Darien's Gap

A Nohni Wabanda Story

by Philip J. Eggerding, aka Cirrel

Hazel Weiss character © gNAW.  Carlos Onca © Nicolai Whitefur

Raven Hunt © Max Blackrabbit. Tigermark © Tigermark

All other characters © Philip J. Eggerding

 Part One - Parcels from the Past


 

A Date in Time

 

The golden jackal read the paw-lettered sign taped to the classroom door and growled.

"End of the world, is it? My furry ASS!"

Tail lashing, Nohni Wabanda stormed into the classroom, slammed her briefcase on the desk, and without a look at her students, hastily wrote a date on the white board at the front of the room. She spun around and glared at the class, her golden eyes flashing.

"Who can tell me the significance of October Twenty First, Two Thousand and Twelve?" Her finger pointed imperiously at the date behind her - a motion that stretched the fabric of her dress shirt tightly across her ample bosom.

No one spoke. Most of the males weren't even looking at Nohni's face.

"Rabin!" Nohni spat. "Put your eyeballs back into your skull and try using the grey matter behind them for a change!"

Rabin snapped his muzzle shut and blinked. The silence continued until one of the femmes in the back of the class hesitantly raised her paw.

"Yes Misha?" Nohni called out.

The petite muskrat stood up uncertainly and cleared her throat. "Um… I…I thought this was a Meso-American archeology class. Why… are we talking about a date that hasn't happened yet?"

"A good question!" Nohni fired back. "Anyone care to take a stab at answering it?" Her paw shot out and a clawed finger pointed right at the nose of large ox Nohni knew to be on the Patriarch University rugby team. He was big, but wasn't the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree. "How about you, Borden? Care to hazard a guess?"

"Guh…"

"Articulate as always," Nohni snapped, swinging around and pointing at a plump lioness. "Rasha? Any idea as to why a class that deals with the history of the ancient Mayans is looking to a date that hasn't even happened yet?"

The lioness visibly gulped. "Um…well…the chapter we were to read for today dealt with the Mayan Long-Count Calendar and it stated that most well-developed ancient civilizations had some way of dating things. It also said they usually had a way of predicting things in the future too."

Nohni dropped her paw and eyed the rest of the class. "Well, it's nice to know someone read the assignment for today." Another paw raised itself into the air and Nohni was surprised to see that it was attached to Rabin of the previously bulging eyes. Nohni nodded to the male fox. "You have something to add, Rabin?"

The fox gave one of his mates a smug look before speaking. "I don't know about October 21, 2012, but December 21, 2012 is when the Mayan Long-Count Calendar comes to an end. It predicts the end of the world. You can read about it all over the Internet."

Nohni stared at the fox, then dropped her head, shaking it slowly as she turned away. "I'm surrounded by complete morons." In a flash, she whirled around, her teeth bared in a vicious snarl. "How many of you in this class believe that rubbish!" she yelled.

Everyone in the class leaned back away from her.

"If you had actually read the assignment for today," she continued in an acid tone, "you would know that the Mayan Long-Count Calendar does NOT end on ANY date in 2012! 2012 is simply the Gregorian Calendar year that will see the end of the current, or thirteenth, Mayan Calendar baktun cycle!" Nohni faced the board and wrote five numbers on it separated by periods.

12. 19. 19. 17. 19

She tossed the dry-erase marker onto her desk, and pointed to her numbers. "THAT is the Mayan Long-Count Calendar date for either Dec 21, 2012, or Dec 23, 2012, depending on who you talk to. Looks rather like an internet IP address, doesn't it?" She glared at Rabin. "And speaking of the internet, the main reason you'll see the Dec 21, 2012 date used the most on the internet is because it looks 'cool' when written as '12/21/12'. All ones and twos. It's also the same date as the winter solstice. Now, the following day – whatever Gregorian date that happens to be – would be numbered 13. 0. 0. 0. 0 – which is the beginning of the fourteenth baktun cycle." Nohni shook her head. "There is only one, single obscure Mayan ruler's reference to some sort of 'creation' event happening at the end of the thirteenth baktun cycle, however, there are numerous archeological references in Mayan writings to future events that occur AFTER 13. 0. 0. 0. 0. – which would be hard to explain if the world was trashed by that time."

Nohni put her paws on her hips and frowned. "To put things in a frame of reference even you undergrads can understand, the end of ANY Mayan baktun cycle was usually cause for a celebration in Mayan culture – rather like when we went from 1999 to 2000. In other words, the only thing '2012' means is that it's Party Time." She gave Rabin a snide look. "But then you guys don't need that as an excuse for a party."

Nohni turned and slapped the white board next to the number. "The main reason the baktun cycle in the Mayan calendar is significant is because it lasts a little over 394 solar years – a timeframe that was big enough to encompass any history relevant to the current culture doing the dating. Also, for sheer convenience, baktun cycle dating uses only five numbers - which is easier to carve into stone than the SIX numbers you would use if you included the larger pictun cycle number as well! If you want to do the 'End of the World' thing, most Mayans believed that some sort of world-changing scenario would happen at the end of the pictun cycle - which most scholars agree is the equivalent of twenty baktun cycles – not thirteen!  And if you're using the pictun cycle, along with what little brains you have, the Mayan Long-Count Calendar doesn't 'end' until Columbus Day, October 12, 4772!"

Nohni shook her head again. "I do think it interesting that the Mayan pictun cycle ends on Columbus Day seeing how it was Columbus that sailed to the new world and was instrumental in doing cataclysmic things to the Mayan civilization." She looked up at her class. "But it gets even better! Beyond the pictun cycle is the larger Mayan calabtun cycle, AND the even larger kinchiltun cycle! And lastly, there's the final alautun cycle of the Mayan calendar - which will end sixty-five MILLION years from now!" Nohni gave a grunt. "So don't hold your breath for the end of the world."

"But weren't the dinosaurs destroyed by a comet sixty-five million years ago?" piped up a ferret. "That would mean we're due for another disaster real soon!"

Nohni gave a smirk. "That might actually mean something if the Mayan calendar had been started sixty-five million years ago. However, the Mayans for reasons known only to them set the Zero Year for the Long-Count Calendar at 3113 B.C.E. - about five thousand years ago."

Nohni walked around to the front of her desk, crossed her arms and leaned back on it, glaring once again at her students. "The main purpose for the many calendar systems used by the ancients was to record for posterity the sequence of significant events that had already happened. This is fortunate for us because without this record we would have no history at all!"

A student in the back of the room snorted and a second later, a well aimed white-board eraser ricocheted off his furry ears. "You may not think losing 'history' is a bad thing, Bronan" Nohni spat. "One less class to take. But without it you wouldn't know when to celebrate your own birthday, 'Thank God It's Friday' would have no meaning at all, and the only way to get a day off from school would be to drop from exhaustion because weekends wouldn't exist! Calendars give the passage of time a sense of regularity and predictability that makes life bearable."

"But that would make 'Prediction' an important part of having a calendar," protested another student. "We want to know what's going to happen in the future."

Nohni nodded and almost smiled. "True. Calendars also allow us to plan for the future because we now have a mental framework on which to place future events. However - and this is important - simply because we can plan for the future does not set that future in stone! As a wise fur once said 'Shit happens'. 'Best laid plans of mice and mammoths.' That sort of thing. The best we can do is make plans for the future."

Nohni pointed once again to Borden, the rugby player. "Tell me what the score will be for next week's rugby game against Northern!"

"Guh…"

"Exactly! Thank you Borden for that eminently correct answer!"

Borden looked stunned. "I wuz right fer once?"

Nohni nodded. "Yes, you were. Because your answer of 'Guh' is as valid as any other answer. The fact is - the score of next week's rugby game is unknown! It's in the future and cannot be known! However, you're quite sure it's next week on Friday, right?"

Borden nodded.

"How do you know that?" Nohni was slowly sideling up to the big ox in the front row.

"Cuz…cuz coach sez so?" answered Borden looking up at Nohni who stood over him now.

"And the coach knows this because he has it marked down where?" Nohni leaned down to smile right in Borden's face.

"He… marked it… on da calendar?"

"Exactly," Nohni whispered - and kissed Borden right on the nose.

Borden nearly fell out of his chair.

Nohni stood up, chuckled and looked around. "So, class, here's another problem for you. You knew you had to be here today because this class is scheduled on the calendar, but from that information alone, could any one of you have predicted that I would give Borden a peck on the nose during this class?"

"Guh…" answered Rabin, looking hopeful.

Nohni gave the fox a disdainful look. "Of course you couldn't predict that. However, I will now predict that someone in this class will start a campus rumor that states 'If you answer Professor Wabanda's questions with 'Guh' she will kiss you on the nose." Nohni returned to her desk and turned around to face the whole class. "So what makes this particular 'prediction' of mine valid?" She pointed to a raccoon who had raised her paw.

"Because we saw it happen here in class. It's already a part of 'History' and therefore it's possible that it might happen again."

"Exactly!" Nohni said. "Which is another reason to have a time framework like a calendar within which to record events. Past events and their circumstances can be valuable tools for figuring the probability of future events."

"It's the setting of precedent!" blurted out a mink. "If it happened before, it could happen again if the circumstances are similar!"

"Correct," Nohni answered. "So, how does this whole concept of 'precedent' relate to any prediction about the end of the world?"

Silence. Then Borden slowly raised his oversized paw and Nohni nodded to him.

"There's no press-ee-dent?" Borden recited slowly. "We dun know when da end of da world will happen cuz we dun know what ta look for. It ain't never happened before!"

Nohni really did smile this time. "Exactly." She held up a paw to forestall the protest she knew would come. "At least it hasn't happened within recorded history so we have no convenient written record to tell us what to look for." She pointed to the ferret who had spoken up earlier. "However, geologic history does show that some sort of cataclysmic event contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago. Can you tell me about that?"

"They say it was a big comet or asteroid that hit the earth," answered the ferret.

"Yes. Many geologists think they've even pinpointed the impact site. It's called the Chicxulub crater. You can't see it from any surface features, but the geologists say it's there and its age and size are correct for the sixty-five million year time frame surrounding the extinction of the dinosaurs." Nohni sauntered over to a globe on one of the classroom bookshelves and gave it a lazy spin. "Now, can anyone tell me where the Chixalub Crater is located?"

Silence reigned once again as the globe slowly spun to a stop, and even Nohni was a little surprised to see that her finger now pointed directly to the exact spot on the globe where the crater lay buried beneath eons of sediment. She looked up.

"The Chicxulub Crater is located on the Yucatan Peninsula - the same peninsula in Central America where there once flourished a great civilization."

Nohni tapped the globe and felt it shudder slightly.

"The Mayan Civilization."

For a second you could have heard a pin drop - then the classroom door crashed open. Everyone jumped. One of the students even let out a shriek.

"Nohni!" gasped Hazel Weiss as she burst into the room. "You've got to come now! I think you're the only one who can calm him down!"

"Who? What?" Nohni sputtered.

Hazel grabbed Nohni by the wrist and began to pull her to the door. "He's gone crazy! He's in the library lounge and he's screaming something about Doctor Venteen and bloody revenge! I can't make out most of it!"

Nohni managed to blurt out 'Class dismissed' before Hazel pulled her through the door. Then she and the lioness librarian were running down the hall. What was going on? Doctor Amelda Venteen, a svelte if aging ocelot, was a professor of Anthropology who specialized in the native tribes of Central America. She was the one who had found a nearly-dead Carlos Onca, a native from a tribe in the Darien Gap area that had been decimated by drug runners. She had brought him to Canada and sponsored him, and he now was a Doctoral candidate in Nohni's own Archeology Department. Her department shared building space with Doctor Venteen's Anthropology department, but other than that, their paths didn't cross that often.

"Wait a minute, Hazel!" puffed Nohni as they sped past some startled staff members. "Isn't Doctor Venteen out of the country on research right now?"

"She is," answered Hazel through deep breaths. "If she were here, she could calm him down I'm sure, but she's not, and you're the only one I could think of!"

They dashed through the double-doors that led outside, and for the next few seconds Nohni simply tried to keep up with Hazel. Gods and goddesses, that lioness could put on the speed when she wanted to! For short distances anyway. Nohni wondered if she would be in any shape to handle the situation when they finally reached the library.

As it turned out, she wasn't. Hazel collapsed on the Library steps, panting her lungs out. "I'd…have…called…you…but… you… never… have… your… cell phone… on… in… class!" She swung her paw at the doors. "GO!"

Nohni burst through the library doors and didn't need directions to know where the trouble was. A high pitched keening interspersed with guttural growling came from the hall that led to the library lounge. Nohni followed the sound at speed, but slowed down just as she got to the lounge's swinging door. A single sniff told her the air here was heavily laced with fear and anger pheromones. Mostly feline, if she was not much mistaken. Cautiously she pushed open the door.

It looked like a tornado had torn through the lounge. Furniture was overturned. The coffee service lay battered and empty on the floor. Books, magazines, papers and other debris littered the place. And in the middle of it all stood a shaking, mass of black fur.

One paw of the black apparition held a torn and crushed packing box.

The other paw clutched what looked like a bloody feline heart.

Then the black thing turned its head, and Nohni recognized who it was from its golden, pain-ridden eyes.

It was Carlos Onca - Doctor Venteen's young Darien Gap protégé.

Carlos Onca - the highly competent and capable Patriarch University archeology doctoral candidate.

But he did not look at all competent at the moment. He looked insane.

"Carlos?" Nohni hoped her voice was recognizable to him since his eyes had the far-away look of someone unaware of his surroundings. He was now mumbling words. Strange words - probably from his own obscure native dialect.

"Daeom'acal…Polata'an…Cosatacl."

Nohni cautiously approached the panting, mumbling jaguar - both paws held out before her, palms up. "Carlos? It's me - Nohni."

"Daeom'acal…Polata'an…Cosatacl."

Carlos still didn't seem to notice her as he mouthed the strange words over and over. His golden eyes stared past her - into something Nohni could only imagine.

"Carlos, please look at me?"

"Daeom'acal…Polata'an…Cosatacl. Daeom'acal…Polata...Pola…Po…- "

The black jaguar's eyes were shifting toward Nohni's concerned ones, and she could see tears welling up in them. Her paw was an inch away from Carlos' muzzle, but he wasn't looking at it. He seemed to be noticing her face for the first time. His eyes narrowed a bit.

"Atal Xammana?" he whispered.

Nohni's paw moved forward ever-so-slightly.  it touched a black whisker. Carlos screamed.

It was a horrendous cat scream of mindless rage. In a heartbeat he was on Nohni, knocking her backward onto the floor. One paw ripped her shirt from her chest and the other paw, claws bared, went straight for the spot under Nohni's chest ruff beneath which her beating heart lay. Black claws pierced fur and flesh and buried themselves in her breastbone.

Hot drool splattered Nohni's face as her own paw came up to grasp the one threatening to rip her chest open. But the grip was like iron - the pain like molten metal. Salivating jaws opened above her face.

"DAEOM'ACAL! POLATA'AN!"

In that fraction of an instant, Nohni could only wonder if these would be the last words she would ever hear.

------------------------------------------@@------------------------------------------

Voices


Time.

Half-Time.

Quarter - Time.

... E i g t h - T i m e ...

…  D  e  a  d  -  T  i  m  e …

 

They say time slows down for those who know they are close to death. They can sense everything in the smallest detail as the seconds turn into hours - like for the poor soul in the headlights of the speeding car, or the soldier in the bunker as the shell explodes beside him - or the golden jackal having the life crushed from her lungs by the paw of a mad thing. They also say those near death can sometimes see themselves from afar - from outside their own bodies - like they are floating and looking down upon the scene.

A scene of a black jaguar atop a dying golden jackal.

Nohni looked at herself.

…dead...

I… must… be… dea…

A golden flash blazed across her dimming vision.

Too fast!

Dead-Time instantly exploded back into Real-Time.

Whatever the bright thing was, it had struck Carlos a tremendous blow to the side of his head. The black jaguar tumbled off Nohni and lay still - his limp paw still stuck to Nohni's chest by claws buried in her breastbone.

Too fast.

Nohni tried to breathe, but her chest burned and lights were beginning to pop behind her now closed eyelids. Goddesses, she hurt! And now her head began to spin too fast as well. She tried to call out, get some help, but she couldn't get enough breath. All she could do was groan. Then, as the darkness fell, she heard a voice that sounded vaguely familiar speaking to her from far away.

"You can thank me later - Sister."

 

------------------------------------------@@------------------------------------------

 

"Nohni?"

The golden jackal heard another familiar voice. It too, seemed far away as did a musky scent that could only belong to...

"Raven?"

Nohni barely heard her own faint whisper.

"I am here."

Soft lips brushed across Nohni's nose followed by a loving lick. Nohni took a stab at smiling, but her effort was dulled by the growing pain that accompanied her increase in consciousness.

"Where…?"

"Hospital," came the low, husky whisper of the blue wolf. "Hush. Don't try to move just yet."

"Carlos is in the room across the hall from us," came the unmistakable voice of Hazel. "And before you strain yourself trying to ask, yes, he'll pull through as well, albeit with quite a few more stitches in his head than you got between your bountiful tits. Yes, he is conscious, and no, he doesn't remember attacking you, though he does remember something of what happened before that."

"He was appalled when he found out you were in the hospital too," Raven continued, "and one of the officers in his room had to physically hold him down to keep him from rushing in here to see you."

"Officers?" whispered Nohni. She had gotten up the courage to open her eyes and though blurry, she could see both Raven and Hazel hovering over her. They were looking at each other.

"Out with it," mumbled Nohni, her voice a little stronger. "What's going on?"

"Well, it's hard to ignore the facts," Hazel began. "Carlos basically trashed the library lounge, scared off the students on the entire first floor, and was in possession of a feline fur's heart - a fairly fresh one at that."

"Not to mention attacking me, on top of it all," added Nohni, with a frown. She saw Hazel and Raven give each other a worried look at this statement. Well - it was a worrisome thought after all. "So, Carlos is under arrest?" she asked her voice growing stronger.

The two furs turned to her, but it was Raven who spoke.

"Actually, he's being 'detained for questioning', but most furs would call that 'arrest' anyway."

"Mind you, Carlos has been nothing but cooperative since he woke up," Hazel added quickly. "There doesn't seem to be any residual 'craziness', but he can still be quite emotional, even when he's normal."

"He does have a lawyer with him, doesn't he?" Nohni asked, suddenly concerned.

"Oh, that he does," put in Hazel quickly. "Best the University has to offer. When I said he was 'cooperative' I simply meant he was willing to answer questions after consultation with counsel. Don't worry about that. We're doing this all legit."

"So what set him off?" Nohni asked. "Did he say?" She lifted a paw to scratch her chest. It was painful, but the bandages were itchy. However, Raven restrained her. Then she placed a piece of paper into Nohni's paw.

"Look at this," Raven said in explanation. "It's a transcript of the note that was found in the crushed packing box used to send Carlos the heart. The note was paw-written in Carlos' native language, but since Carlos was unconscious at the time, we had to have someone from the Anthropology Department translate it. Actually, Carlos' former tribe had no written language at all, so whoever wrote it did so phonetically. That was a problem until someone accessed Doctor Venteen's files and found a catalog of phonetically spelled words for Carlos' native tongue which allowed them to translate the note into English. Some of the words had no translation though, but when we showed the transcript to Carlos after he woke up, he filled in the gaps and pronounced the rest of it a pretty good translation. Go on. Give it a read."

Nohni blinked a few more times, but things were still fuzzy. She brought the note closer to her face and found it was easier to focus at that range.

 

You still live, Semmasa (Shaman Apprentice) Caral (Carlos' native name) of Dead Tribe. (This is) good. Daeom'acal (Shaman Acal) (of the) Eyed Spot Tribe needs you. I send Polata'an - (Heart of Friend) of Atal Xammana (Small Night Sister). (You must) answer (its) call. Come to Cosatacl (Dire Place). Bring your Yellow Friend, (for) one Polata'an demands a second. You know this (from) your departed (dead) Daeom (Shaman)

 

Nohni read the note several times before handing it back to Raven. "What about the feline heart? This note implies it was the 'Heart of a Friend', and 'Little Night Sister' could mean a member of the smaller-bodied cats, like the Ocelot. Is the heart… or rather, was it…Doctor Venteen's heart?"

Raven shook her head. "Police forensics established quickly that it was an Ocelot heart, but they also found out that it was from a young fur – probably aged 18 to 25. Doc Venteen is in good shape for her age, but she's still fifty two. That would have shown up as certain changes in the coronary artery walls and the heart muscle itself."

"The results of the forensic report were the first thing we told Carlos when he started to wake up," added Hazel. "I think that's what kept him rational. He and Doctor Venteen have a long history together - all the way back to when she first found him nearly dead in the jungle. She's the only 'family' Carlos has since the rest of his tribe was wiped out by drug-runners, so when he saw the note and what the box contained, he came to the obvious - and disastrous - conclusion."

"It may not be Doctor Venteen's heart," offered Nohni, "but it's still a heart from a fur that I doubt gave it willingly. I think the police would call that 'Murder'."

Both Hazel and Raven nodded. "They don't think Carlos did it," added Raven, "but he's a material witness since the heart was sent to him."

"So, do we have any idea who the murderer might be?"

"The package was postmarked priority mail, Panama City, Panama, ten days ago," stated Raven. "Though it's long since evaporated, the packing in the box suggests dry ice was packed in with the heart - probably to keep it from spoiling too fast. That would have gotten it noticed by Canadian Customs real quick. The note mentions only one fur by name: Daeom'acal or Shaman Acal of the Eyed Spot tribe. Carlos says he recognized the tribe's name from his youth when he was still with his own tribe in the Darien Gap area between Panama and Columbia. He says 'Eyed Spot' is the literal translation of the native name, Opexul, which also means 'jaguar'. He says the tribe probably still exists, and Doctor Venteen was in the Darien Gap area on her latest field research project."

"Maybe they've taken her as a hostage?" Nohni said, her voice tightening with anger. "I can't think whoever sent this sick present didn't know about Carlos' relation to Doctor Venteen and how he would react. They must have found out about it directly from her."

"That's what the police think," offered Hazel. "So Carlos is off the hook as far as a murder charge goes."

"But there's all the other crap he has to answer for," stated Nohni shaking her head. "If I know Carlos, he won't like anything that keeps him from rushing off to Panama to find out what's happened to Doctor Amelda Venteen. And an assault charge would definitely delay him."

"But Carlos wasn't himself when he did that," protested Hazel. "You're not thinking of actually pressing charges - are you?" Hazel unquestionably looked apprehensive now.

Nohni gazed at her two friends for a long moment - long enough to elicit even more worried looks from them. Then she shook her head. "No. I won't press charges. I think you knew I wouldn't."

The two femmes looked relieved, but Nohni held up a paw and shook her head. "However… that doesn't mean the city prosecutor won't press charges. Assault is one of those crimes that doesn't need the victim's permission to prosecute. Hell! Anyone looking at the scene in the lounge could have guessed what happened. There I am, lying on the floor next to Carlos with his claws literally stuck into my breastbone. I mean really, the police can add two and… two?" Nohni's voice trailed away because Raven and Hazel were now looking rather perplexed at this point. "Okay, girls," huffed Nohni. "Why the worried and dumbfounded looks? You saw it! You were there!"

"Nohni," Raven began. "Please don't mention this to anyone. Yes. We got there before anyone else did, but…" Raven shot an anxious look at Hazel who gave her a quick, nervous nod. Raven returned her gaze to Nohni. "Well… we re-arranged a few things so the police wouldn't think there was an assault at all." This last came out in a rush that was almost too fast to understand.

Nohni stared. Raven broke eye contact and looked down at her feet, but Hazel had the most curious mixture of apprehension and defiance on her muzzle.

"You altered a crime scene?" asked Nohni in a low, disapproving voice.

To Nohni's astonishment Hazel growled at her! "Dammit Nohni!" cursed the lioness. "Carlos doesn't need to be raked over the legal coals after what those turds sent him! How would you like it if you were sent the dead heart of the only family you had left? Isn't that enough pain?"

Nohni blinked and would have backed away from the lioness' flashing eyes had she not been lying in a hospital bed. "I'm sorry, Hazel." she said meekly. "I…I didn't know you and Carlos were… that close." In truth, Nohni hadn't suspected this at all. Hazel was a 'fun-loving' personality, to be sure, but she'd never openly displayed a deeper attachment to any of her 'playthings'.

Hazel did look away now, crossing her arms defensively across her own ample chest. "I like him. Anything wrong with that? Besides, we didn't need to alter the crime scene that much. We just moved you a little bit further toward that spiky, iron coat rack next to the entranceway and tip it over on you. That made it look like you ran into it while running into the room."

Nohni blinked again and slowly shook her head. "No. No. That's not right. That can't be right. I was nowhere near the door. I was in the process of passing out and Carlos had his claws buried in my breastbone!" Nohni tapped her bandaged chest to emphasize the point. "They were in the bone! I could feel them in there, and I knew I was going to die. I was nearly gone at that point and in no condition to do anything about it! But right at the last instant - and I clearly remember this part - something flashed through my vision, something that I think was gold-colored. It hit Carlos and he rolled off me. And it was after Carlos rolled off me with his claws still stuck in me, that I remember someone else speaking! They said 'You can thank me later – Sister'. Then I passed out." Nohni pointed to Hazel and then to Raven. "One of you must have saved me!" But both Raven and Hazel were shaking their heads. It was Raven who knelt down beside Nohni and took her paw - gently.

"Nohni, dear? I'm not sure what you're talking about. Neither of us 'saved' you. When Hazel could finally breathe again and move off of the library steps, she called me before making her way to the lounge. I met her at the door. We found Carlos unconscious, and you lying at least twelve feet from him. He was in the middle of the room and you were nearly in the doorway! Other than the fact that you were both wounded, there was no direct evidence that you had fought each other at all. There could have been a third party. So Hazel and I entered cautiously. When we discovered no one else was there, we…ah… re-arranged things a bit. We also found that clunky Mellon Goddess statue of yours next to Carlos' bloody head. You know - the golden statue with the big tits you so irreverently display on your office desk? Anyway, I told the police that I used it to take down a 'crazed' Carlos when it became clear he wasn't rational. I've got a good aim, remember?"

Raven smoothed back Nohni's mane and gave her a tremulous smile. "I'm not sure how you got hold of the Goddess, but in truth, I think you 'saved' yourself. You just don't remember."

Nohni stared at Raven for a moment, then closed her eyes and tried to slow her breathing - which had sped up in the retelling of her ordeal.

Saved herself?

If that were the case, then why could she clearly remember someone else saying 'You can thank me later - Sister'?

Nohni pushed the question aside for the moment. She could do nothing more about that mystery. What had her attention now was the fact that she truly did have something to be thankful for. With Carlos not burdened by the legal hassles associated with a serious assault charge, the two of them could get on with the job of finding the real criminals.

"You're going to go after them, aren't you."

This had been stated as a fact by Raven, and Nohni could see the concern and clouded fear in her friend's eyes.

"You know I am."

"And this time, I don't have a good excuse to go with you," continued Raven.

Nohni shook her head. "Unlike my quest for my parents in Egypt, this is something I can be objective about." She nodded to the hospital room door and the room opposite them. "It's Carlos who's going to have a hard time keeping his cool."

Raven brought Nohni's paw up to her muzzle and rubbed it there for a few moments. "But you will be in danger as well…No! No objections or rationalizations. Just listen to me, Nohni. The note from the killer also said 'Bring your Yellow Friend'. That must refer to you. So, the killer knows about you, too!"

Nohni pulled her paw from Raven's grasp and gently traced the line of the blue wolf's jaw with a claw. "The note also said 'One Polata'an, or Heart of a Friend, demands a second'." Nohni looked deeply into Raven's golden eyes. "One sacrificial death demands another. Crazed as he was, Carlos remembered this from his youth as a Shaman's Apprentice. That's why I think he went straight for my chest when we fought. He couldn't recognize me for who I was, but he knew what he had to do. He was trying to get the requisite Polata'an. Yes, Raven, I know the danger – but if I have anything to say about it, the second sacrificial death will not be mine!"

Nohni waved the note in her other paw. "Sacrificial death by cutting out a heart? This whole thing has 'Ancient Mayan/Aztec/Etc. Civilizations' written all over it, and though Carlos has come a long way in his archeological education, I'm still way ahead of him. He needs my head more than he needs my heart."

"I'm coming with you."

Nohni's head swiveled around to face the tawny librarian. "Hazel! The Darien Gap is not for amateurs! Besides a jungle that has more ways to kill you than you know, there are the deadly heart-stealing natives, along with bandits, drug runners and all their assorted ilk. You are not…"

"Can the noble shit, Nohni!" shot back Hazel. "I've already had this debate with Carlos! I WILL be coming along…" Hazel held up her Sat-Cell phone. "…as the Remote Gatherer and Dispenser of Essential and Timely Information." The lioness gave Nohni an 'I tried' sort of look and shook her head. "There's no way Carlos was going to let me come along physically - chauvinistic little kitten that he is - but I convinced him that having me access information from our University's library and passing it on to him when he needs it," Hazel wiggled the Sat-Cell, "can be quite helpful. If I recall correctly, I've helped you out a time or two that way."

Nohni nodded. "And I thank you for that."

It was Raven who now lowered her head and affectionately head-butted Nohni's chin. In response, Nohni cradled her friend's head on her chest and licked her ears. Raven heaved a big sigh before looking up again. "You be careful – Sister."

Nohni smiled.

"You know I will."

 

------------------------------------------@@------------------------------------------

 

 Spirits and Bones

 

The kick that knocked Nohni flat came out of nowhere.

In an instant, her opponent was straddling her, and a black furred forearm across her neck was pinning her head to the mat. Another black paw was grasping a fistful of white chest ruff - right over Nohni's rapidly beating heart. Scalding breath blew across her face like the bellows of a metal forge, and long, sharp teeth glinted an inch from her nose.

"You've finally had… enough… punishment?" gurgled Nohni from beneath the black jaguar.

Carlos leapt off the prone golden jackal and quickly offered a paw. Nohni took it and got hauled to her feet facing the panting feline. She searched his face, but saw no lingering doubt, apprehension, or remorse. "Good," Nohni said between deep breaths. "That took less time… than I thought."

"Madre de Dios,… Chiquita," panted Carlos. "You downed me… eleven times… Hard! Thees ees not… enough?"

Nohni poked the black jaguar in the chest. "I think… I'm a little too big… to be called a 'Chiquita', black boy." Nohni let out a big breath and shook out her arms. "So," she continued. "We're… even? No more… 'I am so sorry I hurt you, Mees Wabanda',… or 'Can you ever forgeeve my horreeble behavior'?"

Carlos continued to pant, but a grin was spreading slowly across his muzzle - which gave Nohni just enough warning. A blindingly swift twist of her torso deflected his lunge and in a flash she once again had him face down on the mat, both his arms bent behind him. "I'll take that as a 'Yes, we're even'." She leaned forward from her spot on top of him and whispered in his ear. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you like having my crotch sitting on your tail."

Carlos' black paw hit the mat three times and Nohni bounced off of him - offering him her paw this time. He took it and, once again, they faced each other - this time as equals.

"I think that's enough physical stuff for this evening," Nohni said gesturing to one of the benches that lined the sparring room at the University's Student Development Center. "We need to talk about what we're going to do to those assholes that sent you your little Valentines present."

"Valentines present?" Carlos pronounced slowly as they walked.

"Sorry. Bad joke." Nohni collapsed onto a bench, grabbed the bottled water she'd left there earlier, and took a huge gulp. She offered it to Carlos. Carlos not only took a huge gulp himself, but poured the rest of it over his head. He really did look overheated.

"Polata'an." Nohni said simply. "I did some research this past week while we were recovering from our little disagreement, but there's no reference to 'Polata'an' in the Mayan, Aztec, Olmec or any other texts I've searched on Meso-American civilizations. Care to fill me in on that?"

Carlos looked off into the distance, and Nohni knew he was searching his own memories - memories of a young adulthood marred by a horrible catastrophe that left him without any of his own kind. He closed his eyes and gave himself a little shake.

"Eet ees something only the tribes of the Darien Gap use." He turned to Nohni and his expression became very serious. "There ees much that only we of the Gap know. In old times, great civilizations flourished North and South of us, but the Gap eetself - thees was for us alone. Even to thees day, the Gap ees a harsh place for those who do not know eet's secrets."

This was true. Nohni knew that the Darien Gap on the narrow Isthmus of Panama was almost completely unoccupied jungle. And no one, it seemed, wanted to have anything to do with it. As proof of this, it was the only place where there was a big break in the continents-spanning Pan American Highway. It was only a hundred and fifty mile gap, but there were no plans to build a road - even a dirt one. It seems the political willpower to do so wasn't there. Some politicians said the Gap served a purpose in keeping the two continents separate - thus preventing the spread of species and diseases that could devastate the opposite continent. Others said it was a good barrier to the trade in illicit drugs. However, as evidenced by the attack on Carlos' tribe, drug runners did try to cross it from time to time. Despite the hazards they could encounter there, it was 'wide open' country. Authorities in Panama and Columbia found the area too daunting to patrol.

Carlos had dropped his eyes to the small sack he always wore on a thong around his neck. It was his eemot sack - one of the few artifacts he still possessed from his former life. Nohni placed a sympathetic paw on his big shoulder. "I'm sorry if I've caused you to recall unpleasant memories, but this is important. If I am to help you, I need to understand why this was done to you."

 Carlos nodded, and turned back to her. "Thees ees what I know from my own Shaman back when I was still Semmasa een my own tribe. Polata'an - our Heart of a Friend Ritual - was used by a tribe's Shaman to summon other Shaman to heem - but only for the most urgent reason. I was never told what this reason was. I was told the Shaman giving the summons received some sign or warning from hees god or other powerful spirit. The very fact that anyone would sacrifice their own friend's life to their god emphasized how dire the need was for a meeting."

Nohni shook her head. "But if the Polata'an was from a friend of the summoning Shaman, why did you react the way you did to the heart sent to you? Surely…you don't think Doctor Venteen became friends with furs…like…like these?" Nohni's voice trailed off as she saw Carlos nod gravely.

"Doctor Venteen, she ees very good at making friends with remote tribes. Eet ees something essential for her anthropology research. How else can she study them eef she is not their friend? She…she could have been a true friend."

"But the forensics lab showed it couldn't have been Doctor Venteen's heart," Nohni pointed out. "So it had to be another friend of this shaman?"

Carlos shook his head ever so slightly. "Maybe eet was. Maybe eet wasn't. The Heart of a Friend ritual can either involve the heart of a true friend or it can be any heart. Eef the Polata'an ees not from a friend, then eet ees still a summons, but eet becomes a summons to a fight! For what would you do eef someone made you keel a friend for no good reason?" Again Carlos shook his head. "But how can I know thees? Even though eet was not Amelda Venteen's heart I received, eet is still Polata'an unteel proven otherwise."

"But you were never made Shaman of your tribe," observed Nohni. "How can you be a valid recipient of a Polata'an heart?"

Carlos shook his head, his expression becoming dangerous now. "Thees I do not know. I can only think that Daeom'acal of the Eyed Spot tribe assumes I am Shaman since I am thee only one left of what he calls 'Dead Tribe'. Een reality, my tribe was called Nocpexul - the Dark Ones - because we are - were - black jaguars."

"So what are your options?" Nohni asked.

"Either I go to the meeting at Cosatacl - the Dire Place - weeth a heart of a friend and find out why I am so badly needed…or I go weeth the heart of a stranger and then fight for answers."

"And if you go with no heart at all?"

Carlos gave Nohni a troubled look. "Eef the heart I was sent ees truly Polata'an eet ees not good to theenk about that. The spirit of the Polata'an sent to me ees watching me even now to see that I answer the summons weeth a second heart." Carlos shook his head. "Eet ees the Polata'an, not the Shaman, that demands the second heart. To not offer one is to be haunted by the unanswered Polata'an for the rest of my life."

Nohni glanced around the well-lit sparring room before turning a questioning gaze back on Carlos. "If it was not a Polata'an heart - say, just the heart of some poor fur that this Shaman Deaom'acal murdered - the spirit would not be watching you?"

"I do not theenk so. Eef anyone, eet would watch eet's own murderer."

Nohni nodded and tapped Carlos' left paw. "So, is there any way you can detect - spiritually speaking - whether a spirit is watching you right now? You sensed the 'spirit' possessing the lost Penis of Osiris before we went to Egypt to find my parents. If you could sense it, would that prove one way or the other, if it was a true Polata'an."

Carlos shook his head. "Unlike the Penis of Osiris, the Polata'an no longer occupies thee actual heart. Eet ees much easier to detect a spirit locked inside a physical object like the Penis of Osiris, because I know where to 'look'. On the other paw, a Polata'an ees a free-roaming spirit and makes eet's presence known when eet wants to. I cannot summon eet."

Nohni nodded, and the two of them stared out across the sparring room. Nohni finally broke the silence with a whisper.

"And you simply can't just 'borrow' a heart from one of the cadavers at the University's Pre-Med School. It must be a heart from a fur you kill yourself."

Carlos nodded again as his eyes narrowed and his jaw tightened. His words came out in a low growl. "I am not such a coward that a fight weeth Daeom'acal frightens me. A friend's heart will not be taken to satisfy heem." He looked to Nohni. "I also theenk that maybe he expects this. Remember, the note weeth the heart told me to 'bring your yellow friend, for one Polata'an demands another'. 'Your yellow friend' can only mean you, Nohni, friend. However, eet deed not say to bring only your heart. I theenk you are to come to the Dire Place whole and alive. What happens after that…?" Carlos raised a paw in front of him and glared at it as he tightened it into a fist. "Murder is a terrible act, but there are those who roam the Gap that I can easily see dying by my own paw."

"Drug runners," thought Nohni.

Carlos lowered his fist. "The call of the Polata'an will be answered, but never by a friend."

 

------------------------------@@--------------------------------

 

"Will you answer that call Carlos?"

Nohni was balanced precariously on her office chair rummaging on the top shelf of a particularly tall storage cabinet, and answering the desk phone right now would be difficult.

"Thees ees Doctor Wabanda's office," came Carlos' voice. "Yes she ees here, but cannot come to thee phone….Yes?....Yes, I can take a message….Oh, yes, I will certainly tell her! Goodby."

"What is it?" Nohni asked pulling the dusty book on Mayan culture she was looking for from the back of the shelf.

"The Customs Office downtown wishes to see you," answered Carlos looking grave. "Another package has arrived from Panama. Eet's addressed to you this time."

Nohni scrambled down from her chair and dropped the book on her desk. Her eyes were locked onto Carlos' face, but there were no signs of obvious distress, only concern. "And?" she prompted. "Anything else?"

"They say eet contains a crystal bone."

Nohni frowned. "A crystal bone?" She shook her head. "Gods, not another crystal skull, I hope." Nohni had received two of those in the past year from so-called 'collectors' wishing for her to verify their ancient, Pre-Columbian origins. Both had been fakes - just like all the other crystal skulls she'd ever examined. Finding traces of carborundum, a synthetic abrasive not even invented until the late 1800s, was a dead giveaway - though some true-believers would attribute this to the advanced 'aliens' who they say gave the Mayans the skulls in the first place. Mayan crystal skulls were another hot 'doomsday' item these days - being something else that was attached to the '2012 Mayan Calendar Catastrophe' scenario. Some said if all thirteen so-called Crystal Skulls were re-united, it would stop the 2012 disaster from happening.

"More rubbish to deal with," Nohni mumbled.

Carlos shrugged. "Since eet comes from Panama, they theenk eet may be connected with the other package I received from there."

Nohni nodded gravely. "Okay. We'd better see what this is all about."

 

------------------------------------------@@------------------------------------------

 

It was evening by the time Nohni and Carlos returned to her office. They'd spent nearly two hours answering questions and convincing the authorities that the little crystal 'bone' was not going to send Carlos into another frenzy. He'd even touched it with his left paw - the one he used to sense 'spiritual energy' as he called it. He'd then given Nohni a covert shake of his head.

Nothing.

Those same authorities had also revealed that the crystal bone package had arrived only a day after the first one, and they'd kept it to do a thorough forensic examination of both the package and its contents, including testing for a whole range of chemicals as well as latent fingerprints. As it turned out, it was just a clean, crystal 'bone' in an ordinary packing box. It looked like a rather nice little trinket, but that was all.

At least that's what Nohni had told them.

It did have the classic bone shape - a simple shaft, flared at both ends, and Nohni was now examining the thing closely using a 4x eye loupe.

"No markings on it that I can see," she mumbled. "But then, the authorities probably examined it under something a lot more powerful than my eye loupe." She looked up at Carlos. "Any ideas?"

Carlos took the thing from her and held it up to the light coming from the desk lamp. He turned it this way and that. "I have one idea, but eet ees only an impression."

"Anything is better than nothing," replied Nohni leaning back in her chair. "Normally, I'd just toss this thing in my 'Examine-It-Later' cabinet, but it came from Panama at nearly the same time as the Polata'an, so there may be something to it."

"Well, eet's shape and size makes eet look like a feenger bone," offered Carlos, tapping the eemot sack tied around his neck. "Almost like one of the feenger bones I would have gotten from my Shaman master when he finally passed on."

Nohni nodded. Carlos had explained that a Shaman's apprentice took the finger bones from the body of his master when he died. These dried and preserved bones were supposed to be useful in giving advice to those who had future decisions to make. Unfortunately, Carlos had never gotten the chance to collect his master's finger bones. She pointed to Carlos.

"It's your decision to make, but would you keep it for now in your eemot sack? I have no clue to its true significance, but I have the feeling this bone might be important later."

Carlos regarded the crystal bone for a moment before opening the little eemot sack and dropping it inside.

Actually, Nohni had more than a hunch it might come in useful, later.

After all, the package had been addressed to "Nohni Wabanda…

 

 …My Sister."

 

------------------------------------------@@------------------------------------------

History Lessons

 

A Bone in a Box.

Nohni leaned back in her chair, a small, unremarkable packing box held before her in one paw and a polished claw on her other paw thoughtfully tapping a canine tooth. She was back in her office this morning trying to figure out what she needed to take with her to Panama. The Crystal Bone she and Carlos had received yesterday was one obvious item, but that seemed a very tiny thing when compared to the big tasks she feared awaited them. There had to be more to this mystery than a scrawled note in Carlos' native tongue, a heart from a young Ocelot, and a crystal finger bone. Nohni turned the packing box around several times, but no matter how she viewed it, it still looked like a plain brown packing box.

All except for two things: the words 'My Sister' in the address, and the postage stamps.

Nohni was sure the 'My Sister' reference was significant, but then there were those damned stamps! They just seemed to draw the eye. There were several of them pasted to the front of the box, and all of them depicted scenes showing one Vasco Núñez de Balboa. Nohni frowned slightly. Maybe she shouldn't be too surprised at that. After all, Balboa was considered to be a hero of Panama. Statues of this famous Spanish explorer stood not only in Panama City, but in Madrid over in Spain. Balboa's most famous achievement was being the first Spaniard to set eyes upon the Pacific Ocean during a 1513 expedition that had crossed the Isthmus of Panama. Of course there would be Panamanian postage stamps depicting him. Still, was this another clue? Was there something else? Something unusual about Balboa that Nohni should know?

Nohni mentally reviewed the interesting historical facts she knew about this early explorer of the New World. Vasco Núñez de Balboa had an unusual background for a Spanish Conquistador. He was not a son of important Spanish nobility. He was actually the third son of a very minor noble, and had to literally buy his way to the New World, rather than being sponsored by the Spanish Crown. Then in 1509, after trying and failing to be a farmer in Hispaniola (Haiti), he smuggled himself aboard a ship headed for the Isthmus of Panama. He was discovered by the captain, but his charismatic nature saved him from being unceremoniously tossed off the ship, and his powers of persuasion, along with an uncanny ability to survive - even thrive - in the harsh New World environment, soon set him up as de-facto lieutenant governor of the Province of Daria on the gulf of Uruba.

