innocently studying the vaulted stone of the vault. "Took US five minutes to find it, and ten seconds flat.."
"... Nine point Nine-six, to be precise ..." her twin chimed in.
"....Under ten seconds to get it open. We've been waiting for you ever since."

*************************

The Princess Bride(Groom) Part 2
Being an Unconventional Romance,
co-starring Arial and Mnemora, (C)
Ashtoreth (William Haas).

Tale told by S.Barber, 1995

Stendahl stood in the deep cellars at the heart of his civilisation, looking through what looked like a circular doorway to infinite reaches of soul-shattering horror. The portal was three metres across, hovered in the air as knee-height above the stone flags, and seemed as flat as a soap film in an invisible ring. From behind, it simply did not exist.
"Go on," Arial prompted. "It's quite safe - it won't kill you." She picked up a stray rock, and tossed it through the ring. It turned a bleached pink, and hit the ground with a thud that seemed a little too soft for natural stone to land.
Doktor Kantus' armoured glove fell heavily on the young feline's shoulder. "Not so fast." He made a complex gesture, and something fractally fluffy like a billowing cloud of ultra-fine fur suddenly illuminated, appeared in the mouth of the Gate for an instant. "A stripped-down, hot-rodded, jacked-up version of a Type 17 Aegypan Curse. You'd have been fluffed before you hit the ground."
[ Damn.] Mnemora mentally scowled. [He spotted it.]
[ He's really fairly competent.] Her twin agreed.
Pulling out an eight-sided stone from a pocket in his armour, the techmage surveyed the booby-trapped gateway with an appraising air, and suddenly his armour began to glow with a clean bluish light. "Shields up, please, ladies - this could get loud."
Stendahl tapped at his side armour. "What about me ?"
The faceplate turned towards him, and for a second Stendahl felt that a pitying smile was on it. "It will act only on the sorcerous bands. And I fear that no-one around here has that sensitivity any more." As the vixens' own armour was suddenly reinforced by applique thaumaturgy, Kantus "wound up" and hurled the holy symbol through the gateway.
The room lit up with a soundless fury; a terrifying squealing on all wavelengths as the trap was short-circuited. The portal quivered like a disturbed pool - and settled down. As if it had been a thin window suddenly smashed, the rainbow mists began to seep out into the room.
"Finesse, or what." Mnemora yawned. "Ever trained as a diplomat ? Now they know we're coming. "
"And they know just what to expect, too," her twin agreed, poking her snout through into the polychrome space beyond the barrier. "Ah well, let's get busy. You coming ?"
"In a moment." Kantus bent down, and picked Stendahl up off the floor. He passed an aura-lit hand across the unconscious feline's brow, and studied the results carefully.
Two probing spells pinged across the room and back, and two sets of ears raised in interest.
[ Well, well, well. I didn't think to even test him, since the jamming stopped. Didn't see much point - him living HERE.]
[ Likewise. Totally untutored - he doesn't even know what he's got.... but this really could be .... INTERESTING. ]

***************************

An hour later, four figures stood at the edge of a massive painted desert. Vertical and overhanging cliffs were everywhere; below them, a geologically impossible gorge dropped a sheer two kilometres to a distant river.
"They went that way." Kantus scanned the detector left and right. He frowned. Since breaking the Cute Barrier, most of the controls were reversed - instead of monitoring the alien magic spilling through on a mundane plane, he was picking up the temporary drop where the captive party had gone through, doubtless soaking up the surrounding contamination like sponges gaping at every helpless pore.
Stendahl still felt like he had been hit with a brick : at point-blank range, the sorcerous blast wave had punched him hard in places he had never known existed. Crawling to the edge of the abyss, he peered down into the giddy depths. "How ? Can they fly ?"
Mnemora laughed. "Falling off that won't bother them. It's an advantage they have."
"But, the Princess ... and the eight guards ... one got back - sort of ..." Stendahl stopped, suddenly sickened as he recalled the condition that guard had been in when he escaped, or was allowed to escape. "How could they manage it ?"
Doktor Kantus' helmet bowed gravely. "I fear it may be already too late. No unaltered mortal could survive that drop. If the Princess went over there ..."
Arial looked over the edge with a detached interest. "Did she jump, or was she plushed ?" Stretching, she strolled over to the rounded boulder ten metres from the edge where her sister was standing expecantly. She snapped her fingers, and stood back as the round rock rose out of the ground, revealing a pinkly padded lift.
"WE'RE going this way." She grinned at the techmage and the open-mouthed Stendahl as she stepped inside. "We'll send it back up afterwards - there's only room in here for two."
The cyborg sorcerer nodded slowly. Splitting the party was generally a Bad Thing To Do - but one glance at the slippery-looking pink interior of the lift, convinced him. It had been built with small and flexible Cutes in mind, and not awkwardly armoured mortals two and a half metres tall.
Mnemora blew the two males a kiss. "See you later !" With that, the vixens slid into the cosy interior of the lift, eyes locked on each other in some unspoken agreement. The door slid shut, and the capsule dropped out of sight, leaving only the unremarkable capstone visible.
"It must be awfully cramped in there," Stendahl's feline tail twitched in revulsion. "I'll bet it's no fun, pressed together like that - could take half an hour to get down..."
Doktor Kantus said nothing. But if he had an eyebrow, Stendahl got the idea it wound be lifted - quizzically, and perhaps ironically. Instead, the techmage strode slowly forward, his armour clicking and hissing, until he stood above the capstone. Slowly he paced around it, stopping every now and then to study the arcane instruments set into the forearms of his slick suit.
"This isn't sorcery, of any kind I'm familiar with..." he said slowly. "Nor is it entirely material technology. How did they find it, so fast ? They are mages - and magecraft varies in style as much as the bodies that cast it. But to be so familiar with the style practiced over here, in the heartland of Stuffie Horror ....." He broke off, and sat deep in thought.
Stendahl crawled to the edge of the abyss and looked down for long minutes. The walls were almost sheer for thousands of paces below: only a pastel glittering showed where what must be a roaring (or would that be, "squeaking ?" he asked himself wryly) torrent foamed at the foot. There was what looked like a road at the bottom, its tarnished surface the colour of long-corroded yellow brick.
Suddenly, he gave a yelp. There was movement down there - just a suggestion of tiny dots, barely visible, directly below them. He thought for an instant that it might be the two strange vixens - but then he stopped. There were far more than two.
Doktor Kantus was beside him in an instant, peering down while whirring and clicking came from inside his faceplate as his pan-spectral cameras focused on the distant action. His suit locked rigid for an instant, then seemed to slump.
"Spare Hares." His voice was sad. "Twenty-six of the tough, two-metre model they call Toyminators. And - I fear our comrades are lost to us. I would have spotted any magical duel at this range - either they were surprised before they had a chance to get a spell off, or ..... some Plushie of Puissant Power is hidden down there, and neutralised them."
"Neutralised ?" Stendahl's whiskers drooped. "What do you mean ?" His native realm was a simple and happy one by rigidly enforced Royal Decree, and knew nothing of euphemisms. Anyone talking of Sociopolitical Ramifications was brought to the debating chambers, and made to explain it in fullest detail to the Inquisition from inside one of an array of sophisticated interview booths (normally involving sharp iron spikes, compressing red-hot walls or slow drips of acid.)
Doktor Kantus sighed. "We shall have a weary walk indeed, to find an undefended way down. Come, best start at once, and we shall talk. My onboard systems are watching for any overt manifestations."
They set out along the top of the chasm, always within sight of the edge. As they talked, Stendahl listened, while his tail fluffed out log-like in sheer horror.
"Where to start ?" Kantus mused, as they cut across to avoid a great side-canyon. "They were not always Evil, the Spare Hares, so the tales say. But they were seduced and abandoned by a great Deity of Communication - and left to wander the worlds. Most perished - but some found other Protectors, who they surrendered to utterly. They were given this world, and delight in spreading their gods and their nature wherever they can. In the flesh, they breed and convert mortals - and even invading through ideas, before ever they plant their stuffed feet on a fresh world."
The slight feline frowned. "Through Ideas ? What do you mean ?"
There came a short grunt. "They destroy true meanings before they destroy reality. Worship they give, to the Great Unknown Deity-Person-Entity of Political Correctness. When you see a world starting to change that way, know that their physical presence is not far behind. And anyone who objects is mocked and called Cuteist, for which the very citizens being invaded suddenly begin to feel is a Bad Thing to be. For Spare Hares will tell you they are not Evil, only Differently Moralled, with Ethnic Traditions of being Angelically Disadvantaged."
Something stirred a chord in Stendahl's memory. "Didn't the paladin in grey, Mnemora, say something funny like that ? Maximising our whatever.... ?"
Kantus suddenly jerked to a halt, and his faceplate swung to face his small companion. ""Maximise your Genetic Protein Potential", she said. Yes, she did say that. ... I wonder ..."
The faceplate shook slowly, sorrowfully. "She knows much of what Spare Hares do to a world, it seems. They do not destroy wantonly; they make fullest use of its living things, stealing what they find best of their forms to pass on, to strengthen their promiscuously polyglot plushieness. Maximum use they do indeed make..... should you be found desirable, be sure you would be mated by as many of their females as possible, until you died or were found wanting. And then .... "
"Then ?" The feline's tail was sticking right out in horror, while other parts of his anatomy shrivelled in instinctive fear.
Again that invisible, sorrowful smile. "Maximised Protein Potential. On mortal worlds, they need mortal flesh to breed more of their kind - first they breed with you, then they eat you."
They made camp when the skies darkened. Night did not fall, exactly - it was as if the rainbow palette of this pastel soft realm subtly darkened into more nightmarish hues. There were plants growing - or, more accurately, great spongy fungus-like masses like invitingly bright cushions, but Doktor Kantus warned Stendahl away from them. There was something too eager about the way pallid green tendrils seemed to move when you turned away: viscid nectar-dripping pseudopods slipped and writhed between swelling honeyed buds of unguessable function, visibly ripening as if ready to reveal yet stranger horrors of protoplushmic perversity. Stendahl suddenly became glad it was getting darker.
"All living things here concentrate the essence of the land," he intoned gravely, turning up the volume on a device attached to his wrist. When it pointed towards the comfy-looking plants, the slow squeaking turned to a rapid purring. "Even the plants. Should you fall asleep there, you may well wake up in a different form than you would like. And no doubt they taste delicious, but should any living part of this world penetrate your body ....."
Stendahl recalled the hideous - transformation - that had stricken the guard, and shivered violently. He watched as the techmage drew a spiky, regular shape on the ground well away from the beds of eagerly spread-petalled vegetable seduction, and traced an angular shape in the air above like a multi-faceted gemstone, a hard un-cute thing of glittering metallic lustre.
Kantus waved him inside: it was spacious enough for them to both lie down in comfort. "Here, we may rest. Its shape will focus what reality we carry with us, and keep out any casual threat. Long enough for us to awaken, at any rate."
Stendahl looked around, at the nighmarishly fuzzy landscape. The colours of Night were as horrid as those of Day - whereas one seemed designed to hide lurking Cute until it was within cuddling range, the other seemed intent on showing the whole daemonic pastel world in utter and soul-shattering clarity. "I don't think I'll be able to sleep a wink," he muttered, looking over his shoulder as he clambered into the hemi-dodecahedron that Kantus had summoned.
But mortal flesh is easily tired by overdoses of surprise and fear. Already that day, his store of adrenaline had been wholly used up - and inside a minute, he was curled up and fast asleep.
Sometime in the near-darkness, the dreams began. Nothing would have truly surprised Stendahl, who had walked through a waking world of horror with the assurance of worse to come around every corner - he fully expected to dream of dissolving in hideous pools of undead stuffing, or being vampirised by fluffy daemons. And yet, he SAW, rather than dreamed .... and what he saw, baffled him. All was confusion, all noise, and the world filled with things he had no word or meaning for - yet some Other knew them well, and dragged Stendahl through the nightmare as if he was unknowingly tied tight to him.....

***************************

....... The noise and flame ! Metal all round, humming, ringing tonnes of metal like a great cave-building, edged things and levers and flashing lights ... dozens of folk crowded at their stations, some labouring like helmsmen, some dressed like sorcerers, the scent of fear and ozone mingling with exhultation and the repeated crashing and thundering outside as the last six turrets returned fire ..... (What's Ozone ? Stendahl thought, feline curiosity stirring deep in his sleeping mind. I'll know it if I ever smell it again, that's a fact. And if it's a castle, what turrets are on fire ? Is this a siege ?)
.... The engineers shouting over the grumbling sound of the tracks, as we roll into the valley where the main Incursion has its heart.... the great two-hundred tonne spiked roller blocking our view for an instant as we go over the ridge ... clangs of viewslits shutting, the junior sorcerers tracing the warding sigils on them. What's over there, nobody should ever see ... it feels like sixty-first gear engaged as we're going in, mages working on squeezing every last Thaum of energy out of the Hellball, stepping up now to full power two decks below us .... (Some sort of siege-engine, the feline mind decided. Must be a big one ... who's seeing this ? Nothing I've ever heard of - and the folk look too - wholesome, to belong here.)
.... What's that ? The detectors suddenly going off the top of the scale ... a great soft shadow fluffing itself against the stars. It's HUGE ! Screams and horrifying shrieks of insane laughter as the heretic priests chained to the top armour see it - they're in direct line-of sight of something that should not BE. The sudden retching and sour stench as cuteness seeps through No. 27 turret above me ... the crew throwing up as what they can't even see directly, starts to affect them - grab the nearest mage, point him up there urgently, go renew the warding seals....
.... Horrors ! The Cavity Thaumotron is getting a reading off it - the thing ahead must be a hundred paces around ! Earth shaking as we swing to face it - go head-on, and our front reactive wardings might just hold it off for long enough. ....
.... Stanwyk, Magus Specialist Three, runs by jabbering frantically. I grab him, haul him into a corner. He's sobbing. "Class Fifteen ! It's a Class Fifteen Main Battle Stuffie - the sort that ate Nylahaw here, Grengil on Stand's World, and Vienna on Earth ... we're done for .... !" I slap him, thrust the book he's dropped back into his hands. It's one of the Unspeakable Pocket Editions, "Fluff-Cult in Western Europe" or such, and he cringes......
The scrying balls suddenly cloud over, and light stabs through the ballistae ports.... "Look out there ! I shout, shaking him. "Good men just gave their lives for you there !" With a kick in the tail, I see him scrabble up towards his magickal werke-station just as the first shock-wave hits us, shaking the eight thousand tonnes of armour. One or two of the smaller plushies are destroyed, with any luck - our white-reflective armoured suicide troops are spread out in a thin web all across the landscape. Their backpacks are fuzed for the warhead to blow when cuddled in direct plush contact with a crushing force of twenty tonnes - two of them must have taken a Spare Hare apiece with them......
.... The Magus-Captain's mindcast suddenly reaches us all through the noise. We're going to charge, and put all available power into the lightning-casters - hope to aim for a vulnerable seam on the Class Fifteen Plushie that towers over us, twelve thousand paces away and closing....... try and take its attack frontally, on the spiked roller and our main hull plate, with its layers of applique and reactive wardings.....
.... I comment my spirit to the good Gods as we turn into the charge. If it hits us with a Spare Hare Stare while the wardings are off active power - the metres of steel and lead on our hull might as well be tissue-paper. Our massive Plush Destroyer shudders and heels right over as we go into the turn - only six turrets left still fighting with crew sane... we aren't going to get out of this one alive .... hurry, down to the Hellball to make our final preparations..... ( They've a castle on - feet ? Stendahl thought, confusedly. What else makes tracks ? And all that, and they're still losing ... to something fluffy - what ? A HUNDRED PACES ACROSS ? )
... I take my place at the emergency Hellball controls, just outside the outermost containment vessel. Sorcerous flux-guides glow at red heat as the thousands of mana conduits are loaded to rupturing point - we've been running on overload for several minutes already, and the mundane heat from Thaumic induction is rising fast .....
.... The Hellball ! I've been here every hour, and it's never ceased to fascinate me, or to scare my fur rigid. Suspended inside the sorcerously shielded vessel is a white-hot sphere, exactly sixty-six and a sixth tonnes of pure iron that would be a gas save for its great pressure, burning with a light that'd burn your eyes out in a second. It carries enough stored heat to run the engines for days, the power tapped by the huge invocation/induction runes, each the size of a tall ursine, that interlock seamlessly on the inner side of the containment vessel. Iron is boiling and seething inside its warding - only the outer layer is liquid even at that pressure, super-compressed matter surging in tearing flows of convection currents gone insane at tens of thousands of paces per second, the pressure on the wardings tenfold more than adamantium could bear. I swallow, mouth dry. Because I know the blazing metal is only the relatively cool, docile cage that hides what burns inside....
.... "It's holding up," Jandik shouts to me from the main ritual slab, as he channels the flux through to feed the lightning elementals in our main turrets. "We'd be toast here before it even thinks of getting loose." He nods towards what we both know is the Hellball's hot heart.
..... I wince, though the blood surges fast in my veins with the thrill. If you take a sealed chamber filled with the light inflammable air that alchemists break from plain water, you have something that Fire Elementals feast on with delight. Now trap hundreds of fire elementals in a Warding field the size of an arena, and start to squeeze it. They'll struggle, and the heat of each part will rise - but the total heat, from the whole thing, rises only slowly. But then. But, then .......
You make a Hellball, tonnes of molten iron heated in mundane furnaces and poured to normal molten heat. You teleport the fire elementals and their warding field, now compressed to the size of a small room, a thousandth of its original size, inside. Then you close the outer warding on the molten iron, and test it VERY carefully. Then - if you have the power, you squeeze the fire elementals even more - and you don't stop till something happens.
You'll know it's happened. When the collapsing inner core reaches the size of a pinhead, the Fire Elementals suddenly become Gods of their kind. They burn the light air, but in a wholly - Different way. One tiny speck is formed of something that burns cities to ashes - and sprays a deadly magic in all directions that only tonnes of metal can moderate.......
... I shiver. This is our only salvation. And against what treads with over-padded paws a thousand mortal paces away, it might not be enough.
The whole place jerks, as if it's been kicked ! The barndoor slam as our reactive runes detonate on the outer hull, that I recognise - but what I never hope to hear again, is the dread crescendo of Squeaking, tearing through from Outside. The sorcerous flux probes are dancing like frogs - then they collapse, almost flat.
.....Screams and retchings, and more insane laughter as I struggle back towards the main Command Turret. The Cuteness must have almost punched through our frontal armour, stopped by perhaps one last layer.
"We did it ... " I pick up our Mage-captain, blood pouring from every pore as he dies in my arms. "The Type Fifteen - it turned to look at our sister-ship the InCuddlable, we hit it ... all six lightning-throwers, just where ... back and neck-seams join - tell the crew ... tell them .......". But he is gone, and I lower him reverently. I look around - the Command Turret is a shambles. Why any of the Plush Destroyer survived, I cannot guess - then I hear insane screams from the top deck, and risk raising a periscope to scan our hull.
The heretic priests ! Two are still alive, their minds cracked like eggs, but their bodies still moving, convulsively tracing out the protective runes on our outer plates as far as their chains permit. They have saved us - for the moment. But we are still in hideous danger, and I am the highest-ranking mage still alive and sane ... mindcasting to any of the crew who can hear me, I swing the Plush Destroyer back towards the foe .....
(Stendahl tossed restlessly. What was this place ? Did this landscape consume the memories as well as the mortal flesh of those who dared to invade it, sending the hopeless memories drifting wraith-like across the land ? But still - there was a strange sense of familiarity about the nightmare, as if the eyes that had seen such horror were those of a friend ....)
........ Running out of options, and the Plushies are massing for a SubHuman Wave attack. Not many left of them by now - but not many of us, either ... the Portal is under constant bombardment, and the ghastly colours are looking tattered as our battleflag, still waving valiantly. Only Turret 18 is still firing: ozone flooding the air as the Lightning Elementals are seething at their containment field ..... no time to tap them down to a more manageable size ....
Jandik staggers over, his face a mask of blood-clotted fur. "There's only fifteen crew alive and sane ..." he pants, exhaustion and terror staring through the blood and smoke all around. "Not enough .. can't keep the Hellball stable ....." He glances at his own dosimeter and winces: his Sanity Points are into single figures already, with the drifting Cutonium exposure leaking through the damaged hull seals.
...... "Only one chance left ..... set the controls for the heart of the Portal, pull the plugs .." I find myself saying. "Mindcasting now ..."
...... The crew starting to bale out, the first one out the hatch screams and falls out to a mercifully swift death beneath the house-wide tracks, just as the Cute Detector squeaks at full volume. No, not Now, of all times, I groan. It's a massed wave of tiny blueish daemons, their white assault caps bobbing hideously, and their high-pitched singing eating acid-like at our remaining sanity. Diving back down through the turret, just missing the coaxial ballistae, I slam the port hatch shut, and set the Plush Destroyer lumbering forward in low gear. One last look around at the survivors; a haunted band of soul-scarred veterans preparing to flee or die. Probably both.
.... "Out to starboard ... " I mindcast "they're swarming up the other side - maybe they won't bother with so few of us ..."
.... Desperate race - I'm the last one alive in the dying vessel, its outer armour hideously contaminated and glowing a virulent pink already ... run down to the Hellball, set the timer on the containment field - bale out the emergency escape tower just as the first bobbing hat of the blue-white tide of filth pours down into Engineering .... last sight of the inside of the vehicle is the instrument's Cuteness reading of the outside - six hundred milli-Chans, close to the limit of mortal survival this near to the Portal....
....... nothing to do but Run, try and get out of the danger area without being spotted and Hugged to a pulp ... imagining thousands of the blue vermin packing into the steel shell of the Plush Destroyer, filling it up like a giant rat-trap as it grinds towards the portal, the Hellball's containment field melting like ice now ... only seconds before it ....
.... The Light ! My Eyes !!!!

