Winter's Shard

by Philip J. Eggerding, aka Cirrel

Raven Hunt & Zig Zag characters © Max BlackRabbit. Used with permission.

Hazel Weiss character © gNAW. Used with permission.

All other characters © Philip J. Eggerding

Part One - Patriarch University

 

Introductions

 

She who shows her breasts.

That's what Nohni Wabanda's name meant in the old Ojibwa Indian language. Would that she could strip off her official university suit and tie right now. The hot, mid-afternoon August sun streaming through her second story office window seemed to press down on her like a physical thing. It made it hard to concentrate.

"Not that my concentration is good right now anyway," she thought as she glanced over another summer-term undergrad test paper. Grading tests was the least favorite part of her job as Professor of Archeology at Patriarch University, but the job paid well, and her position allowed her to pursue her true love.

Treasure hunting.

Especially historical artifacts steeped in the sexual moirés of ancient cultures.

Nohni had always had a gift for finding the sorts of treasures other archeologists shunned. Most of her colleagues kept to more socially acceptable artifacts - those that guaranteed them the grants and accolades from the stuffy institutions that funded them. Nohni could care less. There were other individuals in this world perfectly willing to fund her kind of 'digs'.

And every once in a while, there came the truly inspirational treasure hunt - the one that might lead to her own past - for she had not always lived on the North American continent.

Nohni knew she'd been born in Egypt because jackals of her particular coloration came from the upper Nile Valley region of Egypt. Also, her earliest memories from puphood contained vague images of a vast desert of sun and sand. Then there were the memories of a large, golden female and an even larger, male, black jackal. However, these memories had never been more than fleeting glimpses, and they all had a very apprehensive feel to them along with a sense of flight. Whether these were her parents or not was unclear. What Nohni did know was that very early in her life she'd been adopted by a native-american raccoon couple from one of the Ojibwa tribes in North America.

Nohni's name as a child was different than her present name since many tribes re-named children once they reached puberty. Her adult name, Nohni Wabanda, literally meant "She shows her breasts". This came from her days growing up as a child when - just like the boys - she refused to wear a shirt when it was hot. In fact, she was quite 'tom-boyish' as a youngster, and would get into rough and tumble fights with the other boys along with doing other activities mostly associated with the young males of the tribe - things like hunting and tracking - which she was very good at because of her Jackal heritage. When this tendency to go shirtless continued on into puberty, it only seemed natural that her adult name be "She shows her breasts", or Nohni Wabanda. The Ojibwa tribe didn't think of this name as having overt sexual connotations. Rather, it was a name that was quite descriptive of her outgoing, 'up front' personality. That her name was amusing as well was not derogatory in any way. Humorous names were quite common in the Ojibwa tribe. One acquired a more serious name later in life after one had gained notoriety for some courageous deed. The tribe could have also named Nohni "female who tracks the little squirrel all day and all night" for her dogged determination, but that wasn't nearly as funny.

A sudden commotion outside her door snapped Nohni back to the present. Glad for any excuse not to continue grading tests, she jumped from her chair, ran to the door and flung it open…

…only to come face to face with a huge pair of barely covered breasts.

Nohni's eyes traveled up between those breasts past an enormous, white, neck ruff until they locked onto a pair of light-brown eyes looking down at her from out of a large canid face - a face surrounded by an enormous aureole of white mane.

"I tried to stop her," bleated the building's receptionist, "but she barged right in."

Nohni turned to the fur almost hidden by the big femme's shockingly huge tail. "It's O.K. Barbara. I'll take it from here." Nohni stepped back into her office and motioned the big femme to follow. As she walked to her paper strewn desk, Nohni noted exactly where she'd placed her 'friends' - her fourteen foot bull-whip and her gold-anodized .45 auto sidearm. Despite telling the receptionist everything was okay Nohni had learned early on the value of being cautious - and prepared. An eight foot tall scantily clad femme fur barging into your building was definitely not the same as the local pizza delivery rat. Positioning herself behind her desk, Nohni turned to her guest.

"I think introductions are in order. You first." Nohni's tone was firm, but without rancor. It wouldn't do to antagonize someone of this size.

The big femme stood a little straighter.

"I am named Chryona Winter." Clouds of silver-white hair fell past her muzzle as the huge femme bowed her head.

Nohni nodded in return and studied the magnificent silver-grey femme who seemed to fill nearly half the office. "Her name is 'Winter'? She certainly has the fur coat for it," Nohni thought. "And her name isn't the only thing that fits her."

There was Winter's startlingly deep voice, as well.

It was not 'deep' like a masculine voice. Rather, it was a rich, and very feminine, bass-contralto. A voice one could feel in their bones as well as hear with their ears. A low, rumble of a voice. A big voice for a big fur. It suited her. Nohni held out both paws, palm up. "I am…," she began.

"You are already known to me, Ozaawi Nijab!" interrupted Winter.

Ozaawi Nijab!?

Nohni's surprise almost made her miss the tiny movement from the big femme, but she reacted instantly when she saw it. One paw grabbed the handle of the bullwhip hanging on the coat rack even as the other paw slammed open the latch on the vaulted office window behind her. She dived headlong through the opening window and dropped one story before the whip, still attached by its end to the coat rack, pulled her upright as it snapped taught. Her feet slammed hard onto the first story ledge, and a practiced flip of the wrist undid the whip's end from the coat rack. She instantly jumped to her left as a large, heavily furred arm shot out the window and released a flashing throwing star that shot sparks as it careened off the ledge at Nohni's feet. A quick crack of the whip sent its end wrapping around the grey-furred wrist.

"Time to come out and play Ms. Big Foot!"

Nohni pulled - hard.

Nothing happened.

Then she felt herself being lifted up.

Nohni let go of her whip, and dropped back to the ledge. A quick backward squat followed by a short drop, and she was hanging from the ledge by her paws. Another rather long drop and she was on the ground. A growl above her caught her attention and she saw that Winter was already dropping to the first story ledge. Nohni didn't question how a fur that large could get out a small window that fast. She had, and that was that.

Okay. A running battle then.

Nohni cut to her right and headed for the University athletic field, which had little cover, but lots of room to maneuver. Nohni liked to move, and an idea was beginning to form in her head. This would be interesting.

A thump and grunt behind her told Nohni that Winter had landed. Nohni immediately turned around and began back-pedaling as fast as she could - which was pretty fast.

Never turn your back and run from danger. You can't see what it's got planned for you.

True to this rule, Nohni saw Winter throw another star at her, which she easily dodged. Just as easily, she shed her suit jacket, which was quickly followed by her shirt and tie. Moving was so much easier without the extra clothing *and* it was a lot cooler in this heat. The skirt stayed in place since it was short enough not to hinder her. Then she concentrated on moving backwards. Nohni knew the University grounds well enough to know where most obstacles were so she really didn't need to see where she was going. Classes were in session so the campus was fairly empty. Still, she kept an ear open for any startled yelps behind her, and occasionally tossed a quick look over her shoulder to be sure of a clear path. They were getting close to the athletic field and even though Nohni was fast at running backwards, Winter was gaining on her.

Time to hit the stands for some stair-step exercises.

Nohni spun to her left as she ran onto the athletic field and jumped the fence in front of the viewing stands. On a whim, she did a forward flip onto the first bench and started running sideways just as Winter clamored over the fence. Nohni could see the big fur's chest heaving as she panted. Nohni grinned. She back-pedaled up several more levels with Winter doing her best to follow. It seemed Winter had dropped the idea taking down her quarry with a thrown weapon, since Nohni wasn't giving her an easy target. It also looked as if Winter was starting to feel the heat. Her tongue was lolling and saliva was running copiously from it.

This will work.

Nohni turned and dashed up the last few steps to the top of the viewing stands. Then it was over the back railing and a 'monkey bars' climb down the back of the scaffolding holding up the stands. When she hit ground again, Nohni dashed through the tangle of steel supports under the stands and back out onto the field. Turning around, she saw that Winter was struggling even more to keep up.

Good. Now to put the 'drop' on her.

Nohni put on a burst of speed and headed straight for the Patriarch University's rugby team, the P. U. 'Pets', who happened to be doing a practice scrimmage today.

"Oh boys!" she yelled as she approached the two squads. "My large, grey friend," she punched a thumb back at Winter, "thinks the 'Pets' are a bunch of WIMPS! Well, *I* think a gang tackle on her might convince her otherwise!"

Eager to please this well thought of, and presently topless, professor, the team charged the huge panting femme lumbering toward them. The collision was colossal. Bodies piled up and it seemed there was no way Winter could escape.

Except she did.

Bodies flew everywhere as the silver-grey hulk plowed through them. Nohni let out an exasperated huff, and began back-pedaling again. This might take longer than she thought. Unfortunately, she'd not seen one obstacle behind her.

The stupid football lying abandoned on the ground.

Stepping directly on it, Nohni lost her balance and toppled over. Then, before she could regain her feet, a huge paw clamped itself around her neck, and yanked her off the ground. Nohni quickly found herself staring directly into a foam and saliva drooling maw chock full of sharp teeth. Scaldingly hot breath washed over her face in great gasps. This might have caused anyone else to pee their pants, but not Nohni. She was seeing something else.

The brilliant red color the inside of Winter's mouth.

The glazed look stealing across Winter's light-brown eyes.

The pitiful, weakening grip of Winter's paw on her neck.

Nohni braced herself. It was as if Winter was a very large marionette that had just had its strings cut. The big femme simply crumpled to the ground, and Nohni found herself lying beneath a very heavy, unconscious, and hot female fur.

"I need some help here, boys!" wheezed Nohni. In no time, Winter was rolled off of her, and Nohni sprang up, shouting, "Gatorade Drill!" She pointed at Winter.

The rugby team dashed for the sidelines to get barrels of iced Gatorade and tubs of ice. In the mean time, Nohni stripped off what little clothing Winter had on. This was not because Nohni wanted a better look at her. It was because Nohni needed to relieve Winter of any more weapons she might have hidden on her person. That, and Winter was in very real danger of dying from heatstroke if she wasn't cooled down, quickly.

That's what Nohni had known from the beginning. Chryona Winter was obviously a cold climate fur. It must be in the high 80s here today. There was no way a critter this large, with this much fur, could keep pace with Nohni without dangerously overheating herself.

So why was Nohni trying to save Winter now? Because she wanted to know why this giantess had attacked her. If nothing else, Nohni Wabanda was a very curious sort. It was this attribute that made treasure hunting so enjoyable. It was not the reward or the fame. It was the hunt that made it all worth while. That, and finally finding solutions to the fascinating, ages-long puzzle called "History".

"Ice! Over here! Now!" she yelled.

A tub was dumped next to her and she plunged a paw in, pulling out a fistful. Then, without regard for modesty, Nohni pushed one of Winter's big, furry legs aside and unceremoniously shoved the ice right into her. She packed as much ice as would fit into both of Winter's lower orifices. It was rather crude, but emergency medical procedures were not always noted for their propriety - and it would certainly bring down her internal core temperature. Nohni also noticed something else when she was doing this. For a femme who was definitely an adult, Winter seemed to be a virgin.

Meanwhile, several rugby team members had packed Winter's head and neck in ice since the brain was most sensitive to excess heat. Others had done the same with the armpits to cool the blood flowing through the brachial arteries. More ice was dumped over the groin area to cool the femoral blood flow. Finally, two of the iced Gatorade barrels were completely emptied over Winter's whole body, soaking her to the skin. Nohni noted that they were Grape and Blue Raspberry - which gave Winter's fur a bluish look - a look that was even colder than the grey it was before.

"Should I call for an ambulance?" asked a canine rugby team member, holding up a cell phone.

Nohni shook her head. "What with your timely help, I don't think we'll need one now," which was true enough. The melting ice was doing its job, and Winter was already stirring feebly - which reminded Nohni. She needed to ensure Winter's immobility when she finally woke up. Nohni also needed a little privacy with this femme to ask her some pointed questions. She turned to the rugby team that seemed to be taking its time admiring the two of them. She made shooing motions.

"Thanks for your help, boys, now off with you. I may not mind showing off my chest, but my friend here," Nohni brushed a lock of damp mane from Winter's muzzle, "she's a shy one - so toss me a few of those towels on the bench before you go on about your business." Nohni's paw suddenly shot behind her and she grabbed one of the furs by the groin. "And please erase those cell-phone pictures you just took or I may need to talk to a certain coach about certain activities that could get you banned from the team?" Nohni turned her head around and saw the fur rapidly tapping away on his cell phone. "Thank you." She glared around. "Now…haven't you boys got something else to do?"

Several towels were tossed at her before the team ran off to the showers. Nohni quickly turned back to Winter, and in no time, had her trussed up with the towels. She then rolled Winter onto her side, sat down in front of her and waited. Slowly the big femme's eyes fluttered open. A small shake of her head sent ice and water cascading down her mane. She tried to sit up.

"Easy there, big girl," said Nohni - her paw on Winter's shoulder holding her down.

Winter struggled for only a moment, before laying her head back down with a weary groan. Nohni regarded her for a moment longer, and then asked, "So, why did you try to kill me?"

Slowly, Winter raised her eyes to Nohni. They seemed to stop and stare at Nohni's chest ruff. Nohni looked down at herself, wondering what had caught Winter's attention, but nothing seemed amiss. She looked back at the big femme in time to see a single, large tear roll down Winter's wet cheek. Then, with a mournful howl, the big femme dropped her head to the grass and began to sob.

Nohni sat back on her heels, totally clueless and shook her head.

She might not know what was going on with this big, bountiful fur, but whatever it was, it had to be more interesting than grading tests.

For one thing, Nohni had never seen a throwing star like those Winter had. She examined one of six that she'd taken from the big femme. About six inches across, it had seven points. The center was a flat, silvery disk surrounded by a clear, light blue ring that graduated to opaque black at the points. The black had a filiform texture to it, and the whole thing had weight. Nohni turned it over, but there seemed to be no markings. Setting the thing down with the others, she dug in her skirt pocket, retrieved her cell phone and quickly punched a few keys.

"Raven? Nohni here. Are you busy?"

"Only if you consider grading summer-term tests 'busy'."

Nohni grinned at her friend's predicament. Raven Hunt was also a teacher at Patriarch University and had the same 'end-of-term' chores Nohni had.

"I take it you'd prefer doing something else?"

"Too true. My fingers might be working themselves to the bone, but my brain checked out over an hour ago. You have something more interesting?"

"Of course! I'm a very 'interesting' gal."

"So, is this official? Or is it something that'll require a shower afterwards."

"Not sure, Raven. Things are still developing. The reason I called is I need someone to get my Hummer and drive it to the athletic field. We need to do a 'pick-up' on a very large femme who just tried to do me in."

"You're fine though, aren't' you?"

"Would I be calling if I wasn't?"

"On my way."

Nohni put her cell back in her skirt pocket and picked up a throwing star, examining it more closely. Tapping the center disk returned a metallic click, but a tap on the clear blue substance gave a dull click. Nohni grasped the star in both paws and tried to bend it. It gave, slightly.

Clear and flexible? A polycarbonate plastic, perhaps? But with a black filiform textured edge.

The edge looked very much like the high-tech, carbon nanotube composite that a grad student Nohni 'knew' was working on. She ran a black point of the star lightly across a claw. A scratch appeared instantly.

Sharp. Very sharp.

Nohni gripped one edge between forefinger and thumb and with a quick flip of the wrist, tossed the star at the bench on the sidelines perhaps ten meters away. The star's very flat trajectory was evident as it sped to the target and buried itself with a 'thunk' in the wooden bench. She got up, retrieved it, returned and dropped it back down next to the others. Nohni glanced over at the now whimpering Winter. This femme's throwing stars were not primitive by any means, but her scant clothing was. Nohni stooped and picked up the skimpy halter top she'd removed from the femme. It was tough, yet supple, with a mottled black and grey color.

Some sort of leather, but from what?

Crude, metal rings held the larger pieces together, while rough, sinew-like cord sewed several pockets into place. Decoration was limited to two 'snowflake' patterns on the left shoulder strap. Winter's 'skirt' was a simple wrap-around affair with a side clasp and more pockets and pouches sewn on. Nohni picked up one of the stars again and held it next to the skirt.

Old and new. Ancient and modern.

Something wasn't fitting together here.

A rustling brought Nohni's eyes back to her prisoner. Winter had ceased her weeping and had struggled onto her back. Lying there, the big femme looked at what Nohni held in her paws - first the clothing - then the weapon. Several emotions flashed across her light brown eyes - defeat and resignation being the most obvious. Then she sought out Nohni's eyes and locked on. As she did so, Nohni saw the emotions fade into a dead, glassy stare. Slowly, Winter lifted her chin from her luxurious chest ruff and exposed the short, grey fur on her warm throat. Nohni could see the pulse beating beneath the skin. She also saw a flicker of fear in the depths of Winter's glassy stare.

And Nohni knew what was expected of her - what she must now do to her 'enemy'.

In a flash, she tossed away the skirt, dropped to Winter's side, grabbed a fistful of white mane and yanked the femme's head back.

Nohni howled.

Winter screamed.

The deadly throwing star slashed down.

The fur flew.

The cut was true.

And when it was done, Winter was…

 

…missing a chunk of her mane.

 

Nohni pushed her snarling muzzle right into Winter's startled face. "I give you your life back on ONE condition! You will NEVER attempt to take mine again!" She brandished the fistful of mane she'd just sliced off. "Or your own," she finished.

Winter gulped and nodded, wide-eyed.

Nohni sat back, and nodded as well. "Good enough for me." She took the throwing star and began to slice off the towels binding Winter's arms and legs. If her hunch was right, Winter's neck-exposing gesture was an acknowledgement of her defeat - and her likely execution. Primitive cultures tended toward the drastic when it came to battle consequences. Sparing a defeated enemy was only acceptable if the victor took something of equal value. In Winter's case, Nohni had taken the one thing that might be of use to her - Winter's freedom.

At least she hoped she had.

As a Doctor of Archeology, Nohni had studied the myriad ancient cultures of this world, and she knew that a forcibly obtained hank of hair was often a powerful symbol of dominance. Many of the Native American Tribes had done something similar in their ancient past. The look in Winter's eyes seemed to confirm her suspicion. Nohni cut the last of the bonds and Winter sat up, rubbing her wrists.

Just then, a black Hummer with gold tinted windows rumbled onto the athletic field. Winter scrambled behind Nohni and crouched down - which was a poor fit if what Winter was trying to do was hide herself. The Hummer careened across the field and spit rocks as it skidded to a halt a mere two meters from them. The door flew open and out popped a buxom, blue wolf.

Nohni glanced over her shoulder at Winter. "A friend of mine," she said in explanation. "We need to get you cleaned up."

Raven Hunt cocked her head. "I take it by your comment that, unlike myself, blue isn't this gal's normal color?"

"Nope," answered Nohni. "We did the Grape Flavored Gatorade dump on her."

"Kinky. I'm sure the rest of the story is just as interesting." Raven opened the back door of the Hummer. "Good thing the seats in your Macho-Mobile aren't leather. That would make it hard to clean up."

Nohni took Winter by the wrist and pulled her upright. Raven's eyes followed the big femme as she rose up - and up - and up. Raven whistled. "Big gal, isn't she."

"Who will need a big tub to clean up in," said Nohni. She looked Winter up and down. "Maybe a pool sized tub. Your place, then?" she finished, looking to Raven.

"Pool Party at my place it is then. Everyone hop in!"

And they were off.

 

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At Raven's place, Nohni pulled the blue wolf to one side in the poolside changing room. "Let me have a few words with our big friend alone at first."

"You sure you'll be okay?" asked Raven, eyeing the big femme standing quietly in a corner with her head bowed.

Nohni nodded. "I think some of our mutual 'TLC' will be needed at some point later, but I need to get some answers first."

"Your call," said Raven. "I'll have the scented oils ready when we need them."

Nohni winked and grabbed several fur brushes. Then, brushes in paw, she led the big, grey femme through the changing room doors toward Raven's outdoor pool. It wasn't heated (no need at this time of year) and that was best. With her heavy fur, Winter would not appreciate a hot bath. Tepid would be just right. When they reached the steps at the shallow end of the pool, Nohni motioned Winter to precede her. In silence, Winter obeyed. Nohni shook her head. This abject submission was almost as disturbing as Winter's attack had been. The big femme hadn't spoken a single word since she'd spat out the "Ozaawi Nijab" name back in Nohni's office.

"Ozaawi Nijab" thought Nohni as she stepped into the water after Winter. It meant 'Yellow Eyes' in the Ojibwa language. How had Winter come to know that name? There was only one fur on this planet who had ever called Nohni by that name - an overbearing oaf of an Ojibwa tribe member from Nohni's puphood called Gitchi Niigaani. His adolescent name literally meant 'Big Head'. Nohni snorted. It was a good name for that conceited clod. Irregardless of that, she would have to ask Winter about the name at some point. First, however there was some bathing to do. It would be interesting to see how the 'slave' would respond to her new 'master's' ministrations.

"Time to get wet all over," Nohni said, pointing down. Winter obliged, sinking slowly beneath the water. Grape Gatorade tinted the water as it spread out from the big femme. A moment later, she rose, her silver mane hugging her head and shoulders like a white mantle. "Sit here." Nohni pointed to a contoured seating area under the water at the deeper end of the pool. Again, Winter complied. Nohni glided to her side and stood, which brought her about eye to eye with Winter. Without a word, she squeezed a small amount of FurGel cleanser onto a wide, short bristled brush, and began to brush it into Winter's mane.

Three strokes with the lay of the fur. One stroke against to stimulate the skin.

Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. Brush. Pull.

Nohni fell into a steady rhythm, and began to hum to herself. It was an old Ojibwa chant usually accompanied by a drum, but even without the drum beat, it had a steady rhythmic quality that was meant to soothe.

Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. Brush. Pull.

Winter's eyes now had a troubled, questioning look in them, but still Nohni brushed on, applying more FurGel when needed. She worked her way to Winter's broad shoulders. Here, Nohni noted the tense muscles beneath the fur - muscles that seemed far too close to the skin - like there was very little fat covering them. Nohni would have expected a deeper fat layer on a cold-weather fur. When had Winter last eaten? Because of her fur, she must have come from the far north - a long journey to be sure. She must also have had few rations if her body fat content was anything to go by. Nohni then realized that Winter could not have taken public transport, either. A huge fur like her would have garnered a great deal of attention that way, and Nohni thought this was not what Winter would have wanted if her mission was murder. Nohni looked down at Winter's feet. Yes. Even beneath the water she could see the cracked toeclaws that indicated a long, hard road. She also suspected that Winter had traveled mostly at night.

A desperate mission indeed.

Nohni dropped the brush down to Winter's chest.

Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. Brush. Pull.

The fur was denser and shorter here, so little pull was needed on the fourth backstroke. When running the brush over them, Nohni noted that the breasts seemed very soft. Too soft. Like slightly deflated soccer balls. More fat loss? This seemed to support the other evidence that pointed to a long and difficult journey on meager rations.

And then to almost kill herself trying to take down her target? What could cause such desperation?

Nohni stopped her brushing and regarded Winter for a long moment. It was true that desperate furs were capable of desperate deeds, but that didn't mean they truly wanted to do those things. Making a decision, Nohni set the brush aside and took Winter's face in her paws. The big femme's eyes were even more troubled now. Nohni smiled. She could well imagine Winter's confusion. The one she had attacked was ministering to her as if she were a queen in her own palace. Nohni leaned forward and gently touched noses with Winter. Then she began to lick the grey muzzle tenderly.

Lick. Lick. Lick.

Tears welled up in the big femme's eyes. Nohni licked them away as a mother might do for her distraught pup. At this, Winter closed her eyes and began to shake, so Nohni wrapped her arms around the big femme as best she could. Licking Winter's ear, she finally whispered, "I am not your enemy."

With a heartfelt keen, Winter buried her face in Nohni's chest ruff and began to cry again in earnest. "I… I see that n…now," she snuffled as she ran her huge paw through Nohni's chest ruff. "Y…you do not have what I seek since it must leave its mark on any who possess it." Winter put her paw to her own chest ruff and parted the fur slightly. There beneath the fur over her heart lay a faint, ice-blue mark on the skin. It looked like a dagger.

"What is it you seek?" whispered Nohni.

Winter gulped back her tears and sat up straight, eyes gleaming. She looked beyond Nohni as if into a great distance. Then she placed a paw over her heart. "It is my fate to suffer it… and to use it when the Time is right." The words came out as if they had been memorized - almost as if Winter didn't fully grasp their true meaning.

"And what is this burden that you must bear?" Nohni asked.

Winter shivered, as if caught in a gust of icy wind, and her eyes dropped back to Nohni's. "I must suffer the power of Winter's Shard."

Nohni felt a familiar stirring in her breast, and the ghost of a smile creased her lips.

The hunt was on!

 

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Later that evening, relaxing contentedly on the huge sofa lounge, Nohni dropped her head on the shoulder beside her. "Hmmmm. You smell nice."

"Of course I do," quipped Raven. "We nearly used up my entire supply of scented massage oils on your massive friend now sleeping peacefully in my guest room. Some of it was bound to rub off on us. Hmmm. She seemed to like our ministrations."

"I was wondering if she would," answered Nohni raising her head to look more seriously at her friend. "Although simple body massage doesn't really count as such, primitive societies often frown on any sort of 'same-sex' shenanigans since they don't increase the population - something that most primitive societies find desirable. More furs mean a better chance of survival for the group as a whole."

Raven reached over and tapped Nohni's temple. "So you're thinking Winter's home society may not be as primitive as her outfit led you to first believe?"

Nohni cocked her head. "I'm not sure. The outfit is primitive to be sure, but now I'm thinking that its crudeness may not be because Winter's society lacks technology, but rather because her society doesn't use clothing at all. This being the case, they'd simply have no knowledge of how to make a decent set of duds."

"No clothing?" asked Raven, looking dubious.

"With a fur coat like hers, why would anyone like Winter need clothing? You saw how dense the fur was when we were working the fur conditioner and oils through it."

"That I did. That's probably why it took so much conditioner and oil. A veritable cosmetic sponge, that one."

Nohni gave a snort. "Quit your griping. You enjoyed it as much as I did."

Raven murred, showing sharp white teeth. "I did. Such a fine, BIG lady."

"Even bigger after we fed her up a bit." Nohni said. "She certainly ate a lot."

"Something else you'll need to replace," commented Raven, tapping Nohni on the nose. "Groceries aren't cheap."

"All in a good cause," Nohni answered. "I think I'll be able to charge all of this to my D3035 account. That's the grant for my archeological research."

"So, you're going off with Winter to try recovering this 'Shard of Winter', or whatever it's called?"

Nohni gave a smirk. "You know I am."

Raven looked at her friend, a far off glint in her eyes. "One of these days, I'm going to come with you. Ahhh, the adventure. The glamour."

"The bugs. The diseases. The lousy sleeping conditions." continued Nohni. "You'd love it."

The two friends gazed at one another for a long time.

"Someday."

 

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It was the quiet dark just before the dawn.

Silently, a figure crept to the bedside of the large, sleeping femme. No toe-click revealed its presence. No shadow marked its passage. Slowly the figure knelt down beside the sleeper. Then a paw slid forward into the lush, silver chest-ruff, until it came to rest gently upon an ice-blue dagger - or rather, a dagger-shaped mark on the skin beneath the fur. The paw stopped and felt warmth here - as well as the slow beat of a living heart deep within - a large and powerful heart.

Beat…..beat…..beat….

The rhythm of life was strong and steady in this one, yet the sleeper to whom it belonged seemed troubled. Small whimpers escaped trembling lips and paws twitched as if in a struggle.

Nohni withdrew her paw from Winter's chest-ruff and softly stroked the big femme's cheek until the whimpering subsided. Then, sitting back on the bench beside the bed, Nohni regarded her charge. Was Winter 'her charge'? Winter acted almost as if she was a prisoner of war, but what war was that? Nohni didn't know. Hopefully, it wasn't a war with her. Nohni rather thought she'd put that notion to rest with her, and Raven's, ministrations of the previous evening. That Winter enjoyed those ministrations was without question. Yet, hers had been a very 'innocent' enjoyment - like this was an unexpected and delightful present.

Or…like something that was completely unknown to her.

Had Winter ever had intimate body contact of any sort with another fur? Nohni thought about the previous day when she'd been trying to save Winter's life on the rugby field. Winter was still very much 'flowered', with all anatomical indicators of virgin-hood still in place. Nohni also assumed that Winter had reached her full adult size since further growth from this point on would require much thicker supporting bones in the hips and legs and a different weight distribution. During the 'massage therapy' of the previous evening Nohni had noted that, over all, Winter fit her own skin and fur very well. No. It was unlikely she was a youngling - or even a young adult. She was as big as she would get.

Yet, despite all she had found out, Nohni was still very much 'in the dark' about this whole situation. Nohni glanced about the darkened bedroom and smiled. Her night vision was quite acute, so even this low level of light revealed much. Yet, much about Winter herself was still unknown.

For example, how did she know the name "Ozaawi Nijab"? Nohni could have asked that question at any time last evening, but that would have interrupted what was a very relaxing activity for Winter. Nohni knew she had time with this femme. Winter gave no indication of trying to 'escape' her situation. Not at this time anyway. So, the necessary task of gathering information about Winter and her 'Shard' was not on a tight schedule. Nohni thought this best because trying to force information from Winter would probably not get the desired results. Oh, as Winter's ersatz 'Master', Nohni had every right to ask anything she wanted, but this would only reinforce the Master/Slave nature of their present relationship - a condition Nohni did not want to perpetuate. At some point, Nohni and Winter would need to become equal partners in this if what Nohni had in mind was going to work.

In the end, forcing information from Winter before she was ready to give it would not give the answers Nohni needed. Truth was never beaten out of someone. 'Forced' confessions were merely what a prisoner thought the interrogator wanted to hear - which was as likely to be false as any contrived story. No. Information was either given freely or it risked being flawed.

And flawed data led to flawed conclusions.

Which were usually followed by disastrous actions.

And Nohni had a feeling she couldn't afford disaster where Winter's Shard was concerned.

 

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Hot Tails and Paper Trails

 

"We'll be there…"

       Ba-da-bump!

"…shortly."

       Da-Lump!

"Really…"

       Hump-a-rump!

"…we…"

       La-DUMP!

"…will."

Nohni winced as she bounced. She hated road re-construction. This route to the Patriarch University Library was usually a good short-cut, but not this week. It certainly wasn't comfortable for the big femme squashed in the back of the "Rumble Bee" - Nohni's name for her black and gold Hummer.

For one thing, Winter was terrified of the 'Bee' itself.

I really need to check my own assumptions more often.

Nohni thought that Winter's fear of the Hummer yesterday had been a holdover from the unconventional hair-cut Nohni had given her. Not true. Nohni's supposition that Winter had avoided public transport so as not to draw attention to herself on the way down here was also incorrect. The truth was, it seemed that certain mechanical aspects of civilization, like vehicles, scared Winter. However, other aspects that were just as sophisticated did not cause a problem. Things like electric lights - and computers. Though Winter showed no desire to operate it, the desktop computer in Raven's guest room didn't frighten her.

The radio-alarm clock, on the other paw, most certainly did.

Nohni recalled nearly being crushed to death by those big, grey arms this morning. She'd wanted to be there when Winter woke up to be sure she didn't try running from unfamiliar surroundings. Instead, she had fallen asleep next to the big femme while waiting. The next thing she knew, Rush Limbuck was screaming out of the clock radio, and Winter was screaming back - with Nohni in a body-lock that just wouldn't quit. It was only Raven's quick reaction shutting off the clock radio that saved Nohni from serious injury - or worse.

After a profuse apology accompanied by much crying, Winter had calmed down enough for breakfast - which became another revealing affair. The previous evening's meal was more a gobble-fest than a meal with Winter manually shoveling in anything set in front of her. Breakfast was different. She took her time looking at and sniffing everything (including items on Nohni and Raven's plates) before delicately tasting them. She also didn't seem to know what eating utensils were for, choosing instead to use her fingers as she had last night. She liked playing with the oatmeal, rolling the sticky grain into little balls and pushing them around the table, but she didn't eat them. Fried eggs seemed a complete mystery to her. She poked a soft-fried one and grimaced when the yellow yolk ran out. She'd asked if Raven had any uncooked eggs, and delightedly sucked several dry after poking a hole in the shells. She liked the bacon, giving it a single sniff and then gulping down the entire plateful. Sniffing coffee made her sigh. Sipping it made her gag. Milk gave her a dreamy expression, though she only sipped it once. Orange juice mystified her, as did most of the other fruits. She did like the blueberries, eating several pawfulls so fast that the skins stained her lips purple. She also asked for 'swimmers' and made wiggling motions with her paws. This mystified Raven, but Nohni thought it could mean 'fish' since fish was a common part of cold weather diets. Raven had complied with a can of tuna (which was the only fish she had) and Winter emptied the can in a single gulp. During all this, Nohni observed and noted everything. One did not always need to ask questions to gain knowledge.

But at some point, you needed to ask questions.

And that's when they discovered how woefully ignorant Winter truly was.

 

 

Winter stared across the breakfast table at Nohni. Her look of dismay at Nohni's simple question was almost comical.

"Your species," Nohni repeated. "I wanted to know what the furs of your type call themselves. You look like some sort of canid, but I've never seen or heard of anyone quite like you."

Winter looked from Nohni to Raven and back again. "Spee-sees?" she asked, looking thoroughly perplexed. "I am Chryona Winter. That is who I am. What is 'spee-sees'?"

"Oookay," Raven drawled, looking to Nohni. "Looks like Winter needs a little remedial education. You want to do the honors, professor?"

Nohni nodded and stood up, putting on her best 'teaching' face. She pointed to Raven and then to herself. "Raven and I are both 'Canid' type furs. Some cruder furs simply call us 'dawgs'. As you can see, there are some similarities between us that are shared by all canids. These would include non-retractable claws," Nohni showed her claws, "and other things, such as the general shape of our muzzles and ears. However, we are different species, because there are some obvious differences, too. Take our coloration for example."

Nohni stepped over to Raven and drew the blue wolf out of her chair. Then she stood beside her for contrast.

"I…" Nohni bowed. "…am a Jackal. That is what my 'species' is called. Within our species we have minor color variations, but nothing like the difference between Raven and me. I am a Golden Jackal. I'm distinguished from the Black-backed Jackal, for example, in that my back fur is not black, but light brown, bordered by black." She pirouetted to display her back, and then faced Winter again. "My body fur is also lighter with my mane being bright gold-blonde." She tossed her head, letting her mane dance around her shoulders, its bright highlights shimmering. "Other Jackals are generally darker overall." She put an arm around Raven's shoulder. "However, there are no 'Blue' Jackals." Nohni grasped Raven's paw and held it up "A lovely color is it not? The blue color is unique to Raven's species."

Winter was staring fixedly at Raven's paws. "Why are they…uh…I mean, why is she blue?"

Nohni dropped her head onto Raven's right shoulder and pretended to closely examine the fur there. "It's all due to light reflection and refraction. You see…"

To Nohni and Raven's surprise, Winter jumped up and came to Raven's other side, almost pressing her nose right into Raven's left arm. "Yes! I see!" murmured Winter, parting Raven's fur with her fingers. "It's because of the shape and micro-texture of the hairs themselves. The common brown fur pigment in the hair merely determines how dark the fur is. But if the micro-scales on the hair itself are just the right shape and thickness, they will reflect light from only a small portion of the visible light spectrum - in this case, the blue end. If the light has no blue in it, like a red-lit room, Raven's fur would look grey, not blue!"

Now it was Nohni and Raven's turn to look stupid. They turned to each other. "Maybe she was good at physics but lousy at biology?" Raven offered in a whisper.

"Then how would she know about the micro-anatomy of a hair?" countered Nohni.

They both looked down at Winter, who was still engrossed in Raven's fur. Here was another mystery. Winter's knowledge seemed to be awfully selective. Now, Nohni knew that most cultures favored certain areas of knowledge - usually the sort of knowledge that was useful in helping them survive. So what other knowledge did Winter possess besides the physical properties of light?

"Winter?" Nohni touched the big femmes paw and Winter looked up. "Where did you learn how light works?"

Winter looked puzzled again. "Learn? I always knew about light. Light is important. It is the bringer of life - and heat."

"But someone must have taught you this," countered Nohni.

"I have no one. I am Chryona Winter."

"You had no teacher?" asked Nohni, cocking her head. "But surely your people must have had teachers - or mentors - or something."

Winter rose up, her brow crinkled in thought, her eyes distant. "My people?" She looked down. "I have no 'people'. What is 'Teacher'?"

No teachers? No tribe or clan? No one!?

A thought was beginning to form in Nohni's mind - a disturbing thought. She looked up into Winter's large, liquid, light-brown eyes - ones filled with an innocence that was touching, yet disturbing. She reached up and ran a paw through Winter's lush and bountiful chest ruff.

"Winter?" Nohni asked. "Who are your parents?"

Winter's innocent gaze clouded over for a moment as her paw crept up to her own chest ruff.

"I have no one. I am Chryona Winter. I…I am who I am."

"And Winter's Shard?" whispered Nohni. "What exactly is it?"

Nohni snatched her paw away as Winter's paw convulsively clutched at the fur of her chest ruff.

"It…It is…Winter's Shard."

The big femme closed her eyes. "It…is the burden I must bear." Winter's voice was becoming ragged and deep. "But…it has been…it has been taken!" Her muzzle rose toward the ceiling and, chest heaving, she began to shake.

"It…IS…GONE!"

Winter's last word mutated into an earsplitting and sonorous howl.

Half rage. Half despair. All feral.

She dropped to her knees, clutching her white mane, and rocked back and forth as the howl went on and on. She seemed unable to stop. Finally, with a great gasp, she crumpled to the floor and began to cry, piteously.

Nohni and Raven remained frozen for a long time. Then Nohni cautiously dropped to Winter's side and gently gathered the crying femme's great head into her lap.

"We will find it," Nohni whispered, stroking Winter's white mane. "I promise you - we will find Winter's Shard."

 

After that, the questioning of Winter went a bit more smoothly, but resulted in only a little more useful information. Yes, Winter had a home, if every square meter north of the 83rd parallel could be called a 'home'. She simply called it 'the Ice beyond Last Land'. Yes she remembered having a mother a long time ago, but no father (Once more, Winter didn't even know what the word 'father' meant.) No, she didn't know her age in 'years', but she thought she was 24 'cycles' old. No, Winter had no 'Tribe'. No. There was no one else like her that she knew of.  She wandered her realm alone.

However…

She did see other furs from time to time.

It was this line of questioning that yielded some usable information.

 

"When the Light returns after the Long Night, I sometimes come across a small Inuit Malamute tribe. This only happens when their Rising-Light wanderings bring them far from Last Land."

Nohni nodded. Here was something useful. Outside contact. Whoever took Winter's Shard needed information on Winter herself and her whereabouts. Granted, Winter was a big fur, but even she was a mere speck on the vast expanse of ice that was the entire Arctic Ocean. "You saw them then this past Spring…or the start of Rising-Light, as you call it?"

"Yes," said Winter. "Korfi Malu was their Leader before, but he died, so Hieki Lunta is their Leader now. I don't like him as much as Korfi. There is mischief in Hieki Lunta. But it is their right to choose whom they want to lead them."

The name 'Hieki Lunta' stirred a memory in Nohni, and she'd need to check that out at some point. But first - the obvious question. "Was this Hieki Lunta devious enough to have taken Winter's Shard?" Nohni asked.

Winter shook her head sharply and growled. "No! He was first one I asked after Winter's Shard was taken from me! He is spineless jellyfish!" Winter looked past Nohni, her eyes narrowing to dangerous slits. "He did tell me who had stolen Winter's Shard." Winter's lips curled back into a deadly snarl. "It was a notorious Thief and Grave Robber called Yellow Eyes - Ozaawi Nijab!"

"Obviously, he lied," was Nohni's droll response.

Winter's eyes snapped back to Nohni's, and the snarl literally dripped off her muzzle. She dropped her head. "Yes. I'm sorry. No, it was not you."

"And this Hieki Lunta was able to give you exact directions where to find me?" added Nohni.

Winter nodded. "I…I had to learn new place-names and things to look for, and it was a long way, but I had to get my Shard back." She dropped her head again. "I just had to," she sniffed.

"Winter?" Nohni touched the big femme's arm. "When was Winter's Shard taken? Can you describe how it was taken?"

Winter blinked hard a few times and nodded. "It was during a storm when I was close to the edge of the pack-ice near Land's End. Most storms, I simply curl up with my back to the wind and sleep through it. For some long-lasting storms, like this one, I dig a shelter. It is warmer, and the sound of the wind is less, so I sleep better. I slept perhaps six Light Circlings. I knew Winter's Shard was gone when I awoke." Winter gripped her chest ruff. "Everything felt so…so empty."

Nohni nodded, slowly stroking Winter's arm. Considering Winter's solitary existence, it was as if Winter's Shard was an imaginary companion - much like a small plushie might be a 'friend' to a pup or kit. However, Winter's Shard was no simple toy if someone had gone to such extraordinary lengths to steal it. The thief, or thieves, had used an arctic storm, of all things, for cover! A storm would mask sound and cover tracks to be sure, but who would risk an operation during fierce weather like that? That took insane courage, or some very sophisticated hardware. Probably both.

So… the Enemy was courageous, determined, skilled, and possibly crazy. The Enemy also had specialized equipment - which meant there was some hefty financial backing to buy or create stuff like that. Nohni let her tongue slide absently across her very sharp teeth as she grinned.

Sounds like just the sort of adversary I like.