"A real 'Rags to Riches' story," thought Nohni.

Balboa's base of operations was the town/fort of Santa Maria Del Antigua Del Darien on the Uruba coast of the Isthmus of Panama. From this settlement, he had gone out on several expeditions to find gold and riches for the Spanish Crown. This activity was not unusual for a Conquistador, however, he was nearly the only Spanish explorer who treated the natives with decency. Because of this, many of the local tribes actually liked him. This undoubtedly helped him maintain a strong Spanish presence in Daria.

However, his ability to make a real go of things in a very harsh land was making the other New World officials, like Pedrarias Dávila, the regional governor, look bad. Of course, the fact that these other officials really were horrible administrators never occurred to them. In the end, Pedrarias set things up to get Balboa falsely charged with treason in 1519. Halfway back from another expedition, Balboa encountered a group of soldiers commanded by Francisco Pizarro, who arrested him and accused him of trying to usurp Pedrarias' power. Outraged, Balboa denied all charges and demanded that he be taken to Spain to stand trial. Pedrarias, however, ordered that the trial take place in Daria without delay. It was a short trial after which Balboa was sentenced to death by decapitation. Four of Balboa's friends, accused as accomplices, were sentenced to the same fate.

This might seem a typical story of corrupt government avoiding embarrassment except for two things. Firstly, after Balboa's death no one was ever able to establish another colony or lasting presence in the Darian Gap area of Panama. It was as if the land itself rejected domination. And secondly, no one knew where the body of Vasco Núñez de Balboa was laid to rest. It was as if the body and any record of its location had disappeared from the face of the earth.

Nohni looked again at the cancelled postage stamps on the packing box. The one that caught her eye quickest was the biggest one - the one that listed the years of Balboa's birth and death under a picture of the explorer. 1474 to 1519. In fact, now that she examined it closer, both the birth and death dates on the stamp seemed to be circled lightly in red ink. The death date even looked like it was circled twice. At first, the markings had looked like they were part of the red cancellation stamp, but no. They were definitely something separate. On impulse, Nohni looked up Balboa's exact date of death since it was circled twice and came up with Jan 15th, 1519. Then, on another whim, she translated that date to the Mayan Long Count Calendar date.

11.14.18.15.13

Nohni shook her head. The sequence suggested a simple number 'pyramid' with the highest number in the middle and the other numbers getting lower to either side, but other than that, it was not a very remarkable number. She did the same exercise with Balboa's date of birth which was July 8th, 1474 - and this time, the equivalent Mayan Long Count Calendar date was a lot more interesting.

11.12.13.12.11

A perfectly symmetrical, consecutive number pyramid with '13' at the apex!

Nohni tapped the number. Some Mayans put a lot of emphasis on certain numbers, like 13, but was this number noteworthy? Well, both the birth and death dates on the stamp had been circled deliberately and most ancient civilizations that were prone to do so, put prophetic significance on the dates of one's birth and death, so perhaps there was some significance to these numbers.

But then again, maybe it was all garbage.

Nohni suddenly slammed the book on Mayan dates shut and tossed it onto a growing pile of reference texts next to her desk. What the hell was she doing? Mayan Long Calendar Dates? It was like she was grasping at straws - trying to find clues where none existed. Damn! What did Mayans have to do with Carlo's and Nohni's problem in Panama other than the fact that they liked to chop the living hearts out of their sacrificial victims? The Mayan civilization flourished on the Yucatan peninsula hundreds of miles away from the ancient Province of Daria where Balboa once lived and explored.

But all of those ancient civilizations including the Mayans eventually fell to the Spaniards. And unbeknownst to most high school (and even college students), the conquest of the Continental New World started in the Darien Gap area! The government of Spain had been told by none other than Columbus himself that the Darien Gap was the land to go to if you wanted gold and riches. The famed 'Eldorado' was said to be in this area, and gold had actually been found in some of the local streams. So, before Pizarro trashed the Incans of Peru, before Cortez, duped and destroyed the Aztecs of Mexico, before any of the other debacles of mass destruction occurred in the New World, there was…

The Darien Gap.

The very first area after the voyages of Columbus to be targeted by Spain for exploitation on the mainland of the Americas.

And the only place - even to this day - that had not yet been truly conquered.

By anyone.

Except…

"You called me, Professor?"

Carlos Onca - Archeology doctoral candidate, and native of the Darien Gap, strode into the room with a stealthy grace that Nohni still marveled at. This fur could appear and disappear seemingly at will - a good skill to have when enemies were everywhere.

"Have a seat, Carlos."

The black jaguar didn't simply sit down. He flowed into the chair opposite Nohni's desk. Nohni grinned, but then became serious. There were other things to think about now - important things - Dire Things.

"Cosatacl," Nohni asked simply. "The Dire Place. Any results from your library search?"

Carlos dropped his head and shook it.

"I didn't think so," Nohni said, not unkindly, "but it was worth a try."

Carlos raised his eyes to hers. "I have also tried to theenk of other theengs my Daeom - my Shaman - told me that might refer to Cosatacl - theengs that might tell us where eet ees, but I cannot. He only told me eet's name - not eet's significance or location."

Nohni nodded. The note Carlos received with the heart had bidden him to come to Cosatacl - The Dire Place - with his 'yellow friend', but that was proving to be a difficult request since Carlos had no idea where the Dire Place was - or even what it was.

"A shaman from another Darien tribe might know of thees place," offered Carlos. "I theenk we will need to seek one out when we go to Daria and ask. Maybe…"

The buzz of the office intercom interrupted the black jaguar, and Nohni stabbed at the button. "I thought I said I was not to be disturbed!" she hissed.

"I'm sorry, Professor Wabanda," answered Barbara, the office receptionist, "but I have two gentlemen out here. They say they've traveled all the way from Columbia, and are representing a Mr. Pedro Arias Dávila in a matter concerning the authenticity of a Pre-Columbian artifact that Mr. Dávila recently acquired. They say it's quite important that they see you immediately."

Nohni frowned. There was something about that name. "They're representing who?"

"Mr. Pedro Arias Dávila."

Instantly, an image of two circled dates on a Panamanian postage stamp popped into Nohni's mind. Just as suddenly, a name flashed through her memory - a name that was not that of the Spanish explorer depicted on the stamp!

Nohni caught Carlos' attention and hastily gave him several silent, paw signals - signals Carlos had taught her - signals his former tribe in Daria had used for stealth during the hunt. Carlos scowled fiercely but made no noise as he nodded his comprehension. In an instant, the black jaguar 'disappeared' out the office door, leaving it open. Nohni quickly opened the drawer where she kept her gold-anodized S&W 1911 .45 auto. She took it out, grabbed the slide and chambered a round.

"Alright then, send them in," Nohni announced clearly into the intercom. Then she, too, disappeared between two, tall filing cabinets on the opposite side of the room.

"I hope Carlos got the message," Nohni thought as she waited. The paw signals she'd given him translated roughly to 'Sound diversion in some breaths' after which she'd raised five fingers, pointed to the intercom and then the door. Silence was the reason she'd used the paw signals at all, but they were a primitive form of communication - from a primitive tribe. Time was a vague thing to tribes that had no way of keeping time. And the ability to count was often limited. Carlos said most tribe's shaman had knowledge of numbers, but few others did. Five, or 'some' breaths translated to about thirty seconds.

Before even fifteen seconds was up a tan jaguar in shirt and jeans and a boarhound in a suit had walked into the office through the open door. If Nohni was mistaken about these two and they were legit, they'd either turn around and walk right back to the receptionist to ask where Nohni had gone, or they would stand and wait.

"Hello?" said the boarhound, looking around. "Anyone here?"

This was the decision point. What would they do? What the borehound did was walk right up to the desk and pick up the packing box Nohni had been examining earlier. Not the sort of behavior you'd expect from a respectful guest. He showed the box to his jaguar partner and nodded. At this point he flicked his eyes around the room and the jaguar nodded back at him. It looked like they were going to search the place while they had the chance. The two of them moved quickly around the desk. The boarhound continued to look around as the jaguar opened the top desk drawer to put a paw inside.

He didn't get the chance.

"Both of you! Don't move!" bellowed the high pitched voice of the receptionist out of the intercom.

Sheer reflex seemed to drive the boarhound as he whipped a 9mm Glock from a hidden shoulder holster and pointed it at the desk intercom. At the same instant, Nohni jumped from her hiding place, her .45 held out in front of her in a perfect double paw grip.

"DROP THE POPGUN, DOG!"

The boarhound flung himself sideways toward the door - and right into the oncoming fist of a black jaguar who had hurtled into the room at that very moment.

"You! On the floor! NOW!" bellowed Nohni at the stunned looking tan jaguar. Nohni didn't need to say it twice. Carlos body tackled the tan jaguar, pinning him to the floor.

"Don't hurt him, Carlos!" Nohni yelled as she ran up to the unconscious boarhound and kicked the 9mm out of his reach. "We need answers from him!" She checked to see that the boarhound was truly 'out of service' for now and then ran over to where Carlos sat atop a now very frightened, and rather old looking jaguar, if Nohni was interpreting the graying muzzle correctly.

"Madre De Dios!" exclaimed Carlos looking up at Nohni. "I deed what you signaled. I told Barbara to scream those words into the intercom before I came back here, but how deed you know thees two would attack you?"

"Looks like my mysterious guardian 'Sister' sent me another warning," explained Nohni with a growl. "It was the postage stamps on the box. Vasco Núñez de Balboa was betrayed and killed by a certain New World governor named Pedrarias Dávila. When I heard Barbara announce two visitors from Columbia representing someone called Pedro Arias Dávila, I just put two and two together. It looked like I was being set up for something unpleasant." Nohni frowned. "Columbians after our Crystal Bone? Some rich, artifact collecting, drug runner who has nothing better to do with his money?"

At this statement Carlos let out a low menacing growl and glared down at his captive.

"Don' leh heem hurt me," croaked the tan jaguar. His accent was considerably thicker than Carlos'.

"Carlos isn't going to hurt you - if he doesn't have to," Nohni spat kneeling down and looking ferocious.

"Nooo!" wailed the old jaguar. "Not thee black one! Not the Nocpexul!" He waved a free paw past Nohni. "Don' leh heem hurt me! The dog! The Columbian dog!"

Nohni looked over her shoulder at the unconscious boarhound, then back to the jaguar. "He's not going to hurt you either," Nohni grabbed a piece of his shirt, which Nohni now saw was a bit worn. "However, I might if you don't answer a few questions!"

The old jaguar nodded frantically. "Yes! Yes! I answer all your questions!"

Nohni pulled the jaguar a little closer and snarled. "First off, let's have some proper introductions! I'm Doctor Nohni Wabanda, presently a very pissed off Golden Jackal! My black partner here, who is about an inch away from punching your face right through the floor, is Carlos Onca." Nohni gave the jaguar another shake. "A YOU are???"

The old jaguar whimpered and looked from Nohni to Carlos then back to Nohni. He mumbled something inaudible and Nohni gave him another shake. "Speak up, puss! Or you'll be sucking your food through a straw for the next three months!"

"I'm…." he began. Then he gulped and looked pleadingly at Carlos.

"I'm Daeom'acal, and… I was thee one who sent you thee Polata'an."

 

------------------------------------------@@------------------------------------------

 

Goddess of Change

 

Paws.

Gold gripping Black.

The creak of tendon and bone.

The spasm and tremble of muscle beneath fur.

Nohni felt her ears begin to burn with the heat of her effort to hold back the black paw.

"Carlos! Listen to me, please! He's not worth your freedom."

Slowly, the black and gold paws inched away from the tan throat of the terrified jaguar. Even so, Carlos' glaring golden eyes continued to show murderous intent. "Buy your life weeth the truth, pasca! Or your passage from thees world will not be quick and easy!"

"Carlos!" Nohni hissed, still holding the black jaguar's paw. "Take this Daeom'acal - or whoever he is - to the unoccupied office on the second floor. Keep him there, and keep him quiet!" She looked around the office. "I want it to look like he escaped."

"But…," Carlos started.

Nohni cut him off. "No! Listen to me! We need him with us if we want information! Not downtown in some jail cell for who knows how long - especially if he gets locked in the same cell with Mr. Columbian Dog." She glanced quickly at the unconscious boarhound. "There's no way we'll get anything useful from that one. He looks hardcore, and I haven't the time to screw around with him. The boys with the badges might have the patience and experience to get something, but by the time they do, said information will be outdated by six months." She pointed to the door. "GO, already!"

Carlos went, dragging the old jaguar with him.

Nohni walked to the desk, and punched the intercom button. "Barbara? Call campus security and get them over here right away. I'll do the 9-1-1 thing on our Columbian intruders from my office phone in here. Oh. And nice timing on the scream over the intercom. Thanks."

Nohni put on her 'instructor' face and punched the speakerphone button on her office phone. Being a good storyteller was part of being a good teacher, and she knew she could spin a yarn as good as the best of them. She only hoped the old jaguar upstairs was not a good liar. False information led to bad decisions.

And things were getting too dangerous for that.

 

------------------------------------------@@------------------------------------------

 

Nohni dropped the bag with the Bigg Bunn Burgers unceremoniously on the desk in the empty office and eyed the two jaguars - the young, black one and the old, tan one. "Thought you two might want something to eat after your wait."

Carlos was looking sour and Daeom'acal was still looking scared - though it was a fear now tinged with exhaustion. The wait couldn't have been fun for either of them. Nohni had tried to keep her stay at the police station as short as possible, but there were forms to fill out and reports to give. All in all, it had taken about five hours. Nohni turned to Carlos and punched a thumb at Daeom'acal. "Was there anything our friend wanted to talk about while I was gone?"

"He told me what he had to say was best said to both of us," was Carlos' curt reply.

"Not very good company then," Nohni replied as she pulled a third chair up to the desk and fell into it. "How is his English? Am I going to have you translating all evening?"

"He speaks it well enough," grumbled Carlos. "Not all tribes in Daria are as isolated as mine…was." Carlos literally spat out the last word.

"This is not going to be a fun party," thought Nohni as she dumped out the burger bag and tossed one of them to each of the jaguars. She grabbed one herself and tore the wrapper off before speaking. "As for me, I've been talking my head off, and the boys downtown are now convinced that my two attackers were after some of my archeological trinkets. I told them I didn't know why." She took a huge bite of her Bigg Bunn. "Whi in't aw at fa fum vuh toof." She swallowed and looked at a puzzled Daeom'acal. "For those who don't speak 'Mouth-Full English', that translates to 'Which isn't all that far from the truth'. I still don't know what you want." Nohni let Daeom'acal chew on that for a while before adding, "I also told them the tan jaguar got away. I just didn't say he did so with our help."

Nohni eyed Daeom'acal closely, watching for some reaction, but the jaguar had dropped his eyes to his still unwrapped burger. "They're out there looking for you right now." Still, the jaguar said nothing. Setting her own burger down, she picked up Daeom'acal's and unwrapped it before setting it back down in front of him. "Eat. Please? Starving yourself won't help."

The jaguar looked up suddenly, and his eyes caught and held hers. There was something in those eyes - an emotion Nohni couldn't quite pin down. Whatever it was, it was powerful. Despite her uncertainty on this, she gave the jaguar a smile. It was a classic 'Good Cop' tactic and it seemed to work. Daeom'acal visibly relaxed, and he looked Nohni over as if seeing her for the first time.

"You… you look like her," he said.

Nohni gave Carlos a puzzled look before turning back to Daeom'acal. "Who do I look like?"

The old jaguar blinked a few times. "You look like her. Like Ynon-Upanuh Ahdnabau. Thee Goddess of Change."

Now it was Nohni's turn to blink. The Goddess of Change? The ancient central-American civilizations literally had hundreds of gods and goddesses - both major and minor - but she'd never heard of this one. And she ought to have. Nohni was a canine so this Ynon-Upanuh deity had to be canine too - and there were not many canine gods. Most of the Mayan/Aztec gods/goddesses were feline - which was easily explained since those civilizations were predominantly feline in population. Ancient canine civilizations - coyote and wolf - were farther north on the North American plains and in the boreal forests.

One of the most important Aztec gods, however, actually was a canine. Quetzalcoatl - the Big Honcho god. It was this fact that caused Emperor Moctezuma II of the Aztecs to mistake the appearance of Cortez as the return of Quetzalcoatl, thus giving the canine Spaniard the edge he needed to conquer the Aztecs with only a pawful of troops.

But then, Daeom'acal might be referring to a spirit or goddess exclusive to the Darien tribes. Nohni looked to Carlos. "Have you ever heard of this Ynon-Upanuh Ahdnabau?"

Carlos shook his head and continued to look dangerous.

"Nice 'Bad Cop' imitation," Nohni thought as she saw Daeom'acal cringe.

"I explain better," the old jaguar said quickly, turning back to Nohni. "Ynon-Upanuh Ahdnabau ees only what she calls herself, but I know this! She ees Goddess of Change because she came out of Cosatacl - what you say as 'Dire Place'! Any brave or foolish fur can go into Cosatacl, but only God or Goddess of Change comes out of that place!"

"Are you saying this Goddess of Change is a real fur?"

Daeom'acal nodded. "I see her come out of Cosatacl. That ees how I know you look like her."

"So you know where this Cosatacl place is?"

Again, Daeom'acal nodded.

Nohni looked to Carlos. "Looks like you were right about asking another Shaman where to go."

"But why does he send me Polata'an and then come here before I can respond?" Carlos spat. "What does he want?" He turned to the old jaguar and scowled. "And why do you bring pasca friend here with a gun?"

"One question at a time, friend." Nohni said, putting a restraining paw on the angry jaguar. She turned to the older jaguar and hardened her own expression. "The Polata'an was a summons - a message for Carlos to come to you, and to bring me with him. Why did you summon Carlos and how did you know about me?"

Daeom'acal gulped a few times before speaking. "It all starts with Cosatacl. All Darien tribes watch Cosatacl. This is our duty, as the keepers of Bridge Between Worlds," he answered.

"The Bridge Between Worlds?"

Daeom'acal nodded. "Great Old Cities to North of us and to South of us, but not on Bridge Between Worlds - what you call Isthmus of Panama. That ees reserved for us and for Cosatacl. Eet was my turn to watch when Cosatacl opened thees time. And when Cosatacl opens, all Daeom - all Shaman - must come! Thees I know from my own Daeom master. All Daeom know this." He looked to Carlos. "We all came to Cosatacl - the Dire Place, and we waited - and waited - but nothing happened! We took turns waiting. All of us could not stay there all thee time. Our own tribes needed us. But at least once every full moon, we all met together at Cosatacl. But nothing ever happened." He looked to Nohni. "Until She came through - twenty days ago."

"Ynon-Upanuh Ahdnabau?" Nohni said in a low voice.

Daeom'acal nodded and looked truly frightened now. "She told us 'You are not all here! I see no Deaom from the Nocpexul - the Black Ones. All must come!' She looked directly at me and ordered me to send Polata'an! She told me where to find small Night Sister Ocelot foreigner who would provide both heart and place to send eet! I thought the Nocpexul to be extinct, but thees Night Sister knew of one een far away place. So I send Polata'an!"

"Whose heart was sent to me?" growled Carlos.

Nohni could sympathize with Carlos' anger. She was getting pretty pissed herself. It sounded like this Ynon-Upanuh Ahdnabau had told Daeom'acal where to find Doctor Venteen! For out of all the furs in Panama at the time, she was the only one who knew about Carlos' past, where he was, and that Nohni worked with him. It also seemed like this so-called Goddess of Change had told Daeom'acal to use Dr. Venteen's heart for the Polata'an!

"I'm not sure I like this Ynon-Upanuh Ahdnabau very much," Nohni growled. She turned her hot gaze back on the old jaguar. "But it wasn't Dr.Venteen's heart that you sent. Who's was it?"

Daeom'acal shook his head. "I found Night Sister in Yaviza, the village at the end of the last road."

Nohni nodded. Yaviza was the Panamanian town at the very end of the portion of the Pan-American Highway that penetrated Darien from the north. From all accounts, it was a dangerous place for foreigners, primarily due to the presence of drug runners and individuals associated with the various para-military groups in the area. Kidnapping for ransom and other reasons was not uncommon. Daeom'acal's next words bore this out.

"She was not alone," the old jaguar continued. "She was weeth Pedro Arias Dávila, but she deed not want to be with heem."

"So, Pedro is a real fur, too," Nohni said, baring her teeth. "And he's holding Doctor Venteen captive. Let me guess. Because Doctor Venteen has some very good relationships with the Darien tribes, this Pedro slime is using her and her knowledge of the locals as a way of getting safe passage through Daria for his drug runners. Am I right?"

Daeom'acal nodded, and Nohni had to restrain Carlos once again. "This old one is NOT the one we should be after!" she hissed. "Save it for Dávila!" She turned back to Daeom'acal.

"So it was Pedro who conveniently supplied an ocelot heart from some poor victim for you to send to Carlos." Nohni shook her head. "But why would a drug runner even care about any of this? Why would he bother with an old Darien legend about a Dire Place? Why would he provide you with a Polata'an heart to get Carlos down there and then not even wait for him to show up before sending one of his own goons along with you all the way up to Canada to search my office?" Nohni's voice was rising with each pronouncement. "Why didn't he just blow you off? Tell you to go back to playing your little Goddess of Change Games and leave him alone to do his drug running?"

"Because he knows!" wailed the old jaguar. "He made the little Night Sister tell heem all she knows, and she told heem of Cosatacl! Now he wants to make the Goddess of Change help heem! The Goddess commands us, so he wants to command her! All of Daria would be his to control! He ees obsessed! He knows! And eef the Goddess of Change needs a single Black One from far away, he thought this Black One must be important to her. This one could be another hostage to help heem with his schemes. So he gave me a heart to send as Polata'an." The old jaguar rubbed his eyes and shook his head. "And he finally told me eef I do not help heem in every way my tribe will go the way of the Black Ones!"

"Thees Dávila pasca kidnapped Doctor Venteen AND murdered my kin?" screamed Carlos. Nohni had to tackle the irate black jaguar this time, and after a little screaming of her own and cuffing around the ears, she was able to calm him down - or at least return him to some semblance of sanity. Daeom'acal was cowering on the floor by this time and Nohni had to haul him to his feet and push him back into his chair.

"So what were you two looking for in my office? What does this Pedro shit want from me?"

The old Jaguar looked truly miserable now, and his voice was a mere whisper. "He…he wants the Bones for heemself."

Nohni blinked. "Bones?" She looked to Carlos and the small eemot sack that hung from his neck. She turned back to Daeom'acal. "What do bones have to do with anything?"

"Bones are keys," he answered. "Goddess of Change comes through Cosatacl when she chooses, but Cosatacl only opens to go back eef all 'Bones' are in proper places."

"If all the 'Bones' are in their proper place," Nohni repeated. "What, exactly, do you mean by that?"

Daeom'acal looked nervously from Nohni to Carlos. Then he reached for the collar of his threadbare shirt. What he pulled from beneath it was a small sack - exactly like Carlos' eemot sack. This one, however, was full.

"Finger bones, from his own late Shaman master," Nohni thought, moving closer.

"All Daeom get feenger bones from their masters when they die," he said quietly. "But we all get one other bone from them."

"A Crystal Bone?" offered Nohni, already knowing the answer.

Daeom'acal nodded. "Twenty tribes. Twenty bones. Nineteen feenger bones and one from the wrist," he said in a low whisper. "Twenty bones to make Paw of Change - a Paw that points to other side of Cosatacl."

"But my tribe ees dead! My Daeom is dead!" screamed Carlos, jumping from his seat again. "You said the Dávila pasca murdered them! Our tribe has no… has no…" Carlos' voice suddenly became very quiet as his paw drifted up to the eemot sack around his neck. "…has no…bone?"

Daeom'acal nodded again. "Pedro Arias Dávila took your tribe's crystal bone when he murdered them all. Hee deed not know what eet was at first. He thought eet a pretty thing only, but when the old Night Sister told him of Cosatacl - then he knew! He knew the Bones were the Key to Cosatacl! Then… someone, I do not know who, stole his bone the day after I came to heem for Polata'an! Because of my request for Polata'an, he knew of Carlos and you. He said he knew you must be the thieves since it was Carlos tribe's crystal bone! He…" The old jaguar was nearly in tears now. "He took my crystal bone and said he would never give eet back if I couldn't get your crystal bone back for heem."

The old jaguar actually did break down in tears at this point, and Nohni sat back in her chair. It was time to think and let emotions around her cool for a bit. It seemed this Cosatacl was some kind of doorway. Gods or Goddesses could come through from the other side when they wanted, but mortals could only use the door if the 'bones were in their proper places'. Now this was something Nohni could sink her teeth into! Finding the keys to mystery places was her sort of work. Evidently each separate tribe in the Darien gap area had one of the twenty crystal finger bones. This would explain the need for all of them to get together if the 'doorway' opened. If one of them needed to go through the door for whatever reason, they would need all the parts to complete the key. That would also explain why the 'Goddess of Change' was ticked off when she saw there wasn't the requisite number of Shaman at the site. No key meant a locked 'door'. Maybe it was she who needed the key to get back to wherever she came from.

Nohni shook her head. This was still all speculation. They would need to travel to Panama for some real answers. Nohni had set that up for the day after tomorrow. The trip would take two days because they would be traveling in her private plane, the 'Horus' - a 550 Kitsune twin engine turboprop which could land on unimproved airstrips. This was an essential requirement for getting to places that were off the beaten track - and the Darien Gap was about as far off as you could get. She'd originally thought to start her search in Panama City, for that's where the packages had come from, but now it looked like Yaviza was their destination. However, before they did anything else she needed more information. She reached for the old jaguar, and rested a warm paw on his trembling shoulder.

"I'll help you get your bone back," she said quietly. "But you must help us too."

Daeom'acal looked up to her and wiped his eyes. "I…I will be grateful to you for all time for this."

Nohni nodded. "Is there anything else you can tell us about these crystal bones right now?"

"I have no crystal bone to show you, but I have my own Daeom's finger bones. They will help us now." The old jaguar slipped his eemot sack's thong over his head and loosened the drawstring. Then with a quick flick of the wrist, he spilled the bones over the desktop.

Carlos was leaning forward as well, his golden eyes darting over the jumble of bones scattered across the desktop. His paw darted forward to a particular group of bones that had fallen to one side.

"Do not touch!" exclaimed Daeom'acal grabbing Carlos' paw and pushing it away. "Thees ees for her alone!" He jerked his head toward Nohni.

The two jaguars glared at one another, and Nohni saw real anger flash across the older jaguar's muzzle. Evidently, he took his bones seriously. She also saw that Carlo's had reached out with his left paw - his spirit-sensing paw. Carlos' stabbed a quick look at Nohni before withdrawing his paw, and then Daeom'acal turned to her.

"As you see, there are twenty bones here as well, but these are real bones." He pointed to different ones in turn. "The Covered Bone here ees longest."

Nohni recognized this as a metacarpal bone, the finger bone that was buried within the paw itself.

"This one here ees really a wrist bone - the one attached to thumb. This gives thumb four bones of its own, like other feengers - otherwise, eet would have only three. Five feengers - four bones each - twenty bones een all."

"The wrist bone looks like the scaphoid bone," Nohni thought, glancing down at the lower part of her own thumb. It was not attached to the thumb per-se. The trapezium bone was actually the wrist bone at the base of the thumb. However, the trapezium was small and round compared to the scaphoid and could be mistaken for a distal finger bone. The scaphoid was oblong and looked much more like the longer metacarpals.

"Finally, these three are from the feenger outside the paw."

"The phalange bones," Nohni thought. She pointed to one of the small ones. "These are jaguar - feline - finger bones, right? Shouldn't this small one from the fingertip have a curved claw attached to it?" The bone she pointed to looked like the claw had been filed off - which gave it a trapezoid shape - like a four-sided solid.

"Yes. The claw ees removed. When the bones are thrown, which of the four sides this bone comes to rest on can be important."

"Like dice?" thought Nohni.

"Now, hold both your own paws across thee bones I have thrown," he instructed.

She did so.

 

"One Tun is the Price of Passage."

 

The words had simply popped into Nohni's mind, but they didn't make sense. They were words in ancient Mayan, and this was no measurement of weight no matter what the word Tun sounded like. Tun was a measure of time in the Mayan language. A Tun was one Mayan year, or approximately 360 days. So the words really meant:  One Year is the Price of Passage. Passage to what? The other side of Cosatacl? And how do you pay with time - unless this statement was referring indirectly to some sort of confinement or imprisonment. Nohni didn't like that idea.

"I see your puzzlement," whispered Daeom'acal. "Thee bones, they are often unclear at first. But true meaning will come…in time." He took out a small wooden scoop from a pocket and began to shovel the bones back into his eemot sack. Nohni thought this a clumsy way to put the bones back until she remembered that a Shaman was never supposed to touch his own eemot sack bones. This would spiritually contaminate them.

Nohni finally leaned back again and looked at the two jaguars. It wasn't that the words had been unclear - only their meaning. "We'll see," was her only comment. She would keep the words she'd heard in her mind to herself for now, because Carlos had given her a most powerful look, a warning look, after Daeom'acal had forced his paw from the bones.

Yes.

Time will tell.

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Part Two - Yaviza

 

Heading South

 

Only moments before, the night sky had been a torrent of falling rain, which the jungle earth had swallowed up and returned to the air in wraiths of rising steam. Then, as quickly as they had come, the clouds broke, and sudden moonlight flooded the clearing next to the misted Turya River. A silent, winged shape tethered to an overhanging branch floated on the dark water, and two furs stood facing one another upon the red clay shore - the golden female gripping the black male's fist - and the thing it held so tightly.

"Which of them means more to you - a dead thing from an un-remembered yesterday?" asked the femme - her voice muffled in the humid air. "Or the living friendships you have today?"

Yellow cat's eyes glared back at the femme with both hatred and heartache in their depths.

"Do it for her," she whispered. "For Amelda."

Little by little, the black paw opened to reveal a small, crystalline bone nestled in its palm. It seemed a tiny thing, yet for the black jaguar, it held much meaning. It was a link to his past - a bond that tied him tightly to the hot, steamy land around them. However, as the golden jackal knew, there were other things - and other furs - that were just as important, if not more so. The male looked down at the bone, and after a few heartbeats, he let the little thing slide from his palm into hers.

"Thank you."

Nohni placed the crystal bone in a damp, khaki shirt pocket and then reached out to smooth the rain-moistened fur along Carlos' cheek. His own paw came up to grip her wrist and pull it away from his face, but only to give the palm a tender lick.

"You be careful," he whispered.

Nohni gave him a quick wink. "You know we will."

Behind her, another, larger fur nodded and put his white, clawed paw on her shoulder. "Been there, done that. We know the drill. 'I've got your back..."

"…if you've got mine," Nohni finished, turning to the speaker.

It was true. These two had done this before on a number of occasions, and Nohni was glad for the opportunity to work with him again. It was just that for all the help he provided, Tigermark always seemed to know much more about Nohni's problems than was strictly 'normal'.

"Still, one must never look a gift tiger in the mouth," thought Nohni. "Too many teeth for one thing." She recalled the scene the previous day when she'd gone down to the hangar at the airport to pre-flight her beloved Horus for the trip to Panama.

 

 

Nohni watched as Carlos was scanned by the transportation security gate guard at the airport's 'private aircraft' area. He was finally allowed to pass, and now it was Nohni's turn.

"Morning, Horace," she sing-songed. "Got a date with Horus today." She dug in her duffle bag for her passport I.D., her firearms permit, and pilot's license before tossing the bag onto the scanning table. The guard ran the bag quickly into the scanner.

"No chance I could get a ride in your Kitsune some time soon?" replied Horace, putting on his best 'sad-puppy' look. "After all, you did name her after me, right?"

Nohni gave the Labrador security guard a smile. "Not today, my lugubrious friend, but maybe I could lighten your mood anyway." She held her I.D. up beside her face. "Perhaps you should take a really close look at this I.D. to make sure it's really me."

Horace leaned forward to compare the face on the I.D. to the real one next to it. "Hmmm. I dunno," he droned, looking very serious. "The picture on this I.D. looks far too old to be you." He caught Nohni's eye and grinned.

Nohni replied by grabbing the guard's tie, pulling him forward, and planting a long, wet kiss right on his muzzle. It had to go at least thirty seconds, and when she finally let him come up for air, his expression was decidedly less lugubrious. His hat was askew as well.

"I…uh…," he sputtered. "You can, uh…"

"I'm checked through then?" Nohni finished for him, stepping past the guard and retrieving her duffle bag. "I'm off on another 'expedition' so I won't be back for a while. I hope my lil peck will last you until I return." Horace nodded happily and waved her through.

As she walked to catch up with Carlos she saw another jaguar beyond him, a tan one, slip into one of side doors of the nearest hangar. Nohni sighed. Her kissing diversion had worked, but she hated to deceive Horace that way. He was a good fur, and what she'd just done could get them both into serious trouble. Trouble was, there was no other way she could think of to smuggle a certain 'wanted by the police' jaguar past him and into the airport's private hangar area. She needed Daeom'acal with them on this trip to Panama - not behind bars.

The other thing she needed was a real co-pilot.

This was going to be an international flight, and those required someone to be in the co-pilot's seat. Nohni knew Carlos could act as a visible body in the co-pilot seat, but there was no way he would pass as a qualified pilot if anyone did a thorough check on him. Nohni had already made calls to several pilots in the area to see if they wanted to take a week's 'vacation' down in Panama, but so far she'd only gotten two replies, both negative.

"You could always wait a while for a response…or ask Raven," Nohni thought as she continued to walk, but both of these options were distasteful. Waiting was not something she thought she could do for long on this case, and, although she now was qualified to pilot the Kitsune, putting Raven in danger was simply out of the question. If worse came to worse and she didn't get a response in the next few hours, she would take her chances with Carlos.

She and Carlos stepped through the office side door of the hangar and proceeded up a short hallway to a small office whose two desks were littered with papers and forms. Daeom'acal was already there, but no one else was. This was because this office really wasn't an office. It was just a place where private pilots could file flight plans and other paperwork, requisition fuel and get official weather updates and other news before their flights.

Nohni put the flight plan she'd partly filled out next to the fax/scanner, but didn't submit it. There was still a chance she could get a legit co-pilot whose name would have to be on the plan.

"The coffee's over there," Nohni pointed out. "Might as well get comfortable. It may be a little while before we can take off." She pointed to another door. "If you need me, I'll be in the hangar doing pre-flight on the Horus."

Not waiting for a reply, she opened the door, stepped into the main hangar and took a deep breath of air heavily laced with the smell of diesel, av-gas and grease. This was what an aircraft hangar ought to smell like. She smiled as she walked over to a locker that contained coveralls. No sense in getting her travel clothes dirty. She opened it and took out a fresh set, which she quickly pulled over her khaki shirt and shorts. As she buttoned up the side, her paw reflexively felt for the hip holster of her gold-anodized .45 auto. It was there, but would be covered up by the coverall and thus, inaccessible. She wasn't sure why she'd just checked for it, but the hangar was dark and….

Nohni's ears swiveled instinctively to her right. She thought she'd just heard the clink of metal on metal. Looking to her right, she could see lights in the farside bay where her Horus was parked.

What the hell?

Nohni quickly unbuttoned the side of her coverall and retrieved her .45. Normally she would call Horace and get airport security in on a possible intruder, but they would just as likely discover her own indiscretion. She couldn't afford that. Still, she would have liked the help. The last intruder she'd encountered had been an armed errand boy for a drug runner. He had, no doubt, informed his boss of his failure via his lawyer, and Nohni wouldn't put it past this Pedro character to send another enforcer.

Nohni kept mostly to the shadows along the back wall, moving with a stealth Carlos had taught her. She'd been good even before that, but Carlos had some tricks that were truly astounding. Stealth was not just a matter of hiding. There were tricks involving imitation and diversion, angle of approach and speed. Within moments, Nohni was only a dozen feet from her quarry - a large fur on a creeper board who was doing something under the right landing gear float. His entire lower body was exposed.

Nohni jumped from hiding. "FREEZE FURBALL! Or my .45 will put a piercing through your penor big enough to hold a tire iron SIDEWAYS!"

"Could you pass me the half-inch socket wrench instead?" came a familiar voice from underneath the float.

Nohni blinked and dropped her .45. Then she holstered it with a huff of exasperation and reached for the toolbox. "You could have let somebody know you were here, Tigermark!" she exclaimed, handing him the wrench.

The white tiger took it, cranked on something a few times, and then tossed it back into the toolbox before sliding out from beneath the Horus' right float. "And a fine howdy-do to you, too, Miss Wabanda," he answered, sitting up and wiping his paws on a rag. Tossing that into another container, he stood up and offered Nohni a wiped paw. "Tigermark's Pre-Flight Prep and Pilot Service at your service. So, where we going this time?"

Nohni took the offered paw only to pull the big white tiger into a friendly embrace. She held it for a moment before holding him out in front of her and grinning. "How the hell did you know I needed another driver for this bucket of bolts?" Nohni had actually considered the white tiger for co-pilot duty, but she knew he was a busy kitty and had merely left a message asking him to return her call. She'd not given any details or even asked about his availability to do some flying.

Tigermark's right eyebrow raised itself in a questioning arc. "How did I know? You asked me to come, of course." He fished in his coverall pocket for a moment and produced a cell phone. A few taps brought up a text message.

"Horus and I would like the pleasure of your company at a party we've got planned. If you're interested, drop by Horus' place next Saturday."

"So here I am," finished the tiger, pocketing the cell.

Nohni put on a nonchalant smile she hoped was convincing. "Ah…yes. Well, I actually do have a trip planned, but I'm not sure how long it will last."

"I can adjust," offered Tigermark. "My gear's already stowed onboard, and I was just finishing up the pre-flight. All we need now is fuel and we'll be ready to roll. By the way, is it just us? Or do we have passengers?"

"Two passengers," Nohni answered. "And the destination this time is Panama."

"Jungle excursion then," Tigermark said. "Sounds…warm. Well, let me take care of a few things while you file the flight plan." He grinned and then walked away toward the lockers, peeling off his coveralls as he went.

Nohni shook her head. Well, that solved the co-pilot problem, but it didn't help Nohni with the other problem that had just popped up. How had Tigermark known about this trip? The text message he'd received from her was dated six days ago at a time when Nohni knew she couldn't have sent anything.

She'd been in a hospital.

Unconscious.

 

 

Back in the jungle clearing, Nohni regarded the white tiger once again. "One last time, then, TM. Do you really want to do this? I only needed a co-pilot for the Horus since it was an international flight. You have no obligation beyond that."

Tigermark took Nohni's paws in his own and gave them a gentle squeeze before he replied in a low voice. "Truly evil furs care nothing about how much personal pain and tragedy they leave in their wake, but they should! For among the many that they harm, there will always be one who will rise up and strike back." The white tiger gave a slight nod of his great head. "Let's just leave it at that for now, shall we?" He glanced over at the tethered twin-engine turboprop floating in the river. "Hmmmm. If I remember correctly - and I always do - our flight plan was to put us down on the Yaviza airstrip, not here in this muggy backwater." He turned a questioning eye on Nohni.

"But those unimproved airstrips can be murder on float-equipped landing gear," Nohni countered with a smirk. "If one must land on cold, hard ground, the landing wheels under the floats do best when they gently touch down on nice, smooth concrete. Less chance of causing incidental damage to the floats." She raised an eyebrow at Tigermark's look. "It's true!" she continued. "I read it in the owner's manual."

Tigermark narrowed his eyes and grinned, white teeth gleaming in the moonlight. "Just about any wheeled landing gear will do better on concrete as opposed to unimproved dirt." He raised his head and looked around. "But, I believe the real reason for ending up here this evening is that landing on the river in the middle of the night five miles upstream from Yaviza is a much less noticeable approach to the town. Am I right?"

"Mustn't go barging in during the wee hours," countered Nohni. "That might disturb some of the local's much needed rest. Now, I could have landed five miles downstream from Yaviza, but that would have plopped us right into the middle of all the commercial float planes parked around El Real - which is, as I've already told you, the main jumping off point for all those expensive tourist excursions into Darien National Park. I might not have found any parking spots over there at all."

"To be sure," Tigermark acknowledged. "So, is the last member of this marching party up and ready yet? We haven't got all night to make it to our destination."

The two of them glanced to where Carlos had entered the cabin of the Kitsune turboprop. A few moments later the black jaguar came out with an older tan jaguar in tow. The two of them walked up to Nohni, where Carlos forcibly pushed Daeom'acal at them. Nohni noticed a small but sincere scowl on his muzzle.

Carlos had privately argued with Nohni on the trip down to Panama about the advisability of taking Daeom'acal with her to Yaviza to meet Pedro Arias Dávila. He'd told her again of the bad feeling he'd gotten after nearly touching the tan jaguar's eemot bones. It hadn't been a 'bad spirit' thing (he'd used his left 'spiritually sensitive' paw to reach for the bones), but it was still a noticeable feeling of distrust and betrayal.

Nohni had countered with the fact that she'd promised to get Daeom'acal's crystal bone back for him, and she kept her promises. She'd also told Carlos she was no fool, and would be on the lookout for any untrustworthy behavior from him.

However, as a precaution, they had not revealed their true plans to Daeom'acal. He'd been told that Carlos would stay behind to guard the plane, and the excuse they were to give to Dávila for his absence was that Carlos had been detained in Canada. In reality, Carlos was to shadow them along the way to Yaviza and continue to observe from a distance - ready to intervene at a moment's notice when Nohni contacted him via Sat-Cell. Nohni thought it best that she deliver the crystal bone to Dávila without Carlos. This way, they would not run the risk of Dávila killing Carlos on the spot to rid himself of the only Nocpexul left alive who might still have a claim on the crystal bone.

Carlos had not been thrilled with this plan, but he had to admit that Dávila killing him without a second thought was a real possibility - that is, if Carlos didn't try to slaughter him first. Either way, a murderous free-for-all at their first meeting was probably not the best way to gain the freedom of one Doctor Amelda Venteen. For one thing, they needed to find out where she was being held, and dead drug runners give lousy directions.

After they found Doctor Venteen? Well, they would get to that soon enough.

In any case, Daeom'acal would be part of the initial visiting delegation, because regardless of his true intentions, the old jaguar was an obvious passport into the presence of Pedro Arias Dávila. Without the old Shaman at their side, Dávila might just kill Nohni out of paw. Something she wasn't too keen on.

Motioning Daeom'acal to the front of the line, Nohni and Tigermark followed him south into the jungle along the river track that led to Yaviza. A moment later, Nohni's dark guardian, Carlos, slipped silently into the forest behind them.

 

What no one saw was the One that followed them all - a single, moonlit silhouette that disappeared swiftly into the steamy night.

 

 

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Yaviza

 

Their trek through the jungle from the plane had been quicker than expected. It wasn't quite dawn yet, though a pink light already streamed across the eastern sky.

"Time to get cautious," whispered Nohni. To their left, they could make out the end of the Pan-American Highway leading into Yaviza. Even in the dim light, one could see that it was a pretty sad excuse for a road - all potholes and broken pavement.

"Not the sleepy tropical village, one might imagine," Tigermark commented in a low voice pointing ahead. This was true. For a town of only 2000 souls, there was considerably more activity at 6 am than one might expect.

"Frontier town," was Nohni's simple reply. "Open 24/7." She motioned for all of them to stay in the shadows of the trees for the time being. "If you're not a subsistence farmer selling your surplus or a local tribe member pawning trinkets off on the hapless tourists, chances are you're either in from the jungle to let off steam, or you’re here for the 'quick buck'." She pointed to a structure on what looked like a cul-de-sac coming off the main road. It was little more than a shed from which a great deal of squawking was coming. "Want to bet that shed is full of parrots and other exotic birds about to be shipped out illegally?" She gestured to a couple of drunk furs further on that were coming out of a shabby house with drawn shades. "Brothel." Nohni mumbled. "Whatever you want, when you want it."

