I woke up with a vicious hangover. Vulane’s ‘Nightlife’ district was not a place for casual tourists... or detectives.
Bleary-eyed, I looked around my temporary lodgings. I grabbed my tail: yup, still there. I must’ve barely made it through the door last night. It was still raining as I looked through the misty window. The street below was filled with performers, families, pickpockets, and - somewhere - a heinous villain.
I could hear the sound of drums, fiddles, and laughter from what seemed like every direction: including from within my memory. When I tried to think of last night, it was a fog of giggles, raucous music, dark red wine, and languid, half-closed eyes studying young bodies in the dark.
I checked the handle - yeah, I had managed to lock it. I patted myself down and found that, although my pockets were a little lighter, I was not completely broke just yet. I looked in the cracked mirror on the little desk and found someone I had lost last night.
I was still a rat: frazzled brindled fur and eyes that were redder than usual. Eyes redder than usual, anyway. I dragged myself to the hallway and into the communal commode where I heaved up a few of last night’s appetizers.
I washed my face and took a deep breath. Time to focus on the case. I was Skreet Snickertooth, a detective in Vulane’s nightlife district, and I had a string of murders to solve.
As I stepped out onto the street, I noticed a commotion a few blocks down. I made my way over, dodging street performers and vendors, and found a crowd gathered around a young dancer. She was a mink, dressed in a shimmering (and short) pink dress, twirling and leaping on a makeshift stage. I was still in a bit of a stupor, so I slowed down and took a few moments to appreciate her stunning looks and flowing movements.
As her show slowed, the passers-by clinked their coins into a cup held by a young rat. Her eyes met mine and, like a magnet, she started making her way towards me.
“Well hello again!” She yelled over the bustle and neverending music of the district as she approached, offering her delicate paw. I was a bit befuddled by this but took her paw and kissed it anyhow.
I gave a half-laugh. “I take it we’ve met before,” I said, not sure how to approach the beautiful creature’s forward introduction.
Dammit! I thought. The city had done to me what it had done to so many beagles, collies, badgers, and other creatures on a mission before me: It seduced me.
The minx giggled softly and looked up at me with big brown eyes, like pools of chocolate.
“Boy, you certainly drank too much I believe, sir rat. What do you remember?”
I searched my memory as we moved away from the crowd that walked by. She delicately put her paw on my forearm as a weasel mage - magician? - walked by, her fingers throwing sparks high into the damp air to the amusement of the crowd.
I chuckled. “I must have been very charming for you to recognize me from last night. I recall going to the local tavern. ‘The House of the Moon’ I think it was called?”
“Yes,” she said with an air of gentle concern. “Selthia’s private party mansion.”
The Witch Queen of Vulane. My stomach dropped. “Very interesting,” I said as my mind returned to static reality. “I apologize my friend,” I said politely. “I have to go.”
“Is that all I mean to you?” She said, pretending to be hurt.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s all right, Rask,” she said. “I have that affect on people.”
“Rask”? Did I have the foresight to give a fake name last night or was she trying to mislead me?
“Listen,” I said humbly, “I am sorry. Perhaps if I knew your name...?”
She smirked and pointed upwards at the giant banner:
See Vulane’s Best Dancer!
It began. The word “best” had been crossed out, rewritten, crossed out again, rewritten again.
“Well, miss Rave, I hope we meet again.” I turned away, already organizing my thoughts as storm clouds shifted and slid past one another above the street. It was not even noon, but I could feel the night whispering dirty secrets already.
Well, Vulane had seduced me once: I promised it wouldn’t happen again. Perhaps that is why my quarry was hiding in this town, in this district.
Presently, up the street was some kind of procession. Black flags on tall poles and creatures moving aside caught my attention. At the head of the strange little parade was a vixen with a long brush in a deep purple dress and a silver stag head completely covering her visage except for two bright purple eyes that glowed through.
“I love you, Witch Queen Selthia!” Someone yelled. She blew a kiss to the crowd, who cheered, while the heavily-armed vixens on either side of her clutched the hilts of their glowing blade-catching katanas and scanned the audience behind frightening silver masks.
I made myself scarce and retreated deeper into the crowd, in case she recognized me too. Gods, what had I gotten myself into?