 

 

Nohni smiled again as her thoughts returned to the present. She and Winter were approaching the Patriarch University Library. Now that she had something to go on, she needed to do some research. Yeah, she could have 'Googled' some of it back on Raven's desktop, but sifting fact from fiction on the internet was often much harder than a real-life, paws-on archeological dig. No. The research she needed to do involved irrefutable hardcopy - and that meant 'going to the Library'. This might also be an enlightening experience for Winter. After all, Winter was the epitome of the girl 'who needed to get out more often'.

 

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

 

"Sooooo… Who's your big, bountiful, and beautifully buxom friend?" asked the tawny lioness librarian.

Nohni grinned. "Before I introduce you, I need to ask if you will be acting the proper 'Lady' with my 'big, buxom friend."

Hazel Weiss gave a smirk, popped a claw, leaned over, and tapped Nohni's nose with it. "I'll have you know, Miss Sweet Cheeks, that I've never been a Lady." She glanced to where Winter stood quietly occupying most of an entire corner of the office. "So, are you going to introduce me to your large friend or not?"

"In a moment," whispered Nohni. She drew Hazel's head down to hers. "I need a favor. Since I'm going to be occupied for the next couple hours doing research, I need something to occupy my friend, Winter's, time. Yes, that's her name. Winter. I'd like you to set her up on one of the other network terminals here in your office - one that has a net browser running on it. Explain to her how search engines work and demonstrate a few of them to her. Then tell her she's free to do what she wants. Now here's the important part. Make sure you monitor that terminal and keep track of all the searches she's made along with the websites she's accessed."

"Nohni. You know it's against Library policy to electronically monitor student's terminal activity without their prior consent."

"She's not a student," countered Nohni. "I don't think she's even legally in this country. Look, this is important. I've got the feeling even she doesn't know what she'll be looking for - or even if she'll look at all. I just have a hunch there's more to her than meets the eye."

Hazel's eyes traveled up and down as she surveyed Winter. "Really? There's an awful lot there that just ‘meets the eye’. I take it neither you nor Raven had anything in her size. Is that a bed sheet she's wearing?"

"Yep. An 'Omar' special. I had to sneak her in through the private staff entrance, too. I’m trying to avoid unwanted public attention. Furs would likely talk after seeing a giant, nekkid wolfette. If anything gets to the authorities, some public muckity-muck might start asking for a passport that Winter doesn’t have, and that would mess up my travel plans."

Nohni beckoned to Winter, and the big femme stepped forward out of the shadowed corner. "Chryona Winter? This is Hazel Weiss." She gestured to the tawny librarian.

Hazel extended both paws, palm up. Winter looked to Nohni who nodded encouragingly. At this, Winter shrugged off her bed sheet and held out her enormous paws, laying them lightly atop of the offered ones. After a moment, Winter started to withdraw hers when Hazel grasped the long, silky fur of her wrists and gently pulled Winter down to her face. She gazed fixedly into Winter's eyes, and then touched noses with her. "Mmmm. You smell nice."

Winter blinked, then a shy smile crept across her muzzle.

Hazel grinned as well and took Winter by the paw, guiding her to a seat in front of another computer terminal. She looked at Winter and then at the seat in front of the computer. "Hmmm. Maybe this will do better." Hazel flipped the chair around, plucked the terminal from the tabletop and plunked it on the chair. "On the floor you go," said Hazel motioning to a spot in front of the chair. Winter sat down, cross-legged, and Hazel placed the keyboard in her lap. "Nohni wants me to show you how to use this com…"

But Winter was already tapping at the keys. Nohni saw that it wasn't typing, per say - just a tap followed by a look at the terminal. Apparently, Winter had already figured out that the keyboard was an input device. She was just seeing what results tapping the keys would have.

"You might need this," said Hazel, kneeling down beside Winter and laying a 'mouse' on the floor. She pointed to the mouse she was moving, then to the moving cursor on the screen. She ran the cursor over a link on the webpage presently on screen and clicked the left mouse button. A different screen popped up. She then placed one of Winter's big paws on the mouse. "You try."

Winter did. She hit the 'back' button which brought up the main search engine screen. Nohni noticed that Winter's eyes were darting back and forth at an astonishing speed, as if she were speed reading everything. She ran the cursor quickly over the drop-down menus one at a time. Then she proceeded to go through each menu separately, clicking rapidly on each option. Within moments she looked up. "I think I know what to do now. Nohni said I could look up anything I want?"

Hazel looked to Nohni with eyebrows raised. She shook her paw and mouthed "She's good!" She turned back to Winter and snaked a paw around the broad back, dropping her chin onto the big femme's right shoulder. "Yes. You can play on this to your heart's content. Nohni will be busy for a bit looking up things that she needs to help you find what you've lost."

Winter's head snapped around, a deep frown on her muzzle. Hazel lifted her chin from the well-furred shoulder and leaned back.

"I did not lose it!" came Winter's intense bass-contralto. It wasn't quite a shout.

To her credit, Hazel didn't back off any further. Instead she nodded once. "I apologize for my poor choice of words. I should have said 'Nohni will help you find what was stolen from you." The lioness slowly laid her chin back on Winter's shoulder, never breaking eye contact. "You have a strong advocate in Nohni Wabanda. You will find none better."

The two of them continued to stare at each other, unmoving. Finally Hazel stuck out her rasped tongue and drew it slowly through the fur at the base of Winter's lush neck ruff. "You really do smell nice," she murmured. Then she began to purr - a soft background rumble in the silence.

Winter's frown melted into the shy smile from before, and she dropped her head.

"Great. I can see you two will get along famously," commented Nohni. She set herself down in front of another terminal. "If you want me, I'll be the one over here doing some real work."

 

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

 

Fenrir.

The giant wolf of Norse mythology destined to swallow Odin whole at the 'Ragnarök' or 'the end of the world'.

Fenrir.

The giant wolf whose mouth was seen in medieval times as the entrance to Hell - a place that, according to Norse mythology, was located in Niflheim - a land of perpetual cold and ice.

Fenrir.

Offspring of Loki and the giantess Angrboða.

Fenrir.

Was a giant, male wolf.

Nohni clicked off the reference on her terminal screen and scrubbed at her eyes. To be sure, there were loads of references to wolves in northern European mythology. That was because wolves as a species preferred the cooler climates. But nothing seemed to point to anything like Winter and her Shard. Granted, Nohni had only checked Scandinavian, Finnish, Anglo-Saxon, Polish, Slavic and Germanic lore, but that was because Russian lore dealt mostly with mid-continent legends. Northern Siberia was even colder than the North Pole. There was little or no culture there to create legends in the first place.

The only other legends that might have something in them about a giant, solitary canid in the frozen north were those of the North American Native populations - specifically Canadian Inuit and Alaskan Aleut. Nohni had already suspected this, but the 'Hieki Lunta' name of the new Inuit tribal leader had prompted her to check out the European references anyway. 'Heiki Lunta', it turns out, was a Finnish folk character. A Father Christmas sort that was supposed to make it snow whenever he danced. It was an unusual name for an Inuit, but not inappropriate for a cold weather tribe. More and more Native Americans were adopting global attitudes, norms, and names. Rather sad if it meant the death of a unique native culture.

So why was Nohni checking for Winter's Shard references at all?

Because someone had found some sort of reference to that enigmatic object. How else would they know it even existed? Also, there was the name that Heiki Lunta had given to Winter - a name that only a very few furs knew.

'Ozaawi Nijab.' Yellow Eyes.

That bit of information had to have come from Nohni's own adopted Ojibwa tribe and nowhere else.

"It's a place to start, anyway," thought Nohni as she sat back and stretched luxuriously. Once the book research was done, the 'field work' began - and there seemed to be no better place to start than her old home Ojibwa tribe in northern Ontario.

Suddenly, strong tawny paws (with claws retracted) grasped her by the neck from behind…and began to massage it in slow, powerful strokes. Nohni leaned into the paws and sighed. "Mmmm. If I could purr, I'd be doing it right now."

"You looked like you needed it," came a rough whisper behind her left ear. "By the way, your friend, has been all over the Internet, but she seems to prefer sites with legitimate content."

"No porn?"

"Only her preferences were for legit informational sites. I didn't say she didn't do any casual browsing. Her eyes lit up a couple of times when she was looking at a certain wolf guy from the ZZ Studios site. She's got good tastes."

Nohni merely grinned.

"Hmmm. Strange thing was," continued Hazel, "her fingers kept rubbing a spot under her chest ruff when she was looking at the wolf. It was like she was doing it unconsciously."

"Interesting," said Nohni. "What sort of informational sites did she check out?"

"Present global weather seemed of big interest, but she also brought up a bunch of stuff on geography and geology. Mostly things like earthquake and volcano locations. She zeroed in on several spots in Alaska's Aleutian Peninsula, and also some spots in northern Siberia, namely the arctic island Novaya Zemlya. That's where the Russians tested their nuclear weapons. The largest H-Bomb ever detonated, the Tsar Bomba with a 50+ megaton yield, was air dropped there, very close to a seismically active fault. Other locations she checked out included the East Gakkal, a volcanically active sub-oceanic ridge about 90 kilometers from the geographic North Pole. Also another Arctic Ocean seismic hot spot about 70 kilometers north of the Sverdrup Islands in the Canadian Province of Nunavut. It seems a 6.0 temblor happened there just two days ago. An interesting side note to that is that the quake was located at almost the exact same spot as the North Magnetic Pole."

"Hot Spots in the Cold Arctic, eh?" said Nohni. "Anything else?"

Hazel nodded. "She spent a lot of time reading about the forced relocation of the Inuit of northern Quebec to Resolute and Grise Fiord during the cold war of the 50s. The Long Exile as the Inuit call it. I saw her crying softly when she was reading it."

Nohni dropped her head. "Yes. Native Americans were getting the shaft right up until modern times. The forced relocation of the Inuit was an effort to populate the high arctic and thus solidify Canada's territorial rights there."

"And keep the Ruskies out?"

"That was the idea. Unfortunately due to the harsh conditions the relocated natives nearly died of starvation. Some of them adapted though and it was one of those far northern groups that Winter would occasionally come in contact with in the Spring."

The two of them looked to where Winter sat, still engrossed in the computer monitor.

"Resolute has got to be a tough place to live," commented Hazel, "yet, Winter calls a place a lot harsher than that 'home'."

Nohni nodded. "And there are no others like her."

So who was Chryona Winter? Really? No one knew.

But that would change soon if Nohni had her way.

 

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

 

Gun Times is Fun Times?

 

The door to the Head Librarian's office crashed open and two dark-suited badgers brandishing pistols barged in.

"F.B.I.! EVERYONE FREEZE!"

Hazel was instantly up and pointing. "Will you two PLEASE keep your voices down?! This is a damned LIBRARY after all!"

The surprised badgers stared at her, mouths hanging open, and backed off a step.

"You better have a good reason for yelling your heads off and waving guns around in my Library!" The lioness hissed, baring her teeth.

The two badgers looked at one another, then the larger one cleared his throat. "We have warrants for the arrest of one Nohni Wabanda and a companion of hers by the name of Chryona Winter."

The smaller one pointed his pistol at Nohni. "You're under arrest! Come with us quietly. Now!" He waved his pistol.

Nohni didn't move. Then, after what seemed a long five second wait, she stepped forward to stand in front of the two badgers. She turned to face Hazel. "My, my. This wouldn't be about my overdue book on Miranda vs. Arizona, now would it?"

The lioness raised an eyebrow, then nodded gravely. "Yes. And now someone must pay the fine."

Two femmes pivoted sharply toward the badgers. Two arms shot out and caught wrists on paws holding pistols, pushing them aside. Two feet whipped around and up, catching two badgers right in the gonads. Two opposite paws followed through with closed-fisted punches to the sub-clavian plexus of the arms holding the guns. Two collar bones cracked. Two guns fell to the floor. Two screaming badgers followed the guns. Two more hits to the jaw…

…and silence fell over everything.

Hazel took one of the pistols and stood up as Nohni rifled through the pockets of both 'sleeping' badgers.

"And?" prompted the lioness, as Nohni stood back up pocketing the other pistol.

"They're clean. No I.D." She spat. "If they're going to impersonate someone, they should at least do their homework!"

"Yeah. No Miranda Warning was a pretty obvious foul-up," commented Hazel as she and Nohni dragged the bodies away from the door, closing it again.

Nohni stepped quickly two the office window. "And where there are vermin, there are usually more lurking about." She nodded to the parking lot, then looked back. "Two new vehicles in the staff parking lot. What'll you bet they don't have staff parking stickers?"

"Then we better move!" hissed Hazel grabbing the stunned looking Winter's wrist.

"You heard the Lady," added Nohni as she grabbed the big femme's other wrist and gave Winter's bare rump a hard slap. "Move it!"

They were all out the door just in time to see three more 'suits' dashing up the hallway toward them - and this time they already had guns drawn. All three femmes crashed through the door across the hallway and into the library's second story stack area.

"Take her that way!" hissed Nohni to Hazel, pushing Winter to the right, then dashing left, and disappearing quickly to the back of several rows of ceiling high book stacks. She pulled out the pistol she'd taken from the badger and looked at it.

A Berretta M9.

Standard military issue? Could be. No time to examine it closer. She jerked the slide, chambering another FMJ round (in case bad guy #1 had failed to do so) and made sure the thumb safety was off. She would have preferred her own specially modified gold-anodized M1911A1 .45 auto. Its Power-ball ammo had more stopping power than any puny 9 millimeter. Unfortunately, the 45 was sitting in a holster in the Rumble Bee at the moment. She peeked around the stacks just as the three new goons ran into the room.

Nohni had a clear shot, but held her fire. Guns shoot only one bullet at a time, and she realized she was badly outgunned here. What she needed was a way to split them up or take them out en masse. Looking around, she quickly grabbed the nearest book and heaved it over the stack in front of her into the center of the next aisle. A loud thud followed, and the goons (a raccoon, a bear, and another badger) looked to the sound, weapons pointing. The bear waved the raccoon and the badger toward the sound and took off in the other direction toward the rows of stacks on the opposite side of the room.

Nohni pocketed the Berretta and ran quietly to the center of the long aisle next to a roof pillar. Facing the aisle she'd tossed the book into, she jumped up and grabbed the upper shelving support, then she pulled herself up and peeked over the top into the next aisle. Sure enough, the raccoon and badger had run into the aisle with the tossed book. They reached the book and looked around.

Nohni bunched her legs and shot them out behind her. Her feet collided with the pillar, and with a heave, she sent the entire row of ceiling high shelving - with hundreds of heavy books - crashing over into the next aisle.

The coon and badger had nowhere to go, and with two yelps, both were buried. As Nohni scrambled to get up, a fallen book near her head exploded. She lunged forward and caught a glimpse of the bear at the end of the aisle, his weapon up, and its muzzle flashing. Another fallen book next to her right elbow blew up. She somersaulted forward, pulling the Berretta from her pocket, but then she collided with the shelving on the other side of the aisle.

Now it was she who had nowhere to go.

Nohni whirled around to the bear, raising her weapon, knowing it was too late to stop a third shot for which she had no cover - a shot that could not miss -

A shot that didn't come because the bear was toppling over.

Nohni stared for a moment, then closed her eyes and sagged to the floor. She took a deep breath to calm herself. She'd first thought they wanted both Winter and her alive, but the bear had just 'killed' that notion. They'd wanted her dead. Winter was another story. Nohni suspected that they, whoever they were, still needed Winter alive for some reason. There was no other explanation for the 'arrest' ruse they'd tried at first. Nohni opened her eyes and slowly got to her feet, then haltingly scrambled over the fallen book shelves to the end of the aisle. She knelt down. There, next to the fallen bear, lay a very large book. To her right, a blue wolf was just then walking up to her with a smirk on her face.

"Another example of the pen being mightier than the sword." Raven Hunt flexed her arm. "And years of throwing books and other sundries at sleeping students helped, too."

"Surely not the male students," scoffed Nohni. She looked at the massive tome that had cold-cocked the bear.

'Warren Peas. A Guide to Underground Legume Horticulture by Leo Stoletoy.'

It was a BIG book.

Nohni glanced up at her friend just as Winter and Hazel came running up to them from the opposite direction. "You certainly arrived in a timely fashion," panted the lioness.

Raven crossed her arms and nodded toward the fallen bear. "Yeah. This guy and a couple of his friends stopped off at my place a little while ago. When I saw the three suits walking up my driveway something didn't feel right. Even if they were on legitimate business, they had a 'bad news' look about them. Since I didn't like the three to one scenario, I popped out the back door and high-tailed it here to even the odds in case they were trouble." Raven toed the snoozing bear. "I guess they were."

Nohni got up, stood in front of the blue wolf and pulled her into a tight embrace, which she held for a long time. "Thank you," she finally whispered as she gave Raven's ear a quick lick. "Even as we were dealing with them here, I thought of you and wondered if they'd stopped at your place." Nohni squeezed a little harder. "I was afraid they had, and you might be…

Raven murred into Nohni's ear. "Sister? Having observed the male of the species for quite some time now, I know when to hold em, when to scold em, when to walk away and when to run."

They broke, and saw that Hazel was eyeing them. "Okay," she said. "Emo time over, you two. I think our next move is to find some other place to be. Who knows how many more of these unfriendlies are out there."

Nohni nodded. "Let's take the Rumble Bee. It might be a bit crowded with the four of us, but it can go places most vehicles can't. That little attribute may come in handy." She kicked the bear. "It's too bad we can't take the time to question one of these studs. I want to know who they are really badly."

At this, Winter bent down, grabbed the unconscious bear by the back of his suit and lifted him straight into the air as if he were a big plushie. "We can take one of them with us. Yes?"

Nohni looked at Winter and then up at the suspended bear. He had to go at least 300 pounds. "Uh…I suppose we can. That will make it even more crowded in the Bee, but we really do need to know who these clowns are, and it looks like Smokey here was the one in charge."

"Then let's get going! We can figure out seating arrangements when we get to the Bee," urged Hazel. "Can't be any worse than airline seating in Cattle Class."

Except it was.

They'd just reached the Rumble Bee when another sedan careened into the parking lot.

"Inside! Everyone!" yelled Nohni. But it was obvious they wouldn't all fit.

Nohni was about to grab her .45 for a 'last stand' thing when Winter climbed onto the roof of the Hummer still clutching the unconscious bear. "Get in and let's go!" she screamed. "I like it better outside anyway!" She latched onto the luggage rack and hunkered down.

"If she can haul that bear around like a rag-doll, she can easily hold on to a speeding Hummer's luggage rack," thought Nohni as she jumped in. Remote start meant that the Hummer was already humming, so Nohni punched the gas and the Mud-Slapper Radials on the rear wheels spit half the parking lot gravel at the oncoming sedan.

"Life's dirty. Share the wealth," mumbled Nohni, repeating the Mud-Slapper advertising slogan. She spun the Hummer around still spitting gravel.

Charging out of the staff parking lot right past the sedan, she headed straight for the unused access road to the wooded park behind the University. Hardly anyone used this road, and because of that, the company doing the road construction at the front entrance stored most of their construction supplies here - all over the place. It was a cluttered mess.

Time to get creative.

Her rear view mirror told Nohni that the sedan had also spun around and was following. She looked at the clock on the instrument panel. Good. It was just past noon, so the road construction crew would be on lunch break. There was no one out here to get in the way - and get hurt. She reached out the open driver's side window and grabbed Winter's arm. "Hold on tight lady, and lie as flat as possible! We're going to do a bad job of handling this upcoming obstacle course!"

True to her word, Nohni hit the first orange road construction barrel she came to. The plastic barrel shot skyward over the Hummer and Winter - and slammed into the windshield of the following car. Another barrel and another direct hit on the chase car. Nohni wasn't sure if the barrels were doing any damage, but they certainly weren't making it an easy drive for the chase car. The rough, ground was also making things tough.

"Shouldn't we be bringing the local constables in on this?" asked Raven holding up a cell phone. "That would certainly call off our pursuers."

"Not before I have a chance to question Winter's plushie up there!" shot back Nohni. "Once the real cops arrive, Miranda goes into effect and Smokey makes like a clam."

"I don't see anybody, but someone's bound to notice your bad driving sooner or later, and call them in anyway," offered Raven.

"Yeah, so we need to lose these guys fast. And I am not a bad driver. I'm a very good driver!" Nohni spared a glance over at the blue wolf whose front was bouncing all over the place due to the rough ground. And it was about to get even bumpier. "Hold on tight Winter," shouted Nohni out the window again. "We're going into the woods!"

Nohni swung the Hummer to her left onto a barely discernable two-track dirt road that plunged into the woods. This would eventually lead to the river and the open country beyond. Unfortunately, their 'tail' stuck right with them even with the poor condition of the two-track. Branches from trees growing right next to the two-track were whipping the car as well.

"Winter? How you doing?" yelled Nohni.

"Keep moving!" came back Winter's rumbling bass contralto.

Nohni hit a large mud-hole and a sheet of diarrhea colored slop inundated the chase car. Still it kept coming. Damn! There had to be more to that vehicle than the eye could see. Or more likely, the driver didn't care about the damage he was doing to his car. And now they were running out of woods.

"There's rougher country on the other side of the river! We can lose them there!" called out Nohni. She swung to her left and sped out onto the little-used two-laner that led to the old Big Bend Bridge - a hundred meter span that crossed the river at this point.

As they roared onto the bridge, Hazel pointed back urgently. "I think the passenger is pointing something at us," she called out. Nohni shot a look at the rear view mirror. Sure enough, she could see something in the paws of the fur leaning out the passenger window of the car.

The thing puffed - but with no sound.

However, Winter screamed - and tumbled off the back of the Hummer followed by the unconscious bear.

Dammit all! They hit Winter with something!

Nohni slammed on the brakes and the Bee skidded to a halt a hundred feet farther along the bridge. The chase car narrowly missed a convulsing Winter but pulverized the bear. Blood and entrails sprayed through the air as the chase car shot past the Hummer, went into a slide and came to rest facing them.

For a moment nothing happened. Then the passenger side door on the chase car popped open. A fur got out and stood up holding something long and dark to his shoulder.

"It's a rocket of some sort!" yelled Nohni.

At that very second a huge black motorcycle shot past them. The large helmeted figure had something in its gloved right paw - something that, an instant later, was tossed at the chase car. Whatever it was, it smashed through the windshield as the motorcycle sped past it.

A half second later, the resulting explosion blew the chase car and its occupants right off the bridge. The motorcycle was nowhere to be seen.

"Damn!" mumbled Raven.

Hazel was already running back to where Winter now lay still on the pavement. Nohni backed the Hummer up to where the big femme lay.

"She's breathing," said the lioness. "What could have hit her to make her scream like that?"

A small dark object a little ways farther on seemed to be smoking slightly. Nohni approached it cautiously - then knelt down.

"It's a TASER grenade," she announced without touching the thing. "It's launched like a small grenade and when it hits, it puts one hell of an electric shock on you. It'll put anyone down for sure, how long a fur stays down is up to the individual." She looked to Winter who was already beginning to stir. Then she saw Raven looking at her.

"Hey! I know about these things," she pointed to the TASER grenade, "because many archeological digs need to be guarded. You see stuff like this all the time at places like that." She stood up. "But now we need to get Winter out of sight. Someone must have heard that explosion, and the cops will be here soon enough. Winter's presence will cause way too many questions we can't answer right now."

"And you can answer the ones that will come even without her?" asked Hazel. "Don't answer that. Knowing you, you've got all the details worked out already." She turned to Winter who was already sitting up. "Come on, big girl. That's it. On your feet. Raven? You want to take the other side?"

Raven stepped up, and between the two of them, they got a tottering Winter up and began moving her as fast as they could back to the wooded park.

As she watched them go, Nohni wondered how much today's events would delay her. Summer term meant fewer students at the university to witness anything. She doubted any students had been in the second floor library stacks when the excitement began. Most of them accessed what they needed from the terminals on the first floor. And the Library's acoustics were designed to greatly muffle sound - even gunshots. After all, a quiet Library was a good Library. By now she suspected that the four goons they'd laid out in the Library were up and gone. So, basically, all that was left to explain to anyone was the mess on the bridge.

How hard could that be?

The real mystery was the Black Motorcycle. Nohni would like to thank him…or her, for their timely assistance. Then again, could the Rider simply have been another contender for the 'Winter Prize'? It was something else Nohni would need to keep an eye on.

At that moment, Nohni saw Raven, Winter, and Hazel slip out of sight just as the first squad car rolled onto the scene. It stopped. A burley grizzly officer stepped out, took one look at Nohni, shook his head and called his boss.

"Chief? Harold here. Two words. 'Nohni Wabanda'. Yeah I can wait." He replaced the radio unit, leaned back against his squad and looked around at the carnage.

"Chief's on his way." The grizzly chuckled. "I tell ya, Nohni, you sure make some interesting enemies. Ever since you came to town it's been one fun time after another."

Nohni grinned as she sidled up to the officer. "Well, you know me Harold. I like things 'interesting'."

 

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

 

It was close to midnight when Nohni finally returned to her apartment. The Chief had had a lot of questions. She now swirled the last of her herbal tea once before draining it and setting down the mug. Then she dropped her chin to her neck ruff and sighed.

"Long day," stated Raven, her voice soft. She reached across the breakfast bar in Nohni's kitchen, took one of the Golden Jackal's paws and began to massage it. "Constables find anything?"

Nohni shook her head. "The rocket propelled grenade they pointed at us was an RPG-7 - a weapon currently used by about forty countries and manufactured in a number of variants by nine of them. It could have come from anywhere. Car was a rental paid for with a stolen credit card. No I.D.s on the bodies."

"Any hard-to-answer questions from our boys in blue?" asked the blue wolf as she stood up and walked behind Nohni. She began to massage her neck.

Nohni leaned into the strong paws. "The usual," she murred. "To the question 'What happened?' I only gave them the part about being chased out of the parking lot. To 'Who was the Cycle Guy?' I told them - truthfully - that their guess was as good as mine. I thought his bike was a BMW Adventure, but I couldn't be sure. To 'Why did they try to blow you up?' I gave them a few options. Told them it could have been revenge for the Dagger of Time acquisition - or the Big Mellon Idol affair. Then there's the fact that I recovered the Skull of Snuffles from an illegal antiquities syndicate, and they would love to 'off 'me for that. Or maybe it was the way I 're-acquired' the Boots of Karnak from that conniving software developer who fancied himself a collector. Those are my most recent exploits so they seemed to fit the bill best."

"But it isn't any of those," whispered Raven into Nohni's shapely and sharply pointed golden ear.

Nohni gave a shiver and looked over her shoulder at the blue wolf. "No, it's not." She glanced toward the bedroom. "Speaking of the real reason - how is she?"

"Sleeping in your oversized bed when Hazel and I left her at about 10:30pm." Raven took the stool next to Nohni and sat down. "Nohni? I think there's something seriously wrong with Winter."

Nohni cocked her head. "Go on."

"We tried to get some more information from her this evening while you were keeping the cops amused," Raven began. "She really liked the massage you and I did with her last night, so we did a bit more of that. It looked like she needed it, too. She spent most of the time on our trip back here crying and apologizing for putting us in danger, so a bit of 'Feel-Good' therapy seemed in order." Raven smiled.

Nohni grinned back. "Yeah. I know. 'Such a fine BIG Lady' were your words, I think?"

Raven nodded. "We did a good job, too. She was feeling a lot better, so I think she was about as willing to talk about herself as ever." Raven sighed, looked to the bedroom and shook her head.

"But, you still didn't get anything?" prompted Nohni.

Raven looked back at Nohni and held out her paws in a gesture of helplessness. "That gal is a big blank when it comes to a personal history." She dropped her paws and wrinkled her muzzle into a frown. "I'm convinced she knows next to nothing about herself. I've taught kids of all ages, and she reminds me of a three year old. At that age, younglings are very much into their surroundings, but their level of self-awareness is practically zero. Now this is normal for a three year old, since learning to interact and 'survive' in their surroundings is the first thing younglings need to learn. But this is not normal for adults."

"I see your point," replied Nohni. "I got that impression too, but I was thinking that her lack of self knowledge was a result of her isolated existence. She basically has no need to know herself as an individual because that sort of knowledge is only needed when you have someone else to interact with - or compare yourself to."

"I would have thought it would be the exact opposite," commented Raven, raising an eyebrow. "With no one else to talk to, it seems that talking to oneself would almost be a requirement."

"And that brings up the question of how she can speak our language at all," said Nohni, shaking her head. "What little we've gotten from her tells us her only outside contact has been with an extreme northern group of Inuit. Now, Inuit language is not even close to English, yet I detect no accent or anything else that might indicate Winter has difficulty with English."

"Language skills are acquired early in life," noted Raven. "It's a very basic brain function. She must have learned it in her pup-hood."

"Yet there's almost no recollection of events prior to having her 'Shard' stolen two months ago," mused Nohni. "And her need to get it back is close to an obsession."

"Maybe the Shard is her 'Blackberry/i-Pod/PDA' thing?" offered Raven. "I swear there are furs out there who wouldn't remember their own name if it weren't for a personal organizer of some sort."

"True," Nohni chuckled. "But those furs usually have a ton of other things to remember. How complicated can Winter's life be if all her time is spent alone, wandering the frozen tundra?"

"That's just it," answered Raven, a concerned frown crossing her muzzle. "Has she spent all of her life wandering the arctic, or is there something else? Something she's unwilling or unable to divulge?"

The two furs, the gold and the indigo, looked toward Nohni's bedroom. Then Nohni caught herself yawning and looked to her wall clock. It had just chimed 1:00am.

Raven stood up, walked behind Nohni and wrapped her arms around her shoulders, brushing her muzzle through the silky gold of Nohni's hair. "I need to head home," she whispered.

Nohni swiveled around on the stool to look up at her friend. "You sure you'll be alright?" she questioned, her paw reaching up to stroke Raven's cheek. "You can stay here if you think it's safer."

Raven clasped Nohni's paw and gave the palm a quick lick. "I'll be fine. Don't you remember? At your suggestion, I put in that new security system so that no wildly salivating male students can bother me."

"Except when you intentionally turn it off," replied Nohni, eyes twinkling. Then her eyes turned serious. "I'd feel better if you stayed."

Raven regarded Nohni for a moment. "For my benefit or yours?"

"Both," replied Nohni as she stood up. She wrapped her arms around the blue wolf and pulled her into a close embrace. "You were the first one at the University to take me seriously," she whispered into Raven's ear. "My reputation as a 'grave robber' was making it so very hard to get a decent tenured position and I'd all but lost hope for ever getting a professorship." She sniffed. "I won't ever forget that. Above all, you are my friend, and…" Nohni's voice broke and she squeezed harder. "Gods Raven! If you'd been hurt today. If those bastards had…" She buried her muzzle in the blue wolf's neck and began to shake.

Raven stroked the golden mane at her shoulder and cooed soothingly. "It was you who introduced me to the finer arts of self-defense. I am much better prepared for adversity than before we met. It's made me a better, more confident fur, and I thank you for that." The blue wolf gently licked Nohni's ears. "Okay, Nohni. I'll stay tonight."

Raven began to guide the two of them toward the bedroom. "But where will this poor, helpless wolf sleep?" She said in mock meekness. "I seem to recall a very large grey canid occupying the only bed in the bedroom."

"Oh, I think we'll find room for you" answered Nohni, sniffing again. "I can bunk with Winter and you can have the sofa. Unless you would rather…"

Nohni stopped in mid sentence as she opened the bedroom door.

Winter wasn't there.

The second story window was open, Winter's things (such as they were) were gone, and a hastily written note lay on the rumpled bedspread. Nohni rushed over and picked it up.

 

"Dear Ozaawi Nijab,

I'm sorry I attacked you when we first met. This was wrong. I'm sorry I've put you and your friends in danger. To continue to do this now would be wrong. You are a good fur, and I thank you for your kindness, but now, I must go. I must find my Shard, and it is not here. I am worse than nothing without it. Perhaps we may meet again someday under more charitable circumstances.

To me, you will always be 'nimino-wiijiiwaaganag'.

Winter"

 

"'nimino-wiijiiwaaganag'?" asked a stunned Raven, trying her best to pronounce the unfamiliar written words.

Nohni dropped the paw with the note and looked out the window. "It means 'my good friend' in Ojibwa." She continued to stare out the widow as if that might bring her a glimpse of the big, grey femme who had become such a mystery to them all. But there was nothing out there except a velvety dark night - and another Ojibwa word to go along with a name from Nohni's past - Ozaawi Nijab. Nohni's thoughts drifted back to her pup-hood in Canada, to her raccoon foster parents, and to the tribe that had raised her. She felt herself nod slightly.

It was a place to start. Every good hunt needed a place to start.

"But you won't start tonight, will you?" asked Raven seeming to read Nohni's thoughts. She slipped an arm around Nohni's waist and softly nuzzled her neck.

For a long moment, Nohni continued to stare out the window. Then she dropped her head. "No.  Not tonight."

"Come," whispered Raven as she led an unresisting Nohni to the bed. "Rest and recover from the events of this day. Tomorrow will come when it comes."

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Part Two - Ontario Home

 

Going Home

 

It was only September, but the birch had already dropped their leaves here in Northern Ontario, and the still morning air was cold enough to dust the sod roof of the little lodge with frost. Inside, an old and wizened raccoon sat upon a small stool beside a smoky peat fire. Several multi-colored shawls draped its head and thin shoulders, and a worn woolen blanket covered its legs. A small copper kettle rested by the fire, wisps of steam curling from its spout.

Silently, the lodge's front door behind the raccoon opened to reveal the silhouette of a tall figure. "Omaa-maa-yikaawin?" came a quiet voice. "Adopted Mother?" it repeated in English.

The figure on the stool stirred, and turned its head to the sound. "Biiwide?" it croaked as if it had not understood.

The tall figure moved slowly, respectfully into the tiny room. "I have come home," it said.

The old raccoon shifted around with difficulty to face the visitor. The eyes that peered from beneath the shawls were clouded with cataracts giving them a milky sheen - a pearly opalescence in a graying mask of dark brown. "I have a visitor?" repeated the old raccoon in English.

"I am no mere visitor. It is I, your adopted daughter. I have come home."

"Ozawa Goshens?" rasped the old raccoon, a sudden smile lighting her toothless features as she reached out an age-crippled paw. "Can it be? Is it truly you?"

The tall figure knelt down in front of the shrunken raccoon femme and gently took hold of the paw. "Yes. I was Ozawa Goshens - Little Golden Fox - when I was your youngling."

The tall and straight femme pulled the small and wizened one into a gentle embrace, rubbing its golden muzzle against the graying black one. "But my kit-name has gone the way of all things past," whispered the tall one. "I am now Nohni Wabanda."

The old raccoon pulled back and regarded Nohni, who wondered if her adopted mother could see much anymore through those age-clouded eyes.

"So you are Nohni Wabanda to everyone now," stated the old raccoon in a flat tone. Her milky eyes did not waver from Nohni's. "Does this mean your Omaa-maa is gone now too? I am now merely 'Miika' to you?"

"You are always Omaa-maa-yikaawin to me," said Nohni, taking the old raccoon's paw and rubbing on her cheek. "I do not forget you."

Miika smiled once more. "You have come home for good then?" she asked. There was a hopeful note in her plea, but Nohni dropped her head.

The old raccoon sighed. "Always the quest. You crave knowledge of a past I cannot give you, and so you journey to seek it."

Nohni nodded, then raised her troubled eyes to her adopted mother. "I will always seek my past. This you know, but that is not why I am here now." Nohni lifted a paw to the old raccoon's muzzle and turned her head slightly to one side. An old scar lay across one cheek, but no fresh ones marred the old face. Nohni let go and dropped her paw. Miika turned her head back to Nohni with a knowing look.

"He has not beaten me in a very long time."

Nohni's brows creased into a frown and her eyes darted around the meager lodge with its tiny fire. "But neither does he treat you well," she hissed. "Where is Obaa-baa - my Adopted Father?"

"Makoons is where he always is these days," Miika said in a tight, clipped voice. "With his drunken brothers."

Nohni suddenly jumped up and began to prowl the tiny room. "I send you money so you may live well and what does Obaa-baa do with it?" Nohni growled and bared her teeth. "He drinks it away!" She whirled on her step-mother. "Do not defend him, Omaa-maa! His disappointment in my decision so long ago is no longer an excuse! Why he thought he could arrange my marriage to Gitchi Niigaani I will…" But Nohni didn't finish. An old raccoon was suddenly up from her stool and in her face.

"His name of honor now is Ganawenim Aki!" shouted Miika with a force Nohni didn't know was possible from the small raccoon. "He has earned a new honorable adult name, as you have not! He is an honored member of this tribe and you will call him by his proper name!"

"Please, Omaa-maa. Not this argument again."

But Miika wasn't listening. "You could have been a wife to greatness!" she stormed. "Makoons gave all he had, all we had, to arrange it! You are not born raccoon, and many thought we had no chance to arrange this, but Makoons did! Your refusal broke him! You…"

"I did NOT turn him into a drunken wife-beater and you know it!" shouted Nohni. "I'm not stupid! I wasn't blind! I saw the marks on you before he tried to sell me off to that pompous Ganawenim Aki!"

"And so you left because we weren't good enough for you!" Miika shot back. "You wanted to find your real parents. You wanted to know who they were and why they abandoned you!" Miika whirled around and sat down on the hard stool with her back to Nohni. "Maybe they knew what they were doing when they did."

Nohni stood there, paw outstretched. Slowly, the paw dropped to her side and she turned away from her Omaa-maa as a single tear dripped from a whisker. Why did it always end like this? Her years as a youngling had been so good. She could truly say she had loved her adopted parents. But then he had come into her life.

Gitchi Niigaani.

Or, as he was called now - Ganawenim Aki, which meant 'Protector of the Earth'.

He was several years older than Nohni and had already gained prominence in the northern Ojibwa tribes by the time Nohni had come of age. He'd led the protests that had shut down the Rio Tintel mines in northern Ontario. He'd almost single-handedly prevented the exploitation of the rich tar sands west of James Bay. He had started the Ganawenim Foundation when he was only twenty years of age and had enlisted the aid of some very powerful - and rich - environmentalists. He was the Protector of the Home Lands - champion of the exploited tribes of northern Canada.

He was also a pompous ass.

Nohni shook her head as she quietly closed the door of the lodge behind her. It always came down to Gitchi Niigaani. He had ruined the relationship Nohni had with her adopted mother. Even things with her father may have been better were it not for that clod of a raccoon. Nohni's refusal to marry him had instantly made her a target of tribal ridicule - and worse. Her adopted parents had suffered too. Omaa-maa wasn't completely wrong when she said it had broken her father.

And now there was this.

Gitchi Niigaani - the oh-so-honorable Ganawenim Aki - was the only fur who had ever called Nohni by the name Ozaawi Nijab or Yellow Eyes. But the name had traveled since then, from Gitchi Niinaagi of her own tribe to Heiki Lunta of the northern Inuit and finally to Chryona Winter. And Chryona Winter had lost her Shard to someone who was rich enough to pull it off.

Was there a connection? Nohni was going to try her best to find out.

She wiped her eyes a final time and started walking toward the small village that had been her puphood home. She could have driven the four kilometers, but she'd decided to leave her Hummer in a secluded copse of tamarack about ten kilometers west of here. She didn't think a show of wealth would help her get the answers she was seeking from this place.

"Answers?" thought Nohni. "I don't even know most of the questions yet."

To be fair, Nohni had done her book research - at least as much as anyone can do in a library. As another famous archeologist once said, 'If you wanna be a good archeologist ya gotta get out of the library and into the field!' Still, her library research hadn't totally been without merit. It had given her some things to ponder.

Old Inuit legends and religion hinted at many things. According to Inuit references she'd looked into, the World was divided into a warm and bountiful Underworld, a cold and desolate Upperworld, and the middle Real World. Spirits, or Inue, occupied many things - furs themselves as well as places like mountains and rivers. They were the 'souls' of these things. The most powerful of these were the Angakok. Of these many entities, Amarok, a giant wolf, seemed a good physical description of Chryona Winter. The problem with that was the Amarok of legend was a ravenous monster, not a meek giantess.

Nohni shook her head. The problem with 'legend' was its relationship to reality. The Inuit had no writing, and oral tradition passed from generation to generation was terribly subjective - and almost always inaccurate. One thing did seem consistent, however. It was that Inue and the things they occupied were separate and distinct entities. A fur's 'soul' or inua was the 'owner' of the body it occupied, but both could act independently - especially if the fur was Tarneerunek - a soul traveler. And there was even one Angakok Inua that was suggested by Winter's very own name.

Silagigsainek.

One who could control the weather.

But how could Winter do anything like that? At first, Winter had seemed like a child, but that wasn't quite correct. Winter was more like an incomplete adult - one who could talk and think and act like an adult, but one who was missing a part of herself.

Something like her soul, perhaps?

Again Nohni shook her head. All of this was speculation. What she needed now were facts - ones that could be gleaned from certain individuals in the village.

 

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Nohni's fast trot had brought her into town in only 20 minutes, but now she was taking her time. The few villagers that were out at this early hour gave her frowning looks. It seemed they did not forget the past easily. Nohni ignored them and headed straight for the only bar in town, the Tank House. It had rooms upstairs to house those patrons too drunk to make it home. If her guess was right, her father would be in one of those. She pushed her way through the door and was nearly overwhelmed by the smell of beer and vomit. Alcohol had never been kind to the natives of America and this place was no exception. She let her eyes adjust to the dim light and spied a raccoon behind the bar washing mugs. She strode quickly to him.

"Is Makoons here," she barked.

The startled barkeep whirled around, then frowned as he looked her up and down. "Why should I tell you anything?" he grumbled.

Nohni's fist flashed forward, grabbed the barkeep by his filthy apron, and nearly pulled him across the bar. She bared her teeth, her yellow eyes blazing. "You will tell me because I want to know!" she hissed.

The barkeep was a big raccoon, but raccoons in general were smaller than Nohni. His eyes flicked toward the stairs. "Second room on the left," he croaked. "But you won't be able to wake him. He had a long night."