"So how do we find this Dávila character," asked Tigermark, eyes darting from one shadow to the next.

Nohni grabbed Daeom'acal's shirtsleeve and pulled him in between the two of them. "We don't find them - they find us with Daeom'acal's help. He's been in Yaviza before so he's the one who will be recognized for who he is. And let's hope Dávila does find us before one of the other 'Guys-with-Guns' groups gets to us first."

"Guys-with-Guns?"

Nohni nodded. "You'll find all sorts here - leftist revolutionaries from E.L.N. or F.A.R.C. or right-wing para-military types from the A.U.C. To them, foreigners are just money-bags to be kidnapped and squeezed dry for their 'Cause'. The local police won't be all that friendly - or helpful - either."

"Like I said earlier," mumbled Tigermark. "Lovely vacation spot."

Nohni gave a snort. "No vacationers here, thank you. We don't want to look like we just fell off the tourista truck, so the trek from the plane served to give us and our machetes that jungle-worn look." Nohni tapped the two and a half foot blade hanging from her belt beside her bull-whip. "We'll have an easier time of it if we look like we actually belong here. However…" She pointed to Tigermark's .45 auto Estate. "I'd conceal that hardware under your shirt or in a front pocket for the time being. I've already concealed mine." She tapped her fanny-pack where she'd stashed her gold SW1911 .45. "An open show of arms from an unfamiliar face - no matter how jungle-stained - will get a quick appointment with the local police comandante."

She turned to Daeom'acal. "You say you met your contact from Dávila at the La India Cantina down on the waterfront?"

The old jaguar nodded. "Eef you are looking for anything - even for certain furs - there ees someone een the cantina that will know."

Nohni looked to the south at the ragged collection of buildings that was the center of the town. "Unlike Daeom'acal who no doubt boated into the waterfront, we're going to have to walk through town to get to La India." She gave Tigermark a sideways glance. "Might as well do it, and get this over with."

Nohni looked behind her at the dense jungle and gave a few paw signals she knew Carlos would see - even if she couldn't see him - and walked out into the open. Daeom'acal followed with Tigermark bringing up the rear.

Almost immediately, four jaguars and two ocelots in jungle fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles appeared from behind a building and surrounded them. Daeom'acal, gave a tiny groan.

"Follow my lead," Nohni whispered to Tigermark, who seemed remarkably unconcerned.

The tallest one stepped forward, eyeing Nohni, and spoke. "Nuevo en Yaviza, Chiquita?"

"Recent arrivals," answered Nohni in English, "But not unfamiliar with the territory." She tapped her sap-stained machete. "Or it's customs."

"Rico Americano?" said the jaguar glancing to his companions and grinning. "And so small an escort," he continued, switching to English, "for such a bonito Niña."

Nohni reached for her machete and six AK47s were instantly pointed at her face. She froze. After a moment she raised her right paw, palm outward, in sign of peace as her left paw moved gradually to the hilt of her machete. She slowly pulled the blade from her belt, and then held it out to the jaguar, hilt first.

"You surrender easily," said the jaguar grinning. "This is intelligent theeng to do."

He began to reach for Nohni's machete when, with a tiny 'ffft', a small, feathered dart buried itself in the leather of the exposed machete handle. Now it was the jaguar's turn to freeze.

"Perhaps we are not so small a group after all?" Nohni said, waving to the dense jungle beside them. She plucked the dart from the machete handle and sniffed the stained end. "A Choco dart? Or maybe Kuna? Poison for sure. I don't think anyone would want to be on the receiving end of this little prick. Do you?" She pointed the dart to herself. "I'm Canadian, by the way, not American." She flipped the point of the dart back at the jaguar, who flinched. "You don't look like the sort I'm looking for. A.U.C. maybe? In any case, I've no quarrel with you boys, so why don't we just go our separate ways and enjoy what's turning out to be a fine morning." She smiled pleasantly.

The jaguar looked from the dart to the jungle to the sky, and finally back at Nohni. "Yes. Thees ees one hermosa mañana. I theenk we will enjoy eet while we can." He motioned to his companions and they sauntered off - a few giving Nohni's party a quick backward glance.

Daeom'acal let out a sigh as Nohni turned to Tigermark. "You seem remarkably unruffled by our first contact with the locals."

Tigermark shrugged, grinning. "I was with you. If I'm sure of anything, it's your ability to handle macho males." He poked a thumb at the forest. "Was the dart Carlos' work?"

Nohni nodded and looked back toward the center of town. "Well, all this activity has just reminded me that I've had no breakfast, yet." She glanced at Daeom'acal. "Do they still serve highly-illegal scrambled turtle eggs at La India?"

Daeom'acal nodded and the three of them headed into Yaviza.

------------------------------------------@@------------------------------------------

 

Breakfast over, Nohni leaned back in her seat and sipped her coffee, savoring the bite and aroma of fresh-roasted local beans sweetened with just a touch of real cane sugar. So far, only a pawful of the early morning patrons had come into the La India Cantina, but she couldn't imagine that her group hadn't been noticed or whispered about by somebody - especially since they were at an open table out on the front patio of the café. She, a golden-haired canine accompanied by a white tiger and a local tribesman? This had to be one of the most unlikely trios to have wandered into Yaviza in a while.

Apparently, someone thought so, because not a moment later a rather plump policía spotted them and walked right up to their table.

"Documentos y el…," he began.

Before he could finish, Nohni pushed her passport - topped with five U.S. twenty dollar bills - across the table at him. Although Panama used their own unique 'Balboa' coinage, they still used U.S. bills for their paper currency.

The officer looked down at her 'papers', picked them up as if to examine them, and then gave Nohni her passport back - sans bills. Tipping his hat to her, he gave her a pleasant "Buenos Dias", turned around, and left.

Nohni glanced at Tigermark. "Just acknowledging the powers that be and letting them know we know what the game rules are." She took another sip of her coffee. "Truth is, I have to feel sorry for anyone who works for the government here. If the local constabulary didn't accept 'bribes', they wouldn't get paid at all. The government just doesn't have the funds." Nohni jerked her head to the south. "I hear the park wardens for Darien National Park haven't been paid in years."

At this, Deaom'acal, who had been silent throughout the meal, spoke up. "Our tribe helps them with food, shelter and eenformation. They wish to preserve the land as we do - so we help them."

Nohni nodded. "In any 'cash poor' society, barter for goods and exchange of services are a substitute for cash." She gave a grunt. "That doesn't mean cash is worthless. Any individual here, or any group for that matter, still needs it to deal with the outside world." She leaned forward and looked in the direction of a rumbling sound coming from up the street. "But somehow, I don't think Pedro Arias Dávila is looking for money from us."

What had caught Nohni's attention was a big, black, and expensive looking HumVee - all military style - no civilianized Hummer, this. It came to a gravel-spitting halt just in front of the cantina.

"First Contact. Get ready," whispered Nohni. Tigermark stood up quickly to stand behind Daeom'acal, who had jumped from his seat. It looked like the old jaguar was thinking of making a hasty retreat.

Two canines, a wolf and another boarhound dressed in ubiquitous jeans and polo shirts got out on the passenger side of the HumVee facing the cantina. Both wore visible side arms and machetes.

"The driver is staying in the vehicle," murmured Tigermark. "They're playing it safe."

"Let these two have their say," countered Nohni. "We can do it either way."

Tigermark nodded just as the first of the two canines, the wolf, swaggered up to their table. His manner was cocky, and his gaze a bit too much of a leer for Nohni's taste.

"Buenos dias, seniors y senorita," he said with an unconvincing smile and a bow. "We were told two gringos and a Darien nativo - a Daeom - were at La India." He sniggered. "At first we deed not believe it, but the gringo who called us, she swore eet was true, and we had to see this theeng for ourselves!"

Nohni smiled pleasantly, but her mind was suddenly racing. A gringo femme had called Pedro about them being here? She hadn't noticed any tourist-like furs in the cantina or anyone that might be a foreigner for that matter. She shelved the thought. After all, they were here at the La India to be noticed. One couldn't be picky about the one doing the noticing. Nohni gave the wolf a sight nod and said "So…Pedro sent you to fetch us?"

The smile instantly slid off the wolf's muzzle. "Senior Dávila, to you, mujeres!" he spat. "Eet would be well for you to remember that!" His paw was on his machete now.

Nohni's smile faded as well. "So what is it you want?" Her voice contained no anger, but neither was it friendly. She leaned back in her chair, her foot on the table leg.

"You will come weeth us, now!" said the boarhound with a snarl. He'd just come up beside the wolf with his paw on his machete, and the two of them glared at her.

Nohni's expression became stony as she looked the boarhound up and down. "And what will you and this overblown pup do if we don't?"

The boarhound's expression hardened and his jaw twitched. However, it was a tiny twitch of his right paw that gave Nohni all the information she needed.

Her right foot on the table leg pushed out violently, sending her backward and the table edge right into the boarhound's crotch. He tumbled backward even as Tigermark brought the chair Daeom'acal had been sitting in around in an arc that caught the wolf in the head. Daeom'acal was crouching on the floor spluttering, but Nohni wasn't concerned about that. She was up and running for the HumVee. She had to admit the driver was quick on the uptake, because all four tires spat gravel just as Nohni leapt for the luggage rack.

Her leap gave her right paw a hold on the side-rail and her momentum carried the rest of her onto the top of the HumVee. Almost immediately, the driver spun into a left turn that nearly sent Nohni tumbling off the careening vehicle. As it was, she fell off the side and was kept from hitting dirt hard only by her grip on the side-rail of the luggage rack. Barely holding on, she flipped open her fanny pack with her free left paw and grabbed her .45. Then she pulled her dragging feet off the road, put the barrel of the .45 against the passenger side window and pulled the trigger.

Safety glass imploded in crumbly pieces into the passenger compartment of the HumVee.

Nohni tossed her .45 into the vehicle, grabbed the luggage rack with both paws, did a chin-up as she pulled her legs up, and shot - feet first - into the front seat of the HumVee through the passenger window. Both feet connected with the canine driver's head, smashing it hard enough into the driver side window to crack that one, too.

After that, it was a simple matter of trying to regain control of a wildly out-of-control HumVee. Nohni managed to do so without killing anyone of hitting anything.

Anything big, that is.

Several merchants would be missing some sidewalk inventory this morning, and a rather dazed looking parrot was squawking up a storm from its wrecked cage. Nohni quickly fumbled in the pockets of the unconscious driver and found a cell phone. It was on, and she checked the contact directory.

"Good," she thought as she found her .45 on the floor and exited the vehicle. Quickly, she pelted back the way she'd come and saw Tigermark coming her way dragging Daeom'acal along with him. She pointed to the river, which was crowded several rows deep with parked boats. All three changed direction.

"The two bricks at the cantina are out and unarmed," called Tigermark, brandishing two pistols in the paw that wasn't helping Daeom'acal along. "No other hardware other than their 'jungle hedge trimmers', and I saw two of the locals swiping those from them as I left."

"Good! My guy was better pickings," yelled Nohni as she jumped into the first open powerboat on the river. "Follow me!"

However, rather than firing up the boat's engine, she jumped to the next one anchored a little farther out in the river. Then it was a matter of jumping from boat to boat until there were none left. At this point the opposite bank was only yards away. Three jumps and three splashes rippled the morning water of the river, and in only moments, Nohni, Tigermark, and Daeom'acal were scrambling up the opposite bank into the dense jungle. They threaded their way as best they could through dense undergrowth without using machetes - which would leave an obvious trail.

"The Yaviza airstrip is on this side of the river about a mile north-east of here," puffed Nohni as she squirmed past a palmetto palm. "Passengers who fly in need to be boated to the town. Not as easy to access. We can use that as 'neutral ground' for any face-to-face with Dávila." She turned to Daeom'acal - who was having an easier time of it with the dense vegetation. "Unless you have a better spot?"

The old jaguar pulled them all to a stop and gave a quick look around before giving Nohni a pleading look. "Why you do that to those men back there?" He pointed in the direction of Yaviza. "Dávila must not to be angered! You do not know heem!"

"You can tell a lot about a 'boss' by the behavior of his underlings," Nohni countered with a hiss. "I didn't like the cockiness of that wolf from the start. He's learned from someone - probably Dávila - that showing your power gets results - which tells me the only thing Pedro respects is power. So, I'm not going to have a meeting with him anywhere where he's in the position of power." She held up the pilfered cell phone. "We now have a phone number for Pedro." She turned off the cell to eliminate any possibility of signal tracking before pocketing it again. "I'm no fool, Daeom'acal. I know furs like Pedro are dangerous. That's why it's so much safer when you don't have to call on them - in person."

"But we will see heem face-to-face at some point. Yes?"

Nohni turned around to see a black jaguar standing behind her. It was as if he'd condensed into being out of thin air. "Yes we will, Carlos. But I want it to be on our terms. I gave Pedro a chance. He could have come personally to meet us, or his underlings could have phrased the invitation in a more civilized tone - but they didn't." She held up a paw to forestall Carlos' protest. "Yes, I suspected Pedro was slime all along. After all, he kidnapped Doctor Venteen, and anyone who is callous enough to kill someone just to obtain their heart will never be on my 'Favorites' list, but I had to give him the chance, just to be sure."

She gave Carlos' paw a squeeze. "Now I'm sure."

 

 

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Mysteries and Messages

 

High noon in the jungle is barely noticeable from the forest floor, even a floor cut by a small river estuary. It's a deep, steamy well of dappled and muted green that does not breathe easily.

Nohni let out a breath and wiped her forehead with a damp cloth. It was hard to stay cool enough to think in this quiet, motionless heat. In fact, the only sound to break the misty silence was the distant buzzing of an outboard motor. Nohni looked beyond the tethered Horus to the sound. Lacking roads, the primary means of transportation in the Darien were the rivers. Sooner or later, their hiding place would be discovered, so waiting was a poor option. Still, one could not take intelligent action without intelligence. Simply put, Nohni needed more information before she could confront Pedro Arias Dávila.

And what she wanted to know about right now was lying in the palm of her paw.

Nohni tossed the damp cloth back into its bucket of brown river water, and held up the crystal bone. It was a beautifully crafted thing - smooth to the touch and pleasing to the eye. It felt warm between her fingers. Yet, for all its pleasantness, it was also an irritation. Why was this thing so important? Daeom'acal had been reluctant to talk about it beyond what he'd already revealed. That the crystal bones were important to this Cosatacl place was obvious, but there was a lot more to them than that. Pedro thought the crystal bones were the key to controlling the Darien Gap because the Goddess of Change needed them. For what, Nohni could only guess.

The Goddess of Change.

 Nohni shook her head. Now there was an odd one. She looked to her companions - an old tan jaguar in particular.

"The twenty Daeom of Darien all have a single, crystal bone," she recited. "Twenty bones to make the Paw of Change - a Paw that points to other side of Cosatacl." Nohni leaned forward on the big root she was using as a seat and placed the crystal bone right up to Daeom'acal's nose so he had to look at it cross-eyed. "That's what you told me. You also told me that when the Goddess of Change, Ynon-Upanuh Ahdnabau, appeared at Cosatacl, she sent you to summon Carlos and me because not all twenty crystal bones were present. The bone from Carlos' tribe - this one - was missing. And that was because Pedro Arias Dávila had wiped out Carlos' tribe and taken it."

Nohni took the crystal bone back from Daeom'acal's face and peered at it. "But now things start to get complicated - particularly the history behind this little trinket, and where it's been." She eyed the old jaguar again. "For example, why did the Goddess of Change send you to find Doctor Venteen to get a Polata'an heart for summoning Carlos and me when we didn't even have the damned bone! Pedro had it!"

Daeom'acal looked meek and shook his head. "That ees what she told me to do. Thees I have already told you!"

Nohni scowled. "Yes, you told me, but what I'm wondering is how this Goddess fur knew about Doctor Venteen, and that she was being held by Pedro! She just suddenly appears at Cosatacl and starts spouting orders about finding a Night Sister and summoning a member of a tribe long thought to be wiped out?" Nohni made a rude noise. "Well, I for one, don't believe she just pulled that little bit of information out of her ass! It's obvious she already knew about Doctor Venteen and her incarceration. And if she knew that, she probably also knew Pedro had Carlos' bone!"

Nohni jammed the crystal bone back into her shirt pocket. The more she thought about it the more this situation stunk.

"Yeah. She knew Pedro had the bone," she growled. "But this whole thing gets even worse! Pedro figures since the Goddess of Change wants Carlos, he'll get hostage leverage over her by swiping Carlos himself, and thus agrees to supply a heart for the Polata'an.  However, it seems someone - and I wonder who that could be - goes and steals the bone from Pedro the day after you him to ask for the Polata'an heart!"

Nohni jumped up from her root and began to pace around the little clearing. "Now Pedro is pissed because his precious bone is gone, and you've just sent a Polata'an heart to summon Carlos - the one remaining survivor of the tribe he took the bone from." She pointed an accusing finger at Daeom'acal. "So… What is poor Pedro supposed to think now? Let's see. Maybe he thinks Carlos - or more likely, someone in Panama who's involved with Carlos - found a way to steal the bone from him? Of course he thinks that!"

Daeom'acal gave a shudder. "You are saying Pedro theenks I stole the bone? I have had nothing to do weeth Carlos unteel now!"

 Nohni shook her head irritably. There was no way Pedro would think a milk-sop like Daeom'acal would steal something from him. She glared at the old jaguar. "I doubt Pedro thinks anything of the sort. I think, he thinks some other friend of Carlos is behind it. He has no idea who this is, but he does know, from you, that Carlos is in Canada, so he needs to check if another package got sent to him besides yours. He has someone - perhaps a 'paid off' official in Panama City - check outgoing international packages, and he discovers that another package was indeed sent to Canada the same day his bone was stolen! It wasn't sent to Carlos, but it did go to the same address as the Polata'an package. Bingo! With this added evidence, Pedro is doubly sure Carlos is the one behind it, even if Carlos wasn't the one who stole the bone."

Nohni walked right up to where Daeom'acal was seated on the bank and poked him in the chest. "So, thinking Carlos might not swallow the Polata'an bait and rush back to Panama with his newly acquired crystal bone, Pedro sends you up to Canada along with one of his goons to make sure he gets his bone back and possibly nab Carlos in the process!"

Nohni hissed and turned toward the river. "The more I think about it, the more it looks like this 'Goddess of Change' fur, whoever the hell she is, is setting us up. Carlos and I had nothing to do with the theft of Pedro's bone! I'm willing to bet it was this Goddess bitch who really stole the bone and then posted it up to me the day after Daeom'acal sent the Polata'an to Carlos. The Goddess knew where that bone was going to be when she told Daeom'acal to summon Carlos, because she was going to be the one to send it there herself! Damn her!"

Nohni took a deep breath to calm down but it was hard. She knew perfectly well that there was no sense in getting worked up over this. Throwing a fit was no way to solve a mystery. Yes, this Goddess of Change seemed to be manipulating things behind the scenes, but Nohni was beginning to suspect something else as well.

Sister.

Could this Goddess fur also be the 'Sister' who had been giving Nohni warnings, and who probably saved Nohni's life when Carlo's went crazy? If so, she was doing a lot of traveling, as well as pulling a lot of strings. It would also mean she was working both sides of the street in this conflict. She gave Daeom'acal a hard look. Carlos had warned her about a feeling of betrayal coming from Daeom'acal's eemot bones. Maybe it wasn't Daeom'acal who was doing the betraying? Nohni looked past him into the jungle.

"So, what's her game?" She mumbled to no one in particular. "What is she really after?"

Should she be more worried about the Goddess of Change than about Pedro?

"Nohni?"

The deep, male voice roused Nohni from her ruminations. She turned to Tigermark who was inspecting the cowling around the #2 turboprop engine on the Horus. "What?" she asked, and was surprised by the petulance in her voice.

"I was under the impression securing Doctor Amelda Venteen's freedom from one Pedro Arias Dávila was our primary goal here." Tigermark turned to her and gave her a serious look. "Shouldn't we be planning our next move - like what you're going to say to Pedro when you call him up? That's why you went to all the trouble of swiping one of his lackey's cell phones, wasn't it? Why the sudden obsession with the Goddess of Change?"

"It's not an obsession," Nohni shot back, anger rising. "She's playing with both of us - Pedro and me! I don't like being played with! "

"Whatever her game is," Tigermark shot back, "going after her is not going to help us free Doctor Venteen!" He returned Nohni's frown with his own "What I think we should be doing…"

"…is what!?" Nohni interrupted with a hiss. She shoved her nose right in the white tiger's face. "Remember, flyboy, I'm the one in charge here! Not you! You're just along for the ride!"

"So, what about your promise to Carlos when you took his bone?" Tigermark growled, poking Nohni's khaki shirt pocket, hard. "You said we were doing this for her - meaning Amelda. Were those just empty words?"

Nohni blinked.

Carlos?

She looked around, confusion suddenly interfering with her anger. "Where is Carlos?" Nohni's voice was suddenly very quiet. She'd just realized that the black jaguar was no where to be seen - which was unusual considering the subject of the present argument. If nothing else, its sheer volume should have attracted him from wherever he'd gotten off to.

"I think he went to use the 'litterbox'," Tigermark said, his tone worried, as he, too, looked around. "But that was, what? Fifteen minutes ago?"

A buzzing from her other shirt pocket grabbed Nohni's attention. At first she couldn't think of what it was. Then she remembered she'd turned on the swiped cell phone to make the call to Pedro.

But that was nearly an hour ago!

She had been debating what to discuss with Pedro and how to set up a safe meeting ever since then.

Nohni pulled the buzzing phone from her pocket and flipped it open, expecting the call or text message to be from Pedro. Hell! He had to know by now who had stolen his lackey's phone. However, it wasn't Pedro's name that popped up on the caller ID. It was a text message from someone called Havus Anglia.

Nohni frowned. Maybe this was another of Pedro's stooges trying to contact the driver she'd stolen the phone from. And maybe this Havus hadn't yet gotten the word about the driver's bad luck in Yaviza. She was about to turn the phone off when she thought of something else. Maybe Pedro really was trying to contact her, but he was using this Havus character's cell phone. This actually made sense. Perhaps Pedro made it a practice to use other furs' cell phones as a way of making it more difficult to trace him and his whereabouts. Nohni accessed the text message.

It was definitely NOT what she expected.

 

"Hello my SISTER.

They already have Carlos. Let Pedro capture U and Daeom'acal too, but give this cell & the bone to TM before they do! Tell TM 'Water Escape North'. He'll no what 2 do."

 

Nohni gawped at the text message. This was from her Sister?! A sudden anger burned in Nohni's guts. Quickly she accessed the cell phone's directory to find out if there was any other information on this Havus Anglia fur whose phone her so-called sister was using to send the text message.

Nothing. No such name in the directory.

Nohni slammed the cell phone shut, and glared at it.

And there it was - scratched right onto the back casing of the cell phone.

What?

Something had to be screwed up here! There was no way this could be right! Totally nonplussed, Nohni flipped the cell phone open to check her suspicions. She tapped a few buttons and there it was again! She shook her head in disbelief just as the cell phone buzzed - again! It was another text message.

 

"Dearest SISTER,

I know U R angry with me rite now, but please DO IT, QUICKLY! They come!"

 

Nohni stared at the message for a second longer before coming to a decision. She had to be crazy, but she thrust the phone into Tigermark's paw even as she pulled the crystal bone from her shirt pocket and jammed it in his. "Take them both!" she hissed. She jerked her head northward to the river. "Water escape! North! GO!" Nohni pushed Tigermark so hard he actually fell into the river in front of the Horus' floats. In a swirl of water, he disappeared.

And none too soon.

Behind her, Nohni heard Daeom'acal yelp as someone crashed through the wall of green next to their little clearing, and shouted in Spanish. Without even turning around to check who it was, Nohni raised her paws and put them behind her head in gesture of surrender.

I sure hope I just did the right thing.

Nohni couldn't help but feel a bit ticked off at her sister. This was NOT how she'd planned to meet up with Pedro.

"Ah. I see you have geeven yourself up to thee inevitable," came a smooth and pleasantly accented voice. "You show intelligence as well as fortitude. Your display een Yaviza was most eempresive."

Pedro Arias Dávila.

Why did the nastiest people always have the nicest voices?

"The better to con you with, my dear," Nohni thought sourly. She turned around slowly as several armed furs relieved her of her machete, .45 auto, and bullwhip. She saw that Daeom'acal was already cowering between two armed jaguars clothed in what seemed to be the standard outfit for drug lackeys around here - jeans and polo shirts. The fur standing next to them, however, was not a jaguar, nor was he so casually dressed.

Descended directly from the conquistadors - and he likes to show it.

Nohni could see the Spanish heritage in this canine's posture, build and facial features. It was doubtful his ancestry contained any native blood at all. Pedro had the distinct look of the Spanish Ibizan Hound. His was an elegant and agile breed with an athletic and attractive outline and a ground-covering springy trot. Though graceful in appearance, the Ibizan was noted for good bone girth, and was a rugged and hardy fur. Pedro's large upright ears - a hallmark of the Ibizan - were broad at the base and framed a long and elegant muzzle. His iron colored face had a single splash of white between his eyes - which were Pedro's most striking feature. Ibizan hound eyes were a bright amber color, very similar to Nohni's golden eyes.

Besides his 'noble' features, he was also dressed in a finely cut suit which bore no evidence of a trek through the jungle. Either his underlings had cut a wide path for him as he traveled to this place, or he'd changed into these impressive clothes just before he came to Nohni's clearing. In either case, it displayed a streak of vanity in him a mile wide.

"But vanity is not the same as stupidity," Nohni reminded herself, silently. This was not a fur to be trifled with. "Where is Carlos," she said, making her voice as neutral as possible.

Pedro cocked his head to the side, the smallest of smiles creasing his muzzle. "You care for the Nocpexul?"

Nohni regarded Pedro for a moment before answering. "He is a compatriot. We've had some pleasant dealings together."

Pedro gave his head a slight shake. "You do not hide your friendship so well, Meess Wabanda. But let us not worry about such theengs so soon. Carlos ees sleeping at the moment." Pedro raised his eyebrows. "You do not believe I am capable of thees? Ah my Senorita, the town furs you see around me now are not the only ones I command." He waved a paw to the jungle. "There are others just as silent, just as cunning, as your Nocpexul. I have a few Darien natives at my disposal, and eet seemed Carlos was occupied weeth his 'litterbox' when they found heem."

"Cold-cocked on the toilet. Real brave of you." Nohni gave no hint of her disgust. "So what happens now?" she asked aloud. "We get our brains ventilated and you let the jungle take care of the evidence?"

Pedro had the decency to look shocked. "Madre de Dios, Senorita!" he crooned. "We are not so barbaric! I merely wanted to meet you and discuss theengs that could be of benifit to us both." Pedro had walked up to Nohni and was looking down at her - being slightly taller than her. "Carlos ees safe for thee moment as he has value, too. Eet seems he ees needed by a certain 'Goddess' I wish to meet. You?" Pedro reached out and drew a finger along Nohni's neck ruff. "The elegant Senorita Venteen has told me about you. You are an archeologist. You deeg through the bones of the past to discover the stories they tell. This is a service I can use as well."

Pedros paw had drifted down to Nohni's chest ruff by now, and he suddenly grabbed a pawful of the white fur. His other paw grabbed her shirt pocket and squeezed - hard.

Nohni simply stared back at him. "Are you looking for something?"

A frown crossed Pedro's muzzle, but vanished quickly. "The crystal bone. Carlos deed not have eet," was all he said.

"And neither do I," Nohni replied.

Pedro did nothing but stare at her. She'd expected some sort of angry display, but no. This fur was not so easily aroused to passion. Or else he hid his fury well - which made him even more dangerous. The only thing that did show was an intense burning look in those amber eyes. Nohni had a hard time keeping eye contact.

"Your white tiger companion," whispered Pedro dangerously. "The one weeth you at Yaviza. Where ees he?"

Nohni nodded to her plane. "The last I saw him, he jumped into the river. Tigers really like to swim. They're good at it, you know."

Pedro barked a quick order in Spanish, and several of his lackeys took off toward the river. He turned back to Nohni and grabbed one of her wrists, which he pulled out from behind her head. His expression was still 'pleasant', but the strength of his grip belied his true feelings.

"Let us hope we find heem and the crystal feenger bone soon, or you may find one of yours - removed." He turned to another of the armed jaguars and shoved Nohni's wrist into his paw. "Esposar a nuestros presa!"

Nohni had her wrists bound and then she and a whimpering Daeom'acal were shoved out of the riverside clearing back into the jungle.

"I REALLY hope my 'Sister' knows what she's doing," Nohni thought angrily as they moved through the tangle of vines and trees. Things could go wrong so easily now. Here was yet another example of this mysterious 'Sister' of hers intervening to change things.

The result?

Nohni was in Pedro's custody! But then, being capture by Pedro had always been a real possibility no matter how she played this.

Suddenly, another thought flashed through her mind that made her grind her teeth. She thought Pedro had found them by tracking the faint signal put out by the pilfered cell phone, but what if this sister of hers, this Goddess of Change bitch, had been the one to tip off Pedro? After all, she'd known exactly when Pedro and his goons were going to show up! And telling Nohni to give Tigermark the crystal bone? What if she was waiting for Tigermark just up the river? Maybe she wanted the bone herself without having to deal with Pedro! Hadn't she sent Daeom'acal after Carlos to get that missing bone?

Nohni felt herself beginning to fume, but then another thought struck her. Pedro still had Daeom'acal's bone! This Goddess needed that bone as well to complete her set of twenty. Nohni shook her head. The more she thought about it, the more this whole situation confused her.

Nothing was as it seemed.

Especially that damned stolen cell phone!

When Nohni had checked the ID of the phone from which her sister's text message had been sent, she couldn't believe the results. It said the text message had come from Havus Anglia's cell phone. The name and number were tagged to the text message. But then she'd seen the name scratched on the back of the cell phone in her paw.

Havus Anglia!

Checking the pilfered cell phone's info page had finally confirmed the impossibility of it all. Her sister's text message had been sent to her from the very same cell phone Nohni had been holding in her own paw!

A haunted cell phone sending messages to itself?

Messages from a sister she didn't even have!?

As Nohni trudged through the jungle toward who-knew-what, she sincerely hoped things would not get any stranger than they already were.

 

But somehow, she knew this was only the beginning.

 

 

------------------------------------------@@------------------------------------------

 

Pedro Arias Dávila

 

Nohni stepped from the HumVee and tried to get some feeling to come back into her bound paws. She and her group were probably not that far from Yaviza, but twenty minutes over a dirt road while sitting on her bound and be-numbed paws had not been comfortable. As she clenched and unclenched her paws behind her back, she let her eyes play across the immense, whitewashed façade of the villa before her. A name was painted in bright blue letters across the arched entrance.

"La Casa de Dávila."

So this is Pedro's home. Lovely.

Nohni could only look at the name on the arch for a moment before she was unceremoniously shoved beneath it and through the wide front portico. She, Carlos, Daeom'acal and the Pedro crowd had emerged from the jungle near the same place where Nohni's group had come out this morning, but they'd not headed into town as Nohni had. Instead, four black HumVees had been waiting for them to take them to this place. She glanced back to where a gagged and hobbled Carlos was struggling to keep up. He was looking murderously active now, but he was not going to feel very good later on. Not only had they bound his paws, but they'd taken the extra precaution of foot shackles attached to a spreader-bar which forced Carlos' feet into an impossibly wide gait. Walking in this configuration was difficult at best and running was out of the question. Out of the three of them, only Daeom'acal was unbound, but he didn't seem the type to try escaping on foot.

Which puzzled Nohni.

She'd been thinking about the old jaguar ever since they'd been captured. Here was a Daeom - or Shaman - of a jungle tribe who seemed about as scared of the world around him as a lost cub. Nohni was finding it harder and harder to believe that Deaom'acal could be that much of a wimp. The Darien was as harsh a jungle as one could imagine. To exist there would take a certain amount of inner strength and jungle savvy. There was no way Daeom'acal could survive the Darien with the kind of personality he was displaying here. Now, some might argue that his cowering manner was a reaction to the newness of things around him in this modern setting, but that didn't seem to be enough to explain his constant state of fear.

Nohni looked to the head of their column to where a certain Ibizan Hound was strutting imperiously. Perhaps there was a darker side of Pedro that Daeom'acal had seen and she had not?

"Most likely," Nohni thought. Those who pandered to the sin of the 'vices' - drugs & prostitution - were not noted for their saintly ideals or generous natures. What, under the suns, had she let herself in for here? Nohni felt the heat of a slow anger rise in her guts. Her 'sister' had advised capture, but the more she mulled it over, the more Nohni thought this was a bad idea.

A very bad idea.

As a precaution and in preparation for a possible escape, Nohni had been making mental notes on her surroundings. The route of their trip to this place and the time it took to get here gave her a good idea where this villa was in relation to Yaviza. From the few clear spots they'd passed through in town that morning, Nohni had noted a line of several small hills to the west of Yaviza. The route the HumVees had taken through the forest would put them very near these hills, if not actually on top of one.

Nohni was also making a mental note of the layout of the villa as she passed through it. The arched entrance they had come through was actually a fifty foot passageway into an interior courtyard that was perhaps thirty yards wide and the same deep. If this was a typical layout, servant's quarters and bunk space for underlings probably lined three of the four courtyard walls, leaving the back wall as the front to the main villa. She gazed up at it as they drew near. It looked to be a two story affair with a second floor balcony running the length of the courtyard. Yellow clay roofing tiles added a splash of color wherever they could be seen from the ground.

Over-all, the feeling was light and airy, - a good setup for dealing with the pervasive tropical heat in this place. However, Nohni had no doubt that there would be places inside - deep inside - that never saw the light of day.

She was glad when they were not immediately led to one of those places.

Instead, they passed through the double front doors and into the villa proper where the guards from the jungle were exchanged for 'cleaner' and better dressed guards from the villa itself. They then traveled through several luxuriously appointed living areas until they entered what had to be the main office of Pedro's 'empire'. Its most prominent feature was a floor-to-ceiling bay window looking to the west. It occupied nearly one whole wall of the office. As Nohni took in the view, she realized they were indeed on top of one of the hills west of Yaviza for there, off in the hazy distance, lay the bay of San Miguel. For a moment, Nohni imagined that this sight would be similar to what one Vasco Núñez de Balboa had seen when he first spied the Pacific Ocean over six hundred years ago.

She also noticed that one of the small, side windows flanking the great bay window was broken out and had a temporary wooden board over it as a patch.

"Pedro's stolen bone?" Nohni thought. "Had it been in this office, and had the thief used that broken window to gain access?"

"I see you are admiring my view," Pedro said as he walked around behind his large desk. "I also see you have noticed my broken window." He sat down and gestured to a high-backed and well cushioned seat in front of his desk. "Please, Senorita Wabanda. Have a seat."

Before Nohni could accept or decline the offer, she was roughly pushed into the seat by a sour-faced bulldog and another boarhound - two of the canine guards that had accompanied their group from the front door. A thump and muffled growl behind her told her Carlos had been forced to his knees. Nohni felt her jaw tighten, but she resisted the urge to glare at Pedro who had picked up a leaded glass carafe from his desk filled with a clear liquid. He pulled two clear crystal goblets from a top desk drawer and slowly filled them both from the carafe. He pushed one toward Nohni.

"If you are offering me hospitality," Nohni said in a controlled voice, "I'm afraid I must decline. My paws seem to be bound at the moment."

Pedro nodded. "Ah, yes. That ees inconvenient, but eet was necessary for the trip here. However, now we are een my home, so I believe we can do without some of the precautions." He smiled. "But only some. We do thees in stages. Eef you behave, perhaps we will forego all precautions." He turned his eyes on the stout bulldog behind Nohni. "Abrir la mano derecha grillete en la mujer."

Nohni felt the cuffed paws behind her back pulled painfully upward. There was a small click and her right paw came free of its cuff. Then her left paw, still cuffed, was jerked around and the bulldog clicked the empty cuff closed through an ornate eye-bolt bolted to Pedro's desk. Nohni had wondered what that was since it looked more ornamental than practical. Nohni gave her left paw a tug and discovered that the bolt was indeed substantial, effectively shackling her to the desk.

Free of its cuff, Nohni took the opportunity to shake out her right paw, but she did not reach for the proffered goblet. There was no telling what was in it.

"Let us talk of bones, shall we?" offered Pedro setting down the half-full glass carafe. "I had one once, not too long ago. A pretty thing eet was too." He looked at Nohni, his eyes alight with malice. "I believe you had a crystal bone not long ago, too." Pedro's voice was a silky baritone that contrasted sharply with the fire in his eyes. He put his paws on his desk and leaned toward her, showing immaculate white teeth. "I believe your bone and my bone were one and the same, yes?"

He leaned back, grasped of one of the crystal goblets and hoisted it to Nohni as if in salute. Then he took a sip before setting it down and once more picking up the half-filled carafe. He gave the glass a tap with a clawed finger, and it responded with a faint and pleasant musical note.

"I had my crystal bone een thees carafe before eet was stolen." He cocked his head at Nohni. "You wonder at that?" He twirled the carafe so the liquid in it swirled up the sides. "You are asking yourself 'Why leave the bone out een the open if eet ees so precious?'"

Pedro's smile was casual, but his eyes were those of a predator.

"Eet ees an interesting thing," he continued. "One can drop certain clear crystals into a clear liquid, and the crystal will seem to disappear. A property of refracted light, I theenk." He nodded at the carafe. "A good way to hide something, no?"

Pedro turned and reached behind him to a shelf that contained several carafes. He picked one and proceeded to drain most of the liquid from the first into the second. He then put a finger into the nearly empty carafe and, indeed, fished out a clear, angular pebble that Nohni had not seen in the carafe before. He held the pebble up to the light and it sparkled like quartz, but with more color. Its shape tickled a memory in Nohni's mind, but Pedro was speaking again.

"I check this carafe whenever I am een my office to make sure I have my bone but… the day after your black friend was sent the heart, this clear pebble was all I found een my carafe." A quick flick of his paw tossed the pebble to Nohni, and she instinctively caught it with her free paw. "Which brings up an interesting question," Pedro continued as he set down the empty carafe. "I have some knowledge of thieves, so I know that thieves usually look for dark and enclosed hiding places. Why is this, Senorita Wabanda?"

"Because that's where most furs hide the things they value," answered Nohni.

Pedro nodded smiling his cold smile again. "Very good! So, being a clever one, I decided to hide my bone inside this carafe." He tapped it again. "When fooling a thief, eet ees sometimes best to hide theengs een plain sight."

Slowly, the smile slid from Pedro's muzzle as he leaned across his desk toward Nohni. "But this was not the best theeng to do een this case, was it?"

Pedro's paw shot forward, grasped a pawful of chest ruff, and pulled Nohni from her chair with such violence she yelped. His glaring amber eyes were open so wide now that Nohni thought his eyeballs must surely pop from his head.

"Now I am without my bone," Pedro hissed through bared teeth. "And I find myself quite…displeased."

"Please, you're hurting me," Nohni rasped. For the time being, she would play along with this mad dog. He obviously wanted a show of fear from her, and she had no trouble displaying it. This canine was crazy!

"But cunning crazy, thought Nohni with a shiver. She could understand now how Pedro had risen to a position of power in a criminal sub-culture that feared and respected power. At her plea, Pedro's grip on her chest ruff slowly relaxed, and his face lost its insane edge. Finally, he let her go and leaned back. Nohni fell back into her chair and went to rub her chest ruff with her free paw only to realize it still held Pedro's clear pebble. Almost as an after-thought, she covertly dropped it into her shirt pocket as her free paw went to her sore chest.

"You must forgive me, Senorita Wabanda," Pedro said in a conversational tone totally at odds with his previous manner. "But eet ees true. Thees bone which was stolen from me means a great deal to me." He glanced over to where an old jaguar was cowering in a corner. "Perhaps my other guest here will enlighten you as to the importance of the bones. Daeom'acal?"

Nohni looked to the old jaguar, who was creeping out of a shadowy corner. How long had Pedro been working on him to reduce him to this state of abject fear? Daeom'acal looked to Nohni, but seemed to avoid looking at Carlos. Then he dropped his eyes to the floor.

"The bones make up the Paw of Change," he mumbled.

Pedro's streaking paw was a blur, and the goblet he'd been holding ricocheted off the old jaguars head, splashing liquid everywhere. Daeom'acal yelped and collapsed to his knees.

"I wish the Senorita NOT to have to strain her ears to hear your pitiful mewlings, cub!" screamed Pedro, amber eyes ablaze once more.

Nohni leaned away from him. This dog's massive mood swings were as frightening as their degree of intensity! She turned to Daeom'acal, who was clutching at his bleeding scalp and nodding frantically.

"Yes! Yes! Senor Dávila! I speak up!" He turned frightened eyes on Nohni. "The Bones! The Bones! I have told you thees. Twenty Bones from twenty tribes to make the Paw of Change!"

"And why ees the Paw of Change so important, smelly jungle cat?" taunted Pedro.

Daeom'acal blinked several times as if he was about to cry, and looked to Nohni. "Be…because the Goddess of Change and the mortal she takes with her cannot pass back into Cosatacl without the Paw of Change put een eets proper place! The Paw - the Key - must be assembled een eet's proper place before anything else can happen!"

Pedro was standing over Daeom'acal now, paws on hips and looking down his muzzle at him. "And what happens to the one the Goddess takes with her into Cosatacl, scum!" He kicked the old jaguar who crumbled into a heap.

Daeom'acal looked to Nohni and gulped. "Eet ees said… eet ees said… when the chosen mortal returns through Cosatacl to join us again, he will be almost a God heemself - whom all must obey!"

"And what do you mean by 'all must obey'," spat Pedro. "Who is 'all'?"

"All the Great Tribes - the Great Civilizations - the ones both north and south of Darien!" wailed Daeom'acal. "Aztec! Incan! Mayan! Eet has always been so. The Goddess of Change will pick and teach the mortal who will return and prepare the Great Tribes for what they must face in the next Baktun!"

Baktun??

Nohni stared at Daeom'acal. His use of the Mayan measure of time triggered the thought that they were now coming to the end of a Mayan Calendar Baktun cycle. Could there be any connection here?

At this point, Daeom'acal was reduced to a blubbering mass on the floor, and Pedro kicked him out of the way as he made his way across the room to a glass case that contained old swords and daggers. He opened the case and took out a particularly wicked looking stiletto with a silver blade. With a casual air, he drew its edge across a finger pad and smiled at the drop of blood that welled up there. He slowly licked it clean before returning to his spot behind his desk and turning a greedy eye on Nohni.

"So, Senorita Wabanda, you see my problem. I cannot have someone else chosen by this Goddess of Change to be the next supreme ruler of Daria and beyond. A supreme ruler would disrupt the current state of affairs here… in my territory!" Pedro was looking really dangerous now.

Nohni steeled herself for her response. She knew the risk of appearing to scoff at what seemed like a real concern of Pedro's, but she wanted to inject a bit of reason into this conversation - anything to put a damper on emotions that could easily get out of control. Pedro had to have a certain amount of common sense and 'Real World' savvy in that brain of his, otherwise he wouldn't be able to wield his power effectively. She stared right into his glowing, amber eyes.

"So! You believe this Goddess of Change has the ability to create the next ruler of all the ancient tribes? Do you believe she is a real Goddess? Because I do not!"

Nohni hoped that, like her, Pedro was the skeptical type. Most criminals were - not being altruistic by nature. However, if she was wrong about him, it would not bode well for her. One does not antagonize a 'true believer' who has a sharp knife in his paw.

Pedro fingered his knife and eyed her for a long time. Then a crooked smile crossed his muzzle. "Any god is only as powerful as his, or her, believers," he answered with a sudden laugh.

