Vulane, the “City of Sin,” was perfect for someone as nosy as Amber.
The world was changing, and the clever meerkat had to go where the cogs were turning the fastest. “Journalist” was not a well-known occupation yet, but it soon would be - and because of her.
Amber promised herself that.
She liked the way the Tyrian nuns and priests talked about Vulane. All around her provincial, ancestral town, the Tyrians had taken over - or pretended they had. The ‘God of Justice’ was like a smothering blanket over her life, and all the adherents spoke of Vulane like it was the most fun city ever conceived of by beast.
After Amber left, she tried to get a job at the Temple of Veilwinter first, of course. The overturned galleon dominated both the skyline and politics of the town. Amber was a meerkat, though, so the vulpines there demanded a lot of tests for loyalty and what-not. After a while she found the eyes to be too... intense, and so, she enrolled in a few classes at the nearby College of Elements.
Not all the classes were about magic: Amber was a skilled martial artist - able to find her way into private apartments and hidden rooms she wasn’t supposed to be in - and she was able to pass the thief guild’s basic skills tests with only a minor amount of effort.
“Fine, I guess I’m a thief now,” she said as she carried her few belongings into the thief dorms. She was slightly older than the other residents, but they didn’t mind.
Getting in and having a reason to reside in Vulane - a reason good enough to show to the silvermask guards - were all that she wanted. ...for the time being.
After a few months, she found something interesting in the Docks District after a very explosive incident at the House of the Moon.
Now she had someone to find. An old friend.
Skreet, Draknor, and Farah were held up in their hideaway house on the outskirts of Vulane when they heard a nervous knock. The rat, reptiloid, and ferret answered the door with a slight bit of annoyance as they looked down on the rabbit child who stood before them, crying.
“P-please don’t be mad at me, but I-I have a message to deliver to you all,” he squeaked.
Draknor stepped forward. The reptiloid was huge, and his footfalls bent the wooden beams of their hideaway... but he gently knelt down and took the message.
“Thank you sir,” he cried, “thank you!”
“Honestly,” the reptiloid sighed, opening the little note.
‘Hello old friend,’ the note began. All of them shivered at that.
‘Find a copy of the Fourth Book of Compromise. Turn to the second epic poem: the Vicar and the Whale... I do love that one, even if Veilwinter is less than ideal. and then find a copy of the personal advertisements in today’s issue of the Vulane Pathway.
Skreet gulped. Amber Zazuetta - the so-called journalist meerkat that the rat partially blamed for his running thousands of miles away from his homeland.
“Vulane Pathway?” The reptiloid rumbled quizzically.
“The local newsrag,” Farah responded.
“The fourth...” Draknor began.
“The Fourth Book of Compromise,” Farah sighed. “The main book of the Temple of Veilwinter.”
“Why-?” Draknor began again.
“No!” Skreet declared. The rat detective recalled vividly Amber from his old hometown. She was - almost - a better detective than he was. “No, we’re not following this line. I don’t care what this ‘AZ’ says.”
“I’ll run downstairs and get the latest edition of the Path,” Farah said.
“Wait a damn minute!” Skreet yelled, trying to catch the ferret as she ran past but failing, his claws missing her tunic by a mile.
“Hurr, what is it with these books?” Draknor asked his rodent companion.
“Just wait, Draknor, you’ll see,” Skreet said, defeated, as he waited for Farah to return. Soon enough, the ferret thief was back up the stairs.
“They were selling them by the melon stand, not that I paid.” Farah declared, pleased with herself. She turned the parchment to the ‘personals’ section.
“Farah, you’re gonna hate Amber...” Skreet said, defeated. How had she found him?
“Here’s a weird one,” Farah laughed. “‘My old rat, find solace in the hymns below: Terricks 37:3, Velomne 41:4...’ what is this?”
Skreet sighed. “A book code. You’d have to find a Book of Compromise, then translate the pages and lines. Terricks and Velomne are Tyrians, but those books don’t have that many chapters and verse. We have to...” he sighed again then slumped further in his chair, “...take the line in the Vicar and the Whale from the chapter, then the letter from the verse.”
“Huh, this Amber is going through a lot of trouble to get us a message.” Farah shook her head.
“Mammals.” Draknor grunted.
“You said it, Drak,” Skreet said. “All right, so back to what we were doing before. Now what do you think?” He said to Draknor as Farah was still studying the newsparchment. “How are we gonna get your sword back? How are we gonna catch that lynx who captured you?”
Farah rolled her eyes, “Hey boys. You’re ignoring me. Which is a crime in itself you know.”
She stuck her tongue out at the two males.
Skreet’s eyes flashed as he turned to the ferret. “We’re NOT going to spend time decrypting her message just for it to say ‘Nyah nyah, you wasted your time decrypting my message’! I’m telling you, this one’s no good.” Skreet reclined in his chair. “I’m starting to take Drak’s side on this: The Great Cataclysm should never have happened and reptiles should have kept ruling everything. We never shoulda crawled out of our holes.”
“I never said anything about that,” Draknor defended. “But I’m glad you’ve seen the light.”