Nohni dropped him and headed for the steps, which she took in two bounds. She flung the door open on the second room and stalked in. There, face down across the stained bed, lay her step-father. She tried not to look at him as she rifled through his pockets. A moment later, she took a crumpled wad of bills from his wallet and then walked back down to the main bar-room, counting the money.

"This is going to pay some bills," she spat when the bartender gave her a dirty look. "But I shouldn't have to be doing it. He should!" She jerked her head back at the upstairs rooms.

She left the bar and proceeded to the general store where she paid for six months worth of heating oil. The money she'd taken from her step-father wasn't nearly enough to pay for this, but she'd intended to pay the rest anyway. Her Omaa-maa was going to be warm this winter if nothing else. The next hour was spent visiting a few other locations in town. Then it was off to the offices of the Ganawenim Foundation.

"Into the Lion's Den," thought Nohni. She gave a small shrug. Considering someone had already tried to kill her - possibly someone from this outfit, what she was doing now was a calculated risk, but one that was necessary if she wanted answers.

The Ganawenim Foundation wasn't hard to find. All Nohni had to do was follow the smell of money, and in no time, she found herself in front of a gleaming glass-and-brick four-story office complex - a structure that contrasted greatly with the shabby buildings that made up most of her village. True, the Ganawenim Foundation had paid for a new school, new tribal offices, and a new water and sewage treatment facility, but few others in her village had benefited directly from the Foundation's wealth. Even so, it was as if Ganawenim Aki could do no wrong to the furs here.

"One of the benefits of being a smooth talker," thought Nohni. He'd even taken her in for a short time in her youth with his 'beautiful Ozaawi Nijab' line - at least until Nohni found out how many young femmes he had on his leash at the time.

"Might as well get this over with," she mumbled as she walked up the steps to the front door.

No sooner had she reached the top step when a shout came from behind her. "Halt! Police!"

Nohni turned around even as she placed her paws behind her head in a gesture of surrender. Two raccoons in Tribal Police uniforms where standing at the bottom of the steps with weapons drawn.

"You're under arrest for the robbery of one Makoons Gaayosed early this morning at the Tank House," the taller one stated flatly as they walked up to her. The shorter one holstered his weapon and quickly had Nohni hand-cuffed.

As they led her away, Nohni glanced over her shoulder and saw a figure peering out of a top-floor window of the Ganawenim Foundation building. She faced forward again, eyes narrowing and lips curling - but not into a snarl.

Nohni was smiling.

She had the feeling she would be getting some answers very soon.

 

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"You have the right to remain silent…Forever."

 

Nohni strained against the grasp of the two big tribal officers as they shoved her into the small room. They seemed to expect it, so she complied. She'd already put up the 'required' struggle when they strip-searched her earlier. They hadn't found anything - as she knew they wouldn't, but they'd all enjoyed it immensely - as she knew they would. Nohni's eyes darted around, taking in her surroundings.

The interrogation cell was about the size of an average bedroom, making it a tight fit with the six male tribal officers who accompanied her inside. The only light in the room came from a single bulb overhead. There was a barred window to her right, but it was boarded up. The walls were bare and the inside of the door had no handle. It was opened from the outside only. She eyed the single chair. It was bolted to the floor.

"In the chair, bitch!" snarled the officer in charge.

He pushed Nohni down onto the hard-backed chair, and she winced as she sat down awkwardly on her tail. Her arms were quickly bound to the chair arms, and her feet to the front legs. They evidently didn't want her to go anywhere. Well, she wasn't planning to - not yet, anyway.

Looking around again, Nohni had to admit that escape from this particular room was nearly impossible, but they would need to place her in one of the less restrictive holding cells sooner or later. During her excursions of the morning, she'd made sure to toss a small 'escape' packet onto all the window ledges of the jail house. Getting through traps set by the ancients had given Nohni good training when it came to getting through locked doors.

Escape, however, was not on her mind at the moment. She needed a certain pompous raccoon to show up soon and gloat over his prize. One Gitchi Niigaani.

"Or Ganawenim Aki, I should say," thought Nohni. She didn't like using his new name, but he wouldn't react well to any other, and antagonizing him would only delay the proceedings. She needed information from him – not an arrogant, ranting tirade on the proper use of honorable names. She'd already gotten that from her mother.

She didn't need to wait long.

The interrogation room door banged open and a raccoon in an expensively cut black suit stood there surveying the scene. His paws were on his hips, and a condescending grin was plastered across his muzzle.

"Ozaawi Nijab," came the all too familiar voice. The raccoon sauntered up to her and bent down almost nose to nose with her. "Somehow, I always knew you'd come walking back through my door."

At this quote, Nohni half-expected a closed-fist punch to the jaw. She wasn't disappointed. The hit snapped her head around and pain lanced through her lower lip. Unlike the movie, however, Ganawenim didn't follow through with the "I learned to hate you over the years" line. He merely glowered at her.

Nohni spat blood. "Charming as ever. So, who else have you called Ozaawi Nijab, lately? A scruffy Malamute from up north, perhaps?" Nohni saw Ganawenim's eyes narrow to slits, and she knew her probing question had hit its mark. The expression disappeared quickly and Ganawenim walked around behind Nohni. He trailed a claw along her back beneath her gold mane.

"You've been a bad girl, Little Gold Fox," he said, pushing a claw into her neck as he came around the other side. "Taking money from a defenseless tribal member - even if he is your not-so-honored step-father. That's not very nice." He grabbed her breast with his other paw and squeezed hard. Nohni winced. "Topless as ever I see," he muttered. "I guess you haven't done anything of note to get yourself a new name."

"Nothing other than being attacked by a giant, eight-foot-tall canid named Chryona Winter," deadpanned Nohni looking straight ahead. "Would you know anything about that?"

Ganawenim grabbed her jaw and forced her to face him. "I know lots of things a traitor like you wouldn't know, Yellow eyes!" He growled, pushing his face into hers. "Unlike you, I didn't abandon the tribe that raised me. When all the industrial rapists from down south wanted our land and its riches, I didn't run! I fought back! I beat them!" He shoved Nohni's face away from him and took a linen napkin from his breast pocket. With it he wiped off the blood and spittle Nohni had dribbled onto his paw, then he tossed it away.

Nohni saw him glance up at the tribal officers who stood around looking a little nervous. "Lackeys always know who the real power is," she thought.

Ganawenim jerked his head toward the door. "I wish to be alone with Nohni, but keep a watch by the door." Quickly the six tribal officers shuffled out, closing the door behind them.

"Chryona Winter is no industrial rapist of the land," said Nohni coldly to Ganawenim's back. "She is a poor creature of the North - one that had something precious stolen from her." Nohni's voice grew even colder. "What has she to do with you?"

Ganawenim Aki turned around slowly and scowled at Nohni for a very long time, his jaw twitching. "The Long Exile." He finally spat. "Have you heard of it?"

Nohni nodded.

"Then you know of the foul treatment those Inuit suffered at the paws of those southerners who would call themselves our Masters!" he shouted. Ganawenim began to pace, his manner, agitated. "I've always wanted to know about the suffering of our people. The very injustice of it is the fuel that fires my zealotry! It keeps me going where others have failed!" He gave Nohni a foul look before continuing. "I've traveled throughout the Ojibwa lands, but I wanted more, so I spent time with our kindred Inuit tribes to the north. They told me stories. Hateful stories of how the southerners took advantage of them, just as they took advantage of us, and I listened to them. But it was their legends that were truly inspirational! Legends of magical creatures. The Angakok! Beings who possessed Spirits of Power that could defeat all those who would desecrate this world. Power that would make things right in the world again!"

"But those are only legends," said Nohni quietly. "Chryona Winter is real."

Ganawenim stopped his pacing and turned to her, his look, condescending. "And the great archeologist, Nohni Wabanda, believes only in facts. Legends are merely stories to pass around the evening fire while the Northern Lights dance in the heavens."

She stared back at him, her jaw set. She needed to be careful now. This arrogant raccoon had conned Winter into thinking she needed to find, and most likely kill, Nohni. He might still try to kill her, here. It was time to start playing the game - time to buy some time.

And hopefully keep my beautiful butt intact as well.

"There is one thing I do know for a fact," stated Nohni, knowing her next statement was, in fact, just an educated guess. "You stole Chryona Winter's Shard."

Ganawenim looked at Nohni with an intensity that confirmed her suspicions, so she continued.

"Yes," said Nohni, playing another hunch. "You have Winter's Shard, but…it's not what you expected it to be. Perhaps it's not working as you thought it would?"

Again Ganawenim scowled and Nohni knew she hit the mark once more. Her reasoning was simple. It came from the attempts made at the University to kidnap Winter rather than kill her. After they'd sent Winter after Nohni, they must have found out they still needed her. Maybe the Shard was useless without her.

And this 'need' had given Nohni an idea.

If you can't beat them, pretend to join them.

"I'm not without some skill in the matter of puzzling out artifacts - and their use." Nohni put a contrite and humble expression on her face. "I could be of great assistance to you, you know."

Nohni had used this strategy before to good advantage. However, Ganawenim did not take her up on her offer, as Nohni had hoped. In fact, he seemed not to have heard her at all. The scowl was still on his face but it was as if he was looking someplace else, and there was a tiny muscle twitching in his jaw.

"Ganawenim?"

His eyes jerked back to Nohni and she smiled.

"I could help you. I think between the two of us, we could find out how the Shard works."

Ganawenim's jaw twitched again. "Between the two of us?" he mumbled. "The two of us?" he repeated, more forcefully. He stepped up to Nohni and drew a black nail along her jaw.

"Of course," cooed Nohni. "We could…"

A harsh slap to the face cut her off and a paw grabbed a fistful of mane, jerking her head up.

"This isn't going according to plan," thought Nohni. She dropped her eyes away from his. Perhaps a more subservient approach would work.

"Don't you think it's a little late to be thinking about teaming up with me?" He gave Nohni's head a harsh jerk then tossed it backwards. "Tell me, Ozaawi Nijab, do you ever wonder why I ever allowed your oaf of a step-father, Makoons, to arrange your marriage to me?"

In truth, Nohni already knew why her step-father had been so eager to make this arrangement. It would have boosted his personal standing in the tribe considerably. However, she had wondered about Ganawenim's motives. Maybe he would explain…

Before Nohni could complete the thought, Ganawenim's paw suddenly shot forward, grasped her throat and squeezed. Nohni felt her throat constrict, but not to the point of suffocation. Still, it was hard to breathe. And now, Ganawenim's shiny black eyes were looking wildly back into hers. A tendril of fear slithered into Nohni's brain. This fur was starting to look far too intense for her liking.

"You're parent's pitiful dowry was nothing compared to what I could raise from my rich, and gullible, environmentalist cronies from the south," Ganawenim said. "They do so love to assuage their 'over-consumption' guilt by donating to my causes." The paw not squeezing Nohni's throat was now stroking her golden mane. "No. I allowed Makoons to arrange our marriage because I found you attractive." Ganawenim looked her up and down and licked his lips.

"Would you like a taste of me now," breathed Nohni, eyes closed.

Normally, this line would elicit a positive response. Instead, Nohni received another hard slap across the muzzle from the paw not choking her.

"You think it was all about sex?" screeched Ganawenim.  He spat at her. "You always were a slut-minded little Golden Fox," he growled. "No! It wasn't because you were a big-breasted, exotic Jackal. Canids were always a so-so fur type to me. It was because you were very much like me in spirit." Ganawenim opened his mouth to expose sharp teeth and exhaled onto her face. "Yes, my little Ozaawi Nijab. You were a kindred manidoo to me. Together, our combined strength could have been unbeatable."

Nohni didn't miss the breath to the face gesture or its meaning. He was letting his spirit, his manidoo, surround her - envelope her. He wanted to consume her spirit. This was definitely not going according to plan. Nohni tested the bonds that held her arms, but they were as tight as ever.

"You loved challenge, even as I did," continued Ganawenim, his wide, black eyes unblinking. "You were always the relentless hunter. No mystery was too deep, no puzzle too complex." He squeezed Nohni's throat a little harder. "Like me, there was no adversary so powerful that you would not take him on." His lips parted in the beginnings of a snarl. "But you rejected me!" The paw on Nohni's throat gripped tighter. "You rejected me in front of all our people!" His other paw slid through her mane to the back of her neck. "That was an unforgivable humiliation," he hissed. "No one humiliates me like that and walks away unpunished." Ganawenim's eyes were staring almost blindly into hers.

Nohni didn't like this one bit. This mad-eyed raccoon's paws were now ideally positioned to snap her neck with a single powerful twist if he wished it.

But not if I twist my neck and bite your arm first!

At this thought, three things happened almost simultaneously.

Nohni twisted and bit.

Ganawenim jerked and screamed.

The entire cell wall to Nohni's right imploded.

Nohni felt the paws on her neck disappear as she was slammed sideways by the shockwave and showered with brick and wood. A sharp pain to her right arm caused her to yelp, and a blow to the head sent stars shooting across her vision. Everything was suddenly a mass of dust and noise. Ears ringing from the blast and eyes stinging from the dust, Nohni tried to free herself from the chair, but even as she did so, she felt the bonds on her right arm fall away.

"Don't move or I may accidentally cut you!" barked a bass male voice into her right ear.

Nohni froze, and her other bindings were soon cut. Then strong arms lifted her up and bore her out into the colder, fresher air. She coughed and opened her eyes to find herself held in the arms of one of the biggest – and oddest looking – wolverines she'd ever seen. At least she thought he was a wolverine. It was hard to see clearly since he was running like mad and she was bouncing around in his arms. The shape of the muzzle and the positioning of the small ears seemed to be wolverine, but the coloring was all wrong. The muzzle markings were grey instead of brown, and what should have been cream coloring elsewhere was white.

A black and white wolverine?

At this thought, Nohni noticed something on his black-jacketed chest that was neither black nor white. It was blood red - and the color wasn't only on the wolverine. It was all over her right arm which lay bouncing against his broad chest. She lifted her free left arm and touched the red. It was wet.

"Are you allergic to shellfish?" came a deep bass voice.

Nohni felt the voice rumble through the broad chest so it must be coming from the wolverine, but it was hard to think. Stars still popped in her vision, and what was this about shellfish?

"Are you allergic to shellfish?" repeated the bass voice more urgently.

Nohni shook her head. But why…

"Good! Grab the Co-Ag Compress from my right upper breast pocket now! It's the tan one. Not the green one."

Nohni found it hard to see with all the bouncing, but fumbled open the pocket with her left paw and retrieved a tan package.

"Open it!" commanded the wolverine.

Nohni grabbed one edge of the package with her teeth and ripped it. A white bandage fell out onto her chest. She had a hard time trying to grab the thing from between her cleavage, but she eventually nailed it.

"Put that on your right arm halfway between shoulder and elbow, and press on it - hard! We don't need to leave a blood trail for them to follow!"

"My blood? I'm bleeding?" thought Nohni. "Ahhh. Shellfish."

It was getting harder to think, but the 'shellfish' reference had just popped up a memory in her fuzzy brain. The military used field bandages coated with a blood-coagulating substance made from shellfish. It stopped bleeding quickly, but if you were allergic to shellfish it could cause problems. She did as she was told and immediately felt a sharp, searing pain in her right arm.

Why do wounds only begin to hurt when someone else tells you about them?

Shock.

That's what shock did to you.

Damn! Nohni didn't need that right now. She shook her head to try clearing away some of the fuzz. There were questions she needed to put to a conceited, bigheaded raccoon, Gitchi Neener - or Ganaweewah Acki - or whatever his name was. No. Wait. He wasn't here. Where was 'here' anyway? It was getting harder to see. The light was beginning to fade as she looked up at the fur carrying her.

"And who the hell are you?"

Nohni heard only two words before she blacked out.

"Nicolai Whitefur."

 

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Nicolai Whitefur

 

Nohni awoke from a dream filled with giant green daggers and yammering little raccoons. One had been trying to tear her right arm off, and it hurt like hell. As she opened her eyes, the green daggers remained - except that now they were rippling sheets of green light in the night sky above her.

Aurora Borealis.

The Northern lights.

That told Nohni it was past 10pm, but that was only a guess. The Lights seemed unusually bright this evening, so the timing was questionable. The flickering aurora also revealed a looming figure off to her right, and a name flashed through her mind.

Nicolai Whitefur.

The big fur made no move nor gave any indication that he knew Nohni was awake, but just the same, she made no sudden moves. Instead, she studied him from where she lay on a soft cushion of moss next to a stunted cedar tree. There was no campfire to add the warmer colors, so the aurora gave a false green color to everything. It made the back of the figure's white head look like a fuzzy lime. He was wearing dark (probably black) clothing since it reflected little of the green light. Nohni looked him up and down. He had to be over seven feet tall - which, with his heavy build, would put him at around 375 pounds.

"Almost the same weight as Chryona Winter," thought Nohni, absently.

She then looked at the markings on his tail. They were definitely wolverine. But the size of him! And the coloration. He had to be a hybrid. She caught a glimpse of his profile as he turned his head this way and that. There was something about the shape of the muzzle. More tapered than a true wolverine. Then it hit her.

He's part polar bear!

Not a Wolverine. Not a Polar Bear.

He's a 'Polarine'.

That would explain the coloring as well.

The time seemed right to introduce herself to this unusual fur, so Nohni slowly sat up. The light, but warm blanket that had been covering her to the neck slipped down to her waist, exposing her bandaged right arm. It was wrapped from shoulder to elbow and hurt just like it had in her dream. Not surprising. High velocity impacts from semi-blunt objects never did nice things to flesh and bone. At least her arm didn't feel broken. She looked over at the big polarine, who was obviously standing 'watch' over this cozy, albeit fire-free, campsite.

"Do you always rescue damsels in distress by trying to blow them up?"

The big polarine turned and glanced over at her with a neutral expression - which, coming from a fur of his size, was as unnerving as most fur's snarly faces. Wolverines had a well-earned reputation for bad tempers, and this fur had the size of a polar bear added to the mix. He turned quickly away to look back into the dark forest again. "Blame the Jail's cheap building contractor for that," he said, in a deep rumble of a voice. "No re-bar in the poured concrete. I assumed there was, and I used my C4 accordingly. Hence, too much bang for the cell block." He pulled something from a side jacket pocket and tossed it to Nohni, which she caught with her good paw. "Energy bar," he added in explanation still not looking at her. "Lightweight but keeps you going for a long time."

Nohni tore it open with her teeth. Her right arm wasn't up to it just yet. She sniffed it.

"At least it's not a 'Sticks 'n' Twigs' granola bar."

She looked back at the polarine. "Energy bars also don't need a cooking fire, which would easily advertise our location. I take it you're no friend of Ganawenim Aki."

"Would I have bothered to rescue you if I was?"

"A point," Nohni mumbled.

But just because you’re his enemy doesn't mean you're my friend.

The polarine still had his back to her, which was far from friendly. Nohni would need to know a lot more about this Nicolai Whitefur before she could call him 'friend'. In the meantime she needed to fill her stomach and look over their present location. She bit off a hunk of bar and began to chew. The light from the aurora was bright enough to reveal some detail, but nothing looked familiar about this place. That wasn't surprising. One section of boreal forest in Ontario at night was pretty much the same as any other. They could be miles from her home village - or it could be just beyond the next copse of trees. Besides, the landscape could have changed since she was here last.

Lots of things could have changed.

"Especially Gitchi Niigaani." she thought, sourly.

He definitely wasn't the fur she'd left years ago. Back then, he'd merely been insufferably arrogant. Now? Nohni didn't like recalling their disastrous confrontation. Her gross misjudgment of his present-day temperament had nearly cost her her life. It was like he was obsessed with the Shard.

Or possessed by it.

That thought didn't sit too well with her. She swallowed her bite of energy bar in a throat gone dry, and looked back at the polarine. He was still facing away from her. What was with him, anyway?

"By the way, my name is Nohni Wabanda."

"I know," he answered dryly, without moving.

"How do you know?" Nohni asked, now clearly irritated.

"Heiki Lunta told me."

The damned fur was still looking into the forest. "And how is it that you know Heiki Lunta!" Nohni said, not quite shouting, "And before you answer that, have the courtesy to look at me when you talk to me!"

The polarine crossed his arms across his broad chest, but he still didn't turn around. Nohni was about to shout again when an incredibly quiet and meek voice came from Nicolai.

"Um…Miss Wabanda? Would you please cover yourself up first?"

Nohni stared at Nicolai's back, her mouth open in astonishment. "Cover…myself…up?" What could he possibly mean… "OH!" Nohni shook her head and grinned as she pulled the blanket back up to her neck, covering her erstwhile bare upper half. Here was another example of her making the wrong assumption.

Nicolai wasn't being unfriendly.

He was being embarrassed.

And that spoke volumes about his character.

"I'm sorry, Nicolai. You can turn around. I'm 'decent' now."

The polarine peeked over his shoulder, and apparently satisfied with Nohni's state of dress, turned around completely.

Nohni raised her injured arm from under the blanket. "But you must have seen a lot more of me when you carried me here, and when you bandaged me up. Thanks for that, by the way."

"Miss Wabanda," Nicolai said, his manner formal, "What I did was necessary, and you weren't awake and looking at me most of the time when I did it." He quickly held up a paw and looked uncomfortable. "That's not to say I was looking at you because you couldn't do anything to stop me. I wasn't looking! Well, I mean, I was looking, but only at the parts I needed to look at." He dropped his paw and fidgeted.

Nohni actually giggled. She couldn't help herself. "Nicolai, I promise not to misconstrue." It was hard to stay angry at someone who made you giggle. It was also a lot easier to consider him a friend. "I'll tell you what. Let's start over." Nohni bowed her head. "Hello. My name is Nohni Wabanda."

Nicolai nodded back. His face almost had a grin on it. "I know."

"From Heiki Lunta, I presume," continued Nohni. "And how is it that you are familiar with Mr. Lunta, the namesake of the Finnish god of Snow?"

Nicolai raised an eyebrow. "It's a long tale."

Nohni wrapped the blanket more tightly around her shoulders. "We have a long night at these northern latitudes." She looked up. "And the auroras are perfect this evening for long story-telling."

"You will pardon me if I don't sit down," he said pointing behind him. "I need to continue watching the forest around us."

Nohni nodded. "Is there still a chance they might find us?"

"A small one," countered the polarine. "Being former military in covert-ops I like to think I'm pretty good at losing a tail."

Nohni looked at the fur's double striped tail. "Your tail looks fine to me."

Nicolai actually grinned this time, showing very large and very sharp teeth - which would have been very frightening, were it not for the twinkle of sincere humor in his eyes. Nohni looked closely at his eyes for the first time. They were either blue or grey. It was hard to tell in the green light of the aurora.

"Where do I begin?" he began. "I suppose it all started when I got out of the military. I came home and needed a job."

"Where is home?" asked Nohni.

"Tuktoyaktuk – 'Tuk' to you southerners - in the Mackenzie River Delta," replied Nicolai.  "It's in the Inuvik region of the Canadian Northwest Territories. I'm Inuvialuit, by the way - a tribe of the Inuit."

"Jobs had to be scarce there," observed Nohni. "Most arctic villages have less than a thousand inhabitants." She frowned. "Didn't Tuk host a big rock concert about 10 years ago?"

"It did. It was a fiasco." Nicolai frowned. "A beer company thought it would be cute to have a 'Frozen Beach Party' to promote their 'Ice House' Beer. They set it all up and gave away free tickets." He spat. "Invasion of the Beer People, yeah."

Nohni could tell Nicolai despised the exploitation of his native people. Being the butt of a beer joke would not sit well with him.

"Anyway," continued Nicolai, "there was this fur from the Ojibwa nation down south who was recruiting workers and explorers for a job in the Arctic."

"Let me guess," interrupted Nohni. "This fellow's name was Ganawenim Aki."

Nicolai nodded. "He told a good story, that one. He was all for battling those who exploited the tribes and resources of the Arctic. We native tribes had to stick together." A dangerous expression flashed across his features, and he looked away. "He paid well too."

For a while he said nothing, and Nohni decided to respect his private thoughts. He had to be thinking about the fur who he'd initially admired. At some point, the trust Nicolai had in him must have been shattered to make Ganawenim the enemy he was today.

"I got hired on as an 'explorer'," Nicolai finally said. "I was a natural. I'd spent a lot of my life before the military wandering the Arctic. I knew more about it than most of my fellow tribe members. My job for Ganawenim was to look for any unusual furs inhabiting the Arctic Ocean ice. Locate and track only. No interception. Report sightings back to Ganawenim."

Nohni thought she knew where this was going and probed further. "Did he say why he was interested in unusual furs in the Arctic?"

"He had two stated reasons," Nicolai said flatly. "Both of them sounded legitimate."

He shook his head and growled - a very unpleasant sound. He also looked as if he found the re-telling of this part distasteful. Nohni couldn't blame him. She knew the sort of 'smooth talking liar' Ganawenim could be. She'd nearly been taken in herself as a gullible twenty-year-old.

"The first reason," continued the polarine, "was to discover anyone who wasn't supposed to be there - anyone from countries that still did whaling - or anyone doing exploration for Big Oil - the exploiters, that sort of fur."

"And the second?"

"Ganawenim wanted to know if there were any undiscovered tribes - small groups of natives who still lived off the ice and sea as there ancestors did, and who were 'unpolluted' by southern civilization. He said he wanted to help them preserve their pristine way of life." Nicolai suddenly kicked a stone that shot into the trees like a bullet. "And I believed him!"

"He's a persuasive sort of guy," said Nohni, her voice low and soothing.

Nicolai shot her a look. "Yeah, but I didn't tell the little turd one thing. I didn't tell him I'd already heard a story about a grey Mustelupe who was seen only at the spring equinox on the sea ice north of Greenland or Ellesmere Island."

"Mustelupe?" queried Nohni quietly.

"A wolverine/Arctic wolf hybrid - but one of enormous size."

"Why not tell Ganawenim?"

Nicolai shook his head. "It was second-paw information. I needed to check out the source - one Korfi Malu, the leader of a small, northern Inuit tribe on the Sverdup Islands that I'd met in my travels prior to the military."

Nohni nodded, recognizing the name from Winter's description of her journey to find Nohni. "But Korfi is dead," she offered. "Heiki Lunta is in charge of that group now."

"Not when I first went there," rumbled Nicolai. His stern expression suggested he had his suspicions about the former Inuit leader's death. "Korfi told me of an enormous, grey Mustelupe who would occasionally appear at their campsite when they were out on the pack ice hunting for seals in the spring. She called herself Chryona Winter, and would just show up - usually with a dead seal as a food offering so they knew she came in peace - not as an enemy. Of course, they let her share their camp. She didn't say much, but she seemed to enjoy their stories. Then she would leave. They didn't see her every spring. Just occasionally."

Nohni recalled Winter's primitive leather outfit when they first met. "Did they ever mention whether she wore clothes or not?"

"She didn't," Nicolai answered looking down. Nohni thought she could see a blush under his grey masked eyes. "Korfi offered to make her an outfit the spring before last as a gift. He did it when she visited their camp that year. It was a quick job. He made it out of the skin of a Narwhale they'd taken two days earlier. He said she seemed to like it."

"Weapons?" Nohni asked this time. "Since she could offer a dead seal as a peace gesture, I assume she had weapons."

Nicolai fished something out of a side pocket and dropped it next to Nohni. "She had several of these. I've no idea what they're made of."

Nohni picked up the object. It was a seven point throwing star similar to the ones Nohni had found on Winter. She looked up at Nicolai. "How did you get hold of one of these?"

Nicolai turned to her. "After I spoke with Korfi, I went looking for this extraordinary fur. That's what I was hired to do. Remember?"

Nohni felt her brows furrowing into a frown. "You were the one who tracked Winter down for Ganawenim!"

Nicolai looked away. "I told you, I was good at what I do."

Nohni wanted to be angry, but there was far too much regret in the polarine's voice for that. Angry recriminations from her wouldn't help. It was obvious to her he knew this had been a mistake, and he'd already 'beaten himself up' for it. Instead she asked another question.

"What did you do when you found Winter?"

"Observe and report. Those were my instructions." He tapped another side pocket. "Satellite Phone." He raised his eyes to the aurora. "When I told you Winter usually wore no clothes, that wasn't entirely true. There was one thing she wore all the time. I could see it through the binoculars even from nearly a half mile away." He had his paw on his chest. "On her chest ruff. A beautiful thing it was - sparkling with reflected light from the low spring sun." Nicolai dropped his paw away from his chest and looked back to Nohni. There was remorse in his expression that bespoke of a deed he wished undone.

"Winter's Shard," said Nohni, quietly.

Nicolai nodded. "When I reported all of this to Ganawenim, he got very excited. Told me to keep on this Mustelupe and report everything she did. Mostly it was following her from one polynya, or open water spot in the Arctic ice, to another. I assumed it was for the purpose of fishing for food, but she didn't always fish when she came to one." He pointed to the throwing star Nohni had set down next to her. "I saw her use a few of those stars on a seal once, too. But more often than not, she'd just walk in circles around the polynya. It was almost as if she were measuring the size of these open water spots in the ice. She'd actually pace them off. I didn't understand that."

"Polynyas are getting bigger in the arctic," commented Nohni. "Some think it's due to global warming."

"About two months ago, we got this terrific storm," continued Nicolai. "We'd had a few earlier and every time Winter would just hunker down in a snow bank and ride it out. I had my arctic shelter with me so I had to work harder, but I stuck with her. This storm, however, was a big one. I saw her digging a snow cave shelter for herself, so I figured I needed to do the same. My exposed surface shelter wasn't going to cut it. By the time I was finished, the storm was on us. To my amazement, Winter wasn't in her shelter. She was standing on top of her snow cave with both arms outstretched facing the wind. I only saw fleeting glimpses of this through the blowing snow, but it seemed that her shard was glowing even brighter than when it was in full sunlight. I didn't stay out long. She might have thought this was a refreshing breeze, but a sixty mile-an-hour wind at twenty below zero was no picnic for me. I might be part polar bear, but I'm not part stupid. I made a final report to Ganawenim and battened down the hatches in my shelter."

"Winter told me her Shard was stolen during a six day storm," stated Nohni.

Nicolai nodded. "Day five and I was getting a little stir crazy. Normally under these conditions, I can do a semi-hibernate doze and pass the time easily. I assume Winter can do that, too. For me, however, I needed to stay alert, in case Winter decided to move out before the storm was over. Not sure why she would want to do that, but those were my instructions. Anyway, day five brings some noises that don't sound like blowing wind. I suppose I would have missed them if I was in my semi-hibernate mode, but I wasn't. So, I poke my head out of my cave to look for the source of the sound and what to my wondering eyes should appear?"

"Certainly not eight tiny reindeer," commented Nohni. She could tell Nicolai was trying for some humor in a distressing situation, but it wasn't working well. He still looked grim.

"Of course not! It was a damned CH-47 Chinook helicopter right over my head beating its way into the wind toward Winter's snow cave! Granted, the wind was down to 45mph by now but still - a helicopter? And the blowing snow would make it really hard to see. Since this was completely unexpected, I get on the Sat-Phone and dial up Ganawenim. Turn's out he's on the chopper and invites me over to Winter's cave, which was where he was going. I wasn't sure how Winter would take this - being barged in upon - and I assumed he wanted me in on the meeting to provide him protection. I still couldn't figure out why he was coming here in a storm, but maybe he'd tell me what was going on when I got there. So I pack up my gear, pull it all out of the snow cave and high-tail it the quarter mile to Winter's cave."

Nicolai shook his head. "I really wanted to meet her, too," he said quietly. "She was very…very…" Nicolai looked away again.

"She was very attractive?" offered Nohni.

Nicolai sighed. "It took me a while due to white-out conditions, but I finally got there. However, Ganawenim was already back in the chopper. He motioned me in, saying my surveillance wasn't needed anymore." Nicolai's lips were starting to curl into a snarl. "I assumed he'd done his thing and left Winter with some way of communicating directly!" He spat. "I cursed my missed opportunity to meet Winter, but I hopped in anyway. Ganawenim was the boss."

Nohni saw Nicolai's fists clenching and unclenching at this point. Anger was building rapidly on his face, but it couldn't be just because he'd lost out on a Meet and Greet with a furry femme. "What happened then?" she asked.

Nicolai suddenly grabbed the cedar tree next to the one Nohni was under and ripped it out by its roots. With a ferocious hissing, he splintered the tree with his bare claws. Nohni scrabbled away from the flying splinters, losing her blanket, but retrieving it quickly. Nicolai's display was savage, but Nohni knew he was venting a rage that would never be directed at her. It was for…

"Ganawenim Aki, YOU BASTARD!" screamed the polarine.

Several more unlucky cedars along with a scrawny tamarack suffered Nicolai's rage.

"That slimy dung-pile tried to kill me!" he raged. "Smiled at me with that snotty face of his and said I was no longer needed! Then he laughs, throws one of Winter's throwing stars at me, and KICKS ME OUT THE OPEN HATCH! I had NO warning!"

Nicolai was breathing hard and salivating, but his eyes were closed and Nohni could see he was trying hard to regain control. Finally he shook his great head and heaved out one big breath, hissing it from behind closed teeth.

"I suppose I have to thank the pilot of that chopper for my life," he breathed. "In whiteout conditions you have no idea how high you are because the ground disappears almost instantly when you take off. Mr. Slug-Coon obviously didn't know we were only twenty feet off the ground when he booted me out, and it looks like the pilot decided not to tell him of his error."

"But you didn't survive the fall unscathed," commented Nohni.

Nicolai pulled open his jacket to reveal a recently healed chest wound - courtesy of the thrown star, no doubt. "I was knocked out when I hit and didn't wake up until I heard a piteous wailing. Winter was screaming for her 'Shard'. It was muffled because I'd gotten buried in the snow by the storm, and by the time I dug myself out, she was a speck on the horizon heading south. I knew I had to follow her, but I was no match for her in the speed department. She's part Arctic Wolf, and they know how to run. I followed her trail off the pack ice to Heiki Lunta's Inuit camp on Ellesmere Island. Heiki gave me the same story he gave Winter - that the Shard was now in the possession of one Ozaawi Nijab. I knew Ganawenim was the one who'd actually taken it from Winter, but I still had to check it out. After all, you could have hired him to take it for you. After what he tried to do to me in the chopper I would believe anything of him now."

"Obviously, I don't have the Shard," Nohni said with only a hint of sarcasm.

"No, you don't," replied Nicolai.

"Then why did you follow me from the University to my home village here in Canada? Why aren't you still tracking Winter instead? I'm assuming you were the one on the black BMW back at the University that saved our hides."

"Yes. That was me. When I saw what they were trying to do to Winter I reacted."

"To their detriment," offered Nohni, recalling the carnage on the bridge. "But you didn't follow Winter when she left me that night."

"I didn't need to. I'm fairly sure about where she's headed."

Nohni had thought about that too. Heiki Lunta had obviously lied to her and she was going to get the truth out of him when they next met. "So why me?" she asked again.

"It was obvious to me that you had some sort of relationship with Ganawenim," stated Nicolai. "Why else would he set you up as the target of a wild goose chase? Then, all of you were attacked with what looked like deadly force, and I thought you might be as 'disposable' to Ganawenim as I was, but I still wasn't sure." He tapped his Sat-Phone. "I did a little Internet research at that point and discovered you were an archeologist of some renown, and that artifacts with interesting histories were a specialty of yours." He gazed down at Nohni with renewed intensity. "But what really peaked my curiosity was that you were raised in the same Ojibwa village as Ganawenim. I had to check out that connection."

"And what have you discovered?" prompted Nohni.

"After listening in on your cell block conversation prior to blowing it up…" he started.

"You heard that?" interrupted Nohni. "The window was barred and boarded up."

"It was a loud discussion," commented Nicolai dryly. "Anyway, after listening to that, I knew Ganawenim Aki hated your guts." He crossed his arms over his chest and cocked his head. "And that automatically makes you one of the 'good guys' in my opinion."

He leaned down and picked up the throwing star next to Nohni, but as he made to put it back into his pocket, Nohni grabbed his arm.

"STOP!" she shouted.

Nicolai looked puzzled, but Nohni had seen a faint flash of green as the big fur had lifted the throwing star to his pocket. She grabbed the star and held it up to the flowing, flickering green light of the Aurora Borealis.

There! Right there before her eyes! Where before there had been nothing, there now were…

Markings! Glowing green markings around the clear blue circular part of the star!

Throwing Star 

Perhaps those marks only lit up when exposed to the specific green wavelengths of excited nitrogen molecules of the Aurora. And there was something familiar about those markings.

"Look at it like an archeologist, Nohni!" she thought. Yes. That was it. Of course!

It was a coastline - the Arctic Ocean coastline! It was a circular map of the top of the world! And on it, marked with tiny 'dagger' symbols, was what looked like several doors.

Winter's Shard had just gotten a whole lot more interesting.

 

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

 

Maps and Artifacts

 

It turned out that Nohni's 'Rumble Bee' was only a few yards from where she'd awakened and that made things a whole lot easier. It gave her access to her equipment - her 'Tools of the Trade'. A snap of the digital camera quickly transferred the image of Winter's secret Arctic map from the throwing star to Nohni's laptop where she could compare it to contemporary maps of the region. A satellite internet uplink gave her the current relevant maps for comparison.

It seemed only one Dagger Door was located directly on land - the one on northern Ellesmere Island. The other three Dagger doors were located in the Arctic Ocean itself, but they could also be 'map pointers' pointing to spots on the Arctic Ocean shoreline.

If this was the case, one of them pointed to Cape Arkticheskiy, Severnaya Zemlya, Russia, which interestingly, happened to be where the North Magnetic Pole was predicted to be in 2050, if it kept on its present course and speed. Another point of interest was that Ellesmere Island and Cape Arkticheskiy were geographic opposites and were both noted as jumping off spots for North Pole expeditions. The other two Dagger Doors pointed to the Svalbard archipelago east of Greenland, an Arctic island group under Norwegian jurisdiction, and to Point Barrow, Alaska. Strangely, the Point Barrow coastline was nearly twice as far from the North Pole as the other three locations.

"Miss Wabanda?"

Nohni glanced up at Nicolai. His back was to her again.

"Sorry," she apologized. "I'll get some clothes on right now."

After all, that had been the reason he'd pointed out Nohni's Hummer to her. It's just that when Nohni got excited about something, she tended to forget non-essentials - like clothing. It only took her moments to put on her work gear, which for this climate, consisted of multi-pocketed kaki pants and shirt, a lined, leather jacket, and her fanny pack. She strapped on her gold .45 auto.

"Is this acceptable attire, my prim and proper Polarine?" Nohni grinned, doing a quick pirouette for her audience.

Nicolai looked droll. "'Polarine' sounds like a brand of mint-flavored mouth-wash. I'd prefer to be called a 'Polar Wolverine'. Please?" He pointed to her head. "No fedora?"

"Not with this mane of hair," answered Nohni, still grinning. She set her bull whip on her left hip opposite the gun and stretched her bandaged right arm. "Sore, but functional," she added.

Nicolai nodded. "Alright, it looks like you can take care of yourself, so I'll let you play with your toys. That leaves me free to do some investigating on my own."

Nohni raised an eyebrow inquiringly.

"Ganawenim Foundation headquarters back in town," answered Nicolai. He tapped his watch. "It's about 1:00am now which leaves me about four or five hours of quality snoop time. I know dawn is at least seven hours away at this latitude, but I want to be done and gone before the morning crowd even thinks about waking up." Nicolai's face furrowed into a frown. "I want to find out anything I can about what makes that Shard so special."

Nohni walked up to the polar wolverine and reached out a paw. "You be careful." She stood on her tip-toes and touched noses with him, inhaling his cool, musky scent. "Thank you for pulling my tush out of the fire back in town. I had no idea how corrupted Ganawenim had become."

"Neither had I," replied Nicolai. "But now, we'll both be more careful. Right?"

"Right," whispered Nohni, and pressed something into the polar wolverine's paw. "Spare Sat-Phone. It's got my number. Keep in touch."

Nicolai grinned and then melted into the dark forest with a startling swiftness that Nohni had to admire. For someone his size, he sure knew how to disappear.

For Nohni, it was research time. She punched a few numbers into her Sat-Phone and waited. A sleepy mumble answered her on the other end. "Hazel? Nohni here. Did I disturb anything other than a good night's rest?"

"Urf. Lemme just look at the time. It's….ugh, Gods! It's 2am here. Zenything wrong?"

"Not much. A polar wolverine patched me up, so I'm almost as good as new now."

"Patched you up? A polar what? No. Don't answer that. I don't wanna know. Since you're calling at this unheard of hour, I assume it's important."

"I don't know how long this might take, but then, I don't know how much time I have. I need you to check all weather and climate records for Cape Arkticheskiy, Severnaya Zemlya, Russia. It's an island in the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Siberia. Also, I'll need the same for the Svalbard Archipelago, a Norwegian island group above the Arctic Circle."

"Arctic weather, eh? You thinking about a skiing holiday? Or do you just want to find some nice, cozy place to slowly freeze to death. Gods and goddesses, Nohni, it's heading toward winter up there!"

"I'm aware of that, Hazel. I also need to know about the present ice cover on the land in both places, plus the underlying geology. Stuff on the internet, like satellite photos, aren't always up-to-date - especially over the Poles. Access the Geology Department's database at the University. I haven't got the bandwidth or the admin privileges to do effective searching through their hoard of data. By the way, is Raven staying at your place this evening?"

"Why do you ask?"

"I recognized her snoring in the background."

"So, do you need to yak at Raven as well?"

"No, I don't need to talk directly to Raven. I just need you to give her an assignment. I need her to do the same record search as you're doing, except she's to do it on everything between the 78th and 83rd parallel on Ellesmere Island, and on Point Barrow, Alaska."