Nohni was about to breathe a sigh of relief when Pedro's paw shot out and grabbed her chest ruff  - again!

"But that is what concerns me most!" he spat, holding the stiletto's point right up to Nohni's nose. "Mortal or no, thees Goddess of Change bitch holds power over the Darien tribes because the tribes of the Darien believe een her! A god's power lies in his believers! Power over her believers ees a Power I wish to have! The Darien Gap would then be mine alone to control!"

Pedro let go of Nohni and shot a look over at Carlos, who had been struggling almost non-stop throughout most of the present conversation. Pedro gave a sharp nod to the ones flanking the black jaguar, and they hauled him over to the desk next to Nohni. Unlike her, however, they didn't offer him a seat.

Pedro leaned over his desk toward the both of them "Now, I see several possible scenarios concerning thees whole affair. Scenario Number One: All bones are assembled in their proper places. The Goddess of Change chooses her mortal and disappears into Cosatacl. A short time later, the chosen mortal returns and controls all the natives of Central and South America, creating a political climate that ees NOT good for my business!" Pedro growled. "Thees must not happen, and the easy way to prevent eet ees to prevent the Paw of Change from ever being assembled." He glared at both Nohni and Carlos. "I had one of the bones, and that would have been enough to delay this Goddess of Change forever!"

The stiletto in Pedro's paw was instantly pressing into Carlos' belly just above his belt buckle. "But my bone was stolen," he whispered through gritted teeth.

"But you have Daeom'acal's bone," protested Nohni, looking nervously at the blade. "That accomplishes the same thing! You only need to possess one bone to disrupt the assembly of the Paw!"

Pedro looked to her and instantly his blade flashed from Carlos' belly to where Nohni's left paw was shackled to the desk. Before she could react, he had pressed the blade against the first joint of her left thumb. "What you say ees true, Senorita, but perhaps I do not weesh for thees! Perhaps I want the Paw to be assembled!"

"But you said…" Nohni began, but then gasped. Pedro had pressed his stiletto blade down on Nohni's thumb joint - hard.

"I know what I said!" growled Pedro. "But, perhaps I wish to give the Goddess of Change the opportunity to choose ME as her mortal Chosen One! Her Power over her believers would then be mine without question!"

Nohni leaned away from Pedro as far as her shackled left paw would allow. She now had an inkling of what Daeom'acal meant when he said Pedro was insane. This cur was obsessed! "But how can you force a Goddess to choose you?" Nohni asked.

Pedro pushed his muzzle even closer to hers. "Senorita Venteen has been most helpful in that regard," he hissed. "Unlike European and Asian gods, she tells me most, if not all, of the ancient New World Gods could be killed, just like mortals! So eet makes no difference if she ees a true goddess or not." Pedro let out a cackle. "Doctore Venteen even told me of a Mayan creation story, the Popol Vuh, where a pair of mortal Hero Twins, Ixbalanque and Hunapu, actually killed several of the more evil gods." Pedro's mirth morphed into disgust, and he spat. "Thees 'Goddess of Change' ees no different. And what can die can be threatened with death."

Pedro lifted the blade from Nohni's thumb and she felt a hot stickiness there as well as pain. She looked down and saw the blood pooling by her thumb from a deep cut.

"Threat of death ees most effective," Pedro continued, his nasty chuckle returning. "However, the threat must be applied effectively. To kill the wrong fur, or kill the right fur at the wrong time, would be stupid." He placed the blade of his stiletto on Carlos belly once again as he looked to Nohni. "Should I kill this one now?"

Nohni shot a look to Carlos, but saw no fear in him - only hatred for the cur holding the knife. Pedro must have seen it, too, for he withdrew his knife a little and shook his head.

"Ah, yes. Machismo. Death ees too easy for thees one. But there are other ways. Perhaps I should simply castrate heem." Pedro slashed the blade down, slicing through Carlos belt and trousers. The trousers fell away, revealing what lay beneath, and for a moment Pedro simply stared. So did Nohni. Then Pedro laughed, but not as a reaction to the size of Carlo's 'private parts'. That was respectable.

It was their color.

It seemed the only spot of white on Carlos' otherwise black body was his malehood's sheath.

Pedro continued to chuckle as he placed the blade against a panicked-looking Carlos' white sheath. He then glanced at Nohni. "A leettle touch of red to color the white, yes?"

"NO!" Nohni shouted.

Pedro nodded and withdrew the stiletto completely. "So… killing or maiming thees one now would be stupid? Why would that be?"

Nohni looked away and ground her teeth. This was not going well at all, and if she wasn't careful, a friend could die! Why had she let her damned sister talk her into this fiasco? Bound, shackled, tied, gagged, she and Carlos had no chance of escape here. Her only hope was to play along and hope for some future chance. She glared back at the pompous Ibizan Hound.

Pedro watched her for a moment, then smiled again. "I thought so. He ees a friend to you, and you will do much to keep heem alive and in one piece, yes? Both Senorita Venteen and Carlos are my assurance you will cooperate with me, Senorita Wabanda?"

Nohni scowled, but nodded.

"Then here is what I want from you." Pedro leaned toward her, his stiletto still in his paw. Again he pressed it onto Nohni's left thumb joint and she winced. "Doctor Venteen tells me you are quite good with ancient riddles and puzzles. That will be most helpful when eet comes time to assemble the Paw of Change."

Nohni jerked her head toward Daeom'acal. "Let him tell you how it's done."

Pedro nodded to his guards and two of them suddenly clamped their paws onto Nohni - one around her neck and the other pinning her free arm behind her. He then looked back at her and shook his head. "No. Daeom'acal can tell me where hees own bone goes een the final assembly, but no one, not even Carlos, knows where the Nocpexul bone must go. I regret that I killed Carlos' Shaman before I could find that out, but I didn't know eet's significance then. So, thees you must discover. Where to put the Nocpexul Bone." He pressed his blade harder into Nohni's thumb.

"Yes! YES! I can do that!" Nohni croaked. The pain in her thumb was much worst now.

"Excellent!" Pedro crooned, but still he did not let up on the blade. "But before we can do anything with the Nocpexul bone, we must possess it first." He looked up to one of the other guards in the room who shook his head. "Ah. I feared as much. Eet seems your white tiger friend has eluded my underlings. So, I want you to contact thees friend and arrange to meet heem. Thees I know you can do. You will arrange thees meeting, and you will tell heem he must bring my bone with heem."

Nohni was trying hard not to cry out but the pain was nearly unbearable. "YES! YES! I'll contact him," she gasped. "Just stop…"

"You seem distressed, Senorita Wabanda," Pedro whispered down at her. "Why is this?"

Nohni was struggling now but the grip on her was like iron. "Your… damned… KNIFE!" she screamed. "Get it OFF ME! Please! I've already told you I'll do anything you want!"

She saw Pedro lean even further toward her.

"Oh, I know you will, Senorita Wabanda. I merely want you to know what I am capable of eef I am… betrayed."

His last word brought his full weight down upon the knife.

Nohni's single ear-splitting shriek was followed by a gagging and gasping as they finally released her. Grabbing the slippery, blood-spouting stump of her left thumb with her free paw, she beat her head on the desk and howled in pain. It was like an acid spike driven through her manacled paw - a jagged, flesh-rending claw that tore from her paw through her arm to her brain and back again in tortuous waves.

But though the pain would finally consume her consciousness like fire, one single thought pounded relentlessly through her brain until the darkness overcame her.

"DAMN YOU! When I find you, SISTER of mine, you will pay!

IN BLOOD!"

 

 

------------------------------------------@@------------------------------------------

 

Amelda Venteen

 

Paw of Change awaken now. Fingers point and Bones arrange.

Passage means "We Pay what's due, and ponder not, the Odd, or Strange."

Sister's fate is soon Divined. Jungle Serpents intertwined.

Gaps are crossed between the Two, Golden Siblings, interchange.

Heros of the Future Past. Know we not, who's first or last.

Cosatacl is the Key, to the Hero Destiny.

 

.................Sisssssssssssssster................

 

It was like moving through thick slime.

Take a slow, thick breath. Pull the mind along behind. Push it up to the light. Fade. Sink. Breathe. Push it up again.

A distant part of Nohni's mind knew she was trying to wake up, but it was so hard. She ached with the effort to thrust herself into consciousness. Other things ached too.

It's gone and I can't find it.

Her left paw seemed to be missing. Why couldn't she feel it?

"Nohni?"

The soft, purring voice sounded familiar. And something was combing the fur on her cheek - but it wasn't a comb. Warm, moist air smelling of blood and red meat played across her face, and something tickled her nose.

"Nohni? Please wake up."

Nohni pushed harder and the light swam into her mind. Red, white, and tan.

"You're safe for now."

Nohni turned to the voice, and a warm paw caressed her cheek. She leaned into the gentle touch.

"I'm sorry they hurt you."

Nohni nodded into the paw. She was sorry too, but she wasn't sure why.

"I fixed it as best I could," continued the purring voice. "They gave me a needle and I used some of your hair."

Fixed it?

Nohni couldn't think what needed fixing. Perhaps her left paw? It was still gone and she couldn't find it.

"I cleaned it, and sewed it closed with a few strands of your hair."

Cleaned? Sewed? Had Nohni torn her clothing?

"Does it hurt?" asked the voice.

Nohni shook her head. There was that general overall ache, but she couldn't pin it down to any particular place.

"I'm glad it doesn't hurt for now. As a topical anesthetic to numb the pain, they let me use some of their cocaine, and…"

Cocaine!?

PEDRO!

Nohni sat bolt upright as a picture of a certain slimy, sadistic cur flashed through her mind. Just as instantly she rolled to her side and vomited her guts out. With her sudden rise, the pain in her head had exploded, and the gut-twisting nausea followed instantly. Nohni spat, gagged, and moaned for a full minute before collapsing panting back on the dirty cot upon which she lay. For another full minute she tried to get the room to stop spinning. Eventually, the turmoil in her brain faded to a tolerable level, and she finally looked to the fur sitting next to her. Its color and spot pattern looked like…an ocelot?

"Amelda?" Nohni croaked. It was hard to see in the dim light of this… room? It was an awfully small room. And the fur beside her wasn't wearing glasses. Like Raven and Hazel, Amelda usually wore glasses, but this female fur was definitely an ocelot so who else could it be?

The ocelot nodded. "Yes. I'm Amelda. I'm… I'm so sorry you got pulled into this mess."

Nohni could tell Amelda was trying not to cry. She was actually doing a good job of it, but she still looked very unhappy. Nohni reached out a paw to comfort the old ocelot.

It was her left paw.

The paw froze halfway to the old fur. Nohni stared at it with a mixed feeling of fury and regret. A red-stained white bandage covered her left thumb - or what was left of it.

Surprisingly, she felt no pain from it at all. Then she recalled Amelda telling her she'd used cocaine on the stump as a topical anesthetic. Nohni thought that mildly interesting since the original medical use for cocaine was exactly that. She tried to wiggle the thumb and instantly wished she hadn't. The severed thumb tendons had undoubtedly snapped back into the tissue toward the base of the thumb and therefore hadn't been exposed to the topical application of cocaine.

In short, it hurt like hell when she tried to move it.

Amelda had reached out instantly at Nohni's grunt of pain and was now tenderly cradling the injured paw. Perversely, Nohni noted that Amelda still had all her fingers. But then, she probably didn't embarrass Pedro by clobbering his lackeys upon first contact. It seems Pedro detested embarrassment as much as he disliked betrayal.

"So," Nohni said, trying to lighten the mood. "How's your field research project going?"

Amelda made a valiant effort to smile, but then shook her head. "It seems to be on hold for the moment." With this statement, Amelda leaned in very close to Nohni and whispered in a barely audible voice.

"We are being monitored."

The old ocelot tapped her ear and flicked an eye toward the reinforced door of what Nohni now recognized as a her prison cell.

Nohni nodded and made a Darien hunting gesture with her right paw.

Watch the paw.

Amelda's eyes widened and she tapped her own paw which gave another signal.

Understand?

Nohni nodded again. Being an anthropologist who was studying the Darien Tribes, Amelda would be familiar with the silent paw signals Carlo's tribe used when hunting. She just hadn't known that Nohni knew them too.

"Well, I can understand why your studies are on hold," Nohni replied to keep up the verbal conversation so as not to rouse suspicion in their uninvited listeners.

This was going to be tricky because she wanted to get some critical information from Amelda without her captors listening in. However, doing so in 'Paw Signs' alone wouldn't cut it since the Paw Sign vocabulary was limited to hunting commands. She would have to use a combination of voice and paw. The voiced part would have to appear innocent enough, but the Paw could add critical information she didn't want the 'enemy' to know about.

"Despite being on hold now," Nohni continued, "You did find out something about Cosatacl. Deaom'acal told me Pedro first found out about that from you." She really did reach out this time and pat the old ocelot's knee. "Don't criticize yourself for revealing that to Pedro. As I found out the hard way, one does not try to resist one as powerful as Pedro without severe consequences. You did the right thing to tell him all you knew."

Keep anything hidden? Nohni signed with her paw. It would be nice to know something about this that Pedro did not.

Amelda nodded, but continued the verbal conversation in a normal tone. "Yes I told him all I knew for sure, but that wasn't much. I was with one of the Choco tribes when their Shaman took off on some urgent 'errand'. I like to think I have a good relationship with this particular tribe, but they were all very closed mouthed about it."

When prey is Silent, Amelda signed. The Hunter looks harder.

Nohni nodded.

"However, I finally got a few things from their Shaman when he returned," continued Amelda out loud, "But mostly it was just the name of a place and the name of a goddess. After that, he wouldn't reveal anything. He seemed genuinely sorry about that, but 'those were the rules' so to speak. I knew Cosatacl had to be important simply by the way they were all acting when the subject came up, so I did a little guesswork. I figured this Cosatacl place and its Goddess of Change had to have great authority over the Darien tribes simply because the Shaman responded to its summons so quickly. He also went back another time in a great hurry when I was still there. I told this all to Pedro when he ah… captured me about a month ago. He told me that my friendships with the local tribes could be of great value to him, securing the Darien for his operatives, but he seemed particularly interested in the 'control' aspect of this Goddess of Change."

"Of course he would be," Nohni answered. "So all the other 'details' about the Goddess and what her purpose was came from Daeom'acal, not you? And he showed up for the first time…what… fifteen days ago?"

Amelda nodded. "Yes. That's when Pedro really got interested. This Goddess' role in choosing a 'ruler' for the Darien would certainly impact Pedro. I was present when he grilled Daeom'acal for the details - like the purpose of the crystal bones. He was pretty thorough too. He got everything from Daeom'acal he could, and he wasn't very nice about it. I suppose that's to be expected. After all, Daeom'acal was asking for my heart to send to Carlos!" Amelda tapped her chest. "I suppose I should be grateful to Pedro for not killing me then and there, but apparently he saw more value in me being alive than dead."

"Yes, that was fortunate. Pedro is certainly not stupid when it comes to seeing value." Nohni put her finger down her throat to tell Amelda that her 'words of praise' almost made her gag, but they might as well give their uninvited listeners an earful of what they wanted to hear.

What is hidden? Nohni signed.

Amelda leaned in close and signed. I think Prey leaves false trail.

Nohni felt her eyes widen in surprise. Daeom'acal had lied to Pedro? She mouthed the name 'Daeom'acal' followed by the Old Jaguar sign. The she signed Old Jaguar Leaves False Trail?

Amelda shook her head and mouthed 'Goddess' followed by the Yellow Female sign. She then signed Old Jaguar has no trail. Old Jaguar sees only trail left by Yellow Female. All Darien Hunters see only Yellow Female trail. False trail maybe?

Nohni sat back and shook her head, dumbfounded. If she understood Amelda's paw signs correctly, the old ocelot suspected that all the Shaman of the Darien tribes where actually clueless about the true purpose of the Goddess of Change! And Amelda had studied them closely enough over the years to know. True, the Shaman may have had a sacred duty to watch Cosatacl and carry around little crystal bones that made up a Paw of Change which was important to the operation of Cosatacl, but apparently that was the extent of their real knowledge! Once the Goddess of Change actually showed up, apparently it was her job to tell them what to do next!

And that means she could tell them anything she damn well wanted too!

All the other details Daeom'acal had given Pedro about 'choosing a mortal' as the next de-facto dictator of the Darien had been spoon fed to him by this damned Goddess!

As if losing the tip of her thumb wasn't enough to make her hate this yellow bitch already, it now looked like she was pulling everybody's tail! Hell! She didn't even need to be a Goddess to do this! She could have been some ambitious local trollop that had somehow activated Cosatacl and then stepped out of it at her leisure to start bossing everyone around!

Nohni ground her teeth in disgust, but another part of her was still puzzled. Despite her growing suspicion that this Goddess Sister of hers was a big fraud, the bitch still knew far too much about Nohni, personally, for Nohni's comfort.

She knew about Carlos and Amelda, and Nohni's relationship to them. She knew where they all lived in Canada. She knew what Carlos' reaction to the Polata'an would be and where to be to save Nohni. For that matter, how had she convinced Tigermark to come on this mission? For it had to have been her who texted the white tiger about Nohni's intention to go to Panama.

And how in hell had she contacted Nohni at just the right moment to warn her about Pedro's appearance at the plane? How had she done it using the stolen cell phone already in Nohni's paw? And how had she known precisely what Nohni had been feeling at the time she sent the second text message?

Goddess or no, Nohni's 'Sister' knew way too much for comfort.

And that pissed Nohni off because, relative this Goddess, she hardly knew anything at all about this whole situation! Which reminded Nohni of something else she didn't know. She looked to Amelda.

"Where's Carlos?"

Amelda looked away and fidgeted.

"Amelda? He's alright, isn't he?"

Amelda looked up, tears in her eyes. "He's…he's alive."

Nohni reached again to put her injured paw on the upset ocelot's knee. "Amelda? What's wrong?"

"This…this is all my fault!" Amelda wailed, tears beginning to stream down her muzzle. "If only I hadn't gone on this field trip! If only.."

Nohni sat up on her cot and moved next to the distressed ocelot, putting an arm around her. "That's nonsense, Amelda, and you know it. If you want to blame anyone, blame…" Nohni stopped herself from saying 'Pedro', but just barely. She'd realized they were still being monitored. "Blame this Goddess of Change," Nohni finished, knowing that this was true, as well. "Without her damned interference, things would have not gotten this bad." She squeezed Amelda, and gave her tear-stained muzzle a quick lick. This seemed to cheer her up, somewhat. "So, what happened to Carlos?"

"Carlos," Amelda began and sniffed. "Well, Carlos is Carlos. When Pedro did…what he did to you, I'm afraid Carlos went a little crazy, and even bound as he was, he put on quite a display." Amelda dropped her head and rubbed the bridge of her muzzle. "At least that's what Daeom'acal told me when they brought him and Carlos back down here to these cells. Daeom'acal and I fixed Carlos up as best we could, but they beat him pretty badly." Amelda looked down at her paws and shook her head. "They didn't maim him like you, but I think they broke a couple of his fingers."

"Not unexpected, I suppose," Nohni said, controlling her own temper in deference to their hidden listeners. She gave Amelda another squeeze. "Yes. That sounds like something Carlos would do."

Nohni blinked, realizing her own eyes were getting moist too. Yes. That was something Carlos would do for a friend - unlike Pedro who's only concern was for himself.

"Truly evil furs care nothing for the wreckage and suffering they leave in their wake."

Nohni recalled Tigermark's phrase when they'd talked at the plane before leaving on this trip. She wondered how many 'evil' furs he'd encountered in his past. There was a lot about that white tiger she didn't know, but then she hadn't insisted on knowing. Simply being with him let you know what he was all about. His very nature clearly said "Honorable Fur" so the details were unimportant.

Nohni wasn't totally ignorant about him, though. She had used Tigermark's transport service from time to time. The white tiger's 'day job' was flying his privately owned T-38 jet as a fast courier service, and whenever Nohni had needed to get somewhere on the planet fast, he was glad to let her use the T-38's back seat.

Nohni's brows furrowed into a deep frown. She was remembering what she had promised to Pedro. She was to set up a meeting with Tigermark so Pedro could get his - or Carlos' - bone back. Well, she'd be damned if she was going to set him up just to be taken down by Pedro's goons!

As if someone knew what she was thinking, there came a noise from her cell door. It was being unlocked, and Nohni quickly released her grip on Amelda. She lay back down on her cot just as the door opened. Two large furs, a nondescript canine and a big jaguar stood silhouetted in the doorway.

"Pedro wants you. Now." barked the canine, pointing at Nohni.

Nohni closed her eyes, dropped her head and nodded. She felt Doctor Venteen's paw briefly grasp her knee, before she stood up. She glared at the two guards for only a moment before she strode between the two of them and out into the dark hallway.

Again she took note of the route they were taking up to Pedro's office. Her cell was one of six. She saw Daeom'acal's face peering from the tiny window of the second one on the left. His eyes flicked to a spot over his left shoulder and he nodded. Nohni took that to mean Carlos was in that cell with him. At its end, the cell block opened into a small antechamber with its seated guard. They then climbed up a flight of narrow stairs to a long room that looked like guard quarters. They quickly passed the beds lining the entire length of the windowless quarters. Some of the beds were occupied, some empty. At the opposite end they passed into another entryway with its seated guard. Finally, they stepped out to the south side of the villa courtyard.

It was night, but Nohni quickly got her bearings from the nearly full moon and the constellation of Orion on the eastern horizon. They proceeded to the well lit main villa and into its main front doors. They then followed the same route as before up to Pedro's office.

Pedro was seated at his desk this time and leaned back in his chair when Nohni and her escort entered.

"Senorita Wabanda." Pedro said indicating the seat in front of his desk. Nohni saw the cuffs still clipped through the ornate eyebolt, but there was no sign of the blood she'd spattered all over the desk during her ordeal. She eyed the cuffs and Pedro must have noticed because he clucked his tongue and shook his head.

"No need for restraint tonight, I theenk?" he crooned.

Nohni sat down, but returned no greeting. She was eyeing the six guards around the room. Apparently, Pedro saw this show of force as being enough to ensure her good behavior.

"I believe you promised me something?" Pedro asked, his manner patronizing. He pushed a hardwired desk phone toward Nohni. "The audio connection to a cell phone may be troublesome depending on where her ees, but eef there ees even only slight contact with the Yaviza tower, a text message ees possible." He nodded at the phone which had a texting screen and buttons for several incoming lines. "Use the number two line for thees call."

Nohni began to pull the phone toward her when Pedro's paw clamped over hers. "Leave eet where eet ees so we may both see?" He had also punched the speakerphone option. "You only need dial."

Nohni nodded, and looked at the phone. The text screen said it was 9:03pm. She reached out to dial the number of Havus Anglia's cell phone - the one she'd stolen and then shoved at Tigermark before she'd been captured. She didn't want to do this, but she saw no way of getting around it. She only hoped Tigermark had the presence of mind to see through any setup Pedro might arrange. Her finger was nearly at the keypad.

At that instant, the phone buzzed, and the screen said "Incoming text message." Pedro growled and looked around at his lackeys. "I thought I made eet very clear to everyone I deed not want to be disturbed now!" While he was barking, Nohni looked at the message's sender ID. The message was coming from Havus Anglia's cell phone! Was Tigermark trying to contact them?

At this point, Pedro pulled the phone away from Nohni and back toward himself.  He punched a button to cycle the message body onto the phone's screen. Nohni was glad for the small reprieve because it let her think about what she would say to Tigermark. She didn't want to get him into a bad situation if she could help it. However her respite was a small one. She had just noticed that Pedro had a most peculiar look in his eyes which were suddenly darting around the room. Nohni took the opportunity of Pedro's distraction to lean forward. She could just make out the message body on the little text screen.

 

To: Pedro Arias Davila:

Please turn this desk phone back around to where Nohni can see it too. What I have to say is for the both of you.

From: The Goddess of Change

 

Pedro noticed Nohni's curiosity and frowned, pulling the phone away from her. Almost immediately it buzzed again. Pedro looked down at it and now his expression was one of shock. For a moment he simply stared at the phone. Then, with a growl he ripped the line out of the phone and threw it across the room. One of his lackeys had to duck to avoid getting hit.

Instantly, something else was buzzing. The sound was coming from Pedro's own pocket. He pulled a cell phone from his breast pocket and flipped it open. Again the silent stare. This time, however, he didn't throw it across the room. Instead, with a fierce scowl, he tossed the cell phone at Nohni. She caught it with her good paw and looked at the little screen.

 

To: Pedro, the Phone Tosser

Refuse to hear me out again, and you will NEVER get your precious bone back.

From: The Goddess of Change

 

Pedro was up and pointing to his lackeys, barking something in Spanish Nohni didn't catch. She was too stunned by the message. It was happening again! How the hell did this Goddess bitch know what was going on in this very room? Even as Nohni thought this, another line of text scrolled across the screen.

 

Because this 'bitch' is right here in this room, of course!

 

Nohni jerked her head around looking everywhere, but there was obviously no Golden Goddess of Change anywhere to be seen.

The cell phone buzzed again and one last message scrolled across the screen. By this time Pedro had come around his desk and was now peering at the cell phone along with Nohni.

 

To: Pedro who is now standing behind Nohni

If you wish to meet me and get your precious bone back. Come to the abandoned Espiritu Santo gold mine in the Darien jungle near the Columbian border by noon tomorrow. You know where it is and how to get there. Just use Nohni's plane. Bring as many of your underlings as you can put in the Horus, but you must also bring Nohni Wabanda, Doctor Venteen and Daeom'acal as well. And they must be unharmed!

Oh, and bring the bone you took from Deaom'acal as well. Can't get this party started without all the bones, can we?

From: Ynon-Upanuh Ahdnabau - The Goddess of Change

 

Nohni looked to Pedro, and for one fleeting instant, it felt like the two of them were actually on the same side of this conflict.

 

It was not a comfortable feeling.]

------------------------------------------@@------------------------------------------

 

 Part Three - The Darien

Into the Jungle

 

It was not a comfortable feeling - being a passenger instead of a pilot in her own beloved Horus.

Nohni shifted on the tiny fold-down passenger seat. These seats were certainly more cramped than the flight-deck seats up front, but Pedro had his own pilot, and he was in command of this expedition to the Espiritu Santo. At this, Nohni felt her mood darken and her face scowl.

She hated not being in charge.

She also hated being squashed in between two of Pedro's thugs. She and twelve others were crammed into a plane meant to hold a maximum of eight. Amelda sat across from Nohni flanked by two more goons, and Daeom'acal, along with his own escort of two, were at the back - though why he needed a guard was a mystery. The old jaguar looked too terrified to do anything dangerous. Two more of Pedro's lackeys occupied the very front of the cabin by the flight-deck.

So, along with Pedro, who had commandeered the co-pilot seat for himself, and the pilot, that made for thirteen furs on the Horus.

"How lucky," Nohni thought sourly. "Three of us, and ten of them."

Despite superstitions, their luck had not been bad so far, because they'd actually been able to take-off from the Turya River in the grossly overloaded Horus. Still, it had been an interesting experience to say the least. Prior to the take-off, Pedro had voiced his complete confidence in his pilot. He had, after all, flown many a plane overloaded with drugs from airstrips or rivers just as primitive as the Turya. As it was, they had to taxi three miles downriver to find a straight stretch long enough to accommodate the extra distance needed for the float equipped Horus to take off - and even then, they'd only just cleared the trees at the end. Nohni had suggested they taxi all the way down to Yaviza and take the float plane ramp up onto the Yaviza airstrip to do a land based take off, but Pedro had squashed that idea saying the airstrip was too primitive for Nohni's wheeled floats. When Nohni had pointed out that they were going to have to land on an airstrip in the Darien at their destination, Pedro had merely smiled.

Pedro also seemed to have the utmost confidence in the nine other furs he'd brought with him on this trip. Canines, all, noted Nohni. It seemed Pedro trusted the local native feline population a lot less - which was a typical colonial attitude. He would think they were good enough as cannon fodder, but could be counted on for little else. The ones he'd chosen to accompany them all had the hard-an-scarred look of seasoned criminal veterans. They were also quite jungle savvy, if Nohni's guess was correct. Yes. Pedro would have chosen veterans of the Darien drug trade because, if Nohni also didn't miss her guess again, this mission was going to involve some hard jungle trekking.

Nohni glanced to Daeom'acal, who looked like he was about to cry again. He'd been none too comfortable flying on the Horus down from Canada, but today he looked doubly miserable. Perhaps flying did not suit him well under even the best of circumstances. But, how would the old shaman fair in the jungle? And by jungle, Nohni wasn't referring to the overgrown 'weeds' that flourished around Yaviza. That was 'second growth' tropical forest, having been logged off in the past. Where they were headed was real jungle.

Untouched. Pristine.

And dangerous.

Would Daeom'acal come into his own then? That was the kind of jungle he was familiar with. That was the jungle even Pedro feared - and wanted control over for his own purposes.

Only time would tell.

Nohni turned toward the flight-deck to give Pedro another dark look, but stopped when she noticed the look on his face. He seemed mighty displeased himself - which Nohni thought appropriate, and which perversely made her feel a little better.

Yes. Pedro might be in command here on the Horus - but even he wasn't in complete control. The Jungle had a way of taking control away from you.

And then there was the Goddess of Change.

Ynon-Upanuh Ahdnabau.

It was that bitch who was running the real show.

Nohni scowled. She had little love for that one, but Pedro was no cuddly bed-mate either. To divert her thoughts away from the Goddess of Change, Nohni tried peering out a window past Amelda's encapsulating guards - not that there was much to see out there other than jungle. They would get to their destination soon enough.

Estación de campo Cana, Parque Nacional Darien, Panama.

That's where they were headed - the Cana Field Station in Darien National Park.

For all that the Darien was one of the most inaccessible places on earth and had a bad reputation for violence, it was one of the best places on earth to do bird-watching. Thus, a small, but steady stream of 'eco-tourists' visited the park year round - at least the parts one could get to, like the Cana Field Station. Native populations of parrots, macaws and other tropical birds were in decent shape here - no doubt due to their extreme isolation - and the Cana Field station had the only semi-improved airstrip in the park to accommodate the 'fly-in' tourist excursions that originated from El Real.

It was also only six miles from the old Espiritu Santo gold mine.

Was that were they would eventually meet this Goddess of Change? Or was the bitch just playing with them all? Nohni dropped her eyes to the floor of the plane, not wishing anyone to see the fear hidden there, because she was truly afraid. Not that much for herself, but for the others involved in this. For instance…

What had happened to Tigermark?

The Goddess of Change had contacted them using the cell phone Nohni had given to Tigermark. How could she have come into possession of it without encountering the white tiger? Where was Tigermark now? Nohni had no answers. Only uncertainties. And what of the others on this trip? She looked up to Amelda, who seemed preoccupied with her own fidgeting paws. There was something about those paws. Amelda glanced up covertly and gave Nohni a wink.

Suddenly, it clicked.

Watch the paw!

She was covertly making the sign for Black Jaguar - Nocpexul. She then tapped the tip of her left thumb and nodded toward Nohni. Nohni was puzzled for only a moment, but then she raised her injured left thumb stump from her lap and signed To Nocpexul with her right paw.

Amelda gave a short nod.

Well, this was something Nohni hadn't known before. Actually, she and Amelda hadn't had any chance to continue their conversation after Nohni had been pulled out of her cell the previous night and up to Pedro's office. It seemed Amelda was telling Nohni now that Carlos had somehow gotten hold of the severed part of Nohni's thumb - probably during his display of 'insanity' when Pedro had done the deed. Was that another reason for Carlos' insane display? Was it really just a diversion to jump around a lot and eventually get that piece of Nohni's thumb? How had he grabbed it with his paws bound? In his mouth? Nohni wasn't sure about that, but Amelda's message seemed clear. Carlos now had that piece of Nohni's thumb! Nohni wasn't sure why Amelda might think this significant, unless it was because the shaman of the tribes from the Darien all seemed to have a reverence for finger bones. But then Amelda was signing again.

This time it was the signs for Big White Cat and Nohni's attention level jumped several notches. Tigermark!

Big White Cat stalks me in morning's darkness - Amelda signed, the added - in silence.

Nohni nodded slightly. Though hard to phrase in hunting signs, it seemed Tigermark had somehow contacted Amelda in the wee hours of the morning! And the in silence reference meant it probably wasn't face to face but via a silent note.

Amelda was covertly tapping her watch and then she opened her paw twice.

Five fingers, twice. Ten fingers. Ten o'clock?

Nohni looked at her own watch. It was just after ten.

Amelda was signing again. Big White Cat and Nocpexul into Jungle. Follow us.

Nohni realized she was starting to lean toward Amelda because one of her guards put a heavy paw on her shoulder and forced her back into her seat. She looked away from Amelda and down to the floor. She did not want to do anything to compromise the older ocelot, but it was hard to hide her excitement.

It seemed Tigermark had left a note for Amelda during 'morning's darkness' - which for the Darien tribes was sometime between 3:00am and 5:00am - saying he would spring Carlos from his cell at ten o'clock! Gods and Goddesses! How was the white tiger going to pull that off? Nohni knew Tigermark was an intelligent and resourceful fellow, but how did he even know where Carlos and Amelda were being held? And how had he gotten past all the guards last night to deliver a note to Amelda? Nohni had seen at least twenty in the barracks on her way to Pedro's office the previous evening. Granted, nearly half of them were asleep since it was their bunkhouse as well as the location of the prison block, but that would still involve a lot of sneaking. And how would he get past them again this morning at 10:00am to free Carlos when they were all awake? The night guard at the prison block door early this morning had been a particularly nasty looking, and large, bull dog named Jesu - though the 'large' part seemed to be mostly fat as evidenced by the remains of a large breakfast that lay scattered on his desk.

As if in answer to all her question, a sudden shouting came from up in the cockpit. Nohni looked forward to see Pedro holding a headset to his ear. Evidently he was very upset because he was spouting off into the microphone in Spanish so fast that Nohni could barely keep up. She caught the words 'de un incendio en el cuartel de la cárcel'.

There was a fire in the prison barracks? Now that sounded awfully coincidental!

"No importa el fuego! Encuentra el prisionero!" Pedro shouted next.

He continued to spout orders, but Nohni was sure they would find no prisoner. It didn't look like there had been anyone using the prison cells other than Nohni, Amelda, Daeom'acal, and Carlos, and with three of them on this plane, only Carlos had been left behind.

Now that was interesting.

The Goddess of Change had specifically asked that Nohni, Amelda, and Daeom'acal accompany Pedro to Espiritu Santo. Carlos was not to be among them. This was fine with Pedro because he could use a Carlos confined back at La Casa de Dávila as a way to ensure Nohni's continuing cooperation, but now it looked like Carlos was going to escape thanks to Tigermark…

…and thanks to the Goddess of Change?

Nohni's brain was racing now as fast as Pedro's spouting mouth. Had the Goddess of Change intentionally left Carlos' name off the list so that Tigermark could spring him? If that was true, then Tigermark had indeed encountered the Goddess of Change after he'd left the scene of Nohni's capture yesterday. Were they working together now? If so, what was the Plan? Dammit all! What was that goddess bitch thinking! For all Nohni knew, she had a private agenda that even Tigermark didn't know about. She might need the white tiger and Carlos for something other than rescuing Nohni and company. Nohni hoped Tigermark wasn't being taken in by her, and thought him savvy enough to recognize a ruse when he saw one, but this Goddess seemed a master at manipulation, and as always, she knew far more about everything than was decent for a normal fur.

Nohni ground her teeth silently. Again she was the one with the least information. But what choice did she have? She was in no position to demand information from anyone. Nor was she in a position to try escaping. She looked again around the cabin of the Horus. She might be well versed in the ways of getting herself out of a tight jam, but there was Amelda and Daeom'acal to think about. Amelda was no fighter, and Daeom'acal seemed totally incapable of handling anything in his present state.

"Great," thought Nohni suppressing a disgusted growl. "Myself, an old professor of Anthropology, and a Darien shaman two seconds away from shitting his pants against ten well armed thugs. Escape? I don't think so."

Nohni felt the Horus shift, and she knew they were descending for a landing at the Darien National Park's Cana Field Station. Pedro had also quit his shouting. It seemed he'd finally realized that he couldn't get any more information about the fire back at his Casa until the ones back there had something to give him. That gave Nohni a little heart. At least she wasn't the only one in the dark. Conversely, this also worried her. From her short experience with Pedro, she knew he disliked being out of control as much as she. The problem was, he was in a position to demand answers even if he couldn't get them.

And woe to the ones who couldn't give Pedro what he wanted.

Moments, and several hard bumps later, the Horus rolled to a stop at the end of the Cana airstrip. Nohni immediately unbuckled her lap belt and reached for the cabin door handle behind her.

"No tan rápido!" growled the guard on Nohni's right as he grabbed her uninjured paw.

"Why the hurry, Senorita?" added Pedro, who had unstrapped himself from the co-pilot seat and stood up.

"I want to check the landing floats for damage," Nohni growled jerking her paw from the guard's grip. "Your pilot might be great at landing planes equipped with float/wheels on unimproved airstrips, but those last few bumps were pretty rough."

"Ahh, but that ees what we have a pilot for," Pedro said, gesturing to his right and smiling his unctuous smile. "Our task ees to get to the Espiritu Santo. We have a noon lunch date eef you remember?" Pedro strode up to the cabin door and one of the guards quickly opened it for him and lowered the steps. As he stepped out, a short, native jaguar wearing a Darien National Park uniform came running up to him.

"El Senor Dávila! Así que me alegro de verte!" The short park ranger jaguar gestured to a spot next to the airstrip. "Hemos preparado su transporte!"

Nohni was out the door next and looked to where the jaguar was pointing. To her surprise, she saw six large all-terrain four-wheelers parked there. Nohni glanced at Pedro who was looking back at her, a smug smile on his muzzle. It seemed he had some pull here as well. Those four-wheelers had to constitute the entire fleet of all terrain vehicles here at the Cana Station. Nohni supposed they would normally be used by the richer tourists who were too lazy to walk around - and not all that concerned about bird watching either. Those things would scare off most sensible birds from a mile away.

The park ranger's subservient attitude told Nohni that he was probably being paid by Pedro to make these available when needed. The Cana Station was only about fifteen miles from the Columbia border and if one followed the Turya river, one could get quite close to it. Perhaps this was one of the ways Pedro smuggled drugs across the border - from the Río Atrato in the Choco District of Columbia, through the swamps in Columbia's Los Katíos National Park up to the Panama border, then along the Turya River to the Darien Cana Station where they could be flown out. In any case, it looked like Pedro didn't intend to be late for his date with a goddess.

When everyone had piled out of the Horus, the pilot and one of the other hired guns began checking the floats. Nohni was glad to see someone was being responsible when it came to her plane. It also meant that there would be two less thugs to deal with on the trip to the abandoned gold mine. Still, considering present company, odds of eight to three weren't good.

Nohni, Amelda, and Daeom'acal were forced to pair up with a lackey each. The park ranger also took a 'back seat' to one of the goons, while Pedro took one with him and the last two took the sixth four-wheeler. Nohni grunted. Sitting on a tiny fold-down passenger seat in the Horus was bad, but bouncing along for five miles on the back rack of a four-wheeler wasn't going to be a picnic either.

She was right. The bouncing started almost immediately after they took off.

There was a trail, of sorts, from the Cana Field Station to the location of the old Espiritu Santo since the abandoned mine was also a tourist draw. In fact, that was probably the main use for the four-wheelers. It made the trip to the old mine site a bit easier for those who could afford it as part of the tour package. It couldn't be cheap, since the fuel for these things had to be flown in by plane - like everything else.

Nohni snorted.

Tours? Who were they kidding? Sure, those who could afford this sort of eco-tourist thing would always pay for the experience, but tourism to this place was merely a cover for drug operations. There was no way they would let rich furs anywhere near this place if it wasn't being sanctioned and protected by drug runners such as Pedro. Without protection, the militias operating in the area would kidnap every last rich fur here within the week and that would be the end of tourism, this Station and its convenient airstrip.

Nohni looked back down the trail toward where the low buildings that made up the main part of the station were now quickly being obscured by the jungle. Some of the personnel there had to be enforcers for Pedro, so the furs accompanying them now to the Espiritu Santo were not the only ones she had to worry about. She supposed there were some legitimate park rangers at the Station who were genuinely concerned for the environment because Daeom'acal had said there were. However, with their lack of pay it would be very difficult for any of them to turn down the added 'stipend' Pedro offered to overlook the clandestine operations that went on there.

Nohni looked over her shoulder to the south - the direction they were headed. If anything could be done to escape their captors, it would probably be done in the jungle - anywhere other than at the Station itself. She then looked around in general at the thick jungle forest that surrounded them. If what she suspected was true, Carlos and Tigermark had just escaped from Pedro's place and were headed this way. How long would it take them to get here? Flying had only taken half an hour, but even using the rivers and a fast boat, there was no way they could get to Nohni before she and Pedro made it to the Espiritu Santo mine.

Nohni looked back over her shoulder to the south. It appeared she was going to meet this Goddess of Change without friendly backup - which meant that she and Pedro were going in as de facto partners.

Nohni felt her guts begin to knot.

 

Just like last night - this was not a comfortable feeling.

------------------------------------------@@------------------------------------------


Voices from the Earth

Espiritu Santo.

A gold mine of true legend.

The Spanish Conquistadors - under the governorship of the original Pedrarias Dávila - had first mined it back in the mid 1600s. It had lent credence to Columbus' claim that this was the place to come to if one wanted riches in the New World. It had even fueled the legend of El Dorado - the City of Gold - which was reputed to be in the area. The richness of the ore deposit here was such that the mine had even been reopened in the early 1900s for a short time and mined more extensively.

However, the Darien was not a land of permanence.

Nohni could see that this was a place that had been occupied once - long ago. The rusting hulks of mine cars and various other detritus littered the small clearing they had come to. Other than this, there was little left. The jungle was not one to preserve things for very long. It was an ever-changing place - ever vibrant - ever alive.

Which made the present dead-silence all the more unnerving.

When they had arrived, and the last of the six four-wheeler engines had died, an unnatural stillness had settled around them. Nohni wanted to blame it on the noise their machines had made, but it felt like there was more to it than that. It felt like they were being watched.

Pedro, on the other paw, seemed unruffled. He was looking at his watch, and did not seem at all disturbed. This lack of concern was probably due to the fact that it wasn't quite noon yet, so the absence of their inviting host was not unexpected. However, Nohni doubted Pedro was simply going to wait to see what happened next. A couple of low barks from him to his underlings confirmed Nohni's assumption, and three of the seven guards scurried into the trees - probably to act as hidden cover - or as a search party to see if anyone else was out there. The ones he had sent looked to be well versed in guerrilla tactics as they disappeared swiftly and silently into the bush.

Looking to where one of them had disappeared, Nohni had to wonder if they would find anything - or whether it would find them first. She had her suspicions as she looked around, and catching Amelda's eye, she paw-signed her thoughts.

 Yellow Female is here. Hidden.

Nohni saw Amelda nod, but saw that Daeom'acal had seen her paw-sign too, for he was looking from her to Amelda and back again with a startled expression. Damn! He probably knew Doctor Venteen could paw-sign, but Nohni hadn't meant for Daeom'acal to find out she could do it as well. She still didn't think he could be trusted to keep a secret from Pedro, and paw-signing was the only way she could communicate secretly with Amelda. However, Daeom'acal quickly paw-signed to both of them - More than one can hide here - and gave a covert nod to the south, where the hills sloped upward toward the higher peaks of the Sarrania de Pirre.

Nohni looked in that direction and saw a spot about a hundred yards away up the hill where the vegetation thinned, and something brown stuck up through the trees. It looked like some sort of crumbling brick smoke stack. She nodded. There would obviously be places to hide around here - the ruins of the old mining buildings being only one place of many.