****************************

Stendahl jerked awake, every hair locked rigid in fear. "It Happened ! I saw it !" He panted for breath, looking around wildly.
Doktor Kantus stirred into action. His strange suit scanned all around, like a hunting hound questing for game. "I see nothing. Not even a dream should be able to penetrate this shield from outside."
"I saw it, though - " Stendahl persisted. "The big iron building that moved - the Spare Hares hundreds of paces across, and the Hellball, with the Elementals trapped inside a prison like a speck of dust ..." He shivered. "It was half-swallowed by the portal when it blew up, brighter than all the lightnings in the world ..."
The techmage was silent. Then, he pulled off his outer helmet, to reveal the mostly synthetic complex of translucent mechanisms that kept his brain alive.
"This shield reflects both ways." He said, quietly. "What is outside, bounces off. And what is within - reflects, to minds that can hold it." He paused, and ran his organic hand over the smooth faceplate. "I've had that dream every night - be thankful you awoke in time to be spared the rest of it. For those were my eyes."
Kantus knelt like an obsidian statue, while Stendahl looked on in amazement.
"We closed that portal, and returned to our homeland. But roving bands of Cutes had escaped the cordon, and .... I got back to my village. Everyone dead, or worse. My own family, I had to .... stake, myself." He stirred, fixing Stendahl with that faceless stare. "And you - you have the Gift, or Curse, as you wish to think of it. You are mage-born, whatever the direct line of your blood: these things surface generations later at times they are most needed. For your world - they need it Now."
The grey feline winced. Most of his recent life had been spent trying to convince the Inquisition that he had the sorcerous potential of wet mud. To be told by a practicioner of the Forbidden Art, that he had the ability innate whether he liked it or not - this was not going to make his day.
Still - here and now, the unfamiliar prospect of becoming a sorcerer was still far distant. Fear and exhaustion, were familiar and immediate things. Those, he could deal with - as without a further glimmer of disturbing dreams, he fell asleep.
For six days they strode on together, the thin feline and the Hunter who stalked the worlds, picking their way along the edge of the vast canyon. Food grew short: Stendahl had little enough nourishment at the best of times, but soon he grew weaker on the marching and scanty fare. As they walked, eyes always on the alert for manifestations of the Lurking Cute, they talked, and on the second day Stendahl cast his first spell. A thin, tired smile seemed to be associated with Kantus's faceplate as the shimmering illusion wavered in the air, before vanishing like the ethereal smoke it was.
"Spells draw on the Mana of the land," he warned his protege, waving a kindly finger of his organic arm. "What works in one place, may function differently in another, or not at all. You recall, when I came here, I needed to run through all that was useful in my skills, and tune it for these lands ?"
Stendahl nodded. But then he frowned. "It took you half an hour," he suggested timidly. "But those paladins, made about six quick passes, a few lightning flashes, and just grinned at each other. Are they more powerful than you ?"
There was a silence. "I have never been here before. I have seen the fuzzed edge of its shadow on many a world, but to actually tread this soft and deadly land ..... well, now. I wonder." And nothing more of that would Kantus say.
It was on the evening of the sixth day, crossing a deep valley leading to the main canyon, that Doktor Kantus struggled and fell. The half-synthetic knight simply fell to his knees, and propped himself up with visibly vibrating armour.
"What's wrong ?" Stendahl rushed to help him up: he might as well have tried to lift a bronze statue. There came a rasping gasp from the speech unit.
"Take ... spare power cell - from back - pull old one, from port Two.... hurry." There was a soft, hacking cough, all the more terrible since Stendahl knew that his protector had no organic mouth or larynx to make it.
Hurriedly, he pulled the heavy container from its clip inside the armoured pack, and swapped it with the old one. The figure sighed with relief, then stopped, dead still.
"Stendahl," his voice was slow and level. "I have just finished a full Systems check on my suit. And .... I fear I will not be with you much longer."
The warrior sat heavily down, scrutinising the jewel-like display on his forearm. "My motive power is sufficient for another half a year. But my Life Support system has been - Infected. Magically."
The feline shuddered. "One of these plants ? Maybe you brushed against one - or when we forded that last syrup stream ..." he broke off, as the great featureless head slowly shook.
"No. This suit is designed against the dangers the Elemental Plane of Plush brings with it. I don't recognise the infective spell - it is one of the sort that waits awhile, then awakes and does its deeds. The Power Management and detectors have been ...." Suddenly Doktor Kantus stiffened in alarm.
"Detectors !" He gasped. Swiftly he unscrewed a black box from his armoured pack, and pressed it into Stendahl's reluctant paw. "Swift as you can - run back to the top of the plateau, and scan this all around. Come back, and tell me what you see."
For an instant Stendahl looked at his one friend in the world - though indeed, in this overripe land the entire landscape sought to make him permanently at home. Summoning up his strength, he tiredly trotted back up the two hundred metre climb he had descended so recently, and looked around.
The sunless skies were deepening in their pastel hue, with the crawling rainbows turning mottled like rotting fruit. All around was the plateau, with nothing to be seen but the bulging hummocks of unnaturally soft vegetation.
Suddenly, the detector in his hand gave a frightened squeak. Half a minute later, there came another, as he looked through the gloom along the way they had come. Kantus had told him it had been callibrated for the ambient background plushiness - but as he faced that one direction, it squeaked again.
"Forty-one seconds between the first pair, forty between that and the next ...." Stendahl felt his tail fluffing out behind him like a great log. Even without a water-clock, he had practiced his time-sense for the ritual responses back home, where the Inquisition was starting to seem sane and normal.
He didn't wait to see if the next detector squeak would come in thirty-nine seconds. All weariness suddenly pushed aside in a fur-raising rush of fear, he sprinted back down the hill.
When he reached the spot he had left his friend, for an instant he looked round frantically. And then saw him, bending over a great pile of pillow-like plants by the edge of the abyss, where the syrupy stream spilled over the edge. Though it had lowered considerably, the vertical walls still stood four hundred metres high, and the drop was vertical. A great uprush of perfumed air swept up from the valley below, now wider by far than the poin where they had struck it. A day's march away down the valley, it opened out still further, and Stendahl almost thought he caught a glimpse of distant lights out on the furthest horizon.
Doktor Kantus straightened to reveal his handiwork. A dozen of the bed-sized plants he had gutted, and stitched them together quilt-like with their own tendrils. He turned, as Stendahl came rushing towards him, mouth open and detector in hand.
With a wave, he silenced the feline's nervous explanations. "Sit, friend. Sit, and listen, for the time is not long." He gestured towards a bloated rock.
Stendahl sat, staring wide-eyed at the calm armoured figure. At length, Doktor Kantus stirred.
"I have been on many worlds, and fought this horror where I found it." His voice was calm and even. "And, as I said when first we met, I have known victories and defeat. Six times, I have fled at the last instant when all was lost, escaping the Doom of worlds so that I could pass the warning on to others. I could have changed nothing had I stayed to perish with them." The expressionless face seemed to take on a solid cold grandeur, like the granite effigy of a knight of ancient centuries.
"But now - I'm standing here, with enough energy to run the outer suit across a world, and barely a day of internal life-support. When that fails, I must take it off or perish - and I took the maximum Cutonium exposure the last time, that any mortal can recover from. What I would turn into, I do not wish to become." Slowly and methodically, he unscrewed the locking gauntlet from his one organic arm. "Please take what I still can give, and use it well."
Stendahl knelt there in the sickly twilight, a squire knighted before his King. The hand that touched his brow was furless, and of a deep purple-grey hue. As it rested in blessing, picking up contamination every second, Stendahl felt as if a waterfall of knowledge, of power, of experience, was pounding into his skull like rushing water through a breached dam. He fell to his knees, gasping - and when he recovered, Doktor Kantus was standing over him, re-sealing his suit.
"But ... you opened it up anyway .... you'll be.... " His eyes widened in horror. Again came that wry smile.
"It won't matter now - not in the time I have left. Listen well, Stendahl, First Mage of your world. I have given you all that I could of my Essence: now take my advice. We have been followed, I know not for how many hours or days. It will be no small or weak force - there were thirty Toyminators who took our companions, and they have had time to mass since then." He indicated the fabric-like plant quilt by the edge of the canyon. "That should hold your weight, in this updraft - if you go now, before the draft ceases with nightfall - you may survive the night." His voice softened. "Whether they come for me or not, I shall not. And if they do, I can make a difference, this time, staying to the finish . We are in their own heartland, Stendahl, think on that. Damage done to Spare Hares here does not just fling them back, as on other worlds: from wounds too swift and massive to regenerate from, they truly Die."
Just at that moment, the Cute Detector in Stendahl's paw emitted one continuous squeal of outrage. Looking up, on the edge of the plateau above them, a row of tall, rounded figures were arrayed against the skyline. These were not the small, soft squeakies that had padded cheerfully through the Karemite Palace, seemingly so long ago now - these were solid, tight-stuffed Battle Plushies, Toyminator class, the last of the diseased rainbow-light glittering wickedly on the dark glasses that shielded their hard-stitched faces.
Doktor Kantus stood, and wordlessly helped buckle Stendahl into the makeshift harness. "Make for the City," his voice was calm even as he charged up his Scalpel Of Seam-Ripping (+5) for the final battle. "Save your Princess, get her back - your world will have such need for both of you." And then he smiled. "But I have - enough, to look on you as I would have you remember me."
Stendahl's own eyes widened. For the huge figure was faceless no longer: a solid illusion played over that frame for a few seconds. Doktor Kantus was broadly human - but only broadly so. His frame was massive, the jaw a great grindstone of heavy bone, and the brow ridges jutting out in technicolour glory. Coloured indeed - not with the monotones of humans as Stendahl knew them, but with the eye-catching stripes of a baboon or mandrill, crimson and purple patches blending with interlaced fur strips, winding spirally across his huge frame. And with the illusion came another flash of transmitted knowledge: Kantus's people were descendants of a branch of humanity that perished on most timelines long before civilisation - the name rang strangely in the feline's ears.
"Australopithicus Robustus," he fixed the name in his memory, like the evil mages of legend trusting their lives to correctly recalling a Daemon's vulnerable name. "I'll remember."
As the first Toyminator moved towards them, Stendahl found himself lifted bodily by Doktor Kantus and tossed clear of the edge: the great emptied bags ballooned above him, eddies swinging him clear of the vertical rock walls. Far away into the darkening skies he was whisked, away from that scene where one stood against so many.
"Alone, then." Kantus switched the last reserves of power out of Life Support. He had not told Stendahl all he knew, or suspected - the poor lad had enough to worry about. The aetheric Virus that had signed his death-warrant had been of a wholly unfamiliar type - something like a hot-rodded, jacked-up Aegyptian Curse, wrapped with a tight ball of very specific illusions that had hidden it from his onboard Scrying spells. It would have taken a particular brand of sorcery to do that - and indeed, what he had told his inheritor, WAS true. Each Realm's mana cast a distinct "flavour" on the spells using it - and this one had not been cast while he was in the Spare Hare's Realm. It still held an echo, the tiniest hint, of the mana that had been tainted by the Eight Guardians, on the world without trained magic-users.
"At least," he murmured "without Native ones."
Just then, a block of six Battle Plushes reached the bottom of the valley. Kantus's face would have grinned had it existed: a grim smile indeed. Too often had he run from these, fleeing out of the hopeless wreck they had made of worlds. Now it ended, here and now. He felt the enhanced mana surging through his body and the inductive circuits of his suit: the power crackled like a hard snowball crushed in an iron fist. He focussed his will, even as the oncoming Toyminators began to fan out, deciding on their tactics. He had a good one, a spell crafted in the last desperate hours of the world Denhumel, by warrior-mages he had seen overwhelmed and plushed to death as he fought beside them.
"Spell. Target, lock - On. " He felt the landscape around blur as the massive overload washed through him. "Nature - Transmute : Plush To Phosphorus."
Full night had fallen. The valley below burned with eerie, sickening light as Fluffeneger 27 looked down into the charred ruins that remained. Thirty of his model had entered that valley, and only eleven would be leaving it.
"Toyminated." The squeak of FN 3 was a bass thump, like the rubbing of two leather punchbags. "One mortal, against - US - and nineteen of us - gone. Forever." There was a moment of silence.
"They Won't be Back." FN 3 was an old model, victor of countless battles, survivor of everything that desperate mortals had thrown his way. He had been cast back to the Native Plane many times; twice he had been rescued by their own FluffMages from outward hyperbolic orbits that near-misses from thermo- or thaumo-nuclear explosions had booted him onto. And although a few million years of floating between the stars would cause him no injury, by all accounts it got Very boring after a while.
"He wasn't even very Cute," complained FN 29. "So how could he do it ?" One after another, then "en masse", the Toyminators had flung themselves at their foe, to reel away with spilling stuffing from that deadly glowing blade, consecrated to be the doom of their kind. That, they could regenerate in a few minutes - unless their outer fluff was ruptured with such huge and catastrophic force that its very coherency as a shape was lost, leaving nothing for the great Plush God to refill. And those spells .... he shuddered.
FN 3 Gave another grunt. "He fought well. " The techmage had thrown himself at the gathering Battle Stuffies with no thought of defence, only of unstuffing as many as possible before he fell. So he had stood his ground and he had slain, there in that valley lit by the whitely bubbling phosphorus fires all around, while a rampart of smashed plush and primordial filling grew around him. And at the last, when FN 18 had caught him and begun to cuddle, with a word of Release he had detonated the energies of his suit, incinerating both himself and FN 18 in one star-bright eruption of clean rending Power that lit the ghastly shades of the landscape in a searching burst of brilliance.
"They won't be pleased, though, back at the City," FN 29 complained. "One destroyed, but at such cost - and the other one escaped." He nodded his adorable head towards the edge of the canyon. "We didn't even get a souvenir to take back." He sighed. It would have been something, from such a foe, to have come away with enough living or fresh tissue to add to the heterogeneous stuffing of the Spare Hare stock. For an instant, he grinned. Mortals who slew themselves so they would be saved from incorporation in their conqueror's breed, died in vain. But it was often fun to watch.
"Two destroyed," FN 3 overruled him. "The one that went over Wile-E Gulch ? It was only a mortal - it wouldn't have survived that drop. Forget it - besides, this makes things look half as bad for us."
FN 29 decided to keep quiet. Older and better-stuffed heads than his could make the report, and get into trouble if it was wrong. Besides, in the City, they already had the other two intruders to play with .......