"Your not asking for a lot, are you? Do you need all of this right away?" mumbled Hazel. It was obvious that she was still not fully awake.

"Not really. Tomorrow would be soon enough," answered Nohni. "However, there is one thing that would help me right away, and since you have admin privileges on the library server, you can access this info from your home computer."

"Just a sec…"

Nohni heard some grunts, along with a few mumbled curses, and made a note to herself to make this up to Hazel when she got back.

"Okay. Whatcha need?" Hazel said.

"I need a list of all the websites Chryona Winter accessed when we were in your office last week. You can e-mail it to my Sat-Phone."

"Gonna do some follow up on those sites?" asked Hazel. Nohni heard a tappity-taping in the background. "Don't spend too much time at the ZZ studio site."

"Looks like I may need to," answered Nohni. "Methinks my polar wolverine associate here is far too much the 'gentle-fur' for recreational whoopee."

"Poor Golden Jackal. All by her lonesome up in the Frozen North. E-mail is on its way, and I'm on my way back to bed." Nohni heard a huge yawn.

"Thanks Hazel. I really appreciate this."

"You just make sure to take good care of yourself, sister. Okay?"

Nohni heard the note of real concern in Hazel's voice, and smiled affectionately. "I'll try to stay in one piece. Now, off to bed with you."

A click signaled the end of the conversation, and Nohni Bluetoothed Winter's website list into her laptop. She had another call to make if her hunch was right - and they usually were. She punched in the number and got an answering machine - as she expected at this time of night.

"Tigermark's T-38 Transport Service. No one except the Government can get you there faster. Please leave a message and a callback number, and I'll contact you as soon as I can."

"Greetings, TM. Nohni Wabanda here," said Nohni. "I need to know if you would be willing to 'ferry' Horus, my K550 Kitsune float plane, to Thule Airbase in Greenland after picking me up in Ontario. I know flying a turboprop is a step down for you, but I need to get Horus up to Thule for some Arctic bush flying. Sorry, T-38s may be fast, but they don't do well landing on pack ice. You've got contacts at Thule that can get me fuel and clearance in Canadian airspace. You also know the ones to contact who can 'winterize' the plane properly for operation in the arctic at this time of year. I'd like you in on this as pilot because you're good with a sidearm in a scrap, but if you don't feel comfortable flying in arctic conditions with primitive to nonexistent airstrips, we can at least vet a potential bush pilot at Thule together. If worse comes to worse, I can fly Horus myself, but I would prefer a pilot familiar with Arctic weather. Call me back when you can. Luv ya."

Nohni set her Sat-Phone to standby and began to browse the websites Winter had accessed last week. Most were connected with recent earthquakes, geology, volcanoes, weather and climate - all large scale phenomena. And Nicolai had told of Winter pacing off polynyas and exulting in Arctic storms. And then there was Winter's very name.

Chryona Winter

Chryona Winter literally meant 'Cold' Winter. 'Kryos' or 'Cryos' was old Greek for 'cold'. However, present scientific evidence was pointing to the fact that winters were not getting colder. They were getting shorter and warmer. There was the loss of polar ice. So-called 'permanent' ice-shelves were breaking away from land in both the Arctic and Antarctic. Trillions of gallons of water were melting from the Greenland icecap and other land based glaciers.

One particular website entry caught Nohni's eye. It was an article on the Ward Hunt Island Ice Shelf. Ward Hunt Island was a small island off the north shore of Ellesmere Island from which many polar expeditions were launched. The ice shelf had apparently broken away this past summer which would make it much more difficult for future polar expeditions to take off from there.

Ice shelves breaking away? Glaciers and icecaps melting? A lot of land formerly covered by ice since the Ice Age was now coming to light.

So what sort of treasure might one find in these places, now that they'd been 'un-buried'? Nohni knew you needed to dig to uncover many archeological sites, but every so often, nature would uncover them all by herself.

You just had to be good enough to get there first.

 

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

 

An insistent buzzing from her Sat-phone woke Nohni from where she'd dozed off next to her laptop. It was still dark, but a pink glow to the east indicated the coming dawn. She blinked quickly a few times and hit the talk button.

"Nicolai here!" came a deep and urgent voice. "Spent more time in town than I liked, but I've got info on the Shard! However, I've also got a tail! Three pursuers on bikes."

"I hope you're not dumb enough to be driving and handling a Sat phone at the same time!" shouted Nohni.

"No excess stupidity here. I have a Bluetooth set in my helmet."

"Good! Where are you now?"

"Heading north out of town on a dirt road. If they keep up, I'm going cross country."

"Head for the peat bogs about two miles north of town. It’s the treeless area just west of the hill with the communication tower. You should be able to see the tower's blinking light by now. The two-track should fork before you get to the hill. Go right. The west end of the bog is more lake than bog and should have a frozen crust on it this time of year, but once you traverse it and crack the crust, anyone following could break through. That may slow down some of them."

"Good. Making right turn now. Bog ahead."

"Also, if you are heading back toward me, come in using the dirt road from the south. I'll have a little surprise waiting for anyone still following you."

Nohni clipped the Bluetooth headset into her ear to make communication easier. Then she grabbed the equipment she needed and grinned. Evading traps in treasure-laden ruins had given her a pretty good knowledge of how they work - and how to make one.

By the time she heard the distant sound of bike engines, she was ready. Nicolai burst from the trees a hundred yards down the road and headed toward her, his BMW spitting rocks and shedding foliage. Right after him came two other bikes. The BMW sped past and Nohni pulled her trigger rope.

Nothing happened.

Or it didn't seem to.

However, when Nicolai's pursuers reached Nohni's hidden position, both front tires hit the hidden trench she'd just removed the supports from.

Two bikes nose-dived into the trench. Two bikers caught air, did spectacular face-plants into the dirt, skidded to a halt, and lay still.

Nohni jumped up and ran to where Nicolai was already on the two pursuers. "Status?"

"Both unconscious," he pointed to the fur on his left. "He's the one that spotted me leaving." He shook his head "I must be getting old if lackeys like that can pick up on me."

Nohni looked back the way they all came. "Any more of them you think?"

"No," replied the polar wolverine, "but they'll know where to come looking for us." He showed Nohni a cell phone sticking from one of the fur's jacket pockets. "They probably kept up a running dialogue with their friends back at the Foundation."

"Then we need to move now," hissed Nohni. "You can pack your BMW on the back of my Hummer, and I'll back-track down this road for a while to loose them."

Nicolai frowned. "They'll be able to tell from your tire tracks that you doubled back."

Nohni shook her head. "I rotated the tires and reversed the treads yesterday when I got here." She flipped down the cycle carrier hooks on the back of the Rumble Bee. "It’s a normal precaution I take when I may need to leave an area undetected. If they look at the direction of the tire treads it'll look like two vehicles came here, but nobody left. They just disappeared." She pointed to the BMW and then to the carrier hooks. "And by the time they figure what's really going on, we're already on the main highway in a Hummer heading west while they only know about a BMW Adventure that was heading north."

Nicolai grinned, hefted the BMW onto the carrier hooks, and helped Nohni strap it down and cover it. They both got in and headed back toward town. About four miles down the road, Nohni pulled the Hummer off the dirt road and into a dense cedar swamp. Sure enough, a Ganawenim Foundation crew-cab pickup sped past their location about five minutes later in the opposite direction. Making sure it was well down the road, Nohni steered the Rumble Bee back onto the two-track. In another five minutes they were on the paved two-laner headed west, which was the more 'unlikely' direction to take since it eventually dead-ended in another Ojibwa village about a hundred-fifty miles further on. But Nohni wasn't headed there anyway. There was another logging road one quarter of the way there that led further north to a certain lake Nohni knew about - one that could easily accommodate a float plane like her Kitsune.

"So, what news of the Shard," Nohni finally asked, when they were fairly sure no one was following them any more.

"It's old," Nicolai stated flatly. "Not sure the dating method they used, but the Shard dates back to somewhere between twenty-two to twenty-seven thousand years ago." He shook his head in a puzzled sort of fashion. "They say it's old, but they discovered that it was giving off radio waves at odd frequencies - not powerful and very short range - only about 6 feet." He looked to Nohni and tapped his Sat-Phone. "Almost like a Bluetooth device - but one that was twenty five thousand years old?"

Nohni did some fast figuring. If what Nicolai said was true, the Shard was an artificial device or tool that had been constructed somewhere near the beginning of…

…the last Ice Age.

"There's one other thing too." growled Nicolai. His voice sounded dangerous now. "It's what took me longer than I'd expected."

Nohni spared him a glance. He not only sounded dangerous, he looked dangerous.

"I heard one of the night watch at the Foundation talking about Winter. I didn't catch much, so I stuck around hoping to get more. I didn't get it until the morning crew started to float in."

Nohni heard him take a few breaths as if to calm himself. "Do I need to pull over for this?" she asked quietly. She was already slowing down.

"No. Let's keep moving. Time is critical now." He turned to Nohni. "I had no idea she could travel that fast! And they were already waiting on Ellesmere."

A slow, hot hiss escaped the polar wolverine's lips.

"They've got Winter."

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


Part Three - Heading North


Flight to the Arctic

 

Nicolai looked around the interior of the 'Horus'. "Nice plane," he rumbled.

Nohni looked back at him from where she was doing co-pilot duty on the flight deck. "It's a 550 Kitsune STOL aircraft based on the de Havilland Twin Otter. It's powered by two Pratt & Whitney PT6-A35 turbo-prop engines generating 750 hp apiece. They're JFS equipped, so no battery or external APU is needed to start the engines - which is great on primitive airstrips with no 'lectricity'. Maximum cruising speed is 225 mph - we're doing 160 at the moment to maximize fuel consumption. Initial rate of climb is 1600 feet per minute. Range with a 2000 pound payload and wing tanks is 1300 nautical miles. Oh. And the aircraft is rated safe-to-operate down to minus 110 degrees Fahrenheit."

"I'll bet you didn't pick this up at the local Wallaby-Mart." Nicolai grunted.

"How I got the 'Horus' is a whole 'nuther story," answered Nohni, grinning.

"We've got time," countered Nicolai sourly. "By my reckoning, Thule is at least seven hours away, even in this hot-rod."

Nohni sensed the tenseness in the Polar Wolverine's voice and toned her response accordingly. "I know we spent two days at that lake sitting on our cold butts waiting for my plane to show up. I know Ganawenim's probably already been to Thule, and gone, but we can't get to where they might be holding Winter any faster," she said. "And I'm sure Hazel will take very good care of your BMW."

Tigermark, the 'for hire' pilot Nohni contacted to fly up in the Horus to pick them up in northern Ontario, had had the foresight to bring the lovely Hazel along. Her job had been to drive the Rumble Bee, with the motorcycle stuffed inside it, from the remote lake he'd landed on, back to Patriarch University. Apparently, Nicolai was very fond of that bike, and parting with it had not been painless - especially since they'd needed to detach the front wheel to get it to fit inside the Hummer.

"She's taking an alternate route back to PU, but even so, a BMW on the back rack would be far too obvious," explained Nohni. "You can bet Ganawenim has the entire province alerted to our little caper by now, and they've got a good description of your 'getaway' vehicle. They don't know about mine."

"Yet," grumbled Nicolai.

"Speaking of 'known' vehicles," interjected Tigermark from the pilot's seat, "I've got a bad feeling about landing at Thule to change our landing gear from wheeled pontoons to wheeled skis."

Nohni turned to where the white tiger was tapping his note-board clipped to the plane's double 'W' yoke.

"When I initially filed this flight plan, there were no real problems, but it wouldn't take much digging at all on their part to figure out this is your plane, Nohni. I'm not sure if they actually did any digging, but there was a longer than usual delay from Thule and they asked for the names of my passengers - twice."

"And what did you tell them," countered Nohni.

"That I had one lioness named Hazel Weiss, who was to be dropped off in Ontario on the first leg," answered Tigermark. "I then told them that the exact names and number of the passengers on the second leg to Thule was an unknown at the time I filed the plan, but I did assure them that they would be Arctic research scientists off on an Arctic project."

Nicolai looked around, "Nohni might be able to pull off that 'perfessor' ruse, but besides her, all I see is one ex-military Polar Wolverine and three really big crates. I take it those are the wheel/skis we're going to switch to when we get to Thule?"

Nohni nodded, then looked back to Tigermark. "So what's the bad feeling?"

"Ganawenim," said the white tiger in a word.

"I know he's got political clout in Canada," countered Nohni, a little angrily, "but Thule is a U.S. Military airbase in Greenland - a sovereign territory of Denmark - which, when I last checked, hadn't been conquered by Canada yet."

Tigermark frowned. "That doesn't mean his State Department can't get together with their State Department and decide to stink things up for us. Because the passenger manifest was incomplete at time of filing, we will be subject to both customs and military security when we land at Thule."

"And you're afraid we will be detained, because Ganawenim put in a bad word about us?"

Tigermark nodded. "They'll call it some kind of quarantine, but the results will be the same."

Nohni huffed and turned away. "I thought you had friends at the Thule airbase."

"I do," answered Tigermark. "That's why I don't want to land there. I've got no desire to put them in the position of having to choose between friendship and duty."

Nohni dropped her head and rubbed her brow. "Sorry. Not your fault." She looked up at him. "Any suggestions?"

Tigermark gave Nohni a sly look. "I haven't been a flight-jockey all these years without learning a thing or two."

"Like what," Nohni answered, looking curious.

"Like 'alternate landing sites'," he said, as if this should be obvious. "One always has to have an alternate in case - you know - things go wrong."

Nohni raised an eyebrow. "The point, flyboy?"

He tapped the flight-plan in front of him. "I propose we use the Qaanaaq airstrip fifty miles north of Thule. Qaanaaq is not U.S. military. It's the capital of the county of North Greenland or Avannaa as the locals call it, and is the largest Inuit settlement in the province. Only 650 permanent residents, but that's big for this part of the world. It's an all season facility with a nine hundred meter gravel runway. It's got refueling capability, so that shouldn't be a problem."

"But I sense there may be another problem?" prompted Nohni.

Tigermark shrugged. "There are no hanger facilities there. We'd need to do the landing gear re-fit ourselves. Outdoors."

"Sounds cold," commented Nicolai, who had wandered up to the flight deck.

Tigermark glanced back at him. "Nothing a big strong Polar Wolverine can't handle."

Nicolai grunted. "Grunt work. I knew it. That's the only reason anyone ever wants me along."

"Not true," commented Nohni, pulling her laptop from its bag on the floor next to her. "I've got a more mind-engaging task for you at the moment." She glanced to Tigermark. "Okay to use electronics, Captain?"

"In the back," suggested Tigermark pointing his thumb to the cabin area. "Who knows what sort of havoc that stuff on your laptop will wreak on honest, hardworking, navigation equipment."

"Aye aye, captain." Nohni saluted. Then she unbuckled her seat belt and motioned Nicolai back to the cabin. She seated herself on one of the two passenger seats as Nicolai sat down on a nearby wheel/ski crate.

"What sort of work can we do now?" asked Nicolai.

"Basic information gathering," said Nohni as she powered up the laptop. "We need to look over the data Hazel and Raven dug up for us on these three Arctic locations. Ellesmere, Svalbard, and Cape Arkticheskiy. Satellite Photos. Weather data. You know. Real fun stuff."

"And what exactly are we looking for?" asked the Wolverine.

"If I knew that, we wouldn't need to look," countered Nohni. "What we need to do now is leisurely and lovingly soak our brains in the ever-churning, primordial soup called Raw Data."

"Sounds a little depraved to me," commented Nicolai.

Nohni grinned. "The brain is the largest sex organ in the body, but erotic emotionalism is not our goal. We simply need to familiarize ourselves as much as we can with the facts about our target areas. That way, when something significant finally is revealed later on, we've got a ready-made context in which to put it. It's the old "Oh! I remember reading something about that!" moment. Know your data! It makes detective work a lot easier."

She pulled the first satellite photo up on her screen. "Memorize these," Nohni offered. "They will be our 'hunting grounds' for the next several days - or weeks."

Or however long it takes.

 

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"Diverting to Qaanaaq," drawled Tigermark into the headset. "Thanks for the warning, Jack. I owe you one."

"Trouble at Thule?" asked Nohni, who had just come back up to the flight deck.

Tigermark nodded. "I was right. It seems the province of Ontario has issued a warrant for your arrest. Something about an assault in your home village in Ontario. For some reason - and I can guess who suggested they do this - the Canadians decided to inform the Thule airbase to watch out for one 'Nohni Wabanda'."

Nohni cursed under her breath. "He knows I'm on his tail."

"Hey! It's already dark out!" came a rumble from back in the cabin. "How long have I been looking at these Sat-photos anyway?"

Nohni turned to the big Polar Wolverine. "Only six and a half hours."

Nicolai shook his great head and scrubbed at his eyes. "Oh, yeah. It gets dark a lot sooner up here in the far North."

"Only five hours of daylight this time of year at these latitudes," commented Nohni. "Gonna get even darker where we're going."

"And colder," added the wolverine.

Fifteen minutes later, Tigermark was in radio contact with the Qaanaaq airstrip, and he didn't look happy. "They say we are to approach from the northwest and taxi directly to the little passenger terminal, where it looks like some sort of 'escort' awaits us." He dipped the planes wings so Nohni and Nicolai could see the red flashing lights on the airstrip about three miles away to their right. They weren't hard to spot in the dark Arctic night.

"Damn!" spat Nohni. "Ganawenim must have spoken with the officials here, and spread some lies about us! Is there nowhere else to land?"

"We've got no fuel to go anywhere else that has fuel other than Thule. We have to land." Tigermark answered. "At least the flashing lights make the taxi area easier to see."

"Always looking for the positive?" Nohni grumbled.

"I try." Tigermark tapped his flight plan. "Like us, maybe Ganawenim avoided Thule altogether, and came here instead. If he was carrying something secretly and wanted to avoid the higher level of scrutiny at Thule, that's what I'd do."

"That's what you are doing," muttered Nohni. "I don't like this. Ganawenim getting here first."

"I just hope he hasn't sucked up their entire fuel supply," commented Tigermark. "Northern airstrips like this one plan for only limited usage during the winter. If Ganawenim has any sense at all, he's going to be using a Twin Otter or a variant thereof for his aerial transport, just like we are. There aren't any choppers rated for the cold at this time of year. If he's using more than one plane, which seems likely, fuel may become a problem. I won't know what the fuel situation is until we land."

"Fuel may be the least of our problems," grunted Nicolai. "Tell you what. Why don't I talk with them first? I'm Inuit, and the Canadian Inuit dialect is very close to the Greenland version. Parlaying in the native tongue will make us a lot more acceptable to these folks, believe me. If they know I'm one of them, we could get a lot better treatment from the locals. You," Nicolai pointed at Tigermark, "need to come along as the pilot, but Nohni need not come at all."

"Sorry, I don't work that way," gruffed Nohni. "I prefer to be up front. After all, my name says it all."

Tigermark suppressed a chuckle. "Nohni? This really isn't the weather to go topless."

"Topless? Her name?" queried Nicolai, looking confused.

"Nohni's name means 'She shows her breasts' in the Ojibwa language." offered Tigermark. "Like you said, it pays to know the native lingo."

Nohni thrust out her chest, straining the zipper on her flight jacket. "Okay. We meet the reception committee together then." She tapped her temple with one finger. "Nicolai? The eyes are up here."

The wolverine's snapped back to hers, and he gave a sheepish grin. "You may need to remind our reception committee of that, too."

Tigermark banked the Kitsune into its final descent and touched down lightly on the feebly lit runway a minute later. Taxiing to where someone on the ground directed them, he stopped, and he and Nohni went through the post flight shutdown checklist. Though the flashing lights on the vehicles outside boded ill, no one came banging on their door. Maybe that was a good sign. More likely, it meant those on the ground knew the plane wasn't going anywhere soon.

Tigermark ticked off the last item on the shutdown list and looked to Nohni and Nicolai. Unlike Nicolai, who didn't look like he needed one, Nohni had put on her extra warm parka. Tigermark grabbed his as he entered the cabin and shrugged into it.

Paw on the door handle, Nohni said, "Let's do it," and pushed the step/door open and down. A blast of frigid air instantly turned the cabin icy. She motioned to Nicolai to go first. It was best for him to make the initial formal greetings. When they were all outside, Nohni sized up the welcoming committee - for size was the most obvious thing about the six furs waiting for them. Like Nicolai, they were big and looked like polar bear hybrids, the biggest one being another Polar Wolverine. The other five were polar bear/malamute hybrids - their white eyes most startling in their grey malamute marked faces.

Nicolai spoke with the biggest one in Inuktitut, the Canadian version of the Inuit language and he seemed to be understood quite well, for the big one nodded and began to speak. He pointed several times at the plane and back at the large SUV with the flashing lights. He did not point at Nohni, although he looked in her direction a few times. When he finished, Nicolai nodded and walked back to where Nohni and Tigermark stood, slowly freezing solid.

"They know who you are," he stated and held up a paw to forestall any outburst, "however there is another matter which they consider more urgent." He pointed to the SUV with the flashing lights. "That not only serves as the local cop car - it's also the town's ambulance." He motioned her to follow. "It's your plane - so it's your call."

Both she and Tigermark followed Nicolai back to the big Inuit leader - for that's who he had to be. When she reached him, she bowed and held out both paws, palm up. She wasn't sure if this was an accepted manner of greeting here since Nicolai hadn't used it, but it was traditional for her tribe and indeed, in many other places in the world. Like the pawclasp - it meant one was unarmed - and supposedly peaceful. She felt both paws clasped briefly by paws much bigger than hers and she looked up.

"I am called Otukatka. We have a request to make of you," came his deep voice as Nohni looked up into his dark eyes. "A little one of or town is gravely ill and we do not have the facilities here to care for her properly."

Nohni looked toward the ambulance and her mind immediately grasped the implications of Otukatka's request. She looked back to him. "Thule airbase can't send transport to help you?" The big wolverine's face furrowed into a frown, and Nohni knew she had just said the wrong thing.

"We have requested transport from them to their airbase and its hospital in Thule," rumbled the wolverine, "but they presently have only one of their big C130s ready for flight which cannot come since they might need it in an emergency themselves. Why their smaller craft are gone or disabled, I do not know."

Nohni glanced at Tigermark, who shrugged and raised a questioning eyebrow. Apparently he hadn't asked about other available aircraft at Thule when talking to the commander. There really hadn't been any reason to, but an airbase with only one aircraft available for flight? That didn't seem right. However, she was in no position to argue the point. She turned back to Otukatka. His voice and manner had indicated distaste.

"You don't like asking the Thule airbase for help, do you," she stated quietly. "I believe you have a… history with them?"

Otukatka nodded, slowly. "The stern ones in pretty U.S. uniforms pushed us off our land at Thule and sent us here forty years ago. However those soldiers are not the same ones who occupy Thule now," he said. "In a fashion, we have come to accept the way things are. Back then, the world was a touch away from war between the Bear and the Eagle. We have come to realize that there are dread orcas in the world who present a much greater threat to us all. What are two squabbling seals compared with that? We do not love the U.S. presence in Thule, but we accept it. And at times, we need it. Like now."

"For sometimes there are needs that are greater than our own," whispered Nohni. She sighed before looking back into the wolverine's dark eyes. "It would not be prudent for me to accompany you to Thule, but my aircraft is yours, to use as you see fit," she said simply.

Otukatka looked down at her, his expression unreadable.

Then he nodded. "Unlike Ganawenim, you are worthy of respect, Nohni Wabanda." He turned to face them all. "You are also worthy of the truth." He waved a paw back at the SUV, and its red and white flashing lights went out. "There is no emergency. This was merely a test of your character. Ganawenim was here two days ago demanding fuel for his three planes. Someone representing him had contacted us earlier about this but made no mention about such a large fuel requirement, and Ganawenim's manner towards us was… discourteous. He was ever concerned about haste and his own needs, scolding anyone who would not jump at his tiniest command. He then warned us that one Nohni Wabanda might follow him, and that she was a notorious criminal, wanted for assault upon him. He demanded that we detain her until extradition could be arranged."

"And will you?" Nohni asked, her voice neutral rather than defiant.

"I do not think we will," replied Otukatka, "for I do not think an assault upon Ganawenim should be considered a crime." His face turned ugly. "Especially since the fuel he did NOT take with him has been mysteriously contaminated with hydraulic fluid." He let out a low growl. "I do not think that was an accident, but it does mean one thing."

Nohni felt her own face crumple into a snarl. "It means we'll have to go to Thule anyway!"

She looked to Tigermark who nodded. "We've enough fuel left in the Horus to get us there."

"But I come with you," added Otukatka. "I will speak for you and explain my suspicions about this so-called 'accuser' of your integrity. I do not think even the commander of the Thule airbase will wish for an angry local populace. The Eagle has too many other 'problems' around the world to add yet another one - especially since it would be so needless to do so."

Nohni nodded her acceptance of the Inuit wolverine's offer, but it gave her little comfort. If what Otukatka said about Ganawenim was true - that that sly raccoon had sabotaged the remaining fuel supply at Qaanaaq - then Ganawenim obviously thought he wouldn't need anything more from this airstrip - or the little community that was dependent upon it.

He was burning his bridges.

And that meant he already knew where he was going.

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Ellesmere Island and Beyond.

 

Nohni picked at her food in the small Qaanaaq café, just for something to do. Her lack of apatite was due to being left behind. Nicolai, Tigermark, and Otukatka had flown the Horus to Thule for re-fueling without her. She'd argued to come along, but was finally convinced by Tigermark that staying behind would make things easier for everyone. After all, the U.S. airbase at Thule had been notified to watch out for Nohni herself, not her plane. And Otukatka had a legitimate grievance to file concerning Ganawenim. Nohni's claim the Ganawenim attacked her, instead of the reverse, would just be her word against his. Otukatka at least had some physical evidence for his grievance in the form of contaminated fuel.

A yelp of triumph from the other side of the café caught Nohni's attention and she looked up toward the three teenagers playing on one of the video game consoles along the wall. They'd been on the same machine ever since she'd arrived.

"The Inue of this northern land will not hold them here much longer," came the low, quavering voice to Nohni's right. "They do not hear the spirits of our land, and they will leave to pursue the southern Sun, never to return."

Nohni turned and saw an old Inuit Polar Bear female walking up to her and taking the counter stool next to hers. She was no hybrid, so it was not the white of the fur that revealed her age. It was that she was so stooped as to be almost shorter than Nohni. She also wore an Annuraaq - the warm, hooded-parka garment worn by traditional Inuit. Nohni had not seen these worn by any of the younger furs in Qaanaaq. The three teenagers on the video console were dressed more like Patriarch University students. Jeans and jackets.

Nohni bowed her head to the old polar bear. "I am Nohni Wabanda."

The old Inuit squinted at her, and nodded back. "I am Utmak. You are a visitor here, but you are no tourist, nor, I think, are you a researcher in pursuit of science."

"No," said Nohni softly. "Unlike your young ones," she nodded to the teenagers, "I seek the Inue of this land. One Inua, in particular."

The old bear eyed her, her muzzle creased with doubt. "Do you believe the old stories then?"

"Belief is a hard thing," answered Nohni turning fully to face Utmak. "It requires time - and evidence. But I listen, and I do not disregard stories out of paw. There are many things in this world that are unknown to most furs. I have seen some of them." She leaned toward the old bear. "Have you possibly heard of a unique Inua called Chryona Winter?"

Utmak's muzzle wrinkled in question. "I know not the name."

"I'm not sure she truly is a special Inua, but she isn't a 'normal' fur either. She is very large and lives alone on the polar Arctic ice." Nohni raised her paw to emphasize the height. "Two and a half - almost three - meters high. She has a white mane and tail with thick, grey body fur.  I believe she's a wolf-wolverine hybrid, but I'm not…"

"Kapvik Amarok!?" interrupted Utmak with a hiss.

The polar bear's black eyes were suddenly very wide. Nohni could see fear there, colored with a touch of anger. "I beg your pardon?" Nohni asked. "What did you call her?"

"Kapvik Amarok!" repeated Utmak, her voice much lower now. "A terrible Angakok of great power!" Her eyes darted around as if she might be overheard. "Among other things, the wind is her weapon, and it is said that she can suck the very soul from one's body."

"I'm sorry," whispered Nohni, reaching out to grasp the now trembling Utmak's paw. "I didn't mean to upset you, but the Chryona Winter I know is a very gentle creature."

When she wasn't trying to kill me, that is.

"I admit," Nohni continued, "she is big enough to pound just about anyone into paste, but nothing like what you describe."

Utmak shook her head. "You do not understand! You speak of the Inue, but you do not know of the Angakok Inue! Angakok, any Angakok, can do great harm. They may choose not to use their power. They may act as meek as a seal pup, but their power is real, and it is terrible when they use it!" The old bear was shaking now. "One does not venture out on the hunt without knowing one might never return. My great-grandsire spoke of a time many, many years ago when a party of ten hunters chased a pod of narwhales into the northern sea ice. It was good hunting weather and they were skilled hunters. Their kayaks sped like seals through the water, and their aim was true! But then, from nowhere came the North Wind, and my great-grandsire swore he heard the howl of Kapvik Amarok in the gale. He was the only one to return."

Utmak, shook her head again as she grasped Nohni's forearm. "Do not seek this Angakok if you value your life."

With that, the old bear stood up and quickly shuffled out the door of the café. Nohni watched her go and tried to make sense of what Utmak had told her. The word 'amarok' meant 'wolf' in the Inuit language. The word 'kapvik' meant wolverine. So 'kapvick amarok' would literally mean wolverine/wolf - which was an accurate description of what Winter was - except that she was a lot bigger than one would expect for that hybrid. And the old Inuit had spoken the words as a name - not a description - a name that obviously inspired fear.

The sound of a distant airplane engine caught Nohni's attention, and she recognized the familiar hum of her Horus. She quickly paid her bill and left the café. She could see the tiny outline of her plane in the western sky - the low angle of the northern sun glinting off the wings. She could see the new landing gear, so the refit had gone smoothly. She picked up her pace, but knew that by the time she reached the airport, Nicolai and Tigermark would have stowed the emergency gear and everything would be ready to go.

Last night, they had decided to scout the north shore of Ellesmere Island for Heiki Lunta's camp. That's where Winter had gone - and where she'd been captured - according to what Nicolai had overheard at the Ganawenim Foundation. Nohni wondered how they could have done that so easily, but then she remembered the devastating effect that the Taser grenade had had on Winter back at the University.

Damn! Heiki Lunta must have been waiting for her - equipped with a weapon no respectable Inuit hunter should have access to. Well, regardless of how he did it, Nohni was going to have some very pointed questions for him. If they could find him.

As to what the old Inuit, Utmak, had told her? She would keep that to herself for now. Winter as a ravening monster simply did not compute.

But then, everything about Winter and her Shard was starting to get a little strange.

 

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The big polar wolverine examined the deserted arctic campsite under the light of the flaming Aurora Borealis and a low gibbous moon.

"Yep. This was their camp alright. Looks like Ganawenim's planes have been here and gone, but it looks like they didn't take all of Heiki Lunta's hunters with them, either." Nicolai pointed to a trail heading southwest up the sea-side bluffs and over the icecap that covered northern Ellesmere Island. There was one set of snowmobile tracks pulling a sledge and numerous foot tracks. "The snow machine and sledge is the gear and meat hauler for the hunting party," commented Nicolai. "They're going overland instead of following the shoreline. Means they're in a hurry."

"They knew we were coming," growled Nohni.

"It also means they knew they might have to leave quickly," hissed Nicolai. "One does not go dashing over an unfamiliar icecap without taking the risk of dropping into an unseen crevasse. If they wanted to make any speed at all, they would need to scout a trail on the way here first."

"If they did scout a trail, how far could they have gotten in three days," asked Tigermark, who sounded calm, but looked as dangerous as the other two. "Their speed would be limited to their slowest runner."

"A hundred miles or so," spat Nicolai, "Far enough to have almost reached the southern terminus of the icecap." He shook his head. "If they get there, they will hit bare tundra, and will be a lot harder to track."

"Then let's get moving," barked Nohni as she headed back to the Horus. "Heiki may have gone with Ganawenim in the planes, but even if he's not with his party, someone in it must know what happened, and where they took Winter!" Tigermark and Nicolai joined her.

"Weather for all of Ellesmere was good last time I checked," said Tigermark as they all climbed in, "which is fortunate. However, the moon will be down in half an hour, and I'm not too crazy about trying to land on a dark, featureless, possibly crevasse strewn ice sheet by only the light of an unreliable aurora. The only reason we could land here at this campsite in the dim light was because we saw the tracks Ganawenim's planes left for us. Were it not for those, I'd have headed back to Alert. If you insist on going southwest, I'm heading for Eureka."

Nohni remembered the rather heated argument she'd had with the white tiger about landing conditions. Alert was a tiny research base run by the Canadians on the northeast tip of Ellesmere. Its airstrip conditions were a known factor. The back-country wasn't. Daylight landings in the wilderness were bad enough. At night, one was taking a very real risk of cracking up.

"The Eureka weather station is nearly one hundred miles south of the icecap terminus," said Nohni, trying to keep her voice under control. "We'd be no better off there than we are here."

"No more cat and dog fights, please?" snapped Nicolai. "We have a ready made solution if you two had bothered to pay attention." The 'cat' and 'dog' turned to him. "Well, it's obvious to me," added Nicolai, looking innocent.

"Out with it," prompted Nohni. "And no more with the 'cat' and 'dog' stuff, or I'll start referring to you as 'the Weasel guy'."

"We simply follow the trail we were intending to follow anyway," pointed out Nicolai. "If our quarry scouted out a crevasse-free trail, we ought to be able to land on it too." He patted the cabin wall. "This plane can poke along at fifty miles an hour without falling out of the sky. That's faster than those Heiki hunters can go. At that speed, and flying low, I can use the plane's landing lights keep an eye on the trail, and when we want to land, I can drop a few of these." He held up a flare. "Presto. Instant lighted airstrip." He returned Tigermark's glare. "This is an icecap were talking about here. Flat as a pancake - except for a few mountains poking up here and there - which should be easy enough to see even in this light."

Nohni looked to Tigermark. "I won't argue your expertise compared to mine, but if we lose this lead, we lose Winter." She gave him a wide-eyed, beseeching look.

Tigermark still looked unhappy, but then relented. "We've got an estimated 800 miles left worth of fuel. We've always got the Eureka airstrip in an emergency, and Nicolai knows every fuel dump between here and Alaska. Okay. Let's do it."

Nicolai grinned, and Nohni actually hugged and kissed the white tiger. "Thanks, TM," she whispered in his ear. Tigermark shook his head, strapped into the pilot's seat and started going through the startup routine.

"I'm the ex-military covert-ops guy so let me recommend something else," put in Nicolai, buckling himself into a cabin seat. "Our quarry has a three day start. I'm going to especially keep a lookout for their overnight campsites - of which there should be two. That will give us an idea how many miles they're doing per day. After the second campsite, we should travel only two thirds that distance - then land. I want to sneak up on them on foot."

"Are you saying my plane is noisy?" shouted Nohni just as Tigermark fired up the JFS on engine number one.

Nicolai nodded. "Just a tad. Remember - they're a hunting party. They've got rifles. They don't like us. There are more of them than us. A plane makes a big target. You do the math."

"For your information," drawled Nohni, "the Horus has self-sealing fuel tanks and kevlar light armor around the engines and flight deck. She is quite well protected, but I agree. No need to play 'target' if you don't need to. One condition though. We get to tag along." Nohni saw Nicolai's frown of disapproval. "As backup. You know. Just in case." She pulled her .45 auto from its holster. "TM and I aren't complete dullards in a fight, and like you said there are more of them than us." She slapped her sidearm back into its holster and set it beside the co-pilot seat. "No killing," she added sternly. "Dead enemies make lousy conversationalists."

Three hours later they had the quarry in their sights - but it was not the quarry they expected.

 

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"I really do need to check out my assumptions," mumbled Nohni as the last ambulance drove away from the Resolute landing strip. Its red flashing lights contrasted sharply with the green sheets of the Aurora for it was night again. This trip was getting a lot longer than expected.

The reason for their unscheduled trip down to the small Inuit settlement of Resolute was because they hadn't encountered an 'enemy' in what remained of Heiki Lunta's hunting party. Instead, their early morning raid had surprised a motley, and very terrified group of Inuit. Of the eight in the party, all were injured, four badly enough to require stretchers. Their 'gear' sledge, pulled by the lone snowmobile, had been filled with moaning malamutes instead of the seal carcasses from the hunt that should have been there.

It seemed Winter had not been an easy capture after all, and only after being hit by three inexpertly launched Taser grenades, had she gone down. Keeping her down while waiting for Ganawenim to show up had been another nightmare for them. In fact, the only reason that they hadn't used their rifles on Winter was because Heiki Lunta had taken all the ammunition and threatened them with it!

Being left behind in their injured state had been the last straw. As far as they were concerned, Heiki Lunta was no leader, but a marked criminal. Especially since he had left them to the mercy of the notorious 'Ozzawi Nijab' when she showed up - which she most certainly would. Ganawenim's planes had barely disappeared over the western horizon when the hunters had dumped their 'kill' into the ocean and taken off over the icecap. No, they had not previously scouted a trail over the icecap, and landing on their trail had been more risky than Nohni's crew could have imagined. As luck would have it, they didn't encounter a problem, and sneaking into the Inuit's final campsite in the morning had been totally unnecessary. They could have landed on top of them without a fight.

Nohni turned to her right. A figure was approaching her from the yellow lit passenger building. The Resolute law enforcement chief, a malamute named Warren Chatakik, walked up to Nohni, and nodded. "Paperwork's been filed. I don't think you'll need to worry about the RCMP or anyone else serving that 'Ganawenim' warrant on you." He looked to the lighted area on the tarmac where a ground crew was re-fueling the Horus. "You're going after him, aren't you."

Nohni nodded.

The chief handed her an envelope. "Don't know if this will help, but it's a warrant for Ganawenim's and Heiki's arrest. We haven’t got the equipment or resources to go after them, but if you find him, you've got the authority to act in our stead." He shuffled his foot for a moment, then looked back up at her. "One of those you brought back was a nephew of mine, name of Jerak. Thanks for bringing them back." He suddenly kicked at a stone and growled. "You DON'T leave an injured tribal member out in the wilderness to die if you can help it!"

"What about Winter?" asked Nohni. "She was the one who inflicted those injuries."

Warren shook his head. "From what Jerak tells me, it seems Winter's only beef was with Heiki Lunta. She only attacked them after HE ordered them to attack her. Jerak told me of Winter when Korfi Malu was still their leader. Winter visited them on the northern hunt from time to time. She was never all that outgoing or outwardly friendly, but she was never aggressive either. Korfi Malu always thought of a visit from her as a sign of good luck on the hunt."

"Do you believe in the Inue then?" asked Nohni.

Warren looked down for a long time, then took a deep breath before raising his white eyes to hers. "My great-grandmother told me the stories. She told those stories to all us pups. I thought they were just that. Stories. But with Winter?" He shook his head again. "I just don't know. She's a strange one."

He turned to go, then stopped and turned back to Nohni. "There is one other thing Jerak told me before they took him away to the hospital. He said he doesn't remember telling it to you on the way down here. I don't know if it will help."

"Anything might help," Nohni prompted.

Warren nodded. "Jerak said Heiki had to hit Winter with several Taser grenades to keep her down, but she was never really completely out of it. He said there was one thing Winter kept mumbling all the time she was down." The malamute shrugged. "It doesn't make any sense to me, but maybe it will to you."

"And that is?"

"She kept saying 'Follow the Star on the Wolverine's Paw'."

Nohni nodded. "An interesting phrase. I'll think about it." She grasped the malamutes paw. "Thank you for your help, but I see Tigermark signaling to me that they've finished re-fueling. We'll be heading back to Eureka tonight, I think."

Warren shook paws and turned away as Nohni turned to the aircraft.

"Follow the Star on the Wolverine's Paw." she thought.

Those had to be directions of some sort. And they had to be directions so deeply engrained in Winter's mind that she could recite them even when almost unconscious. Nohni quickened her pace. The 'Star' could be many things. It could be a real star on a constellation that looked like a Wolverine…

or it could refer to something shaped like a star!

"Tigermark!" she yelled as she ran up to the plane. "My fanny pack! Where is it?" She skidded to a halt. "No wise-cracks about my fanny, either."

Tigermark grinned and tossed her the small pack from inside the cabin.

"Nicolai!" she called as she dug around in the pack. "I need your input on this too! Get the laptop!" She jumped into the cabin as Nicolai dug the laptop from its case.

"Fire it up and bring up the satellite photos around Ellesmere! Tigermark. Kill the cabin lights. We don't need them."

The cabin lights went out as the laptop booted up. Nicolai brought up the satellite photos and turned to Nohni. "So what's your hunch? You can't be acting this excited simply because you're in the company of a hansom guy like me."

Nohni snorted. "Okay guys. Let's review the facts." She held up Winter's throwing star with the hidden map of the Arctic Ocean that she'd just dug from her fanny pack. The map was glowing now due to green light streaming in the cabin door from the dancing Aurora Borealis.

"We've got a map of something that looks like 'Dagger Doors' but the size of the map makes it impossible to tell exactly where those 'doors' might be." She lowered the glowing map. "I was just told that while in the custody of our Inuit friends, Winter was mumbling something about 'Following the Star on the Wolverine's Paw'. I think this is the 'Star' she was referring to."

"Winter's throwing star? But it's not on a Wolverine's paw unless you give it to me," said Nicolai. "I'm at least part Wolverine."

Nohni passed the throwing star to him, but nothing unusual happened. "Now what?" he asked, handing it back.