The Darien Mining company had done the underground mining at this site at the beginning of the nineteenth century, so their mining hoists would have been powered by steam rather than diesel. The stack and its associated boiler were probably located next to the main mining shaft since that's where the steam hoist would be. Nohni turned around and looked in the opposite direction to the north. She noted that the vegetation dropped down sharply about twenty five yards away from their position. That had to be what remained of the pit where the old sixteenth century Spanish open-pit mining operations had taken place - the place where the fissure-type gold ore deposit outcropped on the surface. Judging from the location of the old pit and the placement of the newer main mine shaft, Nohni and company were standing right on top of the underground mine itself, and the ore body must dip to the south at anywhere from forty-five to sixty degrees, making simple addit mining impossible. It would have to be winze and addit with steep stopes. Nohni wondered if parts of the mine were still open. Flooding would certainly have made lower levels inaccessible, but being on a hill at the foot of the mountains, some of the upper levels would likely be dry.

Was that where the Goddess of Change was hiding?

In a hole in the ground?

As if in answer, a loud female voice boomed out across the clearing. "Welcome to the Darien Gap's Espiritu Santo gold mine! I am glad to see you are punctual, for there is much to discuss."

Nohni was looking wildly around her - as was Pedro and everyone else. There was no one in sight, and it seemed no one could figure out exactly where the voice was coming from. It sounded like it was coming from everywhere at once.

"I see you are all looking around. This is good. Please look carefully at what lies before you. It is the Espiritu Santo. As inhospitable a spot for a gold mine as any spot can be, yet here it is. A testament to our kind's indomitable will to take what we can from nature. I think it amusing to note that many of the great ages of civilization are named after the materials we've prized from the earth. The Stone Age. The Copper Age. The Bronze Age. The Iron Age. And now…the Gold Age! For is it not 'gold' and all its monetary derivatives that make everything happen in the world today? Pedro, I believe you would know something about that."

"Dónde te escondes!" Pedro shouted. "Revelar a ti mismo!"

"Reveal myself to you?" answered the voice, its tone condescending. "I don't think so. I will not reveal myself to those who bring weapons to a simple meeting. Especially to one who sends three of his own into the jungle to sniff me out first. No, Pedro Arias Dávila, I will not show myself to you today."

A yelp from the jungle behind them caused everyone to turn to the sound.

"I suggest, however, that you call your jungle friends back out into the clearing if you wish to spare them injury… or worse. It is not wise to stray from established trails at an old mine site. One cannot always see the abandoned and overgrown mine shaft into which one can fall."

"I do not take orders from mujer cobarde!" spat Pedro.

"I give you no orders," replied the femme voice. "Only reasonable suggestions."

Nohni was looking at the ground around her feet. It almost seemed like the voice was coming from the earth beneath them. A Goddess hiding in a mine? That had to be where she was. Beneath them. And a voice inside a hard rock mine tunnel can probably travel for quite a distance, so there was no telling exactly where she was in the mine.

"You geeve only suggestions!?" answered Pedro, who Nohni noted was getting quite livid. "Then I suggest that thees meeting be adjourned - permanently! I have one of your bones, and you will not see eet again unless you meet my demands!"

'"Yes, Pedro, I understand you have one of the bones I need," came the disembodied femme voice, "but do not be so hasty to judge one who is simply being cautious. Surely you did not expect me to act the role of the simple, trusting old-world savage and walk into your waiting arms. Give credit where it is due. I am a Goddess, and not without some measure of intelligence."

Pedro fumed for another ten seconds, but then his whole demeanor changed swiftly to one of civilized dignity. Nohni had seen this turnabout from him before - and noted that this was when he was most dangerous.

"I mean no disrespect," Pedro crooned. "Eet ees just that I come from a background where trust is a liability and power is what protects you. As you said about yourself, I too, am not without some measure of intelligence."

"Accepted," answered the voice. "And yes, you do have intelligence. I have noted this. I have also noted your cunning, and your ability to wield power effectively - all qualities of leadership."

Nohni saw Pedro stand a little taller and puff out his chest. She turned away, not wanting him to see her look of disgust. What was this Goddess playing at? Could she possibly be considering him for the role of her Mortal God? Was she really stupid enough to think Pedro would make a good leader?

"A good dictator maybe," Nohni thought. "But dictators are notorious for not lasting very long - thus making lousy long-term leaders."

"However…," continued the voice, "I cannot begin to consider anything about anyone until we find out how to assemble the Paw of Change."

Pedro looked to Nohni and gave her a smug, knowing smile. Nohni looked away and growled under her breath. So what if Pedro had guessed she was essential for this task? He was still using her and this Goddess for his own ends. And when this whole affair finally did end, would he have any further use for Nohni? What then? Nohni was quickly brought out of her ruminations by the voice of the Goddess.

"Nohni Wabanda! Ynon-Upanuh Ahdnabau charges you with this task. There is a riddle that has been associated with these crystal bones since the beginning of the world, and I know not what the riddle means."

Nohni had her doubts about that. This Goddess knew far too much to be using ignorance as an excuse.

"The Daeom of the Twenty Tribes do not know the answer to the riddle, either, because it has never been given to them," continued the voice. "They only know how to place the bones. They do not know the meaning behind the Riddle of Placement. However, someone must solve this, for it is the only way you will discover where to place the Nocpexul bone from the Dead Tribe. If no one can solve this, I fear there will be no way to complete the Paw of Change, and thus, no Mortal God to lead the Great civilizations in times ahead. Come back to this place once you’ve solved this riddle, Nohni Wabanda, and then we may proceed to Cosatacl."

"What is this Riddle of Placement?" Nohni asked. She did not trust this goddess or her so-called riddle one bit, but what choice did she have?

The femme's voice boomed a final time across the small clearing.

 

Numbers old, from crater's heart.

Throwing fingers spread apart.

Twenty bones, the body's stones,

Counting long, in full, in part.

Long and short, the bones to sort.

Choose the time, from wence to start.

 

Silence returned and covered the small clearing like a suffocating blanket. Nohni looked to Pedro, who was eyeing her. She looked away.

"Ancient riddle, my ass," thought Nohni.

For one thing, it was in English; a language that had only come into its own in the last three hundred years - which was long after the ancient central-american civilizations had fallen. What was this bitch thinking? Nohni was sure this goddess knew exactly what the riddle meant. However, this notion only complicated things. If the goddess knew what the riddle meant then why give it to Nohni to figure out?

Unless it was a message as well as a riddle?

Maybe the Goddess of Change was trying to let Nohni know about something she didn't want Pedro to know about? It was getting more and more difficult to figure out whose side this goddess was on - other than her own side - whatever that was.

Nohni shook her head. Regardless of what the riddle was really for, one thing it was doing was keeping her alive. Pedro would expect her to work it out, and as long as she remained useful, he would keep her around.

Nohni heard a sharp whistle coming from Pedro, and knew he was rounding up the troops for the trip back to the Cana Field Station. However, only two furs emerged from the forest, and when Pedro demanded to know where the third one was, one of the others drew a finger across his throat and mumbled something about him falling into a hole. Pedro was none too pleased, but what could he do?

The Goddess of Change had warned him.

 

 

Pedro's original party, now missing one little Indian, eventually rumbled back into Darien Park's Cana Field station. When they all came to a halt next to the airfield, the six lackeys Pedro still had with him jumped off their machines and quickly surrounded Nohni and company. Nohni noted they seemed more alert, now that one of their number had died. She looked to the main building and saw several furs in ranger uniforms running toward them. When they stopped beside Pedro, they all started talking at once. Pedro shouted for order and pointed to one who nodded vigorously. The Spanish that followed from the chosen one was swift and to the point.

It seemed there were two major developments that Pedro needed to know about. The first was that the fire at Pedro's villa had been successfully extinguished. Pedro's main villa had been untouched, but the barracks and prison wing had sustained heavy damage. However, no prisoner had been found - or any charred remains of a prisoner.

Secondly, it seemed Pedro's pilot and lackey who had stayed behind to inspect Nohni's plane had run into a small problem while opening the cargo hatch on the Horus' left float. Landing floats usually housed small cargo spaces for luggage that didn't need to ride in the plane's cabin.

However, what they'd found hadn't been luggage.

It had been a venomous female fer-de-lance viper along with about fifty of her very hungry newborn snakelets.

Fortunately for the two snake-bite victims, the regular flight of eco-tourists had just come in from El Real. Tourists and their luggage had been unceremoniously chucked off the plane and both victims had been hastily put on board and flown out. They'd left a half hour ago and were headed straight for Panama City. They might even make it in time to get the anti-venom that would keep them alive.

And so, Pedro was fuming again. He no longer had a secured prisoner with which to intimidate Nohni, and he had no pilot of his own to fly the Horus other than Nohni. Apparently he'd planned on flying back to Yaviza to have Nohni sort out the riddle while he relaxed in the comfort of his villa. However, this new development changed things. Pedro was eying Nohni, but it didn't look like he was going to opt for letting her pilot the Horus. It seemed he didn't trust her enough yet. Nohni thought that wise since she knew a few flight 'maneuvers' that would upset the most iron-clad of stomachs. However, it was soon evident that Nohni's suitability or unsuitability as a pilot was a moot point. It seemed the Field Station's aviation fuel supply was almost non-existent (the tourist flight that had just come in hadn't had time to unload the fuel drums it had brought) and no one had topped off the Horus' fuel tanks prior to leaving for this place - which was not unusual considering they'd taken off from the middle of the damned jungle where av-gas fueling stations were in short supply.

So, until another tourist plane came in from which they could siphon some gas, it looked like they were stuck here in the wilds of the Darien. That the Canna Field Station was full of eco-tourists would not help with the bunk space situation either.

Nohni looked over at the station buildings and wondered how many rangers here were under Pedro's thumb, because his list of trusted, paw-picked canines from Yaviza was getting shorter by the minute. Nohni looked back to the south toward the Espiritu Santo and pondered the riddle along with the 'goddess' who had given it to her.

Whose side was she really on? After all, ten little Indians started out from Yaviza.

And now there were only seven.

------------------------------------------@@------------------------------------------

The Cost of Consent

 

Seated on a rickety stool in the Cana Field Station's sparse kitchen, Nohni gripped the ocelot from behind - her right arm around the cat's waist and her muzzle pressed firmly into the small of the femme's back. She felt the claws of her right paw digging into Amelda's side where she clutched her, and even though her eyes were shut tight, Nohni could feel the tears leaking from them. Gods! It hurt!

"I'm sorry, Nohni, but it has to be kept clean. We can't risk infection making it worse."

With Nohni behind her, Amelda stood in front of a small table on which sat a bowl of water and a bottle of iodine. The old ocelot held Nohni's outstretched left arm tightly under her own left arm while she ministered to the raw wound on what was left of Nohni's left thumb. Nohni knew Amelda was right, and her disgust with Pedro grew another notch. By all rights, she should be in a hospital having her thumb taken care of properly.

But Pedro wasn't one to grant anyone their proper rights.

"You are not allowed een here!" came the gruff voice of the guard Pedro had stationed in the kitchen with the two femmes. Obviously, Pedro didn't want the two plotting his demise - not that he didn't deserve 'demising'.

Nohni opened her eyes enough to see Daeom'acal standing in the doorway to the dining area and looking uncomfortable. However, when his eyes fell upon Nohni, she saw him straighten up a little and look the guard in the eye.

"I have medicine for Senorita Wabanda. She must solve the Riddle of the Bones for Senor Dávila. You would not weesh her to die, yes? Theese will help her." He held out a small bowl that looked like any of the others Nohni had seen earlier at dinner.

The guard looked into the bowl and back to Daeom'acal before grunting and waving him toward the table. The old jaguar nodded and quickly sat down on one of the other stools at the table.

He set down his bowl and motioned to her. "Geeve me your paw, Senorita Wabanda."

Nohni looked into the bowl and saw a purplish-green paste covering the bottom. "What is that stuff?" she asked, withholding her paw.

"Totaca and bedabbu leaves crushed and mixed with jungle honey," Daeom'acal answered. "I picked the leaves while we waited at the old mine today. The honey was from one of the others I know who works here at Cana. Totaca ees for pain, and the bedabbu is a powerful cleanser."

"And the honey has anti-biotic and anti-scarring properties," Nohni finished. "I know. The ancient Egyptians used honey all the time to treat cuts, scrapes and other wounds."

Daeom'acal nodded. "Thees will not make all the pain go away, just some. But that ees a good thing. No pain means no regard for the hurt - which leads to hurting it easily again."

Nohni relinquished her paw to the old Daeom as Amelda nodded. "He knows his stuff. One of the duties of a Daeom is as a healer."

"You have closed the wound well," Daeom'acal said, nodding to Amelda as he spread the thick paste onto the stump of Nohni's thumb. "Hair is good for closing, but the strings from carba leaves are better." He gently felt the base of Nohni's injured thumb and she winced. "Thees will need massaging later to stop stiffening of the lower joint."

"Adhesions from the severed tendons," Amelda added. She gave Nohni a look. "Why the surprise? You of all folks should know that 'primitive' does not always mean 'unsophisticated'. These tribes know their own jungle home quite well, and how to make use of all it has to offer." She glanced sideways at Pedro's guard. "Unlike some moderns who believe that only their technology is the best."

Nohni let the two furs continue to minister to her paw while her mind drifted back to the Riddle of the Bones. She could feel the totaca working as a relieving numbness spread over the tip of her injured thumb. She'd not realized how distracting the pain had become until after supper when she'd returned to the task of solving the riddle. She'd tried working on it earlier - right after they'd returned at about 1:30pm to the Cana Field Station, but Pedro had locked her by herself in a small, dark, storage room 'for his convenience' while he organized his own personnel and 'took care of other business' as he called it. A small, hot, room was more conducive to resentful fuming than analytical thinking.

Despite this, Nohni had come up with some ideas this afternoon, by going through the riddle line by line.

She did so again.

First line.

Numbers old, from crater's heart.

Numbers old? More like Old Numbers. What kind of old numbers? Being 'old' they had to be numbers, or a numbering system, used by one of the pre-columbian New World civilizations. The 'Crater's heart' reference seemed to give a clue as to which one, too.

The Chicxulub crater - the impact crater that had ended the reign of the dinosaurs.

It was a crater located in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico - the place where the Mayan civilization had flourished. So Mayan numbers were probably the 'old numbers' referred to here.

Next line.

Throwing fingers spread apart.

Nohni opened her right paw and spread her fingers wide. Was this the configuration of the Paw of Change? A Paw spread out wide? But what was this reference to 'throwing'? Furs could 'throw' their arms wide in greeting, so was this word being used as a verb? Or was it an adjective used to describe the fingers? The sentence structure suggested the latter. So what were 'Throwing Fingers'? Fingers that you threw? Or finger bones that you threw? Thinking of Darien Shaman finger bones and how they were used, Nohni thought this last had to be true. Therefore, this line referred to tossing finger bones so that they were spread apart. There might be other interpretations, but she would go with this one for now.

Next line.

Twenty bones, the body's stones,

This line was an obvious reference to the twenty crystal bones that had been distributed among the Daeom of the twenty Darien tribes. Were they the bones that had to be thrown or spread apart somehow? Perhaps.

Next line.

Counting long, in full, in part.

Back to the numbers reference with the 'counting' word, but counting long? 'Long' could refer to several things such as the time it took to count or how big the number actually was. The 'In full, in Part' reference made little sense to Nohni unless the counting was done two ways - all at once, as in 'full', or in separate parts. She would set this one aside for now.

Next line.

Long and short, the bones to sort.

The first part seemed straightforward enough. A Shaman's finger bones consisted of the longer bones - ones that were elongated in shape like the metacarpals or proximal phalanges. There were also the short bones - probably the distal phalanges, or 'end' bones of the finger, which, due to having the claw filed off, were shaped like little trapezoids rather than like a long bone. However, the second part of this line was proving more difficult to figure out. It was obvious that some type of 'sorting' had to take place, but 'sorting' could be done in many ways. Nohni's intuition suggested that the long bones needed to be separated from the short bones, but why? Nohni wasn't sure, so this line was also set aside.

Last line.

Choose the time, from whence to start.

There was some sort of starting time that had to be chosen? Starting time for what? Whatever this goddess was supposed to do?

Nohni shook her head and stared once again at her right paw - the undamaged one. Mayan numbers? Crystal finger bones? Counting, sorting and choosing a time? How was this supposed to make any sense, let alone help her figure out how to place the stupid bones in whatever place they needed to be put?

What she needed was some visual aids - like real finger bones.

"I am feenished for now," said Daeom'acal, and began to get up.

"No, I need you here for the moment," Nohni grabbed onto the old jaguar with her injured paw. It hurt, and her grip was not very strong, but Daeom'acal hesitated. He looked to the guard who shook his head and punched a thumb at the doorway. "He goes. Now!"

Nohni turned her head slowly to the guard, who was frowning, and stood up. She glanced to the two at the table and pointed to Daeom'acal with her right paw signing the word for 'Stay'. She picked up one of the thick rags Amelda had used to clean her injury and wiped an errant bit of Daeom'acal's paste from the palm of her injured paw. She then turned and walked slowly up to the guard - a scarred, but otherwise nondescript canine with a big muzzle and drooping ears. She looked him up and down for a moment, and then began to turn away to her right.

The canine grinned.

Nohni spun back around unleashing a blindingly fast closed-fisted punch to his face - backed by her full body weight. Other than the cracking of bone, the dog made no sound as he dropped like a rock.

"That felt good," Nohni mumbled, as she unwrapped the thick rag from around her right paw and flexed the fingers. They hurt a little despite their improvised padding, but it didn't feel like anything was broken. She'd been careful to place her hit carefully between the muzzle and the eye socket where the nasal bones looked to be the thinnest. It was a punch designed to do painful damage to the muzzle, but still transfer enough energy to the cranium to concuss the brain, and put her target 'down for the count'. She tossed the rag aside and looked to her two companions.

"Amelda, pick your jaw up off the floor before somebody trips over it and gets hurt." She eyed Daeom'acal. "You need to consider doing that too - as well as close your eyes before they fall out of your head."

Nohni sat down and grunted. "Look. I'm not the one in trouble here." She punched a thumb back at the sleeping guard. "He is. Pedro will not look kindly on any guard who is bested by the one he's supposed to watch. From me, he probably expects something like this, but that's not the point. I wanted some alone time with you two, and now I have it."

"Should we…should we try escaping now?" asked Amelda, looking a little frightened.

Nohni shook her head. "Escape would only slow down the game. The Goddess of Change seems to need me, so Pedro needs me. However, Pedro still has Daeom'acal's crystal bone - which also seems essential for all of this to work." She looked to Daeom'acal. "And I promised I'd get that bone back."

Amelda stared at Nohni for a moment. "We're not going to try escaping?"

Nohni shook her head.

At this, Amelda's lip began to tremble as her eyes filled with tears. She closed them and dropped her head to the table and onto her arms. Nohni was around the table in an instant and at the old ocelot's side. The femme folded herself into Nohni's embrace as she began to cry in earnest.

"I…I'm just sick and tired of being here," Amelda sobbed. "It's been over a month, and I'm tired of being with him - tired of being afraid all the time! I just want to go home."

"She's been a prisoner for over a month," Nohni thought as she rocked the distraught femme in her arms. That was something that really did worry her. Try as she might, Nohni could not think of any more information Pedro needed from Amelda. It looked like the slimy dog had already gotten as much from her as he could, and the only thing keeping Amelda alive now was as leverage over Nohni.

"Hush, Amelda," Nohni whispered and she stroked the ocelot's mane. "Everything will be alright, I promise."

But could she really promise that? Nohni thought of Pedro as she looked down at her own mutilated thumb behind Amelda's back. She doubted there was anything that would save Amelda if Pedro thought her a liability. He simply didn't care about anything other than himself. Nohni looked to the downed guard and came to a decision. Her eyes locked onto Daeom'acal's.

"You know this jungle like no other," she said under her breath. "You can take Amelda away from this place to safety. You…"

But Daeom'acal was shaking his head.

Nohni ground her teeth and gave him such a fierce look he cringed - and that made Nohni even angrier.

"Damn you!" she hissed. "How can someone who can survive - even thrive - in the Darien be such a damned, spineless coward!"

Daeom'acal was leaning away from her and was on the verge of tears again. Nohni growled. "Fine. I'll do it without you. But before I go, tell me one thing. Pedro hacked my thumb off! What did he do to you to turn you into his sniveling lap-kitty? What did you have to lose?!"

Daeom'acal looked at her, his liquid eyes awash in a pain Nohni had not seen there before.

"The Polata'an." he whispered so softly that Nohni nearly missed it.

"The Polata'an? The heart of a friend ritual? The one that was sent to Carlos?" Nohni asked - a bad feeling rising in her guts. "Whose… whose heart was it?"

Daeom'acal was looking past Nohni as if into a memory. "We Daeom of the Twenty Tribes are a group unto ourselves and do not need to be from the tribe we minister to. The Daeom can be from any of the other tribes as well. We…we are allowed to touch the finger bones of our former masters only once and for only one reason - to choose who our own Semmasa - our own apprentice - will be. The bones told me to choose… Pasha." A single tear ran down Daeom'acal's cheek. "Such a beautiful and willing Atal Xammana."

"Atal Xammana," Nohni thought. "Small Night Sister."

An ocelot.

Nohni was beginning to shake her head. "And you brought your apprentice with you when you went to find Doctor Venteen in Yaviza."

Daeom'acal dropped his head and nodded, the tears flowing freely.

Nohni felt the bottom drop out of her anger. She'd merely lost a thumb. Daeom'acal had lost his apprentice - a young ocelot named Pasha.

"The heart of a friend," Nohni whispered, her own eyes filling. "But…it wasn't a true Polata'an heart, was it? I mean, Pedro…he couldn't have…he didn't make you kill her. Did he?"

"Eet was either her, or the rest of my tribe," Daeom'acal whispered. "He had done eet to the Nocpexul. He could kill an entire tribe again." The old jaguar rubbed his streaming eyes. "He can still do eet." He looked up at Nohni, his expression miserable. "I am but an old Daeom. I am no great warrior. How can I openly fight a great evil like Pedro?"

Amelda, still sniffing, had reached out to the old Daeom. "I'm so sorry," she whispered. "I didn't know."

Nohni wondered if Amelda realized it could have been her heart were it not for the whim of a loathsome dog named Pedro. Nohni felt her face clench into a snarl. That pile of worm droppings probably enjoyed making Daeon'acal do the deed. She only noticed that Amelda was speaking again because for some reason both she and Daeom'acal had stopped crying. In fact, Daeom'acal now had a rather nasty grin on his muzzle.

"What's going on?" she asked.

Daeom'acal looked to her. "You asked if Pasha's sacrifice was truly Polata'an." He was shaking his head. "A Polata'an heart only comes from a friend who willingly gives eet as Polata'an!" He tapped his own chest. "To geeve one's heart to save your own tribe ees something very different."

"Tonacayotl," whispered Amelda. "The spiritual flesh-hood of the gods on earth and nextlahualli - the belief that self-sacrifice is the debt-payment to the gods that sustains the tribe. It happened often in the old pre-columbian civilizations, Nohni. You should know this from your own studies. One political aspect of this belief manifested itself in weaker tribes sending voluntary sacrificial victims to more powerful tribes as tribute - and as a way of avoiding open warfare. These victims willingly went, knowing their sacrifice was needed and would also be rewarded by the gods."

"But Pasha's death was not something you would have wished for," commented Nohni.

At this, Daeom'acal's face fell and he shook his head. "She was willing to die for her tribe, but I would not wish the necessity of thees on anyone."

"So you're not a coward." Nohni stated it as a fact. "You're simply playing along with Pedro because, despite Pasha's sacrifice, he still holds the fate of your tribe in his paw?"

Daeom'acal nodded. "I cannot say I am not frightened. Those who are not frightened by great evil are fools. I simply show my fear openly to convince this great Evil that eet has nothing to fear from me."

Nohni felt a slightly devious smile cross her own muzzle. "But perhaps he does have something to fear from you?"

Daeom'acal gave Nohni a hard look. "I still must not anger the great Evil. I cannot take Senorita Venteen from thees place eef I want to protect my own tribe. But know thees also. Pasha promised me one theeng before I plunged the knife eento her. She promised her soul would not rest until she saw Pedro een his grave. She will help us eef she can. I know thees."

Nohni nodded her acceptance of that and looked at her watch. It was 9:25pm. The jungle outside would be quite dark. She looked again at their sleeping guard before she turned to Amelda. "If we can somehow get you out into the jungle beyond the Field Station, is there any way you could make it through to safety on your own? I know you're past your prime, but you're still in very good shape for your age."

Amelda looked to Daeom'acal. "I'll never be as good as the ones born and bred to this place, but I'm not a total loss. I've learned a few things from the ones I've studied."

Daeomacal reached out to her and grasped her paw. "You geeve yourself too little credit. You are a friend to many een the Darien, and have learned much. Pedro theenks you go west toward Yaviza. Go east instead toward one of the Choco Tribes een Columbia. They can hide you."

Amelda turned to Nohni. "What about you? With me gone, Pedro will have little to hold over you."

Nohni shook her head. "He doesn't need to hold anything over me. I'll convince him I'm staying because I want to."

"Do you?" Amelda replied, puzzled.

Nohni looked to Daeom'acal. "He still has one of the crystal bones, and I need that if I'm ever going to get the Paw of Change to work."

"You want it to work?" Amelda replied, still more puzzled. She reached out to hold Nohni's arm.

"Well, I want to have the power to make it work anyway," Nohni answered turning back to her. "That way I can get this Goddess of Change bitch to answer a few burning questions I have about what the hell she's been doing to all of us."

Amelda looked to the both of them. "So how do we get me out of here and into the jungle?"

Suddenly, the bare ceiling bulb flickered out, plunging the room into darkness. Simultaneously, Nohni heard Amelda yelp, and the ocelot's grip on her arm disappear. Nohni lunged toward what she thought was her blurred shape and was knocked aside by something furry. Her paw flashed out and grabbed hold of something else furry, but then she tripped over her own stool and fell to the floor, landing on her injured paw. She swore and heard Daeom'acal grunt. Another thud, and there was the slamming of a door.

"Amelda!" Nohni shouted, wincing and holding her injured paw. She scrambled up onto her knees. "Amelda!"

No answer.

Nohni stood up and tried to make her way to the door. Instead, she tripped over a body - probably the sleeping guard. Another thud followed by another curse. She scrambled up and put her paw out. Fumbling, she found the door latch, but then heard yelling from outside the door. She hesitated. Running out into a mob of Pedro's goons in the dark could get her killed very easily. In fact, a shot rang out followed by a scream. It didn't sound like Amelda.

Nohni felt something grab her foot, and she nearly kicked out with the other one when she heard Daeom'acal hiss, "Down!"

She dropped to the floor, realizing almost too late that the ground was the safest place to be if lead was going to be flying soon. Indeed, a few more shots rang out and a splattering of wood from the door above her head told Nohni that Daeom'acal had probably just saved her life. Another splatter of wood sound was followed by the guard's body next to the door jumping about an inch. Nohni scrambled away from the door completely, pulling Daeom'acal with her. There was more yelling and several more shots before the screaming voice of one Pedro Arias Dávila called everything to a halt.

A few more curses in Spanish, and the door next to Nohni was wrenched open. Several flashlights blinded her for a moment before playing across the room. Nohni looked out the door into the communal dining room. A bunch of furs were moving around but it was too dark to make them out well. All the windows were dark too. It seemed the entire Station was blacked out.

"Where ees the Doctor!" came the voice of Pedro.

"I don't know," answered Nohni - the flashlights all turning back on her face. "She was here when the lights went out." She was hauled, none too gently, to her feet.

"What happened?" demanded Pedro shaking her.

Nohni shook her head and stumbled backward - a good imitation of stunned confusion to reduce her chances of being accused of complicity. "I don't know! One minute she and Daeom'acal were working on my thumb, the next - everything's dark, and bullets are flying!" She pointed down at the guard she'd cold-cocked earlier. A dark red stain was spreading between him and the doorway. Apparently, that 'jump' from his body earlier had been a low shot. Not good for him. "He told us to drop when the shooting started. We just did what we were told." She gave Pedro a nasty look. "Do your boys always start shooting each other up when the lights go out? Hell! This is a remote Field Station - with a generator! Probably an old one! The lights must go out lots of times!"

As if to mock her, the lights came back on at that moment. Pedro tossed away his flashlight and pulled Nohni up to his snarling face by the ruff on her chest. Nohni snarled back. She was starting to get tired of that maneuver.

"That still does not explain the disappearance of Doctor Venteen!" shouted Pedro.

"Maybe she ran away!" Nohni shot right back. "After all, running away from a gunfight is a pretty sensible thing to do! Go check the jungle. She's probably cowering out there right now!"

Pedro growled one last time before pushing her away and shouting orders in Spanish to his lackeys. Three of them headed toward the door that led outside followed by a livid Pedro, and two of them stayed behind - with their weapons pointed at her and Daeom'acal.

Nohni glanced into the now lit dining room and saw another one of Pedro's paw-picked canines on the floor - unmoving.

And then there were five?

She motioned to Daeom'acal and they both sat down once more at the kitchen table. Not much else to do while they waited for Pedro to return. Daeom'acal again had his 'terrified' face on, but beneath the table he pointed to the ground between them.

There on the floor lay a small tuft of fur.

Nohni suddenly remembered grabbing a pawful of something during the confusion. Had she pulled some fur off of their mystery assailant - or Amelda's savior? She must have.

Nohni almost chuckled as she noted the color of the fur.

Pulling it out couldn't have felt good, but she was sure the black and white tiger the fur belonged to wouldn't mind.

 

No. He wouldn't mind at all.

------------------------------------------@@------------------------------------------

A Date with a Riddle

 

It was a dark and stormy night…..

The old cliché story opener flashed through Nohni's mind as another flash of lightning split the sky. A second and a half later the crash of thunder rattled the walls of her tiny room. The lightning was bad enough close to the Cana Field Station, but to the west in the Sarrania de Pirre mountains it was an almost continuous fire in the sky. This was no night to be out in the jungle. Along with the lightning, there was the wind and drenching downpour. There would be no flights coming from Yaviza or El Real tonight, tomorrow, or even the next day.

Nohni wondered where Amelda Venteen was right now, and how she was faring.

"Better than you," she thought. "Amelda is with a well mannered white tiger and a black native jaguar."

All Nohni had was an old Daeom and a psychotic drug runner.

Closing her eyes, Nohni dropped her head onto the sill of the tiny cracked window beside the moldering bed upon which she sat. She gave the chain attached to the manacle on her wrist a tug, knowing full well it was securely attached to the wall. She let it drop. Pedro was making sure she was going nowhere without his consent. She brought her free paw up to her mouth. Her jaw felt stiff and sore, and the stump of her left thumb was hurting badly again with no hope of easing the pain soon. More thunder vibrated the walls of her cell - for what else could this room be called? She rubbed her knee, which felt like it had been badly twisted. However, it didn't feel as bad as the throbbing pain in her groin.

"It's been done to you before," Nohni said to herself, head still on the sill, eyes still closed. "It's not the end of the world."

It was just that Pedro was getting frustrated, and when individuals like Pedro got frustrated, they got nasty.

Sick nasty.

His elite guard was down fifty percent with no prospect of getting reinforcements due to the storm that had rolled in on the heels of the evening's blackout fiasco. It seemed everyone had missed or overlooked the news about Tropical Storm Jasmine, which had taken an unexpected track across the Isthmus of Panama. On top of that, Carlos and Amelda, the ones Pedro had intended to use to keep Nohni in line, had both vanished. And finally, because the Goddess of Change had given the Riddle to Nohni, Pedro was totally dependent on her to solve it.

In short, his position of power was eroding quickly, and that did not sit well with Pedro Arias Dávila. Not well at all. Nohni had found that out soon enough after he'd returned from his fruitless search for Amelda. The rain had already started to lash the Field Station windows when a drenched and deranged Pedro had stormed back into the Station's dining room.

 

 

"I want the jackal bitch! NOW!"

Nohni had barely turned her head to the shouting when the guard on her left grabbed her by the collar, yanked her out of her chair, and literally threw her through the kitchen door and out onto the dining room floor. Swearing, Nohni pushed herself off the floor only to have someone's boot between her shoulder blades slam her to the ground again.

"Bind her!"

A knee to the back of her neck pinned Nohni down while both her arms were yanked behind her. She let out a yelp as whoever was tying her pulled hard on her injured paw. When both arms had been painfully bound behind her back, someone else hauled her to her feet. The fur she saw before her made Nohni shudder. When that crazed fur grabbed her by the throat, she knew she was in trouble.

"Where is she?" Pedro screamed, spittle flying. "Who helped her?"

Nohni couldn't speak. Pedro's grip was choking her.

"Your white tiger friend. He ees behind this. TELL ME!!"

Nohni couldn't have told him either way. Lights were popping in her dimming vision, but only until a fist to the jaw snapped her head sideways and everything went black. When she came to again she'd found herself tied, naked and spread-eagle to one of the dining room tables.

It had only gotten worse from there.

 

 

More thunder rumbled, and Nohni could feel the power of it through the window sill upon which her forehead lay.

"You need to give them back some of their lost power," Nohni whispered to an unsympathetic room. "If you don't, they'll take it anyway - and in ways that could leave you dead, dead, dead."

So she'd given in to their lust - not that she'd had a choice - which was the point. The power to dominate by force was all Pedro had left over her now, and he'd been in a state of mind to use that power. Nohni shuddered. She was still alive, but Pedro and his lackeys had certainly taken what they'd wanted from her. Over and over again.

'Solve the Riddle or we make this a 'nightly recreation', Pedro had warned.

But solving the Bitch Goddess of Change's Riddle was far from Nohni's mind at the moment. Instead, she was picturing the same Goddess taking Nohni's place. How would she feel if this was her? If she was the one who had to endure Pedro's insanity.

But it wasn't her.

That bitch was safe - out there somewhere - probably laughing her ass off at Nohni's dilemma. She had to know something like this was going to happen. She seemed to know everything else! Nohni had suspected it herself when she suggested that Amelda escape on her own, but thought she could convince Pedro she was on his side anyway thus avoiding a confrontation. Nohni hadn't counted on Pedro being worked up over two of his guards being killed by 'friendly fire' during a blackout.

So, why had only Amelda been rescued? Why hadn't Tigermark taken Nohni too? Why had he left her in the paws of an infuriated criminal mad-dog! What was he thinking?

Or maybe it should be 'what had he been ordered to do' by the Goddess of Change?

The two of them had to be working together - or he was being forced to work with her. After all, the bitch had contacted Pedro using the cell phone Nohni had given to Tigermark. How could she have gotten it without his consent? And as to what Pedro would do when tricked out of another hostage? Nohni swore softly.

She HAD to have known!

She just had to.

Nohni felt hot tears of anger and hurt running down her face - then cursed her weakness. She had to start doing something! Anything! Despite her loathing to do so, solving the bitch Goddess' Riddle was what she must do now to move things forward. She wasn't sure what the future might hold, but sitting here acting the part of Pedro's perverted plaything and feeling sorry for herself wasn't going to do anything. Gritting her teeth, Nohni recalled the first line of the riddle for what seemed the hundredth time.

Numbers old, from crater's heart.

As opposed to the modern world's base-ten decimal system where there were ten symbols for numbers, 0 thru 9, the Mayan numbering system was a base-twenty counting system - a vigesimal system - consisting of twenty separate symbols for the numbers 0 through 19. The symbols were made up of stacked lines and dots with a separate symbol for zero. Nohni pictured it in her mind.

Mayan Number Chart 

Okay. Lines and dots for numbers except the zero - which was a shell like glyph.

Throwing fingers spread apart. Twenty bones, the body's stones.

Nohni looked down at her injured paw. Twenty finger bones that you threw. Except she was missing one now thanks to Pedro. She should be angry, but something else was blocking the emotion - a revelation she hadn't had before.

Finger bones? Twenty finger bones? A base-twenty numbering system?

Nohni peered closer at her paw. But if the twenty bones each represented a single number of the Mayan numbering system they should look different from each other.

They didn't.

Except for their length!

Counting long, in full, in part. Long and short, the bones to sort.

Were the long finger bones supposed to be the lines and the short ones, the dots? Lines and dots of the Mayan numbering glyphs?

Choose the time, from whence to start.

Or were they the lines and dots used by the numbers of the Mayan Long Count Calendar System?

Pain forgotten for the moment, Nohni dropped to the floor where the dust there was illuminated occasionally by the flashes of lightning. She drew out a rough diagram of twenty finger bones as they were arranged in the paw with the thumb on top - including its extra wrist bone for the thumb.

Paw of Change
 

There it was! The three long bones in each finger could represent one of the three lines possibly used to write out the twenty Mayan numbers. But where were all the short bones that were needed to represent the four possible dots needed?

Unless….

Daeom'acal had mentioned that the fingertip bone - the smallest one - was shaped like a trapezoid, and which side it landed on was significant. A trapezoid shape has four sides. Could the side it landed on indicate how many dots had to be placed on top of the lines to make a complete Mayan number glyph? That was a real possibility.

So…five fingers. Five numbers.

This could represent a single large number if the glyphs were stacked one on top of the other, but the Mayan Long Count Calendar always used five separated numbers to represent a specific date! Could the line in the Riddle ' Throwing fingers spread apart' mean that the numbers should be separated too?

Nohni scribbled out the numbers for December 21, 2012 - the so called 'end' of the Mayan Long Count Calendar.

12.19.19.17.19

Then she traced out the Mayan Long Count glyph equivalent in the dust.

 Mayan Date

Yes. You could use the finger bones to indicate a real Mayan date! However, Nohni didn't want to jump to any conclusions just yet. This setup could also represent a real Mayan stacked number since the zero glyph could be represented simply by the absence of a bone. The 'zero' number was only significant if it was topped by another glyph - which was similar to the decimal system where zeros only act as place holders following some other number when representing higher order of magnitude numbers.

Finger bones as dates?

Was this the 'time from whence to start' that was referred to in the riddle? If the same glyphs were stacked, one on top of the other, like a regular Mayan mathematical number, the 12.19.19.17.19 number she had chosen would equal over two million. That didn't sound like it meant anything, so this riddle had to refer to a way of writing a Mayan date!

But what date?

Nohni shook her head. Perhaps the actual date would be provided later. There certainly didn't seem to be any clues for a specific date in the Riddle itself. Maybe it was like the Goddess of Change said. The only reason for the Riddle was to give a reason for the placement of bones in this Paw of Change thing - not the actual date itself. That made sense, since Cosatacl and the Paw of Change evidently had been used in the past. That being the case, every time it was used, the date would most likely need to be different.

Nohni sat back on the bed and surveyed her scribbling. So she'd solved the damned Riddle - or hoped she had.

What now? She looked at her watch. It was 1:28am. She may as well try to get some sleep before telling Pedro about…

A resounding CRACK shattered the silence of Nohni's contemplation and she instinctively jumped off the bed and away from the window. It was a good thing she did too, because a second later the trunk of a large tree apparently hit by lightning came crashing through the wall, flattening the bed Nohni had been on only a moment before, taking out most of the ceiling, and putting a hole through the opposite wall next to the door. Wind rushed in through the shattered wall and ceiling as rain splattered Nohni's face. She backed up even further and realized she shouldn't be able to move any further at all. She was chained to a wall.

Or what had been a wall mere moments before.

Nohni tugged at the chain on her wrist and it pulled toward her. She peered through the dark sheeting rain and saw that the other end was not attached to the wall any more. Instead, it ended in a short, splintered piece of wood that had been part of the wall. She looked out into the dark, wind-blown jungle.

She could escape Pedro and this place right now if she wanted to.

But then she looked over her shoulder toward her cell-door and the station building it led to. If she left now, what would Pedro do? He'd have nothing left to him other than a single crystal bone and the old jaguar to which it belonged. It also seemed he'd have one less lackey. Through the hole by the door, Nohni could see the right arm and lower body of her guard pinned under a part of the tree trunk that had demolished her room. Nohni looked back to the jungle. She could do it. She could leave all this behind right now.

So why wasn't she moving?

Nohni dropped her head and pounded her good fist into her thigh. If she had any damned sense at ALL, she would leave! But she wasn't moving. She looked up again through the hole in the wall that led out into the jungle. The Goddess of Change was out there, but the likelihood of Nohni finding the bitch on her own was next to nothing. The Goddess of Change wanted an answer to the Riddle along with the crystal bone Pedro had. The only way Nohni could get a reckoning with that bitch was to play her game.

That and Pedro would probably murder Daeom'acal out of spite if she left. Then there would be nothing to hold him here any longer. He'd simply take his crystal bone and go home - leaving everything in limbo. After all, at least HE would have the sense to know when to leave.

Or would he?

Nohni rose from where she sat, stepped through the hole in the wall and out into the jungle - not to escape, but in order to find the front door to this building and walk right back in. She'd then find Pedro, tell the turd she'd just solved the bitch's damned Riddle, and that it was time to finally confront this Goddess of Change - together.

Nohni turned around searching for where the front door should be. Yes. It looked like it was further along the building past the trunk of the tree that had smashed through her room and turned her guard into a good imitation of road kill. She also noticed something else and hoped Pedro wouldn't think to investigate the circumstances of her freedom too closely. From the looks of things, it seemed the falling tree that had freed her had not been hit by lightning after all.

 

Not with marks on it that looked like they'd come from a cross-cut saw.

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Chapter Fifteen - Call to Arms

"I could have run out on you. Easily!"

Nohni's voice was a barely controlled thundering to match the storm outside.

"I could have left this place and your oh-so-enjoyable 'recreation' behind, But…I…didn't! And the reason is because I want to meet this Goddess of Change bitch as much as you do!" Nohni growled before adding, "You've no idea how much."

Pedro still looked unconvinced. "You show audacia for one so recently used as a whore."

Nohni gave a contemptuous huff. "Been there, done that. Bought the Commemorative Condom."

Pedro raised an eyebrow, but continued to point his 9mm at her. Nohni supposed he was simply being sensible. After all, she had burst into his bedroom completely unannounced. She'd also cold-cocked the guard stationed outside Pedro's bedroom using the length of chain still attached to her wrist. The guard's peacefully sleeping form could be seen just beyond the doorway.

"By the way," Nohni continued in an acid tone, "the guard you stationed at my door is now sporting a two-ton tree hat courtesy of 'Tropical Storm Jasmine Millinery'. However, it seems his 'fitting' went badly, and his brains are now splattered all over the hall floor. I've also solved the Goddess of Change's damned riddle. Care to hear about it? If you want to, put away that pop-gun, and we can talk."

Pedro didn't lower his weapon. He simply stared at her - hard.

Nohni sighed and crossed her arms over her ample bosom causing her chain to clink merrily. "If my total lack of clothing is distracting you from more important matters, I can get a towel or something."

Pedro reached behind him and tossed a bed sheet at her without taking his weapon off her. Nohni caught the proffered sheet and did a quick toga wrap. "We talk now?" she said.

Pedro waved his 9mm at her casually. "What ees stopping me from forcing the answer to the Riddle from you? I am, after all, the one with thee gun."

Nohni shook her head and frowned. "Because 'force' is a short-term, self-limiting tactic. You, of all furs, should know that. It's good for short-term answers and control - last night's 'recreation' being a prime example. However, it guarantees neither ultimate truth nor continued cooperation. Forced control requires constant vigilance which consumes your time in an inefficient manner. Surely, you don't think the Goddess of change is through with me, yet, do you? You show up at the Espiritu Santo without me and she might just view you as a 'leader' who can't manage his own resources."

Pedro continued to consider her without lowering his weapon. "It is not wise to negotiate from a position of weakness," he offered. "One does not get what one wants that way."

Nohni huffed again. "If you're talking about your dwindling supply of manpower do you really think your private army is going to get you what you want here in the Darien?" Nohni took a step forward and shoved her chest right into the barrel of Pedro's pistol. "Think about this for a minute, Pedro! It's important! Why do you want the kind of control the Goddess of Change can give you?"