**********************************

Princess Melissa had not, on the whole, been having such a bad time of things. True, she reminded herself, being dragged from her Palace, separated from her guards and thrown naked into a dungeon was not her usual way to spend a week - but it had been Different.
The young vixen paced the length of the spacious apartment, and stood looking out at the City below her. Spare Hares had interestingly Different tastes in architecture from that one might expect, she noted - the citadel was a slender and multi-layered complex of needle-like glittering towers, its streets alive with the voices of its inhabitants. It was all very Ethnic, and Exotic; even the weather seemed universally sweet. Certainly, though it was a little indecorous, she had no real need for clothing, with her fine red-golden fur. Besides, these - Spare Hares, had they called themselves ? - seemed to wear nothing save occasional oversized bows and ribbons around throats or ears. Her etiquette lessons had always stressed trying to adapt to the host's taboos, anyway.
She turned at the sound of an opening door behind her. Ears remained steady at the sight: this was a familiar figure, her hostess. Jailer, she knew, was an impolite word, and one that applied to the sort of place in her Father's palace where street-mimes and other such undesirables were kept.
"Princess Melissa ? I do hope you're well today." The voice was a soft, seductive squeak, from the throat of a stunningly Elegant Spare Hare.
Melissa curtsied as best she could without a dress. "Vampilla ? Is there any news from ... home ?"
Vampilla stood in the doorway, the light sparkling on her smooth hide. Unlike most Spare Hares, she had no body fur - instead, a glossy black skin like freshly polished leather. Only on her head did she wear a bone-white crest of fur, bobbing cheerily between tall, convoluted bat-ears. Her eyes were bright, purple-lidded wells that seemed to open up into endless vistas of the void.
A bright purple tongue slid across sharp fangs as she smiled, hungrily eying the naked vixen up and down. This one, they were keeping just as she was, so long as it amused them. And she was proving Most Amusing so far.
"No, Your Majesty ...." she purred, eyes fixed on Melissa's slender charms. "As I said, getting you here was an accident - we'd SO wanted to visit your world - only recently we'd been - enabled to. And, do you know, some of our folk were SO eager to see you, they tried the Portal spell without testing it properly. So you and your guards got pulled in - and you were all too heavy for the portal. It got ... broken."
"Have Any of them come back ? " Melissa asked cautiously. The explanations had never seemed to ring quite true, but she was far too polite to say so. Her guards had been taken away one by one, to test the rebuilt portal home - they had volunteered to somehow try and send a message back, if it was safe to use today's spell version (today was Release 4.61 bis, she reminded herself).
Bat ears drooped. "Not as yet. But no doubt they all made it safely - more or less." The vampire Stuffie sighed. "I hope they weren't exposed for too long to our world - you know what'd happen to them."
Melissa's tail drooped. Outside in the yard was Peach Tree, her favourite pony. Or at least, it had been Peach Tree she had been riding, about to set off on a jaunt round the Inner Park with her guards, when the Spare Hares had so unexpectedly squeezed through a new gap in her world.
"He's .... changed," she said sadly." And he had; on a diet of the local plants and water, the pony's eyes had grown huge, its head shorter and rounder, and its whole body transformed to a boneless rubbery softness. But Peach Tree was still alive, and recognised her as she waved out of the window, with a foal-like bleat.
"Quite." The jet-black Cute nodded cheerfully. "He's perfectly happy here - in fact, he wouldn't be happy anywhere else, now. That's why you've got to stay in these rooms: they're - shielded, for you. If you went outside ....." she shook her head slowly. "I fear your clothes wouldn't fit, when you got back. We had to dispose of the ones you had, you know: they were carrying the ... essence of this place, you'd picked up on the way in."
Melissa sighed. "When can I go home ?"
Vampilla stood in the doorway, her face a midnight mask. "When it's - safe - to send you. We want to get you back, with the best we can do for you." A strange smile played over her sharp features. "Oh, yes. We want to see you accepted back at your palace looking Totally as you were, you see.... with perhaps a little going-away present to remember us by."
The door closed, and Melissa was left to her room and her thoughts. The present sounded a good idea, though there was something in the daemonic - no, she corrected herself, "Angelicaly Challenged", as they insisted on being called - something in the Angelically Challenged Plushie's voice that disturbed, yet strangely excited her.
Late that night, she was awakened by an unaccustomed sound in the room next to hers. The apartments seemed almost organic-looking: great rubbery walls stretched over hard frames like interlocking ribcages. In places, the soft wall had bloated or shrunken a little: twice now she had seen lights from next door, shining through crevices near the ceiling where the wall-matter had pulled away a little.
Frowning, she listened. The insulation of the walls was thick and fluffy, but there were definitely voices in there. Standing indecisive for a minute, she had an idea. There were no rigid items of furniture to stack, but by piling up all the cushion-like things that served as chairs and bed, she managed to reach up and pull herself up on one of the horizontal rents in the wall. By angling her head just right, wedging her ears flat against the angle of the ceiling, she could just look down into the next room. And saw ....
"Oh, MY." She barely suppressed a gasp of astonishment. Though the Spare Hares came in all shapes and sizes, they had a definite family resemblance to each other, in the build and stomach-churning Cuteness (like choking on a huge sugar furball, she reminded herself with a shudder.) The two denizens of the room next door, were built on Quite different lines.
She saw two vixens, as naked as herself and similarly coloured, though taller and plantigrade legged. Their faced away from her, reclined on pillows like her own, their tails entwined. And more than their tails: snouts interlocked, their tongues meshed and caressed intimately, eyes closed in pleasure.
Melissa swallowed hard, unable to take her eyes away for an instant. She saw one of the matched pair gently tweak an upright nipple where a golden ring gleamed in the dim rainbow-light from outside. Her own apple-breasts seemed to somehow be growing fuller and harder as she watched the two lovers, still facing away from her, eyes closed and no thought for anything but each other.
"There's time before they come for us ..." she heard one of them murmur. The other one opened an eye, and a sharp-toothed muzzle wreathed in a sly smile.
"There's Always time enough, 'Mora.. And if they take only one of us again ... we'll still be in touch". With that, the second one rolled over and sprawled languidly on the pillows, her tail hiked, and her rump raised in wanton invitation.
"Oh, my Goddess..." Melissa clamped a paw over her own muzzle as her eyes widened at the sight. Not of the vixen on the pillows, now looking hungrily over her shoulder, but at the one about to mount her.
"Any time you're ready ... " the reclining vixen growled hungrily. Her mate nipped the proffered rump with sharp teeth, and whispered something in her ear. She gave a loud Yip of excitement.
Just then, there was the sound of a door being slammed open. From Melissa's viewpoint, she could not see who had entered - but by the squeaking laughs, it was a Spare Hare - several of them.
"My - you're not going to waste all that just on Her, are you ?" Came the clipped tones that Melissa recognised as Steelheart Hare, one of the Castle's guards (or, Pacifistically Challenged Persons, she reminded herself they insisted on being referred to.) "We've got a lot of relatives, me and Blackheart here, who'd just Love to be introduced to you."
Two of the Spare Hares padded into the room; Melissa noticed that the vixens looked irritated rather that shocked or embarrassed.
"How many More of there are them, 'Ari ?" The still rampantly aroused shemale asked wearily. "Come on, let's go."
"Just the one of you ." Steelheart Hare put a firmly stuffed paw on the shoulder of the reclining vixen, as she started to get up. "We're only poor innocent little fluffies, you know .... our relatives'll get awfully embarrassed, as it is ..." Somehow, she managed to blush beneath her fur, while fixing 'Mora with a hungry stare.
Blackheart Hare *gigglefluffed* . This was a difficult manoevre to describe, easiest done on the Elemental Plane Of Plush, and liable to send mortals queueing up for the nearest asylum with padding-free walls elsewhere.
"Shit, piss and industrial waste," the reclining vixen spat acidly as she flung herself down again. "You be good to my poor sister, right ? Or even here, we'll work out a spell to make mildew grow on your stuffing."
"I'll be just next door.. keep your spirits up." Her mate cast her a hungry look. "Got the usual primed and ready for me when I get back ?"
"Got it ready and primed to go." The reclining one stroked her long ears back: silver bars and studs gleamed in the fur. "Have fun."
The shemale vixen suffered herself to be led out of sight by the Spare Hares, and the sound of another *gigglefluff* echoed down the room, before the door slammed securely and the noises ceased.
Melissa stared down, now intent on the room's sole occupant. The vixen's impossibly slim waist fascinated her: she was broad-shouldered as a man, and her figure had none of the sleek rounded softness of her own sportingly trim but well-nourished frame. But then the vixen flung herself on her back with a sudden lithe burst of speed, and the princess's eyes widened at the suddenly better view. ( Like her mate - exactly like, in fact, Melissa thought in a daze of confusion - this one's got ALL the equipment....)
Suddenly, Melissa's cramped paws could hold her to the awkward angle no longer. She slipped and fell back onto the piled cushions with a loud thump, bruising her pride more than her tailbone. The princess sat as she had fallen, fur awry and legs askew as her head reeled with what she had witnessed.
"They definitely ARE prisoners." She told herself, harking back to her lessons. "What did old Fr. Piesma say last term, in the Rulership class ?"
Melissa had been brought up with the traditional education of the Nobility: despite the known fact that the Inquisition really ran things, she had a good grounding in subjects that other realms might call Political Science, Applied Personnel Management and Advanced-Level Macchiavelianism (autocracy module 101). Despite this, as an undisputed Crown Princess, she had never totally Believed most of it. People never behaved to her the way they behaved to each other in books ...
"Until now." She sat there still, her naked fur resting on the dented cushions. And as she sat there, in the stillness of the familiar room, she felt something begin to change, deep inside herself. Bits of lore she had been made to study by rote seemed to be falling into place, like a solid foundation slowly being assembled from random rubble lying long-disused in the back of her carefree mind.
"Time spent in Reconnaissance is seldom wasted." She quoted aloud, flexed her cramped fingers to get the strength back, and jumped up to resume her vantage point just below the ceiling.
And received a shock. She was suddenly snout-to-snout with the shemale vixen, who appeared to be floating effortlessly in thin air on the other side of the wall.
"Well, hello there ." Arial's eyebrow raised expressively as she surveyed the young furclad vixen appreciatively "And who might YOU be ?"
Half an hour later, the ruins of Melissa's cosy viewpoint had crumbled into dust - fluffy dust. She had been told various things about this place, the Spare Hares, and her own probable fate that fitted all too well with her own observations.
"Oh yes, we've met the Spares before," Arial mused, one ear twitching. "They're rather well-known, in sorcerous circles." She grinned suddenly. "Thing is, when you've summoned one, don't ever let it OUT of the circle. Or multidodecagram, more likely - that's best for keeping them in. A hard, spiky shape's inimicable to their nature."
"You're ... Magic-Users." Despite the obvious fact that Arial had been standing on unsolid air, Melissa still had not got used to the idea. "But - you're not Evil, are you ?" The habits of a lifetime's education were hard to shake, even so far away from the Inquisitors.
Arial smirked. "Oh no, not Evil. I don't know anyone who'd call themselves that, even." This was in fact true, she reflected - even Grasobelor, Daemon God Of Sacred Slaying, had been officially reclassed as a "guardian of sacred Ethnic and Cultural values" by many. A lot of folk commonly regarded as Good wasted endless time on self-doubt and conscience-searching, unlike her friends and neighbours. And there's no smoke without fire, she grinned contentedly to herself.
Melissa's eyes widened. "You look like regular people, except that you're ..." She blushed with her ears, as she realised she had been unconsciously staring at Arial's hefty crotch, everything now sheathed once more.
An ironic eyebrow raised. "I wondered when you'd get round to that. Where my Mnemora and I come from, every cub is born that way - twice the potential, and it saves all SORTS of complications." She licked sharp teeth, and her gaze bored in on the Princess. "Slaves and criminals of the worst sort, though - they tend to be .... lessened."
Melissa drooped. She was quite proud of her figure, and knew its value back home. As Crown Princess, she had planned on taking her pick of any of the lesser young Earls or Dukes, who already were paying her court with an eye to the years ahead. The idea of being on a world where her perfect figure as good as branded her a slave or worse, was rather a shock.
"And your .. Nobility ? Are they the same ?" She asked with a note of desperation. "All magic-users, and... built like that ?"
There came a snicker. "We ARE nobility. And no matter what your family, without magic - you're Nothing. I know mere slaves in our neighbourhood who have magecraft." This was in fact partly true: back on the dimensional Sargasso of The String, there was a shifting population of junior mages who were victims of misguided Teleport and Gate spells: they tended to work their way as menial servants till the survivors had saved enough in local terms to buy their dimensional plane tickets home.
Melissa sighed. Despite the fact that nothing had outwardly changed, her world would never be the same again. Even if she was somehow transported back to the Palace that instant, and the Spare Hares never showed their button-nosed faces again - another phrase welled up from her unregarded store of wisdom.
"You can't put the blossom back into the bud." And yet, here she was, alive and untouched for the moment. Regardless of what might or might not happen later on, she felt her core of strength growing: mortar setting hard in the foundations that were coming together. Experimentally, she let her mind roam there, to hunt like a hawk for what seemed right for this hour.
"Know thine Enemy." She thought of the Spare Hares, and of what had really happened to her guards according to Arial. "Knowledge is Strength."
Arial nodded, eyes fixed on the young vixen's changing face. "Nil carborundum illegitimus est. Non serviam. Cthulhu na'fthaghn. Arbeit Mach Frei."
Melissa's ears pricked up. "What are those, holy sayings ?"
Sharp teeth glinted in a smile. "Oh, you might say that. Just a few little things we ran into on our travels ....."
Half an hour later, the door opened, and with many a *gigglefluff*, the guard of Spare Hares returned Mnemora to her sister.
The two vixens fell into each other's arms. For a long instant Mnemora hugged her twin, then broke off, grimacing. "Better wait till decontaminated. It's bad, this time."
"Oh ?" Arial focussed on her lover's detailed aura. And winced. Evidently, only female Spare Hares had been seeking exotic alloying to their Stuffing tonight - but that was bad enough.
[Six of the vampire wet-look sort, as alike as eggs in a row - just different coloured ribbons. But then - you were in detailed contact with the first one, weren't you ?]
[Exquisitely so.] Arial agreed to her twin's mental whisper. The vixens were never contented unless in each other's company: fortunately, within the same neighbourhood their mental links were so strong as to pass on every sensation. [She was a delightful little daemon - all black gloss. Never mind cushions - looks like one of her ancestors ravished a vinyl car-seat....]
[Quite. But look - it's bad. I'm powering up my part of the spell now...]
Arial focussed on her twin's sheath, where the main contamination was tonight. The aura was disturbed, polluted like petrol rainbows on an unspoiled stream. This had been an unpleasant surprise on arriving at this world - discovering exactly how Spare Hares made converts. Their fractally fluffy auras broke off and embedded tiny glassfibre-like shards of Plushiness in whatever flesh pressed them closely - as the contamination involved astral dimensions rather than biology, any physical protection would make no difference.
[It's taking root, all right,] she nodded. [Good thing this spell combination works.]
Melissa saw only a brief flash of oddly-coloured light spread out across Mnemora's body. The two vixens relaxed, then resumed their embrace.
Suddenly, both their faces turned to look at her directly, though no-one had spoken.
"Yes, that's HER." Arial nodded, giving her twin's tail-root a sly pinch. "She's everything we expected - and I mean, Everything. So, change of plans."
Again, both twins turned in exact unison, and gave a stereo smile.
Melissa coughed. "Was that ... Magic ? I thought Magic was all throwing fireballs and transmuting drinkable liquids from cola, and that sort of thing. What did it do ?"
Arial stretched lazily. "If someone'd done the same to your Peach Tree, he'd still be a real Pony, right now." She paused. "Spare Hares have an insatiable appetite for mortal flesh, one way or another. That's what's going to happen to you - you'll be sent home like a roast chicken, outwardly the same, but - stuffed."
Mnemora's eyes widened, and she nibbled her twin's ear. "Oh yes. They don't waste good breeding stock. We've become Very much in demand, ourselves. They have some taste, you see."
Both vixens licked their lips in a shared private joke.
Melissa's ears drooped. Then a thought struck her. "But Peach Tree - he's a gelding !" She protested.
A snicker sounded in stereo. "You haven't looked lately, I take it ? " Mnemora raised an ironic eyebrow "Oh, not any more, he's not ..."
"Because Spare Hares are innate sorcerers in their own way ..." her twin reflected dreamily.
".... And they wouldn't let a little problem like that go unfixed. Your Pony might well have picked up some of his Cuteonium exposure through the food and water...."
".... But even for males, it didn't all come in the same way. For you, it'll be via the .... obvious route."
Melissa's ears drooped. "Is there no ... cure ?"
Arial stroked her sister's impossibly slim waist, a sharp-tipped claw rippling the short fur. "That's what the spell was. Took us awhile to work it out - simultaneous "Remove Curse" and "Cure Disease", cast with as much power behind it as you can spare..."