"I didn't think it would do anything, but it was worth a try." Nohni raised the star to the Aurora again. "I'm guessing this 'star' only works as a homing device when we are actually on 'The Wolverine's Paw'."

Nicolai harrumphed. "You can try standing on me if you like, but I don't think that will help either."

"Especially if you stand on the dangly bits," put in Tigermark with a grin.

"Ouch," said Nohni in vicarious sympathy. "Neither do I - unless, of course, Nicolai's dangly bits happen to be 25,000 years old."

"Nope," answered Nicolai, "They're a tad short of twenty-five thousand."

"By about twenty-four thousand, nine-hundred and seventy five," added Tigermark, counting on his fingers. "I need more fingers to be sure about that, though. So what's the significance of the 25K number?"

"Because that's how old the Shard is!" answered Nicolai, pointing a finger at Nohni. "You think that so-called 'throwing star' is 25,000 years old, too?"

"Exactly," said Nohni waving the star. "This is no 'primitive' tool. I recognized that when I first saw it. I'm thinking these throwing stars have to be the same age as the Shard. After all, the map shows 'Dagger Doors'. What else could that refer to except the Shard?"

"So your saying, whatever this 'Wolverine's Paw' is, it has to be 25,000 years old, too?"

"Yes!" returned Nohni. "The Shard, The Throwing Stars, The Dagger Doors, and the Wolverine's Paw all have to be the same age because they all refer to each other!"

"So where do we find a 25,000 year old wolverine paw?" asked Nicolai holding up his own.

"Somewhere around Ellesmere Island, the Svalbard Archipelago, and Cape Arkticheskiy. The places on land that the 'Dagger Doors' point to," answered Nohni, taking the laptop from Nicolai.

"Uh. Satellite photos are good, but even they couldn't see some itty-bitty mummified wolverine paw from that far away."

"The chances of any particular mummified wolverine paw lasting 25,000 years are not that good." answered Nohni. "No. I'm betting that whoever created the Shard and the Stars was referring to something that would have a 100% chance of lasting for thousands of years."

"Even the ice shelves themselves are breaking up," countered Nicolai. "What 'Wolverine Paw' can possibly be guaranteed to last 25,000 years in the Arctic?"

Nohni grinned and pointed to a spot on one particular satellite photo. "How about the very coastline itself. Look at this photo of Ellef Ringnes Island! It's one of the Sverdrup Islands just west of
Ellesmere!"

Sverdrup Wolverine

 
Nicolai and Tigermark stared at the screen, and Nohni brought up two other photos.

"And if you turn the Svalbard Archipelago on its side - you have another silhouette of a wolverine! Then there's a peninsula on this island just east of Cape Arkticheskiy that also looks like a wolverine head and paw!"

"And if we go to these places, the Star will somehow point us to the Doors?" asked Nicolai.

"Look!" said Tigermark, excitedly punching in a closer view of the Ellef Ringnes Island photo. "This looks like an old abandoned airstrip only thirty miles east of the Paw!"

Nohni looked around at them all. "Winter has got to be at one of these sites, but I'm betting on the Ellef Ringnes Island site. Coincidentally, the 'Paw' on Ellef Ringnes Island is also the last place on land where the north magnetic pole was located before it moved out to sea ten years ago."

"Then what are we waiting for?" rumbled Nicolai.

Nohni held up the glowing Star. "I think we've got a date with a Paw."

 

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

 

Kapvik Amarok

 

Tigermark taxied the Horus right up to the long, snow covered mound.

"That doesn't look natural," commented Nicolai.

"It's what's left of a DC-3," the white tiger remarked as he began to shut down the engines. "Forced down here on Ellef Ringnes Island forty, maybe fifty years ago."

"It missed the airstrip?"

"Yep. By about twenty years." Tigermark nodded as he checked off a few more items on the shutdown list. "The airstrip was constructed about twenty years ago to service a weather station that never got built. That's why it's abandoned."

"Why did they construct an airstrip right next to an accident sight?"

Tigermark shook his head. "They didn't. The airstrip is ten miles west of us." He grinned at Nicolai's confusion. "I thought it prudent to land somewhere that wasn't already crowded with the bad guy's planes."

"You know they are there, then?"

"Not really," explained Tigermark. "I'm just making some logical assumptions. That old airstrip is the obvious place to land around here. It's not the only place, mind you, but the obvious one. This place looked suitable from the satellite photos and one pass over it in the present light confirmed it."

The sun was on the southwestern horizon now, and its low angle threw even the smallest bumps on the ground into high relief. The terrain was rather featureless except for the remains of the DC-3.

"So, what are we all taking?" asked Nohni, who had shrugged into her outer-wear - a snow-white annuraaq parka with attached mittens and leggings. This was used over the top of a double-insulated gortex bodysuit and gloves. Double insulated boots and a thick face scarf completed the outfit. She wanted to stay warm - but flexible. "I've got my .45 auto, whip, fanny pack, emergency gear, and Comm Unit." She tapped the small device in her ear that would let them stay in contact with each other if separated. Its range was normally quite good, but the Aurora was playing havoc with electronics, and they'd need to stay within fifty meters of each other under present conditions.

"Only minus 17o out there," commented Nicolai looking at one of the flight deck's instruments. "Downright balmy for late fall/early winter up here. Unlike you two, I've got the fur for this, so it's just the outer parka for me."

"I picked up a couple of these at Thule," added Tigermark holding up several pairs of very thick goggles. "Compliments of my friend at the airbase. Thought they might be useful."

"Snow goggles?" asked Nicolai, taking a pair.

"Combination snow goggles and infra-red night-vision snoopers," explained Tigermark. "Protection during what little daylight we have now, and in the dark anything with a temperature higher than an Eskimo Pie will stick out like a sore thumb. They self-adjust for light conditions."

Nohni slipped on a pair of the bulky goggles and looked at her reflection in a cabin window. "I've looked better." She turned to Nicolai, her be-goggled eyes dropping to his crotch. "So that's what Polarine dangly bits look like."

Nicolai sputtered and dropped his paws to his nether regions, but only as long as it took Tigermark to guffaw. "Wrong portion of the electromagnetic spectrum," he chuckled. "The goggles are infra-red, not X-Ray."

Nicolai grunted, then pulled one of his own 'toys' from its case and held it up. It seemed lost in his massive paw until he closed his fingers around the grip - which fit him perfectly. It was his Brugger Thomet MP9 - a select-fire 9x19mm Luger/Para caliber machine pistol renowned for its controllability, allowing a shooter to accurately fire the weapon in bursts of up to 15 rounds, instead of the typical two or three round bursts that other SMGs were limited to. It came equipped with the red-dot sight, tactical light and silencer. "This one's for more 'precision' work," he said, clipping it into a modified shoulder holster along with four ammo clips.

Nohni nodded. Nicolai had brought the MP9 along on their aborted raid on Heiki Lunta's hunting party on Ellesmere.

"But I think I'll take this one too." Nicolai took another weapon from the case. "More unknowns this time - more bad guys. It’s my 9mm Calico automatic machine pistol with the helical one hundred round magazine." He grinned as he shoved it into his other shoulder holster. "It's my ambidextrous 'Aim 'n' Spray' gun."

Guns
 

"Whoa. At least we won't be outgunned," commented Tigermark as he holstered his own .45 auto Estate Special. "At least, I hope we won't."

"I'm partial to the .45 auto myself," said Nicolai, "but you two seemed to have that caliber covered, so I figured I'd bring something with more 'crowd control' capability."

"No killing if we can help it," admonished Nohni. "We may have been empowered by the province of Nunavut to take down Heiki and Ganawenim, but excess bodies really muddy up the legal waters. Fire only if they shoot first."

Nicolai nodded. "As the ex-military covert-ops guy, I prefer precision over raw power any day, but I appreciate massive firepower when it's needed." He looked to Nohni, as he packed away several throwing knives about his person. "Freeing Winter is still our first priority?"

Nohni nodded. "Ganawenim and the Shard are high on the list too, but even Ganawenim found out that the Shard was impotent without Winter."

"At least that's what we're assuming," put in Tigermark.

Nohni eyed him. They had been over this before, and Tigermark had brought up one disturbing possibility. What if Ganawenim had gotten all he needed from Winter? What if all he needed from the big femme was the Shard's operating instructions? Could they already be too late to rescue her? Nohni shook her head. Until they saw things with their own eyes - until they were sure, they would operate on the assumption that Winter was being held captive.

If not, someone was going to pay.

Dearly.

Nicolai zipped up his insulated coat, flipped up the hood, and looked at the others. "So are we ready?"

Nohni took a deep breath and cracked open the cabin door. The blast of arctic air that poured into the plane's cabin put a big damper on what would have been a fantastic Arctic sunset.

But then - they weren't here for the scenery.

 

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

 

The Aurora danced overhead as the three figures lay prone on the flat, darkened tundra. Their white outfits blended in well with their surroundings. All three faced a single Twin Otter turboprop about three hundred meters away in the middle of an old, gravel airstrip.

"I count two outside the plane at nose and tail," rumbled Nicolai, a pair of binoculars flush up against his night goggles. "Their postures scream 'lookout'. They're guarding something inside the plane. Shadows across the cabin windows means there are more inside. Don't know how many."

"Only one engine is running," observed Tigermark. "No portable generator outside, so they're using it as their heat and electrical source." He pointed to a stack of large drums. "If that's fuel, and they are full, it looks like they can sit tight for quite a while."

"I don't like it," hissed Nohni. "Ganawenim had three planes here." She jerked her head toward the south end of the airstrip. "Tigermark confirmed three fresh sets of ski tracks, so three planes landed. Now two of them are gone."

"There are two more 'Wolverine Paws' besides the one here," growled Nicolai. "It looks like Ganawenim got the information he needed from Winter if he's already off to the other Dagger Doors."

"Then what - or who - is in the plane they are guarding?" asked Tigermark. "Maybe they still think they need Winter?"

"Shit!" yelled Nohni, pointing. "I think the plane's nose guard spotted us! It looks like he's got a night-sight on whatever he's carrying. That slimy Ganawenim has way too much money if he's getting his lackey's toys like that!"

"Now he's pointing and yelling something to the cockpit!" spat Tigermark. "So much for co-vert ops!" All three jumped up as the second engine came to life.

Nohni saw the two guards hop into the cabin and slam the door as the three of them started running for the plane. The plane was already moving. "Dammit! I don't think we'll reach it in time!"

"Speak for yourselves, slowpokes," yelled Nicolai. The big polar wolverine cut sharply to his right and sped off toward the northern end of the airstrip. His acceleration away from his companions made it seem like they were standing still.

"He's trying to get out in front of them!" yelled Nohni as she too cut right to intercept the moving plane.

"Looks like he'll do it, too!" shot back Tigermark who was keeping up with her.

Neither of them was going to catch Nicolai. It looked as if he'd just done five hundred meters in less than twenty seconds. Nohni saw him grind to a halt a full one hundred meters in front of the speeding plane.

"He better do something quick," panted Tigermark. "That Twin Otter looks like it's almost at takeoff speed."

Apparently Nicolai thought so too, for both arms shot out in front of him and suddenly both paws looked as if they were engulfed in exploding flames. The sound of automatic pistols spitting lead reached Nohni at the same time as the popping sounds of punctured aircraft aluminum. Sparks from the engine cowling meant he was going for the engines, but did that wolverine think he could disable a 'rear-intake' turboprop by shooting at it from the front? Well, something had happened because the engines sounded different now and the plane hadn't lifted off yet. At that moment Nicolai tossed the weapons aside, which Nohni thought was idiotic since the plane was still speeding right toward him.

"MOVE YOU MORON!" she screamed.

But even as she yelled it, Nicolai dropped something and dived to the side. A moment later, the plane was where he had been - and a deafening explosion at the spot blew the front landing ski completely off. Almost in slow motion, the plane did a horrendous 'face-plant' into the airstrip and flipped over onto its top. A fifty meter, gravel-spitting skid finally brought it to a halt. Smoke billowed from the number one engine, but there was no open flame.

Not yet, anyway.

Nohni and Tigermark sped forward even as Nicolai jumped up.

"Are you crazy?" Nohni panted as she ran up to him.

"Only under pressure!" Nicolai yelled as he turned and began running for the disabled plane. Whatever was in there, valuable or not, could become part of a very large bonfire at any moment.

Almost as if the Powers That Be had heard this, all three companions saw the plane jump and jerk - but not from any fuel related explosion. Something was rattling it from the inside. With a crash, the cabin door burst open and a body flew out - followed by an ear-splitting roar. Another bellow was accompanied by a screech of pain. With Nohni in the lead, the three companions ran up to the plane just as another body flew from the cabin door. It seemed to be missing its head.

What followed the body out the cabin door looked like something from a nightmare. A giant, grey and white, blood soaked form staggered from the overturned cabin, its gory prize still in its jaws. Steam smelling of blood and ozone billowed off the creature into the frozen air, and Nohni had only a glimpse of molten, white eyes before the thing spat out its trophy and screamed at her!

With otherworldly speed, the thing was on Nohni knocking her to the ground. Pure instinct brought Nohni's paws up to her face, and her wrists were the only thing that prevented the crazed thing's paws from squashing Nohni's windpipe to a blood-frothed pulp. Even so, the grip on her neck was devastating. Stars popped in Nohni's vision as the slathering jaws before her began to blur into grey.

Then something big and grey shot through the circle of claws crushing Nohni's neck. Another grey blur appeared under the creature's snarling face in front of Nohni and suddenly the weight was off her - the paws gone from around her neck. She coughed and spat blood even as she rolled to her side and forced her protesting body up onto its knees. Another snarling roar brought Nohni's head up to see Nicolai grappling with the struggling monster. Nicolai's neck hold was forcing the creature's head back even as the wolverine's other arm pinned the creature's arms to its side. A hard kick to the back of the knees dropped the creature to the ground and the big wolverine pinned it down with his full body weight. He jerked the head back once and clamped powerful jaws onto the creature's neck. It suddenly went rigid and Nohni took advantage of its immobility. She scrambled to the creatures head, lay down before it, grabbed it hard by both cheek ruffs, and locked eyes with it.

For a second, nothing happened. Then Nohni whispered, "It's me! Nohni!"

Still nothing.

Nohni cursed under her breath and ripped the goggles, scarf, and parka hood from her face. How could anyone recognize her with all that gear on? Golden hair rippled down past her eyes in the frigid breeze. She looked once more into hot, white eyes.

"We're here to help you! Don't you remember me? I'm Nohni Wabanda!"

But the eyes were now looking past Nohni - through Nohni - to somewhere else. The big femme didn't even seem to know that Nohni was there anymore. Nohni growled. She needed to get this femme's attention before she could do anything else. She dipped one paw quickly into her fanny pack and drew something out. She was glad she'd saved this. Once more she took the crazed femme's face in her paws, but this time she placed what she held in her paw next to the big femmes blazing nostrils. She let the creature inhale the scent of the large hank of white mane before jerking the face up hard to look into Nohni's eyes.

"Do you remember me now?" Nohni yelled. "Do you remember the smell of your own defeat at the University when you attacked me then?" She practically shoved the white hair up the creature's nose.

"Do you recognize who your conqueror is, KAPVIK AMAROK!?" she screamed.

The hot eyes blinked several times at the Inuit Angakok name. The furrow on the creature's brow was no longer from its snarl. Worry, and perhaps a little fear colored the depths of those molten eyes. Nicolai glanced to Nohni from where he still had his death bite on the big femme's neck. Nohni gave an imperceptible nod and the polar wolverine loosened his jaws a fraction.

Nohni pulled the throwing star from her fanny pack. Its glowing green Arctic map sparkled in the light of the Aurora. She held it in front of the creature's nose.

"I know," whispered Nohni. "I know! I seek the Wolverine's Paw, too, but not as your enemy!"

She dropped the throwing star and took the creature's head in her paws - but gently, this time.

"Please try to remember," she whispered as she rubbed her cheek against the creature's bloody one. She looked again into the eyes. Were they changing? Nohni dropped her paw and held it over the big femme's bloody chest ruff. Then she stroked it gently as she put her mouth close to the creature's ear. Her whisper was as light and crisp as a soft winter breeze.

"I am not your enemy, Chryona Winter. Remember? I am…'Nimino-wiijiiwaaganag'."

The molten silver eyes swirled and flickered for a moment, then slowly dimmed to a burnished gold. With slow strokes Nohni licked the blood from the big femme's cheek. At this touch, tears welled up in eyes that were becoming darker and darker by the moment. Nohni began to lick away the tears as well.

"Nimino-wiijiiwaaganag," Nohni whispered once more into the now shaking femme's ear. She licked it and blew warm air gently into the white ear tufts. "My good friend," she finished.

Winter's wide eyes had returned to the light brown Nohni had known from before, but pain now creased the skin around those eyes even as fresh tears streaked her bloody muzzle. Nohni nodded to Nicolai and he released his jaws, but not his hold on Winter. Nohni saw that his grip on her arms had lightened up and the paw he'd used for a head lock was now gently stroking Winter's white mane. Finally, the big femme closed her eyes and a howl of deepest despair rent the Arctic night. She quickly curled into a fetal ball and began to shake with sobs. Nicolai gathered her into his huge arms and continued to stroke her mane. She actually looked small cradled up against his large, broad chest.

After a while, Tigermark appeared in the doorway of the wrecked plane. "No one left alive in there, but I found this." He held up a wire harness made of heavy gauge wire. "Looks like they were keeping Winter under control by using continuous electro-shock. She must still be essential to their plan for some reason."

Nohni looked and saw the metal bands under the bloody fur on Winter's wrists and ankles. "And when the electronics failed on the plane after the wreck," she said. "Winter went berserk." She looked past Tigermark into the plane. "I wonder what else they did to her."

Nohni glanced back to Winter's now piteous form, then up to Nicolai's face. She shuddered. His visage had taken on a savage quality very much like that of Winter when she had first appeared as the monster in the cabin doorway. He was angry at whoever had done this to Winter.

Very angry.

And Nohni grinned a savage grin right back at him.

Payback was always more enjoyable as a group activity.

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

 

First 'Bite'

 

Nohni licked the last of the blood from her lips and nearly gagged. After so much, the taste of it was getting hard to stomach. However, the job was finally done. The bloody mess that had been Winter's coat now glistened, clean and fresh, in the light of the tiny lamp in their cramped emergency shelter.

Tigermark had left over an hour ago to go fetch the Horus and fly it back to this airstrip.  Meanwhile, they had opted to wait in the hastily erected emergency shelter rather than in the wrecked plane with its grisly contents. As to Winter's coat, licking it clean had been the easy option. Heating enough water to do the job would have taken too long. Besides, licking was an infinitely more intimate way to minister to the big femme who had lain the entire time in Nicolai's arms. Not that there was much room to stretch out anyway in the tight quarters of an emergency shelter.

At that moment, Winter's eyes flew open and her head snapped to the right as she looked over Nicolai's shoulder. Nicolai cocked an ear and looked to Nohni, who had heard the sound as well.

"It's alright, Winter," Nohni said in a hushed and soothing voice as she stroked Winter's white mane. "That's the sound of my Horus…my plane. I know it sounds like the other planes that took you away, but this one is different." She leaned forward to nuzzle Winter's ear. "It's got a friend on board - not enemies."

"I know you are my…my friends," Winter breathed in a hushed voice as she laid her head back on Nicolai's shoulder. "It is simply that I dislike noise. I prefer the velvety stillness of my aurora-draped night skies."

"I'll see what we can do," reassured Nohni. "I suspect we can stay warm in the Horus even without the engines running." She turned to Nicolai. "Or do you think we should head out right now? I could use a few hours rest myself since it's got to be close to midnight, but there are still two of Ganawenim's planes out there, and someone might want to check up on Winter."

Winter stiffened at these words and the slight movement did not go unnoticed by either Nicolai or Nohni.

"I think we should at least leave this place," rumbled Nicolai. "No sense making it any easier for them to find us if they come looking."

At that moment, the sound of the approaching plane changed pitch, indicating that the props had been feathered for reverse thrust. It was landing and the sound became louder until it seemed to pass just in front of the little shelter.

"I'll go see what Tigermark thinks," added Nohni as she slithered out from behind Winter and unzipped the shelter flap. As she stepped out she looked to the west and nodded. The moon was near the horizon and its cold, white light could serve the same function the sun had when they'd landed next to the DC-3. It would cast enough ground shadows to determine the suitability of any landing sight.

As the Horus slid to a stop, she waved at Tigermark and he waved back, punching a thumb back toward the cabin door. Giving the still-spinning props a wide berth, she ran up to the door and popped it open.

"Are you up for looking for a different landing site this evening that's closer to the Paw," she called out. "Light is pretty good, and sticking around here might just be asking for trouble."

Tigermark put down the post flight checklist he'd just picked up. "I think we can do that," he answered. "The land all along the 'arm' that leads to the Paw is pretty flat from what I saw of the Sat-photos, and the sea-ice in the bay here seems pretty free of pressure ridges. I did a quick fly-over of it before I landed here."

"Okay," Nohni called back. "Keep the engines running. I'll get our passengers!"

"Nohni?" called back Tigermark. "What about all the fuel they left here? I should top off our tanks first. No sense leaving it for the bad-guys."

"How long will that take?"

Tigermark glanced at their fuel gauge. "About thirty minutes maybe? But I'll need to shut down to do it."

Nohni considered this, then nodded. "Do it."

 

Half an hour later, the Horus was up and running again with full tanks, but another problem had come up which could keep them grounded a lot longer.

"NO!" shouted Winter. "I will not go!" She snarled at Nicolai. "And I don't care how big or strong you are, even you can't make me!"

"But, Winter, I never said I would," mumbled Nicolai. He looked a little hurt at Winter's accusation.

Nohni was shaking her head. It looked hopeless. Winter had demonstrated a real fear of automobiles back at the university. She'd shown fear of other 'modern' contraptions as well. And Nohni knew now that Ganawenim had flown her here under severe restraint - going so far as to use electro-shock to keep her down. Nohni should have seen this coming.

There was no way Winter was going to willingly ride in an airplane.

"I can run!" protested Winter. "I can run fast! Why do I need to ride in that noisy, smelly thing?"

"I can see you could be a great runner. May we see how fast you can run?" asked Tigermark in a very respectful tone. "Let's say - down to that end of the airstrip and back?" He pointed.

Winter huffed and gave a curt nod. She took off with a speed that matched, if not exceeded, the speed Nicolai had used to catch the plane a few scant hours ago. When she returned and skidded to a halt, Tigermark looked at his watch.

"Forty-four miles an hour on average," he nodded. "Very good, but…" he held up a paw, "the stall speed of the Horus under ideal conditions is about fifty miles an hour, so we'd leave you behind if we flew on without you. Now, on foot, I do a mere thirty eight for short sprints on a good day, and Nohni - probably a bit better and longer. Of course, if we carry any gear that will slow us down, too. Oh, and we also need to carry the emergency shelter and sundry stuff because we aren't built for the cold."

"Traveling on foot is not an option!" groused Nohni. "I'm not leaving the Horus here for Ganawenim and company to steal."

"I can travel with Winter on the ground while you fly?" suggested Nicolai, glancing to Winter with a hopeful look.

"NO! We don't split up!" barked Nohni. "How will you find us again? We don't know where we're landing yet, and it certainly won't be right ON the Paw of the Wolverine. Ganawenim might have more people there!"

"What!?" shouted Winter. "You want to go to the… the Paw of the Wolverine?" The last words came out as a whisper. Her eyes were suddenly very wide and she began backing away from the group. "You didn't say you were going to the Paw of the Wolverine! I…I thought we were just going to leave this place and go away!" She was shaking her head violently and backing away even faster. "No, No, NO! I won't go to the Paw again! I won't!"

She spun around as if to run, but Nicolai was already on her back. Once more he slammed her to the ground and pinned her with his weight.

"WINTER!" he shouted down at her. "Don't run away! Please! I…I," he faltered for a second. "I promise we won't take you anywhere you don't want to go!"

Winter was struggling, but she was also whimpering. "Please! I don't want to go there!"

"Winter, please, believe me. We…I …don't want to hurt you…ever. But this is important. A very bad fur has taken your Shard. He has hurt you because of it. He has hurt others, too. We want to find out why! We want to find him! But most of all…" Nicolai pushed his nose through the fragrant white mane till it brushed her ear, "I want to find your Shard and give it back to you." He pressed his muzzle next to hers. "I…I just want you to be happy again," he finished in a whisper.

Winter stopped struggling beneath him and her light brown eye with its extraordinarily long lashes swiveled to look into his blue eye an inch away. She blinked. "You…you want me to be happy?" Her question was barely audible. "No one has ever wished for my happiness before."

"I do!" answered Nicolai. "I have too…I need to…," Nicolai suddenly shook his head. "It was I…I didn't mean too…I mean…" but his voice broke and he rolled off of her. "Dammit, Winter!" he said in a gasp as he lay on his back. "I'm sorry! Oh, Gods! I'm sorry he took it! And it's all my fault!" The big, polar wolverine, so powerful a moment before, suddenly looked as if he was going to cry.

Winter pushed herself up on one elbow and looked down at Nicolai. Her paw was to her mouth and her expression, uncertain. She hesitantly reached out to him, but he turned his head away from her.

"I didn't know that Ganawenim scum would steal it from you," croaked Nicolai, "but it was I who led him to you. Me! It's my fault he stole it from you!" Nicolai raised his thick arms and ground the heels of his paws into his eyes as if to scrub away a bad memory. "I sought you out because of him," he continued, his tone, miserable. "I watched you for him for almost two months!" He dropped his paws, and his head came around almost involuntarily to look at Winter. "I…I watched you running freely across the polar ice, with your magnificent mane and tail streaming behind you." He suddenly sat up and put his great head in his paws. "Gods, Winter, you were the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. I watched you catching seals, gutting them and eating them raw, and even that was beautiful. But then I betrayed you, I…"Nicolai's voice trailed off as his gasping breaths rose like frosted clouds into the icy air.

Winter looked totally bewildered now. Again she reached out, but when her fingers brushed his shoulder, he flinched away. This time, she did not pull back. Instead she moved to sit in front of him.

"Nicolai?" Winter's voice was low and warm.

Slowly, hesitantly, he looked up.

"Do you really think I'm beautiful?"

He looked at her through red-rimmed eyes for a very long time. His single word was soft and quavering. "Yes."

This time, when she reached out to grasp his paw, he didn't pull away, and she pressed her other paw on top of his. They fit each other perfectly. "Nicolai?"

The big fur blinked.

"Nicolai?" she continued. "You think to find answers at the Wolverine's Paw?"

Nicolai nodded.

Winter sat up a bit straighter. "I do not have pleasant memories of that place. Things happened there that…" Winter closed her eyes for a moment and a shudder ran down her whole body. When she opened them again, they glittered brightly as if with a silver sheen. "But if you think it will help us find my Shard, I will go with you wherever you wish to go, Nicolai Whitefur."

"And maybe you won't need to fly after all," called out Tigermark, who had returned from the wrecked plane carrying something. "Look what…" He stopped abruptly when Nohni kicked him in the shins.

One did not interrupt a couple when they were falling this fast.

 

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The Paw of the Wolverine didn't look like much from ground level. It was snow-covered tundra that stretched up and away in a gentle slope from the shoreline to some low hills to the north. Nohni, who had jumped from the plane the moment it landed, held the throwing star up to the Aurora. The 'Ellesmere Dagger Door' was pulsing faintly, and the speed of the pulsing was faster now. They must be getting closer to their objective.

Whatever that is.

She put the throwing star back in her fanny pack and turned to where Tigermark was shutting down the second engine on the Horus. As it spun to a halt, the deep Arctic silence became profound - except for the laughter some three hundred meters to the rear of the Horus.

There, attached to the end of a long glider tow-rope, sat two figures sitting on what had been the front ski of the wrecked plane. That particular plane had obviously been rented by Ganawenim from an outfit that did glider-towing. With no engines of their own, gliders needed to be towed into the air by powered aircraft on the end of a long tow-line. Tigermark had found the tow line and suggested that the Horus 'tow' the reluctant Winter along the ground behind the Horus using the landing ski from the wrecked plane as a toboggan. She'd only agreed to this when Nicolai volunteered to accompany her on the ski/toboggan.

At first, Tigermark had simply taxied along the sea ice close to shore at a respectable forty miles an hour. The sea ice was thicker here and would support the plane. But after much yelling from the two tobogganers, he'd finally sped up to sixty-five and gotten airborne. Staying low and slow, they had pulled Winter and Nicolai across the thinner and flatter ice of the bay itself - a more direct route to the Paw - and even over the noise of the two turboprops, Nohni had heard the gales of laughter coming from the two wolverine hybrids. Most furs would have been terrified at the speed and the bouncing, but not these two.

"Like a pair of pups, out for a romp," thought Nohni as she walked back to the plane.

Winter and Nicolai were also running up to the plane, paw in paw, and Nohni waited for them. She did not wish to put a damper on what was happening between them, but they were here, after all, for a purpose, and Nohni needed to ask some very pointed questions before they proceeded.

Before she could ask anything though, Winter had run up to her, grabbed her in those big arms of hers, lifted Nohni up, and squashed Nohni's head between her huge breasts. It was obviously a loving sentiment, but it was hard to breathe.

"Mmmmphff," was all Nohni could manage as she squirmed.

"Thank you, Nohni, friend," gurgled Winter swinging Nohni around like a rag doll. "Thank you for bringing Nicolai Whitefur with you!"

"Mmmfftt?"

"He is different than anyone else I have ever met. Ever! So big! Bigger than me!"

"You might want to let her breathe. Okay?" rumbled a deep bass voice.

"Oh! Yes." Winter pulled Nohni from her chest, still holding her aloft. "I'm sorry Nohni, friend, but this is such a wonderful feeling!" She dropped Nohni and pointed to her neck. "See? Nicolai is the only one who has ever bitten me! Not even the Polar Bear Inuit from the land east of Land's End could do that!" She turned to Nicolai, wrapped both arms around his waist, and clamped her jaws - lightly - around his neck. Her rumbling hum was almost a purr.

Nicolai looked to Nohni and rolled his eyes, but the slight grin on his muzzle belied any displeasure. He then returned the big femme's embrace.

"Love at first bite?" commented Tigermark as he strolled up and stopped beside Nohni.

Nohni turned to the white tiger and lowered her voice. "I don't think Winter has ever been 'in love' before. Her whole existence has been one of extreme isolation. Her Shard was her only constant companion. Without it, she seemed so lost and alone." She nodded to where the two big furs seemed lost in each other again. "I just hope she isn't temporarily substituting Nicolai for her Shard until she finds it again."

"Let's see how it plays out," whispered Tigermark. "At least give Winter her small measure of happiness for now. If what we've been through so far is any indication, the road ahead is likely to have more than its share of pain."

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Part Four - To the Gates 


The Keys to Adlivun

 

Nohni crested a small ridge on the southern shore of The Paw of the Wolverine and saw the dark outline of the Horus near the shoreline below. She had scouted ahead alone, using one of Winter’s glowing throwing stars as her 'compass'. Nicolai would have been the preferred scout because of his covert-ops background, but Winter didn’t want him to leave her, so Nohni had gotten the job. About five miles inland she had discovered what they were looking for. The site that the star pointed to was indeed occupied. It was fortunate that Tigermark had flown the Horus as low as he did because doing so allowed the low hills on the southern shoreline to shield them from detection.

Nohni had also gotten close enough to the occupants of the site to see some strange things. Perhaps Winter had answers.

They all crowded around when she reached the Horus, but after only a brief description of what she'd seen, Nohni turned to Winter and reached out to hold both of her large paws. She looked up into warm and trusting light-brown eyes, and hated herself for what she must do.

"Winter?" Nohni began. "I need you to be strong. Some of the things I’m going to ask you now will be frightening, even horrifying, but Nicolai will be right here with you, and so will Tigermark and myself. We are your friends. We will not allow anything to hurt you. But we need answers to things only you could know." Nohni motioned to a large, flat spot free of large stones. "I think we should sit down.

When all except Nohni had seated themselves, Nohni placed herself in front of Winter and bent down to brush her muzzle along Winter's cheek. She gave one of the big femme's large fluffy ears several licks - as a mother might give to a distressed pup. Then she looked intently into Winter's eyes. "Shall we begin?"

Winter blinked and nodded.

Nohni knelt down and put her paw onto Winter's chest ruff. Gently, she parted the thick fur there to reveal the dagger-like mark on the skin. Then she laid her warm paw on top of the mark before looking back into Winter's eyes. Nohni recalled how Winter would unconsciously rub the mark when she was in certain contemplative states. Nohni had a hunch that doing so now might stimulate her in some way - perhaps even help her recall things about her Shard.

"What frightened you about The Wolverine's Paw?" Nohni asked in a calm voice as she began to slowly massage the dagger mark. "I need as much detail as you can remember."

Nohni felt the chest beneath her paw take a deep breath. The powerful beats of the great heart had sped up. Winter's eyes were widening, and they seemed to be bathed in a silvery sheen as if something other than tears coated them.

"The raccoon…the bad fur, he…" Winter stopped and she took several more deep breaths, then licked her lips and started over. "Ganawenim has my Shard. I saw him holding it when they brought me to the Standing Stone on the Paw."

Nohni nodded as she continued to gently rub Winter's dagger mark. "I have seen the Stone," Nohni whispered. "The Star pointed me to it. It stands about waist height, and has the thickness of..." Nohni tried to think of an Arctic reference to compare to the Stone, but there were no trees this far north. Instead, she put her other paw on Winter's heavily muscled upper arm. "It was about as thick as this. It glows with a green light, like the Aurora and the Star. There are several furs there now. I think they are guarding it."

Winter's eyes were now shut tight, and both her paws were clamped over her crotch. Nohni noted this, but did not ask.

"He showed me my Shard," Winter continued, her voice becoming tremulous. "He…he held it in his paws right in front of me, but I could not get any closer to it! When I tried, the wires on my paws and feet bit me with a bite that clenched all my muscles. I tried and tried, but I c…could n...not reach m…my Shard!"

Tears leaked from between Winter's tightly closed eyelids, and Nohni licked them away, always massaging Winter's chest.

"I am sorry the bad fur hurt you, Winter," whispered Nohni. "We will find him, and your Shard, but I need you to remember if you told the bad fur anything while he was taunting you. Please. This is very important."

Nohni knew now that the Shard was much more than a fancy ornament. The furs studying the Shard at the Ganawenim Foundation had detected electromagnetic emissions coming from the artifact. Perhaps Ganawenim thought that getting Winter close to the Shard would stimulate Winter in such a way as to reveal the Shard's secrets to him. Without it, Winter's personality certainly seemed to be that of an incomplete adult.

"Did you say anything to Ganawenim?" Nohni repeated.

Tears streamed down Winter's cheek ruffs. "I c…cried a lot, but - I did not speak."

Nohni frowned and dropped her head. She was so sure Winter had…

"But the bad fur was speaking to me all the time!" finished Winter.

Nohni's head came up. Winter's voice had gone cold. Her eyes were still tightly closed, but now she was speaking through clenched teeth.

"He was talking to me - luring me to…to the stone! I would try to get to my Shard, but when I got too close to him, the pain would drop me to the ground. Finally, I…I was at the stone." She shook her head as if to dislodge something from her mind. "There was a body there." Her eyes flew open and locked onto Nohni's. Fear, disgust, disbelief and anger washed across her features. "A dead body! A very young malamute femme," she whispered. She grimaced. "She must have just reached breeding age. They…what they did to her…"

Winter dropped her head into her paws and began to shake. Nicolai was at her side, his large arms around her wide shoulders. He shot Nohni a hard look, but Nohni returned it, shaking her head. Her paw was still rubbing the dagger mark on Winter's chest. She didn't like this memory of Winter's. From his expression, she was sure Nicolai didn't either.

Winter shook for almost a minute, then seemed to regain control. One paw rubbed her nose and the other was at her crotch again. She looked to Nohni, eyes leaking tears. "He…he said if I ever wanted my Shard back, I was to sit down on the Stone and…and put… it… inside me." Her last words were barely audible, but her face was a total mask of misery. "It hurt me."

Winter closed her eyes again. The paw she brought to her face from between her legs was bloody. Nohni expected an outburst of sobs from the big femme, but when the blooded paw reached her nose Winter froze - all except for her flaring nostrils.

Slowly - a little at a time with every breath - the misery on Winter's face began to mutate. First it turned into a grimace, then it was a fierce scowl, and finally, it became a salivating, hissing snarl. With a howl of pure rage, Winter's eyes snapped open, and they were two glowing pools of hot, white light. Nohni took her paw from Winter's chest and backed away instantly.

"They took my blood!" Winter's voice was unrecognizable. "THEY TOOK MY BLOOD!!!" She jumped to her feet, knocking Nicolai aside. She raised the bloody paw and pointed north, her eyes staring sightlessly into the distance.

"When the Ice Decays, Follow the Star on the Wolverine's Paw!

With the Stones laid Bare, the Blood of the Virgin must be spilled!

Upon the Stones, the Blood will Flow to nurture the Star placed within!

Then the Triple Keys of Kapvic Amarok's Paws shall awaken to reveal the Gate of Adlivun!

Follow the Star! FOLLOW THE STAR! F…FollooooOOOOOOOOO…"

Winter's mouth opened wide into a howl, and she began to shake violently, as if she were having a seizure. Nicolai caught her as she fell, but didn't try to restrain the shaking. That would only cause injury. For a full minute the big femme convulsed, then she suddenly became very still, and her eyes closed. Nicolai instantly checked her out and nodded to the others when it was clear she was still breathing - even if it also looked like she was unconscious. He did not look at all happy, but there was also concern, and a tinge of fear on his big muzzle. The Winter of the White Eyes was the complete opposite of the gentle, laughing creature he had accompanied across the ice a scant few hours ago.

"No more questions tonight," rumbled Nicolai as he gathered Winter's limp form to his chest and wrapped her huge, white tail around them both. His hard voice and stern expression meant this session was over.

Nohni let out a breath she'd been holding and motioned to Tigermark to follow her into the Horus. When she closed the cabin door behind her, the two looked at each other. "Comments?" asked Nohni.

"That last part sounded like a pre-programmed response," offered Tigermark. "Do you think rubbing the dagger mark caused that?"

"Maybe," answered Nohni as she pulled her laptop from its case and fired it up. "As isolated as she's been in her life, she may have a lot of information locked up inside her that she rarely needs to access. I'm thinking her Shard might not be just a communication and data storage device. Maybe it can stimulate Winter's latent memories. Rubbing Winter's mark might act in the same way to open up a communication channel to these hidden memories." Nohni typed a few commands into her laptop, and turned back to Tigermark. "However, there was something else besides my rubbing that stimulated her. Did you notice?"

Tigermark snapped his fingers. "Her own blood! The smell of her own blood!"

Nohni nodded as she typed a file search parameter into her laptop. "She definitely reacted to the smell of her own blood - and vaginal blood at that. And remember what she said in her 'white-eyed' state?"

"With the stones laid bare, the blood of the virgin must be spilled. Upon the stones, the blood will flow to nurture the star placed within." quoted Tigermark. "So there is something special about Winter's blood? Her vaginal blood in particular?"

"I'm thinking Winter must have a unique chemical or blood protein 'marker' in her blood that is essential to activating these 'Standing Stones'." Nohni frowned and typed in another file search parameter. "The throwing stars are also needed, And not just as a compass to find the stones. I saw one of them glowing atop the Standing stone. So what we have here is a multi-level security measure, and that means whatever is being guarded is either very valuable or very powerful."

"I think you're right," agreed Tigermark. "But, I don't think Ganawenim knew about this blood 'marker' thing at first. From Winter's description of the scene, it sounds like he kidnapped a young malamute virgin and 'tried' her first on the stone." Tigermark's face was half grimace, half scowl. "And killed her in the process."

Nohni nodded, typing some more. "My question is: How did he find out that 'the blood of a virgin must be spilled' in the first place? I don't think he got that information from Winter. I think he found out about this 'virgin blood' stuff from some other source, tried using the first unfortunate virgin he could lay his paws on, and found out that didn't work. I think that's when he knew he needed Winter again."

"So, where else could Ganawenim have gotten this information from?" asked the white tiger. "Didn't you do a lot of research on this when Winter first came to you?"

Nohni nodded. "I did, and I remember reading something about the 'Gate of Adlivun'. Ah! Here it is!" A page had popped up on her laptop. She read the short entry and frowned. "It's a 'stub' entry. It points to a reference text. I'll just click on the link."

Nohni clicked, but frowned when a 'No Such Document' message came up.

"That's not like Hazel," grumbled Nohni.

"What?" Tigermark asked peering over Nohni's shoulder.

"Hazel Weiss downloaded this data into my laptop herself before I left," answered Nohni. "It's not like her to be this sloppy. Despite what P.U.s testosterone-laden students might think, Hazel is a good librarian. If a reference document is removed, Hazel is very meticulous about cleaning up any links to that document. It's not like her to overlook the required document housekeeping." Nohni grabbed her Satellite Phone and switched it on. "Hey. Looks like I'll actually be able to get a call through. The Auroras must be quieter tonight."

Nohni punched in a number and waited. When a sleepy Hazel answered, Nohni once again apologized for the late hour call and gave Hazel her request - which was to check on the 'No Document' error. "I think the database may have been tampered with," suggested Nohni. "I wouldn't put it past Ganawenim to bribe a student to hack that particular entry to hide it, because I think it contains some information that will be really useful."

Nohni waited while Hazel accessed the desired information. She swore at the broken link and accessed a two month old backup to see if the entry was intact back then.

It was.

"Someone's been playing with my porridge!" grumbled Hazel, in her best 'Mamma Bear' voice. "And that someone's gonna get a whupping from me of the not-so-fun kind! I'll e-mail you the full entry."