Farah laughed. “Wow, Snickers, you really are a cynical detective aren’t you?”
“I’m getting the damn book,” Skreet huffed.
Skreet went down to the front desk - which just happened to be the owner of the vegetable shop downstairs - and asked for a copy of the fourth volume of the Book of Compromise. It was required for all inns and taverns to have at least one copy, and so the hare sneered and threw the book at the rat.
“Er, thanks,” Skreet said, unsure.
The hare’s look bore holes in his head. “If you damage that, you’ll pay for it rat.”
Skreet nodded and held the book close. The book itself was immaculate in case the silvermasks showed up for an inspection. It had nice filigree and illustrations on the leather cover.
Skreet cracked his neck and made his way back up the stairs. Decoding these wouldn’t be too hard, though he wanted to ignore Amber entirely. He had enough problems: Margot, Draknor’s sword, and Farah. He wanted to see that lovely mink again, not deal with that nosy meerkat.
He opened the door and lay the book on the one desk in the place. This was obviously an expensive version - perhaps to impress the silvermasks enough to distract them? Skreet’s detective side was creeping up again as he wondered what the unassuming vegetable stand was up to.
Draknor and Farah gathered around as Skreet carefully opened the richly decorated cover to the first page. On the first page of the Book of Compromise, intricate calligraphy danced upon velum, marking the craftsmanship of the venerable scribes within the hallowed walls of the Temple of Veilwinter. Adorned with gilded filigree and illuminated capitals, the richly crafted typography intertwined with ornamental embellishments:
This is an artistic endeavor befitting the divine nature of the teachings held within the sacred tome. To all who read this, the fourth volume of the Book of Compromise, we wish you wisdom and luck. I consecrate this text in the name of Reynard and Veilwinter.
It was signed with the most extravagant signature any of the three had ever seen:
Szal Veilwinter I
Temple of Veilwinter, Holy City of Vulane
Skreet turned to one of the first stories in the book, The Vicar and the Whale. Each page was woven neatly together and inked with very nice illustrations.
Skreet could smell the faint whiff of an enchantment upon the book.
“This book has some enchantments to it. I can smell it.”
Farah whistled. “Wow, they really got the fanciest version of the book that they could, huh?”
Quickly, Skreet was decoding: book on his left, a piece of parchment on his right.
Line 37, letter number 3: “D”
...Line 41, letter number 1: “O”
...Line 55, letter number 2: “C”
...Line 54, letter number 8: “K”
After fifteen minutes, Skreet put down his quill and slowly put down the paper.
“Dock ship weapon,” he said coolly.
Draknor grunted. “Hurr, that is a broad statement. An antiship weapon? A weapon on a ship?”
Farah shrugged. “Wonder why they sent us our way?”
Amber put away her spyglass. She had made her way to the top of the belfry of the little temple to Statera - the Goddess of Balance - on the ‘good’ side of campus and was peering toward the commotion at the docks. She wondered if old Skreet had even bothered to decode her message. He probably would think it said “neener neener” or something.
When she turned around she was greeted by an otteress in a glittering blue robe.
“EEP!” Amber said. “Whew, you - uh - frightened me a little bit, mistress.”
“Miss Zazueta,” the robed otteress began with a cocked brow. “I don’t think the thief clan is allowed up here.”
Amber shook her head. “Well good thing I’ve also cross-trained as a minstrel.”
The cleric grinned softly and outstretched her paw. “Come along, miss Zazueta, and tell me why you are here.”
“I needed a change in scenery.” Amber replied, taking the paw.
“The scenery of the docks?” The mysterious otteress said, leading her down the staircase.
“Got tired of the halls of academia. Always fascinating to see what sort of ships show up.”
The main green of the College of Elements - the large section that separated the dozen schools of magic and nonmagic thought - was a large wooded area. It stretched before them like a vast wilderness, but Amber could hear voices skittering into the darkness as her strange companion led her out of the little chapel. She gave Amber a strange look before waving her finger, saying a strange word, and lighting up the nearby area.
“Would you like to elaborate miss weasel, or shall I just guess?”
Weasel? Well, apparently she had never seen a meerkat before.
“I’m a meerkat actually.” Amber replied. “We’re more closely related to a mongoose.”
A twig snap made the two females nervous. The otter moved her finger toward a bush that was waggling fiercely. “Let us... continue this discussion in the chapel,” she said slowly moving back toward the little building, still holding Amber’s paw.
The main room of the chapel was gothic and cold, stone with a little bronze statue of Statera in a little alcove. The otter led her to a pew close to it and begged her to continue.
“I’m uh, not from around these parts. I’ve traveled far. But many don’t know what I am. My people are very tight knit communities. One such as myself is quite rare.”
The otteress nodded, her flat affect underlying a little disappointment that Amber could detect.
“Alright, miss Amber. I’m sorry to have detained and mis-speciesed you. You may spend the night in the belfry if you wish. The main green is used by upperclassmen for... games and the like at night, but the thief clan’s dorms are a half mile away if you could make it.”
Amber tilted her head, wondering just what the otteress was disappointed in.