"... Because you're fighting the natural entropic tendency of the whole Realm." Her sister finished. "And the bad news is, we've no Mana to spare for you. If we hadn't recallibrated all our spells when we got here, we'd be squeezy squeaky shemales by now - they don't work properly, this near the heart of an Elemental Plane."
As all true mages knew, there were five basic Elements that the Multiverse was built from: Earth, Air, Fire, Alcohol (or Water, in the more primitive dimensions) and Cute.
Melissa stood at the window, looking out on the squeaking horror of the bustling city below them. Her mouth was dry, and her tail twitched nervously, but she knew what she had to do. The trouble was, Fr. Adara's Escape And Evasion classes, though fine for self-rescue from buildings, ships and stagecoaches, had been rather sketchy on breaking out of an elemental plane. Not surprising, she told herself, considering how officially, other planes and their magic-users don't exist.
Suddenly, she smiled. She was a Princess, and trained in getting folk to do things. For stonework, you got a mason; for woodwork, a carpenter, and for public relations, a Chief Torturer and a qualified Executioner. But for magic - she needed a magic-user, who might have a motivation for getting off the plane with her. Her ears twitched as she mentally addressed herself with the good news.
( I think I just might know where to find one. Or even two.)
It was the middle of the next day, when Melissa's routine was interrupted unexpectedly. The door opened, and Vampilla trotted in with a trio of Pacifistcally Challenged Persons, Type Two Armoured Fighting Fluffies as she had heard them described.
"Princess !" The Vampire Cute looked up at her, sharp bat-ears pricked up eagerly. "We were so sorry for you, having to be sealed up here to keep you safe. Our mages have made this for you - if you wear it, it'll protect you outside for awhile. There's SO much for you to see."
Melissa accepted the gift gracefully, as she had been taught. It was a big ribbon, half a pawsbreadth in width, and of a pink colour that somehow seemed to shift in and out of focus as she looked at it. As she touched it, somehow she felt a strange jolt, like pulling off a silken gown over her fur.
"Is it .... magic ?" She asked, cautiously.
Vampilla nodded eagerly. "Let me tie it on for you. If it's not done just right, it'll lose its charge in no time - and you've only got fifty minutes anyway, before you've got to get back here." One of the guards picked his glossy vinyl leader up by the ears, to bring her level with Melissa's head.
Ow, she thought, that must Hurt. But the vampire Cute seemed unconcerned, as she fastened the ribbon around Melissa's neck in a huge floppy bow.
Looking at herself in the mirror, for an instant she thought she saw something strange. It was only a fleeting glimpse - but it was as if her reflection had been suffused by a polychrome pastel glow, spreading out like oil on water.
But Vampilla's smooth paw was pulling her towards the exit already. "DO come along," she chattered, the impassive guards behind, crowding them out of the room "There's SO much you'll just LOVE to see. I'm sure you'll approve .... we'll ..."
Melissa gave a gentle cough. "You'll, "Make a Convert of me yet"?, is that it ?"
Bat ears twitched gleefully. Then Vampilla turned and looked up, a strangely appraising expression on her wipe-clean face.
"That's it. You're a valued guest - you've brains as well as beauty - and you've Royal Stuff - I mean, Blood as well." She gave a slow smile. "I wish you knew just how much we Value things like that."
As evening fell, Arial and Mnemora lay in their favourite place - each other's arms.
[You know..] Arial thought sleepily [I was all for just breaking out of here. It'd be fun. Though it's a long way to the Portal, and we couldn't really spare the mana to make a new one, things being as they are ....]
[Quite. But this Melissa - I think we should take her along. You know, grateful kingdom, hordes of worthy peasants to ... enjoy, and all that. With ourselves as the only magic-users there - our own tranquil little hideaway. Better than a time-share spawning pit at Ubbo-Salath, the "Primal Source From Which There Is No Returning".]
[Assuming they don't turn on the Eight Guardians again. ]
[Oh, yes. I was assuming someone broke them, and the Inquisition won't know how to fix them again. That might happen....]
[Things DO get broken ....]
[Indeed they do....]
Again came that stereo snicker. Suddenly, two sets of ears pricked up at the sounds from Melissa's chambers next door.
[She's back. Now, that's interesting.]
[Indeed. Shall we ... ?}
[Indeed, we shall.]
Combining their powers, the intertwined vixens sent out a probing spell, seeking the familiar aura of the Princess. For a fraction of a second, the spell bounced, as if she was not within range - then its search pattern widened, and found her. But not quite as they had recognised her before.
[Oh, oh .....] Arial and Mnemora felt each other's brief flash of alarm. [Things are starting to happen.]
"Hidy," came Melissa's voice, from the crevice high above them. "You wouldn't Believe, where I've been today. They took me out and showed me right around the place - it's much bigger than I'd thought." A sigh escaped. "Makes the Karemite Palace look like a farmyard..."
Mnemora floated up, then gently reached in to touch the Princess on her nose-tip, establishing direct aura contact. "Did anything - else, happen ? Such as some cute fluff-stud, maybe ?"
Melissa's eyes widened in shock. "Oh, no. They were very good to me - Vampilla even gave me a pink ribbon to wear, an enchanted one. Do you know, I could FEEL it was magic ? She said it'd keep me safe outside: she took it back to recharge it for tomorrow." She paused. "Seems it's a special day tomorrow, there's a huge display of the Toyminators in Pink Square. Vampilla said they're all making ready to do some travelling...." She broke off, paw clamped to muzzle in horror as the realisation set in. Her own world might not be the only one that was on the immediate Invasion list, but it was a hideously suggestive coincidence.
Mnemora nodded, fixing her with a steely gaze. "We've got to get to you right NOW. That ribbon is enchanted, right enough - but the other way round from what she told you !"
Five minutes later, Melissa was in the shemale vixens' chamber, the centre of attention as they minutely examined her. Despite claiming to have little spare power, Arial had opened up the fleshy wall with a spell that cut like a surgeon's scalpel, and reformed it seamlessly as soon as Melissa stepped through.
"Can you ... cure it ?" She felt her mouth dry. The reality of the situation came home to her: she had been exposed to contagious Cuteness all day, and without the vixen's aid, she would probably be sent home to her conquered land as a glove-puppet ruler.
Mnemora ran an exploratory finger down the princess's breastbone, feeling the girl shudder with emotion that was not all worry and alarm. "The threads of plushiness invade mortal flesh not unlike fungus through wood," she murmured, closing her eyes to concentrate on the aura. "They'd take you over, cell by cell - externally, you might look identical, but inside - nothing but living, primordial amorphous stuffing. Even if you didn't know there was anything wrong - your cubs would be vixy versions of Spare Hares." Her delicate hand rested on Melissa's flat, trim stomach, and idly traced lower. "Nothing specifically wrong there - a systemic cure should fix things." She smiled, her teeth showing slightly. "Though by the time they let you leave - I doubt they'd need a specifically Virgin Princess. You get to rule regardless, hmmm ?"
Melissa blushed frantically. It was a fact - Vampilla HAD said that they hated to see anything going unused. But only now, did she realise just what that included. As the twin mages broke off and discussed spell dynamics for a minute, she thought fast and hard, hauling the underlying facts of her life into harsh, revealing light for the first time.
(I'm the last of my line,) her thought was tinged with a grim pride. (And there aren't any equivalent Royal houses on my world, they were destroyed in the Magewars. So I always knew I'd have my pick, of whatever Nobility I wanted - I thought I'd have years and years to make my mind up, royal balls, and galas, and romantic intrigues ....) Her ears went flat. Then, slowly, they began to prick up again.
(I WILL make my own mind up.) Her will was firm now. (And it won't be any plot of Vampilla's, or anyone else.)
Arial noticed the changing expression on Melissa's face: the way her gaze shifted back and forth was like reading a book with painfully large and obvious printing. "Best start, dear sister," she nuzzled her muzzle into the corner of her neck and shoulder. "I think our Princess is getting .... impatient. Powered up ?"
"As ever." Again, there was that unspoken flash of agreement between them. They turned, to lay spread paws over Melissa's trembling body, feeling where the faint traces of Cutonium had gathered beneath their aura-sensitive touch.
"Three, two, one - GO." And with mental clocking thousandsfold more accurate than they could speak, they released their Mana in one simultaneous surge, the Heal and Remove Curse slamming into their patient like a damburst's wall of cleansing water rushing down a littered valley.
"Ahhhh.." Melissa felt as if she had been thrown in an icy stream; an instant later her body tingled all over, as cells were reclaimed by her rightful aura. She shuddered, and sprawled softly on the pillows, instantly asleep like a trusting cub.
Arial looked at her twin, one eyebrow raised. "I think she rather enjoyed that. And she really is ... cute. Though not in the way she was heading towards."
[Indeed. These Spare Hares, are ....] Mnemora fell silent, then subvocalised in a sorcerous equation that would have covered a large blackboard with interesting dimensional twists. [ Because they'll never be a fraction as fine as US, they ....]
[ Overcompensate, yes.] Arial agreed. [And they're not even very original - keeping pure and untouched guests around like tempting sweets on a plate, is stuff most Chaos Gods do at times. So much more ... impact, when they finally do turn on their helpless prey, just when everyone thought they were safe after all...]
[Quite. It's a good thing we're not like that.] Mnemora stroked the soft fur of Melissa's tail. The young vixen lay asleep and trusting, her sweet face untroubled. [Or .... if you think it'd be more interesting...]
Arial produced a coin out of nowhere, and consciously suppressed her Probability skewing talent while she flipped it. [Tails we don't. And her tail, we don't touch. Except for some little side-effects, that accidentally seem to have got mixed up in that spell of ours. ]
Mnemora grinned, drawing her elegant double to her arms. "She's not bad, as far as such things go ... but she's not YOU."
Melissa awoke, sometime in the depths of the night. She reached out sleepily, and felt the cushion cold beside her. Opening her eyes, she saw in the dim light that she was back in her own room: the breach in the wall was gone as if it had never existed.
"Oh, my." She put a nervous paw to her delicate muzzle. She felt well and rested: every nerve tingled as if she had come out of a hot bath after being soaked and chilled to the core. Her lithe body felt deliciously alive, as if it realised the near brush with utter invasion it had survived. A score of clumsily recounted tales sprang to mind, of warriors resting after even the most grievous battles, suddenly laughing with uncontrollable joy, in the sheer visceral thrill of survival.
"And I woke up ... wanting." She sat up, eyes wide in the darkness. She, Princess Melissa, whose family tree was a hard-knit patchwork of political pairings and hard-fought land deals clinched at the altar, had reached out in the expectation of company. A nervous tongue ran across sharp white teeth. She was a princess, but naked and alone in the darkness a vixen like any other. Somehow, that disturbed her far less than she would have expected.
A low moaning growl reached her ears in the darkness, from next door. Silently, she piled the soft cushions against the wall again, and jumped up to resume her place, looking into the next apartment.
The scent reached her first, before she worked out just what was happening there in the dimness. The matched pair of multisexed mages were making love, entwined yin-yang style before her. Something seemed to happen, inside Melissa, as involuntary as a hunger pang. She looked on for a minute, then heard herself give a shuddering sigh.
Two sets of sharp ears pricked up in the darkness; one shape gave an airy gesture, and with an effortless-looking spell, the wall unzipped, letting the Princess tumble out in an undignified sprawl to the padded floor.
"Well, now." It was probably Arial who spoke; Melissa had just about learned how to tell them apart by now in daylight. "The door's open, as you see. Are you going, or staying ?"
Melissa, Crown Princess of the house of Valency, stood undecided for a heartbeat. Wordlessly she nodded, her nose twitching with a life of its own in the warm, musk-laden air. She stayed.
[She really IS a sweet little thing, isn't she ?] Mnemora agreed. While Mnemora and her twin made slow, languorous love, first one engaged then the other, the Princess lay on the cushion beside them, her eyes open wide in fascination and her breath coming in short pants.
[She IS. Now, it'd be such a shame if her first experience was some crude Toyminator forcibly stuffing her ....]
[Quite. Though that's an experience I wouldn't have missed for the world, myself .... I'm reasonably pleased with our, ah, captors.]
The twins exchanged a wickedly toothed grin, as if at some private joke.
[Besides, it'd be boringly unoriginal, to do something the Spare Hares were planning to do first.]
[Affirmed.] Arial disengaged from her twin. [We can always do that ... later, anyway.]
Melissa watched as the lovers parted, and sprawled on the cushions watching her. Mnemora wriggled aside to widen the gap: Arial patted the cushion invitingly.
"Oh my." Suddenly Melissa found herself between them, Arial to her left, and Mnemora to her right. Her tail was gently stroked, and a nimble tongue caressed her ear-tips. Both mages were hugely erect, but made no move towards her.
"You poor dear." Arial's finger delicately traced a line down her chest and belly to the soft down of her loins. "Of course, we've travelled a lot - we're used to it. But on our world, you know, you'd be thought rather ... lacking."
"Quite." Her sister chimed in. "Only half the fun, if that. I mean, supposing my dear sister made love to you - how could you possibly return the complement ? "
Melissa swallowed, mouth dry. She had been prepared to be seduced - she had not expected to have to work at it. She stirred as Arial continued to stroke her, surprised at the sudden dampness.
"I may not look that ... MUCH, to you." She stated defiantly. "And I may never see Home again. I may not HAVE a home soon, let alone ever be queen of it. But ... I'm not counting what I have and haven't got. Whatever it is .... I want you to have it."
She lay down between them, trembling. Slowly, she felt a sharp set of teeth and a nimble tongue beginning to explore each ear, while the mage-born twins looked at each other from below heavy, ironic eyelids.
"Of course, I assume you DO know the eighty-one positions, at least - make that, say, forty-two, in respect of your rather ... strange figure," Arial murmured. "All the Spare Hares do, even the ones with no more potential than yourself....."
"And indeed, they spend a LOT of time practicing," Mnemora chimed in. There was a pause. "Come on, now - at least you know two or three dozen of the more mundane positions, if only in theory ? "
Melissa wordlessly shook her head. Her ears drooped. Evidently an unblemished record of physical and mental chastity was not the "pearl beyond price" the Rule obliquely claimed.
Arial sighed. "What DO they teach them, these days." She looked at her sister, one ear raised.
Mnemora produced a coin, and with a whisper of "Heads", flicked it into the air. Arial's eyes narrowed in concentration, and the coin hovered in the air, spinning faster and faster. In the dim light, a rippling aura of energy clung to it as the playful twins wrestled with its progress. Suddenly, it stopped.
"Princess ... since you're an unbiased judge .... ?" Arial suggested.
Reaching up to cautiously pluck the glowing coin from the air like a luscious berry from a thornbush, Melissa closed her eyes and grabbed it, slapping it onto the back of her palm as she had seen the guards doing when deciding who to send on watch first. Slowly, she moved her covering paw away.
"Heads." She said nervously, looking down at the innocent disc of metal. Its design, she noticed, was a handsomely octopoid creature represented as sitting on a world like a beach-ball - somehow, she realised she could read the writing ("In Cthulhu We Trust" ) despite its very alphabet being utterly alien to her.
Arial gave a yiff of disappointment. [You win,] she assured her twin mentally. [You get me, and I get the hopeless case.]
~
Expertly, Arial began to caress the Princess's flat, smoothly muscled belly, working her way down. Melissa shuddered, and grabbed her by her shoulders tightly, as the wet downy fur of her loins was parted.
"My, my. You Were telling the truth." Arial looked up, eyes gleaming brightly in the dim light. "The last thing we'd want to do is hurt you. So .." She concentrated briefly, and pressed her spread fingers to the fur just below the hidden dent of Melissa's navel. "There. That should make various things ... much easier."
Melissa felt the spell warm inside her, tingling and exciting like hot spiced wine on a frosty day. This was the same spell as she had received before, some unused part of her mind unexpectedly told her - just more concentrated, and stronger. It felt like a Healing, but more so: more like a boosting of her natural energies to a level she had never dreamed existed.
Suddenly, she almost whimpered in shock at a rush of unexpected wetness. "Oh no. Have I ... wet myself ? It's so ..."
"Quite. But not in the way you're thinking. Yes indeed - delightful." A sharp muzzle bored in, and Melissa yipped in surprise at the sensation as Arial's tongue explored her innocence. For a minute or so she lay back, her breath coming faster and faster as the feeling grew, before Arial withdrew and smiled cruelly at her twin.
"Well, that's enough for one evening." Arial's eyebrow raised, and she smiled as Mnemora kissed the soaked fur of her muzzle. "We wouldn't like anyone to think we were taking advantage of you, hmmmm ?" She waved towards the open and uninviting rift to Melissa's own room.
Melissa stared at her open - mouthed. She looked down at her soaked thighs, every hair seeming to tingle in anticipation. "You mean .. you're not going to .... after all that ..... ." Her eyes were wide in shock. "Please ?"
Arial gave her an unfathomable look. "Well, now, Your Highness, if you want to put it like That ...."
Back in her room as the first pastel tinge of morning showed, Melissa flung herself down on the plump cushions with a contented sigh. In the mirror, she examined herself minutely, as if expecting some obvious change.
"Well - I suppose I wouldn't really expect it - externally." She told herself, towelling dry her soaked fur. A wry smile played on her face. Her wildest dreams of passion had never included the idea of multiple lovers, let alone ones so - comprehensively equipped.
Travel, she told herself seriously, broadens the mind. And - she looked down to her still-tingling loins - it seems to do the same for other bits too....