The two stared at each other for a full minute before Pedro growled menacingly. "Because ALL of us in the Darien have tried the 'private army' solution and eet hasn't worked!"

Nohni nodded and poked Pedro in the chest. "Now you're finally making sense! Don't think I haven't seen it. You've got how many major paramilitary groups screwing around in the jungle here? Three! The AUC, FARC, and ELN. Three damned private armies duking it out amongst themselves - not to mention the Columbian Army poking their nose in from time to time! And the only reason Panama isn't throwing another army into the fray is because it doesn't HAVE one - not after the US invasion to pull General Noriega out of power! Finally, to top it all off, you've got the Columbian drug cartels sending in their boys, and who knows HOW many small time operators over-running the area!"

Nohni stepped back and looked Pedro up and down. "What you need is widespread, grass-roots support. Yeah, an army comes in handy when you want a show of force, but as you said yourself, killing the wrong furs for the wrong reasons at the wrong time does no good at all. What you need is an intelligence network to allow you to apply force to the right spot at the right time. That's what the Goddess of Change can give you right now! A massive intelligence network that spans two continents! And if you need to arm some of them for your 'show of force', you've got willing candidates for the job! Note the emphasis on 'willing'. That's the key! If you conscript your army by force, you will never have the loyalty needed to do much of anything!"

Pedro was nodding, but he was also looking suspicious. "I know what I want from thees Goddess, and eet seems you do as well, but why tell me this? What do you get out of thees?" He waved his pistol at her. "Why should I trust you to help me get what I want?"

Nohni glared at the Ibizan hound through slitted eyes. "Why do you need to trust me at all? What sort of threat could I possibly pose to you?"

Pedro nodded toward his unconscious guard. "You seem to know how to take care of yourself when not bound to a table. What will keep you from doing the same to me?"

Nohni snarled. "I thought that was obvious. For one thing, you are NOT without manpower - just not the manpower you would prefer. Am I right in guessing that half of the Cana Station staff here answers to you?"

Pedro's grin was condescending. "Two thirds."

"So you're not without some force to back you up right now." Nohni held up a finger. "But even more importantly, and as much as I dislike admitting it, I need you in one piece, because this Goddess of Change is interested in you. If I go clobbering you, I lose any chance of getting what I want!"

"And what ees eet you want?" Pedro demanded again pointing his 9mm at Nohni's chest."

"Ten minutes with the Goddess of Change - alone - in a locked room." She held up a paw. "Don't get your drawers in a knot, Pedro. I realize the value of good timing as well as you do. I'll take my ten minutes after whatever it is she wants to do with you, but I want some answers from her! She's spent way too much time fucking with my life not to get a good 'talking to'."

"And after thees ees all over?" Pedro asked, still not lowering his weapon. "What will keep you from going straight to the authorities to tell them about this?"

Nohni actually laughed at him - a mirthless laugh to be sure, but a laugh nonetheless. "You're joking, right? You think I can walk up to the nearest comisaría de policía and tell the comandante that Pedro Arias Dávila has just been made the leader of all of the old-civilization natives in the Americas, and that the one who gave him this power was some obscure Goddess of Change? Who the hell is going to believe me? In fact, picture yourself telling them! They wouldn't believe you either! In fact no one is going to believe this until it's far too late to change anything."

Pedro regarded Nohni for another moment before lowering his 9mm slightly. "We have an 'understanding' then?"

"We do," Nohni agreed. She looked at her watch. It was 2:30am - a mere four hours after she'd been raped by this slimy dog and his cronies. If she'd been able to give this little speech before Pedro had gone off the deep end, she might have been spared the pain and humiliation. "If we're done for the night," she said, looking at Pedro again, "I'd like to go find someplace dry, and get some sleep."

"You have had a 'rough night' as they say, yet you show spirit, senorita." Pedro gave a small nod of his head. "Eet ees the spirit one might expect from a bonito canine chica of good stock. I will need to pull my last guard from his duty guarding the Daeom'acal worm, but after he arrives…" Pedro nodded back at his own bed. "I may have room in my bed for one such as you."

Nohni was spared the indiscretion of flattening the scumbag on the spot only by the fact that Pedro had stepped away from her to pick up the satellite phone sitting on the trunk at the foot of his bed. Cell phones were useless here as they were way beyond the reach of the last cell phone tower. Nohni quickly hid her expression of outrage. She didn't want him to see her true feelings on the matter of sharing his bed.

Pedro punched a number and waited only a moment before he was answered. It was evidently the guard at the door of Daeom'acal's 'cell' - the only lackey Pedro had left that was still alive and conscious. Nohni grimaced in disgust. Pedro could have just yelled out the damned door to call him, but no. Pedro needed to use his toys. He barked something quickly in Spanish into the phone as Nohni tried to think of a reason to decline his bed offer. She obviously didn't want Pedro subjecting her to more 'force', but she certainly didn't want to bunk with him either. However, before she could formulate her next thought, the SatPhone itself buzzed.

"A moment," Pedro said with a frown looking at the phone. "Incoming call. Business, I theenk." He punched another button.

This gave Nohni a bit more time to think, but suddenly Pedro was swearing. He violently punched another button on the SatPhone and held it out between them.

"Thank you for switching to speakerphone," came a voice that was only barely recognizable as female. Nohni noted the bad reception. Where was this call coming from? "This message is for Nohni as well as you, Pedro. Since Nohni has solved the Riddle of the Bones, we must get together as soon as possible. Let us meet then at the Espiritu Santo Mine in, shall we say, one hour? That should be enough time for you to make it there, considering the weather. You may bring any others you wish to bring, Pedro, but it is you and Nohni who are required now. And, of course, be sure to bring your bone. I look forward to a successful completion of our business."

The SatPhone went silent, and both Nohni and Pedro stared at it before looking at one another. Their astonishment was interrupted by the guard Pedro had summoned. Pedro yelled at the startled canine in quick Spanish, and rather than a request for bed-guard duty, these were obviously marching orders. The guard sped off as Pedro slammed the SatPhone back into its charger and glared at Nohni.

"A trip through the jungle on a night such as this?" Pedro spat. "I theenk, I am beginning to share your hatred for thees maldita bruja!"

'Maldita Bruja'.

Damned Witch. Night Hag. Evil Sorceress.

Nohni wasn't sure she'd go so far as to give the Goddess of Change this particular moniker, but it looked like Pedro was angry enough to head out immediately and forego the safer option of waiting for experienced backup from Yaviza. What was he thinking? Granted, the Goddess of Change wanted the meeting now, but it was the middle of the damned night and the weather outside was lousy! What could she possibly do if they didn't show up? Get mad and go home? Nohni snorted. However, Pedro was already pulling on his rain gear as he walked out the bedroom door. It seemed he was going after her now - which meant he'd let his emotions over-ride sensibility.

He was doing something stupid. Again.

So… hadn't Nohni hoped for something like this? Pedro was still at the top of her shit-list despite the song and dance she'd just given to him, therefore, Pedro running off ill-prepared into the jungle was a good thing. Wasn't it?

Nohni wasn't so sure anymore.

They would be walking into a situation where there were many, many unknowns. Nohni thought of the saw-marks on the tree that had freed her. That had to be Tigermark's work - or Carlos, or both. They were probably out there right now! What would they do? And how was the Goddess of Change involved? How had she known that Nohni had solved the riddle?

Nohni hissed.

Why was that bitch alternately good to Nohni and then horrible? Sometimes Nohni thought she was on her side, and at other times, it seemed Nohni's complete misery was the Goddess' doing, too. In either case, this was not someone to be trusted.

And now Pedro was walking right into her lap. Was that smart?

Nohni shook her head. Smart or not, the board was set and the pieces were moving. For better or for worse, the Goddess of Change had finally called for a face-to-face.

Nohni took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She let some of her tension flow out with it, as well. Then she headed out the bedroom door and down the hall to the dining area to look for her own clothes. All she knew for sure right now was that she would need to be extra careful in the next few hours. She needed to be prepared for whatever her 'Sister' had planned for this meeting.

And that meant she wanted some firepower of her own.

When she reached the dining room, it was already chaotic with activity. Furs bustled here and there, and Pedro was shouting up a storm of his own. Nohni quickly grabbed her khaki shorts and shirt from where they'd been dumped in a corner of the dining area. Further inspection found her boots under a bench. She donned them all - the shirt being the most difficult due to a certain 'handicap' she wore on her left arm. After buttoning the shirt as best she could (some buttons were missing), she shook the chain still attached to her left wrist. The wrist manacle had been riveted in place, and the only way it was going to come off was with a hacksaw or a cutting torch. For a moment, Nohni considered its removal and how long that would take - then decided against it. Too much time lost. She'd already pried off the scrap of wood from the end that had been connected to the wall, so all that was left was a three-foot length of heavy, grade #7 tie-down chain ending in a heavy shackle. Nohni swung it around her head once, then let it drop to her side. She nodded. It could be an effective weapon if used properly. She'd already used it once on one of Pedro's guards. But she wanted more. She turned to the room at large and steeled herself.

"WHERE'S MY DAMNED GUN!!!" Nohni bellowed at the top of her lungs.

All activity in the dining room ceased abruptly. Nohni glared around and found Pedro, who had evidently been yelling at one of his Cana Station underlings.

"I go armed, or I go as a corpse!" she spat. "Which will totally blow anyone's chances of getting what they want! Now where the hell is my gold S&W 1911 .45?"

She knew damned well where it was. It was hanging on the hip of Pedro's last canine lackey. He was the one who had commandeered it from her when Nohni had first been captured. Pedro was scowling and shaking his head, so Nohni marched up to him and stabbed a finger toward her sidearm.

"Like I said, I go able to defend myself or I don't go! You heard the Goddess. You can bring as much firepower as you want, but it's you and me she needs! I don't trust her. YOU don't trust her. If she somehow separates us from your boys, I want my own gun! Now, you may not trust me either, but like I said, I need you alive to get what I want! I would be a total MORON to put a slug in your back!" Nohni stepped right up to Pedro muzzle to muzzle. "And believe me, I'm no moron." She held out her paw to Pedro's lackey while still keeping her blazing, yellow eyes locked on Pedro's.

She snapped her fingers.

Pedro stared back at her for nearly thirty seconds before giving a slight nod. Nohni felt the .45 and its holster drop into her paw.

"Thank you," she said as she buckled it on and tied the thigh strap. She backed away from Pedro, pulled the .45 from its holster and popped the clip. It was full. She checked the chamber. It was empty. She slammed the clip home and chambered a round before re-holstering her weapon. It was harder to do now because of the chain and her injured left paw, but she managed.

"I don't suppose anyone thought to bring my bullwhip."

Nohni was normally ambidextrous with the whip and wondered how well she could use it with her injured left paw. Probably not well at all, but then she might not need to use it. She gave a derisive chuckle. Thinking of what lay ahead, Nohni doubted her luck would run that way. In either case, she also doubted she'd be seeing her whip anytime soon. Therefore, it was with some surprise that she saw one of the station staff bustling up to her with a whip in his paws.

"Eet was een the senorita's plane." he explained holding it out to her. "Apologies, senorita. I only borrowed eet." He backed off quickly, and as she clipped it to her left hip, she noted the station staffer's scared expression. However, the fear did not seem to be directed at her. The staffer was looking at Pedro who was again barking orders. Nohni listened to him for a moment, noting that all his orders were all being followed by derogatory expressions in Spanish like 'cowardly kittens', or 'useless jungle lice'. He obviously didn't like the caliber of underlings he was getting here at Cana.

However, now that she looked at them more closely, Nohni could see that the staffers were not all looking at Pedro. Many were whispering amongst themselves and looking out the windows. Fear was obvious in all their expressions, and many visibly winced when a crash of thunder shook the walls. Perhaps Pedro was not the sole source of their fears. Nohni grabbed a passing ocelot, who jumped at her touch.

"What's wrong?" she demanded in a low voice that matched the level of the whispers around her. "Why the scared looks? Is it Pedro? Surely, it can't be the storm."

The Darien was one of the wettest places on earth. Storms were a routine occurrence here. Granted, this one fell into the 'Named Tropical Storm' category, and had already messed up Pedro's plans, but surely they'd had storms like this before.

The ocelot shook his head, looking furtively at Pedro to make sure he wasn't aware of them. He then brought frightened eyes back to Nohni. "Eet ees a bruja night, tonight, senorita," he whispered jerking his head toward the windows which were all illuminated by the nearly constant lightning. "The thunder! The wind! It howls of danger and of restless gods!"

"Or it howls of a certain restless goddess in particular?" thought Nohni, looking after him as the ocelot scurried away.

That didn't bode well. Nohni wondered if Pedro would see the flaw in his plan. He was conscripting local native furs here at the Cana Station to act as his muscle during the upcoming confrontation. However, this was local native muscle that, by the very nature of the situation, owed its allegiance to the Goddess of Change - not Pedro!

What would happen when they all finally met at the Espiritu Santo gold mine?

Another station staffer tossed Nohni a rain poncho which she unconsciously caught with her right paw and swung over her shoulders.

Whatever was about to happen, it probably wasn't what any of them expected. Nohni turned to Pedro as she flipped the hood of her rain-poncho over her head.

"We've got another date with a Goddess," she said, her voice low and menacing. She looked to the rain streaked windows.

"Let's not keep the Bruja waiting."


------------------------------------------@@-----------------------------------------


Part Four - Cosatacl

 

Chapter Sixteen - The Goddess, Herself

 

If anything, the storm had gotten worse. The blustering wind was now pushing the forest canopy around as if its hundred-foot trees were mere blades of grass. The crack of splintering wood could sometimes be heard between the nearly incessant lightning and thunder. And then there was the rain - sheets of it - pounding down upon them. It was like standing under a waterfall. Why that infernal Goddess of Change had insisted on a meeting now was beyond Nohni. Even though it was only six miles away, by the time they reached the Espiritu Santo mine (barring being crushed by falling trees, or washed away by the rain) they would be exhausted, soaked and mud-covered - not the best way to give a first impression - or defend yourself, if need be.

The lack of fuel at the Cana Station had precluded the use of the four-wheelers on this trip, and the fact that Pedro had commandeered fifteen of the station personnel made that form of transport a moot point anyway. As it was, Nohni had no idea how many were left in this marching party. It was impossible to keep track of everyone in the rain and dark. Nohni suspected a few of the natives from the station had already 'abandoned ship' given the attitude many had displayed while preparing for this trip. According to them, this was a Bruja night.

One fit only for restless gods and goddesses.

"Or ridiculously impatient ones," thought Nohni sourly as she jogged behind the two bobbing flashlights held by the leaders of this pack. Pedro and the only lackey he had left were at the front, and they'd set an awfully fast pace. Keeping up with him was proving difficult.

 Suddenly, Nohni swore as she tripped over what had to be the tenth hidden root on the trail. "Pedro! This is getting ridiculous!" she yelled, pushing herself off the leaf- littered trail. At least the forest-floor mulch made her pratfalls a little softer, even as they muddied her up more. A paw pulled her upright as a flashlight in her face blinded her.

"Please try to be more careful," said Pedro - the condescending tone in his voice quite evident. "The Goddess of Change needs you whole at our destination."

"I'm well aware of that!" Nohni said, spitting out leaf-mulch. "What I don't understand is why you are so keen to see her now?" Nohni jerked her arm from Pedro's grasp. "Do you always sit up and beg when some goddess bitch orders you to?"

Instead of an indignant outburst, Pedro actually laughed. "Do you not recognize a challenge when eet ees issued?" Pedro waved his flashlight around. "Thees ees nothing. A dog who cannot stomach a leetle rain ees no leader."

Nohni growled and shook the water out of her mane before whipping her poncho hood over her head again. "If this is just 'a little' rain," she mumbled, "then the Titanic was a dingy."

Once more, they took off at a run, and as she struggled to keep up with the other two canines, Nohni fingered the .45 auto bouncing on her hip. For a moment, she thought seriously about simply putting a couple of bullets in these stupid dogs' backs and going home. The problem was, Pedro's comment about being issued a challenge was not far from the mark. Nohni knew for sure that she wasn't going to let this Goddess of Change get the best of her. However, unlike Pedro, she was not seeking the Goddess' approval.

All Nohni wanted was a few things explained before she throttled the bitch.

 

It felt like it took a lot more than an hour, but when the rain drenched party finally stumbled into the clearing of the Espiritu Santo gold mine, Nohni's watch only read 3:35 am. It was also at that precise moment that the rain and wind died away.

The contrast from the previous hour's blustering noise and confusion was profound. This was even more eerie than the silence they'd encountered here yesterday. Nohni looked up and could see stars directly above her. She also noticed the clouds to the southwest moving away quickly. There were also cloud banks to the west and south.

The eye of the storm?

Could be. If the center of the tropical storm's low pressure area was directly on top of them, that would explain the sudden lack of wind and rain. However, the natives from the Cana Station - the ten or so left - were all looking around with eyes wide as dinner plates. Evidently, they thought the silence was caused by something more para-normal. Nohni wondered if any of them had soiled their pants. It was hard to tell since all of them were soaked.

Also at this moment, a light appeared from up the hill to the south - toward where Nohni had first seen the remains of the hoist house smoke stack. If that wasn't an invitation, Nohni would eat her rain poncho.

"We are being summoned, I theenk," Pedro agreed, pointing.

Nohni threw back the hood of her poncho and shook out her mane - again. As she began to follow Pedro and his last guard, she wondered what she looked like. It couldn't be good, but that couldn't be helped. However, she did get some perverse pleasure from seeing that Pedro hadn't come through their ordeal unscathed. He looked and smelled like wet dog.

Within moments, they'd arrived at the ruins of the hoist house. The light that had drawn them here was coming from four standing torches spaced around what looked like the cement floor foundation of the boiler - a solid slab of concrete that stood about a foot and a half higher than the surrounding ground.

Nohni looked around. Their native Cana staffers were still back in the dark - presumably following at a slower pace. While she waited for them to catch up, she surveyed this place. Judging from the foundation stones, the hoist house had been a squareish building approximately sixty feet by eighty feet. The wood framing and walls had long ago rotted and collapsed, but various bits of mining equipment still lay strewn about. Some rusting cable was wound onto an equally rusty winch spool next to a dark hole in the ground to one side of the cement slab. The winch meant that this hole was probably the shaft from which the raw gold ore was hoisted. There was another dark hole in the ground on the other side of the slab that had no associated hardware.

"When they arrive, I'd warn the others to stay away from those," Nohni cautioned, indicating the holes. "This is an abandoned mine. No way to tell how deep they are."

She turned around to wait for the Cana Station staffers. She'd heard something behind her and assumed they were approaching. Instead, she came face to face with the end of a blowgun backed by what was obviously not a Cana Station staffer.

"Do not move," came a self-satisfied underground voice - the same one they'd heard on their first trip to the mine. "If you will all remove your weapons and pass them to those around you, we can get this meeting under way."

No one moved.

"Do you wish for a meeting or not?" asked the voice. "I mean you no harm, and will not hinder you from leaving, but I must insist on a meeting without a threat of death to me. It is your choice. Choose now."

Nohni looked to Pedro who was grinding his teeth hard enough to make noise.

"They've got blowguns," Nohni said. "With poison darts, undoubtedly. There are more of them than us. We have no idea where the Goddess of Change is, so fighting them to get to her is a losing proposition." Making a choice for herself, she unbuckled and passed her .45 auto with holster and her bullwhip to the nearest native. He took them and backed away through the crowd of natives that had come out of nowhere. They had to number at least thirty. She turned in time to see Pedro and his lackey divesting themselves of their toys as well. Pedro was not pleased, but he was obviously not going to run home like a little kid who thinks the game isn't fair anymore.

It seemed he wanted this meeting as much as the Goddess of Change did.

But where was she?

At that moment, a brilliant light issued forth from the hole to the left of the cement floor slab - the hole that did not have any associated hardware. It was hard to look at light after the near total darkness of the trip here. Finally the light faded and when Nohni's eyes adjusted…

…there she stood.

The Goddess of Change.

Here, finally, was Nohni's nemesis - or ally. Nohni didn't know which yet. But what Nohni didn't know, she studied closely. So she gave the Goddess of Change a good, long look, noting everything she could about her.

The Goddess' gown was golden. In fact, it was probably made of real gold - very finely woven links of gold - for a faint, metallic rustling had come from the Goddess when she'd stepped forward and up onto the raised concrete boiler slab. The gown also seemed slightly transparent as the very fine links did not block all of what they were draped over. Judging from the fur pattern, the Goddess of Change could easily be a golden jackal. This didn't surprise Nohni since Daeom'acal had already told her the Goddess looked like Nohni.

Her attention went back to the gown itself, and Nohni wondered if it was heavy. Gold, by its very nature was a heavy metal, yet the Goddess of Change had moved effortlessly. Perhaps it was the fineness of the links. Gold was very malleable and it might not take much more that a few pounds of it to make the tens of thousands of links needed for this gown. Nohni stared for a moment, thinking of the workmanship required to make such a gown. It was astounding! And the value? Nohni turned and noticed the hungry look in Pedro's eyes. It seemed he appreciated the value of what he was seeing. The gown was sleeveless, but the Goddess' arms were not unadorned. Several golden armbands sported sprays of what had to be Quezal feathers. Those alone would make this outfit priceless.

And then there was the Goddess' golden mask with its own crowning spray of Quezal feathers.

It was the one thing Nohni wished the Goddess of Change had not been wearing. Nohni wanted to see her face, but it was evident that the Goddess did not want to reveal herself that way. The mask covered the Goddess' entire face and had a Mayan look to it. The mask was still recognizable as canine, but in the stylized way the Mayans depicted such things. It almost had the look of Mayan runes which were often figures of faces. In fact, this one had the look of the Mayan rune for 'Sister'. Nohni wondered if that meant…

But the Goddess was speaking now.

"I welcome both of you to this place," said the Goddess of Change as she opened her arms to them. Nohni thought that having her, Pedro, and his lackey threatened with blow guns and then disarmed was not a good welcome - even if it had been the smart thing to do on her part.

Nohni also noted that the golden mask muffled the Goddess' voice, and added a sort of metallic resonance to it that made it sound artificial - like someone had turned the treble control up too high. Still, Nohni could almost swear she'd heard that voice before - and just not from their first encounter here at the Espiritu Santo where that same voice had come from beneath the earth. She tried to recall more, but the Goddess was speaking again.

"There is much to do and we must hasten to do it. But before we do anything, I must give both of you new names for this time and this place. These are the names I will use for you for now on. Listen well to your new names for there is much power in what one is called. Nohni Wabanda, I now name you Xbalanque. It is a powerful name that has been revered from ancient times - even from the beginning of the world." The Goddess turned to Pedro. "To you, Pedro Arias Dávila, I give the name Hun-Came y Xibalba - a name of greatness which all furs fear. It too, has been known since the beginning."

Nohni saw Pedro stand straighter and slip her a condescending look.

"Arrogant bastard," Nohni thought, even as she thought about the names that had been given them. They both sounded familiar, and the notion of 'arrogance' seemed connected with them. Maybe the name for Pedro was more appropriate than it appeared on the surface? Nohni tried to think more on this, however, the Goddess of Change - who could also be described as arrogant - evidently didn't want Nohni to think on this too long because she was addressing Nohni - by her new name.

"Xbalanque! You have solved the Riddle of the Bones. Tell us what you have discovered."

Nohni frowned. Arrogant is right! More orders. Not even a simple 'please'. Still, it looked like she had little choice except to play along - for now.

"The Twenty Bones can be arranged in such a way as to represent a date in ancient Mayan," Nohni said simply. "Long bones are for the long lines, and the side upon which the fingertip bone lands represents the dots."

The Goddess of Change nodded her masked head. "Yes. Yes. I see that now. Very well done, Xbalanque."

Nohni looked away. She had her doubts about whether this Goddess had truly been ignorant of the answer. This whole thing seemed more like a test of some sort. In fact, was that what the Goddess had been doing all along since this whole thing started? Was she testing the two of them? For what purpose? And what was Pedro's test?

As if in answer, the Goddess was addressing Pedro.

"Hun-Came y Xibalba! I see you have brought one of your Inner Circle Underlings with you."

She had to be referring to the only canine lackey Pedro had left to him.

"Bring the Underling forward!" she commanded. Several of the natives pushed the canine further out into the light next to Pedro. Pedro was looking back and forth from his lackey to the Goddess. He did not look pleased, but that was most likely due to someone else giving his underlings orders. Apparently, he wasn't used to that. Still, he did not interfere.

"You have the full loyalty of your underlings, Hun-Came y Xibalba?" demanded the Goddess.

Pedro gave a decisive nod. "Eef they show any disloyalty, any at all, están muertos! They are dead! A leader cannot have disloyalty. Eet would destroy their power to command!"

The Goddess of Change nodded also. Then she pointed to Pedro's canine, who was scowling at her. "This one has not been entirely truthful with you, Hun-Came y Xibalba. He has another one he answers to."

The lackey's scowl fell off his face to be replaced by a look of indignation. He turned to Pedro. "Lo juro! Yo soy leal sólo a usted! Ella miente!"

The Goddess of Change ignored the lackey's protest, and continued to eye Pedro. "What do you do with disloyal underlings?"

Pedro had turned to his underling and the look on his muzzle was not friendly. "Quién más te lo ordena?"

"Tú eres mi único comandante!" the canine exclaimed, shaking his head. "Yo no soy mentiroso!"

"If that is true," asked the Goddess, addressing Pedro. She was holding up what looked to Nohni like several small pieces of paper. "Then why does this underling send messages to your Panama City? Messages that do not go to any of your other Underlings there!"

Pedro was definitely not pleased at this news, and his lackey's indignation had instantly mutated into fear. He began sputtering and held up his paws - the panic quite evident on his muzzle. "Por favor! Déjame explicar!"

But Pedro wasn't listening. Instead, his fist had lashed out. It had happened so fast, his lackey had had no time to react. The blow was on the mark, splitting the lip of the canine and dropping him to his knees. It looked like it had nearly rendered him unconscious since he was swaying badly.

The Goddess pointed to the lip of the mine shaft opposite the one she had risen from - the one with the rusty winch. "That shaft is the main shaft that was once used to hoist the ore from the mine. It is quite deep - deeper, I believe, than many of the Cenotes, or water-filled sinkholes, used by the Mayans in the Yucatan for the sacrificing of their own natives to the Gods." The Goddess of Change raised her chin imperiously and glared down at Pedro. "Do you wish us to use it now?"

Pedro raised his hot gaze from his underling up to the Goddess. "Use eet!" he spat, giving the lackey a vicious kick to the head, which sent him all the way into unconsciousness.

The natives quickly surrounded the limp canine and dragged the hapless dog to the brink of the shaft. Then, without so much as one 'sacrificial incantation', they chucked him down the hole.

Nohni listened for the sound of a body hitting bottom, but other than what sounded like a few pebbles skipping off the walls of the shaft, there was nothing. She turned her scowling face to the Goddess of Change. Granted, Pedro's lackey probably deserved his demise. Drug-running underlings hardly got anywhere without their share of killing. But the manner of his disposal was still shocking. She shot Pedro a look. His features were twisted into a self-satisfied smirk. Apparently, he wasn't thinking about the fact that he'd just dumped his last 'trusted' inner-circle underling down a deep hole. It seemed he only wanted to impress the Goddess.

And from her reaction, it seems he had impressed her since the Goddess was nodding her head. "You make decisions quickly," she said. "Very well done, Hun-Came y Xibalba."

"Well done?" Nohni thought, stunned. "Ordering someone's death without a second thought is 'well done?"

Nohni's disgust with Pedro and the Goddess of Change deepened considerably, but it was now tinged with fear. This whole meeting was getting a little crazy. Nohni was now looking toward the other mine shaft - the one the Goddess had 'risen' from. That had to be a miner's shaft as opposed to an ore shaft. It would have been the shaft the workmen used to climb into and out of the mine. It probably had a ladder or something one could use to climb. And being surrounded by the Goddess' natives, this shaft seemed to be her only escape option from this meeting - for escape was looking better and better all the time. Sure, Nohni had wanted to get this Goddess on her own for a little 'one-on-one' discussion, but that course of action was losing its appeal quickly. She began edging toward the miner's shaft as the Goddess started to speak again.

"And now you both wish to know what will happen next. I will tell you, for the purpose of all of this has been to help me choose who will accompany me to Cosatacl." The goddess pointed to the southwest. "Cosatacl is near the shore of the southern sea by a place called Playa de Muerto."

"The Beach of the Dead," Nohni translated in her mind. It was in the territory of the Embera tribes of southern Darien. That would place it about forty miles south west of here through dense jungle. There were also two jungle mountain ranges between here and there - the Sarrania de Pirre mountains and the Sierra de Jungurudo! Damn! That was no small trek if that's where the Goddess was headed from here! Nohni had even less desire to be part of this now.

"The native ones call Cosatacl 'The Dire Place'," the Goddess continued, "for it presents many dangers to those who would dare enter it unescorted. But to those whose right it is to enter, to those who know its secrets…" The eyes of the Goddess turned and peered significantly at Nohni through their mask. They were gold, like hers. "To them, it is a place of changing - a place of destiny, duality, and destination."

The Goddess stepped forward off her slab, and looked to each of the two of them in turn.

"So now I must choose the one who I will escort into Cosatacl - the one to become the next leader of the Ancients." The Goddess turned first to the Ibizan hound. "Do I choose the one called Pedro Arias Dávila? The one I have named Hun-Came y Xibalba? He is already a leader and commands a great host and there are many who revere him." The Goddess then turned slowly to Nohni. "Or do I pick the golden one? The one I have named Xbalanque. The one who looks like me? A sister to my Upanuh?"

Nohni frowned. Xbalanque? Again, that name had a familiar ring to it, but she still couldn't place it. And Upanuh? That was this Goddess' middle name. Ynon-Upanuh Ahdnabau.

Xbalanque - a sister to Upanuh? What the hell was this supposed to mean? Nohni dropped the thought because she was judging how long a jump it was to the miner's shaft - and a chance of escaping this insanity. Just a little bit closer…

It was only out of the corner of her eye that Nohni noticed the Goddess of Change's paw.

It was signaling something in Darien paw-sign.

It was telling someone to "Seize the Prey!"

And it was pointing at her!

Damn!

Nohni jumped, but it was too little to late. Dozens of paws seized her and she was instantly buried under many bodies. She fought. She thrashed. She bit. And the screams around her told her some of her bites were doing damage. But there were simply too many of them. In an instant, her arms were bound behind her, and her legs bound together. A smelly gag forced into her mouth even denied her the possibility of screaming her fury - or her terrible fear.

For she knew what they intended for her. That was where they were dragging her.

Within moments, Nohni had been hauled, helpless to do anything, to the edge of the mine shaft - the one Pedro's lackey had disappeared into.

Time.

Half-Time.

Quarter - Time.

... E i g h t h - T i m e ...

…  D  e  a  d  -  T  i  m  e …

They say time slows down for those who know they are close to death. They can sense everything in the smallest detail as the seconds turn into hours - like for the poor soul in the headlights of the speeding car, or the soldier in the bunker as the shell explodes beside him - or the golden jackal being pushed over the edge of a precipice. They also say those near death can sometimes see themselves from afar - from outside their own bodies - like they are floating and looking down upon the scene.

A scene of a golden Goddess from Hell standing over a bound and gagged golden jackal.

Nohni looked at herself.

I… am… about… to…die…

A single tear fell.

…but from whose eye Nohni couldn't tell because she was falling herself now…

…and the bottom seemed to be a lifetime away…

Sister

------------------------------------------@@-----------------------------------------

Chapter Seventeen - Heroes and Bad Gods

 

Except she wasn't falling.

Not any more.

 

Nohni's heart pounded frantically in her chest. Her mind was a gibbering mess - fear chasing anger chasing sanity in dizzying circles inside of her skull. Yet through all the madness and mayhem, she could sense that she wasn't falling any longer! There was no rush of wind past her face - no dread sense of weightless nausea.

Was she already dead then?

Everything before her eyes was a yawning blackness. Her ears could hear nothing save the buzz one gets when too much blood rushes to the head. But then she began to feel something else. She felt a great pulling on her left wrist which was bound with her other arm behind her back. It was also the only sense of contact on her body she could feel. There was no pressure on her feet as one would expect from standing. No pressure on her sides from lying down. No contact sensation anywhere except on her left wrist. It was as if she were suspended by that wrist in space. Not moving. Forever floating.

But how can dead furs feel anything? She blinked and noticed that not all was blackness. She turned her head to one side and saw the faint sparkle of crystal and the rough surface of fractured stone. It seemed dimly lit from above. She blinked again, but the sight did not go away. She turned her head and looked to her other side. There was the same rock wall.

Wall? Or was all this part of a shaft!

Reality hit Nohni all at once. She was face down, looking into the depths of the dark mine shaft, and she was suspended in mid air by her left wrist!

The one with the chain still attached to it from my imprisonment at the field station!

Something must have tangled with the shackle and three feet of chain still manacled to Nohni's left wrist, and now she hung helplessly above a shaft of unknown depth. She didn't move. Almost didn't breathe. How securely had the chain tangled itself in whatever held her up now? If she moved too quickly, would it become undone? She couldn't even turn herself around to check out the situation since she was suspended face down.

Damn! Falling was terrifying enough, but being held, suspended, above a fall that meant certain death and not knowing when it would happen was much worse! Nohni closed her eyes and tried to block the thought from her mind. It was not good to dwell on dire consequences when one could do little about them. That form of self-torture was a sure way to destroy sanity.

Her fear was only barely controlled, but now that Nohni's mind was clearing a little, she began to notice something very odd.

When she'd come to a stop (for she had to have come to a stop to stop falling) - why hadn't her arms been pulled up by the wrists so hard that she dislocated both shoulders? After all, it was her wrist that was manacled - not her waist. Yet, here she was, suspended by her wrist and… maybe by her waist, too? Now that she concentrated on it, Nohni could feel the pressure around her waist. It had simply been masked by the more painful pulling on her wrist.

Nohni looked down between her breasts and noted in the dim light that several loops of the rope used to bind her wrists were also wrapped around her waist. That was an unusual way to bind one's wrists behind the back. Add several loops around the waist? Whatever for?

Unless…

Nohni felt her face contort into a deep scowl, though she kept her silence. Someone knew she was going to end up suspended in this shaft and wanted to prevent the severe injury that would result from having arms twisted traumatically out of their sockets. And there could only be one fur who might know something like that!

Sister!

If Nohni hadn't wanted to keep her 'alive' condition a secret, she would have screamed her indignity - which would likely result in her discovery by furs that she suspected were still above. The light filtering down to her had to be coming from the lit torches that were still around the boiler slab. Nohni did let one small, steamy hiss escape. She supposed she should be grateful, but dammit all, her sister sure had a way of making things painful before pulling Nohni's butt back out of the fire! Life-saver or no - there would be a reckoning!

Despite her temper, Nohni felt considerably better. If 'Sister, Dearest' had wanted to preserve Nohni's limbs, she must also want to preserve her life. Someone, would be coming to fetch her soon enough. At least she hoped so, because in the meantime she needed to concentrate on keeping her arms and stomach muscles taut to take the pressure of the ropes off her waist. To go limp for too long would put too much pressure directly on certain vital areas of the abdominal cavity - like the descending aorta, which could result in blood clots, kidney failure, and all sorts of unpleasant things. In fact, being suspended by the waist was nearly as deadly as being suspended by the neck.

It just took longer.

Nohni had one nasty thought about whether this was exactly what the Goddess of Change intended, but slow torture fit Pedro better.

To take her mind off her predicament while she waited, Nohni decided to puzzle out some of the things the Goddess of Change had thrown at her during her and Pedro's 'testing'.

Xbalanque - a sister to Upanuh.

Xbalanque.

Why was that name so familiar? So…familiar?

Familiar --- Familial --- Family!

It was like a light had suddenly flicked on in Nohni's mind.

Xbalanque! He was one of the Mayan Hero Twins of the Popol Vuh! The Mayan creation story!

Another thought flashed through Nohni's mind. The Goddess of Change had named Pedro Hun-Came y Xibalba!

That literally translated into "Death One of the Xibalba." The Xibalba were a group of arrogant and evil gods described in the Popol Vuh as gods of the Mayan underworld, and 'Death One' - Hun-Came - was the head nasty! It was also written in the Popol Vuh that the Hero Twins, Hunapu and Xbalanque, defeated the evil Xibalba, who were rendered powerless over mortals forever after.

But Xbalanque's twin brother was named Hunapu - not Upanuh. Still, Nohni couldn't dispute the correlation between Pedro and the Xibalban, Hun-Came. That was too good a match.

So…… the Goddess of Change fancied herself and Nohni as the two Hero Twins who would defeat the dastardly Pedro 'Death One' Davila. At least that's what Nohni hoped. Despite her ruminations, she was still stuck down this damned hole and wasn't getting any closer to Cosatacl.

It was then that she heard noises from above. The torches must still be lit because there was still some light, but it was a wavering light - like the torches were being moved, or taken away. Gods! She hoped she wouldn't be stuck down here much longer. She didn't know how long she could resist the urge to go limp. For a fraction of a second, Nohni considered crying out to let them know she was still alive. If the Goddess/Pedro crowd were the ones moving the torches, she would be back where she started - and they might decide to do a better job of finishing her off this time. Yet, wouldn't that be preferable to the slow death suspension by the waist would give her?

In the end, she made no noise. She would 'bear this cross' as long as she could. There was always hope that someone else was out there.

How long Nohni waited, she didn't know. It was too hard to contemplate the passage of time when all she could concentrate on was keeping her stomach taut. Therefore, the 'thump' that dropped her down several inches came as a complete surprise, and a yelp did escape her despite her vow of silence.

"Hold still, Nohni. We've got you," came a familiar voice from high above.

It was all Nohni could do not to sob with relief. After all, she needed to keep her abs crunched for just a little while longer. The somewhat jerky trip to the surface took about five minutes and seemed very slow, but Nohni knew caution was needed if she was not firmly attached to what had caught her on the way down. She suspected her chain had been snagged by a tangle of rusted winch cable that still hung down the shaft from the winch above. No sense in losing its grip now.

The final five feet were the slowest, because she desperately wanted to give a crushing hug to the white tiger she could see silhouetted against the stars over her shoulder. As it was, when they finally pulled her out all she could do was lean into his shoulder and sob as he undid her bonds.

When she was completely free of her ropes she made good on her intentions by giving the white tiger, a black jaguar, and even the old tan jaguar behind Carlos crushing embraces. The last one, Daeom'acal, looked a little surprised.

"What have I done to deserve thees?" he asked in a subdued voice.

"You are simply here. Now." answered Nohni, wiping her nose and sniffing. "I take it Tigermark released you from your 'cell' at the Cana Station?"

The old jaguar nodded even as Nohni looked around for the one who was obviously missing. "Where's Amelda?" She looked to Tigermark. "I assume it was you who snatched her from the Cana field station."

"She ees with one of the Choco tribes east of here," answered Carlos. "She will be safe there. She can no longer help us with what we must do."

Nohni eyed Tigermark and opened her mouth to ask a pointed and somewhat disturbing question about that rescue, but the white tiger was motioning them all toward the boiler slab, which was obviously the only seat in the house.

"Later," Nohni thought, not wishing to disturb too soon her sense of elation at being rescued.

Tigermark was now rummaging through a backpack, and soon, he pulled out several wrapped bars and a thermos. He tossed one of the bars to Nohni and opened one for himself. "Carlos and Daeom'acal might know where to get indescribably delicious jungle delicacies," he commented, "but time is short, it's still dark, and I think you know as well as I do that we need to talk about what happens next."

Nohni had already bitten off a huge hunk of the nutrition bar so couldn't answer right away, however, she did wave her paws for attention as she swallowed the mouthful whole. "A foo questions uh my own, firs, pease," Nohni choked out. She needed to clear the air before they discussed their next move. She pointed a finger at Tigermark. "First off, are you in league with the Goddess of Change? Have you two been working together?"

Tigermark didn't answer right away, but pulled out the cell phone Nohni had thrust at him when she'd first been captured by Pedro. It was the cell phone she'd swiped from Pedro's HumVee driver, Havus Anglia, back in Yaviza. He handed it back to her.

Nohni took it and asked, "Why give this back to me?"

"Because there's a stored message on it for you."

Nohni flipped it open, and after turning it on, noted that the batteries were about half charged. She'd need to be careful about that. The time read 4:25am - two hours before dawn. She hit the stored message button and scrolled past several that were for Tigermark until she found the last one with her name on it. She opened it and began reading.

"It is now 4:25am and you are no doubt quite tired, Nohni, but there is much you should know about before you can rest." began the message.

Nohni looked at the message tags and noted that this message had been sent to this phone only an hour after she'd been captured by Pedro. When was that? Thirty-six hours ago? How the hell did she do that? Nohni shook her head and continued reading.

"Yes Nohni, sister. We are the Hero Twins as you have already surmised, and Pedro of the Xibalba is part of what we must do together, but there is more. I've written down the Secrets of The Dire Place in this message for you to reference once you get to Cosatacl. Daeom'acal knows the way."

What followed were 'keys' to tests that Cosatacl put furs through who would enter unescorted by the God or Goddess of Change. Nohni scanned the text and saw references to "The Bat Room", "The Cold Room", and "The Room of Knives", plus several others. All of these terms triggered memories for Nohni since all of these were 'tests' that the original Mayan Hero Twins had been subjected to while defeating the evil Xibalban.

The words "I will see you there in two days," ended the message.

Nohni sighed and turned off the phone. Here was this Goddess of Change ordering her about again. Nohni had half a mind to tell this Goddess to stuff it, but she knew she wouldn't. Tests and keys in ancient places had always fascinated her. There was no way she would not go - and the Goddess of Change seemed to know this. Nohni looked up to Tigermark who had just popped the last of his nutrition bar into his toothy mouth. He raised an eyebrow as he chewed, eyeing her.

"So are you going to answer my question, TM?" Nohni tapped the cell phone. "When I was at Pedro's villa, we received a message from the Goddess of Change - from this phone. Did she get this phone from you?"

Tigermark was shaking his head as he swallowed. "Not from that phone. It's been with me all the time." He held up a paw to forestall Nohni's protest. "I've received quite a few text messages from the Goddess myself, when I was still in range of a cell tower. They were supposedly from this very same cell phone, because I checked the message tags too. But we've never met face to face."

Nohni was shaking her head. "But what about Carlos' crystal bone? The one I gave to you along with the cell phone. Didn't you give it to the Goddess of Change? She said she had it."

"She lied," put in Carlos, tapping his eemot bag. "Tigermark gave it back to me when he sprung me from Pedro's prison."

Nohni turned back to the white tiger. "And how exactly did you manage that?"

"The Goddess of Change sent a message asking me to free Carlos. It also detailed the floor plan of Pedro's prison wing. If I didn't believe her about the floor plan, she told me to contact one Elmero Muppatos who hung around the La India Cantina in Yaviza at night and ask him about the floor plan." Tigermark shook his head. "Well, I didn't trust her, so I checked out her source. Apparently, Elmero was locked in Pedro's slammer recently for some indiscretion Pedro took exception to. So, I contacted him and he confirmed, a bit drunkenly, that the Goddess' description was accurate and also gave me the name of the guard who usually does night watch. It seems this guard is easy to wheedle if you offer him food."

It was Nohni's turn to shake her head. "Even with corroboration, the Goddess could have been setting you up for an ambush! She could have been in league with Pedro and this would be the best way to get Carlos' bone back. Don't tell me you didn't think of that!"

Tigermark tapped his head. "My mother raised no dummy. I knew this could be a setup, but it was also an opportunity to see whose side this Goddess of Change was really on. In any case, I'm very hard to catch, if I don't want to be caught - and - as an added precaution, I stashed the crystal bone in the jungle before I took off. If caught, I still didn't have what they wanted."