“Well, I’d love to stay in the belfry, that sounds lovely. Hopefully I won’t get in the way of some game.” She grinned a toothy grin.
The otteress had turned a little cold as she nodded. “I shall lock you in for the night, but if you want to leave, ring the belfry bell and I shall come get you... if you cannot get down yourself.”
Amber nodded. “I see. Thank you.”
Locks wouldn’t be too much of a problem for her, still she wondered just what she had said or done that rubbed the otteress wrong. The otteress marched toward the front door, closed it, and Amber heard a rumbling THUD as something was placed in front of it. Amber ran to the door to hear an enchantment being placed over it, and then another THUD as a sparkling blue wave penetrated the door itself, almost knocking the meerkat onto her tail.
That’s quite a lock, Amber thought. Hopefully I’m not trapped here.
Farah had scouted ahead. As the stealthiest of the group, they had entrusted her with that task... Well they actually hadn’t: she just snuck ahead without telling them. It was the spirit of the matter that counted.
Skreet and Draknor huffed and puffed as they tried to catch up to the ferret in the winding streets... that only became windier as they neared the Docks, the sacred center of Vulane.
Farah knew she couldn’t rely on the stars or her own eyes to find the way, she trusted her nose. The sweet seawind brought salt to her waiting nostrils, and the immediate surroundings helped guide her through the ever-changing streets.
“C’mon boys!” The white-furred ferret whispered loudly to the two males below, hanging from a lamppost, pointing the way.
Skreet scoffed as he regarded Farah. “Farah I’m going to tie your paws if you keep bolting off like that.”
Farah twitched her tail. “I didn’t know you were into that sort of thing, Snickers.”
Skreet shook his head as Draknor rumbled a reply.
“Let us press on ferret. Stick close this time.”
Farah’s nose guided them toward the ocean while the group’s ears lead them away from the heavy metal CLUNCH of the silvermask guards until they neared the Dock district itself.
The docks were... purposefully a series of large avenues with the Temple of Veilwinter at the center. ‘Purposefully’ in Farah’s mind in that the streets were wide and well-lit by magical lamps... and patrolled by persons that were watching at all times. The piers themselves - where the ship supposedly was - were beyond. Farah did see one lone person walking the main avenue, under the huge golden statues of various fawning foxes and vixens atop ebony platforms. A lone fox in long robes, strutting the streets alone.
He was probably going to be a problem.
That’s when the evening vespers began playing from the temple. A series of brass and rising voices. Farah observed the figure and saw him turn in reverence.
“GO!” She hissed.
Farah was able to dash to the pier, leaving Skreet and Draknor behind as the lovely tune continued - calling the faithful to the evening sermon. Skreet and Draknor looked at each other with a bit of unease.
“Do what you do best, Drak,” Skreet said, nodding at the beautiful statues.
“Hurr,” Draknor said as he rushed one of the statues and ran into it at full bore while Skreet ran ahead.
It would be a good distraction as the duo rushed to catch up with their ferret ally. The statue fell with a loud and reverberating *DING*, like a knife falling to the kitchen floor.
The lone robed figure stopped its reverie turned toward Draknor, completely ignoring Skreet.
Farah arrived at the pier to see silvermasks guarding what looked like a sleek, black ship moored closeby. It had a central mast far too tall for its build - and without sails - rising from its center, and attached to the top was a sword with a glowing gem in its pommel.
From what Draknor had described - to an annoying degree - that had to be his sword. The central gem was shining for some reason, with little purple flames dripping like acid from its center.
“Oooh, my.” Farah said, rubbing her paws together.
A sound like a whip crack crossed with the launching of something from a trebuchet from back where the boys were thudded through the air, awakening the zombie-like silvermasks. Slowly, the little troupe lifted their heads, their enchanted violet eyes opening behind the silver masks that were seemingly adhered to their faces.
“Come on, go investigate. Go investigate.” Farah whispered.
It took an achingly long time - at least to the quick ferret - before the troupe marched off, out of sight, toward the city proper.
“Yes.” Farah grinned.
Another SNAP in the distance. A boom. A reptilian roar. The clash of metal.
“It’s not a fair fight. For them.” Farah muttered cheekily as she crept closer to the ship.
“How are you faring, Farah?” A familiar, and worried, voice called from below as she stretched out toward the sword.
The rat detective had made it to the ship.
“That isn’t...?” Skreet started.
“Pretty sure it is the way he goes on about it. I think they’re using it for something.” Farah replied.
Another boom, but this time it was followed by a spark of light, followed by the outline of a huge reptiloid appearing on the railing above the pier. Draknor was running toward the ship, followed by a hovering figure in robes with blue eyes - tendrils of sparking blue light flowing from him.
“Damned magics!” Draknor growled as he ran from the wizard, holding his forearm in pain.
“Here!” Farah hefted the sword and tossed it to the reptiloid.
Catching the sword Draknor twirled it and caught a spell. The gem glowed and there was a thunderous report and flash of light. When it cleared, the wizard seemed a bit disorientated.
“Run!” Skreet advised. “Before he recovers!”
“You’ll find I recover quite quickly,” the wizard said in a deep, highborn voice as more figures emerged from above.