########### End Part 2 ######

The Princess Bride(Groom)

Being an Unconventional Romance,
co-starring Arial and Mnemora, (C)
Ashtoreth (William Haas).

Tale told by S.Barber, 1996.

"Well, now." Mnemora yawned, awaking in her twin's arms as usual. "I was almost surprised by that. Of course, you realise the one Interesting thing, of last night ? "
[Yes.] Arial looked thoughtful. [She wouldn't have recognised it - but that aura burst, was quite a sight. Raw magic manifesting, in that innocent little thing.]
Both vixens chuckled.
[First that cat, what's his-name, then her. For a world that's not meant to HAVE any magic-users, they don't seem too badly off.]
[Indeed. But remember, the Royal line was the exception: whatever King built those annoying rocks, the Guardians, was the greatest mage of his time - for that backward world, anyway. And Melissa's his direct descendant. Untrained, with no idea what she's got inside her...]
Again came that stereo snicker.
[But wild talent sometimes starts up like hers right now. Like a stuck mechanism, sometimes it just needs the right kind of bang to get it going....]
Mnemora ran her fingers down the incredibly slender waist of her twin. This was one of their finest features, she reminded herself warmly - it hardly seemed wide enough to fit all their internal organs in, let alone anything else.
"She really IS quite a find, of her type." She said dreamily. "Such a sweet little thing. One day, we'll definitely find out how to have cubs of our own. A serious investment, but ... I'd surely try it for you."
"And I for you." For an instant, Arial shuddered at the image - their figures were svelte perfection, and to think of losing that, for any reason, hurt. Being sorcerous constructs, their less-than-competent "Creator" had not built them with breeding in mind, no matter how hard or inventively they tried. It was an ongoing project, which one day they knew they were sure to solve. The good news was, she reminded herself, that they knew shemale pups were perfectly viable in conventionally built vixens, even without the high-level Fertility spells that they'd both used on .......
She smiled. "And now, to the next piece. It's been Interesting, but I think I've seen enough of the Elemental Plane Of Plush."
Mnemora nipped her ear affectionately. "Indeed. I think there's a story where you have to get the lady home by midnight, before she turns into a pumpkin."
Arial ran a hand down her twin's hard-muscled belly. "Something like that, anyway."
Full morning came, and Melissa awoke with a contented sigh. This, she told herself, is the first day of the rest of your life. For an instant, she felt panic wash over herself, before her darting hand encountered reassuring evidence - what had happened last night, had not been a dream.
Suddenly there was a sound at the door; a soft footstep. Melissa tensed - then relaxed slightly.
"Hidy hi !" Came the off-key squeak of Steelheart Hare, one of the Beatifically Challenged Cutes she knew by sight. "Can we come in ? I've brought a .... playmate." She *gigglefluffed* excruciatingly.
The princess nodded wordlessly. A few seconds later, a feline thing trotted in. It was indeed one of the natives - but there was something odd about it. Though less than breast-high on Melissa, the thing's figure was not exactly as plump as the others - and her fur, though cottony, was shot with shades of mundane grey mixed with the unnaturally pastel pinks. As if to compensate, around her neck was a broad ribbon of such a virulent hue that Melissa's eyes watered to look at it.
"Hello, Kitty." Melissa found her hard-schooled etiquette running on autopilot, reacting much as she might to some unexpected nobleman or soldier-priest's arrival. "And what to You do ?"
Steelheart fluffed herself contentedly. "This is Sweetbread," she waved at the beribboned feline. "She's going to be your - special guide." Her huge liquid eyes locked on Melissa like the homing heads of innocence-seeking missiles. "We've got - lots and lots to do, just you wait. And then, we just might be able to get you home again." A fabric-printed tongue caressed razor sharp chisel-teeth. "She says she's really looking forward to seeing your homeworld - I'm sure you'll end up having .... LOTS in common." With that, she toss-tailed it out of the door, shutting it behind her with a muffled thump.
Princess and Plushie looked at each other for a full minute. Sweetbread was definitely on the slender side for a Spare Hare, Melissa confirmed - and unusually, she wore a short but modest skirt of heart-patterned green fabric.
"You're an actual ... Princess ?" Sweetbread's voice, though high, was almost within the bounds of mortal parody. "That'll be so .. neat. And they picked me to show you all around. Everyone else is busy. I've got this for you." She pulled her ribbon off, and offered it to the taller vixen.
For an instant Melissa felt a flood of loathing, as if she had been handed a venemous snake. Hideously suggestive phrases flashed through her shocked mind, from what Arial and Mnemora had muttered to each other in their almost unfathomable private language - "Stealth Taint", "Aura-level code poking", and "thaumic incubation period" featured hideously. But she steeled herself, and accepted the deceitful gift - all being well, she could be healed again tonight. And the memory of that healing, caused her ears to blush in hot anticipation.
Sweetbread extended a chubby paw. "Off we go ! Lots to see !"
Melissa cast a hopeless glance back towards the impassive wall, and the two hermvixens she suddenly wanted to be with. But she was trained and bred as a Diplomat - and one way or another, she was used to having Diplomatic Relations by now.......
"Quite a sight." Melissa looked out over the walls onto the great soft parade-field and military playground below.
It was several hours later, and her paws were feeling tired. After several weeks of having little to do but exercise in her room, she was hardly feeling the lack of exercise catching up with her, but the sight below was enough to take any mortal's breath away.
Toyminator class Spare Hares marched in ranks across the padded expanse of Pink Square, under the gleeful eyes of distant glossy black figures on a balcony looking over them from the facing wing of the castle. Around them flowed foul tides of malicious blue imps, their shrill singing hurting Melissa's ears even at the three hundred paces distance. Behind them padded the great treads of Main Battle Stuffies, their immensely fluffy forms casting dreadful rounded shadows in the mottled rainbow light.
Sweetbread snuggled into her lap. "We're going on ... holiday." She explained. "This'll be my first trip with them. It'll be SO nice ! " Her great rounded eyes sparkled with glittering highlights. "And afterwards - there'll be lots and lots of lovely new Spare Hares, and realms and realms to play in."
Melissa felt a sudden hollow sensation in her stomach. This was an army on parade, for all its cuteness - and she had a good idea where they were headed. As for new Spare Hares: Arial and Mnemora had made it graphically clear that there were two ways they increased the number of their legions, and both of them involved the "conversion" of mortal flesh.
Suddenly Sweetbread looked up, and fixed her with a calculating stare. "Princess - would you like to have me as a handmaiden ? Am I pretty enough ?"
"Er." Melissa's eyes bulged slightly at the sudden shock. "You're all rather ...." She gestured wordlessly at Sweetbread's rounded figure. "Pretty, in a sort of way .."
"Quite. Don't you think it looks good ? And feel, too." Sweetbread took the vixen's hand, and placed it on a downy-soft chest. The plush was soft and deep over firm stuffing, the absence of a heartbeat noticeable. Melissa's hand was pressed to a rounded handfull of breast, seeming to swell to fill her grip. "I can help you with all SORTS of things....." her eyes grew dreamy, and she sighed. "And we could be together, for ever and ever..."
Melissa's own gaze was cautious. She now had a good idea of how the Spare Hares reproduced, and it was not always in the standard fashion. "Tell me," she said cautiously. "About yourself. Were you always .... like that ?"
Eyebrows hovered unsupported in the air above Sweetbread's almost spherical head. "Actually, no." There was a silence. "I was born just like you, but with less to look forward to. Working on the Sub-Prefecture's farm, all my life, sickness, hunger - and nothing to look forward to but more of the same. Then getting older and uglier year by year... then death."
A pair of huge whiskers twitched mischievously. "Then - there was a sorcerer, a brave and clever one, he opened the way. Then - oh, just a few of us came in at first, I was one of the very first to be Saved. It's Wonderful !" She jumped up into Melissa's lap, her sweet, slightly rancid smell suddenly tenfold stronger. "I got everything I asked for - never to have to worry about being ill or hungry again. And I mean, never again. This shape ..." she ran a skilful hand over her fluffy breasts, clasping Melissa's unwilling paw to them tightly "I'll never get old and ugly, never die - and all I have to do, is do what comes naturally." An exquisite shiver ran through her. "It's so nice. Lots and lots of mortals to cuddle, see which ones I like. Males are so much fun, when you're this way !. The rest, I just cuddle till they go all squishy and no fun any more - then of course we don't waste what's left." Her calico-patterned tongue protruded slightly as she smiled at the memory of hideous feasting and unhallowed spawning.
Melissa looked down at her own trim figure. "Never to get fat and ugly - never to die, just changing like a skinny tadpole into a frog ...." She swallowed noisily. This, she told herself, is worth knowing. This is how Spare Hares spread through worlds like rot through timber: a fluffy probing thread seeking nurture, in the form of a tiny core of traitors eager to cash in their mortality in exchange for their souls. And then, to maintain it .... were she a Convert herself, she would take what mortal he-foxes she wished, on a whim, all of whom would go to satisfy her various appetites. When they were used up - new worlds would beckon.
She battled down the urge to hurl the new-made Cute over the edge, six storeys onto the fleecy lining of Pink Square. It would probably do Sweetbread no real harm, and her own cause no good. Instead, she allowed the demon-kitty to snuggle close to her own breast, purring loudly.
"Tell me," she forced her voice to sound neutral. "What's it LIKE, being a Stuffie ?"
Night fell, and she returned to her room, tearing off the ribbon that lay around her neck, sucking off her mortal aura like a vampire. As soon as the outer door opened, she piled the cushions up and climbed to look into the hermvixens' room.
The place was empty. Before, there had always been at least one of them present, and generally the pair of them. As she looked into the deserted chamber, still redolent of rich musks, an icy feeling washed down her spine. She had been wearing the ensorcelled ribbon, and breathing the fuzz-laden aura of the outside air all day, in the fond belief that the hermvixen mages would be there to put matters right. Her tail and ears drooped in shock.
Suddenly, the door behind her opened. She whirled round - and Sweetbread was there, with a tray of food. The scent of freshly roasted meats hit her sensitive snout like a bracing bucketful of iced water in some parched and desperate desert.
"Fresh meat ! Where did you get it ?" For an instant, all else was forgotten. "I mean, I didn't think regular animals grew here."
Sweetbread smiled at her from beneath bashful eyelids. Her shoulder-length whiskers twitched. "They don't. We have to import it from ... other places. Our scouts came back today, you see." A fabric-textured tongue played across sharp teeth. "Don't worry - it wasn't a sentient, or even very hunky." She looked up at Melissa, putting the tray down on the piled cushions between them. "I remember - you're probably fussy about that still."
Vixen ears drooped anew. And then Melissa sat down heavily, as the thought hit home. This was loot from some Mortal world, freshly gathered - and the roasted bird on the platter looked and smelled awfully like a Cacklecrest, the main farmyard poultry of the Karemite kingdom. Her homeworld.
Melissa looked around, at the steaming platter, the Cute that held it so expectantly, and the bulging padded walls of the room. A thousand thoughts raced through her mind, seeming to coalesce in a sudden structure like the ropes of knotted bedsheets she had practiced in Self_rescue class.
She swallowed noisily. Then, hesitantly, she patted the broad swell of the cushion next to her.
"Thank you, Sweetbread. Won't you share my meal ?"
Half an hour later, nothing remained of the Cacklecrest, not even the bones. Sweetbread had crunched them with the easy grace of an after-dinner mint, proclaiming they were "good for making the kitties that'll follow." Melissa had watched in doubtful silence, grateful that it had been poultry she had been offered. Anything Unidentified, she thought with a twinge, I'm NOT going to eat.
At last, she steeled herself, and moved closer to the kitten-thing. Sweetbread was definitely a Spare Hare, but there seemed something - arrested - in her metamorphosis. All Spare Hares were cute, thousands of milli-chans worth, but this one radiated a somewhat less blasphemously plushie aura: her face and manner were not so unnaturally soft as the others. Plus, she seemed restless, less self-satisfied than most.
"I do get the idea," Melissa said slowly "that you're not totally - accepted, here."
Sweetbread shrugged. "I can't complain." She cast a sly glance up at the taller girl. "I was just a little older than you, you know. Worshipper at one of the hidden Fluff-Cults, and I knew just what I was getting into." A bright pastel tongue licked grease off a rounded muzzle. "I'll never forget my Change. I wasn't as beautiful as you, oh no. Plain, drab-furred and rounder than the fashion dictated. But I changed." A shuddering sigh emerged, and she fixed Melissa with a gaze that must have showed twenty glittering highlights per eye.
"When I took my first Spare Hare hunk to cuddle - it was beautiful. And then, the stuffing, I felt it taking root, spreading ... it was fun, walking around in daytime, nobody could tell from the outside. Then, there were more and more of us, gathering in secret - bigger and cuter Spares getting through to us all the time. At last, the place was ours - to do with as we pleased. And oh, we pleased ourselves."
She snuggled closer to Melissa. The Princess looked down at the cheerful thing pressing closer to her naked fur, and stroked her hesitantly. The revulsion she had felt at first faded slightly; in its place she felt an ever-growing curiosity. "And then ?" She prompted "When you came back here ?"
Sweetbread's whiskers twitched. "I can't complain, really. I've had all the fluffy kittees I ever wanted - and never a twinge, never any problems, with scores of litters. We LIKE breeding." She caught the shocked expression on Melissa's face, and grinned wickedly. "Work it out. I've lived six hundred years as a Spare Hare - that's a lot of hunky fluffs and crunchy mortals to enjoy. Even if I'll never be a full member of the UberPflaumig myself, all my kittys are."
"UberPflaumig ?" Melissa cocked her head to one side. She tried not to think of the transformation that had begun in her own svelte body, after today's exposure.
"UberPflaumig. The "Over-Fluffy", the full and proper Cutes who were born that way." Sweetbread hesitated. "I don't have any Magic, not even a bit of the group-magics the rest use. On my own, I'd still live about forever, but I'd be ... "
Melissa stroked her unnaturally soft tail. "Poor Sweetbread. You know, no matter how many worlds they take, they'll never let you forget that you're never going to be a full Spare." She paused, deep in thought. "Arial and Mnemora said, you've got something called "Split Quantum Magic" - it annoyed them, they said it wasn't possible anywhere else. So could you ... bring in, other Spares, if you were the only one on a world. ?"
Huge eyes lit up. "We DREAM of being the first ones in ! That's why we always go exploring...... it's so hard to hurt us, we'll take almost any risk to find a new Gateway. The idea of it - no competition - you wouldn't even have to eat any of the sentients, that just saves time. " She ran a chubby paw down the curve of her plush tummy, tracing a seam-line. "Our - digestions - aren't perfect. We don't really need to eat, except for when the little fluffies are on the way. Then we just HAVE to eat, while there's still some mortals left."
"Hmmm." The Princess's eyes were thoughtful. "If you could stop the others from following you, would you do it ? If you were the only one on a world, you wouldn't have any Uber-whatsit to look down on you. It'd be just you."
The Spare Hare looked up, eyes wide. "Betray my own playmates ? Lead them into traps, have them bounced back to this plane and maybe get them totally dead ? All just because I get to play with mortals as much as I like, even if they don't get broken ?"
Melissa nodded.
Kittenish whiskers twitched eagerly. "Of course I'll do it !"
It was the middle of the night, when Arial and Mnemora returned to their room, assisted by an escort of the ruling Vampire Cutes. Though terminally fluffy, the locals had the brains to realise how to keep the Hermvixens (relatively) contented - as much of each other's company as possible, and the very handsomest Cutes to accompany their evening's entertainment.
"Excellent." Vampilla's sharp teeth raked the fur of Mnemora's muscular thigh. "We'll be into another supply of bulk mortals soon - but I know we won't find such ..... Quality, there."
Three of the black vinyl entities *gigglefluffed*, raising the ambient Cuteness level past 700 Millichans. The hermvixens winced, leaped into their room and slammed the shielded door firmly shut.
Arial sighed contentedly. "It looks as if they'll be opening the Portals soon enough. That'll be the time to go."
"Quite." Her twin agreed. "Saves SO much time convincing folk - to cooperate with us. By the time a province or two's been plushed out of existence - I think we'll be able to name our terms."
"Given that we have the Exclusive contract .."
"Once again .."
"Such a SHAME, what happened to the dear good Doktor." Arial snickered. They had seen the armoured shell reassembled as a statue the week before - and had taken part in various saturnalias which the surviving Toyminators had held in preparation for the next risky invasion, due any time now.
Mnemora gave a contented sigh. "And now, our dear Princess. I fear we've neglected her. Now, we'll have to make doubly sure that ...."
Suddenly, her fine muzzle wrinkled in a snarl, and her ears dipped. Having cast a Detect Cute spell to reveal any eavesdroppers, she had spotted not only where the nearest Spare Hare fluffily lurked, but exactly what it was doing. With a flourishing gesture, she unzipped the bowed wall separating them from Melissa's room.....
"Well, well, well..." Arial said mildly, as a shocked Melissa disengaged from a substandardly sickening Spare Hare they recognised. "By the scent, roast poultry for dinner - and Sweetbread for dessert."
"She was very.... nice." Melissa said, as she slumped dejectedly on one of the cushions in her room while the strange local "dawn" cast its ghastly pastels across the landscape. The hermvixens checked her over for contamination, shaking their gorgeously quiffed heads in mock disapproval at what they found.
Arial stroked the Princess's russet cheek. "Well, indeed. But I hope you don't expect us to keep on fixing everything for you. We barely have enough mana for ourselves. And you made Quite a mess of your little aura."
"Amongst other things", Mnemora murmured, handing Melissa a towel. The Princess blushed mightily.
"She was SO soft - I just started cuddling her, then she started grooming me, and I ..." Melissa hesitated. "It just sort of Happened. Besides - she's sick of the locals' "Plushier-than-thou" attitudes, she says - and she's been five centuries here, always 18.4 percent less cute than any of the rest of them. She wants to help." Briefly, she explained Sweetbread's defection.
Two sets of ears rose fascinatingly, and two sets of sharp eyes looked at Melissa in a whole new light.
[ She isn't as dumb as she looks.] Mnemora commented lightly.
[ Indeed. Traitor Cutes are common .... pity she found out about that herself. Could make things .... complicated.]
[ That can wait. We can use this Sweetbread ourselves.]
The hermvixens eyed each other thoughtfully. Mnemora continued stroking the Princess's naked rump, her strong fingers massaging the firm flesh beneath the fur.
[You know .... it WOULD be efficient if we taught her a few specific applications of magecraft - then she could use her own little pool of mana.]
Arial nodded, amusement twinkling in her eye. [Quite. Saving more for us - we may yet need it.]
[Plus, it'd be good to get herself established when she gets back home - protecting our .... investment.]
Arial cast a small-scale, but very specific Detection spell at Melissa, and smiled. [Such a pleasant little .... investment. First, I think she might appreciate a further deposit.]
The vixens nodded to each other, as they each began to nip gently at one of Melissa's shoulders, their sharp teeth chattering in her luxurious throat-ruff.
Melissa looked from one to the other, and her eyes widened in shocked delight.
"Oh, My !"
Two weeks passed, while amongst other things, the Princess of the Karemite Kingdoms became the first magic-wielder of her line (in any measurable form) for eight generations. As evening fell on the unnaturally beautiful city below, she sat on the window ledge looking out on serried ranks of Main Battle Cutes, drawn up at the entrance to Pink Square.
She sighed. "Sweetbread says they're going to be a couple of days still - seems they're developing something called a Mark Twenty-Eight Toyminator, with Virtual Insanity. She's working on the Artificial Cuteness package - says she can sabotage it."
Arial looked at her back, and a coldly precise eyebrow raised. She disliked having to rely on the Traitor Cute for anything - it was a disturbingly familiar sensation, knowing that Sweetbread was operating entirely for maximum personal Fun, and would betray them all at the drop of a percentage benefit point.
"I wouldn't bet on it." Strong hands massaged the Princess's shoulders. "But when we DO get through - we've thought up a little - surprise for everyone. It'll need a great deal of sorcerous power - and your kingdom can supply it."
Melissa's ears went up. "It can ? How ? I thought you said the Eight Guardians were switched off."
There came a suspiciously cruel chuckle. "Oh, I imagine they are, right now. But I doubt that'll be a problem. We'll see what we can do."
Melissa turned and looked up at her, her eyes wide. The hermvixens were the best hope of saving her world, though sometimes she wondered if anything less than a full Spare Hare incursion would have let her give herself to them so completely. It was almost as if it had been planned ..... but no, she shook her head. They had only arrived After the first portal had been opened from the Elemental Plane of Plush: they had no way of knowing the Spare Hares would be arriving.
"Hmmmm. I know we'll have to be .. ruthless. I know we can't let even one Spare Hare survive, after we shut the portal - apart from Sweetbread, of course." Her Rulership classes were finally coming to her aid, she reflected grimly.