In a few moments, Nohni had the reference and loaded it onto her laptop. It was documentation on an old Inuit shaman legend. The date indicated that it had to have been written down over two hundred years ago - before many of the more distant Inuit groups had even been contacted by early explorers. It indeed shed light on what was going on. She and Tigermark read it together.

 

Chryona's Burden - as told by Aknak Ninakek to Bjorn Olafson - 10.6.1803

 

"When the Ice Decays, Follow the Star on the Wolverine's Paw.

With the Stones laid Bare, the Blood of the Virgin must be spilled.

Upon the Stones, the Blood will Flow to nurture the Star placed within.

Then the Triple Keys of Kapvic Amarok's Paws shall awaken to reveal the Gate of Adlivun.

And down into Sedna's Realm, the Angakok of the Shard shall go,

Braving the Trials of Sedna's Minions and the Perils of Cerberus.

Tribulations of the Overworld, to lay before the Master of the Underworld.

Sedna holds the Wind and World in her Paws, and the Earth shall Tremble and Smoke.

She will release the Black Cloud, lest the Seas Boil, and the Skies Burn.

Then the heat of Brother Sun shall wane, and Brother Moon shall die away.

And the North Winds will Blow once more to lave the World in Winter's Icy Grasp."

 

Nohni looked up from the screen and toward the north.

"That damned raccoon's insane," she whispered to herself. "His 'revenge' against all those who would exploit the natives here is to bring on a new ice age?"

"What's 'Sedna's Realm'?" asked Tigermark.

Nohni looked back to him. "'Adlivun' - the Inuit equivalent of Purgatory - where dead souls go to be purified before traveling to the land of the moon called 'Quidlivun'."

"Do you think it's a real place, then?"

Nohni shut off her laptop and snapped it shut.

"Looks like we're going to find out."

 

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A Coming Storm

 

The entire southeast horizon was an exceptionally long gash of scarlet that marked the slow and bloody birth of a new day on Ellef Ringnes Island. Dawn and dusk could take a long time at these high latitudes.

Red Sun at Night - Sailor's Delight. Red Sun at Morning - Sailor take Warning.

Nohni tried to dismiss the old saw that mariners used in olden times to forecast the day's weather. The saying only applied to the Trade Wind latitudes anyway. Still, she knew from the instruments on board the Horus that a storm front actually was moving in. Thus far, they had been lucky as far as the weather was concerned. No one could expect it to last forever. Nohni looked past the tail of the plane and up along the shoreline. She could see the two big furs asleep together - Chryona Winter's great white tail a plush blanket for the both of them.

Chryona Winter.

Chryona's Burden.

Winter had spoken of her shard as her 'burden', and so had that old shaman's legend. Did that ancient tale refer to this Chryona Winter? If so, how old was she? She had given her age as 'twenty-five cycles', but cycles of what? Up at these latitudes, days made little sense since a day could last several months. Years could be counted if one bothered to look at the angle of the sun and keep track of the solstices. But how about the eleven year 'cycles' of sunspot activity since that would directly effect the power of the Aurora? Were that the case, twenty-five cycles would translate to two hundred seventy five years. Then there were the cycles of the wandering North Magnetic pole. Scientists still hadn't pinned that one down precisely, but for argument's sake, one could think of a single circum-polar transit of the north magnetic pole as one 'cycle'.

That would make Chryona Winter anywhere from 10,000 to 25,000 years old - the latter of which was old enough to make her a contemporary of the Shard, the Throwing Stars, the Dagger Doors (or Keys as they now appeared to be), and the Gate of Adlivun itself.

Winter could have been here for all of the last Ice Age.

That anyone could survive in the Arctic during an Ice Age seemed a miracle until one looked at the climate of the high Arctic. This place was a true 'desert' in the sense that it received very little precipitation. The great ice-caps of the Ice Age actually originated farther south in Canada and Siberia. As long as one could bear the cold and find open sea, one could survive here.

"So, do we go after Mr. 'Nasty Coon', or do we wait and see what happens, first?" Tigermark had joined Nohni and was looking North toward where the Ellef Ringnes Standing Stone stood.

"I don't think there's anything we can do about Ganawenim," answered Nohni. "I'm thinking he gathered enough blood from Winter's 'deflowering' of the first stone to activate the other two." She grimaced. "I thought he might want to get some more sick pleasure from making Winter activate the other Stones personally, but given the difficulties in handling Winter on a cramped plane, I can see how he would opt for taking her blood and leaving her behind."

Tigermark nodded and looked to where the two big furs still lay asleep. "The shaman legend said that 'Down into Sedna's Realm, the Angakok of the Shard shall go, braving the Trials of Sedna's Minions and the Perils of Cerberus.'." He glanced to Nohni. "Would simply possessing the Shard make you the 'Angakok of the Shard'? If not, is that why Ganawenim thinks he still needs Winter?"

"Whether Ganawenim needs Winter or not, he won't be able to get her for at least seventy-two hours." Nohni answered.

"Yeah, I saw that weather front on the plane's instruments," returned Tigermark. "Will there be much snow, or just a lot of wind?"

"More wind than snow up here," Nohni said. "But that's nothing to celebrate. Visibility will be zero, and the Horus will be grounded for the duration. If we're planning to go anywhere by air, we need to decide now."

Nohni picked up a large stone, and tossed it toward the mass of fur that was Winter and Nicolai. It hit next to them with a crack, followed by what looked like a fur geyser. Nicolai was instantly up and pointing both of his auto-pistols around.

"Ho!" yelled Nohni. "Just us, big guy. No need to be hasty, though it's nice to know someone's vigilant this morning." She strode over to them followed by Tigermark. "We need a strategy session soon. Our weather is going to deteriorate on us in a couple of hours, so we need to decide what to do."

Winter was stirring and after a huge yawn, she smacked her lips and looked to the furs standing around her. "I don't think well on an empty stomach," she stated, as she rose up into a luxurious stretch. Nohni watched in amazement as Winter, both arms above her head, bent nearly all the way backwards to touch the top of her head to the base of her fully extended tail.

"Decent bodies have no right to bend like that this early in the morning," mumbled Nohni.

Nicolai grinned.

Winter popped back upright and looked to the ice covered bay. "I'll catch breakfast," she said as she suddenly took off running. Within moments, Winter had reached the bay. A speeding jump to the top of an ice pressure ridge was followed by a spectacular leap. Then, from nearly five times her height, Winter came crashing down, feet first, on the bay ice, broke through, and disappeared.

"What the!?" cried Nohni as she gawped at the sloshing hole in the ice.

"Come on!" cried Nicolai, grinning as he, too, took off for the bay. "Let's see what she comes up with!"

Since Nicolai was not flustered by this display, Nohni had to conclude that this was 'normal procedure' for catching food in the Arctic - at least 'normal' for Winter.

"I saw her do this many times when I was watching her for Ganawenim," called Nicolai over his shoulder as he ran. "I don't see any breathing holes in the ice, so it's not seals she's after. Looks like fish for breakfast!"

All three furs arrived at the hole in the ice and waited.

And waited.

"Gods! How long can she stay down there?" asked Nohni, getting worried.

"Normally five to seven minutes," answered Nicolai, "But I've seen her stay down as long as twenty!"

Nohni couldn't dispute Nicolai's observations, but twenty minutes was an incredibly long time for the average fur. But then, Winter wasn't 'average'.

It was nearly ten minutes later when Winter popped through the hole holding three large Arctic Char in her paws and mouth. After depositing her prizes on the ice, she lifted herself from the hole and shook herself dry. Water flew in all directions and some of it froze to the surface of her fluffed fur, making it sparkle and shimmer in the early morning light.

"Dig in," she said as she grabbed one of the fish that had to weigh at least ten pounds and bit its head off.

"Anybody have any Wasabi on them?" asked Tigermark, grinning.

Nohni had already neatly sliced both pink fillets off another fish with her all-purpose utility knife. "I prefer it without the bones and innards," she said in way of explanation.

"You're going to toss away the best parts?" mumbled Winter through a mouthful of fish.

"Of course not! The liver, cheek meat, and caviar are all mine!" returned Nohni, as she stripped the eggs from the fish. "You can have the rest if you want."

Winter and Nicolai had one of the big fish apiece while Nohni and Tigermark shared the third - albeit without wasabi. It was still very good, since Arctic Char was a member of the salmon family and made particularly good sushi. After they finished, Nohni had to admit that a full stomach made thinking easier - at least thinking positively. They knew there was enough that could go wrong.

"What will Ganawenim's goons at the Stone do when the weather hits?" asked Tigermark.

"They had one emergency shelter erected that I could see," answered Nohni. "I'm sure they had orders to stick it out at the site rather than head back to their plane at the airstrip."

"Then I say we stay," offered Nicolai. "Bad weather equals good cover for a sneak attack."

Nohni resisted asking whether this was Nicolai's way of making up for Winter having her Shard stolen in another storm. Despite this, there were other good arguments for staying.

"The Standing Stones are obviously linked to the Gate to Adlivun," Nohni pointed out. "When all three Stones are activated, there ought to be some sign, or other indicator as to where the Gate itself is located." She held up one of Winter's throwing stars. "There's a fourth 'Door' symbol on the map. That has to be where the Gate is." She looked around at the others, Winter in particular. "Any ideas on where it might be?"

Winter dropped her head as if in concentration, but brought it up again after only a moment. "I'm sorry, Nohni, friend. I remember nothing."

Nohni nodded as if expecting this. "Then let me make some suggestions. I did some more research last night, while satellite reception was still good. I sent for all the old Inuit legends and there seems to be a common thread where Sedna's Realm is concerned." She looked to the northwest, toward the open Arctic Ocean. "All references point to a 'dwelling' of some sort on the bottom of the sea. One of the other functions of the Goddess Sedna is to provide the sea creatures that the Inuit live off of."

"Bottom of the sea? That's going to make access difficult," suggested Tigermark. "Though Winter might just pull it off."

Nicolai nodded. "Yeah. That makes sense. She can stay under water for an extraordinary length of time." He looked to Winter. "Care to tell us how you do it?" he prompted.

Winter gave a small smile and ran a paw through her exceptionally large tail. "I bring my own air supply with me." she explained.

"Your tail?" asked Nohni rising and walking over to Winter before kneeling by her tail.

Winter nodded and pointed to a strangely shaped tuft of dense fur at the base of her tail. "Air is trapped in my tail fur, which is dense enough to hold it. I simply bend backward and take a gulp of it from this spot whenever I need it. My tail holds about five full breaths of air for me."

"Thus the need to be a contortionist," added Tigermark. "I'll bet that if we weighed you, we'd discover that, overall, your body is denser than ours. That would compensate for the additional buoyancy of your tail when under water."

"There is also something else," continued Nohni. "Whenever there is a famine of sea creatures or other calamity, legend says that an Inuit Angakok must travel to Sedna's realm and plead for help - or fight for it - the legends are a little fuzzy on that. The Angakok's path usually is treacherous being filled with many obstacles. The more skilled the Angakok is, the easier the path. At the goddess' gate he or she meets Cerberus, Sedna's dog-husband, who sometimes stands guard. Then further on Sedna's father attempts to grip the intruder. When finally reaching Sedna the Angakok sometimes uses violence, and sometimes gentleness. The Angakok may untangle and wash Sedna's hair which cleanses away the Inuit's sins. She also may comfort her with promises and pledges, and also is said to capture her with the aid of a hook and releases her on certain conditions. If this does not work the Angakok may repeat the process of cutting off her fingers in order to get her to release the sea animals which the Inuit need."

"Cut off her fingers?" asked Nicolai. "Isn't that a bit drastic?"

"That's part of the original legend," answered Nohni. "All sea creatures were initially created from her fingers when Sedna had them cut off trying to grip the side of her father's kayak. Apparently he tossed her overboard to appease an angry sea and she wouldn't let go."

"He and Ganawenim should get on famously then," grumbled Nicolai.

"Yeah. A real charmer," added Nohni. "In other versions of the legend, the Angakok, or shaman, during times of famine would enter a trance and his soul would venture under the sea until he found a great whirlpool which drew him down into a beautiful tent furnished with skins of all of the sea animals. There, seated on a bench, was Sedna. The Angakok's soul would then sing the requests of the Inuit to her. He would dance and contort himself before her to gain her attention and amuse her so she would be inclined to feel favorably toward the Inuit. Eventually the dark sea-goddess would relay a message to him for the Inuit: either she threatened they would die unless they moved to another place or promised that food would become abundant from her inexhaustible stores. Afterwards the soul of the Angakok returned to his body, he came out of the trance and sang Sedna's message to his tribe, and then they would abide by her wishes."

"Whirlpools," said Tigermark softly. "Don't know as I like the sound of that."

"So we need to look under the sea?" added Nicolai. "I'm sorry, but that's a big order. Do you have any idea how big the Arctic Ocean is? I know a bit about that since I've traveled its shorelines extensively. Believe me, this ain't no puddle!"

"I think that's where the Standing Stones come in," offered Nohni. "I think they will, somehow, point to where we need to look."

"So that means we need to control the Standing Stone site here whenever Ganawenim finishes activating all three Stones."

Nohni nodded. "That's about the size of it."

"Then I think it's time we boot the 'enemy' off the Wolverine's Paw," growled Nicolai.

All they needed to do was wait for the storm to provide cover.

 

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

 

"This is more cover than I like. I can't see a thing, anymore!" called out Nicolai over the howling wind in the dim light. "Is everyone still here?" Three affirmatives came through the comm units.

They had barely made it to the vicinity of the Standing Stone before the storm's full force hit. The four of them were on a small rise about one hundred meters south of the Stone. It was the rise that Nohni had used previously to spy on the place. Though they couldn't see each other, they knew they were within twenty meters of each other because the comm units they had stuck in their ears wouldn't reach any further now. With the storm had come something else - electrical interference of huge proportions. Apparently above the raging storm, the Aurora was raging as well. Nohni and Tigermark both had on just about every scrap of cold weather clothing they had. Even Winter had borrowed one of Nicolai's outer parkas. Wind chills had to be approaching one hundred degrees below zero - enough to freeze exposed flesh solid in about thirty seconds.

"Something's happening," yelled Nohni, her voice muffled by the face and muzzle mask she wore. "All four 'Dagger Doors' are flashing on the throwing star! I think Ganawenim's done it!"

"I'm going on to check out the Stone!" yelled Nicolai. "We need to see if there's any locator for the Gate!"

"NO!" screamed Nohni. "We don't split up! We all go! If Ganawenim's goons are foolish enough to be out of their shelter in this, then they outnumber us! Together we can take them. Individually, we make easy targets!"

"Hold on!" interjected Tigermark. "Don't go any closer to the Stone!"

"What have you got TM?" called out Nohni.

"It's what's got ME!" hollered the white tiger. "Something's trying to pull me forward, but I'll be damned if I see anything!"

Nohni felt something large crawl past her headed toward the Stone too.

"Winter! Is that you?"

"I've got his foot!" yelled the big femme. "Not hard, but he's definitely being pulled."

"It's around my waist, whatever it…"

The white tigers' voice stopped in mid-sentence.

"TIGERMARK!" screamed Nohni as she too pushed herself forward. Then she felt something tugging at her as well. She backed up as fast as she could. "Winter! What's happening?"

The big femme was inching backward. "I'm dragging him back. I don't know what's got him. I can't feel anything either!"

"It's my damned sidearm and ammunition belt!" came Tigermark's voice, finally. "It just started pulling toward the stone and…"

"Metal! Ferrous metal!" yelled Nohni. "Are all your ammo clips made of steel?"

Winter had Tigermark back next to them. He grabbed Nohni's shoulder. "Yeah. Steel clips. I also felt my .45 being pulled too."

"Magnetism!" crowed Nohni. "Whatever's happened, it's made the Standing Stone extremely magnetic! What else have we got on us that's made of ferrous metal? Knives. Sidearms? Belt buckles? We may need to ditch them all if this keeps up!"

"Clothing fasteners are almost all polycarbonate, and our ear-comms are mostly plastic and non-ferrous metals," called out Nicolai. "Looks like the goggles are plastics too, since mine haven't been pulled from my face."

A flash, followed by a muffled 'boom' came from somewhere in front of them.

"What the hell was that?"

"Nohni?" called out Nicolai, who had crawled up to her. "Take my ammo and auto-pistols. That's the sum of my ferrous metal. My 'explosive' toys are non-ferrous. I think Winter and I should check this out. She's pretty much 'metal-free' too. You and Tigermark would freeze solid before you could take off whatever you have on under those parkas."

"Was that boom your doing?" asked Nohni hotly.

"Nope," came Nicolai's simple answer. "Methinks Ganawenim's goons are having a hard time of it. Maybe it was one of their toys that backfired. They're a lot closer to that Stone thing than we are."

"At the first sign of trouble, you come back, you hear?" grumbled Nohni.

"Aye, aye, captain," returned Nicolai. "Winter? Let's find out what's going on, shall we?"

 

It was a very long twenty minutes before the pair of them eventually returned, but Nohni and Tigermark had kept themselves busy. By judiciously sheltering each other one at a time in the wind, they were able to open their parkas and rid themselves of all their ferrous metal objects. They had then discussed their options. Using the Horus from this point on was not an option. Any other wild 'magnetic' phenomenon might just suck them out of the sky. It would certainly play havoc with the navigation equipment. The emergency heating fuel they had on them was in aluminum cans and wasn’t affected. The emergency shelter, however, had metal stays and anchor pegs. The shell of the shelter might do as a simple covering, but erecting it was out of the question. Snow shelters seemed their best bet from now on. Most everything else in the way of equipment was plastic or fiber composite to save weight. Food from now on would be Winter's responsibility. She'd already proved herself adept at that.

"So we simply go on foot from here to wherever those Stones point?" asked Tigermark. "I don't like not having any weapons."

"We have a few." Nohni held up two of Winter's throwing stars and handed one to Tigermark. "Better than nothing." She indicated Tigermark's paws. "And those pointy things on the ends of your fingers aren't just for opening letters."

At that moment two large figures loomed out of the blowing snow.

"Not a pretty sight," gruffed Nicolai as he sat down. "The boom we heard was their snowmobile colliding with the Stone. It seems all of the furs down there were wearing their weapons and were literally ripped out of their shelter when that thing activated. The Stone is a charred mass of bodies now. If Heiki Lunta was among them it'll be hard to identify him now."

Nohni took a deep breath, then asked the crucial question. "And did the Stone reveal anything?"

Nicolai nodded. "Pull out your throwing star."

Nohni did so.

"Now hold it flat and turn it around slowly."

Nohni did as instructed. Even without it being lit directly by the Aurora, all four Dagger Doors were flashing green. That is, until the star came to one point in its circle. At that point, the flashing stopped and the 'Fourth Door', the one that didn't point to land, turned a deep, pulsing crimson. It was pointing to the pack ice out to sea.

"I think we found the way to the Gate to Adlivun," whispered Nohni

 

Unfortunately, there was little doubt that Ganawenim had found it too.

 

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Race to the Gate

 

"You don't have to do this," Nohni said, her parka hood pressed right up to the white tiger's to keep out the frigid wind. "I hired you as a pilot, not as an explorer. You can wait this out in the Horus."

Tigermark regarded her for only a moment before shaking his head. "I'm in."

"We will still need a pilot at some point," Nohni continued. "I don't fancy walking all the way back to Patriarch University, once our business is concluded here."

"The Horus isn't going anywhere by itself," TM answered. "And even if I'm…indisposed after this, you're a fair pilot yourself. I get the feeling you'll need as much backup on this as you can find."

Nohni smiled, and touched noses with the white tiger. "Thanks. I had to ask. If I'd 'made' you come along and something happened to you…well…let's hope it doesn't."

A crunch of frozen snow and two big furs were crouching, backs to the wind, next to Nohni and Tigermark.

"Nuther strategy session here, folks," rumbled Nicolai. "Winter says this storm is only going to get worse. I'd trust her on this. After all, the Arctic is her playground."

Nohni dropped her head and ground her teeth. No telling how far they needed to go along the path pointed out by the throwing star, but they needed to move quickly or Ganawenim might beat them to the Gate of Adlivun. Granted, depending on the Gate's true location he might be farther away from it than they were right now, but if she'd read the weather maps correctly last night, this storm was only affecting the area around them and points north – which was the direction they had to go. Conversely, there seemed little in the way of bad weather over the Svalbard Archipelago or Cape Arkticheskiy. No matter which of those locations Ganawenim was at, it looked like he had a clearer shot at their target than they did. And he had a plane.

"Wind has to be nearing fifty knots," observed Tigermark. "This is no weather for us 'under-furred' folks to be out in." He leaned in toward Nohni. "I know how much you want to go on, but if you ask me, this particular Gate isn't worth the present price of admission. I say we wait till the wind, and the price, drops. Wind-chill has got to be over one hundred below zero by now."

"Damn, damn, DAMN!" Nohni cursed. "I hate it! I hate giving Ganawenim any more time than he already has, but you're absolutely right. The gate isn't worth dying for." She looked at Tigermark and tried, not-to-successfully, to smile.

That's when a torn and charred piece of their adversaries' Emergency Shelter hit her in the head.

"What the hell?!" yelled Nohni pulling the flapping fabric from her head and letting it fly away in the wind. "The wind's bad enough without it throwing the bad-guy's debris at us too! Damn! If only there was a way to slow…down…the……wind?" Nohni's voice trailed off as she stared in the direction the wind had taken the piece of fabric.

"THAT"S IT!" she screamed, turning to him and grabbing a non-plussed Tigermark by the front of his parka. "There IS a way to bypass the problem of wind-chill!" Nohni pointed the way the fabric had gone. "We don't have to slow down the wind! We just need to travel with the wind! It's all relative! If we're going the same speed and direction as the wind itself, there is no wind-chill and we won't freeze our butts off!"

"I'm sorry, Nohni," countered Tigermark, pulling Nohni's gloved paws from his parka. "Winter might be able to keep up with a fifty-mile-an-hour wind, but you know neither of us can do that for long!"

"That's true," explained Nohni with a grin. "If we were running!" She dug into Tigermark's backpack and pulled out a flapping corner of his own emergency shelter. "But not if we were sailing!"

Nicolai let out a burst of laughter and pointed at her. "Of course! We could use the emergency shelter material as a sail, and…" he pointed toward the former camp of their adversaries near the Standing Stone. "We can use their cargo sledge as our 'ice boat'." He stood up, disregarding the howling wind. "When we did our snoop earlier, I noticed their sledge hadn't been drawn to the Standing Stone like their other gear, therefore it must not contain much in the way of ferrous metal."

"Perhaps it's just too heavy?" asked Nohni. "Quite frankly, I hadn't thought past the sail itself. I guess we will need the 'boat' part too."

Nicolai shook his head. "I don't think the sledge is very heavy at all. Empty from what I saw during our snoop. I think they put most of their supplies in their shelter when they heard the storm was coming. No sense making a trip outside in lousy weather to fetch supplies if you can move them inside."

"The sledge is probably made out of aluminum to save weight," added Tigermark. "No sense using an "iron heavy" sledge when you can go with aluminum. It's the same for aircraft. Heavy metals mean a heavy plane. Stupid to do, if you can make it lighter and still have the desired strength. The sledge probably still has steel runners on the skis for wear resistance, but other than that, I'd say it's pretty much all non-magnetic."

"I say we go for it!" exclaimed Nicolai. He was grinning at Winter, who was grinning back.

Nohni regarded the pair of them. "Red Sun at Morning - Sailor take Warning." She hadn't thought much about that old saying from this morning, other than it was a common sailing phrase. Now, however, it looked like sailing was going to be in their future.

Nohni wondered if the warning still applied if you were sailing on ice.

 

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

 

Bumpy sailing. That's what it was like. Very bumpy, very primitive, sailing.

Nicolai was steering from the front of the sledge by virtue of letting more air spill out of one side of their 'para-sail' than the other. He was the biggest, and by default, the best anchor for the primitive parachute/sail they had made from the two emergency shelters they had, plus another undamaged one they'd found at the Standing Stone site. They didn't need those as shelters anymore since the sledge itself could double as one if needed. It was a 'hard-side' instead of just a simple platform with runners, so, flipped over, it could pass for a shelter. Nicolai was gripping two spill lines attached to the outer edges of the sail, which was anchored to the sledge itself at several points by other lines.

After only two 'tangle-ups', Nicolai had gotten the hang of keeping the sail filled - and their ice boat moving. It wasn't moving as fast as the wind, but half of the wind's speed wasn't bad, and the subsequent wind-chill was more tolerable. Since this wasn't a sight-seeing tour, Nohni and Tigermark were huddled in the bottom of the sledge completely covered by Winter's enormous white tail. She was assisting Nicolai as Second Lookout since she had as much, if not more, experience in looking for potential obstacles like ice pressure ridges or patches of open sea. Open sea was unlikely here at this time of year, but they couldn't afford to encounter any at all. Even if one could call a sledge with a sail a 'sail-boat', it wasn't seaworthy in any sense of the word.

They finally had to stop when it got too dark to see dangers in front of them. The length of full daylight this far north at this time of year was only about five hours, seven including twilight. Three of those hours had already been spent checking out the bad guys on the Paw, witnessing their demise at the Stone, and rigging their combination sledge and ice boat, which Tigermark had christened 'The Banana Split'. Nicolai figured they had traveled nearly eighty miles out onto the sea ice when they had to stop.

Thirty minutes worth of rigging and snow packing and they had their shelter set up. The sledge, tipped up on its back end, made the backbone of the primitive 'lean-to' shelter. Snow and ice chunks completed the two sides and most of the front, where the para-sail now served as a wind-break/door. Inside, all four adventurers could sit facing one another around the tiny stove heating water. It was a tight fit, but it was warm.

"I'm sorry. I saw no good fishing spots other than that one we passed two hours ago," said Winter in the dim light from the stove. The single fish she'd caught there would have to do for them all.

"I need to lose a few pounds anyway," said Tigermark as he accepted his reduced portion from the big femme. "Do you often run into stretches where the prospect of food is poor?"

Winter nodded. "I have gone as long as fifteen days without eating," she said, "but I will try my best to see that we are fed," she added, seeing the white tiger's distress. She patted her belly. "I can last quite a while on stored fat. You can have my portion of the fish if you wish."

Tigermark declined the offer. "We all need sustenance to be at our best."

"Also," Winter added quickly, "when food is scarce, I can sleep and I need less."

"Short term hibernation?" asked Nicolai. "I knew us 'bear' types could do that. Didn't know you could."

"So we've got eighteen hours to kill before it gets light enough to travel again?" asked Tigermark, carefully licking his claws clean of every scrap of fish.

"That we do, but it needn't be all sleep or 'dead' time," put in Nohni, who was examining her throwing star map. "The crimson Dagger Door is definitely brighter. I assume that means we're headed in the right direction." She held the star up. "Tigermark? Ever use one of these?"

The white tiger nodded. "And, as you 'pointed' out, if we're doing a non-ferrous weapons inventory, I have these." He held out both paws and ten, long sharp claws extended themselves from their sheaths.

Nohni smiled and pulled her bull-whip from her fanny-pack.

Nicolai merely popped his knuckles, though he also had some 'plastic' explosives on him as well. He'd also opted to take the Calico machine pistol. "It's mostly plastic," he explained.

"Anything we can scavenge from the sledge here?" Tigermark pointed up to the one wall of their shelter that was made up of the sledge. "Aluminum doesn't make a good edged weapon, but you can stab with it."

"Walrus tusks?" offered Winter in a meek voice, her head lowered. "They stab, and the big ones can be used as clubs."

"Narwhale tusks?" asked Tigermark.

"Too rare," Winter answered, still not looking up. "I've seen only a few that weren't still attached to their owners. Walrus tusks are more common. That and whalebone."

Nohni shook her head and looked again at the throwing star. "Despite the fact that it's only an 'edged' weapon, this is no primitive tool. The Sedna legend speaks of 'Trials' that the Angakok of the Shard must pass. If those trials are at the same level of technology as this star, we're in big trouble."

"But the legend is an Inuit legend," protested Nicolai. "The Angakok of those stories couldn't have had anything more sophisticated than the Inuit normally had back then - primitive bone and ivory weapons."

"Maybe the trials aren't of the physical kind," suggested Tigermark. "Maybe they require intellectual skills instead."

"My experience at many treasure sites suggests both," said Nohni as she put a brewing bulb of tea into the now boiling water. "Anything worth accessing is also worth guarding - by physical and intellectual means." She turned to Winter who still had her head down and touched the back of her paw lightly. "Winter? We really could use your help on this. Try to remember anything about what we're about to face here. Anything would be…" but her voice trailed off. She'd just noticed the tear that had dripped from Winter's muzzle. "Winter? What's troubling you?"

"I'm useless!" wailed the big femme as she threw her head down into her paws. "I can't find food properly, I can only fight when I go crazy, I have to be told what to do most times, and I can't remember anything!"

Nohni stared for a moment at the distraught femme, then she and Nicolai, who were sitting next to her cocooned her in a double embrace.

"Winter," Nohni said. "Please look at me."

The big femme leaned into Nicolai's embrace and slowly raised her head, her eyes swimming with tears. "I'm sorry, Nohni, friend. I just can't…"

Nohni smoothed the wet fur on Winter's cheek. "I can see you are 'incomplete' without your Shard, but..."

The big femme started to close her eyes and look away, but Nohni grabbed her by her cheek ruffs and forced her head around. "Winter! Look at me!" She gave Winter's head a little shake. "I do not think you are useless! Yes! You have lost a part of yourself, but only a part! What remains still has value! I only ask that you try. If what I ask is beyond your reach it is NOT automatic grounds for dismissing you as useless!"

Nohni looked hard and long into Winter's liquid eyes before she finally nodded to Nicolai. "And remember this. The fur whose big arms are holding you right now certainly feels you have worth."

Winter's eyes shifted from Nohni's up to the blue ones looking down at her. Once more it was along time before either one of them moved. Then Nicolai gave the smallest of nods. It was hardly a movement at all, but it was enough to light Winter's face with a brilliant smile. Slowly his head dropped down to hers and her lips parted - expectantly.

And that's exactly when a huge 'BOOM' split the night, rocking them all.

Nicolai moaned. "Of all the times for a pressure ridge to pop," he grumbled.

Winter giggled - a strange sound for such a large femme. She raised a fingertip to his lips. "You're not going to let a little Arctic sea ice pressure ridge stop you from…"

'BOOMcrack…pop…pop…Boom!'

The shelter shook again, and this time pieces if the snow walls fell on them.

"I don't think this is just a little sea ice shifting," exclaimed Nohni who was now on her knees. "Is it my imagination? Or are we moving?"

Tigermark tore the fabric door from their shelter and looked out. It was almost too dark to see anything now, but one thing was clear. The sea ice was no longer the mostly flat stretch it used to be.

'BOOM!'

A slab of dark sea ice crumpled upwards in front of them and beyond it ice was bobbing and shifting as if in the grip of a strong current.

"What the hell is happening?" cried Nicolai, trying to see around Nohni's head.

'BOOM!'

Their shelter collapsed completely around them, and Nohni found herself half buried in snow. She grabbed Tigermark's paw, the only part of him above the snow, and yanked him up. "Everyone grab a part of someone else!" she screamed. "Stick together!" She felt a big arm clamp itself around her waist.

'BOOM!'

The ice they were on tilted alarmingly and split away from the surrounding ice.

"Something is pulling the sea ice around in a huge circle!" Nohni cried, pointing. Winter's arm held her even tighter, but she still managed to pull the throwing star from the pocket she'd placed it in. The fourth Dagger Door was so bright in nearly blinded her.

"It's a whirlpool!" cried Nicolai who held Winter and Tigermark even tighter as their floe bobbed and dipped.

"NO!" screamed Nohni.

"It's the Gate of ADLIVUN! And it's come for us!"

And with a final crash and groan, the tiny ice floe shot down into the maw of the maelstrom and was gone.

 

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Into Sedna's Realm

 

I feel like a potato that's been recently mashed.

"Next time, I take the Soul Train," mumbled a voice next to Nohni. "Wasn't the whirlpool thing only supposed to happen if it was your soul that traveled to Sedna's Realm?"

Nohni opened her eyes to find that she could see. Everything seemed to be bathed in a dim green light. Tigermark was lying next to her, and both of them were lying amid chunks of ice and other assorted, wet debris.

"Damn! What a ride!" came a slightly disjointed male voice from somewhere behind Nohni. It sounded like Nicolai even though it was pitched higher than she was used to. She looked in that direction, but her view was blocked by an enormous pyramid.

At least that's what it looked like.

Nohni looked closer and saw that she could see through the sides of the pyramid. An even closer inspection showed it to be made of some sort of mesh. She looked up to the pyramid's point high above and saw a green, glowing circle in the ceiling of this…place? This room? Nohni looked around. It was a big space from what she could see now that her eyes were adjusting to the dim, green light - perhaps a hundred meters across and at least a hundred high. The circle was directly above the point of the giant pyramid and looking harder, Nohni thought she could make out liquid dripping from the place where several 'leaves' making up the circle came together in the center.

"It's a door or hatch in the ceiling," thought Nohni.

That must have been how they entered this place – sucked down through the hole along with a large quantity of the Arctic ocean. That meant that the giant, conical pyramid was really a sieve, and it had 'sorted' them and other solids from the water when they had plunged through the opening. Nohni got to her knees, wobbling a bit. She put her paw on the mesh of the pyramid and felt it vibrating slightly. Underneath the pyramid, the floor sloped down sharply into what had to be a drain. She leaned back and shook water from her mane. Then a grin crept across her muzzle.

"Well, guys," she called out. "It looks like we've just been 'flushed'."

"Head count!" called out Tigermark, just now sitting up and holding his own head. "Mine's here, I think. Nicolai? Where's Winter?"

"Over here!" yelled the big Polar Wolverine. His voice was urgent now. "I just found her. She's breathing, but she's not well off either!"

Nohni and Tigermark scrambled to their feet and made their way around the pyramid. Nicolai was kneeling beside a prone Winter gently holding her bloody head.

"I think the sledge got her when we went down." The twisted remains of their 'ice boat' lay a few meters away.

Nohni knelt down quickly opposite Nicolai and parted the fur on Winter's scalp over what looked like the bloodiest patch. She hissed and turned to Tigermark. "My fanny pack. First Aid kit."

The white tiger dug in the pack and fished out a slightly soggy package. He ripped open a Co-Ag compress and handed it to Nohni who slapped it on the bleeding area.

Meanwhile Nicolai had been looking all over Winter for other wounds. "Nothing else that I can see."

"Tigermark? Could you keep pressure on this wound?" asked Nohni. "I want to check out our lodgings here."

The white tiger changed places with her and she stood up. "Whatever this place is, it knew where to find us." She fished around in her fanny pack and held up Winter's Throwing Star. It was totally blank now. "Maybe this thing is a transmitter as well as a map. I don't think that it's mere coincidence that this overblown 'toilet' opened up right beneath our campsite. This thing, whatever it is, must have come here to get us."

"So this is some sort of mobile submarine thing?" suggested Tigermark looking around as well. "It gets activated by the Stones and then comes looking for whoever has a Throwing Star?"

"Great," mumbled Nicolai. "We get hijacked by the local Underwater Toilet and Techno-Taxi Service." He growled as he looked down at the unconscious Winter. "I'll have a few complaints to register about the lousy curb-side service, I can tell you!"

"The luggage handling does leave a bit to be desired," added Nohni.

She could tell the big fur was being brave, and it looked like he was succeeding, too. She had to admit, she wasn't all that comfortable either, but succumbing to fear was not in her nature. This was simply a new challenge. She proceeded to make a complete circuit of their quarters, looking for anything that might be useful. The only openings seemed to be the hatch they'd come through, the drain underneath the sieve, and one, large patch on the circular side-walls that looked like it might be a door or portal of some kind. Whatever it was, it was sealed tight. Several fish had been sucked through the hatch as well, so food was available, even though appetites were probably missing.

"Do you think this thing is moving?" asked Tigermark. "It's hard to tell, sealed inside like we are."

"It came for us," answered Nohni. "I assume it's headed back to wherever it came from."

"Or it might be headed for another pick-up," Nicolai put in. "Ganawenim has a Star, no doubt – and the Shard."

Nohni noted the eager hope in Nicolai's voice. If this thing did do another flush-and-run on Ganawenim, it would be the ideal opportunity to take him down and retrieve the Shard - if it didn't drown them in the initial sea-sucking deluge, first. Nohni picked up a feebly flopping fish. "I guess we'll just have to wait and see. Anyone care for some more sushi while we wait?"

 

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

 

Winter stirred feebly from time to time, but didn't fully rouse. This worried Nohni, but there wasn't much they could do with what they had. Nicolai had made Winter as comfortable as possible, cradling her head in his lap, but other than that, waiting was all they had done.

To pass the time, they had reviewed what they knew about Sedna's Realm. It wasn't much more than a brief description of obstacles and the ubiquitous 'Be Careful While You're Here' admonition that was maddeningly inadequate. They'd also gone over plans to take out Ganawenim, were he to show up. Once more, they had little to go on. The opening in the ceiling certainly wasn't big enough to swallow an entire airplane, but how many goons would Ganawenim have with him, and had they been stripped of their ferrous weapons like Nohni & Company had? If it came down to a fist fight, Nicolai was a great asset. It was too bad Winter seemed to be out of action.

A sudden jarring jolt, snapped everyone to attention. Nohni looked up, but Tigermark spoke first. "I don't think that's the 'flush lever' being pulled," he whispered. "Feels more like a docking maneuver."

All except Winter were on their feet and turned to the patch on the wall that had to be the door. Nohni's whip was out and uncoiled. Tigermark's claws were out and flashing. Nicolai had a pliable ball of something in his fist that definitely wasn't Play-Doh.

A pop, several clicks and finally a whirring sound signaled the opening of the door.

Everyone tensed.

Nothing happened.

No hoard of uglies came charging in. No deep voice boomed out a dire warning.

A couple drips of water from the door lintel and that was it.

"Well, that was a waste of perfectly good adrenalin," grumbled Nicolai, lowering the fist with the plastic explosives.

Nohni stepped forward and peered into the dark opening. "I don't see anything in there. No lights." she turned to the others. "What have we got for light?"

Tigermark pulled something the size of a narrow pack of cards from one pocket and flipped it to Nohni who caught it. "It's a crank-charged capacitor LED light," he explained. "No metal. No battery. Turn the little crank on the side a couple times to charge the capacitor and you have light for a couple minutes before you need to crank it again."

Nohni did as instructed and the top of the 'card pack' lit up with an adjustable directional beam. "Not quite the ambiance of a burning torch," she mused, "but it'll do." She flashed it into the opening. "It's a narrow passage leading downward." She looked to the others. "I think I should go first. Traps in treasure-houses are my specialty."

Nohni had just turned back to the passage when Nicolai let out a yelp. Nohni whirled around and saw what he saw. The hatch at the top of there circular submarine was opening again and water was beginning to gush down and through the mesh pyramid. However, it seemed the drain beneath the pyramid was blocked this time.

Nicolai quickly splashed his way over to the unconscious Winter, but even as he lifted her up, Nohni could see the water rising to his calves. In moments it was high enough to start spilling through the passageway door.

"Dammit all!" hollered Nohni. "We're being 'flushed' again! Everyone into the passage! It's the only way out of here!"

Light on and pointing down, Nohni jumped into the passage feet first. This was going to be the classic water-slide routine. She began to twist and turn down the chute, but there was no time for enjoyment. Her thoughts were on what to do when she hit 'bottom'.

"Get out of the way of my speeding companions," was her first thought, and even as this passed through her mind the chute walls disappeared from around her, and she felt herself sliding across a water-slick floor. She turned her slide into a sideways roll to her right, which was quickly followed by a jarring thud into a wall of some kind. She pointed the light back the way she'd come just in time to see Tigermark pop out of the water-chute, quickly followed by Nicolai, who had the limp form of Winter clasped in front of him in his lap. The water gushing from the chute was draining through grating in the floor so it was unlikely to flood this place. Nohni flashed the light around to get better bearings.

This was another big room, but long and narrow instead of circular. She flashed the light down to the far end of the hall. A row of huge and narrowly-spaced pillars dominated that end of the room - like the bars of a jail cell door.

And behind the pillars sat a very large… something.

Nohni was glad to see that her companions, except for Winter, were already standing at the ready. She uncoiled her whip and began walking slowly toward the pillared end of the room. All the while she played the light across the floor and walls in front of her, looking for anything that could pose a threat or indicate a trap. She doubted there were any since this was obviously just the entry point. Most traps were reserved for those who had already penetrated past the first 'Guardian'.

And what a Guardian this was.

Nohni had stopped about ten meters from the pillars and her light now shone across the thing that sat in what looked like the only doorway out of this hall. It completely filled the doorway and stood as still as a statue, but Nohni doubted this thing was a mere decoration.

This had to be Cerberus - Sedna's 'Dog' husband, if one believed the Inuit legend. He was the Guardian of the Gates to Hell - or in Inuit mythology - the Realm of Sedna. However, it was not like the 'Cerberus' of old Greek and Roman mythology. That creature had been a huge, live, three-headed dog with snakes for a mane and tail. This thing was big too, but it had only one head. It was doglike in shape, but no canine ever looked like this. Its 'skin' was translucent, almost transparent, and one could see a ways into the body – which seemed to be filled with a maze of crystalline shapes flashing all the colors of the rainbow. A faint, musical tinkling accompanied the flashing. Nohni noted that the shape of its head and ears was remarkably similar to her own.

"A crystalline Jackal?" she thought.

Maybe. Maybe not. In any case, it looked as if they were going to have to squeeze around it to get through the door and into Sedna's Realm proper.

She took a step forward.

And Cerberus sprang to life with a jagged ear piercing shriek.