"They could have gotten it out of you!" hissed Nohni, holding up her injured left thumb. "You don't know Pedro like I do - and you don't want to!"

Tigermark dropped his head and nodded slowly. "I'm sorry what he did to you, Nohni, but I didn't find that out until after I'd sprung Carlos."

Carlos tapped his eemot sack, his eyes narrowed to angry slits. "I showed heem what that pasca Pedro did to you!"

Nohni remembered Amelda telling her that Carlos had gotten hold of Nohni's severed thumb tip after Pedro had cut it off. The bit was probably in his eemot sack right now. Nohni didn't ask, instead, she turned back to Tigermark. "So how exactly did you spring Carlos? You had a map, but no plan."

"The plan was fairly simple," continued Tigermark. "No time to get complex. I smeared river mud on this white coat of mine, dropped one of the bigger guards doing perimeter patrol at Pedro's place and took his uniform. I then made my way to the prison wing and told the night guard about some exceptional cookies that were in the main villa. When he took off, I slipped inside the prison, dropped a note through Amelda's cell door to inform her of Carlos 'release' the following day and to not worry too much about herself."

"But why rescue only Carlos?" Nohni demanded. "Why not spring all of us?"

"Too big a group to sneak past the other guards," answered Tigermark. "Besides, the Goddess of Change messaged me saying Carlos was the only one that needed rescue at this time. The rest of you were to accompany Pedro to the Espiritu Santo mine the following day."

"And you simply followed her orders!?" Nohni shouted.

"Hssss!" cautioned Carlos. "Thee jungle has ears!"

Nohni lowered her voice, but not her level of indignation.

Tigermark's eyes had narrowed now as well. "I do not blindly follow orders from those I do not trust, but neither do I dismiss a potential ally. As I said, I was using this exercise to determine her intent. And as I also mentioned, the Goddess did give me your itinerary for the following day. I knew from that information that there would be better opportunities to rescue you at the Cana Station than out of Pedro's prison!"

Nohni dropped her head and put a paw to her eyes, rubbing them. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't be yelling at you. I know your intentions are good, but…"

"But Pedro was not very good company to be with," finished Tigermark.

Nohni looked up at him. "No. He wasn't." She sniffed, and gesture to the white tiger. "Go on. You'd managed to get yourself into the prison."

"That I had," continued Tigermark. "I then hid out in one of the other empty cells to wait. Late morning rolls around and Amelda, you, and Daeom'acal leave for Cana. So, I knock out the morning guard and take his keys and clothes. After that, out comes Carlos from his cell and into the guard clothes he goes. We start a nice, hot fire, grab the unconscious guard just as the smoke gets real thick and furs are yelling, and we make like we are fellow guards dragging an unconscious comrade out to safety. Once outside, the guard gets dumped and Carlos and I head for the forest."

"And you two walked here?" Nohni asked, facetiously.

"No," answered Carlos. "We run to El Real and pay a driver of one of the tourist planes to take us to Cana."

"That must have been the 'tourist flight' the station personnel were talking about when we got back from the Espiritu Santo," mused Nohni. "That was the plane they commandeered to evacuate two snake-bite victims out to Panama City."

"Snake bite victims? So that was what all the confusion was about," said the white tiger. "I'd wondered why it was so easy to disappear into the jungle."

"So the snake in the pontoon compartment of my Horus was not your doing?" Nohni mused as she eyed Tigermark. "You didn't intend that little surprise for Pedro's pilot?"

"Not me," Tigermark answered. "I didn't have time or opportunity. In the pontoon compartment of the Horus, you say? That must have been the Goddess' doing. In any case, we got 'chucked off' the plane and didn't stick around to find out what the confusion was about. I thought someone might ask where we were going, but I suppose there are certain tourists - the really 'hard-core' bird-watchers - who head into the jungle right away anyway. Either way, no one followed us."

Nohni nodded. "Come to think of it, I never did see any tourists around the field station when we were back in the compound. I just assumed they were in a different building or something."

"In reality," added Tigermark, "all the real tourist flights were grounded back in El Real since they'd gotten word about tropical storm Jasmine moving in. It took a bit of hundred-dollar-bill persuasion to get that one pilot to take us."

"And you were the one who rescued Amelda that evening." Nohni's voice had changed. It was flat and unemotional, and she didn't look at anyone. "You could have taken me then, too. You have no idea what Pedro did…to…me." Nohni put her head in her paws. Her exhaustion was catching up with her.

Tigermark leaned toward Nohni and wrapped a big arm around her shoulder. "I was told 'Amelda next. She is most vulnerable.' I was to free you later, but not approach you since you still had business with Pedro." Tigermark then waved a paw around. "Her last message to me was to come to this place and rescue you from the mine shaft - but not until everyone else had left."

"And you just did what she…told you." Nohni tried to push the big tiger away but no longer had the strength.

"I had my doubts," Tigermark answered, not releasing his grip on her. "But it was a message from her after I'd rescued Carlos that convinced me to trust her. It was the first message of many before we left Yaviza to head here. I think she needed to tell us all she could before we got out of cell tower range."

"And?" Nohni prompted, curious now despite her fatigue.

"She told me to ask Carlos to 'throw the bones'."

"That was all?" Nohni asked.

Tigermark simply nodded and turned to Carlos. "And what did the only two bones we had tell us?"

Carlos tapped his eemot sack once again and moved beside Nohni. "I threw them - the Crystal Bone from the Paw of Change, and the finger bone of a dear friend." He touched Nohni gently on the knee. "They told both of us only one theeng."

Nohni looked into Carlos golden eyes.

 

"Trust Me."

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Chapter Eighteen - Friends

 

She'd thought there were only two.

She'd forgotten about the Serrania del Sapo.

Nohni was now looking west toward the third range of mountains between the Espiritu Santo and the Playa de Muerto. It was a dark silhouette against the western sky and it looked formidable.

"Tomorrow we arrive," said Daeom'acal. "Cosatacl ees een a cleft between two ridges een those mountains." He pointed. "Very hard to find."

"So what are we going to see when we get there?" Nohni asked.

Mayans, Aztecs, and Incans had different styles of architecture, but due to its 'neutral' nature and central location, Cosatacl might not have any architectural features similar to the ancient civilizations.

"We will see only a mountain," explained Daeom'acal. "Eet ees a pyramid shaped mountain, yes, but just a mountain. Cosatacl lies within."

Nohni nodded, that would explain why no one had ever spotted it before. Archeologists had some sophisticated tools for finding obscure sites, including satellite imagery. If Cosatacl looked like any other jungle mountain, it could easily be overlooked. She glanced toward those mountains and groaned. "I wish we had our SatPhone. I might have found us an easier route using the GPS function."

She'd asked if Tigermark had managed to salvage the one from the Horus, but it had not been on the plane - which meant the Goddess of Change had probably swiped it. That would explain her ability to make a SatPhone call to Pedro yesterday.

"Night is coming soon," Daeom'acal stated matter of factly.

Nohni wondered how the old shaman could tell without a watch. The cloud cover seemed to be the same shade of dull grey it had been all day.

"We need to theenk about camp," Daeom'acal added. "Eet will soon be too dark to travel safely."

Nohni nodded. In the jungle, snakes and an assortment of other unsavories came out at night. The dark was best left to them. Nohni waved her machete around. "Is this the spot then?" she asked, eyeing the old jaguar.

Daeom'acal nodded and Nohni, along with Carlos and Tigermark, began clearing their designated campsite of undergrowth. Daeom'acal disappeared into the jungle and would return with branches suitable for constructing a covered camp. A covered camp was basically an open sided structure with a thatched roof over a cleared area. With the saplings, bracken and fern undergrowth piled on top, it would at least keep them and their fire dry.

A nice change from the day's travel, which had been done mostly in the rain.

They'd not started out right away from Espiritu Santo after rescuing Nohni from the mine shaft. She'd simply been too exhausted. Rest - even for only four hours - would make the first day's trek a lot easier. So they'd done a quick 'covered-camp' at the mine site because the rear side of tropical storm Jasmine had caught up with them.

And Jasmine's rear end had been dumping on them ever since.

"Eet should move out sometime this evening," observed Carlos. "Eet ees a fast mover."

Nohni hoped so. She was dying to get out of these wet clothes and next to a dry fire. She'd wondered about the campfire when she'd awakened to one blazing next to her this morning at the mine. Where had the boys found anything in the forest dry enough to burn? Daeom'acal had answered her with a stick of wood that smelled heavily of turpentine. It seemed certain jungle trees contained enough flammable sap to overcome the disadvantage of being moist. And once you got something burning fairly well, you could use it to dry out other suitable fuel - as long as you could keep the fire itself from being drenched by the rain - thus the covered camp. This new shelter would be another primitive one to be sure, but they were pretty much cut off from the civilized world now - which was exactly what 'Darien's Gap' was noted for.

Yet even here, civilization could find a way to leave its mark - if only for a few seconds. Nohni noticed a sound coming from above her and pointed. "Is that a plane I hear up there?" The cloud cover was such that a visual sighting was impossible, but there was definitely something with an engine up there - a turboprop by the sound of it.

"Taking their chances flying into the rear end of a tropical storm," Tigermark added, also looking up. "Especially when it's going to get dark soon."

"Damn!" Nohni muttered turning to him. "Sounds like it's headed west. You don't suppose Pedro used his SatPhone to call in reinforcements from Yaviza, do you? He could give them his GPS coordinates from the SatPhone easily."

"But where would they land?" asked Tigermark reasonably. "Planes equipped with STOL, like your Horus, are good, but even they need some semblance of an airstrip."

"No rivers big enough around here, but if they have pontoons, there is the possibility of a sea landing," Nohni offered. Then she shook her head. "On second thought, I don't think they'd risk a landing, offshore. Not with the kind of waves a tropical storm can kick up. However, there's an airstrip at Jaqué along Panama's Pacific coast west of here." Nohni pointed with her machete. "And I'll bet Pedro has a captain and vessel for drug smuggling stationed at Puerto Pina just north of there. Puerto Pina is only fifteen miles by sea from the spot on the coast nearest to where we're headed. If Pedro has indeed called for backup, they could be at Cosatacl by tomorrow."

"Even with a boat, they'd still have to contend with big waves," countered Tigermark, hacking on a particularly large sapling.

"Drug runners love bad weather," huffed Nohni, chopping on her own tangle of vines. "Easier to smuggle stuff, undetected. Assuming Pedro has a captain at Puerto Pina, I'll bet he's sailed in waters as rough as what's out there now. I also have no doubt that he has a vessel big enough to handle big waves."

"I don't think that plane could have been a regular tourist flight to one of the coastal resorts," Tigermark mused, throwing his sapling onto the growing pile of brush. "The weather is still too bad for that. But it could be a med-evac emergency flight. Someone could have gotten hurt in the storm."

"Then why is it flying along a course that would place its origin in Yaviza?" Nohni asked. "Med-evac flights would probably come directly from Panama City where the hospital is. Flights from Panama City would be crossing the Gulf of Panama over the Pearl Islands and approaching the coast from the sea - not traveling over the Darien jungle." She looked to the west. "I hope it's not what I think it is. The natives traveling with Pedro and the Goddess probably still answer to the Goddess of Change, but if Pedro brings in a contingent of his own goons, we're in trouble." She looked back at Tigermark. "We can't afford to confront a whole slew of Pedro's men since all we have for firepower is your .45 auto Estate."

Tigermark grinned. "Not just my Estate." He walked over to where he'd dropped his backpack and pulled out a holster in which something gleamed gold. His other paw held up a coil of something Nohni recognized instantly.

"My S&W .45! My bullwhip! Where?? They took those from me at the mine!"

"Evidently they were left behind by someone who wanted you to have them back."

Tigermark passed the gold anodized .45 auto and bullwhip to Nohni who took them and stared at them for a moment. Maybe this Goddess of Change really was on their side. Still, she had funny ways of showing it. Pushing Nohni down a deep hole was not normally considered an act of friendship. She looked back at the white tiger. "Well, this evens the odds a little bit, anyway."

"And I have my blowgun," Carlos added, dumping more brush on the pile. "Or at least a new one Daeom'acal made for me as we walked here. He ees quite good with native materials when he ees in his element."

 

With the shaman's expert guidance, their jungle camp was finished in a mere thirty minutes, and by the time Daeom'acal had gotten a fire going, the sun had set with its usual tropical latitude swiftness. The pitch-black jungle beyond the fire under their camp roof was even noisier than it had been during the day, but it was a pleasant background cacophony. Tree frogs dominated the flute and pipe section of the nocturnal orchestra, and the lesser monkeys filled in the mid and bass section with their hoots and howls. Tropical storm Jasmine, which had downgraded to a simple storm by now, did a good job on the percussion section with the occasional rumble of thunder and the constant patter of rain. There were some bird calls, but not nearly as many as during the day.

All in all, the night chorus was a pleasant sound - made even more pleasant by the fact that they weren't getting rained on.

And so, without a second thought, Nohni stripped off her sodden khaki shirt and shorts and proceeded to arrange them on several sticks planted in the ground next to the fire. Her practical cotton underbriefs, which were better suited for adventuring than frilly femme underthings, followed. As she sat down, cross-legged facing the fire between her drying clothes, the scent of her own damp fur rose around her. She gave herself a sniff. It wasn't an unpleasant smell, but more musky than she was used to. The last time she'd used any scented fur conditioning shampoo was back in Canada. When was that? A mere four days ago? No matter - she'd long since reverted to 'Jackal Odor au Natural'. Her mane was starting to tangle on her as well. She'd need to do something about that.

Nohni noticed the others following her lead by getting out of their soggy clothes and down to the bare essentials. She also noticed that they weren't even giving her own unclothed condition a second look. Nohni nodded. There were some circumstances that did not allow 'foolish' thoughts to flourish - or thoughts of 'fooling around' either. This was one of them. The mechanics of survival were uppermost in their minds. That, plus the thought of what would happen tomorrow when they finally reached the Dire Place, and who they would find there.

Nohni did notice one thing about Daeom'acal. For all that his graying muzzle showed his age, the rest of his compact body was remarkably fit. Nohni supposed living off the land in the jungle would require a fit body regardless of age. In fact, comparing him with Carlos revealed that he was probably in better shape, physically, than the black jaguar - not that either one of them were slouches by any means. Both of the felines were smaller than Tigermark, but that was probably an advantage when making one's way through thick undergrowth.

Nohni turned an admiring eye to the white tiger. Now there was a remarkable male specimen if there ever was one.

Nohni dropped her eyes and hid a small smile. Here she was admiring male bodies, when not a moment before, she'd been thinking how their circumstance couldn't allow for that.

But was it just the bodies that were attractive? Nohni looked up again.

No. A good looking body alone did not a complete fur make. There was the personality that went with the body to consider as well. Though she was loath to remember it, Pedro had a remarkably fit body, but there was no way she would ever consider him attractive.

Never.

Nohni dropped her head and rubbed the side of her jaw. It still hurt from where that maggot of a canine had struck her. Then she closed her eyes and rubbed them as well. They were feeling hot and moist at the moment. Nohni took a deep breath to quell the feeling that was bubbling just below the surface. Why was she even thinking of that scum? Why was she letting Pedro and what he'd done to her darken her mood.

"Nohni?"

Nohni looked up and noticed that Tigermark had not taken a seat by the fire after divesting himself of his water-logged gear. Instead, he seemed to have put together what looked like a 'bed' of sorts. From what Nohni could see, he'd made a ground platform from a few saplings laid horizontally on the earth, and then padded them with extra jungle bracken that hadn't been used for the roof. Over this, he'd thrown his rain poncho so any crawlies in the bracken wouldn't be tempted to take up residence on the one lying on the bed.

"Come here and lie down."

Nohni knew instantly from the size of the makeshift bed, as well as Tigermark's character, that this was no invitation to 'share' a bed. He was simply indicating that she could make herself more comfortable on the bed rather than sitting upon the sodden ground.

But Nohni shook her head and looked into the fire. "I was not thinking of sleeping just yet, but thank you for the offer."

"I wasn't thinking of you sleeping, either," answered the white tiger.

Nohni looked to him and again couldn't sense anything 'sexual' about his offer. What did he want, then? She watched as the white tiger pulled a small squeeze bottle from his backpack and applied a small amount of something onto the pads of his paws. He then made a show of rubbing his paws together vigorously, followed by a cracking of his knuckles. Nohni caught a whiff of scented oil.

"A massage?" Nohni asked, incredulously.

Tigermark nodded. "Out of all of us, you have endured the most. Tonight, you deserve some pampering." He gestured to the bed beside him.

A part of Nohni wanted to refuse this special treatment, but she found herself getting to her feet anyway and stepping over to the bed. Tigermark's offer was just too good to refuse.

"On your stomach." Tigermark patted the bed.

Nohni knelt down and laid herself, face down, upon the poncho-covered bracken. It was actually quite comfortable. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Carlos and Daeom'acal approaching. A fleeting memory of several furs converging upon her last night as she lay helpless made her tense up, but these two did not display the looks of lustful intent those others had given her. Instead, Carlos was holding a coarse-toothed mane comb, and Daeom'acal had a large, rubbery-looking leaf in one paw and several smaller leaves along with a tiny pouch in the other. They knelt down beside her - Carlos at her head, and Daeom'acal by her left shoulder.

Carlos began to slowly work the tangles from Nohni's mane. "Let me know eef this hurts, and I will go slower," he said. Nohni smiled and looked to Daeom'acal.

The shaman was chewing several of the smaller leaves as he opened his tiny pouch. He noticed Nohni watching him and he took the wad of chewed leaves from his mouth and placed it on the upper side of the large leaf. "Medicine for your thumb," was all he said as he took a small pinch of a gooey, greenish substance from his pouch and added it on top of the chewed leaves. He then rolled the dollop inside the big leaf and massaged its contents - like he was mixing it up. "Your left paw, please?"

Nohni brought her left paw up to him and he took it gently. She'd tried to ignore the pain from her severed thumb during their trek today, but she had to admit, it had been getting worse and worse as the day wore on. The relief was nearly instantaneous when the shaman applied the mixture. Nohni sighed. It felt so very good not to be in pain. But then the white tiger's massage began, and pain of any sort became the farthest thing from her mind.

It was simply wonderful.

It was not just that the paws on her felt so warm - they felt safe.

Like nothing could harm her anymore.

And the massage itself was being so expertly done. Knot after knot of tense muscle she'd not realized were there, were melting away, leaving behind deep layers of relaxation that seemed to penetrate to her very core. Even Daeom'acal's 'medicinal massage' of the base of her severed thumb felt good instead of painful.

"The white tiger's fingers have much Panimbo Malamet," came Carlos' voice from far away.

Nohni felt herself smile.

Panimbo Malamet. Spiritual healing.

It was so like Carlos to attribute mysterious things to the spiritual world of his former life as a shaman's apprentice, but she heard Daeom'acal agreeing. Nohni sighed. Whatever it was - simple expertise, spiritual healing, or the will of the gods, Tigermark certainly had 'magic' fingers.

"Why are you so good to me?" Nohni mumbled, opening an eye and peering over her shoulder at the white tiger.

"Truth?" asked Tigermark.

Nohni nodded, though that action was hard to do with Carlos combing her mane.

"Guilt," answered Tigermark.

"Guilt?" Nohni repeated, puzzled. "You have nothing to feel ashamed of."

Now it was the white tiger's turn to smile. "I didn't say I was 'ashamed' of anything. I said I was guilty. Guilt is, more accurately, a measure of responsibility, not always moral judgment. I can be guilty of many things without these things being either shameful or wrong."

"So what is your crime?"

Again Tigermark smiled as he shook his head and applied a bit more pressure over a particularly stubborn bit of knotted muscle in Nohni's left leg.

"A crime is assumed to be an action - or lack of action - that is disapproved of by the society one lives in. No official crime has been committed here. However, an unfortunate and painful set of events has happened to you in which I have played some part - therefore, I have some responsibility for them - and some responsibility to correct them.

Nohni shook her head. "No. No. That's nonsense. You've done nothing to me. It was all…Pedro."

"True. Pedro was the one who acted upon you," came Tigermark's calming response. "Unlike him, I am not guilty of actions toward you. Where my responsibility lies is in my failure to act. I chose to leave you with Pedro because I thought it was the thing to do at the time. However, my leaving you with him hurt you, and for that, I am sorry."

Nohni laid her head back down and closed her eyes. She'd been angry at Tigermark for not choosing to rescue her when he'd rescued Amelda. It was the loss of Amelda as much as anything that had sent Pedro over the edge - resulting in those 'unfortunate and painful events' Tigermark was referring to.

Nohni bit her lip to suppress the growl that was forming in her throat. Tigermark had chosen to believe the Goddess of Change? Believe her when she'd said Amelda was the only one who needed rescue at that time? And all because of some stupid bones that Carlos had thrown? Nohni had been too tired last night to pursue the matter with the white tiger, and today's travels had provided no opportunity to discuss it either, but her anger over Tigermark's 'lack of action' had not gone away. What was going away, however, was Nohni's feeling of contentment.

Yet even as the harsh memories of her rape clamored for her attention, Nohni noticed that a measure of the contentment she'd been feeling was still there. For some reason it would not - it could not - fade away. Something was refusing to let her lose herself in a depressing and recriminating mind-set. Not only that, but her resentment toward Tigermark was evaporating. It was as if her anger was dying from lack of sustenance.

How could one remain angry with a friend who was ministering to her so wonderfully?

Friend?

Nohni could feel it - like it was a living thing inside her.

Friends.

That was the simple message that was coming through the paws that were touching her now. Not magic, or healing. Just the simple and kindly regard that comes from friendship.

Nohni had friends.

Friends, who like everyone else, were not perfect, but who would make up for the mistakes they'd made. Friends who would acknowledge responsibility for pain caused and willingly make amends. Nohni suddenly wondered if the Goddess of Change had any true friends. How can one such as she have friends?

Admirers, probably. Worshipers, most likely. But friends?

Unlikely.

How can anyone consider you a true friend if you're perfect? Perfection cannot test friendship, and without the test of imperfection, who can say whether friendship truly exists or not?

Now that she thought about it, had Tigermark even made a real mistake? True, Nohni would have been spared Pedro's pain and humiliation if she'd been rescued, but it was that same pain and humiliation that had bolstered Pedro's ego and reinforced his commitment to continue on with an endeavor that most sensible furs would have given up as a bad job long ago.

And didn't Nohni want Pedro placed in a vulnerable position? Didn't she want to take Pedro down? How could she do that if he went back and walled himself up in that villa of his? Then there were all the unsavory furs that answered to him. He had an entire 'empire' of scum at his command. All of that would go on as if nothing had happened.

No. Nohni didn't want that. By Tigermark's own definition of evil, Pedro was about as bad as they came.

And now Pedro thought Nohni was dead, and he had a clear playing field at Cosatacl.

Nohni found that her contentment was back, but along with it, there was a healthy dose of diabolical anticipation.

Xbalanque and Upanuh.

Pedro had no idea what he'd gotten himself into.

 

Tomorrow, he would.


------------------------------------------@@-----------------------------------------

Chapter Nineteen - Cosatacl

 

"Where are all the natives Pedro and the Goddess had with them at the Espiritu Santo?" Nohni asked in a whisper. "There had to have been two dozen or more."

"You will not see any native Dariens een this place," Daeom'acal whispered back. "Eet ees forbidden. They will have been left behind. And thees place here ees only as far as the Daeom of the twenty tribes can go without permission." The old shaman pointed. "Cosatacl lies within."

The scene before them was a small patch of jungle roughly three hundred yards in diameter - a patch that might have seemed like any other patch of jungle were it not for the immense cliffs surrounding it on all sides and the small, stepped, Mayan-style pyramid that rose up from a small clearing in the middle. It was to this overgrown pyramid that Daeom'acal was pointing. Nohni wondered how the plants here got by with only the scant amount of sunlight that was able to filter down from high above.

Nohni raised her eyes upward to where the cliffs around them met the sky. The southern, eastern and northern cliff tops were obscured by cloud, but the western one was a sharp dark line against the dull grey sky. It was as if they were at the bottom of a great, deep well. Nohni felt the fur on the back of her neck bristle. She was remembering a mine shaft not forty miles from here. This place, however, was not a well or a mine shaft. To the north-east, a very narrow canyon made a gap in the cliffs. The canyon then fell away in a series of waterfalls to the jungle below. For the last eighth of a mile the canyon had been little more than a high-walled gorge - barely wide enough at the bottom for two to walk abreast - not that walking would have been possible with the rushing water that filled it.

But then, they had not come to this place via boat, anyway. They had followed a barely discernable track high along one of the canyon's nearly vertical walls. Daeom'acal had explained that this was not the regular way one came to Cosatacl. He doubted the other Shaman even knew this obscure path existed. The regular route to the Dire Place involved a long, narrow stairway carved from the rock of the westward facing cliff. The old jaguar pointed to it now, and Nohni could make out most of it. The top was hid from view by an outcrop of rock jutting from the cliff. But that's not what concerned her.

"Forbidden or not, it looks like someone is guarding the base of the stairway," Nohni whispered, pointing to a small figure some seventy yards away near the base of the west cliff.

"I don't think that's a native," said Tigermark in a hushed voice. "Not unless the natives have taken to wearing jeans and lugging around AK47s. It also looks like a canine - not a feline."

"Damn! I was afraid of this," hissed Nohni. "That plane last night did have reinforcements for Pedro! Either that, or he already had some regulars stationed at Puerto Pina he could call in. Whoever they are and wherever they came from, they're going to make our job a lot harder."

"And that ees not all," pointed out Carlos, gesturing toward the small stepped pyramid in the central clearing.

Nohni hissed again. Now that they were a little closer, she could make out small figures around the base of the vine-covered pyramid which looked to be only about fifty feet high with a hundred foot square base. Anyone looking for evidence of a structure from the sky would only get a small glimpse of a green and grey mound at the bottom of a deep crevasse. That is, if they happened to be looking at just the right moment, and the ever-present clouds weren't obscuring everything to begin with.

Despite the fact that it was well hidden, a contingent of Pedro's men had evidently found the place.

"I make out three at the pyramid," whispered Tigermark, "unless there are more hiding behind it. I rather doubt that, since I don't think Pedro expects an attack. Still, like any smart criminal, he has what looks like a 'lookout'." He turned to Nohni. "Should we eliminate or evade?"

"Elimination would clear our escape route back out of Cosatacl," Nohni offered, "but it runs the risk alerting those within if this is indeed a 'lookout' system like you suspect. If Pedro gets wind of an attack, he'll suspect a trap and that won't bode well for the tribal shaman he does have with him." She turned to Daeom'acal. "I'm assuming the other shaman are inside now, since we can't see any around the pyramid?"

Daeom'acal nodded. "The Paw of Change must be assembled by those who possess the bones, but we do not enter Cosatacl unless the Goddess of Change wills it."

"Either way," Tigermark continued, "we need to act fast. I got the impression the Goddess of Change expects her 'sister'," he gave Nohni a significant look, "to show up and offer assistance. I doubt she thinks Pedro will overlook the fact that she hasn't got Carlos' crystal bone with her."

"We should split up," offered Carlos. "As a group of four we are too easy to spot."

Daeom'acal nodded and looked to Carlos. "Quetzal calls. One for ready. Two to act." The old shaman screwed up his muzzle and made a unique sounding bird-call that Nohni hadn't heard on the trip here. But then, Quetzals were rare birds. He then pointed to the fur by the carved steps leading up the cliff. "Mine." And with an eerie swiftness, the shaman disappeared into the brush.

"I guess 'elimination' is the choice whether I want it to be or not," grumbled Nohni. She frowned at Tigermark and Carlos. "Not sure I'm comfortable with the role of assassin."

"With what theses pasca have done to my tribe," growled Carlos hefting his blowgun, "they have no 'right' to life." He nodded to the pyramid. "Mine ees the one closest to the entrance atop the pyramid. He ees too far from cover for a sneak attack, so I use my blowgun on heem. You two take the other two on either side. They are closer to the jungle." And he too, disappeared into the jungle.

"Incapacitation is not the same as killing," offered Tigermark turning to Nohni. "Do what you can live with. However, if I might offer a thought?"

Nohni nodded.

"I'm going to keep mine conscious long enough to answer some questions," said the white tiger crackling his knuckles. "Let's move out. We need to be in position when we get the Quetzal Call."

They did so - Nohni heading to the right of the pyramid and Tigermark to the left. Quiet moving was actually quite easy in the thick undergrowth. Only a few of the plants had the hard-edged, spiky leaves that made noise when disturbed. Within moments, Nohni was in a position on the edge of the clearing around the pyramid. There was about a twenty-five yard gap between her and where her 'target' was lounging on the bottom step of the pyramid. His back was to her, so a rushing attack could work. However, if the canine she was watching were to turn around for any reason during her rush, there would be no way to hide her intent. She undid her bullwhip from her belt. Its ten foot reach would work in her favor.

At that moment, Nohni heard a single Quetzal call. The signal to get ready. Nohni rocked forward on her footpads into a classic springing crouch.

The second call of the double 'attack' signal had barely sounded when Nohni shot forward, whip arm back, trailing the snakelike rawhide on the ground behind her. The rest was instinct combined with long training. Her target was turning around, too - his AK47 held at the waist. But it was pointing to his right so he would have to rotate full toward her before he could bring it to bear.

As she reached the midpoint between her and the startled guard, Nohni's whip arm came lightning fast over her shoulder in an overhead swing - like a baseball pitch. This was her best 'targeting' whip crack and, true to form, her follow-through and pull-back sent the cracker end of the bullwhip forward at hypersonic speed - to wrap itself hard around the barrel of the AK47. Another yank and the weapon was flying away from both of them.

But Nohni wasn't here to disarm only.

Still speeding forward and rotating right, her right paw dropped the whip and its captured weapon, while her left paw, now the forward paw straight-armed her target right in the chest. Ribs cracked, but there was no scream as her victim had just had all the wind knocked out of him. Nohni continued forward pushing her target to the ground and landing astride his cracked-rib chest. The hound's head smacked the ground with an ominous crack, and he lay still.

Nohni saw another canine body tumble past her down the front steps of the pyramid. Evidently Carlos had successfully taken out his target. She shot a look toward the cliff steps, but saw no target there, so Daeom'acal had probably dealt with that one. Only a muffled yelp from Tigermark's position indicated that one of their targets was still conscious. She bounced up, and retrieved her whip and the AK47 it had 'captured'. Then she was at Tigermark's side, along with Carlos. Daeom'acal was sprinting toward them from the direction of the cliff steps.

"How many of Pedro's hounds are inside and how are they armed?" growled the white tiger. A bare-clawed paw was wrapped around the trembling canine's throat tight enough to suppress the volume of any spoken word, but not tight enough to cut off breathing. Nohni saw that Tigermark's other paw - claws also unsheathed - was clamped over a rather delicate portion of the canine's lower anatomy. "Speak now!" Tigermark hissed. "Or you'll be singing in the soprano section of the church choir next Sunday."

"Seven," croaked the canine. "Automatic rifles."

Tigermark released his grip on the canine's privates - only to deliver a mind-cancelling punch to the head. The canine's head lolled to the side, tongue out and drooling.

"He'll sleep for a while," said Tigermark getting up and wiping the blood off his claws on his pants. "So it looks like the party that preceded us into Cosatacl is made up of one Goddess, nineteen shaman, seven dog turds, and one 'Head Doggie Dropping' named Pedro. Eight 'Bad Guys' and twenty 'Neutrals'.  At least I'm hoping they're neutral. No telling what the shaman will do when confronted with 'trespassers'."

"They will do what the Goddess tells them to do," stated Daeom'acal.

"Then let us hope she's truly on our side," answered Tigermark. He looked to Nohni. "I take it your target is in no position to add to what this dog has already told us?"

Nohni shook her head. That last head-crack from her target had been a lot louder than she liked. Still, it meant that they had four less of Pedro's goons to contend with. She looked to the three around her before nodding toward the top of the pyramid.

"I think it's time we find out what Cosatacl looks like - from the inside."

 

For one thing, it was dark. Tigermark had a flashlight, but the others had to make due with two torches from a barrel near the entrance. Evidently the torches were here for 'visitors', and the furs preceding Nohni's group had nearly emptied it.

With torches lit, they soon discovered that Cosatacl didn't look anything like the temples or other edifices that the ancient Pre-Columbian civilizations were noted for. A short stairway down through the pyramid immediately led to what looked like a natural cave in the mountain, rather than something that had been built by paw. In reality, that made sense. The Inca, Aztec and Mayan civilizations were a lot larger in population than the tribes of the Darien. It's not like Daeom'acal's ancestors could have contracted construction laborers from the nearest 'Slaves 'R' Us' labor pool - so nature had to do the work that slaves would not.

But were these really 'natural' caves?

It seemed a bit odd to Nohni that there would be natural caves of any size in this part of the Isthmus of Panama. The area did not display the classic karst topography one usually associated with limestone caverns. But then - these weren't limestone caverns. From what Nohni could make out, the rocks here were mostly igneous pegmatites, and the geology of the mountains surrounding Cosatacl suggested that this place was in the top portion of a granitic pluton. Plutons were small domes of intrusive, acidic magma that had welled up from depth and cooled very slowly, thus forming the large crystals characteristic of pegmatite. South-east Brazil and parts of Columbia were noted for their plutons but they were usually found sitting next to huge granitic cratons hundreds of miles across - something not seen in Panama. Because large amounts of dissolved gas and water were in plutonic magma, massive 'bubbles' would form in the top parts of the cooling pluton - thus forming open spaces in what would normally be solid rock. One could also find some very pretty gem minerals in such places. Emerald, aquamarine, tourmaline, topaz, beryl and all manner of colored rock quartz were just a few. Nohni thought about the crystal 'finger bones' and saw that they could have easily come from this place.

Yes - nature had done most of the work here, but that didn't mean this place didn't have its share of 'traps'. These were the obstacles the Goddess of Change had hinted at in her message concerning the various 'rooms' at Cosatacl.

The Room of Bats was the first chamber they encountered after the stairway leading into the pyramid. This being a natural cave system, bats would logically roost here near the entrance. The trick to this room, as was explained in the text message on Nohni's cell phone, was simply not to die of asphyxiation. Centuries of bat guano had built up on the floor of the chamber and if one were to walk along the floor, they would be overcome by ammonia gas in very short order. The 'safe' path across the room was actually a series of paw and foot-holds carved high along one of the walls. This kept you high enough to be in fresher air. This was also where all the bats roosted, so the paw and footholds had to be cleared of roosting bats as the party made their way slowly across the room.

The next chamber, the Room of Cold, was bat-free, but that was because it was very cold, as the name implied. Water could be heard falling somewhere, and a thick mist filled the chamber. But this was not a stagnant fog. The air was moving fast. Some sort of natural ventilation was pumping the freezing mist through the chamber at nearly gale force. The trick to this room was to run as fast as one could to the exit and not freeze solid. The trouble with the exit was finding it through the swirling mist because this room was also a maze. Pick the wrong turn and you loose valuable time trying to find your way back. The key Nohni had been given for this room was a simple set of turns to make at succeeding junctions.

The following chamber, the Room of Knives, was even more daunting. It was a chamber whose every surface sprouted thousands of long and very sharp crystals. Nohni wasn't sure what mineral made up these 'knives', but then, one usually didn't care about such things when being stabbed by them. It was the sharpness that counted. The trick to the Room of Knives was to pick a proper path across the floor, and the key to a successful crossing, according to the text message on Nohni's cell, was the color pink. The floor of the chamber was covered with sharp crystals, as was everything else, but also jutting from the floor were many squat pillars - rather like overly-tall stepping stones on a pond. Each pillar stood anywhere from four to six feet above the 'knife strewn' floor, and the flat top on each was maybe two feet across - enough to comfortably accommodate one fur standing - two in a pinch. They were also spaced so that someone could jump from one to the next. Nohni noted the color of the 'pillars' and gasped in surprise when she realized that these were actually gigantic tourmaline crystals! The color of tourmaline varied from green to pink depending on trace minerals in the crystal matrix. Apparently, if one avoided the green crystals and jumped instead from pink crystal to pink crystal, it didn't collapse beneath you sending you falling into that not-so-inviting 'bed of knives' covering the floor. It appeared that one of Pedro's men had made a bad jump since a fresh body along with an AK47 lay on the jagged floor among the older bones of other unfortunates.

 

The last chamber they needed to cross was the Room of Chasms. Beyond this, according to the Goddess' text message, was the Room of the Paw where the Paw of Change itself would be found.

"So how do we get across?" asked Carlos, peering over the edge of what was a very long drop into deep darkness. "Eet ees not a perfect vertical drop. I see the sides sloping slightly toward the opposite wall, but eet ees very steep, and I see no ledges or anything that can be used as steps to the bottom, or up the other side."

How indeed would they get across? Nohni could see the other side of the chasm maybe fifty yards away, but there was no obvious bridge. There didn't seem to be an exit on the other side either. Maybe the exit was at the bottom?

"What does the Goddess say een her text message? What ees the key?" Carlos asked.

"'A falling stone makes no sound'," read Nohni. "What the hell does that mean?"

"Try using a little logic trick I use when confronted with something that doesn't make immediate sense," offered Tigermark. "Try reversing it. Look at the opposite statement."

"What?" answered Nohni. "You mean like turn it around? Like 'No sound is made by a falling stone'?"

Tigermark shook his head. "You simply reversed the subject and predicate of the sentence. What I'm saying is to look at the logical opposite of the sentence. For instance, if a falling stone makes no sound, than what does make a sound?"

"A stone that is no longer falling?" answered Nohni. "Or better yet - a stone that lands on something and stops falling?" A grin spread across Nohni's muzzle as Tigermark nodded. "Then we should drop some stones over the edge here to see if they hit something? Like a hidden ledge?"

"I think so," the white tiger replied.

"But I see no ledges at all," commented Carlos, once again peering over the edge of the chasm and holding out his torch.

"But a flawless crystal of clear quartz jutting from the side of the chasm might not reflect any light back to you if the angles aren't right," came Nohni's reply. "The clue says we need to rely on sound as our guide - not what we can see!"

Nohni turned to the others, but even as she did so, she saw Daeom'acal breaking off several clumps of crystal from the inside of the passage they'd just used to enter the chamber. He brought them to the edge of the chasm, and starting from the right side of the ledge they were on, he began to drop a clump every foot as he worked his way to the left.

Listening hard, Nohni thought she could hear the shattering of the crystal lumps far below. However, when Daeom'acal dropped a clump at about the midpoint of the ledge, there came the distinct noise of breaking crystal only about a second and a half after the shaman dropped it.

Nohni dropped to the edge and peered over. Whatever the crystal had struck, it could only be about six to eight feet below the edge. Once again, the torch revealed very little. Nohni hissed. The dropped crystal should have at least scratched the surface it hit creating something to see, but maybe whatever the crystal had hit was a lot harder than what had been dropped on it. She turned her head to Daeom'acal. "Let me see a bit of what you're dropping."

The shaman handed Nohni a chunk. As Nohni suspected, the crystals Daeom'acal was dropping were made of calcite. Several distinct twinned calcite crystal forms confirmed this. If calcite hit quartz, the quartz would definitely not get scratched. But Nohni had another idea.

"Let me have your torch, Carlos," she said as she loosened her bullwhip from her belt. Tying the end of her whip to the middle of the torch's handle, she dropped it over the edge and lowered it horizontally until it came to rest on…something. It was still hard to see, so Nohni gave the torch a flip outward to swing it away from the wall.

As the torch swung toward the opposite wall, a flash of colored light reflected from what looked like a narrow shelf of clear crystal. With the light source at a different angle, the shelf could now reflect and refract the light back at them. Nohni yanked the torch back up, undid it from her whip and handed the torch back to Carlos. She then tied the end of her whip to her own belt.

"Lower me down," she said handing the butt of the whip to Tigermark. "I know it's only six feet, but we need to test the weight-carrying capacity of that shelf before we use it. Daeom'acal?" She pointed to the shaman. "Continue moving left and dropping rocks. Where there is one shelf, there is likely to be more - probably at varying heights. I'm guessing what we've got here is a crude stairway to the bottom of the chasm - or at least to another tunnel."

It seemed she was right. Daeom'acal's dropped rocks revealed the presence of other shelves lower down, and Nohni quickly discovered they were separated from each other by a drop of no more than six feet. It was a precarious stairway to be sure, but one that would get them to where they needed to go.

Or so Nohni hoped.

After descending twelve shelves, Nohni saw a faint light further down the sheer wall. It wasn't the bottom of the chasm since there was still deep darkness beyond it, but it had to be an opening into a tunnel or another chamber - one that was likely occupied if the light was anything to go by.

"Careful now," Nohni hissed to the white tiger on the shelf above her. "Are Carlos and Daeom'acal still right behind you?"

"They are," Tigermark replied, his voice low.

"I'm going ahead alone to check this out."

"Nohni! Don't go playing 'hero' on us!" came Tigermark's hissed rebuke.

"Not likely," Nohni replied slipping over the edge of her shelf and feeling out the next one with her toes. "But it's not like we can do a 'Front Four' assault either. The configuration limits passage to one at a time, and I'm the one in front."

Nohni slipped down lightly onto the next shelf and dropped into a crouch. She was now two shelf above what was indeed an opening in the sheer chasm wall. The light that came from the opening was feeble - like its source was quite a ways from the opening. That was good.

Nohni dropped down the last two shelves to the one in front of the tunnel, for that was what it was. The light was far down this passage and around some corner ahead, making it difficult to see anything distinctly in this portion.

However, the hard rock walls made it very easy to hear a round being chambered into a weapon's action.

"Do not move," came a hushed accented voice from just ahead.

Nohni had no time to do anything as a canine popped out of a niche in the tunnel wall she had overlooked. His weapon was pointed directly at her chest. He gave a short yip, and the light beyond the bend in the tunnel bobbed forward to reveal a second armed canine who quickly joined his companion.

"Nohni?" came a questioning voice drifting in from above the tunnel. "What's going on?"

Both canines jerked their heads toward the sound. The one without the torch moved forward and popped his head out of the opening. He swore and his weapon was instantly up and firing. Gunfire and the sound of shattering crystal mingled with Nohni's scream of "TIGERMARK!"

Just as suddenly as it had started, the deafening sound stopped. For a second Nohni couldn't understand why until she saw the canine at the opening slowly topple over and into the chasm - blood spouting from a neat hole in his forehead. She also felt a crashing blow to the side of her own head, and she hit the floor face down. Lights were popping behind her eyelids and her ears were ringing, but Nohni knew she mustn't pass out. She needed to do something with the other canine before he…

"Throw down your weapons or the bitch gets it!"

Nohni heard the words but couldn't get the ringing in her ears to stop. She raised her head in time to see Tigermark's Auto Estate drop onto the ledge outside the opening to the tunnel.

"No. Don't," Nohni croaked, but the other canine was already reaching carefully out of the opening toward the gleaming pistol. What Nohni couldn't quite comprehend was the thing that suddenly appeared, sticking out of the canine's paw as it closed over the weapon.

The canine stared at the thing as well - but only until he, too, toppled over. Unlike his companion, he did not fall off the edge into the chasm, but Nohni knew he was just as dead. Her head was clearing rapidly, and she recognized the thing stuck in his paw.

It was a blowgun dart.

"Nohni?" came another concerned call from outside and above the tunnel.

"I'm fine," she mumbled.

"I doubt that, seriously."

"Well I'm better than the two Pedro goons you just wasted, anyway. Only four to go - plus the Head Slug himself."

Nohni tried to smile as she pushed herself onto her elbows and shook her head. She failed. Then she rolled to her back and sat up. Her head still hurt, and her stomach was complaining about the residual dizziness, but otherwise, she really was fine. She stood up slowly, paw on the wall for balance and felt herself for any other injuries. There were none she could detect, and she still had her bullwhip and her .45. What could be wrong?

"Plenty," Nohni thought to herself sourly.