I tried to collect myself. I pulled out the note that the killer had sent to myself and my comrades back in Redgeist Port. I read the words again and could feel the anger rising up in me again. When my eyes scanned my name, another emotion arose that I didn’t dare name.
The ink and perfume had been tracked back to Vulane: to a shop in this district. I hadn’t let myself smell the district too much yet, so - carefully - I took a snootful.
Perfume, wine, opium. Of course. Then, blended in, sweet meats and exotic spices, indicative of the opulence of Vulane itself. No wonder the Tyrians wanted it so badly: a sin-soaked and extravagantly opulent populace.
I leaned against a wall, exhausted already - as though I was drunk again. The last of the parade of silvermasked guards of various species disappeared down the street, no doubt to prepare the House of the Moon for tonight’s festivities.
The perfume store I was looking for was run by someone I was interested in finding again. For an instant, I forgot the fragrances and richness of the district and returned to where my mind felt comfortable: cold anger and disappointment.
I folded the note and put it back in my pale brown - and slightly damp - robes and made my way back to the main street of the district. I had been told that it was the only one that wasn’t enchanted, but just like everything else in this city it was probably a lie.
I think this city was built on lies, to be honest.
I followed the winding main road, which was bursting with jewelry and spice vendors, clowns and magicians and sword-swallowers and - of course - wealthy patrons. I could even see the purple and green smoke of hidden smokeshops and speak-easies. I tried to stay out of the way, but I soon realized that I stood out: I was not a well fed, jewel-draped carnivore out for a stroll.
With this in mind I tried a little harder to mingle, although a wet, black-furred sewer rat made an intriguing sight. After a few miles - which felt like crossing an entire continent - I finally found the little perfume shop of my ridiculous former colleague.
The bell on the shop, annoyingly named “The Ravishing Rose,” dinged as I entered. Even though the shopkeep’s back was turned to me, I recognized him immediately.
“One moment,” the idiotic terrier in a turban said in a fake accent as he was putting a bottle of some glowing pink liquid on a shelf. He turned and immediately his fake smile and upturned eyes turned into a frown and a look of shock.
“Sk-Skreet? What are you doing here?”
“There’s that brogue I remember,” I said, reaching over the bar and grabbing the dog by his robe’s collar. I slammed the killer’s letter on the bar and the terrier’s eyes - which were already wide - became even wider.
He broke free of my grasp and leapt over the counter. He couldn’t do that when he was a constable, that’s for sure. I grabbed for him again but fell on the floor. A weasel with spinning eyes helped me up.
“Why the big hurry, mister rat?” He asked groggily, the opium and Vulane having already taken over his brain. I fled out the door and immediately crashed into something soft. Instinctively I twisted my body so they fell on top of me instead o the other way around.
There were the big pools of chocolate again.
“Mr. Rask!” Spinrave said breathlessly, lingering on my body as we lay on the sidewalk, pedestrians tittering and avoiding us.
“Miss Rave,” I said, sighing. “What a surprise.”
The mink finally rolled off of me and helped me to my feet. I brushed the dirt off my robes.
“Are you buying perfume for your mate? Your girlfriend or boyfriend?” She asked.
“Oh no, simply confronting an old... ‘friend’ about some... ‘dealings’ he’s been involved in.” Spinrave tilted her head, so I elaborated. “No, I have no mate, boyfriend, or girlfriend.”
I heard commotion down the street - full of gasping females and giggling children. My old friend was undoubtedly causing a commotion as he pushed the crowd aside to escape my questions.
“Excuse me, my dear mink,” I said as I found my footing on the wet pavement and began the pursuit. I looked into her eyes once more before I began running. I was a sewer rat: rain on cement and cobblestones did not deter me.
I could see what he had done: several felines and vixens had been pushed aside in his haste, and their kittens and pups were playing with each other happily as their mothers and fathers tried to collect them.
His silly turban had fallen off, and he stopped to retrieve the jewel in its center. As I ran, I noticed that the waves of patrons waned and were replaced with more surly characters. Then I saw the gray terrier ahead and with a final leap I tackled him to the ground right outside some seedy tavern.
“All right you brute!” He said.
“That’s rich coming from you, Rusty,” I said to the terrier, my knee in his back. “You remember how you were reprimanded more than once for harsh treatment of suspects?”