The smell of ozone was sharp in the air as Nohni stepped back. Instantly the buzzing spasm of electrical shock shot through her legs and she nearly toppled over. Instinctively she crouched down on her toes, bent over into a ball and held her head down. "Don't anybody move!" she screamed. "Do what I do! Nicolai? Have you got Winter in your arms?"

"I do," came a deep voice from behind her. "What's going on?"

"I think our guardian friend just charged the ground around us with several thousand volts," Nohni shouted. "Keep your feet together! If you spread them apart too far, the difference in ground resistance may cause enough of an electrical potential difference to send a jolt right through your legs. If I'd been a guy just now, I'd really be hurting!"

"Why are we bent over?" asked Nicolai.

"Round or blunt objects built up an electrical charge slower than tall, pointy things," answered Tigermark. "That’s why cell towers get clobbered in electrical storms and water towers don’t."

"You think we're building up a charge right now?"

"I don't know," answered Nohni. "I'm just being cautious. But if you feel your fur start to stand out all over your body, this crouched position is perfect for kissing your butt goodbye!"

"Not funny!" groused Nicolai. "What do we do now? We can't spend the rest of our lives stuck here imitating toadstools!"

"Let's back up!" answered Nohni. "Get to the other end of the hall. More distance from the electrical source should protect us, and keep your feet together! Small shuffling steps only! Let's move!"

It was an odd site to be sure - three crouched figures, one with a substantial armful of unconscious femme, bowing and backing away from a sparking and spitting crystalline dog-god. It was fortunate that Cerberus was confined to the area behind the pillars. If he had free rein, he'd have fried them by now. Eventually they made it back to the water-chute, which was still dribbling sea water. Nohni stood up slowly. The smell of ozone no longer tainted the air.

"I think we're safe enough here," Nohni announced, "but we need to do something about Cerberus."

Nohni saw Nicolai set Winter down and seat himself beside her. His worried look was obvious, and thus his attention was elsewhere. Nohni doubted he could come up with an idea. She looked to Tigermark.

"I can't see an easy solution," remarked Tigermark. "I'd normally suggest using some sort of insulation on our feet to protect us from the electricity, but we have nothing that’s not soaked with seawater - which is an excellent conductor of electricity, by the way." He looked to Nohni. "I think here's the part where we need to use our brains, but I'm not the expert on mythical beings and how to deal with them. That's your area."

Nohni nodded and tried to think. This may not be the Cerberus from Virgil's Aeneid, or the story of Orpheus in Plato's Symposium, but maybe there were some similarities. Anything was worth a try at this point. How had Cerberus been defeated in those old Greek tales? In the Aeneid Cerberus had been lulled to sleep after being tricked into eating drugged honey cakes. Nohni shook her head. They obviously had no pastries here and she doubted Dunkin' Donuts would deliver this far north. They also had no drugs in any amount that would affect a thing this big, if drugs could affect it at all.

But hadn't Orpheus put the creature to sleep with his music?

Nohni could still hear the faint musical tinkling coming from Cerberus even over his snarling and snapping. Then it hit her.

Singing!

The Inuit, as well as most other primitive societies, had a musical tradition of singing! And according to the legend, didn't the Angakok shaman who visited Sedna need to sing to her?

"Nicolai!" she yelled. "We need to try singing to it!"

"What?" came Nicolai's astounded response. "Sing to it?"

"Yes! Sing to it!" answered Nohni. "And try to match your voice to the sounds you can hear coming from it! I think that might do it!"

Nohni opened her mouth to try, but before she could utter a single note, Nicolai's deep basso profondo reverberated around the hall, whose acoustics were remarkably good. Nohni closed her mouth and marveled at the rich timbre of his voice. He was damned good! He was also trying his best to match the faint musical tones coming from the snarling, snapping creature, but the sound was too complex. Many of the tones were beyond his range.

"We need more voices!" Nohni hollered, looking to Tigermark. "Higher than Nicolai's."

Once again she opened her mouth to add her voice, but suddenly, the chamber was filled with a sound almost akin to light itself. An astonishingly beautiful contralto had joined with Nicolai and the result was music the likes of which a dumbstruck Nohni had never heard before.

Winter had finally roused from her stupor and was standing next to Nicolai.

And she was singing!

Gods and Goddesses! It was almost indescribable!

Nohni felt herself starting to sway in time to the singing. The music seemed to take on solid form and substance. It was a vast vista of tone and texture! An astounding panorama of sound and song! An immeasurable landscape of melody and music! It was pure… unadulterated… rapture, and Nohni felt herself being borne away on a wind of utter wonder.

"I'm dead," thought Nohni blissfully. "I've died and gone to heaven. This is Angel Song."

She could stay here forever, and it wouldn't be long enough.

Forever…

"Nohni?" came a faint shout from far away. "Nohni! Please wake up!"

The spell broke, and Nohni blinked her eyes open. She was looking up into the bloody, but concerned face of Chryona Winter.

"We're safe now," Winter said. "Cerberus is asleep."

"Or as much 'asleep' as a machine can be," added Tigermark.

Nohni sat up slowly. "Apparently, so was I." She looked around. The huge crystalline 'dog' was indeed immobile, lying on its side, and the flashing lights inside it along with the tinkling tones, were gone.

"Maybe Winter's voice affects all canids?" suggested Tigermark, who was kneeling beside Nohni as well. "It was damn fine singing, to be sure, but you were the only one who passed out."

"Along with our big, crystalline road-block," added Nicolai, who was kneeling beside Winter and grinning like an idiot. "Great voice, huh? Just one more thing to love about her." He gave Winter a squeeze and she gave him a shy smile.

"Good thing she wasn't in a singing mood when we first met at Patriarch University," commented Nohni. "I'd have been down in one stanza."

The four of them looked to the door now free of the snoozing Cerberus. Sedna's Realm awaited them, and there were things beyond that door that might still take them all down.

"Oh, and I pried this off of our now peaceful pooch." Nicolai held something out in his paw. "Seems he's highly magnetic too."

Nohni opened a paw, and Nicolai dropped the thing into her palm. It was a belt buckle embossed with two ornate letters.

"G.A."

Nohni's paw closed into a tight fist around the thing. "He's already been here!" she hissed.

"And it looks like the Shard has granted him free passage," added Tigermark. "Footprints in the dust beyond the door. Maybe half a dozen furs?"

Nohni spat, tossed the belt buckle away, and stood up, still a little shaky. "Let's get moving then!"

If they were lucky, Ganawenim would trip over his own loose pants and split his skull open.

One could always hope.


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Part Five - Sedna's Realm

 

Chapter Seventeen – Lies and Betrayal.

 

"Winter? Does any of this feel familiar to you?" asked Nohni.

The big femme looked around, then blinked a few times before turning an apologetic look on Nohni. "I'm sorry. It seems I am of no use, again."

Nohni whirled on the big femme and grabbed her by the chest ruff. "None of that nonsense! It was your voice that put Cerberus to sleep! Not Nicolai's! It was your blood that activated the Standing Stones, not the blood of that poor unfortunate Inuit pup." She let go of Winter's ruff and smoothed it out. "Sorry, but whether you realize it or not, you are the key to all of this."

"I am?" Winter blinked. "But how…?

"The Shard!" Nohni barked. "It's an artifact of great power, true, and Ganawenim seems to be using it to his advantage to pass through this place, BUT…" Nohni held up a paw. "The Shard is an object separate from you! Do you believe for one second that whoever created the Shard, the Throwing Stars, and this place," she waved her paw around, "didn't think the Shard could get lost or destroyed? There has to be a back-up plan for you to access Sedna in case the Shard was no longer available!" She looked to all of them. "We just need to figure out what that plan is."

And that wasn't going to be easy considering what surrounded them now.

The path behind Cerberus, the crystalline dog, had led them to this place – a vast chamber bathed in a muted red glow. It was a gigantic, bowl-shaped affair hundreds of meters across and several hundred high. They had emerged from a tunnel at the bottom of the bowl and now stared up and around at what looked like four huge winged creatures standing at the four compass points around the edge of the bowl. They had to be sixty or seventy meters high. Unlike the crystalline Cerberus, these things were opaque – black and shiny, like carved obsidian.

And there were no bars or pillars to contain them if they suddenly came to life.

"Raven," muttered Nicolai.

"Who?" asked Nohni, turning to the polar wolverine. "Raven Hunt?"

Nicolai shook his head. "These statues – or whatever they really are. Were it not for the extra pair of arms beneath the wings and the upright stance, I'd swear these things represented ravens." He pointed to the one directly in front of them. "Look at their heads – the sharp, pointed beaks in particular - and the coloring. 'Black and Shiny' is very 'Raven'."

"Not 'Blue and Shiny' – which is very sexy 'Blue Wolf'," answered Nohni. She turned around on the spot, looking at all four in turn. "At first glance they seem to be identical."

"Which means you don't think they're identical at all," commented Tigermark, a knowing grin on his muzzle.

Nohni shook her head. "One does not guard things of value by looking obvious."

"They're beautiful," whispered Winter so softly that Nohni almost missed it.

"Say again?" Nohni asked, turning and peering up at the big femme.

Winter reached out her right paw toward the statue immediately in front, but she was swiveling her head around to look at them all. "I…," she began. "I want…"

Nohni looked directly into Winter's eyes, which seemed to be widening – and growing brighter. "What is it Winter?" Nohni put a paw onto the big femme's other arm. "What do you want? Winter! What are you doing?" The big femme had started toward the statue in front of them. Nohni grabbed her arm.

"Leave me alone!" Winter shouted as she jerked her arm free.

"Winter! We really shouldn't go walking into…" began Nicoli, who had taken Winter's other arm in a forceful grip.

"Let me go!" she growled as she turned blazing eyes on Nicolai. "You are nothing compared to them! You just want me for yourself! You think to be my lover? You are nothing! Nothing! I choose them! They are worthy suitors! Let…meGO! "

Her other paw came around in a roundhouse punch that sent Nicolai sprawling. Nohni thought the only way she could have done this successfully was because Nicolai seemed momentarily stunned by Winter's out-of-character declaration. In the next moment, Nicolai had bounced to his feet and body-slammed Winter to the ground – again. He seemed to be doing a lot of that lately. Winter let out a howl of pure rage and Nohni saw that her eyes had once again become bright pools of white light.

"Let her go, Nicolai!" Nohni shouted at once.

"Are you crazy?" answered Nicolai, who was having a hard time now trying to contain a snarling, spitting Winter. "She's obviously not herself! These statue things are doing something to her!"

"Exactly!" hollered Nohni. "Which is why you need to let her go NOW!" She emphasized her command by kicking the struggling polar wolverine – well, not in the privates – but pretty close. Nicolai howled and rolled off Winter, who was instantly on her feet and running toward the first statue.

"What the hell was that for?" shouted an enraged Nicolai.

"Just shut up and watch carefully!" hissed Nohni, who had her whip out and uncoiled. "We may need to act fast! Back to back everyone and keep your eyes peeled."

"You think this is part of what Winter needs to do to access Sedna?" Tigermark had dropped into a defensive crouch to Nohni's right rear. His weaponry consisted of ten long, sharp claws – which made him 'well-armed' indeed.

"Yes!" she hissed. "You saw Winter's eyes! She is definitely feeling or hearing something we aren't. Nicolai! To my rear left. Keep an eye on those two statues." She pointed. "Tigermark. The right one is yours. I've got the front one."

"So what does this have to do with getting through this place?" grumbled Nicolai, who had un-holstered his Calico SMG.

"The legend!" came Nohni's answer. "Inuit legend speaks of a young and beautiful Sedna refusing all lovers except for one – which turned out to be a Fulmar, a treacherously disguised raven!"

"Treacherously disguised raven?" rumbled Tigermark. "Not sure I like the sound of that."

"How does the Calico feel, Nicolai?" asked Nohni. "Any 'pulling' on it that would indicate a strong magnetic field?"

Nicolai nodded and re-holstered the weapon. "Though it's mostly plastic, the metal parts seem to make the thing 'come alive' in my paw. Bad for aiming accuracy. I've got some of the non-magnetic plastic explosives, but I'll keep the quantities small. Area-wide destruction isn't a good idea when you're still in the area."

At this point, Winter, who seemed tiny by comparison, had reached the first statue. Paws wide, she spread herself against the statue's giant leg, and even at this distance they could hear her moan of pleasure.

"Keep a lid on it, Nicolai," growled Nohni who had seen the big guy turn at the sound, glowering. "It's the legend, and Winter has to play it out."

"Surely not the 'lover' part, though," whispered Tigermark. "There's no way she's going to get any part of that huge thing inside her this time."

Apparently, Winter wasn't even going to try for now she was sprinting toward then second statue. In only moments she was there and doing the same thing, looking for all intents and purposes like she was trying to 'leg hump' the black statue. Once more, moans of pleasure reached the other three, but Nohni wasn't listening. She was peering at the first statue. Was it her imagination or was the thing growing smaller? As she continued to stare it became obvious that this was exactly what was happening.

"A hologram or some other form of 3D imaging?" thought Nohni.

In reality, things did not normally lose mass without the laws of physics exacting a disastrous price. It was the whole Energy equals Mass times the Speed of Light Squared thing. Since no nuclear explosion was taking place, what 'looked' like a huge statue obviously was not.

Treacherously disguised raven.

But what would be revealed when the holograms disappeared? What was really there beneath the image of a giant statue? By now, Winter was at the third statue, oblivious to what was happening to the ones she'd already touched. Also, by this time, Nohni's companions had noticed the changing statues.

"In this case, I don't think smaller is better," growled Nicolai. "Am I right?" He looked to Nohni.

She nodded. The first statue had shrunk to the same size as Winter when it finally disappeared to reveal what looked like a particularly ugly, penguin-like thing. The second statue had vanished to reveal the form of an unpleasant looking, long-winged albatross with legs. Winter was at the fourth statue as the third one revealed itself to be a Malamute Inuit holding a fishing spear.

And in the next moment, Winter was backing away from the last statue as it, too, began to shrink. But this time it didn't disappear. It remained the raven with arms and legs, except now it had a voice.

"You cannot leave me now! You have nowhere to go! You must stay with me, forever!" Which seemed to be true, since the opening to the passage they had come through initially had snapped shut.

Winter was hissing and spitting again. "No! You lied to me! You have no gifts for me! You are no provider of food and warmth! You promised me everything! You promised to be a good companion, but you lied! You LIED!"

When the statue thing rushed her, it was Nicolai who was the first to respond. Something sped from his paw and hit the thing square in the chest. The resulting explosion indicated it was one of Nicolai's little C-4 toys. Its effect on its target, however, was…unexpected. The raven creature exploded into thousands of bits, which seemed appropriate – but each bit was the shape of a raven – and they all began to fly toward them! The ugly penguin and albatross were lumbering forward as well. Even as Nohni stowed her whip in preparation to defend herself by paw alone (whips worked best on single targets) she noted that Nicolai had dropped into a paw-to-paw defensive position. Good. No more bombs that might create multiple targets.

But they needn't have bothered. The cloud of ravens sped past them and straight for Winter.

Winter's mouth was open as if to scream when the Malamute manifestation shouted. "To me, my daughter! To me! We must escape this foul Fulmar and his minions! To me!" As the last of these words reached them, the Malamute manifestation, which must have also been a hologram, faded away and a shimmering silver kayak emerged from the wall to place itself where the hologram had been.

Indeed, Winter needed some method of escape, and soon, because the cloud of raven things was attacking her mercilessly. Nicolai was in the midst of them bashing as many as he could reach – but to little effect. The ugly penguin and albatross thing also seemed impervious to harm.

"Not surprising," shouted Nohni as she and Tigermark waded into the fray. "Can't kill them if they're not 'alive' to begin with! Let's head for that kayak. NOW!"

"But that's what this crazy place wants Winter to do!" shouted Nicolai. "And I don't trust that to be a good idea either!" He plastered the bottom-heavy penguin thing right in the face – which merely set it to wobbling back and forth like some overgrown cub-toy.

"It's the legend again!" countered Nohni. "Sedna is rescued from the Fulmar and his cronies by her father." Nohni turned and shouted to make herself heard above the raucous raven calls. "Winter! You're still the key here. The rest of us are just hangers-on! Move it or lose it! "

Winter's next move decided the matter. She took off for the silver kayak, batting away raven things, and it was all the rest of them could do to keep up with her. Then, before they were even half way there, a gushing sound from all around them put an end to any doubt about the kayak's usefulness.

"Not again!" hollered Nicolai. "They're flooding the chamber!"

"All the more reason to be in a boat!" countered Nohni.

They were still a hundred meters from the boat when the swirling waters reached them and began to rise. Fifty meters from the boat saw the water at thigh level. Twenty five made it chest high. They had to swim the last ten meters to get to the kayak. The ravens, the penguin and the albatross were nowhere to be seen.  When they reached the kayak, everyone latched on to the sides. It was obvious they could not all fit inside the boat.

Winter, whose eyes were once again their normal color, coughed and spluttered. "You." She pointed to Nohni and Tigermark. "Into the kayak! Don't argue!"

With Nicolai on one side and Winter on the other to steady it, Nohni and Tigermark piled into the boat.

"I think this thing could handle one of you two as well," said Nohni who was shaking the water from her gold mane. "But not both."

"Nicolai – you get in," said Winter. "I can hold onto the side."

"NO!" countered the polar wolverine. "You get in! You're the one who is the key to all of this and if anything…"

"GET YOUR STUPID ASS IN THE BOAT!!" screamed Winter. "If the one in the water loses his or her grip which of us can hold their breath longer? You? Or ME?"

Nohni thought it was the look of concerned – almost loving – entreaty in Winter's eyes that quieted Nicolai. A part of Winter was probably fully aware of what she'd said to him while being forced to play out the 'Sedna's Suitor' scene – and it looked like she regretted that.

"Fine," answered Nicolai. "I'll get in – if I need to," he added. "Right now it looks like we only need to use the kayak as a flotation device. Besides, I'm part polar bear." He grinned at Winter. "We like our bath water cold."

Nohni looked from Winter to Nicolai, and back again. It seemed it would take more than a mere legend to keep these two apart now. Then she looked to the walls of the chamber. It seemed they were moving and sure enough, an opening had appeared in one of the walls. Slowly they were gliding toward it as if powered by a mild current.

"What next?" asked Tigermark, looking in the same direction.

"We shall see," answered Nohni. She did not want to put into words what she was thinking at the moment. Because this whole entry into Adlivun had been engineered with the Angakok Winter in mind, Nohni, Tigermark, and Nicolai might not survive. As she'd said before, they were extraneous 'hangers-on'. Not really needed to complete Winter's journey.

But Winter was in danger too. Not because she might lose her life and they could, but because she would lose something else. Something of herself.

And Nohni cursed herself, for she could not warn Winter of her doom. If they were to pass successfully through this place, what must happen very soon now needed to conform to the legend.

 

And legends could be quite unpleasant at times.

 

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

 

Chapter Eighteen – Blood for the Father.

 

"I don't like this," hissed Nicolai, looking across the vast expanse of water as he 'dog-paddled' next to the silver kayak. The short, river-like passageway that led from the 'Raven's Nest' chamber (as Tigermark called it) had brought them to another huge cavern – this one already filled by a lake. It was only marginally lit by what seemed like stars in the ceiling. At first they had thought they'd emerged out into the open Arctic Sea, but the points of light above them moved indicating they were fixed points in a ceiling high above. "I can't see the opposite shore," Nicolai continued. "Does an 'opposite shore' even exist? So far, we've been 'flushed' from place to place. Maybe the exit's at the bottom of the lake."

Nohni thought so too, though she held back any comment. She was examining the silver kayak itself. It was long and narrow, like the traditional Inuit boat, but it had no covering on it as traditional kayaks had to help keep water out and warmth in. She ran a paw along the slotted gunwale and noted that a covering could probably be attached, but it wouldn’t be nearly as watertight as a traditional kayak. The material of the boat itself felt cool but didn't have the icy-cold feel one might expect from metal, which was a good conductor of heat. This stuff had a 'plastic' feel to it.

"Probably another nano-fiber composite," thought Nohni. "Whatever it is, it's way beyond anything our technology has." And she would know. Cutting-edge research was being done at Patriarch University in a number of areas. Advanced Material Research was one of them. Besides the nano-fiber composites, there was the beautifully strange area of super-quenched metals – metals cooled so quickly that they had no time to form crystals – like glass. Because of the nature of molecular bonds in metal, these materials had nearly one-hundred percent energy restoring elasticity. Drop a ball made of this material on a flat surface made of the same material and the ball would continue to bounce for hours – even days – before eventually coming to rest, primarily due to air friction. Do the test in a vacuum and the ball could bounce for years – but only if it was non-magnetic. Magnetic material would eventually be affected by the earth's magnetic field.

Which brought Nohni around to the area of magnetism itself.

She looked around at the large 'lake' they were floating on at the moment. Magnetism seemed to be a big part of this whole 'Adlivun' place. Magnetic Stones. Magnetic crystalline dogs. And quite likely, there were other magnetic things yet to be discovered. When one came down to it, anything with molecular polarity – like water – could be affected by a very strong magnetic field. Small animals, like frogs and salamanders, could be suspended in mid air inside the torus of your average hospital MRI machine. Magnetism was also the best thing to use to contain a sustained hydrogen fusion reaction. Furs around the world had been working on this for years as a cleaner alternative to nuclear power.

Even stranger, an immensely powerful magnetic 'bottle' was the only thing in this universe that could safely contain antimatter.

Matter/Antimatter reactions.

It was the next step beyond nuclear energy. A matter/antimatter reaction compared to a thermonuclear blast was like comparing that same nuclear explosion to a firecracker. It was several orders of magnitude stronger.

Nohni shook her head. She did not like where this train of thought was taking her. Back when the 'cold war' between the nuclear super-powers had been a real concern in this world, there was often talk of a nuclear exchange causing a 'Nuclear Winter'. Enough particulate matter could be tossed up into the atmosphere from the explosions to cool the entire planet tens of degrees. To make it worse, the debris would likely be radioactive. A matter/antimatter explosion would be just as effective at cooling the planet, but would be a lot cleaner.

Nohni gave a small snort. "Great. An 'environmentally safe' apocalypse."

Safe – just as long as you weren't within five hundred miles of it when it went off.

"So, who is Sedna? I think we should know as much as we can about this 'deity' we're trying to find."

The question from Tigermark brought Nohni out of her private thoughts. She turned to the white tiger and nodded. Things at the moment were calm enough for conversation – though that could change at any moment.

"Although the details vary from one Inuit tribe to another," Nohni began, "this is the basic story. Legends tell that Sedna, was a beautiful girl who lived by the sea. Although many courted her, she would not leave her widowed father, and refused them all. But one day, a raven disguised as a handsome man came to her. He promised her a better life - and best of all, he promised he will also provide for her father. And so, full of hope, Sedna left with him."

"Our Raven Reference," nodded Nicolai.

"Yes," continued Nohni. "And as you will see, what is happening to us seems to be mirroring that legend. Back to our story then. Sedna departs with the disguised Raven, but instead of providing for all her needs, he takes her to a desolate island, where she is cold and hungry. When her father comes at last to visit, he gets very angry."

"Good for him," commented Nicolai. "That sort of treatment deserves contempt."

Nohni merely nodded. "Anyway, her father takes Sedna into his kayak and paddles into the open sea, but Raven then causes a terrible storm to arise."

As if on cue, a gust of wind blew across the silver kayak causing it to sway.

"So the weather in this glorified fishbowl is going to take a turn for the worse?"

"Seems likely," commented Nohni whose mane was now riffling in the stiff breeze.

Tigermark too was looking around. "So what happens next?"

"Well," started Nohni looking to Nicolai, "Sedna's terrified father, in desperation, hoping to save his own life, casts his daughter from the boat."

"Not so good for him," grumbled Nicolai, "but since Winter and I are already in the water here, what difference will that make to what's going to happen?"

"I'm not sure, but your idea about an exit at the bottom of the lake seems likely since that's where Sedna goes after she gets tossed into the drink."

"I'm definitely going to be complaining to someone about the plumbing in this place," grumbled Nicolai. Then his eyes widened. "Wait a minute!" He pointed at Nohni with his free paw. "I remember you saying something about this when we were still on the Paw of the Wolverine. You said Sedna's father cut off Sedna's fingers to get her to let go of the kayak!"

Reflexively, Winter released her grip on the kayak, and seemingly in response, the wind kicked up a huge wave that slammed her back into the side of the boat.

"You don't need to hold onto the boat!" yelled Nicolai, who grabbed Winter's wet mane and almost dragged her to his side. "Hold onto me instead while I hold onto the boat!"

Winter latched onto the polar wolverine's free arm, but now the waves were coming from a different direction pushing at them both – almost as if they knew Winter was trying to circumvent the need to hold onto the kayak.

"Try touching the kayak, but not holding onto the gunwale," suggested Nohni. "It may only be a contact thing, not a gripping thing."

Winter put a free paw flat on the side of the kayak, and the waves subsided.

"For the moment," thought Nohni.

"I don't think this will prevent the coming storm," suggested Nohni, who was again looking around, "but there's no need to go rushing into the maw of adventure if you don't need to."

"Better later than sooner, if it involves another flushing toilet routine," commented Tigermark.

Nohni grinned at the white tiger. Tigermark could always be counted on for a wry comment in the midst of danger. It helped immensely to ward off the inevitable jitters that came from waiting for the next trial.

"So Sedna gets sucked down into the bowels of the big, nasty Ocean," prompted Nicolai. "What does she do down there, besides dream up ways of making our lives miserable?"

"Legends say," continued Nohni, "that Sedna's severed fingers fell into the sea too, and transformed into the fishes, the seals, and the whales. It's where the Inuit's food comes from. Yes, I know that doesn’t make sense. How could the fake Raven guy provide for Sedna's needs if the critters they live off of hadn't been created yet? But then, legend chronology is rarely linear or completely literal. As for our goddess, she is covered with a tangle of hair she can't comb out because her fingers are gone, and all the broken taboos and sins against nature of the Inuit fall through the water, to collect on Sedna's body and in her tangled hair. When the accumulation is too great, Sedna sobs in pain, and all the sea creatures leave the shore, to gather by her door to comfort her. The Inuit know then it's time to gather and publicly confess their broken taboos, because if they don't, they starve."

"So, like many furs, contrition only comes in time of great need," grumbled Nicolai. "You would think after a while that they would figure this out, and try to keep it from happening in the first place."

Nohni gave Nicolai a sardonic grin. "It's the nature of fur-kind to fall into self-centricity during the good times. As a result, things go cock-eyed, bad things happen, and a price must be paid. The Inuit don't see this as an issue between good behavior and bad. They see it more as the difference between balance and imbalance. More of the relative 'Yin and Yang' line of thinking than the absolutes of Good and Evil."

"Eastern vs. Western philosophy?" offered Tigermark.

"Something like that," answered Nohni, "Though you might call this 'Northern Philosophy.' It's influenced by the Inuit's dependency on a harsh and often unforgiving environment. In any case, when the environment withholds food, the Inuit know they need to admit their screw-ups. This is how they do it: The males, remembering Sedna’s father, do a dance of contrition. Slowly dancing, they sing of their remorse for sins done by male to female, to earth, and to her children. And all the Inuit send Sedna their prayers. Then, their shaman, or Angakok, purifies herself to take the dangerous journey to the underwater world where Sedna lives."

"A journey we appear to be on right now," offered Nicolai.

"That's what I'm thinking," confirmed Nohni. "When the Angakok finds Sedna, she gathers fine sand to cleanse the filth from Sedna’s body. She sings while tenderly picking the crabs from Sedna’s hair. And she offers Sedna the confessions and prayers of the people, their promises to change their life stories. So Sedna is comforted, and asks Creator to forgive them for the ways they have become out of balance. Now that her sobbing is no longer heard in the waves, the animals end their vigil, returning to offer themselves again as food. She is generous, and forgiving. Knowing this of Sedna, the Inuit are inspired to return Her gift by making better life stories, and treating their relations with love and respect. For the Inuit there must be rites of reciprocity when things become out of balance in the world. As the world suffers, so must they. And so they dance, purify and pray, to restore the balance between the above world and the below world, between male and female, and between themselves and the Creator."

"So, we are to become glorified hairdressers for a goddess with a bad case of the crabs?" Nicolai was looking dubious. "Somehow that doesn't fit with the high-tech obstacles we've had thrown at us so far."

"Legends aren't necessarily logical or accurate," Nohni replied, "but they do give us some sense of what to expect."

What they couldn't expect was how fast the air around them would whip itself up from a barely noticeable breeze to gale force winds. With a speed that couldn't be natural, a lake that had only been choppy was now pushing up short-period waves fifteen feet high. The little kayak even became airborne at some points. With a tenacity that was amazing, Nicolai kept his grip on the boat and onto Winter.

"I don't think I can hold on to you much longer!" shouted Winter as another wave hit.

"If Sedna, goddess of the underworld herself, shows up, I'm not letting go of you or the boat!" hollered Nicolai.

Nohni was afraid Nicolai wouldn't have any choice shortly if what was about to happen followed the legends. There was no way this kayak was merely a boat. Sedna's finger-slicing was one aspect of the legend that was found in all the tribal variations, and Nohni eyed the rounded gunwales of the kayak expecting them to transform themselves into razor sharp edges at any moment.

But what else is there to hang onto?

If any of them let go, they'd be immediately swallowed up by the lake! Nohni heard herself hissing in frustration over the howling wind. But, dammit all, a legend was not an absolute, and Nohni had another hunch that they could survive this next phase without having to conform to it exactly.

"Listen up everyone," she screamed over the wind. "This kayak won't be safe much longer!"

"There's no way…" Nicolai began.

"CAN IT!" yelled Nohni. "This place, and this seemingly innocent kayak, can do whatever it damn well wants to with us, but I think we can tweak the circumstances in our favor!" She turned to Tigermark. "Time to get intimate TM! I want you to grab onto me as tightly as you can, and whatever happens, don't let go!" She grabbed Nicolai's paw that was holding the boat and did a quick wrap and tie around the forearm with the free end of her bull whip. "When we abandon this floating Fubar contraption, Nicolai, I'm going to latch onto you like a favorite chew-toy, and you will be holding onto Winter as if you two have been doing the nasty for years! Okay! Is everyone ready?"

It turned out they had no choice but to be ready, because the next wave crashed over them and flushed Nohni and Tigermark out of the kayak and into the churning waters. Nicolai instantly grabbed Winter in a bear-hug in front of him as Nohni pulled herself behind Nicolai with the whip and wrapped her strong legs around his waist, locking her ankles together in front. Tigermark did the same right behind her, sandwiching Nohni between the two of them.

"What happens now?" hollered Nicolai.

"We wait!" sputtered Nohni, "and try not to drown!"

But nothing was happening. Yet, something needed to happen - and soon - if they were going to survive this. Nohni knew one thing for sure. Winter was the key. She had to be! For a split second, an image of the bloody standing stone on the Paw of the Wolverine flashed through Nohni's mind.

Yes!

"Winter!" shouted Nohni over Nicolai's shoulder. "Give me your paw!"

"What?" bellowed Winter from her position in front of Nicolai. "What do you need…"

"JUST GIVE IT TO ME!" shrieked Nohni.

A grey paw snaked its way backward through the splashing water, over Nicolai's shoulder and right into Nohni's face – exactly where she wanted it.

Nohni opened her mouth wide…and bit two of Winter's fingers right down to the bone.

Winter's pain-drenched scream drowned out the howling storm, as a spray of blood painted the wind and water around them red.

"WHAT THE HELL WAS…"

But Nicolai's howl of indignant rage was lost as, with a titanic splashing surge, a monstrously-huge silver maw loomed out of the storm right in front of them.

"Hang on tight everyone!" Nohni screamed into the air. "We're going for a ride!"

In an almost casual gulp, the monstrous, silver whale-like apparition swallowed them all in a single gulp. Nohni felt herself and the others pulled into a swirling, water-filled darkness. As all sense of direction abandoned her, she sincerely hoped her hunch was right about this.

She'd hate to die as a rather large and succulent piece of monster fish-kibble.

 

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Chapter Nineteen – The Heart of Sedna

 

"If you weren't a female, you'd be on the ground right now with most of your teeth missing!"

"Good thing chivalry isn't dead," thought Nohni, who was nose to nose with a very angry Nicolai. He had her held aloft in front of him by the collar of her sodden parka. "Blood marker," was all she said in a calm voice.

"What?"

Nohni put her paws on Nicolai's massive forearms, admiring the hard muscle beneath the fur. "It would be easier for us to attend to Winter's injury if you put me down."

A whimper from the big femme seemed to take the fight out of Nicolai and he dropped Nohni, none too carefully, then quickly knelt down beside Winter. He fumbled a packet out of his own parka only to drop it. Nohni quickly recovered it, recognizing it as a Co-Ag compress bandage, and opened it. At Winter's look of distrust, she handed it to Nicolai and he applied it to Winter's copiously bleeding fingers.

"I'm sorry I hurt you," Nohni said in a calm and quiet voice as she looked to the distressed femme. "But like the Standing Stones, there is something in your blood, perhaps just the blood from your fingers, which this place could recognize. The legend has your fingers being cut off." Nohni dropped her head. "I didn't want to see that."

"And apparently, it worked, too." added Tigermark who was looking around. "It got us here, anyway."

As Nohni had suspected, the giant silver whale mouth had actually been the animated end of a conduit that led from the lake chamber to this place. Once more, they'd been flushed into the next arena - whatever this was.

It was much smaller than the previous chambers. At first glance, it looked not much bigger than five meters in any direction. There was no evidence of the hole in the wall that had discharged them into a pile on the floor, but then, it was hard to tell exactly where the floor or walls were. For one thing, they glowed a pale green as if translucent, almost transparent. Solid, yet not solid. Nohni looked to her knees because she was obviously kneeling on something, but it was as if the floor was covered in a layer of liquid that was akin to a swirling gas. Like the substance hadn't yet decided what physical state it wanted to assume.

And there seemed to be no exit.

Once more, Nohni turned to Winter. "How does the paw feel?"

"Like someone bit it!" Winter returned, teeth bared. There was real anger in her eyes, which combined with her size made her frightening to look at.

Not breaking eye contact, Nohni slowly offered her own paw. "When we first met back at the University, I took a hank of your mane to symbolize my victory over you - my mastery. I then gave you back your life. I now give you back your freedom. Do as you see fit."

With a swiftness contrary to her size, Winter snatched Nohni's paw with her good one.

She yanked it up to her open mouth.

With teeth flashing, she bit down.

Nohni felt the dark skin on her palm pad part painfully, but only a single drop of her own blood stained Winter's sharp canines. Winter let her tongue roll across her teeth as she released Nohni's paw from her mouth. Then she was licking the tiny wound she had made - all traces of her previous anger gone. While she licked, a faint, tuneless humming issued from her throat, and as Nohni watched amazed, her wound closed, as if it had never been there at all. She was closest, and doubted Nicolai or Tigermark had seen what she'd seen. Nohni picked up Winter's bandaged paw and unraveled it. All she could do was stare. No wound existed, where before there had been bloody, torn flesh. This was something the others couldn't miss and indeed, Nicolai looked a little stunned.

Nohni brought the undamaged paw to her mouth and gave it a single lick before smiling at Winter. "You are no ordinary Angakok Inue, my lovely, large femme." She shook her head and examined the paw, turning it over and back again. "I also think that had your fingers been severed, we would be seeing new ones growing back right now."

Winter, herself, seemed a bit stunned by this demonstration of healing power.

Nohni placed her other paw on top of Winter's and squeezed gently. "You are the Key to this place, Winter, and I think the next phase of our journey requires your fingers to be whole and undamaged."

"Next phase?" Winter looked around their small 'cell'.

"The Angakok is required to untangle Sedna's hair, if I'm not mistaken?" put in Tigermark at this point. "Except I don’t see anything like that in here."

But at that moment Winter jumped to her feet and pointed. Nohni could see the big femme's eye's brightening.

"Sila Inue!" murmured Winter.

"Spirit of the Universe," translated Nohni to herself. Winter's voice was so soft Nohni had nearly missed it. She wondered if Winter even knew she'd said it. She was still staring, bright-eyed, at something no one else could see. On an impulse, Nohni pulled one of Winter's throwing stars from a parka pocket and held it up toward where Winter was pointing.

"Look here!" she whispered loudly to the others.

They crowded around and could see something through the clear portion of the star. It looked like a magnificently insane tangle of crystalline tubes - a round ball of glassine spaghetti. Nohni followed one particular tube and, as convoluted as the path was, the tube never ended anywhere. They also seemed to pass through one another. A particular junction caught Nohni's eye.

"It's a Klein Bottle."

"A what?" mumbled Nicolai.

"A Klein Bottle. It's a closed bottle with only one surface. No inside versus outside. Slice up a Klein Bottle in just the right way and you end up with Mobius strips - flat strips that have only one surface. No top or bottom. Topographically speaking, Klein Bottles are two-dimensional, but can only exist as non-junctioned single surfaces while in four dimensions. Mathematicians love them."

"Looks like a tangled mess to me," grunted Nicolai.

But even as he said it, Winter moved toward the globular translucent tangle and began running her fingers along the various strands. They seemed to glow brighter and vibrate. Some were changing color. Whatever Winter was doing it was having an effect on the walls of their 'prison cell'. They were becoming more transparent. They held their breath as the mass started unraveling before their eyes. Less and less tangled it became until there was one brief moment - a mere fragment of a second - where the tangle had transmuted into the simplest, single-loop Klein Bottle. At that point an intense burst of light blinded them all.

When Nohni could see again she knew she 'wasn't in Kansas anymore'.

The soccer-ball-sized mass Winter had unraveled was obviously a key that dissolved the walls of the cell. What lay beyond those walls made the previous tangled ball look positively simple by comparison. They were standing on top of the outside of a glassine tube large enough to fit several lanes of traffic inside of it. All around them, other huge, twisting glassine tubes shot off into the dark in all directions. How far they went was anyone's guess. The distances seemed huge. No 'traffic' could be seen inside the tubes, but millions of flashes and waves of light, accompanied by a familiar soft musical tingle, careened through them. It was dizzying and disorienting to look at.

What they heard and saw next, however, was merely infuriating.

"It's nice to see you finally made it!"

One tube away, slightly above them - and inside the tube - stood…

"Ganawenim - you Niinag-head!" screamed Nohni as her paw whipped to the sidearm she didn't have.

"My, my! Such language, my dear Ozaawi Nijab. And you, a professor and all." The slimy, and somewhat disheveled raccoon was waving something in his paw. It was Winter's Shard. "My ticket through Adlivun has made things so much easier for me. Albeit, those accompanying me had a much harder time. They died, but no matter. I've picked up a few new guardians who are much more attuned to the Shard and this place."

Still fuming, Nohni noticed the moving crystalline shapes around Ganawenim. Most looked like miniatures of Cerberus. Others had other shapes.

"The Shard is telling me it's time to move on, so I'm off to the Heart of Sedna." Ganawenim waved the Shard toward a very distant pink glow amidst the vast tangle of glass pathways.  As he turned to run off, he gave them one parting shot. "Do join me when you can. It would be ever so much more enjoyable to have an audience when I re-make the world!"

A retching and screaming to her left tore Nohni's attention away from the crazy laughing raccoon and his new crystal cronies. Nicolai was restraining a fuming Winter with some difficulty. In her effort to get at the retreating Ganawenim, it looked like she was trying to jump off of the tube they were on at the moment. Nohni looked down through the now transparent floor as she came to Winter's side. There were more tubes in that direction, but if there was an actual bottom to this vast abyss, she couldn't see it.

"WINTER!!!" Nohni screamed, cuffing the big femme on the ears - which was a stretch for her. "We need to follow him, but we need to do it going in a sensible direction! You unraveled the Key. Now tell us which way to go!" Nohni had her paws pointing in the two directions available to them on this single tube.

Winter, still hissing and spitting, dropped into a feral crouch, her eyes blazing white pools of light as she jerked her head one way then back the other way. With an ear-splitting shriek, she bolted past them in one direction. Nohni reacted instantly as well, her bullwhip out and snapping. With a precision that comes from long practice, she wrapped the end of it around the base of Winter's tail as the big femme sped by. With her other paw, Nohni grabbed Tigermark's parka, and both of them were nearly jerked off their feet as the whip snapped taut.

"Nicolai!" Nohni hollered as she and Tigermark were pulled forward on their butts behind the scrabbling, running Winter. "Grab on to us!"

"I can follow on my own!" he answered as he ran after them.

"I don't think so!" replied Nohni in a shout, pointing ahead. "We're just hangers-on, remember? So grab hold of my whip! Winter, the Sled Dog, will provide all the power and direction we need!"

Indeed, Nicolai had to put on a burst of speed to catch up and only a diving grab saved him from being left behind. The tube they were on had begun to slope downward, and Winter was getting an extraordinary gravity assist, picking up momentum by the second. The tube itself was also becoming narrower.

"This thing has no guardrails," shouted Tigermark looking around as they skidded and careened around behind Winter, totally out of control. "How will we stay on it if it curves?"

"We won't," yelled Nohni, "but I think Winter can!"

Indeed the tube had narrowed to one body width and was now sloping down at a forty-five degree angle. Their travel way had become a monstrous slide. Other tubes were whipping past them at a frightening speed. Ahead of them, Winter had dropped to her stomach head down and sliding. The tube's smooth surface was offering almost no resistance. If it did curve, they would all shoot off into space - to end up who knows where. Then the tube narrowed down even further - down to a slender, hollow pole.

And that's when things really got crazy.

Just as Winter wrapped her arms completely around the tube/pole, it did shoot off in a different direction. Even though Nicolai made a valiant grab for it, he, Nohni, and Tigermark parted company with the tube/pole and sailed around in a wide arc beneath Winter who was shooting upward now - still attached to her by the strained bullwhip.

"Gods I hope that whip holds!" shouted Nicolai with a voice half terror-filled and half screaming glee.