"Of course. Apart from Sweetbread." Mnemora said lightly.
"After all, you've Promised her ...." Arial joined in seamlessly.
"And you can't break your Royal word ....."
"Not in person, so to speak." Arial smiled, scritching the Princess's ears like a pup's. "I'm sure you'll make an Excellent ruler .... such a disregard for random, unnecessary violence..."
The hermvixens exchanged mental grins.
[Random, mindless violence gets to be a drag after awhile .... ]
[Absolutely. Any orc mob or Chaos Vicar can manage THAT ... no real scope for flare, or any real style needed at all ....]
[While what We mean....]
[Is DESIGNER violence.....]
That night, the hermvixens were both absent, summoned to attend a pre-conquest feast with the ruling clique of Vampire Cutes. Melissa was left alone - from hints they had dropped, she did not like to think too hard, about what would be on the menu. It seemed that scouts had come back already, laden with spoils: by now she knew only too well what sort of foods the Spare Hares valued.
Suddenly the door opened, and Sweetbread trotted in. She waved a chubby paw. "Hidy hi !" The plushy kitty's half-metre whiskers twitched gleefully.
Melissa winced, running through the spells she had learned. She concentrated on her own aura, memorising it and readying it to resist contagion. But tonight, Sweetbread seemed agitated.
"Princess..." She looked up, her huge kittenish eyes wider than ever. "Here's something Interesting. You know I'm working on the Mark Twenty-Eight ? That I'm trying to throw a dinky little spanner in it, for you ?"
Melissa nodded, as the fluffy thing buried her plush head just below her breasts and purred. She supposed it was a matter of things being fitted to their function: in the last week or so, her own fluff-hidden breasts had become marvellously sensitive, much to the hermvixens' delight. It was as if she was learning a new sport, where a different set of muscles was strengthening day by day......
Sweetbread looked up. "I'm not the only one. We've had someone destroying material dumps, spiking ritual altars to blow, all sorts of things. We found one of the guards last night with his head ripped off, and not a shred of stuffing left inside." She giggled contentedly. "He looked so Funny !"
But Arial and Mnemora were with ME, all last night.... Melissa told herself curiously, even as she made a mental note of how strong the Chaos Cutes' affection for their own kind seemed to be. She wriggled with the slight soreness; she knew Exactly where the disexual Duo had been.
"Do folk - Often fight here, before an invasion ?" She asked curiously.
"Nope." A rough fabric tongue went busily to work, delighting at the aroused shiver it produced. "Afterwards, yes, when there's not many mortals left to go round - but nothing that'd spoil our chances. So I don't know who it could be." The Traitor Cute switched her attentions to Melissa's flat, trimly muscled stomach for a minute, before looking up again. "It hasn't slowed things down, though - we march in two days. Just a matter of getting the Portal ready, big enough to take the Main Battle Stuffies through."
A vixen body stiffened, despite the neo-fluffy's nuzzling. "Two days ?"
Sweetbread grinned. "Two days. Then either we'll win, you and I, or ..." She shrugged.
She wins both ways, Melissa thought fast, as she forced herself to relax. If we stop the invasion, she'll be the only survivor left on my homeworld - a whole world for her to play with. I bet that with her looks, a lot of males won't need any persuasion.... and if I lose, she's going to be just one of the invasion again, with so much mortal flesh to devour one way or another, she'll probably get tired of it in the end......
She stroked the huge ears, letting Sweetbread do as she wished. The Cute had centuries of experience, some of it even with willing partners, and knew just how to turn it to her advantage. Like everything else.
Late in what passed for a night, she awoke in Sweetbread's arms. Lying back on the cushion, she relaxed briefly. It was a terrible thing to admit, she told herself - but this was fun. The kitty's plush was soft and warm, and her body relaxed with sated pleasures.
"Ummmmmm" Melissa checked her aura, and sighed. She supposed Sweetbread could hardly help it - but she Converted all mortal flesh she touched with the dread contagion of this Elemental plane of fluffy horror. Concentrating briefly, she reached down into the fresh pool of power the mage vixens had showed her how to tap, and forged a spell as easily as squeezing a snowball.
This is Power, she thrilled inwardly. My ancestors fought wars to get it, and built the Eight Guardians to keep full control of it .... and what can't I just DO with it ? Channelling it to reinforce her aura, she drove out the millionfold incursions that had tangled in it like burrs in her fur, ready to take root. For an instant, she looked down at her aura as it seemed to glow with a clean, green light untainted by the filthy pastels that surrounded her. And then her ears went right up, as she concentrated her developing skills on one section after another. There was none of the unnatural glow remaining that would signal Plushieness taking root within her - but she noticed, quite clearly, two bright and tiny specks, vibrant with new life.
"Oh my." She said aloud, wide-eyed in the darkness while Sweetbread snuggled sleepily. "I think we'd better make sure we win this one ..... and not just for My sake any more......"
Another lurid morning came, and Melissa sat wide-eyed in the hermvixens' room, receiving sorcerous instruction. Arial and Mnemora seemed fully contented with their own night's adventures; considering they had been "Shamelessly and degradingly used as prime bloodstock", as Mnemora had put it, they looked extremely smug about it.
"The thing is," Arial reclined on one of the cushions "Sorcery is two things ... power and refinement. Unless you had the mana to draw on, nothing's possible. You can't make a stone wall if you haven't got the material to work with...."
"But a skilled workman can make a much stronger one, from that same material." Mnemora finished. She concentrated on the wall, and it slit soundlessly open. "Go on, dear, try and do that. I'm sure I can fix it afterwards."
The hermvixens exchanged knowing glances.
Melissa stared at the wall. She strained to perceive it: to see exactly its construction, to gage its strengths and vulnerabilities. A brittle, glass-like substance would shatter at one sort of attack, that a more flexible target would shrug off all day. Summoning up as much of her energy as she could grasp, she hurled it at the bulging wall.
There was a boiling, hissing sound, like hot iron plunged into water. The whole room seemed to shake - and the wall bowed in as if it had been kicked violently.
Melissa gasped, and fell flat on the cushions, as her legs turned to jelly. Suddenly, she seemed to weigh as much as an armoured knight - even breathing seemed laboured.
A slow, ironic handclap sounded in the room.
"I'd say, "Bravo", probably." Arial surveyed the sprawling princess critically, one ear raised. "Except that means "Do it again", and you really don't want to do that."
"Top marks for effort, though," noted Mnemora, running an appreciative finger along the wall. An area the size of a doorway had been cratered and pitted as if by strong acid, the wall eaten through in a few spots. Mnemora poked a finger through one of the holes, and waggled it lasciviously.
"That's what I mean, about Refinement. Volatilising your way through something really isn't the answer .... as I'm sure you noticed already..."
"Aw, poor girl," Arial nuzzled Melissa's ear as she started to rise. Then her eyes lit up. "'Mora ! She's popped her Mana cherry ! First time it's dropped to zero for her."
Mnemora rejoined her twin on the cushion, nuzzling them both with her sharp snout. She grinned. "I think after that, she deserves a little relaxation. What do you say, my sweet Princess ?"
Again, Melissa felt the strange sensation as power flowed back into her body. It felt very like lying in a hot bath after being soaked and chilled to the bone: every nerve fibre awoke and started reminding the rest they were there and receptive once again. She nodded speechlessly.
Mnemora gave a mock sigh, as she started to caress the young vixen's tail root, delighting as it flagged sideways in instinctive welcome. "I just don't know HOW we'll keep this up, Ari - last night, a Royal Command Performance, for the Spare Hares' aristocracy..."
".... And this morning," Her twin finished, "another one."
"Pensive, sweetie ?" Mnemora asked in a contented tone, an hour later. Melissa sat between them on the cushion: she had proven rewardingly enthusiastic as ever, but now her eyes seemed distant.
Arial leaned over and smoothed the Princess's tail down. "My. You DO smell nice, these days. Doesn't she just, 'Mora ?"
Melissa's ears blushed daintily beneath their fur. She had half-noticed a change herself; without perfumes or daily baths, her natural musk was being given its freedom. Then she recalled the reason her chemistry seemed to be changing, and blushed again.
"Er .... I don't quite know how to tell you ..." she looked from one almost-identical hermaphrodite vixen to the other, then down at her own trim figure. "I .... I'd thought of what I'd call my first-born cub, years and years ago, whether it turns out a boy or a girl..." She hesitated, while Arial and Mnemora nuzzled her cheek-fur with knowing smiles on their cruelly perfect muzzles. "I .... I think I'll have to think of some more names...."
The hermvixens exchanged grins behind her bowed head.
[Well, now. She's noticed.] Arial broadcast smoothly.
[I wondered when she would. And she's right ... we DO seem to pass on our ... finest features, don't we ?] Mnemora stroked the Princess gently, in as near a display of real affection as she ever managed except with her twin.
Mnemora licked a trembling ear soothingly. "Don't you worry about a thing. We'll see to it, you're caused no ... problems."
[Identical twins, it's always turned out so far ...] Arial raised a mental eyebrow. [Genetically dominant .... in a thousand years from now, their Royal Line might have a few distinguishing features...]
[.... Apart from being the only magic-users on the planet.]
Sly thoughts passed between the vixens' minds, on a wavelength that Melissa would take years of practice to tap into, even if they had any intention of teaching that to her. [Right. Everything goes ahead as planned ?]
[Everything.]
A day passed, and the city bustled with life. Even Melissa's inexperienced mana sense could feel the interplay of great forces as FluffPriests and Chaos Cutes bent their will towards forcing open the gateway into her world. She had not seen Vampilla and her sisters for days: evidently they were off with the unthinkably fluffy shock-troops, the giant stuffies that were busily practicing trampling mortal things.
"Tonight." Arial broke out of the trance she and her twin had been in for an hour and a half. "Everyone's thinking about it - easy to pick up the ideas."
Mnemora stretched lazily. "Of course, when we go INTO a Spare Hare mind - we can't have it left in any state to report we've been there, hmmmm ?"
Both vixens laughed elegantly, while Melissa shivered.
Arial stood up. "I think we'd better go and scout out the land," she remarked smoothly. "We'll be back for you as soon as it's safe. And then .. we'll see."
"We shall indeed see.." Mnemora purred. She picked up one of the cushions, and concentrated. The stuffing flowed out, and as Melissa watched, fascinated, the cover changed shape and formed itself into a jet-black uniform of a style she had never seen - no polished buttons, braiding or lace, but a trimly tailored coverall like the skin of some deadly nocturnal snake. A peaked cap with uncute, angular silver runic insignia topped the outfit elegantly, as if made to complement blonde head-fur.
"Quite." Arial slid into her own freshly-synthesised suit; this one was fashioned in a mottled and confusing pattern of splintered pink, blue and pastel green, as if someone had torn a host of Spare Hares into shreds and stitched the random fragments together.
Oh MY, Melissa thought to herself. Admiration and fear mingled within her at the sight of the effortless sorcery. If I learn to do that .... the Royal Dressmakers will have their work cut out for them. Suddenly she winced. Having a new dress would never again be a priority in her life - right now she was not guaranteed to even have a homeworld.
"Be good, till we return ..." Arial paused, framed exquisitely in the doorway her twin had disintegrated open, no longer caring about discovery. "And if you can't be good, be original..."
High on a balcony overlooking Melissa's room, a figure clung to the soft wall with claws of adamantine. This was no Spare Hare, of any description - it was a lithe, ragged shape, wiry muscles seemingly vibrating with an immortal energy.
"Got her.." Stendahl breathed. After a month in the city, at last he had found his quarry - and not a moment too soon. Tonight, was the first time he had penetrated so far into the main Palace complex, its usual guards called away to lend sorcerous aid to the Opening Ceremony that would soon take place. He focussed his new perceptions on her, and for an instant his eyes softened.
For Stendahl had changed. In the six weeks since witnessing Doktor Kantus's final sacrifice, he had been forced to put all his half-trained knowledge into fullest use, to survive each and every minute. It had been like pushing a half-grown cub into a savage and unrelenting war - he had survived and adapted, but forever twisted into what he had to become.
Kantus's gift of knowledge had barely been enough to let him survive the first day. Stendahl had fallen prey to a sweetly stealthy Venus MortalTrap plant, when fording one of the syrupy streams - he winced to recall the encounter, that had left his aura contaminated almost beyond hope. But he had fought it like a warrior throwing off the fever of an infected wound: summoning his small store of mana, he had drained it to the last drop in expelling the alien fluffiness, like picking poisonous lint off a precious rug. He had collapsed utterly after that - but awoken clean, though ravenously hungry.
Days had passed, before he learned to keep up an active repelling field around his spirit: then days more until he could extend it, cleansing first the water and, much later, small fruits and fleshy stems enough to survive on, driving their native essence out with a rending exorcism that cost him half as much as he gained from the food.
And yet he lived. Weeks of scouting, lying hidden, before he stalked and slew his first Cute, frantically shredding it past all possibility of regenerating. When he saw his face in still water now, he winced. It was not the Transformation that most mortals suffered on this plane, but he knew as he looked that the old Stendahl was as dead as if a Toyminator had indeed cuddled him to a pulp. He was shining and sharpened by his hard-won Mana strength like an enchanted sword out of fable - and any Inquisitor who crossed his path after this was going to find out about Spontaneous Combustion the hard way.
And now .. he renewed the Transformation effect on his claws, causing them to grow harder and sharper still, as he dug into the side of the building. Up over the rooftop, an interlocking tumble of stout domes and strange semi-living thatch like metre-long meshed fur ... and around the corner to the block where his Princess awaited, stripped of her rank and even her clothing, for the amusement of hideous Evil incarnated in Plush.
In the courtyard below, two lithe figures slipped out of the darkly pastel shadows. One of them cast an Imperceptibility spell - which had the same effect as an Invisibility, but saved energy by bending far fewer physical laws, on any plane.
In the corner of Round Square, a Pacifistically Challenged FluffBeing spun round at the sudden movement - and quickly looked the other way again. The spell altered perception rather than vision: whatever the guard's huge anime eyes saw, its fluff-filled brain filed as whoever it least wanted to meet.
Arial grinned, as she strolled out into the open, the rounded guards all ignoring her pointedly. "Easy. Your turn, 'Mora."
Mnemora reached the black statue that stood in the square as a trophy, and concentrated her keenest analytical spells. After a minute, she frowned.
[Remember we thought this had an active shield up, the way the mana field sparked off it in the Karemite palace ? Well.... take a look. It doesn't NEED one.]
Arial's ears dipped as she exerted her powers. And then they rose again, slowly. [Well, well, well. What IS it made out of ? Thaumic energy just does NOT penetrate it ...]
[Quite. It sparks off like a tin can in a microwave. Or like a superconductor in a magnetic field - total thaumic opacity.]
[Very interesting ... and totally impossible, dear sister ... unless...]
[Unless we were looking at it. What could we do with that ? It'd reflect every first-order spell you fired at it...]
Two hermvixens stood for a minute, their lightning-quick brains working like twin processors on one problem. And then, they both began to smile. It was not a pretty smile.
[We can reshape it with second-order effects ... I don't think its melting point's as high as tungsten ... but direct magic a million times stronger would simply bounce ....]
[Resonating. Wouldn't it just ? And depending what you plugged it into..]
Arial and Mnemora raised matching eyebrows, and went busily to work.
[Fortunately, we're truly Good people] Mnemora commented lightly.
[Quite. We can't let something like THIS fall into the wrong pawsies, can we ?]
Back in her room, Melissa was struggling through her eightieth push-up when she stopped. Something was Lurking At The Threshold.
"Hidy....." Sweetbread poked her adorable snout through the open door. "Are you ready ? We might have to move soon."
Melissa turned to, her, panting slightly. She had been doing her limbering-up exercises; since the day of her capture she had kept herself increasingly fit, there being little else to do. For weeks she had been pushing her trim body harder, pulling herself up on the lintels like she had seen her Father's soldiers practicing, in eagerly-anticipated trips to the training halls. Now - now she felt ready.
Sweetbread looked up at her, huge eyes spread wide in admiration. Melissa towered over her, her always trim figure now hard and spare with lithe muscle freshly exercised. And yet she was rounded in all the ways Mortals found appealing - her furred rump was solid muscle, her breasts still small but somehow fuller in shape ... and the musk of the vixen as she panted and exercised, was filling the room subtly, her undrained tail-glands open after hard exercise and innocent of any masking perfume. A delicious scent indeed, she thought as her fabric tongue slid over very real and sharp teeth.
"I ... I think we're ready," Melissa swallowed. "Arial and Mnemora have gone to take a look. When they come back ... we'll be moving."
There was a sudden silence in the room. Sweetbread moved to Melissa's side, purring slightly, contentedly. The Princess hesitantly reached down to stroke the rounded head, her strong fingers gentle on the soft fluffy ears.
They looked out of the window, at the courtyard below. And then Melissa noticed something.
"That statue .... down in Round Square..." she said, puzzled. "What's happened to it ? It was there a few minutes ago."
"That was the armour of a Mortal knight, came in here awhile ago.." Sweetbread's seven-centimetre eyes focussed on the now empty square. The Cute's eyeballs were so huge that they could only move a fraction from side to side: her head swivelled like an owl's as she turned to track. "I don't know ... it's not really our style to wear ... anyway, it's the wrong shape...."
Sweetbread moved towards the window, a puzzled expression on her rounded features. "I hear something. Maybe someone ....."
But that was as far as she got. Swinging in from above the window, a lithe figure struck with the speed of a cobra, shimmering claws the length of its forearms spearing through the kitten-thing and transfixing her ! Like a farmer tossing a bale of hay with a pitchfork, the attacker flicked the little body out of the window to the ground six storeys below.
"That won't stop her for long.." panted an unfamiliar voice in an accent Melissa knew. "We've got to get out before ...."
Suddenly the Princess felt a new emotion. Primal, searing Rage, the hot-blooded howling frenzy of a carnivore seeing its dear mate or cubs slain. She had no time to think of a spell - indeed, the hermvixens had carefully avoided teaching her any of the combat ones. But if she had to do without finesse, she would use Power ....
The room suddenly filled with a howling wind, the very colours bleached out of existence for an instant as Princess Melissa, daughter of Priest-Kings who had bound the mana of a world beneath their claws, suddenly berzerked without moving a millimetre. Her eyes were white lakes scooped from the heart of bursting stars: fur crackled with discharging energies as she summoned not just everything she had, but everything she could seize, into one cataclysmic spell.
"DIE." She pointed a claw-sharp finger at the intruder, and let rip with everything she had.
The room exploded. Walls buckled, tore, great screaming chunks of pseudo-living fur fabric were shredded and hurled into the air, filling the courtyard with a snowstorm of torn stuffing, fine as swans' down, drifting and swirling in the turbulent wake of the hot winds that followed.
Arial and Mnemora were a kilometre away, on their way back with a very special artifact, when the sorcerous pulse hit them.
Two hermvixens skidded to a halt, hurriedly pushing the sorcerously synthesised trailer and its load out of sight behind the wall of the scorpion petting zoo. A double set of ears raised and twitched, while far keener mana senses analysed the echoes that reverberated off the enchantments around them.
[That came from our room ..... but the sound ...]
[Yes. Whatever did that, wasn't a Spare Hare.] Both vixens nodded, their experienced senses comparing the style with the more powerful magics native to the plane. [It was awfully .... crude. Most of it didn't hit the target - it .. splashed.]
[Fizzled.] They both began to run, their long muscular legs eating up the distance through the deserted corridors. Every magic-user in the capital would be trying to get the ringing out of their adorable ears right now, and be heading to investigate shortly after. [Whoever did that...]
[Doesn't know a lot of magic. Maybe HAS a lot...]
[But doesn't KNOW a lot ... just tries AWFULLY hard...]
The image of a certain royal vixenette flashed from mind to mind; youthful enthusiasm wrapped on an inherited core of grim determination. That core had been growing and hardening all the time - but Melissa was such a Sweet little thing ...
[Can't be. Surely. She doesn't HAVE that sort of power, nothing like it ....]
[Indeed, she DIDN'T have that sort ... but stress-shock expansion...]
Both bobbing blonde quiffs nodded as they raced up the pastel staircase. Just as mortals could sometimes perform "impossible" feats of strength in moments of utter desperation, shifting vehicles and fallen trees without consciously thinking of it .. so too might a magic-user, once or twice in their lifetime. Unfortunately, the kind of circumstances which triggered such an overload of power, were rarely conducive to living to practice it.