“What do you want, Snickertooth?”
I reluctantly released him and positioned him on the sidewalk. “Your sidejob in botany really paid off, I suppose?”
Rusty didn’t say anything, simply rolling his eyes as a pack of four arctic wolves in leather armor walked by behind us. I realized that I had wandered off the main road and was in some... other part of town, but didn’t say anything.
“An entire family of rabbits,” I said, my whiplike tail slapping the wet sidewalk. “A family of hedgehogs, in their sleep. This is our nemesis. YOUR nemesis. YOU were the one that realized it was a pattern. And now here you are, getting fat and rich in...” I gestured. “This place.”
Rusty looked into the middle distance. “Vulane doesn’t have an extradition treaty with Redgeist, Skreet. I don’t have to listen to anything you’re saying right now.”
“Gods DAMMIT, Rusty! What would you have said to yourself ten years ago?”
“Vulane has no extradition treaty with Redgeist, officer,” he repeated again as the rain drenched us. I stood up, furious.
“You were the best of us, Rusty. YOU WERE THE BEST OF US!” I shouted, causing the streets - full of lynxes, wolves, and even a bear barbarian - to stop and look at us. “If you feel like telling me what you know, send me something by post. ...Unless I quit the force.”
That got Rusty’s attention. He looked up at me with his bushy eyebrows and a smirk on his face. “You know, Vulane’s always looking for smart creatures. You’d do well here.”
I was agog. “What in the Hells are you talking about Rusty? This isn’t a game!”
“It’s all a game, Skreet,” the tattered terrier said as the sky poured even more filthy rain on us. “Everything is a game. Nothing matters.”
“Do you hear yourself?” I yelled. I didn’t want a crowd to gather, so I softened. “The wine and money have taken hold of you, Rusty. Please consider helping me find this monster. You know where I live.”
I shook my head and left. I was apparently at the top of some kind of hill, and was overlooking the docks district: filled with tall buildings that had seemingly been dipped in gold and scattered with extravagant statues of grinning, flirtatious vixens of bronze on pillars lining the main avenue.
Only Vulane would have the Docks be the wealthiest and holiest district. I looked behind me and could see the Spire of Veilwinter on the other side of the hills that skirted Vulane.
It was black and huge, piercing the gray sky with a purple lighthouse-like eye atop it.
I walked down to the fabled district and made my presence known to a few silvermask guards who patrolled it. I looked up to the Veilwinter Temple: an ancient, overturned galleon of immense proportions that had been transformed into one of the holiest sites in the Reynardian religion.
I’m not a religious rat, but Reynard had always appealed to me... until lately. A god of “Compromise”? What an appealing concept. There was a crowd of well dressed vulpines and felines around the entrance. They made way for me, and a little vixen pup even came up to me.
“Are you looking for solace, mr. rat?” She asked. I smiled.
“Indeed I am, little one.”
“Come, come,” she squeaked in her little dress as her mother and father looked on with angelic countenances. “Let Father Szal tend to your spiritual wounds,” she said with an outstretched paw. I couldn’t help but be charmed.
“Thank you, young lady,” I said and took her little paw as she led me within.
The huge doors opened of their own accord and I was greeted with absolute splendor. Marble vixens with gold vines spiraling up their athletic figures smiled down at me from vaulted ceilings where enchanted leaves fluttered down to my feet.
At the head of the Temple was the altar with a throne of pure gold, reserved for Reynard’s return. The altar itself was oak, situated on a pedestal of pure gold and silver, depicting the final confrontation of Tyr and Reynard. The stained glass windows - dozens and dozens of them - depicted scenes from the Books of Compromise in startling detail: the light from which spattered the vast room in gentle blues and greens.
I gently patted the head of my guide as she ran away giggling back to her parents. I noticed that there were a few parishioners within, praying for wealth and cleverness, but I stopped when I saw a familiar figure at the front pew. I slid in alongside her.
“Hello again, miss Rave,” I whispered.
She, startled, broke out of her reverence. “Mr. Snickertooth!” the mink said, causing my fur to bristle momentarily. “How delightful to see you here. Do you pray to Reynard?”
I smirked and looked around me at the extravagance.
“I might start.”