"I hope Winter's tail holds!" added Tigermark.

The tube/pole suddenly shot down again and in the opposite direction. Winter held on, trailing her wildly swinging companions behind her.

Up. Down. Right. Left. Right again. Down again. Up again. A real 'Puker Express' of a carnival ride, though no one lost their lunch.

"When did we eat last?" thought Nohni, perversely. Even as she thought this, the 'ride's configuration' changed. The narrow pole ballooned outward into a huge bell shape. Winter let go as they all slid down the ever-widening surface of the tube - until the surface itself began to fold upward. Up they shot with it. Then the surface folded back on itself. Then they shot backward with it. Suddenly the surface they were on began to close around them and in another instant they were inside the tube, and shooting off in another direction.

"What did I tell you!" shouted Nohni. "It's a Klein Bottle! We never left the surface, but now we're inside the tube instead of outside!"

"What do you mean 'We never left the surface'," countered Tigermark. "I distinctly remember dangling way out in the middle of nowhere, attached to Winter by only a couple strips of hide!"

But their debate was cut short when the tube they were shooting through suddenly opened up and actually did spit them out into open space.

"YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Nohni felt herself screaming, but couldn't hear it for the two male voices screaming right in her ears. Another part of her brain thought that no matter how experienced you were as an adventurer, there were some things that would still scare you shitless.

But she would check her pants later.

Right now a large bell-like surface was approaching them at speed, and sure enough, they shot right down its 'throat' and into another tube. A few more zig-zags and once again, they were shot into space. This time they landed on a sloping surface that narrowed down into a tube.

"On the outside looking in, again," thought Nohni as they went for yet another slip-n-slide on the outside of a tube. This time, however, the tube ahead forked. Before Nohni could react, Winter had kicked the three of them off the right side of the tube. This effectively pulled Winter onto the right fork, and she dropped off it's left side. Now they were sliding down the tube and held onto it by virtue of the bullwhip between them that was still wrapped over the top of the tube.

Winter swung on her end while still careening down the tube and grabbed onto Nohni and company. She then reached back and undid the whip from her tail. Without a word, she let go and they all dropped off the tube. As they plummeted, Nohni clung to the big femme. What else could she do?

Free-fall is a strange sensation to those not used to it, but Nohni had done her share of skydiving. Doing so without a parachute, however, added a whole new dimension to the feeling.

Abject terror.

She buried her face in Winter's chest ruff knowing that a hard landing wouldn't even be felt. She may as well savor the feeling of warm fur on her face, and not think about it.

But Winter had lowered her head to Nohni's and one soft whisper put Nohni's fears to rest.

"Shortcut."

Sure enough, instead of a hard landing they bumped onto the narrow face of a steeply sloping tube. Immediately, they all began sliding down it. How Winter knew that this sloped tube was here, beyond their sight, Nohni didn't know. But when she looked up, Winter's eyes were no longer blindingly white. They were still very bright, but they were Winter's eyes. Ones filled with determination and resolve.

It seemed she was finally taking herself and her capabilities seriously.

It was too bad then that where this tube surface led was right into the laps of Ganawenim's crystalline goons. One moment they were speeding down the surface of the tube and the next they had shot out onto a pink-lit arena-sized flat area where they bowled into at least a dozen glassine critters. Everyone ended up in a piled heap. Scores of the creatures were immediately on Nicolai, Nohni, and Tigermark pinning them down with tooth and claw. Winter was the only one unencumbered by a host of transparent guards.

From the center of the arena a pink and green tower reached upward into the tangle of flashing tubes, and the tower's glow permeated the whole area.

This must be the Heart of Sedna.

Nohni could see the silhouette of a figure walking purposefully from the tower towards them. She didn't have to see the figure's features to know this was her much-despised Ganawenim Aki. She reflexively struggled only to discover how sharp the claws on these glass creatures really were. Stabbing pain hit her and she felt warm blood trickle down both arms. She stiffened into immobility, but ground her teeth and hissed. At least she would let this putrid defecation of a raccoon know how she felt about him.

Ganawenim clapped his hands and seemed gleeful. "So good of you to come, Winter! And I see you brought friends! All the better!"

Winter charged him. "WHERE IS MY SHARD?"

Before she got halfway to Ganawenim, a dozen more glassine guards had tackled her.

"Oh my," drawled Ganawenim with a distinctly condescending leer on his muzzle. "Where are your manners?"

A scream of pain tore everyone's attention away from the raccoon to where Nicolai had collapsed. He was bleeding copiously from more than a dozen wounds.

"Don't fight them, please!" shouted Nohni. "Your death will help no one!"

"Well said, my lovely Ozaawi Nijab," cackled Ganawenim.

Winter had struggled to her feet, but was not injured. Evidently, she was being handled more gently by her captors. Her pleading look toward Nicolai was all too obvious - especially to Ganawenim.

"Oh isn't that sweet," Ganawenim simpered. "We've got two very large lovebirds here today." He pointed at Nicolai, but looked at Winter. "Perhaps if you decide to behave yourself, I will let him live, yes?"

"Don't give that son-of-a-flea the…"

A swift, sharp blow to the head silenced Nicolai.

Nohni didn't think it was hard enough to keep the big polar wolverine out for long, but his silence now might keep him alive long enough for her to figure a way out of this mess. Admittedly, Nohni didn't see too many options, but things could change and she needed to be ready.

Ganawenim had sauntered up to Nohni by now, but he didn't approach too closely, for which Nohni was sorry. She would so like to castrate this excrement with her teeth.

"You, my lovely professor, will make an apt audience to record my greatness this day. I do hope you've sharpened your pencil." Ganawenim turned to where Nicolai lay. "This one can stay as well, since he'll help ensure Winter's unconditional cooperation in what will come."

Ganawenim then turned a very cold eye on Winter. Nohni shivered just to look at it.

"And to make sure you know without a doubt that I'm serious about having your unconditional cooperation, I'll show you what I'll do to your precious lover if you defy me."

Ganawenim's paw shot around and pointed at Tigermark. "Throw this extra baggage over the side!"

Before Nohni could shout a protest, before she could do anything, the things holding the white tiger had dragged him to the side of the arena and thrown him off the edge.

No.

This can't be real.

Nohni wanted to scream her fury at Ganawenim - that wretched excuse for a fur - that bloated waste of skin and hair! She wanted to curse into oblivion that gods-forsaken festering toad of a fur!

But all she could do was stare at the spot where her pilot - her friend - had disappeared.

That, and feel the hot tears of grief and remorse run down her cheeks.

 

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Chapter Twenty – Sedna's Child

 

Grotesques.

Ugly and bizarre.

That's what these artificial beasts of Ganawenim's were - and at their head was the most grotesque of them all. Nohni's eyes blazed with anger even as they burned with tears. Tigermark was gone, and she could do nothing but be forced along by her crystalline guards toward the scintillating tower that must be The Heart of Sedna. Ganawenim had had his goons strip her of all her clothing and possessions, as he had done with the unconscious Nicolai. It all had gone over the edge - all except Nohni's whip, which Ganawenim had kept 'as a souvenir'. It was humiliating, which was exactly what Ganawenim had intended.

Yet one cannot touch such fantastic power with impunity. Ganawenim might possess the Shard and its knowledge, but was he a strong enough vessel to contain its power when it was fully unleashed? Nohni's eyes narrowed as they burned holes in Ganawenim's back. His ego had always been strong - but that made it his weak point. He overvalued himself, and she vowed to be ready when he faltered. She would find a way to bring him face to face with his own monstrous foolishness.

"Now it begins!" shouted Ganawenim turning around at the base of the gleaming Tower. "Now our world will show those who abuse it how much stronger it is than they! How much stronger I am!"

The raccoon turned back around and pointed to the tower in front of him. Nohni saw that Winter's Shard had been placed in a niche perfectly shaped to hold it. It seemed to be flashing all the colors of the rainbow, and the Tower itself was growing brighter. Blazing light was also flowing through all the glassine tubes around them. It was as if the Shard was the Key that powered up this vast maze. Everything was pulsing and speeding up

"Like a computer booting up", thought Nohni. Could that be what this vast complex was? A giant computer?

But then the lights steadied and everything became static.

"Waiting for further instructions," thought Nohni.

Ganawenim turned around and pointed imperiously to Winter.

"Now is the time for you to fulfill your destiny," he shouted.

Why do maniacal tyrants always shout?

Nohni shook her head, irritated by her own flippancy. She needed to be ready. Whatever was about to happen was the main event. What did happen, however, was not what Nohni expected. She thought Ganawenim might demand that Winter do something. Instead, he reached up and pulled Winter's Shard from its niche.

Huh? Won't that deactivate the Tower?

But it didn't. Instead, the Shard flared up, sending out wave upon wave of scintillating blue light. Nohni couldn't take her eyes away from it. Then she realized that perhaps this whole complex was meant to send something into the Shard. Charging it? Downloading data into it?

"Down on your knees before me, Winter!" commanded Ganawenim, his voice now shaking with anticipation.

Winter didn't move. She was staring transfixed at the Shard.

Ganawenim snapped his fingers and several glass goons latched onto the big femme, dragging her to her knees. He then grabbed her cheek ruff and jerked her head up.

"Remember what I will do to your lover if you resist," he hissed.

Winter's head turned and she looked over her shoulder at the still form of Nicolai Whitefur. She bit her lip and closed her eyes. She turned back to Ganawenim and nodded.

"Then tip your head back, my sweet sacrifice."

"NO!" shouted Nohni, who struggled again only to cut herself once more on the sharp claws of her guards.

"I'm afraid you are here only as a witness to my triumph, my dear," scolded Ganawenim. "Not as an advisor!" He turned back to Winter. "You know what you must do. With your Shard this close, you can feel it, can't you?"

Winter nodded, tears beginning to stream down her white cheeks.

"You also know that with me holding onto the hilt of the Shard, I have control, not you!"

Again, Winter nodded and, slowly, she lifted her chin. Her guards let go of her and she reached up to part her neck ruff.  Nohni could see the dagger mark on the skin beneath the fur.

Nohni held her breath. Winter wouldn't let this happen! She couldn't!

Ganawenim placed the point of Winter's Shard directly over Winter's heart. "Then give me what your Shard demands of you!" The raccoon was nearly drooling with excitement, both paws on the Shard's hilt.

"Give me your life!"

Both Nohni and Nicolai screamed.

But before the scream had fully left Nohni's throat, a black and white blur shot past her at astonishing speed - right for Ganawenim and Winter!

"YES!" Nohni screamed in exhilaration.

Even as she screamed this, the black and white something plowed into Ganawenim and Winter sending them all sprawling. The black and white figure was instantly up and holding the raccoon aloft.

"Just like a cat!" yelled Nohni, grinning like an idiot. "Always the first on your feet!" She had no idea how he'd done it, but right now she didn't care.

Tigermark shook the raccoon. "You know?" he said quietly into Ganawenim's stunned face. "Someone really ought to teach you some manners - BASTARD!" The white tiger's fist made swift and exceptionally satisfying contact with Ganawenim's jaw.

Then 'all hell', otherwise known as Nicolai Whitefur, broke loose. Apparently, he'd been faking unconsciousness until the time for an ambush was right. Well, Tigermark may have stolen his thunder, but the Polar Wolverine had plenty of 'lightning' left. Instead of fighting the glass goons around him paw to paw, he simply grabbed the nearest one by the neck and used it as a big club. Without directions from Ganawenim (who was presently being taught more manners by Tigermark) the glassine guards seemed at a loss for what to do. Nicolai, on the other paw, knew exactly what he wanted to do. Glass shattered and crystal critters flew everywhere. In only moments he was free of his contingent and attacking the guards around Nohni.

"Forget about me!" shouted Nohni. "Protect Winter!"

"She can protect herself!" answered Nicolai with a happy bellow.

Indeed, Winter seemed to have picked up on Nicolai's lead and was using her own glass goon to 'tee-off' on the others around her.

"Tiger Woods, eat your heart out," thought Nohni as Winter did a perfect drive shot on a glass guard, sending it arcing off into the abyss.

In moments, Nohni was free of her guards and running toward Tigermark and Ganawenim. She'd spotted the very thing they were all here for. In the scuffle, Ganawenim had dropped the Shard along with Nohni's whip. He'd also accidentally kicked the Shard trying to evade one of Tigermark's 'lessons'. Then one of the flying glass goons had smacked into the Shard sending it skittering toward the edge of the arena.

And into the abyss if I can't get to it!

Nohni shot past Tigermark and Ganawenim, slowing only to snatch her whip from the floor. Then she put on more speed. If she couldn’t get to the Shard soon enough they'd lose it for sure. But even if she could reach it in time, how would she stop herself from skidding off the edge into the depths? The floor here was slick as glass - literally!

Then she saw it. One of Winter's 'tee shots' hadn't quite made it to the edge and was lying there near it, twitching. Nohni looked at the skittering Shard. It was nearly off the edge! Her eyes shot back to the glass goon lying near the edge. Out came the bullwhip. Nohni went down into a slide. The whip snapped and wrapped its end around the glass goon's tail.

She was almost at the edge!

The Shard was off the edge!

Nohni flew off the edge after it, paw outstretched!

She snagged the Shard and pulled on the whip - HARD!

The glass goon jerked forward and Nohni shot backward, and they shot past each other in a nearly perfect exchange of directional momentum.

Nearly perfect, but not perfect enough.

Nohni had to let go of her beloved whip and it and the goon spun out of sight. She only just caught the edge of the glass arena with her free paw. And there she hung, the precious Shard in one paw, her other paw gripping a smooth edge she knew she couldn't hold on to forever.

"I could drop the Shard and save myself," thought Nohni, her mind racing.

But at that instant she knew she wouldn't. Simply touching the Shard had changed her.

She could feel it. And she Knew!

Winter had told her ever so long ago that the Shard marked all those who possessed it, and it had marked her. Dropping the Shard was not an option.

Even if it meant Nohni's death.

Still clinging to the edge with a single paw, Nohni brought the Shard to her chest and bowed her head over it. A single tear dropped from her closed eyes to fall on the crystal dagger. She now knew Winter's Burden and what it would mean if the big femme finally got it back.

I could throw it away. I could! Winter wouldn't need to bear this Burden!

The Shard glowed brighter.

Please?

But Nohni felt the answer infuse her very soul. The Shard had become an incontestable presence in her mind and she knew what she must do. With an effort that cost her nearly all of her remaining strength, Nohni Wabanda pulled Winter's Shard away from her chest. She considered for a moment holding it in her mouth so she could grab the edge with both paws. She might pull herself up then, but she knew she couldn't touch the Shard much longer without it fully possessing her as it had Ganawenim. She could at least toss the Shard back onto the arena floor. Whether she had enough strength left to pull herself up after it didn't matter.

She brought the paw with the Shard down.

She whipped it around in an arcing toss.

And smacked Winter right in the face with it.

The Shard bounced away and fell from sight.

"NOOOOoooooooo……." groaned Nohni as Winter grabbed her paw and lifted her up over the edge. The big femme set Nohni onto the floor next to where she was kneeling, and Nohni clung to her sobbing, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry! I lost your Shard! I…"

Winter clamped a paw over Nohni's mouth and pointed with her other paw. Nohni looked around and saw a glinting flash. It seemed suspended in space. Then it was moving back toward them. The next second the Shard shot past them toward the Tower and slapped itself back into the niche with a loud 'Ting!'

Nohni dropped her head, not sure if she was appalled at the Shard's return or relieved. "Magnetism. I should have known."

"It's part of how Tigermark got back here, too," added Winter softly, "but he'll explain later."

Nohni raised her head and looked into Winter's eyes. Nohni had touched the Shard. She knew. And from the look in her eyes Winter knew that she knew.

"Must you?" whispered Nohni, her voice breaking.

Winter's lip trembled as she closed her eyes and nodded. "It has started. Yes, he started it, not me, but I can't stop it, now."

Nohni pulled the big femme into a fierce hug. No words were needed. They both knew.

"Come," Winter finally said, pulling Nohni to her feet as she rose herself.

Slowly, the two femmes walked through a junkyard of broken glass creatures toward the three males. The five of them were the only ones left standing. A beaten and mangled Ganawenim was being restrained by a grim looking Nicolai. That Nicolai hadn't yet crushed the life out of the cursed raccoon bespoke of his respect for Winter. She was the one who had been hurt the most. Revenge was her right.

Instead of walking directly to Ganawenim, though, Winter headed to the base of the Tower. For a full minute she looked up at the Shard, snug in its niche. Slowly her paw came up and she caressed the artifact like an old friend. Fitting her fingers around the hilt she jerked it from its place in the Tower and held it aloft. Once more, blue waves of light streamed from it. Then she turned to where Nicolai held Ganawenim and brought the Shard down to her chest ruff. With a slight jerk, it seemed to glue itself to the magnificent ruff - a blue jeweled cross upon Winter's chest.

"You knew my Burden, Ganawenim," Winter said in a calm voice that belied the intensity of her gaze. "You knew what the Shard needed all along." The Shard on her ruff suddenly blazed an unbelievable violet-blue. It was a blinding miniature of the hottest stars the universe could hold.

Even with his face mangled, Ganawenim managed to start laughing. He spat blood and broken teeth, but still cackled his insanity. "Yes! YES!! I knew! I know! I know what you must do with your precious Shard! You cannot stop what I wanted you to do with it all along! Even without me, the world shall be remade as I knew it would! You…"

"YOU KNOW NOTHING!!" came Winter's thunderous bellow. She grabbed Ganawenim by his throat and tore him out of Nicolai's grasp. Jerking him up to her snarling face, she grabbed the blazing blue Shard from her chest and brought it to within an inch from his swollen and widening eyes. "But let me give you one last lesson in what real power feels like."

The Shard disappeared down between the two of them.

Winter's right elbow flashed backward then forward.

Ganawenim's whole body gave a jerk.

As Winter held the now convulsing raccoon out in front of her, Nohni could see Winter holding the hilt of the dagger-like Shard - a Shard now fully buried in Ganawenim's chest. Instantly, the raccoon's flesh began to bubble and transform. His head bulged and his features flowed. And all the time a ululating scream was boiling out of his twisting, deforming throat. All around them, the masses of glassine tubes were flashing puke yellow to mud brown. The Tower had gone completely dark. It was as if the whole arena - indeed this entirety of space around them - was reflecting the garbage that was inside the mind of one deranged raccoon. The hilt of the Shard no longer flashed blue. Instead, it was a filthy grey, and it was spitting and sputtering like a short circuit gone mad. Then the raccoon's body began to shrink, as if all its substance was being sucked through the Shard and out into nothingness.

Finally, Winter gripped the hilt of the Shard hard and ripped it upward. It tore through the chest and throat of the shriveling husk of a fur. Greenish black ichor splattered Winter's paws as the rising Shard split Ganawenim's head from bottom to top. When the shard burst from the top of the raccoon's head, it blazed blue once more and continued to rise until Winter held it triumphantly aloft.

"MY SHARD!"

In front of her, arms splayed wide, the mangled and wasted body of Ganawenim fell backward to hit the floor with a sickening splat.

For a long time no one moved.

The manner of Ganawenim's death had been shocking to say the least, yet despite this, all of their faces reflected extreme satisfaction. Ganawenim had gotten what he deserved.

Nohni saw it first because she was closest. Winter's expression was changing. Slowly, the triumph slid from her face to reveal an intense inner pain. Even as she held the Shard aloft, her head dropped and a muted sob escaped her throat. Instantly, Nicolai was at her side, but she pushed him away and turned back to the tower. "Please, don't." she choked.

Nicolai looked hurt and stunned. "Winter?"

But Winter shook her head. Nohni could see that the big femme had brought the flashing blue Shard back to her chest once more, but this time it was to place its sharp point over the mark there. Winter's eyes turned to Nohni, tears streaming. Nohni wanted to rush to her, to stop her, but knew she couldn't.

This was Winter's Burden.

She had known all along that the Shard would take her life when it was Time.

Only, this Time was too soon. An interfering fool had started it too soon. Too soon.

Winter turned one last time to Nicolai.

"I love you," she mouthed silently.

Nicolai saw her paw and what she had in it. With widening eyes he saw where it was pointed.

"NO!" he screamed.

But before he could move, Winter had rushed him and pulled him into a crushing embrace with her free paw.

And she kissed him as he had never been kissed before, as she had never kissed before. It was a lover's kiss to last the ages. It would need to, because between the two of them, clasped in her other paw, was Winter's Shard - with its point buried to the hilt in her own chest.

Time seemed to stop, and Nohni hoped it might freeze forever for the two furs before her. But Time was larger and more vast than any of them. Winter slowly began to slide to the floor. Nicolai, still clasping her in a lover's embrace slid down with her. Nohni could see the terrible grief already darkening his features and she felt her own eyes burn.

But there was something else. A black fear was welling up inside Nohni.

Because she had touched the Shard, she knew it would take Winter's life.

But why did Winter need to die!?

What purpose was there in taking her life?

Nohni knew that Winter's blood markers had helped them pass through this place. So why did Winter's Shard need Winter's blood now? Specifically, Winter's Heart Blood.

Nohni's eyes widened.

They were in the Heart of Sedna! And Winter had spilled her own Heart Blood!

"Nicolai!" Nohni screamed in warning.

But even as she screamed, Winter jerked backwards on her knees and let loose a ferocious wail. The hilt of the Shard buried in her chest was pulsing and arcing. She pushed Nicolai away, who, even as big as he was, was thrown back like a rag doll. Winter spasmed and jerked forward again with paws to her face. Her howl had mutated into a deep keening that tore at the ears like knives. All color washed from her fur which became blindingly white.

And she was growing larger.

The Tower was arc flashing blue and white, and the glassine tubes in the vast space around them all were exploding with light and tone, almost too bright and loud to bear. Nohni was on the ground clasping her ears. It was too much! Her companions were writhing too.

Then, with a suddenness as swift as a thunderclap, everything went dark and silent.

Nohni held her breath again.

What would come next?

What was one supposed to do at the birth of a Goddess?

"I…Have…Come," came a deep vibrant contralto much deeper than Winter's had ever been.

Nohni opened her eyes. The faint light around them was now a deep red. She looked toward the amazing voice. There, silhouetted against an astonishingly red Tower loomed a figure. A feminine figure. Nohni got to her knees and saw Nicolai and Tigermark doing the same. She kept an eye on Nicolai, wondering what he might do. He had just intimately witnessed the death of a femme he had cared for deeply. What would he do? To his credit, he did not scream, shout or cry. He simply looked to the figure by the tower and spoke deeply heartfelt words.

"Where is Winter?"

The figure stepped forward into the light - her fur astonishingly white - much more so than one would expect with only a red light illuminating the scene. Her fur seemed to shine with an inner glow. And her eyes were now a deep crimson.

"Nicolai." The femme's single word, though deep and powerful, held so much compassion and understanding that Nohni felt tears spring to her eyes. The femme stopped before the still kneeling polar wolverine and gently touched his head. "Winter is still here." The figure touched the white hilt of the Shard that protruded from her chest.

Nohni was standing now. With a low voice she spoke what had just come into her mind.

"You are Sedna, of course."

Sedna turned to Nohni and nodded. "I see you are One with the Shard, though your contact was brief. Your mind is much clearer than the other one." She looked to what remained of Ganawenim. "He was not truly evil - not at first, but he was never meant to contain Me."

"Um…no disrespect," said Tigermark, speaking for the first time. "But who…or rather what are you?"

Sedna turned to the white tiger, who Nohni noticed was speaking with courtesy but not subservience. Good for him.

"Ah, the one who flies. Did you enjoy your recent flight?" Sedna asked.

Tigermark actually cracked a smile. "Terrifying at first, but rather exhilarating once you got the hang of the dynamics." He leaned toward Nohni. "Really strong magnetic fields can do mighty strange things to a body in freefall."

"As to your question," spoke the large femme. "Who I am? I am Sedna. What I am is what you see all around you." She waved a bright paw toward the Tower and the myriad glass tubes. "I am, for lack of a better term, an Artificial Intelligence."

"But Winter is real!" Nicolai's words were almost a protest. "Isn't she?" he added, quickly.

Sedna actually smiled and it was so like Winter's that Nohni grinned back.

"Yes. Winter is a Biological Construct. She is alive. She is real. And now…" Sedna brought a paw down to her belly. "She is pregnant."

Nicolai looked like he'd been hit with a sledgehammer. "But…but I… we… she and I…she…" Nicolai's mouth continued to move after the words stopped.

This time Sedna laughed - a musical laugh, deep and vibrant. She pointed to the Shard in her chest. "This is the trigger. Once it's implanted in the previous construct, another construct begins to grow in her womb."

"So the Shard actually is a sexually oriented artifact after all," thought Nohni. "Well, those are the ones I'm good at." She looked from the glowing Shard hilt to Sedna's face. If the eyes were brown instead of red, she would look like a slightly larger and whiter version of Winter.

And that begged another question.

"Winter knew the Shard would take her life, and so did I after I'd touched it, yet you say she's still alive. How can that be?"

Sedna patted her belly once more. "Taking life is not always the same as dying. With the insertion of the Shard, Winter has simply transformed herself from an immortal creature into a mortal one. What she sacrificed, what she killed, was her immortality. She has lived 12,000 of your years, and will now live out a normal lifespan for a fur of her kind before she dies. True, this is not instantaneous death, but 100 of your years will be a very short time for one who has lived so long. Yet, it will be enough time for what she must do. After all, her child must have a mother, yes?"

"12,000 years?" asked Nohni. "I thought maybe it had been 25,000 years."

"You are thinking of Winter's mother. Winter's kind is designed to last for one orbital period of the Mother Station."

"Mother Station?"

Again, Sedna gave an engaging smile. "One orbital period of the Trans-Neptunian Object you call 'Sedna'."

And Nohni remembered. Four years ago, astronomers had discovered a new planetoid beyond Pluto heading toward the Sun. It was slightly smaller than Pluto, and had an orbital period of "12,000 years." she finished, muttering. "And the scientists called it 'Sedna' after the Inuit Goddess of the Sea!" She pointed to Sedna. "That was no mere coincidence!"

Sedna simply smiled.

"And the planetoid, Sedna, will be making its closest approach to Earth in 2075!" added Nohni.

"As you know," commented Sedna, "my activation is a bit early. Normally, data is exchanged, decisions made, and a new construct conceived only when the Mother Station has reached perihelion."

"Decisions made?" put in Tigermark. The tone of his voice was obviously concerned. "You…make decisions…about what?"

"Climate." was Sedna's simple response. "We adjust the long-term climate on worlds to promote the advance of the intelligent species of that world. Worlds capable of supporting intelligent life would be pitifully few if left on there own. Host stars such as your Sun are quite capricious, and other climate changing variables, such as volcanics, can be detrimental to the establishment of a viable, intelligent population. Food production is the most obvious thing affected by climate. Essentially, long-term stable environments are rare, and these long term environments are needed for intelligent life to progress to maturity."

Nohni pointed at the goddess. "The last ice age started 25,000 years ago and ended 12,000 years ago! That was your doing?" She shook her head. "Why an ice age? That can't be a good environment for intelligent life."

"It facilitated the spread of the intelligent species across this planet. Without an ice age to lower sea level, there would have been no Bering Strait Land Bridge. It was that land bridge that allowed intelligent species to move from the Old World continents to the New."

"And Ganawenim wanted a new ice age," muttered Tigermark. "But how could that happen? How can you start a new Ice Age?"

"Volcanics," answered Sedna, her tone becoming serious. "We manipulate the magnetic field of the planet to induce specific tectonic plate movement. Particulates from volcanic eruptions lower world temperature by blocking sunlight. You have seen it in your own lifetimes. Eruptions of what you call Mount Pinatubo and others. Other volcanic gasses such as carbon dioxide can have the opposite effect."

"And so can the intelligent life itself," added Nohni. "That was Ganawenim's gripe. We were destroying our own planet by warming it unnaturally. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are up world wide."

"And oceanic acidity is rising because of that, too, destroying your world's most productive food source - the Sea itself! Remember! Sedna is also the Inuit Goddess of the Sea!" Sedna frowned deeply and her whole demeanor changed. Her bearing became ominous and cold. "You are no longer a young intelligence. Your races are approaching maturity as intelligent life goes. Do not expect your 'gods' to save you from your own short-sighted foolishness. You are now capable of affecting your own planetary climate and as such, you must take responsibility for your own actions - as any adult should!"

Sedna turned away with a growl. "Cubs soil there own beds and expect their parents to clean up after them." She turned her head back to them, her red eyes glowing hotly. "You are no longer cubs."

Nohni dropped her head and her cheeks burned hotly. She was remembering the scoldings she'd gotten from her own adoptive mother, but they seemed like nothing compared to this. "Then Ganawenim was right," she whispered. "We needed a new Ice Age."

Sedna whipped around to face them. "NO, HE WAS NOT RIGHT!!" she bellowed. The whole place pulsed and reverberated with the power of her shout. "He was worse than most! He wanted to use me to change the world rather than changing it himself!  Many of your kind say, 'I cannot change! I am a 'sinner' by nature! I cannot help myself! My gods must save me!' That is the bawling, blubbering excuse of a BABY!" Sedna raised both paws to the heavens as if to bring the world crashing down around them.

"EITHER GROW UP OR DIE!!!"

The entire arena blazed red as if in anger, then it suddenly went black - all except for a dull red glow that emanated from the Tower behind Sedna.

No one spoke.

No one moved.

It was Nicolai who finally broke the terribly embarrassing silence. Slowly, hesitantly, he walked to where Sedna stood head down, arms at her side. Nohni peered closer, and could see that Sedna's shoulders were shaking. Then she heard the soft sobs. Nicolai stopped before Sedna and reached up to touch the goddess who was now taller than he.

"We are no longer cubs, yes," he said in a low bass whisper. "But, is it still acceptable for the 'young adult' to ask advice from those older and wiser than he?"

He was instantly crushed in the sobbing embrace of the very large femme. "Yes! Yes!" she cried over Nicolai's shoulder as she hugged him. "I would never deny anyone the knowledge I have that might better themselves and their world."

Nohni was staring at the big femme. What had happened to the Sedna of the Towering Rage?

Then the femme opened her eyes.

They were light brown, though rimmed in red, and full of happy tears.

"Winter?"

At the sound of her name, Winter looked to Nohni and offered her a paw behind Nicolai's back. Nohni rushed up and clasped it affectionately. Then Winter held Nicolai out in front of her. She grinned a laughing grin at him for several moments. Just as quickly as it had come, however, the grin faded and she dropped her paws. Her head dropped as she lowered her eyes, and a paw came up to touch the hilt of the Shard buried in her chest. It now looked like a bright, round, blue jewel set atop her chest ruff. She raised her eyes meekly back to Nicolai.

"Nicolai? I'm not the Chryona Winter I used to be. I now have full access to Sedna, which is to say, all that this place represents. All of my 12,000 years on this planet are now open to me, as are the memories of my ancestors and the ones who built this place, this intelligence." Her eyes dropped to the floor once more.

"Do you…" she started. "Can we…?"

Her eyes came up to gaze at Nicolai with an almost pleading look.

"Are we still… friends?"

Nicolai didn't move except to look her up and down. Winter stood there quiescent yet nervous under his scrutiny. After a time, he stepped forward and placed both his paws upon her broad shoulders. "Let's see," he said - his voice low and neutral. "You are smarter than me. You are better looking than me." He gazed up into her anxious face. "And now, you are even bigger than me." His paw slipped down to her belly. "You are also going to be a mother."

He looked long and deeply into those crimsoned brown eyes - eyes very like the Chryona Winter they had all known from before, yet eyes that had seen so very much more than they ever would. Eyes deep with knowledge, experience, and - could it be - Hope?

Then Nicolai's tongue flicked out and he licked the tip of her nose.

"What's not to love?"

An enormous rumble of a relieved sigh escaped Winter's throat as she accepted his gentle embrace and returned it, simply rocking back and forth in his arms.

"I think we may be a few passengers short on our trip back," commented Nohni, looking to Tigermark.

"No problem," answered the white tiger. "The extra fuel will allow us to take the scenic route."

"Oooo," cooed Nohni giving the white tiger a squeeze around his waist. "Just what I want. More vast expanses of flat, featureless, white ice."

"Nohni!" came Winter's happy call as she rushed up to them. Her paw was pointing back to the now shining Tower and it flashed green for a moment. Out of its depths flew a spinning round object. Winter snatched it from the air and pressed it into Nohni's paw.  It was one of her Throwing Stars. Then she gave Nohni a huge, rib-cracking hug. When the embrace broke, Winter grinned hugely down at her.

"If you ever want to talk with me, just point the Star to the Wolverine's Paw and speak my name." She nodded to Tigermark. "Both of you will be here for the birth, yes?"

"Just give us a few weeks notice," commented Tigermark. "This place isn't exactly on the beaten path."

No.

It wasn't.

This was the Top of the World - a world that had a seventy year head start on cleaning up its act.

Would they pull it off?

Or would another Ice Age wipe the slate clean for another try?

As she looked into the glowing face of Chryona Winter - the face of Sedna's Child - Nohni thought their chances were even odds - maybe even slightly in their favor.

One could always hope…

 

Especially when the 'Powers that Be' was a friend of yours.

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

Epilogue


10 months later.

 

It was a feeling to melt the coldest heart, and Nohni's heart was far from cold. The Golden Jackal's grin of pure pleasure had grown even wider, if that was possible. She sighed at looked to the source of her bliss.

At thirty-two pounds, it was the largest, and only, Mustelupe newborn it had ever been her joy to hold.

"Winter! She's absolutely gorgeous!" cried Nohni as she hugged the mewling cub. Winter beamed, and even though he wasn't really the proud father, Nicolai Whitefur grinned like one.

And Nohni wasn't the cub's only admirer. A blue wolf femme, a tawny lioness, and a white tiger sat around Nohni waiting their turn to cuddle the big, bouncing bundle of joy. Nohni spared Raven Hunt a glance and grinned. The Blue Wolf had finally gotten her wish to join Nohni on one of her 'adventures'. True, this 'treasure trip' posed none of the problems Nohni usually faced, but it was off the beaten track, and it had presented its share of 'interesting' moments. An unexpected summer arctic storm had threatened to delay them enough to miss the birth, but Tigermark had shown his usual flying skill and pulled the Horus through, albeit with a few more bumps and bounces than usual.

Nohni then looked around at their simple surroundings. This was a far cry from the high-tech, ultra-sophisticated chamber that contained the Heart of Sedna. Instead, it was a simple ice lodge - a larger version of an Inuit igloo. It was set upon the Arctic sea ice about ninety miles from the geographic North Pole, but in a direction from the Pole that would see few visitors or scientists heading for the Pole itself. It was High Summer in the Arctic now and the ever-present light diffused through the walls giving them a pearly glow. It was Hazel that finally spoke when it seemed Nohni would never relinquish her 'treasure'.

"Care to share the wealth, sister?" she said, her grin belying her stern 'librarian' voice.

Nohni sighed and passed the cub to the waiting lioness whose grin blossomed to match Nohni's when the cub settled into her arms with a coo. Then Hazel nearly melted into the ice floor when the cub wrapped its enormous white tail around the lioness' neck and began suckling the tip of Hazel's finger.

"Almost makes you want to be a mother," whispered Raven.

"Almost. But not quite," returned Nohni. "You've got all your student 'kids' to satisfy your motherly instincts."

"And a few other instincts," added Raven with a sly grin.

Raven then turned to look at the proud 'mother'. The blue wolf's curious, questioning look was not lost on Nohni - especially since it was directed at the scintillating blue 'jewel' in the center of Winter's chest - a jewel that was actually the hilt of a blue dagger-like Shard.

"Explain to me again why Winter isn't dead," Raven asked. "That thing stuck in her cleavage doesn't look like it could be good for her health."

Nohni chuckled - a rich vibrant sound. "Winter is a biological 'Construct' - not a natural creature," she explained. "Winter was bio-engineered to eventually 'receive' the Shard. The Shard is like a data port. Having it 'next' to her chest for these past 12,000 years connected her at a low bandwidth level to the machinery of Sedna's Realm, but actually inserting it into her chest converted that connection to a fully open, high bandwidth connection. She's still Winter, but now she's the 'Enhanced Version'. At the end of a construct's 12,000 year 'data collection period' it makes sense to do a direct-connect to the machinery so that she, in combination with the Heart of Sedna, can make the necessary decisions on any needed climate change."

"But how can you have something stuck directly into your heart and still live?" asked Raven, still looking perplexed.

Nohni grinned. "I checked that out, but when you think about it, lots of furs have things 'stuck in their heart' and are alive today because of it."

Raven looked incredulous.

"Artificial heart valves and pacemakers," said Nohni simply.

Raven snorted. "But those are sophisticated medical procedures. Doctors don't simply jam something into a patient's chest and then send them a bill."

"Biological construct," Nohni repeated. "Winter was designed to receive the Shard. Her heart tissue sealed itself around the Shard, and as long as there is no severe bleeding, or damage to the heart's Perkingie Fiber system, her heart, or any heart for that matter, can keep beating merrily away. I read an article a few years back about a fur that was brought into an Emergency Room with a meat thermometer stuck through his heart. Other than being a little on the 'rare' side, he was still alive and they were eventually able to remove it successfully."

Raven looked dubious.

"Really!" continued Nohni. "I'll see if I can find the article."

"From your description," Raven continued. "Ganawenim would have registered 'Cold as Ice' had the Shard been a thermometer."

"Too true," Nohni replied, frowning at the memory. "Ganawenim wasn't designed to receive the Shard. That's why he turned into a bad impression of a prune when Winter stuck him with it."

"But if Winter was designed to receive the Shard, why was she so terribly distraught when she finally had to use it? You said it was as if she was truly committing suicide."

Nohni dropped her eyes and became thoughtful.

"I'm sorry. Was that a tactless question?"

Nohni shook her head. "No. It just brought back memories. I was…I was very afraid when she used the Shard. I knew she must, but I never had enough contact with the Shard to know why it was necessary to use it. I don't think Winter fully understood either, having been separated from the Shard for so long. She knew it meant her death, but in reality it only meant she now had the ability to die. For an 'immortal' I suppose that's the same thing."

A huge set of densely furred white arms wrapped themselves around Nohni from behind, and a gentle bass-contralto voice whispered in her ear.

"Thank you for coming, Nohni, friend."

Nohni leaned a cheek into those powerful arms. "Thank you for inviting me - all of us." She turned to look over her shoulder at a happy face with crimsoned brown eyes. "What will you call her?"

Winter sighed and looked to where Tigermark now fussed over her cub. "She is who she is. She is Chryona Winter, like me, like my mother before me, and her mother before her. But our time of isolation is over. My child will become a part of your world, for we are no longer a 'parent' to you. You are no longer cubs. To that purpose, I have given her another name - one more suitable to your world."

Winter looked to Nicolai. "She will be known to mortals as Nicole Whitefur."

Nohni saw Nicolai's jaw drop. He had that 'hit by a sledgehammer' look again, and Nohni had to laugh. Winter was up instantly and at his side, but not touching him.

"Is this acceptable to you?" she asked, her voice respectful, but not pleading.

"I…uh…" Words failed him and he simply nodded. Winter wrapped her arms around him and nuzzled his neck. "Thank you. She will need a legitimate father to gain a true place in your world."

Nicolai's dumbstruck look faded as he looked to Winter's cub - to Nicole Whitefur. It was replaced by a look of wonder and finally resolve.

Nohni nodded her satisfaction. Nicolai would make a great father, but doubt still clouded her mind. Not about Nicolai's suitability as a parent, but about Nicole Whitefur herself, and the task her mother had set for her. "Winter? I'm not sure having your daughter become a part of our world is advisable. There are many of us who would want to use your daughter as Ganawenim used you. There are many who would want her to be a 'goddess to save us from ourselves."

Winter chuckled and walked back to Nohni. She knelt down before the Golden Jackal and rubbed her cheek along Nohni's cheek before giving her a determined look. "I am not so foolish as to have forgotten Ganawenim. Remember, we are not 'cubs' either. No. My daughter will not advertise her true role. She will act the part of a simple mortal while amongst you, but she will also do what must be done."

"And what must be done?" asked Nohni. The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them.

Winter smiled. This time, it was a sage and motherly smile. It made her look old and wise, yet astonishingly beautiful. She no longer bore the confused, shy grin of one who was lost without her Shard. Nohni gazed back at her and understanding slowly filtered into her mind. "You're not going to tell me."

Winter shook her head.

Nohni dropped hers. "Thank you. I don't think I really wanted to know anyway."

"If it's any comfort to you," said Winter in a mother's voice of understanding. "The beings that created Sedna - created me - have a very long string of successes when it comes to nurturing intelligent races." She smoothed a paw over Nohni's lush chest ruff. "I will not say it will be easy, but…" Her tongue flicked out and playfully licked Nohni's nose. "I can say my daughter and I have no intention of being the first to fail."

A mewling cry caught everyone's attention and Tigermark held out a large, squirming cub toward Winter. "I think Nicole wants lunch but, sorry to say, I'm not equipped with the kind of 'Lunch Buckets' she's looking for."

Everyone laughed. Winter accepted her daughter from the white tiger and brought it to her to her breast, dropping her chin protectively over the cub. As the cub began to suckle, it wrapped its fingers tightly around the hilt of Winter's Shard. The blue jewel-like hilt pulsed faintly - like the rhythm of two hearts beating as one.

With a sigh, Nohni sat back watched Mother and Daughter. This was as it should be. Everything was right with the world. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Raven looking intently at Tigermark and Hazel at Nicolai. "Sorry girls," she whispered with a smile. "They're already taken." Both her friends looked back at her, their expressions whimsical.

Yes.

It was almost enough to make you want to become a mother - but not quite.

Nohni's paw fell to the bullwhip clipped to her belt.

 

After all, there's always the next adventure!