[Even if she survived what made her do it .. the shock of that mana burst going through her ... ] Arial winced despite herself.
[Safer, chewing a high-tension cable....] Mnemora's eyes narrowed. [If she's dead, and whatever made it happen isn't yet ......] Her canine teeth showed in a tightly controlled snarl.
Arial looked at her sister lovingly, even though her intentions were identical. Mnemora was so Splendid when she was angry. [Quite. We'll take it back home, and see how long we can keep it alive ...]
The first thing they saw as they rushed round the corner, mana shields up and heads full of offensive spells primed to let rip, was little Sweetbread pulling a still vixen body out from a collapsed pile of roof and walls. The room was literally gone - the floor above had crumpled into something like a piled bundle of massively thick carpet, that Sweetbread was shoving out of her way to clear an exit.
While Arial dived in to help, Mnemora took an instant to scan the scene. Sweetbread had taken massive damage, a fraction of which would have been instant death to a mortal. Five handsbreadth slashes matched front and back, where her fluffy chest had been punched right through - her whole body was a mass of seamed ruptures, like a burst plum that has somehow started to knit back together.
"A mortal ..." the plushy kitty panted, pointing to the thickest of the pile, where the outer wall had been. "Swung right in and speared me.... did a great job too !" She gave a conspiratorial wink. "Only second time that's happened ... a warrior-mage did that when we ate Slorns' World, folk were sorta impressed..."
"Another mortal ? Regular shape ?" Mnemora queried. This close, she could pick up traces of another mana signature: certainly, whoever had entered by the window had needed some fairly competent spells. And - yes, there was a spark of life there, over in the corner. Her narrow snout curled in a grin of anticipation.
Sweetbread concentrated, and the rents in her fake-fur breasts seemed to fade slightly. "Oh, yes, yes ! Great mage that was ... the rulers, the Uberpflaumig, had all his body afterwards - didn't give me a bite. We LIKE assimilating that sort of mortal."
Mnemora's eyebrow raised. "We'll save you the pieces after we've done with him, if you like ....."
But just at that moment, there was a groan. Melissa was lying out on a smoothed section of the collapsed roof, while Arial carefully applied healing spells, gagueing their effect.
Melissa's eyes opened. And then widened further, as they saw Sweetbread standing there, busily regenerating from where she had split like a windfall fruit on hitting the hard Square below. "You're .... Alive .... ?"
Arial cast her a hard glance. "For the moment. But now, we are getting OUT of here."
An hour later, the Palace was covering only half the horizon as a strange procession stopped and dived into a hollow by the roadside.
Melissa lay draped over one of the two carts that the hermvixens had synthesized. But these were not hand-drawn: she could hardly have expected the regally aloof mages to sink to Rickshaw work. They were sorcerously powered: their Mobility runes written in the spilled stuffing of two Pacifistically Challenged Persons who had tried to stop them leaving.
Melissa shivered. The meddlesome Cutes had been immobilised and then brutally sacrificed in a necromantic ritual she had tried hard not to look at. ("Don't try this one at home, kiddies", as Arial had said lightly, even as she drained the last of the Guard's life-force to form the cart's power supply "At least - not unless you want a LOT of Paladins coming around afterwards, making life Interesting for you..").
"I'm ... feeling better," she insisted. "I could walk now."
Mnemora turned round, from where she had been scanning the way ahead. They were hours behind the army, it seemed - on each side of the yellow brick road, the soft ground was dented in pawprints from the huge weight of the Main Battle Stuffies. She raised an eyebrow.
"Two cracked ribs from the roof falling in, that we can fix," she said sardonically. "Healing spells are one thing. But what YOU just did .... Your dear, silly Majesty is very lucky to be alive and sane right now."
Melissa's ears blushed. She felt like a cub who, being trusted with a lit lantern, has used her new-found freedom to burn the house down. "I couldn't help it .... I thought he'd killed Sweetbread, and everything just .... HAPPENED."
Arial's splendid tail waved: her pastel combat-jacket blended into the landscape supremely, she thought contentedly. For a moment she just hugged her twin; this trip, they had been apart from each other for far too long. Never beyond total mental linkage, of course, but that was hardly the same. Her strong hand caressed the rump of Mnemora's tight black breeches, happily exploring well-known territory as if for the first time.
Mnemora nipped her twin's throat affectionately. "I think we're out of active pursuit range..." she purred throatily. "Our dear Princess has a lot of Mana to catch up on ... rather more than she thinks.."
[Quite, 'Mora. She's been left ... delightfully .. altered, surviving that. Look at her poor little aura now.]
[Sweet little thing. Using her powers like that - that's one way of increasing your ... capacity.]
[All.... stretched. Sorely used..]
[Spread right open...] Mnemora felt her sister's heart rate race, and felt her own interest rising. [I doubt she'll be much fun for awhile. Whereas You, as always, are ...]
[Almost a good as You. But then, it's hard to beat perfection...]
While the hermvixens disported themselves, Melissa pulled a shredded piece of wall-hanging around herself, and went to examine what they had carried so far.
On the first cart, was something that looked like a big, ornate barrel of glittering obsidian. One end was open: it looked like a greatly magnified view of some fossilised plant stem, tubes and cavities arranged in a regular pattern, large and small holes of pentagonal or octagonal section. It was a beautiful, supremely finished piece of work - the material was nothing the Princess had ever seen before, despite the Karemite Kingdom's well-stocked treasury holding many things brought in from distant realms in the days when their mages voyaged between worlds. It was, she reflected, a thing of great beauty. But it didn't seem to DO anything: her own mana sense saw it as both a shimmering mirror and a tubular pit in the air, radiating an infinite cold absorbency.
Then she looked at the second cart, and blushed again. The grey cat-mage who had obviously been trying to rescue her, now she thought about it. What had he seen : His Princess, stripped naked and locked prisoner, with just one guard between her and freedom ....
"Oh, My.." Melissa swallowed, pulling the cloak tightly around her. She actually felt naked now: two months without a stitch on had accustomed her to being furclad. Her fur seemed to approve greatly: it shone with a clean lustre that she had only seen on hard-trained racehorses and hunting animals. But .. suddenly, even with the cat-mage lying unconscious, she felt as embarrassed as when her top had fallen down playing tennis in the main Royal court back home.
Sweetbread came trotting round from watching the hermvixens mating, and followed Melissa's gaze. Her fabric nose twitched, and she gave a happy sigh as she fuzzled up to the vixenette.
"I saw what you did to him, before I hit the ground..." she purred. "And all for Me ! That was lovely..."
Melissa looked down at the happy Cute, and her ears drooped. "I .. wish I hadn't. But he didn't give me time to explain, and it just ..." She closed her eyes. The terrible thing was, she reflected grimly, that it had felt GOOD - that massive wash of power flooding her, had brought her to an ecstasy which only her three lovers had ever rivalled. She knew now, she told herself, what makes some warriors throw themselves screaming and laughing into the front row of a charge ... even if an oracle had told them they'd be dead in the first minute, they'd still do it, just for the Doing, and the Being, of those few seconds that they relive time and time again for the rest of their days...
"'Ari and 'Mora say he had time to get his shield half up.." Sweetbread looked up, eyes sparkling. "But if you'd got a better focus, it wouldn't have done him a bit of good, the energy you put behind it." She licked Melissa's flat belly with a rough, calico tongue. "They say it's just a matter of practice now. I'd love to see you do it ..."
"Pardon ?" Melissa looked down, eyes wide. The Daemon Plushie nodded eagerly.
"Just think .. when you're Queen, you can have all the folk you don't want, just rounded up ... and with half the power you used today, just stand them in a row .... concentrate ... and all their heads explode, pop, pop, pop, in a lovely mess just everywhere!"
"Eeeeep!" Melissa pulled away, horror stark on her features. "I'd never even THINK of ......" But she stopped, forcing herself to think, fast and hard.
She looked at the still figure on the cart. The hermvixens had stabilised him and brought him along, at her insistence - having half-mockingly told her to Heal him herself, since she seemed to change her mind about killing him so often.
"He went in after me looking for a young Princess, who's good at racquets, dances well, and is going to marry whichever of the nobles the Inquisitors recommend, one day ..." She swallowed, talking half to Sweetbread and half to herself - and somehow, to another of herself, hovering in the background like a listening ghost.
"He didn't find her. That's not who I am, any more." One tiny part of her seemed to be calculating just what it would take to do as Sweetbread suggested. Like a distance runner trying to shave seconds off a long-held record, she knew it was possible, now - she could not do it on the spot, but if she concentrated on that aspect of control, and locked her effort just like this ..... she swallowed hard. It was not the sort of calculation she was used to making - but from now on, there was nothing she could afford to dismiss out-of-paw.
Suddenly, she threw off the ragged debris she hid her fur with - not that there was enough of it to make a bath-towel, anyway. She stood there, looking down at the only Other mage her world had produced in generations. Forcing a smile to her muzzle, she turned to Sweetbread.
"I'm probably too late to save my Kingdom, whatever happens. And if I Do manage it - I've a head full of forbidden sorcery, an aura that can break walnuts with a hard stare, my "virtue" is something I wouldn't have back if you paid me, and I'm four weeks pregnant by what most folk back home would class as Daemons. But, considering all that ..."
Sweetbread licked her lips. "Yes ?"
"All things considered, I'm not having such a bad time of things...."
They pressed on as soon as night fell, the pastel palette darkening as if the great spells ahead were taking even the colour out of the skies. Nothing was on the road but them: the slight rumble of the rubbery wheels on the yellow brick road and the soft footfall of naked paws was the only sound to be heard.
Suddenly, the hermvixens stopped in their tracks. Eyes flashed as silent messages passed, and two sets of ears dipped.
"What is it ?" Melissa asked eagerly. There was nothing to be seen or heard - but as she extended her mana sense, fresh and tender as a soft-shelled crab, her own expression froze in horror. It was almost impossible to put into words - but there was a feeling of massively increasing tension, wave after wave of soft power crushing against an unyielding barrier like winter storms against a sea dyke - and then the barrier crumbled, as a swirling flood forced through and spilled out into the unknown.
"They've done it." Melissa slumped, collapsing bonelessly against one of the carts. "They're through - and not in ones and twos, either..."
Sweetbread's eyes lit up hungrily, before she remembered to look concerned. "Better hurry then - I haven't been there, but the Portal's about an hour away still, I think."
"Fifty-six minutes at present speed, allowing for drain on the batteries.." Mnemora murmured.
The substandard Cute cast her a sharp glance. "How do you know, that exactly ? You were captured two day's travel up the other valley .... and the Input and Output Portals can't have the same address."
Arial grinned, as she wordlessly set the carts in motion once again. "Trust us. When it comes to portals, you might say we're uniquely qualified to know these things...."
As they set off, Melissa quickly took stock. Her powers were returning, with something more besides - it feels as if I'm putting on new muscle in the mana department, she told herself wryly. And in an hour, we'll need every scrap. Suddenly, she looked at the cat-mage again, still lying sprawled and deep in healing sleep. Jumping off the first cart with its strange obsidian-like artifact, she crossed over to trot beside the second one that carried him.
Sweetbread padded along effortlessly at her side: though not built for sprinting, her stamina was to all intents unlimited on her home Plane. Velveteen ears twitched, and a calico muzzle pressed against the Princess's waist fur.
"They won't be healing him," The neo-cutey nodded towards the hermvixens, who were loping effortlessly ahead. "He's rather good, you know - if you healed him, you might have time to get the power back before we're at the portal. We'll probably need him."
Melissa looked down at the happily purring FluffKitty who trotted beside her. "You don't .. hold it against him ?"
There came a *Gigglefluff* from the darkness that Melissa luckily missed the worst of. "Why ? I'm all right again ... it's just fragile Mortal Thinking, that I'd not like him now." There was a pause, while only soft paws could be heard on the brick invasion route. "I'd far rather be somewhere full of folk who could tear a Spare Hare to shreds, than folk who couldn't .... it's a matter of Potential ... he's worth more than hundreds of foodfolk to us.."
Melissa concentrated, judging how much of her power she could spare. Doing this while trotting beside the cart was not as difficult as she had feared: like holding a conversation and weaving through a crowded street, it seemed to use quite different parts of her brain.
"General boost ... going .. in.." She gasped, and faltered for a few paces at the sudden weakness. "They fixed all the real injuries - but I knocked him SO flat ..."
Sweetbread nuzzled her happily. "That you did."
The sprawled figure groaned, stirred - and promptly fell off the cart onto the bricks a metre below.
"He doesn't bounce." Sweetbread commented mildly. Melissa's groan was internal, as she readied yet another healing spell.
First impressions are important, she told herself wryly, as she helped the sprawled figure to his feet. And I haven't done too well by him so far.
"They're already through ?" An hour later, Stendahl stood unsteadily beside the rest of the party, as they looked at the opened Portal.
Melissa nodded unhappily. At the far end of a box canyon, a great shimmering hemisphere of swilling pattern wavered. This was less like a gate, more like some organic valve, its centre puckered shut, though clearly pointing inwards. The road leading to it was new, an offshoot of the main highway.
"We won't be using that point again," Sweetbread nodded, trying to nuzzle closer to the feline, who shrank from her in loathing. "That's a one-way gate, homing on one particular Summoning, has to be put there from the far side."
Stendahl's grey ears twitched. "Someone had to Put it there." He declared. "Before any of this could happen, someone came to the Karemite kingdom and planned all this."
Arial's tail gave an impatient swish. "But in the meantime, your dear little kingdom is being trampled flat. Now, as the only magic-users who care a wet hairball about what happens to it, are you just going to stand around and watch ?"
Melissa winced. "Won't you help ?"
The hermvixens looked at each other, and smiled in sly stereo.
"Well .... if you put it like that .."
"If a dear sweet innocent damsel asks a pair of Paladins like us to assist her..."
"Then of course we're honour-bound to come to her aid.."
[Besides which,] Mnemora broadcast securely to her twin. [If the Spare Hares get that fine piece of property .....]
[Then we don't. Agreed ?]
[Agreed.]
Smoke and flame billowed through the burning palace complex, as the four mortals returned to a somewhat altered Karemite Kingdom, Sweetbread trailing with the trailers. The Portal had been in the same place as they had entered - but larger, a wide-torn gash in reality leading to a swathe of collapsed walls where Main Battle Stuffies had torn their way out of the building, rending granite and marble like fresh-baked bread.
"I .. I don't understand ..," Stendahl shouted above the roar of the flames. "Everyone said, Spare Hares take worlds whole.. not like this.."
Mnemora cocked her head coolly, surveying the ruins. There seemed little alive or even stuffed around here; away in the distance the noise of battle showed where the big military-religious complex of the Inquisition was still holding out. "THEY don't. But folk are apt to try anything to stop them - including dropping buildings on them."
"Well, there goes the neighbourhood," Arial commented lightly, as a distant wall collapsed into the flames.
Melissa looked around, wide-eyed in anguish. "Everyone's dead, or....." And then a change seemed to come over her. Those adorable eyes seemed to flash savagely, and she turned to the hermvixens. "You've got a plan, I know. Do it."
Mnemora rested an elegant fingertip on the Princess's dry nose, admiring her own reflection by the light of burning palaces in Royal eyes. "No matter what the cost, my sweet Majesty ?"
Melissa nodded, looking out to the swarm of unthinkable fluffiness that infested the far hillside. "I don't think the Spare Hares will have spread far ... and there are other towns, ones they've not reached." She bowed her head sollemnly, realising what this meant. Her Father would not have abandoned his palace alive. "Go ahead. Whatever it takes."
The hermvixens exchanged glances. Arial's tail swished, its exquisite fluffiness protected from the fall-out of glowing embers by a light warding field. [I just Love it ..]
Her twin completed the thought. [... When someone gives us a blank cheque like THAT one.]
As seen from a distance, the destruction of the palace was far less than total. One wing had collapsed completely, where the fifty-metre high Mark Sixteens and Mark twenty-twos had waded out from the Portal, that still heaved and pulsed sluggishly like some extruded piece of living offal. Another wing had been set alight, but had burned out almost entirely - those who had stayed to defend the Palace with their lives, had already done so. And failed.
Only on the far hillside was there still raging combat: the Inquisition had rapidly unearthed caches of ancient sacred weapons from beneath altars and sealed catacombs: though some hundreds of Spare Hares had been damaged more or less, few had been cast back. Beyond the Inquisitorium's thick walls was the City proper; tens of thousands of untouched mortals, each a luscious fruit ripe for the harvesting.
"Forwards !" Perched on the shoulder of a Mark Sixteen, Steelheart urged the huge Cute towards the glowering walls again. She grinned savagely as a lightning bolt impacted one of her sisters, the lucky shot penetrating a side-seam and explosively unzipping her. "Forwards ! Many to come, and few to go .. all the more Mortals for the rest of us !"
She leaped up, and whispered instructions in the button ear of the giant Battle Stuffie. The giant versions had the same makeup as the rest of the Spare Hares - but due to the speed limitations of thought crossing a head full of stuffing five metres thick, they needed their smaller cute-comrades to command them where quick descisions were needed.
Steelheart laughed, dozens of glittering highlights reflecting the fires and mage-light raging all around. Clinging to the fur like ticks, fifty-one - no, make that fifty, now, she giggled to herself - of her Sisters prepared to de-bus as soon as their giant mascot cuddled one of the slender-looking towers to ruin, exposing a breach. The only thing stopping them, might be whatever last-minute surprises the Inquisitors dug out of some long-sealed crypt. Though even that was liable to simply make things more Interesting..
"Better safe than sorry." Steelheart looked across at the swarming tide of Cute gambolling around the Mark Sixteen's toes. Most of the other giant plushes were commanded by the velveteen vampire types who ruled .... if there WAS anything unpleasant being set up for them, she wanted the others to catch the brunt of it. Behind the main waves trotted soft-skinned stuffies with great zips down their rounded tummies: Padded Personnel carriers stuffed with padded personnel for the swarming and feasting in the City beyond.
Crawling into the ear, its huge bowl twice her own height and more, she ripped open one of her own seams. Stuffing flowed out: she pressed it to the great button, bigger than her head, and used it as an amplifier for her own not inconsiderable mage-sense, the living lint bonding them for an instant as one single entity. Then she frowned ... twisted the huge ear from side to side searchingly .. and the huge Armoured Plush-carrier stood bolt upright for an instant.
"Attack ! Full speed !" She squeaked in panicked fury, taking full control of the slow-thinking giant. And it strode to meet the greatest threat - not towards the Inquisitorium, but back, trotting over its own adorable pawprints.
"You'll have to hold them off," Arial snapped briskly, scanning the wing of the Palace for stray Cute. "This'll take ALL our concentration."
Melissa nodded, watching as grey ash blew down the deserted corridors that had been her home. Her eyes were dry; her heart burned with a white rage at what she had seen that past half hour. Her Father's guards and soldiers had defended their posts to the last, even when they realised there was nothing their weapons could do to the invaders but irritate them - and by the - traces - , left spattered on walls and ceilings, they had fought till they had been cuddled to a pulp.
"Wish us luck," Mnemora blew the new Queen a kiss, and vanished to follow her twin into the control chamber for the Eight Guardians. The solid masonry here was unbroken, with just the one entrance as always leading down to the KingStone, activated by tradition by a key of purest platinum, the ultimate badge of office carried by generations of Ur-Cardinals. In her paw was something small and glinting, that Melissa could have sworn was nothing more than an ordinary hairpin.
Suddenly, everything seemed very quiet. Outside the door, Melissa stood with Stendahl and Sweetbread, looking out over the landscape through a torn rent in the curtain wall. Half an hour's ride away, the entire Spare Hare invasion concentrated its might.
Sweetbread suddenly tugged at Melissa's tail; with her huge eyes she had spotted it first in the dim light. "Look ! One's coming this way ! One of the Siege Stuffies.... with its horde aboard."
Stendahl winced at the sight - something from Kantus's memories seemed to flicker in recognition ... the word "Totoroid" echoed oddly as he looked at the four-metre grin of that which waddled towards them. "That's not the only one. Your Majesty - can you sense them ? Little ones, like rats - in the next corridor. And I think they know we're here."