She was now getting really pissed at Pedro - which was conveniently covering her shame at her own recklessness. She should have let Tigermark back her up more closely. Nohni popped her head out of the opening to look for the tiger, but what met her eyes didn't help her mood at all. Above her, and four 'flights' up on the crystal stairway she could just make out Tigermark in the light of his flashlight. The problem was - all the crystal steps between him and her had been shattered by the firefight.

"Damn!" Nohni mumbled. She sincerely hoped there was another way out of this place. But that was not the immediate problem. She was now cut off from the rest of her party. The gap between her and Tigermark was at least eighteen feet wide and twenty four feet high. An impressive gap to try jumping even under ideal conditions - and these weren't ideal.

"Carlos?" Nohni called up into the darkness. "I need your eemot sack! The one containing the Paw of Change's crystal bone!"

 

It looked like she was going to have to finish this quest alone.

------------------------------------------@@-----------------------------------------

Chapter Twenty - Hero Twins

 

Nohni caught the eemot sack easily - nearly as easily as Tigermark caught the .45 Auto Estate Nohni had tossed back to him.

"Don't you dare try jumping! Find another way, if you can!" Nohni hissed as she hung Carlos' eemot sack around her neck. She gave a quick look back into the tunnel. "I don't know how much time I have. Our little fire-fight here can't have gone unnoticed." She picked up the fallen torch, holstered her own .45 auto, and hefted her attackers' AK47 before giving her companions one last look. "Wish me luck." With that, she was off down the tunnel.

Caution warred with haste as Nohni crept along - the flickering light of her torch illuminating only a small portion of the way ahead. She was listening hard for any sign of more attackers, who had to be around somewhere. Thus it was with some surprise that she came to the abrupt end of the tunnel.

"A blank wall?" Nohni hissed. "What the hell?" That meant that this was just a side passage and that the crystal stairway in the chasm must continue on farther down the wall - possibly to the bottom. Pedro's goons had simply been stationed here to intercept anyone following them. In disgust, Nohni threw the torch back down the tunnel the way she'd come - which left her in near total darkness. It was a childish act to be sure, but Nohni was getting more and more angry at her predicament.

It was then that she noticed a glow coming from - of all places - her right front shirt pocket. Mystified, she unbuttoned the pocket flap and looked inside.

"I didn't know I still had that," Nohni mumbled as she reached inside with her left paw. It was a little difficult to grasp the thing since she was using her injured thumb, but she eventually got hold of it.

What she then pulled out was the small crystal pebble Pedro had tossed to her at their first meeting back in Yaviza. It was the crystal pebble Pedro had found in the water carafe where he'd originally hidden Carlos' crystal bone - the bone Nohni now carried in Carlos' eemot sack around her neck. At the time, she'd given the crystal a cursory glance, slipped it into her pocket without a second thought and promptly forgotten about it. After all, she'd had more important things to consider - like the pain of having her thumb cut off. Now, however, the crystal was glowing with a faint blue light. As Nohni held it up to her eyes, a faint noise came from the blank wall in front of her.

The wall was sinking slowly into the floor - and what lay beyond was a small room that had definitely not been made by nature.

For one thing, it was artificially lit by several glowing orbs near the ceiling. For another, on a pedestal in the middle of the room, there rested a larger version of the crystal Nohni held in her fingers. This crystal, however, had a faint reddish glow to it, and was about the size of a grapefruit. Like her pebble, it had the shape of an octahedron - an eight sided solid with triangular faces. Lastly, the walls of this room were covered with pictures and glyphs done in the old Mayan style.

Jaw slightly agape, Nohni wandered into this most unexpected room and began examining the pictures. Many depicted scenes of high ceremony - most likely of kings or other important nobles of the Pre-Columbian civilizations. Nohni even recognized some of the names, which were on smaller word-glyphs beneath the pictures. There were also Mayan dates beneath the pictures. Nohni examined these more closely. With some surprise, she noted that the dates were the ending dates of several 400 year Mayan Calendar Baktun Cycles.

She let her eyes wander over all the pictures of kings. These kings or nobles must have been the ones in power when each individual Baktun Cycle ended. Because of the importance of the 400 year Baktun Cycle in the Mayan Long Count Calendar, these kings would have been held in even higher regard than most.

But why were they depicted here?

Then she remembered Daeom'acal's words.

"The Goddess of Change will pick the mortal who will travel with her back through Cosatacl. She will teach the mortal what he needs to know so he can return and prepare the Great Tribes for what they must face in the next Baktun!"

Was that then the real purpose of Cosatacl? To prepare the leaders of the ancient civilizations to face what they would need to do in the years following the end of a Baktun Cycle? It seemed so. Daeom'acal had even said as much. But if that were the case, why then did the Paw of Change - the key to Cosatacl - need to be arranged in the form of a Mayan Long-Count Calendar date?

Nohni shook her head. Maybe one had to indicate the date of the beginning of the Baktun Cycle that the ruler would be presiding over. But that didn't make much sense. Wouldn't the ruler be presiding over the beginning of the upcoming Baktun cycle? The date would be obvious. Why was there a need to list a date at all?

Nohni shook her head again. Why this 'key' should seem so obvious was a mystery. Keys were supposed to be difficult to figure out since their main purpose was to prevent unwanted furs from gaining access to whatever the key guarded. But then, maybe this 'key' was more like the ignition key for a car. True, car keys kept others from indiscriminately using your car, but its other main function was simply as a switch to turn the car 'on'. Maybe that's all the Paw of Change really was - Cosatacl's ignition switch.

Nohni looked to the large glowing crystal in the center of the room.

The only other question was - what happened when you turned Cosatacl on? From the looks of things Cosatacl was a door of some sort that took the Goddess of Change and a single chosen mortal to some other place for training. It was also a door that evidently had to be powered on before it could be used. So, what sort of gate - or door - needed power? Elevator doors needed power, but elevators seemed too mundane.

Nohni shook her head a final time. She would need to see this door - or gate - up close before any of this made sense. She then turned her attention to another line of pictures on the opposite wall. The figures depicted in these pictures had the dress and bearing of nobility like the other pictures, but no name-glyphs identified them. The ones depicted in the pictures, however, all seemed to be doing the same thing. They were all touching what looked like a large, octahedral crystal. Nohni looked over her shoulder at the glowing red crystal in the center of the room.

Should she?

Almost without thinking, she turned around and reached toward the crystal with her injured left paw - the one that still held the blue pebble.

As her index finger and injured thumb brushed the surface, a brilliant flash of blue shown through her left paw, and the larger crystal changed color to match it. Nohni's injured thumb tingled as she jumped back, startled. But other than the flash of light and new blue color of the larger crystal, nothing seemed to have changed.

That is until Nohni turned back to the pictures on the wall of the ones touching the crystal.

There, at the very right, was a new picture - a picture of what was obviously a female canine touching the crystal. Unlike the other pictures, however, this one had a black background instead of a white one.

"That can't be good," Nohni thought as she let her heartbeat slow.

Good or not - it was obviously significant. Nohni looked at the pebble in her left paw. It was dark. She stuck it back in her pocket and looked at the crystal on the pedestal that now glowed blue.

Information transfer?

This was sophistication way beyond anything the ancient Pre-Columbian civilizations had at their disposal. But then this whole room screamed 'advanced technology' - possibly even exceeding what was possible present day. Then she thought of the crystal bones needed to 'activate' the Paw of Change. Maybe this 'key' was more sophisticated than Nohni had first thought.

Still shaken, Nohni turned to another set of pictures on a third wall. She wanted as much information as she could get from whatever was available in here.

She instantly recognized this set of pictures as depicting scenes from the Pohol Vuh, the Mayan creation story. One of them was obviously of the Mayan Hero Twins - Hunapu and Xbalanque - for there was a small word-glyph labeling it as such. The two were pictured facing one another with one being the mirror image of the other.

"Another reference to the Hero twins?" Nohni mumbled, as her fingers traced the word-glyph. This Goddess of Change - Ynon-Upanuh Ahdnabau - could be a mirror image to Nohni - or so Daeom'acal thought. It was hard to tell. Nohni hadn't seen the Goddess' face on the only occasion that they'd met.

Nohni looked closer at the Twins picture and saw another series of tiny word-glyphs positioned next to Hunapu. Their position seemed to indicate he was speaking them to Xbalanque. They roughly translated to "You must go back to come back."

Nohni wasn’t sure what this meant. The general flavor of the Mayan Hero Twins myth was how clever they were in defeating their enemies, such as the Xibalba. Was this part of that? The twins were supposed to have done some pretty extraordinary things in their adventures including dying and coming back to life. Again, Nohni disliked where this thought was going, so she examined the other pictures. However, none of the others seemed to hold the significance of the Hero Twins and there were no other pictures left to examine. Nohni sighed and looked around one last time. She should head back to the chasm. If Tigermark and the others were still there, they should know about what she'd discovered.

She left the room, and wasn't surprised when the wall that had blocked the entrance once again rose up to close off the unusual room. Her torch still flickered ahead in the tunnel, and Nohni picked it up when she reached it. At the entrance to the tunnel, no one returned her shouts, so the others must have backtracked to look for another way into the final chamber.

As for Nohni's predicament, another tossed stone revealed what Nohni now suspected. There were more crystalline shelves stair-stepping their way down the face of the chasm wall. Disheartened by the darkness and her isolation, Nohni nevertheless started down the steps.

There was nowhere else to go.

However, on the first step below the tunnel shelf, Nohni unholstered her .45 and jammed the gun into her shorts before dropping the holster off the edge. She'd had a special loop sewn inside her shorts to hold a pistol concealed within. If there were more of Pedro's curs waiting for her, which was likely, a hidden weapon could come in handy. They would likely only take the visible one.

Her foresight was well appreciated when she reached the tunnel at the bottom of the chasm.

"We have been expecting you," said a greasy-looking canine as he stepped from the shadows. He was obviously one of Pedro's hired guns.

Another armed canine stepped out as well. "Drop the rifle, eef you please."

Looking at the two canines pointing their weapons at her, Nohni unslung the AK47 from her shoulder and tossed it aside.

"And the whip, as well as the torch," said the other canine.

Nohni dropped them both with a scowl. The two looked her over and were apparently satisfied because they motioned her to precede them through the tunnel. She did so and within moments a light appeared ahead of them. When she reached the opening, Nohni was hard put not to stop and gawk.

For something that was deep underground, this was a BIG chamber. It had to be the Room of the Paw of Change. It also had to go several hundred meters high and at least one hundred wide. Every surface flashed and sparkled as if lit from within by tiny, electric sparks. As Nohni continued down what was obviously a pathway, her head swiveled this way and that.

Sparks?

She supposed that was entirely possible if many of the crystals lining this chamber were made of rock quartz. Crystalline quarts was piezoelectric. Quartz crystals could generate electricity when pressure was applied to them.

In front of Nohni, at the bottom of the vast, bowl shaped floor, stood what looked like a squashed replica of the Mayan Pyramid they'd entered on the surface - more like a dais than a pyramid. Atop this shorter pyramid, was a wide, flat area - perhaps fifty feet on a side - upon which stood two great curved columns, their tips nearly touching. This had to be the gate or door of Cosatacl.  In front of the gate stood what appeared to be an altar, and upon the altar Nohni could make out the unmistakable shape of a large, stone paw sitting upright on its wrist.

The Paw of Change.

 

Several figures stood on the flat top of the pyramid along side the altar. The gold-looking one had to be the Goddess of Change. Nohni frowned. What was she playing at? Evidently it was she who had told Pedro and his goons that Nohni would show up, despite their having chucked her down a hole at the Espiritu Santo mine. She would have to wait and see what happened. Nohni could feel the gun in her shorts pressing against her crotch as she walked, and she hid a grin. Whatever did transpire, she had some options.

Looking to the steps of the pyramid, Nohni could make out the nineteen native shaman who lined the steps up to the top of the pyramid. Some seemed to be fidgeting. And no wonder. It looked like Pedro had one of his boys guarding them. Folks did have a tendency to fidget when they had a gun pointed at them. Pedro's last and final thug was standing behind the altar, and the head dog himself was to the left of it.

For all the firepower Pedro had, the Goddess herself looked unconcerned - or at least her posture was not that of one under guard. It was hard to tell from this distance. However, the distance was closing fast. Nohni was getting close to the bottom steps of the pyramid.

The furs at the top disappeared from view momentarily as the angle from the bottom of the pyramid was quite steep. When Nohni finally reached the top she was directed by her guard to stand beside Pedro. He then took a position behind her. The other hired gun who had been escorting Nohni took a place on Pedro's left. Nohni glanced across to the right side of the altar and saw that the third guard had moved behind the Goddess of Change - whether for show or as her guard, Nohni didn't know. The fourth Pedro goon was still at the top of the stairs facing the shaman.

"I see you still live," Pedro said with an oily grin. "To be of service once again."

Nohni did not return the smile but glared instead at the Goddess of Change who was walking around to stand in front of the altar. It was so hard to discern her intent with that damned mask on. She looked Nohni up and down once before turning to the guard behind Nohni.

"You bring one so armed before me?"

The guard sputtered, but Nohni ground her teeth. How did that bitch know? In any case, it was too late to do anything. The muzzle of the guard's AK was poking her in the back.

"Your weapon," said the Golden-Masked Goddess, pointing to Nohni's crotch. "On the altar, if you please?"

Nohni jammed a paw down her pants, and felt the rifle in her back poke her harder.

"Slowly," hissed the guard.

Nohni complied, easing the gold .45 from the confines of her khaki shorts. When it was free, she tossed it, clattering, onto the altar, where it lay with its muzzle pointing toward the Goddess of Change.

You don't know how lucky you are my finger isn't on the trigger.

"And the eemot sack with the bone," added the Golden-Masked jackal, now pointing to Nohni's neck.

Nohni scowled. As always, this bitch knew way too much! She pulled the eemot sack from beneath her shirt, yanked it from her neck, and tossed it onto the altar as well.

The golden-robed Goddess stepped forward leisurely and took the sack, opening it and dumping its contents into her free paw. "Ah. The final bone. Just what we need to do what must be done." She picked a bone from her paw and, leaning forward, placed it onto the face of the Paw of Change. Instantly, the space between the pillars of the Gate of Cosatacl glowed with an opalescent blue light - like a colored, ever-shifting pane of misted glass. All eyes turned toward it.

And that's when Nohni acted.

Pivoting forward on her left hip, she kicked the canine guarding her from behind so hard in the chest he fell flat on his back. She let the strike push her forward to the altar. Her right paw grabbed her .45 just as Pedro shouted. But his shout was too late. Nohni had rolled across the altar, and her .45 cracked. The goon on Pedro's left dropped just as Nohni dropped off the front edge of the altar. Her next shot dropped the canine guarding the shaman and the natives instantly took off for the exit.

Two down, one trying to get back up, and one still standing.

But that was as far as she got when another golden paw clamped onto hers.

Now it became a struggle for the gun. Shouts and screams surrounded them, but Nohni didn't care. She was going to best this traitorous bitch if it was the last thing she ever did! The gun, held now by two sets of paws, swung to the right and went off. Nohni thought she saw the guard who had been behind the Goddess drop.

So much the better!

The gun swung to the left. Another shot, and the out of breath canine on the floor jerked.

Suddenly, all of Pedro's goons were down!

Nohni continued to struggle but began to question her good fortune. It was like this fight was choreographed - or at least greatly influenced by her opponent. But then another body joined the fray, and Nohni saw the straining, crazed face of one Pedro Arias Dávila. A ripping sound and Nohni was temporarily blinded by gold fabric. The Goddess had lost her gown! Then all three were on the floor - all determined to get possession of Nohni's golden .45. In the struggle, the Goddess of Change finally lost her mask, and when Nohni looked her full in the face, her grip on the gun slipped. Powered by desperation, Nohni redoubled her effort.

Within moments - it was over.

As the dust cleared, one golden jackal stood there - both paws grasping a gold-anodized S&W .45 auto in a perfect two-paw grip. She was aiming it at the other golden jackal who stood in front of the glowing portal of Cosatacl.

Pedro was getting up as well and looked to the both of them, but it was nearly impossible to tell the two apart. Both now wore identical clothing, the Goddess' traveling clothes evidently hidden by her gown. Even the fleeing shaman stopped and turned to the two standing only feet apart.

Everyone was looking at them.

But the two golden jackals only had eyes for each other. Doubt and apprehension emanated from both sets of golden eyes - but one set also held a look that wanted answers. It was this jackal that bent down and picked up the golden dress and mask that had been lost in the fight. She held it up.

"Sister?" came the hushed sound of a femme's voice.

"Mirror sisters," came the equally hushed reply. "Twin sisters."

One set of golden eyes gave Pedro a quick glance. The other set blinked.

Was Pedro then truly Hun-Came of the Xibalba?

Were the two of them truly the Mayan Hero Twins who defeated him?

Nohni Xbalanque Wabanda and Ynon Upanuh Ahdnabau?

But that was wrong! Xbalanque's twin brother was named Hunapu, not Upanuh.

"Giigido Upanuh azhe."

What?

This last had not spoken in Mayan, or any other Pre-Columbian native language! It had been spoken in… Native-American Ojibwa!

A tiny nod.

"Giigido Upanuh azhe," repeated the hushed voice.

Those Ojibwa words translated to 'Speak Upanuh backwards'.

Upanuh turned backwards became… Hunapu!

Which is the true name of Xbalanque's hero twin!

"Giigido gakina azhe," came another soft whisper.

'Speak all backwards'.

Ynon <---> Nony.

Upanuh <---> Hunapu.

Ahdnabau <---> Uabandha.

Nony - Hunapu - Uabandha. If one took out the Mayan 'Hunapu' name, it became…

"No-nee Ooah-bahn-dha."

The name had come out in a slow, carefully, pronounced whisper. It was exactly how the Ojibwa natives in Canada would pronounce the name.

Mirror Twins.

"Mayan niizhoodenh-yag baapinwe Hun-Came y Xibalba."

And in their ultimate trial against the evil Xibalba, the Mayan Hero Twin, Hunapu actually killed Xbalanque and then brought him back to life to trick the evil Hun-Came!

"One Tun is the price of passage."

"The price of passage to go back - and to come back."

These last whispered words could have come from either one of the golden jackals as both pairs of eyes turned to the altar. There, in the middle of the altar upon the Paw of Change in the position of the middle finger - the Tun finger if the Paw truly represented a date - sat a small bone that was not glowing like the others. It was hard to see it there, but both jackals knew this was no crystalline bone. It was a real finger bone from the left thumb of a real golden jackal. There had, after all, been two bones in Carlos' eemot sack.

The two pairs of eyes met again, and between them a single, silent moment of time stretched into distant infinity.

A muzzle flash of brightest gold!

An ear-splitting CRACK!

And the silence of the infinite was shattered into a million screaming shards.

 

It is said that the foot-pounds of energy contained in a 250gr copper-jacketed lead slug traveling at nearly 1200 feet-per-second can lift the body of a full grown fur clear off its feet and send it tumbling backwards.

 

In another flash of light… this one a brilliant blue… the tumbling body disappeared backwards through the glowing Gate and was gone, and only two furs remained standing at the altar. The unarmed fur next to the portal - the one not targeted - turned to the golden jackal who still held the pistol in a rock-steady grip.

The fur pointed to the paws holding the gun. "I theenk - my Goddess - that you will find you have just made the right choice."

The golden jackal dropped her eyes from the Ibizan hound down to the place on her paw where he was pointing. It was how he knew she was the Goddess of Change. It was her left thumb, which lay across her right thumb in that perfect two-pawed grip on the pistol. It was a left thumb that looked whole and intact.

She lowered her .45, and her eyes drifted down to the center of her khaki shirt, which moved along with her ragged breathing.

She could still felt the pain of the bullet that had killed her.

The bullet she, herself had fired only moments before.

Nohni Wabanda raised her head, and locked haunted eyes on the Ibizan hound.

 

The right choice?

 

It was the only choice I had - or will have.

------------------------------------------@@-----------------------------------------

Chapter Twenty One - Who I Am

 

Time.

She remembered the indescribable pain.

Half-Time.

She remembered the glorious ecstasy.

Quarter - Time.

Her mind, her body - her very soul - had been stripped away.

... E i g h t h - T i m e ...

There was nothing left but the very core of her being.

…  D  e  a  d  -  T  i  m  e …

A core that was, simultaneously, blinding light and utter darkness.

A core outside of time.

A thing without time.

Timeless.

 

Time is based on the supposition that all events occur in a linear fashion.

Always forward. Never backward.

And yet…

The Gown.

The Mask.

The Pebble.

The Sister and her traveling clothes.

All gone.

 

The golden jackal continued to stare at the spot where she had died - the spot where she had killed herself - an act that had torn the very being from her body as it tumbled through the glowing gate of Cosatacl.

Except, the gate of Cosatacl was no longer glowing. The space between the arching arms was clear - free of any other-worldly sheet of bluish mist. The only smoke in the vast Room of the Paw was a tiny wisp that rose from the Paw of Change itself upon the altar.

As it should be.

The golden jackal finally lowered her gold-anodized .45 and took a step toward the altar.

"Nobody move!" came a sudden shout from the stairway.

A black jaguar and a white tiger stood upon the top step of the stairway leading up the side of the altar pyramid. The white tiger was holding a .45 and the jaguar, an AK47. They were both pointed directly at the golden jackal. The two furs moved forward - the black jaguar placing himself behind Pedro and the white tiger coming to stand in front of the golden jackal - his weapon inches from her nose. He glanced briefly at the golden femme's left paw - the paw holding her weapon - the paw with the undamaged left thumb.

"Drop it. Now."

The white tiger's voice was neither loud nor harsh, but it didn't need to be. The fire in his eyes was commanding enough. Not breaking eye contact, the golden jackal let the gold .45 slip from her fingers to clatter onto the floor. The white tiger then flicked an eye toward the now quiescent gate of Cosatacl.

"We weren't fast enough to stop it, but we saw it happen," he growled. "Where is she? Where did she go?" These questions were not requests - they were commands. But they were also noticeably incomplete.

"You do not ask if she is still alive?" was the golden jackal's only response.

"If I thought she was already dead," rumbled the white tiger, his eyes blazing hotly from narrowed slits, "you, yourself, would not now be alive for me to talk to!"

The golden jackal nodded. "You have courage for one who is close to death himself." She pointed to the shaman who had gathered once again on the steps of the altar pyramid. "The Daeom of the Twenty tribes are not without some power of their own."

Indeed, all the shaman, including Daeom'acal, were now brandishing weapons. They were perhaps not as sophisticated as modern firearms, but crystal knives and poisoned feather darts could still be quite deadly when wielded by those who knew how to use them. A small gesture from her paw and both the black jaguar and the white tiger had multiple weapons pointing at them.

"I am the Goddess of Change. They do as I bid, and they will not allow harm to come to me. They will also not harm you if you are reasonable."

She nodded at the white tiger's pistol and the black jaguar's rifle. Two more 'modern' weapons hit the floor, but not without their owners giving the golden jackal some nasty looks.

"But the Daeoms had no weapons when we entered thees place!" protested Pedro, now free to voice his opinion now that an AK47 was no longer poking him in the back. "My guards checked them all!"

"Cosatacl, itself, provided the crystalline knives," chuckled the golden jackal as she stepped up to the altar, "and perhaps you did not thoroughly check the feathered headdress of a few of the Daeoms?"

"You've still not answered my question," rumbled the white tiger. "Where is Nohni?"

The golden jackal leaned over the altar and picked up a crystal bone - the other 'bone' that had fallen from the eemot sack when she'd emptied it before. She turned to the white tiger.

"Nohni is on the other side of Cosatacl, of course."

She turned back to the Paw of change, and placed the crystalline bone in the exact same spot where she'd previously put the thumb bone of one Nohni Wabanda.

Instantly, the space between the arms of the Gate flared with light. This light, however, was not the cool blue light of before, but rather a darker purple shot through with red. The golden jackal walked to where Pedro stood, the red-flecked purple of the Gate reflecting in his widened eyes.

"Are you prepared to meet your destiny?" said the golden jackal, bowing to the Ibizan hound and gesturing toward the now humming Gate.

"I…," Pedro began. There was a hint of fear in his eyes as he stared at a Gate that didn't look like the one before.

However, before he could complete his thought, a scuffle came from behind Pedro, and both he and the golden jackal turned toward the disturbance. Caught in perhaps ten paws was a struggling black jaguar

"You are not truly going to let thees pasca become a leader of furs! Thees ees insane!"

The golden jackal pointed imperiously to the Ibizan hound. "I have chosen him as the one who truly deserves this destiny!" she shouted. "I see no other in this room who is better suited for this honor!"

She turned back to Pedro Arias Davila, who seemed to have swelled under the influence of the golden jackal's praise. Once more, she pointed haughtily to the Gate, which was starting to emit red sparks. "Go now, mortal, to that place which has been reserved for those of renown! There you will experience that which only those of your caliber merit! GO!"

Pedro's eyes were now glowing with an intense yearning. "Yes!" he shouted as he began to stumble toward the hissing and sparking Gate. "Thees ees for me and me alone! I shall become the master of all furs! This ees for me! This ees MINE!"

This last was shouted at a run, and in the next instant, the body of one uncaring, arrogant, and truly evil Ibizan hound crossed the threshold of the Gate of Cosatacl.

Nohni Wabanda, a.k.a. the Goddess of Change, turned to Tigermark and Carlos. "And now, guys…" she said. "I think we better GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!"

She shouted at the Daeoms and they were instantly off at a run. She spared one glance back at the Gate as she snatched her pistol from the floor and took off for the stairs. The Gate of Cosatacl was starting to hiss and sputter - red and blue sparks shooting everywhere. The Paw of Change was starting to smolder as well.

"Nohni!? Is it really you?" Shouted Tigermark and Carlos simultaneously as they ran to catch up with her.

"In the flesh!" she shouted back. "I'll explain later! Now we move!"

The three of them, hot on the heels of the shaman, were halfway to the room's exit tunnel when the first sub-acoustic 'boom' shook the whole room.

"What the hell is going on?" yelled Tigermark.

"Reset overload, I think!" Nohni hollered back. "When I first came here with Pedro, I initially set the Paw of Change to 'number mode' instead of 'date mode', which makes for some interesting results!" She grinned as she looked at a bewildered Carlos. "Don't worry. I don't think Pedro is going to be pleased at all about where I sent him!"

"So…so you are the Goddess of Change, too?" Carlos yelled. "But how could you be both Nohni and the Goddess?"

"Later, friend," Nohni said, giving the black jaguar a wink. They had just reached the room's exit. "Since you and Tigermark are here, I take it you guys found another way down here? Because I think we're going to need it!"

"Simple really," panted Carlos as they ran through the tunnel and back into the Room of Chasms. "We just went back outside and got ourselves a bunch of jungle vines, tied them off above, and climbed down the chasm wall!" He pointed. There, hanging out of the darkness from above were several vines, most of which already had a Daeom climber on them. Spurred on by the continuing 'booms' from the Room of the Paw, the climbers were making very good speed. In short order, all twenty Daeoms along with Nohni, Tigermark and Carlos were up and into the Room of knives.

"Careful!" Nohni shouted as the first Daeom teetered on the first of the tourmaline pedestals and then jumped back into the crowd at the tunnel. The Room of Knives was shaking from whatever was going on down below. Nohni pointed. "I think I see a better way!" One large tourmaline crystal was growing sideways out of the wall near them. "See how that's angled?"

Tigermark, picking up on Nohni's thought, nodded. "And it looks to be cracked already." He pulled out his .45 Auto Estate, but glanced to Nohni. "Do you want to do the honors? Or shall I?"

"Go for it," Nohni said. "Everyone! Back against this wall!"

The crowd backed into the wall as Tigermark took aim. A single shot from his .45 split the tourmaline crystal along the crack at its base. With nothing to hold it in place any longer, the barrel-shaped crystal crashed down, and rolled the full length of the right side of the room. There were no jumping 'pedestals' on that side of the Room of Knives, but now there were no knives on the floor either - having all been cracked off and flattened by the enormous, rolling tourmaline crystal.

"Our pathway to freedom," Nohni announced as the crowd surged forward onto the knife-free path.

In short order, they were all in the Room of Cold, where Nohni led the way through with everyone following like a strange imitation of a conga line The Room of Bats was a bit harder since there was nothing for it but to follow the paw and foothold path along the wall. Fortunately, all the racket had sent the bats outside, where, according to Tigermark's watch, it was getting dark anyway.

Nohni was the last one to exit the Room of Bats, and as she looked back, a final 'boom' sounded from below, and she could just make out the cloud of dust issuing from the tunnel that led to the Room of Cold. It seemed there would no longer be a path of any sort back to the Gate of Cosatacl.

 

It was, indeed, dark out when Nohni finally exited the top of the Pyramid in the well-like valley beneath the cliffs. And on the steps leading down the clearing, she saw - as she had seen when she'd first exited this pyramid a month ago as the 'Goddess of Change' - two lines of Shaman. This time there were twenty of them - with Carlos representing the 'lost' Nocpexul tribe. They were all looking to her.

She was, after all, still the Goddess of Change.

But was she, really? Perhaps it was time to resign.

She opened her paws to those looking to her and smiled.

"I thank you all of the Twenty Tribes for being faithful to your duties. Without your vigilance and devotion, I would not have been able to do what I had to do."

"But what…what exactly deed you do?" asked a still confused Carlos. "Pedro was part of eet, I know, but not for the reasons we thought, I theenk."

"Let us say I have done what needed doing, and that Pedro Arias Davila has gotten both what he wanted, and what he truly deserved." She then turned to all the Daeoms. "Since my work is finished, I release you from your allegiance to me. You are no longer the keepers of the Bones, and I am no longer the Goddess of Change - for the Change I came for has Happened, and I am no longer needed."

 

 

They all made their jungle camp at the base of the pyramid of Cosatacl that evening, and for the first time in a long time, it wasn't raining, so they were able to build the campfire up to a lovely inferno. The Daeoms of the Twenty Tribes all provided natural foods from the surrounding jungle, and that evening's feast was one to remember - as was the story-telling. For despite the modern world's advances, stories are still the simple yet profound basis for all good entertainment.

Eventually, Nohni found herself sitting alone with Tigermark, Carlos, and Daeom'acal. The other Daeoms had found other resting spots around the clearing, and everyone was thinking about sleep soon. Carlos was sitting atop a block of stone that had originally been part of the pyramid, and was picking his teeth with a pungent, spiky leaf. Daeom'acal was leaning back against a palmetto trunk chewing on a stick of sugar cane. It was Tigermark who finally broke the pleasant silence.

"So, Nohni," he drawled, looking up at the star strewn sky from where he lay on the leafy ground. "Are you going to tell us what you really did here at Cosatacl?"

Nohni, who was using a mossy stone as a backrest, opened her eyelids and gazed back at the white tiger. "Which one of me are you referring to?" she asked.

"Ah," sighed Tigermark as he sat up. "We now get to the crux of the matter. Which one of you indeed." He eyed her closely - none of the restful drowsiness of before in evidence. "So you really were both Nohni Wabanda, our adventure companion of the past few days, and the Goddess of Change who was pestering both us and Pedro to no end? That would explain why the Goddess of Change knew so much about Nohni."

"Yep," said Nohni. "Being one and the same makes knowing each other real easy."

"But eet doesn't make explaining how that's even possible easy," countered Carlos. "Two places at once? Thees ees normaly, muy lo imposible!"

"I guess it all begins with what I had to do at Cosatacl." Nohni pointed to the pyramid behind Carlos. "I was the one who was destined to turn Cosatacl off."

"Turn Cosatacloff?" mumbled Carlos looking back at the pyramid before turning a skeptical gaze back on Nohni.

Nohni nodded. "After all, one can't leave a Time Machine turned on forever, can they?"

The three males gawped at each other, and Nohni chuckled, but then her expression darkened. "I can't help thinking about what I've just put her through."

"Put who through?" Daeom'acal asked.

Nohni looked away and rubbed her chest ruff. "Me. What I've just put me through." She turned her worried expression on the others. "I literally had to kill myself for that blasted Gate to work like it was supposed to."

"The legend of the Mayan Hero Twins," whispered Daeom'acal. "And the one who died… came back to fool the evil Xibalba - the evil Pedro."

Nohni nodded as Tigermark reached out and gently touched her knee. "So what we saw when Carlos, Daeom'acal, and I entered the Room of the Paw was not an illusion?" Tigermark's expression became concerned. "When I saw it, something told me this couldn't be true. I saw the muzzle flash and heard the shot, but the way the body just vanished as it fell back through the Gate - it just seemed - unreal."

"It was real," Nohni whispered, looking down and taking the white tiger's paw. "When I was the Goddess of Change I knew I had to do it to her because…because…" Nohni felt a tear run down her face and she pulled Tigermark's paw up to her cheek, "because she did it to me when I was only Nohni!"

Nohni found herself clutching her friend and sobbing into his white shoulder - just as she'd done when she'd been pulled from the dark mine shaft at the Espiritu Santo. "I don't know if it was even necessary," she wailed, "but she did it to me - so I had to do it to her!" The tears flowed freely into the white fur beneath her shaking head. But this time she wasn't sure why she was crying. She hadn't died. She'd come back.

But that had not made it any easier to do.

Killing yourself.

 

Again Nohni remembered the indescribable pain mixed so maddeningly with the ecstasy. The Light. The Darkness. The torture of being torn apart and put back together so very slowly - piece by tiny piece. Put back whole again. Thumb and all.

One Tun is the price of passage.

Nohni knew there was no way to test for it, but if there were, she knew her body now was at least a year older than when her counterself had blasted her back through that gate from hell. She'd finally come back to her full senses only twenty eight - or was it more - days ago. It was hard to tell.

She'd come back, lying upon the cold stone pyramid inside the Room of the Paw - the faint flash of electric blue all around her in the ceiling and walls. The Mask and Gown of the Goddess of Change was beside her, and in her pocket was Havus Anglia's cell phone - along with the pebble - or as she would find out soon, the 'Reticulated Information Storage Device' that would change her life forever.

The damned pebble had led her to another 'room' on the opposite end of the Room of Chasms - the end she hadn't explored when she'd come here with Tigermark and the others. Like the room up on the wall of the chasm, this one was lined with Mayan glyphs and pictures telling her what she needed to do - what she must do.

Because not doing it would destroy the world as she knew it.

Cosatacl was indeed a time traveling device put here by someone from a future that this world would never know. Its purpose was to take Mayan nobles who were worthy back in time one Baktun. And with the power of fore-knowledge - the knowledge of what had happened in their own past - they could re-direct the great civilizations onto paths that would avoid the worst pitfalls.

They could take time and history itself down another path.

It was not a perfect solution by any means. The timing of the coming of Columbus and the Spaniards was as bad as timing could be. It was in the middle of a Baktun so the full impact of the Spanish invasion had yet to be felt in the Darien when the last 'Noble Time Traveler' had gone back in time from 1618 to 1224. He could have warned the ancient civilizations in the eleventh century about the Spaniards, but it was not a threat that would be realized for another 250 years. And threats lose credibility when stretched over that amount of time.

But the end of this Baktun - the one they were now approaching in 2012 - would not see anyone going back in time. The creators of Cosatacl deemed it too dangerous. Too many advances introduced from this time back into the past would be too unpredictable. The possible timelines generated would be too many. Time itself, might shatter.

Now was the time to shut Cosatacl down.

Or so the Mayan glyphs said.

Nohni did not have the knowledge to dispute this claim, but she had to consider the stories about 2012 - the so-called 'end' of the Mayan Long Count Calendar. Was this the disaster being referred to by the predictions? Would sending some 2012 fur back to 1618 utterly destroy the future as we knew it?

It was the final picture that had convinced Nohni she had to do this.

This was no Mayan picto-glyph. This was a true-to-life rendition of Nohni herself labeled as the Goddess of Change.

The pebble glowed blue again then - ready to be passed on to an earlier version of herself so that she could use it to identify that earlier self to Cosatacl when the time came.

And Pedro was the final key.

Nohni wondered where he'd gone. With the changes she'd made in the bone arrangement of the Paw of Change, it had been in 'number mode'. The single natural bone - Nohni's thumb in the Tun position - had sent Nohni back one year. But for Pedro, all the places had been occupied by the original crystal bones, making the number on the Paw over two million.

Was that how far Pedro had been sent back? Or would he be caught forever in the agony/ecstasy duplicity Nohni had initially experienced. She didn't know. Neither prospect was pleasant.

Which is exactly what he deserved.

All Nohni knew was that Pedro was the 'unidentified' body needed to shut Cosatacl down. For his was a body that had not touched the crystal in the 'wall' room. His was the body whose final crossing of the Gate would trigger the security measures designed to prevent this - security measures that had been altered to self-destruct measures by the transfer of information from the blue pebble to the red crystal.

The blue pebble.

A sophisticated device caught in a time loop - doomed to travel back and forward forever in time. Perhaps that was the only way to truly shut off a time machine. Put it into an endless loop. The time traveling nobles at least went back 400 years - never to see their former selves again. Nohni hadn't been so fortunate. She'd seen, saved, manipulated, and eventually killed her other self.

And she had done it all without question.

Had it been the right thing to do? If she'd not done it, would 2012 truly be a year of disaster? And for whom - in which timeline? Was she even in her own original timeline now - or was this world subtly different from the one that a bullet had blasted her out of nearly an eternity ago?

Was there any way to know?

 

Nohni sensed the warmth of the white shoulder beneath her left cheek and felt a kind of peace wash over her. Whatever world this was, it was one that had friends. Friends she could love, cherish, and truly live with.

Her tears had stopped and her breathing had slowed.

It was time to rest - time to sleep - time to dream of the future in which she could do as she liked.

 

Because - finally - her time was her own, once again.

------------------------------------------@@-----------------------------------------

Epilogue

 

Time.

Half-Time.

Quarter - Time.

... E i g h t h  -  T i m e ...

…    L   o   v   e   r   '   s   -   T   i   m   e   …

The lusty, musky fragrance of hot breath on damp facial fur.

The tingling brush of blue-black lips upon golden brown.

The sweet, salty taste of a tongue on teeth.

 

"When you two finally decide to come up for air," Hazel Weiss drawled, "we'll be in the staff lounge."

Despite Hazel's admonition, Nohni relished Raven's kiss for a very long time. It felt like it had been an eternity since she'd last savored the taste of her favorite blue wolf.

Perhaps it had been.

When they finally did break, Raven smiled down at her. "That's the Nohni I know," she whispered.

"You had your doubts?" Nohni replied.

Raven cocked her head slightly. "That was a pretty tall tale you told me about yourself over the phone, and one that was far too short." She gestured to the staff lounge where the others were waiting. "I think its time you told it better - to all of us."

The two canine femmes turned and walked arm-in-arm into the lounge where Tigermark, Carlos, Hazel, and Dr. Amelda Venteen were already seated. Raven took a seat by Hazel on a couch and Nohni - knowing she was to be the center of attention - took a seat in the big, overstuffed lounger by the window.

"So you were your own 'Sister'? asked Raven without preamble. "The sister you mentioned to us in the hospital - the one who saved you when Carlos attacked you in the library lounge?"

Nohni nodded, and Hazel shook her head. "So how is it that you came to be in the Patriarch University library in the first place? From the few snippets you've already given us, you're 'future self' came out of the Cosatacl gate over a month ago - down in Panama. That's nearly four thousand kilometers from here. Kind of a long ways to walk, don't you think?"

"When I went through the gate, I had all my personal possessions with me - including my wallet," Nohni answered. "If you check my research account credit card, you'll see a couple entries for plane fare to and from Panama - for research purposes." She grinned. "Though if you check the dates, it shows the 'round trip' as starting in Panama City rather than Toronto." She looked to the group at large. "It’s a good thing no one at airport customs thought to check my name for a previous departure date. After all, how could I come into the country if I'd never left it?"

"How come no one saw your 'future self' elsewhere on the University campus when you were supposed to be in a classroom teaching a bunch of drooling freshmen?" asked Raven.

"They did see me," answered Nohni. "Or at least some of the students did. I doubt that they thought this unusual since I am a faculty member. I had to be careful in the library lounge area though." She looked to Carlos. "Sorry about the Mellon Idol to the head, but you were being rather nasty to my 'past' self at the time."

"So I was right!" crowed Raven. "You did save yourself! Though not in the way I envisioned it." She frowned. "Hazel and I must have just missed you 'rearranging' the crime scene because we didn't find you as you thought yourself to be - with Carlos claws stuck between your tits. You'd already been moved. That was some pretty good timing."

"You had to time other things pretty well to," added Tigermark, "seeing as you had to send the crystal bone to Carlos from Panama City before you left to come up here. It's also a good thing you messaged me to invite me on the trip even though your 'past' self was unconscious in the hospital at the time. That pretty much guaranteed you would be taking the Horus down to Panama and going through the private pilot's security checkout at the airport. They don't normally crosscheck that with public terminal departures, but it could have looked strange if you were to be seen leaving previously through the public terminal to go back to Panama and later through the private one without having returned from Panama first."

"And speaking of phone messages," put in Carlos, "that ees why we only received text messages from you when you were messaging yourself using Havus Anglia's cell phone. Both 'Nohnis' had the same identical cell phone! How can a cell phone call eets own number without eet getting a 'busy' signal? Eet would merely refer you to its message service!"

"The timing on many of my messages was tricky, too," commented Nohni. "Often, I had to message myself at those times when my 'past' self had checked the time."

"Like the initial meeting with Pedro next to the Horus," Tigermark said. "And then there were all those other 'suggestions' you sent to me after you and Carlos had been taken hostage - like the one that told me when to free Carlos from Pedro's prison wing, and when cut down the tree next to your cell at the Cana field station when you were the prisoner."

"You really trusted all those messages from me?" asked Nohni.

"I could have chosen to ignore them," Tigermark answered. "But I didn't. Most of them seemed to be what I would have done on my own anyway. In the end, what your messages did most was determine the timing of those actions - which was the critical issue."

"Timing," muttered Carlos. "Eet all comes back to time." He looked up toward Nohni. "You knew. You knew eet all before eet would happen." The black jaguar was looking troubled now as his golden eyes sought hers. "You knew Daeom'acal's apprentice would have to die to provide the Polata'an heart. You let me attack you een the library. You let your thumb be mutilated by that pasca Pedro! And you knew they would try to kill you by pushing you down a mine shaft at Espiritu Santo!  How could you…?"

Nohni held up her left paw - its thumb whole and uninjured. "Without the Polata'an heart you would have had no reason to come to Panama. Without my severed thumb bone, I'd have not been able to travel back in time one tun. I'd have never been able to shut Cosatacl down."

Nohni dropped her paw into her lap and stared at it. "I don't know if I could have chosen differently, Carlos. Maybe I could have." She looked up at them all. "But if I had - what would have happened?"

What would have happened?

Would the world now be headed for some cataclysmic event in 2012 as some thought?

"We will never know," answered Tigermark, "since you did not choose another path." He rose from where he'd been sitting and came to stand over Nohni. "But you did have a choice - whether you knew it or not." He reached out a large paw and gently stroked Nohni's mane. "We always have choices."

Nohni smiled as she took the white paw and rubbed it against her cheek. There was still something a bit strange about how Tigermark had become involved in this adventure - and how he had implicitly trusted the Goddess of Change. There seemed to be a lot more to this fur than met the eye. It was almost as if he already knew this was the right thing to do.

Like he'd already been there?

Tigermark's next comment broke Nohni's train of thought.

"The final question in the end is - can we live with those choices."

Can we live with our choices?

Nohni nodded. She could live with the ones she'd made - even if she'd known what they were before she'd ever had to make them. In that, this adventure had been a bit different from all the others in her life. She'd known the future because she'd been there - and back again.

But now, everything was back to normal.

 

Normal?

 

Nohni grinned. Normal would never be 'normal' for her.

 

Because there is always the next adventure!

 

 

Fin.