Melissa focussed her perceptions through the tumbled marble and ruined splendour of her home. At first, she could only see a tangle of recognisable Spare Hare aura - and then she gasped. Crawling through the rubble towards them were tiny blue things, seemingly almost identical. Without the detection spells, they could have sneaked up close enough to pounce unseen, hidden by the debris. Then, her expression hardened.
"We've got to give Arial and Mnemora time. They're busy ... so we've got to hold that door for them."
On top of the very centre of the palace, the Kingstone rose up from its foundations like a ship's mast - or rather, like a tentpole piercing the round dome of the roof, jutting twenty metres into the dark and glowering sky.
Two vixens laboured there. They had broken up through the roof, teleporting with them the great barrel-shaped artifact that had been machined from Kantus's armour.
"Easy .... easy does it ..." Arial concentrated on raising it smoothly. "It's not the weight ... it's trying to keep it in place.."
"Magic slips right off it .." her sister completed "Like handling a live, slippery fish..."
In half a minute they had it fixed. The metre-long barrel swung in its immaterial cradle, responsive to their lightest mental touch. No material force could affect it now, inside the layered protective field they wove around it.
"Which is just as well," Arial agreed. "Now, it DOES get difficult. Do you think we've enough ... charge ?"
Her twin grinned, an unpleasant tooth-sharp smile. "Oh, I think so, Ari. A whole world's magic, with no natural mages to tap it, and few Items to power .." she nodded towards the bright flashes that showed where the Inquisitorium still held out, drawing more and more attention. "I think the thaumic capacitance will have filled up like this world's never seen. Those ancient weapons never had so much mana to draw on the day they were made ..."
"Quite.." But then Arial's tail twitched in alarm. "Mora ! That big stuffie's heading back towards us - it's doing about thirty knots -"
".... And it's infantry will be de-bussing into the ruins when it gets here. Right. I'm on my way !" Mnemora nodded, ducking down into the hole they had made coming up from the Heartstone chamber.
For a second, Arial surveyed the scene, unaccustomed to being alone. Keeping more than an empathic link going with her mirror-image and lover demanded at least a little mana - and both of them would need every scrap.
She stood by the side of the great octagonal pillar, feeling the faint echoes of power vibrating through its crystalline bulk. This was the centre of a power grid that tapped the energies of most of a world - when it had been first switched on at the height of the Magewars, the screaming burst of sorcerous white noise had blasted the brains of tens of thousands of low-level mages.... and that had been when the mana was being used up as fast as it was naturally replenished. What it had stored up right now, would be Interesting.
Arial smiled cruelly as she went to work. It was invisible to all but mage-sight; first, a curved plane of immaterial force like the protective shield she maintained herself - but this was not a seamless bubble. It was a very precisely fashioned paraboloid like the cut-off top of an eggshell, floating in the air and focused on the open end of the black Device that hovered above the utmost spike of the Kingstone. And then .. around the open end of the Device, another shield, one that would reflect sorcerous energies back into the symmetrical pattern of pipes and voids that drilled it like the vessels in some darkly fossilised bone of a Titan.
"Of course.." she murmured as she worked "Even I can't make a shield reflect as well as that stuff - yet. By rights, it doesn't even belong in this Universe .. it just lives in a Quantum Half-state till the Universe catches up with it..... as far as WE can tell....."
In a brief flash of whimsey, she encircled the swelling dome with temporary illusions of tape barriers, fluorescent markers proclaiming "Danger - Unexploded Theory." And then there came a vibration deep in the crystal - she leaped aside, knowing what was to follow.
"We can't hold them off !" Stendahl's voice was a ragged shout as he fought side-by side with his Princess against the squeaking blue horde that poured out of the ruins like maggots from a disturbed carcass. "Fall back... I'll try and ...." desperately he levelled a spell at one of the tiny imps, a white-bearded one, that leaped through the air singing hideously. The silly-hatted vermin was engulfed in a spitting, hissing ball of fire as its plush was partly transmuted to white phosphorus and ignited in mid-air.
Melissa used her own mix of new and old abilities to neatly field the fireball in an immaterial racquet, and returned the shot to land smack in the midst of a squeaking knot of its comrades. "No." Her own voice was hoarse, but only by the stinging smoke. "We stay here. If we die here, then ...." she focussed her own will on a miniature blonde-haired daemonette who bobbed up unwisely - and was turned to a flattened, living roadkill by Melissa's sorcerous sledgehammer."Ari and Mora .. they can STOP the rest .. if they get the time."
Outside, there came a distant splintering sound as the charging Battle Stuffie ploughed through a previously untouched part of the Royal Gardens. Melissa calculated the distance, and winced.
Stendahl looked at his Queen - she meant it, he decided. On the walls of the Palace had hung portraits of the Kings before the Magewars - those pictures were tatters and ashes now, but their descendant stood at bay, her scorched and naked fur scorning armour and heraldry, facing the obscene invasion with slitted eyes glowing in calm fury and haloed in lambent Mage-power at the heart of her own realm. For she had found the - unmistakeable remains - where her Father had stood and fought while his faithful troops stood at his side, knowing that it was hopeless. Now she was both Orphan and Queen, and knew no limits to her rage. Unlike her Father, she knew just what she was facing - and unlike him, she could blast at least some of them screaming back to the nether hell of stuffed Horror from which they had crawled.
Sweetbread bouncied gleefully as another blueish imp burst into spitting, white-fumed flames. "Go it, Stendahl ! The heads ! Go for the heads !" Though she could do the encroaching pack no real harm, bowling them across the room with well-aimed bricks was keeping them busy, and great fun. Suddenly, her ears pricked up - "Melissa - we've got some more company ... a new lot's on the way !"
The rubble ahead churned and rocked with movement. Melissa concentrated her perceptions there - and then she smiled. She had not been given time to learn Stendahl's spectacular Transmutation spells - but Arial and Mnemora had made her practice over and again, rebuilding the wall of her cell where her first clumsy efforts had torn it.
She focussed, not on the seething blue fluffiness, but on the debris itself. It was in the Nature of rock to be firm and hard, she told herself - and in the Nature of mortar and concrete to bind it. Attuning the level of her consciousness to the slow chemical thoughts of the inanimate, she gave it some of her own living power - and suddenly, the movement ceased.
Stendahl gasped. "What did you ... DO ?" And then his own perceptions fanned out, and he whistled in awe. What had been a bank of tumbled debris was now a solid ledge of stone - and entombed in it were several dozen blue fossils, still alive, conscious and Very much annoyed.
Melissa sank to her knees, utterly drained. "That's it," she panted. "end of match. My last shot."
Stendahl caught her in his arms as she collapsed - then looked up, as a huge pulse of unseen energy made the Palace begin to hum and ring like the tolling Bell of the Apocalypse, growing louder and louder with each second. "Just in time ..." his face was grim. "I think they're ready to do it - whatever IT is.."
[The key's in the slot...] Mnemora mindcast to her twin, from eighty metres below her. [Simple mage-locked 18-cylinder job - ready to turn, on the signal.]
Above the roof, Arial acknowledged, then concentrated her whole talents on the spell combination. The black barrel floating at the focus of the Eight Guardians twitched and rocked slightly, its open end pointing towards the Inquisitorium where ninety-nine percent of the Spare Hare invasion were clustered within six arc-seconds traverse.
[We'll only have one shot at this...] Arial nodded mentally, as she set the timer on the telekinetic spell. [I'm planning for a modified cathode-ray-tube raster pattern, and one last slash down .. if the material component holds out. Magic reflects ..... but thaumic induction's going to put out quite a few megawatts of heat...]
[A few hundred. Mostly Ultra-violet and X-rays, as I read it...] Mnemora stood by as her twin scrambled down through the hole in the roof. [Ready to rock ?]
The twins embraced, finding a moment even here to nip each other lewdly, while the giant Mark Sixteen padded towards them, and the Inquisitorium's walls were crumbling under the frantically renewed assault.
[Ready to rock ... power on ..]
[Program running ....]
Two sets of hermvixen hands grasped the launch key in the slot. And turned it.
The Eight Guardians had stood for centuries, tapping the power of the land, binding the palace in an unseen halo of sorcerous fire. The natural magical flow of the nation had been re-aligned to channel directly into them, to be used by the Priest-King or flared off like the burning gas of an oil-well, deliberately denying it to all others in the realm.
The key turned in the Kingstone's heart. Like the concentric detonators of a mundane fission bomb, the Eight Guardians released the power of a world, the stored energy rushing inwards to their focal point - and through it, to the focus of that, the barrel forged from the unknown element that had no natural place in the Laws of that world. Magical flux densities were past all measuring even as they bounced off the paraboloid reflector and into the parallel pipes and flutings of the barrel's open end - force enough to vaporise any material object in nanoseconds.
And yet, for more than a second, that cylindroid of far-travelled star-stuff held together. Its elaborate piercings were precisely engineered as a thaumic resonator: magical energy bounced and reverberated, until it reached the one frequency at which it could escape the geometric trap hewn of the one element that reflected it utterly....
What happened then, was over in an instant. A beam sprang into existence, piercing the outer parabola like a tungsten sabot shot through a rainbow, a solid rod of energy that pierced space before the light of its creation could give warning. And where that beam hit, Space overloaded - giant Battle stuffies and tiny fluffy imps alike were swept out of existence like sugar fairies under a firehose. And through mundane matter the beam swept, vaporising the Inquisitorium, slashing resistless blue-hot gouges kilometres deep in the bedrock below.
For less than a heartbeat the Thaumic Resonator held together - long enough to be jerked out of alignment and slash down on the Mark Sixteen already in the palace grounds, ripping it apart and dragging Steelheart and her stuffie squad out of spacetime, even as the beam began to waver ....
From afar, any survivors saw a brilliant burst of light spring into being - and those who saw it carried the black spot on their burned retinas for years after. The Universe caught up with the interloping matter; as the sorcerous field density increased dangerously towards infinity, the little-used Laws invoked themselves and kicked it bodily out of existence.
A tearing, rolling boom echoed across the landscape, breaking every window in the City beyond the place where white-glowing slashes marked the site of the Inquisitorium. Debris whirled and danced in the hot wind as echoes swelled and faded.
And then there was silence.
Dawn came, on a scene of ruin. The great dome of the Palace had fallen, leaving the Kingstone exposed to the smoke-laden skies. It had been a night of "Mopping-Up", of finding the last scattered Cutes who had fanned out on their own, and forcing them back through the Portal before the hermvixens had destroyed it forever.
Arial and Mnemora were sitting on a great slab of white marble that crowned a hill of smoking rubble, enjoying Breakfast.
Arial stretched, her eyes sleepy with the exertion. She raised a delicate silver cup, and sipped at it daintily as she surveyed their handiwork.
"Quite." Mnemora caught her thought. "It'll be SO much easier to rebuild from scratch. Sort of Urban Renewal."
"Palatial Renewal," Arial smiled, her splendid tail waving. "Now our dear Princess no longer wants a realm based on suppressing magic - it would have needed rebuilding anyway. Think of the time and effort we've saved her..... Queens should be able to take it easy sometimes."
The hermvixens nodded. "And in her condition, as well," they chorused, looking out to where regular plumes of smoke showed the cooking fires. As soon as Melissa had been dug out of the collapsed corridor, she and Stendahl had put their talents to use again, first in organising a search for survivors, and then in attempting to cure those infected by the pastel contagion the Cutes had brought with them.
Mnemora gave a contented sigh, her delicate muzzle twitching as it sipped the smoky breeze. There was nothing quite like the smell of roasted flesh at breakfast-time - and whether it came from the field-kitchens that were being set up in the Grounds, or the smouldering rubble, was not something she was prejudiced about. Lazily, they finished dining, and strolled down arm-in-arm to lend moral support to the Crown Princess, now the uncrowned Queen.
Six days passed, and the Palace site was cleared. Most of Karema, the capital city, was untouched, and in the main keep of the Citadel, Queen Melissa was crowned, flanked by Arial and Mnemora. Sweetbread was there, ostensibly as a prisoner, at the hermvixens' suggestion - few people had actually witnessed the Spare Hare invasion and lived, leaving an opportunity to show the populace just what they had been spared.
It was a bright evening, and Melissa had spent most of it with Arial and Mnemora. Their apartments were on the top storey of the keep, where they could practice large-scale sorcery with a good crowd - while the delight of shocking a magic-phobic population lasted.
Melissa stood in the doorway, straightening her crown in the mirror. She cast a bashful glance at her consorts, as she prepared to attend Court in the great hall below. Suddenly, she sighed.
"You won't be ... staying long, will you ? I know, you've been looking .. restless." She blushed daintily.
Arial raised an eyebrow, her snout resting on a muscular elbow as she lay on the couch.
[ Perceptive little vixen, isn't she ? ]
[ Very much so. But then, would we prefer it otherwise ?]
Arial looked the young Queen up and down. She wore a plain velvet cloak, and a tight skirt and top of the same sheer material. Relaxed, her face was empty of troubles for the minute; indeed, she glowed, a picture of health. One paw idly touched a sensitive breast.
[ Indeed not, dear sister .... perfectly suited, inside and out.]
Arial stirred lazily. "Melissa. We'll be gone in a few days .. I'm sure you'll find Quite enough to keep you busy. But expect us back - it's such a peaceful, quiet place, this...."
[ Including the Spare Hare invasion.]
[ Including that.] Arial grinned inwardly. [Then, we DO seem to be drawn to .. Interesting places. Or they get Interesting, when we get there.]
[ Funny, that. Always seems to happen, doesn't it ?]
[ It does.] Arial sighed, as if in regret at having to leave. [ It's as if the Universe appreciated us ... as it certainly SHOULD do...]
[ Indeedy so.]
Melissa gave a shy wave, and descended into the hallway. As she turned, the hermvixens felt her alter, determination flooding through her spirit as she prepared to face her Court. There were a lot of changes being made, and some of it was going to involve a certain amount of Absolute Autocracy.
Half an hour later, Mnemora and her twin were lying comfortably cuddled on the couch, when there was a hammering on the door.
"Well." Mnemora lightly cast a Perception spell, piercing the iron-bound fortress door. "Our dear Chief Mage. And a Mage in a Rage, by his aura.."
Arial nibbled her ear delicately, while she undid the Warding on the door. "Some people just can't be trusted with Power - they get ideas. Such a dear sweet idiot he was, remember ?"
Stendahl strode into the room, his eyes blazing. Unlike Melissa, he had not changed into a more elaborate costume - just a fresh grey Penetentes robe, undecorated and severe in its way as any Inquisitor. He muttered a spell, and the aura in the room shifted faintly.
"Dear kitty-boy," Mnemora yawned. "That's a very NICE little combo of Detect Truth and Shield From Intrusion ... a little showy, perhaps. But I'd have thought you were FAR too busy chasing down Inquisitors than to spend mana on US."
"Much though we appreciate it," her twin smirked. "To what do we owe the totally ecstatic pleasure of your august presence ?"
"I'd have thought it was more January than August .." Mnemora whispered, her sharp teeth caressed by a skilful tongue. "He's not as far advanced as August..."
Stendahl's eyes were suddenly bleak as January itself. "I've just come from the Palace site. I wanted to check the Portal was totally gone - it took sixty hours of clearing rubble to get down to where it was. "
[ Oh dear.] Mnemora hid a smirk. [ He's a very Devoted Chief Mage, isn't he ?]
[ Rather. Most sensible people would be off studying their spell-books right now .. but not him. ]
"And ? " Mnemora prompted pleasantly, while her twin caressed her. "Find anything of ... interest ?"
Stendahl's ears went flat. "I asked Sweetbread, what it took for a Portal to be established on a new world." His voice was low and steady. "She said, you needed a mage who was already there ... and who already knew exactly where the Portal wanted to go. Without that - no invasion."
"Go on," Mnemora waved him on encouragingly with an elegant paw. "I'm sure we'll all be Very interested. Did you find any Evidence ?"
"Barely in time." The cat-mage had sensed the fading imprint, like a wet footprint drying in the sun, and scrabbled alongside the rescue team to get to it before it vanished forever. "But I got one good look at it - it wouldn't have been obvious when the Portal was open, and all the Cuteness was pouring in from Outside. You know, Doktor Kantus taught me the "Analyse Aura" spell ? Just I never had enough power spare to use it before. Too busy with the Invasion - but you do know ALL about that."
Arial licked her lips. "Go on then, dear kitten. Go and tell your sweet Queen that we did it - show her the evidence. And then see who she'll believe. You're really not at all skilled in magecraft yet, you know. You could be quite wrong."
"And what happens then ?" Mnemora purred, her eyes closed as her twin lovingly caressed her. "If she believes you - do you really think you'll have made her Happier ?"
Stendahl hesitated. Melissa had proudly announced to the world that Arial and Mnemora were her chosen Consorts, and that their children would be the future of the Karemite kingdom - which would begin to catch up on lost time in establishing Mage schools. She was working hard on the job of truly Ruling, without behind-the-scenes manipulation from the Inquisitors who had been away from their Headquarters that fateful night.
"Consider .... would you REALLY rather the Spare Hares had left your little dungball of a planet just the way it was ? " Arial pursued, seeing the resolve beginning to flicker in the Mage's eyes. "She's a Queen now, the first true Ruler in many a century. And supposing she doesn't believe you. She's very loyal to her True friends, you know."
"Not that we'd make any suggestions, you understand..." Mnemora took up the thread.
"Not that we'd have to. But then I doubt she'd object if we took you somewhere she wouldn't have to listen to your lies ..."
"And if you lasted long enough for us to tire of you, we've got Neighbours the like of which you simply can't Imagine .."
".... Who we give the occasional Present to, from time to time ..."
".... And they've got all SORTS of ways you could be useful ..."
".... As a cute little servant, or experimental Spell tester .."
".... Or Spell Components ......"
Stendahl's ears drooped. Not for his own safety, but for the load he knew he would carry to his deathbed. The hermvixens were right - there was no way that he could ever voice his suspicions. Even if he had solid, unshakeable proof that it had been Arial and Mnemora who had sneaked into his world, planted a Portal like a smouldering powderkeg, and then returned to reap the rewards of saving the innocent victims. He knew at last - though the Spare Hares had laid claim to the whole world, theirs had at least been a natural hunger. The hermvixens did this for the delight of it.
"Oh, and do close the door on your way out......" he heard Mnemora call dismissively as he turned to leave, defeated. The last time he heard their voices, was a shrill whoop of delight and a passionate squeal, as the couch began to creak protestingly.
"A pleasant little holiday." Arial reflected, as she looked out over the familiar chaos of The String from their balcony. "But it's always nice to come home again."
"Home is where you plant your cubs," Mnemora paraphrased, running a strong hand over the delightful rump of her twin. "You know, I think we WILL drop by there sometimes .. check how well out little Investment is coming along."
"And it'll be good to have folk appreciate these for what they are." Her twin agreed, twirling a platinum coronet around one finger. It was nothing she'd stop to casually loot, as a piece of jewelry - she had a cellar piled with artifacts thousandsfold as valuable - but it told the people of a world that She was Royal Consort.
"These, you can't steal. You have to Earn them the hard way."
"As Hard as possible. All that fuss, over one little vixenette..... when we could stroll down the street and buy a dozen prettier ones, any day of the week." But Mnemora cocked her head on one side, her blonde crest of head-fur bobbing. "You know, though ... it felt rather - interesting. A few little irregularities aside, we actually earned a place and a reward honestly ... "
Arial's eyes widened; her heart began to pound. "That's about the most blasphemously shocking piece of perversity you've Ever thought of, 'Mora ! You know I love it when you do that." She felt her excitement rising rampantly at the thought, and the room flooded with delicious musks. "I'll really have to work on finding something to match it....."
Mnemora chuckled, as her twin enfolded her in strong arms and carried her hungrily toward the bedroom door. "And I love it too. Just knowing that someone as perfect as you ...."
"... Will do her Very best to try it !"
The door slammed shut at a mental command, and matched squeals soon mingled with the thousandfold cries and screams of the String. Arial and Mnemora were home again.

############### The End ###################

Author's note: many thanks to Ashtoreth for letting me use M'n'A, and for muchuseful advice on trying to handle them ! Though he did say I'd portrayed them as"Too NICE", a fault I'm working on in the sequel.

"To The Manna Born" is that sequel, and currently (August 1996) halfwritten. It'll be done when it's done, so don't ask ! Simon Barber, Yorkshire, August Bank Holiday 1996